/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy, / Series: Valdemar (09): Mage Storms

Storm Breaking

Mercedes Lackey

In this book, everything is solved. Elspeth and Darkwind act as Envoys and go into Hardorn to meet their once-enemy Tremane. The people of Hardorn want to make him their King, but only under conditions. Karal, Firesong, An'desha, the gryphons, Sejanes (a mage of Tremanes) and Master Levy (a Mathematican and clever engineer) head towards the Dhorisha Plains. They are to go where the tower ruins are that were once home to Urtho and his people over a millenia ago. The Storms are returning to that spot and they are going there to try and prevent another Cataclysm from occuring that will possibly destroy them all. Urtho was a great experimentor that had created very dangerous Weapons to use against Ma'ar. He deamed them too dangerous to use and sealed them in a chamber of the tower. The Kalenedral, Sworn ones to the Goddess, have been protecting these things from greedy mages. But now, maybe they are of use.

Storm Breaking

Book Three of the Mage Storms

by Mercedes Lackey

copyright 1996

version 2.0. spell checked, compared to original, formatting. Completed January 30, 2004.

Dedicated to the memory of Elsie B. Wollheim

One

Karal lay as quietly as he could, keeping his breathing even to avoid jarring his head.. He kept his eyes closed against the light, hoping that the snow pack across his brow would eventually ease his throbbing headache. It was hard to think through the pain that stabbed from both temples and seemed to meet just above his nose. He was only vaguely aware of the rest of his body, muffled as it was in blankets, with hot stones packed all around to keep him from getting cold. The Shin'a'in who tended him seemed particularly concerned that he not take a chill from the clammy stone floor or the snow packs on his head. If this had been Valdemar, or even Karse, there would have been other recourses to ease the fiery lances stabbing through his temples—but unfortunately it wasn't. This half-melted ruin of an ancient tower held no such amenities as Healers or herbal pharmacopoeias, and he was going to have to make do with whatever their Shin'a'in allies could come up with, at least for the present. That meant willow tea and snow packs, and hope for the best.

I can always hope for the best. It could be worse. How much worse, though—that was something he was not prepared to contemplate at the moment.

It was a headache of monumental proportions, which was only to be expected, considering that he had personally been the nexus-point for all of the energies of a weapon so powerful and unpredictable that not even the Great Mage who had ended the Mage Wars had dared to use it. It had required a magic-channel, a living channel. Either no one in Urtho's contingent of mages happened to be a Channel, or else the Mage of Silence hadn't wanted to risk the life of such a person in the use of this weapon—in either case, it had remained unused with a warning plaque advising against its use.

Or else he couldn't get any volunteers. Not that Karal could blame anyone for not volunteering. His first experience at being a Channel had been singularly unpleasant, but the second had been of a different order of magnitude altogether. He honestly didn't remember too much of what had happened to him, once the weapon had been activated. Both the Hawkbrother Adept Firesong and the half-Shin'a'in An'desha had assured him that was all for the best, and he believed them.

When both An'desha and Firesong agree on something... He had the shivery feeling that he really didn't want to know exactly what had happened. If he knew, he'd have to think about it, and that gave him a very queasy feeling.

It was much easier to lie in his bedroll and deal with pain than to think.

Occasionally the sounds of the others, moving about in their daily chores, made their way past the pain, oddly muffled or magnified by the strange acoustics of the place. An'desha and the Shin'a'in shaman Lo'isha were talking softly, their voices blending together into a meaningless murmur, as oddly soothing as wind in leaves or the whisper of water over rocks. Someone, probably the Kaled'a'in kestra'chern Silverfox, was cleaning cooking utensils; soft metallic clinks punctuated the soft sounds of conversation. Nearer at hand, the Hawkbrother Firesong sang absently to himself; Firesong was probably mending something. Firesong always sang when he was mending something; he said it was to keep him from saying something he would regret. He didn't much care for mending, or for any other chores—the Tayledras Adept had been used, all his life, to being waited on. Having to fend for himself was an experience that Firesong was not enjoying. On the whole, Karal was of the opinion that he was bearing up well under these pressures and added responsibilities.

So much for the human members of the group. And as for the ones who were not human—well, Karal knew where Altra the Firecat was. The furry, vibrating blanket covering him from neck to knee was Altra, not some arcane Shin'a'in cover let. Somehow, unlike mortal cats which would inexplicably increase their weight when lying on a human, the Firecat had decreased his, making himself no heavier than a thick woolen blanket. Only the steady radiating warmth and the deep, soothing purr betrayed his presence.

Somewhere beyond the chamber where Karal was lying, one of the horselike creatures known to the Valdemarans as a Companion, the one called Florian, listened attentively to An'desha and the shaman. If Karal opened his mind a little, he would "hear" the voices that were only a vague music to his real ears, but he would hear them through the senses of the Companion. The bonds between himself and the Companion and Firecat were stronger now than only weeks ago. He had only to think of them to sense the whisper of their thoughts, and he was aware of their presence in his mind as a constant warmth. Something had happened during the time he could not remember that bound the three of them even more firmly together. Anything they saw, heard, or felt, he could experience himself if he chose. He didn't know if the reverse was true, but he rather thought it wasn't. He was the one who'd been changed, not them.

That was another thing he didn't want to think too closely about. The Firecat was not entirely a mortal creature, and the Companion, while mortal enough, like the Firecat was a human reborn into a body of magical nature. So if something had happened that bound him to them—and so very tightly that he no longer had to work to reach their minds—

He shivered, and the cold he felt had nothing to do with the snow pack on his head. Oh, no. I can't have changed that much. This is probably just temporary, something that will go away when I'm stronger.

He redirected his thoughts and noticed that at least now he could think coherently.

That's an improvement anyway.

Now where was everyone else? He kept his eyes closed and listened carefully, trying to locate them all by sound alone rather than take a chance that opening his eyes would wake the pain again.

The remaining nonhumans, the two gryphons, were busy packing up their few belongings. They muttered to each other with little hisses and beak clicks, and their talons scraped against the leather of the saddlebags they had borrowed from the Shin'a'in for their journey north. They had decided that they had been away from their twin offspring long enough, and no one in the group was heartless enough to insist that they stay. The thrill of walking where the fabled Black Gryphon had once walked was probably beginning to pall in the face of being away from their beloved little ones for far too long. And with the Gates down, it would be a long trip back, even for creatures that flew.

And it could very well be that coming as close as we all did to getting seriously hurt, Treyvan and Hydona have decided that they don't want to leave their little ones as orphans. Who could blame them for that?

Yes, he was definitely able to think more coherently now.

Coherently enough to notice my neck muscles are in knots. Hardly a surprise. Karal sighed a little, and relaxed tense shoulders into the embrace of his sheepskin-covered pack, which was now serving him as a pillow. It's a good thing that I have clothing in there instead of books. The snow pack was working after all; if he noticed that his shoulders hurt, that meant the headache wasn't overwhelming everything else.

Grand, so now I get to enjoy how much the rest of me hurts!

But as the pain behind his eyes eased, so, too, did the tension in his muscles, which were probably contributing to the pain of the headache in the first place. So annoying how all these things managed to feed back on each other!

Well, I'd be a poor Sun-priest if I couldn't make myself relax, now wouldn't I? Such relaxation techniques were part of every novice's training. You couldn't pray if you weren't relaxed; how could you keep your mind on the glory of Vkandis if you were being nagged by a cramp? He patiently persuaded his rebellious body to behave itself, getting muscles unknotted that he hadn't even known were tight. As he did so, the ache in his head ebbed further, thus proving his guess that part of the headache was due to muscle tension.

That's better. That's much better. If his head would just let him be, he might actually begin to enjoy this invalid state, at least a little. For once he felt completely justified in lying abed and letting others take care of him; the depleted state of his entire body had convinced him that he had actually earned a rest.

And after all, it wasn't every day he had a Tayledras Healing Adept waiting on his every wish. How many people could boast of that? He couldn't even sigh without having Firesong ask him if he needed anything, a rather odd turn of events given that Firesong was the one used to being waited on.

He wasn't at all certain what prompted Firesong's attentiveness—there were others who would certainly have played nursemaid if the Adept hadn't insisted on taking the duty—but the Hawkbrother did make a very good and considerate nurse.

I certainly wouldn't have expected that from him. It just doesn't seem like him at all.

Well, maybe it wasn't much like the Firesong he knew, but such a thought was as shallow as the flippant surface that was all the Hawkbrother would ever reveal to him, given a choice. He immediately chided himself for that thought.

That was unworthy as well as unkind. There is far more to Firesong than I will ever see. We are all trying to cope with extreme situations, and if that is the way he chooses to cope, he has a right to it.

Just at the moment, even when his head wasn't splitting, Karal was in no shape to do anything other than wonder and enjoy the attention. He could hardly move his hand without tiring himself, and simply getting to his feet to go to the privy area left him so exhausted, he could only lie in his bedroll and doze for marks afterward. That worried him; unless he regained his strength soon, he would not be able to travel. If he couldn't travel, he wouldn't be able to leave with the others when they returned to Valdemar. The impatient gryphon parents were not going to wait for the others, but the humans could not wait much longer either. If they didn't leave now, they might be caught and trapped here by winter storms.

On the other hand... it might already be too late. The Gate that brought us here is down, and if I were a mage, I wouldn't chance reopening it. We might be stuck here until spring. Even under the best of conditions it's going to take an awfully long time to walk back.

So long, in fact, that returning home might be the very worst thing that they could do at this point. The solution to the problem of the mage-storms he had depleted himself to provide was, once again, a temporary solution only. This might be the very best place for them to work on a permanent answer. They certainly had resources here at their disposal that they wouldn't find anywhere else.

For one thing, the ancient weapon that they had used to cancel the Storm-waves had been only one of several available to them, and it hadn't been anyone's first choice, only the one they understood the best. Perhaps one of the others would provide a better chance. The Kaled'a'in had promised to provide a historian, a specialist in their own languages and the ancient writing they alone had preserved out of the Cataclysm. Perhaps when he arrived, he would be able to provide better translations than the gryphons.

We haven't even begun to explore this place, yet this was the heart of the Mage of Silence's stronghold. He is said to have been the greatest there has ever been, with vast resources. Can we really assume that we have seen all there is? There might be other rooms here, rooms they hadn't found yet, that might hold more answers to their problem. Maybe they would be much better off by staying here and looking, or studying the remaining weapons. It was an option no one had suggested yet, but he wondered if they all weren't thinking about it, much as they would prefer to return home.

The main problem as I see it is that we don't have anyone with us from the mathematicians and the Artificers. That alone worried him; the last two stopgap measures had been created, at least in part, by Master Levy's group of clever logicians. With the help of these scholars, all of them had been able to examine the problem from an original perspective. We need them. Firesong might not like them, but we need them.

He knew that with certainty; as if Vkandis Himself had placed that certainty in his heart, he was as positive of it as he was of anything in his life. This was not a problem that could be worked through unless all of the minds available contributed to the solution.

He sighed, and as he lifted a hand to move the snow pack off his eyes, he heard Firesong come to take it for him. The cold, damp weight lifted away. "Would you like a new one?" the apparently eternally-young mage asked.

He opened his eyes and shook his head—only a little, so as to avoid undoing the good that had been done. Firesong didn't look very much like a nurse; the incredibly handsome young mage had managed to pack a full wardrobe of his intricately styled, brilliantly decorated silk clothing into his single pack. Karal could not imagine how he had done it. At the moment, he was all in muted silver-blues which, at least, made it possible for Karal to look at him without pain. From his precisely styled, silver-white hair to his immaculate leg wrappings, he was every inch the exotic mage and not at all servile. The amused smile he wore reassured Karal; if there had been anything really wrong with him, he was fairly certain Firesong would not be smiling.

"Not at the moment, thank you," he said, surprised at the rasp in his voice, as if he had been screaming until his vocal cords were raw. "You really don't—"

Firesong chuckled, surprising him. "Oh, there's a reason behind all of this," he replied with a smile. "You're ridiculously easy as a patient, and if I'm tending you, I don't have to do any of the more tedious chores." His voice took on the merest touch of arrogance. "I'd rather keep putting snow packs on your head than wash dishes, I assure you."

Karal had to laugh weakly. Now that sounded more like the Firesong he knew! "Oh, good," he said. "I was afraid that you'd suddenly been filled with the spirit of self-sacrifice, and I wasn't certain I could bear that for very long."

Now Firesong laughed, and tossed his long silver hair over his shoulder. "Keep your tender sentiments to yourself, Karsite," he said mockingly. "Out of my own self-interest I want you to stay an invalid as long as possible, and if you keep saying things like that, I might be tempted to do something to keep you that way."

"You promise, but you never follow through," Karal retorted, surprising himself with his enjoyment of the exchange. "I think my tender hide is safe from you."

"You doubt?" Firesong's brow rose, and he raised his gaze to a point somewhere past Karal; probably listening to Florian, the Companion. His next words confirmed Karal's guess. "Well, maybe you're right. A hoofprint in the middle of my face would not improve my looks—" He dropped his gaze to meet Altra's brilliant blue eyes. "—and I don't like the way that cat of yours is flexing his claws either."

:I wouldn't hurt you where it showed,: Altra said dryly, into both their minds. :Silverfox might object to my alterations, however. But you would make a charming girl.:

Firesong's silver eyes widened in mock fear, but there was a tinge of respect in his look as well. "Remind me never to anger you, Altra. That's a bit vicious even as a joke."

:If I thought for a moment that you were serious, it wouldn't be a joke.: The Firecat deliberately raised one paw and licked his flexed talons. Since Altra was the size of most large dogs, and his paws were correspondingly huge, those talons were wicked looking indeed.

That's not very subtle, cat, Karal thought warningly, knowing Altra would hear him.

:It wasn't meant to be subtle,: the Firecat replied in his mind only. :There was a time when he contemplated injuring you. If he ever strays in that direction again, I want him to have something to think about.:

Karal kept his face straight as Altra imparted that choice bit of information, so he did not reveal a reaction. That was certainly news to him.

And now everyone seems determined to protect me! But Firesong was waiting for him to say something, so before the mage could ask what it was that made him look so odd, he raised a shaking hand to rub his eyebrow. "Cats. You can't live with them, and the fur's too thin for a rug."

Altra gave an exaggerated snort of disgust as Firesong laughed aloud. "You are feeling better," he said, this time without the mockery. "Good. Maybe tonight you'll be able to stomach something besides that tasteless slop the shaman has been feeding you. Just try not to get well so quickly that I'm forced to wash my own plates again any time soon."

Before Karal could reply, Firesong rose to his feet to take away the dripping snow pack. He turned his head slowly to look in the direction of Florian and the others.

Sure enough, a little way past the chamber's entrance, Florian stood with his head just above An'desha's shoulder, looking at something the shaman was drawing on the floor.

He could, if he just relaxed a little, see everything from Florian's point of view. He didn't want to relax that much, honestly.

I just want my headache to stop. I want to be able to get up and do things like the others. I truly do want to stop being a burden. It isn't the place of a priest of Vkandis Sunlord to be the one given comfort, it is the priest's place to give comfort...

He closed his eyes, and tried to find some meditation technique that would at least enable him to sleep despite the pain. If he fell asleep, at least he wouldn't be quite so aware of what a nuisance he'd become.

Without any warning footsteps, he felt a touch on his arm. His eyes popped open, all he could manage in the way of a startled reaction.

He found himself looking up into a pair of extremely blue eyes, amused eyes, in a triangular face with golden skin. The eyes and the face topped a body wearing Shin'a'in garments of unornamented dark sable-brown; the color, he now recalled, that Swordsworn usually wore when they weren't engaged in one of their rare but vicious blood-feuds.

The Swordsworn had another name. Kal'enedral. The ones Sworn to the service of Kal'enel, the Warrior. He knew more about them now than any Karsite alive. The person sitting lightly on "his" heels would be one of the Swordsworn who had guided them here and guarded them on the way; who had, with the aid of k'Leshya, excavated a way into the Tower. He couldn't tell if this person was male or female; with the Swordsworn, it hardly mattered, since they were not only vowed to chastity and celibacy, but were by their bond to their Goddess, rendered incapable of a sexual impulse. That was a state that had no parallel in the Sunlord's hierarchy; although Sun-priests were not encouraged to wed, they were not denied that state either.

"Well, this was not what we intended when we opened our secret to you, young outClansman," the Shin'a'in said, in a clear, slightly roughened tenor voice that could have belonged to a man or a woman. The Sworn One spoke with very little accent in remarkably good Valdemaran. Karal was relieved; his Shin'a'in was rudimentary at best. "We thought you would be here and gone again—"

The Shin'a'in paused then, as if suddenly aware that the "gone" very nearly had been "permanently gone."

Karal shrugged. "This wasn't our plan either, Sworn One," he said politely.

The Shin'a'in laughed. "True enough, and I think not even your God could have predicted this outcome. Certainly our Goddess did not! Or if She did, She saw fit not to grace us with the information. But now—well, given that the Gate that brought you here is gone, and our winter storms are closing in, we have determined that we will have to become true hosts."

At one point, Karal would have been shocked by the reference to a deity other than Vkandis Sunlord—more shocked that such a deity as the Shin'a'in Star-Eyed was spoken of in the same breath as He. Later, he would have been able to accept that, but would also have been driven speechless by such a casual reference to a deity, as if the person speaking had a personal relationship with Kal'enel.

Now he knew better; these Swordsworn did have such a relationship. She had been known to speak with Her special followers on a regular basis, and even occasionally intervene in their lives. Which was, after all, not entirely unlike the relationship Vkandis had with the Son of the Sun.

"I have been told that affairs were at such a turning point that any and all outcomes were equally likely," he said carefully, squinting around his headache. "Perhaps that is why She gave you no indication that we were to be unexpected tenants rather than guests."

"Well said!" the Shin'a'in replied warmly. "Well, then. Tenants you are, dwellers among our tents, and as such it becomes necessary that we provide you with something better than the hasty arrangements of aforetime. First, I am Chagren shena Liha'irden, and I am to be your Healer. Lo'isha is a good man and a fine shaman, but his Healing skills are rudimentary at best. I am better suited to helping you, trust me in that."

Karal could not help but show his surprise; a Healer among the Swordsworn? Chagren saw his expression and chuckled.

"Given our task of serving as the Guardians of the Plains, does it not seem logical that we must need a Healer now and again? I was a Healer before I was Sworn, and Swore myself in part because I was one of those who joined the battle with Ancar, and I vowed I would never again find myself unable to defend those who I had come to Heal. I petitioned. She accepted. Not all of us who come to serve Her so closely have tragic tales of great personal loss behind them." Then his expression changed, becoming serious for a moment. "Though there are many. Those who have seen too much to endure and remain sane often petition Her and are taken into Her ranks."

Those who have seen too much to endure— Karal glanced involuntarily at An'desha, and Chagren followed his glance. He looked back down at Karal. "Interesting. Your thoughts on that one?"

Karal blinked at the Shin'a'in's directness. "I sometimes wonder if there is any place for An'desha, after all he has endured."

Chagren lost that amused smile entirely, and his eyelids dropped momentarily to veil his eyes. "There is," he said after a pause, "if he chooses to take it. Among us there is no tale so strange that we cannot encompass it. Not among the Swordsworn, I think. but among the Wise, those who wear the blue of the night sky and the day's ending. They are Sworn to Wisdom rather than the Sword, and I think it is among their numbers he would feel he has come home. But that is for him to decide."

The smile returned. "Meanwhile, it is for me to ease some of your discomfort, while my fellows bring the wherewithal to make this into a home for as long as may be. So. You have been Healed before?"

"Not really," Karal confessed. "The one Valdemaran Healer I saw decided that all I needed was herbs and potions, not real Healing."

"A wise Healer knows when to Heal and when to let time do the Healing," Chagren replied with approval. "Well then; this time you shall be the recipient of true Healing, such as, I believe, some of your Sun-priests are known to practice. I require of you only that you close your eyes and relax, and that when you sense my spirit, permit it to touch yours. That should be easy enough, yes?

"I think so," Karal replied as the headache returned with a vengeance. Any reluctance he might have felt vanished at the onslaught of further pain. He closed his eyes as instructed, and waited, slowly willing each muscle to release its built-up tension.

The moment he "sensed Chagren's spirit" he knew exactly what the Shin'a'in had meant; he felt something very akin to the sensation he had when he first communicated with Florian. And as he had when Florian had requested that Karal "let him into his mind," he let down those internal barriers he hadn't realized existed back when he had been plain Karal of Karse.

But this time, instead of thoughts and sensations flooding into his mind, a warm, soothing wave washed over him, and where it had passed, the pain was gone, leaving behind comfort and reassurance.

He opened his eyes; he thought it was only a moment later, but Chagren was gone. In his place stood a metal pitcher and cup, and in his chamber and the rooms beyond, new comforts and a few new figures had appeared as if conjured.

There was a small cast-metal stove at his feet, and he had been heaped with more woven blankets. Several long, flat cushions arranged like a more comfortable bed than the one he currently occupied lay beside that. On top of the stove, there was a steaming pot.

Beyond his room, he saw at least one more stove and reckoned that there were probably more. Better bedding had appeared, and more amenities. Firesong appeared and glanced in the door to his chamber, and when the mage saw that he was awake, the Hawkbrother walked unhurriedly and gracefully to his side.

"You've been asleep through all the excitement," Firesong told him. "More of those Kal'enedral appeared with a veritable caravan of goods, and this place is now almost civilized." He smiled, and there was no mistaking the fact that he was pleased. "They even promised none of us will have to cook anymore, though we will still have to do the work of hertasi, I fear. That is just as well, since I do not believe I could have eaten another of my own meals, even if I died of starvation."

Karal croaked a chuckle, and discovered to his delight that it did not make his head hurt. "My headache is gone!" he exclaimed with glee.

Firesong nodded. "That fellow Chagren said it would be. I will probably be helping him the next time he Heals you. He told me what had caused your aching skull, and once he explained it to me, it was obvious—" He held up a hand, forestalling Karal's questions. "—and I will explain it all to you in detail, some time later, when we have the time for me to explain how and why a mage or a Healer is able to do what he does. Suffice it for now to say that you have misused that part of you that channels magic, as if you had bruised it by battering a rough stone around inside your skull, and that was why your head hurt. He was able to take care of the bruises, so to speak."

Karal tried to lever himself up, and found to his profound disappointment that he was still as weak as a newborn colt. "Too bad I'm not completely back to normal, but I suppose Chagren can't Heal everything at once," he answered with a sigh, as Firesong caught his elbow to help him.

"Obviously, he cannot," the mage replied reasonably. "There are some things, such as strength and endurance, that time will restore as much as he. Now, if you will move thus, and so, we will get you onto this more comfortable bed, and then you must drink what he left you, and eat, and then sleep again. For the next couple of days, making your way to the privy and back will be all the exercise you're fit for."

With Firesong's aid, Karal moved over to the pile of flat bed cushions, which turned out to be even more comfortable than they looked. The mage piled all of his blankets, rugs, and furs back on top of him, then handed him the metal cup. It proved to contain another herbal potion, but this one had a pleasantly fruity, faintly sweet taste, with a refreshingly astringent aftertaste that quenched a deep-lying thirst no amount of water had been able to satisfy. At Firesong's urging, he drank a second cup, and while he finished that, An'desha appeared with a bowl and spoon.

"Chagren promised that you would at least be able to feed yourself, so that is your task for the day," An'desha said, handing him both. The bowl held real soup, not the tasteless gruel that Lo'isha had been feeding him. Although his hand shook a little, he managed not only to feed himself, but to finish every drop in the bowl. An'desha and Firesong sat watching him like a pair of anxious nursery attendants all during the meal, and An'desha took back the empty bowl with a grin of triumph.

"Soon enough you will be sweeping and washing with the rest of us," An'desha said as he rose. Karal leveled a sober gaze on Firesong as the young Shin'a'in left the chamber.

"I feel as if I should be sweeping and washing for both of you, you and Silverfox together," he said with guilt he could not conceal. "I am taking up so much of your time, and contributing nothing."

"Now," Firesong replied sternly, "that says nothing of what you have done in the past, or will do in the future. And you are taking up very little of my time, since you sleep a great deal. Which is, by the by, what you should be doing now; sleeping, once you have another cup of this excellent beverage."

Obediently, Karal drank down a third cup and closed his eyes again, although he felt no real urge to sleep. But evidently there was something in the drink, or he needed sleep so badly that his body would take any opportunity to seize some, for no sooner had he closed his eyes and begun the first stages of his ritual of relaxation, than he was fast asleep.

Firesong waited until he was certain young Karal was deep in dreaming, then gathered up the now-empty pitcher, bowl, and cup and carried them off to be washed. The chamber through whose outer wall they had entered the Tower had been dedicated to cleaning—everything from pots to people. Judicious use of magic on Firesong's part had driven a pipe to the surface; at the surface was a black-enameled basin connected to the pipe that the Shin'a'in kept filled with snow. No magic melted the snow shoveled into the basin, just the sun supplemented by a simple horsedung fire. The pipe slanted down into the chamber where it was closed by a stopcock taken from a wine barrel, and simply turning the stopcock gave them water enough for about any purpose. Waste water went into a second pipe going down into the earth set just outside in the tunnel. So far, it had been sufficient.

Silverfox was at the washing basin, used both for dishes and clothing, and he felt a stab of guilt of his own that the kestra'chern should be wasting his time and talents on so menial a task as cleaning dirty dishes. This seemed as unreasonable a task as to ask a fine sculptor to shovel snow, yet there he was, serenely working away the soil of camp life with his slender fingers.

But the handsome Kaled'a'in looked up and smiled at his approach, and said lightly, "Would that all troubles are so easily washed away as these! All things considered, I have actually been enjoying myself on this little jaunt. I could almost feel that I am on holiday here!"

Firesong handed him the dishes with a groan. "Why do I suddenly have the sinking feeling that you are one of those benighted individuals who thinks that taking himself off to the utter wilderness for a fortnight or more constitutes a holiday?"

"What?" the kestra'chern replied innocently. "And you do not?" His blue eyes twinkled as he continued. "Think of the splendid isolation, the uncrowded vistas, the joy of doing everything for yourself, knowing you need rely on no one else! Self-sufficiency! Feeling yourself unconstrained by all the rules and customs that can come to smother you!"

"Think of the lack of civilized conversation, the dearth of entertainment, the deprivation of decent food, hot baths, and reasonable sleeping accommodations!" Firesong retorted. "I had rather endure a bored little provincial courtier babble for an hour than listen to a brook do the same, while my toes are cold and my nose even colder, and there isn't a cushion to relax upon. And I do not particularly take joy from washing dishes and mending clothing, I promise you. Those are tedious tasks at best, and wasteful of valuable time at worst!"

But Silverfox's clever, sharp features softened for a moment. "For you, perhaps, but unless he is in a circumstance like this one, a kestra'chern is never free of the needs of others. For you, this place is an exile, but for me, a holiday in the wild is an escape."

Now Firesong suffered another twinge of guilt, and he sat down beside the washtub. "And even here you are not free of demands," he said, reproaching himself. "For there are my demands on you—"

But Silverfox only laughed, and shook his long black hair back over his shoulders. "No, those are not demands, ahela, those are mutual desires. I could say that my demands on you are as improvident, but I won't. But there is this—for once, I can act on my own desires rather than concentrate on the needs of another to the exclusion of anything I feel."

Firesong felt the guilt for this, at least, lift away from him. "I... make you feel more free, simply by being as I am? In that case, perhaps I should be more demanding!"

The kestra'chern laughed, as the two gryphons, loaded with their travel packs, poked their beaks into the cleaning chamber with curiosity. "Why all the rrrevelrrry?" Treyvan demanded. "Arre potsss ssso amusssing?"

"That depends on who is cleaning them, old bird," Silverfox replied. "Are you ready to depart yet?"

The female gryphon, Hydona, nodded vigorously. "Now that morrre help hasss come, yesss. If I werrre young and unpairrred, I would ssstay, but—"

"But nothing," Firesong said firmly, reacting to the anxious tone of her voice, sensing she was afraid that he would demand that she stay. "Your little ones need you far more than we do. Not that we aren't grateful."

"When the keeper of hissstorry comesss, we will be sssuperfluousss anyway." Treyvan admitted. "He will be able to rrread the old wrritingsss here much morrre clearrly than we."

It was obvious to Firesong that the gryphons were chagrined at their inability to decipher the ancient texts that had been found here, and they took their failure personally. They had all made an incorrect assumption about clan k'Leshya. They had assumed that the last clan that could truly have called itself Kaled'a'in rather than Shin'a'in or Tayledras had a purer form of the original tongue than either splinter group. Given that, the gryphons should have been able to decipher the ancient texts. And they had also assumed that since k'Leshya had come to dwell among the Haighlei, a people who shunned change, their language would obviously have remained as pure as it was the day that they all went through the Gates to escape into the West.

But while the Haighlei shunned change, the Kaled'a'in had not, and their language had drifted from the ancient tongue as inevitably as had Shin'a'in and Tayledras. Perhaps it had not drifted so far or so fast, but nevertheless, it had drifted, and in a direction that rendered the ancient writings as vague to the gryphons as to Firesong or Lo'isha.

However, providentially enough, there was among the pioneers of k'Leshya an individual who had not only come along to record what transpired in their new home, but one who had made a hobby of studying the most ancient scripts. While this historian was not the expert that a true scholar of the earliest days of White Gryphon would have been, he had volunteered to come and assist the party at the Tower, and he should prove more of an expert than the two gryphons.

That was the theory anyway. Very little in this strange situation had gone according to theory.

"I will be sorry to see you leave," Firesong said sincerely, "You both have been very patient about this, but even I can tell that gryphons aren't comfortable underground."

Hydona didn't say anything, but Treyvan shivered, all of his feathers quivering. "It hasss not been easssy," he admitted. "And all that hasss kept me here at timesss isss the knowledge that the grrreat Ssskandrranon walked thessse sssame chamberrsss."

Firesong nodded with understanding; not that long ago, he would have said the same thing in the same reverent tones about visiting the Heartstone Chamber in the Palace at Haven where his own ancestor Vanyel had once worked. That, however, had been before he had been kidnapped by that same ancestor and shoved, willy-nilly, into the affairs of the Kingdom of Valdemar. Being conscripted by a stubborn spirit to the aid of a place and people that were hardly more than misty history to him had given him a slightly more jaundiced view of "honored ancestors" than most folk had.

Oh, I'll leave them to their illusions. Skandranon is not likely to stick his beak into our affairs now, thank the gods; if he was going to show up the way Vanyel did, he'd be here already. If that was all it took to help them bear the feeling of being buried alive here, their illusions are valuable.

Besides, Skandranon had died peacefully, in extreme old age, surrounded by a vast flock of worshipful grandchildren and great-grandchildren. There were no stories of a haunted forest in which uncanny things happened connected with his legends, and his long line of descendants had legends of their own.

But Firesong couldn't help but wonder now and again just what his own ancestor Vanyel was planning. He'd given no indication that he planned to—as it were—move on, once the dual threats of Ancar and Falconsbane had been dealt with. By now he must have recovered from the effort of taking down the Web—and Vanyel at full strength had been powerful enough to wrest away control of a Gate he had not erected to transport five humans, four gryphons, a dyheli, two Companions, and two bondbirds all the way from a site at the edge of the Dhorisha Plains to the heart of the Forest of Sorrows beyond Valdemar's northern border. There was no telling what he might still be capable of.

I think I know why he didn't confront Falconsbane directly—but I would not have given odds in favor of Falconsbane if Vanyel—and Yfandes and Stefen—had been given leave to deal with him themselves.

"Do we take it that you arrre ssstaying, then?" Treyvan asked.

Both Firesong and Silverfox nodded, but it was Silverfox who answered. "That's why that caravan of Swordsworn showed up with all the new equipment. We just now told Karal, but that is only because he hasn't been awake long enough to listen to anything complicated. The Kal'enedral pointed out that we were lucky that we didn't encounter any winter storms coming in, but we can't count on our luck holding. If we're caught, we would have to do what the Shin'a'in do—dig in, hope we don't freeze to death, then settle in for the rest of the winter. Once the trail out is obliterated by a storm, there's no reestablishing it. If we're going to be stuck, I'd rather be stuck here, where we can continue to research what Urtho left behind. I'm looking for secret doors, or concealed rooms, while the rest figure out what the effect of the cancellation wave we sent out will be, and how long it will last."

"I think you are wissse," Treyvan said gravely. "I do not think that Karrral would sssurrvive the trrrip, much lessss a grreat sstorrm."

"Nor do I, and that was why I voted to stay," Firesong said, then added with a sigh. "Even if it means living like a brigand until spring."

Treyvan gryph-grinned at that, and gave him a mock cuff with a tightly fisted claw. "Peacock!" he chuckled. "You arrre jusst dissscontented becaussse therrre isss no one herrre but Sssilverrrfox to admirrre yourrr handsssome face!"

"No, I am just discontented because I am not especially fond of sewing split seams and scrubbing pots, which is a perfectly reasonable attitude," Firesong retorted, and made shooing motions with his hands. "Be on your way; I'm sure you can't wait to get back to cries of 'but Papa said we can!', 'But Andra's mama lets her!', and 'do I have to?'"

