Night after night Travis stood above Beltan, trying to imagine how someone could actually love him, and trying to imagine if he could love another, trying to feel if it was even possible. Then, finally, in what might have been an act of desperation, Travis had bent down and had pressed his lips against Beltan’s.
There was no lightning flash, no grand revelation. It was just flesh to flesh. Why had he expected anything else? In all his late-night reveries, he had been so busy wondering if he could love Beltan that he had forgotten to ask himself the simple question if he did. And as for the answer, well—
Like a dark bird, something fluttered on the edge of Travis’s vision. He looked up.
The woman stood no more than thirty feet away. She was tall and lithe, her body in tight-fitting black leather, her legs apart and high-heeled boots planted firmly. Short, dark hair was smoothed sleekly against her head, and she wore a solemn expression on the bronze oval of her face. She stood without the slightest motion, gazing at him with gold eyes.
Travis started to draw in a breath. Who are you? he wanted to say. However, before the sound left his lips, the air around the woman rippled and folded, and she was gone.
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ALSO BY MARK ANTHONY
Beyond the Pale
The Keep of Fire
This edition contains the complete text of the original hardcover edition.
NOT ONE WORD HAS BEEN OMITTED.
THE DARK REMAINS
A Bantam Spectra Book
Bantam Spectra trade paper edition / March 2001
Bantam Spectra paperback edition / October 2001
SPECTRA and the portrayal of a boxed “s” are trademarks of Bantam Books, a division of Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2001 by Mark Anthony.
Maps by Karen Wallace.
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 00-060834.
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For Trey R. Barker and LuAnn Salz—
Thanks for Providence and Dark Redemption
And for the Millennium Gang—
Kathy Kirby and Stan Kirby
Christie Golden and Michael Georges
and Raven Moore—
Three A.M. will never look quite the same
Other Books by This Author
Part One - High Coven
Part Two - Return
Part Three - Tangled Webs
Part Four - The Fairy and the Gate
Part Five - The Shadow of the Past
About the Author
Preview of Book Four of The Last Rune: Blood of Mystery
With Fellring sword of Elfin art,
Ulther smote the Pale King’s heart.
And farewell words too often part
All their small and paling hearts.
It was in the final, burnished days of summer—when cool mornings gave way to languid afternoons under hazy skies, when the wheat bowed in the fields, shafts heavy with fruit, and all the land was still as if drinking in one last, long draught of gold—that the Mournish came to Artolor.
Through the window of her chamber, Aryn watched the line of wagons creep along the road that led to the castle. At this distance the wagons were smaller than toys, but the young woman’s blue eyes were sharp, and she could make out many of the fantastical shapes into which they had been wrought.
There were swans with high, curving prows and snowy wings folded against their sides, and snails painted pink with small round windows set into their spiraled shells. A lion crouched low to the road, as if ready to pounce on a hart crowned by tree-branch antlers, while an emerald frog bounced behind. More wagons rolled into view: tortoises, fish cresting carved blue waves, lizards, tawny hares, and a dozen other creatures that Aryn had never seen before, except perhaps coiled along the edges of pages in old books.
One by one the wagons vanished beneath the green curve of the hill, and the road was empty again. But even at that moment, Aryn knew the wagons were coming to a halt in the field outside the village, opening painted doors to release the spicy scent of incense, the cool clink of silver, and the undulating rhythms of music.
The young woman turned from the window, her sapphire eyes bright. “Let’s go see the Mournish!”
Lirith, who sat in a chair on the other side of the small sitting room, did not look up from her embroidery. “And then let’s get tossed in the dungeon and make the acquaintance of a few dozen rats. For you know as I do, sister, that Queen Ivalaine has made it plain she wishes no one in her court to associate with the wandering folk. Their entertainments are for villagers and farmers.”
Annoyed, but not surprised, Aryn indulged herself in a particularly noxious frown.
“And what a fine baroness you’ll make after your face freezes that way, sister,” Lirith mused, her dark eyes still focused on the embroidery hoop in her lap. “Even bold dukes and proud knights will quail before you.”
“As well they should,” Aryn said. Although she smoothed her features and made a quick glance at a silver mirror on the wall nearby to be sure she hadn’t done permanent damage.
“I saw that,” Lirith said.
Rather than reply, Aryn gazed back out the window. The most interesting sight she saw now was a flock of sheep dotting the side of a distant hill like flowers. She amused herself for a few moments, imagining plucking tiny sheep from the grass, weaving them into a squirming, bleating chain, and placing them around her neck. Then she considered the smell, and that fancy passed.
“I’m bored,” she said, not caring how petulant she sounded. She felt petulant.
“All the better reason for you to stay and work on your embroidery.”
Aryn scowled at the black-haired witch. “I know perfectly well that you loathe embroidery, Lirith.”
“Indeed. And my loathing keeps me well occupied, so that I do not become bored. Now sew. Sister Tressa will be here soon, and she’ll expect to see some progress.”
Aryn turned from the window, pulled close the wooden stand that held her embroidery hoop steady for her, and did her best to pretend that sewing unicorns was really more fascinating than buying packets of sugared nuts, laughing at performing monkeys, and watching men who swallowed knives and burning brands.
Yrsaia knows, you should be more grateful for your boredom, Aryn of Elsandry, she scolded herself. Where are Grace and Goodman Travis and Lord Beltan now? Sitting in a comfortable chair in a safe castle with a cup of sweet wine at hand?
She sighed, and Lirith looked up, an expression of concern on her face.
“I am certain they are well, sister. It is to their homeland they have journeyed. And no one has power to heal as does Lady Grace. I imagine Sir Beltan is telling bawdy jokes and drinking ale even as we speak.”
Aryn wished she had such a good imagination.
It had been a month since they had begged their leave of Queen Inara and set out from Castle Spardis. They had left the seat of Perridon in good order. The young queen had rescinded all of the usurper Dakarreth’s proclamations, and with the help of the Spider Aldeth—who was making a steady recovery from his injury—had cemented her position as regent to her infant son, Prince Perseth. While there would continue to be plots against the queen—this was Perridon, after all—Aryn expected Inara to rule long and well.
After only a day of traveling they had bid farewell to Melia and Falken, for the bard and the lady intended to journey north to find their friend Tome—who, like Melia, was a former god. Aryn would have liked to see the golden-eyed old man again; he had the power to make her laugh no matter the sorrow she felt. However, Inara had already sent a messenger to Ivalaine. Aryn and Lirith were expected in Ar-tolor, and Durge had agreed to escort them there.
Although Lirith was her friend and teacher, and Durge was good—if sober—company, the ride across Perridon and Toloria seemed lonely. Grace and Travis had returned with Beltan to their world in hopes of healing the knight’s old wound. Melia and Falken had their own journeys. Even Tira was gone.
Except that wasn’t true, was it? For sometimes, when Aryn woke in the gray dawn, she glimpsed a star as red as fire low in the southern sky. She still didn’t understand what had happened in Spardis, when Travis gave Tira the Stone of Fire. But Melia said the red-haired girl was a goddess now, and Melia should know. Aryn supposed that, in a way, Tira would always be with them.
They had reached Ar-tolor with little event, and Aryn had been more glad than she expected to see its seven spires soaring over fields of jade. Queen Ivalaine had welcomed them with a rare smile, and at once dispatched a man to Calavere to inform King Boreas that Aryn would be visiting at the court of Ar-tolor for a time.
“You shall resume your instruction with Sister Lirith at once,” Ivalaine told her that first day in the castle, and Aryn had not disagreed.
The weeks since had passed pleasantly—walking the castle grounds, sewing under Tressa’s attention, reaching out with the Touch to grasp the magic of the Weirding as Lirith whispered calm instructions in her ear. And if at times it all seemed dull compared to their desperate journey east to the Keep of Fire, Aryn knew she should be grateful for that dullness.
With the Necromancer Dakarreth’s scourge of fire ended, the land had recovered more quickly than she had believed possible. Crops had been hastily resown, flourishing under golden sun and gentle rain. Now Keldath was nearly over, and there would be a good—if late—harvest this year. It seemed a wonder, but perhaps there was a lesson in it; perhaps she should never underestimate the power of life.
Then don’t underestimate Beltan’s life. Or Grace’s or Travis’s. They’re going to be fine. So you might as well stop worrying.
However, Aryn might as easily prevent the stars from spinning in the night sky. And she knew it gnawed at Lirith and Durge as much as it did her. They all feared for the others, who were beyond their reach now.
Which was precisely why a diversion like the Mournish caravan was in order.
A knock sounded at the chamber door. Aryn bit her lip. She had hardly sewn three stitches all morning. What would she tell Tressa? The queen’s counselor seemed to have a vastly inflated notion of the importance of sewing.
The door opened. It was not Tressa who stepped into the room, but rather a short, deep-chested man with drooping mustaches and somber brown eyes.
Lirith rose from her seat. “Good morrow, Lord Durge.”
He nodded to her. “My lady.”
Aryn thought about it for less than a moment, then leaped to her feet.
“Durge, we’re going to see the Mournish.”
Lirith glared at her, but Aryn ignored the look. It was a mean trick, but she had learned a bit about tactics from her days as ward to King Boreas of Calavan. When blocked on one front, advance on another.
Durge’s perpetual frown deepened. “That is a perilous idea, my lady. The Mournish are a queer folk. They make no homes save the wagons they travel in, and it is said the music of their flutes can drive a man to wildness.”
Aryn groaned. That was hardly the response she had hoped for.
Lirith folded her arms over the bodice of her rust-colored gown and glanced at Durge. “She has it in her head to go down and see the wandering folk, even though Ivalaine has forbidden it.”
“She didn’t forbid it,” Aryn countered. “Not precisely, anyway. Ivalaine merely discouraged us from going. Besides, I’m weary of moping about this castle. I think we all are. It would do us good to get some fresh air.” She held her breath, looking from knight to witch.
Durge stroked his mustaches and gazed at Lirith. “I believe she means to go no matter what we say, my lady.”
Lirith sighed. “Aren’t chains an option?”
“A temptation, to be sure, but I fear not. It is best if you and I accompany her to see that she does not fall into trouble.”
If she had possessed two good hands instead of one, Aryn would have clapped. “Now that’s the sensible Durge I know.” She stepped forward and kissed his craggy cheek.
The knight blinked, his expression bewildered, and Lirith’s brow furrowed with displeasure. Aryn didn’t care if she had been too familiar. For the first time in days she felt her spirits lift. The others would see that she was right—this was exactly what they needed.
Sunlight drenched the world like warm rain from the cobalt sky as baroness, countess, and knight passed through a colonnade of trees and stepped onto the village green.
It had been a simple feat to slip from the castle. Too simple for Lirith’s taste. Was it merely chance they had not come upon Lady Tressa or another member of the queen’s court on their way through Ar-tolor’s busy halls? Or had luck received some degree of assistance in the matter?
Lirith cast a glance at Aryn as they walked. She still didn’t know what the young woman had done over two months ago, when in secret they followed after Grace and Durge as the pair set off from Calavere. Tagging along had been a foolish plan, and Lirith had agreed to it only because she had been certain King Boreas’s knights would ride forth to retrieve them before they had gone a league from the castle. Only somehow Aryn had misdirected the king and his men. Lirith didn’t know how, but there was one thing of which she was certain: Aryn had used a spell of some kind to achieve their escape.
Yet despite Aryn’s rashness, Lirith was grateful—if not precisely glad—that she and Aryn had followed after the others. The road had been arduous, filled with fire and death, but there had been purpose to it. For if they had not stolen away from Calavere that day, there was so much Lirith would never have witnessed: Grace’s courage against the burning plague, Goodman Travis’s wisdom before the Necromancer, the girl Tira’s mysterious and wondrous transformation. And there was more she would never have known.…
I miss all your questions, Daynen.
A sigh escaped her lips, as it always did when she thought of the sightless boy who had given his life to save Tira at the bridge over the River Darkwine. For so many years she had prayed to Sia to grant her a child, and she had drunk an ocean of infusions and simples to quicken her womb. However, no amount of prayers or herbs would ever cause seed to grow in the soil of a salted field; she knew that now. But perhaps Sia had heard her pleas after all, for Daynen—however briefly she had known him—had seemed a son to her. She would never forget him.
“Come on, Lirith!” Aryn said, tugging on her arm.
Lirith let the young woman pull her across the grass while Durge trotted behind them, clad in a heavy gray tunic despite the brilliance of the late-summer afternoon. Already people from the town wandered uncertainly onto the green, as if fearful yet compelled by the fantastical wagons. As the trio passed, the townsfolk cast startled glances at Aryn, eyeing her pale, lovely face and azure gown—no doubt surprised to see a member of the queen’s court there. As well they should be. Lirith hoped it was only the townsfolk who saw them.
The three reached the edge of the circle of wagons. Now that they were close, Lirith could see the vehicles were more than a little roadworn: wood cracked, gilt peeled, and dust flecked sun-faded paint. Yet somehow this only added to their patina of mystery.
Although they had wandered for time out of mind, it was said the Mournish came from the south. And indeed the appearance of their wagons had been a more frequent—if far from regular—sight in Lirith’s childhood home in southern Toloria. Still, she had not seen the Mournish up close since her girlhood. The scent of spices, candles, and roasted meat reached her nose, and memories flooded her.
“Listen!” Aryn said, coming to a halt. Lilting music drifted on the air, blowing back and forth with the breeze. The young woman shut her eyes and swayed like a slender tree. “It’s so beautiful.”
Lirith drew in a breath, letting fresh air clear the memories from her mind. “Well, are you feeling wild yet, Sir Durge?”
He seemed to consider her words, then gave a solemn nod. “Perhaps just a bit, now that you mention it.”
Lirith gaped at the stone-faced knight. Had the Embarran made a joke, or was it merely a happy accident? Either way, she laughed. Perhaps Aryn’s impulses had proved beneficial once again—perhaps visiting the Mournish was not such a bad idea after all.
“All right,” she said, engaging Aryn’s good left arm and Durge’s iron-hard right, “I believe there are some spice pies with our names on them.”
It did not take them long to find the pies. They paid a copper coin apiece to a toothless woman clad in orange and yellow, then sat in leafy shade. There they bit into bubbled crusts to release warm juices that dribbled down their chins. When the spice pies were gone, Aryn and Lirith laughed as Durge diligently licked each of his fingers.
After that, the three wandered from wagon to wagon, and at each one a new and enticing aroma drew them on. There were plates of sugared nuts, sizzling bits of meat on sticks, and small cups fashioned ingeniously of leaves, filled with honeyed wine as gold as the sun, but cool against the tongue as evening dew.
And not all of the wagons contained food. Many were open to reveal black cloths piled with silver rings, bright scarves that fluttered on the air like butterflies, knives of blue steel, polished stones, rugs woven with swirling colors, tin whistles, and boxes of wood carved like the Mournish wagons themselves into the forms of animals and birds.
At one wagon—this one shaped like a crouching rat—an old man beckoned them closer with a bony finger. They peered into the gloom within the wagon, and only as their eyes adjusted did they make out the glass jars that lined wooden shelves. The jars were filled with yellowish fluid, and things floated inside them. At first Lirith couldn’t tell what they were, then a jolt of horror surged through her. One jar was filled with eyeballs, another with snakes, and one with the half-formed fetus of a pig, its clearly visible spine ending not in one head but two.
Displaying a rotten grin, the old man reached out and brushed Aryn’s left arm with something dark, dry, and shriveled: a monkey’s paw. The baroness screamed and darted from the wagon, bumping into a rickety wooden stage where a monkey—this one quite alive—danced in time to a drum. The stage tilted, and the spindly creature leaped for Aryn, eliciting another shriek. She heaved the monkey back at its owner, who caught it as he shouted at her in a hot and musical tongue.
Lirith and Durge grasped the baroness’s shoulders and quickly steered her away. As they walked, Aryn collapsed against them in breathless, trembling laughter, tears streaming from her eyes. Lirith couldn’t help joining in, and even Durge’s craggy cheek seemed to twitch. At last the three of them came to a halt beside a tree, away from the circle of wagons. Heavy light infused the air, and the leaves whispered soft, green secrets above; the day was waning. Aryn’s laughter dwindled, and she let out a breath as she leaned against the smooth bark of the tree.
“I feel sticky,” she said.
Lirith nodded in agreement. Durge said nothing, but his mustaches stuck out at odd angles.
“It’s nearly sunset,” Lirith said. “We should get back to the castle. The queen will notice if we’re not at supper.”
Durge held a hand to his stomach and winced. “Please, my lady. May I beg that you do not mention the word ‘supper’ again this evening?”
Lirith gave the knight a wry smile. “I told you not to go back for another spice pie.”
“And no doubt I shall pay for my folly, my lady. Do I need the lash of your tongue to punish me as well?”
Lirith smiled sweetly.
Aryn stepped away from the tree. “Can we walk slowly back to the castle? It’s been such a fine day.”
The two women started back across the green arm in arm as Durge lumbered none too swiftly behind them.
“Now here is a sight,” said a voice as deep and rich as a bronze bell. “There walks the moon and the sun arm in arm. And look—a gloomy cloud follows behind them.”
The three came to a halt, searching. It took Lirith a moment to see the hulking shape nestled in the deepening shade between two trees. Then she made out the ridged spine, the sinuous neck, the folded bat wings. Aryn gasped beside her, and out of the corner of her eye she saw Durge grope in vain for the greatsword that was not strapped to his back.
For a heartbeat, Lirith was transported to the high, windswept bowl of stone where they had encountered the dragon Sfithrisir.
And here are two Daughters of Sia, both doomed to betray their sisters and their mistress.…
But how could such a terrible and ancient creature be here, in a well-tended grove beneath the queen’s castle of Ar-tolor?
A shadow moved between the trees: the shape of man. “Good sisters? Good brother? Is something amiss?”
It was the thrumming voice again—the warm voice of a man, not the dry hiss of a dragon. Realization drained through Lirith, leaving her trembling. How could she have been so foolish? It was not a real dragon before them, but rather a Mournish wagon carved in the shape of one. Now that she peered closer, she could see the craft’s spoked wheels, its circular windows, and the peeling, painted scales of the dragon’s neck. Yet they had not seen this wagon before. Why was it set apart from all the others?
The man stepped closer, still awaiting an answer.
Lirith swallowed. “It was nothing, sir. A shadow of the past, that is all, and soon gone.”
The man paused, and it seemed he stiffened. Then he said softly, “I have found in my travels it is usually best not to dismiss what one glimpses in shadows.”
Before Lirith could speak again, a cracked voice drifted through the wagon’s window.
“Sareth, who is it out there? I cannot see them, blast my failing eyes. I should give them to Mirgeth and his jars for all the good they do me.”
“It is … two beautiful ladies and a stern knight, al-Mama.”
“Well, bring them here where I can look at them. I will see their fates for them.”
“This way,” the man said, gesturing to the wagon.
“Al-Mama does not like to be kept waiting. She says at her age there is no time for patience.”
He turned and started toward the wagon. Lirith glanced at Aryn and Durge, but they only shrugged. It seemed there was nothing else to do save follow.
The Mournish man walked swiftly—although there was a peculiar cadence to his gait—and in moments they reached the wagon. Smoke and the scent of lemons rose on the purple air. Bits of copper hung from the eaves of the wagon, filling the grove with chiming music.
The man turned toward them.
“What did you mean?” Lirith said before he could speak. “Back there, when you said, ‘there goes the sun and the moon’?”
The man smiled, his teeth white in the premature gloom beneath the trees. “It is simple enough, beshala. You are as brilliant as the sun and your sister as luminous as the moon.”
Durge cleared his throat. “And what was this speech about clouds?”
The man clapped the knight’s shoulder. “It is no insult I meant you, good brother. For the cloud grants the sun and moon a chance to rest when he lies over them.”
Even in the dimness, Durge’s blush was plain to see. “I have not … that is, I do not lie over … I mean to say …”
The man laughed—a sound as joyous as the chimes, but octaves lower, thrumming in Lirith’s chest. Curious for a reason she could not name, she studied him.
The Mournish man’s skin was the color of burnt sugar, and his eyes were as dark as old copper coins. Short as it was, his black hair was thick and curling, and his pointed beard was glossy with oil. He wore only a pair of blue, billowing pants in the style of the Mournish, and a red vest open to expose a flat chest. A dozen short, thin scars marked each of his forearms. The scars were precisely lined in parallel, which made Lirith suppose they had some ritual meaning. He smelled of sweat and strong spices. It was not an unpleasant scent.
The man’s laughter faded, and his eyes narrowed, as if he noticed Lirith’s attention. She quickly looked away.
“Where are they, Sareth?” came the cracked voice from inside the wagon. “It is almost time for my tea.”
Sareth grinned again. “My al-Mama will see you now.”
He pulled a handle near the dragon’s tail, and a door swung open. Beyond was smoke and dim, golden light. Sareth unfolded a set of wooden steps, then climbed into the wagon. It was only as he did this that Lirith finally noticed his leg.
Sareth’s loose pants ended just below his knees. On the right, his bare calf and foot were well shaped. However, on the left, there was no leg beneath the knee, but instead an ornately carved shaft of wood ending in a bronze cap. The peg leg drummed against the wooden steps as Sareth climbed inside.
“Come,” he said to the three below.
Lifting the hem of her gown, Lirith started up the steps, followed by Aryn and Durge. She couldn’t imagine there would be room for them all inside the wagon. But there was—barely. Light emanated from a single oil lamp, but Lirith couldn’t see the walls or ceiling, for everywhere hung jars, pots, bundles, and bunches of dried herbs. Sareth gestured for them to sit on three small stools while he stood near the door, blocking the waning daylight.
“A silver coin each it will cost you,” came the same cracked voice they had heard before, louder now.
Only then did Lirith realize that what she had taken for a bundle of rags against the far wall was in fact a woman.
She was ancient. Her body was lost in the tangled mass of rugs and blankets that covered the bench, but the arm she stretched forth was as thin and withered as a stick. Her head bobbed on a long, crooked neck, and her scalp bore only wisps of gray hair. However, amid the countless wrinkles of her face, her eyes were bright and warm as harvest moons. Bracelets clattered around her bony wrist, and large rings hung from her ears.
Before Lirith could respond, Durge held out three silver coins. The old woman snatched them from his hand and bit each coin with what appeared to be her only tooth. Then she grunted, spirited the coins to someplace deep within the mass of rags, and turned her large eyes on the visitors.
“You are marked with power,” the old woman rasped, thrusting a long finger toward Aryn.
Aryn started. “What … what do you mean?”
“Your arm,” the woman said.
Aryn lifted her hand to clutch her withered right arm, but the appendage rested as always in a linen sling, hidden beneath a fold of her gown.
“Always the balance seeks something in return when a great gift is given,” the crone said in her harsh voice. “Beautiful I was, until I discovered my shes’thar.”
Durge frowned at Sareth. “Her shes’thar?”
“She means her magic.”
Now Durge cast his somber gaze on Aryn, but what he thought he did not say.
“My cards, Sareth,” the old woman barked.
“They are next to you, al-Mama,” he said gently.
“Well of course they are.” The old woman snatched up a deck of cards from a small shelf. Another birdlike hand appeared from the rags, and she shuffled the cards with deft motions. “Each of you must draw a card from the T’hot deck.”
She fanned the cards out before her. The backs of the cards were faded, their corners worn, but silver symbols still gleamed against midnight-blue ink. Lirith exchanged looks with Aryn and Durge, then reached. Her fingertips seemed to tingle as she brushed one of the cards; she drew it. The others followed suit.
“You,” the old woman said with a nod to Durge. “Show me what you have drawn.”
Durge turned over his card, revealing a drawing that was at once dusky and radiant. It depicted a man with dark hair and eyes, standing by a pool of water that reflected the moon hanging in the slate-blue sky.
No, not just a man, Lirith. Look at the sword in his hand, and his armor. He’s a knight—a knight with a moon emblazoned on his shield.
The old woman took the card, running a yellowed fingernail over its surface. “The Knight of Moons. A man of war you are—trustworthy and strong. Yet you are ruled by the heart. And so full of sorrow! You believe you fight alone, but that is not so. For see? She smiles upon you always, although you know it not.”
The crone pointed to the drawing of the moon. Painted in the circle was the face of a woman, her lips curved in a soft smile.
“But who is she?” the old woman muttered. “Someone gone, or someone yet to come? My magic cannot say.”
Durge grunted. “I do not believe in magic, madam.”
The crone looked up. “And yet magic shall be the death of you,” she said flatly, burying the card back in the deck.
“Al-Mama!” Sareth said in a chiding voice.
The old woman shrugged. “I do not make their fates, Sareth. I but speak them. Now you.” She pointed to Aryn.
Trembling slightly, Aryn held out her card.
“Hah!” the old woman said, as if something she guessed had now been confirmed. “The Eight of Blades.”
On the card, a beautiful but solemn woman in a blue dress rode on a white horse across sun-dappled fields, a sword in her left hand. In the distance behind her rose a castle with seven towers, each crowned by a sword.
Aryn gasped. “But I’ve seen this before!”
Lirith glanced at the baroness. What did she mean?
The old woman nodded as she took the card. “As I said before, you have great power. See how the woman rides so proudly? All love her beauty even as they fear her sword. Yet there is always a price to wielding power. For see? She does not notice the poor man in the grass who is trampled beneath the hooves of her horse.”
Lirith stiffened. There—she could just make out the face in the long grass beneath the horse, eyes shut as if sleeping.
Aryn shook her head. “I don’t understand.”
“You have forgotten about one who bore pain for you.”
“But who is it?”
The old woman slipped the card back into the deck. “That is for you to remember, child.”
Even before the crone gazed at her, Lirith knew it was her turn. After Durge’s and Aryn’s tellings, she was not so certain she wanted to see the card she had drawn, but she didn’t have a choice. She turned it over.
Lightning slashed across a black sky behind a barren landscape as gray as ash. White shapes stained red scattered the ground. Perched on a twisted tree was a dark form, its eyes like hard beads.
A hiss escaped the old woman. “The Raven …”
“What does it foretell?” Lirith said, surprised at the calmness in her voice.
“The raven scavenges on the fields of the dead.” The old woman’s hand shook as she took the card. “Fields poisoned with spilled blood, where nothing will ever grow again.”
The dimness closed around Lirith, and the stifling air pressed against her so that she could not breathe. She blinked, and it seemed the images on the T’hot card moved. Sinuous lightning slithered across the black-ink sky. The bird opened the cruel hook of its mouth as if laughing.
Lirith swayed on her stool, but a strong hand gripped her shoulder. She blinked, and the images on the card were motionless again. She looked up to thank Durge for steadying her—
—and froze. It wasn’t Durge who stood above her, but Sareth.
“Are you well, beshala?”
She licked her lips. “It’s nothing. I just need some air.”
“I will help you outside.”
Aryn and Durge looked concerned as the Mournish man helped her stand.
“You flee your fate,” came the old woman’s voice behind her. “Yet you cannot escape it, for it lies within you.”
Lirith stiffened, then stepped from the wagon into the gray-green air of the grove. She turned toward Sareth. His eyes were filled with such a strange softness that she almost gasped aloud. Why should he act this way for a stranger?
“I must apologize for my al-Mama,” he said, his deep voice husky.
Lirith forced her chin up, meeting his eyes. “Why? Are her tellings not true?”
His cheeks darkened, but he did not reply.
“Your leg,” Lirith murmured before she could stop herself. “Was that the price you paid for your shes’thar?”
His smile returned, but it was fiercer now, sharper. “No, beshala. That was the price I paid for my pride.”
Lirith opened her mouth, but before she could answer Durge and Aryn stepped from the wagon. Aryn’s face was pale, and Lirith did not fail to notice the way Durge hovered close to her.
“We should get back to the castle,” he said.
Aryn lifted her hand to her chest. “I don’t feel well.”
Lirith took the woman’s hand. “Do not fear, sister. You have only eaten too many sweets, that’s all. The feeling will soon pass.”
She led Aryn from the grove as Durge followed three paces behind. Only after a moment did she remember to look over her shoulder, to bid Sareth farewell. But the grove was empty, save for the now-shut wagon and the soft music of chimes.
Lirith turned her face forward. Together the three walked back toward the castle in the fading light of sunset, their shadows stretching out before them.
They arrived at the castle just as the gates were closing. The land in all directions was steeped in twilight, but the last few rays of sunlight still fell upon Ar-tolor: a golden island in a deep, purple sea.
“Your Highness,” said a guardsman clad in black and green, stepping from a side gate to bow to Aryn. He turned and bowed to Lirith. “My lady. It is well you are here. We have scoured the castle for you.”
Alarm rose in Aryn’s chest, and she glanced at Lirith.
“What is it?” Lirith said.
“Queen Ivalaine wishes to see you both. We have been searching for you all afternoon, my lady.”
Durge stepped forward. “If the ladies’ absence has caused trouble, then you may lay the blame for it upon me. It was I who accompanied them from the castle.”
Aryn grimaced. That wasn’t right. It wasn’t because of Durge they had gone to see the Mournish; it had been her idea.
“Why does the queen want us?” she said before she could consider the wisdom of the words.
The guardsman started to make a crude gesture with his left hand. Then, as if remembering in whose company he stood, he hastily changed the motion and straightened the yellow sash slung over his shoulder instead. “It is not my place to suppose the mind of Her Good Majesty.” His voice was overloud, as if he believed it might be overhead.
“Of course,” Lirith said. “Thank you for this service, guardsman. We shall attend the queen at once.”
Aryn felt a firm tug on her left arm as Lirith pulled her through the gate.
“What is it?” Aryn whispered. “Do you think she knows that we went to see the Mournish?”
“Don’t be foolish, sister. Ivalaine doesn’t have a magic mirror. There’s no way she could know where we went. If she is displeased with us, then it is merely for answering late to her summons. So let us make haste.”
Aryn swallowed, wishing she could be as confident, but she said nothing more as they hurried through the castle. Unlike the dark, smoky corridors of Calavere, the vaulted halls of Ar-tolor were airy, lined with slender arches and rows of high windows that let in the silver-gray twilight.
“My ladies,” said a rumbling voice behind them.
The two women skidded to a halt, then turned to gaze into somber brown eyes. Aryn winced. They had completely forgotten about Durge.
“If my assistance is no longer needed, I believe I shall retire.”
“Of course, Durge,” Aryn said breathlessly.
The Embarran gave a stiff nod, then started to turn away.
“My lord,” Lirith said, halting him with a touch. “Thank you for accompanying us today.”
He nodded, then disengaged his arm and walked down the corridor, his sooty form melding with the gloom.
Inwardly, Aryn groaned. Why hadn’t she thought to thank Durge? After all, she was the one who had dragged him to see the Mournish against his advice. Now, if they got into trouble, it was likely the blame would fall on him. How could she be so cruel and forgetful?
But perhaps it was not so unusual after all.
You have forgotten about one who bore pain for you.…
It was true, there were those who had suffered for her sake, but Aryn had not forgotten them. She would never forget dear Garf, who had died trying to protect her from a mad bear. Or the brave and broken Sir Meridar, who had sacrificed himself to save Tira and Daynen, and to prove himself worthy in Aryn’s eyes. And certainly she would never forget Leothan.
A chill stole through her, as it always did when she thought of last Midwinter’s Eve, when the handsome nobleman she had fancied had drawn her into a side chamber and kissed her. For a moment it had seemed all her dreams had come true. Until he had forced himself against her, revealing himself as an ironheart. Then had come the fury, and along with it a power she had never known she had, flowing from her and turning Leothan’s brain to jelly. She had always believed evil was something that dwelled in the hearts of others; never until that moment had she known it resided within her own as well.
No, she would never forget that night—could never forget it. More likely the old Mournish woman was simply daft.
Then what of the card, Aryn? It was just the same as the vision you saw when Ivalaine bade you look into the water that day in Calavere. How could the old woman have known about that?
Before she could think of an answer, she felt a hand on her shoulder.
“Come sister,” Lirith said. “The queen is expecting us.”
As servants lit torches, filling the passages with warm light, the two women hastened through the castle.
High, bubbling laughter rang out.
Aryn and Lirith skidded to a halt as a gangly form clad in yellow and green sprang from an alcove, turned a flip in midair, and landed before them with a chiming of silver bells.
“Master Tharkis!” Aryn gasped.
The scrawny man flashed rotten teeth in a grin, spread his arms, and bowed so low his pointed chin touched the floor. “Two evening birds, one brown and one blue, fly to their lady’s nest.” He straightened, and a sly light crept into his permanently crossed blue eyes. “But will they flap or will they sing when they must take her test?”
Lirith recovered quickly, drawing herself erect. “Fool, we have no time for this. The queen awaits us.”
The man laughed, dancing a caper in place, the bells on his parti-colored cap bobbing.
“Awaits us, our fates us—
Berates us, for late’s us.”
Color touched Lirith’s dusky cheeks, and she opened her mouth for a reply. However, Aryn spoke first, affecting an exaggerated frown.
“Is that the best rhyme you can forge, Master Tharkis? I’m afraid it’s not much of a poem.”
The fool scuttled forward. His bony knees protruded from faded green hose, and his pointed shoes were scuffed and muddied. He tangled thin fingers, his wayward eyes bright. “And does my sweet spinstress, in so short a time, fancy she’d weave a cleverer rhyme?”
Aryn drew herself up. “I believe I could. In fact, I wager I can make a better poem out of your name than you can of mine.”
Lirith scowled at her, but Aryn ignored the look. Tharkis clapped his hands and grinned again.
“A game! A game!” He turned another flip in place. “How a fool loves a game. Pray, my lady, make a verse of my name.”
Aryn drew in a breath. Ar-tolor’s court fool had a tendency to interpose himself in one’s way at the most inopportune times, and playing his game seemed like the swiftest way past him. Only now she wasn’t so certain it had been a good idea. She frowned in concentration. Then, as if by magic, the words came to her, and she spoke them in a laughing voice:
“Where hides Master Tharkis?
That I cannot tell—
But the sound that you do hark is
The chiming of his bell.
So swifter than a lark is
The mischief he’d best quell—
For nothing else so dark is
The deepest dungeon cell.”
Aryn couldn’t suppress a satisfied smile as Lirith gaped at her. It wasn’t a bad little poem, if she did say so herself.
Evidently Tharkis agreed, for the fool sputtered, pawing at his jangling cap so that strands of lank hair escaped.
“Come now, Fool,” Aryn said. “It is your turn in the game.”
“Must I beg it on my knees? A moment, spinstress—a moment please!”
Tharkis turned toward the alcove, back hunched, and muttered under his breath. Aryn didn’t waste the chance. With the way clear before them, she grabbed Lirith’s hand and dashed down the corridor.
They had already turned a corner when they heard a shrill howl of dismay behind them. The sound spurred them on, feet pounding on stone, until at last they were forced to stop and sag against a wall, gasping for breath and laughing.
Aryn wiped tears from her eyes. “Was he truly king once, as the stories say? It’s so hard to believe when I see him.”
Lirith smoothed the tight, black coils of her hair. “Indeed he was, sister. For many years Tharkis ruled the Dominion of Toloria. But one day while out hunting he fell from his horse and struck his head against a stone. When he awoke again he was like this. I fear his brain was addled without repair.”
Aryn had heard the tale. King Tharkis had neither wife nor heir, and after his mishap Toloria was torn by strife as various barons vied for the throne. Had it not been for Ivalaine—a distant cousin of Tharkis who, within days of reaching the age of eighteen, managed to unite all the barons—the Dominion might have been sundered forever.
