DOZENS BURNED NATIONWIDE—CAUSE UNKNOWN
One Doctor Calls It “a New Black Death”
Beneath the headline was a photo: a dark, twisted shape like those in the photos Hadrian Farr had shown him. He sucked in a breath between his teeth, then scanned down the article.
Researchers have yet to discover the cause for the self-immolations that have been reported throughout the Midwest in the last six weeks. Some have labeled it a wave of copycat suicides, but in none of the deaths has a fuel or other flammable agent been identified. According to witnesses, many victims have shown symptoms of unusual behavior and high fever shortly before—
The article broke off, continued on an inside page. Travis dug into the pocket of his jeans, but his hand came up with only a scant collection of pennies. Not that it mattered. He didn’t need to read any more; he knew now where he had to go.
Maybe this really was like the Black Death. Maybe it was a disease—a disease transmitted by touch.
BY MARK ANTHONY
Beyond the Pale
The Keep of Fire
The Dark Remains
Blood of Mystery
This edition contains the complete text of the original
trade paper edition.
NOT ONE WORD HAS BEEN OMITTED.
THE KEEP OF FIRE
A Bantam Spectra Book
Bantam Spectra trade paper edition published
Bantam Spectra paperback edition / December 2000
SPECTRA and the portrayal of a boxed “s” are trademarks of Bantam Books, a division of Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Copyright © 1999 by Mark Anthony.
Map by Karen Wallace.
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 99-15685. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
For information address: Bantam Books.
Bantam Books are published by Bantam Books, a division of Random House, Inc. Its trademark, consisting of the words “Bantam Books” and the portrayal of a rooster, is Registered in U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and in other countries. Marca Registrada. Bantam Books, 1540 Broadway, New York, New York 10036.
For Bert Covert—
who has been a Companion on
many wondrous quests
“Beware—it will consume you.”
Other Books by This Author
Part One - Castle City
Part Two - The Red Star
Part Three - The Shattered Man
Part Four - Footsteps
Part Five - Stone and Shadows
About the Author
The burnt wind blew out of nowhere, scorching the mountains to their bones.
Dry weeds rattled in the ditches along the empty two-lane highway, all life baked out of them before they could really begin to grow. April had sublimated under the indifferent sun, May along with it, and in June the high-country valley was as brown as in the waning of September. Summer had smothered spring in her crib; the green child would not come again that year.
A man stepped out of the haze of grit and heat, like a dark flake of ash from the rippling air above a fire. The dust devil tugged once at the black shreds of cloth that draped the man’s wasted body, then danced away behind him. He staggered forward.
“Where are you, Jakabar?”
The words were the croak of a vulture, and his blistered lips bled as he spoke them. He lifted his head and peered at the wavering horizon with obsidian eyes—orbs without irises, without whites. He lifted a withered hand to shade the craggy desert of his face.
Something stirred in the coruscating air ahead.
The shape gathered its outlines behind the distant silver membrane that spanned the road, then punched through and hurtled toward the man.
The beast approached with hateful speed, growing larger with each fluttering of his heart, until it filled his vision and a roar deafened him. Sunlight glared off armored crimson hide, and the thing clung low to the ground, as if ready to pounce. Its eyes flashed twice, and it let out a keening wail that pierced his skull and rooted him in place. He abandoned motion, waiting to feel the beast’s jaws close around him, to feel bones pop and flesh part.
Acrid wind ripped at him, and stones pelted his skin. The hollow grasses bent down, slaves before a terrible emperor, then rose as the world fell still. The man craned his neck to look behind him, but the creature already grew small and distant as it sped away.
He turned his gaze forward and forgot the beast. Again the fever rose within him, cauterizing thought and memory, burning away everything he was. He could envision the flames dancing along his papery skin. Soon. After all this time, it would be soon now.
He started to move once more but met resistance from the ground. He strained, then lifted a foot. Black strings of tar stretched from the sole of his scuffed boot to the pit where it had sunk into the surface of the road. He tugged his other boot free and lurched forward. He did not know what strange land he had found himself in. All he knew was that he had to find Jakabar.
“Beware,” he whispered. “It will consume you.”
The man staggered down the mountain highway, leaving a trail of footsteps melted into the asphalt behind him.
Now that he was back, it was almost as if he had never left.
“It’s coming,” Travis Wilder whispered as he stepped out the door of the Mine Shaft Saloon.
He leaned over the boardwalk railing and turned his face westward, up Elk Street, toward the pyramid of rock that stood sentinel above the little mountain town.
Castle Peak. Or what he thought of as Castle Peak, for over the years the mountain had borne many names. In the 1880s, the silver miners had called it Ladyspur’s Peak, in honor of a favorite whore. According to local legend, when a gunslinger out of Cripple Creek failed to pay his bill, Ladyspur shot him dead in a fair gunfight in the middle of Elk Street. She died herself from cholera not long after, and she was buried how she had lived and worked: with spurs on her high-heeled boots.
Before that, on maps drawn in St. Louis—fanciful documents meant to lure dreamers across the tall-grassed prairies—it was named Argo Mountain, although the only gold ever found on Castle Peak was the warm light of sunrise or sunset.
For a few years prior to the gold rush of 1859, the name Mount Jeffrey had hung over the mountain, a name it had shared with a minor member of the Long Expedition of 1820—a lieutenant who one afternoon climbed to the summit with a bottle of whiskey. By the time Lieutenant Schuyler P. Jeffrey died of septicemia in a Washington, D.C., tenement five years later, his name had tumbled off the mountain. Although the empty whiskey bottle he had cast down was still there.
The Ute Indians, who from forested ridges had watched Long’s party stroll through the valley, had had their own name for the mountain: Clouded Brow, for the wreath of mist that often girded the summit. However, if the people who dwelled here before the Utes had called the crag anything, then it had passed with them. And before that … no names.
One mountain. Many names. But eventually the peak and the town had both come to wear the name of Mr. Simon Castle—who made his fortune in publishing back East and who came west with a dream of constructing a grand new kingdom. He built the Silver Palace Hotel and the Castle City Opera House, then returned to Philadelphia eight years later, after his wife perished of tuberculosis and his sandstone mansion outside of town was struck by lightning and burned to the ground.
Castle Peak. The name fit for now, at least until a new name came along. And after that, when once again there were no people here and the valley dreamed alone, then it would be simply the mountain once more.
Travis gripped the railing. Behind wire-rimmed spectacles he pressed pale eyes shut as he pictured it: high up the slope the first aspens quickening, leaves whispering silver-green secrets, then moments later the low thrumming as the canyon cleared its throat and the lodgepole pines circled in a graceful tarantella. It was coming.
On any world, Travis could always tell when the wind was about to blow.
“I knew you’d come back,” Max said that white January day when Travis stepped into the Mine Shaft, still clad in the travel-worn clothes of another world.
It had been morning, and the saloon had been quiet and empty save for the two men.
“I knew it, Travis, even though … even though Jace said you died with Jack in the fire. I kept everything going for you—the bar, the mortgage, the books.…”
Max’s words got lost somewhere in his chest then, but that was all right.
“It looks wonderful, Max,” Travis said as he hugged his friend. “It all looks wonderful.”
And that was how Travis had come home.
The days that followed were strange and fragile. In some ways he felt as out of place as he had on Eldh, traveling in the company of Falken Blackhand. Things like indoor plumbing and electric lights and pickup trucks all had an exotic sheen. But just as he had on Eldh, he knew he would get accustomed to them. All he needed was a little time.
Unlike the inquisitive bard, no one in Castle City asked Travis for his story—where he had been for more than two months and why he had come back. Then again, people in Castle City didn’t usually ask a lot of questions. It didn’t really matter where you had been, only that you were here.
Jacine Windom came the closest to prodding Travis for information, and even the deputy’s questions, while sharp as the creases steamed into her khaki trousers, were narrowly directed.
“Were you at the Magician’s Attic the night of the fire?” Jace asked one afternoon at the saloon, straight-backed on her barstool, notepad and pencil in hand.
“I was,” Travis answered.
“Do you know what caused the fire?”
“Jack was struggling with an intruder. I was outside the antique shop—Jack told me to run. When I turned around, the place was in flames.”
“Did you get a good look at the intruder before you fled?”
“No. No, I didn’t.”
It hadn’t been until later that he came face-to-face with them. In the White Tower of the Runebinders he had looked into alien eyes and seen death. But he didn’t tell Jace that.
Travis waited for more questions, but Jace flipped her notepad shut and stood up from the barstool.
“I think that’s enough, Travis. I’ll call you if Sheriff Dominguez needs anything else.” The deputy started for the door.
“Did you find him?” Travis looked up and met Jace’s brown eyes. “Did you find Jack?”
The deputy pressed her lips shut at that, then gave one stiff nod. “There’s a stone for him in Castle Heights Cemetery.”
“I’ll go see it, Jace. Thanks.”
The deputy headed for the door, although not before glancing back at Max. The look the two of them exchanged told Travis he had been right about one thing: Jacine had roped her stallion. Max was wearing Wranglers now.
But maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing to remake yourself for another. Sometimes Travis thought he might like to have the chance, although he could never really picture what he’d become, or for whom he’d change. Or did it even matter? Maybe it was just the act of changing itself that was important.
After his conversation with Jace, the days had started to come easier. Travis’s cabin outside of town had been rented to someone else, so Travis had taken up residence in the empty space above the Mine Shaft. The old apartment was narrow and drafty, and the kitchen consisted of a hot plate and a sink, but it would do for now. Travis needed less than he used to; he had gotten used to traveling light.
Max had parked Travis’s battered green pickup truck behind the saloon, and one day Travis got brave enough to try to start it. He turned the key in the ignition, then laughed as the engine roared to life.
Since then he had lost himself in the day-to-day affairs of the Mine Shaft. Moira Larson’s book club met at the saloon every week—stuffy novels of class oppression traded for the sharp and vital wit of Evelyn Waugh. The dude ranch cowboys had progressed from single malt scotch to martinis. And Molly Nakamura still patiently taught saloon patrons to fold crisp sheets into origami chameleons and monkeys, and still always stroked with gentle fingers their mutant paper creations.
All in all, it was good and easy to sink back into his old life. And yet …
From time to time, as he wiped down the bar, or swept the floor, or gathered up empty beer glasses, Travis would find himself gazing out the window, toward the rocky slopes of Castle Peak, and thinking of the wind that blew down from the mountain. Thinking of traveling.
That journey is over, Travis. You’re here now, where you belong.
He opened his eyes and drew in a breath. Electric wires hissed overhead. Litter danced along the cracked surface of Elk Street, choreographed into glittering auguries. Yes, it was coming.
He turned his face to meet the approaching wind, ready to feel its crisp embrace, to sense the possibilities it bore on its wings. The witchgrass along the boardwalk trembled. Newsprint manta rays levitated off the ground. Tourists reached up to clutch brightly logoed hats—
—then lowered their hands and continued on.
A single hot gust lurched down Elk Street, then died in a limp puff. The wires ceased their music. The witchgrass fell still. The newspaper rays settled back to the pavement.
Sweat trickled down Travis’s brow, and the parched air drank it, leaving a crust of salt on his skin. There was no fresh awakening, no sense of endless possibility. Only the sun baking cement and wood and dirt until everything smelled like old, dry bones. He didn’t remember it ever being this hot. The sky was too hard, the valley too dull.
Travis reached up and fingered the piece of polished bone that hung from a leather string around his neck. The bone’s surface was incised with three parallel lines. He traced them with a thumb. Yes, it was almost like he had never left. Except he had left. And nothing would ever really be the same.
Travis sighed, let go of the talisman, and walked back into the saloon.
The cool air inside the Mine Shaft was a balm to Travis’s skin. He stepped behind the bar, reached into the chiller, and brought out a bottle of root beer. He pressed it against his cheek, wincing at the frigid touch, then let out a breath and shut his eyes.
“You know, Travis, most people find it easier to drink if they take the cap off the bottle first.”
“People can be so boring sometimes.”
There was a snort of laughter. Travis opened his eyes to see Max lift a rack of glasses onto the bar.
“You’re weird, Travis.”
“That’s a relief. For a minute I thought I might be losing my touch.”
Max rolled his eyes and started unloading glasses.
Travis crossed his arms, leaned back, and watched his employee work. Max had done a good job keeping the saloon humming while Travis had been away. Better than good. And while Max clearly took pride in this fact, he had not hesitated in returning control of the operation back to Travis that wintry day in January.
Travis had been glad to take on the mantle of saloon proprietor again. Like everything about his old life, it felt warm and comfortable. And, like everything, it seemed different since his return. For more than two months the saloon had belonged to Max, no matter what the mortgage papers said.
Travis reached into a drawer, pulled out a folded piece of paper, set it on the bar, and pushed it over the knife-scarred wood toward Max.
Max stared at the paper, then looked up. “What’s this?”
“See for yourself.”
The erstwhile accountant picked up the paper, a frown written across his face. “You haven’t been doing the saloon’s books again, have you, Travis? I finally just managed to get them in decent …” He clamped his jaw and shot Travis a hangdog look.
Travis laughed. “No, Max. I haven’t been doing the books. I haven’t even found where you’ve hidden the ledger yet. Besides, that’s your job in this partnership.”
Max blinked. “Partnership?”
“Not if you don’t sign that deed.” Travis held out a pen. “Go on.”
Max hesitated, then accepted the pen. He unfolded the deed like it was an old treasure map, then set the paper on the bar and in a deliberate hand committed his name to the bottom, alongside Travis’s. He folded the deed and held it out.
Travis took the paper and slipped it into the drawer, then regarded Max with a solemn expression. “You deserve it, Max. The Mine Shaft is yours as much as mine.”
Max nodded, then a smile split his face. “So does this mean some of the phone calls to the saloon will be for me now?”
Travis rested a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “I know you’re excited, Max, but try not to be goofy.”
Before Max could reply, Travis headed for the back room, whistling a cheerful tune. Just because Max was his partner now didn’t mean Travis had to stop tormenting him.
That afternoon, Travis left the Mine Shaft and headed to McKay’s General Store to pick up a pair of hinges for the saloon’s squeaky rear door. On his way back he stopped by the Mosquito Café—where one quick coffee turned into three leisurely cappuccinos as various locals wandered in and bought Travis a cup.
As soon as he left the air-conditioned sanctuary of the café, Travis wished he had ordered those cappuccinos on ice. The sun sank toward the rampart of Castle Peak, ruddy and bloated, as if too heavy to hang in the sky a moment more. Heat rose in sheets from Elk Street, bright and jittery as Travis’s caffeine-enhanced nerves. He mopped the sweat from his forehead with a stiff handkerchief.
When Travis reached the Mine Shaft, he noticed a Harley-Davidson parked next to Max’s rusting Volvo. A Celtic cross was painted on the side of the bike’s jet-black gas tank, and a bunch of wind-worn feathers and carved bone beads dangled from one of the handle grips. The motorcycle seemed familiar somehow, but he couldn’t place where or when he had seen it. Travis pushed through the front door into the welcome dimness of the saloon.
The place had started to fill up while he was gone. The Daughters of the Frontier had shown up for their biweekly meeting, clad in their usual red-fringed jumpsuits, their blue cotton-candy hair melting from the heat. Two of them played pool against a pair of handsome, clean-shaven young men—from Denver by their Doc Martens, casual shirts, and the astonished looks on their faces. That was what they got for challenging the Daughters of the Frontier. No one in Castle City was foolish enough to shoot stick with those sharks.
Over by the jukebox, Davis and Mitchell Burke-Favor two-stepped to the tragic croonings of Patsy Cline. As always, the two men were clad in matching geometric cowboy shirts and spotless Wranglers. At least once a week the pair drove in from their ranch south of Castle City for a night on the town. They moved with the brisk, effortless unison that had won them back-to-back two-step championships in San Francisco a dozen years ago, their wind-worn faces as rugged and serene as the high-country plain.
Travis paused on his way to the bar, watching the two men dance, and a sigh escaped him. He had moved through life mostly alone. Would he ever be that in-step with another person? He didn’t know. Sometimes he hoped so. Then again, when it came to dancing, Travis had always had two left feet.
A yelp tore his attention away from the men. He glanced up, then winced. Max was trying to shake up a round of martinis for the dude ranch cowboys. One of them frowned behind his well-groomed mustache as a renegade pearl onion catapulted off an olive spear and bounced around the rim of his freshly steamed black Stetson. Travis moved to rescue Max.
Minutes later the cowboys had their drinks and were off to their table to play dominoes.
Max slung a bar towel over his shoulder. “Thanks, Travis. I owe you one.”
“I know.” Travis reached under the bar, pulled out the martini recipe book, and handed it to Max. “And you can start paying me back by reading—”
Travis froze as a knight, a lady, and a wildman stepped through the door of the Mine Shaft Saloon.
Max’s voice seemed to come from down a long tunnel. Travis could only watch as the trio threaded its way among the tables.
This can’t be happening. They can’t be here.
The lady walked with chin high, clad despite the heat in a confining gown of green velvet. The gown’s bodice cinched her breasts up into a horizontal shelf, and the two orbs of flesh were pink from too much sun. The knight was short but powerful-looking. Sweat sheened his somber face, and Travis was certain that, if touched, the man’s chain-mail shirt would be hot against his fingers. The wildman scuttled behind the knight and lady, his hunched form draped in rank furs and his hair caked with blue mud. The trio headed directly for Travis. Did they know, then?
But they can’t know. They’re not even supposed to be here. They should be a world away.
The three reached the bar. Travis couldn’t move. The knight rested a hand on the hilt of his sword and spoke.
“I need a Coors, a glass of the house chardonnay, and …” The knight glanced back at the wildman. “What did you say you wanted?”
“Make it a Guinness,” the wildman said.
The lady frowned. “How can you drink that stuff, Ted? It’s noxious.”
The wildman grinned, his teeth white and straight in his dirty face. “Don’t knock it until you try it.”
Travis stared, his mind flailing. Only then did he notice the mobile phone clipped to the knight’s belt, the Day-Glo fanny pack around the lady’s waist, and the shoes on the wildman’s feet: nylon strap sandals with rubber soles.
Of course—he remembered the tents and stalls he had seen going up east of town the other day. It was June. The Medieval Festival had started up again for the year. Most nights, a group of workers from the festival would show up at the saloon near sundown to have a drink after a sweaty day of work.
Max touched his arm. “Is something wrong, Travis?”
He hadn’t responded, and the knight was frowning.
“No, Max. Everything’s just fine.”
He moved to get the drinks, and the knight smiled and threw a twenty on the bar.
“Damn, it’s hot out there,” he said.
The wildman glanced at the lady’s fiery breasts and grinned. “Looks like you’ve got a bad case of war chest, Sarah.”
She adjusted her bodice and winced. “I know. Thanks to Alan forgetting the sunscreen.”
“Sorry,” the knight mumbled, and the three walked away with their glasses.
Travis watched them go, then noticed Max gazing at him. Max cocked his head but didn’t say anything, and eventually he turned around to swab out a keg.
Travis glanced down at the buckskin boots that poked out of his jeans: the boots Lady Aryn had had made for him. They were one of his few reminders of Eldh, along with the carved piece of bone—the rune of hope—he wore around his neck, and the silver half-coin Brother Cy had given him, which had brought him back to Earth, and which he always kept in his left-hand pocket.
Travis shut his eyes and saw high battlements above stone-walled fields. Sometimes he burned to tell someone about where he had really traveled during those two months. But how could he? The only person in Castle City who could have understood was gone.
I miss you, Jack.
He opened his eyes and moved to rinse a tray of glasses in the bar sink.
On reflex, Travis looked up. It was hard to tell exactly what was being advertised. Scenes flashed by, showing smiling people engaged in various activities—boating on a lake, going for a walk, cooking dinner. No matter the scene, a bright crescent moon hung in the sky above or outside a window, casting a silvery radiance on whatever the oh-so-happy people were doing.
The commercial faded to black, and a corporate logo appeared: a crescent moon merging into a stylized capital D.
“Duratek,” came the voice-over in a soothing, masculine tone. “Worlds of possibility, close to home.”
Travis frowned. What was that supposed to mean? He pointed to the TV. “Would you shut that thing off, Max? Turn on the radio instead.”
Max killed the TV with the remote, then flicked on an antique AM receiver. A second later the phone rang, and Max lunged for it before Travis could move an inch.
“The Mine Shaft,” Max said. He paused, then shot Travis a smug little smile. “No, but I’m the co-owner, so I’m sure I can help you out.…” He turned his back and kept on talking.
Travis groaned. Now that Max was his partner, there would be no living with him.
He bent back over his work. Music drifted from the radio behind him: ancient sounds soaring above a new electronic drone. The song was all over the airwaves, a tonic for ears tired of angsty alterna-rock. Travis smiled at the seamless blend of old and new. Maybe two different centuries could meet after all. Like two different worlds.
A tingling danced across the back of his neck. On instinct he looked up.
She watched Travis with smoke-green eyes that sparkled above high cheekbones. He set down the glass in his hand, and the woman smiled from her barstool perch. She had close-cropped hair that was dark and fiery at the same time, and she wore a black-leather jacket, jeans, and biker boots. He could just make out the edge of a tattoo coiled around her collarbone—a serpent twisted into the shape of a figure eight, swallowing its tail.
“Deirdre? Deirdre Falling Hawk?”
“My gentle warrior,” she said.
Then she leaned across the bar and kissed him, stunning him like a buck caught in the white-hot beam of a hunter’s flashlight.
Travis had met her three years ago.
It was in the dwindling days of July, when the frantic buzz of fresh-born insects had matured to a lazier drone, and clouds rolled across the blue-quartz sky every afternoon, filling the valley with thunder. She wandered through the saloon’s door one evening with the sound of copper wind chimes. Her hair had been long then, like a wave of midnight water, but she wore the same leather jacket, the same square-toed biker boots, and she carried the same wooden case over her shoulder.
She said her name was Deirdre Falling Hawk, and she was a bard.
For the last month she had worked the big Medieval Festival down the highway, she explained. Now that the festival had closed down for the season, she had come to Castle City, hoping to find a little work before she moved on.
“The mountains give me songs,” she said. “I always hate to leave them.”
All Travis knew was that, when she played a melody on the burnished mandolin she took from her case, he had never heard anything so beautiful. He had cleared the boxes from a platform by the player piano that had once served as a vaudeville stage and on it set a chair. For the next two weeks, Deirdre Falling Hawk sat on the tiny stage each night and played her mandolin. She was of both Irish and Native-American descent, and she blended both traditions in her simple, haunting music. After that first night, word spread, and locals packed the bar each evening to hear her play a repertoire that included thirteenth-century madrigals, Celtic ballads, and Plains Indian myths recited in her chantlike voice.
Travis never saw much of Deirdre during the days; the bard proved as fleeting as her music. But a few times she stopped her Harley as she passed him while cruising down Elk Street.
“Hop on, my gentle warrior,” she would say.
My gentle warrior. That was what she always called him, after he told her the story of the antique spectacles he wore and how once they had belonged to the gunfighter Tyler Caine.
He would climb onto the back of her bike, and they would go roaring up the canyon, leaning deep into the curves. Finally, one night, they sat and talked after the saloon had closed, drinking whiskey and trading two-bit dreams. In a silent moment, Travis almost reached out a hand to stroke her hair. Almost. His hand faltered, then made a clumsy reach for his glass instead.
Afterward he was never sure why he hadn’t done it, why he hadn’t let his fingers tangle themselves in the softness of her hair, why he hadn’t drawn her close, kissed her, and made love to her on a blanket thrown over the sawdust-strewn floor. But love was a kind of power, wasn’t it? And power, as he knew well, was a dangerous thing.
The next night, after Deirdre had played her set at the saloon, he heard the roar of her motorcycle echoing down Elk Street. He never saw her again.
Travis regarded her from across the bar. “I should have known that was your hog out there.”
“Actually, it’s new. I picked it up in Cody last summer.” Her lips curved into a wicked smile. “I won it in a poker game against a Hell’s Angel out of L.A.”
Travis narrowed his eyes. “Remind me never to let you talk me into a hand of five card stud.”
“Don’t worry, Travis—I’d let you win. Once or twice, anyway.”
He glanced at the wooden case slung over her shoulder. “Have you come to play, Deirdre?”
“Maybe. It depends on the going rate.”
Travis punched a key on the saloon’s antique cash register, then lifted the drawer to scrape up what was left of petty cash. He counted it out on the bar.
“How does fifty-two dollars and seventeen cents sound?”
Deirdre stood, scooped up the money, and shoved it into a pocket. “It sounds like you just booked yourself an act, Travis.” She turned and sauntered to the small stage by the piano, moving with the litheness of a deer.
At the same moment Max set down the phone, although it was clear he hadn’t been talking to anyone for minutes. “So, is she a good friend of yours?”
Travis poured two mugs of steaming coffee. “Not really.”
“Of course,” Max said. “That kiss was a dead giveaway. In New York, that’s how complete strangers always greet each other.”
“I didn’t say she was a stranger.”
Max’s drooping mustache framed a toothy smile. “Make up your mind, pardner.”
He considered telling Max that people in the West didn’t really say pardner but as usual decided against it. The knowledge would devastate him. Travis carried the mugs over to Deirdre, set them on the player piano, and straddled the bench.
“It’s good to see you, you know,” he said.
She raised a dark eyebrow. “Is it?”
Once again Travis thought of that night, when he had wanted to touch her and hadn’t. “Yes, it is. I always … I always wished that …” That what? But he wasn’t really sure.
A smile twisted her lips. “I learned a long time ago not to regret my choices.”
She took her mandolin out of its case and began tuning it with deft fingers. It was a sleek thing, crafted of dark wood and glowing with a patina of long use.
“So who’s the lucky girl who finally got you, anyway?” Deirdre said.
He shook his head. She cast a sly glance at Mitchell and Davis Burke-Favor, who sat at a table across the saloon, heads bowed close, their square shoulders touching.
“All right, then who’s the lucky guy?”
He laughed, then shook his head again. Her smile dimmed to a knowing expression.
“So you’re going it alone, then?”
He shrugged. “Didn’t you say not to regret your choices?”
“And is it a choice?”
Travis rubbed his right hand. He didn’t know how to answer that one. Finally, he gestured to the mandolin. “You know, I had a friend who would have loved looking at this. He was an antique dealer. Jack was always telling me that the best way to understand the here and now was to look at it through the eyes of a distant time or place.”
Deirdre strummed a mellow chord. “History is important to both my mother’s and my father’s peoples. This mandolin belonged to my mother’s grandfather. He brought it with him from Ireland. Every time I play it, I think of him, and how brave he was to cross an ocean to a land he had never seen before.” Her fingers plucked out a wistful melody. “Your friend Jack sounds like a wise man.”
Travis was never ready for the hard lump that wedged itself in his throat. “Yes, he was. He gave me these. Remember?”
“The gunfighter’s spectacles.” Deirdre gave a playful smile, and her music drifted into a mournful dirge.
Travis laughed. He could still picture the day Jack had given him the spectacles. He had been rummaging through a box in the Magician’s Attic, helping his old friend clean out the cellar, when he came across them—bent, tarnished, the lenses cracked. He had shown them to Jack.
So that’s where those were hiding. Well, it’s good that you found them, Travis. I believe they belong to you.
It was an odd thing to say, but Jack said plenty of odd things, so Travis had shrugged and accepted the spectacles.
Deirdre regarded him over her mandolin. “You know, it’s interesting that those are the eyes through which you choose to look at the world.”
“You think so? I guess I always thought it would be sort of fun to be the bad guy.” He curled his lip into a mean snarl and gave Deirdre his best steel-eyed look. “This here’s a holdup, ma’am.”
“Fearsome,” she said, green eyes dancing. “But I’m serious, Travis. Why a gunfighter’s glasses? Why not a sheriff’s, or a ranger’s?”
Travis scratched the red-gold stubble on his chin. “I don’t know. I suppose I’m just not really the hero type.”
“It’s true. Even when I was a kid, I never identified with the heroes in fairy tales. I always secretly wanted the monsters to eat them.” He smiled his nastiest smile. “Now the troll under the bridge—that was me.”
Deirdre gave him a sharp look. “That sounds like your shadow self talking.”
“My shadow self?”
“Your dark side, your doppelgänger, your manitou—whatever you want to call it.” She picked up her coffee mug and warmed her hands around it. “Maybe, deep down, there’s a part of you that knows you really could be a gunslinger.”
Travis looked down at his hands. He couldn’t see it, but he could feel it all the same—Jack’s mark, the rune of runes—prickling beneath the skin of his palm. “No, I could never do what they did.”
“Be careful, Travis. The human spirit is a great, deep ocean. Each of us has the ability to do things we don’t care to think about. And that’s fine. But if you try to deny that that ability exists, it can have a way of making itself manifest without your consent.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Then put it this way. A hundred years ago, there wasn’t much difference between the sheriff and the gunslinger. Each made his living with a revolver. The only difference was that one used a gun, while a gun used the other.”
Travis stared. Deirdre couldn’t possibly understand what it was like—how it felt to have power flow through you, and out of you, destroying another.
“I’m sorry, Travis. I didn’t mean to lecture you. Besides, our shadow selves aren’t always bad. Sometimes monsters can be heroes, too. Look at Beauty and the Beast.”
He lifted his head and gave her a crooked smile. “Don’t go trying to spoil my fun.”
She took a sip of coffee, but the mug couldn’t quite hide her grin.
Travis stood. “I should get back to my customers.”
Deirdre tilted her head. “Your customers? You mean you own the saloon now?”
“Ever since Andy Connell died a few years ago.”
“Well, then I had better try to drum up some business for you.” Deirdre picked up her mandolin and brushed the strings. “Thanks for the gig, Travis. You’re a good monster.”
He laughed aloud. “Oh, I wouldn’t go that far.”
Her only response was an enigmatic smile that haunted him all the way back to the bar.
Word must have spread that Deirdre Falling Hawk was back at the Mine Shaft, for by sundown the saloon was jammed with people who had come from all over the valley to listen to her music. Travis watched Deirdre from behind the bar. He thought of another bard he had known, in a place far from here, and he smiled at the memories, although it was a sad expression as well. Not a day went by that he didn’t think of Falken, Melia, Grace, and all the people he had known on Eldh.
Except that wasn’t true, was it? Because lately there had been days when, distracted by the business of the saloon, he didn’t think of Eldh at all. Would he forget it altogether someday? Or convince himself that it had all been the anguished hallucinations of a man who had lost his best friend—the compelling and realistic but entirely deranged construction of one who had wandered for two months in a haze of grief, trying to make some sort of sense of what never made any sense?
The warm sounds of Deirdre’s mandolin ended in a surge of applause. Travis gazed at the cluttered saloon and shook his head. It wasn’t that you couldn’t come home again. It was just that home was never quite the same as when you left it. How could Dorothy have ever stood the stark black-and-white drabness of Kansas again after dancing down the Technicolor roads of Oz? Except he did love his home, drabness and all.
He smiled again, and this time there was genuine mirth to it. Max stepped out of the back room, overloaded with two racks of beer glasses. Travis took one of the racks. As he did, the strumming of the mandolin rose again on the air along with, a moment later, the wine-rich sound of Deirdre’s voice:
We live our lives a circle,
And wander where we can.
Then after fire and wonder,
We end where we began.
I have traveled southward,
And in the south I wept.
Then I journeyed northward,
And laughter there I kept.
Then for a time I lingered,
In eastern lands of light,
Until I moved on westward,
Alone in shadowed night.
I was born of springtime,
In summer I grew strong.
But autumn dimmed my eyes,
To sleep the winter long.
We live our lives a circle,
And wander where we can.
Then after fire and wonder,
We end where we began.
Travis dropped the rack of glasses on the bar; several broke. The applause of the crowd was cut short as people turned around to look for the source of the noise. Travis stared, a gauze of paralysis woven around him by the music.
How could she know that song?
Across the saloon, a shadow touched Deirdre’s forehead. She had noticed him. The bard stood, unslung her mandolin, then threaded her way through the chairs and tables. The sound of conversation welled forth, and someone put a quarter in the jukebox. A woman asked Travis for a beer, but he couldn’t connect his thoughts with his hands. Fortunately, Max was there, and he didn’t seem to see Travis’s stunned expression as he moved in to help the customer.
Deirdre reached the bar.
“Where did you learn that?” he said in a hoarse voice.
She regarded him with almond eyes. “What’s wrong, Travis?”
He gripped the edge of the bar. “That song. Where did you learn it?”
“It was a couple of years ago. I learned it from a bard.”
The floor turned to liquid beneath Travis. Falken? Did she know Falken Blackhand? But that was impossible.
Impossible like traveling to other worlds? Impossible like magic?
He licked his lips. “A bard?”
“That’s right. I met him at the big Renaissance Festival up in Minnesota last year. We were … that is, I …” Color touched her cheekbones like Indian paintbrush.
Travis winced. She didn’t know Falken. She had learned the song from an ex-boyfriend, and Travis had embarrassed her by making her talk about it. How the ex-boyfriend had learned the song, who could say? But the connection between Eldh and Earth had worked in two directions. Why couldn’t a song have crossed as easily as a person? And once on Earth, there was nothing to stop it from being traded among singers.
Deirdre’s fingers crept across the bar to touch his. “Travis, something’s wrong. Will you tell me what it is?”
He opened his mouth, knowing he had to tell her something, but unsure what he was going to say.
Whatever it was, the words were cut short as the saloon’s door banged open. He jerked his head up, along with a dozen of the saloon’s patrons.
At first Travis thought the man was from the Medieval Festival, like the three who had come in earlier. He was clad in a heavy black robe, as if posing as some sort of monk. Except the garment was dusty and tattered, and the more Travis looked at it, the less it looked like the robe of a monk and the more it looked the robe of a judge. Or an executioner.
The man in black lurched into the crowded saloon, and now Travis wasn’t certain he was from the Medieval Festival after all. His hands were curled into claws, and his face was scarred and pitted like the wind-scoured surface of a stone. His blistered lips moved in fretful rhythm, as if he chanted something to himself. He stumbled against a table. People leaped to their feet and scrambled back. Max was already moving to intercept him. Travis hurried after.
The man reached a hand toward a passing woman. He rasped several words—they might have been, Where is he?—then the woman let out a stifled scream and twisted away.
Travis swore. He considered calling Deputy Windom, but now he was closer to the man than he was to the phone. Half the people in the saloon had stopped their conversations to turn and gape. Travis swiped at his damp forehead—it was stifling in here.
Max had reached the stranger now, and he held out a hand to steady the other. The man in the black robe hissed, recoiling like a serpent before Max could touch him.
Max drew his hand back. “I’m sorry, I—”
“Where is he?” The man’s voice was tinged with a metallic accent. “Where is Jakabar?”
Max frowned beneath his mustache. “Who?”
“I must find Jakabar.” The stranger’s hands fluttered to his robe like wounded birds, scrabbled against the cloth, tore it. “Where is Jakabar of the Gray Stone?
Travis stopped in mid-step. What?
Max scratched his head. “Do you mean Jack Graystone?
Travis tried to speak, but when he drew in a breath it scorched his lungs. He saw others around him dab at glistening cheeks and pluck at shirts gone wet.
“I’m afraid Jack passed away last fall,” Max said.
“How?” The man’s voice was both whisper and shriek. “How did he go? Tell me!”
“It was a fire. At the antique shop.”
The man pressed his eyes shut, his expression at once rapt and afflicted. “Ah, yes. Fire. In the end, fire shall take us all.…”
He opened his eyes and it was only then Travis saw that the man’s eyes had no whites. They were black—completely and utterly black, like two hard orbs of onyx.
Someone bumped hard against Travis’s shoulder. People jostled against each other. Some were trying to leave the saloon.
“Listen, mister,” Max said in a soothing voice, “I need you to turn around and—”
The man’s cry was like a gunshot. People scattered, then started shoving for the door. A knot formed in front of Travis, and he was pushed back. Then the knot untangled itself, and he looked up. The man pointed at him with an accusing finger, his impossible black eyes locked on Travis.
“You are the one who drew me to this place. You are Jakabar’s heir!”
Travis clenched his right hand, and it burned like he had grabbed a fistful of hot lead. The man lurched toward him, a marionette controlled by a drunken puppeteer.
Max reached out to grab the man. “Hey, you stay away from—”
There was a sizzling sound, and the stench of burnt meat. Max howled and yanked his hand back. He clutched his wrist, his face a mask of agony.
A few last stragglers dashed past—the saloon was deserted now—and the man in black stood less than an arm’s length away. A gray wisp rose from his robe and curled into the air. It was smoke. The man’s robe was smoldering.
“Travis,” a soft voice said behind him. “Travis, take a step back.”
Deirdre. He could see her out of the corner of his eye. Travis wanted to listen to her, but the man’s black gaze stabbed him, fixing him to the spot.
“The key,” the man said.
Travis shook his head. His brain was roasting in his skull. “I don’t … I don’t understand.”
Peace crept across the man’s cracked face. “Yes, it is you to whom I must give the key.”
“Now, Travis,” Deirdre said. “Get back.”
Max slumped against a wall, still holding his wrist, his expression hazed by pain.
Movement was futile. The heat welded Travis, fused bone and muscle. Somehow he forced his jaw to work. “Who … who are you?”
The man smiled, sharp as a knife wound, and reached out a hand. Travis watched smoke rise from the dark fabric of his sleeve.
“Beware—it will consume you.”
Deirdre’s shout broke through the fatal heat. He heaved himself back, clattered against a table, then looked up to see the man in black go rigid. He raised twisted arms, threw his head back, and shrieked.
“Kelephon! Jakabar! Help me!”
Then the man in the black robe burst into flame.
Sunlight crept into the valley as Castle County Sheriff’s Deputy Jacine Fidelia Windom drove the coroner’s van up the hill south of town to the Castle Heights Cemetery.
The sun had just crested the eastern escarpment of Signal Ridge, but the sky had been blue for hours—a trick the mountains always played on the dawn. Jace rolled down the van’s window, and dry wind rushed into the vehicle. The morning was already hot. By noon it would be another scorcher. That concerned the deputy.
Not that the heat bothered her. Despite the oppressive weather, Jace hadn’t traded her crisp khaki trousers, shirt, and tie for lighter attire. She wasn’t afraid of sweat. But there were others on whom the heat wasn’t so easy. Ranchers and their livestock. The frail and elderly. If this heat wave kept up, she would be making more trips up this hill.
Jace checked the black box on the seat beside her to be sure it wasn’t wandering when she hit the curves. Taking a John Doe’s ashes to the cemetery for interment wasn’t part of her job description, but Kyle Evans, the Castle County coroner, was at that moment in New Jersey burying his mother, so it fell to Jace to see to it this stranger made it to his own last rest. Not that Jace minded. To protect and to serve. That was the oath she had sworn to Sheriff Dominguez on her twenty-fifth birthday two years ago. And as far as Jace was concerned, anything that helped someone else was part of her job description.
The deputy guided the van around a switchback, her eyes locked on the road behind green, wire-rimmed Ray-Bans. She took all the curves at exactly the speed posted on the yellow road signs, and she steered the van with precise movements of her small, strong hands. She did so because that was the right way to drive a vehicle. There was one right way to do everything in this world, and that was the way Jace did it.
Although every day in her work she encountered people who broke the law, Jace never understood them. Some screamed and cursed at her as she wrote them a ticket or handcuffed them, shouting that the laws oppressed them, while others wept and sobbed that the laws weren’t fair. But Jace knew they were wrong. A world without rules was a world without meaning. Laws didn’t limit. Instead they made things like happiness, comfort, and beauty possible. Artists painted using principles of color, hue, and perspective. Music was based on mathematics. The laws of physics kept humans from flying off the planet and into space.
The deputy was seldom troubled by dreams, but one that came to her from time to time chilled her to the core. She would dream she was in a tiny boat, tossed on a great sea that was neither light nor dark, liquid nor solid. Then a wave would come, tearing apart the boat. She would try to swim to safety, except it was impossible to determine which way was up. Jace would wake gasping and for an hour would stare into the night, looking at the hard, distinct outlines of bed and walls and floor before she could shut her eyes and return to sleep again.
A world of order Jace understood, but the world she glimpsed in her dream, the great sea of chaos …
All she could think was that that must have been the world her father had glimpsed the day she came home from fifth grade and found him hanging from a rafter in the garage.
The road turned to gravel. Jace adjusted her speed to compensate, then guided the vehicle around the last few twists. She came to a halt in the dirt parking lot, scooped up the box of ashes, and stepped out of the van.
There wasn’t much to the Castle Heights Cemetery these days. Not that there ever really had been. Throughout the last 130 years, most people in Castle County had their loved ones transported to the more fashionable and expensive cemeteries of Denver when it was time for the long sleep. Weeds tangled over anonymous graves, their wooden markers long turned to splinters, and wild raspberry gathered over other mounds like thorny shrouds. Elsewhere gravestones were planted in the ground at odd angles, as if at any moment the entire place might slide down the slope to the valley bottom for its own final burial.
