Table of Contents
NO WAY OUT
PART ONE - LOST
PART TWO - THE RAVEN REBORN
PART THREE - THE WHITE SHIP
PART FOUR - SHOWDOWN
PART FIVE - THE BLACK TOWER
THE GATES OF WINTER
About the Author
ALSO BY MARK ANTHONY
for Esther Elizabeth Anthony
In Loving Memory
breathe the wind
walk the fire
Raven be your master
chain the flesh
free the heart
Raven flies forever
—FIRST PRAYER OF THE RAVEN
drink the ice
breathe the fire
Shadow be your lover
chain the mind
still the heart
Darkness rules forever
—THE RAVEN REBORN
NO WAY OUT
“By the Blood of the Seven,” Falken said through clenched teeth. “She’s led us into a trap. We have to find a way to open that door.”
But it was already too late. Grace heard the echo of low grunts, the scraping of talons on stone. They froze as misshapen forms slunk into the kitchen, five, six, seven of them. Their backs were humped, their gray fur matted, their yellow eyes filled with pain and hunger. A stench like spoiled meat rose from them, making Grace’s gorge rise.
The feydrim arranged themselves in a half-circle on the far side of the room, looking like nothing so much as spider monkeys crossbred with wolves: feral, intelligent, tortured. What were they waiting for? Why didn’t the creatures leap forward and rip out their throats? Then the half-circle parted, and two figures stepped through, one slightly in front of the other, and Grace understood. The feydrim had been waiting for their mistress.
“You cannot escape,” the old countess said.
The feydrim crouched, ready to spring.
The raven sprang from the edge of the precipice, spreading dark wings like shadows, and soared into the fiery dawn sky.
A wall of peaks fell away behind it, sharp as dragons’ teeth, an impenetrable barrier of stone that stabbed at the sky. A wind howled off the mountains, slicing through the raven’s feathers. It seemed the king toyed with his Stone again. The raven beat hard against the blast, righted himself, and fixed his eyes on the leafless forest that clung like mist to the land below. He had a message to deliver before the day died, to one in a place far to the south, and he would not fail in his task.
The raven’s name was Gauris. Eleven and one hundred times the ice floes of the Winter Sea had cracked, thawed, and frozen again since the day of his shell-sundering. Through all of those years, Gauris had served the king faithfully. True, his feathers were not so glossy as they once had been, and his beak and talons were duller. However, his black eyes were still keen, and not even the young ones of the brood, for all they puffed their sleek breasts in pride, could fly so far in a single day as Gauris. That was why this message had been entrusted to him, for it was a missive of particular importance.
Or at least, so Gauris supposed. For no one, not even the king’s closest minions, could know the king’s thoughts and will. His heart was made of cold, enchanted iron, and some said the mind beneath his icy crown was forged of the same stuff. One thing Gauris knew for certain: The winds of war were blowing. And like a knight sharpening his blade and searching for chinks in his armor, the king needed to be sure all of his tools were at the ready. It was one of those tools—one of the most precious of them all—to which Gauris flew now.
He swooped toward the forest, skimming just above the tops of the bare, silvery trees. It was still only early Sindath, but winter had already come to this part of Falengarth, and it would never depart again if the king had his way. Gauris awaited that day with great anticipation. Surely there would be need for swift couriers in the New Times: messengers to carry the king’s commands throughout his vast realm, which would claim all of Falengarth from shore to shore. And none were swifter than the king’s ravens, fed with dark meats over the centuries to grant them speed and strength.
True, it was whispered by some that the king had his own master who would return in the New Times, a master whom some called the Nightlord and who had been wrongfully banished long ago. If this were so, would not the Nightlord be ruler of all things when the war was won? But surely the Nightlord would be grateful for the king’s service, just as the king would be grateful for the swiftness of his ravens. Surely, in the New Times, there would be rewards for all who served on the victorious side.
The forest fell behind him, and Gauris pumped strong wings as the sun edged higher. Sere fields slipped below, dotted by lakes that flashed like coins before vanishing behind. Another range of mountains hove into view. It was a weathered jumble of rocks far lower than the wall of bitter stone that barred the way into and out of the king’s dominion (and which were woven with spells of madness, so that only his ravens and a few of his other servants could pass beyond them). Gauris struck toward the line of muted peaks and followed them southward.
After a few more leagues, he spied a bowl-shaped valley in the mountains. In the valley was a lake; and in the center of the lake, on a jutting spur of rock, was a half-ruined fortress. Smoke belched up from the keep’s towers, as if from arcane engines, and steam boiled from the nearby waters of the lake. A crimson flag snapped atop the keep’s highest turret, its bloody field marked by a black crown encircling a silver tower. Tiny figures moved outside the walls of the fortress; light glinted off helms and swords.
Gauris didn’t know exactly where he would find the one to whom he was to deliver the king’s message, but he knew the signs to look for: strife and destruction; smoke and fear. Wherever she was, shadows would gather. He folded his wings and dived toward the fortress below.
Moving so swiftly that the men in the keep’s main yard would perceive nothing more than a dark flicker in the corner of their eyes, Gauris darted through a gap in the side of a crumbling watchtower. He settled on a rotten beam and took care to keep to the gloom of the ruin.
In the yard below, a score of knights marched to the fierce beat of a drum. The knights wore suits of plate armor as black as Gauris’s feathers. Each carried a red shield marked with the same black crown and silver tower as the flag above the keep. Broadswords slapped against their thighs.
As the dark column of knights drew near, gaunt men, women hunched in rags, and children with scab-crusted legs hastened to get out of the way, clutching buckets of water or lumps of peat to their chests, their eyes hazed in fear. Puckered brands marked the backs of their hands.
As the knights reached the center of the yard, the gates of the keep flew open, and three more of the onyx warriors thundered through on sooty chargers. The horses pounded to a stop. One of the knights on foot approached the horsemen. Cocking his head, Gauris listened.
“Hail to the glory that once was,” said the knight who stood on the ground, holding a fist against his breastplate, voice deep and hollow inside his helm.
One of the horsemen nudged his mount forward and mirrored the salute. “Hail to the glory that will be once more.”
Both men lowered their fists.
“Did you find the fugitive’s hiding place?”
The horseman grunted in disgust. “The wildmen who follow him are little better than dogs. But they are clever dogs, and there are witches and workers of runes in his band of rabble. There is no telling what tricks and deceptions they have fashioned to hinder us.”
“Magic,” the other spat. “Such perversions will not be suffered when the ancient order is restored. The witches and runespeakers will be put to the torch, and the land of our ancestors will be polluted no longer. It cannot happen too soon.”
“Have faith, brother,” the horseman said, laying a gloved hand on the other’s shoulder. “The miscreant dared to call himself king of this place. We will find him and his motley band soon enough. And they will pay for their sins.”
The men continued to exchange words, but Gauris had heard enough. Before any wandering eyes might notice the shadow in the ruined tower, he sprang from the rafter and darted into the sky. He wondered who these onyx knights were. Surely they were men of war. But in the coming battle, which side did they serve?
It didn’t matter. Clearly the one to whom he was to deliver his message was not among them. Gauris flew on.
Again he followed the tumbled line of mountains south, searching for the telltale signs of strife and panic. His wings had begun to ache, but he ignored it. In his younger days, he could have flown twice this far without so much as a twinge.
Far below, the thin line of a road snaked over hills and vales. Gradually the road grew wider, linking together gray blots on the land that Gauris knew to be towns of men. A dark cloud billowed up from one of them. He swooped nearer.
The town burned.
Flames leaped among shabby buildings, consuming thatch roofs, cracking stone walls. Cries of suffering rose with the smoke, along with the ringing of swords. It seemed dark figures moved with swift precision through the streets, although Gauris couldn’t be sure; it was hard even for his eyes to pierce the veil of smoke. Besides, his heart told him this was not the place. From what little he knew of the one he sought, such a mean collection of hovels would be far beneath her attention. He rose again toward the sky.
The aching in the raven’s wings grew steadily as he flew southward. When he could, he caught an updraft of air, floating upon it for a while so he could rest. Then, when the air shifted, he beat his wings once more. More towns and castles passed below, and stone-walled fields where crops lay rotting. The spidery web of roads that connected the keeps was empty. Then Gauris’s black eyes caught a speck of motion. He forced his stiffening wings to bend and wheeled closer.
A line of people moved along the road, three hundred strong, all clad in black. Was this an army of some sort?
No. Gauris circled lower and saw that over half of the people were women and children, and instead of armor they wore robes of rough, black cloth. A feverish light shone in their eyes, so that Gauris wondered if they were refugees of plague. Then he saw the symbol drawn in ashes upon the brow of each man, woman, and child: the shape of a single, staring eye.
So this was an army after all, but an army of pilgrims, not warriors. Their toneless chant rose on the air.
drink the ice
breathe the fire
Shadow be your lover
chain the mind
still the heart
Darkness rules forever
Gauris’s heart swelled in his breast. Yes, he understood. There was a gate in the northern mountains, a gate of iron a hundred feet high, bound with runes. But soon the last of the hated runes would crack, the gate would open, and the king would at last ride free. Then it would be just as the people chanted. The king would rule forevermore.
Whoever these pilgrims were, surely they were on the side of right in the coming battle. His spirit rising, Gauris forgot the pain in his wings and soared onward.
Just as the sun reached its zenith, the line of mountains he had been following ended in another wall of peaks that ranged east to west. The raven propelled himself upward, then across a bare, rocky highland. The air here was terribly thin, so that he had to beat his wings twice as often just to move the same distance. At last, blood pounding, he spiraled down the other side of the pass, to greener lands below.
He strayed both east and west, searching. Below him, all appeared peaceful and prosperous; these realms had not yet been gripped by early winter and war as had the lands to the north. All the same, Gauris’s keen eyes could make out the subtle but unmistakable signs of growing strife. Here and there he paused—on a branch, a window ledge, a stone wall—an unseen shadow, listening.
Atop a hill, hidden in a labyrinth of standing stones, a dozen men gathered. They sat in a circle, naked save for linen kilts, sweating in the heady smoke of herbs thrown on a fire. One of them, a man with powerful arms, wore a wooden mask shaped like the head of a bull. A sword lay across his knees.
“Tell us of the Hammer and the Anvil,” the men in the circle said to the one in the mask.
A rumbling voice issued from behind the mask. “The Hammer and the Anvil are the tools of Vathris. With them he will fight the Final Battle, and their deeds will be glorious.”
“And when will they come?” the men asked.
“They are already here. At least, so say the priests of the innermost circle. They believe that the Final Battle has already begun.”
A thrill ran around the circle.
“Will we win it?” said a young man, gazing into the fire, his beard no more than a soft down on his cheeks.
The one in the bull mask shrugged massive shoulders. “Win or lose, it does not matter. Even in defeat there is glory, if one fights with honor. All who die in the Final Battle will have a place in Vathranan after the world ends. Now, if you would fight for your god, you must draw from yourself the blood of his Bull.”
He took up the sword and ran his hand across the edge, so that crimson flowed, staining the steel. He passed the sword to the next man, and the next. All drew blood, the young one with the greatest fierceness of them all....
The raven flew on.
In a castle with nine towers, a king paced and fumed.
“What do you mean she’s no longer at Ar-tolor?” the king bellowed.
He was a powerful man, clad in black and silver, his beard glossy with oil. Blue eyes sizzled like lightning. The guardsman took a step back.
“Forgive me, Your Majesty. That is the news brought by Sir Dalmeth, who returned from Toloria not a quarter hour ago.”
The king clenched a fist. “Then by all the Seven, where in the Dominions is she?”
The guardsman swallowed. “It seems she’s not anywhere in the Dominions, Your Majesty.”
The king stopped in his tracks. The mastiffs by the hearth whined and cowered. “What?”
“Tarras,” the guardsman managed to blurt out. “She went south to Tarras, Your Majesty. With Lord Falken, Lady Melia, and others. Two moons since.”
The king’s blue eyes narrowed. “It is not like my ward to run off on foolish adventures. At least, it wasn’t until she made the acquaintance of Ivalaine. By the Bull, this has the mark of the Witch Queen in it. But I’ll put a stop to it.” His gaze returned to the guard. “Send a messenger to Tarras at once....”
Still the raven flew on as the sun sank toward the western rim of the world.
Not far from the castle, beyond a circle of standing stones, in a dense fragment of primeval forest, soft lights danced beneath gold and copper trees. High laughter rose on the air, along with wild music and the chiming of bells.
All at once, both laughter and music ceased. Around the eaves of the wood, gangly shadows prowled back and forth, seeking entry. Lights flashed again—brilliant silver now, near the edges of the wood. Shrill cries drifted upward. The shadows retreated; all was still....
Onward the raven flew, each beat of the wings a stab of pain in his breast.
In the grotto of a secret garden, a trio of young women gathered, eyes bright, gowns smudged with dirt, and leaves tangled in their hair. An iron pot suspended from a tripod of green sticks bubbled above a fire.
One of the young women held a handful of leaves above the pot. “How many should I put in, Belira?”
“All of it. And the moonbell root, Carsi.”
The other two complied, dropping the herbs into the pot.
“You still haven’t told us what this spell will do, Belira.”
The brown-eyed one drew closer to the pot, breathed in the fragrant steam. “I learned it from Sister Liendra herself. It’s a potion of vision. With it, we might gain a glimpse of one who is far away.”
The other two gripped each other, giggling.
“And whom will you see, Belira? Lord Teravian?”
The one called Belira looked up, expression hard. “We haven’t spent all day working this spell for girlish fancies. There’s another I would see, one of far greater importance. And if we were the ones to find him, surely we would be drawn to the center of the Pattern.”
The others frowned prettily. “Whom do you mean?”
The brown-eyed one gazed into the pot and murmured a single word. “Runebreaker...”
Gauris rose upward—then began to sink again. His wings were molten with pain; he could hardly move them. Never had he flown so many leagues in a day. But he had not found her, the one to whom he was to give the king’s message. Better to fall than to return to the king’s dominion having failed.
As the sun neared the western horizon, a cruel wind rushed over the land. The wind caught him, buffeting him about. By the time he righted himself, he was dizzy and lost. Which way was north? He whirled around, searching...
... and saw a shadow on the land.
It was subtle yet unmistakable: a premature gloom clinging to a hill that should yet be bathed in the last rays of the sun. There could be only one answer; no matter where she went in the light, a tatter of darkness would always follow her.
Gauris fluttered downward. The hill was perfectly circular, its slopes green, its summit crowned by a ring of pitted stones. A burial mound, then, perhaps a relic of the king’s first war. Gauris let out a croak of laughter. He should have known he would find her in such a place.
All life and feeling went out of his wings; he could move them no longer. His wheeling descent became a plummet. Just as the bloody circle of the sun touched the horizon, Gauris crashed to the turf in the center of the stone circle. He lay crumpled in a heap of black feathers, dazed, unable to move.
A shadowy figure approached him.
“Well, now what have we here?”
The words were cooing, the voice feminine, but the sound of it was hard and lifeless.
Another figure drew near. “It’s just a bird, Shemal. That gust of wind must have caught it and dashed it down. If I’m out here too long, my absence from the castle will be noticed. Toss it down the hill and let it die.”
“Truly, Liendra?” crooned the icy voice. “And here all this time I believed you and your sisters considered every living thing precious. I’m so pleased you’ve shown me otherwise. However, this is certainly not ‘just a bird.’ ”
The one called Shemal knelt beside Gauris, encircled his body with thin fingers, and picked him up. He struggled weakly, then gave up; he did not like being held, but he could not escape her clutch. He craned his head to look at the one who gripped him. All he caught was a fragment of a sharp, white smile inside the heavy black cowl of a robe.
The other, the one called Liendra, stepped closer: a tall, regal woman with red-gold hair, a cloak of pale green thrown over her shoulders against the evening chill.
“Why can you never speak plainly, Shemal? If the bird is important, then tell me.”
“Come now, Liendra. I know your magics are feeble compared to those of your sisters. That isn’t why I chose you. But surely your spells are enough to sense this is no mundane bird.”
Liendra frowned; either she did sense it, or she didn’t wish to admit otherwise.
“This raven is one of his messengers,” Shemal said, stroking Gauris’s feathers. He shuddered under her touch.
“And now you’re willfully misunderstanding. A messenger of the one who will have you trade your heart for iron the moment you show the first sign of weakness.”
Liendra shivered despite her cloak, tightening her arms across her breast. “Your master....”
“My master?” Shemal laughed, a sound like glass shattering. “Yes, I suppose he believes he is my master still. But in the end, we both serve the same master, that is all. Sometimes I believe, over the centuries, he has forgotten that—that he has become used to ruling in our master’s absence.” A colorless eye peered from the cowl of the robe. “And recall, Liendra, my master is your master as well.”
Liendra swallowed. “If it is a messenger, then what is its message?”
Shemal stroked Gauris’s feathers, harder this time. “Speak, raven. What did your pale master bid you tell me?”
The message. He had to speak the message. Gauris opened his beak, but only a low croak came out.
“Hush,” Shemal said, a sound like a flame dying. She pinched his beak shut with two fingers. “You need not bother to speak the words. I know the message he would send me. It has been long years since I have journeyed to his dominion. He bids me go there and abase myself before him, so that he can be certain he rules me still. He, who was born a mortal, while I was once a goddess!”
The robed one shuddered and released Gauris’s beak.
“Yes, Liendra. I have not forgotten. It would not do for that wench Ivalaine to discover you here. Soon she will be nothing, a doll for us to play with, but not just yet. So run along to the castle.”
“But you haven’t told me why you called me here.”
Again Shemal laughed. “I fear our feathered interloper has quite distracted me. I simply wished to tell you this, Liendra: I have found the one whom we seek.”
Liendra’s eyes flashed. She took a step forward, her voice quavering. “You don’t mean...the Runebreaker?”
“No, not quite. But close. You see, I’ve found a Runebreaker.”
Liendra’s frown returned. “I don’t understand, Shemal. You mean to tell me there’s another who can break runes?”
Shemal’s voice was triumphant. “Yes, a second Runebreaker! And this one has pledged himself to me.”
“But the prophecy of the Witches...”
“The prophecy says only that Runebreaker will shatter the world. It does not say which Runebreaker. And now this one is under our control, a tool we can use toward our ends.”
Liendra opened her mouth to speak, but Shemal shook her head.
“That’s enough, dearest. I will tell you more later, when you have need to know. For now, keep watch over Ivalaine, and if she hears any more from your two sisters in the south, let me know at once.”
The sun was gone; dusk had fallen over the mound. Despite the dimness, Gauris could see the hate in the eyes of the gold-haired woman. Liendra wrapped her cloak more tightly around herself and slipped between two stones, into the gloom.
Shemal held the raven to her breast. “Soon, my little messenger. The signs fall into place. The war comes. But it may not all go as your master believes it will.”
Gauris struggled in her grasp. Something was wrong here. He had to return to the north, to tell the king.
The other held him tightly. “No, little brother. I can’t let you tell your master what I’ve spoken here. It wouldn’t do. It wouldn’t do at all. And you are weary; you have no strength left to fly.” Her cold fingers encircled his neck. “It’s time for you to rest.”
One last time he fought against her, but it was no use. She was right. He was weary, so terribly weary.
The fingers tightened around his neck. A popping sound echoed off the circle of stones. For a moment Gauris flew into an eternal sky of darkness.
Then he was lost.
Grace Beckett had never really believed in fate.
After all, it wasn’t fate that brought people through the doors of the Emergency Department of Denver Memorial Hospital. It was cruel luck. They happened to cross a street just as an oncoming driver—who had never been sick a day in his life—had a brain aneurism. Or they didn’t notice the electrical cord was frayed as they plugged it in. Or they got a phone call when they were unpacking groceries and forgot to put the box of rat poison they had bought on a shelf where their toddler couldn’t reach it. In an instant, for no reason at all, their lives were changed forever.
Nothing was destiny; things simply happened. And if sometimes prophecies came true, it was only because they were selffulfilling by nature. Oedipus Rex wasn’t an affirmation of the existence of fate; it was a warning about heeding warnings. Oedipus would never have killed his father if the seer’s words of doom hadn’t set the whole thing into motion. The only real fate was what people made for themselves.
At least, that was what Grace had always believed back in Colorado. Only now she knew another world. A world where gods appeared to the naked eye. A world where magic was a force as real as electricity. A world where maybe, just maybe, prophecies really did come true.
It had been over a month since the demon freed by Xemeth was destroyed, transformed to a dead lump of rock by the touch of the Great Stone Sinfathisar. Over a month since they fled the destruction of the Dome of the Etherion only to find that not all of their number were present. And over a month since they had begun the impossible search for those who were lost.
The villa where they had been living stood atop a hill a half league from the outermost wall of Tarras. The tile-roofed building was shaped like a horseshoe, encircling a courtyard filled with fountains and fragrant lindara vines, and the entire house was surrounded by a circle of ithaya trees that made Grace think of green-gold columns. The emperor had rented the villa for them when he learned of their intention to take rooms at a hostel in the Fourth Circle.
“I won’t have my cousin dwelling with the unwashed rabble,” Ephesian said, jowls waggling in outrage. He had taken to calling Grace cousin, much to her chagrin and—she was forced to admit—her secret delight.
“Nonsense, Your Excellency,” Melia said soothingly, “there are a large number of bathhouses in the Fourth Circle, and your subjects appear to be admirably well washed. We shall be quite comfortable at the hostel.”
“Absolutely not!” Ephesian pounded the arms of his throne with chubby fists, and his attendants—he was back to eunuchs now, all fully clothed Grace was glad to see—edged away, eyes wide. “You already have something of an irregular reputation, Lady Melia. But for Lady Grace to stay in the Fourth Circle would besmirch the exalted station of the empire.”
Melia raised on eyebrow. “You mean unlike the centuries of pillaging, corruption, and slaying of innocents?”
However, despite their protests, there was no swaying Ephesian. Nor was Melia about to give in to his demands; she refused to take an apartment in the First Circle. “You’re every bit as bossy as a mother hen, Ephesian. You’d never stop pecking at us if we didn’t do exactly as you wished.”
It was Grace who finally came up with a compromise. She asked Ephesian if there might be some accommodation outside the city that would be of both appropriate station and suitable distance. After Melia’s caustic remark, Ephesian seemed none too keen on the idea of having her nearby, and the idea of the villa was settled on.
“That was very diplomatic of you, Your Majesty,” Beltan whispered with a grin as they left the palace.
These words took Grace by surprise. On retrospect, she had to admit it was a good solution. Maybe she was better at this whole royalty thing than she gave herself credit for. Maybe it was in her blood.
Sometimes, long before the others awoke, Grace would slip from her bed, part the gauzy curtains that were the only barrier between her and the last breath of night, and step onto a balcony outside the room. She would touch the steel pendant that hung at her neck—a pendant that was in truth a fragment of a sword—and ponder that thought. Could fate really be contained in the suspension of one’s blood?
Once there was a patient in the ED whom she diagnosed with symptoms of leukemia. She remembered him clearly. He was one of those big, burly men who moved with exaggerated care, as if afraid he might accidentally break someone. He taught high school, still lived with his elderly mother, and had a gentle laugh. Grace had liked him.
They put him on a list for a bone marrow transplant. But a few months later Grace learned that no donor match was ever found, and he had died. She felt a pang of sorrow, but his fate hadn’t been up to her. The answer of whether he would live or die had been locked in his blood, determined by his genetic code, and there was nothing anyone could have done to change it.
Maybe she had been wrong all of those years. Maybe everything really was fate.
For a while Grace would stay there on the balcony, gazing at the distant city. The white houses of Tarras glowed in the ghost light that always came a full hour before the sun, and low in the sky, just visible over the chalky cliffs south of the city, pulsed a single spark of crimson.
The red star.
Once the star had been a harbinger of change and death; it was the Great Stone Krondisar, first raised into the sky by the Necromancer Dakarreth to spread a plague of fire across the land. But Travis Wilder had defeated the Necromancer, and the mute, red-haired girl Tira had taken the Stone and risen to the heavens: a goddess newly born. Now the star was a symbol of hope, and a reminder of a closeness Grace had felt, if only for a fleeting time.
“I love you, Tira,” she would whisper.
While it all seemed as if it had happened long ago, the red star had appeared just that spring. It was Sindath now; back in Colorado it would be November. Impossible as it was to believe, it had been barely over a year since she encountered the preacher Brother Cy outside the burnt husk of the Beckett-Strange Home for Children. Barely a year since she came to Eldh.
Came back to Eldh.
Whether it’s fate or not that you’re here, Grace, this is where you belong. You know it is. Just like you know you’re going to find them, wherever they are.
She would wait until the red star set beneath the line of the cliffs. Then she would step back inside, to wait for dawn and the others to rise, so they could begin their search anew.
“You never did tell us where you went yesterday, Falken,” Melia was saying, as Grace stepped into the courtyard where they gathered for breakfast each morning. It was the ninth day of Sindath. Over a month they had been searching; over a month without any sign.
Melia, clad in a silver-white shift, was filling cups from a pitcher of margra juice. She glanced at the bard. “I wasn’t even certain you were back.”
“He came in late,” Beltan said. The blond knight cracked a great yawn. “And might I suggest, the next time you try sneaking across a tile floor, take your boots off first. Or get a pair of sandals, like everyone else in this city.”
The knight was dressed in the fashion Tarrasian soldiers adopted when not on duty: sandals, a kilt that reached below the knees, and a loose white shirt.
Falken winced, running his black-gloved hand through his hair. While he wore a long tunic and loose breeches in the Tarrasian fashion, he still hadn’t given up his northern-style boots. “Sorry about that. I suppose I was a bit tired myself. I was up in Tyrrinon all day yesterday.”
“Tyrrinon?” Aryn said. “Where’s that?” The young baroness wore a flowing Tarrasian gown of soft azure that contrasted with her dark hair. She accepted a cup of juice from Melia.
“It’s a village a few leagues west of Tarras, dear,” Melia said. “It’s up in the hills, and other than shepherds and their flocks there’s not much there.” She shot Falken a speculative look. “Except, of course, for the old monastery of Briel.”
“Briel?” Beltan said around a mouthful of bread. “Who’s that?”
Grace couldn’t help a smile. These days she could hardly keep food down for worry. However, in the year she had known him, no matter what was going on, Beltan’s ability to eat never waned. As far as she could tell, the appetite of Calavaner knights was a universal constant.
“Briel is one of the minor gods of Tarras,” Falken said.
Melia shot him a piercing look. “Please, Falken. That’s such a demeaning term. No god is minor.”
“Then what term should I use?” the bard said with a scowl.
Melia tapped her cheek. “How about penultimately glorious?”
“How about I just keep talking?”
Melia let out a pained sigh but said nothing more.
“Briel is a minion of Faralas, the god of history,” the bard went on. “He’s known as the Keeper of Records, and it’s said he possesses a book in which he’s written down every significant event since the beginning of Tarrasian history. I heard some years ago there was a good library at his monastery in Tyrrinon.”
“And was it still there?” Aryn said.
“I’m afraid things were in something of a state of disrepair. It turns out there aren’t many monks left at the monastery. I suppose people aren’t really all that interested in history these days.”
“Which only means they’re bound to repeat it,” Melia said.
Beltan brushed bread crumbs from his sparse gold beard. “Falken, you still didn’t say what you were looking for in the Library of Briel. Was it something about gates?” A light glinted in his green eyes. “Something that might help us find—?”
“No,” Grace said, the smile falling from her lips. “It was Mohg, Lord of Nightfall.”
The others looked up, faces startled.
“Good morning, dear,” Melia said, recovering first. “There’s hot maddok for you.”
Aryn’s sapphire eyes were concerned as her voice sounded in Grace’s mind. Are you all right, sister?
“I’m fine,” Grace said aloud. While Lirith and Aryn seemed comfortable speaking across the Weirding when others were present, Grace avoided it if she could. Despite what King Boreas might think, she really wasn’t all that adept at intrigue; it took so much more energy than being obvious.
She sat down—adjusting the folds of her gown, which was similar to Aryn’s but a pale green—and poured a cup of maddok, breathing in the slightly spicy fragrance. Only after she took a sip did she realize that the others were still gazing at her. She glanced at Falken. “You were hoping to learn something more about Mohg, weren’t you? Something that could help prevent his returning to Eldh.”
Falken nodded, his faded blue eyes grave. The sun in the courtyard seemed to go thin. Grace could feel it: the shadow attached to the thread of her life. They all had their shadows, she knew. She had passed through hers when the demon tried to consume her, and while she hadn’t defeated it, it was behind her now. The shadow might have made her who she was, but it was up to her to determine what she would be.
However, in passing through her shadow, she had exhumed memories she had forgotten as a means to survive, memories from twenty years ago: the night the orphange had burned down. She knew now what she had seen that night. The orphanage’s cook, Mrs. Fulch, being made into an ironheart. The bright, baleful form of the wraithling. And the figure emblazoned on the tapestry in the forbidden upstairs room: ancient, primal, its one staring eye filled with desire and hate.
It was Mohg, Lord of Nightfall. The Old God who feared the coming of men and tried to claim Eldh for his own, only to be banished from the world by the alliance of the Old and New Gods—an alliance that could never happen again, for the Old Gods had since faded into the Twilight Realm. Somehow Mohg had found his way to Earth; his likeness in the Beckett-Strange Home for Children had proved that. He sought to use Earth as a bridge to Eldh, to lay claim to it once again, and to cast it under the gloom of night forever.
“Well,” Melia said, regarding Falken, “did you find anything at the library?”
He gazed into his empty cup. “Nothing that we don’t already know: how Mohg drank the blood of the dragon Hriss to gain the dark wisdom of how to claim Eldh for his own; how he tried to reach the Dawning Stone, to break the First Rune and remake Eldh in his image; and how the New Gods and Old Gods banded together, tricking Mohg into stepping beyond the circle of the world, then closing the way behind him, banishing him forever.”
Aryn clutched her good left arm around herself, shivering despite the sunshine. “Only he wasn’t banished forever. Not if he finds a way back.”
Beltan wrapped his arm around her shoulders. “Don’t worry about what hasn’t happened yet, cousin. Mohg won’t get back—not if Falken has his way.”
A small, black form hopped up onto the table—Melia’s kitten. Somehow, Grace had gotten used to the fact that the kitten never seemed to get a day older. Its golden eyes gleamed as it started stalking toward a bowl of milk. Melia picked the kitten up, and it let out a petulant mew .
“So you found nothing else, then?” Melia said, petting the kitten as it struggled to get free. “I thought Briel would be a better record keeper than that.”
The bard grunted. “You’re not the only one. Most of the books were falling apart or never finished at all. And there was one thing I found especially confusing. In the oldest of the books that recounted the story of Mohg, there was a passage that mentioned ‘those who were lost beyond the circle.’ But the book never said who they were. Do you have any idea what it might mean?”
Melia lifted the wriggling kitten to her cheek; the little creature seemed to forget its displeasure and began to purr. “I’m not certain. As far as I know, none of the gods were slain in the war against Mohg. At least, none of the New Gods. The Old Gods were so strange and distant to us. Even though we worked with them, we understood them little. Then, so soon after the war, they faded away, back to their Twilight Realm. I suppose it’s possible some Old Gods perished in the battle, and that we didn’t even know about it.”
Falken scratched his chin—in need of a shave, as usual. “Maybe,” he said, but that was all.
They finished breakfast, then made their plans for the day. Melia mentioned that a message from the emperor had arrived just after dawn, inviting them to the palace tomorrow night.
Falken rolled his eyes. “I haven’t been to so many feasts since we stayed at King Kel’s court.”
“Or seen such poor manners,” Melia said with a look of displeasure.
“Please,” Falken snorted. “That’s an insult to Kel’s wildmen. Have you seen how Ephesian’s courtiers eat? It must be high fashion to forgo using a napkin in Tarras.”
Aryn shuddered. “Don’t remind me! My hand was so sticky after the Minister of the Treasury kissed it that I had to peel it away from his lips.”
Grace supposed the invitation was largely her fault. In the absence of Lirith, it had been up to her to fulfill Ephesian’s ravenous new appetite for knowledge about morality and virtue. Grace wasn’t certain she was the best model in those topics, but she had enlisted Aryn’s help, and the emperor had gobbled up everything they had to tell him. Unfortunately, Ephesian had had a more difficult time convincing the members of his court—or the staff of his kitchens—of the value of moderation.
“I really don’t see what you people have against feasts,” Beltan said in a wounded tone. “What could be wrong with eating until you burst?”
Melia patted the big knight’s hand. “I think you just answered your own question, dear.”
“Besides,” Grace said softly, “we have other things to do.”
At once Beltan’s visage grew solemn. He nodded, as did the others. It was time to start searching again.
In the ED, Grace had seen cases of phantom limbs: amputees who still felt the pain of appendages that were no longer there. In a way, what they were feeling was the same. Every time they sat at the table, it was agonizingly clear that some who should be there were not.
What had happened those last seconds in the Etherion, they could only conjecture. The dome had been on the verge of collapse. Trapped on the other side of a chasm, Travis, Lirith, Durge, and Sareth had intended to use the gate artifact and a drop of blood from the Scarab of Orú to make their escape. But as Grace and the others waited outside, the four never appeared. Vani said transport through the gate was instantaneous. Which meant something had gone wrong.
For a fortnight she had feared there hadn’t been enough time, that the Etherion had come crashing down upon the four before they had a chance to activate the gate. But the emperor’s army of laborers had worked swiftly, carting away the broken rubble of the Etherion so it could be built anew. Dozens of bodies were found in the destruction, some human, some not. But there had been no sign of Travis, Lirith, Durge, or Sareth.
Which means they made it through the gate, Grace. They’re alive, they have to be.
But where? The gate artifacts had the power to whisk one between worlds, and with blood as powerful as that in the scarab, there was no telling where the four had ended up.
As servants—more gifts from the emperor—cleared away the remains of breakfast, Melia announced she was going to visit the temple of Mandu the Everdying. Some of the gods had begun to accept followers of Ondo, Sif, Geb, and Misar into their temples, which meant the lost sheep no longer needed Mandu to care for them.
“Mandu’s work is nearly done,” Melia said, “and I fear when it is, he’ll pass on to another circle. I need to talk to him before he goes. He might have some wisdom that can help guide us in our own search.”
Aryn, in turn, said she intended to visit the witches of Tarras that day. She had sought them out a few weeks before, in the grotto where Lirith had first found them.
It had been difficult for the young baroness to get close to the witches, for they were secretive—there in a city that did not favor the old ways like those of Sia—but gradually she had gained the trust of Thesta, the leader of the coven. Several in the coven possessed the Sight, and Aryn hoped they might have seen something in their dreams.
The baroness sighed. “If only I had the Sight like Lirith, maybe I would have seen something myself.”
Grace squeezed her good hand. Aryn had her own powers, ones that seemed to grow by leaps and bounds every day.
“Grace,” Falken said, “do you think I could borrow your necklace again today? Just for a little while?”
Twice before, Falken had asked to study the steel shard of her necklace. Grace wondered what he did with it. He had said he was going to spend the day examining some of the notes he made at the Library of Briel. What did that have to do with her necklace? Grace didn’t know, but all the same she carefully removed the necklace and handed it to Falken. She felt strangely naked without it.
Beltan was looking at her, his expression serious but eager. “Are we going to the university again today?”
She drew in a deep breath, gathering her strength, knowing she was going to need it. “If you’ll come with me.”
“Lead the way, my lady.”
The University of Tarras occupied almost an entire quadrant of the city’s Second Circle. At first, when passing the high arch of its gates on the way to and from visiting the emperor, Grace had mistaken the precisely arranged quadrant of buildings— with their columned facades, elaborate friezes, and plethora of marble statuary—for a complex of temples. It was only one day when she stopped to ask a man approaching the gates to which god these temples were sacred that she learned the truth.
Since that day, Grace had come to the university several times a week. Ephesian had given her a gold ring marked with the signet of the empire: three trees crowned by five stars. The ring possessed near-magical abilities to open doors in Tarras. The gatekeeper of the university had looked at her in suspicion when she first requested entrance. However, one flash of the ring, and he had hurriedly escorted her inside.
On her first few visits, Grace had been content just to wander, eavesdropping on scholarly debates or speaking to those students or professors who seemed amenable to interruption. She soon gathered there were four main colleges in the university, each centered around one general topic: rhetoric, logic, mathematics, and history. While all of the colleges interested Grace, it was to the College of History that she directed her attention. It was the smallest of the four, located on the south end of the quadrant.
In the college’s library, she discovered its focus was history in the broadest sense: both natural and civilized. Many of the library’s tomes and treatises concerned biology, comparative anatomy, and a rudimentary kind of chemistry. In addition, a large portion of the library was devoted to a collection of animal specimens that had been caught over the centuries and preserved for study. Grace opened drawer after drawer, encountering the skins and blindly staring skulls of animals she could not name, and which looked almost but not quite like primates, rodents, and marsupials.
The faunas of Earth and Eldh are similar, Grace. Too similar. There’s simply no way they could have evolved this closely in parallel. But certainly things here have diverged, just like the animals of Australia did in isolation from the rest of the continents.
But if it was true that the creatures of Earth and Eldh had diverged, then it was also true they shared a common ancestry. So when were the faunas of the two worlds exchanged?
Intriguing as that question was, Grace forced herself to shut the specimen drawers and focus instead on the shelves of books. Her reason for coming to the university was simple: to learn something that could help them discover what had happened to Travis and the others.
She spent days poring through tome after tome. Grace was particularly interested in any book that concerned the history of the southern continent of Moringarth and the ancient city-states of Amún. Morindu the Dark had been one of those city-states, and it was the sorcerers of Morindu who first learned of the world beyond the void—the world Earth—and created the gate artifacts to get there.