When he wished to exercise that talent, Firesong could be a wicked mimic, and he so accurately rendered a childish whine that both gryphons' eartufts went back in alarm.

"Perrrhapsss Hydona could go ahead of me," Treyvan ventured, then ducked as his mate leveled a killing gaze on him, "orrr perrrhapsss not. Well, why not; we faced Ancarrr, we faced Falconsssbane, we faced the Imperrrial Arrrmy and the mage-ssstormsss. What arrre two merrre childrrren againssst that?"

"Worse than all of them put together, because they'll always get what they want?" Firesong suggested, and Hydona turned her deadly glare on him. "Of course, my opinion is hardly valid!" he amended hastily. "After all, I don't have children!"

Hydona snorted, but looked mollified, and Firesong wisely opted to keep the rest of his opinions to himself. "We'll all miss you," he said instead. "But you've done more than your duty, and children need their parents. Fly safely, friends."

"Thank you," Treyvan said simply.

Even though the Shin'a'in had labored to open the hole in the outer wall to give them all a wider door into the tunnel, it was still a squeeze for the gryphons to get through, burdened with their packs as they were. As a courtesy, Firesong sent a mage-light on ahead of them, though Treyvan was perfectly capable of making his own. Not that they were going to get lost in a straight tunnel, but the light might make the tunnel itself seem less confining.

Silverfox sat looking after them for a while after they were gone. "You know," he said finally, "they were the only creatures I ever envied when I was young."

"Gryphons in general?" Firesong asked. "Or those two in particular?"

"Gryphons in general," Silverfox replied, turning back to his dishtub. "The main thing was that they can fly, of course, but besides that, they are just marvelous creatures. They grow their own wonderful costumes of feathers, they are armed better than any fighter with those talons and that beak, and they can take on virtually any task except those that require unusually fine dexterity. They can even become kestra'chern! So I envied them."

"And now?" Firesong asked.

"Now I'm old enough and experienced enough to have seen the price they pay for all those gifts. You'd be amazed at how delicate their digestion is, they are devastated by certain diseases that are only an inconvenience to a human, and their joints tend to stiffen up and get quite painful as they age. I'm still of divided opinion about whether or not the drawbacks are worth being a gryphon," he added, "but I no longer envy them."

"I never did," Firesong said softly. "I only envied myself," and left it at that.

* * *

"... and the Mage of Silence brought all of the armies back to his stronghold here, in Ka'venusho," Chagren said, pointing with his charcoal stick to the appropriate place he had drawn on the floor. Karal nodded, and concentrated fiercely while Chagren related the rest of the history of the Mage Wars. He'd heard it all once from Lo'isha, of course, but Chagren had actually experienced a compressed version of this history. That had been during a special moment in his training, when he went to Kata'shin'a'in and entered a holy building that housed something he called the Webs of Time. Karal's grasp of language was not quite good enough to give him a clear idea of what physical forms these Webs were in, but Chagren said that they held the memories of those who had made them, and that under certain specific conditions, those memories could be awakened and experienced. Karal was disposed to believe him; after all that he had seen. what was one more supernatural marvel?

The gryphons had already given him their own version of the story, more heavily weighted with the heroism of the Black Gryphon, of course. Even Silverfox had a slightly different tale, as handed down among the Kaled'a'in kestra'cherns from Amberdrake, Tadrith Wyrsabane, and the generations since them.

"… so that is why this place was hallowed for us, even before we know there still were working weapons here," Chagren finished. "Mind, I said hallowed, not holy. We of the Plains do not count any human 'holy," not even Her Avatars or the Kal'enedral. The Mage of Silence was a good man, a fine man, and flawed as all men are. What made him different from most other men was that he saw his weaknesses and spent all his life trying to keep them controlled, so as not to harm others with them; that he devoted a larger percentage of his life to the well-being of others than most ever even think of doing. What made him dangerous were the things he never troubled to control: his curiosity and his desire to meddle and change things for the sake of change itself."

Karal digested that; it was interesting to hear the various versions, not only of the story of the Cataclysm, but the way the three cultures viewed Adept Urtho. To the gryphons, at least, Urtho was the ultimate Great Father, which was hardly surprising, since they knew he had created them; to Silverfox he was both a familiar figure of history and a figure of semi-veneration, less than a god but far more than human. To the Tayledras, he was a figure of the misty past, and they recalled very little of him; most did not even know his name, and called him only "The Mage of Silence." To most Shin'a'in he was not even that—

Except to the Kal'enedral. To them, he was a man; powerful, good of heart and soul, but one who could not resist meddling in things he should never have touched. Without a doubt. that was because their version was flavored with their own form of prejudice against magic. Even Chagren was not immune from that prejudice, though he suffered from it less than some.

The Shin'a'in had been assigned the guardianship of the Plains by their Goddess Herself, although most of them were not aware that there really was something here that needed to be guarded from interlopers. Certainly, being a Goddess, She could simply have removed the weapons and dangers entirely had She chosen, but deities work in ways that are often not obvious even after centuries of scrutiny. It must have taken a direct edict from the Shin'a'in Goddess to get her chief servants, the Kal'enedral, to open the Plains and this Tower at its heart to strangers. He could hardly imagine what their reaction must have been to learn that they would be opening the Tower to mages.

Their faith must be very great, he thought, with wonder. Look how long it took me to accept that Heralds and Companions were not demonic—they gave over their fears in a much shorter time.

Or if they had not given up their fear, they had certainly worked past it. He had encountered no hostility from these people, only the wariness he himself felt, faced with strangers from a strange people.

Then again, perhaps the Kal'enedral had been very careful about which of their folk were permitted to aid the foreigners.

"I could do with a little less change myself," he said with a weak laugh. "But the mage-storms aren't giving us much of a choice in that."

Chagren grimaced, his aquiline features making the expression more pronounced. "Yet another mischance that some would lay at Urtho's door. Had he not made the choices he did, some would say that none of this would be happening now."

Interesting choice of words. Could it be that Chagren is taking a wider view of things? "But not you?" Karal asked delicately.

Chagren looked for a moment as if he was not going to answer, then shrugged. "But not me. I am not certain that Urtho's great enemy Ma'ar would not have unleashed worse upon the world; after all, look what havoc Falconsbane and Ancar wrought, who were lesser mages than Ma'ar. Then again, my leshy'a teachers had... experience with mages."

Now that was a new word; he thought he vaguely recognized the root. Something about a soul. "What kind of teachers?" he asked, to test his guess.

"I suppose you'd call them 'spirits' although they can be quite solidly real if She wishes," Chagren replied matter-of-factly, as if he spoke with ghosts every day. Well, perhaps he did.

"At some point in the lives of most Swordsworn they encounter one or more leshy'a Kal'enedral. There have even—" He broke off his words, and stared past Karal for a moment, and half-choked. His eyes widened, and he gave a slight bow of his head. "I believe, Outlander," he said in an entirely different and very respectful voice, "that you are about to find out for yourself."

Karal turned, to find that another of the Swordsworn was standing in the doorway; this one was very clearly a woman, but also very clearly a warrior in every fiber. She was dressed entirely in black from head to toe, and wore a veil or scarf across the bottom half of her face. A sword and long knife hung from her belt, and she bore the weight easily, negligently. In two paces she had crossed the chamber and stood at the side of Karal's pallet, looking down at him.

She could have seemed frightening, intimidating from her clothing alone, and yet there was nothing menacing whatsoever about her. Competent, yes; certainly imposing—but Karal would have had no hesitation in trusting her. Her blue eyes above the black veil were both amused and kind, and he sensed that she was smiling.

"Forgive me that I can't rise to greet you properly, Lady," he said with deepest respect.

"Oh, not at all," she replied, and her voice had a very odd, hollow quality to it, as if she were speaking from the bottom of a very deep well. "As I understand it, you're rather indisposed at the moment."

He narrowed his eyes, as he began to see, or sense, that there was something unexpected about her. She reminded him of something very familiar; in fact, there was some indefinable aura about her that was like—like—

Sunlord! She's—not—

"I must presume," he said carefully after a deep breath, "that Sworn Ones such as you who choose to instruct further generations do not bother to take a physical vehicle such as a Firecat or a Companion." She's a spirit, that's what she is! Like An'desha's Avatars, only more here. More real. He felt positively giddy at his own daring, looking a spirit right in the eyes like this, and speaking to her as an equal!

"Say rather, are chosen rather than choose, and you have it rightly, young priest," the spirit replied, a hint of a chuckle in her hollow voice. "Though I have to admit that She has toyed a time or two with the notion of Black Companions. Or perhaps, Black Riders."

Since Karal could well imagine Florian's indignant response to that idea, he had to stifle a smile of his own. Black Companions? Oh, the Heralds wouldn't like that at all!

"I believe you've met a kinswoman of mine," the spirit continued. "She left her mark on you, which leads me to think that she regards you favorably. She's a hard one to please."

He tried wildly for a moment to think of who the Kal'enedral could mean. "Ah—you—Querna?" he hazarded, trying to imagine how that rather aloof lady could have left any kind of a mark on him.

The spirit laughed aloud at that. "No, young Clan-friend. Kerowyn. I see you've lined up anything that could serve as a weapon, hurled or otherwise, so that you can reach everything in the order you'd need it. That's the sort of 'mark' I mean. She's trained you so deep it's a habit."

Startled, he looked down involuntarily and saw he'd done just that, with the things he'd have to throw at the farthest point of his reach and his dagger right at his elbow. He flushed. What must Chagren be thinking now, that he distrusted them all? That they had let a potential assassin into their midst?

"Oh don't be embarrassed, boy," the spirit chided gruffly. "That's one of the best habits to be in. What if someone unfriendly got in here? What if one of our more fanatical brethren decided that She had been deceived by you lot, and you all had to die? Don't you know what we say? Know where all the exits are. Never sit with your back to the door. Watch the reflections. Watch the shadows. Keep your hands free and your weapons loose."

Sunlord! he thought desperately, I'm being bombarded with Shin'a'in proverbs! What a terrible way to die!

He meant that lightly, but it seemed that the Kal'enedral intended to continue until she had recited every proverb on the subject of self-defense that the Shin'a'in ever invented. "Never sit down to eat with your sword at your side—strap it to your back for a faster draw. Better an honest enemy than a feigned friend. When—"

"Who is wisest, says least," he interrupted, desperate to cut through what looked to be an unending stream of proverbs. Were Shin'a'in all like that? Even Kerowyn tended to spout Shin'a'in proverbs at the drop of a hint. And a spirit Kal'enedral probably knew every proverb ever composed!

The spirit laughed aloud again. "Well said!" she applauded. "Keep that sense of humor, and you might just survive this. Chagren, take special care of this one; he's deeper than he looks."

Chagren bowed low. "As you say, teacher," he replied.

Karal wasn't prepared for the spirit's departure; he barely blinked and she was gone. A chill ran up his backbone, but he was determined not to show it.

"If you see a Swordsworn in black with a veil," Chagren said slowly, "it is leshy'a. There have been some few here among the rest of us. We think they come to ensure your safety... or ours. It's debated which."

"It's more likely both," Karal said, feeling a bit dizzy. "Kerowyn's kin to her?"

Chagren shrugged. "So she says. That is something new to me, but the leshy'a are not inclined to talk about their pasts. Often we do not even know their names. She is my first teacher of the sword, and came to me the night that I was Sworn—" He broke off what he was saying to shake his head. "I am babbling. And you, young outland priest, can consider yourself as having passed a kind of examination. None of the Sworn are likely to question your right to be here ever again."

With that rather surprising statement, he turned and left the chamber leaving Karal alone with his thoughts, which were, to say the least, very complex.

Although there was one thought that was not at all complex.

So my right to be here will no longer be questioned. That's all very well for me, but what about the others?

Firesong sighed as he regarded his much abused shirt with a frown. His favorite sorts of garments were not meant for rough living and a camp existence.

"Glaring at it won't put the hem back up," Silverfox remarked around a mouthful of pins. "You might as well give up and do it the hard way."

Firesong growled under his breath, but took up needle and thread grudgingly. "All very well for you to say," he complained, "but you've been able to trade off sweeping and scrubbing the sleeping room to An'desha in return for cleaning his dishes. And you've traded Lo'isha massages for cleaning and airing the bedding. I haven't got anything anyone wants to trade for! Valdemar, barbaric as it was, is looking better all the time!"

Silverfox chuckled. "It could be worse; we could still be eating your cooking. I believe that our kin-cousins are being very generous in taking over the larger portion of the work."

Firesong growled again. "You only say that because you can do things even the Kal'enedral are interested in. I'm a mage, that's all I know, and they don't want a thing I can do for them!"

Silverfox put down his needle to look up at him with sympathy. "You aren't just a mage. You are a lover, but you are so exotic to them that they could more easily entertain fantasies of bedding clouds. If there is really something you detest, would you please tell me and let me do it, or barter a massage or something to one of the Sworn and have him do it? You are a mage, ashaka, and I feel in my bones that soon enough you will have more important things to worry about than hems and ripped seams."

Firesong started to reply, then shook his head and laughed at himself. "Why is it when you say things like that, you manage to deflate my self-importance rather than inflating it, and simply fill me with dread?"

Silverfox merely tilted his head to one side, and replied, "Do I?"

Let's change the subject, he thought. I can do without too much introspection. "Magic is working more reliably now that the counterforce is evening out the Storm-waves. It is still a horrid mess, but I think I can get a Gate up to the rim of the Plains soon; if I can do that, we can at least ask for a few more things to make life tolerable around here. How much would k'Leshya be willing to part with in the way of amenities, do you think? I haven't had a real bath in weeks and neither has anyone else. A big tub would be very welcome, even if its real intention was to water horses. A copper boiler to heat water would be even more welcome."

Silverfox looked thoughtful. "There might be a fair amount they could send us, both of leftover Tayledras gear and some of our own. And you know—if we could get a Gate open, we could get some hertasi volunteers to come through. They can't cross the Plains in winter without a great deal of hardship, and I wouldn't ask it of them. But they could come through a Gate, provided they were sure we could keep them warm enough over here."

Firesong closed his eyes for a moment in longing. Oh, how he missed his little army of hertasi helpers! If he had just one or two, he wouldn't have to do another tedious chore for himself again. They loved to do exactly the sorts of things he wanted to avoid here, and could probably show even the natives some lessons in organization.

"Before we try that, we ought to see if we can find out what Sejanes and the rest back in Haven have found out about Gating," he replied, after another moment of cautious thought. "Not that I wouldn't be willing to give up a lot for a couple of hertasi, but I wouldn't want to put them at any risk. It's one thing to toss a tub or a sack of meal through; it's quite another to—risk a living being."

Silverfox nodded, and bit off his thread. "Should we send Karal back if we can get a Gate up that's safe for a living creature? He'd be better off with k'Leshya."

Once again, Firesong hesitated. Now there's a question. He would be better off in a place where he could be properly cared for, but—how many more of the devices here need a Channel? What are we going to have to do in order to counter that final Storm, the one that's the reverse analog of the original Cataclysm? "You can ask An'desha and Lo'isha if you like, but I have the sinking feeling we still need him. If he decides he's willing to stay here, we should let him." He took a few more stitches and knotted off his own thread. "I think he's going to insist on it. Sometimes that child makes me feel ashamed of myself. I sit here wailing and moaning because I have to pick up after myself, and he's fretting because he's too weak to help." He shook his head.

"Maybe that's why he's a priest and you're not," Silverfox said gently. "He seeks to give of himself even when there's nothing left to give. It hurts him, but it also makes him feel effective. We can't all turn out that self-sacrificing. Lady knows I'm not—"

He was interrupted by the sound of someone running. "Heyla, you two!" An'desha poked his head into their chamber. "Come to Karal's room. Altra made a Jump to Haven and he's back with word from Sejanes!"

Both of them dropped their mending and got to their feet, hurrying toward Karal's chamber—which once held the "weapon" that had discharged all of its formidable power through him. Firesong hadn't mentioned that to Karal yet; when they had elected not to move him, he had deduced that since all the chambers looked alike, Karal probably wouldn't notice which one he was in. I'm not sure how he'd react. He might not care—or it might make him very nervous and unhappy, being in the same room where he nearly died.

When they arrived at the chamber, they found Lo'isha, a few of the Kal'enedral, Florian, and An'desha already waiting there, with Altra on Karal's lap and an unopened message tube beside them.

Firesong blinked, and realized that after all the time of working with the mages and Artificers back in Haven, he'd been unconsciously expecting to see more people. So it's just us now. I don't know if I like that. I hate to admit it, but those Artificers had some good ideas.

"I hope this message is written in Valdemaran, but it probably isn't," Karal said. "I know enough of Imperial tongue to translate, though, if you want me to."

"Go ahead," Firesong said, motioning to him to pick up the tube. "I don't even read Valdemaran that well; you're the best reader we have except for Florian."

"And I can just picture Florian trying to unroll the paper!" Karal chuckled, though Firesong noted that Florian came to look over Karal's shoulder, probably to help with the translation.

If only Aya could read foreign tongues! he thought with envy. We could each specialize in a language; it would be so convenient!

Karal broke open the tube and extracted a roll of paper; he unrolled it with an accompanying crackling sound.

Evidently it was in Valdemaran; Karal's frown faded and he began reading immediately. Probably Florian was prompting him.

The letter began abruptly. "Greetings, and do not attempt to make or use a Gate. We have already tried and the results were Unfortunate. That's with a capital 'U' by the way."

Firesong winced. I was afraid of that.

"Things must be more unsettled than we thought," An'desha said with alarm. "My little magics have been working so well I thought certainly that the larger ones must surely be all right.

"That might simply be a function of where we are," Firesong reminded him. "For all we know, there are upper shields on the remains of the Tower, strong enough that we could do almost anything in here and not be affected by what's gone on outside."

Karal cleared his throat to get their attention again. Firesong turned back to him and nodded, and the young man continued. "I fear this means you are exiled for the duration, colleagues. We built a small local Gate as soon as we could after you unloosed the power of your Device, and we attempted to transfer a few small nonliving items through it. I am glad now that we opted for caution and made those items of a nonliving nature, for the result on the other side was rather messy. Parts were recognizable, and that is the best I can say. Many suffered from desiccation, aging, or physical compression. Altra's Jumping seems to cause no such problems for the moment, even when he 'carries' someone with him, but he reports that it is becoming more and more difficult to lump as time passes."

At this, Altra himself raised his head and spoke up. :I find that the distance I can Jump decreases as time passes. I am afraid that within a few weeks I will not be able to Jump across a given distance any faster than a Companion could run across it.:

Firesong let out the breath he'd been holding in. I wonder if I ought to go back to k'Leshya after all? I'm not sure I can continue to live like this and not begin to lose my temper, if not my sanity. "Well, that's not welcome news," he said as casually as he could. "Is there anything else?"

Karal scanned the letter quickly. "Once the bad news is out, he gets a lot more formal and technical; the short version is that Altra can probably bring one or two people from Haven to here before he can't Jump anymore, but that we need to work on a way to communicate with Haven—maybe using scrying Magic that doesn't transfer or move anything physical seems to work better than magic that does. I just hope that if there are shields protecting this place, they wouldn't interfere with scrying, too."

He handed the letter over to Firesong. "Here, you can get all the details yourself later; most of what he says only partially makes sense to me."

"I'll study it later," Firesong promised. "The question now is, what are we going to do? If we're going to have Altra bring someone over, we'd better do it soon."

"If we can get them," An'desha said slowly, "I'd like both Sejanes and Master Levy here."

Firesong rolled his eyes up at that, but had to grudgingly agree. "If they'll put up with the unpleasantness of Jumping, they would be the best choices." he sighed. "Sejanes has an entire magic discipline that is foreign to us, and Master Levy—" He paused for a moment, reminded himself to be charitable, and chose his words carefully. "Master Levy has a very unique way of looking at our problems. If not him, then we should have at least one of the Master Artificers here. Even I have to admit that we could not have accomplished anything here without their help."

An'desha and Karal both nodded vigorously in agreement, which made him feel a bit sour, but he had to admit that without the Artificers, they would be working without a resource as valuable as the presence of an Adept. We need that utterly different viewpoint here. And Master Levy might even be as intelligent as he thinks he is.

:Master Levy and Sejanes have already volunteered,: Altra put in unexpectedly. :I was just waiting to see if you would welcome them here. I can go back for them now, if you'd like, although it will take a few days to get there and back with them.:

Now Firesong was startled. A few days? Altra's Jumping distances had been severely curtailed! "If it's going to take you days, I think you had better start back now," he told the Firecat." I don't want to think how much faster the situation could deteriorate if we wait."

The Firecat nodded, and vanished from Karal's lap. Only Lo'isha looked at all dubious when Altra was gone.

"What's wrong, shaman?" Firesong asked politely, seeing Lo'isha's troubled gaze.

The Shin'a'in shrugged. "I am only wondering if we should have asked permission of our hosts before we brought more folk in. Hopefully, they will not be offended by the addition of two more strangers."

Curiously, that slight objection had the effect of hardening Firesong's decision. "If we'd had them here in the first place, we might have a permanent solution instead of a temporary one," he said stubbornly. "I, for one, want them here. Wind and weather, Lo'isha, if you're worried that they might somehow overpower us and escape with secrets of Urtho's forbidden magic, Master Levy doesn't know the first thing about practical magic, and Sejanes is so old that if you spoke a harsh word to him all his bones might break under the force! They're hardly a threat, singly or together"

"Oh, I agree, but it is not my opinion you must have," Lo'isha began, then shrugged again. "Or, well, perhaps it is. I suppose I have as much authority here as the Kal'enedral." He grimaced. "Much as I dislike taking on authority, I suppose it is time that I did so."

Since it was Firesong's opinion that it was more than time that he did so, he simply nodded and held his tongue.

Karal looked fatigued, and Firesong stood up abruptly. "I am going to search for another hidden room. I have the feeling that this place hasn't even begun to divulge its secrets to us. Anyone care to join me?"

Urtho may have been one of the most brilliant and compassionate minds in history—but his architects were no small geniuses themselves. Firesong already had found one small, hidden room by carefully probing the floor of the "washing" room when he noticed that water, dripped in a particular place, drained away through cracks invisible to the unaided eye. it hadn't held anything—in fact, it had probably performed the task of simple storage—but now he knew that there might be more such places under the floors here, and he had the feeling that if he just looked hard enough, he might find more than just storage areas.

"I'll help," An'desha said unexpectedly.

He smiled. "Come along, then," he replied. "I'm trying the skull chamber next."

The "skull chamber" was the one in which they had discovered a bizarre contraption that looked like the leavings of half a dozen Artificers and shamans all jumbled together with the remains of a few feasts. The centerpiece was a highly ornamented cow skull, and none of them could even begin to guess what the device was for. They would have been afraid to dismantle it, except that the delicate construction had already fallen apart in several places already, and the shock of their magical working had made it fall completely to pieces without any other ill effect.

Rather than use magic, since the chamber itself reeked of mage-power, Firesong was using perfectly ordinary senses; taking a cue from the water drainage, he had a skin of water with a bit of ink in it to make it more visible, and he dribbled it over the floor, watching to see if it moved or vanished.

With An'desha helping, the two of them were a lot more effective than he was by himself. It was very boring work, and he had expected An'desha to start a conversation, but he had not anticipated the subject.

"You're thinking about going back, aren't you?" An'desha said. "To k'Leshya, if not your home Vale."

He didn't reply at first; he pretended to be paying close attention to the water on the floor. "I'm not used to this sort of living," he said, refusing to answer directly. "It's harder on me than it is on you."

"I won't debate that," An'desha agreed. "And I hope you don't think I'd put any blame on you for leaving. The gryphons did."

"But they have two children who need them," he snapped. "I don't. I haven't any excuse for leaving except wanting to be comfortable again!" He felt irrationally irritated at An'desha for voicing all of his excuses, as if he were so transparent that An'desha had no difficulty in anticipating what he wanted to do and his rationalizations.

The trouble was that every time he looked at Karal, he felt ashamed of himself.

"It's not as if you haven't done more than most people would have already," An'desha said gently. "First you faced down Falconsbane—"

"Mornelithe Falconsbane was a challenge, but no more than that," he replied stiffly. "It's not as if I was alone in facing him."

"It's not as if you had any real reason to," An'desha pointed out inexorably. "Valdemar wasn't your home. Falconsbane didn't threaten the Vales. You'd done your duty in training Heralds to be mages, and then some. You could have gone home once you'd done that much."

"Leaving whom to face Falconsbane?" Firesong demanded, his face flushing. "One of those half-trained Heralds? Elspeth? Darkwind, perhaps? None of them could have freed you. I'm not certain even Need could have freed you and dealt with Falconsbane."

An'desha simply nodded quietly. "But when it was over—you could have gone home then. You could even have taken me with you, and things might have turned out differently. You've long since gone past anything anyone could call your duty, Firesong. No one would fault you if you were too tired of all this to go on."

"And how am I going to compare to someone like Karal if I do that?" he demanded, flushing still further. "Too tired? How would I look, quitting now, next to someone who literally put his life in jeopardy over this?"

"You make him sound like a would-be martyr," An'desha chided. "Karal is quite a few things, including stubborn, occasionally bigoted, and now and then incredibly naive, but he's no martyr. And neither are you, nor any of us."

"So?" Aya must have felt his distress; the firebird sailed in the chamber door, adroitly avoided the snare of wires and junk, and landed on his shoulder. He petted the bondbird reflexively in a blind search for comfort. "If he's not a martyr, then—" He stopped, aware that his voice was getting high and strained.

He took two or three deep breaths. "An'desha, I don't know why you're baiting me this way."

Then, in a moment of blinding insight, he did know.

He's forcing me to think things through, so that I come to a real decision, instead of letting some unfinished business and an entire bundle of emotions sway me back and forth.

An'desha nodded, as if he saw all that written on Firesong's face.

I can't make a decision because I'm trying to demonstrate that I'm somehow better than Karal. And I can't make it out of guilt either.

So why am I staying?

"What Karal does is up to Karal, but—well, I'm not too old to take a youngster like him as a good example." He smiled weakly. "You all need me, just as you need Sejanes or Master Levy, or Altra. I'm staying because even though I'm tired and I hate living here, it would be wrong of me to go off and leave you without my skills. I don't want to die in the cold and filth, but if I must, I will. It would be wrong to abandon all those people who are hoping we'll find a solution to the final Storm. It would be wrong to break my word to the people I promised I would help. Are those reasons good enough for you?"

An'desha laughed at that. "Don't think to bait me, Firesong; I was coached by an expert to steer you through your own thoughts and motives."

He scowled at that. "Are you happy with the result?" he growled.

"The question is not whether I'm satisfied, it's whether you are," An'desha countered. "And if you are, it is not for me to object. If your decision will interfere with other concerns, then that must be dealt with then."

He stood up and moved over to another section of floor. Firesong felt an imp of perversity rise inside him, and he knew he had to have the last word.

"And I didn't mention the best reason of all yet," he said silkily. Surprised, An'desha turned back to face him.

"What reason is that?" he asked, as if the words had been pulled from him unwillingly.

Firesong smiled. "Silverfox wants me to stay," he replied. "Can you think of a better reason?"

Two

Elspeth sighed, her breath streaming out in a fog of ice-crystals, and pulled the ends of the scarf wrapped around her neck a little tighter. Once again she sent a little thought of gratitude back over her shoulder toward Valdemar and the tireless k'Leshya hertasi who had fashioned her current costume. The little lizard-folk who had arrived with the bargeload of envoys from Clan k'Leshya had taken one look at her winter wardrobe and taken it upon themselves to refashion it, as if they didn't already have enough to do. The hertasi of k'Sheyna had already made her Herald's Whites in the style of the Tayledras, but those had all been of summer-weight fabrics. These new hertasi had remade her Whites in wool, fur, and leather, layered in silk according to patterns designed for her by Darkwind. These had been her Midwinter gift from him to her, and a welcome surprise they had been indeed, for they were certainly needed. Winter Field Whites had been designed for harsh weather, but not as harsh as the unprecedented weather currently holding Hardorn in its icy grip.

And Hardorn was where she, Darkwind, and a small group of mixed Valdemaran Guards and Kerowyn's mercenaries found themselves headed shortly after Midwinter Festival.

There hadn't been much choice; it was clear that Valdemar was going to have to send some form of envoy overland to Grand Duke Tremane, once it became impossible to put up any more Gates. Elspeth had been present when that last Gate had been attempted; the mangled crate that had come through had looked as if it had been turned inside out, and nothing in it was recognizable. It was just a good thing that the crate had only contained a few things for Sejanes and that they had been cautious enough to test the Gate with mere cargo before sending anyone living through.

But travel to and within Hardorn was not easy by any standard, even those of one who had journeyed from Valdemar to the Dhorisha Plains and patrolled the weirdling lands being cleansed and protected by a Hawkbrother Vale. In all of her life she had never seen snow this deep. The road they followed into Hardorn had been kept clear for traffic, but only enough to permit a cart pulled by two horses to pass. And even then, the wheels of the cart would scrape the walls of snow now and again. Every ten leagues a wider place had been cut, so that carts going in opposite directions could pass, but otherwise the snow was piled up on either side of the road until it reached shoulder-high on a horse. In places where the snow had drifted deeper than that, it could be taller than a rider's head. And the cold, the wind—In many ways, she was grateful that those tall snowbanks were there, because without that shelter they'd be facing a wind that bit as cruelly as any blade, and carried right down to the bone. Hertasi-designed tunics with fur linings and riding coats of sheepskin with the wool turned inside were the only things that made this journey bearable. She was quite grateful that the mysterious, industrious lizard-folk had been able to outfit the entire company with such coats before they all left.

"Why the sigh?" Darkwind asked, his breath puffing out in frosty clouds with each word. His bondbird Vree clung to the padded horn of his saddle, with no sign of discomfort whatsoever—except that his feathers were puffed out all over his body and his head was pulled down tight against his shoulders, so that he resembled a fat ball of wool with a beak. But then, Vree was a forestgyre, and Darkwind had once told her that they had come from stock adapted to harsher climes than this. Darkwind himself cut an odd figure, and not just because of his Hawkbrother costume or the bondbird on his saddlebow; Darkwind's mount was neither a horse nor a Companion, but a creature as intelligent and as foreign to Valdemaran eyes as a gryphon. It was a dyheli, a white dyheli at that, and the representative of his own race to Valdemar. His name was Brytha, and he had brought Firesong from k'Treva to k'Sheyna, then from k'Sheyna to Valdemar, and now consented to bear Darkwind on this current mission. Why? She didn't know; Darkwind didn't know either, and the dyheli seemed disinclined to explain. They were both grateful to him; although not the equal in endurance and speed of a Companion, the dyheli was better suited to this mission than a horse, more sure-footed and vastly more intelligent. The rest of their party rode tough Shin'a'in-bred horses, especially selected for endurance, shaggy as dogs with blunt, blocky heads.

"I'm sighing because I've decided that the one thing I will never say again is to say 'never again,'" she replied with a crooked smile. "Because as sure as I say it, I'm forced to repeat the act I swore never to repeat."

He chuckled ruefully, without needing any explanation. Neither of them had ever thought they would be riding back into Hardorn again. Their previous visit, although memorable, had not been particularly pleasant, either for them or for the Hardornens. When they had finished, mad King Ancar and his adviser Hulda were dead at their hands, mage-caused storms were lashing the countryside, the capital was in a state of total chaos, and the Imperial Army (taking advantage of the moment) was pouring over the Eastern border. And although very few Hardornens were aware of the fact, Elspeth and Darkwind were directly or indirectly responsible for most of the damage and chaos they left behind them.

Not that the Imperial Army was our fault, but that's just about the only thing we can say we didn't have a hand in.

And after the invasion came the real mage-storms, triggering incredibly vicious weather and unleashing real horrors on the unsuspecting countryside. Those were not the fault of anyone living, but they did make life in Hardorn even more miserable than anyone had ever dreamed possible. So riding into Hardorn didn't seem particularly likely or sane a few moons ago.

But that had been before Duke Tremane offered alliance; before it dawned on everyone in this part of the world that the mage-storms were a greater menace than anything mere humans could unleash on each other. Now things that wouldn't have occurred to anyone as possible scenarios were being hastily put into motion.

"Have you noticed something? The weather might be vile, but the land isn't suffering anymore," Darkwind observed. "It's not exhausted and ill anymore, it's just sleeping, waiting for spring. I don't know about you, but that was one of the reasons why I didn't want to ever come back here again."

Elspeth nodded, and so did her Companion Gwena, the bells on her bridle chiming crisply in the sharp, icy air. :Without Ancar draining the land of its power, things are returning to normal,: Gwena replied. :The land, and presumably the people, are no longer sickening. And much as I hate to say it—the blood and life-energy of all those poor folk killed in the invasion may have sped that recovery.:

"That's a horrible thought," Darkwind observed with a shudder, for Gwena had made certain to include him in her Mindspeaking.

Elspeth shivered; intellectually she knew it was probably true, but it was horrible all the same. "That just sounds entirely too much like something Falconsbane would have come up with," she said reluctantly. "But then again, Falconsbane simply perverted things that were perfectly normal and good. And I suppose it would be even worse to think that all those people died and their life-energy went for nothing, or worse, was used by someone like Falconsbane.