Jace glanced down at the box tucked into the crook of her arm. This was not how she liked cases to end up—without even a name to put on a marker. But there had been nothing left of the man to run an ID on, not even his teeth. Just a few splinters of burnt bone and a heap of ash. Jace had checked a description of the man, given to her by Travis Wilder, against a database of missing persons, but to no avail. She would keep checking, but doubted she would find an answer.
How he had immolated himself was another mystery. The fire had been so hot, there had been no need for cremation. Yet the man had not set the Mine Shaft ablaze with him. The only damage was a black mark on the floor and the smell of smoke. And Max Bayfield’s hand.
Max had said that he touched the man before the fire started, but Jace was sure that was a mistake. Max understood how numbers worked, but the workings of the world were sometimes beyond him. That was fine—that was Jace’s job. And she knew people didn’t catch fire or get their hands burned for no reason. Probably the man had doused himself with some caustic chemical and had ignited himself where a large crowd would see.
But why? Jace didn’t know. The only thing she did know was that you could never truly know the heart of another.
He had to know she would be the one to find him, Maude. I know it’s awful to say, but I’m your sister, and it’s the truth. She always puts her bike in the garage when she comes home from school. Never leaves it out for the rain. Such a good girl, that Jacine. He had to know. Bless the poor little thing.…
A gust of wind kicked up a cloud of sun-baked dust. Jace tucked a stray lock of her short brown hair behind an ear and scanned the cemetery. Where was the undertaker? Dale Stocker, who had managed Castle Heights for the last twenty years, had passed away that spring. But there had been a replacement, hadn’t there?
The wind snatched her voice away. Jace pushed through the iron gate. There was a rise in the middle of the cemetery. He might be on the other side, where he wouldn’t have heard the van approaching.
The deputy made her way past forgotten graves. Many of the headstones were too wind-worn to read. But there were some she could still make out, their shallow carvings made sharp again by the shadows of morning. She passed by the graves of failed prospectors, Depression-era mothers, and young men sent back in boxes from Normandy. Then she saw a grave that made her pause. She crouched and parted a tuft of weeds to reveal the words scrawled on the cracked sandstone marker:
NATHANIEL LUKE FARQUHAR
A good Man. A good Father.
“God will forgive you.”
Jace frowned at the stone, her mission forgotten. What did it matter if God forgave him? What about the people he had left behind? Had they forgiven him? If he was really such a good man, a good father, how had he gotten himself killed at the age of twenty-nine? A good man would have been careful, would have stayed around to watch his children grow up. He wouldn’t have been stuck here in the ground. Jace started to stand, hesitated, then reached out to touch the sun-warmed sandstone.
“Can I help you, ma’am?” a raspy voice said behind her.
Jace pulled her hand back, stood, and turned around all in one smooth motion. It took conscious effort to keep from moving her hand to the butt of the revolver at her hip.
The man before her was tall—far taller than the deputy, who had reached her full five feet two at the age of twelve. Despite the heat he was dressed in a long, shabby suit of black wool that looked as if it had been salvaged from a coffin. His shirt had yellowed like ivory, along with his teeth.
“Well, now,” the gravedigger said, a grin splitting his gaunt face, his voice at once slick and rusty, “I see you are a woman of the law.” He leaned on the shovel whose handle he gripped in large, bony hands.
Jace opened her mouth to answer but could only manage a nod. There was something strange about the man. Usually she could size up another inside of five seconds, but the figure before her defied easy definition.
The man pushed up the brim of his black hat, swiped with a dingy handkerchief at his knobby brow, then settled the hat back down as he nodded toward the grave marker behind her. “Did you know him, then?”
Jace found her voice. “Sir, that man’s been dead for well over a century.”
The gravedigger shrugged, as if this fact were not important.
Furrows dug themselves into Jace’s forehead. She had never seen the gravedigger around town before. When had he arrived in Castle City? Then again, even Dale had liked to keep to himself. Undertakers were a lonely lot—or maybe they just preferred the company of the dead.
Jace held out the box. “Sir, I have a burden here I need to discharge.”
The gravedigger gripped his shovel and laughed: a deep, terrible sound. “Well, now, you’ve just said a mouthful, Deputy.”
“No, don’t be sorry.” Dust swirled off the shoulders of his suit, and he gazed at the horizon. “We all have our burdens to discharge.” His dark gaze turned toward her. “Don’t we, Deputy?”
Jace bit her lip, uncertain what to say. She didn’t like this man. There was no order to his words, no reason. She held out the box of ashes. He planted the shovel in the ground and took the box from her, enfolding it in long fingers. Sadness touched his craggy face.
“He has traveled long, this one,” the man whispered. “Rest is welcome now. But even a welcome end is not without sorrow.”
Jace itched to leave. Sweat trickled down her sides. But she had to be sure she had done all she needed to do. “You’ve got it under control, then?”
The gravedigger looked up from the box, as if surprised she was still there, then gave a slow nod. “Do not fear. I’ll watch over him now, daughter.”
Jace went rigid. Words echoed in her mind, and the cemetery faded to white around her.
God will watch over him now, Jacine.
Why wasn’t He watching over him before, Reverend Henley? Why didn’t He protect him?
That isn’t the way it works, Jacine. Sometimes bad things happen, even to those who are good.
That’s not fair. It doesn’t make any sense.
His ways don’t always make sense to us.
But it’s not right.
Jacine, you cannot question His—
The words were drowned out by a clattering sound. The whiteness vanished, replaced by dull browns and hard blue: earth and sky. The cemetery snapped back into focus.
Jace looked around, but the man was gone. Except how could that be? She had been distracted only for a moment. She looked down, and she saw the source of the noise that had jarred her back to the present: The shovel had fallen to the ground. Next to the shovel was a square of freshly turned earth, clear of weeds, the iron-rich soil red as blood. Planted beside the patch of earth was a small granite marker, its surface incised with a single, sharp word she could not comprehend:
Jace sucked in a breath. This was impossible. The sun hadn’t moved in the sky; only a moment had passed. Yet she had no doubt that, were she to pick up the shovel and dig through the soil, she would find the black box of ashes. Sickness rose in her throat, as it did when she dreamed of the roiling sea.
The deputy cast one more look at the fresh grave, then hurried back to the van, shivering despite the heat.
Everything had changed again.
There had been no bells this time, but there had been a man in black, just like before, and once again nothing in Travis’s life would ever be the same.
He looked up at the sound of the quiet voice. Deirdre stood on the other side of the bar, her expression concerned. Travis felt something damp against his hand. He glanced down and saw that he clutched a wet rag. He must have been wiping down the bar, only somewhere in the course of the task he had stopped. How long had he been standing there, just staring?
Beware—it will consume you.
He tried to force the rasping words out of his head, but he couldn’t. What did they mean? The words were a warning of some kind, but a warning about what? And why had the burnt man given it to Travis?
You are the one. It is you who drew me to this place.
He clenched his right hand around the cloth, afraid he knew the answer, and water oozed onto the bar.
Deirdre reached out and brushed the back of his hand. He shuddered and let go of the rag.
“We’re almost ready to open, Travis. We just need to get a little more air moving in here. Is there an extra fan we could use? I thought we could put it in the north window.”
Travis nodded, although he wasn’t sure there was a point to opening the saloon. He doubted any of his customers would come back. No matter how hard he scrubbed, no matter how much air he blew through the place, he would never get rid of the black splotch on the floor or the acrid stench—not completely. Then there were the pits melted into the asphalt surface of Elk Street, leading up to the saloon: pits shaped just like footprints. They would always be there, reminders of the burnt man. Once you were marked, Travis knew, you could never forget.
However, he didn’t tell Deirdre what he thought. She had been an amazing help these last three days, an unexpected source of light in the midst of this darkness.
“There’s a fan up in the rafters in the storeroom,” he said. “I’ll get it.”
He came back with the fan a few minutes later, a bit grimier for the effort, and found Deirdre arranging chairs and wiping down tables. The saloon’s door stood open, but no customers had come through, only hot air and dust. Travis put the fan in the window and turned it on, but it only seemed to blow the grit around.
“Don’t you have to be at the Medieval Festival?” he said as he helped Deirdre pull a table away from the wall.
She grabbed a chair in each hand and swung them into place. “Just on the weekends.”
“Are you sure? It’s not like I paid you enough to do all this. I don’t want you to miss out on making some money.”
She dusted off her hands. “With this heat, there isn’t much at the festival to miss. People with sunstroke aren’t the best tippers.” Her voice grew quiet. “Besides, it’s not me you need to worry about.”
Deirdre glanced at a corner, and Travis followed her gaze. So someone had come to the saloon after all. Travis sighed, then approached the small table in the corner.
“Max, you should be home. What are you doing here?”
Max grinned his hound-dog grin. “I wasn’t sure you could handle the place on your own, Travis. So I thought I’d come down and make sure everything was all right.” His expression tightened into a grimace, and he gripped his right wrist. The hand was mummified in white bandages.
“It’s all right, Travis. Really.” Max unclenched his fingers from his wrist. “I just … I just didn’t want to be home by myself.”
Travis drew in a breath, then nodded. It was when Travis was alone that he heard the burnt man’s words most clearly. But the pain written across his partner’s usually cheerful face troubled him. Somehow, Max’s hand had been badly burned when he touched the man in black. By the time they got him to the Castle County clinic his entire palm had blistered. Now sweat sheened Max’s face, but despite the heat he was shivering. He was feverish—he needed to rest.
Or was there something else that might help Max? An idea came to Travis, along with a memory. He saw Melia, huddled in a blanket outside the heap of rubble that had been the White Tower of the Runebinders. Falken had made a brew for Melia, and Travis remembered how it had eased her shivering.
He glanced at Deirdre. “I’ll be back in a minute. I have … I have to get something.”
Deirdre met his gaze, then nodded. Max only stared into space.
Travis headed for the back room, then bounded up a steep staircase to his apartment above the saloon. The long, narrow room was stuffy; heat radiated from the pressed-tin ceiling. Travis moved to a scuffed bureau, leaned against it, and shoved it away from the wall. He stuck a finger into a knothole in one of the wall’s rough-cut pine boards, then with a tug pulled free a section of the board. Beyond was a dark space.
Travis reached into the cubbyhole and pulled out a tightly wrapped bundle. He rose, set the bundle on the tarnished brass bed, and unrolled it. Inside were a pair of mud-stained breeches, a green tunic patched in half a dozen places, a silvery cloak, and a stiletto with a single crimson gem set into its hilt. Travis brushed his fingers across the road-worn garments. It seemed a lifetime ago he had worn them, although it was only months.
He reached into the pocket of his tunic and drew out a handful of leaves. They were dry and brittle now, and a darker green than the day he had plucked them in the cool shadows of a Tarrasian Way Circle, but even as they broke, a sweet, sharp fragrance rose from the leaves. On the road to Calavere he had picked these for makeshift toothbrushes. He had another use in mind for them now.
Travis kept two of the leaves, slipped the others back into the pocket of his tunic, rolled up the bundle, and returned it to its hiding place. Then he headed downstairs.
Deirdre sat on a stool, strumming a quiet song on her mandolin. Max still slumped at a nearby table, his eyes half-closed, although whether it was music or pain that was causing him to drift wasn’t clear. Travis headed for the bar, crumbled the leaves into a coffee mug, and filled it with hot water.
Deirdre looked up as she played. “Isn’t it a little warm out for tea?”
“It’s not tea. Not exactly, anyway.”
He let the leaves steep for a minute, then carried the mug to his partner.
“Hey, Max. I’ve got something for you to drink.”
Max blinked, then his eyes focused on Travis. He grinned, but it was a weak expression.
“Dr. Sullivan said I’m not supposed to have alcohol. But I suppose I could make an exception for a single malt.”
“It’s not Lagavulin, Max. Now go on—drink it.”
With slow movements, Max accepted the mug and brought it to his lips. He took a tentative sip, glanced up with an expression of surprise, then drank the rest. He set down the cup. As he did, a trace of color crept into his cheeks, and his shivering eased.
Max wiped his mustache with his unbandaged hand. “Thanks, Travis. I feel … better.”
Travis nodded and picked up the mug, some of the tightness gone from his stomach. Max was still hurt, but at least his eyes had lost their too-bright glaze.
“What was that, Travis?” a soft voice said behind him.
Travis turned around. He hadn’t noticed when her music had stopped.
“Just some herbs,” he said.
Deirdre picked up the cup and held it under her nose. “I know a little about herbal medicine—my great-grandfather was a shaman—but I don’t recognize this leaf.” She looked up. “What do you call it?”
“It’s—” He had to bite his tongue to keep from saying alasai. What would he tell Deirdre if she asked what language the word was from? “It’s called green scepter, I think.”
“Where did it come from?”
“I got it through Jack Graystone.”
Deirdre studied him, then shrugged and set down the cup. Travis let out a breath between his teeth.
“I’ll go make sure the kegs are full,” he said.
It was edging toward evening when Sheriff’s Deputy Jace Windom stepped into the saloon.
As the day wore on, contrary to what Travis had expected, a number of locals and regulars had wandered through the door of the Mine Shaft—although the place was still only half as full as on a typical night. However, Travis was grateful for everyone who had decided to come, and he would have given them all free drinks, except no one would let him.
Jace tipped her hat as she reached the bar. “Evening, Travis. I just thought I’d stop by and see how business was doing.”
Her gaze flickered to a figure hunched in the corner, and Travis knew the real reason she had come to the saloon. When would Jace and Max decide to tell him what he already knew? He didn’t understand why they hid their feelings for each other. But secrets were strange things, and the reasons people kept them stranger yet.
Travis poured the deputy a cup of hot coffee. “Did you learn anything yet, Jace?”
The deputy took a deep swig of coffee, then shook her head. “No one was able to positively ID the stranger. And there wasn’t much left for the forensics lab to work on. This is a mystery we might never solve.” She set down the mug. “But if it helps to know, my guess is that he was under the influence of an illegal substance when he came in here. LSD. Heroin. Electria.”
Travis topped off her coffee. “Electria?”
Jace nodded. “A new designer drug. It started showing up on the coasts about a year ago, and it’s been working its way in ever since. Gives the user a feeling of extreme euphoria. The reports say it can also induce a sense of invulnerability. Whatever the John Doe doused himself in, my bet is he didn’t think it would really hurt him.”
Travis shuddered, and shrill words echoed in his mind.
In the end, fire shall take us all.…
No, the deputy was wrong. The man had known he would burn. Besides, a drug couldn’t explain the melted footsteps.
Travis took a bottle of water from the chiller and slid it toward Jace. “Would you take this to Max? The doctor says he’s supposed to keep his fluids up.”
Jace took the bottle and headed toward the corner of the saloon. Travis followed her with his eyes, then his gaze dropped down to the dark splotch on the floor.
“The Immolated Man.”
Travis looked up at Deirdre. She was wearing only a white tank top with her black jeans, but her skin still glowed from the heat. The tattoo above her collarbone glistened like jade: a serpent eating its own tail.
“What do you mean?” he said.
She met his eyes. “It’s an archetype, one that shows up in many different myths and cultures. The Immolated Man. The Burned God. The Sacrificed King. Again and again myths tell about a man or woman or god who is consumed in fire.”
Sickness rose in his throat, but Travis forced it down. “Why? Why does that story get told so many times?”
“I don’t know for certain. It’s about transformation, I think. It’s like the Phoenix or Shiva or the Christ.” Deirdre brushed a finger across the serpent tattoo. “You have to die to become something new.”
Travis’s gaze drifted back to the scorch mark. “But become what?”
“That’s up to you. In the end, we must each choose what we become.”
With that, Deirdre picked up her mandolin and returned to the small stage to fill the saloon with music.
Travis sighed, then grabbed a tray and started rounding up used beer glasses. He halted as movement through the open door caught his eye. Outside, a vehicle drove slowly past the saloon: a black sport utility with tinted windows. A logo was emblazoned on the side of the vehicle—a crescent moon that merged into a capital letter D. Travis read the words that followed it:
DURATEK. WORLDS OF POSSIBILITY, CLOSE TO HOME.
He recalled the commercial with all the smiling people, the one that didn’t seem to be selling anything, and once again he frowned at the odd slogan. He had always looked forward to the sense of possibility that the wind brought. But sometimes possibilities could be frightening things.
The vehicle rolled up Elk Street and out of sight, and Travis went back to collecting empty glasses.
Deirdre Falling Hawk stepped out of the Silver Palace Hotel, her black biker boots beating a war-drum tattoo against the planks of the boardwalk.
It was almost time.
She slung her black-leather jacket over her shoulder and surveyed the empty expanse of Elk Street. It was early, and the sky was a dull steel bowl. However, already the coolness of dawn was beginning to lessen. Right now she was comfortable in her white tank top and black jeans. In an hour, no more than two, she would be sweating.
Deirdre slipped a hand into her pocket and felt the small square of paper she had found last night, tucked into her hotel message box. There was a need for swiftness. All the same, she took a moment to lean against the boardwalk railing and greet the day. Too often in the hurry and action of their lives people forgot to halt for a minute and say a prayer, or contemplate a great question, or simply look at the world. But no matter how urgent things became, she always remembered to stop and steal a moment for herself. As far as Deirdre was concerned, the world could do with a little more ceremony.
She gazed forward and let herself be. Henna had drawn the fire from deep in her close-cropped black hair, and her one concession to makeup was a line of kohl that outlined her smoky jade eyes. A cross dangled from one ear, and an ankh from the other. Against the hollow of her throat rested a yellowed bear claw that her great-grandfather had given her the day he died.
Bear will give you strength, little one. Do not forget him when you are alone and afraid.
She brushed the claw with a finger and smiled. The blood of three Indian tribes ran in her veins, and she could trace her lineage to the legendary hero Cuchulain—or at least so her Irish grandmother had claimed. But she wasn’t just where she had come from. She was where she was, and where she was going. And she had a new tribe now.
Deirdre stepped into the street; her Harley was parked around the corner. It was nice to be able to leave the bike out without having to worry about it. Not like Paris or Athens. Definitely not like London. She straddled her hog, then started it and wheeled down the street in one seamless sequence. A helmet would have been a good idea; she usually wore one. But not here, not today. Today she needed to feel the wind tangle its fingers through her hair. Lovers were fine, and their caresses sweet, but the wind would never abandon you.
Square false fronts flashed by, then the town was gone, and it was only two-lane and mountains before her. As she rode, Deirdre let the last few years drift through her mind. She had been on many journeys since she last set foot in Castle City, and she had seen many wonders. She had prowled through catacombs beneath the Tower of London. She had meditated in the stony company of Notre Dame’s gargoyles. She had climbed the jungle pyramids of Tikal, had stood small and humble beneath the dome of the Hagia Sophia, and had gazed into deathless eyes in silent Egyptian tombs.
Yet, despite all the sights she had witnessed, nothing filled her with awe like the Colorado mountains. Theirs was no human beauty, limited and ephemeral, carved by mortal and imperfect hands. The mountains were great and ancient, and they did not need people. All the same, they were generous with their wonder. No sight she had encountered in all her travels gave her songs like the mountains did. It was good to be back, if only for a short while.
Deirdre cruised down a flat stretch of blacktop. Up ahead, a rusty speck grew rapidly into a car—a faded Volvo with crumpled bumpers. Inside, the shadow of a driver hunched over the steering wheel. By the time Deirdre recognized both vehicle and driver, they had flashed by. She glanced over her shoulder. Behind her, the Volvo slowed, then turned off the highway and headed down a dirt road. The car disappeared behind an outcrop, leaving only a plume of dust to rise like smoke into the dull morning sky.
Where was Max Bayfield going at such an early hour? He should have been home resting. These last days his burnt hand had seemed only to get worse, not better. Deirdre hoped Travis’s partner was all right; pain could make people do strange things. She almost considered going after him, but she had other duties that beckoned her.
She turned her gaze forward just in time to lean into a sharp curve. The valley floor fell away, and the highway bore her up into a twisting canyon. Last night she had told Travis not to expect her at the saloon that day, that she was going to the Medieval Festival. And maybe she would go there later, so her words would not become lies and, like cursed arrows, fly back to strike her. But it was not to the festival that she was going now.
The canyon opened up, and the two lanes of asphalt funneled into a narrow bridge. Deirdre veered onto a pull-off and brought the Harley to a halt. Years ago, this had been her favored place to find a moment of solitude. She hoped it would grant her the same now.
She drew something out of the Harley’s saddlebag, then walked to the edge of the pull-off and gazed down a slope of tumbled boulders. In her memory, Granite Creek rushed over those rocks in a hurry to reach the ocean. Now a trickle oozed between the boulders, and mosquitoes clouded the air over pools of standing water. All the same, there was beauty in the slender aspens that clung to the sides of the creek bed. She glanced up, made sure she had good exposure to the southeastern sky, then lifted the object in her hand—a slim phone—and flipped it on.
Deirdre touched one button and held the phone to her ear. Three seconds later, a voice from another part of the world answered.
“I’ve made contact,” she said.
The voice spoke several careful words. A thrill coursed through her, and she gave a slow nod.
“Yes, I suppose it would be. A Class One encounter. If you’re right.”
Now the voice was sharper.
Deirdre winced, then licked her lips and forced her voice to remain even. “That’s what I’m here to confirm.”
A question. She ran a hand through her short hair. High above, a hawk wheeled against the sky.
“No, I haven’t verified anything. Not yet. But there was something—a medicinal herb. He used it to make an analgesic tea for his business partner. I know a fair amount about herb lore, but this was not a plant I recognized.” She nodded. “Yes, I saved some of the leaves from the cup. I’ve already couriered the specimen to the London Charterhouse for testing. It should arrive today.”
She listened for a few seconds more—the plan had not changed. The voice started to conclude.
“Wait,” she said. “There’s something more. There was … there was an incident at his place of business. Spontaneous combustion. Four days ago. There was no ID for the victim, but it was a textbook example. I think it might be related to the others.”
She listened, then nodded. “Yes, it is. But I’ll have opportunity for more observation. I helped him reopen the saloon after the incident, and he expects me to check back.”
Another question, and this time it was Deirdre’s voice that contained a note of annoyance.
“No, I haven’t forgotten the Third Desideratum, or the Vow for that matter. I’ve been watching, or doing what an old friend would do, and that’s it.”
A few more words from the phone. They were not conciliatory. She forced herself to breathe.
“If you think that’s wise.”
There was a click, and the connection was closed. Deirdre pressed a button and lowered the phone. So it had begun. There was no turning back now. She could only hope she was doing the right thing.
But it is right, you know it, Deirdre. You knew it when you swore the Vow in London. To Watch—To Believe—To Wait. This is how it has to be.
Deirdre sighed. If she hurried, she could still be at the gates of the Medieval Festival when they opened and save herself from being a liar. She turned to head for the motorcycle—
—and stopped in mid-stride.
“Hello,” the girl said.
The child’s voice was high and clear, silver against china. Deirdre blinked, mouth open. The girl before her appeared to be eight or nine years old, her dark hair pulled back from the pale cherub’s cameo of her face. She wore an old-fashioned dress of black wool and equally old-fashioned buttoned shoes.
Deirdre glanced up. Her Harley was the only vehicle in sight. But how had the girl gotten here? How had she approached across ten yards of gravel without making a sound? And what did she want?
“To watch,” the girl said. “To believe. To wait.”
Deirdre sucked in a breath. But the girl had only overheard her conversation, that was all. Deirdre must have spoken the words aloud.
“Are you lost?” she said.
“No,” the girl replied in her lisping voice. “Are you?”
Instinct prickled the back of Deirdre’s neck. Stories echoed in her mind, told beside a fire by her greatgrandfather—spirits that haunted stones, shadows that spoke from trees. The sun had crested the canyon rim, but twilight still clung to the girl’s dress.
“I don’t understand,” Deirdre said.
Purple eyes bored into her. “Seek them as you journey.”
Deirdre found herself crouching down to meet the girl’s eyes. “What do you mean? Seek what?”
“Fire and wonder,” the girl whispered.
A shrill cry pierced the air, and Deirdre looked up. The hawk had wheeled lower on red-tinged wings, and Deirdre gazed into small, bright eyes. The hawk rose on a column of air, dwindled into blue sky, and vanished.
Deirdre looked back down, but she already knew the girl would be gone. That much her greatgrandfather’s stories had taught her.
The sun broke like a blister against the sharp summit of Castle Peak, and crimson flowed down into the valley. The day was almost gone. Its death would bring only relief.
A few locals and fewer tourists passed Travis as he walked down Elk Street. Castle City should have been bustling this time of year, but the usual flood of vacationers had dried to a trickle under the summer glare as steadily as Granite Creek. Travis hadn’t bothered to open the Mine Shaft yet. There was no sense in rushing. Those few customers who did come wouldn’t show up until after sunset, when the valley cooled—at least a bit. He would wait until then.
Nor were Max and Deirdre at the saloon. Last night, Deirdre had told him she would be playing at the Medieval Festival that day, and all afternoon he had imagined red-faced Denverites buying hot pewter dragons and gnawing greasy turkey legs under the fierce high-altitude sun. It seemed less a recipe for entertainment than a prescription for sunstroke. He hoped the bard was having some luck.
As for Max—Travis had stopped by his place on the way into town, but Max’s apartment had been dim and silent, and the Volvo gone. For some reason, Travis had gotten out of his truck to peer through the apartment’s front window. The curtains had been drawn, but through a crack he had glimpsed a clutter of crumpled clothes, newspapers, and dirty dishes. At first he was sure he had looked into the wrong apartment—in his experience, Max’s neatness bordered on pathological—then he checked the number. He hadn’t made a mistake.
On his way back to his pickup, something shiny had caught Travis’s eye, tangled in a web of dry weeds. It was a piece of glossy paper, from a brochure maybe, although Travis could make out only fragments of hyperreal images, so that it was impossible to tell what it was selling. He had shrugged, then shoved the paper into his pocket and climbed back into his truck.
Travis had hoped he would find Max once he got to the Mine Shaft, but his partner hadn’t been at the saloon either. Now, as he walked, a sick feeling rose in his throat. He clenched his jaw and swallowed it.
Of course Max is all right. It’s just a burn, Travis, that’s all. And it’s no mystery that his place is a mess—I’m sure it’s harder to be obsessive-compulsive with just one hand.
Travis angled across Elk Street, toward McKay’s General Store. In his back pocket were the door hinges he had bought four—was it really only four?—days ago. He needed to return the hinges, to exchange them for new ones. They didn’t fit.
As he stepped onto the boardwalk, Travis noticed a black sport utility parked outside of McKay’s. He paused. It might have been the same vehicle he had seen driving past the saloon the other day. Or it might have been different but identical. It was impossible to tell. The glossy jet paint was without dent or blemish, and the tinted windows were as impenetrable as midnight. The crescent moon logo on the side door glowed scarlet in the fiery light of sunset.
A dude ranch cowboy jostled past Travis, and he blinked, realizing he had been staring. He mumbled an apology, then headed through the creaking side door into the familiar clutter of McKay’s General Store.
McKay’s had opened its doors in the 1870s and hadn’t closed them since, barring holidays and the Great Depression. Ian McKay, son of the original owner, had sold the store in the forties, but about ten years ago his granddaughter, Onica McKay, returned to Castle City on a genealogical research trip, got caught by the spell of the valley, and bought the store her great-grandfather had built.
The store hadn’t changed much over the years. The gigantic discount warehouses had invaded other mountain towns, leaving McKay’s pressed-tin ceiling and plate-glass front window intact. The high shelves were just as crowded with merchandise as they had been in the waning days of the silver rush—although now they were more likely to hold garlic presses and cans of Indian curry than pickaxes and bottles of mercury.
Travis breathed in dusty, spicy air and smiled at the smell of history. At least there were some things he could still count on. He wandered back to the hardware section, found a new pair of hinges, and headed toward the front of the store.
The high, chiming sound of bells drifted on the air.
Shock crystallized Travis. Once before he had heard silvery music like that in Castle City. Once before, when everything had begun to—
“Thank you for coming to McKay’s,” a chantlike voice drifted from up ahead.
A man with a plastic shopping bag appeared from around a corner, smiled at Travis, then headed for the side entrance of the store. Travis stepped around the corner and saw the source of the sound.
The antique brass cash register that had dominated the front counter of McKay’s for time out of mind was gone. In its place lurked a low, aerodynamic shape molded from black plastic. Again the chiming shimmered on the air, and Travis knew it was not bells. Instead the sound had that hard, perfect clarity that could come only from an electronic chip.
Another customer—a young woman—waited at the counter. Waunita Lost Owl stood on the other side. Her black-and-white hair was woven into a thick braid, and she wore jeans and a geometric-patterned shirt. A pair of thick-lensed glasses perched in front of her serene brown eyes.
At first Travis thought Waunita was ringing up the young woman’s purchases, but then he wasn’t so certain. Waunita touched each item lightly, then when she was done she touched the black unit on the counter. A pale luminescence frosted the sculpted features of her face, and again the chime sounded on the air.
“Seventeen-thirty-two,” Waunita said.
So she had been totaling the items after all.
The young woman held out a credit card. Waunita took it and passed it over the wedge-shaped unit without touching it. Another chime. Waunita handed the card back, placed the goods in a shiny plastic sack, and nodded as the young woman stepped away.
“Do you need help, Travis?”
He shook his head—he had been staring again. He hurried to the counter and set the hinges down.
“Hello, Waunita. I need to exchange these.”
She nodded and touched the hinges—no, that wasn’t right. Instead she carefully touched the metallic price sticker attached to each one.
Travis frowned as she worked. “What happened to the old cash register?”
“This is better.”
For the first time he noticed that she wore what looked like a black wrist brace, made of nylon and Velcro. On the back of the brace was a small black box. Waunita touched the main unit on the counter. It chimed, and at the same time a small LED on the wrist brace flashed.
His frown deepened.
“It uses my body as a wire,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“When I touch things, this remembers.” She brushed the box attached to the wrist brace, then she gestured to the unit on the counter. “And when I touch this, it listens through my body and hears what things I touched. Then it adds them up.”
Understanding crept into Travis’s mind. He remembered sitting at the saloon with Max on a slow night a few months ago, watching the Wonder Channel on the TV behind the bar. The show had been about new technologies. One had involved a device that could use the human body to transmit data instead of a network cable. Personal area networks—PANs—that was what the monotonous voice of the narrator had called them. But the prototypes had been large and clunky. They had looked like something from a junior high school science fair compared to the slim, elegant device Waunita wore.
“They do good things,” Waunita said.
He shook his head. “What do you mean, Waunita? Who did this for the store?”
She reached under the counter, pulled out a brochure, and handed it to him.
“Maybe they can help you, too, Travis.”
He glanced down at the brochure and almost laughed. Maybe he should have been surprised to see the crescent moon and capital D, but he wasn’t. Duratek. So this was what they did—this was one of the possibilities they advertised.
“Mrs. McKay was worried,” Waunita said. “But now she is full of hope all the time. She says things have not been this good in many years. She is paying me more.”
Travis gazed out the front window. Desiccated scraps of litter blew down Elk Street like dirty tumbleweeds in the gloom. No, Waunita was wrong. Things were not good—they were not good at all. Who were these people? What did they know about real possibilities? He glanced down at the crescent moon on the brochure. Once before he had seen a symbol all over town right before things had changed. Travis crumpled the brochure, shoved it into his pocket, and turned to walk from the store.
“Travis? You forgot your hinges.”
He barely noticed as Waunita pushed the slick plastic sack into his hand, then he stepped out the front door and walked into hot, gritty twilight. He glanced in both directions, looking for the black vehicle, ready to confront these people, to ask them who they were to come here and change things.
The street was empty, the vehicle was gone. Travis sighed and headed back to open up the saloon.
Max called the Mine Shaft at a quarter to midnight.
Behind the bar, Travis fumbled with the handset. “Max? Max, is that you?”
A digital hiss phased into words. “—course it’s me, Travis.” The voice sounded thin and metallic, as if Max spoke from down a long steel tube.
Travis turned his back to block out the low din of conversation. To his amazement, people had been waiting outside the Mine Shaft when he returned from McKay’s. Now the saloon was over half-full. People were kind sometimes. Too kind. He had thrown a rug over the scorch mark on the floor, but he could still smell the stench of fire.
“Max, I—” He lowered his voice. “I was a little worried when I didn’t hear from you today.”
“Travis, you worry when one of the Daughters of the Frontier breaks a press-on nail opening a beer.”
He couldn’t help a small laugh. It was genuine Max, all right, even if the voice was a poor silicon facsimile. “Where are you? I … are you at home?”
A surge of static, then, “—feel great, Travis. Better every day. Really, I mean it.”
Travis knew he should take Max’s word for it. But it was hard not to remember the feverish light in Max’s eyes when Travis had last seen him. He licked dry lips. “Have you seen Deputy Windom lately?”
A faint buzzing, and silence.
“Max? Are you—?”
“Yes. Yes, I saw—”
Max’s voice was cut off by another sound: a whine so piercing Travis had to jerk the phone away for fear his skull would shatter.
“Max? Max, are you there? What was that?”
Static coalesced into a faint voice. “I’ve got to go, Travis.”
“Wait—are you coming to the saloon tomorrow?”
“Maybe. I’m not sure. But I’ll see you soon, Travis. Promise.”
Travis clutched the phone, as if holding it more tightly would keep his friend on the line. “Max, just tell me—”
This time the hiss was replaced by the monotonous drone of a dial tone. Travis hung up the phone.
It was only when Molly Nakamura asked him for a refill on her chai that he realized he had been staring at the phone. He mixed a cup of the fragrant tea and pushed it toward her. She gave a solemn nod, then returned to the table where she was giving an impromptu origami lesson.
Travis turned to unload a tray of dirty glasses. Something on the bar caught his eye. He picked it up and cupped it in his hand. Crisp paper wings stretched from its black body, and its sharp beak curved downward. Although he was sweating, a shudder coursed through him.
It was a gift, Travis. Molly couldn’t have known. On this world, it’s just a bird.…
He set the origami raven back on the bar. Maybe she would think he hadn’t seen it.
Two hours later, the last of the cowboys stumbled out the door of the saloon. Travis turned chairs up on tables and swept the floor. He wished Deirdre was there. Not to help with the work, but to keep him company, and maybe play a soft song on her mandolin. He finished the rest of his work in silence.
It was late. Time to lock the door, head upstairs, make a try at sleeping. Travis grabbed the keys from the hook behind the bar, then paused. He let his gaze wander over the saloon. It all should have been warm and familiar. Instead it was like looking at a foreign landscape. Nothing was right anymore. The heat, the town, Max. What had happened to Castle City?
What happened to you, Travis?
He wasn’t certain if the voice in his mind was his own, or if it was the other voice, the one that told him things, the one that sounded like Jack. But that voice hadn’t spoken to him since his return to Earth. Whatever its source, there was truth in the voice’s words.
Maybe Castle City hasn’t changed, Travis. Maybe you have.
All the same, something was wrong. Travis wasn’t sure what it was, but it had something to do with the weather, and the man in black, and the crescent moon logo. But how did it all fit together?
He shook his head. Once before he had wondered where he was going to get answers to his impossible questions. But this time there was no old-fashioned revival tent glowing in the night before him.
Maybe they can help you, too.…
Or did he have someplace to go for answers after all? He dug into the pocket of his jeans and pulled out the crumpled brochure. The crescent moon glowed in the illumination of the neon bar lights. Duratek. What could they do for him? What changes might they bring to his life? He hesitated, then opened the brochure.
New shock flowed through him, as if his own body had become the wire. A mosaic of brilliant images met his eyes, depicting laughing people and too-real landscapes. He shoved his hand back in his pocket and dug deeper. This time he came out with a small scrap of paper, the one he had found outside Max’s apartment. He didn’t need to place it atop the brochure to know it matched, but he did all the same.
“What are you doing, Max?” he whispered. “What are you doing?”
Travis folded the brochure and scrap, paused, then picked up the origami raven—no one had taken it from its perch on the bar—pressed it flat, and folded it inside the brochure. He shoved the bundle of paper back into his pocket, scooped up the keys, and headed for the door.
Afterward, Travis was never sure what made him stop as he pushed the key into the dead bolt, what made him turn the knob, open the front door of the saloon, and step out into darkness. Sometimes fate drew one onward. Sometimes danger did as well.
The onyx vehicle merged seamlessly with the night. Only the cool sheen of starlight against glossy paint betrayed its presence. He could just make out the pale curve of a crescent moon, far too low to be in the sky.
Travis stepped to the edge of the boardwalk. There was the solid chunk of a car door shutting, then the grinding of shoes on gravel. The man stepped out of the shadows into the pool of light in front of the saloon.
“I’ve been waiting for a chance to talk to you,” the man said.
Travis gripped the rail of the boardwalk. It wasn’t so much surprise he felt as dread. “Who are you?”
The man smiled, but the expression was secret, as if only for himself. He was short and handsome: blond hair and goatee shorn close, shoulders solid beneath a dark silk shirt, hips slim in black jeans. His eyes were blue behind wire-rimmed glasses that were a mirror of Travis’s own.
“Worlds of possibility,” the man said. “Close to home.”
Travis shook his head. “But what does it mean? What are you selling?”
“Everything. Haven’t you seen our commercials?” His laugh was wonderful—low and inviting. “But of course you have. They’re sort of hard to miss. Thank our marketing department for that. Whatever people want, whatever people need, whatever they’re too afraid to dream of—that’s what we sell.”
“Possibility,” Travis murmured.
“Worlds of possibility.” The man paused. “But then, you know all about other worlds, don’t you, Mr. Wilder?”
The night was perfectly still. Sweat seeped down Travis’s sides. What had he been expecting the other to say?
The man stepped away from his vehicle and moved toward the boardwalk. His blue eyes were earnest behind his glasses.
“Do you know what it means, Mr. Wilder? Do you understand the implications of what you’ve discovered? What it means for this world, what it means for all of us?”
Travis’s mouth was filled with dust. It was hard to form the words, and when he did they were utterly hollow. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
This time the man’s smile edged into a smirk. “On the contrary, you understand better than anyone, Mr. Wilder. You’ve seen for yourself what another world has to offer.”
“What do you mean?”
The man moved closer. “You really can’t see it, can you? That’s ironic. You’ve been there, but you don’t get it.” He shrugged. “Consider it this way. What do you think the Vikings thought when their dragon ships landed on the desolate shores of Greenland? What did Christopher Columbus think when he realized that the jumble of islands he had found weren’t anywhere near India? What do you think was going through the minds of the men and women who sailed across a vast ocean to settle at Jamestown?”
Travis could only stare.
The man spread his hands wide. “A new world, Mr. Wilder. That’s what I’m talking about. The whole history of mankind can be measured as long intervals of meaningless static punctuated by the discovery of new worlds. These days most people believe there are no more worlds to find, at least not without climbing into a spaceship for a few hundred years.” He brought his hands together. “But you and I both know that isn’t true.”
“Leave me alone,” Travis said.
The man had reached the edge of the boardwalk. “Please, Mr. Wilder. I’m not your enemy. Far from it. Haven’t you wanted to meet someone who could understand what you’ve been through? Someone whom you could tell everything?”
Yes. Yes, more than anything. But this man hadn’t been there. He could never have understood.
Travis let go of the railing. “I said leave me alone.”
The man sighed. “All right, Mr. Wilder. I can see you’re not ready to hear what I have to say. But let me give you some advice. I know you don’t trust me. And I’m sure you know people whom you think you can trust.” He cocked his head. “But you can never really know another, Mr. Wilder. Not truly, not what burning secrets they keep deep in their hearts. Everyone is seeking something. At least I’ve told you what I want.”
Travis could not breathe. Despite the darkness the heat was suffocating. What was the man talking about? But the other only nodded, then turned toward his vehicle. Without thinking, Travis raised an arm.
The rest of his words were cut off as the roar of an engine tore apart the night.
Travis jerked his head up in time to see a white-hot beam pierce the darkness. He shielded his eyes with a hand, and when he lowered it again he saw a motorcycle skid to a halt in front of the boardwalk. The rider flipped up the visor of a black helmet. Smoke-green eyes flashed.
“Get on, Travis!”
He stood frozen, then shock became motion, and he jumped down to the street.
The blond man laughed over the growl of the engine. “And here is one who seeks even now!”
Travis hurried to Deirdre. “What’s he talking about?”
“Don’t listen to him, Travis.” Her words were hard behind the face guard of her helmet.
Travis glanced at the man. The other’s hands were on his hips, his expression grave now.
“Remember what I told you, Mr. Wilder.”
Travis looked back at Deirdre. “What’s going on?”
“Come with me, Travis. Come with me if you want to understand.”