Why they had wanted to find a way to Earth, Grace had no idea. Nor did the Mournish seem to know the answer—at least not any they had voiced—and they were the descendants of the people of Morindu. But it didn’t matter. Grace just wanted to learn more about how the gate artifacts functioned, not why they were created.
Grace was surprised when, after her first few visits to the university, Beltan asked if he could help her. It wasn’t that she didn’t care for his company; it was simply that she knew the knight’s career had left him little time for more scholarly pursuits. However, once she recovered from her astonishment, she gladly accepted his help.
Now, as they once again sat at a long table scattered with books they had pulled from dusty shelves, Grace regarded the big man. A hand held his thinning, white-blond hair back from his high forehead, which was furrowed in concentration. His lips were moving, and Grace knew he was sounding out the words scribed by hand on the page before him.
Beltan was literate, but only barely. Of course, even that was something of an accomplishment for a man of war living in a medieval world. However, Grace had spent some time coaching him, and since then his reading had improved rapidly. His eyes moved eagerly over the page. Whatever Beltan thought of himself, he was not stupid. Still, Grace wondered why he really wanted to join her on her forays to the university.
Maybe he’s coming for the same reason you are, Grace. To have something to do that at least seems constructive, even if it’s a long shot.
Tired of her own book, and having found nothing in it about gates, Grace rested her chin on a hand, watching the knight. “So, are you planning to trade in your sword for a student’s robe?”
He looked up with a grin. Beltan’s face was plain except when he smiled, and then it became brilliantly handsome. “I just might at that,” he said, then bent back over his book.
Smiling, Grace returned her attention to the tome before her. Beltan wasn’t the only one whose reading skills were improving. While it was still easier to read when the silver half-coin was about her person, she found that even without it she could pick her way through just about any book in the library, even those written in archaic dialects. What’s more, she was nearly fluent in spoken Eldhish now, although one day when she experimented with this, Beltan told her she had a peculiar accent.
“It’s like you’re talking with your nose pinched shut. Underwater. And with a mouthful of bread. But otherwise you sound wonderful, Grace.”
After that, she stuck to keeping the half-coin in the small pouch at her belt—although it was nice to know she’d be able to make do in a pinch.
A thought occurred to her. The silver half-coin granted her the ability to speak Eldhish. And she knew the fairy blood Beltan had been infused with, and which had healed him, had also allowed him to speak English when he was in Denver.
So maybe his newfound skill at reading isn’t exactly a coincidence, Grace.
As the sun crept across the mosaic floor, and students in brown robes shuffled quietly in and out of the library, Grace worked her way through several more tomes, including The Rise and Fall of Amún , The God Kings: Holy Tyrants of the South, and Blood Ritual in the City States of Moringarth— Myth or Magic? However, as interesting as some of them were, none contained anything about gate artifacts.
At last, head aching and eyes bleary, she shoved aside the books. How many tomes had she read these last weeks? A hundred? Whatever the number, it was only a fraction of what lined the precisely organized shelves that were the antithesis of Falken’s description of the Library of Briel. There was so much knowledge here—there had to be something that would help them. They just needed a better system for finding it.
“I wish Durge were here,” she said, not realizing she had spoken aloud until Beltan looked up.
“It’s all right, Grace.” He reached across the table, covering her hand with his. It was large and marked with white scars. “We’ll find them somehow.”
Grace smiled, and amazingly the expression wasn’t forced. The knight’s strength these last weeks had been a crutch all of them had leaned upon. Beltan loved Travis; the knight should have been a wreck. Only somehow he wasn’t.
After they returned to Eldh, after the fairy healed him, Beltan had been empty and broken, consumed by the shadow of his past, whatever it was. She knew only that it had to do with someone the knight said he had slain; although, as a warrior, certainly he had been forced to kill many in battle. Yet ever since they faced the demon in the Etherion, it seemed Beltan had left his shadow behind him just as Grace had. Now the knight was as bright and full of humor as she remembered him, as if Travis’s vanishing had not caused despair, but instead had granted him new life and purpose.
What knight doesn’t need a quest, Grace? And now he has one: to find Travis, no matter what it takes.
No matter the reason for his transformation, it was good to have the old Beltan back. Although, whether it was the strange blood that now ran in his veins or something else he had gained along the way, there were changes in the knight. Sometimes she could glimpse the hidden light of his face even when he wasn’t smiling, and there was a depth to his green eyes she had never seen before.
He cocked his head, and only then did she realize she had been staring.
“What is it, Grace?”
She fumbled for words. “It’s nothing. I was just—”
“You can see it, can’t you?” His words were soft. “But I suppose it makes sense. After all, you saw it in me before, on the road to Spardis. My shadow.”
She shook her head. “Beltan, you don’t have to—”
“No, it’s all right, Grace. The past doesn’t own us. That’s what we learned in the Etherion, isn’t it? And I think I’ve wanted to tell someone for a while now. I think maybe I have to.”
Grace couldn’t move. The knight tightened his grip on her hand. He didn’t look at her as he spoke, but instead at a half circle of cobalt sky outside a high window.
“For so many years, I searched for the man who murdered my father, King Beldreas. I suppose I thought if I avenged his death, I might somehow finally win his approval. Vathris knows, I never could seem to get it when he was alive, as much as I longed for it. Only then, in Spardis, I learned the truth. I had known my father’s murderer all along. You see, it was me.”
For several hushed minutes, Grace listened, frozen, as the knight described what the Necromancer Dakarreth had revealed to him in the baths beneath Castle Spardis: how the Pale King had ordered Dakarreth to go forth and sow strife in the Dominions; how Dakarreth had stolen into Beltan’s dreams, compelling the knight to take up a knife and drive it into his father’s back; and how, as he reopened Beltan’s old wound, the Necromancer had at last let Beltan relive the terrible moment in his memories.
The knight fell silent, and Grace found the power to move, laying her other hand atop his. “Oh, Beltan...”
He shook his head. “Don’t worry, Grace. I know it wasn’t my fault. I was just a sword in Dakarreth’s hand; he was the killer, not me. And no man could have resisted the Necromancer, not even Falken. After all, he did something to Falken’s hand a long time ago. Well, this is what he did to me. But I won’t let Dakarreth win, not after Travis gave up everything to defeat him.”
Despite her sorrow, Grace found herself smiling. How could she not? Beltan had every reason for rage, or despair, or madness. Instead, he had chosen life and love.
The knight pulled his hand from hers and gently brushed a tear from her cheek. “You’d better stop that, Grace. The librarian will toss you out if you get one of his books wet. You saw the fit he threw when I brought that bottle of wine in. Now, let’s get some more books so we can keep working.”
The knight scooped up an armful of volumes and headed across the library. Grace drew in a breath, then rose and turned around.
And found herself gazing into a pair of golden eyes.
A woman stepped from the shadow between two bookcases, into a beam of honey-colored light. As always, she wore clinging black leather, and her dark hair was slicked back from the striking oval of her face.
“Vani,” Grace breathed. “How long have you been there?”
Grace studied the Mournish woman. She knew Vani was a princess, descended from the royal line of the city Morindu the Dark. And she was also T’gol—an assassin, trained since childhood in the art of killing others.
“You heard everything, didn’t you?” Grace said.
Grace licked her lips. “You have to understand, Vani. It wasn’t his fault. Just because he—”
Vani held up a hand. “I will not judge him for his deed. That is not for me to do.”
Grace winced. Like Beltan, Vani loved Travis—although for different reasons. For the knight, it was a matter of his heart. For Vani, it was a matter of fate. And they had both lost him.
A weight pressed down on Grace. She turned away. “Beltan is a good man, Vani.”
They were silent for a time.
“The Mournish will be leaving Tarras soon,” Vani said at last. “They usually travel farther south this time of year, to the cities south of Tarras.”
Grace turned back, startled. “Are you going with them?”
Vani smiled, but it was a bitter expression. “I would think my fate lies with you and your companions. If you will have me, that is.”
Whatever the tension between the T’gol and Beltan, Vani was her friend. Grace felt an impulse to rush over and catch the other in an embrace, but she supposed making sudden moves around an assassin wasn’t a good idea. She settled for a warm grin instead. “I’m glad you’re not leaving.”
Vani moved to the table and brushed a finger across one of the open books. “You seek knowledge of the gates in these?”
“We’re trying,” Grace said.
“The sorcerers of Morindu kept their secrets close. It’s not likely you’ll find revelations here, however old these may be.”
Grace let out a sigh. “I know. But I have to do something. I suppose I was just hoping.”
Again a smile touched Vani’s lips, only this time it seemed a secret expression. “There is always hope.”
The two spoke for a few more minutes, and Grace learned that the Mournish intended to have one more feast before they packed their wagons and began their wandering once more. Vani’s al-Mama had invited Grace and the others to the Mournish camp the next night to take part in the festivities. Grace accepted the invitation, knowing they could all use a break. Besides, it would give them a reason to decline the emperor’s invitation.
“We’ll see you tomorrow night,” Grace said.
The dusty library air was already rippling, folding back in on itself. Vani was gone.
Beltan was still off somewhere putting away books. Grace picked up a stack to do the same. She wandered through the dim rows of bookcases, making sure she put each tome back in its proper space, fearing what one of the librarians would do to her if she didn’t, emperor’s ring or no. Soon she had one book left. After much searching, she found the gap on the shelf where it belonged. She slid the thick volume into place.
Or at least she tried to. The book stopped with two inches to go. Grace pushed, but the book wouldn’t slide in any farther. Now that she thought about it, it was because the book had been sticking out slightly that it had caught her eye in the first place. She pulled the tome back out and peered into the gap.
Something was in there. Grace reached in, and her fingers found something flat and hard. She pulled it out. It was a book.
She convulsed in a powerful sneeze. Make that a dusty book.
She set down the other tome and regarded the volume she had pulled from the gap. It was uncharacteristically slim. She supposed it had gotten pushed behind the others on the shelf and lost there. A long time ago, by the looks of it. Grace used a corner of her gown to wipe the dust from the leather cover. On it, written in tarnished gold, was the title Pagan Magics of the North.
She flipped through the yellowed pages. All the books she had looked at so far were composed in a bold, blotchy, flowery script on thick vellum, but this book was penned on crisp, smooth paper in a spidery but even hand. A few words caught her eye as the pages fluttered past: Malachor, Runelords, Eversea...
“What have you got there, Grace?”
She turned around. Beltan’s face was smudged with book dust, and his green eyes were curious.
“I’m not exactly sure,” she said. “It was lost behind the other books on the shelf. And it’s not a history of Tarras. It seems to be about myths and legends of the north.”
“That’s probably why it was lost. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but these Tarrasians seem to think they’re the center of the world.”
“That’s probably because, for a millennium, they were.”
Beltan grunted. “Old habits die hard.”
Grace glanced out one of the high windows. The sky was fading to slate; it was time to go. However, she was loath to leave this book. What if one of the librarians filed it away in a place where she couldn’t find it? True, she was searching for knowledge of the south, not the north. All the same, her hand tingled as she pressed it against the cover.
“I’m going to check out this book,” she decided aloud.
Beltan raised an eyebrow. “Check it out? What does that mean?”
“I mean borrow it,” Grace said, heading toward the main desk near the entrance of the library.
Beltan gave her a sly wink. “Now I get it.” He dropped his voice to a whisper. “I’ll just create a little distraction while you make off with the book.”
She shot him a horrified look. “Beltan!”
Several students and a passing librarian looked up as her voice echoed throughout the library. Grace winced and steered Beltan quickly away.
“Listen to me,” she said, this time keeping her voice low. “I am not stealing the book. So no distractions of any kind. Do you understand?”
The blond knight looked slightly hurt. “Whatever you say, my lady. But if you get caught pilfering, don’t blame me.”
They had reached the front desk; there was no more time for whispers. Grace handed the book to one of the librarians behind the expanse of glossy wood.
“I’d like to borrow this please.”
The librarian took the tome. “What is this?” She flipped through the book, and her pinched face grew even tighter. “Wizards? Spells? Dragons? I had no idea there was such rubbish in this library. I’ll take care of this.”
She started to turn away, but Grace was faster, snatching the book out of her hand.
“If I could just check it out now,” Grace said, trying to sound demure.
The librarian’s eyes narrowed. “You’re not a student here, are you? Do you have a library token?”
Grace swallowed hard. “No, but I do have this.” She lifted her right hand, displaying Ephesian’s gold ring.
The librarian appeared unimpressed. “Madam, even the emperor himself cannot borrow a book without a library token. You’ll have to petition the archdean for a token and come back—”
“Wait,” Grace said. She hated to do this, but there was no choice. “I forgot. I do have a token. Right here.”
Hastily she reached out with her mind and touched the Weirding—the shining web of power that flowed through all things. She wove several threads together into a hasty spell and held out her hand.
The librarian blinked, staring at Grace’s outstretched hand, then gave a curt nod.
“So you have a token after all.” Her dry voice bore a note of disappointment. “Very well, you may borrow the book. But you must sign for it first.”
With a quill pen, Grace scratched her name and the title of the book on a piece of parchment, then turned, leaving the fussy librarian at her desk.
“What just happened back there?” Beltan said, as they stepped out the door of the library. “Your hand was empty, but she acted like she was seeing exactly what she wanted to see.”
Grace could still feel the faint hum of power in her hand. “So she did.”
Beltan gave her a sharp look. “And using magic is different from stealing how, my lady?”
Grace laughed and took the knight’s arm. “It’s far more polite,” she said, and they started across the university grounds as purple dusk fell.
It was late, and Grace’s head ached.
She lifted her gaze from the book on the table and rubbed the back of her neck. Her eyes seemed to have forgotten how to focus. The others had gone to their rooms an hour before, and Grace knew she should go to sleep as well if she intended to have the energy for the next day’s revel with the Mournish.
At supper, she had told the others of Vani’s visit at the library. When she mentioned that the Mournish woman would not be leaving with her people, Beltan had turned away, so that Grace could not read his expression. As if she would have had the power anyway. She was still a neophyte when it came to the subject of human emotion, and unlike medicine or history, it was not something she could learn in a book.
Grace had planned to show Pagan Magics of the North to Falken, but he had spent the day going over the notes he had made at the Library of Briel, only without much to show for it. After accepting her necklace back, she decided to show him the book in the morning. Providing he woke in a better mood.
A warm zephyr fluttered the gauzy curtains. Outside the window, Grace could see a pulsing crimson spark low in the sky. Tira’s star was rising, beginning its nightly sojourn across the heavens.
Just one more page, Grace. Then bed. Doctor’s orders.
Falken had told them much of the War of the Stones, and Malachor, and the Runelords. However, the book contained more details than Falken’s stories. She was especially fascinated by references to Eversea—a land far to the west in Falengarth, where it was said many who fled the destruction of Malachor went after that kingdom fell. Could it be that people of Malachor—distant cousins of hers—still dwelled there?
Another question occurred to her. She doubted any of the scholars at the University of Tarras were experts in northern mythology. So who had written this book? The binding seemed somewhat newer than the rest of the volume; Grace suspected the title page had been lost when the book was rebound, along with the identity of the author. Regardless, it was riveting. Stifling a yawn, Grace flipped the page.
The yawn became a gasp.
It was faint, faded by time, but clear. Someone had marked in the book with what looked like black pencil. A brief passage of text was underlined:
...that gods, dragons, and witches of the Sight have all foretold his coming. The one named Runebreaker will shatter the rune Eldh, which was the First Rune spoken by the Worldsmith, who bound it in the Dawning Stone at the very beginning of the world. And so the First Rune shall also be the Last Rune, for when it breaks, the world shall end....
Disturbing as they were, it was not these lines that froze Grace’s blood. Instead, it was the three words penciled hastily, almost desperately, in the margin next to them:
“No,” Grace whispered. “No, it can’t be.”
She dug in the pouch tied to her sash, pulled out the silver half-coin, and shoved it across the table. Again she looked at the book. Even though she could still read it with effort, the text on the page was now strange and archaic-looking, written in Eldhish letters. But the penciled words were written in English.
Eyes wide, Grace looked up. This was impossible. And there was something else. There was something about the words in the margin—the way the letters were shaped—that disturbed her even more. Only what was it? She stared at the window, thinking. Outside, the red star gazed back like a fiery eye.
The eye blinked shut.
Paralyzed, Grace kept watching, waiting for the crimson spark to shimmer back to life.
Nothing happened. Dread flooded her chest. Trembling, she rose and moved to the window. There were no clouds. The moon was a great sickle, and stars scattered the night sky like shimmering chaff. But where the crimson spark had shone moments ago there was only a black void in the heavens.
The red star—Tira’s star—had vanished.
Grace jumped at a sharp knock on the door. After a moment she gathered her wits enough to stumble to the door and fling it open. It was Falken.
“Melia wants you. Downstairs.” The bard’s eyes were every bit as startled as she knew her own to be.
They found Melia at the table where they took their meals when rain precluded dining in the courtyard. The lady looked up, the expression in her amber eyes far too deep for Grace to fathom. Aryn and Beltan appeared moments later.
The knight yawned. He was clad only in a long nightshirt. “What’s going on? I was dreaming about ale. And not the feeble stuff they make down here, mind you, but real, Galtish ale—the kind that socks you in the gut, then picks you up off the floor, puts a strong arm around you, and walks you back to the bar, grinning all the way.”
Aryn adjusted the diaphanous robe she had thrown on and frowned at the blond man. “Are you sure you weren’t dreaming about Galtish men rather than Galtish ale?”
“Either way, I’d still rather be sleeping.”
“What’s going on, Melia?” Falken said.
Melia’s visage was tightly drawn. “I was hoping Grace might have an idea.”
Aryn glanced at Grace. What is it, sister?
“Tira’s star,” Grace croaked aloud, struggling for breath. “It’s gone.”
They talked as the crescent moon arced outside the high windows. Melia’s kitten soon made an appearance, prowling across the table, begging affection from each of them in turn. At some point the servants must have come in, for cups and a steaming pot of maddok appeared on the table. Grace gladly accepted a cup when Aryn handed her one. Despite the balmy night, she felt cold.
Of them all, only Grace had actually been gazing at the red star the moment it vanished—although Melia had evidently noticed its disappearance within moments, given how quickly Falken came to Grace’s door. Unfortunately, none of them had an explanation for what had happened.
Aryn’s blue eyes were bright with worry. “You don’t think... you don’t think Tira is...”
“She’s a goddess, dear,” Melia said, her tone reassuring. “I’m sure she’s fine.”
Beltan scratched his chin. “What about the Stone of Fire? Tira was supposed to protect it. What if she’s lost it? That would be bad, right?”
“More than bad,” Falken said. “It would be disastrous. The Pale King still seeks the Stones of Fire and Twilight to set beside the Stone of Ice in the iron necklace Imsaridur. And his master, Mohg, is trying to get back to Eldh. There’s no doubt this comes at a dark time.”
Melia looked at Grace. “You were gazing out the window at the time, dear. Did you see anything strange in the moments before the star vanished? Anything that might have presaged what happened?”
Grace wished she had, but she shook her head. “I was reading a book I borrowed from the university. My eyes were tired, and I looked out the window to rest them. I saw Tira’s star. And then it was...gone.”
Falken gave her a sharp look. “What book were you reading?”
“It’s called Pagan Magics of the North. I was going to show it to you earlier, only after the Library of Briel you didn’t seem in a very probook mood.”
Falken grunted. “I can’t argue with you there. But I have to say, I know most of the books ever written about northern magic, and I’ve never heard of that one. Could I look at it?”
Glad to have something to do, Grace hurried upstairs and retrieved the book. She returned to the others and handed it to Falken. The bard turned it in his hands and thumbed through the pages. Grace explained how she had found it.
“Interesting,” he said with a frown that said strange . “The text is definitely written in High Malachorian. But I’ve never seen paper of such fine quality, and the binding is Tarrasian. I doubt Pagan Magics of the North was the volume’s original title. It’s far too condescending to be anything but the creation of a Tarrasian scholar. I suppose whoever renamed the volume tossed out the original title page.” He shut the book. “I doubt we’ll ever know who wrote it, but it does look interesting. Would you mind if I borrowed it, Grace?”
“No, but there’s something I want you to look at, something I saw just before the red star vanished.” She sat next to him and tried to keep her hands from shaking as she turned to the last page she had been reading.
Falken’s eyebrows drew down in a glower. “I find it despicable when people mark up books that aren’t their own. And what’s this written here in the margin? It’s gibberish.”
Grace reached into the pouch at her sash and took out the silver half-coin. “Here,” she said, pressing the coin into Falken’s hand. “Now read it.”
He glanced again at the book, and his eyes went wide. He looked up at Grace. “It can’t be.”
“What does it read, Falken?” Melia asked.
Grace licked her lips. “It reads, ‘Is it fate?’ The words are written next to a passage about the prophecy of the one called Runebreaker.”
Aryn sat up straight. “Runebreaker?”
“Yes, but that’s not what’s important. What’s important is that—”
Falken brushed the page. “—the first letter of ‘fate’ is written backward.”
Beltan leaped to his feet and pounded the table. “By the blood of the Bull, it’s Travis! He’s a mirror reader—you said so yourself, Falken. And this was written backward. It has to be him. He’s in Tarras somewhere.”
“Calm yourself,” Falken said in a warning tone. “We don’t know for certain that Travis wrote this.”
Except Grace knew the bard didn’t believe that. A note in English with one of the letters reversed, scribbled next to a passage about Runebreaker. Who else could it be but Travis? Only how could he have written a note in a book that had obviously been lost for years at the University of Tarras?
Grace took the half-coin back from Falken, then flipped to the front of the book. A slip of paper was pasted inside the cover. On it, the librarian had written the date Grace was to return the book to the library—a fortnight hence. Above it, crossed out, was a list of previous due dates. Grace looked at the one just above hers in the list.
Durdath the Second, in the thirty-seventh year of the blessed rule of His Eminence, Ephesian the Sixteenth.
A gasp came from behind Grace. It was Melia; she had risen to read over Grace’s shoulder.
“But that’s impossible,” the lady said. “The sixteenth Ephesian died well over a century ago.”
Some of Beltan’s exuberance gave way to confusion. “What are you talking about, Melia? Even I know Travis couldn’t have written something in a book that’s been lost behind a shelf for more than a hundred years.”
“No,” Melia murmured. “No, I don’t suppose he could have.”
More conversation and cups of maddok ensued. However, at the end of it all, they were no closer to unraveling either mystery. They could only guess why Tira’s star had vanished—and could only hope both the child goddess and the Stone of Fire were still somehow safe.
“Maybe the star will rise again tomorrow,” Aryn said, but even the young baroness seemed unconvinced by the hopeful-ness of those words.
Somewhere in the distance, a rooster crowed. Outside the windows, the moon and stars had vanished, replaced by flat blue light. Aryn was nodding in her chair, and Falken wrapped his faded cloak around her shoulders.
“Come, Your Highness,” he murmured, rousing her with a gentle shake. “It’s long past time for bed.”
Grace pushed a half-finished cup of maddok away. Her nerves buzzed like wires. Exhausted as she was, there would be no sleep for her.
Melia glanced at Beltan. “I know you’re no longer officially my knight protector, dear. But would you mind helping a weary former goddess up the stairs?”
Beltan nodded and moved to her. However, his green eyes were haunted, and Grace knew of whom he was thinking.
She pushed herself up from the table. “I think I’ll go see if the milk has been delivered yet.”
Grace had found it amusing when she discovered that, just like on Earth in a bygone era, clay jugs of milk and cream were delivered to the villa’s doorstep each morning. She knew the servants would be tired from having to stay up so late serving maddok; if the milk had arrived, she could take it to the larder in the kitchen and save them some work.
As Melia and Beltan followed Falken and Aryn to the stairs, Grace headed for the front door of the villa. She pushed back the iron latch and opened the door, letting in the moist grayness of morning. She looked down. Something indeed lay on the doorstep, only it wasn’t a jug of milk. It was a man in a brown robe.
“Beltan!” she called out on instinct.
In moments the knight was there. “What is it, Grace?”
She knelt beside the figure that slumped facedown on the stone step. Beltan let out an oath, then knelt beside her. Grace was dimly aware of the others standing in the open doorway, but she focused on the man before her.
His brown robe was rent in several places, and the fabric was damp with blood, but he was breathing. She pressed two fingers to his wrist. His pulse was weak but even. All of her senses told her his injuries were not critical. But he was cold, suffering from exposure.
And how is that possible, Grace? It barely got down to room temperature during the night. A naked baby could have slept outside and been fine.
That thought could wait until she was sure the patient was out of danger. She started to turn him over so she could check for more wounds.
“Beltan, help me.”
With strong, gentle hands, he turned the man over while she held his head steady. The front of his robe wasn’t torn; whatever had caused the injuries had come at him from behind. A heavy cowl concealed his face. Grace pushed it back.
For the third time since the sun last set, shock coursed through her. He was a young man, mid-twenties at the most, his eyes shut. His face was broad, with a flat, crooked nose and thick, rubbery lips. However, despite its homeliness, there was a peace about his visage that was compelling.
“By Vathris, I recognize him!” Beltan said, and by the gasps of the others they did as well.
But how can it be, Grace? He helped you save Travis from being burned by the Runespeakers at the Gray Tower. Only then he vanished, and you never saw him again.
Grace brushed damp hair from his heavy brow, and his brown eyes fluttered open. For a moment she saw fear in them, then they focused on her, and his lips parted in a grin. He mouthed the words Lady Grace, and she glimpsed the stump that was all that remained of his tongue.
He lifted bloodied hands, moving them in a gesture that communicated with uncanny eloquence. Good morrow, my lady. I hope you’ll forgive my appearance.
Grace didn’t know if he meant his sudden arrival, or the state of his robes. Nor did it matter. This was utterly impossible. But maybe that was all right; maybe sometimes the impossible did happen.
She flung her arms around Sky’s thick shoulders and laughed.
If he didn’t look too hard, Travis Wilder could almost believe he was finally, impossibly home.
Panting for breath, he paused at one of the numberless switchbacks the trail made as it snaked its way up the eastern escarpment of Castle Peak. He wiped sweat and grit from his stubbly bald head with a handkerchief and adjusted the lumpy canvas pack slung over his sore shoulder. A thousand feet below, the valley trapped the last rays of late-afternoon sun like flecks of color in a Fifty-Niner’s gold pan. The thin sigmoid of Granite Creek flashed in the light, sleek and silver as a trout, but purple shadows already made pine-thick islands of the moraines at the foot of Signal Ridge.
He knew he should ignore the fire in his lungs and keep moving. Night came early to the mountains, and it wouldn’t be long before he was no longer sweating. Even in July, frost was no stranger at ten thousand feet once dusk fell, and they didn’t want to spend a second night like the first. For what seemed an eternity the four of them had huddled together on the dirt floor of the abandoned miner’s cabin, silent and shivering, while wind sliced through the chinks in the logs.
You could have used a rune, Travis. He touched the hard lump in his shirt pocket. Sinfathisar let you speak runes the last time you were on Earth. Just because this is a di ferent century doesn’t matter. You could have spoken Krond and lit a fire. Lirith was blue this morning, and there was ice on Durge’s mustache. And Sareth...
However, the idea of trying to speak the rune of fire had been more terrifying than the possibility of freezing to death. When he used magic, things had a tendency to get burned and broken. And sometimes those things were people. He didn’t know if he was really the one Lirith and the Witches called Runebreaker, but he knew they were right to fear his power. He did.
You need to get back. Sareth didn’t look good when you left. He’s probably coming down with altitude sickness, and the others won’t know what that is. He needs to drink a lot of fluids, but the water up here isn’t safe until you boil it, and that’s not going to happen until you get there with the matches.
His boots of Eldhish leather stayed stuck to the trail. If he half shut his eyes, the valley didn’t look much different than the last time he had gazed out over it. The stegosaurus-backed silhouette of the mountains hadn’t changed, and the high plain at their feet was speckled with the same dusty green sage. However, when he opened his eyes fully, his preternatural vision quickly picked out everything that was wrong.
Below and to his right, the southern flanks of Castle Peak were populated with cabins and rough-milled mine shacks that, in his memory, were no more than weathered gray splinters. Heaps of tailings, red and umber, oozed down the mountainside like the discharge from fresh wounds. A heavy mist of pulverized rock drifted on the air, and the sound of the last powder blast still echoed off the peaks like late thunder.
Across the valley, a thin line of steam rose from a train just pulling into what must be a temporary depot. Travis could make out the pale line of the railroad grade that reached toward town. Just ten more miles of narrow-gauge track to lay, and the engines would be pulling into Castle City proper, bringing more people and cheaper goods from Denver, and taking raw ore from the mines back to the rock mills, where bright silver was freed from black carbonate of lead.
Castle City itself was far bigger than he had ever seen it. But then, it was a strange trait of Colorado mountain towns that, unlike most cities, they grew backward. A rich gold or silver strike could turn a small mining camp into a clapboard city of five thousand people overnight. Then, as one by one the mines played out and shut down, people moved on, and the city shrank. A few such towns found rebirth a century later as winter playgrounds for the wealthy. Castle City was one of the rest—a patchwork of Victorian frame houses, rust-roofed shacks, and not-so-mobile homes where just a few hundred souls dwelled, a ghost of its former splendor.
At least, that was how things were in Travis’s memory. But just then, in the valley a thousand feet below him, that ghost was alive and well.
He still hadn’t gone all the way into town. That thought had frightened him as much as speaking the rune of fire. This was every bit as much an alien world as Eldh was the first time he had set foot in the Winter Wood. How would people react to his Mournish clothes or his twenty-first century accent? Would he even be able to communicate with them?
His fears hadn’t been entirely unfounded.
While in this era, as in his own, McKay’s General Store would have had everything he needed, he had instead stopped at the first shop he came to a half mile outside Castle City. Its square false front couldn’t hide the crude cabin that skulked behind, but Travis didn’t care. The store was situated close to the mines of Castle Peak, and—no doubt like a lot of the miners—Travis was more concerned with proximity than selection.
He pushed through the door into a dim space, the air stinking with smoke. Wooden crates made a haphazard maze. Guns, tin lanterns, hams, and pickaxes hung from low rafters. The only person in view was a short, dour woman who stood behind a counter fashioned from a plank slapped over two barrels. Her oily hair was pulled back in a severe knot, and she wore a heavy black dress, its shoulders dusted with white flakes of dandruff. She looked up from the ledger open before her and gazed at him with narrow eyes in a puffy red face.
“So what are yeh now, some kind o’ bilk?” Even with the help of the silver half-coin, her high, nasal words were only barely understandable. “An’ here I was thinkin’ the Cousin Jacks out o’ Cornwall were a queer lot, what with their tales an’ all. Well now, I cain’t help yeh if yer grubstake is already bust. I don’t give nothing away for free. ’Cepting for lead, that is.” She nodded to the gun lying on the counter within easy reach of her hand—a small derringer with a mother-of-pearl grip.
Travis started to brush the dust from his flowing Mournish garb, then forced himself to stop. He didn’t want to draw more attention to his outlandish clothes. He cleared his throat and tried to speak in as plain a voice as possible.
“I have these.” He held out the small hoard of thick gold coins he and the others had collected by rummaging through their pockets. It wasn’t much. All the same, a fire lit in the woman’s eyes.
“Well, don’t jes’ stand thar. Give me them eagles.”
He gave her the gold pieces, and she frowned, no doubt realizing they weren’t U.S. coins after all. Taking up a small knife, she scratched several flakes off the edge of one of the coins. She grunted, then placed the coins on one side of a small scale and piled brass weights on the other. Travis noticed her thumb lingered along with the weights, but he said nothing.
“I’ll give yeh fifty dollars for ’em. Well go on.” She waved her stubby hand. “Take yer pick o’ the store. I’ll tell yeh when yeh’ve hit yer limit.”
By the chortling in her voice, Travis knew she was getting the better end of the deal, but it didn’t matter. He just wanted to get out before someone else came along. Hastily, he gathered an armload of goods and brought them to the counter. She was clearly disappointed when, after totaling the bill, she still owed him twenty dollars. Curtly, she counted the large, rumpled bank-notes into his hand. He loaded the canvas pack he had bought and headed for the door.
“That’s all the gold yer likely to see on that thar mountain,” she called after him.
He hesitated. “I’m not looking for gold,” he said, then stepped outside.
Now the sweat had dried on his head, and the wheezing of his lungs had subsided to a faint rattle. Travis turned and continued up the trail.
By the time he reached the abandoned cabin, the whole valley lay in the shadow of the mountain. Travis was the one who had spotted the cabin the previous afternoon. Weary after their battle with the demon in the Dome of the Etherion, and dazed at finding themselves on Earth, they had fled the people and noise of Castle City. They needed a place where they could think and get their bearings. Then Travis had looked up and had seen the small, boxy shape perched above them on the slopes of Castle Peak. The cabin had been abandoned, no doubt by a miner whose claim had yielded not silver, but worthless rock.
Travis opened the cabin’s sun-beaten plank door to find that the others had been busy while he was gone. Durge, in a bout of good Embarran industriousness, had chinked the walls with the mud from the tiny creek that trickled past the cabin, shutting out most of the drafts. Lirith had swept the hard-packed floor with a bundle of sticks and cleaned out the crude stone fireplace, laying a neat stack of wood inside. However, Sareth sat in a corner, his usually coppery face ashen.
“It’s good you’re back,” Durge said, not voicing the words Travis could see in the knight’s deep-set brown eyes. We were worried about you.
Travis eased the pack off his shoulder, which immediately began cramping. “How are you doing, Sareth?”
The Mournish man grinned. “I keep trying to tell Lirith my head has cracked open, but she refuses to believe me. By now she’s probably swept my brains out the door. And my breath seems to come but grudgingly.”
Durge nodded. “The air seems strangely thin here. Is it always so on this Earth of yours?”
“It’s the altitude,” Travis said. “We’re the better part of a league higher up than we were in Tarras. Everyone needs to drink lots of water.”
“But you told us earlier not to drink the water,” Durge said, glowering.
“That’s because we need to boil it first.” He started to say more, then stopped. He was too tired to explain about microscopic amoebas and how they could play havoc with your intestines. Right now Durge could simply think he was contradictory.
Lirith knelt beside the pack. “Did you get the...mashes you talked about, so we can make a fire?”
“Matches. Yes, and more.”
Travis knelt beside her, and they unloaded the contents of the pack. It looked like less than it had at the store. Even in 1883, thirty dollars didn’t seem to buy much. Of course, Travis knew prices had been outrageously inflated in the booming mining towns. A sack of flour could go for a hundred dollars. But with the nearing of the railroad, prices were probably on their way down.
Along with a tin kettle for boiling water and a single cup they could share, he had gotten some food—soda crackers, a small wheel of cheese, a lemon, and a few cans of sardines. The cans probably had lead in them, but that was the least of their worries at the moment.
There were also new clothes for each of them, garb that would hopefully keep others from thinking they were bilks, whatever those were. There was a pair of canvas jeans and a calico shirt for each of the men, and a brown poplin dress for Lirith. Their Eldish shoes would have to do, but Travis’s and Durge’s boots were plain enough to go unnoticed, and the low shoes Lirith and Sareth wore weren’t so far off from moccasins. The handkerchief Travis had used to mop his head had been a last-minute luxury. He wasn’t certain why he had gotten it; he just seemed to remember something about how you weren’t supposed to run off on an adventure without one.
“I also got this,” Travis said, pulling out a small purple bottle. “They didn’t have any aspirin.”
Lirith frowned at the bottle. “Aspirin?”
“Don’t worry about it—I’m pretty sure it hasn’t been invented yet. But I think this is almost the same thing.”
The small label glued to the bottle read salicylate of soda. Lirith took the bottle, unstopped it, and held it beneath her nose. She raised an eyebrow and looked up.
“It smells like tincture of willow bark.”
Travis nodded. “It should help Sareth’s head.”
Soon they had a fire going, and the kettle of creek water hung from an iron hook over the flames. However, Travis was a bit disappointed the others didn’t seem to regard the matches as magical in nature.
“I see,” Durge said, studying one of the matches. “It’s an alchemical reaction. The sulfur acts as a catalyst for the fuel, and fire results.”
“They do seem handier than flint and tinder,” Lirith said, adding a stick to the fire, and Sareth nodded in agreement.
Travis groaned. “You’re all boring. Matches are totally cool! When I was a kid, I liked seeing how far I could flick them while they were burning.”
Durge gently but insistently took the box of matches away from Travis.
Full night found them, if not exactly comfortable, at least far less miserable than they had been the night before. Their new clothes were stiff and chafed at the seams, but were warmer than the garb of the Mournish, intended for southern climes. The fire gave off cheering light, and somehow Lirith made the sardines and crackers look appealing, although getting the tin cans open hadn’t been easy at first. It was only when Durge unsheathed his greatsword and pointed it at one of the cans that Travis remembered his Malachorian stiletto. He pulled it from the small bag of things he had managed to hang on to in the Etherion, and the blade cut through the lid of the can like butter.
All of them drank water once it cooled, and Lirith made a tea with several drops of the salicylate of soda. This seemed to ease the pain in Sareth’s head. Not in immediate fear of survival, their minds turned to other, no less pressing, worries.
“So how are we going to get back to Eldh?” Lirith said. The witch’s dark eyes gleamed in the firelight.
“I have a better question, beshala,” Sareth said. His color had gotten better, and he sat up straight. “When are we going to get back to Eldh?”
The day before, after much struggling, Travis had managed to explain to the others that, while this was his world, it wasn’t his world as he had known it. The date in the Castle City Clarion had read June 13, 1883. They knew the demon had altered the flow of time in Tarras. Somehow its lingering influence had also affected the gate artifact when they tried to escape the Etherion, and as a result they had traveled over a hundred years into Earth’s past.