“So Tharkis truly is mad, then,” Aryn said. “Yet it seems cruel to keep him like this. A man who was king should not be the court fool.”
“And would it be less cruel to lock him high in a tower where none might see him? This is who he is now. And I think, after a fashion, he enjoys it.”
Lirith was right, of course. All the same, there was something very wrong about Tharkis. The less Aryn encountered him, the better.
“Come,” Lirith said, “the queen awaits us.”
“In order to berates us,” Aryn said with a grin.
A guardsman bowed to them as they approached the door to the queen’s chamber.
“You may enter, my ladies,” he said.
Aryn and Lirith exchanged quick looks, their mirth vanishing as they stepped through the door.
“Such disobedience is not to be tolerated,” said a voice as clear and hard as diamonds.
Aryn froze. Was the queen not even going to greet them before chastising them? A hasty apology rose in her throat, but before she could open her mouth a voice spoke sharply in her mind.
Quiet, sister. Do not confess your crime when you have not been asked. It is not to us the queen speaks.
Aryn bit her tongue. She still hadn’t gotten used to Lirith’s ability to speak without words. It was not a skill Aryn had mastered herself. However, her shock was replaced by relief as she saw that Lirith was right.
The queen’s antechamber was a spacious room, lined on one side by high windows that caught the reflection of the rising moon in a hundred small panes. Queen Ivalaine stood in the center of the chamber, towering over a slight young man who hung his head, his long, black hair concealing his visage. Beside him, her expression at once stern and motherly, stood Lady Tressa, the queen’s plump, pretty, red-haired counselor. It was the young man who had been the focus of the queen’s hard words.
“You were forbidden to enter the stables again,” the queen continued, her words precise as arrows, “yet you did so today, and by your pranks caused such agitation among the horses that one broke her halter and escaped. And in regaining her, one of the stableboys fell and broke his arm.”
“So I’m to blame for clumsy stableboys?” the young man said without raising his head. He was clad all in black, from tunic to boots.
The queen went visibly rigid. “It is not blame that matters to nobility, Lord Teravian. It is responsibility. Your actions gave cause to this injury. Will you not accept fault?”
The young man did not reply.
“Then I have no choice but to take the fault upon myself,” Ivalaine said, “for you are my responsibility. This is what it means to be a ruler. Lady Tressa, see to it that the stableboy and his family are duly compensated from my treasury.”
Tressa nodded, then bent to make a note on a parchment resting on a small table.
Ivalaine shook her head. “What shall I tell your father of this?”
Now the young man looked up, his hair falling back from the pale oval of his face. His features were fine, almost pretty, his eyes like emeralds beneath raven brows.
“And why tell King Boreas anything?” he said, a sneer twisting the soft line of his mouth. “I know he sent me here so he could forget about me.”
“You know nothing,” the queen said, her visage so icy that the young man took a step back, as if rethinking his insolence.
“May I go now, Your Majesty?” he said finally.
“I think you had best.”
The young man gave a curt bow, then turned and—with the litheness of a dancer—moved to the door. He did not even glance at Aryn and Lirith as he departed.
Aryn watched him go. She remembered Teravian well from her first years in Calavere. Back then, King Boreas’s only son had been a sullen, ill-tempered boy four years her younger. He had little to do with Aryn aside from occasionally tormenting her with pranks, such as the time he filled one of her bed pillows with wriggling mice.
Then, two years ago, Boreas had sent Teravian to Artolor. It was the custom for royal children to be fostered at a foreign court; this was one way alliances between Dominions were forged and maintained. Aryn remembered that Teravian had thrown fits the day he learned he was to be sent away, but she had heard little of him since that time.
A few days after their arrival in Ar-tolor, she had sought Teravian out, to greet him as a cousin. However, when she came upon him in the castle’s orchard, he had not come down from the top of a wall where he sat, and he had said nothing to her, save to laugh when she slipped on a rotten apple. It seemed Teravian had changed little during his years in Ar-tolor save to grow a bit taller and more cruel. Sometimes Aryn wondered how he could truly be the son of a man as good and brave as King Boreas.
The queen lifted a slender hand. “Where have I gone amiss, Tressa?”
The red-haired woman smiled, although it was a mournful expression. “He is a boy fighting a hard battle to become a man. One need not look for other reasons.”
“And yet there is another reason, is there not?”
Tressa said nothing, and Aryn wondered what the queen meant. However, Ivalaine spoke before she could.
“Come closer, sisters. Do not think I have not seen you standing there.”
The two woman hurried forward and curtsied.
It was often said that Ivalaine was the most beautiful woman in all of Falengarth. Her hair was like flax, her form slender and proud, her eyes the color of violets touched by frost. Yet Aryn knew there was one even more beautiful than the queen, someone who was a world away.
I miss you so much, Grace.
Once again she hoped Grace and the others were well.
“It is good of you to come, sisters.”
“We hastened here as soon as we received your message, Your Majesty,” Lirith said.
Ivalaine’s eyes glittered as she studied the dark-skinned witch. “So you did.”
Silence filled the chamber, and a mad urge to start babbling about all they had done that day rose inside Aryn. Fortunately, Tressa spoke before she could give voice to her compulsion.
“Would you like some wine, my child?”
Aryn nodded, then had to force herself not to snatch the cup from the witch’s hand and gulp it down in one draught. The wine was cool and clear as rain. Aryn took small sips and felt her nerves grow steadier.
“It is late,” the queen said, “and I have much yet to do before sleep, so I will be direct. I have called a High Coven to meet here in Ar-tolor at the next dark of the moon.”
Aryn frowned. She had never heard of a High Coven before. However, by the sudden brilliance in her eyes, Lirith had. The dark-haired witch gripped her goblet in both hands.
“May I ask, sister, are we to be part of it?”
Ivalaine nodded. “It is my great hope that both you and your sister Aryn will choose to attend.”
“It is the first High Coven to be called in seven years,” Tressa said, beaming. “All our sisters shall be there.”
Lirith’s smoky lips curved in one of her mysterious smiles.
An unnamable excitement filled Aryn, and she couldn’t restrain herself any longer. “But what is a High Coven?”
Tressa laughed softly. “Why, it’s a wondrous thing, my child. Witches from all the seven Dominions—and from beyond—are journeying to Ar-tolor even now. We shall all come together beneath the stars to weave a common web.”
“And what is to be discussed?” Lirith said.
Ivalaine moved to a silver basin that rested on a pedestal, her gown rustling like the wings of a bird. “Matters of great importance.”
“But what are they?” Aryn asked.
The queen did not turn around. “I believe that is enough for you to know at present. You will learn more at the coven.”
Lirith glanced at Aryn. Both knew when a meeting with the queen was over. Questions burned inside Aryn, but they would have to wait. They set their cups down, nodded to Tressa, then moved to leave the chamber.
“One more thing, sisters,” Ivalaine said, halting them at the door. “You have yet to tell me if you enjoyed your visit to the Mournish caravan.”
Aryn went stiff, and Lirith sucked in a sharp breath. Ivalaine still gazed into the basin of water, and a jolt of realization coursed through Aryn. The queen had no enchanted mirror, but she had other means to see things. Aryn recalled that day when Ivalaine halted her and Grace in the corridors of Calavere and bid them to gaze into a basin just like this. It was there, in the water, that Aryn had seen the vision of herself riding a white horse, sword in hand, before a castle with seven towers.
Now the queen did look up, turning piercing eyes upon the two women. “It is said the magics of the Mournish are like dark seeds that can grow only into thorned flowers. You would do well to remember that. Sisters.”
Aryn and Lirith could only nod. Together they stepped through the door, into the passage beyond, leaving the queen to her work.
“Going so soon this time, are you, my lord?” the woman said in a sleepy voice, burrowing deeper beneath the bedcovers.
Durge only grunted as he sat up. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed. The stone floor was cool against his bare feet. He drew in deep breaths as sweat dried on his naked back. Dawn was still an hour away, and steely air drifted through the window along with the soft, lonely call of a dove.
He shut his eyes, remembering. Ever were the doves her favorite. He would laugh at her when she threw grain on the ground for them in the morning. But as night fell, she would open all the windows of the manor and let their music fill the house. Back then he had never understood; he had thought it the most forlorn sound he had ever heard. Why had it taken him so many years to realize just how beautiful it was?
“Shall I expect you again this eventide, my lord?”
Durge opened his eyes. “You should never expect me.”
He stood, took his breeches from a chair, and pulled them on. Behind him, he heard Lesa sigh and roll over in bed.
He had found her not long after their arrival in Artolor. Lesa was a townswoman who worked sometimes as a maid to one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting. Her husband had died a year ago, but she had been left barren by the difficult birth of her second child and so no man in the town would have her for a wife. She was plain and dull, but good-hearted enough, and kind to her children on the few times he had seen her with them. Durge had liked that. Besides, she needed coin for bread as he needed a mistress. It worked well enough.
Durge cinched the waist of his breeches, then straightened. As he did, he caught a glimpse of himself in the murky depths of a bronze mirror. The mirror was short, so that he could not see above his shoulders, and for a moment it was like seeing a ghost.
With his face hidden, he did not look so different than he remembered looking in younger days. His arms were still hard, the thick hair on his chest still dark, and his belly had not gone to pudding as with many men his age. It was his hands that gave it away. They were rough, big-knuckled, etched with lines and scars. The hands of an old man.
He shrugged his gray tunic on over his head, belted it into place, then turned around. Lesa was sitting up in bed now, her snarled brown hair falling about her shoulders, watching him with small eyes. Her face was lined and battered beyond her years by a hard life, but her breasts were small and well shaped.
She hugged her arms around her knees beneath the covers. “When will you make me your lady, my lord?”
“I shall never make you my lady,” he said, and pulled his boots on.
She laughed and patted the bed beside her. “I’m your lady here, I am. So solemn you seem. But you’re bold enough when you press yourself to me. Is that not enough for you?”
Durge laid three silver coins on a small table. “Buy some shoes for your children. I saw them barefoot in the town commons.” He moved to the door.
“I will, my lord,” she said. “Buy some shoes that is. Jorus bless you.”
Durge said nothing as he stepped through the door and shut it behind him.
The castle was quiet; most of Ar-tolor was still abed. He trod the passages back toward his chamber, but he did not hurry. This was one of his rare moments to himself, and it was proper to savor it. Over the last two decades, Durge had grown accustomed to being alone, and he did not find it a burden. There was so much that could be heard—so much that could be seen and felt—only in the stillness of solitude.
Not that he regretted the time he had spent with Aryn and Lirith. Above all else, a knight must have purpose. But then, that was part of his present difficulty, wasn’t it?
A knight needs someone to serve, but what need have they of your service here, Durge of Stonebreak?
He knew with the solidness of stone that it was time for him to leave, to go back to Embarr. Yesterday evening, upon their return to the castle, Aryn and Lirith had dashed off without a backward glance at Durge. But then, what use were somber knights when brilliant queens requested one’s attention?
Left to himself, Durge might have worked on his alchemical studies, but he had been unable to procure the proper supplies and equipment here. As far as he could tell, engineers and men of logic were as rare in Toloria as witches and blades of grass were common. So instead he had gone to Lesa. After the day’s events, he might rather have occupied his mind with his research, but it was good to occupy one’s body as well, lest one or the other grow weak from neglect.
He paused before a window, gazing at the world beyond the glass. A fine mist rose from the ground, and all things—hills, sky, trees—were cast in shades of gray. Sometimes Durge preferred it this way: a world without color, filled only with shadows. Or was it simply that this was all he knew?
No, there had been color in his world once. In his mind, he pictured a beautiful young woman with eyes as brown and warm as honey. Only then the color of the woman’s eyes changed, so that they were no longer brown but a vivid sapphire blue.
And you are an old man, Durge of Stonebreak.
But that wasn’t true, either. For he didn’t always feel old. Sometimes, when Lady Aryn was near, he almost felt young again, full of hope and vigor. But that was a foolish fancy, and he knew it.
Strong as stone, you present yourself, Sir Knight, a remembered voice hissed in his mind, and yet your heart is tender and weak with feelings for another … if only you were young and handsome enough to deserve her.
It was cruel, but dragons spoke truth. Was that not what Falken had said? The ancient creature called Sfithrisir knew his heart better than he did.
As did another …
Somehow, in the Barrens, when he and Lirith huddled out of the soundless fury of the storm while Falken ventured into the ruin that had once been the Keep of Fire, the witch had touched his hand, and she had come close to him. Perilously close. He had seen his past play out while she watched, as if performed by actors on a stage, and all the deepest secrets of his heart had been laid bare.
In the time since, he and Lirith had never discussed that moment. However, he could see the knowledge in her eyes each time she and Aryn were near. Which was all the more reason why it was best that he return to Embarr. Aryn could never know of his feelings—would never know. She had burdens enough to bear without having a love she could never return placed upon her.
If only Durge could find a way to take his leave of the baroness without causing her harm. In her innocence, it seemed she had grown fond of his care and protection. It was a fondness Durge knew must not be mistaken for something deeper. All the same, to leave her might cause her distress, and that was something he could not do.
With a sigh—and no answer to his dilemma—the knight turned from the window.
As he did, he nearly collided with a trio of young women. Durge did not know any of them by name, although he recognized them as ladies of the queen’s court. What had caused them to rise before the dawn? Then he noticed their wind-snarled hair, the dirt on their hands and cheeks, and the bits of dry grass and twigs that clung to their gowns, and he was certain they had not just risen but instead were only now going to their beds.
He nodded to them, and the young women burst into giggles. They bent their heads, whispering as they glanced at the knight, and despite himself he felt his cheeks grow hot. This brought more peals of mirth. Then, clutching each other, the three ran down the hall.
Durge glowered. He appreciated women of strength. His noble mistress, Lady Grace, was a woman of power. But of this—these idle games of spells and mischief—he did not approve. Would that Aryn not become such as these women. Although he doubted that would happen. Her teacher, the Lady Lirith, was not given to frivolity, and for that Durge respected her.
All the same, Durge wondered if perhaps Sir Beltan wasn’t onto something. There were too many women in this castle with too many secrets, all watching and waiting. It was like the card he had drawn from the crone’s deck: the woman gazing down from the moon, beautiful but watching.
He had been right about the Mournish; they were indeed a queer folk. Going to them had been unwise, for the old woman’s words had seemed to upset both Aryn and Lirith.
And what of her words to you, Durge of Stonebreak?
But it was more trickery, that was all. In these last months Durge had seen wonders, yes, but they had been wrought by the hands of gods, not men. He did not believe in such human magic.
And yet magic shall be the death of you.…
An icy breath of air coiled around Durge, and he shivered as the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. Had the window behind him swung open? If so, this was a wind out of the depths of winter, not the gentle days of late summer. He turned back toward the window to shut it and for the second time that morning saw a ghost.
Man of logic though he was, he knew at once those shades were more than a mirror’s tricks of light and shadow. They stood before the window—which was still tightly shut—as colorless and translucent as the mist beyond. She was a maid of twenty, lovely if far from perfect, with an overlarge chin and wide eyes, her hair the stuff of shadows. Before her stood a tiny child, his mouth a pretty bud. His hair was as light as hers was dark. They had never known where he had gotten it, for both of them had hair of brown.
Durge’s heart had stopped beating. This was a stillness akin to death. The two seemed neither sad nor happy. They only stared forward, their expressions without emotion. Did they even see him? Then her eyes met his, and there was pale recognition in them. She opened her mouth, but no sound issued forth.
Durge staggered back. It felt as if the blood had been drained from his veins by a cold knife.
“Go away,” he croaked. “I am an old man now. Will you not let me be free?”
Tears coursed down his cheeks, steaming in the frigid air. Now the woman’s expression seemed sorrowful. She reached for him, but at that moment the rising sun broke through the mist outside. Its light pierced the substance of the ghosts, and in an instant they were gone.
Lirith woke with a gasp.
She sat up in bed, her nightgown damp and clammy with sweat. Something had awakened her—but what was it? She saw only mundane objects in the colorless light that filtered through the narrow window: a chair, a table, the wardrobe. Quickly, she shut her eyes, gazing with another sort of vision.
At once she saw the shimmering web of magic that wove itself over and among all things, brilliant with color where all had been dull gray before. The warmth of the Weirding flooded her, filling her with reassurance. Everything was as it should be.
Perhaps it was only her dream that disturbed her. Why it had come to her, she didn’t know. It had been so long since she had thought of that place, that time. Yet she could smell the heavy smoke of incense, hear the clink of beads and harsh laughter drifting on steamy air as if she were still there.
Dance, my dark one. Dance if you ever hope to be free. What a beautiful thing you are, as lovely as the night itself. Yes, you see it now—this is the only way.…
Despite the comforting tendrils of the Weirding that coiled around her, Lirith shivered. What had made her think of things so long and far ago? But perhaps it was not such a mystery.
You flee your fate. Yet you cannot escape it, for it lies within you.
Lirith could still see the drawing of the barren battlefield on the card, and the black shape of the Raven. But the old woman was wrong. Lirith had escaped her fate. She had escaped it the day she fled Gulthas’s house seven years ago. Maybe Durge and the queen were right; maybe the magics of the Mournish were nothing more than tricks and illusions intended to poison.
And what of him, sister? Is that a trick as well—the way he keeps stealing into your thoughts?
Without even meaning to, she concentrated, forming the threads of the Weirding into a glowing shape before her: a man with black hair, deep, mysterious eyes, and one leg. So easy it would have been to extend the threads of the Weirding, to mold them into a new leg so that in her vision he would be perfect. However, she did not.
Late last night as she lay in bed, after their meeting with Queen Ivalaine, she had conjured a similar vision, although in this one he had worn no vest, no billowing trousers of blue. It was a bit of foolishness, more to be expected of a young witch just learning to shape the Weirding than of a lady full grown and past her seven-and-twentieth year. All the same, Lirith had brought the vision close to her, touching herself as she imagined him entering her.
As she should have expected, it had been like touching cold clay rather than warm flesh.
A breath escaped her, and she let the image before her unravel. There was no use in thinking of him or his deep, chiming laugh. In a few days, Sareth would leave Ar-tolor with his people to wander the world again. Such was his fate. And the old woman had been right about one thing—nothing and no one could bring life to a land so long barren. Such was hers.
It was time to rise; Lirith could feel the sun breaking through the mist outside, filling the land with new life, if not all who dwelled upon it. She started to let go of the Weirding.
That was when she saw it. Her vision of Sareth had blinded her, but now that her sight was clear there was no mistaking it. It seethed on the edge of her vision like a knot of gray serpents: a tangle in the threads of the Weirding.
Warm reassurance became watery horror. Always in Lirith’s experience, when she used the Touch to glimpse them, the threads of Weirding wove smoothly among one another in a web as faultless as a spider’s. Now, as she watched, another strand of gossamer was pulled into the snarl, its light dimming to the color of ashes. How could this be? How could there be a tangle in the very web of life? She opened her mouth to scream—
—and a sharp rapping noise fractured the air.
Lirith clamped her mouth shut. In an instant the Weirding vanished, replaced by mundane sight. Gold light spilled through the chamber’s window: dawn.
Again came the sound. Someone was knocking at the door. Lirith threw back the covers and tumbled from the bed. She could think later about what she had witnessed—perhaps she could discuss it with Ivalaine and Tressa—but not now, when she felt so cold and empty.
Lirith staggered to the chamber door and jerked it open. Only when she saw the wide eyes of the guardsman did she realize she still wore only her nightgown of loose gauze. Never had she cared for the craft of illusion, but there were times when it was necessary. Lirith spun a quick thread around herself. The guard shook his head, then his expression relaxed. Lirith knew he now saw her clad in a pretty gown of russet and blue, and that he believed it was what she had been wearing all along. It was easy to make people see what they expected.
“My lady,” the guardsman said, “they are asking for you. Will you come?”
Lirith sagged against the doorframe as if struck a blow. Once again, words spoken long ago sounded afresh in her mind.
They are asking for you, Lisenne, shouting for you. It is you they want to see over all the others. Listen to their voices! Will you not dance for them?
“Who asks for me?” she managed to croak.
“Did you not see them ride up to the gate? Lord Falken Blackhand and Lady Melindora Nightsilver. They are here, in Ar-tolor.” The young man grinned. “My grandmother used to tell me tales of them when I sat at her knee. But they were just stories, or so I believed. I never thought I would see those two with my own eyes. And it is said you know them, my lady.”
Now the guardsman blushed, evidently embarrassed by his outburst. Lirith absorbed his words. Melia and Falken were in Ar-tolor? It would be good to see the bard and the lady, of course. She had grown fond of them both, despite their unusual natures. But why were they here? Last she knew, they had been journeying in search of their friend—and Melia’s kindred—Tome.
“They are going even now to the great hall to beg hospitality of the queen. Are you coming, my lady?”
“I’ll be there in a moment.” Lirith did not want to meet Lady Melia in an imaginary gown. Something told her the amber-eyed woman would see through any enchantments she might hope to spin.
Lirith shut the door and turned around. Her mind was clearing, like the mist in the morning light. Tricks and illusions, that was all. However, as she reached into the wardrobe for her gown, she could not help glancing again at the corner of the room. This time she saw only empty air.
Minutes later, Lirith stepped into Ar-tolor’s airy great hall. A small group of people stood before the dais on which rested the queen’s throne. Ivalaine was nowhere to be seen.
“There you are!” Aryn said, holding up the hem of her yellow gown as she rushed forward. “We’ve been waiting for you. Where have you been all this time?”
Lirith managed a wry smile. “Getting dressed.”
Ignoring Aryn’s puzzled look, she moved to Falken and Melia, who stood with Durge. Both appeared little changed since the last time she had seen them—although that was to be expected. For Falken had been born in the kingdom of Malachor, which fell centuries ago, and he was over seven hundred years old. And Melia was older yet, a goddess of Tarras who had forsaken her celestial realm to walk the world in a more limited, human form.
Falken was clad in his usual travel-worn garb: fawn tunic, scuffed boots, and a cloak the color of deep water. His silver-shot hair was as shaggy as ever, and his lined mien as wolfish. Melia had traded her blue kirtle for a simple shift the color of moonlight. Otherwise the small, regal woman looked as she always had: her coppery skin flawless, her hair falling in a blue-black wave down her back.
Falken grinned as Lirith drew near. “I hope you’ll indulge an old bard,” he said, enfolding her in lean arms. “It’s not every century I get to hug a beautiful countess.”
Lirith laughed and returned the embrace with equal force. The dark stubble of his beard scratched against her cheek, but she didn’t care; he smelled like a forest. He was a strange being, this immortal bard, but he was good as well. Lirith knew that without doubt—no matter what the tales told. She would not believe an entire kingdom had been doomed by his hand alone.
“You look well, dear,” Melia said, gliding forward.
Lirith did not pretend for a moment that Melia would embrace her as Falken had. Not that Melia didn’t care for her. But there was a distance to the onetime goddess that made her as cool, as radiant, and as unreachable as her namesake. Only Falken seemed able to bridge that gulf—and perhaps Sir Beltan and Goodman Travis to a lesser extent. Lirith gave the woman a rigid nod.
At this, Melia halted, then moved back a half step and nodded in return, her amber eyes filled with an expression that seemed almost … sad. A pang of regret filled Lirith’s chest.
She concealed the awkwardness of the moment with a question. “Where is the queen?”
“I fear you are too late, my lady,” Durge said.
Aryn frowned at the knight. “Ivalaine hasn’t passed away, Durge. She’s only at breakfast.”
“We were about to find some breakfast ourselves,” Falken said, slinging the battered wooden case that held his lute over his shoulder. “Will you join us, Lirith?”
She nodded, then took his arm when he proffered it.
“Falken,” Aryn said as they moved toward a side door, “you still haven’t told us why you’ve come to Ar-tolor. I thought you were going to travel for a while with Tome.”
The bard shrugged. “Tome decided he’d rather rest. But then, he is over two thousand years old, so we didn’t argue the point. Besides, when we heard a High Coven was being called, we decided to come here instead.”
Lirith froze. “But Queen Ivalaine has only just called for the coven.”
“Yes, dear,” Melia said. “We know.”
Once again Lirith studied the amber-eyed woman. While no longer truly a goddess, Melia’s powers were still mysterious and vast. The Witches had always respected her … but they were wary of her as well. Melia was of the new religions of Tarras, not the ancient worship of Sia.
Then again, it seems that those who shun the name Sia rise most quickly among the Witches these days, is that not so Sister Lirith?
The furrows in Durge’s brow deepened. “I have not heard of this High Coven. What is it?”
Lirith opened her mouth, wondering what she should tell the knight, but before she could speak, another voice—cracked and high-pitched—answered for her.
“My good, glum knight, don’t you know?
It’s where sewers spin and spinners sew.
Weaving secrets to and fro—
So let’s to the High Coven go.”
By the time Lirith caught a flash of green and yellow, he was already scrambling down a tapestry like a great, gangly spider. He must have been hiding up among the beams of the hall, listening to everything they said.
“Begone with you,” Durge rumbled, his hand moving to the knife at his hip as the fool scuttled toward them.
Falken laid a hand on Durge’s arm. “No, he was king in this hall once. Let him stay.”
Tharkis spread bony arms and bowed, the bells of his cap jangling dissonantly. “No wish to bother, no wish to harm. A poem I would speak, our great guests to charm.”
Durge did not look like he was in the mood for poems. “Speak it, knave, and then away with you.”
Tharkis bowed so low his pointed boots touched his brow. However, the moment Durge glanced away, the fool performed a caper, miming with uncanny verisimilitude the act of drawing a sword and falling upon it. Lirith swallowed a giggle, and Aryn clamped a hand to her mouth.
Durge snapped back around. “Whatever your history may be, Fool, your antics are not appreciated here.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Melia said, moving past the glowering Embarran. “I believe I rather like him. Speak your poem for us, Master Tharkis. Please.”
The fool leaped to his feet, then spoke shrill words in a fractured rhyme:
“The wolf said to the moon one day,
‘I think I can no longer stay
Upon this path so long I’ve run—
It always ends where it’s begun.’
“The moon said to the wolf one night,
‘Come with me, and we’ll take flight.
We’ll eat of suns and drink of stars—
All we’ve dreamed will here be ours.’
“But though as much as he did try,
The wolf could never leap so high.
Nor could the moon descend so deep—
I’ve heard it said they both yet weep.”
Throughout the verse, the smile on Melia’s face gradually faded. When Tharkis finished speaking, she looked away. Falken glanced at her and sighed. Lirith didn’t understand why, but the poem had seemed to sadden the two.
“Your rhyme makes for a poor welcome, Fool,” she said.
“Did I say welcome?” A sly gleam entered Tharkis’s crossed eyes. “Perhaps I meant farewell. One’s so like the other, it’s often hard to tell.”
“Or perhaps you’re simply a bad poet,” Aryn said. “After all, I bested you once.”
Tharkis scurried toward the baroness, his rubbery limbs tangling and untangling as he moved. “But we have not finished our game yet, my sweet. I’ll speak you your poem when next we do meet.”
Before Aryn could reply, the fool sprang backward in a series of flips. Then, with a chiming of bells, he scampered through a door and was gone.
There was a long silence, broken when Durge cleared his throat.
“I have been thinking,” the knight said seemingly to no one in particular. “Lord Falken and Lady Melia can offer both better company and better protection than I. Perhaps now that they are here it is time I return to Stonebreak. It has been long since I have seen personally to the affairs of my manor.”
Aryn’s blue eyes went wide. “Oh, Durge, you mustn’t even make a jest of leaving!” She rushed forward and grasped his left hand with hers. “I am certain your reeve can look after your manor well enough. Please—you must promise me that you will stay with us.”
The Embarran hesitated, then nodded, clasping rough fingers around her smooth hand for a moment. “As you wish, my lady.”
Aryn beamed, but Durge’s careworn face appeared more deeply lined than ever. Lirith didn’t need to steal his thoughts as she had in the Barrens to know that this gesture had cost him. Lirith wished she had never learned of the knight’s feelings for Aryn. And sometimes she wished she could tell the young woman. Perhaps there was a chance.…
But no, that was foolish. Durge was over twice Aryn’s age. And while such marriages happened often enough, they were arranged for land, money, and alliance, not for love. Durge would never make his feelings plain to Aryn. And Lirith had sworn she would never tell.
Yet it was more than this that seemed to weigh on him; Durge seemed grimmer than ever today. Had something happened to him? Or was it that, after the tangle she had glimpsed that morning, nothing seemed quite right.
“Come on,” Falken said. “The queen granted us her hospitality, and I’m ready to take advantage of it. Let’s get breakfast.”
The next day, witches began to arrive at Ar-tolor.
Aryn first suspected something was happening as she sat in her chamber, taking breakfast. A tingling danced along her spine, and—compelled for a reason she could not name—she set down her spoon, rose, and moved to the window. In the bailey below, a rider clad in a green cloak and hood sat upon a black horse. A guardsman reached out to help the rider dismount, but instead the traveler looked up and the hood slipped back, revealing a cascade of gold hair. The rider was a woman past her middle years, but still possessed of a powerful beauty.
Evidently the guardsman was as surprised as Aryn, for he stepped back. The woman on the horse turned her head, as if searching. Then her gaze locked on the window through which Aryn watched, and a smile touched her lips. For a moment Aryn gazed into sea-green eyes. Then, with a gasp, she hurried from the window. It seemed like the woman in the bailey had seen her watching. But that was impossible.
After breakfast, Aryn went in search of Lady Tressa, for there was much to do before the dark of the moon and the start of the coven, which—from what scant knowledge Aryn had been able to glean—was to span four days. She was near the entry gallery of the castle when she caught a scent like nightflowers. This was odd not because it was midday, but because for all its beauty—and like all castles Aryn had ever been in—Ar-tolor smelled more like a privy than a garden. She turned in time to see a tall, slender figure all in black vanish between two columns. Aryn hurried after but found nothing save a scattering of white, fragrant petals upon the stone floor.
It was after midday when Aryn finally finished counting all the candles stored in the castle’s cellar. It seemed an odd task, but that was what Tressa had bid her do and so she had. Aryn walked down a corridor, trying her best to brush the dust and spiderwebs from her gown. Working in the cellar had been grimier than she had imagined.
“Mind if I have some of that cobweb, deary?”
Aryn looked up to see an ancient woman clad in a shapeless brown frock. There was little hair left on the woman’s knobby head, but her blue eyes were bright in her wrinkled face.
Aryn shrugged. “No, not at all. Here you are.” She handed the other a gauzy, gray ball.
The old woman gave a cackle—she was quite toothless—and spirited the cobweb into a pocket. “Thank you, deary.” She hobbled past.
After several steps, Aryn stopped and blinked. She glanced back over her shoulder, but the old woman was already out of sight. Aryn turned and hurried to Lirith’s chamber. She found the dark-eyed woman inside, grinding something with mortar and pestle. It smelled fresh but bitter.
“Something peculiar is going on in this castle,” Aryn said, shutting the door behind her.
Lirith did not look up from her work, but she smiled mysteriously. “Five witches have arrived since dawn, last I spoke to Tressa.”
“I knew it!” Aryn flopped into a chair. “I knew they had to be witches. Each of them was strange in her own way.” A thought occurred to her. “But how can they be arriving at the castle when Ivalaine only announced the High Coven last night?”
“You mean she only told us about the High Coven last night. For all we know, she might have sent out messages weeks ago.”
A thrill coursed through Aryn, and she sat up straight in the chair. “Yes, but what sort of messages?”
Lirith crumbled a few dried leaves into the mortar and said nothing. That was answer enough for Aryn. Ivalaine had sent out a message about the coven, but not one written with ink on paper. And perhaps that was why Melia and Falken were here; perhaps Lady Melia had overheard.
Then why didn’t you hear it, Aryn? Or Lirith?
But maybe the message had not been intended for them. And Aryn’s ability to speak across the Weirding was limited at best, although she certainly intended to improve. And Lirith was going to help her whether she wanted to or not.
A sigh caught Aryn’s attention. The pestle lay motionless in Lirith’s hand; the witch stared into space.
“Are you well, sister?” Aryn said, excitement replaced by concern.
Lirith smiled, but the expression seemed fragile somehow. “Lady Tressa is looking for you. I believe she has another task for you to start.”
Those next days passed swiftly. As it turned out, Lady Tressa had many more tasks for both of them before the coven began. They helped to air out dozens of the castle’s spare chambers, and they spent long afternoons venturing into the groves that dotted the land near Ar-tolor, searching for goldleaf, moonbell, and other herbs Tressa bade them find—all of which could be ground into a heady incense, good for purifying air and clearing vision.
However, there were other tasks that made little sense to Aryn. They burned three candles—one to a stump, one halfway, and one just for a moment—before extinguishing them and wrapping them in red-linen cloths. They drew water from the castle well in the blackest hour of the night, although Aryn could hardly see how it would differ from water drawn in daylight. Wet was wet. As she discovered when, in her bleariness, she spilled a chill bucket on herself.
“At least that woke you up,” Lirith said with a laugh, then lowered the bucket back into the well.
Most inexplicable of all, with the help of Ivalaine’s ladies-in-waiting, Tressa bade them sew three robes. The first was white and woven from the wool of lambs. The second was brilliant green, colored with fresh rushes. And the third was dark as smoke, dyed with ashes. What were the robes for?
Tressa smiled when Aryn asked this. “Why, she has three faces, and so she wears three robes: one for her waking, one for her fullness, and one for her waning.”
“But who is she?” Aryn asked, more perplexed than ever.
Tressa’s smile only deepened.
“All right, Lirith,” Aryn demanded that night at supper in the great hall, speaking low under her breath, for the queen sat only a few places away. “What is this High Coven really all about?”
“You will see,” Lirith said, and took a sip from her wine.
Aryn started to groan—it was a typically enigmatic answer—then her eyes narrowed. “You don’t actually know, do you?”
Lirith did not meet her gaze. “I have … an idea.”
Aryn wasn’t certain what it was: luck, instinct, or some unspoken message translated across the threads of the Weirding. All the same, she knew the word on Lirith’s mind.
“Runebreaker,” she whispered.
Now Lirith did look at her, eyes sharp, face hard. “You will not speak that word again, sister. Not unless it is spoken to you first. Do you understand me?”
Aryn had never heard Lirith speak so harshly before. She gave a jerking nod, then finished her supper in silence.
As the moon waned to a sliver, more witches arrived in Ar-tolor. Some came openly under the bright light of noon, while others drifted into the castle with the purple air of twilight. And sometimes Aryn would awake in the deep of the night, move to her window, and see dim shapes gliding across the bailey, bending heads close in silent speech. Soon the very stones of the keep seemed to echo with whispers, and the castle’s servants and guardsmen walked with the quick-footed nervousness of mice who know a cat’s afoot, looking always over their shoulders.
Finally Aryn counted the days, thinking that if the High Coven did not begin soon she would burst with questions. Some relief did come in her time with Melia and Falken. They told her stories of the great lost kingdom of Malachor, and of the city of Tarras when it was still the shining heart of a vast empire. But though interesting, the stories were only diversions. It was not the past that interested Aryn, but what was to happen in mere days.
It was the morning of the day the High Coven was to begin that she woke to find the Mournish had left Artolor. Sometime during the night they had folded up bright awnings, packed their fantastic wagons, and rolled away down the road, wandering to their next destination.