For a heartbeat movement was impossible. Travis could feel the man’s eyes bore into him along with Deirdre’s.
You can never really know another.…
Then he climbed onto the back of the motorcycle. He barely had time to circle his arms around Deirdre’s waist before she cranked the throttle. The Harley screamed forward like a Chinese dragon, and everything vanished in its dark wake.
Deirdre cut the Harley’s engine, and the motorcycle coasted to a stop. Silence descended over the night like a curtain of hot black velvet. Travis brushed wind-tangled hair from his eyes and saw, looming in the murk, the graceful facade of the Castle City Opera House.
These days the opera house was abandoned, but at its zenith its stage had played home to some of the finest tenors and sopranos of Europe, and it was said that once President McKinley himself had viewed a Parisian burlesque show there. Even in decay, there was an air of elegance about the opera house. Greek Revival columns glowed in the cast-off shine of a streetlight.
For what seemed an hour he had clung to Deirdre while the motorcycle sped down empty roads, but at some point they must have turned around, for they had come to a halt at the end of Elk Street, no more than half a mile from the saloon. He let go of Deirdre and stumbled off the Harley. It felt as if the world were still moving beneath him. Then again, maybe it was.
Deirdre stepped off the bike and removed her helmet in one fluid motion. She shook out her short black hair, then turned her eyes on Travis.
“Are you all right?”
It was the first thing she had said since the moment she shouted for him to get on the bike. He opened his mouth, but he could find no words to answer. Travis wasn’t even sure he knew what all right was anymore. Deirdre turned and gazed into the night. He was suddenly certain that she knew far more about what was happening than he did.
Travis looked up at the ghostly opera house. “Why here?”
“There’s someone you need to meet.”
With that, Deirdre headed up the sweeping marble staircase to the entrance of the opera house. Travis hesitated. Once, at the weird revival show, Brother Cy had told him that he always had a choice. Now he wasn’t so certain that was true. He hurried after Deirdre.
Travis caught up to her as she paused before the door. “It’s locked,” he said. “This place hasn’t been used in—”
He halted as she pulled a device from her pocket. It was shaped like a river pebble, but molded of plastic. She touched a small button. There was a click, and one of the double doors swung open an inch. She slipped the device back into her pocket and pushed through the doorway. Travis took a breath, then followed her into darkness beyond.
They moved through dimness, then came to the edge of a vast space. Across an ocean of shabby seats was a stage lit by a single spotlight.
Deirdre leaned against an ornate railing. She did not shout, but her voice rang out across the old theater. “They found him.”
Travis glanced at her. Who was she speaking to? Then a voice drifted through the proscenium arch, carried by the acoustics of the opera house.
“The Philosophers will not be pleased.”
Deirdre tightened her grip on the railing. “Damn the Philosophers.”
Now laughter floated on the air. “Speak carefully, Deirdre Falling Hawk. The Philosophers have many ears. You’ve always had a tendency to forget that fact.”
A figure stepped from the shadowy wings of the stage, into the spotlight.
“Welcome, Travis Wilder,” the man said.
Travis shook his head, and a sick feeling oozed into his stomach. Who were all these strangers who seemed to know him so well? He glanced at Deirdre, but her eyes were dark and distant, fixed on the stage. At that moment she might as well have been a stranger to him, too.
“What do you want?” Travis said, surprised at the way his trembling voice rose on the air of the opera house.
“To help,” the man onstage said.
Travis sighed. He noticed that the other had not said, To help you.
Deirdre touched his arm. “Come on, Travis.”
She led the way down to the stage, and he followed.
By the time they reached the bottom, the man sat on the edge of the orchestra pit. He looked to be Travis’s age, early thirties, or perhaps just a little older given the flecks of gray in his curly black hair. He wore rumpled chinos and a white linen shirt rolled up to the elbows. Stubble shadowed his square jaw, and his nose was aquiline above sensual lips. He looked like a movie star from some forties film noir: handsome, disheveled, possibly dangerous. On the stage next to him was a manila envelope.
“Who are you?” Travis said.
The man held out a hand. “My name is Farr. Hadrian Farr.”
Travis didn’t accept the gesture. That wasn’t what he had meant.
The man—Farr—seemed in no way rebuffed. His hand moved to the manila envelope, as if this was what he had been reaching for all along.
Travis tried again. “What do you want?”
The man smiled. His teeth were crooked. It was a charming expression. “We seek things,” he said. “Unusual things. Wonderful things.”
Travis drew in a sharp breath.
Everyone is seeking something.…
He breathed out, wanting to ask more, but he didn’t know where to begin.
Farr pulled something from the envelope and held it out. “Do you know this woman, Mr. Wilder?”
Travis’s hand shook as he accepted the photograph, as if somehow he already knew what he would see. The woman in the photo was desperate and regal. She ran down the steps of a building, her hand to her throat, staring forward with stunning green-gold eyes. In that instant, he understood.
Travis looked up and met Farr’s gaze. “You’re Seekers, aren’t you?” He turned toward Deirdre. “Both of you.”
Farr raised an eyebrow, and Deirdre’s mouth dropped open. Travis allowed himself a humorless smile. It was good to know that he could spring a few surprises of his own.
“Don’t look at me,” Deirdre said when Farr glanced her way. “I didn’t tell him.”
Farr nodded. “We need to remember that Mr. Wilder might well know much more than we imagine.”
Deirdre reached out, as if to touch Travis, then pulled her hand back. “How did you …?”
He smiled and brushed a finger across the photo. “It was Grace. Grace Beckett. She told me about the Seekers.” He glanced up. “And about you, Hadrian Farr.”
Farr’s expression was intent. “So you are acquainted with Dr. Grace Beckett.”
Now Travis did laugh. He thought of all he and Grace had been through, all they had done, all they had survived. “You might say that.”
He handed the photo back to Farr. Shadows pressed around them like silent actors.
Travis looked at Deirdre. “I suppose this means you didn’t really come to the Mine Shaft to play music.”
Her smile was small and private. “In a way, I did. That time I sang at the saloon, three years ago, is more special to me than you can know. I suppose part of me was hoping I could feel a glimmer of that magic again. And maybe I have. But you’re right. There’s another reason why I came to Castle City.”
“The Immolated Man,” Travis whispered.
Farr slipped the photo back into the envelope. “You’re right, Deirdre. He is indeed perceptive.”
Deirdre met Farr’s eyes. “Do you want to tell him? Or should I?”
“I think I can manage.”
Travis pushed the gunslinger’s spectacles higher on his nose. “Tell me what?”
Farr slid from the edge of the stage to stand. He was several inches shorter than Travis, but somehow Travis felt like the smaller one. There was an air of quiet power about Farr. In some ways he reminded Travis of Falken Blackhand.
“To tell you why we’ve been searching for you, Mr. Wilder.”
It was only when Deirdre caught his arm and led him to the front row of seats that Travis realized his knees were shaking. As he sat, a dusty exhalation rose from the cushion. He looked up at the two Seekers. Deirdre’s eyes were concerned. Farr’s expression was more difficult to fathom.
Farr pulled a slim silver case from the pocket of his chinos, took out a cigarette, then cocked his head toward Travis. “Do you mind if I smoke?”
“I don’t tell other people how to live their lives.”
Farr nodded. “That’s good advice, Mr. Wilder. I’ll do my best to heed it.” He lit the cigarette, and spicy smoke coiled to the catwalks above. “But allow me to tell you this. There is one who approached you tonight. He didn’t tell you his name, nor is it important. It’s whom he represents that matters. And I say this not in an attempt to control you, but in an effort to save you, Mr. Wilder. Do not talk to them.”
The force of Farr’s words struck Travis by surprise, pushing him back into the seat. “Duratek,” he said.
Deirdre crouched down beside Travis. “Yes, the man at the saloon was from Duratek Corporation. They’ve been—”
Farr raised a hand. “Not yet, Deirdre. There are some things we must tell Mr. Wilder first.”
Deirdre stood and gave a curt nod.
Farr leaned against the stage. “It’s true that we’re interested in the man in the black robe who came to the saloon. We’ve been investigating cases like this for some time. However, we investigate many things, and it was not because of him that we came to Castle City.”
“But what happened to him?” Travis said, his voice a croak. “How did he …?”
Farr picked up the envelope and pulled out more photos. He handed them to Travis. Although he did not want to, Travis forced himself to look. Images met his eyes: dark husks twisted into horrible poses. He recalled a television special he had seen about Pompeii. Thousands had been buried by the scalding ash of Vesuvius. Nineteen centuries later, archaeologists had poured plaster into the hollows where their bodies had been burned away. Those casts reminded Travis of the shapes in the photos, each one a perfect effigy of the final moment of pain, before the fire consumed them.
Farr held out a hand, and Travis gratefully surrendered the photos.
“What’s happening to them?” he said.
Farr drew on his cigarette. “That’s a question we very much want to answer. There have been incidents of spontaneous combustion recorded for centuries, but the current cases are different in subtle ways. Our tests show that the spot temperatures reached are far higher than in previous cases. Even so, with almost all victims, the body is not consumed by the heat. Instead, we’ve recorded distinct changes in morphology, organic chemical composition, and even DNA structure. The man who entered your establishment is one of the few exceptions, as his immolation was complete. In virtually all other cases, it is not as if the victim is being burned so much as … changed.”
Travis glanced up at Deirdre, his gray eyes wide behind his spectacles. “It’s just like what you told me, the story about the Immolated Man. But you said that was only a myth.”
Deirdre gave a wry smile. “Only a myth is an oxymoron, Travis. Myths have the power to reveal truths about our lives in ways our senses can’t. In some ways, myths are more real than the world we see, not less.”
Farr crushed out his cigarette in a rusted sardine tin. “Over the last several months, there has been an epidemic of these new cases of spontaneous combustion. Some in our organization believe they might be related to the current heat wave on this continent. Some have … other ideas. Regardless, right now the outbreak is largely unknown to the public. But that might soon change.”
“Why?” Travis said, not sure he wanted to know.
Farr’s expression was grim. “Just last week I watched a man in a Kansas City hospital burning, even as the doctors there tried to save him. His case was atypical in that, for several hours after the immolation, he survived.”
Travis pressed his eyes shut. No, he had not wanted to know this. He forced his eyes back open. “What … what did he …?”
“What did he become?” Farr shook his head. “I’m not certain. However, the hospital’s tests will certainly reveal what our own studies have. It is only a matter of time before this story is more widely known. But to answer your question: Toward the end, before he ceased, his flesh was the color and texture of basalt, and when a nurse attempted to give him an injection, witnesses say that he touched her, and she caught on fire. She’s in an intensive care unit at the moment. The doctors doubt she will survive.”
Travis swallowed hot bile. “So what does this have to do with me?”
“Nothing, or so we thought,” Farr said. “We did not think these incidents were related to your case. And they still might not be. But one thing I have learned over the years is to seek connection in coincidence.”
Something was wrong—something beyond the Seekers, beyond the immolations. “But if you didn’t come to Castle City because of the burnt people, why did you come?”
Farr glanced at Deirdre. “I think you might do a better job here.”
Deirdre perched on the corner of the seat next to Travis. “You say you’ve spoken to Dr. Beckett. That means you know what happened to her last fall at Denver Memorial Hospital, when—”
“—when she killed one ironheart, and Hadrian helped her escape another at the Denver police station.” He knew it was wrong to enjoy the surprised looks on their faces, but he did all the same.
Deirdre gave a slow nod. “I imagine Grace told you the Seekers were interested in her experiences. After the incident at the police station, we tried to regain contact with her, but we failed. The car we had given her was found abandoned just outside Castle City. In the time since we’ve tried to discover where she went next.”
“It’s a world called Eldh,” Travis said quietly.
He could see both Deirdre and Farr tense as they exchanged looks. Deirdre started to lift a hand. Farr gave a slight shake of his head, and she nodded.
“Here,” Farr said as he took another photo from the envelope. “I want you to look at something else.”
Travis took the photo, afraid he would see more images of shriveled bodies. Instead it was a view looking west down Elk Street, in tones of sepia rather than Kodacolor. The muddy street was crowded with horses and wagons. Men in rumpled wool suits stood in groups, and women walked by in dark, heavy dresses.
“This photo was taken here in Castle City in 1897,” Deirdre said. “I found it in the archives at the county library.”
Travis squinted. “What am I supposed to be looking at?”
“Here,” Farr said, pointing to a figure in the lower left corner of the old photo. “This man.”
The photo was blurry at the edges, but Travis could still make out an elderly, dignified gentleman in a dark jacket and waistcoat. His white beard was neatly trimmed, but his hair flew about his head, and he gazed forward with piercing eyes.
It felt as if someone had slipped a needle into Travis’s heart. He looked up. “But that’s … that’s Jack.”
“Yes,” Farr said. “We’ve been searching for your friend Jack Graystone for some time now, Mr. Wilder.”
Travis clutched the photo. “You’re too late.”
Deirdre met his eyes. “I’m so sorry, Travis.”
Silence settled over the opera house.
“I’d like a cup of coffee,” Farr said. “Would anyone care to join me?”
Minutes later they stood on the stage. Travis gripped a Styrofoam cup in his hands, filled from a thermos that Farr had produced. Travis had thought the stage to be empty, but he saw now it was just an illusion conjured by the spotlight. A table stood at the back, cluttered with folders, laptop computers, and pieces of electronic equipment whose purposes he couldn’t guess.
Travis took a sip from his cup. It burned his tongue, but he didn’t care. “What’s going on, Deirdre?
What is all of this?”
She glanced at Farr. “What can I tell him?”
“Whatever you need to tell him. Just remember the Nine and the One.”
Deirdre’s expression was thoughtful, then she nodded and looked up. “It was the autumn after I left Castle City that I first heard of the Seekers.” She paced as she talked, her black biker boots beating against the stage. “I traveled to Ireland, looking for some inspiration for my music, and after that I spent some time tramping around England, Wales, and Scotland. For a week I played at a pub in Edinburgh. That was where I first met Hadrian. We talked after my set one night, and he said some amazing things about … possibilities. Possibilities I’ve wondered about myself.” She smiled. “A week later, he took me to the Seekers’ Charterhouse in London.”
“I was lucky to find you,” Farr said. “The Seekers were lucky.”
Deirdre’s eyes grew distant. “I’ve always known there are many worlds besides our own, worlds that can sometimes draw near to this one. It’s a belief both my parents gave me.” Her gaze focused again on Travis. “I knew the moment I met them that I belonged with the Seekers.”
“So you look for other worlds,” Travis said.
It was Farr who answered him. “As I said, Mr. Wilder, we seek many things. But to answer your question—yes, for five centuries the Seekers have sought out, cataloged, and studied evidence of worlds other than this Earth.”
Deirdre gave a wry smile. “It’s not quite as glamorous as it sounds. After I joined, I found out that most of what the Seekers do consists of reading boring old papers and entering records into a computer.”
Farr glanced at her. “However, it was in doing just such boring work that you found the key to a case that had hit a dead end over a century ago.”
Deirdre picked up a folder. “This file concerns a man the Seekers know as James Sarsin. We don’t know what his real name is, as he’s had many. However, he went by the name of Sarsin when the Seekers first became aware of him. He was a bookseller in London at the time. This was early in the reign of Queen Elizabeth.” Deirdre glanced up from the folder. “By the way, that’s Queen Elizabeth One. All of this occurred in the year 1564, but it was clear even then that the man who called himself Sarsin had been living in and around London for nearly two centuries.”
Travis shook his head. “But that’s—” He cut the sentence short. Impossible was a meaningless word. Anything was possible. Hadn’t he learned that well enough?
Deirdre pulled several papers from the folder. “These are copies of the deeds for Mr. Sarsin’s London bookshop, dating from 1532 to 1851. If you look at them, you’ll see that, every fifty years or so, the proprietor of the Queen’s Shelf died, and the business was bequeathed to another individual.”
Travis flipped through the pages. Reading was always hard, and the ornate script complicated the task, but his work with runes helped him concentrate and decipher the signatures: Oliver Sarsin, Jacques Gris-Pierre, Louis Gris-Pierre. He looked up. “What’s so unusual about this?”
“Not much—that is, until you take a look at this.” Deirdre pulled another sheet from the file. “All of these deeds were drawn up in the days of inkwells and quill pens. Occasionally, the person signing the deed smudged the document, leaving a fingerprint. This shows a comparison of prints lifted from deeds signed in the years 1592, 1651, and 1799.”
Travis glanced at the sheet. He was no expert on the subject, but even he could see that the magnified sections of the three prints bore the same pattern of whorls. “So you’re telling me that this man lived in London for over three centuries, every once in a while pretending to die and leaving his business to himself so the neighbors wouldn’t get too suspicious?”
Deirdre’s dark eyes sparkled. “You make it sound so mundane.”
“The Seekers suspected that there might be something otherworldly to Mr. Sarsin’s nature,” Farr said. “So over the centuries we have observed him, hoping to learn more.”
“Didn’t they ever consider just asking him?”
Farr set down his coffee. “Seekers tried to approach Mr. Sarsin on several occasions. However, he refused to speak to them. It was clear he was aware of us and our curiosity, and he had no intention of cooperating. Then, shortly after 1880, the Queen’s Shelf burned to the ground. Mr. Sarsin vanished, and the case was closed. That is, until Deirdre came along.”
She shrugged. “It was chance, really. I was archiving old folders, scanning evidence into the computer system in London. One of the pieces was a letter—the last bit of information about James Sarsin that the Seekers retrieved. It was addressed to an acquaintance in London, but there was no return address, and no way to know from where the letter had been sent.”
Deirdre searched through the folder, then pulled out a crisp, yellowed sheet. She read in a low voice.
I fear, my friend, that I cannot impart where I am currently, but let me say that I have found my way quite by accident into the most glorious valley. The native people call the great, rugged mountain that rises to the west Clouded Brow, but to my eyes, as I am certain you can quite understand, it looks rather more like a castle. I shan’t be surprised if I soon decide to make a home for myself here.
Travis went rigid. “Clouded Brow? But that’s the Ute name for Castle Peak.”
“Yes,” Deirdre said. “It is.”
At last Travis understood. “It was Jack. He was James Sarsin. That’s why you came to Castle City, isn’t it?”
“You saw the photo,” Deirdre said. “Jack Graystone lived in Castle City for more than a century, and he didn’t age a day. I think you know the answer as well as we do.”
“Would you like to sit down, Mr. Wilder?” Farr gestured to a chair by the table.
Travis nodded and sank into the chair. He gripped his right hand. He knew that Jack was—had been—a wizard from Eldh, but would he ever really understand who Jack was? And what Jack had done to him?
Deirdre laid her hand on his shoulder. “Are you all right?”
Travis shook with silent laughter. Why were people always asking him that just after they’d pulled the rug out from under him?
Farr sat on the edge of the table. “Once we knew of Jack Graystone, we suspected it was not chance that Grace Beckett came to Castle City just prior to her disappearance. Deirdre knew that you were friends with Graystone. And, as we began investigating, we learned that you yourself had vanished the same night as Dr. Beckett. So I think you can understand why we wished to speak to you.”
Travis only stared at the folder on the table.
“You are an amazing man, Mr. Wilder,” Farr said, his brown eyes intent. “You realize that, don’t you? James Sarsin and Grace Beckett are two of the Seekers’ most important cases. Both are without doubt otherworldly travelers. And you are connected to both. In fact, I would hazard that you are an otherworldly traveler yourself.”
“Why?” Travis said. “Why do you care so much about other worlds?”
Farr’s voice was low. “What is life without new discoveries, new knowledge, new experiences? We are scholars, Mr. Wilder. What motivation do we need beyond wonder itself?”
Travis ran a hand over the folder, certain the other he had met that night would be very interested to see it, would pay dearly for the information within. He looked up. “What about them? What about the others?”
“Duratek.” Deirdre spoke the word like a curse.
“We are not the only ones who seek other worlds,” Farr said. “But we seek them for very different reasons. As I said, we are scholars and academics, interested in knowledge for knowledge’s sake.”
Travis licked his lips. “What about Duratek? What do they want?”
Deirdre clenched her hand into a fist. “To use. To consume. To rape.”
“What do you mean?”
Farr leaned close. “Think about it, Mr. Wilder. An entire new world of resources, completely unspoiled, with an indigenous population whose technology is centuries behind our own. We’re talking about a whole new Third World. Only on that world, there are no laws, no regulations, no international social organizations that must be considered and obeyed. There is only raw wealth, ready for the taking by whomever finds it first.”
Travis stared at Farr, then beyond. He saw the silvery valsindar of the Winter Wood cut down to the bare ground. He saw the rugged highlands of Galt gashed by open mines, pitted with smoking holes. He saw the nine towers of Calavere crumbled by the force of a wrecking ball. New fear filled him, not for himself, but for Eldh and all who dwelled on it. They had saved the Dominions from the Pale King. Would it now fall to a new kind of master?
“No,” Travis said. “No, that can’t happen.”
“Then help us,” Farr said.
Deirdre touched his hand. “Please, Travis.”
He looked down at the folder, opened it, and ran his fingers through the old papers—Jack’s papers. He didn’t want to be this important. It was being thrust on him as surely as the power Jack had given him. All the same, Brother Cy was right. You couldn’t choose what happened to you in life. But you could choose what you would do with it.
“All right, I’ll—”
He halted as something caught his eye. A corner of paper stuck out from the folder. Travis could only make out a few of the words written on it, but they caused him to pull the paper from the stack. It was a poem—no, a song. The words were written in a spidery hand, but they were so familiar he had no trouble making out the first lines:
We live our lives a circle,
And wander where we can.…
He set down the paper and looked up. He could only imagine the expression on his face, for both Deirdre and Farr took a step back.
Deirdre shook her head. “Travis, what is it?”
He spoke the words in a quiet voice. “You used me.”
Farr shot Deirdre a concerned look. She opened her mouth and struggled for words.
Travis stood. “The song. ‘Fire and Wonder.’ You said you learned it from a singer in Minnesota. But that’s not true.” He slapped the folder with a hand. “You learned it here, in Jack’s papers. You played it in the saloon just to see if I would react.”
Deirdre’s face was stricken. “I’m sorry, Travis. I didn’t mean to manipulate you. But I had to know if you recognized the song. There wasn’t any other way.”
She reached for him, but he pulled back. You can never really know another.…
“Yes there was,” he said. “You always have a choice. You could have asked me.”
She moved toward him, and he took another step back.
“Please, Travis. Don’t go.” There was fear in her dark eyes, but whether for him or herself he couldn’t tell.
Farr had not moved. “There is a great discovery to be made, Mr. Wilder. And it will be made. You cannot hide what you have learned forever. Help us make this discovery for the right reasons, not the wrong ones.”
Anger turned Travis’s blood to fire. Who were they to ask such a thing? This wasn’t some peculiar artifact they wanted to dig up. It was a world: a world with living, breathing people. Putting it under a magnifying glass, pinning it like a specimen to cardboard—how was that any better than grinding it all into metal and plastic?
“No,” he said. “You don’t understand. I won’t let you use me to get there. Not you—not anyone.”
Before either could answer him, Travis turned and ran through the darkened opera house and into the night.
“We have to go after him.”
Deirdre grabbed her helmet and pulled fingerless leather gloves from inside.
Hadrian raised an eyebrow. “You’re so certain, then, you know entirely the nature of what we’ve found here?”
Deirdre jerked on the gloves. “No, we don’t know, but that doesn’t matter now. Travis could be in danger. There’s no telling what Duratek might do if they got him.”
Hadrian crossed his arms, and his lips twisted in an ironic smile. “I’m not so certain, at the moment, he thinks any more of us than he does of them.”
“Then I’m going to change that.” She raised the helmet to put it on.
“Very well. I’ll contact the Seekers and let them know that you’ve decided Desideratum Three is no longer necessary. I’m sure they’ll be happy to strike it from the Book.”
Deirdre winced and lowered the helmet.
Hadrian stepped toward her. “A Seeker watches but does not interfere. You’ve already broken that rule once by coming between Mr. Wilder and Duratek. Do you really want to compound the infraction? In the past, the Philosophers have tended toward mercy with those who violate the Desiderata once and demonstrate sufficient remorse. However, they don’t have a reputation for indulging repeat offenders.”
Deirdre gritted her teeth. “Fine. Then I’ll go after Travis as a friend, not a Seeker.”
Hadrian laughed. “And now you’re forgetting the Vow.”
Deirdre stared at him, then her shoulders slumped. “A Seeker’s duty is first to the Seekers.”
“So you remember it after all.”
She set down the helmet, and molten anger faded away, replaced by a cold amalgam of dread, sorrow, and resignation. At that moment she hated Hadrian. But it was only because he was right. She had not sworn the Vow lightly that day three years ago, beneath the sprawling sixteenth-century manor just outside of London. The Seekers were her life now. And although they sometimes seemed exasperatingly restrictive, the Vow and the Nine Desiderata had been created to protect both agents of the Seekers as well as their subjects. It was just that sometimes situations were more complicated than had ever been anticipated by the ancient rules—first set down in the Book five centuries ago by the medieval society of alchemists known as the Philosophers.
Deirdre leaned against the stage. “So we just let him go, then?”
“For now, yes. The Desiderata are clear on this. We cannot force Mr. Wilder to speak with us. We can only observe. That’s because the Seekers must see what individuals with otherworldly connections do of their own free will—without being influenced by our activities, which might contaminate any knowledge we gain from them. In the meantime, remember our motto. To Watch—To Believe—To Wait.”
“But wait for what?”
Hadrian was silent. Then, “For the danger you fear to become real, so that even the Philosophers must see it.”
Deirdre stood up straight. Of course. That’s how he did it—that’s how he made contact with Grace Beckett but didn’t bring down the wrath of the Philosophers.
“The Ninth Desideratum,” she said aloud.
Hadrian’s crooked grin flashed in the gloom. “Very good. You’re thinking now.” He moved to the table, drew out the photo of Dr. Grace Beckett, and ran a thumb over it. “The Ninth Desideratum. Above all else, a Seeker must let no other being come to harm.”
He set down the photo, turned, and fixed his dark gaze on Deirdre.
“It’s the Ninth that keeps us human. The Ninth that pricks our arrogance and keeps us from using the knowledge we gain to play games with fate.” He gestured to the electronic surveillance equipment on the table. “We observe, we catalog, we study. It’s all very proper, even antiseptic. But the moment another sentient being’s existence is imperiled, all Desiderata are meaningless save the Ninth.”
Deirdre ran a hand through her hair. It was good, but not good enough. She wanted to act now. “So how long do we have to wait?”
“If you’re right, Deirdre, not long. Not long at all.”
Deirdre studied her associate. From the beginning she had suspected there was more to Hadrian Farr than she could see on the surface, and at that moment she was certain of it. One did not rise through the ranks of the Seekers as he had done without good cause. Rumors told that Farr had found evidence of an otherworldly portal—only recently closed—inside a Mayan pyramid in the Yucatán. This, in combination with his Class One encounter with Grace Beckett, had caused some to whisper that he was being groomed to become a Philosopher.
Of course, no one Deirdre had met in the Seekers knew for certain exactly who the Philosophers were, or if any of them had once worked as Seeker agents before becoming part of the organization’s secret governing circle. Although all orders ultimately came from the Philosophers—by letter, or more recently by electronic means—after three years in the Seekers Deirdre had yet to see or speak with one. Unless she had done so unknowingly, for there were those in the Seekers who held that the Philosophers walked disguised among them.
She moved to the table. Hadrian was flipping through the pages of a small, leather-bound journal. It was from the Sarsin file. The Seekers had recovered it over a century ago, from the remains of the Queen’s Shelf in London. Those pages not darkened by fire were still illegible, for the symbols written upon them, although runelike in appearance, were similar to no current or historical system of writing. No system known on Earth, at least.
Hadrian ran a finger over a half-obscured line drawing. The drawing depicted a sword, the flat of its blade incised with the strange runes. There was one connection they had not told Travis about—another link between Grace Beckett and the man known as both James Sarsin and Jack Graystone.
She picked up the photo of Grace Beckett and touched the image of the subject’s necklace. It was a trapezoidal piece of metal. Deirdre could not see them in this picture, but she had studied digitally enhanced enlargements, and she knew that the symbols on Dr. Beckett’s necklace corresponded exactly to those in a portion of the journal drawing. That the pendant was a fragment of the sword depicted in the sketch was not the question. How Grace Beckett had come by the necklace—and without any known contact with Jack Graystone—was.
Deirdre sighed. “What does it mean?”
It was a rhetorical question. She didn’t expect Hadrian to answer, but he did all the same.
“It means we don’t know,” Hadrian said without looking up. “It means for all our observations, for all our centuries of studies and analyses, we are as children when it comes to understanding the mysteries before us.”
“But children learn, Hadrian. We can learn. We’ll watch Travis.” She clenched a fist. “And we’ll get to him before Duratek.”
“Perhaps. But what of those who might get to him before that?”
Deirdre frowned, lowering her hand. “Who do you mean?”
Hadrian shut the journal and said nothing.
The sky was burning.
Travis sat on the crumbled remains of a wall—its bricks darkened with smoke and cracked by heat—and watched the dawn trickle into the valley. He craned his stiff neck and gazed at the ruins around him: the slumped remnants of a stone chimney, the scorched plane of a plaster wall, pieces of furniture scattered on the ground, as charred and tortured as anything dug up from the ash beds of Pompeii.
What had made him come to the wreckage of the Magician’s Attic? It wasn’t until first light transmuted the sky from slate to steel that he had even realized this was where his feet had led him after he fled the opera house. But maybe it made some sort of sense. In a way, this was where the fires had all begun.
Where is Jakabar of the Gray Stone?
Travis heard the desiccated hiss again, as if the man in black had just whispered it in his ear. Jakabar of the Gray Stone—Jack Graystone. It was Jack. It had to be. Who else would the man in black have been searching for? If Travis still had any doubts, then the evidence Deirdre and Farr had shown him last night had erased them.
Travis gripped his right hand and stared at the remnants of the antique shop. Anger flared in his heart, as hot and bright as the sun.
“It’s not fair, Jack,” he whispered. “It’s not fair, leaving me the way you did. Now I’m stuck with everything you abandoned, and I don’t understand it. I’m not even close. People are looking for you, and it’s me they’re finding instead, and I don’t know what to do. You got off easy.”
The sun peered over the shoulder of Castle Peak. Travis lifted his head, stared into the hot eye, and willed himself to burn as Jack had burned.
Something dark eclipsed the sun, and a cool shadow fell across his face. At first he could not see, then his eyes adjusted, and his gaze discerned the two figures who stood before him. He pushed up his spectacles, then slipped from the wall.
The woman and the girl wore dresses black as cinders, and their faces were pale as the moon in day. The child’s hair was dark—as if the stuff of night still clung to her—but the woman’s hair caught the dawn light and spun it into copper. Travis drew in a breath of wonder. But this too made sense. They had been here the last time everything had changed.
“Samanda,” he whispered.
The girl regarded him with wise purple eyes. “We have been looking for you,” she said in a lisping voice.
Despite the strangeness of the moment, Travis’s lips curled in a bitter smile. “You’re not the only ones.”
The woman groped with a hand, then clutched the girl’s shoulder. “Is it him, then? Does he stand before us?”
“Yes, Sister Mirrim,” the child said. “He does indeed.”
Travis glanced up, and only then did he see the strip of gauze that had been bound across the woman’s face, concealing her eyes. He looked back at the girl. “What happened to her?”
“She gazed into the fire, to see what lay within.”
Travis shook his head. “She’s blind, then?”
Now it was Child Samanda who smiled, the pink bud of her mouth turning upward in a knowing curve. “Fear not for Sister Mirrim. She has other vision, other eyes.”
It felt as if Travis stood on a carousel, the world slowly spinning around him. “I don’t understand.”
The girl held out a hand. A black shape rested on her small palm: a raven folded of crisp paper.
Travis staggered back and caught himself against the wall. This couldn’t be happening, not again.
“I see it,” Sister Mirrim whispered. “The birds of night have fallen, their wings have been burned. New dark ones come, and all the land shrivels under their touch.” Her hands curled into claws at her sides, and her voice rose into a shrill chant. “The Dead One who was forgotten walks again. He has locked the heart of fire in his prison, and—no! It must not be! He holds a flaming sword in his hand. He will cut a wound in the sky, to grasp the stars, and all the world will drown in a rain of blood!”
Travis stared at Sister Mirrim, and wet horror filled his lungs. Red tears streamed from the bandage that covered her eyes and ran down her cheeks.
“You must go,” the girl said.
Travis tore his gaze from Sister Mirrim and looked down at the child. The paper raven was gone. Her small hand held only ashes, and even as he watched the wind blew these away.
“But where?” His mouth was a desert, his voice a croak. “Where am I supposed to go?”
Wise purple eyes glinted. Her voice was a faint whisper, as if she were already fading. “You must die to be transformed.”
He held out a hand. “No, wait—”
Light struck Travis’s face, blinding him. He turned from the glare of the sun. It was only a second, maybe two, but by the time he turned back the fire-baked ground where both child and woman had stood was empty.
Laughter bubbled in his throat, but he knew it would be a mad sound, and he swallowed it back down. It was easy for them, easy for the ones who went away. But what about him? What about the ones who stayed behind? What were they supposed to do? Then he thought of Sister Mirrim’s eyes, and he knew that it wasn’t easy for any of them.
Travis stepped away from the broken wall, then halted. He still didn’t know where to go. If Child Samanda’s words had held an answer, then he could not grasp it. He considered going back to the saloon, then forced himself to forget the idea. Duratek knew to find him there. And so did Deirdre and the Seekers. He turned his back toward Castle City and started walking across an empty field. Maybe it didn’t matter where he went, just so they didn’t find him.
He reached the highway that led out of town and kept on going. Sometimes the act of walking was purpose enough. Then something caught his eye.
Travis approached the dented newspaper box that rested beside the road, next to a row of mailboxes. He squatted down and, through the scratched plastic panel, read the headline:
DOZENS BURNED NATIONWIDE—CAUSE UNKNOWN
One Doctor Calls It “a New Black Death”
Beneath the headline was a photo: a dark, twisted shape like those in the photos Hadrian Farr had shown him. He sucked in a breath between his teeth, then scanned down the article.
Researchers have yet to discover the cause for the self-immolations that have been reported throughout the Midwest in the last six weeks. Some have labeled it a wave of copycat suicides, but in none of the deaths has a fuel or other flammable agent been identified. According to witnesses, many victims have shown symptoms of unusual behavior and high fever shortly before—
The article broke off, continued on an inside page. The column below held only a small story about the increasing use of Electria among young people, compared to other drugs. Travis dug into the pocket of his jeans, but his hand came up with only a scant collection of pennies. Not that it mattered. He didn’t need to read any more; he knew now where he had to go. Maybe this really was like the Black Death. Maybe it was a disease—a disease transmitted by touch.
He shoved the coins back into his pocket, lurched to his feet, and glanced at the horizon. “Hang on, Max,” he whispered. “You’ve got to hang on.”
Travis thought about getting his truck, but it was still parked at the saloon. It would be quicker to walk to Max’s place than to go back and retrieve the vehicle. He scrambled over a slumped wire fence and headed across the empty field south of the road. Minutes later he crested a rise and saw the Castle City railyard ahead. The road to Max’s apartment was just on the other side.
He skidded down a gravel slope to the flats around the railyard. A hundred years ago, trains had passed through Castle City three times a week, carrying people, dry goods, tools, and coal. However, the last train had rolled out of this place two decades ago. Now the railyard was a silent place: a cemetery where dreams of wealth had died, and boxcars lay strewn about like the corpses no one had bothered to bury.
Travis picked his way over rusted tracks, passed the caved-in remains of the old station house, and crossed to the farside of the railyard. From here it was just over a mile to Max’s place.
He came up short against a twelve-foot chain-link fence.
Travis stared at the fence, not comprehending. Then he remembered. They had raised this fence a few years ago. A boy playing in one of the boxcars had shut the door, locking himself in. They hadn’t found his body for weeks.
Travis took a step back and looked up. The fence was topped with coils of razor wire. Rust tinged its edges, but it looked like blood, and he knew the wire would still slice through skin like butter. The only way out was to return the way he had come, then circle around the yard. Except that would take him farther out of his way than heading back to town and his truck.
He gripped the chain link, but he didn’t bother tugging on it. There was nothing to do but go back and hope he hadn’t wasted too much time. Besides, maybe he was wrong. Maybe all Max had gotten when he touched the man in black was the burn on his hand. At that moment Max was probably in his apartment, resting like he was supposed to be, and he would laugh when Travis knocked on his door.
Or maybe Travis would look through the window of Max’s apartment again, only this time he would see a picture like the one in the paper. He shook his head, forced the image from his mind, and turned away from the fence.
Travis spun and stared back through the fence, jaw open. The man stood where, a moment ago, there had been only dead weeds and empty air. Then Travis saw the curve of black metal just protruding from behind a boxcar. But how had the man known to come to the railyard?
“Look in your pocket,” the other said.
The man was still clad all in black, and, with his neatly trimmed goatee and shorn blond hair, he looked ready for a New York art opening. But shadows touched the pale skin beneath his eyes, and stubble darkened his cheeks. This night had taken its toll on him as well.
“Your pocket, Travis. I can see the question on your face. Go on—you’ll find the answer there.”
Travis hesitated, then slipped a hand into the pocket of his jeans. He pulled out the same few pennies he had at the newspaper box. “I don’t understand.”
The man smiled—a compelling expression. Travis had always envied men like him: short, compact, brightly handsome. Sometimes it felt ridiculous to be tall.
“That one,” the other said. “The Denver 1966. Look at it—bring it in close.”
Travis held up the coin. At first he saw nothing unusual. Then he noticed it was thicker than the other pennies, and a seam ran along the edge. He worked a thumbnail into the seam. The penny split in half. Inside the thin, copper shell a silicon chip shone like a diamond in the morning light.
Travis looked up, eyes wide. “But you were never close enough.”
“To plant it on you? No, I wasn’t. But a customer in your saloon would have been, don’t you think? In fact, I bet you’d probably never even notice if she slipped it into your pocket while you delivered a round of drinks to her table.”
Travis shook his head. It didn’t make sense—everyone at the saloon last night had been a local.
“It’s like I said, Travis.” The man spread his hands. “You can never really know another.”
So that was the answer. Someone else he knew had used him. Travis turned and heaved the transmitter deep into the railyard. There was a ping, then silence. He turned back, and his words edged into a sneer.
“So what took you so long to find me?”
“The mountains have a strange effect on radio signals, especially after dark. We couldn’t pick you up until sunrise. Then we came as quickly as we could.”
Now Travis grinned—it was not an expression of humor—and rattled the fence. “It looks like something got in your way.”
The man shrugged, his expression sheepish. “We try to account for everything we can. This mission took several months of planning. But even we can’t predict all factors. I’m afraid our map of Castle City was somewhat out of date.”
Travis’s grin faded. “I’ll be gone by the time you drive around, you know.”
“What makes you think I don’t have wire cutters in the car?”
“You would have used them already if you had.”
The man laughed. “Very good, Travis. You’re a smart man. A fascinating man.” He gripped the chain link, his blue eyes bright behind his glasses. “I so want to speak to you. Do you know that, Travis? Do you have any idea how much I want to listen to you, to hear about everything you’ve done, every place you’ve gone, all the sights you’ve seen?”
“Why?” Travis said. “So you can know which mountain range to start mining first?”
“Is that what the Seekers told you I wanted?”
His knuckles whitened as he gripped the fence. “The Seekers are as blind as they are arrogant. They think they’re so open-minded, but they’re not.” He let go of the fence, took a breath. “Listen, Travis. The Seekers say they’re scholars, and they are, but they’re the worst kind. They’re not trying to learn and understand. They already think they have everything figured out. All they want are a few specimens they can stick in a case to prove it.”
“How do you know so much about the Seekers?”
He fixed his eyes on Travis. “Because I was one once.”
Travis opened his mouth, but he had no response.
“It comes down to this,” the other said. “The Seekers think they have ownership of any new world that’s discovered—that only the elite should be able to see it, study it, catalog it. Duratek is different. That’s why I joined. We think that a new world should belong to everybody, not just a few academics in their high towers. We want to give this world to everyone.”
“You want to exploit, you mean. To sell it.”
“Words, Travis. Those are just words. And the Seekers’ words at that, I’d guess.”
Travis took a step back from the fence.
“Listen,” the man said, his voice hushed with urgency. “I know I don’t have much time with you. So let me just say one last thing. Two worlds are drawing near, ours and another. You know that better than anyone. That connection is going to be made—you can’t stop it. But what you can do is help us manage it, control it, to make it happen the right way, not the wrong way.”
Travis hesitated. “What do you mean?”