:Mages and those with earth-sense have known for centuries that this is the reason why the countryside blooms after a war,: Gwena observed dispassionately. :It isn't just that things seem better, and it isn't just that the people are ready to greet any positive signs with enthusiasm. It's because the lives lost go back to the land, and when the war is over, the land can use them to heal itself.:

"We can at least be grateful that Grand Duke Tremane is apparently more interested in allowing the land to heal than in using that power for his own means," Darkwind replied, as he turned for a moment to stare off into the east. He said nothing more, and Elspeth thought she knew why.

They had only the word of three youngsters and Tremane's own people that he was to be trusted at all. Just at the moment, apparently was the only word any of them could use with regard to the leader of the Imperial forces. Those few facts that they had about Tremane were not much comfort.

Tremane had been sent by his master, Emperor Charliss, to conquer a weak and chaotic Hardorn for the Empire of the East. This assignment was to prove him worthy (or not) to be the Imperial Heir. The Imperial Army had taken roughly half of Hardorn before it stalled, held in place by Hardornen fighters, in mostly uncoordinated groups ranging in size from tiny bands to small armies, united only in their determination to oust the interloper. Since they were fighting on their own ground, they had the advantage once the front lines stretched out and the Imperial forces were thinned by distance. Nevertheless, if nothing had changed, Tremane would probably have been able to reorganize, regroup, and complete the conquest, possibly even carrying it into Valdemar.

But things did change, and in a way that no one could have foreseen; the change had come from a direction no one would have looked, for it had come out of the distant past.

We never do consider the past, do we? But we should have. Wasn't Falconsbane a revenant of that past? And shouldn't that have warned us to turn our eyes and thoughts in that direction? But then again, how can we truly plan for everything, every possibility? Even if we knew all of the threats at any one moment, the defenses for half of them would negate the preparations for the other half. We are better off being resourceful than omniscient, I think.

Once, before there had ever been a Valdemar, in a time so distant that there were no records and only the vaguest of hints about it in the great library of the Heralds, ancient wars had ended in an event known only as the Cataclysm. And until Elspeth had met with the Tayledras of legend, the Shin'a'in of the Dhorisha Plains, and the last, lost Clan of the true Kaled'a'in—progenitors of both the Hawkbrothers and the Shin'a'in—that was all those in Valdemar had known. Now, though, with the help of histories both arcane and mundane, the full story had been put together.

Elspeth considered that story as she did every time she had the leisure to do so, intent on extracting the least bit of useful information from it. Despite the huge amounts of power involved, there were still human motives and actions behind what had happened so long ago. Even madmen would act according to their needs, so the more that one considered events of history the more one could deduce what those needs had been—and once one understood the needs and motivations of the people involved, one could expound upon what else might have happened, or realize that an obscure detail was actually something significant in context.

There had been two Adepts back then, perhaps the most powerful that the world had ever known, called Urtho and Ma'ar. Ma'ar, the scion of barbarian nomads, had been infected with the mania for conquest, at first for noble reasons of uniting clans to keep them from annihilating each other. Urtho, the epitome of civilization and scholarship, had resisted him. But despite the best efforts of civilization, Ma'ar, Adept and Blood-Mage, had triumphed—

But only for a moment. In the very hour of Ma'ar's victory a dying Urtho had brought defeat to his very door, with a pair of devices that released the bonds on all magic within their spheres of influence. One he triggered in his own Tower; one was sent to Ma'ar. The devices acted within moments of each other, and the results were both devastating and utterly unpredictable.

When it was over, there were two enormous craters where Urtho's Tower and Ma'ar's palace had stood. The first became the Dhorisha Plains; the second, Lake Evendim. And the interaction of the two series of shock waves created terrible mage-storms that had raged over the land for a decade or more, raising mountains and flattening them, disrupting magic, causing living creatures to change and warp out of all recognition, even transplanting entire sections of countryside from one part of the world to another.

Eventually the Storms faded, to be forgotten in the ensuing centuries, assumed by all to have been gone forever. But the forces released by the Cataclysm were stranger and stronger than anyone guessed, and now the mage-storms had returned, echoing back across time from the other side of the world, growing stronger with every new occurrence.

That was what had changed the situation Tremane had walked into, changed it out of all recognition. The situation in Valdemar had been bad, but not a complete disaster. Valdemar had only newly rediscovered true-magic, and did not depend on its power for anything. The other effects of the mage-storms, the vicious and unpredictable weather, the warping of living creatures, and so forth, could all be dealt with in one way or another. But for Tremane's forces, dependent on magic for everything from communication and supply lines to the means to scout the enemy and cook their food, it was a disaster as they found themselves completely cut off from the Empire, effectively blind and hungry as a fighting force. As for what was going on in the Empire itself, that was anyone's guess. Tremane had initially assumed that the Storms were a new weapon unleashed by the Alliance of Valdemar, Karse, Rethwellan, and the Shin'a'in/Tayledras clans. He had reacted accordingly—and in a direction entirely typical of the Empire, where treachery and assassination were so commonplace that children were given bonded bodyguards as cradle-gifts. He had sent an assassin to break up the Alliance.

That was the single act that Elspeth and any other Valdemaran found so difficult to think past. Valdemar had not attacked Imperial forces. Neither Valdemar nor any of her allies had shown any sign of aggression other than increasing the guard on the borders and covertly helping to supply the Hardornen loyalists. Tremane had no reason—except for the obvious fact that Valdemar was not suffering from the Storms as badly as the Imperials were—to think that this was an attack by Queen Selenay or her allies. Nevertheless, he had treated it as one, and had sent a covert operative armed with magic weapons to kill anyone of any importance at or in Selenay's Court.

The man had succeeded only insofar as murdering the envoy from Karse and the one from the Shin'a'in, and wounding several others. That was bad enough, but was sheerest good fortune that it wasn't worse, and no one made any mistake about that. If the assassin had waited until the predawn hours when people were sleeping in their beds, he would have succeeded in killing everyone from Selenay down to the gryphons.

Herein lay the heart of Elspeth and Darkwind's current problem. Now they were supposed to trust a man who used assassins against those he only suspected of aggressive action.

Elspeth found it difficult to think beyond that fact, even though Tremane had won over to his side the last person likely to ever forgive him—young Karal, the secretary and protege of the envoy of Karse, Sun-priest and Mage, Master Ulrich. Tremane had even somehow convinced Solaris, Son of the Sun and High Priest and ruler of Karse, of his sincerity and his wish to make amends, though only the gods knew how he'd done that.

Well, he hasn't convinced me, and he hasn't convinced Darkwind, she thought stubbornly. Whatever spell of words or personality he put them under, I hope it's going to be more difficult to work the same "magic" on us. I know mind-magic, and Darkwind is so foreign to Tremane's experience that he might as well be another species altogether. And what's more, I wouldn't be in the least surprised to discover that Kerowyn slipped half a dozen special operatives into our escort. Two sides can play the assassination game, if it comes to that.

She hoped that it wouldn't, but she had enough experience now to make her plans around pessimism rather than hope. She didn't officially know that Kerowyn had planted her own agents, but she knew the Skybolts, and they were, one and all, "irregulars." Their skills were not those of straight-on fighters, although they could act and fight as a disciplined skirmishing unit and had in the past.

On the other hand... Solaris has Hansa, the other Firecat. If she wanted to kill Tremane, there is no way he could stop her. So maybe that fact alone will make him behave himself from now on.

That was certainly something else to consider. The Firecats possessed the ability to "Jump" themselves and anyone in physical contact with them from one location to another, and Elspeth was not entirely certain what their range was. Certainly it was good enough that Altra and Hansa served as messengers between Solaris and Selenay, and between the party in the remains of Urtho's Tower and the mages and Artificers in the Valdemaran capital of Haven. Solaris was perfectly capable of placing an assassin of her own right under Tremane's privy to poke a knife up into him if she so desired, and for that matter, there was no reason why Hansa himself could not kill a man if he chose. Although Firecats had the ability to look like common cats if they wished to, in their true form they were the size of enormous hounds, and their claws and teeth were correspondingly long and sharp.

Elspeth blinked at the images that thought conjured up. My thoughts are certainly taking a grim turn today. Maybe I'm concentrating on spilling blood as an antidote to all this whiteness. Dear gods, it's cold—and we haven't seen another human soul since our guides left us.

They'd been lucky when they'd reached the Valdemaran Border. A couple of Hardornen exiles—vouched for by Kerowyn's agents—had cautiously decided it was safe to return and acted as guides up until this morning in exchange for two pouches of currency and two packs of supplies. Now, though, they would have to go on without guides, because the husband and wife had gone as far as they intended.

Last night the party had reached the village from which the couple had originally fled. Even though it proved to be deserted, abandoned, like the other villages they had passed on this road, the two wanted to stay; even in thick white desolation they had a dream of a time in the future when there would be children running and playing in a verdant town square.

Their journey thus far had been an unnerving one, riding through a landscape devoid of humans. Elspeth could only wonder what had happened. The land might be healing, but where are the people? True, Ancar had decimated the population, but why hadn't they met with anyone on this road? Why were all the villages they passed through completely deserted?

The abandoned villages raised more questions than were answered, for everything had been taken except the heaviest of furniture, and there was no sign of violence. Was this the result of systematic desertion or systematic looting? Who was cleaning off the snow? Were the Hardornens hiding from an armed and possibly hostile group? Given the fact that this was a nation racked by war, that was possible. But why, when there was a Herald of Valdemar riding conspicuously in the front?

Perhaps because at a distance there's no reason to assume I really am a Herald. It's not that hard to get a white horse and a set of white clothing.

"What are our plans for stopping tonight, or do we have any?" she called back to the leader of the troop. They hadn't provisioned themselves for camping, though they had brought all their own food, assuming that rations might be short given the horrible mage-weather Hardorn had endured. It was a good thing they had, or they'd have had a choice between starving and (literally) eating crow.

"In theory there's a town ahead that used to have a weekly market and five big inns," the leader replied, his voice muffled by the scarf swathing his face. "Whether or not it's still tenanted—" he shrugged. "Someone's been keeping the road clean for traders, and I'm hoping it's them."

So was Elspeth, fervently. She was not looking forward to spending another night in an abandoned, derelict building. There was always one building that could be made to serve, and there was certainly no shortage of firewood, but she had always been glad of the presence of the others around her. She'd found it hard to sleep at night, with her shoulder blades prickling as if unseen eyes watched her. No one had actually seen or heard anything that could be taken as a ghost, but such places felt haunted.

She couldn't begin to imagine how Rusi and Severn could bear to stay back there in what was left of their village. Granted, there was plenty of material to make more than one of the houses sound and weather tight again. And granted, they were well-equipped to do just that. But the aching emptiness of the abandoned village would have sent her screaming for Valdemar within a week.

It was more than she could bear to think about right now. I've done a great deal that people think is brave, but I'm not that brave.

But that was also assuming that the land around the village was as deserted as it looked. When the mage-storms created killing weather and murderous monsters, would it have been safer and smarter to fortify the farmsteads and stay where the food was, or to come into the village and trust in numbers and weapons but chance the food running out? It wasn't a decision Elspeth had ever needed to make, and she hoped it was one nobody in Valdemar would be forced to face.

For that, all their hopes rested with that tiny group in the middle of the Dhorisha Plains, in the ruins of Urtho's Tower. If anyone could find an answer, it would be them. Although Elspeth and Darkwind were both Adept-class mages, Elspeth was relatively untutored and Darkwind had abandoned magic for so many years that despite his considerable prowess he still considered himself out of practice. As mages, they were of no help to the researchers who had gone to the Tower. They might be of some use with the Imperials, and they would be of great use as envoys.

She knew that Queen Selenay had debated long and hard before deciding to send Elspeth and Darkwind as envoys from the Alliance to Tremane. The Queen hadn't wanted to send Elspeth, but Elspeth was the only logical choice—she could make autonomous decisions, she had been trained both as a Herald and to wear the crown herself—she was the next best thing to Selenay when it came to being able to think for Valdemar. Elspeth had proven that she had good judgment, and because she was no longer the Heir since her abdication, she was of little value as a political hostage. Moreover, she had been trained by Kerowyn to defend herself against assassins; she could take care of herself in an ambush or an even fight, and she was as suspicious as even that redoubtable woman could have wished.

Then there was magic, in which she was an Adept; Tremane was no more than a Master, though of a far different magical discipline than the one she had been trained in. Very few of the Heralds of Valdemar were mages at all, much less Adepts, and although their Companions would be able to help them to some extent in matters of magic, it was no substitute for being mages themselves.

All that might not have been enough, except for Darkwind; he was an Adept as well, and of longer standing than she. He had been a Tayledras scout, which made him something of a fighter as well. He would have refused flatly to accompany anyone else; he was not a Herald, and his loyalties were to her, not Valdemar. Whereas she would hardly have gone anywhere without him, of course, and together they were a formidable pair.

Between her own qualifications and Darkwind's, there simply was no one as "right" to go on this mission as Elspeth, and if she had been anyone else's daughter, Selenay would not have hesitated for a moment to send her.

To give Mother credit, she didn't hesitate long. Elspeth was actually a bit pleased at that; Selenay had been treating her less as a daughter and more as—as an adult, and Elspeth had gotten the feeling, more than once, that when the Queen forgot to think of her as her daughter, she acted naturally. In a way, given the Queen's behavior of late, Elspeth had been a little surprised that her mother had given second thoughts to the mission. I wonder if some of what has made her hesitate in the past was more guilt than anything else.

Could it have been? Elspeth and her mother had never been comfortable with each other. No matter how hard she tried, she always saw my father in me. In so many ways, I was more Talia's child than hers. Now Selenay had the twins, children she could give her whole heart to; could she be feeling guilt that she didn't have that same maternal bond with Elspeth? Was that why she had always overreacted when Elspeth did something that might put her in jeopardy—because she felt as if she should have been more worried, more emotionally involved than she was?

An interesting theory, and one I'll never learn the truth of. I certainly couldn't ask her that, and the only other person who would know will never tell me. Talia would never betray anything she learned of Mother's heart, and rightly so. Elspeth gave herself a mental shake. Did it matter? Not really. Except that—if that was indeed the case, she wished she could convince her mother that it didn't matter. The last thing that the Queen of Valdemar needed was one more thing to feel guilty about. She already carried enough guilt for twenty people.

And I would rather be Queen Selenay's friend and fellow Herald than her daughter.

But the thought did present one explanation for some of Selenay's contradictory behavior, and it was certainly worth keeping in the back of her mind. She could watch for evidence of her own, and it would be interesting to act on that theory and see what happened.

Meanwhile, there was a long and difficult job ahead of her, and there was a danger they might all freeze to death before they even got to it if they didn't find some Hardornens soon.

"How much farther do you think this town is?" she called back over her shoulder. She glanced back to see—what was the Guard-Captain's name? Vallen, that was it—to see Vallen shrug, the movement barely visible beneath his multiple layers of fur, sheepskin, and wool.

"Soon, I think, but that is just a guess," he replied. Despite the scarf he wore about his face, his words came clearly over the muffled hoofbeats of their various mounts, over the creaking of the packed snow beneath those hooves. He gave his horse a nudge with his heels, and took the lead position as Elspeth and Darkwind moved aside to let him by.

Elspeth stood in her stirrups for a moment to peer up the road ahead, but if there were any signs of habitations such as plumes of smoke that could have been rising from chimneys, they were invisible against the uniformly gray-white sky. The sun was nothing more than a fuzzy, lighter spot about halfway down to the horizon.

She settled back down in her saddle; the way the road wound about, it wasn't possible to see very far ahead, and they only got a view of the countryside when the snowbanks allowed. We could be right on top of this town and we'd never know it, she thought.

Minutes later, the road gave another turn and dropped away in front of them. The snowbanks themselves inclined down to about waist-height. As if conjured up in a scrying crystal, the watched-for town appeared ahead of and below them, down in a shallow valley, the houses sticking up out of the snow like so many tree stumps in the snow-covered forest.

This was not the first time a town had appeared before them, but now, for the first time, there were signs that the place was inhabited. Some of the houses were nothing more than snow-covered lumps, but some had been cleaned of their burden of white. Thin smoke wreathed up out of about half the chimneys, to be snatched away by the wind before it climbed up to form a plume. There were a few figures moving about on the road near the town, and it was clear from the purposeful way that they moved that the party had been spotted, if not anticipated.

The place looked marginally better than the deserted villages they had already passed. Perhaps half the buildings were in disrepair; one or two had collapsed roofs, and it was hard to tell under the snow how badly some of the others had suffered. She had to guess that only the buildings with smoke rising from them were actually lived in, and she caught her breath at the thought that Ancar and all the other troubles visited upon Hardorn had literally cut the population in half. Maybe more, she reminded herself. How many deserted villages did we pass through?

Were conditions like this everywhere? If so—well, she did not envy any leader the task of trying to bring this country back from such devastation. If Tremane can get the Hardornens to accept him, he has more work ahead of him than I'd care to take on.

A group of about a dozen people had formed up ahead of them on the road, barring them, at least for the moment, from entering the town. They were as bundled up in clothing as Elspeth's group was, making it difficult to tell anything about them, including their sexes; but in spite of that handicap, she thought that their stances showed a mix of fear and belligerence.

Fear? When had anyone ever feared her? They weren't so deep into Hardorn that the natives should be unaware of what a Herald was and what one stood for. How could they fear a Herald? Had Ancar created that fear in them so strongly?

She sensed the fighters behind her surreptitiously loosening their weapons, placing hands casually on hilts, and increasing their watchfulness. So it was not her imagination; they sensed hostility, too. Vallen reined in his horse and allowed her to take the lead; Darkwind signaled the dyheli to drop back with his head even with Gwena's flank. Elspeth brought them all to a halt about a length away from the "welcoming party" by gesturing with an upraised hand.

"We are peaceful travelers from Valdemar," she said in their own tongue, pulling her scarf down so that they could see her entire face—though she did Wonder if they'd believe the "peaceful" part with so many weapons in evidence. "Who is in charge here?"

Two of the figures looked at each other, and one stepped forward, though he did not reveal his face as Elspeth had. Now that Elspeth was closer to them, the ragged state of their clothing was painfully evident. Their coats were carefully mended, but with patches that were not even a close match for the same material as the original.

"Me. I'm in charge, as I reckon," the foremost man said gruffly, and he folded his arms clumsily over his chest. He had no weapon in evidence, but Elspeth did not take that to mean that these people were helpless. If she'd been in charge, she'd have archers with drawn bows at every window.

She did not look up to see if her guess was correct.

"What're you here for?" the man continued. His arms tightened and his posture straightened. His voice rose, angry and strained. "If you think you people in Valdemar are going to come in here and take us over, us and our land—"

"No," Elspeth interrupted, cutting him off more sharply than she had intended. The man's nerves had infected her, and she took a deep breath to steady herself. "No," she repeated with less force. "We—Valdemar—has no intention of taking one ell of Hardorn land. Until Ancar attacked us, we were always the loyal friend and ally of Hardorn, and we intend to return to that status now that Ancar is gone."

He laughed, but it was not a sound of humor. "Ha!" he jeered. "You say that, but why should we believe you?"

"I swear it on my honor as a Herald!" she countered quickly. "You must know what that means, at least! Surely you have not lost faith even in that!"

This all had the feeling of a test, as if what she said here would make all the difference in how they would be treated from this moment on.

Do they have some way to communicate with other communities still? She couldn't imagine how anyone could cross this frozen wasteland faster than they were already doing, but the party of Valdemarans was confined to the road, and perhaps the natives had some way of cutting across country to spread news. Perhaps the old signal-towers were still working.

That could be the answer. And it could be how they knew we were coming.

"I swear it as a Herald, she repeated. "And as the envoy of the Queen. Valdemar has no designs on Hardorn, nor do any of the other parties to the Alliance."

—though Solaris had to restrain a few hotheads in Karse. Or rather, Vkandis did—

"We're only traveling," she continued smoothly. "We'd appreciate your hospitality for the night, though we did bring our own provisions. We know how difficult things have been for you, and we didn't want to strain anyone's resources."

There was a long silence, during which the man peered at her closely, and finally nodded, as if satisfied with what he saw. "That outfit's kind of outlandish, but you've got the horse, blue eyes and all, and that can't be faked." He shrugged, then, and made a gesture that she suspected told those hidden archers that all was well. "I guess we still believe in Heralds—mostly since Ancar tried so hard to make us think you was some kind of witchy crew that had traffic with demons. I'll take your word as bond for you and the rest of this lot, but you better remember that you stand personal surety for them."

She nodded, trying not to show how unsettled his words made her feel. This was, literally, the first time she had ever encountered anyone this close to the border of Valdemar who didn't accept and welcome a Herald with trust. What had happened to these people to make them this way?

:Ancar is what happened to them, dear. They will be long in trusting anyone ever again,: Gwena said quietly. :It may be that this generation never will.:

"So where are you going, then?" the man asked, still wary.

"Tell him the truth, ke'chara," Darkwind said softly in Tayledras. "Don't dissemble. We might as well see now. what kind of reception we're going to have while we still have the provisions to turn around and go home. We can't afford to fight our way across this country to get to Tremane."

She nodded slightly to show that she'd heard him; he was right, of course. If they couldn't get to Tremane's headquarters without fighting, there was no point in going on. "We're on our way to a town called Shonar," she said carefully, wondering how much or little he knew.

He knew enough; the man rocked back a pace. "You're going to Tremane?" he demanded. "The Impie Duke?"

She couldn't tell if he was angry or not, but she was already committed to the truth, so she nodded.

"We're the Valdemaran envoy to Tremane," she replied. "He—he wants to join the Alliance. Things that we have learned make us inclined to trust him to be honorable."

We hope.

There were murmurs from the group behind the man, and Elspeth took heart from the fact that they didn't sound angry, just thoughtful. The man himself considered them for a moment, then waved his followers aside. "We need to talk, Herald from Valdemar," he said with a touch of formality. "And there's no point in doing it in this cold. Come along; the inn's still in repair and heated, even if the innkeeper's gone, and if you've got bedrolls to sleep in, there's beds to put them on. If you can tend to yourselves and feed yourselves, we can give you fair shelter for the night."

That was the most welcome statement she'd heard yet on this journey, and she allowed Gwena to fall in obediently behind the man as he led the way to the inn.

The inn was in good repair, as promised, and so were the stables. The group dismounted in the inn-yard and led their mounts and the pack animals inside a stout building with a surprising number of animals in the stalls.

They must be keeping all of the horses and ponies in the town here, she realized after a look around. That makes more sense than scattering them, one and two to a stable.

The Hardornens quickly set to, throwing down straw from the hayloft to make up the remaining stalls for the visitors. As it turned out, they also had hay, though no grain to spare; that was fine, though. The Valdemarans had brought a string of chirras with them, loaded down with their supplies. The chirras did perfectly well on the hay alone, and there was plenty of grain in the supplies for the horses, Gwena, and the dyheli, Brytha.

Everyone in the party pitched in to help in the stables; Elspeth's cardinal rule, learned from Kerowyn, was that the welfare of their beasts came before the needs of the humans, and no one disagreed with her.

With the horses, chirras, Brytha, and Gwena warmly bedded down and fed and the sun setting behind the veil of gray cloud, they all trudged into the inn carrying their baggage.

Once inside, they stood in a tight group for a moment, looking carefully around. The common room, a large chamber with a huge fireplace at one end, stout wooden floor and walls, and smoke-blackened beams supporting the roof, had none of the air of neglect and decay that Elspeth had feared.

She guessed that the villagers had turned the place into their informal meeting house, for the place was too clean to have been swept out just for their benefit. The other door, the one that led into the street, kept opening as more and more people came in, and it looked to her as if most of the adults were gathering in the common room. They had all brought firewood with them as well, which relieved one question in Elspeth's mind—it would have been difficult for the Valdemarans to supply firewood for themselves.

The fellow in charge had not yet pulled off his coat, but he had removed the scarf from his face. He pushed to the front of the crowd, and waved a mittened hand at the staircase, and his weathered, careworn features were kinder than Elspeth had expected.

"Rooms are upstairs, take your pick," he said. "When you've settled yourselves, come down here where we can talk."

Several of those waiting came up the wooden staircase with their guests, bringing firewood to leave beside each hearth before returning downstairs. They didn't say anything, but Elspeth got the impression that was more because they were taciturn or shy than that they were hostile. With fires warming the chambers that had fireplaces, and bricks heating up to warm the cold bedding of those in chambers that didn't, the Valdemarans finally trickled downstairs to meet the eyes of their erstwhile hosts.

Elspeth took the lead, the rest following her. The natives watched Elspeth with covert curiosity, but the moment that Darkwind descended the staircase, they gave up any pretense of politeness and just stared, mouths agape with amazement. The corners of Elspeth's mouth twitched, but she managed not to laugh out loud at their expressions.

I doubt they've ever seen anything like my Darkwind. He must seem like something right out of a minstrel's ballad to them.

Darkwind really was quite a sight, with his long silver hair, his strange, exotic clothing, and the enormous bondbird on his shoulder. When he reached up a hand to Vree, casually lifted him off his shoulder, and cast the forestgyre into the air so he could fly across the room and take a perch on a beam, every Hardornen in the place ducked, and several looked as if they were afraid the bird was going to attack them.

For his part, Vree was on his best behavior, perching where there wasn't going to be anyone sitting directly beneath or behind him. That was extremely polite of him, for if he fell asleep, his instincts would overcome his training if he had to "slice." And a bird the size of Vree could produce an amazing amount of hawk-chalk.

She waited for Darkwind to reach her side, and took his hand in hers. "This is Darkwind k'Sheyna, a Hawkbrother from one of the Hawkbrother Clans in the Alliance," she said, as matter-of-factly as if she had said, "This is Thom, a farmer from the next valley." Their eyes bulged at that, and she didn't blame them. Even in Valdemar, up until recently the Hawkbrothers had been nothing more than a very spooky legend—what must these Hardornens think?

"He is my fellow envoy, my partner, and my mate," she continued. "Representing the Hawkbrothers, the Shin'a'in, and other interests. As I said, we are traveling to Shonar, to Grand Duke Tremane, as official envoys of Valdemar and other members of the Alliance."

The fellow who had taken charge of the meeting nodded. He had by now divested himself of his coat, and wore the clothing of a craftsman—a blacksmith, if Elspeth was any judge, by the scorch marks and mended places that might have been burn marks. He looked much shabbier than any blacksmith Elspeth had ever seen in Valdemar, where they tended to be the more prosperous citizens of a town.

Perhaps he is the most prosperous man here. What a thought! If he's as shabby as a beggar, how are the others faring?

The fact that he was the blacksmith would be the reason that Ancar had not "recruited" him for the army, given that he was able-bodied and neither too old nor too young to fight. A town this size depended on having a blacksmith, and the local smith would need to have more skill than an apprentice.

"I'm Hob," the man said, and gestured to one of the tables. If he'd been fed as well as he should have, his face would have been round, like an old, weathered ball. He was not starved-looking, but his bones were showing; just a hint that these people had seen bad times, as if she didn't already know that. "If some of your people want to go fix up your food, we'd like to talk with you and your—your mate, there."

"We'd be happy to share what we have," Elspeth began, flushing a little with guilt, but he shook his head.

"We've got enough to hold us, so long as spring don't wait to midsummer," he said. "And you'll need every bit you've got to get to Shonar. Thanks to, ah, some good advice, most folk between here and there have enough, but there's none to spare. I doubt you'll find anyone that can sell you so much as a sack of oats, and even if they would, it wouldn't be for money."

Elspeth looked back over her shoulder to Vallen; he nodded, and with a gesture sent four of the guards off to the kitchen. The rest took seats with, and carefully around, Elspeth. Darkwind remained at her right hand, and she was not in the least deceived by his casual pose. If anyone so much as raised his voice in a way he considered threatening, the offending party might find himself facing the point of a knife or being held in the bonds of a most uncomfortable tangle-spell or racking paralysis.

And that's assuming I didn't act on a perception of threat first, for myself.

Hob sat across the table from Elspeth, and rubbed his nose, as if wondering how to begin. Finally he just set his shoulders and blundered in. "You say you're going to Shonar. How much do you know about this Tremane?"

Not long on tact, but I doubt he's used to being the leader of these people. He probably hasn't had much occasion for tact. Elspeth shrugged. "What we know is this; he's brought in his entire force to Shonar, and he's broken off all hostile actions with Hardornen loyalists. From what we've been told, he's going out of his way to avoid conflict with loyalist groups, which, you'll admit, in this weather isn't exactly difficult."

Hob snorted in agreement.

"Not only has he expressed an interest in joining the Alliance, he loaned us several of his mages to help us with—" she hesitated. How much would he understand if she told him about the mage-storms? "—with the magical problem that's at the heart of all the weird things that have been happening."

"The monsters? The weather? Them circles?" Hob's eyes widened and he grew quite excited. "Tremane helped you with fixing them—"

"He did, and he continues to," Elspeth replied. "It's a bigger problem than you may realize. It isn't just Hardorn that's been plagued by all these calamities. It's Valdemar, the Pelagirs, Rethwellan, Karse, the Dhorisha Plains and, we're guessing, just about everywhere else, right out to the Empire. The Alliance, with Tremane's help, managed to fix things temporarily, in the area covered by the Alliance nations." She decided that it might be best not to mention Solaris' personal interview with the Grand Duke; after all, she only knew that it had occurred, not what had been said. "As for the rest that we know about Tremane, we have been told that the citizens of Shonar and the surrounding area have come to look upon him as their protector. We have heard that he has been doing good things for them."

"Aye," Hob said slowly. "We've heard the same. We've heard that them as was fighting against him have come over to his side, that he's been acting like—like we was his people. And now he's helping you in Valdemar?"

She nodded. He pursed his lips and exchanged glances with some of his fellow villagers. They weren't very good at hiding their expressions; what she was telling them agreed with some of what they had heard, and they were surprised to have an outsider confirm what they'd clearly thought were hopeful but unlikely rumors.

"We've heard as how things are pretty fat in Shonar, all things considered," he said finally. "We've heard that it's because of Tremane. We've heard he set his men out helping with harvest, building walls around the town, doing other things like that 'sides taking down monsters."

She spread her hands in a gesture he could read as he chose. "We've heard the same things," she said. "I don't know yet how much truth is in what we've heard, but I'm certain that your sources are completely different from ours. I can tell you this, not all of our sources are Tremane's people."

"And when two people say the same thing... aye." There was a great deal of murmuring behind him. He chewed on his lower lip. "All the same—"

"All the same, it's possible that he is putting on a good face for us, hoping to lure us into accepting him," she said, as bluntly as he would have. "We don't know, and we won't know until we get there."

Hob traced the grain of the wood of the table with his finger and avoided her eyes. "All the same, lady—we need a leader. There's nobody left of the old blood; damned Ancar saw to that."

"And people have been talking about accepting the Duke?" That was more than she had expected to hear, on this side of the former battle lines. "A foreigner? An Imperial?"

"The Duke, not his bloody Empire!" someone said in the back. "We heard his Emperor left him hanging out to dry when the troubles started; we heard he's not Charliss' dog no more."

"Hell, he couldn't be, could he, if he's comin' to you with his brass hat in his hand, looking to get into the Alliance," Hob said, looking hopeful. "He's proving himself for Shonar; if he proves himself for Shonar, why not for Hardorn?"

"But what if he doesn't just want to be your leader?" Elspeth asked softly. "What if he wants to be your King?"

Hob hesitated a moment, then shrugged. "That's all cake or calamity tomorrow, isn't it?" he said philosophically. "We got to get through the winter first." He favored Elspeth with a shy smile. "I can tell you this, there's one way we'd take him."

"Even as a King?" Darkwind asked quietly.

He nodded, slowly. "Even as a King. He'd have to swear on something we'd trust that he wasn't Charliss' man. Then he'd have to swear to Hardorn. And he'd have to do what Ancar, his father, even what his grandfather never did." He paused for effect. "He'd have to take the earth, in the old way."

Elspeth shook her head. "That's nothing I know of," she replied.

Hob smiled again. "The earth-taking—that's old, lady. Older than Valdemar, or so they say. What's old is sure, that's the saying anyway. They say them as takes the earth can't betray it. There's still a priest or two about that knows the way of earth-taking. If this Tremane'd take the earth and the earth takes him—well, there's no going back. He's bound harder and tighter than if we put chains on him."

Elspeth kept her feelings of skepticism to herself. After all she'd seen, there was no telling whether Hob was right about this "earth-taking" of his or not. "Well, you can believe that Valdemar has no interest in taking the rule of Hardorn away from the people; what you do about it is your business," Elspeth said carefully. "Our business is to see if what we've been told is true, and to advise the Alliance if it is not."

He nodded, and did not add the obvious question of how she expected to get herself and her party out in one piece if Tremane turned out to be playing his own game. That wasn't his problem, and she couldn't blame him for not volunteering to help if things got difficult. The people of Hardorn had all they could do to survive, and they had nothing to spare for foreigners out of Valdemar.

Comforting aromas of cooking food emerged from the kitchen, and Hob took that gratefully as his escape from the conversation. "Looks like your people have your food ready; we'll go leave you in peace with it. You can leave in the morning when you choose—and—ah—" he flushed a little "you'll have better welcome farther along. Signal-towers are still up, and there's still a few as know the old signals. We'll be passing along that you're all right, that you're going on up to Tremane. Nobody'll hinder you; there're enough places with four sound walls and a roof that you'll get shelter at night."