“Can the gate artifact not help us?” Durge said. “It was able to transport us to a time long ago. Logic dictates it must also be able to take us to a time yet to be. And there remains one drop of blood in the Scarab of Orú.”
“I’m not sure logic applies this time, Durge.” Travis reached into the sack and pulled out the gate artifact. He set it on the dirt floor, and a tiny, gold shape crept to the top of the obsidian pyramid, reaching out one of its eight slender legs to stroke Travis’s hand.
As always, Travis was entranced by the scarab. It looked like a real spider, except that it was fashioned of gold, and on its abdomen glittered a teardrop-shaped ruby. It seemed truly alive, but what would happen when they used the last drop of blood contained within? Would the scarab die?
“I don’t think the gate can move us through time on its own power,” Travis went on. “I think it was only because of the demon that we traveled across time as well as worlds.”
Lirith combed her black, curling hair with her fingers. “Which means if we used the gate, we’d arrive in Tarras a hundred years before any of us were born.”
“Maybe it’s not so bad as it sounds,” Sareth said, flicking a bit of dirt from the wooden peg at the end of his right leg. “I used to dream sometimes about going back to the past.”
“So there is nothing in the present to keep you?” Lirith said, her words sharp.
Sareth looked up at her, coppery eyes startled, but she had turned her gaze to the fire.
“It seems we are lost,” Durge rumbled. In his jeans and calico shirt, the knight looked exactly like nineteenth-century miners Travis had seen in old photographs. The Embarran’s mustaches and longish hair, swept back from his somber brow, only added to the effect. “If a demon is required to move through time, then your fancy has come to be, Sareth, and we have no hope but to remain in the past—on this world or our own.”
“No,” Travis said, standing up to pace back and forth. “I don’t think we have to give up yet. I think there’s someone who might be able to help us—the one who got me mixed up in all of this in the first place. Only I don’t know if he’s here yet.”
Lirith looked up from the fire. “Who are you talking about?”
“The man who gave me this.” Travis pulled the Stone of Twilight out of his pocket. It gleamed silver-green in the palm of his hand. “Jack Graystone.”
Travis had never spoken a great deal about Jack Graystone with anyone but Falken and Melia, so he started at the beginning: how a year ago, on a windswept October night, his old friend Jack had called him to the antique shop just outside of town, and everything in Travis’s life had changed forever. Jack had given him Sinfathisar and had told him to run from perilous beings that came in light—beings Travis only later learned were wraithlings. Travis had run, and somehow, impossibly, he had stepped through a billboard into the world of Eldh. It was only later, when Travis returned to Earth, that he learned that what he had feared was true: Jack Graystone had died in the fire that consumed his antique shop that wild October night.
Durge stroked his mustaches. “So, like Mindroth, this wizard Graystone was one of the three runelords who fled with the Great Stones after the Fall of Malachor. Only he found his way to your Earth. And you believe he might be able to help us get back to the time in which we belong.”
“That’s right,” Travis said.
“And it was because of Graystone that you gained the Stone Sinfathisar and sealed the Pale King behind the Rune Gate last Midwinter’s Eve. And stopped the Necromancer last summer.”
“And defeated the demon,” Lirith said. “As well as the sorcerers of Scirath.”
Sareth let out a low whistle. “It seems a lucky thing that you met this Jack Graystone.”
Travis gripped the Stone. “I suppose you could call it that.” After all, it couldn’t have been fate. Not if he was A’narai, one of the Fateless, as Sareth’s grandmother had said.
“So you think there is a chance the wizard Graystone is here in this time?” Durge said.
Travis sat back down and flicked at a sardine head in one of the opened cans. “I’m not sure. He might be. I’m trying to remember how it all happened. You see, Jack had lived for several centuries in London—that’s a great city far from here, across an ocean. He owned a bookshop there called the Queen’s Shelf. Only then the bookshop burned, and after that he came here, to Castle City. I know the Queen’s Shelf burned down in 1883—that’s this year. But I don’t know exactly when in 1883 it happened.”
“So this Jack Graystone could already be here,” Sareth said.
Travis shrugged. “Maybe. Or it could be months before he comes. Either way, we need to find out. I suppose I’ll have to go into town tomorrow and ask around.”
“There is a way we could find out tonight,” Lirith said softly.
The others stared at the witch.
Lirith went on. “If I knew this Graystone, perhaps I could sense the presence of his life thread. I imagine a wizard’s thread would shine brightly in the Weirding.”
Sareth was studying her. “Can you do that, beshala?” It was not doubt in his voice, simply quiet wonder.
“I think so. The Weirding is weaker on this world than on Eldh. But I think it is strong enough to work this magic. Although there’s something wrong as well. It’s as if the land cries out in pain.”
Travis thought he understood. In modern Denver, where Grace had tried to work magic, the natural world to which the Weirding was connected had been all but smothered beneath concrete, steel, and asphalt. But in the mountains, in 1883, the land was still mostly wilderness. Only it had been wounded: mines gouged into its flesh, railroads sliced across its skin.
“Forgive me, my lady, but there seems to be a problem,” Durge said, making a clear effort not to look queasy. The knight never had seemed to care for witchcraft. “You said you could see the wizard Graystone’s thread if you knew him. But you have never met him.”
Lirith looked up. “Travis could help me.”
Travis knelt beside her and held out his left hand. Lirith took it between both of her own. Durge’s eyes widened in an expression of horror, and he quickly moved away. Travis wondered what had caused the knight’s strong reaction, but before he could ask, Lirith shut her eyes and a voice spoke in his mind.
Picture your friend Jack.
Travis shut his eyes and did as Lirith’s voice instructed. He visualized Jack as he always remembered him: a handsome and professorial older gentleman, clad in a rumpled gray suit and green waistcoat, his wispy hair flying about his head and his blue eyes sparkling.
Travis felt a tingle in his hand, then Lirith let go. He opened his eyes, but the witch’s were still shut. The three men watched her, holding their breath.
“I don’t think he’s come here yet,” Lirith murmured after a minute. “The vision you gave me was clear, Travis, and his thread should be easy to see. But it’s nowhere in sight. He must still be in—oh!”
Lirith’s eyes fluttered open. Sareth hurried to kneel beside her. “What is it, beshala?”
“I saw something,” she whispered. “A shadow. Close.”
Durge was already on his feet. He gripped his greatsword in two hands and stalked to the door. There was a long moment of silence, then all of them heard it: the sound of a small pebble skittering over rock.
In one swift motion, Durge jerked open the door and lunged outside, sword at the ready. Travis was right behind him, Malachorian stiletto in hand.
Cold wind swept through the empty night. The moon shone down from the cloudless sky, revealing bare rock and nothing more.
Durge lowered his greatsword. “It must have been an animal. One of those little striped chippucks, as you called them.”
Travis started to answer the knight, then a glint of crimson caught his eye. He glanced down at his stiletto just in time to see the ruby set into its hilt flicker dimly, then go dark.
Travis woke to the boom of thunder.
Grit sifted down from the rafters of the cabin, falling onto his face. He rubbed the stuff from his eyes and sat up. Sunlight shafted between the planks of the door, carving hot slices out of the dusty air. Morning.
Another report shook the cabin.
Next to Travis, Durge sat up, eyes wild, sand in his tangled hair. “We must hurry!” the knight sputtered. “The dragonsfire is spreading. The castle is going to collapse!”
“Wake up, Durge,” Travis said, shaking the knight’s shoulder. “There’s no dragon. And believe me, this is no castle.”
“Is it a storm, Travis?” Lirith said. She was curled up on the floor under Travis’s gray mistcloak. Sharing the cloak was Sareth, who still appeared to be sound asleep.
Travis stood, stretching stiff limbs. “It’s blasting. Over on the south ridge of the mountain I suppose.”
Durge’s forehead furrowed. “Blasting?”
Lirith sat up and wrapped her arms around herself. “They’re making more holes in the land. But what magic do they use to work such a feat?”
“It’s not magic,” Travis said. “It’s explosives. Dynamite, maybe nitroglycerin. I’m not sure what they would have used back then—I mean, now. I do know they can blow out tons of rock with a single charge.”
Durge shook the grit from his brown hair. “I think I should like to see this blasting, as you call it.”
Sareth let out a groan. “These are without doubt the loudest dreams I’ve ever had. Would you all go away so I can sleep? And take your blasting with you.”
The night had been better than the first, but not by much. Even with the chinking and the fire, the cabin was wretchedly cold not long after dark. Travis hadn’t bought any blankets at the store, and the only cloak they had was his frayed gray mistcloak, which had been wadded at the bottom of his sack of belongings. He gave the cloak to Lirith and Sareth, after the two lay down close to one another, huddling for warmth.
As the two curled together under the cloak, Durge had given Travis an appraising look.
Travis had done a double take. “You’re not serious?”
The practical Embarran had let out a snort. “Last I knew, Goodman Travis, you favored knights with fair hair rather than dark. And I favor knights not at all. So I think we are safe on both accounts.” He lay down on the floor. “Now put your arms around me before we freeze solid.”
Travis had spent the night pressed close to Durge’s hard, compact body, and he supposed that had saved him from the worst of the cold. But he still felt as stiff as if he had spent the last eight hours hanging from a hook in a meat locker.
Another boom rattled walls and roof. A chunk of wood fell directly on Sareth’s head. With a hot Mournish oath that required no translation, he flung back the cloak and sat up.
“I see fate has decided it is not my lot to sleep.”
Travis couldn’t help laughing. “Feeling better, Sareth?”
The Mournish man’s glare transmuted into a look of mild amazement. “As a matter of fact, I do.”
Durge rose from the floor, joints emitting a symphony of pops and snaps. “My lady,” he said to Lirith, “is there any sign that the...snare you set was sprung?” The knight tried not to look uncomfortable as he spoke, which of course had the opposite effect.
Lirith stood and dusted off her dress, which bore hardly a wrinkle. Before sleeping she had woven a small rope of dried grass, which she laid across the threshold. Now she knelt to examine the grass rope.
“No, the spell was not broken. Nothing tried to enter here last night.”
“Save the cold,” Durge said, flexing raw-knuckled hands.
“And loud noises,” Sareth said sourly.
Travis ignored them and looked at Lirith. “What do you think it was you sensed last night?”
The witch shook her head. “I’m not sure.”
“Could it have been an animal? A bear maybe, or a mountain lion? There are probably dozens of them up here.”
“No, the presence of an animal would not have affected me so adversely. But whatever it was, I only glimpsed it for a moment.” She lifted a hand to her chin. “In a way, it reminded me of...but, no, that’s impossible.”
“What is it?” Travis said, feeling a gnawing in his gut that wasn’t just hunger.
“In a way, it reminded me of the way I felt in the Etherion.” They all exchanged startled glances. Could some of the demon’s magic have followed them through the gate?
Travis made a decision. “It’s too isolated up here, and we still have some money left. I think we had better try to find a place to stay in town.”
“Is that wise?” Sareth said. Two days’ worth of beard shadowed his bronze cheeks, imparting a sharpness to his expression. He gestured to Lirith and Durge. “We are strangers to this world.”
Travis sighed. “So am I. At least in this century. But I still think we should go. If something is stalking us, I’d rather not be such an easy target. Besides, there’s a chance someone in town might have an idea of when Jack is going to arrive. He might have written ahead to arrange for a house. And don’t tell me you really want to spend another night in this palace.”
As one they gazed down at the hard dirt floor, and that settled it.
They made a dull but welcome breakfast of most of the remaining foodstuffs Travis had bought; the cold had made them all ravenous. Travis would have done anything for a pot of steaming coffee, but he hadn’t bought any at the store, and as far as he knew there was no rune for maddok. He started to ask Lirith if there was any witchcraft that could conjure a cup, but as soon as he mentioned the word maddok she snarled at him, then stalked away, clutching a hand to her head. In the end, he and Lirith each settled for a cup of hot water with a few drops of salicylate of soda added in hopes of easing their throbbing skulls.
It didn’t take long to pack up their few belongings, and an hour after dawn they set out. The high-altitude sun was already bright, and Travis was glad for the straw hat on his head. With his shaved cranium and sensitive skin, it was a necessity if he didn’t want to immediately turn into jerky. He had bought hats for all of them. Didn’t just about everyone wear hats back in the 1880s?
They saw no people on the narrow trail that snaked down the mountainside, and the few cabins they passed were in even worse repair than the one where they had stayed the last two days. From his years in Castle City, Travis knew most mines were abandoned not long after they were claimed, once the easy-to-reach blossom ore was hauled off. By now, the only operations still running in the valley would be the big mines, the ones that had enough capital to buy the equipment and hire the men needed to dig down deep to the bones of the mountain.
Once it reached the floor of the valley, the trail met up with a rutted dirt road. As they approached, Travis could see it was busy with people: mostly miners on their way to the diggings, although the first mule-drawn carts filled with ore were already lurching down the road, making their way to the train depot.
It was only when he saw the people that a troubling thought occurred to Travis. He supposed he would be able to communicate in Castle City—despite the fact that, if the woman in the store was any indication, the English they spoke wasn’t quite what he was used to. However, Lirith, Durge, and Sareth didn’t speak English at all. What if someone tried to talk to one of them?
You could give one of them the half-coin, Travis. Except that wouldn’t help the other two. And then you wouldn’t be able to talk to the three of them, unless your Eldhish is a whole lot better than you think it is.
The four had stopped on the trail, about a hundred yards from the road where the men and wagons moved past.
“Is something amiss?” Durge asked. “These men look to be a rough lot. I suppose they’ll attack the moment they see us.” The knight reached over his shoulder for his greatsword, now wrapped in Travis’s mistcloak.
“No, Durge. I don’t think they’ll attack us.”
In fact, the road was so crowded—and with such a variety of people—that Travis doubted anyone would even notice them. Mixed liberally among the tide of pale Europeans were faces of black, brown, yellow, and red. But then, from what Travis knew, the Old West had been a true melting pot. Just about everyone had heard the twin siren calls of gold and silver.
There were people from the old colonies—Georgia, the Carolinas, New England—as well as from the states that had made up the country’s first western frontiers: Kentucky and Ohio, Kansas and Missouri. Others sailed over the Atlantic, from England, France, Prussia, and Sweden. There were Russians by way of Alaska, and Mexicans who had not so long before held claim to this land. Most of the Indians had been forced south and west to the ever-shrinking reservations; still, a few remained. And there were people of African descent, many freed from slavery not twenty years earlier.
You’ll have to tell Lirith about that, Travis. Only he wasn’t certain how he could explain that, not so very long ago, people like her had been held in bondage against their wills in his country. He would have to find a way.
Just like he would find a way to help the others manage in this time. He took out the silver half-coin, turning it over in his hand. If he only he had three more of them.
Then why not make more, Travis? After all, you only have half of the coin, and its magic works fine. What’s to say smaller pieces won’t work as well?
There was only one way to find out. He closed his fist around the coin, and with his other hand reached into the pocket of his jeans, brushing the smooth surface of the Stone of Twilight.
“Reth,” he murmured. He felt a surge of power and a sharp tingling in both hands.
Lirith gave him a sharp look. “What did you just do?” Travis held out his hand and opened his fist. On it lay four small pieces of silver.
It didn’t take long to verify the slivers of coin were working. Travis was able to understand Sareth when he swore in Mournish after his peg leg caught in a rut in the road.
“By the bloody milk of Mahonadra’s teat!” he said in the hot, lilting tongue of the Mournish. By the looks on their faces, Durge and Lirith understood as well.
“Sorry,” Sareth said, noticing their stares. “That’s one of those oaths that’s better when others can’t understand it.”
Lirith raised an eyebrow. “Indeed. And just who is Mahonadra?”
“She was the god-king Orú’s mother. And believe me, I’m not going to tell you anything more.”
As Travis hoped, the miners paid them little heed as they started down the road toward town, although a few of them grinned and doffed greasy hats in Lirith’s direction, some seemingly out of politeness, others with leering looks on their smudged faces. Lirith kept her gaze fixed ahead.
The crowd thinned as they passed the last few miners who straggled to their work, eyes still red from too much whiskey the night before. However, the road soon grew busy again—as well as broader, straighter, and dustier—when they reached the end of a long line of false-fronted buildings.
Travis was astonished how little things had changed in his time. There was the Silver Palace Hotel, a long brick edifice three stories high, and McKay’s General Store, neither looking significantly different than he remembered. Just beyond was the Castle City Opera House, with its stately Greek Revival columns, and the assay office—although it was not abandoned as Travis had always seen it, but instead had men lined up at the door, each holding a small sack of ore to be tested. Travis knew what his sharp eyes would see if he gazed a little farther up the street, but he forced himself not to look. Not just yet.
You won’t own the saloon for more than a hundred years, Travis. So don’t even think about it.
He took a step forward, then stopped, dust swirling around his feet. A nervous breath fluttered out of his lungs.
Lirith gave him a concerned look. “What’s wrong, Travis? Isn’t this your home?”
“I suppose so. Only this is how it was a hundred years before I was born.”
Durge let out a grunt. “I’m sure Stonebreak Manor has altered little in a century’s time, save for the trees’ growing taller. What could be so different in just a hundred years?”
As if to punctuate the knight’s words, a stagecoach hurtled past, wheels rattling, driver’s whip cracking. The four of them stumbled back just in time to avoid being trampled. Travis knew just enough about history to be sure that, for everything that seemed familiar, a dozen other things would be dangerously different. People had perished every day in the Old West—from disease, from mishaps, from bullets.
Another coach rushed by as they started down Elk Street. A few more months, Travis supposed, and the narrow-gauge would reach Castle City; until then, the coaches would ferry people from the end of the line to the town’s main street. The coach lurched to a stop in front of the Silver Palace Hotel. Its door opened, and a man in a fine gray suit stepped out. He turned to help a lady down the coach’s steps. She was clad in yards and yards of black and maroon, with a massive bustle behind and peacock feathers trailing from her tiny hat.
Lirith brushed her plain brown dress, her dark ruby lips twisting in a wry smile. “Well, that certainly puts things in perspective for a woman.”
“Are those two the lord and lady here?” Durge said. “If so, we must go beg their hospitality.”
The man in the gray suit looked from side to side, his eyes shadowed beneath the brim of his bowler. The woman adjusted the netting that hung from the brim of her hat. He slipped an arm around her waist and whisked her inside the hotel.
Sareth let out a low chuckle. “Something tells me they’re not from around here. And that for all her finery, she’s no more a lady than he is a lord. Or at least not the kind of lady you mean, Durge.”
Crimson tinged the Embarran’s craggy cheeks. Sareth started to laugh, but Lirith turned her back, and the mirth died on his lips. He gazed at her, confusion in his dark eyes.
Durge regarded Travis. “If that is not the lord of this land, who is?”
“There are no lords here, Durge.”
“But who serves the king and queen?”
“There isn’t a king or queen, either.” Travis reached under his hat to scratch his head. “Well, there is a queen in England— the country across the ocean I was talking about last night. Her name is Victoria. And nobles from Europe did visit Colorado back then—I mean, in this time. I seem to remember something about a Russian grand duke who came to the West to hunt buffalo.” He sighed. “Although I suppose they’re already just about gone by now, aren’t they?”
Durge seemed to consider these words. “If you have no king in this land, how is order kept?”
Travis hadn’t considered how strange things here would be to people from a medieval world. He tried to think of a simple way to explain it. “Well, we have a president. I’m not sure who it would be right now. Grover Cleveland? No, he was a bit later—he was the one who made all of the silver miners go broke.” He shrugged. “Anyway, the people of the country elect a president every four years, along with a number of lawmakers. And each state has a governor. And there are local officials like mayors and sheriffs who are elected as well.”
“A curious system,” Durge rumbled in obvious distaste. “And who votes for these officials? Peasants?”
“Anyone over eighteen.” Travis rethought that. “Well, in my time, at least. Right now, women aren’t allowed to vote.”
Lirith turned back around and let out an exasperated sound. “I see some things are the same on any world.”
“I think this place is more like the Free Cities,” Sareth said to Durge and Lirith. “It’s not royal blood that matters, but gold and silver.”
Travis couldn’t argue with that. In his time, Castle City was a quiet town, especially when the handful of tourists left for the summer. However, the small city before him was alive with action.
People jostled past each other on the boardwalks that lined the streets, some in the dusty garb of miners and cowboys, others in black coats and stiff white shirts, checking gold pocket watches as they went. Some women trudged by in elaborate, heavy dresses, while others wore the drab pinafores of laundry-women and workingmen’s wives. A flock of children in shabby shoes followed a prim schoolmarm, and young men wearing caps ran past carrying stacks of freshly printed newspapers. The street itself was a circus of horses, mule-drawn wagons, and more coaches. On rainy days it was probably a quagmire; today it was a dust bowl, and a fine layer of grit covered everything and everyone.
The buildings that lined the street were every bit as diverse and industrious-looking as the people. Some were brick or stone, but most were slapped together from wood planks, each wearing its false front like a miner who had donned an opera coat. Travis saw banks, restaurants, barbershops, grocers, tack stores, booksellers, and clothiers. And every third storefront looked to be some sort of saloon or drinking house. Silver flowed freely from the mines, and the wealth was everywhere.
Only it wouldn’t last. By 1883, the mines were already starting to play out. And Travis had heard stories of the crash of 1893, when President Cleveland finally revoked the Bland-Allison Act, which had created an artificial market for silver. Overnight, the price of silver fell to a fraction of what it had been, and just about every mine went bust. Vast fortunes were lost in a day. Henry Tabor, who had been the richest man in Colorado, would spend the last year of his life grateful just to be postmaster of Denver. His wife, the fabled Baby Doe, would die years later, a solitary madwoman. They would find her body frozen so hard to the floor of her shack in Leadville they would have to wait until the spring thaw to take it away.
“So where do we go for lodging?” Lirith said, eyeing the buildings on either side of the street.
Travis was pretty sure they couldn’t afford the Silver Palace Hotel. “I’m not sure. Let’s just walk down Elk Street and see if anything looks—” He swallowed the word cheap. “—affordable.”
They moved onto the boardwalk, jostling their way past workingmen, miners’ wives, and clerks running errands. They passed several establishments that bore signs in the window, offering rooms for rent. However, the prices shocked Travis. Some wanted as much as five dollars a day. At that rate, their remaining twenty wouldn’t last long. They kept moving.
Travis supposed it was nine in the morning, but as far as he could tell all of the saloons were open. Most of them had swinging doors, just like in Western movies, but a wooden screen or panel just beyond kept anyone from seeing inside. All the same, the sound of laughter and the rattling of dice spilled out, along with the occasional man who squinted bleary eyes— obviously astonished to see the sun was well risen—before stumbling away down the boardwalk.
Soon Travis caught sight of a familiar sign hanging over the boardwalk. The sign looked almost the same as the last time he had repainted it, its lettering so familiar he could read it without the usual effort: THE MINE SHAFT. The saloon. His saloon—at least one day. What would it be like to walk through those doors?
Hard laughter interrupted his thoughts. Three men leaned against the boardwalk railing just ahead. They looked to be in their twenties and were dressed in white shirts and dark three-piece suits with silver watch fobs dangling from their vest pockets. Black Stetsons crowned their heads, and black boots shod their feet. One of the men was clean-shaven, one had a downy red beard, and the other a neatly waxed mustache.
The clean-shaven one spat tobacco juice, then made a lewd gesture and pointed a finger. As he did, the front of his jacket parted so that Travis could see the gun holstered at his hip— some kind of revolver. However, it wasn’t the gun that made Travis’s blood go cold.
The man was pointing straight at Lirith.
Travis felt the witch go rigid beside him. She must have seen. The three men laughed again, louder this time. The one with the sparse red beard—the handsomest of the lot—blushed and dropped his head. However, the mustachioed one stared at Lirith, a salacious look on his sharp face, and the clean-shaven one just grinned, a cold light in his blue eyes.
“May the starving spirits of the morndari consume their manhood,” Sareth hissed.
Travis winced. He had a feeling that was another of those Mournish oaths that was better without translation. Sareth took a step toward the men, but Travis grabbed his arm.
“Forget it, Sareth. They have guns.”
But the Mournish man wouldn’t know what guns were. He started forward again. However, Durge moved in front of him. The knight’s visage was stern.
“Travis is right. We are strangers here—we must not make trouble. And I know something of these guns he speaks of. They allow a man to kill another without even drawing close.”
Sareth’s eyes blazed. “But those bastards—”
“Mean nothing to me,” Lirith said, stepping between Durge and Sareth. “They are foolish boys, nothing more. And we still must find a place to stay. Please. Beshala.”
Some of the anger left Sareth’s eyes, replaced by a softness as he gazed at Lirith. He nodded.
Together, the four continued down the boardwalk at a steady but not too-swift pace. Travis and Durge kept Lirith and Sareth between them. Catcalls rang out as they passed the three men, but they kept their gazes fixed ahead, and soon the whistles and whoops fell behind and were gone.
After walking two blocks, they stopped. Travis risked a glance over his shoulder, but the three men were nowhere in view. They had passed the Mine Shaft a block or so back, but he wasn’t about to retrace their steps. He turned toward the others—then frowned.
“She was right here,” Durge rumbled.
Sareth pointed. “There.”
They hurried after Lirith, who had moved a dozen paces down the boardwalk. They reached her just as she approached a wooden table covered with small blue bottles. Beside the table stood a man with frizzy gray hair, clad in a shabby suit. A painted canvas sign hung on the wall behind him:
DR. WETTERLY’S MEDICINAL BITTERS $1
CURES MANY AND SUNDRY ACHES AND AILMENTS,
INCLUDING BUT NOT IN ANY WAY LIMITED TO
BRUISES, CORNS, CROSSED EYES,
NEURALGIA, HALITOSIS, BOILS,
DROPSY, A LAZY TEMPERAMENT,
RHEUMATISM, GOUT, MELANCHOLIA,
The man in the suit spoke in a ringing voice, addressing the half dozen or so people who stood around the table as if they were a great throng, extolling the virtues of his patent medicine. Lirith picked up one of the bottles, unstopped it, and took a sniff. Her brow creased in a frown.
The medicine seller turned to her. “If you want to do more than smell, miss, lay down your dollar and take yourself a drink. It’ll cure anything that ails you.”
Lirith restopped the bottle and set it down. “You’re lying,” she said in a calm voice, and a murmur ran through the gathering of people.
The man spread his arms, chuckling. “Now, miss, I can understand why you’re a skeptic. But rest assured that in this little blue bottle—”
“Is nothing but crude grain spirits flavored with pepper and colored with burnt honey,” Lirith said, her voice sharper now. “I can sense no herbs, no oils, no tinctures—nothing that might cure even the simplest ailment. In fact, this medicine as you call it is little better than poison, and anyone would be a fool to drink it, let alone pay for it. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
The people at the table snatched their silver dollars back, disgust on their faces, and hurried away. Befuddlement gave way to anger in the medicine seller’s eyes.
“Why, you little trollop,” he growled, all traces of good humor gone. “Look what your words have done. You’ve cost me a morning’s income. And you’re going to make up for it.”
Lirith started to step back, but before she could the man grabbed her wrist, twisting it. She let out a soft cry.
Travis and Durge both lunged at once for Sareth, but they were too slow. In a second he was at the table, dark eyes smoldering. Sareth gave the man’s outstretched arm a sharp blow. The fellow let out a yelp, letting go of Lirith and clutching his arm to his chest as he stumbled back against the table. Bottles tumbled, breaking against the boardwalk. The sharp reek of cheap alcohol suffused the air.
“Let’s go,” Sareth said, steering Lirith away from the table.
“Thief!” the gray-haired man shrieked. “You have to pay for what your harlot’s broken. Thief!”
Heart pounding, Travis hurried to Lirith and Sareth, Durge just behind him. They needed to get out of there. Fast. As one, they turned around— —and found themselves facing the trio of men in suits.
The beardless one grinned the same grin they had seen before, although the expression didn’t reach his cold blue eyes. “What have we got here, Doc? A bunch of bummers? Well, we know what to do with the likes of them in this town.”
He pushed back his suit coat, displaying the revolver at his hip, and the two men flanking him did the same.
Dusty air swirled through the empty space that seconds ago had been a crowded section of boardwalk. Frightened faces peered from across the street or through shop windows, but no one came near.
Travis drew in a gritty breath. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Durge start to reach over his shoulder for his greatsword, then stop. The blade was wrapped in the cloak and bound with rope; it would do the knight no good.
“Are you all right there, Doc?” asked the youngest of the three men, the one with red fluff on his cheeks.
The gray-haired man—evidently Doc Wetterly himself— scrambled on his hands and knees on the boardwalk, grabbing stray bottles and stuffing them in his coat pockets. “Yes, yes, Mr. Murray. I assure you, I can manage just fine.” He hopped to his feet, clutching several bottles to his chest. A number of them were leaking, dribbling down his suit, onto the boardwalk. “Now, if you’ll just—”
Before Wetterly’s lips could finish excusing himself, his legs were already carrying him at a fast clip down the boardwalk. He ducked around a corner and was gone.
The blue-eyed man shifted his weight and rested his hand on his hip beside his gun. “I thought these four had a shifty look about them the moment I laid eyes on them. Didn’t I say so, Mr. Ellis?”
“That you did, Mr. Gentry,” said the mustachioed man, the one with the sallow face. He lifted a thin cigar to his lips and took a long puff.
“I thought for sure I did,” the one called Gentry said in a melodious drawl. “I suppose these two don’t look all that peculiar.” He nodded at Travis and Durge. “Though the tall one’s a mite on the pale side—must be he’s fresh from the East. And the short one has a perilous look about him. I know a man-killer when I see one, and I’d say by the look in his eyes he’s taken a life before, maybe more than just one.”
Travis could see muscles bulge along Durge’s jaw. Next to him, Lirith pressed close to Sareth. Was she speaking to him with a spell? Travis wanted to say something, anything, but his tongue had bonded to the roof of his mouth.
Gentry moved toward Sareth and Lirith. “Now these two, Mr. Ellis, Mr. Murray, they stood out right away. We don’t see too many Negresses in this town, and the only ones I know of can be found for a dime a dance down at Morgan’s Variety. But you ain’t dressed like a hurdy-gurdy girl, though I reckon you’re more than pretty enough to be one.”
Anger flashed in Sareth’s eyes. He started to speak, but Gentry was faster.
“And you,” he said, his voice growing hard, “you’re the one that really troubles me. When I seen you, I thunk to myself, ‘Lionel Gentry, what in tarnation would a good man be doing with a peg leg?’ And then the answer came, ‘Well now, a good man wouldn’t have a peg leg. Them are for pirates and the like.’ And then I thunk, even without a peg leg, you’re an odd fellow. You don’t quite look like a Mexican, and you sure ain’t an Indian. So just what are you, boy?”
“He’s a gypsy,” Travis blurted out before Sareth could speak. He didn’t want Gentry to start asking what a Mournish was.
Gentry’s eyes narrowed to icy slits. “A gypsy? Well now, seems I was right about you. I’ve heard your kind are nothing but a lot of liars, thieves, and murderers. That’s why you’re always a-wandering.”
Motion caught Travis’s eye. He could see Lirith’s fingers moving at her sides. Was she trying to weave a spell? Maybe, but didn’t she need to close her eyes to concentrate?
What about you, Travis. Why don’t you speak a rune?
Only what rune could he speak without killing them all? This town was practically made of kindling; speaking Krond would burn it to the ground. What about Meleq then, the rune of wood? Could he make the planks of the boardwalk obey his commands? He had done something similar once with Sar, the rune of stone—forging shackles from a stone wall to bind an ironheart who tried to kill him in Calavere.
And what would Meleq do to Sareth’s leg, Travis? And all the shops around us, and the people in them?
Durge started to reach again for his greatsword, then forced his hand down.
The man called Ellis let out another puff of smoke. “What does that one there have on his back?” He pointed with his cigar at Durge.
“That’s right,” said the young one, Murray. “I keep seeing him reach for it, like it’s important to him.”
Gentry stood in front of Durge. “What do you have wrapped up in there, mister? A shotgun, maybe?”
Durge’s brown eyes were grim. “It does not concern you.”
At this, Gentry let out a soft laugh. “On the contrary, everything in this town concerns me. And right now, that includes you and your friends here. You see, this ain’t like some places you might have been. We believe in law and order here in Castle City. Good folk live here, peaceable folk. We’ve got no place for bummers or bilks or shootists. Or gypsies. Those types better learn to behave themselves. Or better yet, they should just get on out of town.” He touched the grip of his holstered gun. “You see, around here, bad things have a tendency to happen to bad folk.”
Travis tried to swallow the dusty lump in his throat. They couldn’t leave town. Not yet. They had to wait for Jack to come. Jack was the only one who could help them get back to where they belonged.
“I think they get your meaning, Mr. Gentry,” Ellis said, his lip curling in a smile. He took one last drag on his cigar, then poised his fingers to flick away the butt.
Lirith’s fingers froze. “I wouldn’t do that.” Her gaze flickered down to the boardwalk.
Travis looked down and saw the wet stains seeping across the wood planks.
Ellis’s visage darkened. “I won’t have the likes of you telling me what to do, miss.” He flicked the butt from his finger, and the glowing stump of the cigar hit the boardwalk.
Blue flames roared upward.
Travis, Lirith, Durge, and Sareth had already taken a big step back; even without a magical communication from Lirith, each had known what was going to happen. Not so the others. Murray scrambled back, kicking out the flames dancing on the toes of his boots. Ellis stared, mouth gaping. Gentry grabbed his arm, jerking him away from the fire.
“You idiot,” he snarled. “You know Doc Wetterly’s stuff is just about strong as kerosene. Now help me get this fire out.”
He took off his coat and started beating at the flames. Ellis and Murray did the same. However, the dry, weathered wood had been soaked with the alcohol from the broken bottles of patent medicine. The flames raced along the boardwalk. Shouts rang out up and down Elk Street.
“Sareth!” Lirith shouted. “Water!” She pointed to a rain barrel a few paces away, near the entrance to an alley. As one, Sareth and Durge lunged for it.
Yes. That was what they needed. Water. Travis reached into his pocket and touched the Stone of Twilight. Just as Durge and Sareth tipped the barrel, Travis whispered a word.
The rain barrel was only half-full. A thin sheet of water poured forth and struck the flames, but it wasn’t nearly enough. It should have evaporated in an instant.
It didn’t. Suddenly, more water than a single barrel could possibly have held flooded the boardwalk, washing over the tops of their boots, quenching the flames in a cloud of hissing steam. By the time the steam began to clear, the fire was out, and the water had run off the boardwalk, where it was drunk by the thirsty dirt of Elk Street. Murray and Ellis stamped the water from their boots; the cuffs of their pants were sopping.
“What the hell?” Gentry said, gazing at the barrel. “That just ain’t possible.”
He looked up, and his blue eyes narrowed as they locked on Travis. Travis opened his mouth, but before he could speak, Gentry lunged forward and grabbed the neck of Travis’s shirt.
“Let him go, Mr. Gentry,” said a deep voice.
Both Gentry and Travis froze as a man stepped through one last curl of steam.
He wasn’t a big man, no taller than Durge and slight of build. His face was plain, largely lost behind a sandy mustache, and his eyes were a watery color beneath the brim of his gray hat. All the same, there was something about the way the man stood that lent him an air of gravity. He wore a navy blue suit similar to those the other men wore. The suit was free of dust, but somewhat threadbare and frayed at the cuffs.
Gentry didn’t move; he still gripped Travis’s shirt. It was getting hard to breathe.
“I said let him go.”
Gentry released Travis and took a step back, his smooth face bearing no trace of expression.
“You don’t understand,” Murray said, stepping forward. “They’re a bunch of bummers, Sheriff Tanner.”
Only as Murray spoke did Travis finally see the polished silver badge pinned to the breast of the newcomer’s suit.
“Is that so, Calvin Murray?” Sheriff Tanner let out a quiet laugh that was somehow more damning than the sharpest reproach. “Of course, it looks to me like they just kept the whole town from burning down. Pretty good for a lot of bummers, wouldn’t you say?”
Murray hung his head, his cheeks as red as his whiskers.
The sheriff took a step forward. “What I’m curious about is how this fire got started in the first place.” He eyed the broken medicine bottles on the boardwalk, then kicked something with the toe of his boot. It was the charred stump of a thin cigar. “Well now, I’d say that looks like your brand, Eugene Ellis. You know, you shouldn’t throw your live butts down on this old boardwalk. It’s dry as tinder.”
Ellis gave the sheriff a sour look, then bent down, snatched up the cigar butt, and turned away.
Travis cast a glance at Durge, Lirith, and Sareth, but all of them were watching the sheriff. Tanner took another step toward Gentry, so that only five paces separated the men. Gentry’s hand rested near his right hip. In what seemed a completely casual gesture, Tanner brushed back the front of his jacket, revealing a gleaming revolver.
“Why don’t you just move along and get you and your boys a shot of whiskey, Lionel Gentry?” Tanner said. “It’ll steady your nerves.”
Now an expression did touch Gentry’s face: a grin as curved and cutting as a bowie knife. “I don’t think I’m the one who needs steadying, Sheriff.”
Hovering an inch above the grip of his gun, Tanner’s hand vibrated with a resonance too rapid to be voluntary.
The sheriff let his jacket fall back, concealing the gun, and balled his right hand into a fist. “I said move along, Gentry.”
Gentry nodded, still grinning. “C’mon, boys. You heard the sheriff. It’s time for a drink.”
The three men started down the boardwalk, sooty coats slung over their shoulders. After a few paces, Gentry cast a glance back, only it wasn’t the sheriff he looked at. Instead, his icy gaze fell on Sareth. Then the trio stepped through a pair of swinging doors, vanishing into the dimness of a saloon.
“Are you folks all right?”
The sheriff was eyeing them, although not with an air of suspicion like Gentry and his cronies. Instead, his watery eyes were curious.