The other shook his head. “What are you asking? Are we going to harvest its resources, mine its ground, farm its soil? Is that the question? If so, the answer’s yes. I’m not going to lie to you, Travis, I’ve told you that. This isn’t some park we’re talking about. We’re not going to put a fence around it, not like this.” He brushed a hand across the chain link. “But the exchange doesn’t have to be one-sided. Think of the things we have to offer. Jobs. Technology. Medicine. This isn’t the first time we’ve discovered new worlds, Travis. But this can be the first time we do it right. Except we need your help.” He stepped back from the fence. “It’s your choice.”
Travis didn’t move. The wind moaned around the abandoned boxcars. Wasn’t that what this place had been once? A jumping-off point to a new world of prosperity? They had pushed out the Indians, killed off the buffalo, and pulled the guts from the mountains looking for wealth to cart to the world back East. Now the silver and gold were gone, but the mountains still bore the open, oozing wounds. Yes, he did have a choice. He always had a choice.
“No.” Travis’s voice was hard. “No, I won’t help you. What you want to do is wrong. No matter how hard you try to make it right, it’s still wrong. There’s no price you can pay to balance what you want to take.”
The other’s eyes were regretful behind his glasses. “I’m sorry to hear you say that, Travis. You see, now that I’ve met you, I had hoped that we could be friends. But, it doesn’t matter. With or without your help, we’ll get what we want. We always do. Because we’re on the side of right, the side of history.” He lifted a hand, almost like a salute. “Good luck, Travis. But you can’t stop us.”
Travis hissed the words between clenched teeth. “If you really want to find a new world, then go to hell.”
He turned before the other could reply, picked his way across the railyard, and waited until the fence was out of sight before he broke into a dead run.
Travis skulked inside the hot shadows of an alley on the eastern end of Elk Street. He almost laughed at himself. Was this what it felt like to be an outlaw? Or a fugitive on the run? Except he wasn’t the one who intended to do wrong.
Beyond the mouth of the alley, the air danced and shimmered above the weathered asphalt. Afternoon had draped its stifling golden gauze over the valley, binding the sun in the sky. It seemed like this day would never find an end. But one way or another, it had to.
From his shirt pocket, Travis pulled a crumpled paper. He had finally made it to Max’s place around midday, after hours of picking his way through town, doing his best to make sure no one saw him. It was an indication of his fear of being seen that he did something he had not attempted since his return to Earth. Travis spoke a rune.
It was Alth, the rune of shadows. As always, his right hand tingled when he spoke the rune, and a rushing noise filled his ears. But the sound was distant and hollow, and it ended too quickly. The air seemed to dim a shade around him, but that was all. However, even this minor result had left him weak and shaking from effort. Clearly his power here was but a fraction of what it was on Eldh.
He supposed he should have been relieved—he had never wanted this in the first place. In the end, power could only harm. But he had to admit, his abilities as a runelord might have come in handy right now.
Whether the weakly spoken rune was enough, or whether any eyes had noticed his progress, Travis couldn’t say, but he had made it to Max’s apartment without getting accosted. However, before he even reached the door, he knew his partner wasn’t there. He forced himself to peer through the window, dreading what he might see, but this time the curtains were closed. A sigh of relief escaped him, then he swore at himself. Max was fine, he had to be.
Travis turned to go, and it was only then that he noticed the paper tucked next to the doorknob. For the dozenth time, there in the alley, Travis unfolded the sheet torn from a yellow legal pad and read the words printed in Max’s neat, ambidextrous handwriting:
Since you’re reading this, it means I was right and you did stop by. Sorry I keep missing you. I’m going to be out all day again—doctors and all that—but meet me at the saloon at sundown. I’ll help you open things up.
Travis grinned—like a corpse in the desert grinned as the heat and dry shrank the flesh from its skull. Meet me at the saloon at sundown. It sounded like a line from a late-night Western: some sort of apocalyptic showdown at the You-Name-It Corral. But it was just a note, and Max couldn’t have known what had happened to Travis in the last less-than-a-day. Max had been sick, only now he was getting better, and he was just trying to get back to work.
But maybe, in a way, it would be like a showdown. After all, they would be watching the saloon, waiting for him. Duratek and the Seekers. Travis folded the note and slipped it back into his pocket.
He jerked his head up at the sound of an engine. A dark vehicle cruised down Elk Street. He tensed to run, although he didn’t know where he would run to.
The vehicle rolled past: a navy blue pickup. He sighed, then clutched a hand to his gut. It was hard to tell where dread ended and hunger began. He hadn’t eaten all day. And he was tired of hiding in shadows.
Travis made a decision. Maybe it was stupid, maybe he would get himself caught, but it was still three hours to sunset, and he couldn’t stay in this place any longer. Besides, all that mattered was finding out that Max was all right. If they caught him, he still wouldn’t help, he still wouldn’t tell them anything about Grace or Eldh.
And you think they don’t have ways of making people talk, Travis? In the end they get what they want. That’s what he said, and you know it’s true.
But no, he couldn’t believe that. If he had thought that way on Eldh, the Pale King would have frozen all of the Dominions in ice by now. Then again, the Pale King hadn’t had slick television ads, personal area networks, and microchip transmitters. How could magic compete with power like that?
Travis stepped from the alley and glanced in both directions. Elk Street was deserted. The afternoon swelter had driven people indoors—into the dimness, at least, if not the cool. He moved along the boardwalk as quickly as he could without looking like he was running. The Mosquito Café was only a block away. He stuck his hands in his pockets and crunched his broad shoulders in, expecting at any second to hear the squeal of tires, the chunk of a car door, and the sound of an angry voice shouting his name. He counted the remaining steps to the Mosquito Café and ducked inside.
The comforting din of conversation and clanking dishes rolled over him, and Travis’s fear receded. In some ways, this was safer than hiding. At least he knew these people.
Or did he? Here and there someone nodded or lifted a hand in greeting. Travis started to wave back, then hesitated. These people were his neighbors, his customers. But did he really know any of them? Last night, one he had thought he knew had slipped Duratek’s transmitter into his pocket. Maybe she was here now.
“Just yourself, hon?”
Travis blinked. Delores Meeker cocked her head to look at him, chomping on a piece of gum, a menu in her hand. He gave a jerky nod, then followed her toward the back of the café. They were halfway there when he saw Deputy Jace Windom seated at the café’s counter. He hesitated, then reached out and touched her arm.
Jace snapped around on the stool, hand on the revolver at her hip. Her eyes were flat and hard. Travis took a startled step back. Jace blinked, and her gaze softened to warm brown.
“Travis—I didn’t see you there.”
“I’m sorry, Jace. I didn’t mean … I didn’t mean to startle you.”
The deputy rose from her stool. Her brown Smokey-the-Bear hat sat next to a mostly uneaten blue plate special. There was something odd about the deputy. Usually she was sharp and precise in the way she moved, in the things she said. Today she seemed slower, that edge dulled.
Delores snapped her gum. “Travis, hon, did you need to ask the deputy something?”
“I’ll be just a second,” he said.
Delores nodded. “I’ll put your menu at the booth back there. Just sit down when you’re ready.”
Travis managed a smile, and Delores moved away. He turned back to the deputy, and the smile faded.
“What is it, Travis? Is something wrong?”
He swallowed, then forced the question to sound casual. “I was just … I was just wondering if you’d seen Max today.”
It was subtle but noticeable: Jace stiffened, and the focus of her gaze moved past Travis. “I’m afraid I haven’t spoken to Mr. Bayfield in the last seventy-two hours. You’re his business partner, Travis. I’m sure you know more about his condition than I do. Besides, I’m a law officer, not a doctor. There’s nothing I can do for him.”
Travis winced at the harshness in her voice, then realized it wasn’t for him or for Max. He glanced down and saw the newspaper next to her plate. With a pen, she had circled the photo of the half-charred corpse.
“It doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it, Jace?”
“Nothing makes much sense these days,” she murmured.
Travis searched for a reply. There were so many things he wanted to tell her, but he couldn’t find the words. “If I see Max, I’ll tell him you were thinking of him, Jace.”
She nodded without meeting his eyes, then turned back to her cold plate of food. Travis headed to his booth, sank into a slick vinyl seat, and lifted the menu Delores had left for him—more to hide than to decide what to order.
After all that had happened, he thought eating would be difficult, but it was the opposite: The mundane task of putting food into his body was reassuring and familiar. No matter what happened to you, no matter where you went, you still had to eat. Delores brought him meat loaf, mashed potatoes, vegetables, rolls, and apple pie. Travis ate them all.
A shadow hovered over him.
He pushed back the pie plate. “That’s enough, Delores. Really. Just leave the check and—”
She sat in the opposite side of the booth and folded her hands on the spangled Formica.
A lump of fear slid into Travis’s stomach, and he wished he hadn’t eaten so much. He flicked his eyes from side to side, but no one in the café so much as glanced in his direction. But then, why should they? Everyone in Castle City knew that Travis Wilder and Deirdre Falling Hawk were friends.
“I’m glad I found you, Travis.”
“I bet you must get a lot of extra credit points for cornering an otherworldly traveler. I’m sure Farr will give you an A.”
Color touched Deirdre’s high cheekbones, but she did not flinch. “I probably deserve that. You’re right—sometimes scholars can get too caught up in their studies and forget that their subjects are people, too. But that’s not what I meant. I’m glad they … I’m glad you’re all right, Travis.” Her hand edged toward his across the Formica. “I’ve been afraid for you.”
He pulled his hand back. “I can take care of myself,” he said, but the words were hollow. At that moment he felt as alone as he had those first days on Eldh, traveling through the forlorn silence of the Winter Wood and away from the world he had always known.
Deirdre shook her head. “I want to believe that, Travis. And I know you’re smart, and that you have a strong spirit. But you don’t know what you’re dealing with. You can’t.”
Travis looked down and ran his thumb across the palm of his right hand. “But maybe I do, Deirdre.” He looked up. “Maybe I know better than any of you.”
She pressed her lips together, her smoky jade eyes serious. “Please, Travis. You’ve got to listen to me.”
Her voice was low, touched by a quaver he hadn’t expected. Maybe she really was afraid for him. He let her eyes draw him in.
Deirdre leaned forward, her voice an urgent whisper. “We blew it, Travis. I blew it. I know I did. I should have trusted you with the truth. But you’ve got to understand. Duratek will talk to you if they think talking will get them what they want. But they’ll do whatever it takes to get the information they need. For their book-balancers, one human life is a small price to pay for an entire new world.”
She reached into a nylon pouch slung over her shoulder, drew out a plane ticket, and pushed it across the table.
“This is a ticket to London. Parked in front of the café is a white sedan. Go out, get inside, and the driver will take you to Denver International Airport. She’ll see that you make it to the plane. When you get to London, Hadrian Farr will be there to meet you. He’ll take you to the London Charterhouse, and we’ll all talk again there.”
Travis stared at the ticket. “Why?”
“It’s not safe for you here, Travis. In London the Seekers can help protect you. You can stay at the Charterhouse as long as you like—and you can leave anytime you want to, I swear it. We won’t keep you, not like they would.” She shook her head. “I know it’s hard to understand. But just come to London, get away from them, and give yourself time to think.”
Travis reached out a hand and brushed the corner of the ticket. It would be so easy. He could get away from here, away from the hot, dusty streets of Castle City, and go to London—cool, moist, ancient London. Would it be so bad? After all, the Seekers had helped Grace escape the ironhearts. Travis drew in a breath, then started to pick up the ticket.
Deirdre licked her lips. “There’s more, Travis, things we haven’t had the chance to tell you yet. About Jack Graystone, and about the immolations. If you come, we can show you what we’ve found, things Duratek would never give you.”
He looked up at her, his gray eyes narrowing behind his spectacles. So there was more Deirdre hadn’t trusted him with. He let go of the ticket. What else had the Seekers neglected to tell him? What other information would they dispense in precise doses calculated to make him behave exactly the way they wanted? There was a Travis once who would have let himself be used like this. But he had left that Travis behind on Eldh, in the frozen wastes of Shadowsdeep.
He grinned, a feral expression. “So, is that your shadow self, Deirdre? The one that can lie?”
Her eyes went wide, and her jaw worked as she searched for words. “Travis, I had to—”
“No.” His voice was quiet but hard. “We choose what we become. That’s what you told me. So why should I trust you and not Duratek? They didn’t lie to me, Deirdre. You did.”
Her face was pale. “Travis, you can’t go to them.”
“I’m not going to anybody.” He rose from the booth.
Deirdre leaped to her feet and reached for him. “Travis, wait. You can’t just go. You have to share what you’ve learned. You have to tell us.”
He turned and stared at her. “Why?”
She took a deep breath, then nodded and spoke with calm conviction. “Before you go, answer one thing for me. Just one thing. If you were hiking in the mountains, and you stumbled upon a fabulous Spanish treasure—a chest filled with wonders, lost for centuries—who would you call? A museum dedicated to studying and preserving precious objects? Or a company that would take the gold and melt it all down? Tell me—what would you do?”
Travis met her eyes. “I’d take a shovel, and I’d bury it.”
Her mouth opened, but no words came out.
“Good-bye, Deirdre,” he said and walked away.
He was almost to the rear exit of the café when he saw Deirdre start moving toward him. Except at that moment Delores Meeker ran after her, waving the check for Travis’s food. Deirdre kept going, but Jace Windom stepped in her path, and Delores caught up. The last image Travis saw was Deirdre digging in her pockets, scrambling for money. She shot one last look in his direction: desperate, imploring.
Travis turned and stepped into the fiery light outside.
The sun was still two handspans above the shoulder of Castle Peak, but Travis couldn’t wait any longer.
For the last hour he had hidden amid the heaps of junk behind Castle City’s old assay office. Kneeling in the dirt, he had passed the time fidgeting with a corroded brass scale he had picked from one of the piles. Once prospectors had used the scale to weigh out their dreams in sacks of gold dust. Now he could not get the arms to swing. Rocks, glass, metal: Nothing tipped the old scale anymore. Everything he had once thought to be solid and real was without weight, without effect. There was nothing left for the device but to melt it down.
He cast the scale back into the dirt, then stood and brushed off his hands. It was time to step into his own crucible.
It wasn’t far to the Mine Shaft. He kept to an alley that ran parallel to Elk Street, moving between trash bins, empty crates, and the remains of cars that had rolled off assembly lines when Hitler was still that peculiar little man in Germany. Several times, between buildings, he glimpsed the street beyond, but the few vehicles that drove past were neither black nor white. Then he was there.
Travis climbed the cement steps to the back door of the saloon and put his hand on the knob. He hesitated. It was too early, Max wasn’t there yet, the door would be locked.
He turned his hand, and the door swung open. Dimness beyond, like a cave. Travis stepped inside and shut the door, leaving the last pieces of the day outside.
He stopped and waited for his eyes to adjust. One by one, shapes appeared from shadows: cardboard boxes, empty kegs, a stack of chairs, the hulking form of the saloon’s old cast-iron boiler. Travis made his way past the clutter, slipped through a door, and stepped into the main room of the Mine Shaft.
It was a little brighter in here—daylight squeezed through small windows—and Travis saw him at once. Max sat at a table, hunched over something, his back to Travis, his long hair unbound and tangled. A low sound rose and fell on the air. Like muttering. Or like a chant.
Travis moved among the empty chairs, his boots of Eldhish buckskin making no sound against the floor. He came to a stop in front of Max’s table, but his partner still bent over the scarred wood, sorting, counting.
“What are they, Max?”
The words were barely a whisper, but they shattered the silence. Max looked up with wild eyes; his matted hair fell back from his face. Travis had prepared himself for the worst, but he took a step back all the same.
Max’s eyes wavered, racking into and out of focus, then locked into place. “Travis?”
The word was the croak of a man lost in a desert, and Max looked the part. His flesh was dark and had sunk close to his bones, and his lips were cracked and oozing. His clothes were disheveled, and a yellow crust caked the bandage that wrapped his right hand. However, no odor rose from him—save for a dry smell, like dirt baked by sun. On the table were a medicine bottle, a plastic bag, and two piles of pills. The pills were glossy and purple, each marked with a white lightning bolt.
Travis stared at the pills. “Max, what are you doing?”
Max grinned, a terrible caricature of his usual mirth. “You know me, Travis … always counting.”
Max scooped the pills into the bottle. One of them rolled from the table and bounced across the floor. With shocking speed, Max threw himself from his chair, scrambled on hands and knees, then grabbed the pill with his shaking left hand and brought it greedily to his mouth. He swallowed it dry, then pressed his eyes shut. A few heartbeats limped by, then his trembling eased, and his thin shoulders slumped in a sigh.
When Max opened his eyes again, they were as clear as a hurricane’s. “All better now,” he said with a laugh.
Travis shuddered at the sound.
Max started to use the table to pull himself up. Travis reached out a hand to help him.
“No! Don’t touch me!”
It was the snarl of an animal in pain. Travis leaped back and clutched his hand to his chest. Max staggered to his feet. His eyes were brighter now, burning with feverish light.
A moan escaped Travis. “What’s happening to you, Max?”
The expression on Max’s face flickered somewhere between wonder and fear. But then, maybe there was little distance between the two. “I don’t know, Travis. It’s like I’m getting clearer. Clearer and lighter all the time. Everything I always thought was real or important seems so dim to me now. The town, the saloon, the people. I can hardly make them out. But other things … they’re so bright, so sharp, that I wonder how I didn’t ever see them before.”
“What things, Max? What things do you mean?”
But Max only smiled and shook his head.
Travis’s gaze moved to the bottle of pills on the table. “What are they, Max? Did the doctor give them to you?” But there was no prescription label on the bottle, and before Max could answer the question, Travis knew the answer. He had never seen pills like them before, but what else could the little lightning bolt signify? “It’s Electria, isn’t it?”
Max picked up the bottle. He held it in the crook of his right elbow. The bony fingers of his left hand fumbled with the lid, then snapped it on.
“I don’t know how they knew, Travis. I’d almost forgotten myself. Sure, I used stuff in New York. Then again, I was a senior accountant at one of the top advertising agencies in the city. Things moved so fast, it was almost company policy.” He laughed, and it sounded like the old Max. “If you weren’t using, they’d send you to the company doctor to get your prescription. But that was ages ago. I left that all behind when I … when I came here.”
Travis took a step nearer his friend. “Who, Max? Who gave them to you?”
Max didn’t look up from the bottle. “They knew me, Travis. They knew all about me, but I didn’t know who they were. Sure, I’d seen the commercials. But I never knew what they were advertising. I don’t think … I don’t think it could have been this.”
A jolt ran through Travis, like one of those little lightning bolts. The word was more reflex than statement. “Duratek.”
Max shoved the bottle into the pocket of his jeans. “I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to take them. But my hand—nothing else made the pain go away, nothing the doctor gave me, and this … this made it stop. At least for a little while.” He hung his head, his voice a rasp. “Forgive me, Travis.”
Travis tried to blink the stinging from his eyes. He started to reach out, then remembered and pulled his hand back. “It’s all right, Max. It’s all right. The pain would make anyone do it. And they’re just pills. We’ll get you off of them.”
Max lifted his gaze. “No, Travis. Not Electria. That’s not what I want your forgiveness for.”
“Then for what, Max?”
“For what I’m about to do.”
A shrill whine pierced the air of the saloon. Travis went rigid. He had heard that sound once before, the last time he had talked to Max on the phone.
Max reached down and unclipped a small object from his belt. A pager. He gazed at the glowing screen, nodded, set the pager on the table, and looked up.
Invisible hands reached out of the dimness to clutch Travis’s throat, strangling him. He stumbled back from the table, sending chairs clattering. Max stood stiff, his expression calm with a kind of sorrowful resignation. Travis fought for air. It was so hard to breathe; the heat was going to suffocate him. A trap. It was a trap.
“How long?” His voice was a croak. “How long do I have?”
Max cradled his wounded hand. His tangled hair hid his face. “Three minutes. Four at the most. They were supposed to be here before you, waiting, but you were early. I guess they hadn’t counted on that. I guess they thought you’d stay away until the last minute.”
Travis’s lips pulled back from his teeth in a rictus grin, and he thought of the fence in the old railyard. “Even they make mistakes.”
Max nodded. “But not many.”
Travis’s grin faded. He clenched his hands into fists, but the gesture was formed of anguish not anger. First Jack had hidden things from him. Then Deirdre. Now Max had betrayed him—good, kind, goofy Max. What was going on? Was everyone hiding some truth that, like a poisoned sword unsheathed, could only wound when it was finally revealed?
Then again, you know all about hiding things, don’t you, Travis Wilder?
He forced his hands to unclench, forced his eyes to meet Max’s.
“I’m sorry, Travis.” Max’s blistered lips barely moved as he whispered. “I’m so sorry. I never told you how … how bad it was. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to keep going. When they first came, when they first gave it to me, I thought they were a godsend. The Electria, it … it was like …” He shook his head. “You can’t understand. It was like life, like hope. Then they told me they couldn’t give me any more. Not for free, not unless I did something for them.” His body was trembling now. “Not unless I wrote you that note.”
Travis knew he should run, knew he should get out of here, but he couldn’t move. Max reached out thin, shaking arms in what seemed a gesture of supplication. Then he snatched them back and hugged them close to his hunched body, as if they were something precious, or something dangerous.
Travis’s anger melted away, replaced by—what? Not fear, not pity. And not just sorrow. Understanding, then. And what a terrible thing that could be. A tremor passed through Max. Travis could feel the heat radiating from him in waves.
Max licked his lips with a swollen tongue. “I’m burning, aren’t I, Travis? Like the people I saw in the newspaper this morning. Like the man who came into the saloon, the man in the black robe.”
No, Travis started to say, then he swallowed the word. “We’ll do something, Max. We’ll figure something out. The truck’s outside. I’ll drive you to Denver. We’ll go to a hospital, and we’ll get you taken care of, all right? Let’s just get out of here, and—”
The sound of a car door shutting drifted through the window along with the bloody light of sunset. For a few moments, as Travis had spoken, hope had shone in Max’s brown eyes. Now they grew hard and dull.
“You’re too late, Travis.”
Travis shook his head. “No, I won’t believe that.”
The sound of another car door shutting. So there was more than one of them. He glanced around, searching for the best route of escape.
“Which way, Max? Which way are they coming?”
Max stared into space, a statue.
Max blinked under the force of Travis’s words. “The front,” he said, gasping. “I was supposed to have locked the back.”
“But you didn’t. Good, Max. That was good. It means we have a chance. Come on.”
He started toward the back room, and he would have tugged Max after him, but he didn’t dare. Not yet. Not until they were sure how this disease of fire was transmitted. However, after a few seconds, Max lurched behind him. Faint but distinct, Travis heard the sound of feet on the boardwalk out front. He stumbled into the dimness of the storeroom. Max followed. Travis shut the door, then groped into the gloom until he found a shovel. He placed the shovel across the door and wedged the ends behind pipes that ran on either side.
“It’s no use,” Max said. “That won’t hold them.”
“It doesn’t have to,” Travis said, turning around. “We just need it to—” His words ended in a sharp intake of breath.
“What is it, Travis?”
“I can … I can see you, Max.”
Max lifted his left hand and gazed at it. It was dim, but in the darkened room it was obvious: a deep red nimbus emanated from Max’s skin. He was glowing. No, he was radiating.
Max shook his head. “What’s happening to me?”
Travis opened his mouth, but he had no answer, and at that moment a crash sounded from the other side of the door. There were a few seconds of silence, then came the muffled sound of talking. Travis made out at least three distinct voices.
He looked back at Max. Now, at last, fear won out over all other emotions. “They’re here.”
Max lowered his hand. Then he gave a small nod. “Of course—I see it now. I see what’s happening, and it all makes sense. I know what I’m supposed to do.”
“What are you talking about?”
Max moved. In the dimness it was hard to see what he was doing, but Travis could follow the crimson outline of his body. Max stooped, rummaged in a corner, then stood again, an object in his left hand. Then he turned, and a stray fragment of light caught a sharp edge. It was an axe.
It was too late. Max lifted the axe and swung.
Travis ducked, but the axe went wide of his head. There was a bright clang of metal on metal, then a hiss like a serpent’s dying breath. The axe clattered to the floor, and Max sagged against a wall, drained by effort. Travis struggled to grasp what had happened. Then he caught the sweet, rotten scent.
It was the pipe that ran to the old boiler. Max had broken it. The room was filling with natural gas.
Footsteps sounded on the other side of the storeroom door. The noise of the axe had alerted them. The door moved inward a fraction, then it met the shovel and stopped.
“Max, what are you doing?”
A thud sounded against the door. The shovel rattled against the pipes, but it held.
“You’ve got to go.” Max’s voice was quiet and measured, as if he had found some strange sort of peace. “Thank you for everything you’ve done for me, Travis.”
“Max!” Travis was frantic now. His heart clawed at his throat. Once before a friend had told him to run. He couldn’t abandon another. Not again.
A second blow struck the storeroom door. The handle of the shovel cracked.
“Now, Travis. While there’s still time. Open the door to the alley.”
The scent of the gas was cloying now. Travis staggered, dizzy from lack of oxygen. In seconds it would asphyxiate them. They had to get out of there—both of them. He stumbled forward, and his hands found the doorknob. Just inches away, on the other side, was breathable air. But Max wasn’t behind him. He looked over his shoulder.
A third blow struck the storeroom door. The shovel splintered, and the door burst inward. In the opening stood a compact man with a blond goatee and glasses just like Travis’s own. The man dusted his hands together and smiled. Behind him were two shadowy forms.
Max stretched his left hand toward the broken gas pipe, palm turned up. The Duratek agent turned toward the motion, and his smile altered into a frown. Max pressed his eyes shut, then opened them, an expression like ecstasy twisting his face. That was when Travis saw it: A crimson blossom of flame unfurled on Max’s outstretched hand.
The blond man’s eyes went wide. Travis turned, jerked open the door, and dived through. Behind him came the rich, mirthful sound of Max’s laughter.
Then the world expanded into fire.
Red clouds hung in the sky as Travis climbed the last few feet of the road that wound up the hill south of town. He knew it wasn’t possible. It should have taken him at least an hour to walk to this place from the burning destruction of the Mine Shaft. But somehow it had seemed to take no time at all—somehow it was still sunset. Then again, maybe it would always be sunset now: the day forever dying in flames.
As he walked, he stuck his hands beneath his armpits. It lessened the sting a little, and it slowed the bleeding. When he had dived out the back door of the saloon, he had sailed over the steps and fallen six feet to the alley, landing on his outstretched hands. Bits of gravel and pulverized glass had ground into his palms, lodging beneath the skin. The wounds hurt. But not that much, not so much he couldn’t bear it, and the drop was the only thing that had saved him.
For several seconds after he had fallen, he lay there as splinters of burning wood and scraps of hot metal rained down on him. Although he didn’t remember the percussion—it had all seemed to unfold in perfect silence—his ears shrieked with the aftereffects of one. Then, quickly, the heat had become too much. He lurched to his feet, stumbled down the alley, and turned to gaze at the inferno that a minute ago had been his life, his livelihood, and his home.
It was several seconds before he could take it all in, before the scene in front of him had made any kind of sense. Most of the rear half of the Mine Shaft was gone. Only the cement block of the steps that had led up to the back door was intact; it was this that had protected Travis from the blast.
A second explosion had shaken the ground then. Glass shattered, and a gout of flame shot into the sky, merging with the crimson sky. Flames embraced the buildings to either side of the Mine Shaft; they would go as well. However, the force of the second explosion seemed to have extinguished part of the fire, and at that moment the sirens had sounded over the roar.
Travis had known that he should stay, that he should talk to them, should tell them that Max Bayfield was dead, along with three people whose names he did not know.
Yet what did it matter? What could he say that might possibly make a difference? Max was beyond help now. And Duratek would take care of their own: He had no doubt of that.
The wail of the sirens had grown louder, and a shard of fear had pierced the numbness that encapsulated him. What if Duratek was on its way there? What if he stayed to talk to the fire marshal, to the sheriff, and they showed up? Max had bought Travis’s escape with his life. What was that worth if Travis just walked into their waiting arms?
Thank you for everything you’ve done for me, Travis.
Everything Travis had done to him. Wasn’t that what Max should have said? Travis had killed Max as surely as the man in black. As surely as Duratek had. But now his pain was over.
With a groan, the roof of the Mine Shaft had slumped in, weaving a funeral shroud of sparks. Travis’s eyes stung from smoke and loss, but his scorched tear glands could produce no soothing moisture.
“I’m sorry, Max,” he whispered.
Then, for the second—and last—time in his life, he had turned to run from the place where a friend had died.
As the scarlet curtain of sunset still hung in the western sky, Travis reached the top of the hill. He turned to look back the way he had come. The valley splayed out below him like a map. He let his eyes move from point to point. From the center of the valley rose a column of black smoke: the Mine Shaft, or what was left of it. His gaze moved south, to a cluster of brown buildings where Max had lived. Now northwest, up the pencil-thin line of the railroad tracks, to the scattering of tiny rectangles he knew to be boxcars. Then finally across the black serpent of the highway, to a smudge on the edge of town. The remains of the Magician’s Attic. Jack Graystone’s antique shop. Where all of this had begun.
Except that wasn’t true. His gaze moved eastward, but the sight he looked for—fields stretching to the flat and hazy horizon, an old farmhouse washed of color by years of rain and sorrow—was beyond the reach of his eyes. Yet it was there, somewhere, beyond the ruddy slopes of Signal Ridge, across the sundering sea of the plains. That was where his journey had really begun.
Now his gaze traced its way back: antique shop, railyard, Max’s place, the Mine Shaft, here. For a moment Travis wondered what he was doing. Then he knew that he had just said good-bye.
Where am I supposed to go?
That was the question he had asked Child Samanda when she and Sister Mirrim had appeared to him. As he ran from the saloon, her murmured answer had come to him once again.
You must die to be transformed.
In that moment, he had known where he had to go.
Travis opened a rusted iron gate, stepped through, and shut it behind him. Then he moved down a gravel path, deeper into Castle Heights Cemetery. The wind moaned a low hymn as it passed among weathered headstones. Travis made his way among the old and nameless graves. It did not take long to find what he was seeking.
The man stood near the center of the cemetery, on a low hump of rocks and weeds, as if he needed a better view than the hill alone could grant. He was tall and straight as a fence post, clad in a black suit. A long hand held his broad-brimmed hat against the tug of the wind, and his craggy face was turned toward the far distance—not the fiery horizon of the west, but the deepening line of the east, and the coming of night.
Travis made his way across the cemetery, but the other did not move, as if he did not see, or did not care, or already knew and was patiently waiting. Then Travis was there.
“Who are you?” he said.
Brother Cy did not turn his gaze from the east, but a grin sliced across his cadaverous visage. “Well, it’s good to see you again, too, son.”
Travis winced. Strange how a voice so low and sweet could smite so sharply. He circled around the mound, until he stood before the preacher. “Tell me.”
Silence. Then, “We are the forgotten ones, son. But we have not forgotten ourselves. Is that not enough?”
Travis thought about this. No, he started to answer, but then he stopped. Perhaps it was enough after all. He knew about Jack, he knew about the Seekers, and he knew about Duratek. But knowledge had gained him nothing in all this. Maybe it was time to give mystery a chance.
“Why are you here?” he asked, because a question was all he could think of.
Brother Cy’s lank black suit coat flapped in the day’s dying breath. Cinders of twilight drifted from the sky.
“Two worlds draw near. When one burns, so then does the other.”
“I don’t understand,” Travis said, even though he thought maybe he did. A New Black Death, the paper had called it. But few diseases really sprang forth anew. They almost always came from somewhere else.
“Eldh needs you, son. They’re calling for you even now. Can’t you hear?”
Travis clenched his bleeding hands into fists, but it wasn’t anger he felt, only weariness. “I don’t care. All I want to do is look out for myself for a change. I don’t want to save the world.”
Now Brother Cy did move: He threw his head back, stretched his gangly arms wide, and laughed. His face screwed up into a homely, comical mask, and his Adam’s apple protruded so sharply it looked as if it would burst from his neck. Travis stared at the grotesque sight. At last the preacher’s mirth faded. He sagged weakly, as if exhausted.
Travis squinted at him. “What’s so funny?”
Brother Cy wiped tears from his eyes. “Why, it’s a joke, son. You made a great joke.”
Travis only shook his head.
“But don’t you see?” Brother Cy clapped big hands together. “Save the world, save yourself. What’s the difference, son? What’s the difference?”
But Travis didn’t see. He wished he could laugh like the preacher did, but it felt as if his heart had burned up, and all that remained were ashes. “There’s nothing left for me here,” he said.
Brother Cy nodded, his expression solemn now, and one of profound understanding. “Then it’s time to go.”
He gestured to the plot of earth beside him. There were two graves on it. The first looked freshly filled. Beside it was a granite marker carved with a single word:
Was the word a name? Travis wasn’t sure. His gaze moved to the other grave.
This one was open still, a rectangle six feet deep, a shovel stuck into the pile of dirt beside it, waiting. At first he thought there was no headstone by this grave, then he blinked and saw there was. He read the sharp words carved upon it:
TRAVIS RALPH WILDER
“In death do we begin.”
Travis started to laugh, but the sound was strangled somewhere in his throat before it could escape. Yes, of course. Die and be transformed. But into what? He gazed at the preacher, then nodded. He would find out soon enough.
“Take your boots off, son.”
Travis hesitated. Didn’t gunfighters always want to die with their boots on?
“Now, son. There’s not much time.”
Travis glanced up. Only a few wisps of red laced the sky. The remainder was purple hardening to slate. He bent and pulled off his boots.
“The rest, son. All of it. Naked are we born, and naked must we go.”
Travis unbuttoned his shirt and let it fall to the ground. He shrugged out of his T-shirt, his singed jeans, his socks and briefs—everything but the bone talisman that hung around his neck. Then he stood naked before the preacher. The parched wind threw dust on him like a gritty baptism.
Brother Cy bent, picked up the boots, and tossed them into the open grave. Then, from nowhere, a bundle of cloth appeared in his hands, and this too he heaved into the open hole. Finally, he reached into the pocket of Travis’s fallen jeans, pulled something out, and pressed it into Travis’s hand. It was small and hard: a half circle of silver.
“You’ll be wanting this,” the preacher said.
Despite the heat, Travis shivered. “I’m afraid.”
Brother Cy gave a knowing nod. “As are we all, son. As are we all.”
The last tinge of red slipped from the sky. Overhead, the first stars appeared, diamonds in the veil of night.
“Now, son, while there is yet time.”
Travis turned and gazed at the yawning hole in the ground. He swallowed, then crouched down on the edge and lowered himself into the grave. It was deeper than he had thought, and darker and hotter. He lay down on the floor and curled up like a small child. Time to sleep.
From above came a final whisper. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.…”
Then Travis felt the first shovelfuls of dirt pour down on him. Only it wasn’t dirt.
It was rain. Sweet, cool, quenching rain.
Grace clung to her horse’s saddle as the castle receded in the distance behind her.
The morning air was moist with the green scent of life, and the sun was a balm on her cheeks. Before her, the land rose and fell in gold-and-emerald waves, marching south toward the heart of Calavan. It was a glorious day for riding—just as yesterday had been, and the day before that. Summer had come at last, and it was impossible to imagine it would ever leave.
Of course, Grace still remembered the gnawing chill that had radiated from Calavere’s stones only a handful of months ago, and the clattering of her teeth when she rose each morning and went to bed each night. Then, one afternoon early in Erenndath—which by her calculations was akin to March—she had looked out the window to see patches of brown amid the usual fields of white. By the next evening the snow was gone, and the world had become one gigantic puddle.
At the Feast of Quickening, it had been warm enough to hold the required revel in the upper bailey, and the scent of flowers had drifted from the castle’s garden to sweeten the air. Yet spring had been as brief as it had been mild. It was summer in her brilliant crown who ruled in this Dominion now.
And King Boreas, of course.
Grace leaned forward in the silver-trimmed saddle. The palfrey—slender, long-legged, and blond as new honey—was only two years old that spring and required little urging. She sprang forward in a gallop, splashed across a shallow stream, and raced up the long slope of a knoll. Grace shut her eyes and cast her mind outward. Yes, if she concentrated, she could feel the land rushing past; the imprints of plants and small, hidden animals flashed across her mind like bright snapshots.
She sighed, then opened her eyes and gave a pull on the reins. The palfrey slowed to a halt and tossed her head. Grace laughed—she laughed often these days, as if the action were natural for her, and she supposed just maybe it was. Lord Harfen, the king’s marshal and keeper of his horses, had warned her that the young mare liked to run.
“All right, Shandis, that’s enough for the moment,” Grace murmured, stroking the palfrey’s arched neck. The horse had been a springtime gift from King Boreas, and Grace had picked the name herself. It meant sunberry.
Shandis gave a delicate snort, as if to indicate she hardly required rest, but if Grace needed the excuse in order to take a break, then so be it. At least, that was how it sounded to Grace. However, as a scientist, she knew it was at best silly and at worst dangerous to personify nonhuman species. A two-year-old mare could no more grasp a concept like humor than she could grasp a baseball with her hoof.
Then again, science had nothing to do with the way Grace’s heart had pounded that day in the stable when Lord Harfen had led the palfrey into the aisle, or the thrill that had coursed through her when Shandis had approached with halting steps to nuzzle her outstretched hand. Maybe thumbs weren’t everything.
Low thunder approached, not in the cloudless sky, but up the hill behind Grace. She turned to see four riders—two women and two men—gallop up the grassy slope. They brought their mounts to a halt alongside hers.
Aryn pushed dark hair back from bright cheeks. Her blue riding gown was askew around her saddle. “Grace, what on Eldh possessed you to ride like that?” the young baroness asked. “You know shepherd’s knot is hard to see before it blooms. How do you expect to find any when you’re flying above it?”
The second woman nudged her mount closer. Her hair was long, coal black, and tightly curled, and her skin was the rich, dark color of maddok. The smile that played across her full lips was mysterious—as all of Lirith’s expressions were. “Perhaps it was not shepherd’s knot that Lady Grace was looking for.”
Grace grinned at the slender, brown-eyed witch. “Perhaps,” she said, trying for a bit of mystery herself.
Durge blew a breath through his drooping mustaches. The craggy-faced Embarran knight towered over the others on the back of his sooty charger, Blackalock. Despite the fair day, he was dressed in heavy garb of gray. “My lady,” he said to Grace, “it is perilous for you to ride ahead like that. There is no telling what dangers you might encounter, even in sight of the king’s castle.”
“With all respect, my lord, I would hazard that Her Radiance has the ability to care for herself.”
These good-natured words were spoken by the last member of the riding party, a knight by the name of Sir Garfethel. He was a powerful and broad-shouldered man—if not very tall—and while his beard was only a brown dusting on his cheeks, he sat straight on his charger and gripped the reins in capable-looking hands. All the same, Grace found it hard not to think of him as just Garf, the squire who had tripped after her through the muck of the bailey one day several months ago, and who had humbly begged her to sponsor him for knighthood.
Grace had been horrified at his words. She wasn’t a duchess, no matter what Boreas or Aryn said. It would be utter fraud for her to knight a man. Like many squires, Garf was a second or third son who had right to neither land nor title and who was seeking a lord or lady who would grant him such in exchange for his allegiance. However, Grace had nothing to grant, and in no uncertain words she told him to leave her alone.
Garf followed her, of course. For the next two weeks, Grace found herself stumbling over him at every turn as he made a dogged effort to be of service. At last she advanced on him, and asked him flat out, “Why me, Garf?”
He had seemed genuinely surprised at this question. “What knight would not wish to pledge himself to the noblest and most beautiful lady in the Dominion?”
Grace had let out a groan. “And if I were really that, then I would have men falling at my feet to serve me.”
“Do you mean like Sir Durge, my lady?” Garf had said with an innocence so perfect it could only be genuine.
That had shut Grace up.
The next day she spoke with King Boreas, and they worked out an arrangement. Garf had squired with Sir Belivar, one of the king’s household knights, and Belivar recommended Garf for knighthood with such enthusiasm that Grace wondered if Belivar, who was getting on in years, wasn’t just relieved to be discharged of his duty. As was typical, Boreas had a number of lands at his disposal—fiefs left heirless or seized from intractable lords—and he generously granted Grace a small manor in western Calavan, which she in turn granted to Garf.
They held the knighting on the first day of Vardath.
At dawn they gathered in the upper bailey. Barefoot and clad in a white shift, Garf knelt before Grace while Boreas, Aryn, Durge, and Belivar stood behind. At that moment he had looked so much like a boy that Grace nearly lost her nerve. However, a nod from Durge steadied her. She gripped the sword taken from Boreas’s armory, and while she feared she would fumble the heavy weapon and lop his head off, she instead tapped each of his shoulders with surgical precision.