As he stood up, Elspeth remained seated, but raised a hand toward Hob. "And does the Grand Duke know that the towers are still working?" she asked.

He laughed, which was all the answer she needed. So Tremane was not aware of this rapid means of passing news along. That could be useful, if it turned out he was playing a deeper game than they thought.

Hob and the rest of his people filed out, leaving the Valdemarans alone, and Elspeth turned first to Vallen as the kitchen crew put bowls of stewed dried meat and preserved fruit, and plates of travel biscuits onto the table. "Well?" she asked. "What do you think?"

He sat down across from her in Hob's place and picked up a biscuit and a bowl before answering. "This matches what we'd heard and didn't really believe," he said slowly, dipping his bread into his gravy and eating the biscuit with small, neat bites. "Tremane sounds too good to be true. Altogether an admirable and unselfish leader." There was a faint echo of mockery in his voice.

"So does Selenay, if you look at things objectively." Darkwind reminded him. "And yes, I know, Tremane has no Companion to keep him honorable, but I'm not sure one would be needed in this case. At least for now, he's in a precarious situation. With the way things have fallen out, his position and his level of personal danger aren't that much different from the average craftsman in Shonar. He needs them as much as they need a leader; if they fall, it won't be long before he does, too. If they rebel, he has no population base to support his troops. This summer, they were fighting against him, and it wouldn't take much mistreatment to make them turn on him."

Elspeth nodded, agreeing with him, although Vallen appeared a bit more dubious. "He has armed troops, loyal only to him," Vallen pointed out.

"He'll have a hard time feeding those troops without farmers," Elspeth replied. "And he can have all the silver he needs to pay them, but if they haven't anywhere to spend it, their loyalty will start to erode. You can't keep an army under siege, starving, and far from home without losing it."

Vallen speared a bit of meat and blew on it to cool it. "All I can say is this," the Guard-Captain said, after he'd eaten the bite. "It's not all that difficult for a charismatic leader to sway the people immediately around him with words instead of deeds. It's a lot more difficult to do that with people out of the reach of his personality. They're inclined to look for something to corroborate what they've heard, and if there's nothing there, they forget him."

"But you're surprised at what you're hearing from Hob," Elspeth stated.

Vallen nodded. "Very. And not the least because a few months ago, these people would have fought with everything they had left to get rid of the man. Now they're considering accepting him as a leader. Doesn't it sound as if they've heard and learned something very compelling over the past few months? I just hope that what they've heard has more substance than twice-told tales."

Elspeth sighed and nodded, as she and everyone else applied themselves to their food. This was the first warm meal they'd had all day, and their supper last night had been hastily prepared over a smoky fire in the remains of a half-ruined house, not cooked in a proper kitchen. As the gnawing hunger in the pit of her stomach eased, and the warmth from their dinner filled her, she became aware just how tired she was. When she glanced around the table, there wasn't anyone except Darkwind who wasn't leaning his head on his hand as he ate. She felt the same way; worn down by the cold, and quite ready to go to bed as soon as she finished the last bite. Darkwind seemed in his element, and she would not have hesitated a moment in trusting the entire expedition to him.

Some of the others looked quite ready to fall asleep over their plates. "It's the cold," Darkwind said quietly. "Don't worry this is normal. It's being in the cold from dawn until dusk, without a chance to warm up, then going to bed in cold beds and unheated rooms. Tonight will make a difference, with a good hot meal and warm beds; tomorrow everyone will end the day without being quite so exhausted. If we can get shelter like this for the rest of the trip, our people will revive in no time at all."

He ought to know, and she should have remembered. Then again, perhaps she was not at fault for forgetting; when she'd worked beside him as a scout and border-guard at k'Sheyna Vale, they'd lived in the Vale. They'd return from their shifts on patrol to an ekele in the midst of a garden spot, as warm as a midsummer day. Before that, he'd refused to live inside the Vale, and there might well have been times when he'd returned home to a chilled ekele, or might even have remained overnight camping in the wilderness. Just because she had never personally experienced such hardship, that didn't mean he hadn't.

"Let's go to bed," Vallen said abruptly, after jerking his head up suddenly for the third time as he nodded off in spite of valiant efforts to stay awake. "I can't keep my eyes open anymore."

"I'll clean up; I'm good for that," Elspeth volunteered, and smiled at the look of surprise from Vallen. What, did he think she considered herself above such chores? Or had he forgotten that at the last several stops, she'd taken her turn at gathering fodder from the ruined barns, putting together makeshift stalls for the horses and chirras, and gathering clean snow for water? "I was a Herald-trainee once, or don't you recall? I've scrubbed my share of pots in my time, and I think I can manage without breaking anything."

Darkwind picked up empty bowls, knives, and spoons without comment other than a wink. Sometimes they both forgot the way other people saw them. She caught Vallen staring after Darkwind with an even greater look of surprise than he'd shown when she volunteered to clean up.

Does he think Hawkbrothers magic their plates clean? Oh, well, he probably does, and it doesn't occur to him that it would be harder work to clean a pot by magic than to do it by hand.

She gathered up what Darkwind couldn't carry, and both of them went into the kitchen.

This had been a particularly fine inn once, with a pump supplying water to the kitchen; the cooking crew had left water heating on the hearth. Both the regular Guards and Kerowyn's mercenaries were used to every aspect of this kind of mission; when it came to cooking, they were nothing if not efficient. It didn't take long to clean the bowls and cutlery and the two pots they had used for heating the food.

"I keep having second thoughts about this trip," Elspeth said quietly.

Darkwind nodded. "I can understand why you would feel that way, but I believe we are doing one of many things that could be the right path," he replied, carefully wiping out a pot and putting it away. It was a typically Tayledras response. "We must remain in contact with Tremane; that much I am certain of. How we do that—well, this is one way. There would have been others, but this is the way we chose, and I do not think we have chosen amiss."

"At least in this case, we'll have our own eyes and ears in Shonar, she sighed.

He smiled. "And tongues as well! We can also advise, if Tremane chooses to listen to us."

The pots, bowls, and utensils had all come with them, and she repacked them in the bags with the supplies. "Given the way things have been going so far," she observed, "it's only too likely, I suppose, for something entirely unexpected to happen out here. And in that case, the Alliance had better have people in place to observe and reassure..."

Darkwind slipped his arm around her shoulders, turning his hug into a way to turn her toward the door to the common room. "And to fix, transform, leverage, and otherwise turn things for the better. Tremane, according to Kerowyn, comes from a culture in which treachery is a commonplace," he reminded her. "If anything unexpected were to occur, that would be the first explanation that would come to him."

She shook her head, and let him draw her toward the door. If she hadn't been too tired to think properly, she might have been able to make some kind of rational discussion out of this. As it was—

"You know, I almost feel sorry for Tremane," she admitted reluctantly as they mounted the stairs to their room. Rank did have privileges, and she had laid claim to one of the rooms with a real bed and a fireplace; it had probably been one of the expensive chambers when this had still been an inn. She was looking forward to sleeping in a bed, warmed by a hot brick at its foot.

Well, maybe not sleeping, at least not for a little while. I do have Darkwind here...

"I do feel sorry for him," Darkwind said unexpectedly, "And I believe I know why young Karal forgave him. just because he has been forced to deal with daily treachery does not make him a treacherous individual. We do not know what he is really like, except that we may guess somewhat through his actions."

This speech had taken them up the stairs and to the space just outside the door to their room. Elspeth opened the door, drew him inside, and stopped the rest of the speech with her lips on his.

"I have had quite enough of Tremane to last me until morning," she said firmly, as he responded as she had hoped he would, by pulling her closer and simultaneously closing the door to their room. "I think we can afford not to think of him, for a little while, at least."

"Oh, at least," he agreed, and then said nothing more with words for quite some time.

Hob was as good as his word. From that time on, they began to see and interact with the people of Hardorn—those that remained, at least—and were given the limited hospitality that this sad land could afford. Elspeth continued to be surprised at the suspicion with which the Valdemarans were met. It didn't make any sense to her that the natives should persist in considering them the harbingers of another invasion. If they had been a real invading force, they would have had a small army at least. If they had been the advance scouts of an invasion, they wouldn't have come so openly.

She gradually decided that the reason had nothing to do with logic. Ancar had already poisoned his people's minds about the Valdemarans, and some of that poison still lingered. At the very beginning of his war with Valdemar, when his people had not yet been aware of the kind of man he really was, he had told them that his war was justified, that the Valdemarans were responsible for the murder of his father and most of the High Council, and that the Queen of Valdemar intended to annex Hardorn as a subject state of her own land. Later, of course, Ancar proved even to the most naive of his countrymen that he was never to be trusted, but some of his lies still remained in the back of peoples' memories. Perhaps they no longer even recalled it was Ancar who had spread those lies in the first place.

And to folk who themselves were never warlike to begin with, and who were now suffering privations worse in their way than even their life under Ancar, an armed force like hers—obviously well-trained, well-fed, well-armed, and in top condition—must look very much like an army. These folks hadn't yet seen the Imperial Army; they'd only heard rumors of it, how large it was, how incredibly professional. Away from the conflicts at the border, they had never seen anything larger than the garrisons Ancar bivouacked in their villages to insure their cooperation and to collect taxes. Perhaps their imaginations couldn't encompass the idea of an army, how large one had to be. Yet here was her force, quite large enough to take over every town in its path, and they didn't have to imagine what it was like, for it was real, and right in front of them.

The natives usually came around after a short meeting, such as she and her troop had had with Hob. At that point, the Valdemarans were treated like travelers instead of conquerors. Villagers would recall the old, hospitable customs, and would usually open the inn, the temple, or a Guildhall to them. Then there were warm beds, warm rooms, and once in a while, a bit of fresh meat to add to their own rations. There was no trouble with finding firewood this winter—not with half (or more) of the buildings in any given community standing empty, and falling down. Sensibly, the survivors had moved into the best homes and kept them in repair, and were using the rest for materials and firewood. They might be on short rations, but they were going to spend the rest of the winter in warmth.

And that, Elspeth realized, (as she and her party continued to brave the cold that penetrated even the warmest of clothing and left them aching by day's end), was what would save these villagers. They could get by on less food, as long as they were warm enough. They might emerge when the snows melted as gaunt as spring bears, but they would be alive, for the cold would kill more quickly than short rations.

But the nearer they got to Shonar, the more people seemed cautiously impressed with Tremane, or at least with the stories they were hearing about him. Once the terrible, killing blizzards caused by the passing waves of mage-storms had subsided into more "normal" winter weather, he had begun making tentative overtures toward those who lived out past the area he had secured for himself and his army. He had sent his men out to clear the roads and keep them clear; he had encouraged such small trade as there might be in the dead of winter. If the rumors were true, he had also sent his men ranging in a limited fashion on monster-killing expeditions.

Supposedly, anyone within a three-day range of Shonar could come and request his help with killing a monster, provided that they knew either where it denned or what its range was. The Grand Duke evidently had no intention of sending parties of his soldiers off to wander about in the snow, trying to find a monster, and possibly making targets of themselves. Tremane would send out a team of twenty of his trained soldiers, all armed to the teeth and experienced in fighting mage-born aberrations, and all the natives had to do was lead them to the monster or to where it might be trapped or cornered. The soldiers did the rest; the natives got the privilege of deciding what happened to the carcass. Often, if it looked remotely edible, they would ask the Healer who traveled with the group to determine if it was safe to eat, and the Healer invariably obliged.

In addition, once the monster or monsters were disposed of, the group would remain long enough to conduct a hunt of feral stock, which was generally not all that difficult to find. Half of what they killed they took back to Shonar; the remaining half they left to feed the natives. Since this was always more than the locals had before the hunt began, no one protested when Tremane's men claimed the "Imperial share." And in addition, while the hunts for monsters or feral cattle were going on, the Healer who always accompanied the expedition would tend to any illness or injuries among the natives.

In short, when the Imperial group returned to Shonar, they left behind a stockpile of much-needed meat, people who had received medical attention the like of which they had not seen since Ancar took the throne, and land that was now safer, if not as pastoral and tranquil as in generations before. If any new monsters appeared, the natives had only to request help again, and the entire scenario would be repeated.

Tremane would not give aid against wolves, bears, or bandits; the first two, it was said, he had decreed were perfectly well within the means of the natives to deal with. And as for the third—he claimed that he could not tell the difference between bandits and "patriots," and he was not going to try. This was a bit hard on the Hardornens who were suffering from the depredations of fellow humans, but perhaps it gave them incentive to track down those who had once been their neighbors and reintroduce them to a law that had been long absent from Hardorn.

All of this was very impressive in tale and rumor—more impressive in that the stories were remarkably consistent—but Elspeth waited to see what was being said nearer to Shonar.

Finally, they came within that three-day sphere of Tremane's influence, and they saw for themselves that the stories of Tremane's "philanthropy" were true.

Unexpectedly, they had stepped from a road cleared just enough to let a single cart pass, to one which had been completely shoveled free of snow right down to the earth or gravel of the roadbed—and one which obviously was kept free of snow. They saw for themselves the trophy heads (or other parts) from the monsters that Tremane's men had tracked down and killed. And they heard from the natives who had been fed and Healed out of Tremane's bounty just what a good and just leader he was.

No one was mentioning the word "King" yet, but Elspeth sensed that it was not far from anyone's thoughts. How could it be, when in the face of the worst times that Hardorn had ever experienced, this man was slowly imposing order and sanity on the face of the land? And it wasn't the arbitrary selfish order of a tyrant, either; they'd seen enough of that under Ancar to recognize it if they saw it. This was law and order that they could live with and be at peace with.

Elspeth couldn't help but contrast their lot with that of their fellow countrymen who did not have the advantage of living within three days of Shonar. Reluctantly she had to admit that if she were in their boots, she'd have felt the same way.

More than that, she found herself agreeing with most of what he'd done and ordered here. A few things represented laws or customs from the Empire that she wouldn't have imposed, but the rest—it was just the hand and the mind of someone who was concerned about the welfare of the people and knew how to derive the greatest good from a limited amount of resources.

The day before they were to meet with Duke Tremane himself, Elspeth and Darkwind were approached by a solemn group of Hardornens as they ate their evening meal. This time the innkeeper still tenanted his inn, but it had been a long time since he had actually served guests. He had offered a chance for Elspeth and Darkwind to have a quiet dinner together, without the company of their escort, and the prospect was too enticing to turn down.

He put them in a small, private dining room, with the troop seated in the larger room outside. Elspeth had not realized how much she had missed being able to talk to him without worrying about the ears of others. There were things she had wanted to discuss that needed to wait until they were alone in their room—if they were alone, since they often shared their sleeping quarters with the others.

They lingered over their last drink, making the most of this private time—and that was when the innkeeper interrupted them.

"Town Council would like to talk, sir, lady," he said diffidently, poking his head into the room. "Alone here, if you please?"

Elspeth sighed. She did not please, but there was no point in saying so. "If they must," she replied, allowing some, but not all, of her annoyance to show.

The innkeeper vanished, and the delegation must have been waiting right outside, for they trooped through the door immediately.

"We won't take up much of your time, Envoy," said the best-dressed of the lot, a fellow who still boasted the velvets and furs of earlier prosperity. "It's just something we'd like you to—to say for us, to Duke Tremane."

"Not a complaint!" added a second, only slightly less elegant than his fellow. "No, not a complaint! Something he might want to hear, maybe—"

"There's been talk," the first interrupted, with a glare at the second. "We've heard the talk. Oh, I was Guildmaster for the Wool and Weavers Guild for this whole region—"

Which explains the finery, Elspeth thought.

"—and Keplan here was Master for the Leather and Furrier's Guild. So, as I say, there's been talk, and people have come to us with it. Duke Tremane's proven good for us, and there are some that want to make him our leader." The Guildmaster waved his hands expansively. "Some who are even saying—King."

The second interrupted his fellow Guildmaster. "Now, we've sent out word, looking for some of the old royal blood of Hardorn. We've got ways of sending word out farther and faster than you'd believe. And there's no one, not one person of the old Royal Family left alive."

"I can't say that amazes me," Elspeth told them dryly. "Ancar wasn't one to tolerate rivals. And he wouldn't let a little thing like the age or sex of a possible pretender stop him from removing someone he wanted out of the way."

The Woolmaster coughed. "Ah. Aye. And woe betide anyone that got in the way back then." He looked up hopefully to see if Elspeth agreed with this attempt to exonerate himself for not attempting to interfere. By that, she inferred that at least one opportunity had occurred, and he hadn't even tried.

But who am I to judge? I wasn't there, I don't know what happened. If he took the coward's path, his own guilty conscience may be punishing him enough by now.

"You were saying that there isn't anyone of the old royal blood left," she prompted. "So?"

"So—well—there's some consensus that we might offer Duke Tremane the Crown. With conditions." He held his breath and waited for her reaction.

"An interesting proposal," Darkwind said quietly. "I presume that the conditions would be unusual, since you mention them at all."

The Woolmaster switched his attention from Elspeth to Darkwind. "They could be," he said. "it's—well, it's something our old Kings hadn't done for generations. It's—"

"He'd have to take earth-binding," the furrier burst out. "We've got a priest of the old beliefs, one that knows the ceremony and can make it stick. He'd have to bind himself to the earth, to Hardorn, so that anything that hurt the land would hurt him!"

The Woolmaster stared at his fellow, appalled, but Elspeth only shrugged. "It sounds like a sensible precaution on your part," she told them. "And if the opportunity presents itself, we will convey your message to the Grand Duke. But we can't promise anything, and we certainly can't promise that he'll agree to any such thing."

"That's all we ask, Envoy!" the Woolmaster said, waving at his little group and backing up himself, with a great deal of haste. "That's all! Our thanks!"

As he spoke, he herded the others out in front of him, and with the last word, he shut the door to the dining room behind him.

Darkwind looked at Elspeth, and she grimaced. "Well," she said, into the heavy silence. "That was certainly interesting."

"And it leaves the question begging," he replied, with a rueful smile. "Just how would one present such a proposition to Tremane?"

"I think that we can wait until we ride into Shonar itself, and we get a chance to see what the Empire represents—as molded by the hand of Grand Duke Tremane," she replied. "That in itself will tell us whether or not there's any point."

Despite the icy wind cutting through her coat, Elspeth sat back in her saddle and stared until her eyes hurt from snow glare. "I can't believe they raised all this in a single season," she muttered.

:And without magic,: Gwena reminded her, shifting her weight in tiny increments to keep muscles warm. :Granted, they did have a great deal of incentive—the possibility of hostile Hardornen troops attacking, and the certainty of monsters—what did that fine young man call them?:

"Boggles," Elspeth replied absently, taking in the reality of a two-story-tall wall, and not a wooden palisade, mind, but a brick wall. This edifice circled not only the entire city of Shonar but the much larger camp and garrison of the Imperials, and an open sward that had once been the town's grazing commons as well. A monumental task? Without a doubt.

Then add to that the equally monumental task of constructing barracks buildings for the Imperial forces before the snow fell, and it became a job to stun the mind in its scope. How had he gotten all that built? Where had he found all the laborers?

"We're very proud of our work, Siara," said the "fine young man" in Imperial uniform who had met them half a day out of Shonar and escorted them in. Siara was evidently the generic title of respect applicable to either sex that the Imperial military used when the person doing the addressing did not know the true rank of the one being addressed. It was probably the equivalent to "sir;" mercenaries generally addressed their officers as "sir" regardless of gender, a perfectly sensible approach of which Elspeth approved.

"We all worked on the walls and the barracks, every man of us," the young soldier continued, his cheeks flushed in the cold. "Except when some of us went to work on the harvest, and then we traded work with townsfolk. However many it took to make up the work that one of us could do, that's what Duke Tremane traded, so the walls and the barracks could keep going up."

:Sensible. Did you notice? The boy says that Tremane "traded" work for work, not that he conscripted workers.: Gwena's head was up as she made her own survey of the walls. :Granted, it wouldn't have been very smart to conscript workers for a wall you're building for your own protection, but that hasn't stopped rulers in the past from doing things equally stupid.:

Elspeth nodded; no point in confusing the poor fellow by answering someone he couldn't hear. The Imperials were already confused enough by her insistence on special treatment and housing for Gwena and the dyheli Brytha, although they had agreed to such a condition before a single Valdemaran set foot on the road to Shonar.

Darkwind cleared his throat gently. "As impressive as these walls are, I suspect our fellow travelers are as cold as I am, and we are not growing any warmer for standing here."

The young soldier snapped to immediate attention and stammered an apology. "Of course, Siara, forgive me! We'll be on our way at once!"

He nudged his own horse awkwardly with his heels, sending it ambling toward the gate ahead of them. He obviously (at least to Elspeth's eyes) was not used to riding, and the horse was certainly not a cavalry mount; thick-legged, jugheaded, and shaggy, it probably belonged to a farmer who didn't have any need for it in this season. He was probably grateful he hadn't had to ride out too great a distance to meet them; he handled the reins as if afraid the steady old gelding was going to rear and bolt at any second. The horse had no intention of doing so, he was just perfectly happy to be heading back to the city, a warm stall, and a good feed. She wouldn't hurt the poor boy's feelings by laughing at him, but she was very glad for the scarf wrapped around her face, concealing her mouth.

The guards patrolling the top of the wall looked down at them with interest as they approached, though with no sign of alarm. There was some nudging and pointing when those nearest caught sight of Darkwind's dyheli, but that was to be expected.

For her part, Elspeth saw absolutely nothing to make her instincts issue an alarm. Except for the uniforms, these men could have been any force in any of the Alliance nations watching the envoy of one of the other Allies ride in. There was no show of hostility from them, and no sense of entrapment on her part. They went through the gate without a challenge, and followed their guide through the main street of the city. It was strange, after all these weeks of not hearing their mounts' hooves do more than thud dully on the creaking snow, to ride once again to the peculiar music that Gwena's silver hooves made as they chimed against the cobblestones once they passed the wall, punctuated by the staccato clicking of Brytha's cloven toes. Townsfolk, evidently warned of their coming, gathered along the side of the street to cheer and wave welcomes and stare at Darkwind. She was reminded of the way they had last entered towns in Hardorn, as part of a traveling Faire. They hadn't stood out then in the midst of so much outlandish, gaudy, somewhat tarnished finery; probably onlookers had assumed that the dyheli had been an ordinary horse or pony in disguise. Now Darkwind had everyone's undivided attention, and to his credit, he seemed just as nonchalant as if there was no one gaping at all.

They passed several good-sized inns, and several more buildings that might have quartered them, and came out on the other side of the town. They were heading in the direction, not of the moundlike barracks buildings, but of a stone edifice rising at least four stories in height in the main, with towers of five or six stories above that. It seemed they were to be quartered in this fortified manor Tremane had appropriated as his headquarters; Elspeth wondered how many clerks, officers, and other underlings had to be reshuffled to make room for them. She was not going to be parted from her escort, and she doubted that Tremane was going to be foolish or naive enough to expect anything different, and that would mean displacing a fair number of people.

"The previous owner had a very small stable actually inside the manor," the young soldier said, as they approached a second set of walls about the manor. "The entrance is on the courtyard, and it is situated beside the kitchen. The Duke's Horsemaster said he thinks it was for very valuable mares in foal. There are four loose-boxes, and it's warm enough for people to sleep in at need. Will that do for your—ah—mounts?"

He looked questioningly at Brytha and Gwena, as if he still didn't understand what all the fuss was about.

For her part, Elspeth was just grateful that they'd not only found a decent place for the nonhuman members of the delegation, but that it was gong to be within the same building complex. "That should be perfect." Now it was her turn to hesitate. "We're going to want to see to them before we are taken to our own quarters, or even meet with Grand Duke Tremane for the first time. I hope he will understand."

The soldier's nod made it clear that he didn't think Tremane would understand, but that he was prepared to put up with the peculiarities of the Valdemarans.

Gwena chuckled in Elspeth's mind. :Never mind, dear. The only person we have to persuade of my intellect is Tremane, and that won't take long. And it can wait until tomorrow, he's going to have enough shocks today as it is. Frankly, I'm more interested in a nice warm mash and a rest in a warm place than in meeting Tremane anyway.:

 Gwena surely was easier to live with these days. Or maybe I've finally grown up! Elspeth chuckled to herself, allowing herself to relax the tiniest amount. If there had been anything untoward, Gwena would probably have sensed it.

The walls about the manor were much, much darker than the walls around the city. These had been made of cut stone, like the manor itself, a dark gray that somehow stopped just short of being depressing. There were more guards on the top of these walls as well, but again, their manner was casual. While these men were professional, and ready to act on a moment's notice, their manner led Elspeth to think they did not consider themselves to be under any particular threat.

They entered a gate with an iron portcullis, but instead of passing under the walls into the yard between the walls and the manor, they went into an arched tunnel which actually passed under the walls of the manor. Torches dispelled part of the gloom, but not all of it. Elspeth did not miss noting the murder-holes in the ceiling above them, nor did anyone else in their party. The holes were spaced so closely that if the gates on either end of the tunnel were dropped, there would be no escaping boiling oil or other unpleasantness coming out of those apertures. This would have made her a great deal more nervous had the manor not predated Tremane's arrival.

Not that he wouldn't use them, he just had not put them there in the first place. The nasty mind that came up with them was a native Hardornen.

Possibly one of Ancar's ancestors...

The delegation split exactly in half once they were in the courtyard. Half of Vallen's troop took the luggage to what was going to become their ambassadorial quarters, and the other half remained with Darkwind and Elspeth while they saw to the comfort of their mounts. Elspeth was just a little irritated at the too-obvious guardians, but she was experienced enough to realize they were a necessity. Until they really knew the situation here, it was better to be too cautious and formal, and reinforce the Imperials' perceptions of herself and Darkwind as people of diplomatic importance—which, of course, they were.

Her irritation was short-lived, for Vallen and his people made themselves useful instead of decorative, and things were soon settled in the stables to the comfort and satisfaction of everyone. One of the Imperials had remained to take them to their quarters, and with their own guards trailing behind, she and Darkwind followed him across the cobblestoned courtyard to one of the many entrances opening onto it.

"We've given you this tower," he said diffidently as he led them to a staircase, his Hardornen stilted, and painfully correct. "Duke Tremane hopes it will suffice your needs."

"I believe it ought to," she replied, as they climbed to the first residential floor. The half of their guards that had gone on ahead were already making themselves at home. This was quite a spacious room, furnished with beds and chests and not all that dissimilar from barracks in Valdemar. The second floor was identical to the first, but untenanted at the moment.

They continued to climb the staircase which wound around the outside wall. "These will be your quarters, sir and lady." said their escort, as they reached the third level.

They were standing in a public reception room set up on the third floor, with a table and chairs suitable for conferences, with writing tables and an arrangement of three comfortable chairs beside the fireplace.

"Your bedrooms and a study are on the fourth floor, and there is a storage room on the fifth," their escort said. "I am one of Duke Tremane's aides, and I will be at your disposal."

As Elspeth and Darkwind explored their personal quarters, he explained very seriously that they did not really want to use that top floor for anything except storage; it had no fireplace and was exposed to the winds in every direction. After poking her nose up there and seeing a thin layer of frost on the stones, Elspeth agreed.

Tremane gave them a decent period of time in which to get settled and into presentable clothing. Elspeth very much missed the comforts of the Palace at Haven; a hot bath here meant heating water over the fire in kettles, and pouring it into a tub the servants brought into the bedroom. The rest was just as primitive, and she wrinkled her nose at the sight of the chamber pot. But the alternative could be worse... and it wouldn't be the first time she and Darkwind had made do.

Finally, when they were presentable, Tremane sent another of his aides to invite them to dinner with him.

As good a time and place to open relations with him as any. When Darkwind gave her a little nod, she accepted for both of them, and they followed the young man down the stair and into the main body of the manor. They traveled down a dark and faintly chilled hallway for some time, with their only light coming from lanterns mounted in brackets at intervals along the wall. Finally they reached another stair, and the aide led them up into what was clearly another tower. In fact, if this tower held Tremane's quarters and was laid out in a similar manner to theirs, they could probably look right into his bedroom from their own.

An interesting thought, and one which showed a measure of trust from Tremane. If one could look, one could also shoot...

They discovered, as the aide ushered them into a room that corresponded to their own reception room, that this was to be an informal meeting. The table was set only for three, with a single aide standing by a sideboard full of covered dishes. Tremane was already waiting for them, and Elspeth scrutinized him carefully, even as he was looking both of them over with the same care.

She would not have taken him for the brilliant military leader he was supposed to be. He didn't look anything like a professional soldier—but then, neither did half of Kerowyn's best fighters. He was losing his mouse-brown hair, and what remained was going gray. His intelligent face showed signs of age and strain both.

Tremane embodied contradiction. His shoulders were firmer and broader than any clerk's, but there were inkstains on his right hand. He wore a sword as one for whom it was a standard piece of attire, but there were lines at the corners of his gray-brown eyes that people got when they habitually squinted, trying to read in dim light. On the one hand—scholar. On the other—fighter.

He stood up after a moment, as if they had surprised him by arriving sooner than he had expected, and extended his hand. Elspeth found his expression impossible to read; closed, but somehow not secretive. A gambler's face, perhaps, the face of a man unwilling to give anything away.

But what his face might not reveal, other signs might. His clothing was a variation on the Imperial uniform, but with none of the fancy decorations she normally associated with someone of high rank. There was just a badge with a coronet and another with what might be his own device. Nowhere was there evidence of the imperial Seal or Badge, although the badge of a crossed pen and sword looked as if it had been sewn in place of a larger badge.

Come to think of it, no one I've seen wears the Imperial Badge. That, more than anything else, told her he really had given over his allegiance to the Empire. Soldiers set a great deal of store by what device they fought under; if the Imperial Seal was gone, so was their loyalty to what it represented.

The lack of decoration, though—military men took pomp and decoration for granted. What did that lack of decoration say about Tremane? That he was modest? Or that he wanted to appear modest?

Tremane extended his hand to her, and she clasped it, returning his clasp strength for strength. He didn't test her, but his clasp was firm and so was hers. "I am pleased to meet you at last, Princess," he began. She shook her head, and he stopped in mid-sentence, tilting his head a little to the side in what was probably a habitual gesture of inquiry.

"Not Princess, if you please," she corrected. "I renounced that title some time ago in favor of other responsibilities. 'Envoy' will do, or 'Ambassador,' or even 'My Lady,' although I do still hold lands and title that are the equivalent to yours, Grand Duke. No one in Valdemar even considers me as being in line for the throne anymore."

Must not let him think he's being slighted by having someone sent to him who is of lesser rank.

"My partner and spouse, Darkwind k'Sheyna, is an Adept; his people do not have any equivalent titles specifying nobility," she continued, "But we judged his status as a mage to be significant in place of a title."

Tremane nodded, released her hand, and took Darkwind's. The two men gazed measuringly into one another's eyes before releasing their grips.

"I am very pleased to meet you both at last, and I would deem it an honor if you would dispense with titles and simply refer to me as 'Tremane,' as my people in my home lands did," the Grand Duke replied, softening his formal manner with a slight smile. "Would you take a seat? I fear you will find my fare somewhat plain, but these are not the times for overindulging."

It was Darkwind who replied, as he held out a chair for Elspeth. "I could not agree more, Tremane," he said. "But it does appear that the folk under your command are prospering better than most in Hardorn."

Tremane waited until both of them were seated before he took his own chair. "That is as much a matter of luck as anything else," he replied. "Luck, in that we have one resource that Hardorn lacks—manpower. There is enough to be scavenged if you have enough able-bodied men."

Tremane's aide offered Elspeth a simple dish of vegetables baked with cheese, and she nodded in acceptance. As he finished spooning a portion onto her plate and turned to Darkwind, she took up the conversation. "Nevertheless, you have impressed those natives here who live within your sphere of influence."

Tremane took a sip of his wine. "One of the virtues of the Empire is that its leaders are well-trained," he said, after a moment. "Its vices are many, but it is well-governed. At the best of times, its citizens had little to complain of."

"And at the worst?" Darkwind asked bluntly.

Tremane bowed his head for a moment. "So much power is easily abused," he said finally, and applied himself to his food, ending the conversation for the moment.

When it resumed, they spoke of inconsequential things. Tremane was a decent conversationalist, though not a brilliant one. He was not a courtier, or at least, not someone who devoted most of his time to such pursuits. But he was also too careful to be blunt, too practiced to say anything that might cause him or his people damage. He was a survivor of a very dangerous Court, and he had learned his lessons in that Court well.

When they bid their host a cordial, if guarded, good night, Elspeth knew only one thing for certain.

Grand Duke Tremane was a man who kept his own council, and it would be difficult to penetrate the walls he had built about himself. He would clearly protect his honor by maintaining silence at judicious times, and practicing deflection when possible. Anyone who attempted to divine this complex man's deeper motives would find themselves with a nearly impossible task, yet that was precisely the task Elspeth and Darkwind faced.

Three

Emperor Charliss sat enrobed in his heavy velvets of State, amid the grim splendor of the panoply surrounding his Iron Throne. He endured the burden of the Wolf Crown pressing down upon his brow, ignored the content of the peoples' chatter, and watched his courtiers vainly attempt to conceal their jittery nerves.