“We’re fine,” Travis said, letting out a breath of relief. “Thanks for your help, Sheriff.”
“No problem, mister. Men like Lionel Gentry want to think they’re in charge here in Castle City.” He blew a breath through his mustache. “I’m afraid it’s my job to keep reminding them otherwise.”
Durge nodded. “A sheriff is a kind of knight, then.”
Tanner tipped up the brim of his hat. “You haven’t been reading dime novels, have you, mister? If so, don’t believe a thing you’ve seen in them. There isn’t anything romantic about being a sheriff in the West. It’s a dull and dirty job, and not one I asked for.”
“Then why are you sheriff?” Lirith asked.
Tanner laughed. “That’s a story in itself, ma’am. Although nothing so entertaining as you’ll read in one of your pal’s dime novels.”
Sareth frowned. “What are these ‘dime novels’ you keep speaking of?”
“Please forgive my friends,” Travis said hastily. “We’re not from around here.”
Tanner let out a whistle. “That’s for sure. Castle City’s gotten too big for me to know everyone in town, but I could tell in a second you’re not locals. There’s something different about all of you, though I can’t quite put my finger on it. What parts do you hail from?”
“Back East,” Travis said, hoping that was both vague and specific enough.
“You got a place to stay in town?”
The four were silent.
“Thought as much,” Tanner said. “Well, you won’t find anyplace to stay here on Elk Street.” He cast a sidelong glance at Lirith. “But there’s a boardinghouse two blocks over, on Grant Street, called the Bluebell. I know the woman who runs it. She’s a good gal, despite what some folks might say. Tell her I sent you, and she’ll fix you up with a couple of rooms.”
Travis gave him a grateful smile. How old was the sheriff? It was hard to tell. He didn’t look any older than Travis; all the same, there was an air of weariness about him, frayed at the edges just like his suit.
Lirith stepped forward and took the sheriff’s right hand, pressing it between her own. “Thank you,” she said, gazing at him with dark eyes.
“You’re welcome, ma’am. Now go on over to the Bluebell, and get yourself off of this dusty street.”
Gentle as the words were, their intent was clear: Eyes still watched, and the sheriff wanted this show over. He tipped his hat, and the four headed down the boardwalk, which in moments was crowded once more.
They didn’t speak until they reached Grant Street. It was narrower than Elk Street, and not a fraction as crowded, although it was just as dusty.
“That was close,” Travis said with a sigh.
“I have met men such as this Gentry before,” Durge said in his rumbling voice. “They are bored and dangerous, and they are not merely simple brigands. We should take care not to run into him again, else I will have to unwrap my sword.”
Travis tried to imagine the public reaction to Durge wielding his Embarran greatsword in the middle of Elk Street. “Let’s stick to the not-running-into-them-again option.”
“Why did that one hate me so much?” Sareth said, shaking his head. “Was it really because of my leg?”
Travis laid a hand on the Mournish man’s shoulder. “Men like that don’t need a reason, Sareth. They just pick someone out of a crowd and decide that’s someone they don’t like, and nothing will change their minds.”
Sareth nodded, but his expression remained somber.
“The Sheriff Tanner,” Lirith murmured. “There’s something wrong with him. You saw the way his hand shook, didn’t you? When I took it in my own, I tried to sense what was the matter. I did feel something inside of him, almost like a shadow, but there wasn’t enough time for me to tell what it was.”
Travis knew it could be almost anything. There had been countless diseases to die of in the Old West—tuberculosis, smallpox, cholera, dysentery.
“Come on,” he said. “I think I see the sign for the Bluebell just up ahead.”
The Bluebell was the largest house on its block of Grant Street—a three-story Victorian with a full dozen cupolas and a wrought-iron widow’s walk topping its roof. In all, it seemed a little grand for a boardinghouse. Had Tanner overestimated their ability to pay? Then, as they drew closer, Travis saw the peeling gray clapboards, the sagging shutters, and the witch-grass tangling its way through the lattice beneath the front porch.
They headed up creaking steps to the front door and found a scattering of cats lounging in stray sunbeams or perched on the porch railing. All of them looked well fed. Lirith stopped to pick up a little calico. She held the cat to her cheek, and it let out the tiniest mew Travis had ever heard.
The front door opened with the sound of chimes.
“Watch out for Guenivere there, miss,” said a woman’s voice, rich and smoky as whiskey. “I think she’s got a bum paw.”
Lirith didn’t look up from the kitten. “Yes, she does. I think she’s gotten a thorn.”
“Does she now? I thought I had checked.”
“You can’t see it—it’s worked down between the pads.”
A low laugh, and a jangling sound Travis couldn’t place. “Well, bring her on in, then. And don’t forget your menfolk. You must be a lucky lady to have three such likely-looking gents in tow.”
The door opened wider.
Lirith laughed and, still holding the kitten, stepped through the door. Blushing, the three men followed.
They moved through a small foyer and entered a parlor. The walls were papered with a crimson fleur-de-lis pattern, although the wallpaper was faded and water-stained. A threadbare Persian rug covered a scuffed wood floor, and lace curtains, darkened to ivory by the sun and soft with dust, draped the windows. Just like the exterior, the parlor seemed oddly fine for a boardinghouse, yet worn as well, as if everything had been used far too heavily in its short time.
Travis could have said the same thing about the woman who stood in the center of the room. She couldn’t have been older than Grace—in her early thirties—and there was a fineness to the oval of her face. However, she was every bit as faded as her green-velvet dress. She made Travis think of a portrait of a young woman left too long in a dusty attic, so that the painted hues—the yellow of her hair, the blue of her large eyes, the pink of her cheeks—were all muted with gray.
“I suppose you all need rooms,” the woman said, her voice like smoke—but not harsh and acrid. More like the heady smoke of cherry tobacco. “Do you have references?”
Travis glanced at the others, then swallowed. “Sheriff Tanner told us to tell you—”
She held up a hand. “Stop right there. If Bart sent you, that’s good enough for me. Now, on to more important matters— Miss Guenivere’s paw.”
The woman moved to Lirith. As she did, Travis heard again the metallic jingling sound. She stopped beside the witch, and only as she propped a polished mahogany cane against a battered horsehair sofa did he realize she had been using it to walk. The two woman sat on the sofa, cooed over the cat, and in a minute the offending thorn was plucked free. The patient was placed on a pillow, where it curled up, licking its paw.
Leaning on her cane, the woman stood. This action seemed to take the wind out of her. Lirith hurriedly stood beside her, but the woman gave her a warm smile.
“Now,” she said, still a bit breathless, “let’s see to your rooms. Since you were so kind to Miss Guenivere, I’ll give you a good rate—a dollar a day for room and board for each of you.” She gave them an appraising look. “You can pay, can’t you?”
Travis gave a quick nod and started to reach into his pocket for their last twenty dollars.
She laughed. “Not now, partner. All I need is your names. I’ll sign them in the ledger for you, if you can’t write them yourselves.”
Travis took the job of dipping a steel-tipped pen in an ink pot and writing their names in the book that lay open on a small marble table. He wasn’t sure he was the best choice, but he didn’t know if the coin pieces would let the others write in English. However, some magic seemed to be at work, for as he put down the pen, the names didn’t look as he had intended, and it wasn’t because of reversed letters.
The woman picked up the book. She smiled and glanced up at Lirith. “Lily. Now that’s a pretty name for a pretty gal. And let’s see if I can guess these others right.” She pointed at Durge, Sareth, and Travis in turn. “That’s Dirk, that’s Samson, and that would have to be Travis.”
The others shot Travis confused looks, but he simply shrugged and grinned. “That’s right.”
“And what’s your name?” Lirith asked.
The woman lifted a hand to her forehead. “Where have my wits gotten to?” She thrust out a hand. “Call me Maudie. That’s Maudie Carlyle. No matter what folks might tell you, I don’t go by Ladyspur anymore.”
She gave each of their hands a firm shake, and when she turned away, Travis glanced down and saw them just peeking out from beneath the hem of her dress: the brass wheels of a pair of spurs.
Of course, Travis. This is Ladyspur. You know her story. She was a prostitute and later a madam, and once she won a fair gunfight in Elk Street. He glanced up and saw a pair of six-shooters mounted above the fireplace. After that, she gave up the profession and tried to become a proper lady in Castle City. Only none of the society ladies would have anything to do with her. And then not long after that—
His heart skipped a beat in his chest. He noticed again the thinness of her hand that gripped the cane.
—she died of some disease, like cholera or consumption.
Maudie hardly seemed to use her cane as she moved back into the hallway. “You’ve missed dinner, but let me know if you need a biscuit to tide you ’til supper. We sit down at 6 P.M. Don’t be late.” She gave the men a stern look. “And be sure to wash up first. You’ll find your rooms on the third floor, first two doors on the left at the top of the stairs. The first one is for the lady.”
“Two rooms?” Durge said. He looked at Travis. “Is that within our means?”
“Of course it is!” Maudie said before Travis could answer.
“The rate’s the same. And you don’t expect Lily here to share a room with a bunch of louts like you. She’s far too lovely for that.”
Sareth grinned, his coppery eyes gleaming. “That she is.”
Lirith lowered her head and started quickly up the stairs, but not before Travis saw the glow of her cheeks. The three men gave their thanks to Maudie, then followed Lirith.
They spent most of the next three days in their rooms at the Bluebell, coming downstairs only to take meals or to use the attached outhouse in back, or to sit on the porch while a thunderstorm passed over the valley—as it did most afternoons— breathing moist, sage-sweet air, one of Maudie’s cats curled in each of their laps. Except for Durge. Somehow the somber knight always found a way to accommodate two or three of the purring felines.
“It’s not that I fancy them, mind you,” Travis overheard Durge say to Lirith. “It’s simply that they’re frail, foolish creatures and cannot endure the elements. If one were to take ill, Lady Maudie would no doubt become distressed, and that would impair her ability to see to the needs of her guests, including ourselves. It’s quite practical, you see.”
“Yes, I think I do see,” Lirith said, dark eyes gleaming, as Durge gently petted Miss Guenivere with a rough hand.
Usually they gathered in the room Travis shared with Sareth and Durge, as it was a good deal larger than Lirith’s, if not nearly as comfortable. Lirith’s room was decorated in pinks and crimsons, with tassels and lace doilies adorning every available surface—all bespeaking Maudie’s personal touch. In contrast, the room the men shared was spartan and slightly drafty, occupying as it did the north half of the third-floor attic. The rafters were soot-stained and bare, and the only furnishings were four narrow beds, four rickety chairs, and a massive pine bureau with a chipped pitcher and basin for washing.
All the same, the room was clean, and it bore a certain rustic charm that would not have been out of place in a manor house on Eldh. Nor did they need any more than the one bureau. None of them had a change of clothes, and Travis had just his few things to put in one of the drawers—his Malachorian stiletto, the rune of hope talisman, and the wire-rimmed spectacles Jack had given him. Durge’s greatsword wouldn’t fit in a drawer, so they tucked it, still wrapped in the mistcloak, up in the rafters.
As Maudie had warned, meals were served at precise intervals. All of them were famished by suppertime that first night, and they devoured the ham, corn bread, wilted greens, and cherry cobbler Maudie and her sole helper at the boardinghouse—a young, quiet, sweet-faced woman named Liza—laid on the table. Even Lirith tucked away several helpings, although somehow the witch made the act of gorging look almost delicate.
There were only a half dozen other guests at the boardinghouse at the moment. All were men, and none seemed interested in talking. Each was freshly scrubbed, their still-wet hair slicked back, and they wore clean white shirts and denim pants. However, no amount of scrubbing could have removed the black dirt embedded in the skin of their hands. They ate swiftly, and when they were done scraped their chairs back from the table, put on their hats, and left without a word.
“Where do you think they’re going?” Sareth said.
“To the poker and monte and faro tables,” Maudie said, as she and Liza cleared away plates. “It was payday at the mines today. They’ll all come back in the morning, heads aching and pockets empty.”
After supper that first evening, Travis discovered a stack of newspapers—copies of the Castle City Clarion—in the front parlor. He asked Maudie if he could take some of them upstairs.
She gave him a sharp look. “No fires in the rooms. Not after what happened before.”
So that explained the sooty rafters. “No fires,” he promised. “I just want to read them.”
“Well, then help yourself. None of the other men seem to have much of a care for reading. I suppose that would take time away from their gambling and drinking.”
Travis picked up a stack of papers. Before he could head upstairs, Maudie placed a bundle tied in a cloth napkin atop the stack. A warm scent rose from the napkin: biscuits.
“Take those up to Mr. Samson. He didn’t eat much at supper, and I don’t like the circles under his eyes. Has it been long since he lost his leg?”
“A while,” Travis said. “I think it’s the altitude that’s bothering him.”
“Well, that’s no surprise. It bothers everyone. Lately, it seems like the air’s so rarified up here I can hardly breathe.” Gripping her cane, she headed back to the kitchen, spurs jingling, and Travis bounded up the steps with his prizes.
“I like Lady Maudie,” Durge said as he munched biscuits in their room.
Sareth was too tired to eat, and had lain down on one of the beds after taking more of the salicylate of soda at Lirith’s prompting.
“She’s sick,” Travis said.
Lirith met his eyes. “I know. I saw it in her. Her lungs are wasting.”
Durge stopped eating and stared, and Sareth propped himself up on an elbow, his coppery eyes thoughtful.
“You know how long she’ll live, don’t you?” Lirith said. “You know it from the histories of your day.”
Travis gave a reluctant nod. “There were still stories told about her. She was pretty famous in her time—in this time. They used to call her Ladyspur, just like she said. It was because she always wore boots and spurs while she danced.”
“She danced?” Lirith said, her voice suddenly cool.
“Yes, she was a variety hall girl. Well more than that, really...”
“So she was a whore,” Sareth said. The words was not a condemnation, merely a statement.
“And later a madam,” Travis said. “I’d guess Liza is one of her former girls. But she gave up her profession after winning a gunfight against a man who insulted her honor. After that, she decided to change her ways.”
Durge finished the last biscuit. “I still like her.”
Travis noticed that Lirith had turned away, hands pressed to her stomach. Had the heavy supper disagreed with her after being so famished?
She turned around, her gaze stricken. “When,” she said quietly. “When does she die?”
“I don’t know exactly. All I know is that she died of consumption a few years after she won the gunfight and turned her brothel into a boardinghouse.”
“It’s already been a few years,” Sareth said. “She told me she’s been running the boardinghouse for three years now.”
They were silent after that. Travis knew there was nothing they could do for Maudie. And he supposed he and the others were in danger of catching tuberculosis just staying there, although he didn’t know how contagious it was—he needed Grace for that. Anyway, that felt like the least of their worries.
Travis turned his attention to the newspapers, and that evening—and over the next two days—he pored through the murkily printed sheets of newsprint, concentrating to keep the letters from doing a do-si-doe.
Travis wasn’t exactly sure what he was hoping to find in the papers. Maybe, he reasoned, there would be something that might give him a hint about Jack—whether he had ever visited there, or when he might be coming. From everything Travis knew, Jack had always been a prominent figure in Castle City society. If anyone knew he was coming, surely the Clarion would have an article about it; there were stories about nearly every happening in town, from who had opened up a new shop to who had just robbed it.
However, as Travis dug further and further back in the stack, he found no mention of Jack Graystone. All the same, there were countless fascinating articles that caught his attention— and which served to remind him just how different this world really was from the Castle City he remembered.
Not surprisingly, much of the news was about the mines. Countless articles talked about the amount of ore each of the mines was producing, and how much silver was assayed to each ton of rock. One story quoted a geologist who warned that the veins of carbonate of lead were pinching out—although the editors of the Clarion were quick to reject this, denying all rumors that the boom was anywhere near over. Of course, Travis knew it was, but people were never so vehement as when defending their most beloved delusions.
In addition to stories about the mines, there were frequent updates on the spur of the Denver & Pacific Railroad, which was inching its way toward town. And, to Travis’s morbid fascination, each issue included a column called “Morning Mayhem,” which reported the previous day’s crimes. They ranged from public drunkenness and fistfighting to robbery and murder.
Before long, Travis began to notice a trend in “Morning Mayhem.” In the papers near the bottom of the stack, the crime report took up only a section of one page. But the column grew larger the higher up he went, so that by the middle of the stack it consumed a full page. However, after that, the column shrank again, and in the most recent editions it was smaller than ever. It looked as if, after a steady climb, crime was on the decline in Castle City.
At least petty crime. While there were fewer crime reports in the more recent newspapers, the reports there were tended not to be about robbery and whiskey-related assaults, but more serious crimes—like horsethieving and murder. Only, strangely, the column seemed to have stopped reporting just how the victims were killed or who the main suspect was.
Homer Tattinger, late out of North Carolina, read a typical report, was found dead on Saturday afternoon on the north bank of Granite Creek about a mile downstream from town. He was found by Sheri f Bartholomew Tanner and had been dead a good day or so. Mr. Tattinger was known as a ruffian and hard drinker, and was said by some to be a shootist, and thus it is little wonder for him to be found in such a grim state. The Editors must trust others of similar nature will take note.
Travis wasn’t the only one who was interested in the newspapers. Durge seemed fascinated by them, although for different reasons than Travis.
“These could not possibly have been penned by hand,” the knight pronounced the afternoon of their second day, setting down one of the newspapers. His hands were smudged with ink, and there were gray fingerprints on his craggy brow. “The letters are too small, and each is shaped precisely the same. I cannot fathom its nature, but I believe some sort of mechanical process was used to place the words on these sheaves.”
For the next hour they sat in the parlor, drinking tea, while Travis explained what little he knew about the invention of movable type and the printing press.
Durge’s brown eyes were thoughtful. “I have seen the peasants who dwell on my lands create pictures in a similar way, carving a shape on a block of wood, painting the block, and pressing it to cloth or sheepskin to make an image. This printing press you speak of is not so very different.”
“No, it isn’t,” Travis said with a grin, wondering if he had just forever altered the march of technological progress on Eldh.
Only if Durge ever gets back to Eldh, Travis.
He sighed and kept reading.
Sareth and Lirith were also curious about the newspapers, although they seemed more interested in the advertisements than the articles. Sareth constantly asked Travis about various items advertised for sale. However, Travis was hard-pressed to explain what some of them were for. Lirith, in turn, liked the pictures of ladies’ fashions. Although she seemed horrified once she grasped the concept of a corset.
“Why, this would squeeze the life right out of you,” the witch said indignantly. Whatever had troubled Lirith their first night in the boardinghouse, she seemed to have set it aside. Although Travis noticed that Sareth cast frequent looks of concern at her—looks she seemed unwilling to return. “Only a man could have devised such a thing,” Lirith went on. “The women of this world ought to rebel against such torture.”
“Actually,” Travis said, “they will. In fact, in about another eighty or ninety years, women will be burning their underwear in protest.”
Durge glowered. “That sounds dangerous.”
“I think he means after they’ve taken it off,” Sareth said with a grin.
Sareth seemed to be doing better again—the shadows beneath his eyes were reduced, if not entirely vanished—and Travis hoped the Mournish man was getting accustomed to the altitude.
Sareth flipped the page in the newspaper, and his smile faded. Travis glanced over his shoulder, and his heart sank. On the page was an advertisement filled with pen-and-ink drawings of prosthetic devices: wax hands and glass eyes. And wooden legs. Feel like a whole man again! proclaimed the advertisement. And, farther down, So lifelike, the ladies will never guess the truth! Sareth hesitated, then brushed a picture of the false leg.
Durge was talking to Lirith about printing presses, and she listened with an attentive though slightly pained expression. She hadn’t seen what Sareth was looking at.
By breakfast of their third day at the boardinghouse, as he counted out four more dollars into Maudie’s outstretched hand, Travis was finally forced to admit what he had known all along: They needed more money. They had only enough for two more days at the boardinghouse, and for all Travis knew it could be months until Jack came to town. What were they going to do for money in the meantime?
Maudie must have noticed the worry on his face. “You’ll be wanting to find a job, I imagine.”
He gave her a sheepish smile. “That obvious, is it?”
She patted his stubbled cheek. “Do forgive me, my boy. But you don’t have the air of a silver baron about you. I’m afraid you look more like a workingman—not that there’s anything to be ashamed of in that.”
“I suppose I could ask at one of the mines and—”
“Not on your life!” Maudie shook a finger at him. “Those mines are pits of doom and despair, that’s what I say. I won’t have you or your boys working in them. Mr. Samson wouldn’t last a week in one of those holes.”
Travis couldn’t disagree. But what else could he do?
“Surely you’ve got some skill or trade,” Maudie said.
Travis almost laughed. Would anyone in town want to hire a dyslexic runelord? “I used to be a saloonkeeper.”
Maudie gave an approving nod. “Now that’s something that will earn you a dollar in this town. Go talk to Mr. Manypenny. I know he’s always on the lookout for a good bartender. They’re hard to keep hold of.”
“Why is that?”
Maudie winked. “I suppose they’re faster at pouring whiskey than they are at reloading shotguns.”
Travis gulped; he wasn’t certain this proposal sounded any safer than mining. “Who’s Mr. Manypenny?”
“He operates that Mine Shaft over on Elk Street. It’s one of the more respectable establishments in town. Arthur Manypenny is an old customer...that is, he’s an old acquaintance of mine. Let him know you’re staying here, and that I’ll vouch for you.”
Travis stared, Maudie’s words buzzing in his ears. He operates the Mine Shaft...
Before he knew what was happening, Maudie had sent him upstairs with a borrowed straight razor, strop, and shaving mug, along with orders to get cleaned up.
An hour later, Travis stood on the boardwalk in front of the swinging doors that belonged to the Mine Shaft Saloon, as clean as he could get with a pitcher and basin. His head and cheeks were freshly shaved—without severe loss of blood, thanks to Sareth’s skilled hand. Travis watched a dozen men pass through the swinging doors of the saloon—more going in than out—but he couldn’t see past the screen that hid the interior.
You can do this, Travis. After all, you’ve done it before. Or you will do it, anyway. If there’s anywhere in this town you belong, it’s here at the Mine Shaft.
He drew a deep breath and stepped through the doors.
It was like stepping forward in time. Of course, the differences were immediately apparent. Kerosene lamps hung on the walls rather than electric lights, and there were no neon beer signs behind the bar. The tables at the back of the saloon were covered in green felt and were obviously intended for gambling, although they were quiet at the moment.
What was more shocking was what hadn’t changed. The pine floor strewn with sawdust, the deer and elk trophies on the walls, the player piano on the little stage, and the twenty-foot, brass-trimmed, glossy walnut bar imported from Chicago, with its diamond dust mirror behind—all of it looked just like Travis remembered, if a little newer and shinier.
It wasn’t hard to locate Mr. Manypenny. Everyone in the saloon was dressed in either the dusty denim and calico of a miner or a three-piece suit—everyone except the man behind the bar. He was a big, red-faced gent, probably athletic in his youth, now growing corpulent in his forties. He wore a crisp white shirt with black garters on his upper arms, and his slick hair was parted precisely in the middle—all the way down to the nape of his neck, as Travis could see in the mirror. He wore an elaborate handlebar mustache, carefully curled and shaped with what had to be enormous amounts of wax.
A pair of men stepped away from the bar, their whiskey in hand. Manypenny wiped the bar with a towel. Now was Travis’s chance. Hands sweating, he stepped forward.
Three minutes later, Travis had a job.
At first, when Travis said he hadn’t come for a drink, Manypenny gave him a scowl. However, as soon as Travis mentioned he had owned a saloon before, Manypenny’s scowl turned into a jovial grin. He asked Travis to pour a whiskey and, starting to feel more confident, Travis risked showing off a bit. He flipped the shot glass into the air, caught it behind his back, and poured over his shoulder before slamming the shot on the bar—without spilling a drop.
This elicited a laugh from Manypenny, and he slapped Travis on the back—hard enough that Travis took a staggering step forward. He was going to hurt in the morning.
“You have won yourself a position, Mr. Wilder,” Manypenny said in a surprisingly high-pitched and refined voice. “I haven’t witnessed such fancy pouring in a dog’s age. It seems that all my best bartenders are always doomed to hear silver’s siren call and run off to stake a claim for themselves. You don’t have a yearning for the mining life, do you? If so, tell me now.”
Travis assured him he didn’t, and Manypenny said he could start that evening. Travis had to promise to buy a white shirt and black-wool pants; that would use up more of their money, but now that he had a job, that wasn’t a worry. The wage was four dollars a day, which would just cover their expenses.
“I’ll provide the apron,” Manypenny said. “But you’ll need to purchase your own pomade in order to properly coif your head. I find Prince Albert’s works most satisfactorily.”
Travis gave a sheepish grin, then took off his hat, displaying his shaved pate. This elicited another hoot of laughter and slap on the back. Then Manypenny walked him to the back of the saloon.
“Employees always use the back door,” the saloonkeeper said. “I find that it’s useful to maintain a discreet distance from the clientele.”
Given the way most of the men in the saloon smelled, Travis couldn’t disagree. He promised to be back at seven, then shook Manypenny’s hand.
“I shall send my thanks to fortune fair you came in,” Manypenny said, pumping Travis’s hand energetically. “What saloon did you say you used to travail at?”
Travis grinned. “It was one a lot like this.”
Manypenny laughed again and opened the back door. Travis started through to the alley beyond——then froze.
It was plastered to the wall next to the door—a yellowed poster. It read in bold letters:
WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE
FOR SUNDRY AND TERRIBLE CRIMES AGAINST MEN
TYLER CAINE, THE MAN-KILLER
However, it was not those words that made Travis’s knees go weak. It was the crude sketch beneath them. The drawing depicted the face of a man. He wore a handlebar mustache instead of a goatee, as well as a black hat, but the only other difference was a pair of round, wire-rimmed spectacles.
It’s you, Travis. It’s you with a black hat and a mustache. And wearing the spectacles Jack gave you.
The spectacles Travis had found in a box in Jack Graystone’s antique shop, and which Jack had told him had once belonged to a gunfighter.
A gunfighter named Tyler Caine.
That’s impossible, Travis. It can’t be.
Except it was.
“Is something wrong, Mr. Wilder?” Manypenny was looking at him, concern on his red face.
Travis licked his lips. “That poster...”
Manypenny’s eyes lit up. “That’s Tyler Caine, the famous civilizer. Surely you’ve heard tell of him? He’s wanted for shooting men in five different states and territories. The law brands him a villain, but the people know better. Not since Ivanhoe or Robin Locksley of Sherwood has there been such a protector of justice, such a defender of the common man.”
Travis frowned, forgetting some of the sickness in his stomach. He wondered if Manypenny had been reading those dime novels Sheriff Tanner had talked about.
“I’ve heard he always wears his spectacles,” Manypenny went on. “Even in his sleep. That’s how you can recognize him. Of course, the stories say he died a few years back of diphtheria up in Virginia City. But I don’t believe that for a moment. I wish he’d come here to Castle City. By Jove, I imagine Tyler Caine could put an end to these—”
Manypenny bit his lip and glanced over his shoulder at the front door of the saloon. His shoulders were hunched, and the big, good-humored saloonkeeper seemed suddenly fearful. What had he been about to say?
Better yet, Travis, who is he afraid might have overheard him?
However, Travis didn’t get a chance to find out. Once more Manypenny bid him good-bye, and the next thing Travis knew the door shut behind him, leaving him alone in the alley behind the Mine Shaft. He reached up and touched his face, but the wire-rimmed spectacles he had worn for so many years weren’t there. His new eyes—reborn in the fires of Krondisar—had no need for spectacles. But in the poster he had been wearing them. What did it mean?
No answer came but the lonely moan of the wind between the buildings. Hands in pockets, Travis headed back to the boardinghouse to wait for seven o’clock and his new job to begin.
Grace helped Beltan carry Sky to the small sitting chamber just off the villa’s main room. Either shock had granted her an uncanny strength, or life on a medieval world had made her tougher than she thought. Whatever the reason, though Sky was nearly as tall as she was—and far denser—Grace lifted his legs as easily as Beltan did his shoulders. They laid the wounded young man gently on a chaise.
“Place him on his side, Beltan,” Grace said.
Beltan cast her a quick grin. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
She glared at him, then returned her attention to Sky. What on Eldh was he doing here? They hadn’t seen him since he disappeared from the Tower of the Runespeakers. And who was this peculiar young man really? At the Gray Tower, she had never had a chance to find out; she had never understood why he risked everything to help her save Travis. Maybe now she would.
First things first. Grace probed his back, neck, and head with expert fingers. His wounds were still oozing blood, and he was unconscious, although a quick check of his life thread revealed that this was not shock, but merely the sleep of exhaustion.
“How is he, dear?” Melia stood in the door of the chamber, along with Falken and Aryn.
“The lacerations on his back are deep, but I don’t think they’re life-threatening,” Grace said, speaking in the same brisk tone she had always used in the ED at Denver Memorial. “But he’s suffering from exposure, and he’s lost a fair amount of blood.”
“What can we do?” Falken said, faded blue eyes grave.
“You can get me some things.” Grace ticked off the items. “I need warm water, a bottle of wine, a blanket, and clean rags for dressing his wounds. A knife, too. Needle and waxed thread. And a candle.”
“What about me, Grace?” Beltan said, as the others hurried from the room.
Grace took the blond knight’s hand and wrapped it around Sky’s wrist. “Do you feel his pulse? Good. If the rhythm starts to get faster or weaker, let me know at once.”
When the others arrived with the things she had requested, Grace got to work. She cut Sky’s rough brown robe away from his wounds; his back and shoulders were broad and powerfully sculpted with muscle. Beltan let out a surprised grunt, and Grace met the knight’s eyes. She knew they were both thinking the same thing. One didn’t get a physique like this by cooking dinner for runespeakers.
She dipped a rag in the warm water, and the sharp, clean scent of alasai wafted upward. Melia or Aryn must have crumbled some dried green scepter leaves into the bowl. That was good; alasai seemed to have antiseptic properties. Grace cleaned away the caked blood and dirt from Sky’s back. There was a set of three gashes on his right shoulder, and another set just beneath the left shoulder blade.
They look like claw marks—like wounds from a mountain lion or another predator.
Except what predator had only three talons? None that she could think of.
And what about feydrim, Grace? How many digits do they have on their forelegs?
But she couldn’t remember; she had only ever gotten to examine one of those twisted creatures up close once, after she and Travis barely fended it off in her chamber in Calavere. Besides, feydrim were creatures of the Pale King, and Berash had been sealed behind the Rune Gate last Midwinter’s Eve.
She kept cleaning away the blood—then stared as her work revealed something else on the young man’s shoulders.
“What in Sia’s name is that?” Aryn said.
Grace leaned back, staring. “I’m not sure.”
In the center of the young man’s upper back, just below his neck, was a tattoo. Drawn in swirling, blue-black ink, the tattoo was about as large as Grace’s two splayed hands. It consisted of a trio of intertwined circles, each one rimmed with symbols she supposed were runes. Inside the center of each of the three circles was a single, larger rune.
Beltan let out a grunt. “I’ve seen marks like that before—on wildmen of the north, like the ones in King Kel’s court. The warriors in those tribes often take such tattoos to signify the chief for whom they fight.”
Aryn’s blue eyes were startled. “Warriors? But Sky is a servingman.”
“I’m starting to doubt that,” Grace said.
“Do you know what these runes signify?” Melia said to Falken.
The bard drew closer. “I’m not sure about the smaller runes around the edges of the circle. I’d need time to study them. But I recognize the larger runes. This one here, on top, is the rune for sky. That makes sense, I suppose. It’s his name. But the one inside the right-hand circle is the rune for Olrig, and the one on the left is the rune for Sia.”
Aryn looked up. “There’s a rune for Sia?”
“Of course,” Falken said. “As well as for each of the Old Gods. Everything under creation has a rune. Except for the New Gods, of course, and the dragons.”
The baroness chewed a knuckle. Grace understood her conundrum; according to the Witches, Sia was the Mother of Eldh, and she had nothing to do with the Old Gods or rune magic. In turn, the Runespeakers believed that the Worldsmith spoke the runes that brought Eldh and all things on it into being. And it was the Old God Olrig who stole the secret of those runes from the dragons, who had dwelled in the gray mists that existed before the world, and who had heard the runes as they were spoken. So how could Sky serve both Sia and Olrig at the same time?
“I’ve not seen these two runes in a long age,” Falken went on. “And even then, they were already ancient.”
Melia’s amber eyes gleamed. “Fascinating,” she murmured, although she did not elaborate.
Grace pushed aside the questions burning in her mind and focused on her patient. With automatic efficiency, she irrigated and sutured the lacerations.
“Beltan, help me sit him up. I need to bind these bandages around his chest to hold them in place.”
With Beltan’s help, they sat the young man up and folded the shreds of his brown robe down to his waist. Like his back, Sky’s chest and arms were massively built.
“By Vathris, I’d say he could swing a sword if he had to,” Beltan said.
Grace nodded. But for some reason she wondered if that was really the kind of warrior Sky was. More tattoos snaked up the smooth skin of his chest and encircled his biceps. Most of them were runic symbols Grace couldn’t decipher, but directly over his heart was an elaborately drawn picture she could clearly make out. It showed the jagged outline of a black tower with three circles floating above it.
No, not circles, Grace. Three moons.
One of the moons was a waxing crescent, one was full, and the last was waning to dark. Skillfully drawn in the circle of each moon was the faint image of a woman’s face: a girl, a beautiful woman, and a withered crone.
Grace heard a gasp. It was Aryn; she was staring at the tattoo on Sky’s chest. Grace didn’t like speaking secretly, but there was something in Aryn’s blue eyes—a deep expression of shock—that compelled her.
Aryn? she said, her voice thrumming across the web of the Weirding. Aryn, what is it?
It can’t be, came Aryn’s astonished voice. By the three faces of Sia, it can’t be. A black tower—didn’t they raise a black tower?
Who did, Aryn?
What was Aryn talking about? What did she mean about the three faces of Sia? Grace started to form another question in her mind, but before she could send it along the threads of the Weirding, Beltan spoke in a low voice.
Her gaze came into quick focus as she ceased reaching out with the Touch. Sky gazed at her with gentle brown eyes.
She lifted a hand to her heart, and his homely face crinkled in a weary grin. He made a quick, elegant gesture with a hand, then pantomimed a stitching motion. Thank you, my lady. For sewing me up.
Startled, she couldn’t help returning his smile. “You’re welcome, Sky. I don’t think your wounds are too serious, not if we keep them clean. But who—what did this to you?”
His grin faded, and he shook his head. He seemed to grasp her words from the air with a hand and set them gently but firmly aside. That’s not important right now, my lady. He made another set of pantomimes, using a finger to mimic writing on his palm, then holding his hand out to Grace.
“I don’t understand,” Beltan said with a frown. “What’s he trying to say?”
However, Grace caught the meaning of his gestures as clearly as if the words had flown to her across the Weirding.
“A message,” she softly. “He says that he’s brought us a message.”
Melia stepped closer, her eyes locked on Sky. “A message? But from whom?”
Again Sky made a series of eloquent gestures.
From those who are lost.
For a long moment they stared at the young man in stunned silence.
It can’t be, Grace. He can’t know they’re missing.
But who else could Sky be talking about? Who else was lost? No one except Travis, Lirith, Durge, and Sareth.
The others seemed to recover their wits at once, and all began talking at the same time, questioning Sky. A shudder coursed through the young man’s body.
He’s lost blood, Grace, and he can’t keep warm. If he gets too cold, he could still slip into shock.
She held up a hand, and she was somewhat surprised to see this had the effect of silencing the others. Her lessons in imperiousness with Ephesian seemed to be paying off. She handed Beltan the blanket the others had brought, and while she and the other women turned their backs, Beltan and Falken helped Sky out of the last shreds of his robe. When Grace turned around, the young man lay again on the chaise, tightly wrapped in the blanket. He was still shivering, but not so severely.
“Drink this,” Grace said, handing him a cup of watered wine, and he complied. The alcohol would act as a mild sedative, and it would also help control any bacteria or amoebas in the water. The last thing he needed now was a secondary infection.
After he handed her the empty cup, Sky motioned with his hands, and as always the meaning of the gestures was strangely clear.
“You want your robe?” Grace said. “But I’m afraid there’s not much left to it.”
However, Sky gestured again, and she picked up the heap of rags from where it had fallen and handed it to him. He rummaged through the garment, then let it slip back to the floor. In his hand was a key. The key was large and looked to be forged of black iron. He held it out.
You must take this, my lady. You must take it and go there.
Falken rubbed his chin with his gloved hand. “But go where? What does that key open, Sky?”
The young man shrugged, letting the blanket slip off his left shoulder. He pointed to the tattoo just above his heart—the tattoo of the dark tower.
The bard let out an oath. “By all the Old Ones, it’s the Black Tower, isn’t it? That’s where you want us to go. The Tower of the Runebreakers.”
Sky nodded. Aryn clamped her left hand to her mouth too late to stifle a gasp. Grace glanced at her. Why did Sky’s words disturb the young witch so? There was something about the Runebreakers—something the baroness knew and had not told Grace. But what?
It would have to wait. Grace knelt beside the chaise and grasped Sky’s hand. “I don’t understand. I thought the Black Tower had been abandoned for centuries, that there were no more Runebreakers. Why should we go there?”
He pressed the iron key into her fingers. To find what has been lost.
Grace froze. Maybe, just maybe, she understood. Falken had told her the stories: how the Runebreakers had vanished from Falengarth long ago, and how the members of the other two runic orders—the Runebinders and Runespeakers—had turned against them, blaming the Runebreakers for bringing the fear and hatred of the people upon all wizards and workers of magic.
But there is still one Runebreaker left, isn’t there, Grace?