“Rise, Sir Garfethel,” she had said, and she might have laughed at the absurdity of it. Except at that moment the sun crested the wall of the castle, and as he stood in its gold radiance Garf looked so proud and noble that her mirth stopped short at the sudden lump in her throat.
“Do not weep, my lady,” he said, and she laughed, wiping the tears from her cheeks. Why were her knights always telling her that?
After that, Durge led a dappled charger stamping and snorting into the bailey, and Garf promptly forgot his new mistress while he fell in love with his horse. Grace cast a grateful look at Durge. She had remembered the sword, but she had forgotten that a knight required a warhorse.
Thank you, she had mouthed the words to him.
He had nodded, and while she could not quite make out what he said beneath his mustaches, it might have been, I am ever at your service, my lady.
Now Durge turned in his saddle to cast his somber brown gaze on Garf. “You make light of danger, Sir Garfethel. What if our mistress were to ride far ahead of us and then come upon a nest of brigands?”
“Then I think they should find themselves put under a spell,” Garf said. “And when we came upon our mistress, we would discover her waving a finger while the brigands danced in time around her with flowers in their hair.”
Lirith clapped both hands to her mouth, and even Aryn—who laughed so seldom these days—smiled at Garf’s words. However, Durge looked even less amused than usual. Grace knew she needed to say something. As far as she could tell, the primary duty of a noble mistress was damage control.
“I do thank you for your confidence, Sir Garfethel,” she said. “But Sir Durge is right, of course. It was wrong of me to ride so far ahead.”
“Although I would have liked to see the dancing brigands,” Lirith said.
Grace glanced at her. Sometimes it was hard to diagnose whether Lirith was being earnest or making a jest. Maybe for her there was little difference between the two.
Lirith had arrived at Calavere not long after Queen Ivalaine’s departure. This had been in late Durdath, and even though the world was still frozen, the various rulers who had journeyed to Calavere for the Council of Kings, and who had stayed on when it was renamed the Council of War, were returning to their own Dominions. Ivalaine was the last of the rulers to go, and Grace and Aryn ventured to the lower bailey, bundled in their fur-lined capes, to say good-bye.
The queen sat upon her white horse, as regal as the day Grace had first seen her riding up to the gates of Calavere—a day that seemed so long ago now. They bid farewell to the queen’s advisor Tressa first, and the plump, red-haired witch climbed from her horse to encompass each of them in a motherly hug. Grace felt tears welling up, but they froze solid when she turned to speak to the queen. After all that had happened, she still did not know Ivalaine. The queen was as cool as the stars and every bit as impossible to reach.
“We will keep studying, Your Majesty,” Aryn had said.
Ivalaine’s ice-colored eyes had shone. “Yes, sisters,” she said. “You will.”
A week later, on the first day of Erenndath, Lirith rode up to the castle gates, accompanied by a pair of Tolorian knights. She asked to speak to Lady Grace and Lady Aryn even before begging King Boreas for hospitality.
“Greetings, sisters,” Lirith had said to them in the castle’s entry hall. “Queen Ivalaine bade me to make haste here from Ar-tolor. I have come to see to your studies.”
Grace had thought the witch’s words would fill her with dread. So far King Boreas had not discovered what she and Aryn were doing; so far they had not done permanent harm to themselves with what they had learned. So far. Instead, at Lirith’s words, a flood of relief had washed through her.
You want to learn more, don’t you, Grace? No matter how dangerous it is, no matter how inevitable it gets that Boreas will find out what you’re doing and have your head lopped off. You’ll do anything to feel more, won’t you?
But she had not needed to answer the question then, and she did not now.
Garf guided his charger to the crest of the knoll. He shaded his eyes and gazed out over the undulating landscape.
“What is it you search for, Sir Garfethel?” Durge asked. “The campfire smoke of cutthroats? Signs of wild boar? Bogs where our horses might founder?”
“A place to have dinner,” the young knight said.
Grace smiled. Garf’s concerns were always a bit more practical than Durge’s.
They all sat straight on their horses and scanned the distance, looking for a dell or hollow that would offer protection from the wind and water for the horses.
Grace turned toward the baroness, to ask her if she had caught sight of a good stopping place, but Aryn was not looking at the green-gold hills. She was looking at Grace.
“What is it? Grace said, startled.
“The land,” Aryn murmured. “It’s the same color as your eyes, Grace.”
Lirith nodded. “So it is.”
Grace opened her mouth, but she didn’t know what to say.
Garf laughed. “Why, if her eyes are the same color as the land, then she must be the queen of this fair place.” He bowed in his saddle. “All hail the Queen of Summer!”
It was a poor jest. Grace shook her head and started to protest. However, her words faltered as a second sun appeared in the sky. It streaked above them, casting impossible shadows in all directions. The five jerked their heads up in time to see the white-hot bolt vanish into the north.
Durge was the first of them to find his tongue. “A firedrake.”
Only as the knight spoke did Grace realize what it was she had witnessed. A shooting star. Except she hadn’t known it was possible to see a meteor in broad daylight.
“I’ve never seen a firedrake so bright,” Aryn said.
Lirith still cast her face to the sky. “It was beautiful.”
“Let it be our good omen, then,” Garf said with a grin. “We will certainly find a good spot for a picnic.”
Durge gave the young knight a solemn look. “If you wish, Sir Garfethel.”
For the first time in many months, Grace shivered. But that was foolish. “Let’s go,” she said. “I may not be a queen, but I am hungry.”
Together they rode down the slope and cantered deeper into summer.
Not surprisingly, it was Garf who found the perfect place to rest and eat.
The other four brought their horses to a halt beside the young knight’s charger at the base of a hill so perfectly conical in shape that Grace doubted it was natural. There were many such mounds and tors scattering the verdant fields of Calavan, raised by the barbarians who had dwelled in these lands before the Dominions were founded, before the emperors of Tarras had come to plant their golden banners here. Or perhaps the hills had been made by some nameless people long before that—the same people who had raised the circle of standing stones that stood north of the castle.
Grace surveyed the spot Garf had picked for them. The ground sloped gently to a brook, its banks shaded by willow and green rushes. The chaotic song of water chimed on the air, and Grace swallowed, suddenly thirsty. For all she knew the water in the brook would be muddy and brackish, but it sounded cool.
Grace waited for Durge to dismount and assist her. It wasn’t that she felt it was his duty to serve her; it was just that getting off a horse while wearing a gown without falling face first into the turf was a trick she hadn’t consistently mastered. All in all, she would have preferred a pair of Lycra biking tights with ample rear padding, but one had to make do with what one had, and she was a good rider, even before she had had much practice.
Too bad you can’t control people as well as you do horses, Grace.
She winced at the thought. But the voice in her head was hollow now, the words bitter but empty. Grace still had difficulty interacting with people—whole, conscious people. She knew she always would. But she had learned that she didn’t have to be perfect to have friends. When others cared about you, they seemed to develop an amazing ability to accept all of your flaws wholesale. You could break a body into each of its components: organs, fluids, bones. But in the end, Grace was beginning to think, people were a package deal.
Grace swung one leg over the saddle, trying to keep it from getting tangled in yards of violet linen, and let Durge catch her in hard, powerful arms and ease her to the ground. She smiled her thanks at him. Kyrene had been right about one thing: Men did have their uses.
Her smile faded as she thought of Kyrene. Sometimes, when she turned a corner in the castle, Grace still expected to come upon a green-eyed lady clad in a revealing gown, a sly smile on her coral lips. However, if the past was a shadow, its touch was fleeting, like a cloud over the sun soon gone.
Durge moved to help Lirith dismount, and Grace glanced back at Aryn. Garf was helping her off of her horse—a white mare—and if the young knight’s hand lingered a moment more than was strictly necessary around Aryn’s slender waist, the baroness seemed not to notice. He stepped away and bowed, but she had already turned her back to him.
“Well done, Sir Garfethel,” Lirith said, turning around and spreading her arms, as if she were drinking the warmth and life of the dell.
And perhaps she is at that.
Grace gazed at the Tolorian witch, and Lirith smiled back. What the smile meant was a mystery, but it wasn’t coy, not like Kyrene’s expressions had been. Instead it was secret and inviting.
Lirith started toward the banks of the brook, as lithe as a deer even in her russet riding gown, and the two knights followed, carrying a pair of saddlebags between them.
Grace hung back, letting them get ahead, but Aryn stayed with her, as if she knew Grace wanted to talk.
“Can we trust her?” Aryn asked before Grace could.
“I don’t know, Aryn. Can we trust any of the Witches?” It wasn’t the first time they had discussed this topic. “Sometimes I’m not sure we can even trust ourselves.”
“I can trust myself,” Aryn said.
Grace stopped short to stare at her friend. The words had been quiet and hard. She searched Aryn’s face, looking for pride or anger or sorrow—anything, any emotion that might give her a clue as to how to respond. But as usual the baroness’s lovely face was pale and impassive.
“She flaunts her secrets,” Aryn went on. The baroness hugged her left arm around the bodice of her gown. The right arm—slender and withered—was hidden as always beneath a fold of cloth. “Lirith, I mean. Sometimes I think she likes baffling us. Those smiles of hers—she must do it on purpose.”
Grace thought for a moment. “No, I don’t think so. Lirith isn’t like Kyrene was. She has secrets, yes, and they’re locked away. But I think it’s up to us to find the key. I think that’s what she’s trying to tell us.”
“Maybe,” Aryn said, but her smooth forehead creased in a frown.
Grace studied her friend, but whatever was wrong was beyond her ability to diagnose. Something had happened to Aryn, something amid all the dark and remarkable events of last Midwinter’s Eve, but what it was Grace didn’t know, and the baroness had never spoken of it in the months since.
But then, mysteries were not Lirith’s sole purview. We all have our secrets, don’t we, Grace?
She sighed and began walking again, with Aryn following alongside her.
Despite Lirith’s enigmas, their lessons with her had progressed well—if slowly. To their surprise and delight, Lirith had not begun with such mundane tasks as weaving or gathering herbs as Ivalaine had done. Instead, the day after she arrived at the castle, their first lesson had been to spin a web along the Weirding. Grace had reveled in the experience, listening to the smoky chant of Lirith’s voice, imagining the silver-green threads of the Weirding running through her fingers like the threads of the loom as she spun them into a shimmering gauze of power. Then Lirith laughed, and it all had fallen apart. Grace had blinked and opened her eyes to see Aryn looking as stunned as she must have.
The next day they attempted the same exercise. And the next day, and the next, until it was no longer a joy to touch the Weirding, but rather an act of drudgery she could barely force herself to attempt. Grace would work for hours spinning a web—eyes clamped shut, jaw clenched, head throbbing—then Lirith would merely tap her shoulder and the strands of magic would unravel, slipping through her clutching fingers.
“Try again,” Lirith would say, and the exercise would begin anew.
As tedious as the lessons were, neither Grace nor Aryn was ever late for one. Sometimes Grace wondered if King Boreas already knew what they were doing. The pretenses for Lirith’s visit had been weak at best. She had delivered a spoken message from the queen and had asked Boreas if she might stay on in Calavere to visit with a cousin. Boreas had granted her request. However, just who this cousin was, and why Lirith was never seen in his company, were questions that had yet to be answered.
And there was something more, something else about Lirith’s arrival at the castle that had always bothered Grace these last months. Then, in a flash as bright and unexpected as the firedrake, she had it.
She gripped Aryn’s arm.
“What is it, Grace?”
“Remember how Lirith arrived at Calavere just a week after Ivalaine left?”
The baroness looked puzzled. “It’s only a week’s journey to Ar-tolor.”
“Yes. And that means Lirith would have had to set out from Ar-tolor at the exact same time Ivalaine left Calavere.”
Aryn lifted her left hand in protest. “That doesn’t make sense. Lirith said she had spoken to Ivalaine, and that the queen bade her to come here.”
Grace met Aryn’s gaze. “Exactly.”
Aryn’s blue eyes went wide. Yes, she understood.
“It’s like us, Grace,” the young woman murmured. “Like the way we spoke on … like the way we spoke that time.”
Grace nodded. Except neither she nor Aryn had been able to speak to the other across the Weirding since Midwinter’s Eve. At best each had heard only the barest whisper, and even that might have been imagination. Somehow the urgency of that moment had granted them a power that now eluded them. And they had not mentioned it to Lirith for fear, like so many things, it was something they were forbidden to try on their own.
“Come on,” Grace said. “I think that’s one mystery answered at least.”
And a new one opened. Was this something Lirith would ever teach them? But there was only one way to learn. They started toward the brook, following the others.
The afternoon was wearing on toward nightfall. Even in summer, days could not last forever. The five of them would have to ride back to the castle soon. The guards would be watching for them—waiting to shut the gates against the dark.
The guards could wait a while longer.
Grace let her eyelids droop. She sat on a blanket, drowsing in the late-day warmth as she listened to the drone of insects. The air was like gold wine: She drank it in, tasting cool water and sun-warmed grass, then breathed out in a soft exhalation. She wasn’t certain what it was, but there was something about this moment—a peace, perhaps, or a power—that made her want to live it just a little longer.
“Night approaches, my lady,” a rumbling voice said beside her. “I imagine predators will be roaming the land soon—those that prowl on four feet and two.”
Grace did not open her eyes. “Hush, Durge.”
There was a low grunt, but no other reply.
She remained still, listening and feeling. However, both moment and magic were gone. The sun dipped behind a line of trees, and the air cooled from gold to green-gray as the insects ceased their toneless song. Grace sighed and looked up. Durge was on his feet, scanning the distance with deep-set brown eyes.
“Any sign of them?” she asked.
“No,” the knight said. “I fear they might have fallen into a—”
A hole? A gorge? An improbable though convenient pit of poisonous adders? Grace didn’t get to find out what it was Durge feared, because at that moment three figures appeared atop a low ridge some distance away. One of the figures—the broadest but not the tallest, which meant it was Garf—waved to them. So the day really was over then. A feeling of sadness filled Grace, so sudden and strange that she almost gasped. But that was silly; Durge was good enough at finding things to worry about without her helping him. She gained her feet as the others started down the ridge.
As the trio approached, Grace saw that the basket slung over Garf’s shoulder was filled with bunches of green and purple. So Lirith was right. The shepherd’s knot was beginning to bloom after all. That boded well for their simples. Garf grinned and hefted the basket high, showing off. She laughed and waved. Behind her, Durge muttered something she did not quite catch.
She turned to regard the dark-haired knight. It had been interesting to see how Durge’s reactions to her studies differed from Garf’s. While the steadfast Embarran would never have questioned her—or Aryn or Lirith, for that matter—it was clear from his manner that he did not entirely understand or care for what Grace was doing with her spare time. When it came time for her lessons with Lirith, he usually made himself scarce. Were most men uncomfortable with the idea of witches?
But Durge’s response isn’t the same as Boreas’s, is it, Grace? You’ve seen how the king acts at the mere mention of the word witch. He just about needs a full rabies series.
Grace knew Boreas’s reaction was more instinctual than angry. As far as she could tell, the relationship between the Witches and the Cult of Vathris was much like that between cats and dogs, only not so cordial. However, Durge did not follow the mysteries of the warrior cult—or those of any cult. His mind was given more to logic than religion, occupied by his late-night studies of chemicals and compounds. Grace imagined he simply thought the Witches silly, their craft a matter of love potions and empty rhymes, not a true science.
Of course, Grace was a scientist herself, but she doubted Durge understood that. On this world medicine was women’s work, itself at best a half step from the workings of hags and witches.
Then there was Garf. The young knight seemed to regard Grace and Aryn’s studies with an amused curiosity. As it pleases my lady, Garf was fond of saying when she made a request, be it large or small. Grace supposed if she told Garf they needed a basket of a given herb in order to fly around the castle’s towers, he would grin and ask how much. And if the three of them really took off into the sky, he would no doubt clap his hands and laugh at the sight. Garf seemed to take it for granted that Grace could work magic. Would she ever feel the same way?
She hoped not.
“He is a fine man,” Durge said.
Grace glanced at the knight, but he did not meet her gaze.
“I have heard that Boreas is to choose a husband for Lady Aryn this autumn,” Durge went on, his voice gruff. “I hope it will be a man such as Sir Garfethel.”
So Grace was not the only one who had noticed. The others were close now, picking their way across the stones of the brook, although Grace could not yet hear their voices. Even now, while he remained a polite distance from both Lirith and Aryn, Garf’s body was turned just slightly in Aryn’s direction, his head bowed toward hers. A beatific smile hovered on his lips, and his eyes shone.
Grace gave a wry smile. “Something tells me I’m no longer the noblest and most beautiful lady in the Dominion.”
She shook her head. “It’s nothing, Durge. Tell me, does the king know?”
Durge shrugged stooped shoulders. “I cannot say, my lady. The mind of King Boreas is a foreign land to me.”
“Then maybe I had better bring it to his attention.”
Aryn was laughing now, pressing her hand to her stomach. Grace could hear the sound of her mirth, as clear as the music of the brook, although she could not hear what Garf had said to bring it on. It didn’t matter. Grace resolved to speak to Boreas tomorrow. Someone who could bring joy into the baroness’s life would be a blessing, and Grace knew Boreas would agree.
A thought occurred to her. “What about you, Durge? When will you look for a wife?”
Even as Grace spoke the words she regretted them. A grimace crossed the knight’s face, and he turned away.
“Old men do not marry,” he said.
Grace searched for a reply, but as usual words that healed were far harder to come by than those that wounded. Then the moment was lost as the others reached them. Garf unslung the basket of herbs from his shoulder, his face a mask of pain as he let it fall to the ground.
Grace’s medical instincts replaced all other concerns. “Is something wrong, Sir Garfethel?”
“I believe that’s Sir Ox, my lady,” Garf said with a bow. “It was not a noble knight but a beast of burden the good ladies required today.”
Now he grinned: He was not in pain, it had been a joke. Grace forced herself to take a breath. It was amazing how such small things could throw her off still.
“Perhaps one day, Sir Garfethel,” Lirith said with perfect seriousness, “you can instruct the rest of us in the subtle but intriguing distinction between oxen and knights.”
Garf let out a booming guffaw, and Lirith’s eyes sparkled like the sky at night.
“It grows late,” Durge said. “We should be going.”
Garf stifled his mirth. “I’ll get the horses.”
Grace smiled fondly at both of her knights. She might be only a counterfeit duchess, but her good fortune in having these men as her retainers was genuine.
Durge helped Grace mount Shandis, then turned to assist Lirith. However, the Tolorian woman sat astride her horse already, gown neatly arranged. It might not have been magic, but it was a trick Grace wanted to learn all the same. She struggled with her own gown in a vain effort to keep from sitting on a hard knot of fabric and tried not to hate Lirith too much.
Garf, in turn, helped Aryn onto her white mare.
“Thank you,” the baroness murmured.
“As it pleases my lady.”
The baroness bowed her head, but not before Grace glimpsed the smile that touched her lips.
As they rode north across the land, long shadows stretched to their right. They crested a rise, and Grace saw Calavere atop its hill. She guessed it to be about a league away, but that was mostly because she had yet to gain a good sense of any of the measures of this world, and in her mind any distance over a mile and less than ten was about a league.
They lost sight of the castle as they descended into a gulch. Granite outcrops rose over their heads, and the air grew cool and purple. The floor of the valley was thick with vegetation. Grace suspected a botanist from Denver would have found the trees and shrubs fascinatingly deviant, but to her they looked a lot like pine and scrub oak. They reached the bottom of the gulch and headed up the other side.
Grace heard the sound the same moment Durge raised a hand, bringing the party to a halt. They sat still on their horses, listening. Then Grace heard it again: a low, rhythmic sound she could not place. Durge glanced at Garf, and the young knight’s hand moved to the hilt of the sword at his hip. Grace swallowed, startled by the hard look on Garf’s face. For all his good humor, at twenty-two years of age he was a man of war.
The sound drifted again on the moist air, although it was difficult to tell from which direction it came. Aryn cast a look at Grace, her blue eyes concerned. Lirith’s own eyes were closed, as if she were listening for something. Grace opened her mouth to ask a question, but a look from Durge made her clamp it shut again. Maybe the Embarran’s fear of brigands was not so impossible after all.
Durge dismounted from Blackalock. Grace watched as he took three steps forward along the path. Then the bushes to his left exploded, and a black ball of fury burst forth.
It was upon Durge before Grace even realized what it was. The horses whinnied and leaped back. The bear reached out huge paws to engulf Durge. The knight curled up and fell to the ground. Aryn let out a muffled cry of terror.
“No!” Grace shouted, but she wasn’t certain if her lips really formed the word. She reached out a hand, but Durge was impossibly far away. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Garf leap from the back of his warhorse and draw his sword. Then there was another dark flash of movement.
For a horrified second Grace thought it was a second bear. Then the beast let out a trumpeting cry, and she realized it was Blackalock, Durge’s charger. Eyes wild, the horse reared onto its hind legs, then brought sharp hooves down on the bear’s humped back. The bear snarled and scrambled around, but Blackalock had already galloped away. Grace knew that chargers were trained for battle, but she had not understood what that meant until now. Shandis trembled beneath her and would have bolted but for Grace’s death grip on the reins. Aryn was struggling with her own mount—although Lirith’s horse stood stockstill, the witch’s hand pressed against its neck.
Durge staggered to his feet. He reached over his shoulder and drew his Embarran greatsword from the harness strapped to his back. Blood streamed down his face, but he stood straight, and his motions were quick and deliberate. Grace understood; when he fell it was not because he was severely wounded, but rather as a defense mechanism. Bears wouldn’t attack creatures they thought were already dead—wasn’t that how it worked?
Except there was something wrong with this animal. Wild bears were supposed to be afraid of people, but this creature opened its maw, exposing gigantic teeth as it roared. It started after Blackalock, then abruptly turned to face Durge. That was when Grace saw the bare patches in its pelt. Over large parts of the bear’s body the thick fur had been scorched away, and the skin beneath was blistered and oozing. So it was injured, burned in a brush fire, perhaps. And there was no telling what an injured animal would do.
No more than ten seconds had passed since the bear had burst from the underbrush. It took a lumbering step toward Durge. The Embarran backed away. Garf approached cautiously from behind the bear, sword raised, face grim.
Whether it smelled or heard the younger knight was impossible to say. The bear spun around, hackles raised, and roared at Garf. Grace could see past its monstrous teeth into the deep pit of its throat. Garf lifted his sword.
“No, Sir Garfethel!” Durge shouted. “Don’t move!”
Durge’s words came too late. Garf thrust with his blade. The sword sank deep into the bear’s chest—so deep it seemed the animal should have died instantly—but the bear did not fall. It let out a horrible shriek, then lunged forward, ripping the sword out of Garf’s hand. Garf stared as the bear fastened its jaws on his shoulder.
Then the young knight screamed.
The world ceased to move except for the bear and Garf. The bear shook its massive head, and Garf fluttered limply, like one of the little string men Grace sometimes saw the village children playing with. The bear tossed him to the ground, placed a paw on his stomach, and almost casually tore at his flesh. His screaming stopped.
Just when she thought it would drive her mad, the moment shattered. Durge rushed forward and with both hands plunged his greatsword into the bear’s back. A cold part of Grace appreciated the surgical precision of the blow. Yes—between two ribs, angled toward the midline, past the lung. She could see the moment the tip pierced the bear’s heart. The creature’s entire body went limp, and it rolled onto the ground. The bear gave one heaving breath. Red foam bubbled around both of the blades embedded in its body. Then came the stillness of death.
“My lady …”
The words were not shouted, but they caught Grace’s attention all the same. She tore her eyes from the carcass of the bear. Durge knelt beside a crumpled, bloody form. He looked up at Grace.
“My lady, I think you had best come here.”
Everything had changed; the idyllic ride through summer had vanished. Durge started to reach toward Garf, then pulled his hand back. Grace understood. There was nothing the knight or his sword could do. This was her battle now.
She slipped from Shandis’s back—the motion was easy, as if she had known how to do it all along—and approached the two knights, one kneeling, one lying on the ground. She was aware of Lirith following after her, and of Aryn sitting atop her mare: rigid, staring forward, her face as white as surgical gauze. Then Grace reached the two men.
Fear clamped her heart like a pair of cold, steel forceps, but only for a second. If Garf was to have a chance, then he could mean nothing to her. He was just another nameless victim pulled from a wrecked car or an overturned bus and wheeled on a gurney into Denver Memorial Hospital’s Emergency Department. She would put him back together, then head for the Residents’ Lounge to have a cup of bad coffee and watch Elizabeth Montgomery’s antics in a rerun of Bewitched on the blurry television. She crouched beside the patient, and the metallic scent of his blood filled her skull, triggering a chain reaction of instincts.
“Get me four units of O-neg. Stat.”
“My lady?” Durge said, his brown eyes confused.
She shook her head. Of course. This wasn’t the ED. This was a wooded valley three miles from a medieval castle on another world from Earth. But it didn’t matter. It was what she and the doctors, nurses, and PAs did that mattered, not the walls, not the trauma rooms, not the name of the place.
“My lady, I don’t think he’s breathing.”
Grace bent over the patient. She was aware of a great deal of blood, and of wounds to the right shoulder as well as the chest and abdomen. However, she did not focus on these things.
ABC. Airway, breathing, circulation.
She had repeated the words so many times during her internship and residency that they might as well have been cut into her brain with a scalpel. What she did in these first few minutes would affect everything that came after—whether the patient lived or died, whether he would be whole or paralyzed, whether he would be himself when he woke up or a braindamaged vegetable.
Grace moved through the prescribed steps. She stabilized his head between her knees, tilted his head back, and forced his jaw open. She slipped a finger into his mouth, past his pharynx, into the trachea. Just before the larynx her fingers encountered a soft, wet mass. His airway was obstructed with a plug of blood and mucus. That wasn’t good—it meant injury to his lungs—but she couldn’t think of that, not until its time. She freed the plug and heard the rasp as air flowed into him—he was breathing again.
Next step. She pressed her ear against his chest and listened. There were no breath sounds on the right. Her suspicion was correct; the right lung had been punctured and had collapsed. She needed a chest tube, but she didn’t have the tools. Maybe in the castle she could fashion something, but not here, not now. Fortunately, the breath sounds on the left were good. One lung was working. That would have to be enough until they got him back to the castle.
Grace turned her attention to the source of the blood. Third step: Breathing did no good if there was no blood in his arteries to carry oxygen. She had to stop the bleeding. Now.
She pulled aside his shredded tunic and examined his chest. He drew in a labored breath, and crimson foam bubbled from a puncture wound. Air was seeping between two ribs: That was the source of the collapsed lung. Otherwise, the wounds to his chest and stomach appeared superficial.
“Give me your hand.” She looked up at Durge when he did not respond. “Your hand!”
The knight blinked and held his hand out. She grabbed it, took his index finger, and stuck it into the puncture. The little boy and the dike. It wasn’t exactly elegant, but the bubbling stopped.
“Keep your finger there.”
Grace knew her voice was hard, but it had to be. The others had to follow her orders without question. Durge nodded, holding his arm stiffly so he could keep the wound plugged.
Grace turned her attention to the right arm. Barely a minute had elapsed since she had reached the patient, but as she worked instinct had told her that she had to hurry, that the arm would be the worst. Damn her instincts for always being right.
But maybe it’s not just instinct, Grace. Maybe it’s more than that. Remember what Ivalaine said. What you did in the ED wasn’t so different from what witches do.…
There was no time for that thought. She concentrated on her patient.
It was bad. The arm had been completely dislocated from the shoulder joint. She could see the white ball of the proximal humerus, and the surrounding muscle had been torn to shreds. The arm was attached to the shoulder by only a thin thread of skin and tendon. Blood pumped from the torn end of the subclavian artery and soaked into the bed of pine needles.
“Sister, his lips are blue,” Lirith spoke in a soft voice. “And his fingernails. I have seen such in drowned men, but he yet breathes.”
He is drowning, Grace wanted to say. He’s drowning in his own blood, and what little oxygen he’s managing to take in is pouring out of his shoulder and into the ground. But Grace didn’t have time to teach a lesson about the consequences of a collapsed lung to a medieval witch, or to explain the meaning of words like cyanotic and hypotension. She grabbed the severed artery between two fingers and pinched it shut.
“We have to stop the bleeding,” she said. “It’s the loss of blood that’s making him blue.”
Lirith met her eyes. “What do you want me to do, sister?”
She brought Lirith’s hand to the wound and guided her fingers, until the witch had the torn artery firmly in her own grip. Grace leaned back and considered options. There was no hope of reattachment in these conditions. Even with an ice chest for the severed limb and a waiting helicopter it would be difficult. Here there was no question. The patient would lose his arm. Grace could accept that. Life was always better than death; that was what Leon Arlington had taught her. But the patient would not lose his life. That she could not accept. Amputation, then. Stop the bleeding, and get him back to the castle.
“Aryn!” she called out. “Bring me the saddlebag from my horse.”
There was no response. Grace looked up. Aryn still sat on her mount, her gaze fixed forward and distant, her left hand white as it clenched the reins. No—no one could do this to her, not now. She needed everyone.
Aryn! Do it now!
Grace had meant to shout, but somehow it was not her mouth that formed the words. The baroness blinked and stared at Grace. Then she climbed from her horse, grabbed Grace’s saddlebag, and ran toward them.
Grace turned back to see Lirith watching her, the witch’s dark eyes intent. Lirith nodded, but she said nothing. Whatever had happened, she had noticed it. Grace didn’t know if that was good or bad. It didn’t matter. She had other things to worry about.
Aryn knelt beside the patient. As she did, Grace grabbed his left wrist for a pulse check. Rapid and faint. His heart was working too quickly, trying to make up for the lack of blood and oxygen by beating faster. Grace didn’t need a clock to feel the seconds draining away along with his blood.
The baroness pulled a small knife out of the saddlebag—the very same knife Aryn had given to Grace what seemed a lifetime ago. It wasn’t a scalpel, but it was sharp. Grace took the knife and, with precise strokes, finished amputating the arm. She was dimly aware of the horrified gazes of the others—Aryn clutched her own withered right arm—but Grace kept her attention focused on the wound.
“Needle and thread.”
Aryn pawed through the bag and came out with the embroidery Grace had been working on. She still hadn’t gotten any better at the noble lady’s art, but she was glad she had carried it with her. The tools were inadequate for the job, but Grace made up for the lack with skill. She stitched shut the worst bleeders and closed a flap of skin over the stump of his arm. Then she turned to the puncture wound and sutured it shut. Infection was going to be a problem, but that was something to deal with later.
Lirith and Aryn had torn a blanket to strips, and Lirith had rubbed some of the strips with pine sap. That was good—it would be sterile. Grace took the makeshift bandages. By the time she looked up, Durge had already cut two saplings for a litter. He had tied another blanket between the poles and was even then lashing them to Blackalock’s saddle.
Grace made a quick inventory of the patient. His color was better, and his breathing was regular if still labored. However, even at that moment he was slipping into shock. They had to get Garf back to the castle.
Garf. She had thought of him not as a stranger, but as someone she knew. However, maybe it was a good sign. Maybe it meant he was going to make it.
Durge led Blackalock closer, positioning the litter alongside Garf. On Grace’s count they lifted him onto the vehicle, then they used more strips of blanket to lash him into place.
Grace glanced at Durge. “Ride as fast as you can without jolting him too much.”
The Embarran nodded. “I will do my—”
“Grace! He’s not breathing anymore!”
It was Aryn. Grace snapped her head around. The baroness knelt beside Garf, her eyes wide.
Grace crouched beside the young knight. Aryn was right. His body was rigid. She groped for his pulse, but she couldn’t find it.
“What’s happening?” Lirith said.
Grace shook her head. She didn’t know. Damn it, she needed a heart monitor.
Or was there another way?
Before she could think about it further, she shut her eyes and reached out to touch the Weirding. She gasped, and for a second the rich web of life almost entangled her. She forced herself to gain control, to pick Garf’s thread out from those belonging to people, horses, trees. Then she had it: so thin and weak it seemed like a strand of gossamer in her imagined hands. She followed it down to his body.
“Yes, sister,” a voice whispered. Lirith. “Yes, use the Touch. Ivalaine was right. It is your gift.”
Grace hesitated. But hadn’t she done this a hundred times before in the ED? Perhaps not consciously, but all the same she had used this power—her power—to assess what was wrong with others in a way no monitoring device could. She gathered her will, then forced herself to reach down into his chest.
His heart fluttered against her phantom hand like a wounded bird trapped in a cage.
Grace’s eyes flew open. “He’s fibrillating! I need point-five milligrams of epi, IV push!”
Lirith regarded her with unreadable eyes. “I do not know these words you speak, sister.”
Grace shook her head. She had discovered the problem, but what use was that to her? There was no crash cart, no adrenaline. His heart was beating madly in a last desperate attempt at life, and in a few seconds it would fail.
“My lady, can you not … do something?” Durge made a small motion with his hands.
Grace glanced at him, and only then did she realize what he was asking of her. Her jaw opened.
Lirith met her eyes. “Spin the web around him, sister. You have the power like neither Aryn nor I.”
“Please, Grace,” Aryn said. “Please, you have to try.”
No, she was a doctor and a scientist. She had used her power to probe, yes, to understand and diagnose. But that was all. The rest was medicine. It had to be.
“I can’t,” she whispered.
Lirith spoke in a soft voice. “Then he will die, sister.”
Grace licked her lips, then held shaking hands toward Garf and laid them on his chest. She was afraid she wouldn’t be able to do it again, but even as she closed her eyes she saw the shimmering web. Except now he was connected to it by the barest thread, and even as she touched it the strand began to unravel. She fought to hold it together, but it was too fragile. The thread slipped through her fingers. There was no more time.…
In her mind Grace almost laughed. Of course—once she saw it, it was so clear. She had simply to connect his thread to her own. Let her own life become a link between him and the great web that could sustain him until they reached the castle. She reached out a ghostly hand and touched the silver-gold thread she knew to be her own.
“Yes!” Lirith’s triumphant whisper seemed to come from all directions. “That’s it, sister!”
Grace brought Garf’s thread toward her own—
Terror filled her. There was a darkness in the web of the Weirding, a terrible black blot, and only after she recoiled from it did Grace realize that her own thread led directly to it. The blot had been hidden, but when she had pulled on her thread the thing had been revealed.
The blot heaved upward, taking on shape: a long, rambling building with windows like soulless eyes. Pale hands stretched out of the darkness, reaching for her. Grace shrank from them. The calls of owls sounded in her ears. Now the words that spoke in her mind belonged to another witch and another time.
Much of who you are lies behind a door, and I cannot see past it. However, you must know that you cannot lock away part of who you are without locking away part of your magic. If ever you want to discover that power, you will have to unlock that door.…
No. She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t let the shadow escape. If she set it free, then it would surely consume her.
She let go of her own thread. The door shut. The blot vanished.
The cry was faint, as if it came from very far away. Grace hardly heard it. She clutched for Garf, but the remaining wisp of his thread unraveled, and the shining web became a gray shroud in her hands.
They reached the high gates of Calavere with the last red light of day.
Grace and Aryn rode at the fore of the party with Lirith just behind. Next to the dark-skinned witch, on a gray charger, rode Sir Meridar, another of the king’s knights. He was a quiet man about Grace’s age, with gentle eyes set deep in a face ravaged by pox. Meridar had tied the reins of the dappled charger to his saddle, and the riderless horse followed after the gray. At the rear of the party came Durge and Blackalock with their grim, blanket-wrapped burden trailing behind.
None of them had spoken, not since they had left the purple valley. It had taken no more than half an hour to ride back to Calavere, but it might as well have been an eternity. Tears streaked Aryn’s face as she wept openly, and even Lirith looked shaken. Durge’s face was etched with hard lines. In a way Grace envied them. Maybe it would have been better if she could have felt something—anything besides this hollowness. But then there was an advantage to numbness. Wasn’t that the purpose of anesthesia? To feel no pain.
They might still have been there in the valley had Sir Meridar not found them. Grace had attempted resuscitation. She had showed Lirith how to tilt Garf’s head back, how to make a good seal around his mouth with her own, how to fill his lungs with air. Then Grace had worked his chest—endlessly, brutally, long after it was useless, long after she had heard ribs crack. Still she had not stopped, even when Aryn, sobbing, begged her to, even when Durge laid strong hands on her shoulders and tried to pull her back.
She halted only when the thunder of hoofbeats echoed off granite. Moments later Meridar rode into the valley. From the back of his charger he took in the body of the bear, then the figure lying in front of Grace. Had word of what had happened somehow gotten back to the castle? Then he spoke to her, and she had realized that was impossible.
“Lady Grace, you have grave circumstances to concern you. From what has met my eyes, this is a dire and sorrowful thing that has befallen your party. However, I bring a summons from King Boreas, and even now, with what has happened, it must be obeyed with all good speed.”
Meridar’s eyes were compassionate, but there was a sharpness to his words—an edge not meant to hurt, but to cut through the dullness, to remind her that even now she had noble duties. Grace leaned back, let her hands slip from Garf’s chest, and stared at the ravaged body that a short time ago had been whole and strong. Sometimes no power was enough.
Except you did have the power, Grace. You did, you saw it, and you were afraid.…
The words sounded in her mind again as the riders passed between the castle’s guard towers and through the raised portcullis. She saw again—felt again—the shadowy blot upon the Weirding; then she pressed her eyes shut and forced the image away. They rode through an archway into the castle’s upper bailey. The last color drained from the stone walls, and the world faded to monochrome.
Meridar dismounted before the stable, then reached a hand up toward Grace. “The king awaits you, Your Radiance.”
She opened her mouth, then glanced at Durge.
“I will see to him, my lady,” he said softly.
She nodded, then accepted Meridar’s hand and slid to the cobblestones. The knight started to lead her toward a door; then she halted to look back at Aryn. But Durge had already helped the young woman from her horse, and Lirith had wrapped an arm around her shoulders. Grace decided she had better worry about herself and concentrated on keeping upright as she followed Meridar into the dimness of the castle.
When they reached Boreas’s chamber, the guard standing at the door stared as if they had startled him. Had he not been watching for their arrival? Then the man recovered, bowed to Grace, and opened the door. Grace stepped through, and only as the door swung shut behind her did she realize that Sir Meridar had not followed.
Boreas pushed himself up from the dragon-clawed chair that sat next to the hearth. The mastiff at his feet rose to its haunches and growled. The king glared at the dog, silencing its noise, and the beast skulked to a corner, but it did not take its black eyes off Grace.
“What has happened, my lady?” the king said in his thrumming baritone.
Grace blinked. How could he have heard that something had befallen the riding party? Sir Meridar had not come here before her. Then she followed his gaze, looked down at herself, and she understood the guard’s startlement, the dog’s growling, the king’s strange look.
Her lavender riding gown was drenched in crimson, dark with Garf’s blood, which was stiffening as it dried. Grace held out her hands, and they were caked with gore and dirt. She could only imagine the mask of her face. She met Boreas’s steely eyes.
“Garf, Your Majesty. Sir Garfethel. I did everything in my power. But his heart stopped beating, and he died.”
The words came easily to her lips. But then, she had spoken them countless times to the wives, husbands, parents, and children in the hospital’s waiting room. In the past the words had always held the conviction of truth. But did they now? Had she really done everything in her power?
Spin the web around him, sister.…
In clinical tones Grace recounted what had taken place. However, she did not speak of the Weirding, or of the web of magic she had tried and failed to weave.
She was startled to realize she had finished the story. Boreas leaned against the heavy table. His black hair and beard shone in the light of an oil lamp; a servant must have slipped into the room to light it, but she hadn’t noticed.
“I saw the firedrake, as well, my lady. All in the castle did. And I thought it to be a harbinger of the news that reached me not an hour later. They say such a sign appears only when a king passes. But perhaps the tales are wrong. Perhaps it was for another.” His deep chest heaved as he let out a breath. “Regardless, you tell a strange tale, my lady. Bears seldom venture down from the Gloaming Fells. And it is not like such a beast to come straight for a man.”
The king had not invited her to sit, but all the same she sank into a horsehair chair near the door. You’ll get blood on it, Grace. But it was either that or fall to the floor. Boreas looked at her but said nothing about her impertinence.
“It was wounded,” Grace said. “Burned. I think it was mad with pain.”
Boreas nodded. “It is good you and Lady Aryn are well. And the others.”
Grace winced. Well? She was hardly well. But it didn’t matter. In the ED she had learned to move without thought from the dead to the living. Finish that chart and start a fresh one. She had a new case now.
“Why did you summon me, Your Majesty?” However, even as she spoke the words she knew. They say such a firedrake appears only when a king passes.
Boreas met her gaze. “Perridon is dead.”
“A fortnight ago. King Persard died in his sleep.”
Had she the ability, Grace would have laughed. And how many nubile maidens were in the bed with him? At least one, she was willing to bet. It was a fitting end to the spry old king. But the news troubled her. Grace clutched the arms of her chair, and her mind clicked and whirred. It was good to have something else to think of, something more distant and impersonal.