Outwardly, this Court was like any other, except in degree. Gossip, flirtations, negotiations, assignations, betrayals, confidences—the highborn, ranked and wealthy, all danced their dances just as they had for years, as their fathers' had, and as their grandfathers had. Over the years their forms of jockeying and presentation had gone from custom to manners to mannerism, tempered by fashion and fear. Today, each attempted to hold their clothing and their overly expensive accessories in their practiced ways, but their true state showed in their stilted movements, the nervous glances toward his dais, and in the faintly hysterical edge to their voices as they murmured to one another. His Court had always been noted for flamboyance of dress, but fewer and fewer of his courtiers were taking the time and care needed for truly opulent displays, which showed more clearly than any other outward signs that their minds and energies were directed elsewhere. They were afraid, and people who were afraid did not concern themselves with inventing a new fashion or impressing an enemy with their wealth.

Below the dais, people milled in the patterns dictated by rank and custom, but he was acutely aware of the holes in the patterns. The Court itself held little more than half the usual number of attendees. How could it be otherwise? Those who could leave for their estates already had, despite the fact that the Season was well underway.

This was wildly contrary to custom; no one who pretended to power or importance left the Court in winter. Summer was the time when the highborn of the Empire retired to their estates, not winter. Winter, that time of the year when snow and ice barricaded the isolated estates, one from the other, was the time to take one's place at Court and engage in revelry and endless intrigue, while one's underlings dealt with the tedium of estate caretaking, and become immersed in the round of social intercourse known as the Season. Those with youngsters to marry off brought them here to display them to the parents of other youngsters or potential older spouses. Those who wanted power jockeyed for position; those who had it campaigned to keep it. Those who pursued pleasure came here to pursue it. Only the impossibly dull, preoccupied, or solitary remained in their homes during the Season.

But not this winter.

When the first of the mage-storms had come sweeping out of nowhere across the Empire, disrupting or destroying all the magic in its path except that which was heavily shielded, the Emperor had been angry, but not seriously alarmed. Such a powerful work of magic could not have been easy to create, and he had not expected that the senders would be able to repeat it at any time soon. Granted, it had taken down every one of the Portals that were the fundamental means of long-range transportation across the Empire, but it had been possible to set them back up again in a relatively short period of time. The Storm had caused inconvenience, but no more. He had never had any doubt that the mages of the Empire would restore conditions to normal, and then he would deliver a punishment to the fools who sent such a thing. This punishment would send terror not only through their ranks, but into the hearts of anyone else even peripherally involved.

But then, without any warning, the second Storm had passed over the face of the Empire. That had been impossible, by the rules of all magic as he knew it. And then came a third. And after that Storm had passed, still more, and the intervals between them kept decreasing, even as the magnitude of the damage that each wrought increased.

The courtiers might not have been aware of the damage that was being done in the Empire as a whole, but they were certainly aware of the impact on their own lives. Mage-fires heating their rooms and baths no longer functioned. Mage-lights vanished, and had to be replaced by inferior candles and lanterns, normally only used by laborers to light their hovels. Meals, even in Crag Castle were often late, and frequently cold. One could no longer commandeer a Portal to bring something from one's home Estate. There were servants enough that discomforts were rectified to a certain extent—but not entirely. Those in the Court that had no truly pressing need to be here, and who had the intelligence to see what might happen if conditions continued to deteriorate, found reasons and the means to get home.

By now it was next to impossible to maintain anything of a magical nature without exhaustive work on shields, and every time another Storm-wave passed, those shields were so eroded that they required intensive repair. Transportation within the Empire was at a standstill, and communication sporadic at best. Physical constructions such as buildings and bridges that had incorporated static magics into their construction had crumbled. Every structural disaster created more disruption and fear, and sometimes involved great loss of life. Nor was that the only physical effect of the Storm-waves; great pieces of land had been changed out of all recognition, and bizarre monsters were appearing as if conjured out of the air itself. Migrating birds had altered their patterns, or flew entirely lost. Wide-leafed plants as tall as men, stinging to the touch, grew inexplicably from stonework and soil alike, and all over the capital and nearby provinces, vines strangled horses in the night. Carcasses of creatures that looked like nothing of this world were brought in as proof that these Storms were only making their world stranger and more horrifying with each passing day.

By this time anyone who stood the slightest chance of reaching his or her Estate by purely physical means had left the Court. At home, a courtier would at least have reasonable foodstocks at hand, and many had Estates that relied on old fashioned, nonmagical, purely physical sources of heat, light, and sanitation. One irony was that the poorer and less pretentious of the courtiers, who had not had the spare means to spend on magical amenities in their estates, were now the least uncomfortable of their peers. As perilous as life on the Estates could become now, with monstrous creatures attacking without warning or provocation, the wise and forethinking knew it was not only possible, but probable, that life in the capital would become far more dangerous. How long before food riots set the disaffected against the wealthy?

Charliss gazed upon his courtiers through narrowed eyes, and his normally inscrutable face betrayed some of his annoyance. He wondered if these who were left realized just how perilous life here could become. There were a remarkable number of very foolish people here now; people he had heard saying some amazingly silly things. "I come here to the Season at Court to forget the world outside these walls," one woman had said testily in his hearing. "I don't care to hear anything about it while the Season is on; I have more important things to think about—I have balls to attend and five marriageable daughters to dispose of!"

But the world outside the walls of Crag Castle was vanishing, even as that woman danced and displayed her offspring, and no amount of willful ignorance was going to change that. Already those outlying provinces of the Empire that had but lately come under the rule of the Iron Throne had revolted, regaining their independence. Charliss did not know, in most cases, what had become of the imperial forces that had been stationed there. Some few had made their way back to lands that were still within Imperial sway, but others had vanished into the silence. Perhaps they had revolted along with those they were supposed to rule; but more likely they had been slaughtered, or had merely surrendered and were now prisoners. He did not know, nor did anyone else. Reluctantly, he was forced to admit to himself in recent days that his Empire, powerful and vast, had one particular fatal flaw. It was entirely optimized toward controlling any and all threats from inside itself—from riots to political intrigue—to civil war—but was pathetically unprepared for outside disrupting influences such as these Storms.

Within the Empire itself, with transportation reduced to the primitive level of horse and cart, matters were degenerating much faster than he could prop them up. Food was the most critical item, usually imported into the cities all winter long from the Estates that supplied it, foodstuffs were running short as even Imperial storehouses were emptied. Food was getting into the cities, brought by individual farmers or carters a sledgeload at a time, but there were not only distances to consider, but the dreadful winter storms as well. Prices for perishable items were trebling weekly, with the cost of staples following suit, though more slowly since he had ordered Imperial stockpiles to be put on the market to stabilize prices. In some cities food riots had already broken out, and he had ordered the Imperial troops to move in to quell the unrest by whatever means necessary.

At least on the Estates, which were used to supporting themselves. there was plenty of food in storage, and most nobles had their own personal forces to maintain order. There would be more cooperation than competition among their dependents and underlings, if a lord or lady was a wise governor of his or her property. If not, well, they would get what was coming to them.

There had already been extensive rioting in those cities where major public aqueducts, maintained by magic, had collapsed, leaving the entire city with no source of fresh water. He had been able to repress news of those riots, but he was not certain just how long he would be able to repress news of food riots if they became widespread. Somehow, when news was bad, it always managed to spread no matter how difficult the circumstances.

It was not the weight of the Wolf Crown pressing down on his brow that made his head ache, it was the weight of the misfortune.

Why am I the Emperor upon whom all this is visited? Why could it not have waited for my successor?

One bizarre effect of these disasters on the citizens of the Empire—as if there were not enough bizarre effects already—was that strange religious cults were springing up all over what was left of the Empire. It seemed as if every city had its own pet prophet, most of them predicting the end of the world—or at least of the world as the citizens of the Empire had known it. Every cult had its own peculiar rites and proposed every possible variation on human behavior as the "only" means of salvation. Some preached complete asceticism, some complete license. Some advocated a single deity, some attributed spirits to every object and natural phenomena, living or not.

Some sent the most devoted out to sacrifice themselves to marauding monsters in the hopes of appeasing whatever had sent those monsters—but of course nothing was ever appeased but the appetite of the particular monster, and that was only a temporary condition. Needless to say, those cults did not long survive, for either their followers grew quickly disillusioned and abandoned their leaders, or they grew quickly angry and fed their leaders to those same monsters.

The cults neither worried nor really concerned Charliss, even though many of them had recruited untaught or illtaught mages, and were raising impressive, though shortlived, power. He left it to his own corps of mages to deal with that power or drain it. He left the day-to-day emergencies in the hands of his underlings, mostly from the military. He had more personal concerns; most of his attention these days was taken up with his own well-being, even his own survival, both of which were in great jeopardy. He had depended on reliable and consistent magic to maintain those spells keeping him alive and healthy after two centuries of life, and magic was neither reliable nor consistent anymore.

He could die before he was ready, and he had come chillingly close to it more than once. That, above all, was something he wanted no one to learn.

Many of his courtiers were mages, and he wondered how tempting it would be for one of them to take advantage of his precarious situation. He was under no illusions about the ultimate loyalty of his courtiers; he had once been one of them, and like them, his ultimate loyalty had been only to himself. There were two sorts of folk out there in the Great Hall now; those who were still here because they were fools, and those who were still here because they saw opportunities. The latter were drastically more dangerous than the former, and he never forgot that.

He had been able to keep his own existence from being eroded by keeping the heaviest of shields upon himself, but he required an increasing number of lesser mages to do that, and he lost more ground every time another wave of Storms passed. Not even his corps of mages knew just how delicately his life was hanging in the balance.

At the moment, he had managed to keep the fact that there was even the slightest thing wrong with him a secret. His courtiers did not seem to notice any difference in his appearance, but it was only a matter of time before some sharp-eyed individual—or one with a good network of informants—learned that all was not well with the Emperor by assembling all of the small hints into one concise answer. The moment that happened, the panic in the cities would be replicated in miniature in the Court, unless Charliss could quickly exert total control over every courtier here. How could he do that, when every spare iota of time and energy was spent bolstering his failing reserves? He felt events slipping like sand between his fingers, and his very helplessness raised a rage in him that was as powerful as it was futile.

My Empire is disintegrating beneath me. Soon I may not have an Empire; I may consider myself fortunate to still retain a Kingdom—or a city—or my life.

But he did not despair. Despair was an emotion for weaklings and failures, with no place in the heart of the one who wore the Wolf Crown. Anger, a cold fire in his belly, rose in him until he felt he had to find a direction for it or burn away.

The realization of how his anger should be channeled rolled in and struck like a thunderbolt in his mind. He knew precisely where to place the blame for this situation, and his anger pointed like a poisoned arrow into the West and the home of his enemy.

Valdemar.

There could be only one source for his troubles, for the mage-storms and all they had wrought. Nothing like this had ever happened before he sent Tremane to finish taking Hardorn and consider taking the Kingdom of Valdemar which lay beyond Hardorn. Valdemar did not have magic as the Empire knew it, and yet they had defended themselves successfully against all of Ancar's magical attacks. The rulers of Valdemar had prevented his own agents from penetrating its borders for decades with great success; only a handful had obtained any intelligence, only three informants had ever gotten into the Court itself. Two of the three had not been mages, which had seriously hampered their effectiveness, and the third had been forced to forgo magic while she remained within the borders, which had the same effect. Valdemar had allied itself with foreigners as weird as any of the monsters currently springing up everywhere—with the grim Shin'a'in and the alien Hawkbrothers, with the monotheistic fanatics of Karse. Valdemar would be the only power to have come up with so completely unpredictable a weapon. The fact that—at least at last report—Valdemar and her Allies were not suffering the effects of the Storms only confirmed his "revelation." Surely only the people who had sent out such an encompassing weapon would know how to defend against it affecting them as well.

Besides, Valdemar had murdered his agents and envoys. That, he had personal proof of, for they had fallen through the Portal from Hardorn with daggers bearing the Royal Seal on the pommel-nuts. His advisers differed in their opinions on whether or not this had represented a deliberate provocation, an act of war, or simply a challenge, but there was no difference of opinion on whose hand had done the deed. It had to be someone actually in the Royal Household, either the Heir or the personal agent of the Queen, not just any provocateur or Herald.

Tremane, parked on the. very doorstep of Valdemar, had agreed with that assessment, but the measures that he had taken to disrupt the Alliance had gone seriously amiss.

Or had they?

It could be that he had never taken those measures at all, that he had concocted the story of his tame assassin out of whole cloth. Had he been planning to defect to the Valdemaran Alliance all along, in the hope that they would give him a Kingdom, when he saw that he could not win the war with the Hardornen rebels?

That would make very good sense, considering that Charliss had made the promise of the position of Imperial Heir contingent on whether or not Tremane won Hardorn—the whole of Hardorn—for the Empire.

Given the choice between coming home in disgrace—barely retaining his own Duchy—and winning himself a Kingdom, it could have been an easy decision.

All this was speculation, of course, but Charliss did have certain facts to guide him. Without question, Tremane had revolted, looting an Imperial supply depot, declaring to his men that the Empire had deserted them, and making common cause with the Hardornens he had been sent to subdue. Chances were that the Valdemarans had persuaded him, perhaps had even given him the idea to revolt in the first place. Tremane had been the best choice Charliss had from among those to whom he had offered the opportunity to earn the Heir's Coronet. Tremane was no fool, but nothing in his makeup had given Charliss the impression that he could be induced to revolt. He was intelligent, but not particularly imaginative. Yet one agent who had made his way across country against impossible odds had painted a very clear picture of Grand Duke Tremane's traitorous words and deeds.

That betrayal was as bitter as any experience in Charliss' long life and reign, and it would not go unpunished. It was a pity that Tremane had left no potential hostage in the form of a wife or child at Court, and that his Estate was so far away on the borders of the Empire that reaching it to despoil it was about as practical as going after Tremane himself. Of course, Charliss could and would assign it to someone else, but that was an empty gesture, and both he and the recipient would be well aware of that. No one would be able to get there until late spring at best, and if the Empire continued to fall apart, they might as well not try.

Still, a gesture would have to be made, hollow or not. These people below him, fools though they were, would have to be shown once again that he was the Emperor, and he was not to be trifled with.

He signaled to his majordomo, who rapped his staff three times on the marble of the floor to gain the Court's attention. Nothing disturbed the icy tranquillity of the majordomo's demeanor; men had been cut down by the imperial Guards at his very feet and he had not turned a hair. Arrayed in a splendor of purple velvet and gold bullion embroidery, and bearing the wolf-headed Imperial Staff which stood taller than he was, no mage-made homunculus or clockwork manikin could have been more controlled than he.

So completely did his office subsume him that Charliss did not even know his name.

Silence fell immediately with the first rap, so that the next two echoed down the hall with the impact of Death himself rapping on a door. All eyes turned at once to the Iron Throne, and Charliss stood up to face them all, his heavy robes dragging at his shoulders. He braced his calves against the Throne, grateful for the invisible support.

He could have had the majordomo make the announcements, but that would lessen the impact, and it might give the impression that he was no longer vigorous. He could not have that, especially not now. He must appear to be as powerful now as the day he took the Throne.

His voice echoed portentously out over the crowd of courtiers, amplified and rendered more imposing by clever acoustical design around the dais. "Intelligence has reached Our ears that gravely grieves and angers Us," he said sternly into the silence. "We have received news from an unimpeachable source that Tremane, Grand Duke of Lynnai, has turned traitor to the Empire, to his vows, and to Us."

The gasps of surprise that rippled through the Court were not feigned, and only confirmed Charliss' impression that those courtiers still remaining were for the most part not among his brightest and best. He scanned for a few particular faces, men and a few women who were numbered among his advisers—and there was no surprise or shock registering there.

Good. It's agreeable to know that I haven't chosen any complete idiots.

"There can be no doubt of his intent or his thoughts," Charliss continued, as the gasps and murmurs died down again. "He has orchestrated the looting of an Imperial storage depot for his own profit, including the contents of the exchequer there, monies intended to pay the faithful soldiers of the Empire their just and well-earned stipends."

He cast a glance at the stiff figures lining the walls. Ah, my own guards are looking black at that one. Good. Word will spread through the rest of the Army, and may the Hundred Little Gods help him if he shows his face where a single Imperial soldier can find him. Of all the truths in the Empire guaranteed to preserve life, limb, and prosperity, this was the truest: Pay the Army, pay it well, and pay it on time.

Charliss permitted a touch of his anger to show on his face and in his voice. "He has declared his allegiance to the Empire at an end, and has subverted his troops, entrusted to him, to renounce their oaths as well. He has broken off hostilities with the rebels of Hardorn, has entered into unlawful and traitorous alliance with them, and is acting in all ways to have set himself up as King of that benighted land."

Shaking heads and avid looks told him that every one of the power seekers still gathered here was hoping for profit from Tremane's downfall. Well, in the void left when a great tree fell, little trees could climb to reach the sun. Even in these strange days, that might still come to pass.

Now, however, was the time to alert these idiots to their danger. "Worst of all, he has entered into alliance with the vile and duplicitous monarch of Valdemar, which nation has sent unprovoked assaults by magic lately against this, our peaceful Empire." He paused for a breath, steadying himself against the Throne under cover of his robes. That last was only supposition, but even those with intelligence networks the near-equal of his could not be certain of that, and really, would not care. Tremane had no friends here; those who had been nominally his allies would be scrambling for new men to attach themselves and their fortunes to. And proving that the current misfortunes had a recognizable origin might consolidate some of these idiots into a cohesive whole. There was nothing quite like a common enemy to make a force out of disparate and bickering parties.

Now to show them that the old lion had teeth. He put on his most dreadful look, the one that left even hardened guards with trembling hands and quaking knees, and made his next words thunder out like the pronouncement of some barbarian god. "We therefore declare Tremane of Lynnai a traitor, his title and lands forfeit, and his name anathema! We pronounce upon him the sentence of death, to be executed by any that have the means and opportunity! Let no loyal citizen of the Empire aid him, on pain of that same sentence; let his name be stricken from the rolls of his family, and let the House of Lynnai die with his father! Let his name be chiseled from monuments of battle, be erased from the records of the Empire, and let it be as if he never was born!"

That was the harshest sentence possible to pronounce within the Empire, and no few faces below him turned pale. For most of these people, this erasure was worse than a sentence of execution, for it extended Tremane's punishment into the Hereafter. If and when Tremane did die, he would have no immortality, for without some record on earth of who and what he had been, his soul would vanish at the moment of his death, or would wander aimlessly in the cheerless, empty limbo between earth and the afterlife, without any knowledge of who it had once been...

Or so it was believed. When a citizen of the Empire believed anything. he believed in the immortality of records; when he worshiped anything, he always included his ancestors. To remove someone from his rightful place among his ancestors was to remove a piece of the very cosmos.

Charliss smiled grimly. Now they know I haven't gone soft, just because I was prepared to name a possible Heir.

He allowed his expression to soften. "We know that this has come as a great shock to all Our loyal subjects, the more especially as the Nameless One had been put forth as the potential Heir to the Imperial Crown. Such a betrayal harms you as well as Us, by threatening the security of the Empire. We would not see Our children distressed by the taint of betrayal mingled with uncertainty. Therefore, We now do name Our successor, and bestow on him all those lands, goods, and titles that were once the property of the Nameless One."

The looks of greed and avidity were back—though only briefly, and quickly controlled. At this moment, no one knew who Charliss was going to name, least of all the recipient. Once Tremane had been designated, Charliss had taken pains to show no partiality to anyone else; he had wanted to give Tremane as fair a playing field as possible in a Court as filled with intrigue as this one. And besides, by not showing favor to any one person. he had virtually opened up the field—if Tremane failed to conquer Hardorn—to anyone. The scrambling and jockeying had been most amusing when he'd had the leisure to take note of it. Every one of his advisers had the potential to be named Heir as far as anyone knew, and several of his mages as well. Those who thought themselves in the running were moving up through the crowd, almost without realizing that they were doing so, attempting to place themselves nearer the Throne, where he could see them better.

But his thoughts were wandering, the suspense was about to send one or two out there into a fit of apoplexy.

He had to end the suspense, although there would be several who were shocked or affronted at his choice. Nevertheless, Melles had been his second choice before he sent Tremane off to conquer Hardorn, and Melles had remained in that position all along. "We therefore do name as successor and Heir, the most worthy and knowledgeable adviser and most loyal servant of the Empire, Court Baron Melles."

He had just named Tremane's most fervent and implacable enemy. And if anyone was going to put in the astounding effort it would take merely to attempt to execute the Imperial death sentence on Tremane, it would be Melles. There was real hatred between the two of them, a hatred more powerful than Charliss had witnessed in a very long time. There was not much room for hatred in the Imperial Court; it was better to keep emotions superficial, for today's enemy might be tomorrow's ally.

Melles had been standing just to one side of the dais, visible, but unobtrusive, as was his normal habit. He was a slightly better-looking version of Tremane in some ways; thinner and not as muscular, with none of the physical attributes of a fighter. He was not balding; his hair was darker, and he was two or three years Tremane's junior. Otherwise, though, they could have been cut from the same cloth and sewn by the same tailor. Both of them had cultivated the art of being ignored and overlooked, though Charliss suspected that their motives for this differed greatly. He knew what Melles' motives were; now, in retrospect, he could guess at Tremane's.

Melles was not a hereditary noble like Tremane; he was a Court Baron, a man with a title but no lands, as his father had been before him. Melles' wealth came from trade, as did the wealth of most of the Court nobles, although the commodity that Melles bought and sold was quite unlike that of his livestock-brokering father. It was no secret that an ambitious tradesman with enough ready cash could buy a Court title for himself, and with further applications of his wealth could arrange for the title to be inherited by his son. There was no shame in this—though many of the Court nobles were extraordinarily touchy about their titles, and many of the landed gentry made no secret of the fact that they considered the Court nobles to be purest upstarts. There was some friction between the two factions, although it was quite astonishing how quickly that friction vanished when a family with title but no fortune was presented with the heir or heiress to a fortune with no title as a matrimonial prospect.

Was that how the enmity had begun between Tremane and Melles? Had Tremane, or Tremane's father, snubbed Melles or Melles' father? It seemed unlikely that such hatred could spring from so trifling a cause. Oddly enough, Charliss could not imagine Tremane being rude to anyone, not even to someone he held in contempt. Tremane had always been too clever to make such enemies casually.

Well, it didn't really matter now. whatever the cause, it served the Emperor's ends.

Barron—now Grand Duke—Melles moved forward out of the knot of courtiers at the very foot of the steps leading to the dais. He stood alone for a moment, then walked with solemn deliberation up the three steps permitted to one of his new title, bowing his head and going to his knee at the fourth. Charliss motioned to the guard at his right to bring up the coronet of the Heir from the niche at the side of the dais where it had resided since Charliss himself had resigned it to put on the Wolf Crown.

Although the acts of this ceremony appeared spontaneous, it was anything but. It was another dance, the steps dictated by the custom of ages past, every move choreographed centuries ago. Only the participants in the dance changed, never the steps themselves.

Even the guard who brought the coronet to Melles had rehearsed just this action a thousand times, even though there was no telling which guard would be directed to retrieve the circlet, nor who it would be given to. It was simply a part of an Imperial Guard's duty, rehearsed along with every other part.

The guard performed flawlessly, handing the circlet to Melles, who in accordance with tradition, solemnly crowned himself, just as he would crown himself with the Wolf Crown when Charliss died. Power and authority in the Empire came from within the man, and were not bestowed by the hands of priests, and in token of that, every Emperor and Heir bestowed the trappings of power upon himself.

Once crowned—not that the coronet was all that imposing, just an iron circlet in the shape of a sword, with a topaz matching those in the Wolf Crown set as the pommel-nut—Melles stood up, and bowed to his Emperor. Charliss surveyed him with satisfaction, thinking that he probably should have chosen Melles in the first place. Unlike Tremane, Melles was a powerful Adept who could, with a few decades of practice, be Charliss' equal in magic. Given that, and despite current conditions, it was just barely possible that Melles would contrive to bring back Tremane's head.

Charliss mentally resolved to resign on the spot if Melles managed to pull that one off. Not that he considered it likely, but such diligence would deserve a reward, and there wasn't much else Charliss would be able to give him.

And if he can do that, he'll be strong enough to take the Wolf Crown from me. It would be better to resign it with grace, and concentrate on keeping myself alive.

No matter how powerfully his enemies among the courtiers would gladly have plunged daggers into Melles' heart at that moment, not one of them would betray himself. "Go and take your well-deserved congratulations from Our Court," Charliss directed with cool approval. "We will discuss your new duties and privileges later."

Melles bowed, and backed down the steps. There was no throne for the Heir, nor any special place for him at Court ceremonies. Emperors of the past had not deemed it necessary or advisable to give their Heirs too much power or the appearance of it lest they acquire an addiction to it and crave more. As Melles turned at the foot of the steps to face those thronging to greet him, Charliss decided that the Emperors of the past had been very wise. Melles could certainly be one of those who would crave more than his just due.

Charliss decided to keep him on a short leash, as he watched the dance of power begin swirling about this new center.

One Tremane was enough, after all.

Melles had often thought, of late, that there had been so many upheavals that there was nothing that could evoke the feeling of surprise in him anymore. And although his intelligence network was extraordinary—in fact, it had been one of his spies who had brought word of Tremane's defection back to Crag Castle—he really had not expected to be named Charliss' Heir.

According to his own calculations, he wasn't the logical candidate, even though there were personal considerations involved. Since the onset of the mage-storms and the consequent disasters spread over the entire Empire, it had seemed to him that the Emperor would have to name someone who had absolutely no enemies at Court whatsoever. Whoever came after Charliss would have to cope with a much-reduced Empire, revolt everywhere, a possibly hostile Army; he would have to somehow convince the worst of enemies to act together and forge alliances until the Empire was stable again. Melles had far too many enemies who would rather die than work with him in any way; Tremane was not the only one, nor was he even the most deadly. Melles was a man who made enemies far more easily than allies. On the whole, he preferred enemies, for it was much easier to manipulate them than allies, and there was never the risk of disillusion when they realized they had been manipulated.

Friends were quite out of the question; a friend was a potential hole in one's armor, and he had not permitted himself such a weakness since he became a man. Then there was the matter of his position and duties under Charliss, which did not endear him to anyone. He could not think of a single person who liked him in the entire Court. Many feared him, some admired him grudgingly, others tolerated him as a necessary evil, but no one liked him.

But there they all were, flocking to fawn on him as if they couldn't wait to become his best friend. Some of them, in fact, might very well have plans in that direction, foolish as such plans might be. He was, after all, surrounded by fools; they wouldn't be here now if they weren't.

He smiled and accepted their congratulations with an expression that suggested that he would be eager to become their best friend. Why not? Even fools had their uses, and just like the Emperor who had bestowed his new title, he had never been the kind who threw away a potential tool.

The men thronged about him first, jostling one another in their eagerness to say something that he might remember later, reminding him of past favors they had done for him, offering favors for the future. It was quite astonishing, the sort of things they considered to be "favors;" he could not for a moment imagine why anyone could think that invitations to incredibly boring social gatherings featuring meaningless entertainments would ever be sought after.

And the women! They were worse than the men! If they were unmarried, they were pressing about him with looks and poses that were just short of open invitations to do as he pleased with them. If they were anything other than blissfully, happily married (and there were damned few of those at Court, especially now!) they were behaving the same. If they had daughters of anything resembling marriageable age—and plenty of these women had very liberal ideas about what constituted "marriageable age"—they were alluding to their daughters' admiration of him, and dangling invitations on their behalf.

As if any of them had the faintest notion who I am or what I look like—

No, that was unfair, Not all of these people were here because they were blind idiots who wouldn't have their Season spoiled by a few petty disasters. Some were here because they couldn't get back to their Estates, others because of their positions as Imperial Advisers, and some because they had no Estates. There were young girls—and not so young girls—who knew very well who he was and what he looked like, as they knew the identities, properties, and titles of every unwedded man expected to be at Court this Season. That was part of their duty, as they and their parents went about the serious business of husband hunting. He might not have been very high on their list of desirable matches until now, but they knew who he was.

And if he made an appearance at a private party, a musical evening, or other entertainment, each of them would proceed with grim determination to try to convince him that nothing would make him happier than to take her as his lawfully wedded soon-to-be-Empress.

That no less than an hour ago most if not all of these maidens would have cheerfully confessed that the idea of wedding him made them ill was of no consequence now.

Look how these same women throw themselves at Charliss the old mummy! It isn't his handsome face that makes them act like shameless cows in season around him. Furthermore, Melles was well aware that if he had evidenced any preference for young men he would still be under siege from these women and their parents. After all, he would still be expected to try to produce an Heir of his body. The fact that only about half of the Emperors of the past had been the physical offspring of their predecessor didn't matter, he would still be expected to try.

And if some of what I've read in the private Archives is true, some of them went to some fascinating extremes in trying...

Well, that didn't matter either. He wasn't a lover of men or boys, and not of little girls either. But he would wait until he wore the Iron Crown himself before he took a wife, and when he did, his first choice would be an orphan with no living family left whatsoever, just for spite!

"Yes, of course," he murmured to one of the women—after being certain that he was not agreeing to anything of importance. It would be a grand joke on all of them if he selected his bride from among the common citizens. It would certainly be easy to find an attractive orphan there!

He whispered an aside to one of the other advisers, a man who had been a disinterested ally in the past. This is all going to my head. There will be time to think about women later, now is the time to concentrate on consolidating my base of power, and determining what can best be done to get the Empire through this crisis.

Pleasures of all sorts would have to wait until the Empire was stable. Perhaps sometime in the future there might even be an opportunity to execute the Emperor's sentence of death on Tremane. But that time was not now, and he would wait for it to come to him. Hatred was an emotion that brought him a great deal of energy and entertainment, and he enjoyed it.

It was not for nothing that his enemies often compared him to a spider sitting in the middle of a web. If there was one virtue he possessed, it was patience, for patience was the only virtue that eventually brought rewards.

Now that the dance of courtiers and Court was over and the business of the Empire had been disposed of in Council, Melles got his private audience with the Emperor. Private? Well, not precisely; the Emperor was never alone. But no one of any pretense to wealth or rank in the Empire ever really noticed servants or bodyguards—

Unless, of course, that person was Melles, or someone like him. To the Emperor, without a doubt, they were invisible. To Melles they were possible spies.

The subject of conversation, as befitting the position and duties of the new Heir, was the state of the Empire. Melles was not particularly surprised to discover that Charliss had less information on this subject than he did. The Emperor had not been concerned with the day-to-day workings of his Empire for decades; he had been able to leave that to his underlings.

In Melles' opinion, he no longer had that luxury. "My Lord Emperor," Melles said patiently. "It seems to me that you have been insufficiently acquainted with the desires and needs of the common man."

They compare me to a spider in its web, Melles thought dispassionately, as he watched the old man glare at him over the expanse of a highly-polished black marble table. They should see him when he is not playing his role. He looks like an ancient turtle deciding whether or not to stick his nose a fraction more outside his shell.

Inside the sheltering back and arms of the Emperor's thronelike chair, that was precisely what Charliss resembled. And, like the turtle, Melles suspected that the Emperor really did want to pull himself back into his shell entirely.

He did not seem disposed to learn, or deal with, the basic changes in the Empire, and that fit with Melles' plans. So what I need to do is to persuade him that not only is that a good idea for him, but also that he can trust power in my hands. Melles already had a great deal of power; he had been in charge of dealing out whatever punishments the Emperor deemed necessary for many years now. Not quite an Executioner, and considerably higher in status than a mere lawkeeper, when something unfortunate occurred to a member of the Court and the Emperor took special notice of it, everyone knew whose hand had been behind seeming accidents or twists of fate. Melles' value to the Emperor lay in making certain that it was impossible to prove anything when such accidents occurred.

The "accidents" weren't always supposed to be fatal, or at least not fatal to the physical body. Sometimes ruin suited the Emperor better than death, whether it be the ruin of a reputation or of a fortune. A ploy that Melles particularly favored was to contrive romantic liaisons that were entirely disastrous; it was amazing what people would do to prevent their follies from becoming widely known when that folly involved sexual favors, infatuation, or a combination of the two.

"Just what exactly do you mean by that?" the Emperor asked querulously.

Melles spread his hands wide. "I mean, Lord Emperor, that the common man is an extremely simple creature. You are thinking of him now in terms of the mob, which is a being with many arms and legs and no head, and as a consequence behaves in ways no rational man can predict. I am thinking of him as he is before he devolves to that mindless, intractable state." He tilted his head to one side; that had been a much longer speech than he usually gave to the Emperor, and he had learned to make certain that the Emperor always had openings in which to insert his own comments.

"So what is the so-called common man, when he isn't in a mob?" the Emperor mocked.

Melles was not about to let his own mask of serenity slip. Such mockery was as much a test as Tremane's assignment had been.

And I am not likely to be lulled by the illusion that I am the Emperor's only executioner. If he perceives me as a failure, I will not live long enough to rebel.

He inclined his head a little; not quite a bow, but enough to acknowledge his subservience even as he "corrected" the Emperor's ignorance. "As I said, Serenity, he is simple. What he needs—desires—those things are just as simple. First of all, he wants the roof over his head to be sound and the food on his plate to be abundant. He wants that food to arrive every day. He wants to be left alone to pursue his work and the pleasures of his bed, home, and table. If you give him these things, he is not inclined to argue overmuch about the means required to deliver them. If he is deprived of them, he is likely to welcome whatever measures are taken to restore them." He raised a single finger to emphasize his next point. "Most, if not all, of your common citizens have been so deprived, and see only a steady decline in the quality of their lives, but if measures could be taken that will restore many of their comforts, those things they consider so important to their lives...."