Beltan spoke the word before he could. “Travis. It’s Travis isn’t it? Somehow he’s there, along with the others, at the Black Tower. We have to go find them.” The big knight started for the door, as if he would leave on the journey that very moment.
Sky held out a hand. Wait.
“What is it, Sky?” Melia said softly.
He gestured again to the tattoo of the tower, then made his hands into two fists and circled them around each other several times. Then, at the point in the circle when his fists were farthest apart, he halted.
These gestures were too much for Grace. “I don’t understand, Sky. What do you mean?”
“I think I know,” Falken said. “It’s Midwinter’s Day. That’s when you want us to go to the Black Tower.”
Of course. When the sun appeared to be its farthest from Eldh. “But why?” Grace said. “Why go there on Midwinter’s Day and not now?”
Once more Sky made motions that bespoke words. Because that is when the lost may be found again.
Falken started to ask more questions, but the young man’s eyes fluttered, and he sank back against the chaise. Instantly, Grace’s medical instincts superseded any desire to learn more about Sky’s mysterious message.
“He’s exhausted,” she pronounced. “You can talk to him more later. Right now he needs to rest.”
Falken started to protest, but Grace gave him a look as piercing as a hypodermic needle, and the bard clamped his mouth shut. After the others departed, she smoothed Sky’s hair from his heavy brow. She was full of questions herself, but they could wait. “Will you be all right?”
He gave her a faint smile, then reached up and gripped her hand, pressing her fingers tighter around the iron key.
I will be now, my lady. I will be now.
She returned his smile, but he had already shut his eyes, and in moments his breathing grew deep and even. Grace slipped from the room, shutting the door behind her.
The others were gathered around the table in the villa’s central room—although Beltan was pacing rather than sitting.
“I don’t see why we can’t leave now,” the knight was saying. “How far is it? Maybe eightscore leagues? We could be there in three weeks.”
“You heard Sky,” Falken said, then scratched his head. “Or saw him, I suppose. He says that whatever it is that we’ll find in the Black Tower, it won’t be there until Midwinter’s Day. Or perhaps the key won’t even work until then. If we go now, we could end up sitting around for weeks. And even before the Black Tower was abandoned, those were wild lands. It wouldn’t exactly be a safe place to set up camp for that long.”
Beltan clenched his hands into fists. “But Travis and the others could be wounded or starving. They could die waiting for us.”
“You’re raving, dear,” Melia said affectionately, touching the knight’s arm. “Certainly Sky would not direct us to delay our journey if the others were there and in need of our aid.”
“Why there of all places?” Aryn murmured. The baroness’s gaze seemed turned inward. “Why must we go to the Tower of the Runebreakers? And why now? This can’t be good. It can’t.”
Grace stared at the young witch. Why was Aryn so upset at this news? Grace started to speak——and a pounding emanated from the front door of the villa.
For a moment all of them were too startled to move. The pounding came again, hard and urgent. Then Beltan crossed to the door in three strides and threw it open.
The man in the doorway was not one of the emperor’s men; he did not wear the bronze breastplate or leather kilt of the Tarrasian imperial soldiers. Instead, he was clad in a chain-mail shirt over gray tunic and hose, along with a forest-green cloak spattered with mud. The man pulled his hand back just in time to keep from pounding on Beltan’s chest. Only as a grin crossed his handsome face did Grace realize she recognized him. The man was not so tall as Beltan, but well shaped. And with his short, wild red hair and the pointed red beard on his chin, it could only be—
“Sir Tarus!” Beltan exclaimed.
The blond knight threw his arms around the other man and caught him in a fierce embrace, dragging him over the threshold and into the villa in the process. The red-haired man seemed to hesitate, then returned the gesture.
Finally, Beltan released him. “By the tail of Vathris’s Bull, you reek, Sir Tarus.”
The young man laughed and scratched his beard, as if digging for unwanted trespassers within. “I’ve been riding as fast as I could for more than a week, Sir Beltan. And I fear there wasn’t a lot of time for niceties like bathing or sleep. I was going to warn you, but—”
“—but as usual,” Melia said, gliding forward, “Sir Beltan’s enthusiasm has gotten the better of him. Of course, in your case, it’s easy to see why, Sir Tarus.”
The knight’s cheeks flushed as crimson as his beard. He bowed before Melia, chain mail jingling.
Grace remembered the first—and only—time she had met Sir Tarus. It had been on their journey to the Gray Tower earlier that year. They had encountered Tarus and Beltan, along with the other Knights of the Order of Malachor, in the forests of western Calavan. She had guessed then that Tarus and Beltan had been lovers, at least for a time. Clumsy as she was at reading others’ emotions, even she could see it now when Tarus rose and glanced at Beltan—a shy light in his eyes.
However, his smile was strong and genuine, and—it seemed to Grace—bore no hint of heartbreak. She supposed it had not been hard for a man as good-looking as Tarus to find another to warm his bed. But it was more than that. There had been a boyish ebullience to Tarus when she met him last—she could see it still in his face. Yet there was a strength there now as well. Beltan had left him in command of the band of Malachorian Knights; it seemed being a leader suited him.
“It’s good to look upon you again, too, Lady Grace,” Tarus said, bowing in her direction.
She winced. He must have seen her staring. Hastily she returned the bow, only belatedly realizing she should have curtsied instead.
And be grateful for your goofiness, she told herself with a wry smile. In case you ever start to delude that you really are a queen...
“Thank you,” she said. “Now, are you going to tell us why you’ve ridden so hard to Tarras?”
“To find us, obviously,” Falken said. “But for what is the question?”
In an instant, Tarus’s demeanor changed. He threw his shoulders back and spoke in a formal voice. “I bear a message from King Boreas for Her Highness, the Lady Aryn, Baroness of Elsandry.”
Aryn clutched the back of a chair with her left hand. “A message for me? From the king?”
Grace understood the shock in the young woman’s blue eyes. She had stolen away from Calavere six months earlier and had not been back since. Nor had she asked for King Boreas’s permission before traveling south to Tarras, even though the king was her foster father. Suddenly, Aryn didn’t look so much like a regal young woman as a teenager who had gotten caught sneaking out her bedroom window.
Tarus bowed in Aryn’s direction, then straightened. “This message comes to you by the hand of His Majesty, King Boreas of Calavan, Lord of the Land Between the Two Rivers, Bearer of the Sword of Calavus, and—”
“Yes, yes,” Falken said, waving his black-gloved hand, “we’re all aware of Boreas’s overwhelming magnificence. Could you just get on with the message?”
Tarus bit his lip to hide a grin. He moved closer to Aryn, speaking more casually now. “I have a summons for you from the king, my lady. Boreas has commanded you to return to Calavere at once, making all possible haste.”
Aryn still clutched the chair; she looked as if she would fall if it were snatched away. “Return to Calavere? But why? Am I to be...punished?”
“Punished?” Tarus frowned. “No, my lady, it is for a much happier reason that Boreas has bid you return. You see, the king has finally found a husband for you.”
Aryn stared, mouth open, as did the others.
“Congratulations, Lady Aryn,” Tarus said with a big grin. “You’re going to be married.”
“It seems to be a day for messages,” Falken said, setting down his empty wine cup on the table in the villa’s main gathering room. He looked up as Grace quietly shut the door to the side chamber. “So, how’s our first courier doing?”
She sat down at the table. “He’s still sleeping. I think he’ll be out for a while. Whatever happened to Sky on his journey, he’s utterly exhausted.”
“I’d like to know exactly where it was he journeyed from,” Falken said. “And I have a dozen other questions for our mysterious friend. But I suppose that will have to wait until he wakes up.”
“Yes,” Grace said firmly, “It will.”
She reached for the wine bottle in the center of the table and upended it over an available cup.
Exactly two drops poured forth.
She set down the bottle and shot a dark look at both Falken and Beltan. The bard feigned a look of surprise, and the blond knight gave her a sheepish shrug before hastily quaffing the last swallow in his own cup.
“So where are the others?” Grace said with a sigh.
“Tarus is taking that much-needed bath,” Beltan said. “And I think Melia is upstairs with Aryn.”
Grace sighed again. It was good the lady was with Aryn. Tarus’s message from King Boreas had stunned them all— although maybe it shouldn’t have.
She had learned not long after meeting Aryn that Boreas intended to find a husband for the young baroness by her twenty-first birthday, someone who could help rule the barony of Elsandry and who would be a loyal vassal for the king. However, in the upheaval of these last months, it had been easy to forget about such matters. One thing Grace had learned in her time on Eldh was that, while being a noble brought many privileges, it also brought far less welcome duties and responsibilities. Aryn’s marriage was of great political importance to Boreas; her heart—and her wishes—had nothing to do with it.
Aryn had only nodded at Tarus’s message; she had not cried out in protest or thrown a tantrum or refused in any way. The young woman knew her station. All the same, Grace had seen the stricken look in her blue eyes.
“Well, isn’t this a lively crowd,” Tarus said with a grin, striding into the room.
Grace managed a weak smile. The young knight was much improved for his bath, both the dirt and weariness gone from his face, the beard on his chin trimmed to a neat point. The servants had cleaned the road grime from his cloak and tunic, and no doubt his mail shirt was off being polished.
Beltan gave the red-haired man an admiring look. Grace knew Beltan loved Travis more than anything. But Travis was a world away, and Grace was beginning to get the sense that, on Eldh, there was a distinction between love and sex. The former was an exalted ideal, to be treasured and cherished; but the latter was regarded as more akin to food—or in Beltan’s case ale—a staple nourishment that one could do without for only so long before ill effects resulted.
And what about you, Grace? If physical intimacy was really such a necessity for life, you’d be six feet under by now.
Of course, most people hadn’t spent ten years of their life in an orphanage run by people with hearts made out of iron. While she had left the shadow of the past behind her, she couldn’t change what the past had made her. Or at least, she hadn’t changed yet. And whatever Beltan’s look portended, Grace noticed that Tarus studiously avoided it.
A full bottle of wine had appeared on the table, brought by a servant. Grace poured a cup for herself, then filled another and held it out toward Tarus.
“Thank you, my lady,” he said. “And how did you know I could use a drink?”
Tarus started to reach for the cup——then spun around, jerking the dagger from his belt and holding it at the ready. The air in front of Tarus rippled, then grew smooth again. A lithe figure clad in black leather stood before him, golden eyes gleaming.
“Not bad, Servant of the Bull,” Vani said, a sharp smile slicing across her angular face. “You are swifter than most I have met.”
Tarus let out a cry of alarm. Grace tried to call out, to tell him it was all right, that Vani was a friend, but she was too slow. Tarus thrust forward with his dagger hand.
The hand was empty.
Vani cleared her throat. Her eyes flickered downward, and Tarus followed her gaze. She tapped a dagger against the inside of his thigh. His dagger.
“What the—?” Tarus said, eyes wide as he took a quick step back.
Vani grinned, flipped the dagger in the air then tossed it hilt first at Tarus, who, despite his startlement, caught it in a swift hand.
Finally, Grace found her voice. “Tarus—I’d like you to meet our friend Vani.”
The young man glanced at Beltan. “Friend?”
The blond knight hesitated, then gave a curt nod. “She’s a far better warrior than most men will ever be, Tarus. Be glad you aren’t her enemy. If you were, right now you’d be joining those fanatical new priests I’ve heard about here in Tarras—the ones who’ve offered up the jewels of their manhood in a golden bowl at the altar of Vathris.”
Tarus swallowed hard, and Grace tried not to notice the quick check he made of his equipment.
“Vani,” she said, rising, “we didn’t see you come in.”
“Do we ever?” Falken said with a pained look.
The bard had a point. “Is it time?” Grace said to the assassin.
Vani nodded. “My al-Mama is waiting for you.”
Just as the last rays of the sun turned the gold domes of Tarras to copper, they reached the circle of slender ithaya trees atop the white cliffs north of the city. Here, a thousand feet above the harbor, the Mournish had camped for the last two months. Half-lost in the gathering shadows among the trees, Grace could just make out the fantastical shapes of their wagons: a hare, a snail, a crouching lion, and—coiled like a serpent ready to strike—a dragon.
Part of Grace had been reluctant to leave Sky at the villa. But he was sleeping, and all of her instincts as a doctor—and as a witch—told her his wounds were not serious, that he would recover. She had left one of the manservants outside the door of Sky’s room with strict orders not to let anyone in.
Despite being weary from his long journey, Sir Tarus walked with them up the trail to see the Mournish.
“King Boreas ordered me to return to Calavere with Lady Aryn,” the young knight said. “I’m not about to let some bunch of vagabonds steal her away. I’ve heard stories about the Mournish, and how they...”
His words trailed off as he noticed Vani’s hard, golden stare. Beltan clapped his hand on Tarus’s back. “And you’ve heard how they throw the best parties, and you don’t want to miss your chance to see one.”
As they entered the circle of trees, the last sliver of the sun vanished beneath the western horizon. At the same moment, to the east, the full circle of Eldh’s enormous moon sailed above the edge of the sea. It looked to Grace as if the moon had actually risen out of the water, and its light made a silver road on the surface of the ocean.
Melia stopped and curtsied in the direction of the moon, murmuring something. Grace wasn’t certain, but it might have been, It’s good to see you as well, dear. Before she could wonder more, brown hands touched her arms, drawing her and the others into the circle of firelight in the center of the grove.
One thing hadn’t changed: The Mournish still knew how to throw a party. Wild music swirled all around, and dancers leaped and darted like the flames. The smell of rich, roasted meat was thick on the air, and the cup in Grace’s hand seemed eternally filled with fiery red wine. However, she wasn’t really hungry, and she had never been much of a dancer, so she was content to sit on a pillow beside Aryn and Beltan and stare into the fire while the wine did its work.
At one point during the revel, one of the dancers—a voluptuous woman with smoky eyes—approached Grace.
“Where is your friend?” she said in a lilting voice.
“My friend?” Grace said.
“Yes, the dark-haired one with the solemn face and many muscles.”
Grace blinked. “You mean Durge?”
“Yes, D’hurj.” The woman smiled. “That was his name.”
Grace felt a pang in her heart, and she wondered if that fragile organ could bear much more pain. “I’m afraid he’s not here.”
The woman was clearly disappointed. “I am sorry to learn it. He was a fine...dancer.”
With a flash of scarves, the woman spun away.
The feast continued as sparks rose up to glimmer among the stars. Then—at some signal Grace could not detect—it was over. The dancers and musicians slipped away into the shadows. The doors of the wagons opened and shut. The companions were alone in the circle of firelight.
Not quite alone, Grace.
Gold eyes shone in a withered face, gazing at Grace. Propped on a heap of pillows beside Vani was a figure Grace had not noticed in the wildness of the revel. Her neck was as thin and crooked as a vulture’s, and hair like cobwebs floated about her knobby head.
The ancient woman smiled at Grace, baring her one fanglike tooth. “I told you, did I not, that you would be the strongest of them all?”
Grace licked her lips. “Thank you for inviting us here. It was you who invited us, wasn’t it?”
The old woman let out a cackle. “I had the idea, yes, though Vani spoke it before I could. I wished to speak to you before we departed. We will begin our wanderings again on the morrow. Such is our fate.” Her eyes narrowed. “Just as you will begin your own journey soon—for such is yours.”
Grace lifted a hand to her throat. “How do you know about that? Did Vani tell you?”
The old woman scowled. “Surely you must know the portents are clear and strong. The ruby star vanishes as suddenly as it appears; things go lost that must be found once more. And no matter how I shuffle them, the cards I draw are always the same. The Wagon, the Spire, and the Queen of Blades. I know not what this tower is, or what you will find. I only know that you will go there.”
Falken jerked his gaze up from the fire. “Why did you call her that just now? The Queen of Blades?”
The crone shrugged knife-sharp shoulders. “It is her fate, is it not? Even I can see that much, dim though my eyes have grown. And I would have thought you of all people would know that, Falken Blackhand.” She cackled again. “But not Blackhand for long. For that I’ve seen as well.”
Falken flexed his gloved hand, but what he thought of the old woman’s words he didn’t say.
“Do you truly believe they can find Sareth and the others, al-Mama?” Vani said to the old woman.
“It is their fate to seek your brother and the rest. However, whether it is the fate of the lost to be found, I cannot say. Would that I could see what will become of the A’narai. But he has no fate, and my cards are useless in this. He is a mystery to me, as are all those near to him.”
Tarus, who had been sitting quietly throughout the revel, glanced at Beltan. “Either I’m denser than I’ve always liked to believe, or the Mournish really do know how to cast spells of befuddlement. I don’t understand a word of any of this.”
“Don’t you?” the old woman said before Beltan could answer. She turned piercing eyes on Tarus. “Have you not seen signs of the coming darkness yourself?”
Tarus sat up straight, his blue eyes wide.
Beltan laid his hand on the young man’s knee. “What is it, Tarus? I’d bet my sword you bring more news than just King Boreas’s message for Aryn. What’s happening in the Dominions?”
Tarus sighed. “I wish I could tell you. All I know are rumors. They started around the beginning of Revendath. At first it sounded like the kinds of stories peasants in the backwoods always tell—shadows in the wood, strange noises, weird lights on hilltops—that sort of thing. Only then...” He cocked his head. “You know the borders of the Dominion of Eredane have been closed ever since last Midwinter’s Eve?”
Falken nodded. “Queen Eminda was murdered at the Council of Kings. Her chief counselor was an ironheart. We have no idea who’s ruling Eredane now.”
“Except I think we do,” Tarus said. “For now it’s not just Eredane whose borders are closed, but Brelegond as well. No one is allowed in or out. And it’s said that guarding the roads are knights who wear black armor and black visors on their helms, and who strike down anyone who strays a half a league into that Dominion.”
Tarus’s words were a cold dagger in Grace’s chest. A year ago there had been rumors of shadows like this, and the rumors had turned out to be true. Wraithlings and feydrim—servants of the Pale King—had stalked the land. And the Raven Cult that had swept through the Dominions had proved a front for the Pale King as well. After Midwinter’s Eve, when Travis sealed the Rune Gate, the wraithlings and feydrim had vanished, and in the weeks that followed the newly founded Order of Malachor had stamped out the activities of the Raven Cult. It had seemed the dark days were over.
Except maybe now the dark days are returning.
“What of the other Dominions?” Falken said to Tarus.
“Things seem well enough,” the knight said. “Calavan awaits the happy marriage of Lady Aryn. Galt stands uneasily in the shadow of Eredane, but I’ve heard naught of trouble there. Toloria is as you left it. And the word is that young Queen Inara has proved to be a strong leader in Perridon, ruling well in her infant son’s name.”
Melia smoothed the fabric of her kirtle. “You have forgotten Embarr, Tarus.”
He shook his head. “No, my lady, I believe it is Embarr who has forgotten us—as well as the pact it made at the Council of Kings. The stories say that King Sorrin grows madder by the day. That I can’t vouch for. But I do know he’s pulled all of his knights from the Order of Malachor. Some say he’s created his own order of knights, although what he names it, and what its purpose is, I cannot say.”
Falken’s expression was troubled. “That’s strange news.”
Tarus gazed at the old Mournish woman, boldly returning her stare. “So what does it all mean, if you can see so much in those cards of yours? Are these black knights connected to everything else that’s changing?”
“All things are connected,” the crone murmured, as if she had spoken the most profound truth. And perhaps she had at that.
Tarus, however, seemed less than satisfied. He glanced at Grace. “I have not seen Lady Lirith among you. Am I to take it she is one of the ones who was...lost?”
Grace’s throat was too tight for words, so she nodded instead.
Tarus gazed down at his clasped hands. “I hope she wasn’t right, then. I hope it’s not already come to this. By Vathris, I thought they were just tales told by the priests. I never thought I’d be alive to see the Final Battle myself.”
Grace didn’t understand Tarus’s words. However, she noticed that Beltan, Falken, and Melia all stared at the young knight with the same look of astonishment.
It was Beltan who recovered first. “This is dark news about the Dominions. But our task is still clear. We have to journey to the Black Tower.”
“That may not be so simple as we think,” Falken said. “The Tower of the Runebreakers stands where the range of the Fal Sinfath ends at the Winter Wood.”
Beltan frowned. “But that puts it on the other side of Brelegond from us.”
“Exactly,” the bard said, expression grim. “And from what good Sir Tarus here tells us, journeying through Brelegond is not an option right now.”
Beltan pounded a fist on his knee. “This is one time I’ll agree with Vani’s al-Mama and her cards. We all have to find a way to get there.”
“No, not all of us,” Aryn said in a soft voice.
The baroness sat on the edge of the firelight. Her face was touched by sorrow, yet there was a resoluteness to her expression. Grace let out a breath. In all their talk, they had forgotten about Tarus’s message and what it portended for the young woman.
“My dear one,” Melia said, taking Aryn’s hand in her own. Aryn gave her a faint smile.
Grace reached out and touched the Weirding. It was easy to pick out Aryn’s brilliant blue thread.
Please don’t worry, Aryn. I’m sure it’ll be all right.
Grace winced. The words were utterly worthless. But hopefully Aryn could feel what she meant.
I know it will, Grace, came Aryn’s voice, strong across the web of the Weirding. Ever since I was a little girl, I always knew this would be my duty. And I won’t fight it. It’s just that so much is uncertain right now, and I promised Ivalaine—
Grace felt a tug in her mind as Aryn hastily pulled her thread back, breaking the connection. What had the baroness been about to say? And why didn’t she want Grace to hear it?
Maybe it’s because you weren’t the only one who was listening, Grace.
Melia’s golden eyes were fixed on Aryn, her visage unreadable. Aryn pulled her hand from Melia’s and gazed into the fire. There was something the baroness knew, something she wasn’t telling. Ivalaine had commanded Aryn to do something. Only what?
“We can’t go through Brelegond,” Falken said, “so we’re going to have to find another way to the Black Tower.”
Melia raised an eyebrow. “And why do I have the feeling you already know what that way is, Falken?”
The bard couldn’t quite hide a wolfish grin. He reached into the case that held his lute and pulled out a book. It was Pagan Magics of the North, the book Grace had found in the university library.
“I’ve been reading this interesting little volume,” Falken said, thumbing through the yellowed pages. “I’m still not certain who wrote it, but whoever it was, he or she knew a great deal about both magic and history.”
Melia let out an exasperated breath. “Do spare us the dramatics, Falken. You’ve learned something in the book, and you know you can’t resist telling us, so out with it.”
The bard shut the book and looked up. “I know where we can find the shards of Fellring.”
Grace listened in growing numbness as Falken explained what he had read in the book: how after the first War of the Stones, the broken shards of Ulther’s magic sword Fellring— with which he had defeated the Pale King—were taken back across the Winter Sea, to his homeland of Toringarth.
“So you think we should go to Toringarth?” Beltan said dubiously.
The bard nodded. “Whatever Tarus’s troubling stories mean, there’s one thing we do know. Mohg, Lord of Nightfall, seeks a door back to Eldh. If we could find a way to reforge Fellring, we would have a powerful weapon we could use to fight him.”
Grace nearly choked on her tongue. She knew very well what Falken had failed to say—that, according to the legends he loved so much, only Ulther’s heir could wield Fellring. But whatever he might think, Grace knew she was not up to the task of slaying gods, no matter how old and decrepit they might be.
“It’s nearly two months until Midwinter,” Falken went on.
“What’s more, we know we can’t journey through Brelegond— and it’s not any farther to the Black Tower from Toringarth than it is from Tarras. We can sail to Toringarth, then make our way to the tower in plenty of time for Midwinter’s Day.”
“But what about Eredane?” Beltan said. “Are not the black knights in command there? And what of Toringarth itself? No word has come from that land in centuries.”
“We can stay between the River Silverflood and the Western Wood on our way south to the Black Tower,” Falken said. “We won’t have to set foot in Eredane.”
“Yes, Falken of the Blackhand,” al-Mama said in her hoarse voice. “Your words feel like fate to me. I believe you all must do as he says.”
Grace touched the necklace at her throat. “These black knights.” She glanced at Falken. “Do you think they’re related to the Pale King somehow? I mean, they—”
She couldn’t voice the rest of her thoughts, but she knew Falken would understand. It was the bard who told her the story, how a band of black knights had murdered her parents. And it made sense, didn’t it? Wouldn’t the Pale King want to stamp out all of the heirs to the throne of Malachor?
“I don’t know, Grace,” Falken said. “But if the black knights are linked to the Pale King, then it’s all the more important we find a way to forge Fellring anew.”
Grace tried and failed to swallow the lump in her throat. The idea of playing a fabled hero was absurd. However, when she saw the light burning in the ageless bard’s eyes, she found she had no words to tell him he was wrong.
The last flames flickered atop the coals, then in a sizzle they vanished; it was time to go. They bid Vani and her al-Mama farewell, then rose and made their way from the circle of wagons to descend the trail in darkness.
“Don’t worry, Grace,” Beltan said, clasping her hand in his.
His grip was rough and strong. “Falken’s plan is a good one, I’m sure of it. We’ll find the pieces of your sword, and we’ll still get to Travis in time.”
Grace started to answer him, only she caught the flash of two gold eyes gazing in the darkness. Then the night rippled, folded, and the eyes were gone.
The moon was high in the starry sky when they reached the villa again. They had made their way back in silence. Grace had wanted to talk to Aryn, but she hadn’t known what to say. As they stepped into the main room, Grace saw that the manservant still stood before the door to the side chamber.
“Thank you, Mahalim,” she said, touching his arm. “Go get some rest now.”
The man gave her a weary smile, then bowed and departed. Quietly, Grace pushed open the door and entered the room to see how her patient was doing.
“Oh,” she said, stopping halfway into the room.
“What is it, Grace?” she heard Falken say behind her. Then came the bard’s soft oath, and she knew she didn’t need to explain anything.
Mahalim had guarded the door; she didn’t doubt that. And the room’s only window was small and barred with iron. All the same, the chaise was empty, and the blanket lay crumpled on the floor.
Sky was gone.
At dawn two days later, they gathered on the docks of Tarras to say good-bye.
They had already made their hasty farewells to Ephesian the evening before, in the vast throneroom of the imperial palace in the First Circle. The emperor hadn’t taken the news of their departure well.
“This is ill news indeed, cousin,” he said, glaring at Grace and crossing his arms over the great bulk of his body. “I should have you tossed in prison so you can’t leave.”
Grace bit her lip. “That isn’t how one treats family, Your Magnificence.”
“On the contrary—that’s exactly how one treats family. Especially if one doesn’t wish to wake up one morning to find a dagger in one’s back.” Ephesian sighed and adjusted the eternally crooked circle of gold ithaya leaves on his brow. “Consider that my last lesson in imperial rule to you, cousin. I shall miss you indeed.”
“And I you,” Grace said, almost surprised to realize how much she meant it.
She moved a step up the dais and leaned forward to kiss his cheek—only belatedly realizing this could well be an offense punishable by death. However, the emperor only held a hand to his cheek as they departed.
As luck would have it, the ship Falken had hired to take them north belonged to one Captain Magard—the very same captain, Grace learned, who had brought the others south to Tarras. Magard had bought a new cargo of spices and was heading to the Dominion of Perridon for trade. Falken’s gold had convinced the captain to extend his journey northward a bit farther.
“Magard has agreed to take us as far north as Omberfell,” Falken said, picking up his lute case from the dock and slinging it over a shoulder. “That’s a city on the northwest coast of Embarr, at the mouth of the River Fellgrim.”
Melia’s eyes glinted in the morning light like the gold domes of Tarras. “And why will Magard only go as far as Omberfell? Does not Toringarth lie farther north, across the Winter Sea?”
“It does,” Falken said. “But Magard’s ship was built for southern waters. The Winter Sea will be thick with ice this time of year. It would crush the hull of Magard’s ship like the shell of a nut. We’ll have to find a new ship in Omberfell to take us the last leg.”
“Maybe we should wait for spring,” Beltan said.
Falken’s blue eyes were hard. “And maybe spring will be too late. Come on, Beltan—help me load our things on the ship.”
The bard started toward the gangplank, carrying nothing but his lute case. Beltan eyed the large heap of bags on the dock, sighed, then started to gather them up.
“Not those, dear,” Melia said, pointing to two small leather satchels Grace knew belonged to the lady. “You can leave those with Lady Aryn’s and Sir Tarus’s things.”
Beltan frowned. “Why?”
“Because I’m not going to Toringarth with you, dear. I’m going to accompany Aryn to Calavere.”
“What?” came Falken’s sharp voice. At once the bard turned and hurried back toward them. “What do you mean you’re not coming north with us?”
A pained expression crossed Melia’s face. “Let me try again, dear. You run along to Toringarth just as you’ve planned. Only when you arrive, I won’t be with you. That’s because I’ll be in Calavere. With Aryn.” She patted his arm. “Do we have it all sorted out now?”
The bard glowered at her. “I know what you meant, Melia.”
“Really? Then why did you ask?”
“Because it doesn’t make any sense,” Falken growled.
The lady’s expression softened a fraction. “Actually, it does, dear one. You know that the sea and I don’t mix very well. And besides, a lady of Aryn’s station cannot travel alone with a man. It would not be seemly.”
Tarus grinned. “I think Lady Aryn’s virtue is quite safe with me. I suspect that’s why King Boreas chose me for the task.”
Melia gave the young knight’s cheek a fond but firm pat. “Don’t ever disagree with me again, dear, and we’ll get along famously on the road to Calavere.”
Tarus hastily picked up Melia’s bags. “I’ll put these with Aryn’s things,” he said, and hurried across the dock to where their horses waited.
Only as he reached the horses did Grace realize there were not two, but three. The third was a mist-white mare that looked exactly like the horse Melia had ridden east to Perridon earlier that year.
It was all decided then. Beltan gave Aryn a great hug, then lifted their bags, staggered under the weight, and started up the ship’s gangplank. Melia and Falken moved a short distance away to exchange their final words in private. Tarus was with the horses. That left only Grace and Aryn.
“It seems so strange,” Grace said. “Saying good-bye.” Aryn reached out and took her hand, her blue eyes shining. “Then let’s not say it, Grace. Let’s not even think it. After all, it’s just for a short time. And when I see you next, you’ll have the shards of Fellring, and I’ll lay my head on your knee and listen while you tell me all about your marvelous adventures in the north.”
Grace squeezed her hand. “And when I see you again, you’ll be...”
Aryn’s smile was brave, but it couldn’t quite mask the trepidation in her eyes. “I’ll be your friend just as ever, and far more than glad at the sight of you.”
Grace embraced the baroness. Aryn had been her very first friend on Eldh, and the young woman would always be her best. Without even thinking, Grace spun the words over the threads of the Weirding. I love you, Aryn.
The reply came back, nearly overpowering in its strength. And I you.
At last they started to let go. Then, just before the connection was broken, Grace spun one last question along the Weirding. Aryn, I don’t mean to pry, but I think something’s been troubling you lately—something about the Witches and what Ivalaine bid you to do. What was it?
She felt Aryn stiffen in her arms, then hastily the young woman pulled away. “The others are coming, Grace,” she murmured. “It’s time for us to go.”
Soft as they were, the words were like a slap. Grace stared as Aryn moved quickly toward Tarus and Melia. Then Beltan and Falken were beside Grace. A high, aching note sounded on the air. A sailor in the rigging of Magard’s ship blew on a large seashell.
“It’s time, Grace,” Falken said.
They bid their last farewells quickly. Then, together with Beltan and Falken, Grace walked up the gangplank of the ship. She turned at the top to wave one final time, but Aryn, Melia, and Tarus had already mounted their horses and were gone.
Grace didn’t have the Sight, not like Lirith did. All the same, she felt a strange premonition of fear and darkness. Aryn was hiding something—something that would lead to trouble in the end. She was sure of it. Grace felt the urge to run down the gangplank and dash after the baroness.
It was too late. As the piercing note of the shell horn sounded again, Magard’s crew leaped into swift action. The plank was pulled in. Ropes hissed in all directions. The furled sails fluttered, as if anxious to fly free from their bindings. First, the ship had to be rowed out of the harbor. Two dozen oars lapped into the water, and the ship moved smoothly away from the dock. Grace gripped the railing as the deck rose and fell beneath her.
It’ll be all right, she told herself with a fierceness that almost felt like conviction. Aryn isn’t a girl anymore. She can take care of herself. Besides, Melia is going with her.
Then again, Grace had a feeling it wasn’t just out of a sense of propriety and a dislike for seasickness that Melia had decided to go north with Aryn.
Tarus’s stories last night troubled both her and Falken. Melia plans to keep an eye on things in the Dominions—just in case the shadows really are gathering again.
“What’s wrong, Grace?” Beltan said next to her. “You’re not getting seasick already, are you?”
The salty wind blew the knight’s hair back from his brow, and his green eyes were concerned. Falken was nowhere in sight; he must have gone down to see to their quarters.
Grace reached out and found the knight’s hand. “It’s nothing, Beltan. It’s just that—”
Nearby, a stray edge of one of the sails fluttered outward from one of the ship’s two masts. Then it fell back, revealing a dark, lithe figure that had not been there a heartbeat before. She stalked forward, moving sleekly as a cat despite the movement of the deck. Her short black hair was slicked back, and she wore the same tight black-leather garb as the day Grace first met her.
Beltan’s eyes narrowed. “Vani. What are you doing here?” “As I said, it is my fate to come with you on this journey,” the Mournish woman said, her gold eyes fixed on Grace rather than the big knight.
For a moment Grace’s heart leaped in her chest. What they were trying to do seemed so daunting; maybe having Vani with them made it all just a little less impossible. Then she saw the hard look of suspicion in Beltan’s gaze, as well as the way Vani cocked her shoulders so that she was turned slightly away from him, and Grace’s heart sank again.
The ship moved out into the shimmering waters of the harbor, and Grace felt the first hints of churning in her stomach. Something told her this was going to be a long journey.
Captain Magard’s ship was named the Fate Runner. Grace couldn’t have thought of a more appropriate name. But were they running from fate, or directly into its arms?
They sailed north through the sparkling waters of the Dawn Sea, the coast always just visible as a hazy green line far off to port. Grace knew it made sense for ships to stay close to the shore. After all, there were no global positioning satellites orbiting Eldh to tell them where they were. Their first day out at sea, she saw Captain Magard use an instrument she supposed was some sort of sextant to measure the angle of the sun. That would give him an idea of their latitude. However, without an accurate clock—something Grace had yet to see on Eldh— there was no way to measure longitude. Sailing away from the shore meant sailing off the edge of the map.
Then again, the Polynesians found Hawaii, and the Vikings made it all the way to Newfoundland in their dragon ships. Perhaps there were other continents on Eldh; perhaps ancient navigators had already discovered them.
That first evening, as the sun touched the sea and set it afire, she decided to ask Captain Magard about it. There wasn’t much else to do. It hadn’t taken long to get settled in their two cramped cabins belowdecks—one for Beltan and Falken, and one for Vani and Grace. While none of them were violently seasick, the other three were made more than a little queasy by the motion of the ship. Beltan and Falken lay on their cots, occasionally groaning like the planks of the hull when the ship struck a particularly large wave. Vani sat cross-legged on the floor of the cabin she shared with Grace, remaining very still.
“I’m meditating,” the Mournish woman said. “A T’gol must practice the art of concentration, so that she is never caught unaware.”
Given the greenish tinge to her coppery skin, Vani was concentrating on not vomiting more than anything else. Grace forced herself not to smile as she left the cabin.
Unlike the others, Grace felt no trace of seasickness. The sourness in her stomach that morning had been a result of anxiety rather than the tossing of the ship, and while it wasn’t entirely gone, the feeling had subsided. It would be impossible to turn back now, so there was no use worrying about the journey.
It was obvious her legs were going to take longer to adjust than her stomach. Just walking on the deck without toppling over the rail was a challenge, and she held on to everything in her reach as she inched along.
She found Magard on the aft deck, leaning against the rail and watching the ship’s swirling wake. She hadn’t been formally introduced to the captain—there had been no time in the bustle of leaving port—but Falken had spoken well of him.
“Excuse me.” She searched for something polite to say but found nothing and so decided to dive in. “I was wondering— are there lands on Eldh beside those of Falengarth?”
The captain turned around. His skin was creased like old leather, but his eyes were bright as a gull’s. With them, he seemed to size her up in a single look.
“There’s Moringarth to the south,” he said after moment. “But, save for the sultanates of al-Amún on the north coast, it’s nothing but a blasted desert and fit for no man. Then there’s Toringarth to the north, but the stories say it’s mostly ice. The Black Bard tells me that’s where you’re headed.” Magard rubbed his chin with a hand that bore only four fingers. “Though, by the salt of my blood, I can’t fathom why you’d want to go there.”
Grace decided it was easier not to reply to that. “Are there any other lands?”
“None I know of. My men think if you sailed too far east, you’d sail right off the edge of the world. But you know what I think, my girl?” His eyes crinkled as he grinned. “I think if you sailed far enough, you’d hit Falengarth again—only the west coast, not the east.”
Grace returned his smile. “I think you might just be right, Captain.”
“Now you’re humoring me. It’s a mad idea. But I’ll have to write it down someday, when I’m too old to sail anymore and have to spend my days in a tavern near the sea, sitting by a fire with a cup of spiced wine in my hand.”
“I think you should,” Grace said, and she meant it.
Magard turned, gazing across the ocean. The first stars were just coming out. “It’s said there’s a whole kingdom there, in the far west of Falengarth.”
A cool night wind sprang up off the ocean. Grace crossed her arms, shivering. “What kind of kingdom?”
Magard shrugged. “Who can say? It would be a fool’s errand to try to get there overland. They say the way was open once, but if it was, it’s closed again long since. Now there’s only the Great Western Wood, which goes on for a thousand leagues. And there are queer things in the woods, if you believe the tales. Old things. Yet if you journey all the way west, some say you’ll find a kingdom where the streets are paved with silver, and children play with baubles made of gold and jewels. If I could find a way to sail there and start a trade route, I’d be...”