After breakfast—which Aryn could barely swallow for her excitement—she and Lirith walked down to the commons below the castle, for Tressa had said all was ready for the coven. They walked among tall trees, which swayed back and forth, murmuring a tired song. Summer was passing. Keldath, the gold month, was over. It was Revendath, and the wheat in the field fell before the blades of scythes.
It was easy to make out the yellowed places on the grass where the Mournish wagons had stood. At one of these, Lirith knelt and plucked something from the withered grass. It gleamed in the dappled light: one of the cheap bronze charms the Mournish sold to ward away sickness, to ease pain, or to bring love. This one was shaped like a spider. Aryn wondered what effect it was supposed to have.
“I wish we could have seen them again. The Mournish.”
“It is well we did not,” Lirith said flatly.
Startled, Aryn glanced at her friend. Lirith seemed to gaze into a far-off place.
“What is it, sister?” Aryn said, touching her hand.
Lirith drew a deep breath, then smiled. “It’s nothing. Really.”
Aryn nodded; she thought maybe she understood. The old woman’s words had affected all of them. Once again Aryn thought of the image she had glimpsed in Ivalaine’s ewer and again on the old woman’s card. But what did it mean? Of all the castles Aryn knew, only Ar-tolor had seven towers. And Ivalaine was mistress here.
“We should return to the castle,” Lirith said. “This evening we will have far more on our minds than the Mournish.”
Aryn nodded, and they started back the way they had come. But she did not fail to notice that Lirith carefully coiled up the spider necklace and slipped it into the pocket of her gown.
The remainder of that day seemed to drag on for an eternity. Aryn tried to occupy herself with embroidery, but the thread seemed determined to tangle and knot. Lirith had told her the first meeting of the coven would be a welcoming incant, in which all the witches might greet one another. The real work of the High Coven would come in the days that followed. Aryn wasn’t entirely certain when things were to start, but instinct told her it would not be until the sun slipped beneath the horizon, leaving other, deeper powers to steal over the world.
Just as the music of doves drifted through the window, a soft knock came at the door of her chamber. Outside was a woman Aryn had never seen before. She was exceedingly tall and thin, curved like a tree; her brown hair was cropped close to her head in a man’s style. The woman wore a simple robe of light green, and a similar robe hung over her arm.
“It is time,” the woman said before Aryn could speak. She held out the spare robe. “I am Nayla, your guide. Don this, then follow me.”
Minutes later Aryn moved through the dim corridors of Ar-tolor, treading after Nayla along with several more young women. One by one they had gone to the chambers of the others, waited as each donned the spare green robe the witch always seemed able to produce, then continued on their way in silence.
As they walked, Aryn glanced at the young women to either side of her. Most were pale and pretty, while one was dark and lustrous like Lirith. All of them looked lovely in the simple green shifts, their shapely arms left bare by the garments’ half sleeves. Aryn tried to ignore her own withered right arm that flopped out the end of its sleeve. Even as a small girl she remembered being aware of the need to keep her arm concealed. Now that it was in plain view, she felt strangely naked.
A tingle danced across Aryn’s neck. She turned to see one of the young women staring at her. No, not at her, but at her arm. The other quickly looked away, but it was too late; Aryn had seen the horror in her expression. After that, Aryn kept her own gaze fixed rigidly ahead.
They reached a crossing of ways and came upon another group of women in green shifts. All of them wore wide-eyed expressions. They were even younger than the witches of Aryn’s group; the eldest couldn’t have been more than fifteen, and the youngest was surely not beyond her twelfth winter. Could she truly be a witch at so young an age?
As if sensing eyes upon her, the girl looked up, a knowing expression on her face, her lips curving in a smile. Aryn looked hastily away.
It was only when Nayla nodded to the woman leading the second group that Aryn realized the other was in fact Lirith. The dark-eyed witch looked elegant in her green robe, her black hair tumbling behind her in tight ringlets. Aryn opened her mouth to say something, but a slight shake of Lirith’s head stilled her question.
Not just yet, sister, Aryn thought a voice whispered in her mind. Follow now, speak later.
Lirith nodded in return to the tall witch, then without exchanging words the two led the way down a corridor. The others trailed after in a single group.
It was only when they stepped through a door into cool, purple air, and Aryn breathed in the perfume of evening flowers, that she realized what their destination must be. They left the stone walls of the castle behind, walking down winding paths deeper into Ar-tolor’s gardens.
The gardens of Ar-tolor were both larger and wilder than Calavere’s, with its neat paths and well-tended hedge maze that Aryn had played in so much as a girl she could navigate it with her eyes closed. Here, the walkways tangled back on themselves, leading at every turn to unexpected grottoes, shaded fountains spilling over mossy stones, and thickets where gods peered from leafy shrines with serene marble eyes.
They passed through an arch of moss-covered stone Aryn never recalled seeing in all her garden wanderings and stepped into a great space beyond.
It was like a temple all of green. Ancient trees formed twin colonnades, their trunks like columns arching into slender beams overhead. Flowering vines wove among the branches, completing the walls and vaulted dome. Silver moonlight tinged with emerald filtered down from above, and fallen petals glowed on the ground. Leaves stirred on the night breeze like the whispers of many voices. Then Aryn shivered, and she knew it was more than just the leaves that were whispering.
The garden was filled with witches.
All of them wore the same light green robes, and in the dimness the garments melded with the shadows of the trees, so that it was impossible to be certain how many there were. But Aryn was certain it was tenscore if it was one. A thrill rose in her chest.
Oh, Grace. I wish you could be here for this. It’s so marvelous—I never knew there were so many like us. You’d see that you’re not alone, that you’re never alone.
At the far end of the grove, marble steps led up to a circular rostrum. On the rostrum were seven pedestals, and atop each one shone a globe of light. At first Aryn wondered if they were glass balls filled with fireflies, but that was absurd. How could they be kept alive? Besides, it was too late in the year, and the light the globes gave off was not yellow but greenish like the leaf-filtered moonlight.
“What can it be?” Aryn murmured.
She felt eyes upon her and looked up into Lirith’s midnight gaze.
It is called witchfire, sister. Bright to look at, but cool to the touch.
Witchfire? Lirith had never spoken of such a thing before. But then, there were so many things Aryn had yet to learn. She opened her mouth to say more, but at that moment the tall witch who had led her group spoke.
Nayla guided Aryn and her companions toward the middle of the grove, while Lirith led her group to one side. They passed by other small clusters of women, and when they halted again Aryn saw that there was an order to the placement of the green-robed witches. The youngest were gathered on the right as one faced the rostrum. Aryn’s group was to their left, while in the middle of the grove were witches who were more of an age with Lirith and Grace. Beyond were witches of greater maturity, many beautiful still, but their hair graying, their faces lined with wisdom. And nearly lost in the shadows on the far left side were the eldest of the witches: the hags and crones, backs hunched, limbs gnarled, jaws toothless.
As she turned back, a flash of white caught Aryn’s eye. She glanced in that direction, then gasped. For a moment she thought the young woman was clad in the snowy petals that still drifted down from above, for she seemed to shine in the green gloaming. Then Aryn blinked, and she understood: It was a white robe the other wore—the very same garment she and Lirith had helped to weave only days ago.
“Isn’t she beautiful?” one of the witches of Aryn’s group—the one who had stared at her arm earlier—now whispered in her ear, her brown eyes shining.
Aryn nodded. As a girl, she had gazed into mirrors and had tried to picture what she might be like when she was grown: dark, slender, radiant, and whole. However, as she grew older, Aryn had never seen that beautiful young woman reflected back at her. Until now.
The young witch in white might have been Aryn’s sister. Her hair was dark as shadows, her eyes blue gems, her skin smooth as ivory. Yet there were realms of difference between them, for the other carried herself proud and straight, gazing on everything around her with an assured expression—two well-shaped arms folded across the white robe.
“Who is she?”
Now the young woman with brown eyes laughed; it was a mocking sound. “Why, don’t you know anything? Cirynn is to be the Maiden for this coven.”
The Maiden? Aryn started to ask. However, at that moment, a clear sound rang out over the garden. Three of the very youngest witches stood on the steps of the rostrum, each holding a silver bell of a different size. Three disparate tones blended together, shimmering on the night air.
As the tone faded, the girls left the rostrum and returned to their group. Obviously the first meeting of the coven was about to begin, for other witches hurried through the gathering, making their way to their places.
“Pardon me, deary,” a cracked voice said. “These old bones are sharp, and I’d hate to poke you with them.”
Startled, Aryn turned around to see a hunched form. She breathed a sigh, recognizing the ancient witch she had given the cobweb to the other day. The crone looked just the same—head balding and knobby, hands twisted like roots, red-rimmed eyes like bright buttons lost in masses of wrinkles—except now she wore a robe of ash gray. Once again Aryn recognized her own handiwork: This was the gray robe she and Lirith had helped sew.
“What is it, deary? You look as if you’ve got a bird in your mouth trying to fly out.”
Aryn remembered herself. “I’m sorry,” she gasped. “Please, come through.”
The crone grinned—displaying bare gums—and hobbled past, disappearing into a shadow near the foot of the rostrum. Next to Aryn, the young witch with brown eyes shuddered.
“She’s positively awful.” The young woman glanced at the left side of the grove. “They’re all awful.”
Aryn shrugged. “They’re just old. We’ll all be old someday, if we’re lucky to live so long.”
The other made an exaggerated grimace. “I should never want to live so long if it means I’ll look like that. I don’t know why we let them come. All they do is mutter about Sia and the old days when nobody cares.”
“But everyone should care,” Aryn said. “Maybe they aren’t young anymore, but they are wise. And beauty isn’t everything.”
The young woman’s brown eyes narrowed to slits. “I suppose someone like you would say that.”
Aryn’s face stung. She opened her mouth, but before she could speak, the young woman with brown eyes bolted from their group and hurried to the knot of young women clustered around Cirynn. She whispered something in Cirynn’s ear, and Aryn felt blue eyes upon her. As Aryn watched, Cirynn smiled, then twisted her right arm into an unnatural position, drawing it halfway up the sleeve of her white robe as she curled her fingers inward. Those gathered around her clasped hands to mouths, failing utterly to stifle their laughter.
Still Aryn stared, turned to ice. The grove dimmed, and the laughter of the young women transmuted, growing higher in pitch, echoing in her mind until it phased into something else—the singsong rhymes of children.
Little Lady Aryn,
What is she wearin’
Under that dress of blue?
A dead bird wing,
Such an ugly thing.
She’d fly if she had two.
Shut up, Aryn wanted to shout at them. Shut up, all of you! But her voice was too small, a little girl’s voice. She couldn’t speak, and she had no wings to let her fly from this place. All she could do was run—run and hide somewhere they wouldn’t be able to find her.
“Sister, are you well?”
Aryn staggered, then a cool hand touched her good arm, steadying her. The images of the past faded, and a figure came into focus before her.
The woman clearly belonged with the witches who stood in the center of the grove—that must have been where she was moving when Aryn stumbled against her. She was beautiful, although not in the pale and perfect manner of Cirynn. Rather, her beauty seemed to radiate from within, its brightness independent of its housing, like the light of a lamp.
Her skin was the color of almonds, her cheeks high, and her nose small and flat across the bridge. Her dark eyes tilted at the corners, and fine lines radiated from them, lending her a sage look. A single streak of frost marked jet hair. Some years ago, Aryn had met a countess who possessed this same exotic look; she had hailed from the eastern reaches of Eredane. Perhaps this witch did as well?
“I’m fine—really. Thank you.” However, as Aryn spoke, her eyes flickered toward Cirynn’s group.
Her glance was not lost on the other. The witch nodded, a knowing look in her eyes. “You must not heed them, sister. They doubt their own beauty and so must belittle that of others. When they grow older, they will learn that beauty is found rather than given. As shall you.” She paused. “But then, you are old beyond your years, are you not?”
The witch lifted a hand and pressed it to Aryn’s cheek. Aryn closed her eyes; it was, strangely, a comforting gesture.
“Sia bless you,” a voice murmured in her ear.
The warmth against her cheek vanished. Aryn opened her eyes to see the witch already moving away.
“But what’s your name?” she said, more to herself than the other, for she dared not shout. All the same, an answer came back, whispering in her mind.
You may call me Sister Mirda.
Then the other was lost in the crowd. Before Aryn could wonder more, motion caught her eye. From the shadows, three figures stepped onto the rostrum: one clad in white, one clad in jade green, and the other in gray.
“I am Her dawn,” said the young woman in white. It was Cirynn. Only she seemed graver now, more poised and less proud. Perhaps Aryn had misjudged her.
“I am Her day,” said the woman in green, and Aryn gasped, for only as the witch spoke did she realize it was Queen Ivalaine, regal beyond all others.
“And I,” croaked a rough voice, “am Her twilight.”
The hag in gray whom Aryn had spoken to earlier hobbled into place next to Ivalaine and Cirynn. Aryn wondered what her name was.
She is called Senrael, said a soundless voice in Aryn’s mind. She is to be Crone at this High Coven, just as Ivalaine is Matron and Cirynn is Maiden.
Aryn glanced around, searching, then saw Lirith standing not far to her left. She wanted to send words back to Lirith, but she had no idea how to do it. However, Lirith seemed to anticipate her question.
She has three faces, and so three women stand for Her. It is how it has ever been.
Aryn wanted to know more, but on the rostrum Ivalaine spoke again, her graceful arms spread wide.
“In Her name, let the circle be closed, and let this coven be called.”
At these words, a tingling coursed through Aryn. By the intake of breath around her, others felt it as well. There was power in the air.
“In whose name do you mean, Matron?” a voice called out.
All turned their heads, searching for the speaker. Then Aryn saw her, standing near the center of the gathering, close to the rostrum. It was hard to make her out, for her back was mostly to Aryn, but she was tall and carried herself proudly. Her hair was flax touched with hints of fire, coiled high upon her head, and she wore many fine bands of gold about her wrists and throat—the only jewelry Aryn had seen upon any of the witches that night.
“What do you mean, Sister Liendra?” Ivalaine said, as if this interruption were all part of the ceremony.
The witch who had spoken stepped forward. Her voice was clear and sharp, like glass. “You say you call the witches to this coven in Her name. Do you mean the name Yrsaia? Or the name Sia?” With this last word, her voice edged into a sneer.
On the rostrum, Senrael’s wizened visage wrinkled in a frown, while Cirynn shifted from foot to foot and chewed her lower lip. Whispers ran through the crowd.
“And does it matter which name it is?” Ivalaine said, her features tranquil as a deep ocean.
Aryn couldn’t see Liendra’s face, but somehow she knew the witch was smiling.
“I believe it does matter. To many of us, at least. We would know what our Matron believes before the circle of this coven is bound.”
More whispers rose from the witches, along with some nods. Above it all, Ivalaine stood without motion. Only when silence fell again did she speak.
“Then this is your answer,” Ivalaine said, her words cool and precise. “Even as all women are one, so are all goddesses.”
Murmurs of assent rippled through the gathered women. Aryn let out her breath and only then realized she had been holding it. It was like Lirith had once said; it seemed as if some of the witches did not like the name Sia anymore, that they believed she was a goddess followed by only hags and hedgewives. But it wasn’t so for all of them, was it? Aryn could still hear Mirda’s soft words. Sia bless you. Certainly Mirda was no hag.
Once again silvery bells rang out. Aryn shivered and turned her face forward. Lirith had said this first meeting was to be only a welcoming, that the real work of the coven would not come until later. All the same, instinct told her something was about to happen. Something marvelous.
“The moon is full in Her darkness,” Senrael rasped in her ancient voice.
“From darkness will Her light be reborn,” Cirynn said, her voice only slightly unsteady.
Ivalaine took Senrael’s hand in her left and Cirynn’s in her right. Then Cirynn and Senrael joined hands—one smooth, one withered—closing the circle: Maiden to Matron to Crone, round and round.
“Now let us all weave together as one,” Ivalaine said in a chantlike voice, “so that our circle may never be broken.”
And Aryn forgot everything as two hundred shimmering threads coiled around her.
Lirith was dreaming again, but she didn’t care. The dream was far too beautiful to resist, so she let herself sink into vibrant swirls of color, let them draw her on.
She was on the common green beneath the castle again, strolling among the Mournish wagons, gazing at their fantastical shapes. Then she saw him—Sareth—standing beside a gilded wagon carved like a lion. He was more handsome than she remembered, clad only in his vest and billowing trousers. With a look he beckoned her.
As she drew near he held out his hand. On his palm lay a spider charm like the one she had found. Except this one was not bronze but gold. She reached out to take it, but before she could it started to move, scurrying across his hand as if it were a living thing. Even as she watched, she saw tiny, gold pincers sink into his flesh, and a drop of blood welled forth, glittering like a small ruby.
Sareth screamed. A hole appeared in his hand where the spider had bitten him. As Lirith watched in horror, the hole spread outward. His entire hand vanished into nothingness, then his wrist, his elbow, and his shoulder. Then his scream ceased as, in a heartbeat, the remainder of Sareth’s body blinked out of being. Only the wooden peg of his false leg remained, clattering to the ground.
Lirith turned to flee, but from the shadows of the trees to either side gray threads sprang forth and spun around her, tangling her limbs, muffling her cries. She was caught in a web—a great, tangled web—and the more she struggled against it the more tightly it held her.
The wagons vanished as everything went dark. The only sound was a faint clicking that grew rapidly louder. Straining against the web, she turned her head, then saw them: gold spiders. Hundreds of them—no, thousands. All scuttled toward the center of the web where she lay entangled.
But there was something more, something lurking in the dimness beyond the golden spiders. It was gigantic, its terrible bulk weighting down the very web that supported them all. From the shadows it stared at her with eyes like black voids while ichor drooled from its open maw. It was hungry, this thing, so terribly hungry, and Lirith knew with perfect certainty that no matter what it consumed, it would never be sated. She tried to scream again, but this time sticky globs of web filled her mouth, choking her.
Then Lirith felt the first sharp pricks of pain.
Lirith sat up in bed, clutching a hand to her throat.
Breathe, sister. It was merely a dream, nothing more.
With conscious effort, she forced her lungs to function, drawing air into her body and moving it out again in shuddering breaths. She reached beneath her nightgown and pulled out the bronze spider that hung from a cord around her neck. She stared at the Mournish charm; it lay still and lifeless on her palm.
Lirith slipped from her bed, shivering as the dreamsweat dried from her skin. The chamber’s window glowed with colorless light. It was not yet dawn; yet she knew further sleep was impossible after the dream. It had been horrible. Although, in some ways, it was better than the others she had been having. The dreams of the past. The dreams of dancing.
But what did all of it mean? She had never been prone to nightmares. Why, of late, had she been possessed of so many?
One thing is certain, sister. No more maddok before bedtime for you.
Or was there something else to it? She had not seen the tangle in the Weirding again since that morning after visiting the Mournish. Perhaps it had simply been her imagination. She had listened, but she had not heard any of the witches in the castle mention seeing such a thing.
But it hadn’t been her imagination. She could still feel the sickness that had filled her at the sight of the abomination. No amount of maddok was enough to induce that. She wished Grace Beckett were there; somehow Lirith knew her friend would have understood. Except Grace was far beyond her reach now. Perhaps if she glimpsed the tangle in the Weirding again she would know better how to find it, and she would be able to show another. Perhaps Tressa, or Ivalaine.
Lirith hesitated, then before she lost her nerve she closed her eyes and reached out with the Touch.
A loud thump shattered the predawn air.
Lirith gasped, the shining threads slipping from imaginary fingers as her eyes fluttered open. This time she remembered to throw a robe over her nightgown before she answered the door. However, it was not one of the castle’s guardsmen.
“Sister Lirith,” the girl said in a serious and slightly lisping voice, “Mistress Tressa wishes to see you.”
The girl could not have yet passed her twelfth winter. A novitiate then; she would not be able to glimpse the Weirding until after her first blood. Sometimes Lirith envied the young ones, like this girl, who would learn to use the Touch from the first moment possible. When Lirith was twelve winters old, she had not yet even heard of the Witches.
Sulath blast you, you little grackle. Couldn’t you have waited another year? Now there’ll be no work from you tonight, nor tomorrow I warrant.
I’m sorry, Gulthas.
Sorry! The little bird is sorry? Well don’t that fill my coffers. Now you listen here, grackle. You’re going to have to watch yourself now. No bastards are made at my house—that’s what I promise all my lords. Minya will show you how to clean that mess up, and how to keep anything from taking root in you. She’s too old and worthless to do anything else.
The shadows vanished, and the room snapped back into focus. Lirith pressed an unconscious hand to her abdomen, as if she could still feel the warmth of the sparks that had once dwelled there, however briefly.
“I will be there at once,” she said.
Minutes later, clad in her favorite gown of russet, she hurried through the corridors of Ar-tolor. What did Sister Tressa want of her? Perhaps she wished to discuss the happenings at the opening of the High Coven last night.
It had not gone as Lirith might have guessed.
She knew there was growing discord among the Witches. It had been many years since village hags who spoke the name Sia were burned upon piles of sticks or pelted with stones—but not so many that such things had been forgotten. Some in the Witches wished to distance themselves from those old images, and nor could Lirith entirely blame them. Yet the Crone was a facet of who the Witches were. She was old and ugly, but She was wise as well, and subtle in Her power. If they dismissed Her, they would lose much.
However, Lirith knew that not all believed as she did. What she had not guessed was that such individuals would speak openly on the first night of the High Coven. And who was this golden-haired witch named Liendra? Lirith had never heard of her before, although she had caught a few whispered rumors last night—how Liendra hailed from Borelga in Brelegond, where she had come into the Witches only a few years ago, the daughter of a minor noble house, and had quickly risen to a role in the triumvirate of the Borelgan Coven.
Still, despite the dissension among the Witches, when Ivalaine had called for them to weave as one, Lirith had felt all the women come together, binding their threads into one great, shimmering web. Perhaps their differences could be overcome. Not that Lirith had been able truly to immerse herself in the weaving. She had barely Touched the Weirding at all since the morning she had glimpsed the seething tangle of threads. She could only hope Ivalaine had not noticed that her strand had been missing from the web.
She reached Tressa’s chamber to find a lady-in-waiting outside the door. The young woman quickly ushered Lirith inside, then departed. Tressa’s chamber was much like the woman who dwelled within it: motherly and comforting. Crimson carpets softened the floor, and pillows seemed to strew every available flat surface.
The queen’s advisor stood near the arched window. Next to her was another woman. With a jolt, Lirith realized it was Aryn. The young baroness’s blue gown was slightly askew.
“Thank you for coming so early, sister,” Tressa said. She wore a simple robe of green, and her red hair was bound in a tight knot at her neck.
“Of course, sister.” Lirith’s gaze flickered to Aryn. The young woman gave a slight shrug; evidently she had no idea what this was about either.
“I saw that look, sisters,” Tressa said in musical tones.
Both Lirith and Aryn winced. However, Tressa smiled to show she was not displeased.
“Well, I don’t suppose I can blame you. Curiosity is hardly a crime in our circle, now is it? And I’m certain you both wonder why I’ve called you here at this hour.”
“What is it, sister?” Lirith asked.
Tressa’s smile faded. “There’s been an incident.”
Lirith listened with increasing interest as Tressa described what had happened.
It seemed, earlier that morning, a novitiate had been dispatched to wake Sister Cirynn, for it was customary for the one chosen as Maiden to greet the dawn on each day of the High Coven. However, Cirynn had not been in her bed. A quick search of the castle—no doubt with the assistance of the Touch—had revealed the young woman’s location: the barracks room of some of the queen’s guardsmen. Tressa had found Cirynn fast asleep, wearing a smile upon her face. As were several of the guards.
Tressa heaved a deep sigh. “It seemed our Maiden is a maiden no longer, and likely has not been one for some time. Which means we must find a replacement at once.”
Lirith felt her chest tighten. “But Sister Tressa, I—”
The red-haired witch lifted a hand. “Of course, dear one. A Matron you would be. But there was another I was thinking of.”
Of course—how could she have been so stupid? Lirith gave an emphatic nod. “I quite agree, Sister Tressa.”
“And is she ready, then? You are her teacher, Sister Lirith. That is why I summoned you here.”
Lirith thought carefully—this was not a decision to make lightly—but then she nodded again. “There is much she has yet to learn, and her command is not so deep as her ability. But she is ready for this. You could not choose better than Sister Aryn.”
Lirith couldn’t help smiling at the effect these words produced. Were it not attached to her face, Aryn would have had to pick her jaw up from the carpet.
“There, there, child,” Tressa said, taking her hand. “You needn’t make such a fuss. It’s a simple enough role, you’ll see. You’ll be a lovely Maiden. And you are a maiden, are you not?”
Aryn’s face blazed bright red as she fumbled for words.
“Very well, that’s answer enough,” Tressa said, patting her glowing cheek.
Lirith moved to the young baroness and embraced her. “Sia be with you, sister. I am so pleased.”
Aryn let out a small gasp as she returned the embrace with her left arm, but she seemed unable to utter any words.
“All right, then,” Tressa said. “We must be off, Sister Aryn. There is much to teach you before the coven meets again.”
“Good luck,” Lirith said, releasing the young woman.
Aryn gave her hand one last squeeze. “Thank you,” she said at last, blue eyes shining. “For everything.”
Lirith only nodded as Tressa bustled the young woman from the room. The door shut, and Lirith sighed, alone again.
Now what? There was little for her to do until that evening, when the witches in the castle would meet in smaller circles and covens. It was in three days that the High Coven would reach its climax, when the Witches charted their future course as one. In the meantime, the witches in the castle would meet in smaller groups, exchanging simples, spells … and whispers.
Lirith was to meet with a group of witches her own age that evening. She looked forward to it, for there would be seven of them, one hailing from each of the seven Dominions. But what could she do until then? She could think of nothing … unless she tried once more to use the Touch.
She started to shut her eyes.
“I knew she’d forget me,” a sullen voice said.
Lirith’s eyes popped open. So she was not alone after all.
He slouched in a corner, half-sunk into a pile of pillows, his bloodred tunic merging with the crimson fabric. Long, black hair half concealed the pale oval of his face.
“Lord Teravian!” Lirith said.
The young man sat up, cross-legged on the pillows. “You were about to cast a spell, weren’t you? Your kind are always casting spells. So did I ruin it?”
Lirith drew in a breath, her composure quickly returning, and took a step toward him. “It was nothing, my lord. You needn’t apologize.”
A smirk touched his mouth. “I didn’t apologize. I think it’s funny when you make mistakes. It’s like seeing a spider get caught in its own web.”
Lirith forced her visage to remain smooth. Aryn was right; Teravian was a frustrating boy. He hardly seemed related to the blustering but good-hearted king of Calavan. Boreas was a solid bull of a man; his son seemed more like a shadow—slight, dark, and ephemeral. Still, Teravian was King Boreas’s heir and Queen Ivalaine’s ward. Lirith knew she must treat him with respect.
“We have never properly met, my lord,” Lirith said. “I am the countess of—”
“I know who you are, Lirith of Arafel,” Teravian said in a bored voice. He flicked his hair back over a thin shoulder. “I know everyone in this grotty castle. It’s not like there’s anything else to do.”
Lirith sighed. So much for that line of polite conversation.
Teravian stood and walked to the window. Unlike so many young men of sixteen winters, Boreas’s son was anything but awkward. He moved with lean, catlike grace, leaning on the stone sill, gazing through rippled glass at the bright world beyond. Lirith supposed there was nothing to do but ask her leave. She took a step forward—then was surprised as her lips uttered a different question.
“Why are you here in Lady Tressa’s chamber, my lord?”
He kept his back to her. “Are you a dolt? I was being punished, of course. It’s not like they talk to me for any other reason.”
Lirith ignored his insult. “What were you being punished for?”
He turned, his green eyes piercing beneath the sharp, black line of his eyebrows. They nearly joined above his nose, but the effect was striking rather than homely.
“You’re full of questions, aren’t you? Sister. Why should you care?”
Lirith said nothing; she knew he would speak if she waited. It did not take long.
“I’m being punished for stealing bread from a bread-monger in the bailey.” His voice was defiant, although his shoulders crunched inward.
“Why did you steal bread? Does not Ivalaine feed you all the bread you wish?”
Teravian clenched his hands into fists. “You’re just like they are! You’d rather believe some horrid little peasant instead of me. But I don’t care what you think. I didn’t do it—I didn’t steal his grotty bread.”
“I believe you.”
Teravian opened his mouth, then snapped it shut again, as if only just hearing what she had said. His eyes narrowed.
“Why do you believe me?”
“Did you speak a lie?”
“No. I told you I didn’t do it.”
“Then that is why I believe you.”
Instead of replying, Teravian flopped back down on the heap of pillows. He picked one up, fidgeting with the tasseled fringe, not looking at her.
“I’m sure you can go now,” Lirith said.
“No, I can’t. Tressa never dismissed me. She was just getting into it about the breadmonger when she learned about some grotty maiden who was having a roll with a few guardsmen. It sounds to me like the maiden was just trying to have a little fun. But I suppose that’s a crime in this castle. The news put Tressa all in a spin, and she forgot about me. People always forget about me.”
Lirith arched an eyebrow. “And why do you suppose that is?”
Teravian seemed to think about this, then he looked up at her. “Don’t people always forget the things they don’t like?”
Lirith pressed her lips together. How could she deny the truth of that? She wasn’t certain why—he was without doubt a self-centered, brattish young man—but she felt a desire to comfort him. Maybe it was that, in a small way, he reminded her of Daynen: a slight youth lost in a world of shadow.
“You’re wrong,” he said before she could speak. “Talking to Ivalaine about it won’t make it any better. She won’t believe me, either.”
Lirith stiffened. “How did you know what I was going to say?”
These were the first words she had spoken that truly seemed to affect him. He blinked, his lips going slack. “I don’t know. I suppose … I just know things sometimes.”
Lirith studied him. Were he female, she would have probed, tested. But he was male—it couldn’t be. Yet she knew, on rare occasions, that there were men with some scant shred of talent.
His expression sharpened into a frown. “Quit looking at me like that.”
“All hard and wondering. She’s always looking at me that way, like I’m something she’s got in a jar.”
“Whom do you mean?”
Teravian stood. “Can I go now? If you say I can go, then I can blame you if Tressa gets angry at me.”
Lirith took a step back, then nodded. “You may go.”
He brushed past her, leaving without another look. Lirith started to turn, to at least say good-bye, then froze as something caught her eye.
It was the pillow Teravian had been idly playing with. Somehow he must have pulled apart one of its seams, for spilling out of it was a mass of yarn. The tangled knot of threads seemed to seethe and expand even as she watched, and a sickness filled her. But it was an accident. He couldn’t have done it on purpose. Could he?
I just know things sometimes.…
Lirith clasped a hand to her mouth and hurried from the chamber.
“Do you have any sense at all of what they’re up to, Melia?” Falken said, pacing back and forth before the sun-filled window of Ar-tolor’s library.
“Just a moment, Falken,” the amber-eyed lady murmured, not looking up from the wood-covered book open on the table before her. “I’m just getting to the good part.”
Durge craned his neck, attempting to peer surreptitiously over Lady Melia’s shoulder. He was curious what a person like Melia—who was so terribly wise—would choose to read.
“Don’t even bother trying, Durge,” Falken said with a snort. “It’s not as if she’s reading something interesting. I’m afraid it’s one of those newfangled romances the bards here in Ar-tolor have taken to penning.”
Durge frowned. “Romances? How could one compose an entire book about romances?”
“I’m not really sure,” Falken said. “But as far as I can tell, they’re all about long-haired knights in white armor who sing songs about flowers and slay dragons in order to win the hearts of wan maidens who don’t seem to do anything but pine about having to marry some rich king.”
Durge stroked his drooping mustaches. “These knights and maidens you describe sound demented.”
“Oh, they are,” Falken went on, grinning wolfishly now. “They’re always spouting poems about how gold and jewels mean nothing, how love is stronger than a thousand swords, and other positively absurd ideas. All I want to know is whatever happened to good stories—you know, ones where the dragon eats the suitor and the maiden forgets about him, marries a wealthy baron, gets fat, and has lots of kids?”
Durge nodded in approval. “I like that story.”
“Of course you do. Who wouldn’t? But these romances”—Falken waved his hand at an entire shelf of books with ornate gold writing on their spines—“as far as I can tell, they contain nothing of any importance.”
“And what would you know about what is or isn’t important to a woman, dear?” Melia said pleasantly, her eyes still on the book. “The last time I counted, it had been a century since you had good fortune with a lady. Or has it been two?”
Falken clenched his hands into fists, sputtered something completely unintelligible, then turned and stamped back to the window.
Melia sighed, shut the book, and clasped it to her chest. “Now this,” she said, “is how a man should behave.”
“My lady …” Durge began. It was time to quit discussing modern literature and find out why Melia and Falken had called him there.
“Of course, dear,” Melia said, handing him the book. “You may borrow it. But don’t get any blood or food on it. And pay particular attention to page seventy-four. Only use more flower petals.”
Durge accepted the book in fumbling hands. He flipped through the stiff parchment pages, but the few words and pictures he glimpsed were far more strange and mysterious than anything he had ever read in one of his tomes concerning the alchemical arts. The knight hastily set the book on a stack of others the moment Melia turned her back.
“Oh, quit sulking, Falken,” she said.
He didn’t turn away from the window. “It hasn’t been that long since I got lucky.”
“Of course, dear. I forgot to count the one-eyed fishwife in Gendarra.”
Falken turned, thrust his shoulders back, and snapped his gray tunic straight. “And thank you very much.”
Durge’s eyes bulged, but he stifled any urge to ask for further explanation.
“Now, to answer your question, Falken,” Melia said, folding her arms across the bodice of her silver-white kirtle. “I suppose I have as much of an idea of what they’re up to as you. For years they have whispered of his coming. And last Midwinter he was revealed.”
Falken rubbed his chin with his black-gloved hand. “Who would have thought they’d actually turn out to be right?”
“No, Falken,” Melia said, her tone stern. “Do not dismiss the power of the Witches simply because you do not comprehend it. Their magic is different than that of your runes, but it is every bit as old. The name Sia has been spoken in the lands of Falengarth as long as that of Olrig Lore Thief.”
“And both have been spoken longer than any of the names of the New Gods of Tarras, in case you had forgotten.”
Melia’s eyes flashed molten gold, and Durge took a step back, even though he was not the focus of her ire.
“I have hardly forgotten, Falken. The magic of Sia is ancient, and it is alien to me—although in some ways it does not disturb me as does the magic of runes, and often I wonder why that might be. All the same, I’ve heard it said there are some in the Witches who no longer speak the name Sia, but that of my sister, Yrsaia the Huntress—who is, if it had slipped your mind in your heathen ways, one of the New Gods.”
Falken laughed. “Just because I haven’t discarded the Old Gods for every new mystery cult that comes along doesn’t mean I’m a heathen.”
“No, I suppose it doesn’t.” Melia ran small fingers over the spines of a shelf of books. “But sometimes it seems you have difficulty accepting anything that is new, Falken. Yet the world grows newer every day.”
The bard grunted, and when he spoke his voice was gruff. “I will not argue the point with you. But there is one thing you must concede. Any power the Witches have comes not from Yrsaia, no matter what name they speak.”