"I see your point," the Emperor replied, with no more mockery in his voice. He sat in silence, only the movement of his eyes betraying his alertness. He could have been a grotesque statue, if not for those glittering eyes. The Emperor did not fidget, did not visibly shift his weight in his chair, or perform any of the other tiny, unconscious movements of lesser beings. Partly it was a matter of training, for such utter stillness enhanced his image of supernatural power; partly, or so Melles suspected, it was simple good sense, to conserve his waning energy and resources.

Finally, the Emperor spoke, his voice low, deep, and grating. "You want me to give you the authority to order whatsoever you think is necessary to restore order at the level of the streets."

Melles nodded, very slowly, as those powerful eyes, blazing with the deadly life of a finely-honed blade, pinned him to his seat. He could not, dared not, return that glare. He was not here to challenge the Emperor, he was here to get the old man to share out some of his power. But he also wouldn't get anywhere if he didn't admit what he wanted. It was an interesting observation by one of his tutors that there were only three classes of people who could afford to speak the unvarnished truth—the very bottom, the very topmost, and children. The lowest classes could afford it because they had nothing to lose, the highest because there was no one who could call them to account for it, and children because they held no power and hence were no threat. Melles had never forgotten that observation, nor did he forget the implications of it. The Emperor could speak pure truth; Melles could not. When the Emperor asked a direct question, Melles had better be careful how much of the truth he told.

But there was another factor here. At the best of times, when the Emperor had been in his prime, he hadn't had time enough for everything. No great ruler did; that was why they had underlings and delegated their authority to those they thought could be trusted with it. Now, the Emperor was old, his powers waning, and he had the very personal and pressing matter of preserving what was left of his life to concentrate on.

The real question, the one Melles had no answer to as yet, was just how close to the end the Emperor was. That would tell him how reluctant Charliss would be to give up power to his Heir. Would he clutch his powers and possessions to him, or release them to clutch at life itself?

Those sharp, chill eyes measured him, and missed nothing in the process. "Very well." The voice was as cold as the eyes. "Have the orders written, and I will sign and seal them, granting you authority over city guards, militias, and authorizing you to make use of the Army in quelling local disturbances. That will be enough to see if you have the insight into the common man that you claim." A thin, humorless smile stretched the Emperor's lips. "If you succeed, I shall consider granting you more."

He waved a hand at the Emperor, in mute disavowal of wanting any other powers. "That will be sufficient, my Lord Emperor, I assure you. I wish only to restore order; without order, these seeds of chaos will spread to engulf us all."

Charliss only made a wheezing grunt full of cynical amusement. "I doubt that you intend to limit your grasp. But this is all you will get for the present. Go to the clerks and draw up the orders."

That was clear dismissal, and he took it as such. He stood, bowed with careful exactitude, and walked backward until he reached the door. The Emperor's eyes were on Melles every step of the way, and the slight smile on the Emperor's lips would have chilled the blood of a lesser man.

He reached behind him and opened the door without looking at it, backed through it, and closed it without taking his eyes off the Emperor. As the door closed, the Imperial eyes were still fixed on him, still measuring, still watching him for a hint of insubordination.

As the door shut with a decisive click, Melles let out his breath, slowly. That went better than I had any reason to hope. He's still sane; if he stays that way, I can handle him. He turned and stalked silently down the cold gray marble hallway with its high ceilings and austere decorations of captured weaponry from ages and wars long past. Like the room he had just left, the hallway was chilly enough to make him wish he had worn heavier clothing. Ostensibly, it was due to a failure in the enchantments of heating, but in fact it was deliberate, to discourage loitering. The hallway was meant to impress one who walked it with his own insignificance, and its acoustics underscored the message well.

Here, so near to the highest seats of Imperial government, the Audience Chamber, the Council Chamber, and the great Court Hall, one necessary adjunct to so much power was a highly-trained cadre of Imperial clerks to make decisions into orders. Nothing could function without written orders. Articles, commands, and doctrine, no matter how seemingly small, had no official life until they were quantified as documents. These pieces of paper were so vital to the working of the Empire, they were like water, food, or air to a soldier, and an official document would carry more power in its words than any courtier posturing and spouting similar verbiage.

And of course, there was such a group of vital clerks, a small army of them, ensconced in the one comfortable chamber on this floor, between the Court Hall and the Council Chamber.

An efficient Empire was one dependent on (though not run by) clerks, though they might not know it; their masters did, and always had, and took care to ensure the comfort of these all-important workers in the hive of Imperial rule. Large windows, screened against insects, let in cooling breezes during the heat of summer. And although the heating-spells had failed elsewhere in Crag Castle—legitimately—measures had always been in place in case of such a failure in the Clerks' Chamber. There were three great fireplaces on the wall shared with the Council Chamber, and two more on the one shared by the Court Hall, all of them burning merrily. Charcoal footwarmers sat under desks, and those all-important fingers kept warm and supple with metal handwarmers on each desk. Each clerk had his own oil lamp to read and write by, and there were pages assigned to this room only, to bring food and drink whenever called for.

Some—always among the "new" nobility who were not yet acquainted with the way things worked—grumbled at this treatment of "mere" clerks. What they were not aware of was that these clerks weren't "mere" anything, and most of them were higher in rank than the grumblers. Here the offspring of the noblest families in the Empire paid their service, even those intended eventually for the Army. They were accustomed to preferential and comfortable treatment, but that did not mean they did not earn it by their labors. There was never an hour when there were not at least six clerks on duty here, and there were twenty between dawn and dusk. Only the most skilled and most discreet served here, and their ability to remain closemouthed about what passed over their desks was legendary.

To open the heavily-guarded door and enter this haven of heat and light was a decided relief; Melles felt tight muscles relaxing under the influence of the gentle warmth. It was still early enough in the day that all twenty clerks were in attendance; Melles scanned the rows of desks, and went straight to the first unoccupied clerk he saw.

The young man he chose sat, like all the rest, at a large wooden desk with everything he required arranged neatly on top of it. A stack of rough draft paper, a smaller stack of Imperial Vellum, inkpots containing red and black ink, blotting paper, blotting sand, glass pens, and his handwarmer were all arranged in a pattern he found personally the most efficient. Off to one side was the book he had been reading, which he had immediately laid aside when Melles neared him. The only sign of individuality was a small egg-shaped carving of white jade in a motif of entwining fish.

The clerk himself was nondescript, unmemorable, as all of them were. They were taught how to be forgettable and self-effacing before they came to this duty. Here, they were a pair of hands and a brain full of specific skills, interchangeable with every other clerk in the room. Melles alone among his acquaintances had never taken a turn in this room, but that was because he had been serving Empire and Emperor by learning another set of skills entirely.

While the clerk made rapid notes, he dictated the orders; the clerk first made a rough copy, checking it word for word with him, then from the corrected rough, made a final copy on Imperial Vellum incorporating all the changes. Melles was being very careful in how he phrased these orders, giving himself precisely the amount of authority that the Emperor had specified and no more. Three more clerks were summoned to make copies at this point, for a total of five copies in all.

As yet, obviously, the orders were nothing more than paper. When he had finished, the clerk summoned a page from the group waiting and chattering on a bench beside the fire and sent him to the Emperor with the finished documents. The page would not walk down the corridor that Melles had just left; he would use a special passage between this room and the Emperor's chambers reserved only for the pages, so that he could not be stopped and questioned or detained.

Melles did not go with him; he was prohibited from doing so, nor would the Emperor's guards permit him to approach with documents to be signed in hand. This was to prevent him from somehow coercing the Emperor into signing and sealing them, or being tricked into doing so before he had read them. All these convoluted customs had their reasons.

At length, the page returned, and the glitter of the Imperial Seal on the uppermost document told Melles that all had gone well; the orders were approved with no changes. Had there been changes, the page would have returned with one copy, not five, which would have had the Emperor's revisions written on it. The rest, one of the Emperor's guards would have burned on the spot, so that the Seal could not have been counterfeited on them.

Melles accepted his copies with a bow of thanks, and left the room. The chill of the hallway struck him with a shock, despite being prepared for it, but he didn't hesitate for even a moment. Now his first priority was to get one copy of the orders into the hands of the Commander of the Imperial Army. The cooperation of the Army was needed before he attempted any of his ambitious plans.

He had been careful to phrase his orders in such a way that the Commander's authority was not being subsumed by his own. The last thing he wanted was to make an antagonist out of General Thayer. The General made a very bad enemy, one who never forgot and never forgave. The orders as he had dictated them gave him the authority to coopt regimental groups or smaller, depending on need, but only if they were not currently deployed on some other duty. If I can't quell a riot with less than a regiment, I won't quell it with anything larger. That's not a threat to Thayer, and it means I won't be countermanding any of his standing orders to the Army as a whole.

With luck, he wouldn't need to use Imperial soldiers very often, but luck had not been with anyone of late. He already knew that he would have to disperse at least one riot in each City by giving the soldiers orders to kill. It would be the first time in centuries that Imperial soldiers had been used against civilians, and it would come as a tremendous shock. He hoped that the shock would be great enough that he would not need to repeat the lesson. The loss of civilians meant loss of taxpaying workers, and at this point the Empire could not afford to lose much in the way of taxes.

The Imperial Commander had quarters here in Crag Castle, as every Emperor since the Third had preferred to have the Commander of his Armies where he could keep a watchful eye on him. The Third Emperor had originally been the Imperial Commander, and he had not approved of the Second Emperor's choice of Heir. He had taken matters into his own hands the moment that the Second Emperor was dead, and had decided not to give his own Imperial Commander the kind of opportunity that he had taken advantage of. The rest had followed his wise example.

As Melles moved down various corridors and staircases, he passed through narrow zones of warm air alternating with much more extensive zones of chill to positively frigid air. Since the denizens of Crag Castle were now relying on fireplaces and other primitive providers of warmth, heating was unreliable and often unpredictable. There would be illness in the Castle before the year turned to spring; illnesses of the kind more often associated with poorer folk.

The times are... interesting. And likely to become more so before the end.

The corridors themselves never varied in decor, only in size and height; they continued to be built of the same gray marble, and continued to feature only captured weaponry as decoration. Once Melles left the area of the Emperor's Quarters and the official chambers of government, the hallways he traversed became much narrower, and the ceilings dropped to a normal level, but that was the only way to tell that he was not within the quarters of the Emperor himself.

The Imperial Commander was one of the highest-ranking officials in the Council, so his chambers were correspondingly nearer to the Imperial Chambers. Only those of the Heir—which Melles' servants were currently engaged in arranging to suit him—were nearer. The Commander's personal bodyguards stood at attention to either side of the door, showing that the, great man himself was inside, as Melles had expected. Melles would shortly have a pair of those guards outside of his own chambers, now that he was the designated Heir. They were not just to protect the life of those they were assigned to, they were meant as protection for the Emperor. The Imperial Guards were an elite group, trained and spell-bound to the service of the Emperor. No force on earth could turn them against Charliss, and if either the Heir or the Imperial Commander proved troublesome, well... only the details of burial would prove troublesome once their guards were finished with them. It was possible to break the spells sealing them to the Emperor, and it was possible that the Storms themselves had already done so. The only way to be sure would be to approach them on the question of eliminating the Emperor, and if the spells were intact, that could be a fatal mistake.

Tremane had managed to leave his pair of Imperial Guards behind him when he went off to command the conquest of Hardorn, probably because the Emperor had not expected trouble from him away from Crag Castle. Perhaps, if Charliss had insisted that Tremane take along his watchdogs, things might have turned out differently.

Or perhaps not, except that the Guards would have solved our problem by dispatching Tremane for us, and I would still be Heir. There would still be mage-storms to contend with, the Empire would still be falling to pieces, and all else would be following much the same paths. The only change would be that they would have one less danger to worry about—Melles knew, as no one else in the Court did, that it was by no means certain that Tremane had allied himself with Valdemar. In point of fact, he hoped fervently that this was not the case. These mage-storms were bad enough, random and untargeted as they seemed to be; if the mages of Valdemar had at their disposal an expert, one who knew everything there was of any importance about the Empire, what would happen then? What if the Storms could be targeted accurately, to cause the most disruption and damage? If Tremane really were to ally himself with Valdemar, that might be what they would have to deal with.

As for what such a revelation would do to the Emperor—

When he was fit and not beset by so many problems, he would simply have been angry, gotten over it, and would dismiss his anger until someone brought him Tremane's head. Now, I cannot be sure, because it is possible that he, like the Empire, is disintegrating, and his sanity will crumble along with his physical body.

He nodded to the two guards, who saluted and stepped aside for him as he displayed the Imperial Seal on the documents he carried. He knocked once on the door, then opened it and stepped inside.

He entered an anteroom, lushly carpeted, with battle-banners on all of the walls, but holding only a monumental desk, three comfortable chairs, and a single servant dressed in a compromise between military uniform and private livery—who was obviously one of Thayer's secretaries.

"I have Imperial orders for the Commander," he told the bland individual behind the desk. "And if the Commander has time for me, I should like to discuss them with him."

Conciliate, be polite and humble. It costs nothing, and keeps the peace.

The secretary immediately rose to his feet, and held out his hand for the orders. "I will deliver the orders to him directly, High Lord Heir," he said smoothly. "Please take a seat. I believe I can assure you that the Commander will always have time to discuss matters of the Empire with you, for he left standing orders with me to admit you to his presence regardless of other circumstances."

As Melles suppressed his surprise, the secretary took the paper from his hand and exited quickly through the doorway behind his desk. Melles took a seat, examining the fingernails of his right hand minutely as a cover for his thoughts. He had been aware since he became a member of the Council that Thayer was an astute politician, but he had not known how astute. Most of the other advisers were still scrambling to decide how to handle Melles now that he was officially the Heir. That Thayer had left standing orders with his underlings to admit Melles at any and all times was an interesting development, and Melles wondered if it meant that the Commander was prepared to cooperate with the new Heir on all levels. If so, that would make Melles' tasks incalculably easier.

To have the Commander of the Imperial Army in my pocket... half the power of the Empire will be divided between us. And the rest, well, that can wait.

The secretary returned before Melles needed to find some other object to examine. "Please follow me, Great Lord," the young man said as he bowed deeply. "The Lord Commander is eager to speak with you without delay."

Melles rose to his feet and followed the secretary into the next room of the suite, this one very similar to the antechamber. The Commander had excellent taste; he had carpeted over most of the floor with one of the rich, plush rugs of the Biijal tribes of the Eastern Islands, some of the more attractive captured battle-banners hung on the walls, and there was a good fire going in the fireplace. Like the antechamber, this room held little in the way of furniture, just another monumental desk, several comfortable chairs, and two smaller tables. Oil lamps served for illumination in place of the mage-lights that would ordinarily have been here; with darkness falling, these had been lit and burned brightly.

General Thayer was waiting, the Imperial Orders in his hand, standing beside his desk rather than sitting behind it. In the silent protocols of the Empire, he was receiving Melles as an equal rather than Melles arriving as a supplicant. This was another good sign; Thayer was not going to challenge his authority at all.

The General could have taken his place in the ranks of his own forces; though his hair was as gray as granite, his body was as hard and tough as that stone. The very few fools who had challenged Thayer to single combat over one pretext or another had not survived the experience. Enemies and friends alike compared him to a wolf—enemies compared him to a ravening, insatiable hunter, friends to the powerful pack leader. Gray as a wolf he was, and his teeth and wits were just as keen.

That sharply chiseled face wore a friendly, welcoming expression today, however, and although Melles knew the General to be an astute politician, he also knew that Thayer was no good at all at hiding his feelings. As surely as his mind was a great asset, his face was a great handicap in the game of politics. To counter that handicap, Thayer made every attempt to play the game in writing and appeared in person only when policy permitted truth.

The General extended his free hand toward Melles with a smile as the secretary bowed himself out, and Melles took his hand with an answering smile.

"By the Hundred Little Gods, I was hoping you'd come to me first before any of the rest!" Thayer grated. A hilt-thrust to his throat as a young man had left him with a permanently marred voice. "Congratulations, Melles. The Emperor finally made a good choice. Tremane was a little too popular with his own men to make me entirely easy in my mind about him."

"Whereas I am so equally unpopular with everyone that you find me more acceptable as Heir?" Melles raised one eyebrow delicately, and Thayer barked a laugh.

"Let's just say that when the Commander discovers that one of his generals is popular, it makes him wonder why that general is cultivating popularity." Thayer bared his teeth in a smile as Melles nodded his understanding. "Sometimes it happens that popularity is an accident, but more often than not it's been deliberately sought. You, however—"

"I, who am known as 'Charliss' Executioner' need not trouble himself about such trifles as popularity." Melles softened the comment with a wry smile. "I would rather have respect than popularity."

Thayer answered that sally with a lifted brow of his own. "In that, as in other things, we are like-minded. The Emperor, may he reign long, is not the only one who needs to worry about underlings with ambition, and I am glad enough to see Tremane eliminated. So, about these orders—your idea?"

Melles nodded, carefully gauging Thayer's reactions before saying anything. He need not have been concerned; it was clear that Thayer could not have been more pleased had he dictated the orders himself.

"Damned good idea! Come sit down so we can talk about this in detail." The General waved him to one of the chairs beside the fireplace, and took another, tossing the orders onto the desktop but making no move to place himself behind the desk. Melles took his seat, and the General moved his own chair nearer to that of the Heir before sitting in it. "Damned good idea!" he repeated. "Declare martial law, and you'll have the cits up in arms and starting a revolt in the streets, but bring in the Army without actually calling it martial law, and they'll fall in line without a whimper if you can restore order." He coughed. "Give them back their easy lives, and they'll call you a god and not care how you managed it."

"My idea is to use the smallest number of soldiers that I can to crush disturbances absolutely," Melles said cautiously. "I don't want people to begin muttering that we've called out the Army on them; I believe that is one thing the citizens of the Empire won't tolerate. If you'll look at those orders, you'll see I've been given direct command of city guards, constables, and militia. The way I see it, if I use those forces in the front ranks, and only use the Army regulars to back them up and add strength to their line, I'll get the effect that I want without it looking as if the Army is taking over."

"Good. Sound strategy," Thayer confirmed. "Out in the provinces they expect the Army to put down trouble, but the cits think they're above all that. Put down the first riots efficiently, kill a few of the worst troublemakers, and I don't think you'll have any trouble reestablishing order. I was hoping someone would figure out that we're in for a spot of domestic trouble and would plan on dealing with it."

And of course he didn't dare suggest it himself. Charliss would see that as a direct threat to his own authority, and I would have been asked to find General Thayer a—retirement. Thayer knows it, too. He nodded, and leaned back in his chair, feeling much more confident with Thayer as an open ally. "It's not common knowledge, but there have already been small disturbances, and I expect larger ones as food runs short and hardships build up," he said easily. "If we're ready—and ruthless in suppressing the troubles to come—I think the citizens will accept what we do as a necessary evil."

"Yes, as we've said, find a way to get them their meals and peace and the cits will accept anything short of burning down the city," Thayer retorted with contempt. "Now, how exactly do you want me to help? You want a special regiment detached to go wherever it's needed, or—" Thayer paused, looking eager, but a bit reluctant to put forth his own ideas. "Well, I'm a military man, I don't have any experience in riot control, but—

"You have an idea of your own," Melles said, leaning forward with interest. "Please. I'd like to hear it."

"We've still got limited communication mage-to-mage with all the military bases, and you know there's at least one near every large city," Thayer told him. "Now, if I were to move a certain number of men, a company, say, into each city—if you were to get the militias and city guards and so on organized in the way you want beforehand—well, as soon as a riot started, your city militia would naturally go take care of it, and just as naturally the captain of the company would offer his help. Your militia captain would accept it, and why not, they're both in military brotherhoods, as it were. With the backing of the Army, I don't see any reason why we couldn't squash any riot. And technically, since I doubt every hothead in every city would take it into his head to riot on the same day, you wouldn't be exceeding the number of men you asked for." He grinned slyly. "You see, they'd only be under your command for the duration of the riot; after that, they'd come back under my authority."

Melles allowed himself a dry chuckle. General Thayer was obviously a past master at the fine art of manipulating loopholes, and his strategy was an application of the very orders that he had written that he himself had not considered.

But then, I didn't have any reason to suspect that Thayer would make quite such an eager ally.

"That, General, is a brilliant plan; quite perfect for all our purposes," he replied, allowing approval to creep into his voice. The General smiled, a smile with just as much steel in it as warmth.

"Good. We're agreed on it, then." Thayer nodded decisively. "Now, in return, I'd appreciate it if you could do something about some domestic orders for me—not exactly requisitions, more like assignments. It all still comes under the heading of restoring domestic order."

"I'll do what I can." Melles had expected this; trading favor for favor was the accepted way of doing business in Imperial politics. He wouldn't commit himself until he'd heard precisely what Thayer had in mind, but Thayer knew that already.

"Put the Army in charge of all intercity transportation of supplies." Thayer looked him straight in the eyes. "As it is, stuff's being moved inefficiently, what gets moved is random, and carters are getting fat no matter what. The Army's suffering, because we're having to pay through the nose, just like the cits are. Conscript the carters, take over the Cartage Guild, make 'em subject to Army discipline, and we'll cure what's causing some of your riots in short order. Every dog in the Empire knows what's going on, and they'll be happy to see the Cartage Guild get what's coming to them. The cits are as tired of the profiteering as I am."

And you and your officers will get fat on the profits, instead of the Cartage Guild. Melles saw right through that one, but Thayer was right about several things. Transportation was a hit-or-miss matter right now, and the profits that the carters were making were obscene. Putting the Army in charge would reduce profiteering to an acceptable level, and get transportation organized. And there had been unrest over the profiteering; at least one of the riots had destroyed a Cartage Guildhall and the buildings near it.

No, there will be no weeping if I conscript the carters, their beasts, and their vehicles.

The question was, could he get away with that assignment, as an interpretation of the orders that Charliss had just signed?

He unrolled one of his own copies and scanned it quickly, then looked up into Thayer's flat brown eyes. "I think this particular set of commands gives me that authority," he said, knowing that the Emperor wouldn't care so long as he could keep anyone from lodging complaints against it. And since Thayer was going to have pressing reasons to prevent complaints.... "When I send out copies of the original orders, I'll see to it that this particular amendment is added."

Thayer smiled with satisfaction. "I'll have my mages get to work," he promised. "By tomorrow night, there'll be companies picked; by the next day I'll have them moving into barracks in the cities. Don't worry; I'll send orders to select steady men, veterans, men who won't panic, won't shoot unless they're ordered, and won't exceed their orders. I'll send captains who have every reason to keep peace, steady men, not sadists who enjoy breaking heads."

Army efficiency, he thought enviously. It's a beautiful thing to see working. "My orders will have to travel by signal and sometimes courier, but they'll get to most of the Empire in a fortnight," he replied, and stood up. "It will be a pleasure working with you, Lord Commander," he finished, holding out his hand as the General stood up.

Thayer took it in another firm handclasp. "An equal pleasure here," he said. "And a damned sight better than working with one of the infernal groat-counters, let me tell you!" He followed at Melles' elbow, quite pleased to accompany his visitor to the door.

Melles knew what he meant; several of the possible candidates for Heir were men less of vision than of caution. Few of them would have the imagination to foresee the riots he knew were bound to come, much less to plan how to quell them. "Just remember—we want our actions to be as unobtrusive as possible—so that the citizens welcome the sight of soldiers in the streets rather than fearing it."

Thayer opened the door to the antechamber for him, nodding vigorously. "Exactly. I'll draw up a set of riot orders for you; you look them over and tell me what you want changed." He waved Melles through. "Grevas, see the Lord Heir out, would you? Lord Melles, I can't thank you enough for coming here yourself."

"Think nothing of it; I am glad that we could reach an understanding so quickly." Melles passed into the antechamber where the secretary received him with a deep bow of respect, then hurried to open the door for him. He waved his thanks at the underling, and entered the cold hallway feeling as if he had done a good day's work indeed.

Now, what else? Orders to requisition food if it's necessary, and it will be. And orders to requisition extra beasts and vehicles from the Estates, placing them in the hands of the Army. Have to specify rules about requisitions; taking a farmer's only cart and horse is only going to be counterproductive. Put one of my secretaries on it. Mertun—he was a farmer's son. That would be enough for now; too many orders all at once, and it would cause more unease and unrest than already existed.

And I need to consolidate my personal position. That, fortunately, was mostly a matter of reinforcing his own standing orders to his special operatives. Those operatives would act as needed, and bring him the information he required. And insofar as power in the Council of Advisers and the Court went—well, most mouths would smile and utter compliments, and he would accept them. Action would speak the real truths, and his operatives would ferret out what those same mouths said in private.

There was a single exception to all of that. If the Army could manage to keep their lines of communication open, it meant that they were able to get some magics to work. Probably those of short duration; and that may be the secret. That, and a great deal of power forcing the magics through. I have power, and I have more than one mage in my own pay. I simply hadn't thought to apply great power to small goals, but maybe those goals are not so small after all, now.

He hurried down the corridor to his new quarters, only a short distance from the General's, and found his own Imperial bodyguards waiting at the door for him. They opened the door for him with great ceremony, and he was greeted on the other side by his own servants, who surrounded him and began fussing over him immediately with great ceremony and a little fear.

Impatiently, he waved most of them away. His new quarters were fundamentally identical to his old, except that the rooms were a bit larger, the furnishings (those that were not his personal gear) more luxurious, and the suite itself was situated better with regard to conveniences. In the time he'd spent conferring with the Emperor and General Thayer, his servants had removed all signs of the former occupant, and had made it seem as if he had always lived here. His own carpets were on the floor, his tapestries and maps on the walls, his books in the cases and on the tables. He went straight to his desk to draft the orders—or rather, elaborations—that were to be appended to the Imperial Orders he had with him. When he had finished, he handed the rough drafts to his own secretary—along with the four copies of the Imperial Orders he still retained.

"Take care of these—and have Mertun specify under what conditions a man's beast and vehicle are to be exempt from requisition," he ordered. His secretary bowed and took the papers out. Only then did he permit himself to relax, putting himself into the care of his valet. His secretary would see that three sets of the Orders got into the hands of the Imperial Clerks for distribution and dissemination. One set would remain here, for use as a reference.

He walked into his private chambers at the direction of his valet; with his own furniture here, in the same positions as in his old rooms, he could almost convince himself that nothing had changed.

Almost. It's begun. I have started the avalanche; there will be no stopping it now. He allowed his valet to extract him from his stiff coat of heavy, embroidered satin and help him into a much more comfortable robe. Within a short period of time he was settled in a chair beside a fireplace, with food and drink and a book on the table at his right hand.

He stared into the flames, amused and bemused by everything that had happened today. It had certainly been an eventful day, and one he would remember for a long time.

Nevertheless, his day was not yet over. He rang for his valet, and when the man appeared, murmured a certain phrase that meant his operatives were to be contacted and called in, one at a time. My agents will have to watch for some new things now, as well as the old. My mages—well, if the Army can accomplish communicative magics, perhaps there are a few things that we can accomplish, too.

It occurred to him that although vengeance on his old enemy Tremane was probably out of the question, at least he ought to be sure just exactly what Tremane was up to. Scrying was another magic of limited scope and duration, and it was just possible that enough could be learned by means of scrying to warn him if Tremane was actually a danger to the Empire.

He settled back, sipped hot spiced wine thoughtfully, and waited for the first of his spies to appear. No, much as he would like to, he could not dispose of that annoying Tremane—but he could not ignore the man either.

And in the kind of war he waged, the best and most reliable weapon was knowledge.

It was time to wield that particular weapon, and with more finesse and care than he had ever exercised before.

Four

The cavernous interior of Urtho's Tower was remarkably quiet with the gryphons gone. An'desha hadn't quite realized until now how much sound the gryphons produced—like the constant click of talons on stone, the windlike bellows—sound of their breathing and the rustle of feathers. He'd gotten used to those whispers of sound, and without them, his own voice seemed unnaturally loud despite the sussuration of other activity.

"Look here, it's really quite logical," An'desha said, with one finger under the line of characters—the same words, written in three different languages. Karal peered at them, his forehead creasing with concentration. "This is the Hawkbrother, this is the Shin'a'in, and you can see how similar—"

A muffled thud interrupted him, followed by the sound of alarmed and complaining voices. Startled, he looked up, past Karal and into the central room of the Tower.

He knew those voices, although he had not expected to hear them today. He got up and moved to the doorway, just to see if he was somehow mistaken.

He wasn't. The aged Imperial mage Sejanes, in his robes of oddly military cut, was a strange contrast to Master Artificer Levy in his practical, yet luxurious, black silk and leather. Both of them, however, looked pale and ill and much the worse for their travel. Walking ahead of them was Altra.

"By the Hundred Little Gods!" said Sejanes, every hair on his gray head standing straight out. "If I never have to travel this way again, it will be too soon!"

Master Levy swallowed, looking to An'desha as if he were fighting to keep his stomach from revolting. His face had a greenish tint, and the knuckles of his clenched fists were white. "I... quite agree with you, Sejanes," he said in a strangled voice. "I believe that, given the option, I will walk home."

Altra looked at both of them with unconcealed contempt, stalking off into Karal's side room to bonelessly flop down onto the foot of Karal's pallet. An'desha followed him. An'desha didn't "hear" the Firecat say anything, but Karal pulled his mostly-untouched bowl of stew over to the cat, who gratefully inhaled it as if he hadn't eaten in weeks.

Meanwhile, Firesong, Lo'isha, Silverfox, and two of the Shin'a'in hurried over to greet the aged mage and younger Master Artificer. There wasn't much in the way of furniture here, but Silverfox brought both of them folding stools to sit on, and they sagged down onto that support with evident gratitude. An'desha didn't blame either of the newcomers for their reactions; he knew from personal experience that they were not exaggerating their exhaustion and illness.

An'desha had traveled once in the care of Altra the Firecat, in the creature's bizarre distance-devouring method of transportation called "Jumping," and he would not particularly care to experience it again. The Firecats were somehow able to cross great distances in the blink of an eye, and could take with them whatever or whoever was touching them. The experience was a gut-wrenching one, similar to a Gate-crossing, but repeated over and over with each Jump. The closer together the Jumps were, the worse the effect was. The amount of cumulative effect varied with each person, but from the look of these two, Altra hadn't paused much between Jumps and this latest journey had been quite a rough ride for them.

An'desha watched for a moment, but Firesong, Silverfox, and the rest seemed to have the situation well in hand. Sejanes clearly needed to go lie down, and Master Levy to sit down and have something to settle his stomach. After a brief rest, both of them were taken into the vacant side chamber that had earlier served as the gryphons' nest. Karal, meanwhile, was fussing over Altra, who, for the first time in An'desha's experience, was looking rather shopworn. Evidently the trip hadn't been easy on him either.

He remembered what Altra had said about the fact that even Jumping had become much more difficult. "Are you feeling all right?" he asked the cat, as Karal hovered over him anxiously.

:I have felt better,: the Firecat replied dryly. :But I believe that with a short rest and food, I shall be fine. The currents in the energy-fields are vicious. It has become very dangerous to Jump even a tenth of my usual distances. I do think that from here on in I, too, would prefer to walk where I need to go, given the choice.:

The clacking of hooves on the floor signaled the arrival of the Companion Florian. :Oh, don't be ridiculous, Altra,: the Companion said mockingly. :Of course you won't have to walk. You'll convince one of us to carry you.:

Altra ignored him, pretending to concentrate on the vital task of licking the bowl clean. That didn't take too long, and as soon as the last hint of gravy was gone, he curled up in such a way that he wouldn't be in the way of Karal's feet if the young Karsite needed to rest. :I'm going to sleep now,: the Firecat said with great dignity, and he closed his eyes firmly, still ignoring Florian's jibe.

Florian made a whickering sound that was so like a chuckle that there was no doubt in An'desha's mind what the Companion was thinking. "Oh, leave him alone, Florian," he told the Companion. "At least for now. You can't deny that he has done more than his share for some time to come. If Gating is dangerous, how could Jumping be less than hazardous?"

:True enough,: Florian replied equitably. :You are correct, An'desha, and I am at fault here. Altra has served heroically, and I should not have teased him, especially not when he is as exhausted as his passengers. I beg your pardon, cat.:

:And I grant it, horse,: came from the seemingly-sleeping Firecat.

Florian stepped over and touched his nose to the Firecat's fur in a conciliatory gesture, then backed off to the chamber entrance. He stood with one eye cast toward the main chamber, and the other watching over Altra and his friends, before finally quietly clopping off.

"Well. We have everyone we need," An'desha said to Karal, "Except perhaps that Kaled'a'in scholar we have been promised. We can certainly resume investigating the other devices we found."

"I keep thinking that there are more rooms and chambers we haven't found yet," Karal replied, lying back down on his pallet, taking care to not to disturb Altra.

"There probably are," An'desha told him. "We've found signs of at least four more places where there might be storage chambers or even a passage to a lower level. The problem is that we haven't been able to get them open. Perhaps Sejanes or Master Levy will be able to help there." He smiled at his friend. "To tell you the truth, I suspect it will be Master Levy; I have the feeling that the tricks to getting these hatches open are purely mechanical."