His words trailed off in a sigh. For a time they watched the sea change from copper to smoky amethyst.
“I hope you do,” Grace said softly. “Find a way to your golden kingdom someday.”
Magard’s teeth flashed in the darkness. “And what would I do with a kingdom full of silver and jewels? I have all I need right here.”
He gestured to the sea. The reflection of countless stars danced on its surface, like diamonds on black silk. Grace smiled, then turned to stumble her way back to her cabin.
The days that followed were peaceful if not quite pleasant, although in their utter sameness one blurred into the next.
Grace rose early each morning. Not that there was anything for her to do. It was just that, between the rolling of the ship and the constant scrabbling of rats in the hull, sleep was a near impossibility. This fact didn’t seem to keep Falken and Beltan from spending most of their time lying in their cabin—but both rose quickly enough and scrambled abovedecks when the sound of the horn announced the distribution of the daily ration of ale.
In addition to a generous dipper of ale, every day Magard gave each person on the ship a half of a lemon to eat. It seemed the captain was familiar with both the perils and prevention of scurvy. Grace made sure the others ate every bit of their lemons, although Beltan made such horrible faces one might have thought he was eating a handful of alum.
Meals were served twice daily and consisted mostly of hard-tack and salt pork; Grace couldn’t help but wonder if that didn’t have something to do with all the vomiting. Not all of Magard’s crewmen were immune to seasickness, as she would have thought. When the smell became too much, Grace would stand in the cargo hold and breathe in the fragrance rising from the crates filled with spices, letting the aromatic scent clear her head until she felt ready to venture forth again.
Despite the fact that they shared a cabin, Grace spoke little with Vani. The Mournish woman appeared and vanished without warning. Magard’s ship wasn’t large; it had only two masts and was not much more than a hundred feet from stem to stern. All the same, Vani could disappear for hours on end, and one day Grace didn’t catch a glimpse of her at all between dawn and dusk.
Often when Grace did see her, Vani was perched precariously high in the rigging of the ship, shading her eyes with a hand, peering into the distance. Once Grace witnessed her balancing on a single foot on the very top of the aft mast, bending and swaying with the motion of the ship almost as if she were dancing. This feat elicited oaths and wide-eyed looks of awe from Magard’s crew, and after that the men would stare at Vani whenever she passed. However, the assassin seemed not to notice them.
The rare times Grace found Vani in the cabin, the Mournish woman was usually meditating, legs crossed, hands on knees, gold eyes half-lidded. Despite her relaxed position, Grace knew Vani was aware of everything around her and could leap into action in the space between two heartbeats.
As she did one day when Grace stepped into the cabin. The sea was particularly rough that day, and Grace had decided to give up trying to stay upright on deck. The roaring of the waves must have kept the sound of her stumbling even from Vani’s keen ears, for when she stepped through the cabin’s portal, Vani did not look up from her position on the floor. Then Grace saw the single T’hot card before her. On the card was the picture of a man. He had piercing gray eyes and was surrounded by blue rays of light.
“Vani...” Grace said.
In a motion faster than eyes could comprehend, Vani stood. “The weather grows worse?” she said tersely. The card was nowhere to be seen.
Grace nodded. She searched for something to say, but Vani brushed past her.
“I’ll keep a lookout for rocks and reefs.”
Once again Grace wondered why Vani had come with them on this journey. Was it really her fate, as she said? Or had it simply been her choice?
Whatever the cards say, she wants to find Travis. Just as much as you do, Grace. Just as much as Beltan does.
She couldn’t help laughing at the absurdity of it all. For the slightly bumbling owner of a bar in a small Colorado mountain town, Travis certainly had a way of making others interested in him. The Pale King, Duratek, the Seekers, Trifkin Mossberry and the Little People, the dragon Sfithrisir, the Witches, Melia and Falken, Vani, and of course Beltan—all of them had shown a keen interest in Travis at one point or another.
It was the following day when Grace finally understood the reason for Vani’s frequent disappearing act ever since they had boarded the Fate Runner. After the previous day’s choppiness, the sea was unusually calm and glassy—so much so that even Falken and Beltan ventured abovedecks without the lure of ale. Craving fresh air, Grace accompanied them.
They rounded the foremast and nearly ran into Vani. The Mournish woman leaned against the mast, head bent. Grace caught a flash of color in Vani’s hands. Then the assassin looked up, and whatever she had been holding was gone.
“There you are, Vani,” Falken said. “Grace told us about your little balancing act.” He touched the mast. “You weren’t planning a repeat performance, were you? I was sorry I missed the display.”
Vani’s cheeks darkened, and she did not meet the bard’s eyes. “It was not a display. One must ever practice to keep one’s body and abilities honed. As a musician, I know you do the same. As should others.”
Now her gold eyes flickered in Beltan’s direction, focusing on his midsection. This time it was the blond knight’s face that flushed. Beltan was strongly built, and his health had been restored by the magic of the fairy, but no one would ever describe him as having a perfect physique. His limbs were long and rangy, and his old ale belly had begun to make something of a resurgence during their weeks at the villa outside Tarras.
Failing utterly to make the action in any way surreptitious, Beltan sucked in his gut. “I’ve had enough practice in my life. I think I’ll stick to my instincts.”
Vani cocked her head. “And just how good are those instincts of yours?”
Beltan opened his mouth to reply, but Vani was gone. A fraction of a second later, a shadow stepped out of thin air directly behind the knight. Like black serpents, lean arms coiled around his head.
“One twist is all it would take to snap your neck,” she said with a sharp smile. “You may be larger and stronger, but if I had wished it, you would be dead.”
Beltan grunted. “Maybe so. But then, at least I would have had some company on my way to the grave.”
Only then did Grace see the knife in his right hand. The blade was aimed back, its tip less than an inch from Vani’s abdomen. Grace calculated the angle of the knife and visualized the anatomy.
He knew what he was doing, Grace. The knife would pierce the descending aorta. She’d be dead in minutes. There’d be nothing you could do.
“All right you two,” Falken said with a scowl. “This really isn’t the time or place to show each other up.”
Vani’s eyes narrowed to slits. “No. This isn’t.”
The air folded in on itself, and Vani was gone.
Beltan rubbed his neck. “Maybe this time she won’t bother to reappear again.” The knight stalked away.
That was when it struck Grace. That’s why Vani’s been staying out of sight. She’s been avoiding Beltan. But why come on this journey if she dislikes him so much?
The answer to that was obvious. Both of them loved Travis. And nothing fueled suspicion like jealousy. The fact that Travis wasn’t there—that they might very well never see him again— only seemed to make things worse.
Grace sighed. She didn’t have the energy for this. The journey was going to be hard enough without having to worry about keeping Beltan and Vani from one another’s throats. And on this cramped ship, it was impossible they wouldn’t run into each other again.
Falken must have sensed her thoughts. He took her arm. “Come on, Your Majesty. Let’s get our daily ale and head to the aft deck. I’ve heard there are no Calavaner knights or Mournish assassins allowed there.”
Grace gripped the bard’s arm. “Sounds wonderful.”
Two days later they docked at the port of Galspeth in Perridon.
Galspeth was a small city at the mouth of the River Serpentstail—and, according to Magard, the last navigable harbor until Omberfell far to the north. After more than a week aboard the cramped vessel, Grace was glad to get off the ship and stretch her legs on a surface that didn’t move. It would take Magard a full day to unload and sell his cargo of spices. Since the Fate Runner wouldn’t leave port again until the next day, the four of them would need to find a place where they could stay.
They made their way from the docks into the cramped and crooked streets of the burgh. Galspeth was wedged into a narrow valley; an imposing gray castle perched above it on a crag. The wind rushing down the valley was cold and sliced through her thin gown, designed for gentler, southern climes. Her shivering didn’t go unnoticed.
“We’d better find some new clothes,” Falken said. “Things are going to get colder the farther we go north.”
Beltan slapped his stomach. “Some ale in our bellies would warm us up.”
“How interesting,” Vani said, raising an eyebrow. “I have heard the seals that swim these northern waters grow thick layers of blubber to insulate themselves from the cold. It looks as if you are well on your way to emulating them.”
Beltan’s cheerful expression turned into a glower. Grace sighed and interposed herself between the knight and the assassin. Something told her Falken was right—things were going to get much colder indeed.
They made their way farther into the city. After the relative cleanliness of Tarras—a city that had happily known about sewers for centuries—Grace had forgotten just how filthy the medieval towns of the Dominions could be. The half-timbered shops and homes looked sturdy, but they were stained with soot, and lichen splotched their slate roofs. Dark water ran down the cobbled streets—where it didn’t freeze into black lumps—and even the cold wind couldn’t keep down the stench.
The people looked like those Grace had seen in other towns in the Dominions: small, gnarled, toothless—old before their time. They wore heavy clothes of smoky colors, although some seemed clad in nothing but rags. Grace saw dozens of small children running about barefoot, their shins covered with oozing chilblains. Why didn’t their parents buy shoes for them?
Maybe because they don’t have parents, Grace.
A band of children approached, eyes and cheeks hollow, holding out their hands. Grace fumbled for the fat leather purse full of coins Emperor Ephesian had given her. However, Beltan was faster. He pressed a small silver piece into each child’s hand, and without a word or smile they ran off.
“Galspeth is a bit dirtier than I remember,” the blond man said, watching the children go.
Falken nodded. “Of all the Dominions, Perridon was the hardest hit by the Burning Plague. Who knows how many people died?”
Of course—that was why there were so many orphans.
“It will probably take Queen Inara a good while to get the Dominion back in working order,” Falken said. “But I’m sure she’s up to the task.”
Grace would have liked to have seen the young queen again, along with her spy, the Spider Aldeth. Castle Spardis wasn’t far from there—no more than twenty leagues upriver according to a map Captain Magard had shown her. However, Grace knew there wasn’t time for a visit. It could take some time to find a ship in Omberfell willing to bear them across the Winter Sea. Then, whether or not they found the shards of Fellring in Toringarth—and Grace wasn’t entirely certain she hoped they would—they would have to make haste to the Black Tower to reach it by Midwinter.
They found a shop that sold a variety of clothes. The owner was a jovial man who looked as if he had decided to emulate seals as well—only with far more success than Beltan. He could barely navigate the cramped store as he chose woolen tunics, thick pairs of hose, leather gloves, and winter cloaks for the men.
Vani refused any new garb—she seemed quite attached to her tight-fitting leathers—but she did acquiesce to a supple, finely woven black cloak. For Grace, the shopkeeper chose a wool gown with accompanying undergarments, as well as a hooded cape lined with silver fox fur.
“You men can change over there,” the shopkeeper said, gesturing to a wooden screen in the corner. “And you, my lady, may don your new attire in here.” He opened the door to a small room. “I’ll send Esolda to assist you.”
Before Grace could say she didn’t really need help, the shopkeeper looked around, then bellowed. “Esolda? Where are you, you wretched girl? Show yourself now!” He glanced at Grace. “If she wasn’t the daughter of my beloved sister, who walks this world no more, I would have turned her out into the streets to beg with the other urchins. I don’t know what happened to her, my lady. She used to be a good lass, but lately she grows more lazy and surly by the day. Esolda!”
Presently a young woman whom Grace presumed to be Esolda appeared from behind a curtain. Grace didn’t think she looked so much surly as she did simple. She wore a drab gray dress, and the dingy bonnet that covered her hair was pulled all the way down to her eyebrows.
“Well don’t just stand there, girl. Help the lady on with her things!”
Esolda trudged after Grace into the side room. She held Grace’s new clothes, staring blankly, while Grace turned around and shrugged off her Tarrasian gown.
“I’m ready now,” Grace said, teeth chattering. There was no fire in this room. “Esolda, my undergarments, please.”
No response. Grace turned around.
The young woman didn’t move, save to blink dull brown eyes. “That’s an ugly necklace,” she said in a thickly accented voice. “It’s not a jewel at all.”
Grace reached up and gripped the cold shard of steel at her throat. She smiled, hoping that might make the girl more comfortable—and responsive. “No, I suppose it isn’t. I’m told it used to be part of a sword.”
Esolda chewed her lip, as if trying hard to comprehend what Grace had said. “A sword isn’t a jewel,” she said at last. “You shouldn’t wear that. He doesn’t like it when you do odd things. Things no one else does. I’ll tell him.”
Grace stared, the cold seeping into her bones. “Who will you tell?”
The girl spoke faster, as if excited, although her eyes remained expressionless. “Once I spied in a window and saw a man putting his thing in another man’s bum just like it was a woman’s locket. I told him about it, and he took the men away and chopped them to bits. I didn’t want him to chop them up. But you can’t do things others don’t do. And the blood...” She gasped, and a shudder coursed through her thin body. “I’ve never seen anything so red in all my life.”
If Grace had been in the ED just then, she would have called for a psych consult; the young woman seemed to be suffering from some sort of emotional trauma. The shopkeeper—her uncle—said her parents were dead. Had she watched them die from the Burning Plague? Clearly she was suffering from delusions. But who was the man she was talking about, the one she claimed to have told about what she saw? Was it her uncle?
It was too cold to think. Grace snatched the undergarments from Esolda and hastily shrugged them on. The young woman simply stood there, so Grace took the gown from her and donned that as well. When she had everything adjusted, she stepped through the door into the shop. Falken had just finished counting coins into the shopkeeper’s hand.
“What took you so long?” Beltan said.
“Nothing,” Grace said. “I was confused by all the straps, that’s all.”
She glanced over her shoulder. The door was ajar, and through the gap she glimpsed a pair of brown eyes gazing at her. While before they had been dull, now there was a dim spark of light in them.
Grace wrapped the fox fur cloak around herself. “Come on. Let’s get out of here.”
Newly protected against the bitter chill, they stepped outside and made their way through the streets to an inn the shopkeeper had recommended.
As they approached the door of the inn, Falken hefted his purse. There wasn’t much jingle to it. “I should have robbed more from Melia’s stash in Tarras. That woman has more gold than she knows what to do with. And our clothes were more expensive than I thought.”
Grace pulled out the purse Ephesian had given her. “Here, take this.” She plunked the fat purse into Falken’s hand. “I believe it’s my turn to pay.”
Beltan grinned. “The drinks are on Her Majesty tonight.” The next morning, Grace woke in the ghostly light before dawn. Shivering, she rose, crept to the room’s fireplace, and stirred up the coals. There was no sign of Vani; her bed appeared untouched.
After Grace dressed, she knocked on the door to Falken and Beltan’s room. The bard answered. “Sorry,” he whispered, “it’s a slow morning. Someone had a bit too much ale last night.”
“Quit shouting!” came Beltan’s groan from beneath a heap of blankets.
Grace couldn’t help smiling. “I think he definitely made some progress on the blubber layer.”
“Indeed,” Falken said.
“I heard that!” came the wounded reply from beneath the blankets.
Two hours—and many cups of maddok—later they reached Galspeth’s docks to find the Fate Runner nearly ready to depart. There had been no sign of Vani at the inn, but as they approached the ship she stepped from the shadows of an alley.
“Do you really have to do that all the time?” Beltan said with a scowl.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the Mournish woman said crisply.
“Where were you?” Falken said.
Vani glanced back over her shoulder. “Watching. There is something...wrong in this town.”
Despite her warm new garb, Grace felt a needle of cold pierce her heart. “What do you mean, Vani?”
“I’m not certain. It’s a shadow on the people. A shadow of fear.”
Grace wrapped her new cape around herself and thought of the strange words spoken by the clothier’s niece. He doesn’t like it when you do odd things. However, before she could tell the others about her encounter, a rough croak echoed over the street. Grace looked up to see a dark form on a nearby rooftop, perched atop a weathervane. As she watched, the shadow sprang into the sky, spread dark wings, and was gone.
Beltan let out a snort. “The only thing wrong with this town is that we’re still in it. Let’s get going before Magard sails without us.”
Hefting their bags, Beltan started up the gangplank. The others followed, and Grace couldn’t say she was sorry to leave the grim town behind.
They left port just as a gray mist poured down the valley. The fog chased them out of the harbor, but soon they outpaced it. The fog seemed to cling close to the shore, and did not extend out into the open sea.
“Anxious to go north, are you?” Magard said to Grace that first evening when he found her at the prow of the ship, gazing into the distance.
Under her cloak, she gripped her necklace. “I’m dreading it.”
The captain nodded, his dark eyes serious. “Best to get it over with swiftly then.”
Grace could find no reply for that. The captain left her to see to his men. The ship bore only a small crew now that it wasn’t laden with cargo. Before, when Grace was abovedecks, she had heard a constant din of bawdy jokes and cheerful, raucous songs. Now all she heard was the wind through the ropes. It made the empty ocean seem even lonelier.
For the next five days, as the Fate Runner sailed north, the thick wall of mist was always visible to port, shrouding the land from view. Starting on the third day, Grace sometimes saw flashes of muted light in the mist: yellow, and livid green.
“It’s the Barrens,” Falken said one evening when the lights were particularly frequent and violent in their intensity. He gripped the rail next to Grace.
Earlier that year, Falken, Durge, and Lirith had ventured into the wasteland of the Barrens to find the Keep of Fire—a fortress raised by the Necromancer Dakarreth to guard the Great Stone Krondisar. Only the keep was abandoned; Dakarreth had come to Castle Spardis, where Grace had dinner with him, not knowing his true nature.
“What happened to the people who lived there?” she said.
Falken shook his head. “No one’s ever lived there. At the dawn of the world, the Old Gods and the dragons warred in that place. The gods tried to build up mountains even as the dragons tried to grind them to dust. The land will never heal from the wounds it suffered.”
Grace held a hand to her chest and felt the fluttering beat of her heart. She knew about scars that could never heal. But Eldh went on despite its wounds, and so did she.
“The book I found in the library,” she said. “Have you learned anything more in it? About the shards of Fellring?”
The wind blew the bard’s hair from his brow; it seemed to have a bit more silver in it than Grace remembered. “I’ve gone through it three times, and while there’s much that’s fascinating, there isn’t a great deal about what happened to the shards. All it says is that, after Malachor fell, one of the last Runelords placed them in an iron box and fled with them to Toringarth. He made it all the way to Ur-Torin, although he was mortally wounded on the way and died soon after.”
“People seem to get mortally wounded a lot in your stories,” Grace said with a wry smile.
Falken only sighed and gazed at his black-gloved hand. Grace instantly regretted her words.
“Falken,” she said, laying her hand on his.
“No, it’s all right, Grace. Dakarreth may have thought he was cursing me when he made me immortal. But if I can live to undo what was done long ago, then it won’t have been a curse at all, will it?”
Why Falken blamed himself for the fall of the kingdom of Malachor seven centuries earlier, she didn’t know. But certainly whatever he had done, he had atoned for it long since. She wanted to tell him that, but the pain in her chest made it too hard to speak, so Grace only smiled.
“No matter,” the bard said. “The book has been an enormous help. I had always thought the shards of Fellring were taken west to Eversea. Now I know that didn’t happen.”
“Eversea?” Hadn’t she read that name in the book?
Falken nodded. “Even I’m not sure it’s not just a story. But it’s a good one. According to legend, Merandon, the second king of Malachor, was something of a brash and proud young man. Many were worried he wouldn’t prove to be the king his father was. One day, just after ascending to the throne, he went to an old witch and asked her what would be the greatest deed he would do as king. She told him he should journey to the westernmost end of Falengarth, and there he would find his answer.
“All the king’s advisors told him to forget the witch’s words, but they burned in Merandon’s brain. So a few years later, once he was certain the Wardens could keep things running in his absence, he set out west with a dozen lords. He was gone for seven years, and when he returned, with him were only three of the lords who had set out with him. However, in his company was also a small band of men the likes of which had never been seen in Malachor. They were Maugrim—the first people the Old Gods found in the forests of Falengarth, long ago in the mists of time. The Maugrim where heavier of bone and thicker of brow than the men of Malachor, and they were said to be hairy from head to toe. They wore only the skins of animals and bore weapons made of stone, not iron.”
Grace held her breath. Falken could be describing Neanderthals, Grace. Or some similar protosapien species. How long have Earth and Eldh been in contact? Better yet, on which world did Homo sapiens evolve first?
“Those three Maugrim were the last of their kind ever recorded in Falengarth,” Falken went on. “Merandon could speak their queer tongue, but they never learned to speak the language of Malachor, and none took wives, so they died childless. But it wasn’t just the Maugrim that Merandon brought back from the West. He also told fantastic tales of his journey. In the end, he claimed, he reached the very western edge of Falengarth, and on the shore of a silver ocean he raised a tower, which he named Eversea.
“It was only thirty years later, on his deathbed, that he whispered to his daughter—who was to become queen after him— the truth of the tower’s construction. It was not Maugrim who had helped him build Eversea. Instead, the Maugrim had taken Merandon to a place in the forest where beings of light danced in a circle. The beings reached out to Merandon, drawing him into their dance. They were fairies, and it was they who bid him to raise a tower by the sea. What’s more, some accounts say that among the light elfs were a few that were dark and twisted. Nor would it be strange if dark elfs—or dwarfs, as some call them—had helped to raise Merandon’s tower, as they were ever cunning at the crafting of stone and metal.”
Grace frowned; something was missing from Falken’s tale. “The witch said if Merandon journeyed west, he would discover what his greatest deed as king would be. So what was it?”
Falken laughed. “Why, going west, of course. You see, when Merandon returned, he was changed from his journey. He was older and scarred, yes. And wiser, more tempered, and possessed of a gentle strength. It was ever after said that he was the greatest of all of Malachor’s kings.”
Grace chewed her lip, mulling over Falken’s tale. How would this journey change her? Somehow she doubted they would find a band of fairies to help them in the end.
“Falken,” she said before she lost her nerve, “even if we do somehow find the shards of Fellring, what good does that do us? What use are a bunch of pieces of broken metal?”
He turned his piercing blue eyes on her. “After all you’ve seen, you truly think magic is so easily broken as metal?”
She opened her mouth, but the bard turned and moved along the deck, vanishing into the deepening twilight.
The next day, the Fate Runner turned west and south as it rounded the northern tip of the Barrens. Almost at once the sea grew gray and choppy, and the ship seemed to lurch from wave to wave as a frigid wind sliced at the sails. The wall of mist that had been in constant view to port was ripped to tatters by the gale. Now Grace could see a rocky shoreline.
“We should reach the port at Omberfell by tomorrow’s sunset at the latest,” Magard said as he handed Grace and Falken their morning lemons.
Beltan, who had been leaning over the rail of the aft deck, now turned and wiped his mouth, his face as gray as the sea.
“Is it just me and my stomach?” the knight said, taking his piece of lemon. “Or have things gotten considerably bumpier in the last few hours?”
Magard’s eyes glittered as he laughed. “We no longer sail the Dawn Sea, my friend. Once we rounded the north horn of the Barrens and set eyes on the shores of Embarr, we entered waters that flow from the Winter Sea. These are cold and treacherous reaches, filled with strange currents and hidden shoals that have been the demise of many a ship.”
“That’s not exactly reassuring,” Grace said, huddling inside her fur cape.
The captain laid a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t fear, my girl. I’ve sailed these waters before, and the Fate Runner is nimble enough to dance her way around any trouble we might run into.”
Grace gave the captain a grateful smile.
“Where’s Vani?” Beltan said, tossing his lemon rind over the rail.
“Your silent friend?” Magard said. “I believe she’s up there again.” He grinned, pointing upward.
They all looked up to see a slim figure perched atop the ship’s foremast.
“She’s not my friend,” Beltan growled, then turned and made his way along the deck.
Magard gave Grace and Falken a curious look.
“Long story,” Grace said, and left it at that.
The wind grew worse as the day wore on, howling from the north, as if it sought to blow the ship onto the jagged Embarran coast and dash it to bits against sharp rocks. Magard and his crewmen worked constantly, barking orders and replies above the roar of the gale, running from foredeck to aft, lashing down ropes and tying off sails. Grace wished there was something she could do to help them, but it was best to stay out of the way. Once one of the sailors lost hold of a rope, and it cracked like a whip mere inches from Grace’s head.
She took that as a sign and returned to her cabin. However, things were no less alarming belowdecks. The floor of the cabin rose and dipped as wildly as a carnival ride. At one point Grace checked on Beltan and Falken; the men lay in their cots, eyes clamped shut, so she left them. She wouldn’t have minded some company, but no doubt Vani was still high atop the ship’s mast. With nothing to do, Grace sat on the floor of her cabin and shut her eyes.
She was only trying to rest; she wasn’t trying to reach out with the Touch. However, she wasn’t really sleepy, and her mind must have wandered, for suddenly it was there all around her: the shimmering web of the Weirding.
Grace didn’t pull back. She could sense all of the lives aboard the tiny ship. Beltan and Falken were in their cabin, Captain Magard and his crew moved abovedecks, and there was Vani, still high atop one of the masts. In addition, countless tiny sparks of light scurried deep in the hold of the ship. Rats. But seen like this, they didn’t seem so revolting. Instead they flitted about in Grace’s vision like fireflies.
The Weirding flooded Grace with warmth and comfort. She let her mind drift out further. Beneath the ship was a vast, glowing ocean of life. Schools of fish floated beneath the ship’s hull like shimmering clouds, and larger creatures flashed by too quickly for Grace to sense what they were. Reveling in the sensation of connectedness, she reached out further yet.
It streaked toward the Fate Runner like an angry bolt of lightning.
Grace’s eyes flew open. What was it? She didn’t know. But it was big, the fire of its life force burning like a star against the web of the Weirding. And it was coming straight for them.
She leaped to her feat, stumbled as the ship lurched, then righted herself and pushed through the cabin door.
“Beltan! Falken!” she shouted, pounding on their cabin door. “Get out here!” Without waiting, she scrambled up the steps to the deck above.
The day had grown darker rather than lighter while she was below. Iron-colored clouds scudded across the sky, and waves broke all around the ship, crashing together in white explosions. The shore was closer than before—perilously close. Grace could discern the sharp outlines of individual rocks. Just ahead, the land seemed to take a sharp turn to the north. Gripping the rail, she made her way along the deck. She found Magard near the foremast.
“You should get belowdecks!” he shouted above the howl of the gale. “It’s too rough up here!”
She clutched the mast to keep from falling as the deck rose and fell beneath her. “Captain Magard! There’s something out there. It’s coming right for us.”
A frown crossed his leathery face. “What’s coming right for us?”
“I don’t know.” She fought to speak against the wind and spray. “It’s big. Very big. Almost like it’s a...”
“It’s a ship,” Vani said, stepping from between two folds of empty air.
Magard jerked his head around. “A ship? Where?”
“Off to starboard. It’s coming toward us quickly.”
Grace stared at Vani. A ship? Yes, that made sense. At a distance, all the sparks of its crew would have merged into one, making it look like a single great light. Again she reached out with the Touch. The light was closer. Now she could make out the individual sparks of the lives aboard the vessel.
“There must be a hundred men aboard that ship.”
Magard scowled at her. “And how do you know that, my girl?”
Grace opened her mouth, but before she could answer a shout went up from the aft deck.
A bell rang wildly. Swearing, Magard moved to the rail. Vani and Grace followed just as Beltan and Falken appeared abovedecks. Off to starboard, a patch of mist clinging to the sea was ripped apart as a massive shape burst through it.
“By the Foamy Mane of Jorus, would you look at that,” Magard said, awe written across his face.
The ship was gigantic. It rose from the waves like a fortress made of wood, its decks fully twice as high above the surface of the sea as those of the Fate Runner. Grace counted five masts and over a dozen sails, each one as crimson as blood. The mainsail sagged as the wind shifted direction. Countless small, dark forms scurried through the ship’s myriad ropes, then all at once the sail filled again with air, billowing outward. Emblazoned on the vast, red field was a symbol: a black crown encircling a silver tower.
Its sails full to the wind once more, the ship surged over the waves.
“Blood and brine,” Magard said. “She means to broadside us.”
The captain turned to shout orders at his crew. The men dashed into action, scrambling up the rigging. But there were too few of them; they couldn’t possibly turn the ship in time.
Grace clutched the rail and stared at the others, eyes wide. “What do we do?”
“I suggest we move to the port side of the ship,” Vani said sharply.
Beltan and Falken returned grim nods. Together, the four fled to the opposite side of the deck and braced themselves against the rail. When Grace turned around, the oncoming ship loomed over the Fate Runner like a tower. She could hardly believe something so gigantic could move so swiftly. Decorating the ship’s prow was the carving of a woman in a flowing robe, painted in blues and silvers. Except there was something strange about the woman; her eyes were too large and too slanted, her neck too long, her ears delicately pointed.
That’s not a woman, Grace.
She glanced at Falken, but the bard only stared at the rapidly growing ship.
“Hold the tiller steady!” Magard shouted, cords standing out on his neck. “Cut the ropes. Give her full sail. Now!”
In the rigging above, several crewmen drew curved knives. Steel flashed, then ropes hissed and whistled through the air like angry serpents. Beltan ducked barely in time to avoid having his head taken off. The sails billowed and snapped, and the Fate Runner sprang forward like a rock out of a sling.
The gigantic ship was so close now Grace could see the men lining its deck. They were clad all in black, from horned helms to greaves. Even the swords in their hands were black. Only their shields were different: as crimson as the ship’s sails, each marked with the same black crown and silver tower.
“Hold on!” Falken cried, locking his arms around the rail.
Vani snaked a rope around her wrist. Before Grace could move, Beltan wrapped his long arms around her and gripped the rail, pressing Grace tight against it.
“Here she comes!” Magard’s shout sounded over the wind.
There was a roar like a jet engine. Grace craned her head around. The gigantic shape of the oncoming ship moved swiftly across her field of vision from left to right; it was falling astern as the Fate Runner sped forward.
We’re going to make it, Grace. We’re going to—
Water sprayed up in a white geyser as a sound like thunder rent the air. The Fate Runner groaned like a torture victim as a violent tremor passed through its hull. The deck lurched, and Grace lost her hold on the rail. She would have gone flying save for Beltan’s fierce grip. Two crewmen were not so lucky. Grace saw them tumble from the rigging. One struck the deck, landing in a crumpled heap. The other glanced off the railing, then vanished into the sea.
There was a low, grinding sound. Again the planks shuddered beneath Grace. Then the Fate Runner shot forward in a cloud of spray. The red-sailed ship fell behind. The men standing at its rail shook black swords.
“Magard’s crew moved faster than I thought,” Falken said, breathing hard as he stood back up. “We made enough headway that the ship only glanced off our stern.”
“Will they not try again?” Vani said, releasing the rope she had gripped.
“They will,” Beltan said. “But they’re too big. They can’t turn as fast as we can. It’ll take them a while to come around to starboard.”
The blond man was right. The gigantic ship had let its sails go slack to keep from running straight into the rocky coast. It was starting to turn, but only slowly. Every moment the ship fell farther behind them.
Captain Magard was shouting orders again. Grace wriggled free of Beltan’s grasp and hurried to the slumped form of the crewman who had fallen from the rigging. Blood oozed from the back of his head. Grace reached out with the Touch, but she already knew what she would find. His thread was dark as ashes, and it fell apart in her hands.
“Hold her steady!” Magard’s voice rose on the air. “One notch to port or starboard, and we’re all dead.”
Grace jerked her head up and gasped. While they had worked to escape the other ship, they had rushed right toward the sharp northward bend in the coast. Cliffs loomed above them. Grace didn’t see how they could possibly turn in time. She went rigid, bracing herself for another impact.
Jagged walls of rock rushed by to either side of the ship as the Fate Runner sailed forward. Grace counted a dozen heartbeats, then all at once the walls fell away. She turned back to see dark cliffs shrinking behind them. The coast of Embarr was once more safely off to port.
Falken let out a low whistle. He had drawn near to Grace, along with Beltan and Vani.
“I didn’t think we were going to make it through that narrows,” the bard said.
“You have no faith, Falken Blackhand,” Magard said, striding toward them with a broad grin. “I’ve wriggled this minnow through tighter passages than that.”
“The other ship won’t be able to make it through that narrows,” Beltan said. “Whoever they were.”
Vani glanced at the captain. “How long will it take them to sail around?”
“A good half day,” Magard said. “Maybe more. That island stretches from the coast far to the north, and the waters are rough around it.”
At last Grace understood. Earlier, it had looked like the coast bent north, but that was only because she hadn’t been able to see the narrow gap in the rocks. In fact, the landmass before them had been an island, not a promontory. Only now it lay behind them, and the big, red-sailed ship would have to go around. They had lost their pursuers. For the moment. But who were the men on the strange ship? And why had they attacked the Fate Runner? Then she pictured their black helms and swords, and she thought maybe she had an idea.
Before Grace could voice her thoughts, Magard’s eyes focused on the form lying before her. His grin faded, and he gave her a questioning look.
Grace sighed. “He was dead when he struck the deck.”
Magard nodded, his expression hard. “We’ll put him to rest in the sea, then, along with his mate who we lost before we entered the straits.”
Sickness flooded Grace’s stomach. The deck rolled beneath her. It seemed stormier on this side of the narrows. The sky was a swirling iron gray, and the waves leaped high enough that water slopped onto the deck. She struggled to her feet.
A stray barrel, knocked loose in the earlier impact, rolled along the deck. Beltan jumped to get out of its way. The knight frowned as it rolled toward the stern of the ship.
With a cold sensation of dread, Grace understood. “The deck. It’s slanting toward the back of the ship.”
The angle was visible now, and getting worse by the second.
Magard swore. “She must have clipped us harder than I thought. We’re taking on water.”
“Captain!” came a shout from one of the crewmen in the rigging. “There are shallows ahead!”
Magard swore again.
Falken gripped his arm. “I thought you said the Fate Runner could sail in shallow seas.”
“She can,” the captain said. “When she isn’t riding low in the water. But now that the hold is filling...”
Magard didn’t bother to say anything more. He dashed forward, barking orders to his remaining crewmen. Grace lost sight of him.
“What do we do?” she said. Her mind raced, but she couldn’t think.
Falken gave Beltan a grim look. “Hold on to her, Beltan. Whatever happens, you have to keep her safe.”
“On my life,” the blond knight said. “I swear it.”
No, this was madness. They needed a plan of action, not words of doom. Grace opened her mouth to speak, but a horrible grinding noise filled the air, and once again the deck lurched beneath her. She fell to her knees.
“Prepare yourselves!” Vani called out.
The grinding stopped, but the deck kept moving. It tilted wildly to port. Grace couldn’t hold on; she began to slide. Then she felt a strong grip on her arm.
“Swim, my lady,” Beltan growled in her ear. “No matter how hard the currents pull at you, swim with all your might.”
All at once sky and sea switched places. Screams came from every direction, along with the horrible sounds of snapping ropes and splintering wood. There was one final, rending shriek as the ship broke apart.
Then Grace plunged into cold water, and invisible hands dragged her downward.
THE RAVEN REBORN
It was strange how quickly time could pass when all you were doing was trying to survive.
Travis knew their only purpose in Castle City was to bide their time until Jack Graystone arrived and helped them find a way back to Eldh, and back to their own time. Grace and the others probably thought they were dead, killed in the collapse of the Etherion. Travis couldn’t let them believe that, not when there was still hope. Sometimes he wondered if Beltan had given up on him, or Vani. The thought made his soul ache, but just who the pain was for—fair-haired knight or gold-eyed assassin—he could never say.
Besides, Travis, maybe it’s better if you never get back. If the dragon and the Witches are right, you’re going to destroy Eldh no matter what you try to do.
Then again, if Vani’s grandmother spoke truth, and he was A’narai —one of the Fateless—how could it be his destiny to do anything, let alone shatter a world?
It didn’t matter. As things stood now, neither Beltan nor Vani had even been born yet. And it seemed anything but likely the four of them would ever get back to Eldh, let alone to their own time. Besides, in the day-to-day work of keeping a roof over their heads, sometimes it was hard to remember he was anything but a bartender in a Colorado saloon in the year 1883.
“Tell me how to concoct a Velvet, Mr. Wilder,” Manypenny quizzed him that first evening he reported for work at the Mine Shaft in his new white shirt and black trousers.
Travis rubbed his freshly shaved pate. It had always been a point of pride that he knew the recipe for nearly every cocktail in existence, no matter how odd or obscure. However, his brain was a bit rusty. It had been over a year since he had left the Mine Shaft—in his time line, at least. All the same, he managed to dredge up the knowledge.
“Combine equal parts champagne and porter.”
Manypenny gave a satisfied nod. “Now describe the manner for formulating a Flip.”
That one was locked in an even dustier corner of Travis’s brain, but at last he recalled the Halloween when they had done a Sleepy Hollow theme at the saloon. He had dressed up as Ichabod Crane and had learned to mix drinks that were popular in Colonial times.
“Rum, beer, and sugar,” he said, ticking off the ingredients on his hand. “Mix them together in a mug, then plunge in the tip of a hot poker until it foams.”
Manypenny stroked his curled mustache, beady eyes glinting. “I see you’re not so easily confounded. Inform me, then, of the items that go into a Blue Blazer.”
Travis racked his memory, but in the end he was baffled. No doubt it would cost him his new job, but there was nothing to do but admit the truth. He would just have to find work at one of the mines, no matter what Maudie said.
“I’m afraid I don’t know,” he said, prepared for Manypenny’s displeasure.
Instead, the saloonkeeper let out a bellow of laughter. “Well, it appears the Sphinx has won this contest of riddles after all.”
Travis could only gape. It seemed Manypenny had been playing with him, determined to best him at the game.
His employer clapped him on the back. “Never fear if you’ve never heard of a certain beverage, Mr. Wilder. The miner who asks you for a fancy cocktail likely won’t know what goes into it any more than you do. No doubt he simply overheard some well-heeled gentleman order such a drink and wishes to try it for himself. However, your typical miner wouldn’t know amontillado from mare’s piss. So formulate any preposterous concoction, and he’ll drink it gladly.”