Melia hesitated, then nodded. “It is true. My sister tells me that she has not heard any prayers from these Witches.”
“That’s because it’s a front. Sia makes people think of toothless hags casting curses, so they pick a fresh, pretty, and popular goddess as their mascot. But deep down they’re still the same old Witches. Some things don’t change, Melia.”
There was a silence, and at last Durge cleared his throat. “I do not pretend to understand what you both speak, but are not Ladies Aryn and Lirith witches? And certainly my mistress, Lady Grace, must be called a witch as well. Do you accuse them of some misdoing? If this is the case, then with all respect, I must take offense.”
Falken let out a deep, musical laugh. “Don’t get your greatsword just yet, Sir Knight. I don’t think duty will require you to lop our heads off. Of course our three good ladies have done no wrong. But it is because you know them so well that we asked you here this morning.”
“Certainly we don’t mean to say the Witches are evil, dear,” Melia said. “Strange as they are, many of them are healers and do great good. But there is … something more.”
At these words the small hairs of Durge’s neck prickled. But that was foolish; he was a man of logic, not superstition. “May I ask that you speak plainly, Lady Melia?”
The small woman drew in a breath, then glanced at Falken. The bard’s face was grim now.
“For many years the Witches have foretold the coming of a man,” Falken said. “One whom they keep watch for.”
Durge shrugged. “Why is it our place to be concerned with one whom the Witches seek?”
Melia locked her eyes upon him. “Because the one whom the Witches seek is Travis Wilder.”
A short while later, Durge walked down a lonely corridor, away from the castle’s library. That morning he had donned only a gray tunic of light cloth against the summer day, but now he felt as cold and heavy as if he had strapped on his chain mail in the blue depths of winter.
For a quarter hour, he had listened as Melia and Falken spoke in low voices of the one called Runebreaker. But it wasn’t only the Witches who watched for him. Once before Durge had heard the name Runebreaker. The ancient dragon Sfithrisir, whom they had encountered in a high, barren valley of the Fal Erenn, had also referred to Goodman Travis as Runebreaker. When Durge had pointed this out, both Melia and Falken had given him tight-lipped nods.
Yet in all of this, Durge could find no logic. Why would witches and dragons have such great interest in Goodman Travis? Durge knew that Travis had certain … abilities. However, it was also true that these abilities seemed largely tied to the three Great Stones—the Imsari—none of which was in Travis’s possession any longer. What was more, Travis was no longer even on Eldh.
It is true, Melia had said when Durge spoke these facts. But if Travis were ever to return to Eldh, he might be in grave peril.
But why? Durge had asked. What do they seek him for?
However, Melia and Falken had only exchanged solemn looks; if they had any notion why the Witches sought Runebreaker, they had not voiced it.
It’s important that you let us know if you hear anything, Durge, Falken had said. It might help us protect Travis.
Durge’s mustaches had bristled. I will not spy upon my mistresses.
We’re not asking you to spy, Durge, Melia had said. Then the diminutive lady had done a thing that had shocked him. She had gripped his hand, and she had looked up into his eyes with what could only have been described as a pleading expression. But you will listen, won’t you? Promise me, Durge.
Who was he to deny this woman anything? He had nodded.
I will listen, my lady. On my sword, I promise it.
However, as Durge walked through the castle back to his chamber, he knew he would never hear anything of use to Melia and Falken. He had promised Lady Aryn he would remain in Ar-tolor, and remain he would. But he had said nothing about being near. Instead he would remain at a distance—a safe and proper distance.
It was better this way: to be present, but not to be seen. Just like the two ghosts he had glimpsed that foggy morning. They were sad reminders, yes, but they had no true power to affect or harm. They were merely shades of what had once been.
And you should be a shade as well, Durge of Stonebreak.
He flexed his fingers, feeling the joints of his knuckles grind together. Maybe, before too long, he would be. He pressed on alone through dust and gloom. This corridor was seldom trod—which was exactly his reason for choosing it.
A faint sound reached Durge’s ear—a soft scrabbling—and he came to a halt. He peered into the dimness, but though his eyes remained sharp, he could not make out a thing. Still, instinct told him he was not alone. His rough hand slipped to the knife at his belt.
“Show yourself, shadow,” he said.
A faint noise drifted on the air—like mirth, or perhaps like a song—and the hairs on Durge’s arms stood up. Was it the ghosts again, returning to remind him of what never could change? He took a step backward. As he did, something dropped down from the rafters and landed with a plop before him, looking like nothing so much as a great, gangly spider—a spider clad in green, with jangling bells on his cap and pointed shoes.
Durge let out his breath and let go of the knife. In a way he had been right; it had indeed been a ghost stalking him, only this was the still-living kind.
“Out of my way, Fool,” he rumbled.
Tharkis hopped from foot to foot, tapping the tips of his spindly fingers together, his perpetually crossed eyes looking at Durge in alternation.
“Where are you going, dreary old knight?
Do you not have a dragon to fight?
Did the beast hear you sneaking
From your bones and joints creaking,
And spread its wings and take flight?
“Or is there another reason you’re here?
More than a beast—a thing that you fear.
Can eyes of blue and hair black as night
Be harder to bear than a dragon’s bite?
Yes, flee from what you hold dear.”
Durge felt anger set fire to his veins, but he clenched his jaw and forced his blood to cool. It was Master Tharkis’s game to get a rise out of others, and Durge did not intend to hand him a victory. A king he might have been, but Durge knew things changed—that people changed. All Tharkis was at present was a nuisance.
“I said out of my way, Fool. Do not think I won’t remove you from my path if need be.”
Tharkis trembled in mock apprehension, the bells of his costume jingling. “Oh, dread knight, please spare me do—for news of your quarry I bring to you.”
Durge frowned. He knew it was dangerous even to listen to the fool’s words—they were crafted to baffle and befuddle—but all the same the question escaped him.
“What quarry do you mean?”
Tharkis grinned, displaying rotten teeth. “The spiders of course—the weavers of webs. Has the moon lady not sent you to follow their threads?”
“What do you know of that? Were you there in the library, listening to us?” Durge advanced, fist raised. “Tell me, Fool, or I’ll throttle it out of you.”
Tharkis scampered back a step. “No, no, fearsome knight, I heard not a thing. There’s no need for Fool’s poor neck to wring. But I know things, I do—I cannot say how. They come to me sometimes. They come to me now.”
Durge lowered his fist. Something about the fool altered even as he watched; the mad grin faded from Tharkis’s lips, and his wandering eyes grew distant.
“What do you mean, Fool? How do you know things?”
Tharkis pressed his thin body against the stone wall. “I think … I think it is part of what was done to me.” He licked his lips, whispering now. “There’s so much—it’s all right there. I can see everything. The eyes … the eyes are in the trees, and the shadows are reaching out for me. I fall, and my horse runs, and I run … but the shadows are too swift. They have me.”
Durge stared at the fool. Only dimly did it register on him that Tharkis was no longer speaking in verse.
The fool coiled his bony arms around his skull. “There’s too much, too much. I can see everything that happened, but it’s all in pieces, like a thousand broken mirrors I can’t put back together. Only the rhymes … only the rhymes make sense. Only they fit together. The shadows are in my head.…”
Tharkis went stiff, his mouth opening and closing like a fish on dry land. Durge hesitated, then reached out for him.
A bony hand batted him back. The fool sprang away in a neat flip. His crossed eyes were bright again, and his grin had returned, splitting his gaunt face from side to side.
“You can’t catch me, my doddering knight, for on my feet I’m far too light.”
The fool had changed for a moment—he had seemed more like a small, frightened child than a mad prankster. But whatever had happened, the moment was gone, and Durge had had quite enough.
“And under my feet you’ll be pressed, Fool, if you don’t move—now!”
Durge barreled forward, and Tharkis was forced to jump into the air and turn a somersault to avoid being trampled. There came a dissonant chiming as the fool landed behind him, but Durge kept moving. Tharkis’s shrill voice called out behind him.
“A spider spins a shimm’ring web,
And seeks to catch us with her thread.
But all her plans can come to naught
If in her own web she is caught.
“Who’s the spider, who’s the fly?
This riddle answer as you spy:
If a spider can be captured,
Who then spins the web that traps her?”
The words faded on the dusty air, but Durge did not turn to reply. Instead he shut his ears to ghosts and madness, and strode away down the corridor.
In all the activity of the three days between the first meeting of the High Coven and Prime Incant—when the Witches would weave a new Pattern to last them until their next meeting—Lirith was almost able to forget about the dreams. And the tangle she had glimpsed in the Weirding.
This was only the second High Coven she had attended since her entry into the Witches. The first had been seven years ago, held in the castle of Baron Darthus in southern Toloria—where it was said that the old baron knew quite well his young wife was a witch, and that he was more than pleased by the fact, given the simples she brewed which had brought new vigor to his loins. That had been in the spring of Lirith’s twentieth winter, and only months after she had fled the Free City of Corantha, walked on bare, bloody feet to Toloria, and never looked back.
At that High Coven she had been more a mouse than a novitiate: small, brown, and wide-eyed, pressed into corners while she watched those of greater strength and cunning prowl around her. But she had paid attention, and she had learned.
It was less than a year later when she caught the eye of Lord Berend of Arafel, one of Baron Darthus’s counts. Six months later they were wed—despite Lirith’s lack of history and the protests of Berend’s sister, who fancied herself countess and did not care for competition.
When Berend died just over a year later, it was whispered—and mostly by Berend’s sister—that it was a potion concocted by Lirith that had done the trick. However, while it was true that Lirith had used some small charms to gain Berend’s notice, it was not by magic that he had loved her, and not by magic that he had died. While Lirith could not say she had truly returned Berend’s love, she had felt affection for the count, and she had never been cruel to him.
After Berend’s death, his sister had petitioned Queen Ivalaine for possession of the estate, but the queen had refused and Lirith remained countess. After the count’s sister followed her brother to the grave the following winter—there had ever been weak hearts in that lineage—no one seemed to recall that Lirith had not been born to the position. She had ruled for several years, and her subjects had cared for her.
Then, two years ago, when Queen Ivalaine summoned her to Ar-tolor, Lirith had gone willingly. She had left care of the estate to Berend’s nephew, and so the count’s sister finally got what she had wished for—only she had not lived long enough to enjoy it, as happened often with those who were consumed by desire.
In the time since, Lirith had thought little of Count Berend or their estate in southern Toloria. This was where she belonged. In Ar-tolor, in the service of the Witch Queen, attending a High Coven.
And this time Lirith did not hide in corners. Instead, she sought out those witches of most interest to her, to speak about herb lore or the art of scrying, or ways to Touch the Weirding and weave it in new patterns. It was no chance that many whom she went to were the eldest of the Witches: the crones and hags. It was they who held the deepest knowledge and the most ancient secrets. However, it was not lost on Lirith that she was one of the few younger witches to seek out and speak with her elders.
“But I don’t want to know what they know,” Nonna, a witch from the Dominion of Brelegond, said to Lirith in a whining voice. “They’re all so ugly.”
This was the first evening after the High Coven began, at the meeting of the small coven to which Lirith had been assigned, which contained seven witches her own age, one from each of the seven Dominions.
Lursa, a solemn-eyed witch from Embarr, let out a sigh. “I fear no one told me it was a requirement of wisdom to be pretty. I suppose I shall have to color my lips and comb my hair before I can learn another spell.”
Unexpected laughter escaped Lirith. She winked at Lursa, and the plain-faced witch gave a shy smile in return. However, some of the other women shifted uncomfortably; not everyone disagreed with Nonna.
“It was the hags they took first,” one of the witches said in a quiet voice.
The other six turned to gaze at the speaker. Her name was Adalyn, and she came from the Dominion of Eredane. Earlier that evening, they had listened to Adalyn’s bone-chilling tale: how she had escaped from Eredane just after last Midwinter, and how black knights who served a nameless baron had begun riding across the land, murdering all witches, runespeakers, and priests—or anyone who was accused of being one.
“I think they were the easiest to see and catch,” Adalyn went on. “The ancient ones, the crones. Soon it seemed as if any old woman who muttered under her breath or who owned a cat was put to fire. At first we were silent; it was not we who were burning. But soon they came after anyone who was rumored to be a witch. Many of my coven sisters were … not able to flee as I did. Maybe if we had stood against the black knights earlier, when they took the old ones, we might have put a stop to it.”
After that, there was no more talk about hags. But Lirith saw the hard light in the eyes of Nonna and some of the others, and she knew Adalyn’s tale had only strengthened their dislike of the elder ones.
The next two days brought more meetings and more witches. Lirith greeted all with interest. While most of the time was focused on the exchange of learning, there was also no lack of discussion about how the Pattern would be designed at Prime Incant. Many spoke of Yrsaia, and how her name should be woven into the pattern alongside Sia’s—or perhaps, some boldly stated, atop it. Others held that the time was coming when the Witches would no longer just watch the Warriors of Vathris but would begin to work actively against them.
These rumors troubled Lirith, but not so much as a few whispered fragments she caught.
… that he is already among us …
… to stand against him, we must …
… but I say the end is closer than we …
Always the whispers abruptly ceased when Lirith drew close. But she knew the whispers started up again as soon as she was out of earshot, and she knew what at least one of them would be.
It is said she traveled with him.…
On the second day of the coven, just as silver twilight fell, Lirith strolled along one of the castle’s high battlements, taking a rare moment to herself to consider all she had learned. Insects hummed drowsily, singing the summer away.
She was just about to return inside when motion below caught her eye. A small side door of the castle opened, and a figure clad in a drab brown cloak and hood stumbled out—a woman by her slender form. The woman looked back over her shoulder as if at the one who had pushed her, but the door slammed shut. She stumbled forward. Then, as if sensing eyes upon her, she looked up, and the hood of her cloak fell back. Even in the dim light, Lirith could make out the pale oval of her face, framed by dark curls.
Below, Cirynn searched back and forth, but Lirith stepped into a shadow. At last the young woman who had been Maiden lowered her gaze. She stumbled down the path that led from the castle, weaving left and right, as if she did not know where she was going.
Lirith didn’t know how—perhaps it was simply experience—but somehow she knew exactly where Cirynn was heading, even if the scheming young woman did not know herself. She sighed. Lirith, of all people, knew what a brutal and hardening place a brothel could be.
Sia watch over her, she prayed silently, then turned and stepped back into the castle.
The next morning, just after dawn, Lirith rose and went in search of Aryn—of whom she had not seen so much as an eyelash in the last two days. She found the baroness just leaving Tressa’s chamber.
“Our new Maiden is doing wonderfully,” the red-haired witch said with a motherly smile. “She will be thoroughly prepared for her role tomorrow evening.”
“I am pleased to hear it,” Lirith said.
When the door shut behind them, leaving the two alone in the corridor, Lirith grinned and squeezed Aryn’s hand.
“You’re marvelous,” she said.
Aryn gave a nervous laugh. “I don’t know about that. But I have managed to keep my head from exploding, despite all the things Sister Tressa has stuffed into it. I had no idea there were so many rules to follow just to be a Maiden.”
Lirith nodded. “I’ve heard it’s much simpler to be Crone. But then, by the time you’ve made it to that age, I don’t think you want a lot of younger witches telling you what to do.”
“I should think not,” Aryn said.
They walked for a time past sun-dappled windows. Lirith spoke of what she had done at the coven, and Aryn described the things she had learned in her studies. At last they made their farewells in the castle’s entry hall. However, just as they began to part ways, a woman stepped through the main doors of the castle.
She was a witch, that much was certain, although Lirith could not recall seeing her at the coven. And she was certainly striking enough to remember. Her dark eyes were slightly tilted, and her midnight hair marked by a single lock of pearl. The witch passed the two women, her multicolored robe fluttering like the wings of a butterfly.
“Good morrow, sister,” the witch said, nodding to Aryn. Then she moved through an archway and was gone.
Lirith looked at the baroness. “Who was that?”
“Her name is Sister Mirda.”
Lirith had not heard the name before. “Is she one of Liendra’s group?”
“No, I don’t think so. At the first meeting of the coven, she wished for Sia to bless me.”
Lirith considered this. Surely no one from Liendra’s faction would impart such a blessing. However, Lirith knew the great majority of the witches in the Dominions by name if not by sight. Only she had never heard the name Mirda before.
“Maybe she’s a friend of Ivalaine’s,” Aryn said with a shrug.
Lirith sighed. “Sometimes I’m not sure Ivalaine has any true friends among the Witches. Many respect her, of course. But she has made it her place to stay a step removed from the others, to be a source of unity when there is dissension.”
“Do you think she can remain that way? She tries to balance herself among all views, but Liendra is not the only one who wants to know what Ivalaine believes.”
Lirith could not disagree. But as for what Ivalaine truly thought—that was a mystery that would have to wait.
Kissing Lirith quickly on the cheek, Aryn turned and dashed down a corridor, looking like nothing so much as a dark-haired girl, although this coming winter would be her twentieth. Lirith smiled, then turned to make her own way through the castle.
This time it came utterly without warning. She had not even been using the Touch, but it was there all the same, undulating in the corner of the entry hall: a tangled mass of threads. Lirith’s mouth opened to scream, but no air passed into or out of her lungs. Even as she watched, the seething knot seemed to reach out hungrily, drawing more shimmering threads into itself. They dimmed to dull gray as they merged with the tangle. Then Lirith felt the first few tugs on her being. Memories flooded her. Once before she had been pulled like this toward a destination that would devour her.
Dance, my little grackle. Ah, but you are not so little anymore, and you can hide your beauty no longer. Come dance, and they will shower you with gold. Dance!
A moan escaped her lips, and Lirith began to sway back and forth. The seething of the knot quickened, as if excited by her movements. A gray thread spun out, reaching for her.
The far corner of the hall was empty; the tangle was gone. Before Lirith stood a serving maid—barely more than a girl—a fearful look on her dirt-smudged face.
“Forgive me, my lady, but are you ill? Should I send for the queen’s men?”
Lirith found her voice. “No, I’m fine. Thank you.”
The serving maid ducked her head, then scurried from the hall.
Lirith glanced once more at the corner, but she knew that even if she used the Touch she would not see it again.
But it’s still there, I can feel it. And it’s growing.
Yet what did it mean?
A thought struck her. There was one who might know—one who was older and wiser than any witch in this castle. Lirith picked up the hem of her gown and ran from the hall.
Melia was not in her chamber.
“I’m sorry, Lirith,” Falken said, looking up from his lute. “I’m afraid she was in one of her moods today. When she left, I didn’t ask where she was going.”
Melia couldn’t have gone far in an hour; at least so Lirith assumed. However, Melia had powers she couldn’t hope to understand. And that was precisely why Lirith needed to find her.
“Thank you, Falken,” she said breathlessly.
Falken opened his mouth to reply, but before the bard could speak Lirith turned and dashed back down the passageway.
In no particular order, she tried the great hall, the baths, the library—even the privy—all with no luck. After that, she ventured outside. However, there was no sign of Lady Melia in the bailey, the orchard, or the stables. At last Lirith was forced to halt, leaning against a stone wall near Ar-tolor’s north tower. She had run out of both castle and breath, all with no sign of the amber-eyed lady. She would simply have to talk to Melia later.
And how much larger will it grow in the meantime?
She considered going to Ivalaine, to tell her what she had seen, but something held her back. Certainly if any other witches had glimpsed the tangle, Lirith would have heard whispers. That meant she was likely the only one who had seen it. In which case Ivalaine might simply declare her mad or ill and remove her from the coven. That Lirith could not allow.
It would just have to wait until she saw Melia again. Then, if the lady could not help her, Lirith would go to Ivalaine. Drawing a breath into her lungs, Lirith started back toward the main keep of the castle. But as she heard the faint sound of singing, she realized there was one place she had not looked.
The shrine was small and shadowed; it was little more than a wooden shack, really, leaning against the outside wall of the castle. But then, the mysteries of Mandu the Everdying had never been terribly popular in the Dominions, and certainly not in Toloria. Most of the mystery cults offered its followers salvation and the promise of joy after death. However, the cult of the Everdying God promised nothing to those who followed its mysteries—no final peace nor golden land of promise. Instead it offered only the story of its godhead: Mandu, who was born, who grew, and who was slain by treachery again and again, as inexorably as day was stolen by night.
But while the cult of Mandu might not have been popular in Toloria, Lirith knew that would not matter to her. They were her brothers and sisters, were they not? Lirith stepped forward, into the shadow of the little shrine.
Inside, Melia was dancing.
Lirith froze. The singing was clearer now; it was Melia whom she had heard outside. The lady’s voice was rich and bright as burnished copper, rising and falling in a wordless melody that reminded Lirith, in a way, of the undulating music of the Mournish.
As she sang, Melia moved in a slow circle, holding her arms in elegant curves. Her head was tilted back so that her onyx hair spilled down the back of her white kirtle, and her eyes were closed in rapture. On the stone altar stood an ivory likeness of Mandu, arms at his side, one foot forward. He gazed ahead with blind, serene eyes, a knowing smile on his lips.
“Melia?” Lirith gasped.
At once the small woman staggered, her eyes fluttering open. Lirith rushed forward, grasping Melia before she could fall. The lady was as light as a bird against her.
“Sister?” she whispered, her voice tiny and forlorn. “Sister, is it you? I do not think I can bear it. I know now that it was he who made the river run red with the blood of our people. I would rather die than wed such a monster.”
For a horrible moment Melia’s face was a mask of confusion, her amber eyes wide with fear. Then Melia stiffened. Gently, but forcefully, she disentangled herself from Lirith’s grasp.
“Lirith,” she said, her regal face stern. “What is the meaning of this?”
Lirith fought to keep from reeling. “You were dancing, Melia. You nearly fell. I … I caught you.”
Melia frowned. “Dancing? I have not danced in more than two thousand years. Not since …”
Her voice trailed off as she followed Lirith’s gaze to her bare feet and the gold rings on her toes.
Melia’s ire melted. She glanced over her shoulder at the altar. “I had come to speak to my brother. Mandu was ever the most sensitive of the Nindari, and I have been hearing such strange news from the south. I wished to know what he thought of it all. Only I must have lost myself in the past for a moment.” Her gaze grew sharp once more. “But I am quite well now, Lady Lirith. Is there something you wish of me?”
Lirith winced at Melia’s formal manner. But it was her own fault; she was the one who had chosen to greet the lady so coldly when she arrived at Ar-tolor. Now she regretted that action. What cause did she have to be so mistrustful of Melia?
You know perfectly well the cause, Lirith. She and Falken are agents of Runebreaker, are they not?
Lirith forced this thought from her mind; right then there was a more immediate question to answer. Before she lost her nerve, she explained in clipped words about the tangle she had twice glimpsed in the Weirding.
When Lirith finished, Melia folded her arms and paced before the altar. “Can this possibly be related to the whispers we have been hearing?” she murmured, although Lirith had the sense Melia was speaking not to her but to the statue of Mandu.
She answered nonetheless. “What whispers do you mean?”
Melia glanced up, as if she had already forgotten Lirith was there. “I’m not entirely certain I can put them into words. They aren’t really whispers in the sense you think.” She cast a fond glance back at the altar. “Words are limiting things. Yet most of what I have heard has, at its heart, the same matter. Of late, some among the New Gods of Tarras have sensed a change.”
Melia sighed. “How can I explain it any better? It’s as if … you’re sitting in a lovely garden at noon, dozing in the warmth, when suddenly a cloud passes before the sun. Nothing in the garden itself is different than it was a moment ago, and yet the entire nature of the place is altered.”
Lirith thought she understood. “So you’re saying the city of Tarras is like that garden?”
Melia nodded. “Many of the New Gods are uneasy, although none can really say why.”
The words startled Lirith. She had not thought it possible for a god to be afraid. But were not the gods simply reflections of the people who followed them? More powerful and beautiful and sublime by far—but reflections all the same? And certainly people feared things which they could not name.
Lirith nodded to the figure on the altar. “What does he think? Is this shadow in the garden the same as the knot I have seen in the Weirding?”
Melia sighed. “I fear Mandu speaks little anymore. With each circle he completes, he grows more perfect—and, I think, more distant. And I’m afraid I know little enough of the Witches and the Weirding to be able to tell you what this tangle is. Yet it seems to me there must be a connection somehow. Why else would you see a change in your web even as we have seen in ours?”
Lirith felt a bit of the tightness leave her chest. Melia’s words weren’t exactly an answer, but it was a relief to know she wasn’t the only one in the castle who had sensed something strange.
“Do not worry, Lady Lirith,” Melia said. “I shall be happy to tell you any more I might learn.”
Lirith winced—not because the amber-eyed lady seemed to have read her mind, but rather at the coolness in her voice. Once more Lirith rued her foolishness in the great hall.
Before her courage fled her, she lifted the hem of her gown and stepped forward. “You must forgive me, Melia. I did not mean to be so cold to you before. I know you and Falken both work to great good in the world. It’s just …”
Melia’s visage softened. “Of course, dear. And I forgot how difficult it must be for you right now. I doubt the names Falken and Melia are fondly spoken in your circles.”
Lirith gave her head an emphatic shake. “But they don’t—”
Melia raised a slender hand. “No, dear, there is no need to speak of it further.”
Warmth filled Lirith. She knew she should resist, but she could not help herself as she rushed forward and caught the small woman in an embrace. However, Melia did not push her away, but instead returned the gesture with equal fierceness.
“We women of mystery must stick together, dear.”
At last the two women stepped apart. As they did, Melia cocked her head. “Where did you get that necklace, dear?”
Puzzled, Lirith glanced down. The spider charm rested against the bodice of her gown; it must have slipped out when she rushed forward.
“It’s just a trinket of the Mournish. It doesn’t mean anything.” Lirith felt her cheeks flush, for these words weren’t entirely true. It reminded her of him, did it not?
Melia tapped her jaw with a finger. “I believe you are wrong, dear. In my experience, the Mournish make no meaningless trinkets. Everything they craft, however simple, has a purpose and a power. And of all the symbols they fashion, the spider is among the strongest—and the most secret.”
“You sound as if you know them.”
“I know of them. In all the centuries I have walked upon Eldh, I have been among them countless times. Yet I cannot say I truly know the Mournish. I’m not certain anyone who is outside their clans does. And they have never accepted outsiders.”
Lirith turned away, toward the door of the shrine, and clutched the spider charm. “Is that so?”
“What is it, dear? Is something wrong?”
Lirith opened her mouth and knew she would not be able to stop herself from telling Melia everything: the card, the dreams, Sareth. However, at that moment two silhouettes appeared in the door of the shrine.
“Melia, there you are,” Falken said. The bard glanced at Durge beside him. “You were right—I don’t know why I didn’t think to look in the shrines first.”
The Embarran nodded. “It seemed the logical choice.”
Falken moved to the amber-eyed lady. “Are you all right? You were acting a bit peculiar this morning, and then I couldn’t find you.”
“It’s gallant of you to worry about me,” Melia said, “but I’m quite fine now.”
She smiled at Lirith, and Lirith smiled back.
Falken groaned. “Don’t tell me she’s been giving you lessons.”
“Lessons?” Lirith said in her most mysterious voice. “Concerning what?”
“That!” the bard said. “One beautiful woman who speaks in knowing riddles is quite enough. We don’t need another.”
“Come, Falken,” Melia said, taking the bard’s arm. “Let’s go back to our chamber. You can rant to your heart’s content there.”
The bard gave a snort, then stamped from the shrine, Melia in tow.
“They care for each other deeply,” a solemn voice said after a moment.
Lirith had almost forgotten Durge; the knight’s gray tunic blended with the gloom. But it was what he said that startled her most, for it seemed a tender expression for the usually stern knight. But then, Lirith knew the truth locked beneath his armored exterior.
“I think we can never understand what they have endured together,” she said.
Durge only nodded. In the dimness his craggy face seemed more somber than ever. But it wasn’t just the gray light. These last days the air of grimness the knight wore had become more like a mantle of sorrow. Lirith had first noticed it the morning Melia and Falken arrived at Ar-tolor. She had seen Durge little since that day, but each time he had seemed sadder.
“What is it, Durge?” she said. “Has something happened?” She reached a hand toward him.
The knight’s brown eyes went wide and he shrank from her touch. Her fingers curled in, and she drew her arm back. Then Durge took a half step toward her, as if realizing what he had done.
“My lady …”
“No, Durge, I don’t blame you. Not after what I did to you in the Barrens. You’re wise to keep your distance.”
There was silence for a long minute.
“Have you told her?” Durge asked.
“I have not,” Lirith said. “I gave you my word. I will never tell her.”
Durge nodded. “That is well, my lady.”
Without further words, the knight turned and left the shrine. Lirith sighed and gazed into Mandu’s empty eyes, searching for solace. But the god only smiled, waiting for his inevitable death.
Purple twilight gathered outside the window as Aryn paced back and forth in her chamber, chanting under her breath, her snow-white robe rustling softly.
“Snuff out the candle, ring the bell, then speak the incantation. Snuff out the candle, ring the bell, then speak—”
She froze and looked up, her blue eyes wide. “Or is it ring the bell, speak the incantation, then snuff out the candle?”
Her head buzzed as if her brains had been replaced by a swarm of moths. No thought would hold still for her long enough to grasp it.
Dread filled her. What would happen if she were to perform the ritual incorrectly? Would the entire Pattern unravel? She wasn’t certain, but there was one effect she knew she could count on: If she did not act out her role as Maiden perfectly, Tressa would change her into a gnat.
Aryn drew in a deep breath.
Concentrate, sister. You can do this. Remember, everyone will be watching.
Panic surged in her chest.
All right—so don’t remember that. Just think of your last lesson with Tressa, then. Everything went perfectly.
A shred of calm crept into Aryn’s mind, and the fluttering eased. Of course, that was it. How could she have been such a goose? It was bell, candle, and then—
A knock sounded on the door, shattering her thoughts. A second knock spurred her into motion. She hurried to the door and opened it.
“Well, it’s about time, deary. These old bones aren’t getting any younger just standing here.”
Aryn gulped. The coven hadn’t even started, and she was already making mistakes. “I’m so sorry, Sister Senrael. I didn’t mean to trouble you.”
The old woman laughed. “Well, of course not, deary. Not a precious thing like you. There isn’t a cruel bone in your body. But fear not. Sia willing, you’ll get to be old and disagreeable like me one day.”
You’re wrong, Aryn wanted to say. I once killed a man with my magic. Is that not cruel? However, no words came out.
“Come along, deary. The moon will rise soon. We must be ready by then.”
The old woman’s ash-gray robe swished as she turned and hobbled down the corridor. Aryn hurried after, heart pounding.
Will I have to make decisions about what goes into the Pattern? she had asked Tressa nervously that morning.
Only so much as any witch does, the red-haired woman had said. All threads are woven into the Pattern. The Maiden, the Matron, and the Crone are there simply to help, just as the shuttle helps pass a thread through the warp when you weave. But it is the threads themselves that determine the Pattern.
After her meeting with Tressa, Aryn had gone in search of Lirith, to see if her friend had any wise words to guide her. However, she had not been able to find Lirith anywhere in the castle.
You’ll see her at the High Coven, she had told herself. Yet for some reason Lirith’s absence troubled her.
“A pox on it all!” Senrael said, stopping so suddenly that Aryn nearly ran into her.
“What is it?” the baroness said, hoping she was not included in the rather wide scope of the old witch’s curse.
“I knew I shouldn’t have had that last cup of maddok,” Senrael grumbled. “Now I need to make a stop at the privy. You’d best hurry along to the garden and find the queen. I’ll be right behind you.”
The old woman vanished through a door. Aryn would rather have just waited, but one didn’t disagree with one’s elders. And it wasn’t as if she didn’t know the way to the gardens. With a sigh, she started down the corridor.
“Well, if it isn’t our new Maiden,” a cooing voice said.
“Maiden?” answered another high, clear voice. “More like half a Maiden, I should say.”
Fear drove a cold spike through Aryn, halting her. She turned, searching for the source of the voices.
“What? Can’t you see us?”
A shadow that had draped a nearby archway vanished like a cloth unraveling. Beyond was a knot of six young women in green robes. They stepped through, and Aryn recognized some of them as the witches who had stood with Cirynn at the first meeting of the High Coven.
“Look at her gape,” a golden-haired young woman said with a laugh. “You’d think she’d never seen a shadow spell before.”
Aryn managed to find her voice. “I have seen spells.”
Immediately she winced at the words; her voice trembled like a little girl’s.
“Of course you have. Deary.”
The other witches laughed at these words, spoken by a brown-eyed witch. Aryn knew her. It was she who had abandoned Aryn’s group to go stand with Cirynn. Since that night, Aryn had learned her name; it was Belira.
“That robe doesn’t really suit you,” Belira said, drifting forward while the others watched with keen gazes, smiles curling their lips. “But then, it was made for another, was it not?”
Aryn felt herself shrink inside the robe, like a turtle drawing into its shell. The white garment was heavier than the green robe she had worn previously, but it still did not cover her withered arm. She tried to move down the corridor, but Belira interposed herself.
“Why are you doing this?” Aryn gasped before she could stop herself.
Belira’s eyes narrowed to slits. “I’ll make it plain for you. We liked Cirynn, and we don’t like you. Understand?”
Aryn shook her head; she could not speak.
The golden-haired witch stepped forward. “What a simpleton she is. One arm and half a wit. How on Eldh did she get to be Maiden and not one of us?”
“Ivalaine chose me,” Aryn managed at last.
Belira curled her lip, and the expression marred what little prettiness her face held. “Yes, Ivalaine. But that only brings up another question—why is she Matron and not Liendra? Everyone knows Sister Liendra speaks for all the Witches.”
Aryn felt some of her fear transform into anger. Who were these young women to think they knew so much?
“You’re wrong, Sister Belira. Liendra doesn’t speak for everyone—she doesn’t speak for me. Now let me pass.”
She tried to take a step forward, but the others closed in around her in a circle. Aryn felt her lungs grow tight. She seemed to shrink, until she was a small child again, jeering faces whirling around her in a blur as remembered voices rose and fell like the harsh calls of birds.
Little Lady Aryn,
What is she wearin’ …
No, she would never feel that way again. Never. She had vowed it on Midwinter’s Eve when she slew Leothan with her magic. For so long after that night, she had regretted her action, had believed it made her evil. But she had been wrong; she was not the evil one. It was the others—the ones that laughed and jeered, the ones that treated people like objects to be used, scorned, and discarded. All her life, others had looked at Aryn like she was a monster just because of her arm; but she knew now that she wasn’t the monster.
Leothan had been an ironheart, a thing no longer human. And while no lumps of metal resided in the breasts of these young women, they were every bit as heartless. Aryn needed to endure such cruelty no longer. Not theirs, not anyone’s. Not when she had the power to stop it. She would show them what it meant to cast a spell.
Both fear and anger melted from Aryn. Instead a calm possessed her, like the stillness before a storm. She stood straight, then gazed at Belira with clear eyes.
“I must go, sisters,” she said, her words cool and polished as marble. “The High Coven is about to begin. I must ask that you let me pass.”
Belira glanced at her companions, who nodded encouragement, then turned toward Aryn with a smirk. “Make us.”
“Very well, if that is what you wish.”
Belira frowned. Clearly these had not been the words she was expecting. The others shifted behind her. Belira opened her mouth, but before she could speak, Aryn lifted a hand—not the left hand, but the right: small, pale, and twisted as a broken dove.