Karal smiled back. "I think you may be right. That would fit well enough with what Treyvan was able to tell me about the Mage of Silence. It would be like him to put a mechanical catch in a place of magic, knowing that anyone who came here intending mischief would probably be expecting magic and not be prepared for mechanics."

An'desha chuckled. "And that would certainly put Firesong's nose out of joint. Poor Firesong! At every turn, it seems as if his great powers as an Adept are less and less important!"

Karal nodded and rubbed the back of his neck in thought. "It must be awfully difficult for him to face each day. Just look at what has happened. He went from being the brightest star in the skies to... finding his powers unreliable and lessened, with new methods to do what he used to do coming up every day. Some of them are even contradictory to what he has known as fact all his life."

An'desha frowned and nodded. "Sometimes I feel like I cheated him out of his glory by being who and what I am, but I know that none of us dictated or could have predicted the way things would unfold. I owe him my life, by the Star-Eyed's grace, and I am grateful to him, but I wish that he could feel the happiness now that he used to enjoy in the Vales. And as for things being contradictory—you've been experiencing much of that yourself, spiritually. So have we all, I think." He paused, fingers tented as he carefully considered his next words. "Still—Master Levy says that all things in our world, no matter how illogical they may seem, are still consistent under unseen laws. The spirits I have spoken with on the Moonpaths have implied much the same—that magic in all its forms works under those laws as surely as rain, wind, and beasts do. Perhaps Firesong, and all of us, are learning new aspects of the laws we have been subject to all our lives."

"With Master Levy here to confound us all with his teachings on universal laws, you'll need me for a secretary again," Karal said as he smoothed down his warm robes, brightening considerably. "I'll be glad to be useful again."

An'desha nodded with sympathy; he knew how idleness, even enforced, had fretted his friend, and he would also be glad to see Karal feeling as if he were contributing his share. Realistically, Karal was not able to help at all with brute-force physical tasks, but the role of secretary was perfect for him.

He would have said something, but he noticed that Karal seemed very tired, and it occurred to him that the two of them had been working quite steadily on comparing Shin'a'in, Tayledras, and Kaled'a'in writing ever since breakfast. Mental work could be just as exhausting as physical labor, even for those, like Karal, who had a knack for it.

"Why don't you look after Altra for a while," he said, cleverly using the Firecat as an excuse to get Karal to rest. "I'll go see if our hosts want to know anything about Sejanes and Master Levy."

Karal nodded, and caressed Altra with one hand while he closed his eyes. An'desha collected the empty stew bowl and made a mental note to get something more suited to Altra's tastes from the Shin'a'in.

He left Karal beginning to doze, Altra already asleep, and Florian watching over them both, and went out into the main chamber in the center of the Tower. Master Levy already recovered, was examining the floor of that chamber on his hands and knees. He looked up as An'desha entered.

"Has anyone looked at the floor here?" he asked.

"We looked, but we didn't see anything," the Shin'a'in replied." Why? Have you found something?"

"Perhaps." Master Levy got to his feet. "When I was still studying, I used to earn spending money by designing and helping to build hidden doors and chambers for wealthy or eccentric clients. I think there might be something here."

"Huh." An'desha looked closely at the floor, and had to shake his head. "I'll take your word for it. Do you think you can get it open—if there is anything there?"

"Perhaps," Master Levy repeated. "I'll have to examine it later, when I'm not exhausted. This is all sheer nervous energy, you see, plus a rather stupid wish to seem in better physical shape than old Sejanes, and it's all about to run out. I'm going to get a bowl of that stew I smell, and then I am going to sleep for a day."

An'desha laughed, as Master Levy shrugged ruefully and with self-deprecation. As the Master Artificer drifted in the direction of their little charcoal stove and the bubbling stewpot atop it, he started back toward Karal. But halfway there, he turned, a little surprised, as a soft voice hailed him.

It was one of the few black-clad Kal'enedral, and with him was another wearing dark blue. The one in black he knew; Ter'hala, an old man whose blood-feud would technically never be completed, because the one who murdered his oathbrother had been Mornelithe Falconsbane. It was doubly ironic that An'desha and Ter'hala had become friends over the past few days. Ter'hala knew who and what he had been, of course. An'desha, understandably nervous, had asked him why he continued to wear black; Ter'hala had laughed and said that he was used to the color and too old to change.

"Ter'hala!" An'desha greeted him. "Who is your friend?"

The Kal'enedral sketched a salute of greeting. "This is Che'sera, young friend. He wished to meet you."

An'desha bowed slightly. "I am always honored to meet one of the servants of the Wise One," he said politely, though he could not for the life of him imagine what had brought so many of the reclusive "Scrollsworn"—as he called them, to distinguish them from the true Swordsworn—out of Kata'shin'a'in and their stronghold there. "We are all truly grateful for the hospitality and tolerance you have shown to us."

I wonder if the reason is that we've just added two more meddlers to the group, and one of them is a mage from a completely unknown land, he thought, though he kept his thoughts to himself. Not that I blame them. We're the interlopers here; the Star-Eyed gave them the keeping of this Tower and its secrets, not us.

Che'sera returned his bow. "I am pleased to meet you, An'desha," he replied, his voice so carefully neutral that An'desha could not read any second meaning into the words. "It is not often that one of the Plains who goes to become a mage ever returns again."

"It is not often that the shamans permit him to return," An'desha replied, as calmly and carefully as he could, although he could in no way match the lack of inflection in Che'sera's voice. "Until only recently, mages have been forbidden the Plains, even those of the People."

"Well, and you can certainly see why," Che'sera countered immediately, gesturing at the Tower remains about them. "This would all have been a great temptation. Can you say, had you become a mage of the Tale'edras, that you would not have been tempted to try to use one of these weapons against the one they called Falconsbane?"

An'desha shuddered. He still had far too many of Falconsbane's memories of the life he had led using An'desha's body for comfort—and behind those memories, marched others, a seemingly endless parade of atrocities stretching back into a dim past as ancient as this Tower.

"I would," he admitted slowly. "I would have been tempted by anything that might have brought the monster down. Anything that would have saved others from the horror he wrought."

Che'sera shrugged. "And yet it took how many of you, working together, to simply use the energy of one of these weapons rather than the weapon itself?"

"And yet you permit us here now." An'desha allowed one eyebrow to rise.

"We do, and that is in part why I wished to speak with you," Che'sera told him. "May we speak privately, you and I, for a little while, Shin'a'in to Shin'a'in?"

Now An'desha was considerably more surprised, and not at all certain what Che'sera had in mind. This was the first time in his reckoning that any of the Shin'a'in here had addressed him in such a fashion; most seemed uncomfortable with the concept of a Shin'a'in who was also a mage, and some seemed of the personal opinion that his half-foreign blood made him more alien than Shin'a'in. "Certainly, if that is what you wish." He nodded toward the sleeping chamber. "My friend Karal is asleep in there; he will not hear us, and if we speak quietly, we will not disturb him. I fear that is the most privacy I can offer, as it is in somewhat short supply here despite the vastness of the place."

Che'sera nodded. "That will do," he said, and gestured to An'desha to lead him onward.

An'desha did so, walking with great care past Karal and Altra, although neither stirred, nor in fact gave any indication that they were alive except for their steady breathing. At the moment he was suffering from mixed feelings; he was both curious and apprehensive to hear what Che'sera wanted to say that required privacy.

He gestured at his own pallet, waiting until Che'sera took a seat at the foot before seating himself.

"So," he said, wondering what he was letting himself in for. "What is it you wish of me, Sworn One?"

When Che'sera left him at last, he sat back against the gently-curving stone wall and simply thought of nothing for a while. He felt as if Che'sera had taken his mind, had turned it upside-down and shaken it, examined it, poked and prodded it, turned it inside out, and then, when he was finished, put it all neatly back in place with the ends tucked in.

He had probably been the most skillful interrogator that An'desha or any of Falconsbane's many incarnations had ever encountered. You know, I suspect that at this point he could predict my reaction to virtually any situation, and do so with more accuracy than I could!

Although his questions had covered virtually every subject, Che'sera seemed particularly interested in the Avatars. That was the one thing that hadn't surprised him, since virtually all of the Sworn had wanted to know about Dawnfire and Tre'valen sooner or later. Some of them here had actually been present when Dawnfire, trapped in the body of her bondbird, had been transformed into an Avatar in the first place. It had occurred to An'desha that as far as he was concerned, such a transformation was a poor substitute for returning Dawnfire to her proper human form. But then again, perhaps that had not been possible; granted, the Star-Eyed had been able to undo most of the changes Falconsbane had run on An'desha's own body, but that was in the nature of restoring something to its rightful state, not changing it into something else altogether.

Perhaps all that She would have been able to manage would have been transformation into a tervardi, one of the bird-people, and that might have been a truly cruel "reward" for her, since the tervardi are frail and not very humanlike. At least this way, she is still fundamentally herself and she is anything but frail.

He also sensed that there were other complications to the story that no one had told him about. And there was, of course, the factor that Dawnfire had been mourned for dead, and her human body buried when the bond to it was snapped by Falconsbane. It didn't necessarily do for a deity to resurrect people; the question would inevitably arise: "Why this one and not my father, mother, sibling, lover." Better, on the whole, not to do any such thing. Look at all the effort that the Companions went to in order to preserve the secret of their own nature, and they weren't even returning as humans!

Just such philosophical questions had arisen in the course of Che'sera's questioning—though on his part, rather than Che'sera's—and the Sworn One had neatly deflected them. Perhaps it had been because Che'sera wanted him to think of possible answers for himself; there had been that kind of feeling as the conversation progressed.

And in all of that, I didn't learn a thing about Che'sera himself. Now that was truly unusual, since Falconsbane had been a rather skilled interrogator and some of that expertise was available to An'desha. Given the proper occasion, that was one of Falconsbane's abilities that An'desha did not mind coopting, but he had not been able to insert so much as a single personal question of his own the entire time the two of them spoke. Che'sera was most unusual, even for the Sworn.

An'desha rubbed his temples, feeling as if he should have a headache after all that Che'sera had put him through, even though he did not.

Activity, that was what was called for. There were dishes to wash, there was clothing to mend, and there were all manner of things to be done. Or perhaps he ought to go look at the food supplies the Shin'a'in had brought, and see if there was something more that could be done with them than the seemingly endless round of soups and stews they had been presented with thus far. He wasn't precisely a grand cook, but he did have experience in dishes that no one else here did.

He rose and went in search of something useful to do.

The clothing and kitchen work had already been taken care of, but as it turned out, there was something new he could concoct in the way of dinner for them all. There was fresh meat, brought in by Shin'a'in hunters; there were beans and a few other winter vegetables such as onions, and there were spices and dried peppers. That particular combination reminded him of a recipe Karal had made up for him once, when they'd been too late to catch dinner with either the Court or the Heraldic students. He diced some of the meat and hot peppers and browned them together, added onions, beans and sweet spice, and set it all to cook slowly. While all of those ingredients had been used before, no one in the group had ever used them in that combination. It would definitely be different from anything the Shin'a'in had been cooking, and that was what he was looking for.

It had taken a long time to dice the meat as finely as the recipe called for, and having his hands busy allowed his mind to rest. His mind wasn't the only thing resting, however, and although Karal was still sleeping, others were awake again. At about the time he finished with his concoction, Master Levy was out in the main room on his hands and knees, looking intently at the floor, and prying at invisible cracks with some very tiny tools he took from a pouch at his belt.

An'desha washed up the utensils he'd used for his preparations, dried his hands, and went out to join him, though no one else seemed at all interested in what he was doing. "Is there anything I can do to help?" he asked, sitting on his heels just behind the Master Artificer.

"Well, there is something here, all right," Master Levy replied in an absent tone. "This is a movable stone, and I would guess that it drops down and fits into a slot carved into the rock. It may take me a while to figure out the release, though. Tell me something, do you have any idea if this mage thought in patterns, in numbers of things? As in—oh, the Karsites think in terms of one, seven, or eight—if they build a device with a catch, it will either have a single trigger-point or seven. That's because they have a single God, but in the usual representations of Vkandis as the sun rising, there are seven rays coming from it and in the ones of the sun-in-glory there are eight rays. The Rethwellans almost always use three, for the three faces of their Goddess. Most Valdemarans use three or two, three for the same reason as the Rethwellans, or two for the God and Goddess. It's not a conscious thing, it's just the kind of patterns that people establish as very small children."

"You might try four," An'desha said, after a moment of thought. "Urtho shared the Kaled'a'in faith, if he shared anything religious with anyone, and that's the same as the Shin'a'in. Except where it's free-flowing and curvy, there's a great deal of square and diamond symmetry in the decorations around here."

Master Levy grunted what sounded like thanks, and seemed to widen his scope of examination a bit.

Finally he sat back on his haunches, stretched all his fingers and shook his head. "Shall we see if we're supremely lucky and we're not dealing with a random placing?" he asked An'desha, his saturnine face showing rather more humor than An'desha was used to seeing from him. "If your guess is right, I think I've found all four trigger points; if mine is right, this far inside his Tower Urtho would not have bothered to be terribly clever about hiding his additional workrooms and the catches won't be difficult. I don't suppose you've got a clue about an order in which to push four trigger-points, do you?"

"If you're not supposed to push all of them at once, you mean?" An'desha thought again. "East, South, West, and North. That's the order in rituals, with the Maiden being in the East and the Crone in the North."

"That sounds as good a guess as any. Let's see what happens."

Master Levy reached out with one of his tools, but An'desha shot out a hand to stop him. "Wait a minute!" he stammered. "If you do this wrong, is anything likely to—well—go wrong? Will the ceiling fall in and crush us, or poison gas start seeping in here, or something?"

Master Levy paused. "There is that possibility," he began, and laughed at An'desha's expression. "Oh, for Haven's sake, it's not very likely he'd put something like that in the floor now, is it? Where it might be triggered by accident just by people standing on it?"

An'desha flushed, embarrassed. "I suppose not," he replied, letting go of Master Levy's hand.

The Master Artificer continued his interrupted task, depressing a small spot in the stone of the floor. An'desha noted with fascination that it remained depressed so that if one had placed a coin on the spot, it would be flush with the rest of the floor. Master Levy then touched a second, and a third, both of which also remained depressed after he touched them, and although An'desha had not been able to spot the second place, once he had the distance between the first and second, he was able to deduce the locations of the third and fourth spot before Master Levy touched them. An'desha held his breath in anticipation when the Master Artificer pushed on that last place.

Nothing happened for a long moment, and An'desha sighed with disappointment. Master Levy however, had his head cocked to one side, and as An'desha sighed, he stood up, looked fixedly at a place in the pattern of the floor shaped like an octagon, then stamped sharply down on one corner of it with his boot heel.

With a reluctant, grating sound, the stone moved a trifle, dropping down by about the width of a thumb.

Master Levy stamped downward again, and the stone moved a bit more. "It's stuck. Old, you know," he quipped. He continued urging it with carefully-placed blows of his heel as it dropped down about the distance of a man's hand measured from the end of the middle finger to the wrist, then began to slide sideways. Once there was a sliver of a gap between the octagonal stone and the rest of the floor, he got down on hands and knees again, and peered at it.

By now, thanks to the sounds of stamping and the grating of stone-on-stone, he had attracted the attention of everyone in the Tower who was not asleep. "Will you look at that!" Silverfox exclaimed, as the curious gathered around. "We never guessed that was there!"

"I am looking at it. I think I'm going to need something to pry with," Master Levy replied. "The mechanisms are rather stuck, which shouldn't be too surprising considering their age. I'm afraid once I get this open, it's not going to shut again."

"I don't see a problem with that," Firesong said, dropping down on his heels to peer at the stone himself, beside Master Levy, while Silverfox went off to get a pry bar from a Plainsman. "If there's anything down there worth bothering with, we wouldn't want to close it, and if there isn't, we'll clean out the trash and use it for sleeping quarters or something."

Master Levy grunted and nodded his head as he felt along the crack with great care, then put his nose to the crack to sniff at it gingerly. "I don't smell anything that shouldn't be down there," he said after a long moment while he concentrated on the scent with his eyes closed. "And I always did have the best nose in my year-group. When the students were experimenting, my Alchemy Master always used to count on me to know when to evacuate the workroom if something went wrong."

"Comforting, considering there might be a mechanism to release poisons into the room below, if not this one," said Sejanes, coming up to the rest with his hair all rumpled from sleeping. Silverfox arrived at that moment with the pry bar and shook his head at the Imperial mage.

"Not Urtho, and especially not in his own Tower," the kestra'chern said decisively. "He was a compassionate and considerate man, safe and resourceful but not vengeful. He would only create wards to protect things, not to punish. He wouldn't have taken the risk that a curious hertasi or some other innocent might set such a thing loose."

Sejanes looked skeptical, but didn't say anything. Silverfox, however, read the look correctly.

"You're not dealing with the Empire, Sejanes," he said. "You're not dealing with people looking to gain in rank by whatever means it takes. Urtho's personal servants and close friends were loyal enough to die for him—and many did, to his sorrow. Here in the heart of his personal stronghold, he would not have used safeguards that could harm his own people as well as intruders."

Master Levy inserted the tongue of the pry bar in the crack, and pulled.

The stone grated, and moved slightly, then kept on moving for a little after Master Levy stopped pulling. Now the gap was about as wide as a large man's palm.

"Do we want to investigate before we open this any further?" the Artificer asked Silverfox. "I defer to your judgment, since you seem to know more about the master of this place than anyone else here."

Silverfox looked pointedly at An'desha, who shook his head in answer to the silent question. "My knowledge is tainted, since it comes from his enemy," he said at once. "Ma'ar is far more likely to have underestimated a foe he considered sentimental and soft."

"It wouldn't hurt to drop a lantern down on a string," Silverfox said to Master Levy. "Then at least we'll be able to see what we're dealing with. For all we know, this is just a well, and not any kind of a storeroom or workroom."

"A source of water other than melted snow from the surface would be welcome," Lo'isha murmured quietly. Master Levy heard him, and nodded in answer to both statements.

This time it was An'desha's turn to go off and rummage for a lantern and some appropriately strong string. They hadn't needed lanterns since they arrived here, although the Shin'a'in had brought some, just in case the magical lights failed. The magic lamps hanging from the center of the ceiling of each room had been quite enough to serve their needs and showed no signs of being harmed at all by the mage-storms that made magic problematic outside the Tower. An'desha dug one of the lanterns out of a pile of articles no one had found a use for, and got some string from the kitchen area. He filled the lamp with oil, trimmed the wick with thread clippers from a sewing kit, and lit it before bringing it out to the rest.

Master Levy made the handle fast to the string and lowered the lantern down into the cavity while the others crowded around. An'desha couldn't see anything from his vantage, and neither could most of the Shin'a'in.

"Well?" called Che'sera. "What's there?"

"Stairs, mostly," Master Levy replied. "So this isn't a well. I believe I see something like furniture at the bottom, but the light doesn't go very far down."

"It's not dimming in bad air, is it?" An'desha asked anxiously, vague memories of tomb openings intruding from one of Falconsbane's previous lives. "Even if there are no poisons, the air could have gone bad from what's been sealed inside."

"No, it's burning brightly enough. It's just a long way down to the next floor and the light is between me and what's down there," Master Levy replied. "It is an issue of contrast and visual acuity. Well, no help for it. Back to hard labor."

He inserted the tongue of the pry bar and continued to lever the stubborn stone out of the way, while at least a couple of the observers looked at each other, wondering why the Artificer used such flowery terms to say he couldn't see well. Suddenly, with no warning whatsoever, the frozen mechanism gave way. The stone slid beneath the floor into hiding, and Master Levy, taken completely off guard, fell over backward, the pry bar dropping out of his hands and clanging end-over-end down the staircase.

Only An'desha remained to assist the winded Artificer to his feet; the rest of the spectators made a rush for the stair with Firesong in the lead. In mere moments they had descended out of sight; then Firesong spoke a single word, light poured up from below, and muffled exclamations were drifting up through the hole in the floor.

"You might say 'thank you!'" Master Levy called after them, and sighed, rubbing his hip where he had landed. "We may as well go find out what they've discovered. I only hope it isn't Urtho's treasury; there isn't a great deal of good that gold and gems would do us in this situation."

"Urtho's treasury would have books, not baubles," An'desha assured him. "But we ought to go down, too, before they all get carried away in their enthusiasm."

Master Levy went with An'desha following him, taking the stone stairs carefully, for they were quite steep. They also went down farther than he expected, for the stone floor of the room above was at least as thick as his hand was long, perhaps a little thicker, which accounted for the fact that it hadn't rung hollow and had sounded like solid stone to their footsteps. It looked as if this room had actually been hollowed out of the bedrock after the Tower itself had been built.

Although the air was a bit stuffy and very dusty, with a hint of strange metallic scents, it was not at all damp. Nor was the room as gloomy and ill-lit as An'desha had anticipated. There were more of those magical lights everywhere, and as An'desha looked around, he had no doubt at all just what Urtho had used this room for. It was a workshop, with everything necessary for an inveterate tinkerer who was interested in literally everything.

Needless to say, the room was very crowded, despite the fact that it was just a little smaller than the main room above. This was not a mage's classical workroom, a place where only magic took place, and few if any physical components were needed. This was a place where anything and everything could be worked with, played with, investigated. Here was a bench with an array of glassware and rows of jars that had once held chemicals both liquid and solid—most of the former long since evaporated, leaving only dust or oily residue in the bottoms of their bottles. There stood another bench with a small lathe, clamps, a vise, and tools for working wood and ivory and beside it a similar bench with the tools for shaping soft metals, and a third bench with the tools for cutting and polishing lenses, glass, and crystal. Looking incongruous beside that was a potter's wheel and glassblower's pipes, and along the back wall were a forge, a kiln, a glassmaker's furnace, and a smelter. They probably had once shared a chimney, long since blocked up by the destruction of the Tower above. There were more benches and work spaces set up, but from the staircase An'desha could not tell what they were, only that most of them had been in use up to the day of the Cataclysm.

An'desha simply stood and stared as the others wandered about, looking, but not touching. Master Levy on the other hand, looked supremely satisfied by what he saw, as he surveyed it all from the staircase.

"Now this is much more in my way of doing things," he said, folding his arms across his chest and looking over the workshop with approval. "I believe I could have liked this Urtho."

On all of the benches—all of them—were projects in various states of completion. It was difficult to tell what some of them had been intended to do, if anything. There were pages of notes arrayed neatly beside each of these projects; it appeared that, in his workplace at least, Urtho was a tidy and methodical man. Firesong stood beside a particular bench laden with some very odd equipment indeed. He gazed on these pieces of paper with longing, although he forbore to touch them.

"This is maddening," he complained, hovering over a small sheaf of scrawled manuscript. "I'm afraid even to breathe on these things for fear that they'll fall to dust, but I think I may die if I can't read what's on the next page!"

But something about the way the "paper" looked stirred echoes in An'desha's deepest memories; he descended the last few stairs and made his way over to what appeared to be a small jeweler's workbench. There was a half-finished brooch there, nothing magical or mechanical, obviously just a piece of jewelry in the shape of a hummingbird to be inlaid with a mosaic of tiny agate-pieces formed into stylized feathers. "Wait," he muttered. The original design lay next to it, and after a close examination of the sheet, An'desha picked it up.

Silverfox stifled a gasp, and Firesong bit off a protest. He waved the intact and flexible drawing at them to prove it was not hurt by handling.

"Pick up what you want," he urged, "It's not paper. Or rather, it isn't like the paper we know and use now. It's a special rag-paper treated with resins so it wouldn't disintegrate. You can write on it in silverpoint, crayon, or graphite-stick, but not ink; ink just beads up and won't penetrate."

"Really?" Master Levy walked to the bench nearest him and picked up another piece of the paper. "Very useful around chemicals, I would guess."

"Very useful around anything that might ruin your notes," Firesong observed, snatching up the papers he had stared at so covetously. "oh—now this—oh, my—" He held the papers up so that Silverfox could peruse them, too, as between them they tried to decipher Urtho's notes in ancient Kaled'a'in, using the Hawkbrother tongue Firesong knew and Silverfox's modem Kaled'a'in as guides.

Che'sera looked at them curiously, but Lo'isha laughed at their immediate absorption. "Oh, we have lost them for a time," he said indulgently. "I know that look. The weaver is one with the loom!"

"Not entirely," Firesong responded absently. "But I will be very pleased when this scholar of Silverfox's shows up, so he can help us with this. If these notes are right, this may be the answer to our isolation here." He waved a hand at the bench and what looked to be a pair of mirrors serving as the lids to a matching pair of boxes. "These are completed, or all but some cosmetic frippery—and they're supposed to act like a pair of linked scrying spells, except they don't use true-magic, they use mind-magic. Apparently it can work over unknown, incredible distances. Somehow they amplify it so that it only needs one person with mind-magic to make both boxes work, or so I think this says."

That made every head in the place turn toward the Adept, and he finally looked up from the notes he was sharing with Silverfox, shaking his hair out of his eyes. "Got your attention then, did I?" he asked, with a sly smile.

:If these devices use mind-magic, they won't be disrupted by the mage-storms,: commented a mental voice from above, and Altra flowed gracefully down the staircase, taking a seat on one of the steps at about head-height to the humans. :That would be more than merely useful. If we learned how to use them, I could take one to Haven; if we learned how to make them, I could take another to Solaris. And I certainly have enough mind-magic to make them work, no matter who wishes to use them.:

"I thought you said that you didn't want to Jump anymore," Firesong said sardonically. An'desha chuckled.

:I don't want to, but devices like these could replace that aspect of my duties as well as give us the resources of all of Master Levy's colleagues at Haven,: the Firecat replied with immense dignity. :For that matter, if we could concoct a third device, I would not necessarily have to Jump it to Solaris; Hansa could come and get it instead.:

An'desha hid a smile at the unspoken implication behind Altra's statement, an implication that Altra felt his colleague and fellow Firecat had been getting off a bit too easily in the transportation department.

:Our ability to Jump is partly true-magic, partly mind-magic,: the Firecat continued, for once without any hint of irony or mockery in his mind-voice. :It is growing hazardous for passengers to Jump with us, as Master Levy and Sejanes discovered. It is no longer comfortable for us to Jump very long distances, and I was not exaggerating earlier about how I felt when we arrived. I was exhausted and drained, not a common occurrence until now. I can predict a time very soon when it could become actually inconceivably dangerous for us to Jump. But if we have a way to communicate with Haven and Karse—such a thing would be beyond price.:

"I had deduced that for myself, thank you," Firesong replied with a touch of acid. "If you can just conjure up that Kaled'a'in scholar, we have a chance of learning how to use these things before the time comes when you can't take one back to Valdemar."

"The scholar will be here soon," Che'sera put in, looking up from the glassware bench. His dark-blue clothing reflected richly from the surface of the dusty glassware. "The main problem has been that since his assistant is a—what do you call the lizard-folk—?"

"Hertasi," Silverfox interjected. The handsome kestra'chern's face lit up at Che'sera's words. "Ah, so it is Tarrn who is coming! Oh, that is very good, he may be frail, but he is the finest scholar in the ancient version of our tongue outside the lands of White Gryphon, and a good being as well." Silverfox seemed immensely relieved by what Che'sera had said, and that in itself made An'desha feel as if they were all beginning to make some progress at last.

"Yes. It seems the problem has been to find a way to bring both of them in a gryphon four-harness carry-basket and still keep the hertasi warm without magic." Che'sera left the glassware-bench, and moved back toward the staircase. "When I left, a means had been devised, and they were planning on arriving within two or three days of when I expected to be here. They had only to manufacture this device, whatever it was, and then they could leave. I would have told you earlier, when I first arrived, but you all seemed quite busy, and I had business with An'desha that I wished to conclude before I dealt with anything else."

"That is even better news!" Now Firesong seemed much happier as well, so much so that he forbore to comment on that last statement. "I vote that if we can't, on superficial examination, find anything more important to investigate than these devices, we'll concentrate on those for our immediate goal. If we can communicate with all of the mages and Artificers on a regular basis, it will be as good as being at Haven with all the advantages of being here in the Tower to implement what we deduce."

He looked around at the rest of the party, most of whom shrugged with indifference or bafflement. "You and Sejanes should be the ones to decide. I'll be of very little use without a translator in any event," Master Levy said with great candor. "At the moment, I have nothing really to work on, as I believe we need to develop a new set of theories to match the changed conditions. Those, I feel, must come from things we can learn by studying the Cataclysm itself and Urtho's own methodologies. So until the translator arrives, what I can and will do, is attempt to find out if this place holds any more secrets in the floor."

"Very little use!" Firesong actually snorted. "After you were the one who found this place! No false modesty, thank you, Master Levy!"

"I may be of some slight assistance here below," Che'sera said, with great caution. "I shall examine those objects that seem to partake of the nature of the shaman, and see if I may make something of them. We Shin'a'in lost some things when the Cataclysm destroyed our land and sundered the Clans. I may be able to rediscover some of what was lost, and that may be of some help."

Hah! An'desha thought with triumph. Now I know what you are, o mysterious one! Both Sworn to the Old One and a shaman! Now, is it a need to keep an eye on all these mages that brings you here, or was it the hope of keeping us from finding things that the Clans would rather we didn't learn? Is it an interest in what you might find within the walls of this Tower, or is it something else altogether? Myself, perhaps?

It could be, but he was not going to have the hubris to assume that the latter was the case. There were plenty of reasons for the Kal'enedral to want a shaman here; most of the Sworn were not leshy'a with a direct link to the Star-Eyed, though they could all walk the Moonpaths when they chose. Although An'desha had seen more than one or two of the Veiled Ones about, they had never stayed for very long, and he had the feeling that they were not "permitted" to take a physical form for too long—perhaps just long enough to serve some specific need, or be in themselves a kind of message.

The Moonpaths... perhaps I ought to go walk them myself. I haven't seen or spoken to Tre'valen and Dawnfire since we burned out that weapon of Urtho's.

Firesong looked up, as if distracted for a moment, and cast a speculative look at An'desha. "You know," he began, "it is all too fortuitous, that we find these things."

An'desha smiled a little as he noticed Che'sera looking at him in a similar way. He heard himself saying, "It is the way of the Star-Eyed to provide such opportunities for those who will help themselves. If I were you, I'd be careful with these new finds, for She is unlikely to hand over easy answers. The mind that controls the hand must use the tool wisely, and all tools can harm their user."

Firesong grunted, and actually looked for a moment as if he could be considering those words in the way a Shin'a'in would acknowledge the cryptic advice of a shaman as being worthy of meditation. Then the Adept shrugged a little and made off with the sheaf of notes.

An'desha looked about the workshop to see what the others were doing; Che'sera cracked a slight smile and rejoined Lo'isha, huddling together over a workbench's treasures in the far corner. Sejanes was examining the bench with some of the equipment that An'desha could not immediately identify. Firesong and Silverfox were halfway up the staircase in no time, with their papers in their hands, chattering to one another and ignoring everything else about them. Master Levy was already back up on what An'desha was now thinking of as the "ground" floor, and Karal was probably still asleep. There might or might not be other Kal'enedral besides Che'sera about; they preferred to spend much of their time in the camp on the surface, and since he had arbitrarily taken care of dinner preparations, there was really no need for any of them to be inside the Tower at this point. This would be as good a time as any to walk the Moonpaths undisturbed.

He went up the stairs as quietly as he could, nodding to Altra on the way. The Firecat nodded back with immense dignity, then turned to follow Firesong and Silverfox, tail waving like a jaunty banner. Evidently he wanted to hear what they were up to, probably because they were the most interesting creatures in the Tower at this, moment.

An'desha turned his steps in toward the sleeping chamber. Karal was, indeed, still asleep. He noticed as he paused in the doorway that Master Levy was in the side chamber where An'desha and Karal had found indications of another trapdoor. The Artificer was back down on his hands and knees and peering at the pattern in the floor. Florian was beside him, occasionally tapping a hoof on the stone at his direction.

An'desha tiptoed past Karal to his own sleeping place. You know, if I look more as if I'm taking a nap, I'm less likely to be disturbed. He pulled off his boots and curled up in his bedroll, arranging himself in what he thought was a very natural-looking position.

It occurred to him as he closed his eyes that he was being very secretive about this, when there really was no reason for him to do so. On the other hand, I don't think I want Che'sera to know everything I'm doing until I know more about him. If Che'sera turned out to be as rigid and inflexible as Jarim first was, or as hidebound as the shaman of An'desha's home Clan, it would be easier to keep away from him and his demands if he wasn't aware of everything An'desha knew or could do. All I've told him is that the Avatars appear to me, not that I can go look for them. I think I'll keep it that way for now.

He settled himself comfortably, then slowed his breathing and began the combination of relaxation and tension that marked a Moonpath trance. This, for those who were not trained in the technique, was more difficult than it sounded; too much tension and the trance state would never be reached, too much relaxation brought on a nap rather than a trance. Once he hovered on the edge of trance, with all of his attention focused, and nothing from the "real" world intruding, he sent his mind going in, and then out, in the pattern that Tre'valen had shown him, that felt like so very long ago.