Travis forced a weak smile. He had the feeling working for Manypenny was going to be something of an adventure.
As it turned out, few of the men who walked up to the bar requested cocktails. A good number asked for beer, but the vast majority were there for one thing only: whiskey. Usually it was a shot of Taos Lightning—or Old Towse, as the crustierlooking men termed it. This was a hot and potent liquor distilled in the city in New Mexico from which it took its name. When Travis tried his first sip, he decided it had all the kick and character of a can of Sterno—after it had been set on fire.
Right away, Travis was struck by the similarity between the men who came into the saloon and many of the men he had seen on Eldh. Trade their muslin shirts and denim jeans for tunics and hose, and any of them could have passed for a peasant in Calavan. Most were short, their faces lined beyond their years, their teeth yellow and rotting, and their hands permanently blackened from labor in the mines.
Many of the men had hard and empty eyes, as if all the life had been leached out of them, just like the silver was leached from carbonate of lead. They drank standing at the bar, downing their whiskey quickly and without relish, then stepping aside to make room for the next man.
Not all of the customers were so cheerless. Just as when Travis owned (would own?) the saloon, many of the men who stopped by each day were regulars and friends of the proprietor. These were townsmen, not miners, and many owned businesses along Elk Street.
Unlike the miners, these men wore suits, with silver watch fobs dangling from their vest pockets. They talked much, laughed more, smoked cigars, and drank bourbon and champagne as often as whiskey and beer. They were men of wealth and success— bankers, merchants, doctors, and lawyers. Travis didn’t have the heart to tell them that, in a few more years, once the silver market crashed and the mines closed, they would all be broke.
Whenever Manypenny, in his booming voice, introduced his new bartender to one of these regulars, the customer always bought Travis a drink. In fact, as far as Travis could tell, making the bartender drink seemed to be a popular pastime in the Old West, and almost any occasion called for it.
When a man wandered into the saloon, fresh from the East, full of dreams of striking it rich and still flush with cash, he always insisted on buying Travis a drink. Travis hated to accept the gesture, knowing that a few weeks later, when his claim went bust, the same man would come in again, clothes dirty and torn, and pockets empty. At that point it would be Travis’s turn to buy the other a drink while the fellow tried to figure out a way to earn enough for a train ticket home.
Then there was the occasional prospector who managed to find a small pocket of high-grade ore, and who—after paying a visit to the assay office—would swagger in and buy whiskey for the entire saloon. Of course, after a few days of drinking and gambling, his newfound fortune would be gone. Head aching, the miner would return to his claim to start all over.
Even a fair number of the miners—laborers who made three dollars a day—would buy Travis a shot of whiskey along with one for themselves. One look at their haunted and lonely faces, and Travis couldn’t turn them down. For all this town’s bustle and crowded streets, he had a feeling sharing a drink with a bartender whose name they didn’t even know was the closest some of these men came to having a friend. Sometimes Travis would ask the man his name—but only his first, not his last.
“Never ask for anything more than a man’s front name,” Manypenny admonished him. “As far as I’m concerned, a man who enters here leaves his past at the door.”
Travis clenched his right hand into a fist. If only that were true. However, while he could never forget the past, he also knew that it lay behind him—a shadow that followed in his wake, and nothing more. That was what he had learned in the Etherion, when he faced the demon; that was what the ghost of Alice, his little sister, had shown him. So he would raise his glass to the fellow who had bought him the drink, and they’d down their whiskey in silence.
Of course, if Travis were actually to consume all of the drinks that were bought for him, he’d have been lying under the bar by sundown most days. Instead, after filling the customer’s glass with the good stuff, he’d pour a shot into his own glass from a bottle he kept behind the bar, which was more water than whiskey— a survival trick practiced by bartenders in any century.
Once the sun slipped behind the mountains, the character of the saloon changed. The somber drinkers who inhabited the bar by day were replaced by a noisier, harder-drinking, and decidedly rowdier crowd. Cigar smoke and laughter filled the air, along with tinny music once the piano player arrived to plink out “My Darling Clementine” and “Sweet Betsy from Pike” on an upright piano so battered it looked like it had been dragged across the Great Plains behind a covered wagon.
It was also after dark that the gambling tables came alive. Each of the tables was rented to a gambler who ran his own game, and who paid Manypenny a share of the table’s take. There were plenty of choices for losing one’s money, including poker, paigow, and three-card monte. However, by far the most popular game was one called faro.
As far as Travis could tell, there wasn’t much to faro. The thirteen card ranks—from ace to king—were painted on the surface of the table. Players placed bets on the various ranks to win or to lose. Then the dealer turned up two cards. The first card was the loser, and the second card was the winner. So if a player bet sevens to lose, and a seven was the first card drawn, the bet paid off. Or, if he bet jacks to win, and a jack was the first card, the dealer took his bet.
After watching a few games, even Travis was smart enough to realize that the odds of winning in faro were pretty much dead even. That was clearly why it was a popular game. The only thing that gave the house a slight edge was the fact that the dealer discarded the first and last cards in the deck—they were neither winners nor losers. That meant, over time, the dealer kept just a thin fraction of all the bets placed. Then again, given the vast amount of money that moved across the faro table, even a few percentage points wasn’t a shabby sum, and no doubt accounted for the dealer’s silk vest and diamond stud cuff links.
While the atmosphere in the Mine Shaft at night was a bit on the wild side, it was usually good-natured. Men drank, laughed, gambled, and made conversation with the rare woman who entered the saloon—ladies who, while not hurdy-gurdy girls, were certainly not a big step above on Castle City’s social ladder. And while many of the town’s prominent men could be found at the saloon, their wives were nowhere in sight.
Most men could hold their liquor, and they took their losses at the gambling tables with no more than a sheepish grin. But there were the exceptions. One of the first things Manypenny made a point of showing Travis was the shotgun that hung from a pair of hooks beneath the bar. And, almost every night, at some point the big saloonkeeper brought out the shotgun and cocked it, aiming it square at whatever rowdy had had too much to drink, or had lost too much at poker, or had been jilted by his best girl, and who was determined to fight someone— anyone—over it.
Usually the other was not so drunk or angry he didn’t think twice at having a shotgun barrel pointed at his chest, and upon quickly sobering up he hurried out the door. However, one night a young man in grimy clothes shouted that Manypenny was watering down the liquor—an accusation clearly disproved by the man’s evident inebriation. The other seemed not to feel the barrel of the shotgun jammed into his stomach as he swung his arms wildly, reaching for Manypenny, who clenched his jaw and slowly squeezed the trigger. Then a pair of men who seemed to be the angry one’s friends pulled him off and dragged him out into the street.
Laughter and the sound of music quickly rose on the air again, and Travis suspected he was the only one who saw Manypenny slump against the bar, still holding the shotgun in pudgy hands. The big man’s face was red, and sweat stained his shirt in dark patches.
“You wouldn’t have pulled the trigger, would you, Mr. Manypenny?” Travis said quietly. “No matter what he did, you wouldn’t have shot him.”
The saloonkeeper drew in a rasping breath. “Put this away for me, Mr. Wilder.” He handed Travis the shotgun. “In the name of God, please put it away.”
Travis took the shotgun and placed it on its hooks under the bar, and all the while he wondered—if this was one of the more respectable establishments in town, as Maudie had said—what were the other saloons in Castle City like?
Fortunately, incidents of violence in the Mine Shaft were rarer than Travis might have feared. In fact, for all their drinking, for all their gambling and boisterousness, there was something oddly subdued about the men and women in the saloon. Travis couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was. Sometimes he’d see a man stop short in his laughter and look suddenly over his shoulder, or perhaps he’d quickly hush another man who was talking in a loud, slurred voice about something Travis couldn’t quite understand.
They lead hard lives, Travis. They’re probably tired all the time, that’s all.
Except he didn’t quite believe that was it.
All the same, in the constant hurry of his work at the saloon, it was easy to forget those peculiar moments. Just like it was easy to forget about Jack Graystone, and how they had to find a way back to Eldh and their own time. In fact, he might have forgotten about everything in his daily labors at the Mine Shaft.
Only then, as he hauled in a fresh cask of whiskey from the back, or swept up the sawdust from the floor, he’d look up and see the yellowed Wanted poster plastered to the wall, staring back at him with his own eyes behind wire-rimmed spectacles.
WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE. TYLER CAINE, THE MAN-KILLER.
And Travis knew he would never forget who he was.
It was about a week after Travis started working at the saloon that he looked up and saw two familiar figures step through the swinging doors and approach the bar.
“Lirith, Durge,” he said, surprised. He set down the deck of cards he had been fidgeting with in a slow moment, laying them on the bar. “What are you two doing here? Is something wrong? Is it—?”
“No, Travis, both Sareth and Maudie are fine,” Lirith said, her smoky red lips curving in a smile. “If that’s what you were going to ask.”
It was, as the witch no doubt knew perfectly well.
“I do not believe this was a wise idea, my lady,” Durge rumbled under his mustache.
The knight glanced from side to side, and Travis understood his concern. It was afternoon, and the saloon was less than half full. However, the low murmur of conversation had stilled for a moment as the knight and witch stepped through the door, and while the noise had returned, it was impossible not to notice the eyes that kept flickering in their direction.
“I think Durge may be right,” Travis said quietly as he polished the bar with a cloth. He remembered what had happened the last time all of them were out in public together—they were accused of being thieves and of nearly burning down the town. “If it isn’t an emergency, couldn’t it have waited until I got back to the Bluebell?”
Lirith sighed. “Lady Maudie is a dear, Travis. But I’m starting to feel a bit trapped at the Bluebell. And Durge is as well, though he won’t say it.”
Travis glanced at the stalwart knight. The Embarran only gazed at the floor, and Travis noted that he didn’t disagree with the witch’s words.
“We can’t stay hidden forever,” Lirith went on. “But that’s not the reason I wanted to come out today. It’s good you’ve been earning money here at this tavern, but your wage only covers what we must pay Lady Maudie for our keep. Yet, if we are to stay here for weeks to come, there are other things we’ll require. We each need a change of clothes and new shoes. And there are medicines I would purchase for Sareth to ease his breathing.” Lirith placed her hands on the bar, her dark eyes earnest. “Durge and I have decided we both must find—”
“Her kind ain’t welcome in here,” said a coarse voice.
The three looked up to see a man saunter toward the bar. His face was as battered and dusty as his clothes, and his eyes were dangerous slits. Travis remembered him; he and a companion had come in that morning, had bought a full bottle of whiskey, and had hunkered down at a table in a corner. Now Travis glanced at the corner. The man’s friend stood next to his chair. On the table nearby was an empty bottle.
The man stopped a few feet from Lirith and Durge, hands on his hips. He spat on the floor, and a dark line of tobacco juice dribbled down his chin. “Didn’t yeh hear me? I said, her kind ain’t welcome here.”
“On the contrary,” came a booming voice, “all kinds are welcome at the Mine Shaft Saloon.”
Manypenny stepped through the storeroom door and stood next to Travis, an affable expression on his red face. However, Travis saw the hard gleam in his eyes.
The man spat again. “I didn’t know this was no colored saloon. Next thing, you’ll be letting in Chinamen. But it ain’t no matter, if yeh do. She still don’t belong here. Women don’t know nothing about likker or cards.”
“Is that so?” Lirith said.
Before the others could react, Lirith reached out and swept up the deck of cards from the bar. She shuffled them crisply in midair, fanned them out, tamped them back together, then cut the deck using a single hand, deftly separating it into four parts, each one nestled between two of her dark fingers. Again with one hand she reconstituted the deck and fanned it a second time. She held the cards toward the man.
“Pick one,” she said. “And I’ll wager a gold coin I can tell you what card it is without looking at it.”
This elicited a hoot of laughter from Manypenny. However, Travis knew it had been a mistake. He had worked long enough in the Mine Shaft in two centuries to know the different types of drunks. Some people couldn’t stop laughing, others grew maudlin, and some just fell asleep. But for some men, alcohol—like Dr. Jekyll’s potion—was a key that opened the door to all their darkest, most dangerous impulses.
“Yeh don’t know yer place, miss,” the man said through tobacco-stained teeth. “Yeh shouldn’t be here. Yeh should be at the hurdy-gurdy, charging a feller two bits for a dance. And two dollars for anything else he wants to do with yeh.”
These were the first words the man spoke that really seemed to rattle Lirith. Her face went ashen, and the cards slipped from her hand, scattering across the floor. Grinning, the man reached out to touch the black curls of her hair.
There was a loud smack, and his hand flew back. Travis had hardly seen Durge move.
The man shook his hand, and his grin vanished. “You ought not have done that, mister.”
“And you ought to know,” Durge said, brown eyes stern, “how to properly address a noble lady and your better.”
By the time Travis realized what was going to happen, it was too late to do anything but watch. The man reached beneath his coat and drew out a silver six-shooter. He aimed it square at Durge’s chest.
Before the man could squeeze the trigger, Durge stepped past the man, braced a leg behind the other’s knee, and grabbed the wrist of his gun hand, bringing it up and over his head. The man’s knees buckled, and as Durge spun him around, his right arm struck the hard edge of the bar. There was a crack as the man’s arm broke. The gun flew behind the bar, right into Manypenny’s hands. The man sank to the floor, curling around his shattered arm and whimpering. Durge turned around.
There was a click as a gun was cocked.
The wounded man’s drinking partner stood an arm’s length away from Durge. He pressed the barrel of his revolver against the knight’s forehead.
“You just made a big mistake, mister,” the man said, baring a scant collection of teeth.
“Then perhaps two wrongs do make a right,” Durge said.
The knight didn’t smile, but there was a light in his brown eyes Travis could only describe as eager. He batted the man’s gun hand aside with a flick of his right hand, then lashed out with his left fist. The man’s head flew back, and his eyes rolled up. Without a sound, he toppled backward onto the floor, holding the gun in a limp hand.
Interested gazes lingered on the fallen men and Durge for a few moments, then the saloon’s remaining patrons returned their attention to their drinks. However, in response to a nod from Manypenny, one man dashed out the door.
“Are you well, my lady?” Durge said to Lirith.
She smiled and laid a hand on the knight’s arm. “Very well, my lord. Thank you. It’s not often a lady gets heads cracked in her honor. I’ll consider it a rare treat.”
Manypenny stepped from behind the bar and retrieved the second man’s gun. “That was excellent, sir,” he said to Durge with a broad grin. “An incomparable display of skill and prowess. I won many a wrestling match in my day, but even in my prime, I could not have neutralized two men with such Herculean ease. You dealt your blows as deftly as the lovely lady here deals cards.”
Manypenny kept the silver six-shooter he had caught aimed at the two men, but neither of them seemed intent on going anywhere, although the second one did wake up. A few minutes later, Sheriff Tanner stepped through the saloon’s swinging doors.
“Greeting, Bartholomew,” Manypenny said, as Tanner approached the bar.
“Hello, Arthur,” Tanner said. He tipped his hat. “And hello again, Miss Lily, Mr. Dirk, and Mr. Wilder. It does seem interesting things happen when you’re around.”
He must have talked to Maudie. That was the only way he could have known their names.
Travis attempted a grin. “I guess we’re just lucky.”
“With luck like that, I suggest you avoid the poker tables, Mr. Wilder.” The sheriff glanced at Manypenny. “Now tell me what happened here, Arthur.”
Fifteen minutes later, Tanner’s deputy—a slightly chubby young man by the name of Wilson—led the two men out the door of the saloon. Both seemed considerably less bold than they had before Durge had done his work with them.
“Each of them will need to see a healer,” Lirith said.
Tanner nodded. “You’re a good woman, Miss Lily, to think kindly of men who didn’t act so kindly toward you. But don’t worry—I’ll have the doctor look after them at the jail.”
The sheriff tipped his hat to them all again and started for the door. However, halfway there he stopped and turned.
“Mr. Dirk,” he said. “If you could see fit to come visit my office sometime, I’d appreciate it.”
Travis and Lirith both shot the knight concerned looks. Durge gave a stiff nod. “No doubt I broke the laws of this place with my actions. If you wish it, I will surrender myself to you immediately, Sir Tanner.”
Tanner grinned behind his sandy mustache. “I’m not going to arrest you, Mr. Dirk. On the contrary, while Deputy Wilson is a good kid, I could use a man like you. It doesn’t pay much for the trouble it’s worth, but if you come over and get deputized, I’ll give you a badge and a gun along with three dollars and fifty cents a day.”
There was a flash of sunlight, then Tanner was gone.
Travis could only gaze at Durge in astonishment. Tanner wanted to deputize him? However, as it turned out, the knight was not the only one who received a job offer that day.
“I have need of a new faro dealer,” Manypenny said to Lirith as Durge started to lead her to the door. “My last remaining faro dealer has vanished without warning. An old debt caught up with him, I presume. Do you know the game?”
Lirith gave Travis a questioning glance, and he returned what he hoped was a subtle nod. He had figured out the rules of the game quickly enough, and he had no doubt Lirith was smarter than him by a good measure.
“I do,” Lirith said.
“Good,” Manypenny proclaimed. “It’s most felicitous you came in to see Mr. Wilder today. You can rent the table in the corner there. The house keeps half the profits. Be here at sundown if you want the job. And Miss Lily, do find yourself a dress that flatters you a bit more.”
Travis couldn’t help wondering if it wasn’t a bit daring to hire Lirith as a dealer. After all, the man who had approached her couldn’t be the only one in Castle City who thought a black woman didn’t belong in the saloon. It was 1883; the Civil War had ended less than twenty years earlier. And women possessed only a fraction of the rights men did.
Then again, Manypenny was nothing if not flamboyant, and Travis had a feeling the saloonkeeper enjoyed causing a bit of controversy. It certainly would create talk in the town, which would likely bring in more customers than it turned away.
Manypenny returned to his work, and Travis walked with Lirith and Durge to the door.
“What is a deputy?” Durge asked.
Travis tried to think of a way to describe it. “Is there a term for a knight who serves another knight?”
“A vassal knight.” Durge stroked his mustaches. “There is honor in such a role, if one serves a good and noble man.”
Travis could already see the gears turning in Durge’s head. He wondered if he should convince the knight not to go talk to Tanner. The last thing they needed was anything that brought attention to them. However, it could wait for later.
“Lirith,” he said, “you never did get a chance to tell me why it was you two left the Bluebell today.”
The witch smiled. “I was going to tell you that both Durge and I had decided to try to find jobs.”
Lirith’s first night as a faro dealer at the Mine Shaft was, by any definition, a rousing success.
“Lord above, you can’t deal faro in that dress,” Maudie exclaimed when they returned to the Bluebell and told her and Sareth what had happened at the saloon.
“That’s what Mr. Manypenny said.” Lirith sighed, smoothing her brown-poplin dress. “I suppose this is a rather plain gown. But it will have to do for now. I won’t be able to afford a new one until I’ve earned some money.”
“Nonsense,” Maudie said in a tone that allowed no room for argument. “This way, Miss Lily.”
She took Lirith’s elbow in one hand, her cane in the other, and led the stunned witch up the staircase.
“Where are they going?” Durge asked.
Sareth let out a low, chiming laugh. “To work some magic, I would guess.”
The Mournish man’s guess was correct. A half hour later, Maudie and Lirith descended the staircase into the parlor. At once, the three men rose to their feet.
Durge’s brown eyes went wide. “My lady, you look...you look like...”
“Like something from a dream,” Sareth murmured, his coppery gaze thoughtful.
Maudie let out a throaty laugh. “See there, Lily? I told you that you’d turn men into fools in this dress, if the lot of them weren’t fools already.”
Lirith’s smile was almost shy—and perhaps just a little pleased—as she brushed the jade-taffeta dress she wore, and which flowed and shimmered around her slim form like cool water. Its neckline plunged low to reveal the dark, lustrous skin above her breasts, which were made full and round by the tight bodice. The witch’s black hair was woven with red ribbons and fell in shining ringlets about her shoulders. Travis supposed the dress had once been Maudie’s.
Sareth reached out and took Lirith’s hand. “Be careful tonight, beshala.”
She touched his cheek. “I will. Beshala.”
And so entranced were he and Durge that only Travis noticed how Maudie turned away to cough, and how she wiped her lips, leaving a splotch of color on her handkerchief as red as the ribbons in Lirith’s hair.
Word about Manypenny’s new faro dealer must have spread all over town, for that night the Mine Shaft was more crowded than Travis had ever seen it, and a good part of that crowd was crammed in the corner around Lirith’s table.
Travis had explained the rules of the game to the witch—as far as he knew them, anyway—as they walked to the saloon. Travis did his best to keep an eye on her in between pouring drinks and tapping new kegs of beer. However, if Lirith made a single mistake, he didn’t notice it—and nor did the dozens of men and handful of women who played at her table that night. Lirith turned the cards with elegant motions and swept in the winnings with a smile so radiant Travis doubted any of the men minded losing. Although there were a few women who appeared less than pleased with the way their beaus stared openly at the dealer.
Lirith is a witch, Travis. You don’t suppose she’s casting a spell, do you?
She was, he decided. Except it was a spell worked, not with the magic of the Weirding, but rather true and simple beauty and the light of her smile.
Night after night, Lirith’s faro table remained every bit as popular as it had on that first—a fact that pleased Manypenny to no end. He had taken to calling her Lady Lily, a title far closer to the truth than the saloonkeeper could ever have guessed. And if Travis noticed the occasional dark glance in Lirith’s direction, or a few angry, muttered words from time to time, it was easy enough to forget them in the bustle of his work at the saloon. For with the success of Lirith’s faro table, things were busier than ever.
Durge was busier these days as well. The day after their conversation with Tanner at the saloon, he left the Bluebell and walked to the sheriff’s office, wearing a brown suit Maudie had pulled from one of her seemingly bottomless closets, and which she said belonged to one of her former husbands. Travis was curious how many husbands Maudie had once had, and what had happened to them. However, Lirith gave him a sharp kick in the shin when he tried to ask.
When Durge returned to the boardinghouse, he wore a silver badge on his vest and a gleaming revolver at his hip.
Maudie pressed her lips into a tight line when she saw him. “That suit is too long for you, Mr. Dirk. Leave it in my sewing room so I can take it up a bit.” She hurried away, but not before Travis saw the worry in her eyes.
He felt the same concern she did. “Are you certain you want to do this, Durge?”
The knight’s eyes were resolute. “Sir Tanner is a good man. No doubt the job will be perilous, and I’ll quite likely perish in the course of it. But I could not refuse him and keep my honor as a knight.”
“What about the gun?” Travis said, eyeing the revolver. “Did Tanner teach you how to use it? You don’t want to accidentally shoot yourself in the foot.”
Durge shook his head. “Sir Tanner said a deputy must wear one of these guns, but I told him I would not use such sorcery, although I did not think less of him that he chose to.”
Travis wondered if Durge had used those exact words, and if so what Tanner had made of them. Then again, he was starting to think part of the magic of the silver coin was that it made people hear what they expected to hear.
“This gun doesn’t work,” Durge went on. “I asked Tanner to remove all of the pieces of metal it throws.”
“Bullets,” Travis said. “They’re called bullets. So the gun’s not loaded.” He didn’t know whether to be relieved or more worried than ever.
Stop it, Travis. Durge can take care of himself. He’s the toughest fighter you’ve ever met. Even Beltan would have a hard time winning a duel against Durge.
“Well, it seems now I’m the only one who doesn’t have work to do,” Sareth said that evening as the four of them gathered in the parlor after dinner.
“That’s not why we’re here,” Travis said. “We just needed some money to live on until Jack comes, that’s all. And now we’ll have more than enough.”
“Besides, your work is to stay well,” Lirith said firmly.
The Mournish man’s health had improved since their first days in Castle City, although not as much as Travis would have liked. Dark circles still clung beneath Sareth’s eyes, and he seemed unable to stand up completely straight. Travis wondered what was wrong, but he knew it could be any number of things: the high altitude, the shock to his system from traveling between worlds, or an Earth bacterium alien to Sareth’s Eldhish physiology.
Sareth gave Lirith a bitter smile. “Staying well is a job that doesn’t pay much gold, beshala. And I don’t need to read my fate in the cards to know there isn’t anyone in this village who would give me work.”
“Can you use a hammer?”
They looked up to see Maudie standing in the door of the parlor. Her eyes were on Sareth.
“I can,” he said after a moment.
“Then you can start by pounding down the boards on the front porch that are coming loose. I’ll pay you two bits for every hour you work.” Maudie turned away, then glanced over her shoulder and winked at Sareth. “It looks like you’ve got a job after all, Mr. Samson.”
Sareth gazed down at his hands, but Travis could just make out the smile on his lips.
Days passed. Sareth fixed the loose boards on the front porch of the boardinghouse. Then he painted the porch’s peeling railing. And repaired a dozen broken shutters, patched several holes in the roof, cut down the weeds all around, and chased a skunk out from beneath the foundation. He washed all the windows, and fashioned wind chimes from cast-off bits of metal and broken purple bottles and hung them out front, so that the air around the Bluebell was filled with glittering light and bright music. And if sometimes Sareth was forced to pause in his work, placing his hands on his knees while he caught his breath, the next moment he was on to some other task.
Travis and Lirith didn’t see a lot of Durge, since they worked at the saloon in the evenings, and Durge assisted the sheriff during the daytime. As far as Travis could tell, Durge’s daily work consisted mostly of pitching in when townsfolk needed help: catching a stray horse loose on Elk Street, helping a lady whose wagon had broken a wheel, or putting out a small fire—which seemed to be a regular occurrence in Castle City.
Unfortunately, Durge usually had a darker tale to tell each evening when they gathered at the Bluebell for supper, before Travis and Lirith went to work. Almost every day there was some rowdy or ne’er-do-well—or two or three of them—who had to be ridden out of town.
These stories always made Travis clench his teeth. Durge was skilled with his fists. But his sword was still tucked up in the rafters of their room at the boardinghouse, and most of the men in town carried guns. No matter how strong or fast Durge was, all it would take to stop him was a single bullet. However, Durge and Tanner were always able to prevail. (These days, young Deputy Wilson manned the sheriff’s office and the jail.) So far, none of their encounters had ended badly.
At least for Durge and Tanner. On three occasions, a man they had run out of town for breaking the peace showed up again a few days later. They found one floating facedown in Granite Creek, one shoved down an old mine shaft, and one hanging from a cottonwood tree. Every one of them had been shot directly through the heart—even the one that had been strung up.
Who had killed the men, Tanner and Durge didn’t know— and nor did anyone the sheriff talked to. Of course, the editors of the Castle City Clarion were always happy to render an opinion in the “Morning Mayhem” column.
While our good Sheri f, read the paper one afternoon, takes the easier (and one might daresay less courageous) road by doing nothing save to ask these ruffians and law-breakers to depart our fair city, it seems Fate is dealing these individuals punishments more suited for those of such violent and shiftless nature. Perhaps the Law will take note, and leave the sentencing of such individuals to Providence no longer, but rather take stronger measures to purge this town of the dregs of society. Then again, when men of questionable history and character are made into Deputies, it is hard to have faith that the Law will see the error of its ways. If that is the case, then it will be up to others to accomplish what the Law refuses. —The Editors.
“And what would the printers of these words know about courage?” Durge rumbled after Maudie read the article aloud to him and the others. “It is the coward who strikes down the man who is weaker than he.”
Lirith laid her hand on the knight’s. “I’ve heard people talk of this newspaper, as they call it, in the saloon. The publishers will print anything if they think it will cause people to buy more papers.”
“That’s a fact,” Maudie said, folding up the paper.
Travis knew Lirith and Maudie were right. Journalistic integrity and ethics were things that hadn’t yet made the train ride across the Great Plains to the Old West. All the same, the article troubled him.
...when men of questionable history and character are made into Deputies... Those words could only refer to Durge. Attention was the one thing Travis hadn’t wanted; they needed to keep a low profile until Jack arrived if they didn’t want another incident like their encounter with Lionel Gentry and his men.
After supper, it was time for Travis and Lirith to head to the saloon. Travis had to admit, he was starting to look forward to his work at the Mine Shaft. Maybe it was just that, for all the differences, working for Manypenny reminded him of the time when he first came to Castle City and tended bar for Andy Connell. Those were the days when Jack Graystone was just his eccentric old friend—before Travis had ever heard of the Runelords, or the Seekers, or Eldh.
Before long, Travis began to get to know some of the regulars who came into the saloon. There was the town barber, a man almost as big and jovial as Manypenny himself, and all of the clerks who worked at the First Bank of Castle City, and who each evening after the bank closed raised glasses of port in hands stained green with ink. Both of the town’s doctors and a good number of its lawyers drank at the Mine Shaft, along with the assayist and the owner of the Castle City Opera House, which was getting ready for its summer production of The Magic Flute.
However, of all the regulars who came into the Mine Shaft each day for a drink, Travis’s favorites were Ezekial Frost and Niles Barrett.
According to the stories Travis heard, Ezekial Frost had been a mountain man in his younger days. He had trapped beaver in the 1830s, before—in one of history’s odd coincidences—the animals nearly went extinct at the exact moment that silk replaced fur as the fashion for top hats worn by gentlemen in the East. In the forties and fifties Frost had worked as a scout, first for the US Army, then as a guide for folk passing through on their way to the gold fields of California.
In 1859, Colorado’s own gold rush started, and—at least so the rumors told—shortly thereafter Ezekial Frost vanished. His few friends (former mountain men themselves) had thought him dead, mauled by a grizzly, perhaps, or shot by a claim jumper. Except then, just a few years ago, Frost appeared in Castle City as abruptly as he had vanished before.
Of course, if it hadn’t been for the fact that one of Frost’s old acquaintances was still alive in Castle City at the time and had recognized him, no one would have known who Frost was or how he had vanished twenty years before.
Certainly Frost seemed more than a little cracked. He had a habit of walking down Elk Street, clad in buckskins as weather-worn and wrinkled as his own skin, talking and laughing to himself, and occasionally breaking out into broken bits of songs that no one could name. He often stopped strangers on the street, grabbing their arms to tell them fragments of stories about lost treasures or secret passes in the mountains. And he was known to pick up the still-burning butts of cigars that had been tossed on the ground and smoke them. As far as Travis knew, he had no home, but slept in a teepee somewhere up in the hills.
While people tended to clear away from the bar when Ezekial Frost approached, Travis always smiled and poured a glass of Taos Lightning.
“Did I tell you about the feller who ate two squaws, an Indian guide, and a Frenchman?” he said one afternoon as Travis poured him his drink.
Frost had a habit of telling bizarre tales, which was one of the reasons Travis liked him. He claimed to have been born in New York in 1811 before heading out West in his twenties— and given his long white beard and a frame as knobby as a wind-twisted pine, that was one story Travis didn’t doubt.
“No, I haven’t heard that one yet,” Travis said, refilling Frost’s glass.
“It was back in the fifties, long before this town was even here,” Frost said in his rusty voice. “Now, how this feller first got a taste for man meat, I cain’t say. But once a feller has that taste in him, he can’t be rid of it. Anyways, so he’s on his way to Fort Laramie, carrying messages for the general out of Fort Craig, and he and his Arapaho guide get caught in a blizzard, and they sit in a hole in the snow for day after day as their provisions run out. Well, finally the snow lets up, and a while later the feller walks on into Fort Laramie. ‘Where’s your Indian guide?’ the lieutenant at the fort asks him. And the feller reaches into his saddlebag, pulls out a shriveled foot, and tosses it at the soldier. ‘Here’s what’s left of him. You can have it if you want, as I’m shore tired of eatin’ him.’ ”
“That’s a most intriguing tale, Mr. Frost,” Niles Barrett said, taking a draw on a thin cigar. “But forgive me—it’s simply the journalist in me that causes me to call some of your details into question.”
Ezekial Frost squinted at the tall, well-dressed man standing at the bar next to him.
People about town whispered that Niles Barrett was the youngest son of a British lord, and that—as a result of some scandal or impropriety—he had been banished by his family to America. Travis couldn’t vouch for these facts, but Barrett did speak with an English accent, and he certainly seemed to have enough money to buy fine clothes, brandy, and cigars, and to stay at the Silver Palace Hotel on a permanent basis, all without having any obvious source of income.
Barrett wasn’t a handsome man—his face was too long, and his features too irregular—but his impressive attire and cultured manner of speech lent him an attractive air. Travis liked listening to Barrett talk about anything—although the Englishman’s favorite topic was the weekly newspaper he hoped to start soon, which he intended to call the Castle County Reporter, and which only awaited a printing press on order from Philadelphia.
“Are you calling me a liar?” Frost said with a snort. “I’ve traipsed around these mountains for longer than you’ve been alive, mister, and I’ve seen things that would make your pretty long hair turn white and fall off your head, I have.”
“I have no doubt of it,” Barrett said. “However, while some newspapers in this town might print anything they hear without being sure of the facts, that is not how the Castle County Reporter will work. If I am to use this tale in my newspaper, I must ask one thing: If this man you spoke of displayed the grisly evidence of his cannibalism—the aforementioned foot— why did the lieutenant at Fort Laramie not arrest him? After all, Mr. Packer was sentenced to jail for eating his companions outside of Lake City some years back.”
Frost set down his empty glass and fixed his disconcerting gaze on Barrett. “I’ll tell you what, mister. Come on up to my teepee on Signal Ridge, and I’ll tell you the reason. Just make sure to fatten yourself up a bit before you do.” The old mountain man smacked his lips and rubbed his stomach, then headed out the saloon door.
Barrett cast Travis a startled look. “He isn’t serious, is he? He wasn’t the man he was telling the story about, the one who ate his Indian guide?”
“Don’t forget the two squaws and the Frenchman,” Travis said, grinning as he poured another drink.
“Perhaps he wishes to add Englishmen to that list,” Barrett said and drained his brandy.
The Fourth of July came to Castle City with a great deal of fanfare and no sign of Jack Graystone.
It was midday when Durge stepped through the doors of the Mine Shaft. The saloon’s patrons glanced up, eyes lighting upon the silver badge he wore on his chest, then returned their gazes to their drinks. Durge approached the bar as Travis pushed a glass of whiskey toward a hard-faced miner.
“Travis, there is dark sorcery at work in this town,” the knight said in a grim voice.
The miner gave Durge a curious look, and Travis hastily reached across the bar, grabbed the knight’s arm, and led him several feet down the length of polished wood. “What are you talking about, Durge?”
The knight’s mustache twitched. “It has been going on since dawn. There are foul magics at play in Castle City.”
“What do you mean? What’s been going on?”
“Smoke that appears with no visible source of fire. Explosions like those at the mines, but here in the midst of town. And lines of flame that streak screaming into the sky. But it’s worse than that, for on my way here I saw a small girl touch a match to a rolled up piece of parchment—a spell of some sort, I presume. She tossed it into the street, and it exploded in such a cascade of sparks that horses reared in terror and a man cried out in agony. And the girl laughed.” Durge gripped Travis’s arm. “Children, Travis. These sorcerers have corrupted children into doing their dark work. We have to stop them!”
The bright sound of firecrackers drifted through the doors of the saloon. Durge whirled around. “There it is again. She must be following me!”
“Calm down, Durge.” Travis gripped his shoulder. “It’s not dark sorcery at work. It’s just fireworks.”
Travis poured a few more drinks, then spent several minutes telling Durge everything he knew about fireworks while the knight sipped a sarsaparilla. When Travis finished, Durge stroked his mustaches, now looking more intrigued than alarmed. “So these fireworks are created by means of the same alchemy used to fashion bullets and the blasting explosions in the mines?”
“That’s right,” Travis said. “It’s called gunpowder.”
“And these fireworks were brought here by the men from the Dominion you call China?”
“Most likely. They’ve been making fireworks there for centuries.”
“And folk set them off as a way to celebrate the founding day of the Dominion we now dwell in. It’s called Yewessay. I know that, as Sir Tanner made me place my hand on a book and swear to uphold the laws of Yewessay.”
Travis grinned. “That’s the United States of America. It’s the Fourth of July—the day we declared our independence from England. People always set off fireworks.”
Durge frowned. “Causing objects to explode seems a peculiar way to celebrate the winning of one’s sovereignty.”
Lirith approached the bar, jade taffeta swishing.
“Taking a break?” Travis said. Both he and Lirith had come to work early that day because of the holiday. The gambling tables were already alive with action.
The witch nodded. “The house was having an unusually good streak of luck, so I thought it best to let them lick their wounds for a while.”
“And you weren’t aiding luck, were you, my lady?” Durge said, twitching his fingers.
Lirith looked scandalized. “Durge!”
Travis grinned. “Never mind him. He’s got dark magic on the brain today.”
Durge crossed his arms, looking sullen. “I still say there is something wicked going on in this town.”
“You’re not wrong there, my good deputy,” said a rich, British voice. “There is indeed evil afoot in this city.”
They looked up to see Niles Barrett approach the bar. His usually elegant suit was slightly disheveled, and a black streak marred his crimson vest. Travis poured a glass of the house’s best brandy and pushed it across the bar to him. Barrett took a drink and sighed.
“Bloody poor excuse for a holiday in my opinion,” the Englishman said. “Don’t these people know the war ended more than a hundred years ago? For God’s sake, Queen Victoria and President Arthur just had tea together. Our nations are at peace. But you would hardly know it, given the rowdyism out there. A girl just threw a firecracker at me, and it nearly singed right through to my smallclothes.”
Travis refilled Barrett’s glass. “So we heard.”
Barrett raised a questioning eyebrow.
Travis nodded at Durge. “A report from the deputy here. He’s carefully monitoring the nefarious activities of all small girls in town. But don’t worry about the firecracker. I doubt there was any malevolent intent behind it.”
“Unlike the other violence going on in this town, you mean?” Barrett said, lighting a cigar.