It was so simple; she didn’t even need to shut her eyes. Aryn reached out with the Touch and clasped six shimmering threads in an imagined hand. Then she pinched the threads, squeezing them tight.
As one, the six young women around her gasped and stumbled back, hands fluttering up to clutch their throats. Their eyes bulged in their faces as their mouths opened and closed in silent, airless spasms.
The young witches spun away from Aryn like drunken dancers. After a few moments blue tinged their lips. So easy—it would be so easy to squeeze their threads until they snapped, to end their breathing forever …
Stop it, Aryn. If you harm them, then you’ll be just like they are.
She stared at her withered hand. No—she would not let them make her into a monster.
Aryn lowered her hand, releasing the threads, and the young women staggered, drawing ragged breaths. A few dropped to their knees, gulping in air, and others sobbed as they hung on to one another. Of them, only Belira stood still. She gazed at Aryn, holding her throat, her brown eyes filled with terror. And hatred.
Aryn didn’t care. She had neither need nor desire to win the affection of witches such as these. Unlike her own, their bodies were perfect and whole; but their spirits were more twisted than any limb of flesh could ever be.
Her white robe whispering softly, she strode past the young witches.
“I will see you at the High Coven. Sisters.”
Lirith hastily smoothed the wrinkles from her green robe, then finger-combed the worst of the snarls from her black, coiled hair. A quick glance in a bronze mirror confirmed that the results were acceptable. The gray air of twilight crept through the window; it was almost time for the High Coven to begin.
How she had nearly overslept, Lirith didn’t know. Her head had been throbbing all day, and she had lain on her bed just to rest her eyes. However, somehow she had drifted into sleep—and into another dream of Sareth. This one had been murkier than the last. They had both been naked, and he had been making love to her. Only she felt a terrible coldness, and when she looked at him she saw that Sareth was no longer a living man, but a statue of dull stone. The coldness spread through her, and she tried to scream, but her tongue was already stone.
Thankfully she had awakened then. In some ways this dream had been worse than the one of the golden spiders. The thought of spending eternity like that—alive, aware, but utterly numb and frozen—made her flesh crawl.
Lirith left her chamber and hurried through the castle. Servants and petty nobles looked up with wide eyes and scrambled to get out of her way. She couldn’t blame them; she had a feeling she looked like a mad hag at the moment. It was Ivalaine’s wish that the witches move discreetly in Ar-tolor, so as not to alarm the castle folk. However, she had no time for anything but the most direct route to the gardens. She was lucky she had not been assigned a group of novitiates to guide to the coven that night. She picked up the hem of her robe and quickened her pace.
“It doesn’t matter if you run, you know,” a sibilant voice said. “You’re still going to be late.”
Lirith skidded to a halt. A slender silhouette stood against a fading window.
“Teravian,” she said. “I didn’t see you there.”
“Why should you see me? No one else ever does.”
Lirith hesitated. She should have been at the coven by now. But, as before, there was something about Teravian—a sadness, maybe—that compelled her to speak.
“Perhaps you should consider wearing less black,” she said.
The young man blinked. “I didn’t know witches could be funny.”
“Oh, I’m a very peculiar witch. You probably shouldn’t even be talking to me. No doubt it’s causing all sorts of irreparable damage.”
Now his lips curled into a smirk. “Good.”
Lirith’s gaze moved to the window; the first stars were just beginning to appear.
“It’s all right. I know you’ve got your little meeting to go to, so you might as well leave. She always leaves me.”
All traces of the smile fled his expression; his face was a pale, grim oval floating in the gloom. Lirith thought about it only a moment, then moved closer to him and laid her hands on his shoulders. He was slight for a young man of sixteen winters, and they were very nearly the same height, so that she could gaze into his green eyes.
“Listen to me, Lord Teravian. You must believe me when I tell you that I know what it is to be left behind. But in the years since, I have learned something I very much wish I had known at the time, and that I will tell you now. Although others may abandon you, you must never abandon yourself. Do you understand?”
He said nothing, but it seemed his gaze grew thoughtful. Lirith would have to hope it was enough. She let go of his shoulders.
“I must go now—to my little meeting, as you call it. But I will come speak to you again. I promise.”
He shook his head, not gazing at her, but into the shadows still. “No, you’re wrong. You’ll be going soon.”
A cool breath touched Lirith’s skin. “What do you mean?”
Teravian only shrugged, then the young prince turned and walked down the corridor, his black hair and clothes melding with the darkness.
Minutes later, Lirith stepped, breathless, through a braided arch of branches and into the tree-lined temple deep in the gardens of Ar-tolor. Globes of witchfire hung from high branches, filling the glen with green light. Through the moving screen of leaves above, Lirith just caught the silver crescent of the horned moon, sinking toward the invisible horizon.
Two hundred witches—the youngest on the right, the eldest on the left—faced the marble rostrum at the far end of the temple. It looked as if Lirith was the last to arrive. On the rostrum stood three figures, one clad in white, one clad in green, and one in ash-gray. The woman in green was speaking.
“—and in our weaving, a common Pattern shall come into being.” Ivalaine’s voice rose on the air. “A Pattern into which all threads shall be bound, and which shall serve as our guide in the coming moons. So in the name of all goddesses, let our threads be spun together this night.”
Lirith breathed a sigh. She had missed the coven’s opening incant, but the weaving had not yet begun. That was a blessing from Sia. Surely Ivalaine would not have failed to notice if Lirith’s thread had been missing from the Pattern. And it was more than that. The Pattern was what bound all the Witches together, what elevated them from a disparate band of hedgewives and village healers into a union of true power. Lirith did not wish to be left out of that circle.
On the rostrum, Ivalaine nodded to Aryn and Senrael, and the two stepped forward. Aryn carried a small bundle wrapped in black cloth, and Senrael held a silver bowl in gnarled hands. Together, Maiden, Matron, and Crone would speak the High Incant before the Pattern was woven. Doing her best to avoid notice, Lirith started moving through the crowd as quickly as she could.
“Do not think we fail to see what you are doing,” a hard voice rang out.
Lirith went rigid. Had her tardiness been noticed? However, none of the witches gazed at her; all of them stared forward, their expressions ones of shock—and interest.
A tall witch, sharply elegant in her green robe, had stepped close to the rostrum. She was half-turned to the side, as if she addressed the gathering as much as the queen. Lirith could just make out the proud angle of her cheekbones. Her red-gold hair was woven with green gems.
As she had at the last meeting, Ivalaine appeared unshaken by the interruption. Her icy eyes were tinted by the light of the witchfire, turning them the color of a cold, clear ocean. “I do not understand, Sister Liendra. What I am doing is what has always been done. I am calling for the Pattern to be woven.”
“Yes, the Pattern.” Liendra lifted a slender hand. “You seem almost in a hurry to get to it. Are you so afraid to let us speak before the weaving begins?”
Whispers coursed through the gathering, like a wind through a grove of trees.
Ivalaine spread her hands. “And what is there to speak of before the weaving, Sister Liendra? Will not all threads—and all voices—be bound into the fabric of the Pattern?”
“That is true,” Liendra said. Now the witch gave up all pretense of speaking to Ivalaine and turned to face the gathering. “And yet, there are some matters that might be uttered before the weaving … matters which, if voiced, could well color some of those threads before they are woven into the Pattern.” Liendra turned again toward the rostrum. “Is that not what you seek to avoid in your haste, Matron?”
“I beg you speak these matters, sister,” Ivalaine said. “There is nothing to be feared in words.”
The queen’s voice was cool and even as always, but Lirith noticed that she stood stiffly, and that a note of color had touched her milky cheeks.
“I would not be so certain of that,” Liendra said, her words rising with the incense on the still air. “But I will defer to your desire for speed; indeed, I would see the Pattern woven quickly as well. And so I will ask but one question. Why have they been allowed into the castle while our High Coven proceeds?”
“And who is it you speak of, sister?”
By the renewed hiss of whispering that filled the grove, all knew exactly who Liendra spoke of. However, the witch voiced the names anyway, her lip curling just slightly.
“I speak of Melindora Nightsilver and Falken Blackhand. Their reputation for meddling is well-known, as is the company they keep. For what other reason can they have come here but to spy on us? It would have been wiser to turn them away.”
“Forgive me, sister,” Ivalaine said, her voice honed to a knife edge. “I did not know you were unfamiliar with the laws of hospitality that hold sway in these Dominions. I will explain them to you. When folk who have done no wrong beg hospitality, it must be granted.”
Liendra winced under the force of Ivalaine’s words. If anyone had forgotten that Ivalaine was queen as well as Matron, they remembered it at that moment. A witch might question Ivalaine’s decisions as Matron, but never her decisions as ruler of Ar-tolor. However, Liendra smoothed her robe and spoke again.
“You say you must grant hospitality to those who have done no wrong?” Even from a distance Lirith could glimpse the dangerous smile on Liendra’s face. “But did not the bard Falken, by his own hand, bring about the fall of Malachor? All the tales say it is so, and he has never denied it. I would say the murder of an entire kingdom might count as doing wrong.”
Ivalaine opened her mouth to reply, but Liendra was swifter. “No, Matron, you are wise in your decision to rebuke me. Indeed, I have delayed the weaving of the Pattern far too long. Please forgive me.”
With a nod to the queen, Liendra returned to her position near the center of the gathering. On the rostrum, anger glinted in Ivalaine’s eyes. While Liendra’s words had sounded contrite, they had cut more deeply than any accusation. Cool needles pricked at Lirith’s flesh. It was difficult to express in words, but at that moment she sensed a change in the tenor of the Witches. It was subtle, yet fundamental, like a shift in the direction of a wind. Something had just happened.
Before Lirith could consider it further, Aryn and Senrael moved forward to join Ivalaine. They would perform the High Incant now. Lirith took the chance to hurry to her place.
By the time she stood with a group of witches her own age, the High Incant had begun. With twisted hands, Senrael sprinkled water from her silver bowl. Aryn had unwrapped her bundle and from it had taken three candles, which she now placed on an altar. One candle was tall, one half-burnt, and the last a mere stump. With a flaming brand produced seemingly from nowhere, Ivalaine lit the candles.
Lirith held her breath as she watched the High Incant. Usually a young witch had weeks to prepare for her role as Maiden; Aryn had had days. However, Tressa seemed to have done her work well. Aryn made no mistakes as she moved through the prescribed steps of the incant.
Yet it’s more than that, sister.
Never had Lirith seen the baroness so confident before. Her bearing was straight, even regal, and her voice was clear and strong. Usually Aryn went to great lengths to keep her withered right arm concealed, but not tonight. A few of the younger witches uttered mocking whispers, but the girls were quickly hushed by their companions.
Lirith smiled. She did not know the source of Aryn’s newfound assurance, but she was glad for it.
The High Incant was nearly over. On the rostrum, Aryn rang a small silver bell. She snuffed out the tallest candle, and at the same time Ivalaine extinguished the middle candle and Senrael the shortest. Then the three spoke in unison, their voices melding into one.
“Let the Pattern be woven.”
It began in an instant. All were anxious to see what shape the Pattern would take. The air around Lirith tingled with magic. She shut her eyes, and she could see them: two hundred shimmering threads spinning in all directions. For a moment she hesitated—would it be there, lurking in the corners? But she saw no sign of the tangle, and she let the glittering threads draw her in.
That was when the voices began. At first they were faint and fragmentary, the shards of whispers.
… but can you … yes, I … let me come to … so many, and so beautiful … I am here …
Lirith knew many of the voices belonged to the younger witches, entranced by the mystery of what was happening. But gradually, as the initial wonder quieted, older and stronger voices began to speak, each spun by a glowing thread.
It is said … I have seen the signs of … and Sia has ever been our … can it be that the time is close at … and the Hammer will strike against the Anvil, while all is caught … it is the Huntress that … but who are we to …
So far there had been only chaos in the movement of the threads, but all at once—as if of their own will—several strands joined, braiding themselves together. At the same moment, like the sounding of a horn, a voice rang out.
He has come!
A thrill coursed through Lirith. Before she could form the word with her mind, a hundred other threads whispered it.
Now the voices grew louder, coming more swiftly and from all directions. Often one voice spoke alone, but with each passing moment more and more threads bound with the others, and disparate voices were merged as one.
I have seen … we have seen him. The rune of peace, broken under his hand. It is said … the gray men themselves did turn against him. He can only … devastation. But I … and I … and we believe it must be so. Our seers foretold it … yes, we have seen it again. By his hand all the world …
A dozen threads wove together at once, and now the sound was like a chorus of trumpets.
Runebreaker will destroy Eldh!
Fear tinged Lirith’s exhilaration. She pulled her own thread back, keeping it separate from the others, then searched for Aryn’s thread, wondering if she should speak to her. But she could not see the young woman’s strand in the undulating tempest of the Pattern.
And what did it matter? The Witches had made up their minds that Travis Wilder was their enemy; that much was already clear from the Pattern. Lirith let her strand be pulled back into the weaving. The mass of threads was still largely chaotic, but not everywhere; in places, the strands had fallen into place, binding together as more witches began to speak of like mind.
Questions careened in all directions, and answers as well.
What of the men of the bull?
The followers of Vathris have always craved blood.
But would they seek the destruction of all the world?
Surely he is their Hammer, the one who they speak will bring about the Final Battle.
Yes, so we have heard. They believe that when they fight this Final Battle they will lose, but that they will die glorious deaths, and afterward they will dwell with their god for all eternity. Madness, it is madness.
But what of the Anvil?
Against the Anvil the Hammer strikes, and all are caught between. What else can it mean? They seek to crush all that is alive.
But who is this one?
We do not know. We know him only. But the Anvil cannot be far from the Hammer.
We must stop them!
In large places the threads of the Pattern had aligned themselves. The voices that spoke out against Runebreaker, and the ones called Hammer and Anvil, were nearly deafening now. But suddenly, from the shadowy edge of the weaving, came other voices: coarse and rough, but deep with wisdom.
It is not Sia’s way to do harm to others, even those who would harm us.
Yes, those who do wrong will work their own ends. An evil thread has a way of turning back on the spinner.
We must not let ourselves be caught in their folly. If the Warriors seek blood, then it is their own blood they will find. And if Runebreaker desires to destroy the world, it is his own destruction he will meet. That is Sia’s way.
These words were like a balm to Lirith’s spirit, as cool and sustaining as a draught of water from a deep well. However, even as these voices spoke, others rose up, overwhelming them.
Sia dwells only in the past. We must think of what is to come. Those who cannot move forward must be left behind.
It is Yrsaia who stands for us now. If Sia is not dead, then she is dying.
We are not some band of hags cackling over toads in a cauldron.
With these words, a great swell rose in the weaving. A number of threads—the dimmest ones, and the oldest—were pushed to the very fringes of the Pattern. They were not gone, but they had been relegated to the edge—from which they might later be easily plucked without damaging the rest of the garment. Weak protests arose but were quickly strangled.
Sorrow filled Lirith. This was a mistake; they should not forget the old ones. However, the Pattern was beginning to take shape, and there was no resisting it. Thread after thread fell into place.
We must seek out Runebreaker.
Yes, he cannot escape us, no matter where he has gone.
We will stop him before he can cause more harm.
He will never destroy the world, for we will destroy him first, and the Warriors as well.
RUNEBREAKER MUST BE SLAIN!
These last words rumbled with the force of thunder. More and more threads flocked to the center. At the very heart of the Pattern shone a brilliant green thread around which nearly all the others were woven. It was Liendra’s strand—Lirith was sure of it. But where was Ivalaine’s?
Few single strands remained. Lirith’s was one of them, and there was Aryn’s bright blue strand, not far from a pearly thread that, after a moment, Lirith sensed to be Ivalaine’s. So there was hope yet; not all felt Liendra’s burning thirst for murder. Then, even as she watched, Ivalaine’s thread shuddered and moved to the center; the queen’s strand was lost in the Pattern.
Despair filled Lirith. There was no point in resisting so many voices. Ivalaine had no choice—not if she wished to remain Matron—nor did the rest of them. Although she hated what it was becoming, the Pattern would be woven, and Lirith could either be part of it or be nothing. She started to spin her thread out toward the center of the Pattern.
Caution, sisters. There is peril even in doing good.
Lirith halted. This voice was low and gentle, yet filled with a quiet strength that somehow cut across the shrillness.
If we go to war, then are we not warriors? If we destroy, then are we not destroyers? If we are to be the healers and the preservers of the world, then let us heal and preserve. Let us seek this Runebreaker, yes, and let us watch him, that we might find a way from preventing his fate from coming to pass. But let us do no harm with our own hands.
Whose voice was this? Lirith didn’t know, but the words filled her with a shard of new belief. She sensed anger and resistance from the center of the Pattern, but the few remaining threads aligned themselves with the new voice. Lirith hurried to do the same, and as she let her thread bind with the others she sensed Aryn there as well.
They were not many; they formed barely a scrap of cloth compared to the great tapestry that was the Pattern. But now that they were bound as one, their threads could not be denied. The resistance from the center ceased, and the new strand was woven into the Pattern. Around her, a single voice spoke in grand, resonating unison, and only as it sounded did Lirith realize her own voice was part of it.
By our hands Runebreaker will not die. But we will seek him, and we will capture and hold him. We will not let him harm himself or the world.
There was a chime, like the ringing of a bell. Lirith’s eyes flew open. Once again she stood in the garden, two hundred witches around her. All wore looks of awe that Lirith knew mirrored her own.
On the rostrum, Ivalaine set down the silver bell. For a moment the queen seemed to sway on her feet. What had it cost her when she joined the Pattern and Liendra’s strand? However, before Lirith could wonder more, Ivalaine’s face grew hard, as if hewn of marble. She drew herself up and spoke in a crystalline voice.
“The Pattern is complete.”
Immediately, witches began to leave the gardens, their green robes merging with the shadows between the trees, leaving only moonbeams in their wake. Many of the witches would depart Ar-tolor that night, and nearly all would be gone by tomorrow’s sunset, journeying back to their homelands. How long would it be until they all wove together again? Yet that was the purpose of the Pattern—to bind them all together even when they were apart.
“Lirith! There you are!”
She looked up and saw a flash of white moving through the remains of the gathering. Lirith rushed forward, and they met in the center.
She embraced the young woman, holding her tightly. Aryn returned the gesture with no less fierceness for her one arm. At last they pulled back.
“You were beautiful tonight,” Lirith said. “No, radiant. I was glad to see it, although I must say you were not so confident when last I saw you. What happened?”
Aryn shrugged, smiling. “I decided to be myself. Just like you told me to do.”
Lirith squeezed the baroness’s left hand. She started to say more, then halted as a tall form with fiery gold hair passed nearby. Lirith felt the warmth drain from her, and Aryn stiffened. Liendra walked at a stately pace from the garden, surrounded by a tight knot of witches. She kept her gaze fixed forward, as if unaware of the attention she was receiving, although her smug smile betrayed the illusion.
Suddenly, as if she sensed eyes upon her, Liendra turned her head. Green eyes sparkled in Lirith’s and Aryn’s direction, and the smile on her lips deepened. Then Liendra walked from the garden.
Aryn drew in a hissing breath as if to speak. However, her words sounded not in Lirith’s ears, but in her mind.
She’s absolutely awful. Look at how smug she is. You’d think she was queen of this place.
The delivery of these words startled Lirith more than their content. When and how had Aryn mastered the art of speaking along the Weirding? Lirith had yet to work with her at the skill.
Lirith spun a quick thread, answering the young woman.
She is not queen. But remember—it was Liendra’s thread at the very center of the Pattern. I don’t know who she is or where she came from, but the Witches seem more than ready to follow her lead.
Not all the Witches, a warm voice said.
The voice was not Aryn’s, but by the baroness’s wide blue eyes she had heard it as clearly as Lirith.
Do not forget, the voice continued, there were some threads who did not align themselves with the heart of the Pattern. Not all witches think the same as Sister Liendra.
For a moment Lirith wondered if it was Ivalaine who was speaking, but there was no sign of the queen. Besides, the voice was different than Ivalaine’s. Softer, smokier, yet powerful in its way. Then the thinning crowd parted, and Lirith saw a witch whose jet hair was marked by a single streak of ice-white.
“Sister Mirda,” Aryn whispered.
Lirith nodded, and she knew why the woman’s serene voice sounded so familiar.
“It was you,” she murmured. “You were the one who reminded us that the Witches must do no harm. And it was your thread that changed the Pattern.”
The hint of a smile touched Mirda’s lips. “May Sia guide you both on your journey,” she said. Then she turned and moved through the garden, green robe fluttering, and was gone.
Aryn frowned, her expression puzzled. “What was that supposed to mean? What journey was she talking about?”
Lirith thought of the young prince Teravian and the look of sorrow on his face.
You’ll be going soon.…
“Come on,” she said, taking Aryn’s arm. “I think I need a strong cup of maddok.”
“Do you require anything else, my lady?”
Aryn did not turn from the polished silver mirror as she adjusted her gown.
“No, Elthre. Thank you.”
In the mirror’s reflection she saw the serving maid curtsy, then slip from the room. Aryn smiled—Elthre was a sweet girl, if timid—then concentrated, using practiced motions of her left hand to fasten the buckles and tie the straps of the gown. It was just after dawn, but she had awakened over an hour ago, her body still light and tingling with the magic of the Pattern. She had talked to Lirith until well after midnight, but since waking Aryn had thought of a hundred other questions she wanted to ask the dark-eyed witch.
In her mind, Aryn saw again the weaving of the Pattern, and how the last remaining threads—hers and Lirith’s among them—bonded with the strand that spoke in calm, immutable words. There was no doubt that the strand had been Sister Mirda’s. But who was this wise, serene witch? And where had she come from? No one Aryn asked seemed to know, nor did Lirith. Yet it was Mirda who had prevented all the witches from flocking to Liendra’s thread.
Except most did, Aryn. Even Ivalaine joined with the heart of the Pattern in the end.
But certainly Ivalaine had had no choice, not if she wished to remain Matron. And this way, perhaps Ivalaine could have some influence over Liendra’s faction. At least that was what Aryn hoped. However, she had seen neither Tressa nor the queen since the coven.
Nor had she seen Senrael. It was wrong how the old ones had been dismissed. Their voices were rough, but they carried such wisdom. Beauty had little to do with true power. But the crones had been shunted to the fringes of the Pattern, and if Mirda had not spoken the Witches might have vowed to do anything—even shed blood—to destroy Runebreaker. As it was, Aryn was glad Travis Wilder was a world away. And while she would liked to have seen him, she hoped he would never leave his home again. For his sake. And perhaps for Eldh’s.
Aryn decided to forgo breakfast and head right for Lirith’s chamber. She could only hope Lirith was awake. But at that moment, Aryn couldn’t imagine sleeping.
Besides there’s always maddok. If you bring a pot to her room, Lirith won’t be able to resist getting out of bed to drink it. She’s a bee to honey for the stuff.
She finished adjusting her gown, then started to draw an extra fold of cloth over her right arm. It was a completely instinctual motion, one she had made every day for as long as she could remember.
All at once, she hesitated. Slowly, Aryn pushed the fold of cloth back over her shoulder, leaving her right arm exposed in its linen sling.
She stared at her reflection. In her mind she had never pictured herself with her withered arm; always she imagined it concealed. But now that she gazed at the pale, twisted shape, she could not envision it any other way. It was strange, yes, but it was her.
A warmth filled her, almost like giddiness. Always before she had dreaded people seeing her arm, but now she almost looked forward to it. Let them stare, let them mock her as Belira had. It would only make her stronger. Smiling, she adjusted her arm in its sling, then moved to the door.
Sister, can you hear me?
The voice sounded faintly but clearly in Aryn’s mind.
Aryn, if you can hear me, you must come at once to Lady Melia’s chamber.
It was Lirith. Aryn gathered her will and tried to answer. Last night, before the coven, she had finally discovered how to speak across the Weirding at will. Like so many things, it was easier than she had thought. It was as if the ability had been there all along, only concealed. Just like her arm. However, there was so much yet to learn, and she was still clumsy at the skill. She could not glimpse Lirith’s thread; it was too far away.
I’m coming! she called, even though she knew Lirith could not hear her. Aryn dashed from the room. What could have caused terror to sharpen Lirith’s usually calm voice? Perhaps Melia had fallen ill again; Lirith had mentioned that the lady had been acting in a peculiar manner of late.
Aryn was nearly to Melia and Falken’s room when a spindly form sprang from an alcove, landing before her in a twisted knot. She let out a muffled cry. The thing untangled long, bony limbs, stretching upward into the shape of a man. Bells chimed like the sound of laughter.
“Master Tharkis,” Aryn breathed, only half-relieved. This was not a distraction she needed. “What do you want?”
“What?” the fool said. “Have you forgotten, sweet. We yet have our contest of poems to complete.”
She lifted her left hand to her chest. “What do you mean?”
He prowled toward her on pointed boots; dust and cobwebs clung to his motley. Where had he been lurking to get so filthy? “A rhyme you spoke, for my name. Now for your own I’ll do the same.”
There was something odd about his voice. It was quieter than usual, more sibilant. A sly light glinted in his crossed eyes. Aryn could only watch as he spread his arms and spoke in a low, singsong voice:
“Sweet Lady Aryn
Must marry a baron,
But none shall take her as wife.
Blessed with one arm,
And power to harm—
The price of her love is a life.
“Her beautiful sisters
All have dismissed her,
But one day they’ll sorrow the deed.
With a sword in her hand,
She’ll ride ’cross the land—
And trample them all ’neath her steed.”
Aryn’s blood turned to ice. Had the fool seen what she had done to Belira and the others? But the last part of his rhyme was even more troubling; it reminded her of the card she had drawn from the old Mournish woman’s deck. But there was no way the fool could possibly have known about that … was there?
Tharkis grinned, displaying pointed, yellow teeth. “I can see I have won by the look in your eyes. And now, my sweet, you must grant me a prize.”
The fool sidled close to her, and a sour scent filled her nostrils. His grin spread, stretching his face into a grotesque mask of lumps and furrows. Bells jangled, then were muffled by blue cloth as he pressed himself against her.
Anger rose inside Aryn: pure, white, and hot.
“Get away from me, dog,” she said in a voice she barely recognized as her own. As if of its own volition, her right arm rose from the sling.
Tharkis sprang back. The fool’s grin was gone, and his expression was one of terror. His eyes were no longer crossed and seemed to gaze right through her.
“Don’t speak like that, sweet,” he said, his words hoarse and trembling. “All hard and cold your voice is. It sounds like hers, it does. And your eyes, so sharp. They pierce me just like hers do.”
Aryn forgot her anger. Tharkis cowered now, hugging himself, and made small whimpering sounds.
“Whom do you speak of?” she said.
“The shadow in the trees!” All traces of rhyme had vanished from his voice. “The one with many eyes. She sees everything. I cannot hide … even when I sleep she finds me. But she is not the only one who sees.” Laughter fell from his mouth like pieces of broken glass. “I have seen things as well.”
Aryn hesitated, then reached out her left hand. “It’s all right, Master Tharkis. It’s just—”
She halted as his wild eyes locked on hers. “She will come for you, too. You cannot escape. She spins a web for the spinners … and in it she will catch them all.”
A shiver crept up Aryn’s back. “Who are you talking about? Who is she trying to catch?”
“She will … she sees, but she is not alive. Watch for her, spinner. Her web closes in on us even now. And she will eat all who are captured in it.” He clutched shaking hands to his head and squeezed. “She thinks I … don’t remember. But sometimes I almost do. I almost … it’s in the trees … I must ride. Not fast enough … it comes. Obey me, for I am the king. Oh, by all the gods, it comes.…”
Tharkis was shaking violently, snot running down his face. In his eyes was a look of stark and empty terror. Yet his words seemed strangely lucid. She opened her mouth, unsure what she should say.
“Aryn?” a voice called from down the corridor. “Aryn, is that you?”
Like a puppet jerked by the strings, Tharkis leaped to his feet. His eyes were crossed once more. “Fear the one alive and dead,” he hissed, “for you cannot escape her web.”
With weird speed, the fool scrambled up the wall, then vanished in the shadow between two rafters above. Aryn craned her neck, searching the ceiling, but she knew it was no use; she would not find him.
“Aryn, there you are! I thought I sensed your thread.”
A silhouette moved toward her, then resolved into Lirith. Her ebon face was paler than usual, as if dusted by ashes.
“Did you hear my call, sister?”
“I thought you had, but I wasn’t certain. You must come at once.”
“I don’t think I can explain.” Lirith took Aryn’s left hand. “Come, you will see.”
Thoughts of Tharkis vanished from Aryn’s mind as Lirith pulled her down the corridor. They reached the door of Melia and Falken’s chamber and slipped through. Aryn didn’t know what she had expected to see, but certainly it had not been this.
Durge pressed himself against the far wall, as if trying to retreat into solid stone, his brown eyes wide. Falken knelt not far from the door, gazing upward, an expression of sorrow on his weathered face. In the very center of the room, Melia was weeping. Wails of grief escaped her, rising and falling with the cadence of a chant. She tore at her blue-black hair, and tears streamed from her amber eyes. However, it was not this that made Aryn stare, her breath caught in her lungs. Rather, it was the fact that Melia floated in midair.
The small woman hovered in the center of the room, several feet above the floor, curled in a tight ball. She spun slowly as she wept, bobbing up and down as if tossed on a stormswept sea. She seemed oblivious to the others in her grief.
At last air rushed into Aryn’s lungs. She must have stumbled, for Lirith caught her arm, then Falken was there, steadying her. Durge edged around the room to join them.
“She’s in mourning,” Falken said, his voice quiet, in answer to Aryn’s unspoken question. “I’m not certain how long it’s going to last.”
Aryn shook her head. “Mourning? For whom?”
“For one of her brothers.”
Fear shot through Aryn, and she clutched the bard’s arm. “Is it Tome?”
Although she had met him only once, it had been more than enough to grow fond of the gentle old man with golden eyes. Like Melia, Tome was one of the Nine who had forsaken godhood long ago to walk the face of Eldh and work against the Pale King’s Necromancers. In the time since, most of the Nine had grown weary and had faded from the world.
“No, it is not Tome,” Falken said. “It is a god of Tarras she weeps for.”
Aryn fought for understanding. “But Mandu is the Everdying. Will he not simply rise again?”
“It’s not Mandu either,” Lirith said in a clipped voice.
Aryn looked to the witch, then to Falken. At last the bard spoke in a grim voice.
“A god is dead.”
Aryn listened in growing shock as Falken told her what he had already explained to Lirith and Durge. That morning, just before dawn, Melia had awakened with a scream, and Falken had rushed to her side. He is gone! she had cried. I can feel it—like a wound filled with nothing! Before she was consumed by her grief, Falken had managed to get a few words from her. The god’s name was Ondo, and he was a minor deity of Tarras—not one of the Seven who were worshiped in the Dominions. Ondo had been revered primarily by the Tarrasian guild of goldsmiths.
“I still don’t understand,” Durge said, stroking his mustaches repeatedly. “To be sure, I know scant of the ways of gods, and what I do know holds little logic. Yet I have heard the gods are immortal. So how then can a god die?”
Falken opened his mouth, but it was another who answered.
“Because he was murdered.”
As one, they turned and stared. Melia stretched her legs downward, until her small, bare feet touched the carpet. Her coppery cheeks were still stained by tears, and her hair was wild with snarls, but her eyes shone with a fierce light.
“I have spoken with my brothers and sisters in the south,” she said. “And they tell me that Ondo was murdered. More than murdered. There is no trace left of him. He has been utterly destroyed.” Now sorrow returned to her visage, mingled with fury. “Poor Ondo. He was far from perfection, but he harmed no one. He wished only to play with his gold.”
Aryn still struggled to comprehend. “But who would have the power to murder a god?”
Melia clenched a hand. “That is what I intend to find out. Ever has there been competition and plotting among the gods of Tarras. Some gain in position, others lose—that has always been the way. But never, in all the eons since the founding of Tarras, has one god directly harmed another. And it is not just the gods. Worshipers have been murdered as well, and not only those of Ondo. Blood flows in the temples of Tarras.” Melia hugged her fist to her chest, her eyes growing distant with thought. “Yet if there is a pattern to it all, none of us can see it. All my brothers and sisters are afraid.”
Aryn had never imagined that a god could be afraid. But then, she had never imagined that a god could be killed, either.
Lirith tightened her arms over the bodice of her gown. “None of this makes sense. How can everything just unravel like this?”
Aryn glanced at her. There seemed more to the witch’s words than just a comment on Melia’s news. Was there something else Lirith knew?
Melia smoothed her hair back over her shoulders. “One thing is certain—something has changed in Tarras. And I intend to find out what it is.”
“What do you mean?” Falken said, raising an eyebrow.
Melia regarded the bard, her expression resolute. “I leave for Tarras at once. If you would come with me, Falken, I should be glad.”
The bard opened his mouth to answer, but at that moment a shrill scream sounded—muffled but distinct—through the chamber’s door.
The five exchanged startled glances, then they were moving. Durge led the way, flinging open the door and charging down the corridor even as a second scream rang out. The others ran after, hard pressed to keep up with the Embarran’s sturdy legs. The corridor widened into a larger space—the castle’s lesser hall, where some of the smaller feasts and revels were held.
The source of the screams was plain to see. Elthre the serving maid crouched in the center of the hall, hands to her cheeks, a tray of smashed crockery on the floor. She gazed up, her eyes circles of horror. A gasp escaped Lirith, and Falken let out a low oath.
A gangly form clad in green dangled from one of the hall’s high galleries, bells jangling dissonantly as he swung back and forth.
Lirith moved to the serving maid to comfort her. Aryn clamped a hand to her mouth, lest she scream like Elthre had. A length of cloth had been wrapped around Master Tharkis’s neck—one of the dozen green-and-yellow banners of Toloria that hung from the hall’s galleries—and it was by this he had been hanged. His bony limbs jutted at odd angles, and his teeth were bared in what seemed a mad grin, as if he had been frozen in the act of one last jest. However, the illusion was dispelled by the crimson streams that still seeped from the two empty pits where his crossed eyes had been.
A sigh escaped Melia. “Poor Tharkis. This was not the end he deserved. But how can this be?”
“It is clear enough from the evidence,” Durge rumbled. “The fool could stand his madness no longer. He gouged out his own eyes and hanged himself from the gallery.”
Aryn shuddered. She remembered what Tharkis had said to her only minutes ago, about the eyes who saw everything.
I have seen things as well …
Tharkis had seemed so terrified. At the time she hadn’t understood. Maybe now it made sense. She started to speak, knowing she had to tell the others of her encounter, but Falken spoke first.
“Are you so certain of your judgment, Durge?”
The knight scowled. “What do you mean?”
Falken pointed upward with his black-gloved hand. “If Tharkis plucked out his own eyes, why is there no blood on his hands?”
The moon sailed through a sea of silver clouds. Below, deep green shadows filled the garden, and a cool wind slipped among the branches, like a voice whispering forgotten secrets. Midnight had come and gone.
The wind faded, and for a time the garden was still. Then the shadows parted, and a figure stepped through. Pale moonlight washed her red-gold hair to steel as she turned her head from side to side, searching. She hugged her heavy cape around her. While the days were warm still, the nights were already growing chilly. But then, she knew it was not only the night that made her shiver, but also the one she sought.