It seemed a lifetime since the white days of winter, since she had worked as Boreas’s spy at the Council of Kings, since her friend and fellow Earther Travis Wilder had helped her uncover the murderous plottings of the Raven Cult, and since Travis had bound the Rune Gate, stopping the Pale King from riding forth to freeze the Dominions in everlasting ice.
For a month after their Midwinter’s Day decision to band together, the rulers of the Dominions had labored at the council table to forge new treaties should the Pale King—or any other threat—ever face the Dominions again. Calavan, Toloria, Galt, Brelegond, Perridon, and Embarr: All pledged to aid any Dominion that was attacked by an outside force, and also to act as arbiter should there arise a dispute between any two Dominions.
While these were good steps, the council’s greatest act had been the founding of the Order of Malachor.
Oddly, it was Grace who gave the council the idea for the order. But for her—at least until recently a citizen of the United States—the idea of a multinational force working together against a global threat seemed like standard operating procedure. It wasn’t until she saw the stunned light of realization in the eyes of the monarchs that she realized, for a feudal society, just how revolutionary the idea was.
There was some debate, of course. Would each Dominion contribute an equal number of knights or a number based on size? How would the order be funded? From whom would these knights receive their commands? But in the end, the decision was unanimous.
“Peculiar times call for peculiar measures,” King Sorrin, the gaunt ruler of Embarr, had said.
The greatest challenge facing the council seemed to be in naming the order, but fortunately Falken Blackhand helped in this. After an hour of squabbling among the rulers, the bard approached the table. He did not speak, but simply pointed with his black-gloved hand to an empty seat: Chair Malachor.
The monarchs fell silent, then one by one nodded. While it might have been mere myth, it was spoken that should ever a king of Malachor come again, he would be lord over all the Dominions. To name their new order after the lost kingdom was only fitting.
A few days later the council disbanded, and in the last frozen days of Durdath the rulers departed Calavere for their respective Dominions. Although his was the smallest Dominion, it was King Kylar of Galt who granted a modest castle on the southern marches of his Dominion to the Order of Malachor. However, who would lead the order had not been so easily decided as where it would be housed.
The council first offered leadership to Beltan, King Boreas’s nephew and Grace’s friend. The blond knight was growing stronger each day, healing from the terrible wound he had suffered on Midwinter’s Eve when he had protected Travis from hordes of feydrim at the Rune Gate. Grace’s heart had soared when she had heard this decision—then had sunk again when Beltan refused the honor.
“I will humbly serve the order,” Beltan had said before the council. He stood straight and tall, but Grace could see that the wound in his side still caused him pain. “However, it is not for one such as me to lead it.”
Boreas’s eyes sparked with rage, but he only nodded, and the council instead appointed Sir Vedarr to lead the Order of Malachor. Vedarr was a graying but still hale Embarran whose face was craggier than even Durge’s. He was a competent knight, and Grace knew he would do a fine job. Yet his name did not cause the eyes of other men to light up, not like the name Beltan of Calavan. She wished her friend could see the effect he had on others: the way he could win a man’s loyalty with just a look and a nod. However, his gaze was turned inward these days.
All knew that Beltan, bastard though he was, might have been king of Calavan after his father, Beldreas, was murdered. Instead he had vowed to find his father’s killer—and had failed. It was Boreas, Beltan’s uncle and Beldreas’s younger brother, who had become king instead.
For a time during the winter, the air of sorrow around Beltan had receded somewhat. But not long after Travis Wilder returned to Earth, the knight’s melancholy returned. Grace supposed he missed Travis; they all did. She sighed as Beltan walked stiffly from the council chamber. Some wounds were not so quickly healed as those of muscle and bone.
A fortnight later, Beltan had left Calavere to help Vedarr set up operations at the order’s new keep. Vedarr had offered Beltan a position as captain, and this the blond knight had not refused. The first mission of the order was to stamp out the last vestiges of the Raven Cult. The cult had been a front for the workings of the Pale King, and most of its leaders had perished when Berash was defeated—the iron hearts their master had given them failing as he was locked in his icy Dominion of Imbrifale once again. However, there were pockets where the cult remained active and continued to practice bloody rites of human branding and mutilation.
Grace had feared for Beltan the day he readied himself to ride off with Vedarr and two dozen other knights. She stood in the upper bailey, watching with concern as Beltan saddled his roan charger. His wound had closed, but just barely, and it was an injury that should have killed him in the first place—only the magic of fairies had kept the thread of his life intact.
Her fears had not gone unnoticed. Lady Melia left her pale mare and approached across the bailey.
“Don’t worry, dear,” the amber-eyed woman said. “I’ll watch over him.”
Grace had smiled. Beltan was supposed to be Melia’s knight protector, but Grace knew sometimes these things worked both ways.
Falken called to Melia then, and after giving Grace a warm and unexpected embrace the dark-haired lady returned to her horse. Falken and Melia were leaving Calavere as well, and for the first part of their journey they planned to ride with Beltan and the other knights. Where they were going after that Grace didn’t know. Melia had only mentioned something about traveling to see an old friend.
In all, after the momentous happenings of Midwinter’s Eve, things had gone startlingly well. Still, despite their progress, not all things gave occasion for joy. For after Midwinter’s Eve there had been one other empty seat at the council table: Chair Eredane. Queen Eminda had died at the hands of Lord Logren, her high counselor and an ironheart. The first messengers to Eredane had passed into the Dominion with this news, but they had never returned. Now stories told that all travelers were stopped at the borders by grim knights and were forced to turn back. That some struggle was going on within Eredane in the wake of Eminda’s death was certain. However, who the players were and what the outcome would be was a dark cloud none could see through.
Now, sitting in her bloody dress in King Boreas’s chamber, she turned her attention to yet another empty chair: Spardis, the seat of Perridon. It was curious that Boreas had summoned her and not another to consult about this issue. Then again, Lord Alerain, the king’s seneschal and advisor, was dead—revealed as an ironheart himself and a traitor. Maybe she was all he had left.
But it’s more than that, Grace. You know it is. When he first asked you to serve him it was because you were useful as a pawn. Now it’s because you’ve earned his respect.
Grace studied Boreas. He paced now, as he always did when he was thinking, as if his muscular body could scarcely contain the energy within. A month ago, one of the castle’s ladies-in-waiting had stunned Grace by asking her when she was to marry the king. Grace had had to clamp a hand to her mouth to stifle the mad laughter. She would have thought Boreas more likely to behead her than marry her, although on an objective level she could see that in some ways they would be a good match. Boreas was strong, but she had learned that she was just as strong. Maybe stronger in some ways.
All the same, Grace knew she would never be queen of Calavere. She did care for Boreas, but more as she might have cared for a father, had she ever had one. And she doubted he had need of her affections. Besides, Grace could never let herself be touched again, not like that. She had almost dared to let herself believe she could love Logren only to discover he was a monster with a heart of iron. That mistake had nearly cost her life and her soul. She would not make it again.
Boreas moved to the sideboard and poured two cups of wine. Grace cringed in her chair, belatedly realizing that she should have offered to serve the king. It was a lapse she could have been imprisoned for in this world. Instead Boreas handed her one of the cups, and she gratefully accepted it and drank its contents down. Maybe that was the real reason Boreas still asked for her counsel and company. He didn’t have to be a king around her. He could be simply a man: flawed, temperamental, honest.
“You observed Persard during the council, my lady.” Boreas gazed into his wine but did not drink it. “And you spoke with him a great deal—more than myself, really. What’s more, I know you won the admiration of his counselor, Lord Sul.”
Grace bit her lip. Poor Sul. She still remembered the day she and Durge had convinced the mousy little man to speak to them by pretending Durge was out for his blood and that only Grace had the power to make the knight see reason.
“Tell me, my lady. What do you think this news bodes for us?”
Grace forced herself to forget the events of the day, to forget her bloody dress, and consider the question. “It’s not good, Your Majesty. The council’s decision to work together is a great step forward. However, the ink on the treaties is hardly dry. Persard does have an heir, but he’s only an infant, and his wife is little more herself. I heard she was fourteen when Persard married her two years ago.”
“Seventy winters his younger,” Boreas said with a snort that might have been disgust, admiration, or both.
Grace nodded. “So we have a child bride and an heir in diapers. Hardly the kind of situation in which you can count on a fragile new alliance to be upheld. If one of Persard’s dukes or barons ever had schemes to take over the Dominion, he couldn’t have asked for a wider door. But then, I’ve heard it said that schemes are as rare in Perridon as foggy days.”
“My lady,” Boreas said in a growling voice, “it is always foggy in the Dominion of Perridon.”
“Well, then, I think you have your answer.”
Boreas grunted. “So what do we do?”
Grace sighed. Sometimes making a diagnosis was so much easier than finding a cure. “I don’t know. But Lord Sul spoke highly of Duke Falderan, who was keeping things running in Persard’s absence. If he were to act as a regent to Persard’s son until the boy reached ruling age, there might be a chance things would remain stable. As stable as they can in Perridon, at least.”
A small part of Grace was amazed at her analysis. But then, she had always been a good student, and these last months had given her a crash course in feudal politics.
Boreas was silent, then he nodded. “Thank you, my lady. You may go.”
Grace blinked, then rose to her feet. She was curious what Boreas intended to do, but it was not her place to ask. When the king dismissed you, you went. She moved to the door.
“And Lady Grace …”
She halted at the gruffly spoken words but did not look up.
“My lady, remember … it is the greatest honor of a knight to give himself in defense of his lord or lady.”
Grace clenched the doorknob. Fuck honor, Your Majesty, she wanted to say. Instead she bit her lip, then stepped through the door into the corridor beyond.
After her meeting with the king, Grace returned to her chamber to find Lirith waiting for her, along with a serving maid clad in dove gray. Next to the fire was a tub of steaming water. When Grace had asked where Aryn was, the dark-eyed witch informed her that Aryn was resting in her room, and that soon Grace would be doing the same.
Grace did not have the will to argue. Exhaustion enfolded her, as well as fresh horror at the day’s events. She was too numb even to care as the serving maid untied the laces of her bloody gown and let the garment slip to the floor.
Lirith took the leather pouch that was usually attached to Grace’s sash and set it on the mantle. Belatedly Grace realized that the silver half-coin Brother Cy had given her was inside the pouch. Without it she wouldn’t be able to speak and interpret the language of this world. Except that wasn’t entirely true, was it? After much practice she had gotten to the point where she could understand a good portion of the musical language the people here spoke, although she doubted she could have spoken two words of it herself. However, there was no need to talk right then, and it was easy enough to understand the murmured instructions she was given: Take off your undergarments, climb into the tub, close your eyes.
After the bath, when she was clothed again, the serving maid had brought a platter of food, and Lirith watched while Grace ate every bite of meat, bread, and dried fruit. When she finished, she climbed into bed and let Lirith pull up the covers like she was a small child. Grace closed her eyes, and when the witch kissed her brow it was comforting rather than strange. Grace felt the light leave the room as Lirith blew out the candle. Then the door opened and shut, and Grace was alone.
However, despite her exhaustion, sleep was elusive. At last Grace rose from the bed and stood before the window. It was after midnight, and there was no moon.
A spark of crimson caught her eye. The new red star that had appeared in the southern sky with the coming of summer had just risen over the castle’s battlements. A month ago, when she first pointed out the star to Durge, he had frowned and had muttered something about “celestial orbs that shone where none should be.”
Since then, from talking to others, Grace had discovered that no one in the castle had ever seen this star before. Perhaps it was a comet then, or a planet—one on an irregular orbit that brought it near this world only after long absence. Of course, these explanations implied that Eldh was a planet itself, in a solar system much like Earth’s. Maybe it was even in the same galaxy, although Grace doubted that. Something told her it was more than mere physical distance that separated this world from Earth.
Grace gazed at the red star for a while more, then was surprised to find herself yawning. She turned from the window, climbed into bed, and shut her eyes. Sleep should have been impossible after all that had happened, but at last exhaustion won out, and she descended into slumber.
That night Grace had a dream.
She stood at the top of a mountain, on a pinnacle of rock, surrounded on all sides by swirling mist. Then the mist parted, and on another nearby peak, separated from her by an undulating sea of gray, was Travis Wilder. Excitement coursed through her at seeing her friend. She had thought he had returned to Earth, but here he was only a short distance away. His back was turned to her, so she called out to him, but the fog muffled her voice, filling her throat and lungs like wet cotton.
A light flashed overhead, and she looked up to see the firedrake she had seen earlier streak through the mist. Only then it ceased to move, and it wasn’t the firedrake at all, but the new red star. Its light tinged the fog scarlet, and a note of alarm sounded in Grace’s mind, although she wasn’t certain why. All she knew was that she had to talk to Travis. She tried to call out again, but still he did not turn around. Then the red mist surged upward, engulfing him. Only it wasn’t mist anymore, Grace saw as the tendrils licked up and coiled around her.
It was fire.
Grace stepped through a vine-covered archway into the castle’s garden.
Her voice drifted among the trees; there was no one else in view. She moved down one of the stone paths, deeper into the tangle of living things.
It was almost Midsummer now, and the garden was a nave of emerald and gold. Grace breathed in warm air that tasted of honey, and for the first time in a week she felt the muscles of her neck unclench and her shoulders ease downward a notch. There was something peaceful and ancient about the garden. In a way it made Grace think of Gloaming Wood and the Little People. And indeed the garden was not unlike the impossible forest she and Travis had once glimpsed in the castle chamber occupied by Trifkin Mossberry and his troupe of actors.
Maybe Lirith was right. Maybe this was a good place to come after all. Although there was no sign of the one Lirith had spoken of that morning.
There’s someone I believe you should meet, sister. You’ll find her in the garden, I think.
Seven days had passed since they had gone, at Grace’s urging, for a summer ride. Seven days since she had felt the delicate thread of Garf’s life slip through her fingers and melt away.
They had held a small service for the young knight in the circle of standing stones a few leagues from the castle. The last time Grace had stood among the megaliths had been to say good-bye to Travis before he returned to Earth. This time it had been a different sort of farewell. She knew Garf had followed the mysteries of Vathris Bullslayer, and that Boreas would hold a more secret rite to mark the knight’s passing. So this ceremony had been just for her and Lirith, for Aryn and Durge. They had done nothing more formal than to hold hands, to speak fondly of Garf’s good humor and sincerity, and to lay a wreath of flowers on the ground. It had been enough.
Perhaps the most shocking thing about death was that, in spite of it, life moved relentlessly onward. The sun rose every morning; the castle bustled with activity; Grace ate and slept. It all seemed so petty and stupid in the face of larger things, yet it was a comfort all the same.
In a way it was a sad realization, but Grace knew she would be all right. Being an utter wreck might almost have been more reassuring. It certainly would have been easier. But she knew—with that same certainty she felt when she knew a patient in the ED would survive—that she would go on.
Lirith would be fine as well, of that Grace had no doubt. Not that the Tolorian woman seemed untouched by Garf’s death. On the contrary, of all of them she seemed to grasp on its most fundamental level what a loss his passing was to the web of life that bound them all. But something told Grace that Lirith had deep roots to draw upon and to hold her steady.
As for Durge and Aryn, Grace was less certain of their prognosis. No doubt Durge had witnessed many men die in his years as a warrior, but she doubted it was ever easy for the stalwart knight. The other evening she had seen him standing at a window, leaning against the sill, hunched over. It was the first time she ever remembered thinking that Durge looked old. However, when she called to him, he had stood straight at attention and asked in a crisp voice how he might serve her.
You can let yourself cry, Durge. You don’t always have to be a rock. Doctor’s orders. But as so often in her life, she had not known how to speak the words she really wanted to.
“Go see if Lady Aryn needs anything, Durge,” she had said instead, and he had given her a brisk nod before turning to see to her request.
Unlike Durge, Aryn had wept with surprising and worrisome frequency since the incident. Grace or Lirith—or sometimes both of them—would hold the baroness as sobs ripped themselves from her chest. Had the young woman known about Garf’s love for her? Perhaps that was it, but there was something about Aryn’s grief that made Grace think it wasn’t all for the slain knight. Grace had heard weeping like Aryn’s before. She had been a girl at the Beckett-Strange Home for Children, and she had heard it at night sometimes, drifting on wings of dark through silent rooms: the primal, wordless sounds of utter despair.
Grace sighed. She would keep observing Aryn, but she didn’t know what else to do. In this case, whatever was truly wrong, she couldn’t diagnose it without the patient’s help.
The garden path wound on, and as Grace walked her thoughts turned to Travis. These last days she had found herself thinking of her friend more often than usual. For some reason he weighed upon her mind almost more heavily than Garf did. Then again, given the dreams, perhaps it was not such a mystery.
Nearly every night now she had the queer dream of Travis standing atop the foggy mountain. It was always the same: calling in vain to him, then the red star, and the swirling mist that became fire.
Throughout her life, Grace’s dreams had been murky and nonsensical: a series of badly edited foreign films made by drunken directors. This dream was different. Vivid, real. When she closed her eyes she could see the curling fog, the blazing star. But what did it mean?
It didn’t mean anything, of course. Dreams were merely the synaptic equivalent of leftovers. Looking for meaning in one was about as useful as looking for a haiku in a bowl of alphabet soup. All the same, it was hard to shake the feeling that Travis was in trouble somehow. However, it was pointless to worry. Even if Travis were in danger, he was a world away now, and far beyond her ability to help. Besides, Grace had far nearer concerns.
Twice more over the last several days, Boreas had called her to his chamber to discuss the matter of Perridon—although as yet the king seemed not to have decided whether action was required, and if so what that action might be. Regardless, Grace had been glad to have a mundane problem to focus on, and she had helped the king by giving him what knowledge she could.
Her studies with Lirith were another matter. She would have thought that, after what had happened, Lirith would have suspended their lessons. And in Aryn’s case this was so. But not for Grace. The evening after Garf’s death, just as the moon was rising, Lirith had knocked on Grace’s chamber door.
“There is comfort in work, sister,” she had said in answer to Grace’s astonished look. “And you have much to learn yet.”
Grace had almost laughed. That’s the understatement of the century. Sister. But she had let Lirith into the room and had shut the door behind her.
However, despite her efforts, in the time since that evening Grace had not been able to touch the Weirding once.
“You must concentrate, sister,” Lirith would whisper. She always smelled of citrus and cloves. “Unshackle your mind from fear. Allow yourself to reach out, to feel the life around you, to bring it close.”
Grace would try, but every time, just as she glimpsed the sparkling threads of magic around her, she would see the shadow that lurked in the heart of the web, and she knew that if she were to follow the thread of her own life it would lead right into the blot of darkness. A sound would split her mind, like a door shutting, and she would blink as the Weirding vanished.
“I can’t,” she finally said last night, trembling and gasping, sinking to her knees. “I can’t do it anymore.”
Lirith studied her, then left the room without a word. Grace thought the witch had given up on her at last. However, that morning she returned to Grace’s chamber. And that was when Lirith told Grace to look for someone in the garden.
“Hello?” she called once more.
The word drifted through the vibrant tapestry of vines and branches. She had stepped through another gate into a smaller space walled on all sides by high hedges. The profusion of life there was even greater than what she had glimpsed so far—a dense and glorious cacophony of color that grew with abandon.
“Get out of here, you rascal!”
Grace jumped at the sound of the high-pitched voice. Where had it come from? She turned around, then blinked. A bush on the farside of the garden was moving. Its branches flailed about, as if it were angry, and leaves fluttered to the ground.
“I said get out!”
Grace hesitated. It was hard to know exactly what to do when one was shouted at by a bush. Once, while at a feast, she had seen a heap of pine boughs shake, then had glimpsed a small, green man within. That had been last winter, when the Little People were prowling the halls of Calavere. But there had been no sign of them since Midwinter’s Eve. Was there a greenman in the castle again?
With this last word, the bush exploded in a cloud of leaves, and a figure stumbled from it. It wasn’t a greenman.
She was old. Grace was a good judge from experience, and she assessed the woman’s age at eighty years, although ninety was possible. She was twig-thin, but not hunched or osteoporotic. Her skin had the soft translucence of petals, and veins traced lines beneath. She wore a simple gray dress that was streaked with dirt, and leaves and bits of bark clung to her wispy white hair.
“I knew I’d get you,” the woman said, blue eyes sparkling above smudged cheeks.
At last Grace understood: The woman had not been speaking to her, but rather to the thistly-looking weed she gripped in a gloved hand.
Grace stepped forward. “Hello,” she said again.
The old woman dropped the weed. Grace winced—she should have known that speaking suddenly would startle the other. The old woman searched about with that unfocused look the elderly sometimes have when attempting to locate a sound or a voice. Then her blue eyes locked on Grace, and her expression sharpened at once.
The old woman smiled. “Well, now. Here is a lovely flower, sisters.”
Grace winced again. She hardly thought of herself as a flower. And who was the woman speaking to? Grace didn’t see anyone else in the garden.
“What is it, sweet? Have you found your tongue only to lose it?”
Grace shook her head. No one had ever called her sweet before. But she supposed it was better than Your Radiance. “I’m supposed to meet someone here. In the garden. Although I’m not sure who it is. Have you …?”
“Have I seen anyone?” The old woman shook her head. “No, sweet. There’s only me. And my sisters, of course.”
A frown tightened Grace’s forehead. The old woman had said it again. Sisters. Who was she referring to? Or perhaps she was senile.
Grace tried again. “If you see anyone who’s looking for me, could you tell them I was here?”
The old woman nodded. “As you wish, sweet. Although, if you’d like, you could stay a while. If you don’t know who you’re looking for or where you might find him, aren’t you as likely to find him here as elsewhere?”
Grace opened her mouth, but she had to admit there was a logic to it. Perhaps she would rest a bit, then head back to the castle to tell Lirith she had not found the one she was supposed to.
“You can sit there, sweet.” The old woman pointed to a marble bench half-lost within a stand of poppies. “Don’t mind while I work. One can’t lower one’s guard for a moment, or the rogue’s thistle will creep in and steal the life from everything else.” She bent down, scooped up the recalcitrant weed, and heaved it onto a small pile.
Grace sat on the bench. It was odd to rest while the old woman worked, but she wouldn’t be much help. Grace had a feeling she could steal the life from any given plant faster than rogue’s thistle. She glanced down at her hands.
Maybe you’re not much better with people, Grace.
Except she knew that wasn’t true. Ivalaine was right; healing was Grace’s gift. But then why hadn’t she been able to heal when it mattered most? Why had she let the thread of Garf’s life slip through her fingers?
“Is something amiss, sweet?”
Grace glanced up. The old woman was gazing at her, a curious expression on her wizened visage.
“No, I’m fine. Really.” She struggled for something to say. “I’m Grace. What’s your name?”
“My name is Naida, but most people call me the Herb Mother. You can call me whatever you wish.”
Grace thought about this. “I’ll call you Naida.”
“If it pleases you, sweet.” Naida bent beside a cloth bag, rummaged inside, then pulled out a clay bottle. “Would you like a drink?”
The day was getting hot. Grace accepted the bottle and lifted it to her lips. She had thought it would contain water, but instead it was cool, earthy wine. Naida took the bottle, drank, and returned it to the bag. A warmth permeated Grace, from both sun and wine. She let her eyes droop shut. This was a peaceful place.
“My poor sister,” Naida said in a soft, sad voice. “You are so beautiful still, but inside you are dying.”
Grace’s eyes flew open. She fought for understanding. Did Naida know what had happened? But how? Grace searched for the old woman, then saw her standing under a tree. It looked something like an ash tree, although the leaves were tinged with gold not silver.
Grace stood and approached Naida. “What do you mean?”
Naida rested a hand on the tree’s bark. “You cannot see it, sweet. But I can feel it there, like a darkness. I’m afraid she rots from within.”
The tree. She was talking about the tree, not about Grace.
Naida sighed, then turned from the tree and held out her arms. “We must say good-bye to our dear friend, sisters. This season will be her last.”
Grace frowned. “Excuse me, but you keep saying the word sisters. Who are you talking to?”
A smile deepened the wrinkles of Naida’s face. “Why, I’m speaking to them, of course. They are all my sisters.”
Finally Grace understood. The plants in the garden—it was to them that Naida spoke. Maybe the old woman was daft after all. But no, there was something about her—a calmness, a strength—that was familiar to Grace. She moved to the tree and laid her hand on its trunk, then shut her eyes. At first she was afraid, then she forced herself to reach out with her mind, into the tree.
Her eyes blinked open. She had seen it: a dark blot in the shimmering web of threads that wove around the tree. She clutched a hand to her stomach. Was that what was happening to her? Was she rotting from within like the tree?
Naida had been watching her, and now the old woman nodded. “The Touch runs strongly in you.”
A breath of uncertainty filled Grace’s chest. “Where did you come from?” she asked quietly.
“Why, I journeyed to Calavere with my queen, of course.” She brushed a blossom with her fingers, and her gaze grew distant. “I can still remember the last time I stood within the borders of Calavan, although I was only twelve winters old. One day a nobleman I had never seen before rode up to my father’s manor on a white horse. Behind him was a mare with no rider. It seemed so strange—I couldn’t imagine why he had come. That night the nobleman dined with us. I remember thinking him to be terribly old, although he was only twenty-four. Twenty-four! And look at me now.”
She held out her hands. Grace could see sunlight through them, the bones as frail and twisted as wisteria.
“The next morning I sat aback the mare, trailing behind the nobleman whose name I barely knew, and watched my family wave good-bye. I never saw them again. We rode to his manor in the duchy of Arthannon, and I lived there with him for many years, until he died and I went to be of service to my mistress, who was not yet queen at the time.”
She gazed around the garden. “I always meant to return here. And before my queen rode for Ar-tolor, I begged of her that I might stay, and the king was kind enough to invite me in.” She sighed. “There are no more journeys in me, save for one.”
Grace wasn’t certain at what point in the old woman’s story she had finally grasped the truth she had been too blind, and too caught up in her own shadow, to see. “It was you,” she said. “It was you that Lirith wanted me to find.”
Naida shrugged. “Sister Lirith is ever full of peculiar ideas. But she is such a lovely thing. She should be married to a strong, handsome man. As should you, sweet.” She gave Grace a sly wink. “A garden grows more beautiful if it is tilled more often.”
Color bloomed on Grace’s cheeks. “I don’t … I don’t think I’ll ever be that close to another.”
Naida scowled. “But what is it you fear? That if a man looks closely he will see you warts and wrinkles and all, and that he will turn away? Is that it, sweet?”
Grace stepped back. No, she didn’t want to talk about this. There was no way Naida would understand why Grace could never be touched that way—not by a man, not by anyone.
“What sadness on your face! But you have aught to worry about. Not a precious thing like you.”
Naida reached for her, but Grace pulled back and turned toward the dying tree. She folded her arms across her chest, as if to conceal her own black center. “Is there nothing that can be done to save it, then?”
Naida regarded her, then shook her head. “I fear not, sweet. Perhaps if we had known sooner. But the darkness inside has eaten at her too long.”
Grace nodded. It was a harsh prognosis, but she had spoken ones just as bad a hundred times.
“Well,” she said, turning to face Naida, “I guess Lirith sent me here to help you. So what can I do?”
Naida pressed her lips together, watching Grace, then she pointed to a patch of flowers. “The rogue’s thistle is beginning to creep among the fairy’s breath.”
“I’ll see to it,” Grace said, and she turned to begin her task.
That week, Grace returned to the garden each afternoon to visit with the Herb Mother.
Plants were not people. However, it turned out that gardening was not as alien to Grace as she had thought. Herbs and shrubs were still life—just a different sort of life from the kind she was used to working with. In the past her occasional houseplants had met with bad ends, but that was because she had always treated them as she did patients in the ED: Give them the prescribed treatment, and they should respond. As it turned out, plants were a bit trickier than that.
“You have to want them to grow,” Naida said one afternoon.
Grace halted in her work. “Excuse me?”
Naida swiped a fluttering wisp of hair away from her face. “Well, you can’t simply stick something in the ground, dump water on it, and expect it to perform wonders, now can you, sweet?”
Grace looked down at the clump of fairy’s breath she had just transplanted. It leaned at an odd angle and already looked as if it was wilting. “Why not? It’s just a plant, isn’t it?”
The old woman shook her head. “Forgive her, sisters. She does not know what she speaks.”
Grace looked around, suddenly glad plants couldn’t move. If they had the power, she suspected they would be happy to coil their little green tendrils around her neck.
“Look here,” Naida said, moving to the clump of fairy’s breath Grace had been working on. “See how she tilts to one side? But she would rather grow straight up to the sun, would she not? And here she is nearly rising out of the ground when she would feel much better if her roots were tucked in securely, so that she might stand up tall. And how about a nice little well all around, to catch the rain when it falls that she might drink?” The old woman finished tamping down the soil around the flower. “Now, isn’t that better?”
Grace had the feeling Naida was not talking to her. However, she nodded all the same. She reached out and touched the fairy’s breath. “What are the properties of this one?”
“A tea will ease an upset stomach and bring sleep. A tincture of the root is good against rashes. That is its magic.”
Grace studied the delicate white flower. “But it isn’t magic. It’s just chemicals—tannins, alkaloids, other secondary plant compounds. That’s all.”
Naida sighed. “If that is what you believe, Lady Grace, then that is all you will ever see in them.”
Grace looked up and opened her mouth, but the Herb Mother had already turned her back to see to another flower.
That night, Grace went to Lirith’s chamber in the west wing of the castle and asked the witch why she had sent Grace to see Naida.
“Your studies with the Weirding were not proceeding well,” Lirith said without looking up from her embroidery. The evening song of insects drifted through the open window.
Grace folded her arms. “Naida hasn’t taught me anything about the Weirding.”
“The Herb Mother has ever been weak in the Touch.”
A groan escaped Grace. “Then why did you send me to her?”
Lirith looked up. “Why do you think, sister?”
The air in the chamber was suddenly stifling. Grace lifted a hand to the bodice of her gown. Had Lirith seen the shadow in her, just as Naida had seen it in the dying tree?
Lirith bent back over her work. “Both Ivalaine and I studied with the Herb Mother during difficult times, as have many others. I do not think it will cause you harm.”
So that was it. There was no great point to studying with Naida. It was merely a respite. A chance to rest away from the more challenging work with the Touch and the Weirding. Grace bade Lirith good night and left the room.
She proceeded to Aryn’s chamber, but a serving maid informed Grace, in regretful tones, that the baroness was finally resting, and that King Boreas had given a strict command that nothing was to disturb her. Grace could not find fault with this order. No therapy had the power to heal as sleep did. But she would have liked to have seen Aryn all the same. Instead she returned to her chamber, alone.
The next day, Grace plunged into her work in the garden with the same intensity she had always shown in the ED. If this was what Lirith wanted her to study, then she would study it with all her ability. And if Naida noticed this new fervor, the old woman did not comment on it. Instead she showed Grace how to prune a branch so that more branches would grow, how to gather the seeds of the mistmallow, which could prevent pregnancy, and she listed the medicinal properties of a dozen other herbs.
As the sun sank over the castle wall, the two sat on the bench and drank from the flask Naida always kept full.
“How did you do it, Naida?”
Grace asked the question before she really decided to. The old woman raised a thin eyebrow. Grace was committed now.
“Ride away with a man you had never met before, I mean.”
Naida clasped dirty, wrinkled hands in her lap. “I had to do it. The welfare of my family depended upon it. My bride-price was enough to keep them in bread for years to come.”
“But weren’t you afraid?”
This elicited a burst of laughter. “I was terrified! All the way to Toloria I threw up from the back of the horse. And I shall never forget our wedding night. Poor Ederell. He had to coax his bride out from under the marriage bed. But he was always a good man, kind with me from the first day we met, and in all the years I knew him he never raised his voice once.” She pressed her eyes shut. “But it hurt. It hurt terribly, as kind as he was.”
Grace looked down at the stem in her hand. It ended in a pale flower. Mistmallow. A sharp, metallic scent rose from it, and memories of the orphanage came to her, shocking as always in their clarity after all these years. She saw herself, nine years old, stepping into the dusty, slatted light of the shed behind the home. She heard again the low, animal moan, saw again Ellen Nickel hunched in the corner.
Go away, Grace.
Ellen, what are you doing?
I’ve got to get it out.
Get what out?
You wouldn’t … you wouldn’t understand.
I understand. It’s something they put inside you.
Oh, Grace, it hurts.…
Only as she stepped closer had she seen the wire. And the blood. Grace had gotten rags to stanch the flow. It was the first time she had tried to save another’s life. It was the first time she had failed. But not the last.
Grace surfaced from the dark lake of memories. Naida had been a year younger than Ellen Nickel had been. In Colorado, had Ederell’s deed ever been discovered, it would have been a crime. On this world it was a matter of bread.
“I don’t think I could do it,” she said.
Naida gripped Grace’s hand in her own. Her touch was as warm and dry as soil in the sun. “Yes you could, sweet. You just have to decide to give yourself up for another—to sacrifice everything with abandon.”
“But don’t you lose yourself when you do that?”
Naida smiled. “Why no, sweet. That’s when you find yourself.”
That evening Grace wandered the castle’s corridors, thinking about Naida’s words. There was a beauty to them, and perhaps even a kind of truth. But after an hour the cool logic of Grace’s mind found the fundamental flaw: What if there was nothing left inside to discover?
Only when she paused did she realize she stood before the door to Durge’s chamber. She had not seen the knight in days. Of course, had she summoned him, he would have come to her in an instant. But sometimes one wanted a friend, not a servant. Grace lifted a hand.
Before she could knock, a muffled clatter—as of something shattering—came through the door. Instinct overrode decorum, and she opened the door and pushed through. He knelt on the floor, sweeping up shards of green glass with a handbroom. Smoke and the reek of sulfur clouded the air, stinging Grace’s eyes.
“Durge, are you all right?”
He looked up. “My lady!”
“I’m sorry. I should have knocked. But I heard something break, and …”
He set down the broom and rose to his feet. “You need never apologize to me, my lady.”
Grace did not know what she had done to deserve such forgiveness, but she was grateful for it all the same. As the smoke cleared, she saw that Durge’s face was haggard, the lines around his mouth no longer just etched but chiseled. The wound he had received from the bear was now a thick scab on his forehead. She took a step farther into the room.
“Durge, is something wrong?”
“Yes, my lady. I mean, no.” He gestured to his workbench. It was cluttered with vials and crucibles. “I fear I have not yet mastered the process I’ve been attempting, that’s all.”
He moved to the sideboard and ran a hand over a yellowed sheaf of vellum. Grace approached and, over the knight’s stooped shoulder, peered at the manuscript. Despite the magic of the silver half-coin, the faded diagrams and scribblings made little sense to her, although in the center of the vellum she could discern a drawing of a man and woman.
No, Grace—look. They’re wearing crowns.
Not a man and a woman, then, but a king and queen. Other than their crowns, the two figures were naked. They clasped hands, standing together inside an oval shape while flames coiled up around them. Symbols, smaller drawings, and spidery text were written all around the figures. Grace could not understand what it was all supposed to be, although the flames reminded her of the dreams she had been having.
“What does it mean?” she said.
“It is the Great Work, my lady.” Durge pointed to the two figures. “Do you see? That which is male and combustible comes together with that which is female and liquid. Through fire they are wed, and their child is perfection given form.”
Grace studied the ring drawn between the two figures. Then she understood. “It’s gold. You’re trying to make gold, aren’t you?”
Durge shook his head. “No, my lady. I have many steps to master before I can attempt the Great Work myself. Right now I seek only to fix and whiten brimstone, which is one of the most basic steps along the path.”
“Yes, my lady. See how it begins its existence?” He held up a rough, yellowish lump. “But when it is heated in the proper fashion, it becomes thus.” Now he held up a vial of opalescent white powder. “Through fire, the brimstone’s secret attributes are made manifest.”
For some reason, the knight’s words disturbed Grace. She gestured to the vial. “And did you make that, Durge?”
The knight rolled the vial in his hand, then set it down. “No. The brimstone turns black on first heating, as it should, but I cannot seem to move it then to white.” He let out a sigh. “I fear I am not applying the heat evenly enough. I will have to try again, although I imagine I’m bound to fail.”
The knight reached for a crucible, fumbled, then dropped it onto the workbench. He started to retrieve it, then staggered and leaned against the sideboard, head bowed.
Grace recognized the symptoms of sleep deprivation. How long had he been working on his experiments without rest? One day? Two? She touched his shoulder. “Durge, you should get some sleep. You can work on this again tomorrow.”
He did not look up. “Tomorrow. Yes, I suppose I do have tomorrow.”
She drew her hand back. “What do you mean?”
The voice he spoke in was soft, low, and profoundly weary. “I am old, my lady. Past my forty-fifth winter this year. It should have … it should have been me.”
Grace could only stare, unable to speak the word in her mind. What?
He looked at her, his craggy face solemn. “Sir Garfethel was bright and young, my lady. He had much life ahead of him.”
For so many years Grace had feared she had lost her heart, that it had been stolen from her as a child at the orphanage, but she knew once and for all this was not so, because at that moment she felt it break.
“As do you, Durge.”
He nodded. “If you wish, my lady.” Then he turned again to face the sideboard.
Grace watched his broad back and tried to understand. Something about Garf’s death had affected Durge more than just the death of a fellow knight. But what was it?
If there was an answer to that question, it was beyond Grace’s reach. She folded her arms over the bodice of her gown and watched him work.
“Will you ever do it? Make gold I mean.”
He placed a lump of sulfur on a scale. “It takes a pure heart to perform the Great Work, my lady. As pure as the gold one would create.”
Grace thought about this. “Durge, look at me.”
The knight immediately obeyed her command, a fact which almost made her wince. She licked her lips and forced the next words out.
“I don’t … I don’t know if anyone’s heart is pure.” Her mouth twisted into a wry grimace. “In my experience, flesh is a whole lot softer than metal. And I don’t know if you’ll ever manage to turn lead into gold. But there’s one thing I do know.” She laid a hand on his arm. “You’re a worthy man, Durge of Stonebreak.”
Durge gazed at her, and now his eyes did not seem so much bleak as simply tired.
“I believe you are right, my lady,” he said at last. “I will go to bed now.”
He set down the pair of tongs he had been holding. Grace pressed her lips together and nodded. Then she turned, stepped through the door, and left the knight to his quest.
That night she dreamed again of Travis.
Once more she stood on the pinnacle of stone. In the gloom she saw other sharp summits, islands in the ocean of mist. She turned carefully on her eyrie, searching, until she saw him.
As always he stood upon a needle of rock not far away, his back to her. Crimson flashed overhead. The firedrake. No—even as she looked up the firedrake halted and hung in the gray sky above her: the red star. If a meteor was a harbinger of royal death, then what might the star foretell?
Fear filled her. There wasn’t much time. She reached a hand toward Travis and called to him, even though she knew it was futile, that the mist would encapsulate her words as she shouted them, that he would not hear her.
This time he turned around.
It was Travis just as she had remembered him, wearing the same baggy green tunic, his sandy hair and beard still shaggy and wild. A thrill coursed through her. He had heard her! She started to call out again, to warn him that he was in terrible danger.
The words died on her tongue. The elation in her chest was replaced by damp fog.
Behind his wire-rimmed spectacles, Travis’s eyes were completely black. There were no whites, no irises. Only empty, borderless pupils. Tendrils of mist circled around him. Except it wasn’t mist, she saw now. It was smoke, and it was rising from his clothes.
He smiled at her. Then Grace screamed as the mist went red and fire leaped up to consume them both.
Grace sat up in bed, pushed snarled hair from her face, then fumbled in the dark for the top of the ladder. She climbed down to the floor. Coals still glowed on the hearth, guiding her like red beacons. She took a splinter of wood from a jar, held the tip against a coal, then guarded the resulting flame with a curled hand until she transferred it to a candle on the room’s table.
The borders of night retreated to the corners of the room. Grace sat in a chair, folded hands in her lap, and stared at the candle, letting the mundane light fill her vision. She was sweating—the heat of the dream still—but she shivered in her underclothes all the same. The image of Travis and his black eyes would not leave her mind.
It was just a dream, Grace. A bunch of synaptic vomit, that’s all. Besides, even if Travis is in trouble, it’s not as if he’s anywhere you could reach him.
Logic dulled her fear. Travis was on Earth now. Of course, there were plenty of dangers there—drunken drivers, crashing jetliners, rapidly mutating jungle viruses with no vaccines—but at least they were familiar to her. And perhaps it was a good thing Travis was a world away. Because if he were on Eldh again, Grace suspected he might find himself in a far different kind of peril.