Lirith laid a hand on the bar, her eyes intent. “Is that what you meant before, when you said there was evil at work in Castle City?”
“That I did, Miss Lily.” Barrett puffed on his cigar.
Durge glowered at the Englishman. “If you know something about lawbreakers in this village, Lord Barrett, you must tell me at once.”
Barrett set down his cigar in a dish. “I’ll tell you this, Mr. Dirk. For long months I have awaited the delivery of my new printing press from Philadelphia, for which I paid a handsome sum, and with which I intended to publish my own newspaper, the Castle County Reporter, as a weekly tonic of truth to counter the poisonous concoction of lies served up by this city’s existing daily publication. At last my new press was set to arrive on today’s train from Denver. Only I reached the depot to discover my press was not on the train after all.”
“Perhaps it will arrive tomorrow,” Lirith said.
Barrett gave her a bitter smile. “No, Miss Lily. I learned from the conductor that my press had indeed been on board. However, some miles outside of Castle City, it was thrown from the train into a deep canyon, where it was shattered to bits.”
Durge’s expression was one of outrage. “Who did this thing? Did the conductor see these men?”
“He claimed he saw only their backs.” Barrett picked up his cigar again and stared at the glowing tip. “And even if that’s not the case, I can’t blame him for saying it. For I have a good idea who the perpetrators were. There are men in this town who fear the truth even as a creature of the night fears the light of dawn. For surely it would strike them down just as terribly.”
“Who are these men you speak of?” Durge rumbled. “We must tell Sheriff Tanner of them at once.”
Barrett glanced over his shoulder—just as Travis had seen other men in the saloon do from time to time—then leaned close and spoke in a low voice.
“Sheriff Tanner is a good man, Mr. Dirk, I know that as well as you do. But there is nothing he can do about these men.” He pulled a copy of the Castle City Clarion out of his coat pocket and tossed it on the bar. “As long as they have the support of the town’s most powerful society leaders and institutions, it is they who run Castle City, not Tanner.”
Durge shook his head. “I don’t understand you.”
“Then I’ll tell you a story, Mr. Dirk. Some years back, lawlessness ran wild in one of the gold towns down south, past Leadville. The ruffians were too much for the sheriff to control. So a group of the town’s men decided to take matters into their own hands, and they started up a vigilance committee.”
“A vigilance committee?” Lirith said.
Barrett flicked ash from his cigar. “That’s right, Miss Lily. The vigilance committee worked under the cover of dark. They went after the town’s thieves and murderers and caught them. But they didn’t wait for the circuit court judge to arrive to hold a trial and mete out justice. Instead, the committee acted as judge, jury, and executioner, and any man they caught was hanged before the sun rose.”
“It is unpleasant, to be sure,” Durge said. “But sometimes harsh measures are required in order to keep the peace, especially in the frontier. And it does not sound as if the men who were executed were innocent.”
“No, Mr. Dirk, they weren’t. Not at first. For a time the citizens of the town knew peace. But after a while, it wasn’t just the thieves and murderers that were found hanging in the morning. It was a miner who had bested one of the town’s leading men in a fair hand of poker. Or a hurdy-gurdy girl who had let slip that another of the town’s upstanding men was her best customer. Or a preacher who gave a sermon decrying the violence. Soon the people trembled in their houses at night, fearing the sound of guns and horses outside their doors. And when a circuit court judge did arrive to put an end to it all, he was found shot through head, his brains on the floor of his hotel room.”
Travis’s gaze fell upon the crumpled copy of the Castle City Clarion. Wasn’t that the pattern he had seen when he went through the stack of papers? Violence decreased for a time, only to return darker and stronger than before.
Durge clenched his hands into fists. “What you describe is wrong. The law must always be respected. They were evil men.”
“And yet they acted under the guise of righteousness, Mr. Dirk.” Barrett smashed out his cigar in the dish. “But then, perhaps those are the most evil men of all. For how can a man speak out against them without being branded unrighteous?”
Durge crossed his arms. “The three men whom we’ve found dead these last weeks—the brigands whom Sir Tanner ordered to leave Castle City—it is this vigilance committee who murdered them, is it not?”
“I told you, Mr. Dirk. They take justice into their own hands.”
Lirith touched his arm. “You know who these men are, don’t you, Lord Barrett?”
“Only a few of them, Miss Lily. And I believe you know who they are as well as I do.”
Travis spoke the name without thinking. “Gentry.”
“That’s right, Mr. Wilder,” Barrett said, his voice barely above a whisper. “Lionel Gentry and his cronies, Eugene Ellis and Calvin Murray.”
Durge started to pull away from the bar. “I must go tell Sheriff Tanner at once. We must put these men in jail.”
“Don’t waste your time, Mr. Dirk,” Barrett said. “Gentry and his boys are in the pay of the vigilance committee, that much I’m sure of. But they’re henchmen, that’s all. If you put them in jail, some unknown benefactor would simply post their bail, and they’d be out free. You see, the real members of the vigilance committee are among the town’s powerful and wealthy men.”
“But who are these powerful men?” Durge said.
Barrett shrugged. “I don’t know, Mr. Dirk. I only know that, whoever they are, they’ll be among the leading men of this town. Any one of them could be on the vigilance committee.”
The knight’s voice rumbled with quiet anger. “Where I come from, it is true that lords and men of power can often do as they wish to men beneath them in standing. But Sir Tanner described the laws of this place to me, and they state clearly that all men are equal in the eyes of justice. It does not matter if these men you speak of are wealthy or important. They must be punished all the same.”
Until then, Barrett’s voice had been soft and weary. Now a sharpness entered it. “I like you, Mr. Dirk. You’re a refreshingly honest man. So I’m going to be honest with you in turn. There’s nothing you or Sheriff Tanner can do. A star on your chest doesn’t give you power over these men. In fact, being on the sheriff’s side can only impede you in your efforts. You see, you have to follow to the law; these men don’t. The only one who could help us now would be a civilizer like Tyler Caine. And I fear there’s not much hope of that.”
Travis felt a pain in his chest, but whether it was a pang of fear or a thrill of excitement he didn’t know. He glanced at the back of the saloon. The edge of the Wanted poster was just visible, peeking out from behind a column.
“Why do you say that?” Travis licked his lips. “How could Tyler Caine help us?”
Barrett drew a match from the pocket of his vest and lit it with a quick flick of his thumb. “They say one must fight fire with fire, Mr. Wilder. Only a man outside the law can stop those who’ve taken the law into their own hands. But it’s pointless to hope. Tyler Caine was the last great civilizer to walk this part of the West. And all the stories say he’s dead.” He snuffed out the match between finger and thumb.
Lirith returned to her faro table, and Durge headed out the saloon’s swinging doors—probably to make sure no lawless little girls set the town ablaze with firecrackers. Travis left Niles Barrett to his brandy and went back to pouring drinks. However, as the day wore on, it was hard to concentrate on his work, and often a man had to ask him twice for a glass of beer or whiskey. More than once he found himself gazing at the faded Wanted poster at the back of the saloon.
The saloon grew more crowded by the hour. Travis learned there was to be a parade along Elk Street at sunset, culminating in a fireworks display on the edge of town. This wasn’t just a national holiday; it had been exactly seven years since the state of Colorado was admitted to the Union.
Despite the fact that nearly all of the saloon’s regulars had shown up for the festivities, Travis never caught sight of Ezekial Frost. The old mountain man usually came in long before nightfall to get his shot of Old Towse. Where was he?
He’s probably avoiding the crowds, Travis. Ezekial is pretty much a hermit, and I’m sure he knew today was a holiday.
Besides, there was too much on Travis’s mind for him to worry about Ezekial Frost. He couldn’t stop thinking about Barrett’s earlier words. All day, the Englishman sat at the end of the bar, slowly nursing several brandies in a row, clearly mourning the loss of his printing press. At one point it occurred to Travis that the Englishman might know Jack Graystone, but when he asked, Barrett shook his head.
As afternoon edged into evening, the frequency of the explosions outside increased. Every time he heard the sound of a firecracker, Travis had to clench his jaw and force himself not to jump. The noise was as loud and rapid as gunfire. He couldn’t stop thinking about Durge, and he hoped the knight wasn’t getting into any trouble out there.
By the time sunset was imminent, the atmosphere in the saloon was sharp with the scent of gunpowder. To Travis, it smelled like fear. The constant din of explosions and talk had set his nerves on edge, and he could hardly hold the whiskey bottle steady as he poured. Often he reached into his pocket to grip the smooth orb of Sinfathisar, and that calmed him somewhat. However, he would be grateful when the night was over—when Durge showed up at the saloon whole and unhurt, and they could return with Lirith to the Bluebell.
Travis was just glad Sareth was safe at the boardinghouse. Judging by the amount of liquor that was flowing, it wasn’t a good time for the Mournish man to be seen in town. The fireworks hadn’t even started, and already men staggered into the saloon, drunk before they even bought a drink. Tempers would be flaring before all was said and done. When he was able to sneak a moment, Travis made sure the shotgun behind the bar was loaded. Manypenny noticed his action and gave him an approving nod.
At last the parade began. Travis saw movement outside the saloon’s windows. A wagon rolled past, decorated with red, white, and blue buntings. All the employees of the First Bank of Castle City sat in the wagon, grinning and waving, along with the owner of the bank, Aaron Locke. Locke was a bookish but handsome man in his forties, and everyone agreed he was the richest fellow in Castle City, now that Mr. Simon Castle had returned back East following the death of his wife. However, it was also said the fortune of Mortimer Hale, publisher of the Castle City Clarion, ran a close second to Aaron Locke’s. While it was Simon Castle who had begun the newspaper, it was under Hale’s ownership that the paper’s circulation and influence had soared.
More wagons passed by, and coaches, and men on horses, all decorated for the occasion. Firecrackers exploded in flashes like lightning. Most of the saloon’s patrons headed out the door, drinks in hand, to stand on the boardwalk and whoop and holler as the parade rattled by. Travis leaned on the bar, taking in a deep breath as he enjoyed the sudden calm inside the saloon.
“One sarsaparilla please.”
He looked up into Lirith’s warm brown eyes and smiled. “Coming right up, ma’am.”
Travis poured a glass of the dark, sweet liquid and pushed it toward Lirith; she and Durge seemed to adore the stuff, although Travis couldn’t drink it without gagging.
“Aren’t you going to watch the parade?” he said.
“I’d rather stay in here,” she said with a sigh.
Travis understood. As long as the men were out watching the parade, she could take a break.
“Do you want to go watch the fireworks later?” he asked. “I imagine the saloon will clear out for that. If it does, I bet Manypenny would let us go.”
“No, thank you. I wish to go see a play.”
Travis gave her a curious look. She set down her drink and pulled a folded piece of paper from her dress.
“A man at my table gave me this. He called it a playbill, and it says a play is to be performed tonight at the Diamond Theater on Aspen Street.”
“A play, you say?” said Niles Barrett from the end of the bar. The Englishman’s eyes were slightly blurred, but his voice was as crisp as ever. “That’s bloody good news. We could use a deal more culture in this town. Do you know that Oscar Wilde recently visited Leadville? If that collection of hovels can get the likes of Oscar Wilde to come give a lecture, I don’t see why we can’t in Castle City. I hear from those who saw him that he’s a fascinating man.”
The miner standing next to Barrett snorted. “And I hear he was more lady than man.”
Barrett scowled at the miner, but before he could respond, the next man down the bar spoke—another miner, given his stained hands.
“I was there in Leadville,” the man said. “And I saw this Oscar Wilde fellow. He was dressed all in velvet and lace, and he carried a lily everywhere he went. When he visited one of the mines, they served him up whiskey, harsh as snake venom, thinking to make an easy fool of him. But you know what? He outdrank every single one of them miners, for all that he was standing there in white stockings and knickers.”
That won a grunt of respect from the first miner.
Barrett rolled his eyes. “I see. So it’s for Lord Wilde’s drinking prowess that we should admire him, not the subtle skill of his pen.”
The two men stared at him.
“Never mind,” Barrett said with a pained look. He turned his back to the men and regarded Lirith. “What is the play to be, Miss Lily? Is it Shakespeare? Please let it be Shakespeare. Or better yet, Marlowe. Poor Kit, stabbed in the eye in his prime.”
Lirith smiled eagerly. “The man said he thought I’d especially like this play.”
She unfolded the playbill and pressed it flat on the bar. Travis’s heart sank.
Barrett sniffed. “Ah. American melodrama. What utter rubbish.” He turned his attention back to his brandy.
Lirith smoothed the playbill. “Look, Travis. They’re like me.” She touched the two figures—a man and a woman— drawn on the playbill. Their faces were shaded as darkly as Lirith’s own. Above the grotesquely rendered drawing was the play’s title.
UNCLE TOM’S CABIN OR, LIFE AMONG THE LOWLY A MELODRAMA IN FIVE ACTS
“Lirith...” Travis fought for words. How could he explain it to her? “You don’t want to see this play.”
Her brow wrinkled. “Why not?”
Travis didn’t know where to begin, so he took a deep breath and started by telling Lirith about slavery. He talked about what he remembered from college history, about the slave trade that brought people from Africa to the Americas against their will, about the abolitionists, and the Civil War, and President Lincoln, and how he was assassinated. All the while Lirith listened, her face without expression.
At last Travis ran out of things to say. Lirith was silent for a moment, then she touched the playbill.
“So this Independence Day they are celebrating,” she said. “It didn’t mean independence for everyone, did it?”
Travis took her hand in hers. “It does now, Lirith. Or at least, someday it will.”
She pulled her hand away and picked up the playbill. “If the woman who wrote this was one of these abolitionists, as you called them, then I would still like to see the play. I think it would be good for me to know what it was like for them.”
Travis swallowed. He had to make Lirith understand. Yes, Harriet Beecher Stowe had been opposed to slavery, and her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin had helped fuel the cause of the abolitionists. However, he also knew that by the time the book became popular as a play, it had more to do with slapstick comedy than commentary against slavery. Lirith wanted to see people who looked like her. But Travis was certain the actors would be as white as he was beneath their thick coating of blackface. However, before he could say these things, a familiar figure stepped through the swinging doors of the saloon and approached the bar, peg leg drumming against the wooden floor.
Travis froze, but Lirith smiled as she looked up. “Sareth. What are you doing here? I thought you were going to help Maudie put up decorations.”
The Mournish man scratched his pointed beard. “What do you mean, beshala? I came here as fast as I could.”
Travis struggled to find his tongue. Something was wrong with this. “Why exactly did you come here, Sareth?”
“In answer to your message,” Sareth said, a scowl darkening his coppery visage. “The boy you sent came to the boardinghouse. He said you needed to see me at the saloon right away.” He glanced from Travis to Lirith, evidently seeing the puzzlement on their faces. “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” Travis said. “I—” Confusion gave way to understanding, and dread surged through Travis’s chest like a cold gully washer. “Gentry,” he said, and the others stared at him.
It had to be. Who else would trick Sareth into leaving the Bluebell? Certainly not Tanner, and no one else in town even knew him. But why do it all?
You saw the way he looked at Sareth that day. Gentry hates him. There’s no reason for it, but a man like that doesn’t need a reason. Sareth looks di ferent, and that’s enough.
But why today? It had been over a month since their encounter with Gentry and his cronies. Why wait until now to do something? Before Travis could think of an answer, the saloon’s doors swung open, and three men stepped through, confirming his fears.
“Speak of the Devil,” Barrett muttered, gripping his brandy. The saloon had fallen quiet, and despite his soft tone the Englishman’s voice echoed loudly.
Lionel Gentry turned his blue eyes toward Barrett. “You don’t want to be here, Niles,” he said in his easy drawl. “Why don’t you go on over to China Alley and buy yourself one of them pigtail boys we all know you like. Wasn’t that what they kicked you out of England for? You might as well have yourself a good time. Judgment Day is coming soon for the likes of you. But it’s him we’ve come for tonight.” He nodded toward Sareth.
Gentry’s words were like a blow to the Englishman. His face blanched, and he backed into a corner, still clutching his drink. Outside, a volley of firecrackers crackled like buckshot against sheet metal. The dozen men left in the saloon all cringed on reflex. Travis forced himself not to glance down at the shotgun beneath the bar. His hands, resting on the polished wood, were only inches from it. He wished Manypenny was there, but the saloonkeeper had stepped outside to watch the parade.
Lirith stepped forward, interposing herself between the men and Sareth.
“You have no claim to him,” the witch said.
The long-faced one, Eugene Ellis, took a draw on his thin cigar. “So the stories are true,” he said in an exhalation of rank smoke. “Manypenny did hire her. Only I can’t quite tell if she’s a Negress or a mulatto.”
“It don’t matter,” Calvin Murray said. His downy red beard made him appear more boyish rather than less. “No kind of woman should be dealing cards. It ain’t proper.”
Ellis let out a sardonic laugh and smoothed his waxed mustache. “Don’t be beguiled by her beauty, Mr. Murray. I tell you, without doubt, she’s not a proper lady. That’s a harlot’s dress she wears.”
Color darkened Lirith’s cheeks, and she turned away. Sareth tried to catch her eyes, but she wouldn’t look at him.
Ellis let his gaze flicker up and down the witch’s slender figure. “I wonder that hiring her kind for such a public position is even legal.”
“Maybe it is,” Gentry said, taking a step forward, spurs jingling. “And then again, maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe the law in this town ain’t doing what it should. But that’s all right. Because there are men who’ll do what the law won’t.” He fixed his cold blue gaze on Travis. “You’re friends with that new deputy, aren’t you? Mr. Dirk, I believe his name is?”
Travis swallowed but didn’t say anything.
“I heard Dirk’s a man-killer out of Abilene,” Murray said, his voice high-pitched with emotion. “And I don’t doubt it. Not from the look of him. That’d be just like Tanner, to go and deputize an outlaw.”
“You’re right, Mr. Murray.” Gentry kept his focus on Travis. “And there’s something shifty about this one, too. Though I can’t quite put my finger on it. He doesn’t wear a gun, but he’s dangerous all the same. I’d keep my eyes on his hands, if I were you.”
Outside, a rocket screamed like a mountain lion. Travis let go of the bar. The moist outlines of his splayed fingers lingered on the wood, then evaporated.
“What do you want with Sareth?” Travis said, although he knew the magic of the coin fragment made the name come out Samson .
Gentry took another step forward. “We have it on good account that your friend Mr. Samson robbed McKay’s General Store earlier today.”
Both Lirith and Travis shot astonished glances at Sareth. The Mournish man shook his head in confusion.
“It can’t be,” Lirith said.
“I talked to one of Mr. McKay’s clerks myself,” Ellis said, tossing his cigar butt on the floor. “Mr. Samson stole a box from the loading dock. The clerk said it contained a set of silverware intended for young Miss McKay’s wedding gift, and that it was worth more than fifty dollars. I suppose this here thief has already melted it down and sold it.”
“Is that so, Mr. Ellis?” said a deep, calm voice.
Travis looked up to see two figures standing in the doorway of the saloon. One was slight, with a sandy mustache, the other no taller, but broad and solid. Sheriff Tanner and Durge. Travis felt a surge of relief.
“Sheriff,” Gentry said, spitting out the word like bad whiskey.
“I’m sorry it took me so long to get here,” Tanner said. “I only just now heard about the robbery at McKay’s. And if it hadn’t been for one of Mortimer Hale’s newsboys, selling the late edition of the Clarion fresh off the presses, I might not have heard about it at all. When I saw you all come in here, I thought I’d better stop by. You see, I still can’t quite figure out why the folks at the paper heard about this, only I didn’t.”
“Maybe the clerk at McKay’s didn’t think you’d do anything about it, Sheriff,” Gentry said with a sharp grin. “Maybe he came to people who he knew would help him.”
Durge gave Gentry a piercing look. “It is more likely that this clerk you speak of had some compelling reason not to speak to Sheriff Tanner. Perhaps he stole this silver himself and wished to blame another for the deed.”
Tanner nodded at the knight. “That’s good thinking, Mr. Dirk. We’ll be sure to have a talk with him. He might have something more to tell us.”
At that, Murray cast a glance at Gentry, his eyes worried. Gentry glared at him.
Ellis’s face grew more sallow yet with anger. “Are you calling us liars, Mr. Dirk?”
“Even good men can be made into fools, Eugene Ellis,” Tanner said.
“Wait a minute,” Travis said, shocked to realize it was he who had spoken. “It doesn’t matter if the clerk was lying or not. Sareth couldn’t have robbed anyone. He was at the Bluebell Boardinghouse all day. I’m sure Maudie Carlyle can vouch for that.”
Tanner raised an eyebrow and glanced at Sareth. The Mournish man chewed his lip.
Travis felt panic rising in his chest. “You were at the Bluebell, weren’t you, Sareth?”
The Mournish man gave him a sheepish look. “A man came to the boardinghouse while Lady Maudie was resting upstairs. The man said he had a delivery for Maudie, but his arm was in a sling, and he couldn’t carry the box, so I said I would carry it for him. He took me to a shop—this McKay’s—and pointed to a box on the loading dock. So I took it back to Maudie’s.”
Travis’s right hand itched. It had all been a setup. On Eldh, the Mournish were known to be clever con men. Sareth should have been able to see through what was happening.
Only this isn’t his world, Travis. Everything in this place is strange to him. There was no way he could tell that what was happening wasn’t right.
The sound of fireworks was reaching a crescendo, mixed with the bright sound of bugles and the stomping of feet.
“Did you hear that, Sheriff?” Gentry said, taking a step toward Sareth. “This thief just confessed to his crime.”
“That’s not what I heard,” Tanner said.
Ellis clenched his hands into fists. “What are you talking about, Tanner? Everyone in this saloon just heard him say he took the box from McKay’s.”
A few of the onlookers in the saloon nodded.
“That’s right,” Tanner said. “He took the box this other fellow told him to. And I’m wondering who this man is, the one with the bum arm. Can you describe him, Mr. Samson?”
Sareth opened his mouth to speak, but before he could, Calvin Murray lunged forward and grabbed his shirt.
“You’re a thief!” the young man shouted, his face as red as his hair. “And we ain’t gonna let you get away with it!”
“Step away from him, Calvin Murray,” Tanner said, his voice low with authority, his right hand by his hip.
“Or what, Sheriff?” Gentry said, his lips curving in a sharp smile. “Dropping your gun won’t accomplish much.”
Next to his hip, Tanner’s hand shook violently, moving so quickly the fingers blurred. The sheriff turned away, clutching his right hand with the left, stilling the spasm.
“Let go of me,” Sareth said. His eyes glinted with a dangerous light that made Travis think of his sister, Vani.
“You’re gonna pay right now for what you done,” Murray said through clenched teeth.
Countless flashes of light burned through the saloon’s windows as a volley of rockets was launched outside, and in the strobe everything moved with queer, staccato slowness.
Calvin Murray reached into his suit coat and pulled out a silver revolver. The gun glinted in the white-hot light as he pressed it against Sareth’s chest. Sareth grabbed for the young man’s gun hand. As he did, Murray slugged Sareth across the jaw with his free hand. Then the two men stumbled away from the bar, spinning and grappling, their bodies so close together Travis couldn’t see what was happening.
Lirith reached toward Sareth, her mouth open in a cry Travis couldn’t hear above the noise of the fireworks. Both Tanner and Durge started forward, but Ellis stepped into their way. Only Gentry didn’t move. Instead he watched, hands on hips, a smile on his face.
You’ve got to do something, Travis.
But what? The shotgun was in reach, but Sareth and Murray were spinning so fast there was no telling which he’d hit. And using a rune wouldn’t be any better.
It didn’t matter. He couldn’t just stand and watch. Wasn’t that what he had learned last Midwinter’s Eve? Making the wrong choice was better than making no choice at all. Travis’s right hand tingled as he reached out and started to speak a rune.
There was a searing flash of light, and with it came one final report, louder than all the others before it, shattering the air of the saloon, stunning those within. Then the light dimmed, and the noise rolled away like thunder. Outside, on Elk Street, the parade was over.
Travis lowered his hand as a coldness spilled through him. Sareth stood in the center of the saloon, a bruise already forming on his jaw, his expression one of puzzlement. In his hands was Murray’s silver gun, and at his feet lay Calvin Murray. The young man stared upward with dull eyes, his cheeks no longer red, but white as ash. Already blood soaked into the sawdust around him, oozing from the hole in his chest.
The silence in the saloon was broken as words of shock and anger rose from the onlookers. It was Lirith who moved first. The witch knelt beside Murray, touched his brow, then looked up at Sareth.
“He’s dead,” she said, her eyes filled with anguish.
Sareth shook his head, staring at the gun. Travis couldn’t quite hear the words he spoke. They might have been, This cannot be so.
“Get away from him, Jezebel!” Ellis shouted at Lirith, lifting his hand as if he might strike her. The witch rose and stumbled toward Travis and the bar.
“So the thief’s become a murderer,” Gentry said. “If he wasn’t already.” Of all the people in the bar, he was the only one who didn’t seem shocked at what had happened. Instead, there was something satisfied about his expression. “What are you going to do, Sheriff? I say we carry out justice right here and now.” He rested his hand on the grip of his holstered gun. Murmurs of assent ran around the saloon, along with a few muttered instances of man-killer and hang him high.
Now all eyes were on the sheriff. Tanner gazed at the dead man with what seemed a thoughtful expression. At last he nodded and looked up at Durge.
“Mr. Dirk,” he said, his voice weary. “Arrest Mr. Samson. Take him to the jail. We’ll lock him up to wait for trial.”
“Lynch him now!” came a shout from the back of the saloon. More shouts echoed this sentiment, but Tanner silenced them all with a stern glare.
“I said take him to the jail, Mr. Dirk. The circuit court judge will be coming in a couple of weeks. Mr. Samson will get his trial then.”
Durge let out a heavy sigh, then he stepped forward and took Sareth’s arm. “I am sorry. It is my oath to obey Sir Tanner.”
The Mournish man nodded. “I understand.”
“No!” Lirith gasped. “You can’t do this, Durge.”
Tanner approached the bar, and he spoke in a quiet voice. “Let Mr. Dirk do his duty, Miss Lily. You’ll see it’s for the best.
We’ve got plenty of time to sort things out before the circuit court judge comes. And right now, the jail is the only place in town where Mr. Samson will be safe. If I don’t put him behind bars, they’ll hang him before the sun rises.”
Travis knew Tanner was right. More men were coming into the saloon, listening to the words the others whispered, and turning their angry gazes on Sareth.
“I’ll be fine, beshala,” Sareth said, forcing a smile for her sake. “I’m sure Durge will take excellent care of me. Look how good he is with Maudie’s cats.”
The Embarran knight gave the witch a solemn nod. “You have my word he will not come to harm.”
Lirith pressed her lips together but said nothing. Travis moved around the bar and took her trembling hand.
“Will you take Calvin Murray’s body to Doc Svensson?” Tanner said to Gentry.
Gentry’s blue eyes were as cold as ever. “Don’t you worry about him, Sheriff. We’ll take care of our boy.”
His words sent a chill through Travis. Two men helped Gentry and Ellis pick up Calvin Murray’s limp form, and they carried him out the door. Tanner and Durge followed, leading Sareth between them. Once they were gone, Lirith buried her head against Travis’s chest, and he held her as tightly as he could as she wept.
A hundred icy hands pulled Grace down into dark, endless depths.
You’re drowning, Grace, spoke the clinical doctor’s voice in her mind. You’ve got to swim. Now.
It was so hard to move; the shock of the cold paralyzed her. But then, hypothermia could begin to set in almost immediately in water so frigid. The sea roiled around her, and a groaning noise vibrated through her body. The currents spun her around, so that she didn’t know which way was up. Her lungs were already starting to burn.
Something warm clamped around her wrist. The brine stung her eyes, but she could just make out a figure silhouetted against wavering gray light. Beltan. The light had to be coming from the surface, and the knight’s legs were kicking hard. He was trying to swim upward with her, even as the sinking ship dragged them both down.
Help him, Grace. If you don’t help Beltan swim, the ship will take both of you with it.
Her flesh was like clay, but she forced her legs to move. Behind her (below her?) she sensed a hulking shadow. It was the Fate Runner. Had everyone gotten off the ship?
She reached out with the Touch, and the sea became a starry sky filled with flecks of light. Most of them were fish, but she saw several brighter sparks as well. Some flickered, descending with the dark bulk of the ship. But not all. She could feel others in the water not far away. To whom did the life sparks belong?
The pain in her lungs grew more urgent, breaking her connection with the Weirding. However, using the Touch had allowed some of the life force to flow into her, warming her, just as it had a year ago in the frozen garden in Castle Calavere, when Lady Kyrene first showed her what it meant to be a witch.
Through his grip on her wrist, Beltan must have gained some of the energy as well. Both of them kicked harder, and the light grew brighter above them. Needles stabbed at Grace’s lungs. Instinct to draw a breath screamed at her like a furious child, but she fought it. They were almost there.
Focused as she was on the light, Grace saw it too late to react. A ragged chunk of wood as big as a car spun toward them, carried by a violent eddy. It was a fragment of the ship’s hull. Beltan tried to twist away from it, but the water slowed his movements. She felt rather than heard a sick crunching sound as the piece of wreckage struck them both.
Grace gasped in pain, and her mouth flooded with water, choking her. Beltan’s grip was jerked away from her wrist, and then she was spinning out of control. Light and dark flashed by in dizzying alternation. On one rotation, she thought she saw two murky shapes sinking away from her. One was large and jagged—the piece of the hull—and the other smaller, arms and legs trailing limply. Was that Beltan? Or someone else?
She was descending again, and this time she couldn’t resist. Her limbs would no longer respond, and she could feel her consciousness shrinking inward like the aperture of a camera. One more moment, and it would fade to black.
The darkness vanished, replaced by a shimmering light. The light was different than the wavering gray daylight of before. It was brilliant, encapsulating her as if in a glowing sphere. It seemed she heard a faint, chiming music.
You’re hallucinating, Doctor, that’s all. It’s the same thing patients in the Emergency Department see when their hearts stop, just before you jolt them back to life. But no one’s here to work the defibrillator in your case.
The visions would only last a few seconds; they were simply part of the dying process. Except the light grew brighter, and it seemed there was a face inside it, gazing at her with large, tilted eyes.
Who are you? she wanted to say. Maybe, somehow, she did.
As if in answer, a profound warmth filled her, making her think of sunlight on ancient stones. The pain vanished from her lungs, and it felt as if she had become marvelously buoyant. She could sense the water rushing around her as the light bore her upward. She was going to make it....
No. I can’t abandon them. Despite the warmth, panic filled her. I can’t just leave the others down here.
The sense of motion slowed. The light hesitated.
Please. Grace felt her consciousness slipping away again. Each word was a terrible effort. Beltan. And Vani and Falken. They’ll drown down here.
Her last vision was of the eyes in the light gazing at her, and in them was an expression that filled Grace with such wonder that surely she was hallucinating again.
It was a look of love.
Grace felt the water swirl past her once again, in a new direction now. Then darkness at last closed around her, and for a time both thought and light ceased.
Grace opened her eyes.
It was still light all around her. Only this light was the color of ashes, and all traces of the warmth she had felt before were gone. She couldn’t see much of anything, and after a time she realized she was lying facedown on wet sand. Every few moments a frigid wave washed over her, chilling her further. Somehow she was alive, but if she didn’t get up, if she didn’t get moving, she wouldn’t be for long.
Sitting up was a lengthy process. For a time she simply thought about moving, and even that was almost too exhausting to bear. When she finally did move, it was only to flop on the sand like a stranded fish. Eventually she made real progress and rose up onto her elbows, eliciting a fierce bout of retching. Spasms racked her body, and water gushed from her mouth.
After that, she felt better.
You’ve cleared the water from your lungs, Grace. You’re getting more oxygen now. You’re going to be fine as long as you don’t get a secondary infection.
She dragged her body forward until she reached dry sand—it felt soft and amazingly warm, even though she knew it wasn’t— then sat up and got her first good look around. She was on one end of a small horseshoe of sand that rimmed a narrow bay. The coast in either direction was made up of black rocks with cruel edges against which the sea broke and foamed. If the waves had washed her up only a hundred yards to her left, she would have been dashed to bits. Hitting this beach had been good luck.
Or had it? Grace remembered the silver light that had surrounded her after the ship went down. It had seemed like there were eyes in the light, and a face. Only that was impossible.
When the brain is deprived of oxygen, neurons begin firing rapidly in a last-ditch e fort to stay alive. Visual and auditory hallucinations are the result. You know that, Grace. It had to be a current that carried you ashore.
In which case, it might have carried others besides her.
Grace listened, but all she could hear was the roar of the ocean and the thin lament of the wind over bare rocks. After two attempts, she managed to stand. Her wet clothing clung to her body in a clammy embrace, and she shivered, but that was a good sign. Shivering would generate body heat. So would walking. But which way?
Behind the beach sloped a high bluff of the same black stone that made up the coast, its edges softened here and there by tufts of brown grass. A gray line snaked up the face of the bluff. Was that some sort of trail? Maybe; she could think about it later. The beach itself was littered with driftwood and gelatinous blobs of kelp. Then her eyes picked out a large chunk of wood that was dark and wet. The broken ends of planks stuck out like ragged fingers. At once she knew it was a part of the Fate Runner.
Clutching her arms around herself, Grace stumbled along the sand. Pebbles and fragments of shell dug into her bare feet; she must have lost her boots in the ocean. Walking loosened the muscles of her legs, and she quickened her pace. In moments she reached the flotsam—a section of the ship’s deck.
Falken was leaning against it.
She knelt beside him. The bard’s hair was plastered against his face, and a piece of seaweed was looped over his shoulder like a ceremonial sash. Grace touched his neck and felt for a pulse. It was there, strong and slow. She smoothed his hair away from his face, and his eyes opened.
“Grace...?” he croaked, but he didn’t get any further. Instead he leaned over and coughed up water.
Grace held his shoulders. When he finished, she helped him sit back up.
“I thought I had drowned,” he said, his voice still hoarse but stronger. “It’s not the first mistake I’ve made.”
She picked the seaweed off him. “Can you drown, Falken?”
“I’m immortal, Grace, not invincible. I don’t age, and I haven’t taken ill in seven centuries. But anything else that can kill a man can kill me.”
She thought about this. Falken was born in Malachor, and he believed it was his fault that kingdom fell into ruin. She knew that knowledge tortured him. And yet he had endured for more than seven hundred years, when all it would take to end that suffering was a quick thrust of a knife, or a leap from a cliff. Could she have survived so long believing what he did?
But he had hope all those years, Grace. That was what kept him going. Malachor fell, but one of the royal heirs survived— your grandfather twenty times over. Falken made it his purpose to preserve the line of succession until the kingdom could be reborn.
And now he thought that time had come. Wasn’t that why he wanted to journey to Toringarth to find the shards of Fellring? He meant to make her a queen in fact, not just in name.
“Can you stand?” she asked.
“I think so, if you would be so kind as to give me a lift.” He held out his right hand.
Grace stared, unable to move. Falken gave her a puzzled look, then followed her gaze to his hand. A sadness stole into his faded blue eyes.
Ever since she had known him, Falken had always worn a black glove on his right hand. She had never seen him without it, and surely it was because of the glove that he was called Falken Blackhand. Only now the glove was gone. It must have been torn away in the currents of the ocean, just like Grace’s boots, and the bard’s right hand was bare.
Grace clamped her jaw to stifle a gasp. Falken’s hand was made out of silver.
He clenched the hand into a fist, and she marveled at the fluid way it moved. The hand was not jointed, like that of some robotic skeleton. Instead it was smooth: a perfectly sculpted mirror image of his left hand, down to the twisting lines of veins on its back. However, Grace was certain the hand was solid metal to its core. She studied it, thinking.
“It would be warm if you touched it.” His voice was almost lost in the wind. “Wasn’t that what you were wondering?”
“Yes.” She knelt again beside him. “May I...?”
He unclenched the silver hand, holding it out. It was warm against her skin, just as he had said, but as hard and unyielding to the touch as ordinary silver. How did he make it function? Through some kind of magic? She tried to see how it was joined to his wrist, but there was only a sharp line where flesh ended and metal began. It looked perfectly healed.
The bard shook his head. “It’s a long tale, and one we don’t have time for. Suffice it to say that the Necromancer Dakarreth saw fit to cut off my hand as punishment for the dark deed I had wrought with it. And also that a witch took pity on me, and gave me a hand that I might make music again.” He sighed. “Only now I’ve lost my lute in the sea. After all these years, it’s gone.”
“Lost things have a way of turning back up, Falken Blackhand,” said a crisp voice.
They looked up to see Vani standing a few feet away. Her leather clothes were coated with sand, and her usually burnished skin was pale. In her hands was a wooden case.
Vani set the case down on the sand. “Or should I call you Falken Silverhand now?”
The Mournish woman’s gaze was curious, but not questioning. Grace supposed she had heard everything Falken said.
Falken moved to the wooden case, wiped it with his cloak, and opened it. Inside, the bard’s lute was dry and undamaged. He carefully shut the case again.
A jolt of panic coursed through Grace. Falken had lost his lute in the sea. What had she lost? However, even as she asked the question, her fingers fumbled at her throat and found the steel necklace. The shard of Fellring was safe.
She let out a breath of relief, but then a new worry filled her. “We have to look for Beltan.”
“I already found him,” Vani said. “I believe he’s fine, although he’s moving as slowly as a snail. He should be along any moment.”
Indeed, just then Grace saw the tall knight stalking toward them across the beach. His white-blond hair was wet and tangled, and there was blood on his tunic, although not much.
“Beltan,” Grace said gratefully as the knight drew close. “Are you all right?”
He touched his shoulder. “It’s just a scratch. Nothing to worry about. I’m fine.”