“Show yourself, blast you,” she muttered. “Must you play these games, even now?”
A patch of darkness separated itself from a tree and drifted forward. The woman clutched a hand to her breast, a gasp frozen in her lungs.
“What is the matter, sister?” a shimmering voice said. “Did I startle you?”
Anger replaced fear as the woman regained her breath. “Of course you startled me, Shemal, as was surely your intent.”
The shadow drifted closer, resolving itself into a slender, feminine figure. Here and there a shard of ice-white skin glinted in the moonlight, but for the most part the night cloaked her. A fragment of a mouth turned upward in a smile.
“Why be so cross with me, dearest? Did not all go exactly as I said it would?”
The woman tightened her fingers on her cape. “I still do not see why she should remain Matron.”
“Tut, tut,” the other clucked. “Do not be too greedy too quickly, sister. A greater change takes greater time. Now what of the others—that shambling corpse of a bard and the amber-eyed bitch from the south?”
The woman smiled despite her anger. “They are leaving Ar-tolor. I understand she has received ill news from Tarras. She leaves on the morrow, and he will go with her.”
“Excellent,” the shadow said. “I do loathe it when she is near, for I must take care she does not sense my presence. Limited as she is, she has abilities that must not be underestimated. It is well they are leaving. Yet they must be watched.”
“Are not two of your sisters their companions?”
The golden-haired woman curled her lip. “Yes, but they can hardly be trusted. They were among those who came last to the Pattern.”
“And yet come to it they did,” the other snapped, “and they are bound to the Pattern even as you are. It is they who must go, for they are close to Melindora Nightsilver and Falken Blackhand. And to him as well.”
She breathed the word without thinking. “Runebreaker.”
The other was staring at her from the darkness; she caught a glint of a hard, colorless eye. She shivered again. How she hated this damp air.
“I do not understand,” the woman said. “If they are close to him, will not they betray us for him in the end?”
Cruel laughter drifted on the air. “It seems you have much yet to learn, sister. One cannot betray those whom one despises. One can only betray those whom one loves.”
The woman nodded, although she was less than convinced. All the same, she could see no other way. “And how am I to assure they accompany Nightsilver and Blackhand?”
“Bid your dear Matron send them. She cannot refuse your advice—not now.”
The woman smiled. It was true. Ivalaine would have to listen to her; the Pattern required it. There was only one last, small matter. “What of the boy?” she said.
She could not see, but somehow she sensed a smile within the shadows. “Concern yourself not with the boy. I will watch over him myself. And when the time is right, I shall make myself known to him.”
“And then what?”
“And then he will lead us in our battle against the Warriors of Vathris, and with him before us we will crush them all.” A slender hand clenched into a fist. “So is his destiny—a male witch, first in a century, full-blooded in his power as any of your sisters. More so, in fact, save one. And I do not mean you, sister.”
The woman winced, then let the slight pass. It was not from her ability with the Touch that her power and position came, she knew that well enough and had accepted it. Warmth replaced the coldness in her. It was happening then. After so many years of whispers and promises, of waiting on the edges while others stood in the center, it was truly happening.
“I will leave you then,” the woman said, only too happy to be done with this conversation. She knew she needed Shemal, but she did not like her. From the first, she had always come in shadows.
“Wait,” the other said. “There is something else. I have felt something … strange of late. A weakness in the fabric that binds all things together. Have you sensed it?”
The woman frowned, shaking her head.
“But I am foolish to have asked you,” the other said. “Of course, your power is far too weak. Yet if you learn anything, you will tell me.”
“Of course,” she said, but once again annoyance rose in her. Why must Shemal always mock her ability with the Touch? That one-armed runt was said to be the strongest of them all, and what good did it do her, the pathetic little thing? There were other, better sorts of power.
The air was paling to silver. The darkness receded; it was nearly dawn.
“I must go now,” the one cloaked in shadows said.
“When will we speak again?”
There was a faint rustling, then the woman knew she was alone. She turned and walked from the garden. By the time she reached the entrance of the main keep, the sun was just cresting the horizon. A guardsman nodded to her as she approached the doors.
“Good morning, my lady,” he said. “Were you out for an early stroll? It’s a beautiful morning—full of promise.”
A smile touched her lips. “Yes,” Liendra said as she stepped through the castle doors. “It is.”
Dr. Grace Beckett drifted like a ghost through the antiseptic corridors of Denver Memorial Hospital and prayed to the gods of another world that no one would recognize her. If anyone saw her—anyone who remembered her face, or the events of last October—then this would be over in an instant.
She tugged at the too-short white coat she had pilfered from the Emergency Department locker room, hoping it covered her shabby jeans and thrift-store sweater. Maybe tall and bony worked for supermodels and actresses, but right now Grace wanted to do anything but stand out. She had found a broken stethoscope tossed on a shelf and looped it over her neck. It would do as long as no one asked her for a consult on a rattling lung.
She punched a red button and slipped through a pair of stainless-steel doors as they whooshed open, into a pastel peach hallway. The sound of respirators whirred on the air like the wingbeats of vultures. Hold on, Beltan. I’m coming. But the words were pointless. Even if she could have sent them along the spindly, sooty tatters of the Weirding that existed in this city, he couldn’t possibly have heard them.
A pair of smooth-faced young men in khakis and short white coats appeared from around a corner. Grace stiffened, then relaxed. First-year interns—their too-tight neckties were dead giveaways. No doubt both of them were fresh out of medical school that spring. Which meant they were new enough not to know all the residents at the hospital yet.
They fumbled their hellos. Grace gave them a clipped nod in return—no intern would believe a friendly smile from a resident they didn’t know—then pushed on past. Only as she turned a corner did she let herself breathe again.
This is idiotic, Doctor. You know there’s been no change in his condition—Travis was here just this morning. Beltan is still in a coma, and all you’re going to accomplish with this stunt is to get yourself caught. What are you going to tell Travis when you have to use your one phone call at the Denver police station to talk to him?
Then again, the police weren’t the only ones looking for her.
She kept moving. It had been nearly a year since she had last set foot in this place, since the night she had slain the dead man with the iron heart and had fled into darkness and another world. Yet it was easier than she might have guessed to slip back into her old rhythms. She strode with cool purpose through the halls, keeping her gaze high and distant, as if this were a dominion and she its ruler. More people passed by—nurses, technicians, janitors, medical students—but none of them gave her more than a cursory glance.
And why should they have recognized her? The Keep of Fire had changed her, just as surely as the girl Tira had been changed when she closed her small hands around the Great Stone Krondisar. Certainly Grace was not the same person who had haunted these sterile hallways, healing the wounds of others while she ignored her own.
As if this thought were an invitation, the shadow that dwelled on the edges of her vision rushed to the foreground. Its dark folds surrounded Grace, suffocating her. She stumbled, clutching for a wall she could no longer see as memories oozed forth. Once again she smelled the dusty air of the shed, the sharp reek of blood. Once again she was ten years old.
In the name of God Almighty, what have you done to her, Grace Beckett?
But I was trying to help her. Ellen used the wire on herself, Mrs. Murtaugh. She said she had to get it out—she said Mr. Holiday put something in her.
You are a wicked liar, Grace Beckett. And you are a murderess. Surely the fires of Hell will burn you for what you have done to Ellen Nickel.
No, you don’t—
You must pray, pray on your knees here in her blood, and beg God for repentance.
But I was trying to help her, Mrs. Murtaugh! We have to take her to the hospital. Maybe she’ll be all right. Please, you have to listen to—
No, try none of your spells on me, you Jezebel. I know you have given your soul to Satan. I have heard you utter your chants to him—at night, and in no tongue spoken by good Christians. Now take this wire in your hand. Take it! Use it on yourself as you did upon Ellen Nickel. And pray that you have enough blood in you to win your salvation.…
Crimson light flashed, and pain pierced Grace through to the center, bright, sharp, and—
With a sound like gushing water, the shadow receded. Grace blinked against the fluorescent glare, relieved to see the hallway was empty. At Castle Spardis, Beltan had been dying, his old wound reopened by the Necromancer. In order to use the Touch to sustain the knight while they journeyed to Earth, Grace had had no choice but to accept the shadow attached to the thread of her own life, the shadow that for so many years she had pretended didn’t exist. And now that the door had finally been opened, she could not shut it again.
There was never any logic to the shadow’s coming; it seemed anything could trigger a regression. Some were brief, as this one had been. Others were … not. All of them left her sweating and shaking, feeling as if she had been cut with scissors from a sheet of stiff, white paper. So far she had managed to keep her episodes concealed from Travis; there was enough for him to worry about with Beltan’s condition. However, she wondered how much longer that could last.
She still didn’t remember everything that had happened to her at the Beckett-Strange Home for Children—there was so much, and the shadow was so deep—but it seemed almost every day new details came to her. Just when she thought there couldn’t possibly be more to remember, the shadow was there and she was a child again: five years old, a pale nine, thirteen with flames dancing around her.
She forced her mind to focus on deciphering the hospital’s inscrutable room-numbering scheme. Even when she had worked here it had made no sense. Then she saw the etched plastic plate: CA-423. That was the number Travis had given to her. She pushed through the door and into the room beyond.
Machines and monitors hissed and beeped, filling the cold, white space with their drone like a chorus of electronic monks. A thick-waisted nurse stood beside the bed, her salt-and-pepper hair neatly bound at her neck, checking the drip on an IV. She looked up, her expression curious but not surprised.
Grace hesitated, then breezed into the room. During her time in the Dominions, she had discovered that if you acted as if you belonged in a place, people invariably assumed you did.
“Can I help you, Doctor?”
“I doubt it,” Grace said. She made a quick glance at the chart by the bed. “Dr.… Chandra mentioned he had a persistent vegetative case in here. I’m doing a study.”
The nurse frowned. “A study? Which department is funding it?”
Indignation rose in Grace, so strong it startled her. Who was this woman to question her authority? She started to open her mouth to speak outraged words.
Stop it, Grace. No one thinks you’re a duchess here. You can’t just dismiss someone with a wave of your hand.
True, she was no noble. But she was a doctor, and in this place, that meant more than a jeweled crown.
She gave the nurse a stiff, impersonal smile. “Why don’t you leave us for a minute?”
The nurse stared at her for a heartbeat, then in one swift motion folded her aluminum clipboard and sailed from the room—no doubt off to the lounge to warn the other nurses that there was a skinny new witch of a doctor to watch out for. She wouldn’t be entirely wrong. Forgetting the nurse, Grace approached the bed.
She had not seen Beltan since the day she and Travis had touched the half-coins together in Spardis, leaving Eldh behind. A heartbeat later, they had blinked as the silver light dimmed around them and had found themselves next to a Dumpster not twenty feet from the ED entrance. Travis had run inside for help, and seconds had passed, each one an agony. The Weirding was present on Earth—Grace had sensed it at once now that she knew how to look for it—but it was crowded, noisy, and dirty. And thin, so terribly thin, a silk cloth worn into a filthy rag. The thread of Beltan’s life had begun to slip through her fingers. She couldn’t hold on.
Then, thankfully, in a rush of commotion and light, the ED personnel were there. In the confusion, Travis slipped away and pulled Grace with him. She had wanted to stay, to make sure they could stabilize him, to warn them he had never had a tetanus shot or inoculation in his life, but Travis had pulled harder. It was too dangerous for them there. She had cast one last glance back at Beltan, pale as a ghost on the bare asphalt, then they had run into the dry Denver night.
The days that followed had seemed peculiarly unreal, as if it were Earth, not Eldh, that was the foreign world. Again and again Grace reached out with the Touch, but she was like a fresh amputee groping for a phantom limb. For instead of a shimmering web of gossamer spanning between every living thing, all she found were faint echoes of magic.
Then there was the shadow, leaping out to consume her without warning. And when she was not failing to use the Touch, or caught in the shadow of the past, she spent her time thinking of Tira—the fragile, mute, red-haired girl who had turned out to be so much stronger than any of them. But while Tira was gone, she was far from lost. It was Grace who felt lost.
If it hadn’t been for Travis, she didn’t know what would have happened to her. He seemed to adjust to life back on Earth far more quickly than she, as if he really belonged here. It had been his idea to sell three gold Eldhish coins—their faces deliberately scratched—at an East Colfax pawnshop. With the money they had gotten food, then had hopped a bus west down Colfax, past peeling storefronts and spastic neon signs. At the Blue Sky Motel they took a room that looked as if it hadn’t been updated since the carefree, shaggy, burnt umber days of 1965. The TV was so old Grace had expected it to show I Love Lucy when she flicked it on. Instead, a faint column of smoke drifted up as several cockroaches wriggled out the ventilation holes in the back. In a way, it was every bit as entertaining.
The next morning, Travis had left while Grace lay on the bed, staring at the sagging ceiling and trying in vain to Touch the Weirding. He returned at noon with bagels and a fake social security card.
“Say hello to Hector Thorkenblat,” he had said, holding up his new card.
She had wrinkled her nose. “That doesn’t sound so much like a name as something you have to clean up.”
A few days later, once they felt more confident that his face wouldn’t be remembered from the night of their arrival, Travis had taken his new card down to Denver Memorial and gotten Hector a job as a night janitor. And that was how they had learned that Beltan was alive but in a coma.
Since he had started working at the hospital, Travis had been checking on Beltan every few days. Grace knew Beltan was getting the best care this world had to offer—which was considerably more than the last. All the same, she had to see him, to touch him for herself. Even here, there were things she could sense that no electronic monitor could detect.
Grace gripped the metal railing of the bed. It had been more than two months, and she knew what happened to long-term coma cases. All the same, a gasp escaped her.
“Oh, Beltan …”
In her memory she saw him tall and strong, clad in chain mail and holding his sword, a fierce grin on his face. The man on the bed bore little resemblance to that memory.
He looked old. The limbs that protruded from the hospital gown were white and thin, as if his sharp-edged bones had been stretched impossibly long. Beneath the gown, his muscles had atrophied, and the hands that rested at his sides looked like bundles of sticks.
Her eyes moved past the IV tubes and monitor leads—he was not on a respirator at least—to his face. They had let his scruffy beard grow. It seemed dull, brownish rather than gold, and it took her a moment to find the homely, cheerful face she knew beneath. She would have given anything to see one of his brilliant smiles, but he was motionless save for the steady rise and fall of his chest.
Grace pushed aside the gown and let her fingers dance along the mass of pink scar tissue on Beltan’s left side. She shut her eyes and concentrated. It was dim and murky—like a blurry X-ray with no backlighting rather than a computer-colored, three-dimensional scan—but Queen Ivalaine had been right. Even on Earth, Grace had the talent.
His old wound had healed well—far better than it ever had on Eldh. Abdominal surgery and antibiotics still had an edge on magic. However, his blood loss had been catastrophic, and it was this that had induced the coma. The doctors could repair his body, reinfuse his veins with blood, but no amount of surgery had the power to wake him.
Maybe he needs some magic after all, Grace.
She replaced the gown, then laid a hand on the high expanse of his forehead. There were more lines on his brow than she remembered. For some reason she felt like singing to him, which was very undoctorlike. Then again, didn’t research suggest that familiar voices could help coma patients to wake from unconsciousness? Words came to her lips, so old she had all but forgotten them.
“And farewell words too often part
All their small and paling hearts.
The fragile glade and river lain,
Beneath the hush of silent rain.”
She touched the angular metal pendant beneath her shirt. The song was a thing of her childhood, like the necklace. But where had it come from? Certainly no one at the orphanage had sung it to her. And there was no doubt in her mind that the words were wrong. She must have heard it as a small girl and, like children so often do, transformed strange sounds into familiar words. All the same, the song was comforting. To her, at least, if not to Beltan. She began to murmur the words again.
His eyelids twitched.
Grace drew in a hiss of air. It’s just an autonomic reflex, Doctor. Don’t read more into it than there is. All the same she pressed her hand against his brow and shut her eyes.
It was hard. The threads of the Weirding were so faint around her, like filaments of cobweb. They fell apart as she grasped them.
Beltan, can you hear me? I’m here, Grace. And Travis has been coming to see you every night.
She held her breath, straining to listen. There was only gray silence. Then, just as she started to let go, she heard it. It was far less than a word—a shard of a thought—but she had heard it.
Grace’s eyes snapped open. It was Beltan. He had made the sound in her mind, she was certain. His face was motionless once more, but there could be no doubt about what she had heard. She gripped his hand. Hard. “Come on, Beltan. You’ve got to come back to us. Please try. For me—for Travis.”
Grace knew that if he didn’t wake soon, they would move him to a state institution. This was a public hospital; they couldn’t turn people away, but they wouldn’t let a John Doe occupy a bed indefinitely. Yet that was far from her sole worry.
It was only a matter of time until Duratek found them.
In a way, Grace was surprised the three of them hadn’t already been apprehended. Almost daily she or Travis saw one of the sleek, black vehicles driving down a city street—slowly, as if searching. No doubt Duratek believed that if either Grace or Travis ever came back, they would come here, to Denver. And they were right.
Grace had no idea how they were supposed to do it, but somehow she and Travis had to get back to Eldh. And they had to take Beltan with them. She was certain Duratek would be more than interested to get their hands on a native of the world they sought to rape and conquer.
Only now Beltan was close to waking. If they could just get him somewhere safe while he finished his recovery, they could start searching for a way back. However, it wasn’t as if she could ask the police for help. To them, Grace was the woman who had handcuffed one of their detectives and threatened him at gunpoint. No matter that Janson had been an ironheart; the police didn’t know that. So where could they go for protection?
But you’ve known all along, Grace.
She reached into the pocket of her jeans and pulled out a business card. It was more gray than white now, smudged and torn, but she could still read it:
She had kept the card with her for so long, ever since that night in late October when Hadrian Farr had given it to her. Who else could she go to for help if not them?
You should ask Travis.
But even as she thought this, she headed for the door and the nearest pay phone.
Deirdre Falling Hawk sat in a corner of the dim Soho pub, staring at the glass of clear green liquid on the table before her. On a plate next to the glass was a cube of sugar and a silver spoon. Although they were hard to make out in the gloom of the pub, there were words etched into the surface of the spoon: Drink and Forget.
If only it were really that simple. But wasn’t that why she was here? The board that hung outside the peeling door of the pub read Crumbe’s Cupboard. And the occasional tourist or businessman who stumbled inside found only sticky tables, warm glasses of Bass Ale, and cold fish and chips. But from her visits to London, Deirdre knew that to the locals this place was known as The Sign of the Green Fairy. And they came here for something else.
Quickly, as if afraid she might change her mind, she placed the sugar cube on the spoon and lowered it into the glass. Then she raised the glass and took a long sip of the green liquid. It was sweet and powerfully bitter. The licorice-like taste of anise coated her tongue, and the pungent esters of wormwood rose in her head, an emerald mist to shroud her brain.
As Deirdre lowered the glass, an old-fashioned lithograph on the opposite wall caught her eye. It depicted a young man in Victorian suit coat and cravat, sitting at a table and scribbling madly with a quill pen on a paper before him. Behind him, tangling slender fingers through the writer’s hair, was a woman clad in a flowing gown. No, not just a woman. Wings of gossamer sprouted from her back, and her gown trailed away in a comet’s tail of leaves and stars. A fairy, then. Her eyes were closed, and the smile on her inhumanly beautiful face was both serene and cruel.
Deirdre didn’t know who the man in the picture was supposed to be. Wilde, or perhaps Tennyson. It didn’t matter. They had all drunk absinthe, hadn’t they? Half the artists of the time had been addicted to the bitter green liqueur. They had drunk it for inspiration, to gain artistic vision. And then after that, when the visions faded, they had kept on drinking, trying to forget their commercial failures, their debtors, their persecution. Their demons.
She clenched her jaw, then downed the rest of the absinthe.
Deirdre leaned back, letting her head hit the wall behind her. Why had she come to London? She hated London. For the last three months she had been trying to forget the past. But the past was everywhere in this city, a thing constantly on display.
Not that anyone seemed to see it. Slack-eyed tourists shuffled through the Tower of London in pink-plastic sandals and Anne Boleyn T-shirts like blood had never flowed over those stones. Hansom cabs bearing giddy brides and grooms clattered down cobblestone streets where thousands of corpses had once sprawled, dead from plague and alive with flies. Cheerful gardens covered plots blasted bare of buildings and people in the Blitz. Around every corner, down every lane, from the gray Thames to Hyde Park to the slowly melting obelisk of Cleopatra’s Needle, history lingered like smoke. Didn’t anyone else see it?
Or was that the point? The past weighed so heavily on this place that it would crush people if they let it. Maybe there were really only two things anyone could do in London; maybe that was the reason she had come here. To drink. And forget.
Just over two months ago, the spontaneous immolations plaguing two continents had ceased as suddenly as they had begun. And, not long after that, so had Deirdre’s desire to be a Seeker.
How could she have been so blind to their arrogance? They thought they knew so much, that their eyes were open to mysteries that mundane people never dreamed existed. But what had their musty files, their secret surveillance networks, their vast rooms of computers revealed to them? Nothing that those same mundane people hadn’t been able to read in the morning newspaper: People were burning, and no one had the slightest fucking clue why.
There had been ripples of panic for a time. People had begun to mutter that the turning of the millennium had been only a test run, that this was the real beginning of the end. True, most of them had been cultists, tabloid devotees, militia members. Then again, some were suburbanites, avid churchgoers, telephone salesmen. In the United States, where the majority of the immolations had occurred, the government had quietly mobilized a portion of the National Guard.
Then, just when the ripples had been ready to coalesce into a tidal wave of outright fear—just when the graphs compiled by the Centers for Disease Control predicted that the number burnt was about to leap from the hundreds to the thousands—the immolations had ceased.
For a moment the world had stood still, like a ball balanced on the edge of a chasm. Then all of humanity had let out a collective sigh, and the ball had rolled back. In a week, the news had returned to the usual parade of wars, political scandals, and celebrity-lifestyle pieces. Sure, there was the occasional businessman-turned-cultist who walked around with a placard, face stained with ashes. And most days there was a small article tucked in the back of the newspaper’s A section, telling how a remote Brazilian rain forest settlement had just been discovered, burnt to the ground, or how tests had shown that the DNA of one American burn victim demonstrated affinities with some Mediterranean populations—an incongruity given the victim’s Asian ancestry. However, all in all, it seemed the world was only too happy to forget what had happened.
So why can’t you, Deirdre Falling Hawk?
For a time she had. Working on Black Death 2.0 had left her no time to eat, to sleep—to think. Theories ricocheting across the Internet had blamed the deaths on a government-engineered chemical-warfare agent, or an alien virus, or the wrath of God. But from their own tests, the Seekers had confirmed their early suspicions. Compound residues found with several of the burn victims had chemical signatures identical to those recovered from sites of confirmed Class One Encounters. Without doubt, the plague was otherworldly in origin. Nor was there doubt about which world it had come from. AU-3. The world called Eldh. Grace Beckett and Travis Wilder’s world.
Although the Castle County coroner had presumed Travis dead in the explosion at the Mine Shaft Saloon, the Seekers’ analyses had shown otherwise. Remains of four separate individuals were found in the ruin of the Mine Shaft. None of the samples had matched Travis’s DNA—which they had on file thanks to a small skin sample he had never noticed Deirdre taking.
It was just one of the many ways she had used him. And while the madness of the new Black Death had occupied her, now there was nothing to keep the memories from creeping back—memories of what she had done to her friend.
So, is that your shadow self, Deirdre? The one that can lie?
She would never forget the sound of his voice when he spoke those words. It had been so soft, yet it had damned her more surely than a ringing chorus of anger. He had thought her a friend, and she had deceived him, manipulated him for her own ends. No matter the reason, how right it had seemed at the time. Deirdre had never believed the end justified the means; at least she had always thought so. Yet in order to serve the Seekers, she had betrayed her friend. And for that she would never forgive them.
Not long after the immolations ceased, she had simply stopped showing up at the Manhattan Charterhouse where Hadrian Farr had been directing their research. She had ignored the phone calls, the e-mails, the pager beeps. Damn the Seekers, but couldn’t they ever do anything in person? Then, without really thinking about it, she had gotten on a plane and had put an ocean behind her. At first she had thought she was going to Ireland. The years when, as a girl, she had lived with her grandmother outside of Cork, listening to old songs and first learning to play music, still lingered in her mind. But the plane had touched down at Heathrow, and the muted grays of London had shrouded her in a soft dullness that, if she didn’t think about it too much, could almost be mistaken for comfort.
Deirdre clutched the empty absinthe glass, willing it to fill again, to help her forget if not forgive. All hail Our Green Lady of Oblivion. But the glass remained empty.
“Hello, sweetie,” said a woman with a mop of orange hair as she slid onto the bench next to Deirdre.
She was long and lanky, curved as a willow, her limbs seal-sleek in clinging black vinyl. The face she turned toward Deirdre was stark white, and her eyes were lost amid dark circles of kohl. It was hard to tell through the smoky, clove-scented air of the pub, but beneath the garish makeup her features might have been exquisite.
The woman coiled a thin arm around Deirdre’s neck. “You look dangerous and yummy.”
Deirdre did not smile. “Just the first one.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed. There was a listlessness to them, a dullness, yet a hunger as well. She bit a lip colored the deep purple of a bruise. “That’ll do.”
The woman shifted closer, vinyl creaking. Deirdre felt her heat through the plastic. In a way she was tempted. It might not be such a bad thing to lose herself with another—a different sort of oblivion. Her work with the Seekers had left little time to take a lover. It had been a while since she had been with a man—or a woman. However, there was something about the haziness in the other’s eyes, the languor of her motions, that sickened Deirdre even as she envied it.
“I’m not in the mood,” she said.
“Then I’ll help you get into it, sweetie.”
The woman pushed something onto the table, then lifted a strangely long hand to uncover a pair of purple pills, each marked with a white lightning bolt. So that was the source of the haze in the other’s eyes.
The woman took one of the pills between thumb and finger and slowly, as if it were something delectable, took it between her lips. She nudged the other pill. “Now you, sweetie.”
“I don’t touch Electria.”
The woman frowned at Deirdre’s empty glass. “What? You’ll drink that nasty old shit, but you won’t take something new and clean? What’s wrong with you?”
Where should I start? However, at that moment a gigantic, bald-headed man clad in tight black-leather pants made an angry gesture at the woman.
“Get back over here, Glinda.”
The orange-haired woman flicked her eyes at the man. The muscles of his arms were hugely swollen, and his clean-shaven chest was shirtless and massive beneath an open leather vest. A goatee framed a thin, angry mouth.
“I said get over here.”
“But I want her, Leo,” the woman said.
The man bared silver teeth. “I’ll tell you what you want.” He shook a small, plastic bottle. “Now come on.”
The woman hesitated. She started to rise from the bench. Then, in what seemed a furtive motion, she leaned close and licked Deirdre’s ear, probing with a warm, moist tongue.
“Save me,” the woman whispered.
Before Deirdre could respond, the woman gripped her hand, then slid from the booth and sauntered over to the bald man. She leaned her head on the expansive slope of his shoulder and ran her hands over the mountains and valleys of his chest. Yet the entire time her eyes were on Deirdre. The man grimaced, adjusting his crotch, then led Glinda away, into the back of the pub and darkness.
Deirdre almost considered going after them. Save me, Glinda had said. But from what? That hulk of a man? The Electria? However, as she started to rise, she realized there was something in her hand—the hand the woman had squeezed. At first she thought it was simply a British pound coin. But it was silver and too large, about the size of three American quarters stacked together. The drawings on it were unrecognizable in the gloom. She started to bend closer to make them out.
“So they were right,” said a smooth, masculine voice. “You are here. I had thought surely they must be mistaken.”
Deirdre closed her hand on the coin, then looked up. “What? You’re actually admitting the Seekers can make mistakes?”
Hadrian Farr sat across from her and folded his hands on the table. “All the time, I’m afraid,” he said with a crooked-toothed smile.
Deirdre winced. Farr’s smile was so damned charming; she hated it. It was that smile that had lured her into his bed the night they met in Glasgow three years ago. It was that smile that had enchanted her the next morning over tea as he spoke of the mysteries the Seekers sought to understand. The expression was so secret, so inviting, like he was just about to tell you the deepest wonders of the universe. Only he never did.
“What do you want?” she said.
“I think you can rather imagine.”
Deirdre did not answer. Farr leaned across the table, darkly handsome as always: square jaw clean-shaven, lips full, eyes deep-set and well spaced. His faded jeans and black T-shirt accented his slender but muscular frame. She wondered when he found the time to work out. Wasn’t he always busy harassing otherworldly travelers?
“You’ve not come to a Charterhouse in over a month, Deirdre. You have not responded to our missives, you have ignored our summons. Have you forgotten the Vow?”
Deirdre fingered her empty glass. “No, but let’s give it a few more minutes and see.”
Farr frowned. “I would have thought better of you, Deirdre. You know there’s no magic in absinthe. It’s just a cheap trick. And, until recently, quite illegal.”
Deirdre laughed, a sound every bit as bitter as the absinthe had been. “So is bugging people.”
She tucked the odd coin into the pocket of her jeans, pulled out something else, and shoved it across the table toward Farr. It was a small transistor, smashed, glittering in a stray beam of light.
Farr grimaced. So he was capable of a real reaction.
“That was hardly my idea,” he said. “I think you know me well enough to see the truth in that.”
Deirdre looked away, into the darkness. “I don’t know what I know anymore.”
Farr reached out and took her hand. She was suddenly too weary to resist. The absinthe, of course.
“Listen to me, Deirdre. We need you. I need you.”
Still she did not look at him. “I doubt I can help you. In case you’d forgotten, he doesn’t like me any more than he does the Seekers. You saw to that.”
“Damn it, Deirdre, I’m not talking about Travis Wilder. I’m talking about you. You’re one of the bloody best the Seekers have ever had. We need you more than ever now.”
At last Deirdre turned her gaze to him. “When I first met you, Hadrian, I thought I would do anything to understand the mysteries you talked about, that I would pay any price. But the price was too high, after all. I lost a friend.”
“What do you mean? That I didn’t betray Travis?”
“No, I mean maybe he wasn’t really your friend. Friends don’t just turn their backs and run away. They forgive us our mistakes.”
Deirdre shook her head. You’re wrong, she wanted to say. But her lips couldn’t form the words. Maybe she didn’t really believe them.
“Please, Deirdre. You don’t have to make a decision now. Just come back to the Charterhouse with me. An hour, that’s all I’m asking. Then you can go if you want, and we’ll leave you alone. On the Book, I swear it.”
The short hairs on the back of Deirdre’s neck prickled. Why was Farr making an offer like this? It was hardly his style. Then, in a bright flash that cut through the green mist shrouding her brain, she understood.
“Something’s happened,” she said, sitting up straight. “What is it? Tell me.”
Farr drew in a deep breath, then nodded.
“She’s called,” he said.
Even in the cement-covered heart of the city, Travis Wilder could always tell when the wind was about to blow.
He turned his back just as a gritty blast of air hurtled down Sixteenth Street, its force magnified as it squeezed between the narrow glass and stone canyons of downtown Denver. Two women in power skirts and tennis shoes were blown into a street fountain gone mad, and shrieked as water frothed around them. Several teenagers huddled together, trying in vain to keep the dust out of their fresh piercings. And a legless man held up shaking hands and laughed without teeth as pieces of trash whirled and danced around his wheelchair like bright paper fairies.
As suddenly as it had come, the wind ceased. The fountain returned to the confines of its circle, releasing the two women. Paper settled back to the sidewalk, lifeless trash once more. Travis started walking again. He had been down this street a dozen times before, and each time he had seen no sign of them. All the same, he knew he had to keep searching. What else was he supposed to do?
Motion flickered on the edge of his vision: a tall, pale figure clad all in black striding down the street on long, lanky legs. Sudden hope surged in his chest, and he turned. At the same moment the figure halted and faced him. The breath held hostage in his lungs was released as he understood.
Travis approached the plate-glass window. Even after two months, he still didn’t recognize the man reflected in the window’s surface. He was tall and almost lean, with shoulders far broader than Travis had ever pictured. The other was clad all in black despite the brilliant late-September day: jeans, T-shirt, trench coat. The skin of his hands and face was smooth and powder-pale, and his eyes were hidden by dark glasses. His head was shaven clean, and a short red-brown goatee framed the solemn line of his mouth.
You’ve been looking for him so long you’re starting to look like him, Travis. Brother Cy.
Not that Travis had much choice in the way he looked. His new skin—burnt and reborn in the hot flames of Krondisar—was still soft and exquisitely sensitive. He was forced to keep it covered and protected, hence the black thrift-store coat even on fine days like this.
His eyes were the same story. That first day he and Grace had returned to Earth, he had discovered he no longer needed his glasses. It was still possible to wear the old gunfighter’s spectacles, but everything was warped and strange-looking through them. These days he kept them in his pocket as a memento of Jack Graystone—as if he needed another reminder besides the secret rune that marked the palm of his right hand.
Like his skin, his new eyes were highly reactive; bright light hurt them, although he found he could see shockingly well at night. He had bought a pair of wraparound sunglasses for three bucks from a street vendor and never took them off from dawn to dusk, and sometimes not even then.
As for his bald head—that had been his own choice. His hair had begun to grow back not long after their return, and over most of his body it had come in as he remembered it, if a bit redder than before. However, the shocking, flame-colored curls that had sprouted on his crown had nothing in common with his old, sandy brown hair.
It was too much for Travis—too strong a reminder of what had happened to him—so he had taken a razor and shaved it off. At least his skull wasn’t a moonscape of ridges and craters; that was one difference between him and Brother Cy.
The goatee had come a few weeks later. He had never worn one before in his life, but something told him he had never worn this body before, so the change seemed appropriate. And as for the silver rings dangling from each of his ears—well, Travis had had a hard time explaining them to Grace when she asked.
In some of the neighborhoods I’ve been searching, people stare if you don’t have a piercing, Grace.
She had accepted his explanation, but he wasn’t certain he had been entirely honest with her. Not that he truly understood the reason he had let the muscular, nose-pierced young man at the tattoo parlor talk him into it.
It doesn’t matter if you want them, man, he had said, running his hands over Travis’s smooth head. You need them.
Maybe the man had been right. The Stone of Fire had destroyed Travis, then had forged him anew. And even though he was still a man—neither god nor monster by choice—he wasn’t sure he was entirely the same man. He still had Travis Wilder’s name. He still had his thoughts, his memories, his fears. And he still had the magical symbol branded deep into the flesh of his right palm. All the same, instinct told Travis that every atom in his body was utterly new. Somehow, looking different made the mystery of that change easier to bear.
Travis had taken his hat off when he sensed the wind coming. Now he pulled it from the pocket of his trench coat—the same pocket he had found it in after buying the coat for four bucks at a thrift store on South Broadway. The hat was black, shapeless, and vaguely beretlike. Grace said it looked like a bad toupee or a dead cat, depending on how she squinted. Travis liked it.
As he settled the hat on his head, he caught a glimpse of mountains behind his image in the window. They hovered in the gap between two buildings like gray ghosts on the horizon. For a moment he wished he could go back there, to the mountains, to Castle City. Wasn’t that where they had always helped him decide what he was supposed to do—Brother Cy, Sister Mirrim, and the dark Child Samanda?
But the strange trio wasn’t there anymore. It had been risky, maybe even stupid, to let anyone know that he was alive and on Earth, but a few nights ago Travis had picked up the phone and dialed information.