She still wasn’t certain—not completely. It had been impossible, as always, to get definitive answers from either Ivalaine or Tressa while the two were here, and it was a topic Lirith had been flatly unwilling to discuss since her arrival. But all the evidence was there. Tressa had been both shocked and fascinated when he broke the rune of peace bound into the council table. Runebreaker, she had whispered. And Kyrene, well into her mad descent after being cast from Ivalaine’s favor, had approached him. Clearly she had thought that casting him under her spell would win her favor again among the Witches. But why were the Witches interested in Travis Wilder?
Grace didn’t know, but while Ivalaine was always an enigma, she had let one clue slip the day she had inquired about Grace’s relationship with Travis.
Why do you wish to know, Your Majesty? Grace had dared to ask. Do you think he might be the Runebreaker?
The queen’s ice-blue eyes had narrowed. Where did you hear that word, sister?
Tressa said it at the council.
After a long silence Ivalaine had spoken. The one called Runebreaker is a great evil, sister. And like all evil this one can wear many masks, some ugly, some fair. But if we are lucky his evil will not come to pass as has been foretold. That is enough for you to know.
It hadn’t been much, but it had been enough to confirm Grace’s suspicions. Whoever this Runebreaker was, he was a concern of the Witches, and as a result they were interested in all who had the power to break runes. Which, from what Falken had told her, was a list of people that contained a single name: Travis Wilder.
But Travis was hardly a great evil. Whatever the queen said about masks, Travis had saved this world on Midwinter’s Eve, not harmed it.
Grace pushed herself up from the table and turned to pour herself a cup of wine. Maybe it would calm her enough so she could sleep again.
Self-medicating, are we, Doctor?
She ignored the thought, sloshed some wine into a goblet, hesitated, then filled the vessel to the rim. Regardless of what the Witches were up to, Travis was far beyond their reach. She lifted the cup to drink.
The goblet halted an inch from her lips. Outside the window, just beneath the slender crescent of the waning, almost-new moon, shone the red star. It stared back at her from the night like a crimson eye. If only there were a way to glimpse him—just for a second, just to make sure he wasn’t in peril.
But there was a way, and she knew it.
Don’t be an idiot, Grace. The last time you tried it you just about turned yourself into a vegetable. And this time Ivalaine is not here to rescue stupid beginner witches who get themselves into trouble.
Even as she thought this, she set down the cup, moved to the mantelpiece, and drew an object from the leather pouch she placed there each night.
It glittered on her hand in the candlelight: the silver half-coin Brother Cy had given her back on Earth. Wherever he was, Travis had the other half.
She returned to the chair. Once before she had used the Touch to descry, not a living thing, but an object. It had been a knife, and the spell had taken her to the circle of stones south of the castle. There she had watched, bodiless, as Logren and Alerain plotted to murder one of the rulers at the Council of Kings. The experience had been remarkable, but she nearly had been lost in it, and she would have been had not Ivalaine called her back.
She gripped the half-coin in her hand and gazed into the heart of the candle’s flame.
This is pointless. Travis is fine. You’ll probably see him sleeping, or eating a bowl of cereal, or sitting on the toilet. Or more likely you’ll see nothing at all. You haven’t been able to Touch the Weirding once without it all falling apart, not since Garf died. What makes you think you can do this?
Except she knew she could, knew it was different, that touching the Weirding—the vibrant web of life that wove itself among all living things—was something beyond her just then. But this, an inanimate object, a thing of cold, hard, lifeless metal—this was something she could touch.
You should at least tell Lirith what you’re doing.
But she did not rise from the chair. Instead, she shut her eyes, let the darkness fill her, and reached out with her mind to touch the half-coin. This time she felt it—almost like a tug, followed by a wet sensation of parting.
Then she was flying.
By the time she gathered her wits enough to look down, the ground was already far below: a textured canvas painted in blue tones of shadow. She glanced back—dimly noticing that this action required only a thought, not motion—and could just barely pick out Calavere from the backdrop of stars. Only here and there did the spark of a torch flicker against the night. The town at the foot of the castle’s hill was no brighter, and of the villages she knew dotted the landscape around the castle, Grace could see no trace. The darkness was complete. It was utterly unlike being in a jet above North America at night, when one could look out the window and see the cities like glittering jewels strung along the gleaming strands of the highways.
Except this was no airplane she rode in. Right now her body sat slumped in a chair in a room in Calavere while the rest of her sped toward a destination she did not know.
A broad, black serpent undulated below her, its curves catching the faint light of the moon: the River Darkwine. Grace thought back to her fireside geography lessons with Aryn. Didn’t the Dimduorn flow east from Calavere to the marches of Toloria? Yes, she could still recall the charcoal map Aryn had drawn. Once it reached Toloria, the Dimduorn turned south, and a smaller river flowed into it. Just east of the confluence Aryn had placed a dot: Ar-tolor, the seat of Queen Ivalaine of Toloria.
Ar-tolor? Was that where she was going?
She forced her attention down, and even as she did she saw the great river curve sharply to her right. At the bend, nearly as Aryn had drawn it, a lesser river joined the Darkwine. Just beyond was a pale shape on a hill. Slender towers reached toward the sky and, unlike in Calavere, fires danced atop all seven of them. So the Witch Queen at least dared to defy the night.
Grace expected her descent to begin, but instead she seemed to move faster yet. Ar-tolor slipped past and was gone. Land flowed beneath her like dim water. Then jagged shapes heaved up before her, taking a ragged bite out of the starry sky. Mountains.
The air grew hot around her, until her whole being felt brittle and desiccated. In an instant it was no longer night; the sun burned in a sea of crimson clouds on the horizon. Dawn had come.
No, that wasn’t right. The sun lay behind her, to the west. Before her, a full moon, pink as a shell, rose above the mountains. Not dawn then, but sunset.
The peaks were close now, and she began to drop. At the foot of the mountains, on a thrusting outcrop of stone, stood a tower. So this was her destination. But what was it?
The tower grew to fill her vision, and she saw that her first impression was wrong. The tower was not simply built upon the pinnacle of stone. Rather, the spire had been hewn from it. The base of the tower merged seamlessly with the outcrop, while the three-horned summit soared above. All of it—stone, tower, turret—was as gray as mist.
A gray tower. Where had she heard of a gray tower?
There was no time to think. The ground rushed up to meet her. She came to a halt atop the ridge that led from tower to mountains. Then, for the first time on her journey, she heard a sound other than the rushing of the wind.
“He has defiled the runestone,” a deep voice, filled with anger, said. “The runestone, which is the heart of our tower and the source of all we are. His punishment has been decided.”
There was a pause, then another voice—sadder, more hollow—answered. “Then let the judgment be carried out.”
The gravity of the tower tugged at her, but somehow Grace turned around. They stood a dozen paces away, had she had feet with which to walk. A hundred men in robes as gray as the tower gathered in a semicircle. Two of them stood slightly ahead. One had black hair and a hard face crisscrossed with scars. The other was white-haired and stooped, leaning on an intricately carved staff.
In front of the men, near Grace, was a standing stone, slender and about ten feet high. Its surface was incised with symbols she could not read. At the stone’s base was a pile of wood and sticks. Only after a moment did Grace see that there was a man bound with ropes to the stone. His head hung down, but she could see that he had sand-colored hair and a short beard. Even as she watched, a pair of robed men stepped forward, bearing lit torches, and approached the standing stone. Who was the prisoner? And what had he done to deserve this sentence?
“Have you any words to speak before the end?” the white-haired man asked the prisoner.
“He’s spoken enough lies already,” the man with the cruel face sneered, but a look from the older man silenced him.
All were silent, then the bound man lifted his head. Had she a mouth, Grace would have screamed.
It was Travis.
Her mind flailed about. How was he here? And what was happening to him?
“I’ve only told you the truth, Oragien,” Travis said in a quiet voice.
At these words, the old man pressed wrinkled eyes shut. The other one, the scarred man, made a sharp gesture with his hand. The two with the torches hesitated, then stepped forward and plunged the flaming brands into the pile of sticks. Smoke billowed up.
Travis turned his head away from the smoke, so that Grace could see his face. She feared his eyes would be black, as in the dream, but they were gray as his robe and frightened behind his spectacles. Then his eyes went wide.
“Grace!” he said in a hoarse whisper.
Shock crackled through her. She tried to speak his name, but she had no organ of sound. Had he seen her somehow? But that was impossible; she wasn’t even there. Perhaps it was simply her name that he called at the end, out of terror and desperation.
The smoke was thicker. Flames crept up through the pile of sticks toward the hem of his gray robe. Travis turned his face forward again. No, he had not seen her. He clenched fingers into fists and shouted to the sky.
“Olrig’s hand will save me!”
He was wrong. No godly hand descended from the clouds to pluck him from the fire. The flames rose higher.
This couldn’t be happening. Grace reached for Travis, even though she knew it was no use, that she couldn’t help him. Travis’s body went rigid. He threw his head back, and a scream ripped itself from his lungs.
Then, just like in the dream, the flames leaped up to surround him. Grace was too close; the heat of the fire sucked at her. She struggled and somehow managed to turn around. There—stretching behind her into the distance was a faint, shimmering strand. The thread that bound her to her living body back in Calavere.
Her last conscious thought was to reach for the slender thread. Then Travis’s scream merged with the voice of the fire, and everything went red.
It was a pounding noise that woke her. At first Grace thought it was the beating of her heart, for it seemed to vibrate through her entire body. Then the sound came again, along with a muffled voice.
“Lady Grace! Are you in there?”
Slowly, her eyes opened. Crimson light flooded her brain. Was it the fire then? No—she blinked and saw it was not flame that poured through the window but the light of dawn. It was morning, and she was still alive.
“My lady, unbar the door!”
She lifted her head, then gasped at the sudden, shocking jolt of pain that coursed through her stiff muscles. What had happened? It felt as if her mind had burned to ashes, but she forced herself to remember: the tower of gray stone, Travis, the flames. A new kind of pain filled her. This had been no dream. She could feel the hot metal of the half-coin clutched inside her right hand.
The pounding at the door ceased, and she thought she heard faint words through the wood: I’m going to break it down. With brittle motions, Grace rose from the chair. She shuffled to the chamber’s door, pulled back the iron bar, and opened it.
She came face-to-face with a stout Embarran shoulder. It would have struck her face and bloodied her nose except that Durge was able to skid to a halt at the last moment. Lirith stood just behind him, a stunned expression on her face. Grace supposed she looked like hell on a bad hair day.
Durge regained his composure, but his deep-set eyes were concerned. “My lady, what has happened?”
She opened her mouth, but her throat was a desert.
Lirith breezed past Durge, all traces of surprise gone from her serene visage. “Can you not see the obvious, Sir Knight? She needs something to drink, of course.”
The witch laid a dusky hand on Grace’s arm and led her back to the chair. Looking chagrined, Durge filled a cup from a decanter on the sideboard and handed it to her. Grace accepted it in a trembling hand. Wine—it’s not just for dinner anymore.
She took a sip. The wine stung her throat, but she gulped the rest of it down, then handed the cup back to Durge. Her shaking eased a degree. Now both knight and witch gazed at her with curious expressions.
“It’s Travis Wilder,” she said before either of them could speak. “He’s on Eldh. And he’s in danger.”
She wanted to tell them everything then, but before she could say more Lirith clucked at her underclothes and gave Durge a pointed glance. The stalwart knight actually flushed, then turned his back while Lirith took Grace’s gown from a chair and helped her into it.
Lirith’s instincts were right, as always; as she dressed, Grace was able to gather her wits. By the time she sat in the chair again, this time holding a cup of steaming maddok brought by a servingwoman, she was able to speak in calm, precise words. Not that she didn’t feel urgency: She did. But if she was right, there was still time to save Travis.
When she finished speaking Durge and Lirith regarded her—one with astonishment, the other with interest.
Lirith crossed slender arms over the bodice of her rust-colored gown. “What you did was foolish, sister. And it was forbidden. If Ivalaine were to discover what you have done, she might cast you from the Witches altogether. And with good cause. What you did endangered yourself, but it might also have placed me or Aryn in peril had one of us been forced to attempt to retrieve you.”
Grace bit her lip at this chastisement. All the same, her dread receded a fraction. If Ivalaine were to discover … Grace had a feeling Lirith had chosen those words carefully. The witch did not intend to tell Ivalaine what had happened.
Grace gripped her cup. “Yes, Lirith,” she said, and it was not difficult to find a contrite tone.
Durge stroked drooping mustaches. “Are you certain about the moon, my lady? It was full in your … your vision?”
“Yes. I saw it clearly. All of it. It was just like before, at the circle of standing stones. What I saw hasn’t happened yet.”
“But will it?”
Both Durge and Grace looked at Lirith.
The witch paced, a hand poised beneath her chin. “It is not so uncommon a thing to use an object as a focus for visions. Several sisters have the power. However, they usually see but fragments, and these of things past. I have heard about visions such as Grace describes—visions which illuminate what will be rather than cast shadows of what was. But the power is rare.” Her eyes flickered toward Grace. “Quite rare.”
Durge shifted from foot to foot, and Grace gripped the arms of the chair.
“But will it happen, Lirith?” she said. “That’s what I have to know. Can what I saw be stopped?”
“Should it be stopped?”
The words were like a slap. Grace’s jaw dropped.
Lirith spread her hands. “He can break runes, sister. What if he were the one?”
The one what? Grace wanted to ask. But she already knew. Runebreaker. The one whom the Witches feared even more than the warriors of the Cult of Vathris.
“The tower you saw can be only the Gray Tower of the Runespeakers,” Lirith said. “And why would the Gray Men put one of their own to death unless they knew him to be a peril?”
Grace shook her head. “He’s my friend, Lirith. And he saved everyone in Falengarth from the Pale King. Now will you answer my question or not?”
“Very well, sister. But the truth is, I don’t know the answer to your question. Perhaps Ivalaine might. Yet it seems to me that if you saw it, then it must be so. Else why would it have been revealed to you?”
No. Grace wouldn’t accept that answer. If it hadn’t happened yet, then there was still a chance to change it. How many times had someone been pronounced dead only to be brought back to life on her table in the ED?
She shut her eyes and thought. Unlike Earth’s satellite, the moon of this world took precisely a month to wax, wane, and wax again. Today the moon was one day from new. Then fifteen more until it was full again. That gave her just over a fortnight. She counted in her mind. It was a week to Ar-tolor. And how far from there to the Gray Tower of the Runespeakers? She tried to remember the charcoal maps. Four more days? Five?
Grace opened her eyes and saw Durge gazing at her. His expression was odd. Somber, as always, but eager as well. “What are you thinking, my lady?”
Of course. He was a knight and a man of action. How long had he stayed at this castle, seeing to her small needs, attending her on her little rides into the countryside? How long had she expected such trifles to occupy him?
“I don’t know,” she said. “Not yet.”
But she had an idea, and every moment it grew clearer.
Lirith glanced at Durge. “I fear in all of this we have forgotten about the king.”
“What about the king?”
“He is the reason we came to your chamber, my lady,” Durge said. “Boreas asked me to bring you to him.”
Grace stood up and smoothed her gown. “Well, then I had better go.”
Lirith gave her a concerned look. “Are you well enough, sister?”
Grace gave her a tight smile. A meeting with Boreas was the last thing she needed just then. But there was something she had to tell the king, and she might as well get it over with.
“I’ll be fine,” Grace lied.
Ten minutes later she stepped into the king’s bedchamber. His need for her must have been urgent indeed for him to have summoned her there. She expected to be berated for her tardiness, but Boreas only grunted and waved for her to sit.
He sat at a table, poring over a sheaf of parchment, a scowl on his bearded face. His black hair was tousled from sleep, and he wore only tight-fitting knee pants and a loose white shirt open to expose a triangle of hard chest. He looked for all the world like what he was: a barefoot warrior who had just rolled out of bed.
As she watched, the king grabbed a quill pen, dunked the tip into an ink pot, and scribbled on the parchment. He regarded his handiwork, then set the pen down and looked up at Grace.
“Well, what is it, my lady?”
Grace did not try to hide her puzzlement. “You sent for me, Your Majesty.”
He snapped his fingers. “That’s right.” His blue eyes sparked. “What took you so long?”
Grace groaned. She should have quit while she was ahead. Her only chance was to detour the conversation.
“What is that, Your Majesty?” She gestured to the parchment on the table.
“This,” he said, folding the sheaf and sealing it with a blob of candle wax, “is a letter of endorsement.”
“A letter of endorsement?”
“Didn’t I just say that?”
Grace drew in a breath. It was going to be one of those conversations. She tried again, choosing her words like surgical instruments.
“What does the letter endorse, Your Majesty?”
“My new envoy to Perridon, of course.”
“Envoy?” Grace bit her tongue, but she was too late to prevent the word from escaping.
Boreas glared at her. “My lady, you will fail miserably in Perridon if all you can do is state the obvious. All words spoken in Castle Spardis are vagaries mixed with half-truths wrapped in a gauze of subtle misdirection. And that’s when you’re talking to a servant about what you want for breakfast. I’m beginning to have second thoughts about sending you.”
Grace clawed at the arms of the chair. “Sending me? Where?”
Boreas crossed his arms. She crunched down into her seat.
“To Perridon?” she said in a small voice.
“However did you guess, my lady?”
The air was suddenly unbreathable. He wanted her to be an envoy to a foreign nation? She could hardly ask a serving girl for a second cup of maddok, let alone make demands and negotiate treaties. “But …”
“But why you?” Boreas rose and paced to the window. “Because you’re the best spy I’ve got, my lady.”
A sigh escaped him at this utterance, and some of her dread was replaced by indignation. She wasn’t that bad of a spy. After all, she had helped uncover the Raven Cult’s plot to murder one of the rulers at the Council of Kings.
“And who am I to spy on, Your Majesty?”
“Everyone. I want you to watch and speak with every person who is scheming for the throne of Perridon—which, in Spardis, is a list that likely includes the kitchenwife and the stableboy. I need you to find out who is the most trustworthy of the lot—if there is such a person in that foggy dominion—and who is most likely to serve dutifully as a regent to the infant prince without seizing control of the Dominion himself. That’s who we’ll back if there’s a struggle for the crown.”
It was impossible. Grace had gotten better at dealing with people—whole people—these last months, but she had just learned to walk, and now Boreas was asking her to run up a mountain. This was utterly beyond her. She opened her mouth to tell him she couldn’t possibly go—
—and an image flashed in her mind. She saw the map Aryn had drawn that day. There, in central Falengarth, was Calavan. Perridon lay to the east. And between the two …
Toloria. And the Gray Tower of the Runespeakers.
That was it. She wouldn’t need to beg Boreas’s permission to leave Calavere. And no doubt he would send knights to accompany her. That was good—she had no illusions about what could happen to a woman traveling alone in a medieval world.
The plan crystallized in her mind. It was perfect. Almost too perfect. Had she influenced the king somehow without trying? Had she made him want to send her east?
Now she was thinking like Kyrene. Not every one of her whims was a spell. Besides, it wasn’t important. All that mattered was that she get to Travis before the moon was full. Grace looked up and met Boreas’s blue eyes with her own of green and gold.
“I will be honored to serve you, Your Majesty.”
Evening drifted on soft gray wings through the castle. Outside the high windows, mourning doves sang of loss and sorrow. The day was dwindling. Her last in Calavere.
Grace walked down a corridor, although she had no idea where else to search. Earlier she had gone to Aryn’s chamber to tell the baroness about what had happened, how she would be leaving for a time. However, the young woman had not been in her room. Nor had she been in the great hall, or the kitchens, or either of the baileys. For the last two hours Grace had looked everywhere in the castle she thought the baroness might be.
Finally, she had ended up in the little shrine in the north wing sacred to the mysteries of Yrsaia the Huntress. Aryn seemed to believe Grace did not know about the prayers the young woman sometimes spoke to Yrsaia, but Grace had overheard her whispers on more than one occasion. Why did Aryn think she had to keep her religion a secret?
She’s afraid that if you knew the truth, you wouldn’t feel the same about her.
Grace understood. After all, she had secrets of her own.
She stopped, sighed, and considered going to Boreas’s chamber, to tell the king she was worried about Aryn. Maybe Boreas could send some of his guards to search for her. She turned to go.
A faint, rhythmic sound floated through an open doorway. Grace halted. Where had she heard that sound before? She listened a moment more, then she stepped through the doorway. Beyond was a spiral of stone steps. She started up the steps and after a few revolutions realized she was climbing into one of the smaller towers that flanked the main keep. The clacking ceased as she climbed, then came again moments later, louder than before.
Grace stepped from the staircase into a short hallway. At the end was a wooden door, slightly ajar. The sound was clear now. Clack-clack. Thrum. Clack-clack. Thrum. She approached, then stopped at the half-open door, finally recognizing the sound even as she saw its source.
So this is where she’s been coming.
The circular room was empty except for a wooden loom and a chair in the center. For a time—she wasn’t certain how long—Grace stood in the doorway, watching as Aryn worked the loom, using the small, folded hand at the end of her withered arm to help catch the shuttle as it passed through the warp. After seven passes, Aryn would stop, set down the shuttle, and with deliberate motions pick out the threads she had woven. Then she would lift the shuttle and begin again. That was why the sound had come and gone.
The shuttle clattered to the floor.
Grace rushed into the room and picked up the block of wood before Aryn could react. She straightened, then pressed the shuttle into the baroness’s good hand.
“I didn’t know you were there, Grace.”
The words were listless, and Aryn didn’t look up as she spoke. Grace pressed her lips together. She had stood by on enough psych evaluations in the ED to know that repetitive behavior and lack of eye contact were both troubling signs.
“Aryn, are you all right?” Grace cringed even as she spoke. Words were so damn worthless sometimes.
The young woman turned back to the loom. “I’m just weaving, Grace. Like Ivalaine said we should. I’ve got so much to learn still. Only I can’t seem to get it right. The threads never make the picture I want. But I’ll keep trying.” She smiled, but the expression was as thin as a paper cut.
Grace sucked in a breath. This was worse than she had thought. She cursed herself for not having read the signs better. But it was broken bodies that she knew how to reassemble, not broken minds.
Aryn began weaving again, humming a dissonant song under her breath. Grace caught only a few words:
My love is coming in the spring,
I’ll weave a garland gold—
And when he’s buried in the fall,
A shroud against the cold.
Grace knelt beside Aryn’s chair. It was going to be as crude as operating with a dull scalpel—she didn’t have the training or the instincts for this kind of procedure—but she had to try. She might have been a flesh doctor, but she knew enough about psych to know it wasn’t the weaving Aryn was trying to correct.
“Aryn,” she said in a quiet but insistent voice. “Aryn, listen to me. Fixing the tapestry won’t make it better. I know something happened to you. On Midwinter’s Eve.”
Aryn ceased motion. She stared forward, her body rigid.
You should leave her alone, Grace. You could drive her over the edge doing this.
But tomorrow she was leaving Calavere. This was her only chance to understand. “What is it, Aryn? What are you really trying to make better?”
Silence. Grace hesitated, then reached up and touched Aryn’s shoulder.
An animal howl of pain filled the chamber, and Grace leaped to her feet. Aryn threw her head back, spine arching away from the chair, and her cry echoed off hard stone. At last her anguish phased into words.
“I killed him!”
At first Grace thought she meant Garf, then the baroness slumped forward, choking out words between sobs.
“Leothan. I killed him, Grace. I killed him with my magic. On Midwinter’s Eve.”
Grace shook her head, trying to comprehend. She had not thought of Leothan—the young lord who had once spurned Aryn’s invitation to dance—in many months. However, she remembered vaguely that Leothan had been among the dead of Midwinter’s Eve. She had assumed feydrim had killed him, as the monsters had a dozen other people that night.
Aryn’s right arm writhed against the warp of the loom like the broken neck of a swan. Grace clenched her jaw; this was a pain she had little power to ease. All the same, she moved again to the baroness.
“Tell me, Aryn. Please.”
The young woman nodded, then in a halting voice recounted a story that froze Grace’s blood: how Leothan had coaxed Aryn into an antechamber, how he had forced himself on her, revealing himself for an ironheart, and finally how the rage had flowed out of Aryn, turning Leothan’s brain to gruel.
By the time Aryn finished she was rocking back and forth in the chair. Grace gathered her into a clumsy embrace, holding the baroness’s slight, shaking body against her own.
“It’s all right, Aryn,” she murmured. “You did what you had to, and it’s over.”
“No, Grace.” Sobs like convulsions shuddered through the young woman. “You don’t understand. I killed him.”
“You had to protect yourself, Aryn.”
“But was that the only way?”
Grace shook her head. “I don’t understand.”
“Healing is your gift, Grace. Ivalaine said so.” The young woman clutched her withered hand. “But what if all I can do is harm? What if that’s my gift?”
No. Aryn had been punished enough by others for something beyond her control. Grace would not let her torture herself. Her power made her evil no more than did a deformed arm. She pushed the baroness away.
“You use what power you have. Do you understand me, Aryn? You do what you have to in order to survive, and you use whatever ability you have to do it.” She gripped Aryn’s shoulders and squeezed. Hard. “Do you understand me?”
Aryn stared, her face smudged with tears. Then one last shudder passed through her, and her body relaxed. A light shone in her blue eyes.
“Yes, Grace,” Aryn whispered. “Yes, I see. I must use what power I have.…”
Grace held her breath. There was something odd about the way the baroness spoke the words. She wasn’t certain Aryn had really understood.
Yet after that Aryn’s trembling eased, and she managed to stand on her own, to gather herself, and to walk with Grace back to her chamber. There they spoke long into the night, talking about all that had happened to them in the last months, and by the end Aryn was laughing—a genuine if fragile sound. Maybe Grace had gotten through to her. At least she hoped so. She was going to be journeying far from Calavere, and she didn’t know when she would get back.
By the time Grace finally finished her good-bye, both of them were weeping, although this time the tears were the normal byproduct of good, plain sorrow. Then Grace returned to her own room, lay in her bed for a few dim hours, and rose long before the sun to ready herself for the journey.
They set out at dawn the next day.
Grace let Durge help her onto Shandis’s back. The palfrey pranced in a circle, eager to be gone. It seemed she knew this was more than just a morning jaunt into the countryside, but once more Grace was giving an animal too much credit.
Then again, for all you know, she can calculate pi to twenty decimal places.
Grace decided to stop worrying about personifying.
Durge swung himself up into Blackalock’s saddle, his shirt of chain mail jingling. “Have you made all your preparations?” the Embarran asked the other two knights who, like him, sat astride tall warhorses.
“I believe I’m ready,” Sir Meridar said, making a last check of the leather bags tied to his saddle.
Grace remembered Meridar. He was the knight who had come upon them in the valley after the attack by the bear. His eyes were kind in his pockmarked face.
The remaining knight, Sir Kalleth, gave a curt nod. “We should already have left by now. The day wastes.”
Grace’s frown was a mirror of Durge’s. There was something about Kalleth she didn’t like, although it was hard to pin down exactly what it was. He was a plain man, if powerfully built, with salt-and-pepper hair and unremarkable features, save for a broken and badly reset nose. Maybe it was the flatness of his eyes. Regardless, Grace wished Boreas had not ordered Kalleth to accompany her.
Both Meridar and Kalleth had pledged their swords to the new Order of Malachor. Accompanying Grace was to be their last duty for King Boreas before he released them from service. On their return from Perridon, the two knights planned to journey to the order’s new fortress in Galt. Grace would have to remember to tell Meridar to say hello to Beltan for her. She missed the big blond knight, and she hoped he was doing well.
“The king has granted us his leave,” Durge said. “There is nothing holding us.”
Grace glanced around the bailey, but there was no sign of either Aryn or Lirith. But why should they have come? Grace had spoken with Aryn at length yesterday, and she had already bid Lirith farewell over breakfast that morning.
It’s better not to draw out good-byes. You know that well enough, Grace.
Yet it was hard not to feel a pang of disappointment.
Durge looked at her. “Are you ready, my lady?”
Grace hesitated. There was one more she had wanted to say farewell to. However, yesterday, when she had ventured into the garden with the gold light of afternoon, she had found no sign of Naida. The little grotto where the Herb Mother usually worked was silent. As she turned to leave, Grace had seen that the tree in the corner had finally died. Its brown branches hung down, as if to touch the other plants in a final embrace. Grace had lifted a hand to her chest, then had turned and left the garden.
Now she glanced up at the flawless summer sky. It promised to be a hot day. She searched the blue dome, and although she could not see it, she knew it was there, sinking even then toward the horizon. The new moon.
She lowered her head and met Durge’s gaze. “Let’s go.”
They rode through an archway into the lower bailey. Grace gazed at the stone walls within which she had lived most of the last eight months of her life. When would she set foot in this place again? Then they passed through the castle gate and into the world beyond.
Once they reached the foot of the hill they broke into a brisk but far from rapid trot. Grace forced herself not to order the knights to ride faster. It was still two weeks until the full moon; they had more than enough time for the journey. Yet it was hard not to feel that what she had seen in the vision had already happened, that no matter how hard they rode they would be too late. She concentrated on riding, and by the time she remembered to look back Calavere was already lost to sight behind her.
They rode north from the castle to the old Tarrasian bridge over the Dimduorn, then before crossing turned east, ascending the grassy ridge that paralleled the south bank of the river.
“Why don’t we just cross the Dimduorn here in Calavan?” Grace had asked Durge yesterday after studying a map of the Dominions with him. “It looks like we’ll have to go five extra leagues to the south to cross the bridge on the border of Toloria.”
“No, my lady,” Durge had said. “We must keep to the south side of the Darkwine. There are too many tributaries to cross if we were to ride on the north bank, and all of them will be swollen with snowmelt this time of year.”
Grace had nodded. But even five leagues seemed too great a sacrifice to speed.
They had ridden an hour in silence when Durge dropped back and brought Blackalock alongside Shandis. “We have not discussed Ar-tolor, my lady. Will we be begging the hospitality of the queen for a time?”
Grace opened her mouth to answer, but harsh words beat her.
“We ride straight to Perridon.”
Grace jumped in her saddle. Kalleth’s horse was just a half length behind her own. She hadn’t realized he had been following her so closely.
Durge’s mustaches twitched. “Lady Grace is a close companion of the queen. What if Queen Ivalaine were to extend an invitation to stay?”
“Then Lady Grace will politely decline,” Kalleth said, baring yellowed teeth in what was not a smile. “We will stop at Ar-tolor to beg permission of the queen before riding through her Dominion, as protocol demands. But then we will be on our way. We have our orders from King Boreas, and a holiday in Ar-tolor is not mentioned in them.”
Kalleth jerked the reins of his charger—so hard the beast snorted and rolled its eyes—and the horse veered to the side and dropped back.
Grace glanced at Durge. The knight gave a somber nod but said nothing. It might prove difficult to convince the other two knights to go out of their way to the Gray Tower. Grace suspected that Meridar could be persuaded with effort. But Kalleth seemed about as malleable as a block of granite. All the same, that was exactly what Grace had to do.
And what will you do when you get to the Gray Tower, Grace? Just how do you intend to help Travis?
But she had over fifty leagues in which to figure that one out. She hunkered down in the saddle and kept her eyes on the horizon.
Grace had gone for a number of rides in the last months, and her equestrian skills had improved, but she had never ridden hard for an entire day, and by the time the sun threw their shadows out before them her whole body hurt. Just when she was fearing they would never stop, she saw the thin trails of smoke rising into the sky not far ahead.
“The village of Foxfair lies just beyond that rise,” Durge said. “We will beg the hospitality of Gaddimer, the local lord, for the night.”
Grace nodded, grateful they were close to the village and to rest. Although she wasn’t certain that, when they did stop, she would actually be able to pry her fingers from the reins.
As they reached the base of the knoll that separated them from the village, the trail passed into a stand of trees. They were nearly through the stand to the other side when Kalleth hissed behind them.
“We are being followed.”
Durge came to an immediate halt. He cocked his head, listening, then looked up and made two sharp motions with his hand. Meridar and Kalleth wheeled their horses around and plunged into the thicket to one side of the road.
“This way, my lady,” Durge whispered.
He guided Blackalock into the undergrowth opposite of where the other knights had vanished. Grace and Shandis followed. She waited, watching the road through a screen of leaves. Then she caught the sound of hooves, and she held her breath.
The riders came into view. There were two of them. Both wore dark capes, the hoods pulled up to conceal their faces despite the warmth of the late-summer afternoon. A blade of fear stabbed at Grace. Raven cultists? No, the followers of the Raven had always worn robes, not capes. Highwaymen, then. Not so terrifying, but still dangerous.
The riders brought their horses to a halt. Their hooded heads turned from side to side, as if searching. Panic slithered up Grace’s throat. Did the brigands know their prey was hidden among the trees? The two bowed their heads together. One seemed to speak something, and the other nodded. Then they nudged their horses, and Grace breathed a sigh of relief as the two cloaked riders started onward again.
Her sigh became a gasp as, with a crashing noise, a horse burst out of the undergrowth in an explosion of leaves. The two cloaked riders jerked their heads up, then fought to keep their own startled horses under control. Grinning, a naked sword in his hand, Kalleth thundered toward them aback his charger. The riders fumbled with their cloaks, as if trying to grab weapons concealed beneath, but they did not have time.
“Hold, Kalleth!” a voice roared beside Grace.
Blackalock surged forward, a dark blur, out of the trees and onto the path.
“I said hold!”
Durge’s face was a deeply etched mask of fury. At the last moment Kalleth changed the direction of his blow, and the sword passed its mark, missing one of the riders by a scant inch.
The knight cast a venomous look at Durge. “What is the reason for this?”
Durge did not answer. Instead he rode forward, grabbed the hood of the nearest rider, and jerked it back.
Grace sucked in a sharp breath. Of course. You should have recognized the horses. She nudged Shandis forward, reaching the path at the same time as Meridar.
All looked at Aryn as she blinked wide blue eyes against the light of the westering sun. Her face was pale, and she lifted her left hand to the throat that nearly had been sliced through by Kalleth’s blade. The other rider reached up dark, slender hands and pushed back the concealing hood. Grace was shocked again. It was Lirith. What were the two doing here?
Kalleth shoved his sword into its scabbard. “This is a foolish game you’ve played, my ladies. And it might well have cost you your lives.”
“Thanks to your swiftness, Sir Kalleth,” Durge said in a hard voice.
Kalleth frowned at him, but the Embarran did not look in the knight’s direction.
Grace shook her head, struggling for words. “Aryn, Lirith—what are you doing here?”
Aryn’s fear vanished, replaced by a brilliant smile. “We were following you, Grace. We’re coming with you.”
Grace was stunned anew. Yesterday Aryn had been weeping and distraught over what she had done on Midwinter’s Eve. Now she was more cheerful than Grace had seen her in months. Lirith’s gaze fell on Grace, and Grace stared back. That Aryn had done this was almost comprehensible given her age, but that Lirith had agreed was impossible to believe.
“Forgive us,” the dark-eyed woman said. “But we did not want you to go without sisterly companionship to … your destination.”
Meridar glanced at Durge, his eyes filled with mirth rather than anger. “And what are we to do with these bandits?”
“It is too late to do anything tonight,” Durge said. “We will ride to Foxfair and hope Lord Gaddimer has room enough to keep us all. No doubt King Boreas sent another of his knights after Lady Aryn and Lady Lirith when he discovered their absence. They can wait for him at Gaddimer’s manor until he arrives.”
“But he won’t arrive,” Aryn said. Her eyes shone. “By the time Boreas finds out we’re gone, we’ll be days ahead, and not even the king’s fastest chargers will be able to catch us.”
The knights stared at Aryn, and she smiled. The expression was slightly smug. Lirith cast a shocked look at the baroness, and dread pooled in Grace’s stomach. Now she understood. Lirith had ridden with Aryn only to keep watch over her, believing Boreas’s men would come upon them before they got too far from the castle. But Aryn had done something—some spell—to conceal their absence. Only what? From the look on Lirith’s face, even she did not know.
Durge shifted in his saddle. “If Boreas has not sent a man, then one of us will have to return to Calavere tomorrow with the ladies.”
Kalleth spat on the ground. “And which of us will that be, Sir Durge?”
The Embarran grumbled under his mustaches. Grace didn’t need to hear his words to understand. His plan wasn’t going to work. The knights all had their orders to ride to Perridon. None would be willing to go back.
It was Meridar who offered the solution. “Let the ladies ride with us, then. It is hardly dangerous while we are here within the king’s borders. And let us not leave them to stay at some crude village, but rather take them to Ar-tolor, where they can stay with Lirith’s queen until such time Boreas sees fit to send for them.”
It was a good plan. Grace knew Durge had to agree, then was surprised to find him looking to her. Of course. It wasn’t the knight’s decision. You’re the duchess, Grace.
She swallowed the mad laughter that bubbled up in her throat. “We’ll do as Sir Meridar says.”
Durge nodded. Meridar appeared relieved, and while Kalleth did not look altogether pleased, he did not disagree. Aryn laughed, and Grace turned to meet Lirith’s dark eyes. The witch nodded. They would speak about the baroness later.
“Night comes,” Durge said. “We had best hurry on to Foxfair.”
The Embarran led the way, and the ladies came behind, followed by Meridar and Kalleth. Grace glanced at Aryn and Lirith as they rode. Despite the rashness of what they had done, she was glad for their company. Durge was a stout and true companion, but he was a man. It would be good to have other women along on the journey. Other witches.
But just how had Aryn arranged their unseen escape?
Grace nudged Shandis alongside the baroness’s palfrey. “What did you do, Aryn?” she whispered.
The young woman shrugged. “I only did what you said, Grace.”
“What do you mean, what I said?”
“If you have power, use it.”
Before Grace could say anything more, Aryn smiled and nudged her horse into a trot.
The traveling party rode east through the Dominion of Calavan, never straying more than a half league from the southern bank of the Dimduorn as they went.
Grace could not help marveling as they cantered across the gently undulating landscape. In the time she had lived on this world, she had hardly ventured outside the castle walls, and then only for short jaunts into the well-tilled countryside a few furlongs from Calavere. There, nearly always surrounded by crowds of dirty, foul-smelling people, she had been able to believe that Falengarth was a populous land, filled with similar keeps and towns. She was wrong. As far as Grace could tell from her vantage atop Shandis’s back, this world was just about empty.
It was not so noticeable in the beginning. On that first day out they came upon villages with predictable regularity—one every two miles. Foxfair, where they stayed that first night, was typical of the others: a stone manor house about as big as the average subdivision tract home on Earth—although built to stand for centuries rather than decades—with a stable, a common green supporting a few sorry-looking cows, a well, a shrine to the lord’s favored mystery cult, and about two dozen hovels of thatch, wood, mud, and stone scattered among rock-walled fields that were each about a quarter acre in size, and a third of which were lying fallow.
It was hard to believe this was the basis for the economic system that supported the entire Dominion. Then, as they rode on, Grace realized there wasn’t that much Dominion to support.
They set out from Foxfair at dawn after saying farewell to Lord Gaddimer and his wife—a kindly and diminutive couple who possessed deeply lined, good-natured faces as well as a trio of large, handsome sons. The oldest of the sons, all of nineteen, was helping his father run the manor, while the others, once they were a year or two older, would head for Calavere or the castle of one of Boreas’s barons to become squires and, hopefully in time, knights.
As they rode that second day, the size and frequency of villages decreased rapidly. It was only that evening, when they stopped at the first village they had seen in hours, that Grace understood the reason. Once again they begged the hospitality of the local lord: a younger, unmarried man named Unreth who was more reserved than Gaddimer but no less welcoming. When Unreth’s ancient housemaid brought an extra blanket to the damp bedchamber Grace and the other women were to share, the maid begged for news of Calavere.
“Do you know Elthrinde of Orsel?” the old woman asked Grace in a wavering voice. “She is my cousin, you see. She went to Calavere to work in the king’s kitchen.”
Aryn and Lirith shook their heads. Grace thought, then realized she did in fact know the name. She sighed and laid her hand over the old woman’s. Why was it so much easier when she had grim news?
“I did know Elthrinde,” she said. “Although not well, I’m afraid. A few months ago her granddaughter asked me to see to her. I’m a … I’m a healer. I did everything I could. But I’m afraid Elthrinde was worn-out, and she died.”
The old woman considered Grace’s words, then nodded. “Was she still beautiful? Elthrinde was so beautiful when she left for the king’s castle.”
Grace pictured the crone—toothless, arthritic, scarred by scrofula—who had struggled for breath on the flea-infested bed in the town beneath Calavere. “Yes, she was still beautiful. When did you see her last?”
The maid blinked in watery surprise. “Why, when she left Orsel, of course. I remember it clearly. It was the year we both reached our sixteenth winter.”
After the old woman left, Grace stared at the folded wool blanket. From further discussion she had learned that the maid had never journeyed to Calavere to see her cousin, even though it was a ride of only two days, and a walk of perhaps four. But then, shouldn’t she have known this would be the case?
Remember your world history class, Grace. In medieval times, on Earth, people hardly ever traveled more than ten miles from the place they were born.