What city please? the recorded voice droned.
He had hesitated, then said the words. Castle City.
That was harder. He had thought about Jace Windom, but she was a deputy. Wouldn’t she have to report any conversation with Travis to Sheriff Dominguez? After all, twice now he had vanished from the scene of a fire in which others had died.
Davis or Mitchell Burke-Favor, he said before he really thought about it.
One moment please.
Davis and Mitchell had always come to the Mine Shaft Saloon every Friday to dance to the country music on the jukebox. They were close enough friends that they would help him, but not so close they would be compelled to come find him. Besides, their ranch was just south of town, not far from the Castle Heights Cemetery. If anyone might have seen Brother Cy there, it would be them.
This time it was a real operator that spoke. She gave him the number. He hung up, then dialed. The phone rang twice, then a deep, twanging voice answered. Hello, you’ve got Mitchell.
Travis’s throat had nearly closed. Finally he managed to speak.
Mitchell, it’s me.
A silence, filled only with the hiss of distance. Then, Travis? Travis Wilder?
Their conversation had been short, but surprisingly not awkward. Although he had every right to do so, Mitchell had not asked where Travis had gone, what had happened to him, or where he was calling from. Instead he listened to Travis’s questions, then answered in a deep, melodious voice that made Travis think of a cowboy poet he had once heard on the radio. Unfortunately, Mitchell didn’t have much to tell. He hadn’t seen a tall man in black around town. And no, the revival tent that had popped up last October had not reappeared. Travis ran out of questions.
There’s a grave for you, Travis. Up on the hill in Castle Heights.
I know, he said simply. It was enough.
Be well, Travis. We’ll sure miss you.
Travis didn’t know what else to say. He settled for, Give Davis my best. It was Mitchell who hung up first, leaving Travis with the lonely sound of static in his hand.
While he was glad he had made the call, it had only confirmed what Travis’s instincts had already told him. Brother Cy wasn’t there anymore, in the mountains. But he had to be somewhere. That was why Travis had spent these last weeks searching for him here, in the city.
Besides, even if Brother Cy was still in Castle City, you couldn’t go back there, Travis. It’s too dangerous. That’s the first place they’d be looking.
As if that thought had somehow been a cue, Travis watched in the window’s reflection as a sleek, black SUV approached along a cross street, moving toward the corner where he stood. The traffic light changed, and the vehicle stopped as pedestrians crossed in front of it. Through the flickering screen of their legs, Travis made out the license plate: DRATEK33.
“Don’t be an idiot, Travis,” he muttered under his breath. “They’ve got a multinational corporation to run. Not every one of their cars can be looking for you and Grace.”
In what he hoped was a casual motion, he turned from the window and crossed the street with a cluster of walkers. Only after half a block did he let himself turn and look back at the intersection. The light had changed; the vehicle was nowhere in sight.
Travis shoved his hands in his pockets. He knew he should keep going; it was hours before he had to be at the hospital for the janitorial night shift. But he was tired of walking, tired of searching. He bought a cup of coffee from a street vendor, then hopped the free shuttle down to the end of Sixteenth Street. He crossed the pedestrian bridge high above the railroad tracks, then descended to a green park beside the Platte River. He sat in the middle of a bank of cement steps and watched the waters of the Platte rush by, as thin and brown as the coffee in his paper cup. He took a sip. It wasn’t maddok, but he felt a faint tingle of jittery energy seep through his veins.
He set the cup on the step, then drew a small piece of bone on a string from beneath his black T-shirt. It seemed so long ago and so far away—the day he had pulled the bone from the witch Grisla’s bag near the half-ruined fortress of Kelcior. He could still hear the hag’s rasping words.
I wouldn’t have thought you would draw that one. One line for Birth, one line for Breath, and one more for Death, which comes to us all.
At the time he hadn’t understood what the rune had meant—much to Grisla’s disgust. It was only later, when he stood in the frozen depths of Shadowsdeep—when Beltan lay dying in the blood-soaked snow, and the Rune Gate opened to release the armies of the Pale King—that Travis had finally understood the meaning of the rune. It was hope. While there was life, there was always hope.
Travis tightened his hand around the rune. Beltan had nearly given his life so Travis could learn that lesson. Travis was not going to give up on him now.
Wake up, Beltan. Please. You’ve got to wake up so we can get out of here.
Travis and Grace didn’t talk about it much anymore; they didn’t need to. Both of them knew they had to get Beltan out of this city before Duratek found them. He started to pick up his coffee again, then halted as a billboard across the river caught his eye. He should have been surprised, but he wasn’t. They were everywhere; he knew that now.
On the billboard, a man, a woman, and a girl all smiled with imbecilic joy as the girl released a dove into a sky that was far too blue to be beautiful. In that sky, sharp as a sickle, hung an oversize crescent moon that merged into the capital D of their logo. Duratek. Worlds of Possibility.
Travis winced. He knew all too well what the billboard really meant. Once, one of their agents had told him that the meeting of Eldh and Earth was inevitable, and that Duratek’s mission was only to manage the convergence, to make sure it happened the right way. Travis knew that was a lie. Their real mission was to get to Eldh before anyone else, to conquer its peoples, to pollute its rivers, and to strip its lands of trees and minerals. And Travis was going to do anything he could to keep them from getting what they wanted.
But even if—even when Beltan woke up, how were they going to get back to Eldh? The silver half-coins seemed to work only in one direction: from Eldh to Earth. Despite all of his and Grace’s experiments, the coins appeared to have no power on Earth. That was why he spent his days searching for Brother Cy.
“Where are you, Cy?” he murmured. “What are you?” But the words were lost on a gust of air.
He let his gaze wander. Across the river, a huge, skeletal shape forged of metal girders rose into the sky. Then the wind unfurled the banner that hung from the side of the construction:
COMING SOON TO DENVER!
THE STEEL CATHEDRAL
Everything you seek
is just around the corner …
So it was one of those gigantic new megachurches. Bigger is better, wasn’t that the philosophy today no matter what you were selling? If only the words on the banner were right, if only what he sought really was just around the corner. But whether he found Brother Cy or not, they still couldn’t go anywhere until Beltan woke up. And although Travis refused to give up hope, there was no telling when that would be.
Almost every night, usually after 2:00 A.M. when at last things grew still and silent, he would put down his mop and make his way to Beltan’s room. Each time he was struck by how frail the knight looked beneath the tangle of tubes and wires. Beltan had always said he was Travis’s protector, but Travis knew it was the other way around now. Yet somehow it was a comforting feeling. He could stand this, being the strong one.
For a time each night—a few minutes, maybe longer—he would watch the blond man for any signs of motion, however small. He knew that Beltan loved him. That was what the knight had tried to tell him once in Perridon, although Travis had been unable to hear, for he had just turned the rune of fire back on Master Eriaun, and his ears had roared with the sound of flames. It wasn’t until Beltan lay dying in Castle Spardis, when he kissed Travis with bloodied lips, that Travis finally understood.
What it meant was another question. Night after night Travis stood above Beltan, trying to imagine how someone could actually love him, and trying to imagine if he could love another, trying to feel if it was even possible. Then, finally, in what might have been an act of desperation, Travis had bent down and had pressed his lips against Beltan’s.
It had been so easy he had almost laughed. There was no lightning strike, no grand revelation, no resistance or sudden awakening. It was just flesh to flesh. Why had he expected anything else? In all his late-night reveries, he had been so busy wondering if he could love Beltan that he had forgotten to ask himself the simple question if he did. And as for the answer, well—
Like a dark bird, something fluttered on the edge of Travis’s vision. He looked up.
The woman stood no more than thirty feet away across the park, in the center of a bare expanse of concrete. She was tall and lithe, her body clad in tight-fitting black leather, her legs apart and high-heeled boots planted firmly. Short, dark hair was smoothed sleekly against her head, and she wore a solemn expression on the bronze oval of her face. She stood without the slightest motion, gazing at him with gold eyes.
Travis started to draw in a breath. Who are you? he wanted to say. However, before the sound left his lips, the air around the woman rippled and folded, and she was gone.
Mitchell Sheridan Burke-Favor sat up in bed aµnd stared into the stone-colored light between night and morning, waiting for the alarm beside the bed to go off.
It wouldn’t be long now. Life on the ranch started well before dawn, no matter the time of year. The hired hands would be showing up soon, clattering into the kitchen, wanting breakfast. Then there were horses to feed and saddle, cattle to be moved between pastures and watered, and miles of fence to mend. The earlier they started, the earlier they’d be done.
Not that Mitchell would have minded a few more minutes of sleep. God knew he was tired enough. While the years seemed to be getting shorter, somehow each workday seemed to be stretching out longer. But weary as he was, he was damned if he could sleep an entire night anymore. He was always thinking about the price of cattle, how many they’d have to sell to make it through the winter, and the cost of hay. But then, didn’t they say folk slept less the older they got?
We’re not young men anymore, Mitchell. There are no kids running around to remind you, so you can almost forget about it. But we’re not thirty, and we haven’t been in a whole herd of years.
Motion in the bed beside him. Mitchell turned and let his eyes ride over the planes of Davis’s body stretched out beneath the sheet, as sharp and windswept as the high plains. Sleep had smoothed out the lines carved by years of wind and sun, but Mitchell knew they would return the moment Davis woke up and smiled.
All the same, with his thick wheat-brown hair, Davis didn’t look all that different than when they had first met twenty-five years ago. Davis had been working the amateur rodeo circuit then, and Mitchell had been an announcer at the fairgrounds in Billings, Montana. Davis had lasted only four seconds on the bull. Even before he hit the ground, Mitchell had known their life together was going to last a whole lot longer.
While Davis was leaner than ever, Mitchell had gotten bulkier with time. A few years back his size 32 Wranglers had quietly given way to 34’s. Then, last month, after some serious complaining on the part of his waistline, he had broken down and bought his first pair of size 36’s down at McKay’s General Store. He was still strong, though—the ranch work saw to that—and his thick, black handlebar mustache did a good job of hiding the creases around his mouth. And as for his balding head—well, only God and Davis ever saw him with his hat off.
Besides, there were other ways of staying young. That was why he and Davis had taken up two-stepping a decade ago. They had gotten good enough to win a few prizes at the national competition in San Francisco a while back. When you were dancing, it was impossible to feel old.
Except now there was nowhere in town to dance anymore.
Mitchell sighed, and he knew it was not thoughts of horses, cattle, and fences that had kept him awake. Where the hell had Travis Wilder called from?
Mitchell hadn’t asked when the phone rang two nights ago. You never asked a man where he was from or where he was going; that was the cowboy code. If he told you of his own free will, you just nodded, and that was all. But Travis hadn’t said where he was, or where he had been. All the same, the question had bucked and kicked in Mitchell, and it had been all he could do to rein it in.
No one knew who had dug the grave for Travis up in Castle Heights Cemetery. Some in town had said it must have been the new grave-digger who had come with the strange heat of summer and left just as suddenly. Mitchell couldn’t say, as he had never seen the man. The summer had left little time for anything outside the ranch; the heat had come close to taking a terrible toll on the animals, and had it gone on much longer it would have.
Yet while no one had known for sure who had dug Travis’s grave, everyone assumed that whatever was left of him was buried in it. The destruction of the Mine Shaft had been all but complete. A natural gas explosion, the Castle County fire marshal had determined. He had gone through all the old buildings along Elk Street and found a dozen other leaks in antique pipes and boilers. In a way it was a wonder it hadn’t happened sooner. But then why had it happened at the Mine Shaft? Everyone still remembered the fire at the Magician’s Attic a few years back, when Jack Graystone had died and Travis Wilder vanished for the first time. Now the Mine Shaft had burned, and Max Bayfield and several unidentified people had burned with it.
But not, as Mitchell learned two nights ago, Travis Wilder.
Through the window—open a crack for air despite the chill mountain night—drifted the sound of tires against gravel. Mitchell sat up in bed. Had some of the hired hands shown up already?
Outside, a vehicle door shut: solid, heavy, well oiled. Another followed, and a shiver rode across Mitchell’s chest. Neither of those had sounded like the doors of a rusted-out pickup truck, and he was pretty sure none of the hired hands had been in the market for a brand-new car. He sure as horseshit wasn’t paying them enough.
Mitchell stood up from the bed. Cold air slapped his bare backside. Swiftly, he pulled on the pair of jeans slung over a chair. He fumbled on the nightstand, then his hand came back with a pair of glasses rimmed with silver wire. Davis said they made him look handsome and smart. Mitchell knew they made him look old, but damn if he could shoot a target at ten paces without them.
The sound of footsteps crunched closer. Mitchell cocked his head, counting. Just two. Those weren’t bad odds. He moved to the window, parted the checkered curtain a fraction, and peered into the steely predawn. They were just visible around the front corner of the house: the sleek, black curves of two SUVs parked in the dirt driveway. Two men in dark suits paused, gazing at the horizon with eyes concealed by heavy sunglasses, as if even the pale glow of first light was too much for them. Then they turned and continued toward the house.
A rustling in the bed behind him, and a sleepy voice.
“What is it, Mitchell?”
Mitchell turned from the window and spoke through clenched teeth. “Get your gun, Davis.”
Two minutes later they stepped out the door of the ranch house onto the broad front porch. The last winds of night fled, as if fearing the coming of the sun. On the other side of the porch railing stood two men in black. The wind seemed to have no power over their stiff hair and heavy suits. Mitchell shivered, and one of the men—his hair coal-black, his features smooth and indeterminately Asian—smiled. It seemed a dead expression, his eyes hidden behind the thick sunglasses.
“We would have waited,” the man said, “for you gentlemen to attire yourselves.”
On his way to the door, Mitchell had stopped to slap his Stetson on his head, but other than the blue jeans that was it. Davis had pulled on a white tank top and a pair of battered khakis. Both of them were barefoot.
“No, no—they are cowboys,” the other man said with a smile that was equally empty. He was tall and Nordic, his hair so blond it shone bone-white in the dawn. “I have seen this in the movies. They are only naked if they do not have their guns. Is that not right, boys?”
On reflex, Mitchell tightened his grip around his rifle, but Davis gave a laugh and twirled his revolver around his finger like a dime-store gunfighter. He always had been the showman.
“Why don’t you little dogies jus’ git along home?” Davis said in a grotesque Western drawl.
The air lightened a fraction, and the crescent moons painted on the doors of the vehicles glowed as if lit from within. The Asian man stepped closer.
“Of course. We are only too happy to … oblige. Is that not the word you Western people use? But before we go, please oblige us by letting us ask a question or two.”
Davis tucked the revolver into the waist of his khakis and laughed, leaning on the railing. “It’s your nickel,” he said. “But I sure hope you’re not expecting a cup of coffee while we have our little chat.”
Davis could laugh at anything. Once, while camping, a hungry black bear had stuck its head into their tent, snuffling around for food. Davis had let out a guffaw, then slapped the bear on the nose. Stunned, the beast had wandered away. But Mitchell hadn’t laughed then, and he didn’t laugh now. There was something about these men—even without being able to see their eyes—that made them look hungry. But maybe it was just that he knew a wolf when he saw one.
Mitchell raised his rifle. “I told your kind once to pack up their tricks and never come back. I meant it.”
Despite the rifle leveled at his chest, the dark-haired man stepped closer. “You misunderstood our company representatives, Mr. Favor. Ranching is a hard business—harder than ever these days, as I know you are aware. Were you not recently forced to take out a second mortgage on your property because of low cattle prices?”
Mitchell stiffened. How the hell did they know that?
The man spread his hands. “You see, we only wished to help.”
Davis snorted, his grin gone. “You mean like you helped Onica McKay?”
When Mitchell had gone to McKay’s General Store to buy his jeans, Onica had seemed oddly quiet as she rang up the sale. It was only a few days later, talking to one of the ranch hands, that they learned she had been unable to keep up her contracted payments, and that Duratek had assumed ownership of the store. Onica was now a minimum-wage employee at the business her great-grandfather had started. That was the kind of help Duratek offered.
The man gave a heavy sigh. “No one is sadder than we are when one of our arrangements does not work out. But a contract is a contract. I am sure, as businessmen, you must understand.”
Mitchell had had enough of this. “I told you I would never sign one of your contracts. Now—”
The pale-haired man lifted a hand. “No, no, Mr. Favor. It is not a contract with you we seek. We have had a chance to check the numbers on your little operation here. Our earlier offer was made in error and has been withdrawn. It is another contract we are interested in.”
“Please tell us,” the Asian man said. “Do you know a Mr. Travis Wilder? He was, until recently, proprietor of the Mine Shaft Saloon in Castle City.”
“What do you want with Travis?” Mitchell said, then winced. A glance from Davis told him what he had already realized; he had just told these men that he indeed knew Travis.
“You see,” the dark man said, “like Ms. McKay, Mr. Wilder signed a contract with us. However, some months ago he grew delinquent in meeting his contractual obligations. Then, conveniently, the Mine Shaft burned, and Mr. Wilder disappeared.”
“Died, you mean,” Davis said. The revolver was back in his hand.
The Nordic man shrugged. “That is one explanation. I doubt it is the true one.”
“You see,” the other continued, “we have reason to believe Mr. Wilder is not dead, that he arranged the destruction of the Mine Shaft in order to evade his financial responsibilities to our corporation.”
“That’s a lie,” Mitchell spat.
All the same, the words shook him. What if it were true? After all, Travis was alive. What if Travis had signed a contract with Duratek? Was that the reason he had not said where he was calling from?
The others must have noticed his reaction.
“Do you know something, Mr. Favor?” the black-haired man asked. “If you do, you should tell us now. You see, we can easily get a summons for a deposition. I am certain you know it is a crime to lie under oath. And you seem to be a lawful man, Mr. Favor.”
The other’s voice was calm and reasonable. And things were precarious on the ranch right now. There was no way they could afford a lawyer. And the fact was, Travis’s behavior was strange. He started to open his mouth.
The click of a revolver’s barrel stopped him. Davis had leveled his gun at the two men; the hammer was cocked.
“Here’s a little lesson in the law,” Davis said. “You two are trespassing.”
Mitchell nodded. He had been about to give himself to these wolves, but whatever power their smooth words had on him evaporated. He pumped the rifle and sighted along its length.
“On the count of three, Davis.”
“One,” Davis said.
The dark-haired man held out a hand. “Davis, Mitchell—you must listen to me.”
Mitchell adjusted his grip on the rifle. “That’s Mr. and Mr. Burke-Favor to you.”
“Two,” Davis said.
“It is not wise to—”
In perfect unison, two fingers pulled, two peals of thunder sounded. The men in dark suits ducked as bullets flew scant inches above their heads.
“Just in case you’re wondering,” Davis said, his grin back at full strength, “we weren’t really trying to hit you. That time. Mitchell?”
They lowered the aim of their guns.
The men in black started to back away. The pale one clenched a fist, his mouth twisting in a knot of rage. “You are both going to regret this.”
Despite the tightness in his gut, Mitchell found himself grinning as madly as Davis.
“Bullshit I will,” he said.
This time the gunshots sent the two men running. They heaved open the doors of their SUVs and scrambled inside. Engines roared, and the two vehicles bounced off down the rutted road, columns of dust rising into the sky behind them.
Mitchell lowered his rifle. Davis was watching him, eyes clear and bright as the new morning sky.
“I’ll get breakfast started,” Davis said, and headed inside.
By the time the sun had fully risen, the hired hands had shown up, gathering in the ranch house’s rambling kitchen. There were just three today—although during calving, or when they were tagging and branding, there could be as many as a dozen. Davis served ham and eggs while Mitchell brewed several pots of hot, strong coffee. Occasionally, some of the men joked that real cowboy coffee was made from mud and water, not French roast. Then again, every one of them took a minimum of three refills.
While they ate, Davis flicked on a small television on the counter to catch the weather report on the Denver morning news. Mitchell would rather have listened to KCCR, the low-power Castle County radio station. He volunteered there one night a week, reading news and local advertisements just to keep his voice in practice. However, the hired men seemed to have formed a cult of worship around Anna Ferraro, the doe-eyed Channel 4 morning news anchor, so TV it was. They drooled into their eggs while they watched.
“It’s my turn to clean up,” Davis said when Mitchell started to wash out the frying pan.
Mitchell knew better than to argue. “I’ll get the boys going on the north fence line.”
The hired hands had already wandered outside, finishing their coffee. Mitchell helped them load the fence-mending equipment in the pickup, described what part of the fence to get started on, then told them he’d meet them later. There was room enough in the truck for him, but Mitchell felt like riding out to the fence line. Sometimes it was nice to forget cars, power tools, mortgages, and stock reports. When Mitchell rode across the ranch, letting the power lines slip out of view behind him, it wasn’t hard to imagine this was Colorado a hundred years ago. The wind and the sagebrush hadn’t changed.
But the world had. While things might have been less complicated a hundred years ago, they had been harder as well. What place would the world have held for him and Davis? All the same, there was a peace in riding. He sent the boys on their way, then turned and headed back into the ranch house for some sunscreen. Davis wouldn’t let him outside without it these days. Another concession to modernity, but cancer wasn’t pleasant in any century.
Mitchell stepped back into the house’s main room. Through the open door to the kitchen he could hear the clink of dishes and the low drone of the television. He spotted the sunscreen on the mantel above the room’s gigantic sandstone fireplace. The fireplace was dark and empty now, but winter wasn’t far off. Mitchell looked forward to those days, when there wasn’t much work to do outside. He would sit by the fire, mending a saddle, while Davis set up his computer on the coffee table and worked on his newest book. He had published two romantic Western novels with a small California publisher, and was working on his third. They weren’t great literature, but they had what Davis liked to call hot bull-on-bull action. All Mitchell knew was that, when he read the unbound pages sitting there on the floor, it wasn’t always the roaring fire that made him sweat.
The sound of clanking dishes floating through the kitchen door ceased. A second later came the sound of Davis’s voice, not loud, but hard and sharp.
“Mitchell, get in here.”
Had a prairie rattler gotten into the house? It wouldn’t be the first time. Mitchell dropped the sunscreen and covered the distance to the kitchen in long, swift strides.
Davis stood by the counter, a dish towel in his hands. “Look,” he said.
Mitchell followed his gaze. Anna Ferraro’s voice trilled over video showing a half-constructed building. Given the river and the tall buildings in the background, it had to be near downtown Denver. Mitchell drew closer.
“… that work on the Steel Cathedral is proceeding ahead of schedule. With miles of reinforced girders and tempered glass, it will be one of the largest enclosed spaces in the state of Colorado when it opens next year. As you can see, in this footage taken yesterday, the building—which is meant to mirror the Rocky Mountains—is beginning to take shape. And, like a mountain, its designers are hoping that the Steel Cathedral will help bring people closer to—”
“There,” Davis said. “There he is again.”
The camera pulled back, revealing a park near the construction site. The park was nearly empty: a woman pushing a baby stroller, a pair of rollerbladers, that was it.
No, there was one other figure. He was tall, clad all in black with a shapeless hat on his head. There was nothing remarkable about him, save for the heavy attire on a fine day. Then, almost as if he sensed the camera, the man turned around.
Mitchell drew in a sharp breath.
It can’t be him. Damn it, he doesn’t look the same at all.
But despite the changes, there could be no doubt about it. The man in black was Travis Wilder.
The video ended, and Anna Ferraro’s blankly smiling face filled the screen again. Mitchell switched off the TV and looked up. Davis’s expression was unusually grim.
“If we saw this and recognized him, then you have to bet others in town did as well.”
Mitchell sighed. Davis didn’t need to say any more. If Duratek had come to their ranch asking about Travis, then they would be asking others as well. Travis was in danger, but this was out of their league. They needed help, and there was only one place Mitchell knew to get it.
“Call the sheriff,” he said, and Davis reached for the phone.
“Good morning, Mitchell,” Castle County Sheriff’s Deputy Jacine Fidelia Windom said into the chunky black receiver.
As always she spoke with crisp inflection. Jace did everything in her life with precision. Her honey-brown hair was cut in a short, even line just above her shoulders, and her khaki uniform was as neat and sharp-creased as a newly unfolded road map. Even her features had a preciseness about them: small but not delicate, regularly spaced in the oval of her face.
The main room of the county sheriff’s building was quiet. Jace had come in early to catch up on paperwork. There was something satisfying about the act of stamping papers, sorting copies into appropriate piles, and filing each in the exact place it belonged. Where there was order there was reason, comfort, and safety; without it the world would be an endless, churning ocean of chaos.
When she came in, she had found Deputy Morris Coulter clutching a cup of coffee in big hands and muttering to himself in a clearly failing effort to stay awake for the remaining hour of his shift. Jace had relieved him, then poured a cup of the coffee Morris had brewed and sat down to work. She figured she had more than an hour to herself before Sheriff Dominguez came in. Fifteen minutes later, the phone rang.
“What can I help you with, Mitchell?” she said, picking up a pen in a small hand just in case. It behooved one to stay a step ahead in life.
She listened carefully to the deep, musical, slightly twanging voice on the other end of the line. It wasn’t often that she spoke to Davis or Mitchell Burke-Favor as the two were occupied most of the time by their ranch south of town, although she did listen to Mitchell’s radio show if she happened to be at the sheriff’s station on a Wednesday night. As long as she had known them, the two men had run a good operation. They were polite to their neighbors and kept their hired hands in line. Castle County could use a few more citizens like that.
She adjusted the phone in the crook of her shoulder and wrote in a blocky shorthand on the pad of paper. “So two men came to your ranch early this morning?”
Affirmation from the other end of the line.
“Did you know them prior to their coming?”
Hesitation, then a negative.
“And can you describe these men to me, Mitchell?”
Jace started to jot down notes as the voice on the other end continued. Then, carefully, she set down the pen and pushed the pad of paper away from her.
“I see. And did these men from Duratek tell you what it was they wanted?”
Jace only heard two words before Mitchell’s voice was drowned out by a roaring that seemed to rush through the wire and into her ear.
Jace knew that sound. It was the roar of the ocean she dreamed about at night—the great, roiling sea that was neither solid nor liquid, neither dark nor light. The dream had first come to her as a girl in sixth grade, precisely one year after the day she wheeled her pink bicycle into the garage, had noticed an oddly swaying shadow, and had looked up into the swollen, violet face of her father.
She had still been standing there—clutching the handlebars of her bike, gazing at her strong, handsome father, who had hanged himself from the rafters at the age of thirty-six in a place where he knew his daughter would be the first to find him—when the door to the garage opened and she heard her mother’s scream.
For most of her life Jace had had the dream rarely, only after a particularly unsettling day. And those were rare enough—for her entire adult life, from junior college to truck driving to law enforcement, had been an ordered series of steps as easy to manage as the files on her desk.
Then things had changed, and all her logic, all her preparation, was nothing against what would be. For the last two months, the dream had come to her nearly every night. Ever since Maximilian Bayfield perished in the blaze that consumed the Mine Shaft Saloon. Ever since Travis Wilder had vanished.
She still had the newspaper clipping from last June, the first one to bear a headline about the new Black Death. That Max had had the disease there could be no doubt; all the symptoms had been evident. But the newspapers had been wrong on one account. It was not a plague of “unknown origin.” Jace knew exactly where it had come from.
I was just wondering if you’d seen Max today, Travis had said to her that day at the Mosquito Café. The last day she had seen him. The last day of Maximilian’s life.
Marriage and kids had been next on the checklist of Jace’s life, and Maximilian had been healthy, cute if not handsome, smart for certain, and—perhaps most importantly—gentle of nature. Love was one thing Jace was pretty sure had been removed from her list that day in the garage, but she had cared for Maximilian. And she had been able to do nothing for him.
It doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it, Jace? Travis had said.
He had seemed so genuinely concerned. For a moment her heart had softened. Then she had steeled herself. Whatever he might feel, this was his fault. The John Doe who had been immolated at the saloon was the carrier who had brought the plague to Castle City. It was because of the man’s touch that Maximilian had fallen sick. And the madman in black had come here looking for Travis. While Jace didn’t know the true cause of the sickness, she did know that it had come with Travis Wilder.
Nothing makes much sense these days, she had said to Travis that day in the café. And she had not seen Travis Wilder or Maximilian Bayfield again.
The roaring in her ears phased back into words. Deputy Windom? It was Mitchell’s tinny voice coming through the phone. Deputy Windom, are you still there?
A spasm coursed through Jace. She sat up straight in the chair.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, I’m here, Mitchell.”
Even as she spoke, her mind raced, fitting together the pieces of what Mitchell Burke-Favor had said. Then, like the papers on her desk, everything fell into place. Wherever he had gone, Travis Wilder was back. And she knew where he was.
A pause on the line, and a hiss of static. He was waiting for an answer. She licked her lips.
“I’ll give your report to the sheriff, Mitchell.” Lies were not so difficult if one spoke them with the authority of truth. “Don’t worry. We’ll keep an eye out for these men and make certain they don’t harass anyone else. Of course. And you’re welcome. Tell Davis hello for me.”
Jace hung up the phone. The hand unit seemed made of lead rather than plastic as she settled it back into its cradle. She waited a second or two—for what, she didn’t know; for the last echoes of the roaring to fade from her ears, perhaps—then looked up at the two men who stood in the doorway.
She wasn’t certain exactly when in the course of her conversation she had become aware of them, only that before she hung up she had known. They had a way of impinging on the senses slowly. It was as if they were so used to watching unnoticed from the shadows that it required special effort to make their presence felt.
“I told you they wouldn’t help you,” she said.
One of the men—the dark one with almond eyes—shrugged as he slipped sunglasses into his coat pocket. “Nor did we expect them to, Deputy Windom, for we trust your opinions. We have found your descriptions of the local population most insightful.”
Jace let her gaze slide past them. Somehow it was easier not to watch them when they spoke. “Then why did you go to Davis and Mitchell’s ranch?”
Now the other one laughed: a raw, brash sound. “Sometimes when a man does not wish to help you, he cannot prevent himself from doing so. It is interesting that Mr. Burke-Favor has called you, no? I wonder what the old cowboy had to say.”
Jace did not like the blond one. He was big and broad-shouldered, but somehow pale and sickly despite his size, as if too many years under the Arctic sun had left him forever deformed, like a gangly, wax-white bean plant she had once grown in a dark closet as a school science experiment.
Jace clutched the edge of the desk. These men always talked in innuendo and gray shades of truth. She hated that about them. And now, because of these men, she had taken to uttering lies and performing acts of subterfuge herself.
“I don’t like this,” she said through clenched teeth. “A report made to a law enforcement officer is confidential until it is officially released.”
The dark one approached. With a graceful motion of his hand he took her words and set them aside. “There are greater issues at hand here, Deputy Windom, than bureaucratic regulations. I believed you understood this.”
The pale one started to speak, but the other lifted a hand, silencing him. So Jace’s judgment was correct. Despite the big one’s bluster, it was the small, slender man who was the commander.
The dark one sat on the corner of her desk. The black fabric of his suit made soft, sensual sounds as he moved. He smelled like her gun after she had just polished it.
“Your duty is to protect the public, is it not, Deputy Windom? Now here is a man whom you know to be a danger to all who come in contact with him. A man who we are interested in for our own reasons—for knowledge he has wrongfully withheld from us, and for the death of three of our operatives. And this is all in addition to the deaths of at least two citizens of this town. If you have decided to stop assisting us, I cannot hope to understand your decision, but I would expect at least for you to inform us.”
Rage flared up inside Jace, then just as quickly died. She felt the first, queasy hints of the world yawing beneath her. She knew that if she shut her eyes she would see it: the dim, oily ocean, swirling.
She disliked these men, but she needed them. In the days after Maximilian’s death, nothing had made sense to her. She had drifted, a castaway on the gray sea, and she had nearly drowned. Then, unasked for, they had come, and their words had been a life preserver. Madness had surrounded Travis Wilder. But the men from Duratek had offered reason, explanation, and logic. With nothing left to save her from sinking, Jace had grabbed on for dear life.
The chair seemed to rock gently beneath her. No, she could not let go yet. If Travis Wilder was not a murderer, then he was certainly a bringer of death and madness, of that there could be no doubt.
She shut her eyes, and for a second it was there: leaden waves roiling beneath a sky that was a mirror, so that it was impossible to know which way was up and which was down.
You shouldn’t have done that, Daddy, she whispered without sound. You shouldn’t have done that.
Jace opened her eyes. “I know where he is.”
The man before her smiled. “So you do, Deputy Windom. So you do.”
Six hours after her conversation with Hadrian Farr, Deirdre Falling Hawk packed her one battered duffel bag, signed out of the dreary East End efficiency flat she had been renting by the week, and checked into the Savoy Hotel.
The desk clerk eyed her T-shirt and scuffed leather jacket with polite disdain. However, when he swiped the credit card Farr had given her and glanced down at the card reader’s glowing display, his eyes bulged and a small, squeaking sound escaped him. After that the mousy fellow nearly tangled his arms together in an effort to serve her. He clapped for two bellhops to bear her bag ahead, then asked if she would prefer flowers or champagne in her room.
“Both,” Deirdre said with a smile.
For all their faults, that was one good thing about the Seekers: They had a positively magical credit rating. Deirdre didn’t know where the organization got its money. Rumors spoke of warehouses stuffed with Renaissance treasures and chests full of Roman coins. However, she suspected the more likely story was that, over the centuries, the Seekers had invested in various international financial concerns. There was nothing like five hundred years of compound interest to fatten a bank account.
Whatever the source of their money, one thing was certain: the Seekers were fabulously wealthy. And Farr had told her to take a room anywhere she wanted, as long as it was near the Charterhouse. They were flying nonstop to Denver in the morning to meet with Dr. Grace Beckett and Travis Wilder, and they did not want to be late.
Why are you doing this, Deirdre? she asked herself in the elevator. You said you would never have anything to do with the Seekers again.
There was only one answer, and it wasn’t that this was her chance to tell Travis she was sorry. Whatever their faults, whatever their machinations, the Seekers knew things, had access to things that no others could possibly show her. Knowing what she did—that there were indeed worlds other than Earth—how could she blind her eyes to them?
She had made no apologies to Farr for her earlier behavior, but she had taken his credit card, and she had agreed to meet him at the Charterhouse at 8 A.M. Now a lightness filled her, and a wild energy, as when she rode her motorcycle too fast through twisting canyons. There were answers waiting for her on the other side of that ocean, answers to mysteries she had dreamed about since girlhood. And while it was not her reason for going, she would apologize to Travis Wilder all the same. Whatever he might believe of her, she would always hold him as a friend.
The two bellhops showed her to her room, and Deirdre tipped them generously from the wad of pound notes Farr had given her. They shut the door, leaving her alone. There was a massive bed, an ornate sofa and chairs, and a marble fireplace with a gas fire burning. The champagne and flowers had arrived ahead of her, arranged on a table before a window that had a view of Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, and the Thames.
Deirdre kicked off her boots, unzipped her duffel bag, and pulled out the file folder Farr had given her earlier. She headed for the bed, detouring along the way to grab the bottle of champagne from the ice bucket, and flopped on the king-size mattress.
For the next hour she drank champagne and flipped through papers. She hadn’t talked long with Farr at the Sign of the Green Fairy. He had said he had matters to attend to before their departure, and that he would brief her further on the plane to Denver.
There wasn’t much in the folder, and she had seen most of it before. There were photographs of Travis and Dr. Beckett, and of various locations in Castle City. There was the drawing of a sword taken from a half-burned journal found at the ruins of James Sarsin’s London bookshop in 1883, and a photograph of Dr. Beckett’s necklace, which could be nothing but a fragment of the very sword depicted in Sarsin’s journal. Of course, Sarsin was one and the same with Jack Graystone, Travis’s antique dealer friend who had persisted for many centuries in London and then in Colorado. How his case—one of the most celebrated in the history of the Seekers—was connected to Grace Beckett was still an enigma. But perhaps that would be answered soon.
Deirdre skimmed through the rest of the folder. There were schematics of the Mine Shaft Saloon, chemical analyses of samples taken from burn stains on the floor, and also from soil samples taken at the Beckett-Strange Home for Children. Only at the end of the file was there something new to her: the transcript of Farr’s conversation with Dr. Beckett, recorded yesterday.
Champagne bottle propped between her legs, Deirdre sat cross-legged and scanned through the transcript. Certain words stood out. We’re back. And then later, We’re all in Denver.
We, she kept saying. But exactly who was Beckett referring to? Travis Wilder certainly. But her words seemed to imply the presence of another. One didn’t usually say we’re all when talking about just two people. Then, near the end, her eyes met words that caused a thrill to well up insider her, like the bubbles in the champagne bottle.
We’re not alone—we have a friend. He’s in the hospital, in a coma. A question from Farr. Then, Yes, he’s from Eldh.
Deirdre read the words again, heart racing. If this were true, it had enormous implications for their studies of the alternate universe. It was almost unimaginable what they could learn of the otherworldly culture and biology from direct study of an indigenous.
Deirdre read through the rest of the transcript. The last sentence struck her.
Please help us.
Beckett had called the Seekers to ask for help. But to help with what?
She shut the folder and laid it aside. Suddenly the taste of champagne was sour in her mouth. She set the bottle on the nightstand, dug into the pocket of her jeans, and pulled out something round, silver, and heavy.
Save me. That was what the woman Glinda had said earlier that day, when she slipped the coin into Deirdre’s hand at the absinthe bar in Soho. However, her plea was just as mysterious as Dr. Beckett’s. Save her from what?
Deirdre turned the coin over in her hands. In the light, she could make out the symbols. On one side was a pair of shoes with little bows on them. On the other side were the letters SD. She didn’t know what it meant.
But maybe someone else would.
It was already getting late; she knew she should go to bed. Then again, she would have nine hours to sleep on the flight to Denver. And something told her time was running out for Glinda.
Deirdre stood, wishing as her head swam that she hadn’t drunk so much of the champagne. She blinked to clear her vision, then pulled on her boots and grabbed her jacket. At the door she hesitated, casting one last glance back at her expensive suite. Something told her she wouldn’t be getting the Seekers’ money’s worth out of it.
She tried the desk clerk and the concierge, but neither of them had seen anything similar to the coin before. Her best chance was back at the Sign of the Green Fairy. She headed through a side entrance, onto a narrow street. Outside stood one of the hotel’s maintenance workers, smoking a cigarette. He was young—rail-thin, pale, and stoop-shouldered, but somehow pretty for it all. His hair was bleached stark white, and tattoos of dragons raced up his arms, disappearing beneath rolled-up white shirtsleeves.
“Hey, American girl,” the young man said. “Nice jacket.”
“Thanks.” Deirdre started past, then on a hunch she turned back. In a way he reminded her of Glinda, at once tough and far too fragile for this world. She showed him the coin.
His lip curled up in a sneer. “No bloody thanks, girl. That’s not really my scene.” Belatedly he seemed to rethink his words. “But hey, I suppose if it works for you, then that’s … well, that’s that.”
“What is it?” Deirdre said, meeting his bleary eyes.
“You don’t know? Bugger. I thought you were making a proposition.” He took a long draught on his cigarette. “It’s a token. It’ll get you a free drink over at SD.”
“Surrender Dorothy. You know, over in Brixton. I was going to say, you really don’t look like part of that scene. You haven’t got any glitter on you.” He tossed his cigarette into the gutter and sighed. “Shit, I’m out of fags. Want to come with me and buy a pack? I know a room in the hotel we can do it in. I’m pierced, if you like that.”
Deirdre grinned. She pulled a pack of cigarettes from her jacket pocket and tossed it to him. “Sorry. You’ll have to make do with this.”
He caught the cigarettes in fumbling hands as she walked away. By the time she looked back over her shoulder, he was leaning against the wall, smoking again.
She caught a cab to Brixton. Deirdre paid the driver and stepped out, letting go of the handle barely in time to keep her arm from being ripped off as the vehicle sped away.
The street was deserted, but distant shouts echoed off sooty facades, and here and there shadows huddled in the alcoves of doorways, the cherry-red tips of cigarettes hovering before them like fireflies. Deirdre scanned the dim storefronts and at first saw nothing. It was only on her third or fourth pass that she saw a small, emerald neon sign she was certain had not been there a moment ago. It formed two letters: SD. Beneath it, also in neon, was outlined a pair of red shoes. Deirdre headed for the sign. There was a narrow, unmarked door. She opened it and slipped inside.
The doorman was an achondroplastic dwarf clad in black leather. He perched on a barstool behind a podium, his head shaved and a pointed blond beard on his chin. His eyes were a brilliant, handsome blue. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-two or twenty-three. After looking her up and down, he bared large, white teeth in a grin.
“We’re full,” he said.
Deirdre eyed the empty hallway behind him. It was all black except for the floor, which was painted a scuffed yellow. The shimmering sounds of electronic dance music pulsed from beyond.
Deirdre matched his grin. “I don’t think so.”
“Oh, yes, we’re not taking anyone else tonight,” the doorman said. “You’ll have to come back tomorrow.”
“How much?” Deirdre said with a sigh. “Five pounds? Ten?”
The doorman only shook his head.
Deirdre leaned on the podium. “Listen—this is important. I’m looking for someone I met earlier today. Her name is Glinda. I need to know if she’s here. She gave me this.”
Deirdre set the drink token on the podium. As she did, the doorman’s eyes widened.
“Ash and blood! Why didn’t you tell me you were looking for Glinda?” He snatched the coin up, tucked it into a pocket, and hopped down from his stool. “This way.” He grabbed the hem of her coat and tugged. “Come on—this way.”
The hallway was longer than Deirdre would have guessed. The painted black walls were disorienting, receding into darkness so that the glowing yellow floor seemed a path leading across a lightless plain. Then the dull throbbing expanded into a rhythmic storm of sound. Fractured shards of a rainbow alighted on her skin, then flitted past, like fireflies whirling through the smoke-heavy air.
“There she is.”
The doorman pointed to a murky corner, past the glowing dance floor where a dozen spindly figures clad in sequins, feathers, and bright plastic undulated. Deirdre caught a flash of orange hair and the glint of haunted violet eyes.
The doorman turned and disappeared back down the hallway. Deirdre made her way across the club. Tinsel dangled from the invisible ceiling, and television screens hovered at odd angles, flashing images in jewel-like colors. Figures lounged in foggy alcoves and dim corners: some small and stout like the doorman, others long and slender, draped languorously on shabby chaises. She felt curious gazes touch upon her before slipping past.
Glinda was curled up on a ratty purple sofa shaped like a half moon. Her willow-switch arms were folded on the back of the sofa, her mop of orange hair resting upon them. Violet eyes stared at the flickering lights, as empty as the small plastic bottle lying upended on the sofa cushion beside her.
Deirdre swore softly. She picked up the bottle and sat on the sofa. “How many, Glinda? How many did you take?”
Deirdre pressed a hand to her forehead, then squeezed her shoulder and shook her. Glinda’s flesh was cold and stiff as clay beneath the creaking black vinyl. In small amounts, Electria could induce euphoria and a sense of well-being. In large doses it could depress the heart rate, lower the core body temperature, until coma and death resulted.
“Glinda, you’ve got to tell me how—”
She halted. The other’s eyes gazed at her, hazed with a fog like that drifting over the dance floor, yet somehow piercing all the same. Deep purple lips parted in a smile.
“You came.” Glinda’s voice was a soft croak. “Moon and stars, you came. But you’re too late, sweetie. You’re too late.”
Deirdre smoothed tangled orange hair back from her face. “It’s not too late, Glinda. Just tell me how many pills you took. I’ll get you to the hospital.”
Glinda sat up straight. “No,” she spat. “Needle-stabbers. Blood-lickers. No, you won’t take me there. They’re all the same. Poke and prod, turn you inside out. What makes you tick, sweetie? What runs in your veins, sweetie? Spread yourself and give us another look inside, will you?” A shudder wracked her too-thin body. “Leo took me there once. I won’t go again.”
Deirdre cursed herself; she couldn’t save Glinda by driving her away. She took the other’s hands, folded them together, and pressed them between her own; they were cold as sticks.
“All right, I won’t take you there. Promise. And I won’t let Leo take you, either.”
At this Glinda laughed, a sound like a broken silver bell. “He can’t take me, sweetie.”
“What do you mean?”
“Leo’s dead. He thought he could bargain with them, that he could get a good price for me. Stupid Leo. I told him they take whatever they want, only he never listened. He hurt me sometimes, and he used me. But he didn’t deserve that. No one deserves that.”
Deirdre tightened her grip on Glinda’s hands, but somehow she felt the other slipping away. “Who, Glinda? Who was Leo trying to bargain with? Why do they want you? I have … friends who can help us.”
Slowly, as if with terrible sorrow, Glinda shook her head. “No, sweetie. I told you, it’s too late. They don’t need me anymore. They don’t need … us.”
Carefully, she disentangled her fingers from Deirdre’s, then pressed them against her belly. Only then did Deirdre notice the faintest swelling in the center of her willowy body.
Glinda sighed. “Arion told me tonight.”
“The doorman. Everyone’s whispering about it. No one knows how, but they’ve gotten themselves a pure-blood. They don’t need any of us now.”
Deirdre tried to comprehend the other’s words. “I don’t understand, Glinda. Please, help me.”
But Glinda wasn’t looking at her anymore. Instead she gazed up at something over Deirdre’s head. A dreaminess stole across her face, like the peace just before sleep.
“She’s so beautiful,” Glinda murmured. “So beautiful, and so pure. If only I could have been more like her.”
Deirdre turned, craning her neck, and finally she understood. Of course—Surrender Dorothy. Where else could she have taken her name?
On a nearby television screen, a scene played out in vivid Technicolor: reds, greens, yellows, and blues all as lush and juicy as they had been the better part of a century ago when first revealed to a drab, black-and-white world. Dorothy Gale stood before a fallen farmhouse surrounded by Munchkins as a bright bubble of light danced toward her, shimmering and expanding until it became a woman clad all in gauzy, glittering white.
Deirdre turned back toward Glinda. “It’s not too late. You can come with me … with us. Whoever it is who wanted you, if they don’t need you anymore, they’ll let you go.”
“You’re wrong, sweetie. They don’t let anything go.”
A calmness filled Glinda’s eyes, and it sickened Deirdre. They couldn’t give up without a fight. She opened her mouth, but Glinda shook her head, and suddenly Deirdre found that words had fled her. She worked her tongue, but she could make no sound.
“Hush, sweetie. It’s all right.” Glinda’s voice was like cool water. “You came for me, and that’s all that matters. Sometimes just by wanting to save someone, you do.”
Deirdre shook her head and felt the warm wetness of tears against her cheeks.
“Here, sweetie.” Glinda pulled a silver ring from a slender finger, then pressed it into Deirdre’s hand. “This came from my mother. I won’t … I won’t be able to give it to my daughter. You keep it instead, so that we live on. At least a little bit.”
No, Deirdre tried to say. I don’t want it. But she closed her hand around the ring. Glinda leaned forward and pressed her purple lips to Deirdre’s, kissing her deeply, lingeringly.
Deirdre’s eyes went wide, for in that moment the murky nightclub around her vanished. Instead, she and Glinda sat on a flat, moss-covered stone in the middle of a misty forest glade where moonbeams stole between silver trees like ghosts. The only music there was the chiming of water tumbling over polished stones. All around her, like bits of gossamer, tiny beings with ugly faces floated on the air with butterfly wings.
Deirdre pulled away from Glinda’s kiss.
But at that moment the forest vanished, replaced again by the nightclub and the throbbing pulse of electronic music.
Glinda curled up on the couch, drawing her long limbs inward until she was small as a girl. Deirdre began to reach for her, but a stubby hand on her arm stopped her.
“They’re coming,” Arion said. “You have to go.”
She shook her head, beyond words now.
The doorman pulled her arm. “Sticks and stones, come on! If they find you here, they’ll spill your blood. They have no love in their hearts for your kind—if they even have hearts at all.”
Deirdre stumbled to her feet. The doorman pulled her toward the back of the nightclub. Deirdre glanced over her shoulder, but the sofa was empty, save for a single twig bearing two silver-green leaves resting on one cushion.
Arion tugged again, and she stumbled through an opening. The pulsing music ceased with the sound of a shutting door. One by one, the night sounds of London drifted to her ears: laughter, footsteps, the distant wail of a siren. She stood on the edge of an empty lane, beneath the flickering orange haze of a lone streetlamp. At last she turned around, and she was only slightly surprised to see a blank brick wall behind her.
Dr. Rohan Chandra, third-year resident at Denver Memorial Hospital, specialist in cranial neurology, and at thirty-four years old already the author of five scientific papers discussing the cause, consequence, and reversal of long-term comatose states, had forgotten something.
He stood before his open locker in the residents’ lounge, quite frozen, overcoat pulled halfway onto his slender, well-shaped frame, caught in the act of thought. Several times a day his coworkers at the hospital found him in similar poses: a pen and chart forgotten in his hands, or cafeteria food suspended on a fork between plate and mouth, his brown eyes distant, his lips open and contemplative, his body as still and articulated as a many-limbed statue of Krishna.
At home, his wife Devi had grown accustomed to this habit. Theirs was an arranged marriage, crafted with care and attention by their parents living in India, although both Rohan and Devi had come to the United States for university. Because their union was arranged, they had worked to discover love, and when they did find it, like a yellow flower they had never noticed unfurling between them, it was all the more mysterious, powerful, and sweet.
Devi was an electrical engineer at a computer chip manufacturing firm—although these last months she had remained home to care for their infant son, Mahesh—and so she placed everything in terms of circuits and transistors.
“You’re preemptively multitasking,” she told him one day. This was after she found him in the bathroom, clad only in his boxers, toothbrush jutting from his mouth, staring into space while toothpaste quietly foamed and bubbled down his chin. After he woke from his spell—she knew never to disturb him until he did—he had frantically scribbled down an idea that had led to a paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
She had nodded. “It makes sense. You’re giving fewer processor clock cycles to nonessential tasks like tooth brushing in order to divert power to the execution of more critical, computationally intensive calculations.”
“I love you as well, dearest,” he had said. Then he had kissed her foamily, deeply, and he had quickened even as she let her simple house wrap slip to the floor. Exactly forty weeks later—Devi prided herself on her ability for accuracy—Mahesh was born: brown, squirming, and perfect.
Chandra’s eyes fluttered shut, then open again, and he knew what it was he had forgotten. He shrugged off his coat and placed it back in the locker. Devi was expecting him, and he longed to play with Mahesh, to bounce that compact little bundle of life on his stomach, toss him in the air, and bring him down to kiss like a living jewel. But there was a good chance the unidentified patient in Room CA-423 was a candidate for his new study, and Chandra had wanted to observe the comatose man again today, only he had been too busy until now.
He shut the locker. Devi would forgive his lateness. As long as he stopped for mango ice cream on the way home.
With soft, swift steps Chandra made his way through the corridors of Denver Memorial. As a child smaller than most other children, he had gained the habit of moving without attracting notice. As a man smaller than most, it was a habit he unconsciously maintained. Sometimes Devi would look all over the house for him, only to find him sitting, absorbed in a medical book, in the very room she had begun her search.
As he turned the corner into the C wing corridor, his eyes caught motion ahead. A door opened, and a man wearing a black overcoat stepped out. The man shut the door behind him; even this far away, it seemed a quiet action. In a single glance, Chandra counted the doors between his position and the man, then added the number to that engraved on the door plaque to his left. The final result: CA-423.
The man started to move away down the corridor, quickly, silently.
“Hello?” Chandra called out.
The man hesitated but did not look back. Chandra walked toward him. Since his arrival at the hospital, the identity of the patient in CA-423 remained unknown. Did the other know him? Or was it merely a janitor, on his way home for the evening, remembering he had left something in the room as he had cleaned it?
“Hello there,” Chandra called again. “Do stop for a moment, please.”
The man hesitated, then continued walking away down the corridor. Chandra started after him—
In the space between two moments, the other disappeared from sight. It was as if he had moved around a corner. Except that wasn’t a possibility, for the corridor was long and without bend. Rather, it was as if the white air had quivered and folded, concealing the man from view.
For long seconds Chandra stared motionless, body forgotten, his brain devoted to thought, searching for an explanation. Then he saw the dark place in the hallway. One long segment of fluorescent lighting was burnt out, casting a ten-foot length of the hallway into shadow. Beyond there was an opening that led to an intersecting corridor. Clad as he was in black, the man might easily have seemed to vanish into the relative dimness, only to pass through the opening before Chandra’s eyes could adjust to the stark difference in contrast. He started into motion again and stepped through the door of room CA-423.
The gentle whir of machines filled the clean, antiseptic air. It had been several days since Chandra had last come to observe the patient. The changes were subtle but immediate.
The level of spontaneous muscular activity was certainly an order of magnitude higher. There: a slight curling of the fingers in the right hand, followed almost immediately by the small but perceptible twitch of a cheek. With a thumb, Chandra raised one of the eyelids. Immediately the pupil constricted, highly reactive to the overhead light.
Chandra released the eyelid and nodded, satisfied. His earlier beliefs appeared correct. After weeks in a deep coma, the patient was close once more to consciousness. Whether he would cross the veil remained to be seen; sometimes such victims surfaced briefly, only to sink deeper and not return. However, Chandra’s newest study focused on the use of combination drug therapy to enhance the recovery process. Certainly this man seemed a good candidate for the research. Chandra would speak to the hospital administration tomorrow.
Chandra leaned over the rail of the bed. “Soon, my friend, you shall be able to tell us your name.”
The man remained motionless. Once again, Chandra wondered who he was. He was a tall man, certainly a full foot taller than Chandra if he were to stand, and before the atrophying of his muscles he had been powerful as well. Clearly he had led a rough life. When taking his history, a nurse had cataloged over a dozen significant scars on his body. And there was the wound that had nearly cost him his life, a gash in his side that had pierced the body wall. The wound was well healed now, his veins filled with blood again. What remained was to see if his brain would forgive his body for the trauma.
“You are a fighter, aren’t you, my friend?” Chandra murmured.
It wasn’t only the scars. Certainly there was a wildness to him, even in unconsciousness: a fierceness to the sharp features, a freedom to the long hair tumbling back from his brow. He seemed a fallen warrior, lying in his funeral boat as the waves carried him from the shore. Except he was not dead. Not yet.
“Nor will you be. If you are a fighter, then fight, my friend. Tomorrow I will help you in your battle.”
The clock on the wall ticked the seconds away. Chandra sighed. Time to pick up the mango ice cream, to kiss Devi’s sweet, sticky lips after she ate it straight from the carton, and to raise Mahesh cooing in his arms.
It was only as he started to turn from the bed that he noticed it, draped over the IV stand beside the bed. At first he took it for a piece of gauze. It was only as his fingers pierced its fabric that he understood. He pulled his hand back and stared at the gossamer shreds. It was a spiderweb, dense and glittering. He went still, thinking, but before he could arrive at a conclusion there was a faint plop as something small fell from the ceiling above and landed on his arm.
The thing was about as large as a quarter, its surface a dull, burnished gold marked by a crimson diamond in the center. Then, even as he watched, the thing stretched forth eight slender, golden legs and scurried down the length of his arm. It moved with a mindless precision that seemed more mechanical than organic, scuttling over the cloth ridges and valleys of his white lab coat.
Fascinated, he watched. Two tiny eyes glinted like rubies. Then the gold spider crawled over the cuff of his coat sleeve and onto the back of his hand. He could actually see its gold pincers extend forth, could observe them sink easily into his flesh, piercing skin, reaching for moving blood.
The pain was instant and agonizing, like fire. With a cry, Chandra flung his hand aside. There was a gold flash, and a skittering sound against the polished floor. Chandra turned and moved toward the door, but already his muscles were stiffening to cold clay as the poison moved through his body, carried rapidly by the increased blood flow and heart rate that accompanied fear and the rush of adrenaline.
He tried to cry out for help, but his vocal cords were already paralyzed, and the sound was a hoarse croak. A neurotoxin then, like that of the pit vipers that had haunted the edges of his childhood village in India. He had once seen a playmate of his struck by a snake not twenty feet away, and the boy had been dead by the time Chandra had run to him.
The floor rushed up to meet his left cheek, striking it with a curiously dull and muffled sound. A convulsion turned his face upward. The pain was fading. Chandra’s last vision was of the face of the clock on the wall, as distorted as a timepiece in a painting by Dalí. Even then, his mind was able to achieve a clarity apart from his physical being, to crystallize itself in thought.
Time of death: 7:09 P.M. Cause: heart failure from a rapidly acting neurotoxin of unknown origin.
A weak muscle spasm passed through him, then came one final meditation.
Kiss Mahesh for me, dearest.
And for the first time since his birth, Dr. Rohan Chandra’s thoughts were silent.
Somehow, Grace expected Travis to be angry when he stepped into their musty motel room, pale and tired from his night’s work at the hospital, and she told him she had telephoned the Seekers. Instead, a haggard grin crossed his face. “So what took you so long?”
She crossed her arms inside her preposterously baggy thrift-store sweater. “Do you mean to say that all this time I’ve been agonizing over whether or not I should contact the Seekers and how quickly you were going to eviscerate me if I did, you’ve been expecting me to call them?”
He sat on the corner of the opposite bed, mattress springs mewling like a nest of baby mice. “Pretty much.”
Grace let out a groan. Nothing like torturing oneself for days on end for absolutely no reason whatsoever. She glared at the cardboard box and pair of Styrofoam cups strategically positioned on the nightstand. “If I had known you were going to be this easy, I wouldn’t have bothered getting coffee and King Donut to soften you up.”
“On the contrary, Grace, you chose wisely.” He flipped up the lid, grabbed a powdered jelly, and took a big, squishy bite. “If the Seekers are coming to town, we’re going to need all the energy we can get.”
She popped the lid on her coffee and took a deep swig. A reflexive grimace crossed her face.
He cocked his head. “What is it?”
Grace laughed, gazing down at the oily surface of the brown liquid in the cup. “It’s nothing, really. It’s just that on Eldh I always found myself wishing for real coffee. And now that I’m here …”
“You wish it were maddok.”
Her smile faded, but she concealed it by raising the cup and taking another sip of the coffee. It was hot and bitter, and it burned her tongue.
“You miss Eldh, don’t you, Grace?”
His voice was soft, his gray eyes concerned. Sometimes this new seriousness of his startled her. Since she first met him, Travis had been funny and complaining and charming in a fumbling way. And, when both worlds had needed it most, impossibly brave. But since Castle Spardis, where he confronted the Necromancer Dakarreth in the fires of the Great Stone Krondisar, he had changed.
It was subtle. Had they not been through so much together, she might not have noticed it. However, there was something to Travis now that had never been there before. She could call it depth, perhaps. Or strength of character. Or even wisdom. It was hard to diagnose it precisely.
“I do miss it,” Grace said. “It’s hard to explain. For so many years I tried to make a place for myself here in Denver, a place where I could survive. And I did. But on Eldh, I did more than just survive. There, it felt like …”
“You belonged,” he finished quietly.
“We’ll get back, Grace. I don’t know how, but we’ll find a way. We have to.” He warmed his hands around his coffee. “I’m not sure where I belong anymore, if I even belong anywhere. But you need to be there, and so does Beltan.”
Grace sucked in a breath. Yes, that was it—that was the peculiar aura around Travis these days. He had given up everything he was, everything he had ever been, to save Eldh. Maybe now he was a man who had nothing left of himself that he feared losing. There was a peace in such freedom, and a purity, but a terrible sorrow as well.
An urge filled Grace to touch his arm, to say something comforting, but she held herself until it passed. Over the improbable course of this last year, she had learned she could still care for others, that the heart she had thought long ago excised still beat within her. But it was yet a fragile organ, and she did not believe it would ever be completely whole.
“So, did you check on Beltan last night?” she said, opting for brisk instead of sympathetic.
He crammed the remains of the jelly donut into his mouth. “I couldn’t get to his room. Something happened on the fourth floor of the hospital before I got in, but I don’t know what it was. There were security guards posted at the doors, and they weren’t letting anyone through.”
A sour taste rose in Grace’s throat. The coffee was cheap stuff. She should have sprung for Starbucks; they still had several gold coins they could sell on East Colfax for money. She forced the bile back down her gullet. This was strange news, but it would be foolish to believe it had something to do with her and Travis. Not everything in Denver revolved around them. As of yesterday morning, when she had dared to venture into Denver Memorial, Beltan had still not awakened. Nothing had changed. Travis could check on him again tonight.
“Come on,” Travis said, holding out a donut. His grin was back now, and his silver earrings glinted. “You need to build up your strength if you’re going to talk to the Seekers. Everything they say is a riddle wrapped in the New York Times crossword puzzle translated into ancient Greek. So eat.”
He tossed the donut into the air. She caught it in an easy motion and took a big, shockingly sweet bite.
Fifteen minutes later they walked down West Colfax, the mountains and a cool autumnal breeze at their backs. A cluster of glass-and-steel skyscrapers rose before them, looking strangely alien. Shouldn’t they have been made of gray stone, their crenellated parapets crowned with bright, snapping banners? But Calavere was a world away. These were a different sort of castle.
They could have taken the No. 16 bus to Civic Center Park. They were to meet Hadrian Farr and Deirdre Falling Hawk at the Denver Art Museum, which stood on the south side of the park. But they still had over an hour until their appointed time. The day was lovely, and it was only a couple of miles to the museum, so they had decided to hoof it.
Or maybe it was just that neither of them had quite gotten reaccustomed to cars and buses. The hard, shiny vehicles roared past them down Colfax, seeming to hurtle past at an outrageous speed Grace supposed was all of thirty-five miles per hour. She relished the solid feel of the sidewalk beneath her boots of Eldhish leather.
Grace wasn’t entirely certain when she noticed the police car. It impinged on her awareness slowly, like a gathering shadow, until suddenly she turned her head. The patrol car drove not thirty feet behind them. She snapped back around, clutching her cup.
“White or black,” Travis said through clenched teeth.
He didn’t need to say more. White meant a police car. Of concern, but not immediately dangerous. Grace was still wanted in this town for assaulting an officer, but not every cruiser would be looking for her. As for black—that meant them. And from what Travis had told her, she would much rather have a long conversation with the police than a chat with one of the friendly representatives of Duratek.
“White,” she said.
They kept walking. Grace was aware of a pale blur as the patrol car drove past, but she did not glance in its direction. She breathed a sigh as the vehicle rolled down the street ahead of them—
—then her breath ceased as the vehicle slowed and halted. Through the dim rectangle of the rear window she saw the driver look back over his shoulder. She caught the faint sparks of his eyes with her own. The car’s reverse lights blinked on, and her heart stuttered.
Grace clutched Travis’s arm. “What do we do?”
“I don’t know. If we run, we might as well hold up a big sign that says Fugitives ‘R’ Us.”
Motionless, she watched the car back up toward them. What would she say when they questioned her? You can’t detain me, Officer. I’m a citizen of another world. Something told her there were no Calavaner embassies in Denver.
A blaring noise vibrated through her body. She managed to crane her neck in time to see a delivery truck hurtling east down Colfax. Brakes hissed and squealed as the truck slowed, coming to a stop mere inches before colliding with the police car. The truck’s door flew open, and the meaty driver clambered out, his face puffy and red as he strode toward the patrol vehicle, arms waving.
“Now,” Travis said. “While he’s distracted.”
A row of brick-and-glass storefronts lined the block, a shopette that had no doubt seemed sleek and modern in 1964 but was now squat and drab, part of an architectural experiment that had ended, not only in failure, but in ugliness. Travis pulled Grace toward the nearest doorway.
The sound of chimes floated on the air as the door shut behind them, along with the sound of water bubbling over stone. A faint haze of smoke drifted on the air, rich and mossy on the tongue. A tree branch arched overhead, its gold leaves glinting in the faint light.
A small gasp escaped Grace. Once before she had walked into a room only to discover a forest instead. It had been in Castle Calavere, when she and Travis had gone to speak with Trifkin Mossberry and his troupe of actors. Through some magic of the Little People, their room had seemed at once a castle chamber and a greenwood glade. Was there a similar magic at work here?
“Hello,” a husky voice said. “Can I help you find something?”
Smoke swirled, and before them stood a tall, lean, dark-skinned woman. From her clingy red minidress sprouted slender, beautifully muscled arms and impossibly long legs that Grace knew hordes of Paris runway models would gladly sell what little remained of their souls in order to possess. White platform shoes made her nearly as tall as Travis, and the fantastically sculpted black coiffure that crowned her head was clearly not meant to be anything but a wig. She was, in a word, gorgeous.
“Incense? Herbs? Candles?” She lifted a hand tipped by wonderfully unnatural press-on nails, gesturing to the crowded shelves all around. “If you need a little magic, you’ve come to the right place. Just tell Marji what you need.”
How about getting us off this world? Grace glanced back through the door, but the glass was obscured by sun-faded posters, and she couldn’t see the police car she knew was parked on the other side. Was he still occupied with the truck driver?
She turned back. “We need … that is, we wanted …” Grace felt her eyes bulging. Had she always been such a terrible liar?
Travis rescued her. “Candles,” he said. “We need candles.” He pointed to a nearby shelf. “Those red ones look good.”
The woman—Marji—raised a precisely tweezed eyebrow, then sauntered to the shelf. She picked up one of the red tapers. “These? You’re sure?”
“Yes, those are the ones I want.”
Marji’s smoky lips curved in a smile as she slipped her fingers up and down the length of the candle. “Honey, you light these in a ritual to make a man do your bidding, if you know what I mean.”
Travis returned Marji’s smile. “I know. I’ll take five of them.”
Marji laughed—a delicious, throaty sound—and fanned herself with a hand. “Well, it’s nice to see you’re so modest, honey. But are you sure you don’t want ten? That way you can get the whole team at once.”
Travis rubbed a hand over his shaved head. “Let’s stay with five. I’m only human, after all.”
It was fleeting, but Grace noticed his grimace as he said these words. She wasn’t the only one, for the shadow of a frown touched Marji’s face.
“Of course you are, honey. Aren’t we all?” She took five of the candles, set them on the Formica counter, and wrapped them in purple tissue. When she was done, she turned toward Grace. “And what can I get for you, queen?”
Grace took a step backward. “Why did you call me that?”
Marji shrugged, raising her arms—an elegant motion, like ribbons in water. “You’re pretty as a queen, honey, that’s all. Maybe you’d like a Valkyrie charm bracelet.” She reached into the case beneath the counter and pulled out a slender silver chain. Tiny charms dangled from it, making a faint but audible music, like the sound of falling snow. “I see that you like them.”
“Runes.” Marji brushed the charms with a finger. “Like the ones on your necklace, honey. Although, as I like to say, I’m a girl who knows her futhark, and those aren’t Viking runes you’re wearing. Do you know where that writing comes from? It isn’t Minoan, is it?”
Grace clutched a hand around her necklace. It must have slipped out when they dashed inside. “It’s nothing,” she said, tucking the pendant back beneath her sweater. “And I’ll take the bracelet. It’s perfect.”
Marji wrapped it up. She totaled the items, and Travis paid her in cash. She handed him the paper sack.
“Thank you, miss.”
“You’re welcome, honey.”
Travis started to move from the counter, then glanced at Grace. Neither was certain if it was safe to go outside yet. Hindu tapestries and Egyptian camel rugs draped the store’s windows; she couldn’t see outside.
Marji crossed her arms and leaned on the counter. “All right, you two. Now why don’t you tell me why it was you really came in here? And I am not going to believe that you came running in like Bonnie and Clyde on the lam because you needed candles and some pretty new jewelry.” She placed hands on her hips. “And call me Marji. I haven’t been Miss since Bobby Farrell caught me behind the bleachers.”
Travis opened his mouth, but Grace was stunned to find herself speaking. She was pathetic at lying, but it turned out she was pretty good when it came to the truth.
“There’s a police car out front. We came in here to get away.”
Marji gazed at Grace with gentle brown eyes lined thickly in mascara. Then she came around the counter and placed one of her long, beautiful hands on Grace’s. “I know what it’s like, honey. To not want to be seen.”
Grace studied the other, then nodded. Of course. “I suppose you do,” she said.
Marji lifted Grace’s hand and gently turned it over. With a red fingernail she traced the lines on Grace’s palm.
“What are you doing?”
“Relax, honey. I’m a professional. Besides, you don’t want to go outside just yet, do you? Now take a breath and let your sister Marjoram do her work.”
Sister. The word was a comfort to Grace. Marji’s touch was warm and light as a hummingbird against her skin.
Marji gave an appreciative murmur. “Well, I’ve never seen such a strong lifeline, honey. Here, it was cut just after its beginning, and then again not so long after that, but each time it just kept going. And there’s another happening yet to come that will try to take you, but your life is too strong to stop.”
Grace bit her lip. Maybe Marji wasn’t a professional. She had always felt her grasp on life was tenuous at best.
“Now, your headline is sharp and deep, so you’re a total brainiac. I think we all knew that to begin with. And as for your heartline …”
A soft gasp escaped Marji’s lips.
Grace went rigid. “What is it?”
Gently, Marji pressed Grace’s hand shut.
“It’s broken,” she said.
Grace pulled her hand back, held it against her chest, and nodded. Maybe Marji knew what she was talking about after all.
“It doesn’t have to stay that way, honey,” Marji said, her words soft and husky. “The lines on our hands don’t lie, but they can change even as we do.”
Grace gave a bitter smile. Then again, didn’t they say you could never trick fate?
“How about Travis?” she said to change the subject. It was not as if Marji’s words had revealed anything she didn’t already know. “What’s his hand say?”
Marji reached out and took Travis’s hand. As she did, her eyes widened, and she made a cooing sound. “Honey, I’ve never felt such a soft hand. It’s like a baby’s. You have to tell me how you do it.”
Travis let out a soft laugh. “It’s a secret.”
Grace nodded; she supposed it was at that.
Marji cocked her head, regarding him, then turned his hand over. She looked up, shock in her wide brown eyes. “But you don’t have any lines on your hand. Not one. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Travis drew his hand back. “It was fire.”
Marji curled a long hand beneath her chin, but something in her expression did not look convinced.
Grace cleared her throat. “I think … I think we should go now. We don’t want you to get in trouble if the police come in here looking for us.”
Now Marji laughed, waving a hand. “Please, honey. I know how to deal with the police. I beguile the boys and befriend the girls.” She spread her arms wide, then hugged herself. “To know Marji is to love her, no?”
Grace could only laugh in agreement.
Marji beckoned with a long finger. “This way, you two. Follow Marji. You can take the back door to make sure no prying eyes see you leave.”