She supposed it was the same on Eldh. Only the nobility seemed to travel about with some frequency. It was a hard concept to grasp—at least for someone who was used to hopping into a car or a plane and zipping across a continent. Miles might have shrunk on Earth, but here on Eldh the leagues were still vast and forbidding.
They set out at dawn again the next morning, and after Orsel vanished from sight they did not see another village all that day, and the farms they passed looked practically abandoned.
Grace had hoped she would have a chance to speak with Lirith as they traveled—about Aryn and what had happened when the two left Calavere—but by that third day she knew it was not going to be easy. As they rode, Aryn was never far from either Grace or Lirith. Nor, in any of the cramped manor houses at which they stayed at night, had there been a place she could talk to Lirith without Aryn overhearing. Grace’s questions would have to wait.
By that third day, Grace was already growing weary of traveling. Her riding gown was hot and uncomfortable, bunching up around her as she rode, and it collected dust in every fold of cloth, so that by the end of the day she was covered with grime and had to spend half an hour just shaking herself out. Her muscles hurt constantly, and her jaw felt as if she’d spent the last three days chewing a piece of vulcanized rubber.
Aryn, in contrast, seemed to enjoy the journey immensely. She smiled aback her palfrey as they rode, and when they stopped to rest, while Grace plopped down on a stone and concentrated on simply not moving, the baroness hunted around, gathering herbs, flowers, and leaves. At night she would spread them on a kerchief and discuss their names and properties with Lirith. She laughed often, and the sound was as bright as silver.
It was clear early on that Sir Meridar was enthralled by Aryn. He hardly bothered to hide his grin as he watched her, and the baroness often asked him to do small tasks for her, which he performed eagerly, and when he did she cast smiles at him which Grace thought bordered on cruel. For even were the kindly knight’s pockmarked face not too homely for the baroness, his station was without doubt too low.
Lirith seemed to notice this behavior as well, and the witch would frown when Aryn asked Meridar to bring her water or pluck a leaf from a high branch for her. Sir Kalleth frowned as well, but this was the only expression of which he seemed capable. And if Durge noticed, he said nothing about it.
Grace did her best not to worry about Aryn. The fact was, the young woman seemed fine, and Grace knew she shouldn’t argue with results. It didn’t matter how the patient got better, just that she did. Besides, Grace had other matters to worry about, and with each league they consumed her mind more and more. Would she and Durge be able to convince Meridar and Kalleth to ride to the Gray Tower? If so, would they reach it in time? And once there, how would she help Travis?
The sun was sinking on the third day of their journey when Grace noticed a line of smoke rising into the sky not far ahead.
“There must be a village on the other side of that down,” Kalleth shouted above the horses.
Durge pulled on Blackalock’s reins and dropped back. “That would be Tarafel,” the Embarran said. “I was hoping we had not passed it by. If I recall correctly, there is not another village for some leagues.”
Grace breathed a sigh of relief. She did not often know Durge to be mistaken.
Aryn shaded her eyes. “I do not see the smoke,” she said. “Where is it?”
Meridar brought his charger close to Aryn’s horse. “There, my lady,” he said, leaning toward her and pointing.
The baroness nodded, then turned to smile at the knight.
Grace ground her teeth but said nothing. She didn’t need to glance at Lirith to know the witch was looking at her.
“Let’s go,” she said.
The riders ascended the low ridge. The shrubs covering it were thicker than they had appeared from a distance, and by the time they reached the top the sun was heavy and low behind them, spilling red light across the land. They pushed through the last tangled wall, then came to a halt.
At first Grace thought the shadow cast by the down was playing tricks on her. Everything was black. Then she understood. The smoke was too dark to be from cookfires. And there was too much of it.
Aryn clapped a hand to her mouth, and Lirith sighed, her eyes deep with sorrow.
“By Vathris,” Meridar said. “What happened?”
Durge shook his head. The village was gone.
At least most of it. Grace could make out the square lines of stone foundations, cracked and scorched, and here and there the remnants of a wall or chimney still stood. But that was all. The village of Tarafel had burned to the ground.
“Wildmen.” Kalleth spat the word. “They must have ridden down from the mountains and done this.”
“I do not think so,” Durge said. “There is not a place to cross the Dimduorn for many leagues.”
Kalleth glared at the Embarran but did not disagree.
“I don’t understand,” Grace said. “The fires are almost all out. It must have been some time since this happened. Why didn’t we hear about it in Orsel?”
But even as she asked the question she knew the answer. In all likelihood they were the first people from outside Tarafel to come to the village in a week. But if invaders had not destroyed the settlement, what had? Grace couldn’t believe that fire could sweep through the village so easily—even houses that stood at a distance from others had burned.
For the first time in days Aryn was not smiling, and her voice sounded like that of a small girl. “But where are we to sleep?”
Grace almost laughed. No doubt this no longer seemed like such a grand adventure.
Durge squinted at the horizon. “There is a farm near that stand of trees, on the farside of the village. It looks as if it is unharmed.”
There was little discussion given the lack of choices. The six rode down the slope and in silence skirted around the remains of the village. At one point, lying in their path, was a form that should have been charred beyond recognition but was not. The arms were thrown above the head, as if in a final gesture of supplication. Or terror. Aryn gasped and hung her head. Grace forced herself to look ahead as they rode on.
It was dusk by the time they reached the farm. At first Grace thought it must be deserted. Heavy wood shutters covered the windows, and there was no light beneath the door. Then she noticed the smoke oozing from the daub-and-wattle chimney. She glanced at Durge. He nodded, nudged Blackalock’s flanks, and rode up to the farmhouse while the others waited at a distance.
Grace watched as Durge dismounted and knocked on the door. He knocked again, then a third time, and looked ready to knock the rickety plank in when the door opened a crack. She could not see who stood on the other side, but the knight took a step back. Why? Was he startled? She watched Durge speak for a few moments more, then the door shut. He climbed onto his sooty charger and pounded back toward the others.
What is it? Grace started to ask as he thundered to a halt, but the knight spoke first.
“Plague,” he said, his weathered face grim.
The others cast startled looks at the knight. Grace rolled the word over in her mind. Plague. Was that the reason for the destruction of the village? She had heard that, during the time of the Black Death in Europe, entire villages had been torched to prevent the spread of bubonic plague.
Grace nudged Shandis forward. “How many in the house are ill?”
“Just one from what I could gather,” Durge said. “An old woman answered the door. It’s her husband that’s sick.”
“What are the symptoms?”
“I don’t know. All she said was that he’s burning up.”
That wasn’t good enough. Fever was a symptom of countless pathogens, and plague was too generic a word to be helpful. There could be a dozen different pandemic diseases on this world, all as bad as bubonic plague—or worse. There was only one way to find out what she was dealing with.
Before Durge could reach out to grab Shandis’s reins, Grace urged the palfrey into a gallop.
“Grace!” She heard the shout behind her, although she didn’t know if it was Aryn or Lirith. She caught a dark blur out of the corner of her eye and knew Durge was riding after her. He would be too late. She reined Shandis to a stop in front of the farmhouse and moved to the door.
Durge was faster than she had thought. Clods of dirt struck her as Blackalock skidded to a halt two paces away. Durge leaped from the saddle, chain mail ringing, and laid a hand on her arm.
“My lady, this is madness. You cannot go in there.”
A strange sensation welled up in Grace’s chest as she gazed at Durge’s hand on her arm. It was not anger. It was too icy for that, too distant. The only way she could understand the feeling was to give words to it.
How dare you touch our person?
She did not speak them, but her look must have communicated the words all the same. The knight snatched his hand back, his expression one of astonishment. Grace turned and pushed through the door. It was dim inside. The air was sharp with smoke and rank with the wet scent of illness.
“My lady,” a voice rasped, “you must not enter here.”
Grace searched, then picked out the form of the woman outlined by the sputtering light of a fire. She huddled beside a crude cot, barefoot and wearing rags. Something on the bed writhed and moaned.
For the first time, a shard of uncertainty pierced her doctor’s confidence. Grace ignored it. This wasn’t just duty. It was need. Dimly she was aware of Durge standing in the open doorway, the hem of his cloak pressed over his mouth and nose.
“It’s all right.” Grace’s voice wavered. She cleared her throat and spoke again. “I’m a healer.”
The woman pawed at her matted hair. Despite Durge’s description she was not much older than Grace. Just worn and battered by life on this world.
“You cannot help him,” the woman said. “You cannot help any of them now. It’s too late. Too late.”
“Let me see,” Grace said.
She approached the bed. The moans grew louder, the stench of smoke thicker. The figure coiled and uncoiled beneath a filthy blanket. Grace stared, oddly reminded of a moth wriggling inside its cocoon, undergoing metamorphosis, its body dissolving and reforming. It seemed wondrous, but it had to be agony as well. She reached for the blanket.
“No, my lady!” the woman hissed. “Do not touch him!”
Grace hesitated, then glanced at the other. “Why? Is that how it’s transmitted?” But it was a stupid question. The woman couldn’t understand the concept of disease vectors.
“It’s the Burning Plague, my lady. He’ll be like the others soon. He’ll join them when the others come again.”
“Others? How many others have this plague?”
The woman made a limp gesture toward the door. “All of them. It took all of them. It will take you, too, if you don’t go. I’m the only one left. Me and Yaren. Oh, Yaren!”
The woman hugged thin arms around scabby knees and rocked back and forth on the floor, sobbing now as Grace stared. There was something wrong about this. The woman’s words didn’t make sense. If the plague took the others, how could they come again? She steeled her will, reached for the blanket, and pulled it back.
Grace clasped a hand to her mouth but could not stifle her gasp. The man on the bed was only vaguely human. His skin was blistered and oozed yellow fluid, as if every inch of his body had been severely burned. The gas of decay that rose from him was so thick Grace’s head swam for lack of oxygen. In places his burned skin had peeled off his body in strips, and that had exposed not naked muscle but something else: something that looked as hard, smooth, and black as polished obsidian.
“What’s happening to him?” Grace whispered, struggling for comprehension.
The man opened his eyes. One was beautiful and blue in the bubbled ruin of his face. The other was completely black—without white, without iris.
A shriek split the air of the hovel. The woman leaped to her feet, her face wild with terror. “Krondrim!” she screamed. “The Burnt Ones!”
She hurtled away from the bed and nearly knocked down Durge as she pushed past him, through the door, and into gray twilight beyond. The knight gazed at Grace with wide eyes. She tried to swallow, but her mouth was a desert. She forced herself to turn back around.
The man on the bed was still and quiet now. He watched her with his perfect blue eye. Then, impossibly, his ragged lips moved. Dark fluid dribbled down his chin. Despite her revulsion, Grace bent close to hear his words. As she did, she could feel the heat radiating from him.
“Kill me,” he whispered.
Grace shuddered. His blue eye flickered toward the fireplace. Grace followed it, then saw the sharp iron poker that leaned against the stones. She glanced back at him and opened her mouth, but she could not speak.
“Please.” The words were as dry as ashes. “While you still can. Kill me.”
Grace started to shake her head. She couldn’t do it. It was against everything she was, everything she stood for as a doctor. She started to rise. Then she saw a wisp of smoke coil up from the blanket that covered his body. It was burning.
He’ll be like the others soon.…
His one human eye locked on her face. An ocean of terror flooded the blue orb, while the other was as flat and empty as space. There was only one treatment left for him.
Grace clenched her teeth, then reached for the poker.
It grew warmer as they journeyed east.
Shortly after dawn the heat began to creep from the moist, sun-warmed ground until Grace could see it hanging on the air like gold mist, throbbing in time to the drone of insects. Evaporative cooling was impossible, given the humidity, but her sweat glands did not know this and continued to produce great, useless floods of salt water, until her eyes stung and her riding gown was heavy and sodden.
The dampness was the result of their proximity to the river, Grace knew, as well as the density of the vegetation; eastern Calavan was far more wild and overgrown than the heart of the Dominion, which had been tilled for centuries. Here, slender conifers stretched skyward even as entangling vines throttled them and pulled them back to the forest floor. In all, Grace had not been in a place so rank with life since medical school in North Carolina. There all objects had had the uncanny power to mold instantaneously. She kept checking her dress for the first blotchy, telltale signs.
Last night, the travelers had ridden in silence from the farmhouse near the ruins of Tarafel. Grace spoke to no one of what she had done inside, and Durge had not seen her actions. However, she knew she would never forget the weight of the iron poker in her hand, or the resistance she had met when she pressed the tip against the man’s obsidian flesh and found it far too hard to penetrate. Then a glint of sapphire had caught her eye, and she had known there was only one soft place left on his body.
His scream was short, dry, and horrible. Durge rushed to her, but by then the blanket was on fire, and flames licked up the tinder-dry walls of the hovel. The two burst out the front door, and by the time they reached the others the entire farmhouse was an inferno. What had become of Yaren’s wife they did not know. The others saw her stumble out of the farmhouse moments before Grace and Durge, then run in the opposite direction, disappearing into trees and gloom.
Darkness fell, and the six spent a miserable night huddled inside the only structure in sight still standing—a rickety shed that, in its most recent incarnation, had housed chickens. They did not sleep, and they set out again at first light, only too glad to be away from the place.
The sun was just rising when they discovered what had become of Yaren’s wife. It was Durge who found her body, crumpled in a shallow stream at the bottom of a ravine. Evidently she had not seen the edge in the dark as she fled. Or had she seen it after all? Grace remembered the woman’s terrified scream and shuddered. Kalleth and Meridar dismounted and scrambled into the ravine. The knights pulled her body onto the bank and covered it with a cairn of stones. Then the party continued on its way.
As they rode through the heat that day, Grace tried to comprehend what had happened. What sort of disease was this Burning Plague? Was the agent virus or bacillus? Was it airborne or transmitted by fluid? However, she knew these were useless questions, that this was no disease like she had ever dealt with at Denver Memorial. Despite his grotesque appearance, Yaren hadn’t been dying. All her instincts as a healer told her that. But if medicine couldn’t offer an answer, perhaps biology still could. A caterpillar could undergo metamorphosis inside its cocoon—why not a man?
But if that’s the case, then what was he becoming?
Even as she asked herself the question, an answer followed.
Krondrim. The Burnt Ones.
She could still hear the woman’s shriek. But what did it mean? She asked the others if they had ever heard these words, but no one had. Only one thing was for certain. Whatever these krondrim were, Yaren’s wife had been afraid of them enough to run into the dark and, whether intentionally or not, fling her body off a cliff. As they rode, Grace tried not to think of what else the woman had said.
… when the others come again …
She still had her mission—and Travis—to concern her.
That night they camped in a hollow beneath a stand of trees, for they had not seen a village all day, and Durge said they would be fortunate to reach another by the end of the next. They ate a meager meal, less for lack of foodstuffs than for lack of will to build a fire, then the women made beds on the ground while the knights took turns standing watch some distance away.
Grace lay atop her blanket on the lumpy ground, eyes open long into the still, hot night, watching as meteors shot across the sky. She had never seen so many falling stars in her life. For a time she played a game, counting her heartbeats after seeing a meteor. However, she never got to more than eight or ten before another bright needle of light pierced the black veil above. The last thing she remembered was the new, red star rising above a ragged line of treetops, casting its own crimson gauze upon the world.
She woke to damp, gray light, clammy and shivering. At first she feared fever and clamped a hand to her forehead, but her temp was not elevated. It was a combination of sunburn and the chilly predawn dew, that was all. She climbed stiff and aching from her makeshift bed to find Lirith and the knights already awake, then moved to rouse Aryn from a sound sleep. After displaying a temporary horror at the burnt village, the young baroness had grown cheerful again yesterday. Even the prospect of camping in the open had not daunted her.
As the group broke bread, Grace mentioned the meteor shower. “Is it usual for there to be so many shooting stars in Lirdath?” she asked Durge.
It was Kalleth who answered. “No,” the knight said in a sharp voice, “it is not.”
The lump of bread Grace had been chewing stuck in her throat. She glanced up and, although it was dim against the horizon, could just make out a crimson spark sinking in the sky. Was the red star connected to the meteors?
And what about the Burning Plague, Grace? Is that related to the star as well?
She dismissed the question. Coincidence was not causation, and right now she had no evidence that suggested the Burning Plague was related to anything. For all she knew it was an isolated incident, and not a pandemic at all. She packed the breakfast things while the others broke camp, and together they set out just as a chorus of insects greeted the dawn.
It was midday when they came upon the charred remains of a small group of houses. Grace did not see them at first. She had dropped back a bit, lost in thoughts about the burnt man in Tarafel. Just ahead, Lirith and Aryn spoke in low voices, then the young woman laughed: a cool sound.
Grace jerked her head up as Aryn’s laughter fell short. At first she feared some sort of sudden attack, like the bear. Then she reached the top of the slope up which they rode and gazed down into the valley along with the baroness and the witch. Durge was already riding among the ruins. Around him were the blackened stone foundations of several houses.
It would not have been enough to qualify as a village—a small collective of farms was more likely. Otherwise, it looked exactly as Tarafel had. The destruction was complete. None of the houses had survived. Nor, Grace saw as she guided Shandis down the slope, had any of the people.
“There are no signs that the fires spread from house to house,” Meridar said. “The ground is not burnt between them. I fear these fires were set by intention.”
Durge scratched his stubbled chin. “But why, Sir Meridar?”
Plague, Grace wanted to answer. Fear. Purification. But she could not give sound to the words. She could only stare at the twisted forms on the ground, black as coal, shriveled limbs twisted in final poses of agony. So much for Tarafel being an isolated incident.
“We have to leave here,” Aryn said, her voice half whisper, half shriek. “We have to leave here now!”
Lirith laid a hand on the baroness’s left arm, her dark eyes intent. “Steady yourself, sister.”
Aryn swallowed, then nodded, and her trembling eased a bit.
Kalleth spat on the ground. “Her Highness is right. There is nothing for us here.”
No, Grace tried to say. No, we have to look. There could be evidence in the ashes, something that might let them know the origin of the plague—and the direction it was moving. Had it struck Tarafel first? Or this place? They had to know if they were riding away from it … or toward it. However, fear locked her jaw like tetanus. Shandis followed after the other horses. Grace could only hold on as they left the scorched shapes behind.
They did not stop to eat a midday meal, and no one spoke as they rode along a track that led among rolling fields and vine-tangled trees. Grace wished they could have pushed the horses into more than a fast walk, but there were many more leagues before them on this journey, and they didn’t dare exhaust the horses now.
After a time, dark clouds pressed from the west, and thunder rolled across the land. Grace hoped for cooling rain, but it did not come. Instead the air grew still and oppressive as the clouds built. Finally, Grace clenched her teeth, certain that if the pressure increased another fraction she would scream. Aryn’s enthusiasm had vanished again, replaced by tight-lipped silence. Even Lirith looked wan, and the knights wore grim miens. Sweat poured down their faces, and their mail shirts exuded a sour, metallic reek.
All of them let out breaths of relief when, just as a few straggling rays of the setting sun slipped through a gap in the western clouds, Durge rode back from ahead to say he had caught sight of a village.
“Is it … is it all right?” Aryn asked, twisting a lock of hair with her left hand.
“There is no sign of fire, my lady, except for cookfires. If we have ridden as far as I believe, then this village is called Falanor.”
“It is Falanor,” Kalleth said. “I squired under Baron Darthus along with the current lord, and I have visited here once before. Eddoc should offer us good hospitality.”
“I could use a little hospitality,” Meridar said. He shifted in his saddle and winced. “Especially the part I’ve been—”
Lirith raised an eyebrow, and Meridar clamped his mouth shut, his sun-reddened face deepening another shade.
“Sir Knight,” the witch said, “if you mean to let your hindquarters beg hospitality of the local lord, I hope they won’t be expecting a separate room from yourself. Otherwise, I fear your discomfort could increase.”
Meridar opened his mouth to reply, but his words were lost as a ruddy fork of lightning split the clouds overhead, and a clap of thunder broke the air.
“I don’t like the looks of this storm,” Durge said. “It is too hot. Let us make haste to Falanor.”
It was nearly dark as they passed the tall shadows of two trees and followed a well-worn track into the village of Falanor. There were no torches in sight, no oiled sheepskin windows glowing with the warm light of candles. Nothing moved. Grace clutched Shandis’s reins, afraid this village had suffered the same fate as Tarafel. Then a jagged line of red arced from horizon to horizon, and in the hot strobe Grace caught the outlines of two dozen structures. All stood unharmed.
She forced the breath from her lungs. Even in Calavere most people went to bed at dark. And here, in a village on the fringes of the Dominion, it was doubtful they had much fat to spare for luxuries like lamps or candles. Everyone was asleep, that was all.
“This way,” Kalleth said above the moan of the wind. “The manor is just ahead.”
Another flash of lightning honed the hard lines of the knight’s face. Slow thunder rolled. The other riders followed after him.
“Do you feel it, sister?”
Grace jumped in her saddle at the whisper, the sound of which was somehow more unnerving than the crash of the electrical storm. She glanced to the side and saw that Lirith had guided her palfrey close to Shandis.
There are eyes upon us.
Lirith’s lips did not move, but Grace heard her voice clearly. This might have startled her, but the witch’s words were more troubling than their means of conveyance. Grace glanced in either direction, but it was impossible to see in the alternating blackness and glare. She clenched her teeth, then shut her eyes and reached out quickly to touch the Weirding.
It was difficult, and once she did touch the web of life she lost it a second later. However, it had been enough to feel the lives huddled inside each of the houses. And the fear that crackled on the air along with the lightning.
She opened her eyes. “I don’t understand. What are they so afraid of?”
Lirith met her gaze. Us.
She winced at the word that sounded in her mind. Had Lirith used the Weirding on purpose, to call attention to Grace’s inability to hold even the scantest thread of magic together?
Stop it, Grace. This is your problem, not Lirith’s. Just because you can’t seem to use the Touch anymore doesn’t mean every other witch has to stop.
The horses came to a halt as a stone wall rose before them. They had reached the manor house. To her relief, Grace saw lights glowing behind translucent windows. Someone was home.
The riders dismounted in the manor’s courtyard, then Durge and Kalleth approached the door while the others watched. Kalleth raised a fist and knocked three times, but the third blow was lost in a clap of thunder. He raised his hand to knock again. However, just then the door swung open, and gold light spilled onto the steps.
It was difficult to make out the silhouette in the doorway. A man, Grace decided, although whether old or young, serf or noble, she couldn’t tell. Regardless, his hunched posture spoke clearly of fear. Would the man refuse to let them in? But that was impossible. Afraid or not, one did not deny a request for hospitality made by knights of the king on behalf of a baroness, a duchess, and a countess of Toloria.
Durge gestured, and the man jerked his head up to cast a wide-eyed look at the ladies. Grace couldn’t help but smile. Care to bet he wasn’t expecting nobility for dinner?
The man made a hurried motion with his hand. Kalleth stepped inside, and Durge returned to the others.
“It seems Lord Eddoc is away,” the Embarran said. “However, that man is the reeve of Falanor. He is overseeing the manor in his lord’s absence and has opened the house to us.” He glanced at Grace. “Sir Kalleth has gone to see to the rooms, to be certain they are adequate for your needs.”
“I’m certain they’ll be fine,” Grace said, grateful they would not have to try to sleep outside in the storm.
“When will Eddoc be back?” Aryn asked.
“Jastar—that’s the reeve—did not say,” Durge answered.
The baroness shuddered. “It doesn’t matter as long as we can go inside. This storm is so queer. It makes me feel like … like screaming.”
Durge glanced at Aryn, concern on his craggy face. Her shoulders crunched in and she hung her head, obviously embarrassed at the words she had spoken.
It’s all right, Grace wanted to say. It makes us all feel like screaming. But Lirith moved first. The witch laid a hand on the young woman’s arm.
“I always wait until the thunder sounds.” Her full lips turned upward. “That way no one can hear me.”
Aryn nodded and gave her a grateful smile.
Durge looked to Meridar. “Accompany the ladies inside. I will see to the horses.”
Grace was glad when the door swung closed behind them, shutting out some of the din of the storm. They stood in a narrow entry hall. Candles infused the air with oily light, and benches lined the wall, that travelers might sit and lay down their burdens. There was no one besides the four of them.
Really, Grace? Then who closed the door?
She turned and saw a boy of perhaps eleven or twelve standing beside the door. A squire? Grace took in his bare, dirty feet, his ragged knee pants, and his heavily patched shirt. A peasant’s son, then, come to work as a servant in the lord’s house.
“Where is the reeve?” Meridar said.
The boy turned his face toward the knight. Though smudged with grime, his skin was clear of disease, and his green eyes were bright beneath a crooked fringe of brown hair. He smiled, showing teeth that were already stained with rot.
“Reeve Jastar has gone with your brother, my lord. They look at the rooms in the manor, to choose the best.”
Grace coughed. The air was dry and metallic, and it was hard to swallow.
“Can I get you some water, my lady?” the boy asked.
Grace lifted a hand to her throat and nodded.
“Can I, my lady?”
Grace frowned. “Yes,” she croaked. “Yes, thank you.”
Still smiling, the boy moved to a sideboard and lifted a pitcher. It wasn’t until he poured the water that Grace realized the truth. He didn’t stop pouring until liquid ran over the rim of the pewter cup and onto his hand. Then he turned and held the cup toward Grace, missing her direction by only a few degrees.
He’s good—he’s adapted well. But then children usually do. Still, you should have noticed it sooner. No eye contact. And he didn’t see your nod in answer to his question. You’re losing your touch, Doctor—in more ways than one.
She took the cup from his outstretched hands. “What’s your name?”
“Daynen, my lady.”
“Are you Eddoc’s son?”
He laughed at this. “No, my lady. My father works the farm by the hill north of the village. When I lost my sight, he begged the lord to take me, because I was no use to him on the farm and he could not feed me.”
Grace’s jaw dropped. A man would cast his son out just because he went blind? But she shouldn’t have been surprised. She knew the rules of this world, and they were harsh ones. Love was a luxury, not a necessity.
She started to speak, but Kalleth stepped into the hall, the reeve Jastar on his heel.
“This way,” Kalleth said without preamble.
Durge entered at that moment, and together the travelers followed Jastar. Now that Grace could get a clear look at the reeve, she saw he was a plain man: short and sturdy with a pockmarked face, just like most men on this world. He wore a tunic and hose of forest colors, with a brown gorget around his neck, the hood pushed back. By the sour odor he exuded, bathing was not as frequent here in the hinterlands as it was in Calavere. However, his face was cheerful if homely, and his bow and gesture for them to follow were polite, although Grace caught the trembling of his hand.
Poor man. This is probably the first time in his life that a baroness has come to stay at this manor, and here his lord is away.
They followed the reeve up a flight of steps to the second story and found themselves in a hall that ran the length of the manor, doors on either side.
“This is your room, Sir Knights,” Jastar said to Durge and Meridar, pausing before a door. He moved on, then gestured to another door. “And I hope this chamber will please the ladies. It is the largest in the house.”
As Grace followed down the hall a fly buzzed past her face, and she caught a whiff of a putrid scent. She wrinkled her nose and batted the fly away.
“There is a foul humor on the air,” Durge said to Jastar.
The reeve spread his arms in apology. “I fear the cook allowed a joint of meat to spoil in the kitchen, my lord. I am having difficulty purging the bad air from the house.”
“I hope he had an easier time purging the bad cook,” Lirith murmured.
Aryn moved to a door across the hall. “What of this room, reeve?”
The man winced. “I’m afraid, my lady, that by some trick of halls and angles the odor is strongest there, in Lord Eddoc’s chamber.”
Aryn hurried away from the closed door, then bent her head toward Grace. “I hope for the reeve’s sake that the air clears before his lord’s return.”
Grace could only nod as she concentrated on breathing through her mouth.
The knights retreated into their chamber and the women into theirs. The room was large, as promised, and surprisingly clean and odor-free. There was one large bed with a straw-tick mattress, which Lirith said she would share with Aryn, and a smaller cot, which would be Grace’s. An oiled parchment window was shut tightly, and every few seconds it glowed with a flash of lightning. The rafters above creaked from the wind, but there was still no sound of rain. The storm was all heat and energy with no release. Grace hoped it would pass soon.
After a short while Durge came to the door to see if they were well settled. Before Grace could answer, Daynen appeared in the door behind the knight.
“Forgive me,” he said, gazing with blind eyes, “but the reeve asked me to tell you that supper has been set on the board.”
By the time the women and Durge reached the manor’s main hall, Kalleth and Meridar were already there, along with Jastar. They sat on benches at a well-worn table, and the reeve offered them a meal of bread, cold venison, cheese, and dried fruit with cream. It was simple enough, but Grace had had far worse meals. Apparently the cook had mended her ways.
Jastar was pleasant, if dull, company. He inquired after their journey, but he did not ask for details; Grace knew that, in the Dominions, a common man did not question the motives of nobles. Throughout the meal the reeve sweated profusely, until his tunic was stained with moisture. It was clear that speaking with knights and ladies was not something the man was accustomed to. But he performed well enough, and Grace hoped they’d be able to relay a message to Eddoc saying this. She felt bad for imposing on the poor reeve.
As they finished, Daynen entered the room to begin clearing plates. Grace watched him work, amazed at how few mistakes the boy made despite his disability. Then another, smaller figure caught Grace’s attention.
She slipped into the room as quietly as a shadow: a girl of no more than seven years. A sleeveless gray shift was her only garment, and her feet and thin, freckled arms were bare. A cascade of flame-red hair hid much of her face and tumbled over her shoulders. She started to help Daynen gather plates, and Grace stared, although she was unsure why. Something about the girl demanded her attention.
“What’s your name?” she said, as the girl took the cup in front of her.
The girl only shook her head, her face cast downward, and clutched the cup. Grace glanced at Daynen, then realized he could not see her questioning look. However, he must have sensed the pause and answered anyway.
“Her name is Tira. She can’t talk.”
Grace absorbed this information, then leaned forward in her chair. “Hello,” she said. “My name is Grace.”
Still the girl did not look up. Grace reached out, cupped her hand under the girl’s chin, and gently lifted her face. The child’s fiery hair fell to one side. Grace nodded; she had expected something like this.
The left side of the girl’s face was remarkably pretty: pale, smooth, delicately formed. The right, however, was covered with tight rivulets of scar tissue. These dragged down the corner of her mouth, and her eye drooped within shiny pink folds. The right ear was gone altogether. Grace made her diagnosis: third-degree burns to the face and head, now healed. Her hand slipped down to the girl’s right arm and turned it over. Slick tissue covered the underside. Grace guessed there would be more burns beneath the thin fabric of the shift, on the right side of her torso. It was remarkable the girl had not died of infection. On Earth, skin grafts and cosmetic surgery would have helped rebuild her face. Here she would be scarred for life.
“You’re a beautiful girl, Tira,” Grace said in a soft voice, and she meant it.
The girl pulled her hand back, bowed her head, and carried an armful of dishes from the room. Daynen followed her. Grace watched the two go.
“Does Eddoc have any children of his own?” she asked.
Kalleth answered. “His wife died while heavy with their first child some years back, and I do not believe he’s taken another wife since.” He glanced at the reeve, who nodded in agreement.
Lirith rested her chin on a hand. “Lord Eddoc must be a very kind man to take in the children of others.”
“Too kind, sometimes,” Jastar murmured.
Grace glanced up. What had that meant? Did the reeve fear that the children were too great a burden for his lord? However, before she could ask more, Kalleth stood.
“We will leave early in the morning.”
“Then I will be up to see you off, my lord,” the reeve said.
However, Grace knew the knight’s statement had been as much a suggestion that the ladies retire to their chamber as it had been an announcement for the host.
Following Lirith’s lead, Grace and Aryn rose, bid the men good night, and headed upstairs. When they stepped into their chamber, they found Daynen and Tira within. The children had replaced the linens on the beds with fresh ones. When he heard them enter, Daynen hastily gathered up the old sheets and moved to the door. Tira followed after him, then halted when she drew close to Grace.
“Come on, Tira,” Daynen said.
“No,” Grace said. “It’s all right.”
She knelt and laid her hands on the girl’s shoulders. They were far too sharp and bony. She brushed the girl’s fiery hair from her face.
“You don’t need to hide,” she said. “Not with your pretty face.”
Tira went stiff, but Grace didn’t let go. The girl relaxed and looked up, grinning to show perfect white teeth. Grace grinned back.
“You have a good manner with children, sister,” Lirith said.
Now it was Grace’s turn to go rigid. In the ED she had avoided pediatric patients with grim determination. Children could be too disarming. Too honest. Yet somehow she felt at ease with Tira. What was different?
Isn’t it obvious, Grace? Mute kids have a hard time asking difficult questions.
“When did Tira stop talking?” she asked Daynen.
“She was like this when Lord Eddoc found her.”
Aryn took a step closer. “The lord found her?”
Daynen nodded. “It was when he journeyed to Perridon this spring, to visit his cousin. On his return he found her wandering by herself, in the wilds of southern Perridon. There was no way to know what had happened to her—she couldn’t say. So in his kindness Lord Eddoc brought her home.”
“How is it you know her name?” Lirith said.
“We don’t, not really. Tira is what my lord calls her. I think it was the name of his wife.”
With deft fingers Grace probed the girl’s throat, but she detected no abnormalities. Mostly likely Tira was physically capable of speech. However, the wounds she had suffered were more than enough to induce behavioral changes. It was not uncommon for a child to respond to trauma by refusing to speak. But how had she gotten burned?
Don’t you know, Grace? How else have people been burned in this Dominion?
Again she saw the charred remains of the village, and the man on the cot writhing as he underwent his impossible metamorphosis. But it couldn’t be the same, could it? Tira’s wound had healed—it was just a mundane burn.
“Tira and I should go, my lady,” Daynen said.
Grace nodded. “You heard him,” she said to Tira. “Go on—we’ll see you tomorrow.”
Daynen stepped into the hall, and Tira turned and trotted toward him. However, when she reached the door she stopped and turned. She looked at Grace, pointed through the open doorway, then formed her hand into a stiff shape and brought it up and down in a jerking motion.
Daynen frowned. “What’s Tira doing?”
Grace glanced at Lirith and Aryn, then back at the girl. Tira continued to make the peculiar motion, her face an impassive mask.
“I’m not sure,” Grace said. “I think … I think she’s trying to tell me something.”
Daynen shrugged. “Tira’s funny sometimes.” He groped forward, found her shoulder, and gently pulled her to him. “Come on, Tira. The ladies need to sleep, and so do we.”
The boy and the girl left the room, shutting the door behind them. Grace looked at the other women, but any words she might have spoken were lost as another clap of thunder shook the stones of the house.
Grace woke to ashen light.
She sat up in her bed, pushed snarled hair from her eyes, and blinked. Something was strange—her ears seemed to throb, and the stuffy air of the chamber pressed in on her. Then she realized what it was.
She wasn’t certain when she had finally fallen asleep. The storm had raged on long into the night. Even through her closed eyelids she could see the metallic flashes of lightning, and despite a feather pillow mashed over her head the thunder drummed through her skull. At some point she must have fallen into a fitful sleep. And now …
Grace cocked her head, listening, but she heard nothing except the steady breathing of Aryn and Lirith in the bed across the room. The storm had finally passed.
She rose and dressed, careful to make as little noise as possible. There was no point in waking Aryn and Lirith yet. By the light, dawn was still some time off, and given the restless night all were certain to have had, she guessed their departure from Falanor would be later than usual.
Unless Sir Kalleth marches in here with his spurs on and kicks us all into motion.
Grace wouldn’t put it past the stern knight.
She slipped through the door and pressed it shut. As she started down the hall, her nose wrinkled. Yesterday’s putrid scent still hung on the air, stronger than ever. What had the cook done with that joint of meat? Shoved it up in the rafters? She hurried down the hall to the head of the stairs.
When she stepped into the main hall, she found she was not the only one who had arisen early, for Meridar and Durge sat at the long table. A fire burned on the hearth. No matter how hot the day, Grace had observed, people in the Dominions always lit a fire. As far as she could tell, it was some sort of obsessive-compulsive need in medieval people.
The boy, Daynen, was in the act of setting a tray of bread, cheese, and dried fruit on the table. Tira followed behind him, carrying with studious care a clay pitcher of some grainy-looking fluid. She set it on the table without spilling a drop.
“Hello,” Grace said from the doorway.
The knights rose to their feet, and Daynen smiled.
“Good morrow, my lady,” he said. “Did you sleep well?”
Grace raised a hand to the back of her aching head, glad the boy couldn’t see the pained expression on her face. “Just fine,” she said.
“Reeve Jastar left early to see to affairs in the village, but he bade me to be sure you had anything you needed.”
“How is Lady Aryn?” Meridar asked before Grace could thank Daynen. “And Lady Lirith,” the knight added belatedly, his pitted cheeks brightening.
A twinge of regret pulled at Grace’s heart. She wished Meridar didn’t feel the way he did about the baroness. Then again, he was hardly a stupid man. No doubt he wished the same.
“They’re still sleeping,” Grace said.
She felt a tug on her skirt and looked down. Tira pointed to the table: Eat. Grace crouched down, bringing her eyes on a level with the girl’s.
“Thank you,” she said.
Tira gave a hesitant nod, then ducked her head, letting her red hair cover the shiny, melted scars on her face. She hurried to a corner of the hall. Grace sighed. Something told her that the smile she had glimpsed last night was a rare gift.
She sat down and surveyed the breakfast fare. The soupy brown liquid in the pitcher turned out to be beer, although if someone had whirled together stale bread and water in a blender she wouldn’t have known the difference. Grace would have preferred a blistering-hot cup of maddok laced with a single curl of cream. Her growing suspicion was that the entire Dark Ages on Earth would have lasted about three weeks instead of ten centuries if there just had been an ample supply of coffee to get everyone’s brains jump-started.
She sipped her beer, then looked at Durge. “Where is Kalleth?”
Durge’s expression was as somber as his gray attire. “I do not know. During the night I went to see to the horses, to be certain fear of the storm had not driven them to harm. When I returned sometime later he was gone.”
Meridar broke open a loaf of coarse bread. “Kalleth rose very early this morning, just as the storm was waning. He told me there was something he wished to see, but he did not say what it was, and he has not returned since.”
Grace frowned. That was peculiar news. Kalleth hardly seemed like the type just to wander off in the night. He must have had a task of specific import to see to. “What should we do?” she said.
“We will wait,” Durge said. “For a time.”
The piece of bread Grace had started to swallow stuck in her throat.
They continued eating in silence, and when they finished the knights headed outside to ready the horses for the day’s journey. Daynen cleared some of the dishes, leaving out the food for those who had not yet risen, and Grace found herself alone with Tira. She tried to speak to the girl, but Tira sat on a bench, staring into the fire, and did not move. Whatever Grace had done to reach the child last night, it escaped her now as surely as the Touch. She was glad when Daynen returned to the hall.
“May I ask you a question, Daynen?” she said in a careful voice.
He nodded and sat on a bench. “Of course, my lady.”
“I’m a healer,” she said. “I was wondering about your eyes. Can I ask how you lost your sight?”
He turned his face up, his tousled hair falling back. “I looked into the sun. I looked and never turned away.”
Grace’s jaw dropped. She had expected fever, or perhaps a blow to the head, but not this. Staring at the sun would sear the retinas and fry the optic nerve to a crisp. There was nothing Grace could do to repair that kind of damage.
“Why?” she said, the question startled out of her.
“They come in fire. That’s what my father said. So one day I woke up and knew I had to look into the sun, because that’s the biggest fire there is. I knew that if I looked long enough, I would see what we’re supposed to do to stop them.”
Grace shook her head, fighting for understanding. “Who are you talking about? Who comes in fire?”
“The Burnt Ones.”
Grace clutched the edge of the table. “You’ve seen the Burnt Ones?” Her voice was an urgent whisper. “Tell me, Daynen. Have you seen them?”
He shook his head. “No, but my father spoke of them. He heard about them from a man who came from the east. The man said that people get a fever, and that some of them die, but that some don’t, that they turn black as night and become the Burnt Ones and come back to burn everyone up. He used some other word, too. Kren … krem …”
“Krondrim,” Grace murmured.
He nodded. “Yes, that was it. He said the krondrim would come for us here just like they had in his village.”
Grace laid her hands on the boy’s shoulders and spoke in precise words. She had to know, she had to be certain. “This is important, Daynen. Did anyone touch the man—the one who came from the east? Did anyone have contact with him?”
Daynen frowned. “I don’t think my father touched him. He said there was something wrong with the man, that he smelled bad. The man went to talk to Jastar, I think, but then I didn’t see him again. He must have kept traveling west.”
Dread trickled into Grace’s stomach. She wished she hadn’t drunk the sour beer.
“And I did see something, my lady. In the sun. Just before everything went dark, I saw it so clearly.”
She moved to him. “What was it, Daynen? What did you see?”