He found himself, in his vision, standing on a path made of silvery sand that sparkled with a subdued glimmer, in the midst of an opalescent mist that swirled all around him. Or rather, he seemed to be standing there; this body was an illusory one, and he could change it to another form if he concentrated on it. This was a comfortable form, one he didn't have to think about to maintain, and it didn't seem reasonable to waste time and energy changing it to something else. He still was not certain if the Moonpaths themselves were an illusion; he had never bothered to test his surroundings to find out. The mist had no scent, and was neither cool nor warm; the sand beneath his feet neither so soft as to impede his steps, nor so hard as to be noteworthy.

"Tre'valen?" he called out into the mist, his voice echoing off into the distance in a way that had no counterpart in the real world. "Dawnfire?" The mist swirled about him, following his words with eddies of faint colors that faded within moments.

He had no answer immediately, but he didn't expect one. The Avatars were not in existence to serve and please him, after all, and he was well aware of that. Instead, he moved out along the path of soft sand, occasionally calling the names of his friends quietly into the mist. Eventually, if they were not occupied with something more important, they would come to him.

And so they did. They came winging through the mist in their bird shapes, forms the shape of a vorcel-hawk, but the size of a human, and with the sparkling, fiery, multicolored plumage of a firebird. He knew they were coming before they arrived, for they lit up the mist in the far distance like lightning within a thundercloud as they flew toward him, their flight paths spiraling around each other, leaving a double helix of light through the fog in their wakes.

Here they did not need to backwing to a landing as they would if they had taken "real" hawk-forms in the world. They simply slowed, then went into a hover above the path, then flowed into the vaguely avian-human shapes they normally wore to speak to him. Tre'valen was dressed as the Shin'a'in shaman he had been before he became the Star-Eyed's Avatar; but Dawnfire, though clearly Tayledras rather than Shin'a'in, wore a simple tunic that could not be readily identified as coming from any particular culture. Her long silver hair moved slightly, like the mist that swirled slowly about her. They both seemed to be completely ordinary humans—except for their eyes.

Not eyes, but eye-shaped windows on the night sky... the darkness of all of night spangled with the brightest of stars. So beautiful….

It was said that Kal'enel Herself had eyes like that; in this way She marked these two as Her Avatars, a way that could not be mistaken for anything else.

"Younger Brother!" Tre'valen greeted him warmly. "It is far too long since we have seen you, but I pledge that we have not been idle in that interval!"

"Not all that long for a mere mortal," he corrected with a smile, "but a great deal has been happening to us as well. I was not certain if you knew about what we have uncovered and learned, and besides that, I wanted to make sure that you two were all right after the Working."

Not that I could have done anything if they weren't.

Dawnfire shrugged fluidly. "Poor young Karal bore the brunt of our Working, and we two were only a little drained," she said, and extended a cool hand to him, which he took in brief greeting. "It sounds as if you have not been idle either—you in the Tower."

That confirmed one of his guesses, that the Avatars, for all their power, were neither omniscient nor omnipotent. They were bound by some physical laws at least. Was that because they were not really physically "dead," as the spirit-Kal'enedral were? Or was it because they had been granted wider powers by the Star-Eyed?

"Would you like to tell me what you can, or hear what news I have first?" he asked.

"Your news; I suspect that much of what we have to tell you will be mere confirmation of what you already know," Tre'valen told him. "We have been ranging far in the world and in the Void, to see what changes the Working wrought on the energy-patterns of the Storms, and how far-reaching those changes were. I fear I bring no startlingly good news."

An'desha nodded, and detailed everything that had been happening since the "Working" of which Karal had been the channel; from the effect that being the focus of so much energy had wrought on the young Karsite priest, to the departure of the gryphons and the arrival of Sejanes and Master Levy, to the comings and goings of so many Kal'enedral, to Che'sera's intense interest in him. Lastly, he described the events of the afternoon, the opening of the hidden trapdoor and the discovery of the workshops below.

They both listened with concentration and apparent interest—and surprise when he described the workshops. So, the existence of the workshop is something that the Star-Eyed did not tell them, though Her agents have certainly been about. Interesting.

"There may be answers there," Tre'valen said at last, and for a fleeting moment, his face took on that "listening" expression that Karal wore when either Florian or Altra Mindspoke him. An'desha wondered if the Star-Eyed might be speaking to Her Avatar at that instant, and his next words might have been a confirmation of that. "Certainly Firesong should pursue the investigation of the mind-mirrors; they should not be difficult to revive nor to duplicate, and they will serve you all in the days to come."

Oh, my; even more interesting. Perhaps my intuition about the Star-Eyed's providence was well-founded.

Dawnfire placed one long hand on Tre'valen's shoulder and, with a rueful expression, admitted, "This is the only concrete advice we can give at the moment. Would it were otherwise, but the future is still trackless and without a clear path. And even our Goddess is bound by constraints She cannot break, so that we may all work out our futures with a free will."

An'desha sighed, but saw no reason to doubt her. "So we are still muddling our way through a point when there are many futures possible? I had hoped after the Working that we would at least have gotten our feet on a clear path again!"

Tre'valen looked uneasy. "The danger has only been postponed, not negated, but luckily the forces involved have not worsened," he told An'desha. "You knew that the Working was not a solution to the mage-storms, only a reprieve, and that has not changed."

"We have been tracking the results of the Working since the initial release of the energy contained in Urtho's weapon." Dawnfire took up the thread of conversation. "The effect is all that one could have wished over Valdemar, the Pelagirs, Karse and Rethwellan and even Hardorn. The waves that you sent out are canceling the waves of the mage-storms, but—only to a point."

"What point?" he asked instantly, sensing that this was important, although he did not know why yet.

"Just beyond the border of Hardorn in the East," Tre'valen told him. "Also South, just at the borders of the Haighlei Empire, and around White Gryphon and its environs, but they know how to deal with the effects. And in any case, the Storms are weak there. North, well into the Ice-Wall Mountains. To the West, well, that is Pelagir-wilds and the Storms will hardly change that. It is East that concerns us, for the Empire is the recipient of the worst of the Storms, and they are causing great havoc there, among those who depend so much upon magic."

An'desha gave that some thought. "That could be good for us, or bad," he said finally. "Given what the Emperor did to us, I'm not at all sad to hear that they are having troubles. I'd rather that the Empire was so busy trying to hold itself together that they had no time to think of us, but Duke Tremane thought we were the source of the Storms, and what if the Emperor's people assume the same and retaliate?"

Tre'valen nodded. "Precisely. Warn your friends, An'desha, and when the mind-mirrors are working and in place, use them to warn Valdemar. Such things could be possible."

Could be possible, he says. Yet if I understand the constraints the Avatars labor under, pointing out something specifically as possible may be the only warning they are allowed to give of a future they have seen. Or perhaps not...

Despite the unpleasant information, An'desha felt a warm glow of satisfaction. The Avatars avoided giving direct advice most of the time, but he was getting better at deducing what they wanted him to think about, and what information was the most critical to the current situation.

"What about the Storms themselves?" he asked. "Eventually, they're going to become strong enough to overcome the counter-Storm we sent out, aren't they? That's why we knew what we did was only going to be temporary—" He watched Tre'valen's face carefully and took his cues from the faint changes in expression, as he suspected he was supposed to do. "—so eventually, what happens? We're getting a—a reversal of the original Cataclysm, am I right? That was why we used this spot for the Working, because it's the place where the waves converge. Eventually the Storms are going to overcome the Working, and build up to something very bad?" He swallowed uncomfortably as Tre'valen's slight nod told him he was on the right track. "So then what? Obviously, the Storms that got set off aren't going to—go back into the weapons and things they came from. Do we get the Cataclysm all over again?"

Tre'valen shook his head, but not in negation, and Dawnfire spread her hands wide. "That is just what we do not know," she admitted. "And I confide in you—neither does She. There are too many possibilities, and some of them rest on very subtle factors. We do not yet know what the mages and Powers of the Empire will do, and that will have an effect. There are many things that you could do here, all of them effective, but in different ways and with differing results. Probably there will be another, lesser Cataclysm, unless you here manage to do one of the things that could avert or absorb it. There are many things you could do; you could do nothing whatsoever, as well, and from any action that is taken there are the possibilities of prosperity or ruin in varying degrees. Whatever happens, that is all we can tell you for certain."

He groaned. "That is not much comfort!" he complained. "But I suppose that it gives me enough to tell the others for now."

Tre'valen managed a ghost of a smile. "We never pledged to bring you comfort, younger brother," he chided gently. "Only enough help that you need not make your decisions blind, deaf, and ignorant."

"Let me ask about something closer to home, then," An'desha replied. "Che'sera. What is Che'sera to me, or I to Che'sera? Sooner or later he will deduce the source of my information, whether or not I actually say where it comes from in his presence."

Tre'valen's expression softened with affection. "What is Che'sera to you? Simply enough—a teacher, if you should decide, for yourself, that you wish to learn what he has to teach. And what are you to Che'sera? Largely, affirmation. He has been searching for someone to pass his knowledge on to, and he hopes that you will be that person. But it must be your decision, and he will not urge it upon you. He is—a good man, and much in the same way of thinking as Master Ulrich was; Karal will be like him, one day."

So. There it was, out in the open at last; his invitation to become a shaman. And not, perhaps, just any shaman, but one Sworn to the Goddess in her aspect as Wisdom Keeper. He sighed, wishing that he could be as certain of what he wanted as Karal was. But at least now he knew that Che'sera was neither a fanatic nor inflexible. That took a few worries from his shoulders, at least.

"You will be seeing more of us in days to come," Dawnfire told him, her sweet face full of seriousness. "I promise you, An'desha, we will tell you and help you all that we can; we see no good reason to leave you without aids and guides in this—"

Tre'valen looked out into the mists suddenly.

"—and right now, we must go," Tre'valen interrupted her. "There are more things we must investigate and watch for you. Fare well, younger brother! Time is running, and it is not on our side."

And with that, An'desha found himself alone again on the Moonpaths, as if the Avatars had never been there. With no further reason to remain, he sent his awareness dropping slowly back into his physical self, going down, then out—

As he slowly woke his senses, he heard Karal stirring at last, and smelled the distinctive scent of the meat and bean mixture he had prepared earlier. His stomach growled, and he opened his eyes.

"I brought you some dinner," Karal said, looking at him intently as he handed An'desha a bowl. "You were with them, weren't you?" Karal hooked his thumbs together and made flapping gestures with his fingers by way of definition.

He saw no reason to deny it, and nodded as he sat up slowly, and accepted the bowl and spoon from Karal. "They didn't tell me anything we didn't already know, or at least not much. I'll let Firesong and Sejanes know as soon as I've eaten."

Karal looked better than he had in days, and An'desha wondered if that was all due to the work of the Shin'a'in Healer, or if the Avatars had a hand in it. He suspected the latter, and not for the first time wondered what the link between Vkandis and the Shin'a'in Goddess was. The Avatars seemed quite drawn to Karal, and he to them.

On the other hand, they are very compassionate by nature, and he certainly deserves compassion and sympathy.

"Florian and I are going out for some fresh air. Do you want to go with us?" Karal invited nonchalantly. "I'm tired of being down underground like a hibernating bear; I want to see the sun before I go mad." He shook his head. "I can't imagine how that mage was able to stand being cooped up in here."

"You may see the sun, but you won't feel it," An'desha cautioned." It's so cold that if you pour out a cup of water it'll be ice before it hits the ground."

"So I'll bundle up," Karal shrugged. "I've felt cold before. Karse isn't exactly a pleasure garden in winter, and up in the hills, there's snow on the ground for half the year. I'm beginning to sympathize with the gryphons; if I don't see some open sky, I'm going to start babbling."

"Then I'll go with you." It didn't take An'desha very long to pull on a heavy tunic, a second of the same weight, then his quilted Shin'a'in coat over it all, but Karal needed a little more help getting all that clothing on. He was quite steady on his feet, however, which An'desha took to be a good sign of his recovery.

By now, Master Levy was deep in his prodding and poking of the floor, and he jotted down measurements and diagrams in one of his notebooks. Silverfox and Firesong were sitting on their heels, the pages of notes neatly stacked in front of them, regarding another sheaf of their own notes with some dubiousness. "Where are you two going?" Silverfox called as the three of them passed by.

"We're going out for some fresh air," Karal replied. "Why don't you join us? We'll go frighten the Shin'a'in into thinking what you found in the workroom turned us all into monsters." He made a hideous face and Silverfox laughed.

"Fresh air? Not a bad idea." Firesong raised his head as Karal tendered his invitation. "We aren't making much more out of these notes. Maybe a little sun will wake up my mind. Go on out, we'll catch up with you."

An'desha noticed at once that their hosts had been at work on the tunnel to the surface—the opening they had made into the side of the Tower was large and quite regular, without any debris of broken masonry to trip over. The tunnel was also wider, though no higher, and there had been some extensive work done in shoring it up since the last time he'd come through it. It was still claustrophobic, but on this trip he no longer had the feeling that the tunnel was going to collapse and trap him at any moment.

He sent a small mage-light on ahead of Karal; he couldn't see past Florian's rump, so a mage-light was hardly of much use to him. Altra had declined to come, saying that he had seen quite enough of snow, and was planning another nap in Karal's bed.

He scented the outside before he saw any indication they were nearing the entrance. Although the air below remained remarkably clean, and the scents that lingered, thanks to some small magics on his part and Firesong's, were all pleasant in nature, there was a fresh quality to the outside air that nothing below could duplicate. Some of that was due to the cold, but not all.

The other thing they could not duplicate below was the light. As he stumbled out into the late afternoon sunlight, he squinted and put out a hand to steady himself against Florian's side. There wasn't a single cloud in the sky; the great bowl of the sky itself was an intense and blinding blue, and with all of the glare reflected off the snow, there was as much light coming from below as above.

Karal stood to one side, taking in huge gulps of air, his pale face taking on more color with every breath. Florian trotted off and kicked up his heels friskily.

Seen from the outside, the Tower itself was hardly more than a snow-frosted stub of melted-looking rock protruding from a snow-covered, rolling hill; the only projection above the otherwise flat Plains at all, not prepossessing except for its size. Because they had dug a long, slanting tunnel to reach the wall of the Tower below, the entrance came out quite some distance from the remains of the Tower itself, and it was at the foot of the Tower, precisely above the point where they had broken into the walls, that the Shin'a'in had pitched their tent-village. The round felt tents, white and brown and black, made a very orderly and neat array against the snow, so neat and orderly that it looked like a model rather than a place where people were actually living and working.

"Whoof!" Firesong exclaimed from behind An'desha, as Florian frisked and gamboled in the snow with Karal laughing and throwing snowballs for him to dodge. "Very bright out here! I shouldn't wonder if you could get a worse sunburn than in high summer!"

Silverfox ducked as Karal turned and lobbed a snowball at them. Karal laughed, and the kestra'chern pelted after him, swearing vengeance, while Firesong looked on indulgently.

"So," the Adept asked quietly, while Karal and Silverfox took shelter behind facing snowbanks, and hurled missiles at each other. "What did your Avatars have to say for themselves?"

An'desha flung him a startled glance, and Firesong chuckled at his expression. "You have a certain quiet glow after you've gone visiting them," the mage told him. "It's not terribly obvious, but it's there if you know what to look for. So? What did they have to say? Anything useful?"

"Mostly that nothing has changed that much. We've successfully bought some time for ourselves and our friends, things outside the areas we protected are deteriorating quickly, and eventually even our time will run out," An'desha said, wishing his news was better.

Firesong nodded, unsurprised. "And when our time runs out, we'll get—what? A replication of the Cataclysm? After all, everything is supposedly converging here."

"Maybe. Even They don't know for sure." An'desha sighed. "If She has any idea, She's not saying anything. If you want my guess, the gods are doing what They always do—unless and until all life is threatened with catastrophe, They'll see to it we have the tools and the information to find our own solutions, then leave us alone to find them. The Avatars think the things we're finding in the Tower will help us, but—"

"'But there's no clear 'future' to see or even guess at." Firesong looked surprisingly philosophical. "I'm determined to see this as an opportunity; for once in my life there isn't a god or a spirit or the hand of fate or prophecy or anything else demanding that I trace a certain pattern on the pages of time. We're going to make our own future here, An'desha, and nothing is going to interfere with us to make it go some other god-ordained way. There's a certain satisfaction in that, you know."

"I suppose so," An'desha replied; he would have said more, but Silverfox suddenly broke off the snowball fight to peer into the north, and point.

"Look!" he exclaimed with glee, as Karal dropped his final snowball without throwing it to squint in the direction he indicated. "Gryphons! Yes! They have a carry-basket, and I think they've brought Tarrn!"

An'desha shaded his eyes and narrowed them against the glare, and finally made out four sets of flapping wings with a half-round shape beneath them. He couldn't think what else would have that particular configuration except four gryphons and a large carry-basket.

"Come on!" Silverfox crowed. "Let's go meet them!"

He set off at a run; Florian loped up and half-knelt beside Karal, who pulled himself onto the Companion's back. The two of them quickly overtook Silverfox; Firesong cast an amused glance at An'desha and indicated the others with a finger.

"Shall we trundle along behind?" he asked.

"It would only be polite," An'desha pointed out. "And besides, the Shin'a'in have cleared a perfectly fine path between here and there. It would be a shame not to use it."

They followed in Silverfox's wake, though at a more leisurely pace. By the time they arrived at the Shin'a'in tent-village, the gryphons and their passengers had already landed and been taken into one of the tents. It was easy to tell which one; there was only one that was large enough to hold four gryphons at once, and only one whose pallet of snow had been churned by gryphon claws.

Dark-clad Kal'enedral nodded as Firesong waved to them, then went about their own business. An'desha pulled the entrance flap aside, and he and the mage entered the tent, being careful to let in as little cold air as possible. It took quite a bit of time for An'desha's eyes to adjust to the darkness inside the tent after all the snow glare outside; he stayed where he was while he waited, listening to the chatter of at least half a dozen creatures all speaking at once.

He looked around as soon as he could make anything at all out; he didn't recognize any of the gryphons, but he hadn't expected to. They were all arranged at one side of the tent, and it came as no surprise to see that they were eating—or rather, gorging. Not only would they have to recover from the stress of carrying their passengers all the way from K'Leshya Vale, but they would have to recover from the stress of dealing with the cold as well.

Karal was conversing with the gryphons, occasionally helping them where the quarters were too cramped for them to move themselves. Silverfox, however, was engaged in a highspeed conversation with a gray-muzzled, but jaunty-looking kyree.

This odd creature, vaguely wolflike as to the head and coat, but also vaguely catlike in body shape and proportions, was easily the size of a small calf. An'desha knew more about kyrees from personal experience than from Falconsbane's memories, as Mornelithe Falconsbane in all of his incarnations had very little to do with the creatures. An'desha, on the other hand, was quite familiar with Rris, the kyree representative to the Kingdom of Valdemar and the Alliance. Rris might look like this old fellow many years from now; his muzzle was quite white, and his head was liberally salted with paler hairs among the black. He was tired, but clearly in good spirits, and he chatted with Silverfox like the old friend he probably was.

Or to be more accurate, Silverfox chattered; the kyree, who could only Mindspeak, nodded and made replies in his own inaudible fashion. Until Tarrn chose to "speak" in the "public" mode, no one would hear him except those he chose.

With him, bundled in so many layers of quilted clothing he resembled a roll of brightly colored Kaled'a'in bed coverings, was a hertasi. He was practically sitting on a brazier, since the lizard-folk were very susceptible to cold. It wasn't that they were cold-blooded, precisely, it was that they were not able to control their own body temperatures very efficiently. Opinions were divided on whether hertasi had been created by Urtho or by an accident involving magic, but in either case their physiology had some flaws, and this was the major one. The poor thing could very easily lose limbs to the cold, or would go involuntarily into a kind of hibernation. Layers of clothing would not necessarily help this, especially not during a long journey in bitter cold, hence the brazier now and whatever other measures the Kaled'a'in had taken. All that could be seen of this hertasi was the end of the snout and a pair of alert, bright, and apparently happy eyes peeking out of the depths of the hood.

A great deal more of Tarrn was visible. An'desha knew kyree from his acquaintance with Rris, but he had not had much opportunity to get to know any hertasi. A few had come with Silverfox and the Kaled'a'in delegation to Valdemar, but he hadn't had much to do with them. And of course, Falconsbane was universally despised by both races, in all his lives, so he would hardly have had any congress with them.

At just that moment, the hertasi spoke up; the hertasi associated with the Kaled'a'in tended to vocalize far more often than they used Mindspeech, the exact reverse of the habits of the ones associated with the Hawkbrothers.

"I believe I am thawed enough to make the dash for the Tower," he said, in a high-pitched voice with hints of a whistling sound underlying the tone.

:Excellent, Lyam,: the kyree replied. :They tell me our baggage is already there, waiting for us. If we truly make a dash, you won't get too much of a chill.:

"Florian says he'll be happy to carry Lyam, if Lyam thinks he can cling on," Karal spoke up. "Florian can get him to the tunnel mouth faster than he can get there on foot." He turned toward the hertasi, polite but a little uncertain in addressing such an odd creature. "A Companion's gait is very smooth, and I've never heard of one losing a rider, and you should see one run!"

"I have never tried riding, but if I can get from White Gryphon to here without the loss of limb or tail, I think I should be able to survive an attempt on a Companion's back," the hertasi said with warm good humor. "And almost anything is worth not having to walk through snow myself!"

"We ssshall ssstay herrre overrrnight," one of the gryphons said. "Thisss issss verrry comforrrtable, and we do not want to go underrrgrrround even to sssee the Towerrr!" The others nodded with agreement.

"It isss wonderrrful to be wherrre the grrreat Ssskandrrranon once wasss, but he did not have to crrrawl underrrgrrround," said another, flicking his wings nervously. "I do not know how Trrreyvan and Hydona borrre it."

The kyree didn't shrug, but An'desha had the impression that if he could have, he would have. "Suit yourselves; you will have to make do with my descriptions, then."

"Yourrr dessscrrriptionsss will be asss if we werrre therrre," the first gryphon said firmly. "I will fly the ssssky that Ssskandrranon flew, and that will be enough forr me."

Tarrn stood up, and shook himself thoroughly. :One more dash, then, and we will be where no kyree or hertasi has set foot in thousands of years!: He seemed to relish the prospect with scarcely-restrained glee, and the air of a creature a quarter of his apparent age. :Well, friends, let us take these last few paces at the gallop!:

Firesong, who had known many kyree and hertasi in his life, was comfortable with these two immediately. Tarrn had all of the warmth and wisdom of Irrl, one of Firesong's academic teachers, and Lyam had a great deal more assertiveness than most of the normally-timid Vales-bred hertasi. Although Firesong loved to be petted and made much of by his own hertasi, he had always found the shyness of the Vale hertasi something of an irritation. Someone once suggested that their manner was reflective of the deep trauma they had suffered during the Cataclysm, and that worried him deeply; if that was so, how would they react to another such event?

They'll cope, I suppose; it's the thing they do best. I don't know how they manage.

Both kyree and hertasi were at heart cave- and den-dwellers, and both of the new arrivals were obviously comfortable in the Tower. They settled into the same room shared by Karal and An'desha with every evidence of content. They had not yet moved in their luggage, but the Shin'a'in had brought appropriate bedding material for both of the new guests—and extra warming pans for both beds. As far as personal belongings went, the two had traveled much lighter than he had expected. Their main luggage consisted of boxes of very special writing materials; books of tough paper with waterproof metal covers that locked over the contents like protective boxes, and ink that would never run once it had dried, even if water was spilled directly on it. Tarrn was a historian; not a traditional kyree historian like Rris, who memorized and recited from memory—but the kind of historian like the Chronicler of Valdemar, who attempted to personally view as much as possible of epochal events, and to note the honest and bare facts in record-books called Chronicles. Only when those hard facts had been listed would Tarrn then make his own interpretations of the events, written separately in Commentaries. Tarrn was very serious about his calling; he would rather have the fur pulled out of his tail until it was as naked as a rat's than put a personal interpretation in the Chronicles.

Actually, that wasn't precisely true. Tarrn would dictate, for, having no hands, he could not write. Lyam would do the actual writing. Lyam was Tarrn's third secretary in a long life as a historian, and his relationship with the kyree was obviously based on affection and mutual respect. Normally it was Lyam who cared for the kyree's needs, but with Lyam just now the one who was in need, Tarrn was seeing to it in a quiet and dignified manner that Lyam got first priority.

Lyam needed warmth more than anything else, and Karal volunteered to take care of him. Firesong had an idea that he knew why, too. At heart, Karal still considered himself to be the young secretary who had ridden to Valdemar from Karse, and he must be feeling a great deal of empathy for Lyam.

That's good; they are both strangers in strange places, and it will do them good to have a friend with the same—outlook? Status? They have a lot in common, anyway.

Tarrn, however, was quite ready for work, and looked it. He had been consulting with Silverfox all the way here from the tent-village. Firesong could not imagine where he was getting the energy.

He approached Firesong with Silverfox still in tow as soon as Karal took Lyam off to be wrapped up in warmed blankets and given something hot to drink.

"Firesong, Tarrn wants to speak with you privately, before we get to work," Silverfox told him, with a quizzical expression. "He says he has something for you, but he can't tell me what it is."

The kyree nodded his head as Firesong turned to look down on him with surprise. :Indeed, Firesong k'Treva,: Tarrn said with grave courtesy. :I have. Would you come with me to where they have brought our belongings?:

"Certainly," Firesong replied with equal courtesy. "Would you prefer that I Mindspoke with you?"

:That will not be necessary, but thank you,: Tarrn replied, turning and walking slowly toward the heap of bundles that the Shin'a'in had left just inside the main room of the Tower.

:It is not that this is a secret matter,: the kyree continued. :It is simply that I have not been given permission to say anything to anyone else before I discharged my obligation.:

"Oh?" This was getting odder with every moment. Firesong couldn't think of anything or anyone among the Kaled'a'in of k'Leshya Vale who would have had anything to send to him.

Tarrn stopped beside the pile of belongings. :If you will please remove the three bags of Lyam's clothing there—: he indicated the drab bundles with his forepaw. :—you will find what I brought you beneath them. It is wrapped in blue wool, and it is very long and narrow.: Firesong easily moved the three packages, revealing a long, narrow packet wrapped in blue wool cloth and tied with string. Firesong picked it up.

And it Mindspoke to him.

:Hello, boy.: The grating, decidedly female voice was all too familiar to him, although it was not one he had expected to hear ever again.

"Need?" he gasped, as he tore at the wrappings, trying to free the blade within. Lyam must have wrapped it; the string was tied in a complicated knot-pattern only a hertasi or a kestra'chern could admire. He finally pulled off the string, the fabric fell away, and there was the ancient spell-bound sword. She looked precisely as she had the last time he saw her, strapped to Falconsbane's "daughter" Nyara's side as she and Herald Skif rode out of Valdemar to become Selenay's envoys to the Kaled'a'in and Tayledras, and possibly to the Shin'a'in as well.

"Need, what are you doing here?" He hadn't been taken so completely by surprise since—since he'd been kidnapped by his ancestor Vanyel!

:Nyara doesn't require me anymore; she's better off on her own,: the sword said to him. :There's nothing at k'Leshya that she, Skif, or the Kaled'a'in can't handle. You, on the other hand, are dealing with very old magics. I am very old magic, and I still recall quite a bit. I helped you once before, and I'm hoping I can help you again.:

Firesong held the sword in both hands, and stared at it. It was very disconcerting to be Mindspeaking with what should have been an inanimate object. A sword didn't have a face to read, eyes to look into, and it was difficult to tell if it could read his expressions.

But there's something about all this that doesn't quite make sense yet.

"I find myself wondering if there is something more to this than just an urge to help us here," he said finally. "You've never put yourself in nonfemale hands before."

:Hmm—let's say I've never done it deliberately, but it has happened, and it was usually with lads who had the same taste in men as my "daughters.": The sword chuckled, but he sensed there was still a lot more than she was telling, and he decided to press her for it.

:Try again,: he said sternly in Mindspeech. :You're avoiding my question.:

A sword could not sigh, but he got that sensation from her.

:All right. I could tell you to work it out yourself, but why waste time? You've got mage-storms disrupting magic; you've managed to get them canceled out for the moment, but we all know this is only a temporary respite, not a solution. I'm magic. I've managed to hold myself together this long, but each Storm gets stronger, and sooner or later I'm going to lose to one. I don't know what will happen when I lose, but it's going to happen.: She paused for a moment :Worst case is that I'll go up in fire and molten metal, the way the sword was made. Best case is that the magic will just unravel, and there won't be anything here but a perfectly ordinary sword.:

He had never once thought that Need might be affected by the Storms; she had always struck him as being so capable, so impervious, that it never occurred to him that she might have been in trouble.

This bothered him. :I can't promise anything,: he said soberly. :I don't even know if we're going to survive the end of this ourselves.:

To his surprise, the sword laughed, though rather sardonically. :You think I don't know that? If I go pfft, I don't want little Nyara to see it happen. She had enough troubles in her life and she shouldn't lose an old friend and teacher in that unexpected a fashion. Besides, if I'm going to go, I want to do it while I'm trying to accomplish something. How could I miss a chance at getting my hand in on what you're trying to do—It's complicated, it's dangerous, it's challenging, it's irresistible.:

"If you say so," he said aloud, but strapped the sword on anyway, for she required his presence to be able to see and hear clearly. Without a bearer, it took incredible effort for her to perceive anything, and at that it was only dimly. He didn't often carry a blade, and she felt very odd, slung across his back in Tayledras fashion. "An'desha will probably be happy to see you, but you're going to have to explain yourself to the rest. They don't know anything about you."

And the gods only know what the Shin'a'in are going to make of her. Yes, Kethry had carried her, and Kerowyn after that, but still—she was yet another creature of magic inside the heart of the Plains. How much more were they going to be willing to allow?

:I can't wait,: Need replied, with a bit less irony than he expected. :There's something rather amusing about the reactions people get the first time I talk to them.:

Amusing? Oh, gods. Firesong buried his irritation at this particular complication in an already complicated situation; after all, Need was right about her abilities. She did know much older magics than anyone here, and that included An'desha. That might be crucial at this point, for there could be something ancient and long-forgotten that would give them all the clues they needed to solve this situation. She was a powerful mage in her own right—something near to an Adept, or she never could have made the magics that bound her human soul to an iron blade. He, An'desha, and Sejanes were the only true mages here; having Need with them gave them a fourth.

And if she is right, and the mage-storms overwhelm her along with the rest of us, she won't have to worry about how she unravels. If she dissolves into flame and melted steel, we here among all these dangerous machines of power will have far more to worry about than her.

On the other hand, dealing with Need's irascible personality was not going to be easy. He rubbed his temples, feeling another headache coming on.

She Mindspeaks; perhaps I can get Tarrn interested in her. When he is not translating for us, wouldn't she be fascinating for a historian?

He could only hope that was the case, because he had the feeling that Need was not going to give him a choice about becoming her bearer. In this all-male enclave, he was probably the closest she was going to come to an acceptable bearer, for by now, even the female Companions they had ridden here on had begun the long journey back to Valdemar.

"Well, we might as well get this over now," he said aloud, as Tarrn watched him with interest. "I assume, sir, that you have made the acquaintance of my metal friend, here?"

:I have, and I hope she will continue to impart her tales of the past to me here, when our work permits,: Tarrn replied gravely, which made Firesong feel a little more cheerful about the situation. At least he wouldn't be burdened with Need's presence and personality all the time.

"Well, most of my other colleagues here don't even know she exists, so we'd better introduce her to them before she startles one of them into dropping something critical by mindspeaking to him without warning." Need remained silent after that little sally, which either meant that she agreed with him, or that she was insulted and was plotting revenge.

:An excellent plan,: Tarrn replied. :Carry on.:

He gathered them all together by the simple expedient of going into the central chamber, clearing his throat, and announcing, "Excuse me, friends, but something rather—unexpected—has come up that you really ought to know about."

That certainly brought everyone who understood Valdemaran boiling out, and the few Shin'a'in who didn't know the language followed the rest out of sheer curiosity.

Silverfox was the first to arrive, and stared at him as if he'd grown a tail. "Firesong," the kestra'chern began incredulously, "what are you doing with a sword?"

He removed Need from her sheath, just in case the leather and silk hampered her ability to Mindspeak at all, and held her out in front of him, balanced on his palms, as the others arrived. "Well. that's what I wanted to tell you all about," he said, flushing a little. "It seems we didn't get two additions to our little group here, we got three. I'd like you all to meet Need, those of you who haven't already encountered her."

"Need!" An'desha had only just emerged from the sleeping chamber, but there was no doubt that he was glad to see the mage-blade. "What is she doing here? This is wonderful!"

Firesong's expression must have been a bit sour, for An'desha took one look at his face and laughed. "Oh, it's that way, is it? You're the chosen bearer?" He looked down fondly at the blade. "Firesong is much too certain of his own expertise, dear lady; I trust you can teach him that there are other people here who are just as expert in their crafts as he. I warn you though, he looks much better this way than in a dress."

:Don't be so hard on him, boy,: the blade replied, amused. :Leave that job to me. I've got more experience at it.:

By now all the rest had gathered around, and were staring with varying degrees of fascination and puzzlement at the sword. "What is this?" Sejanes asked, brows knitted.

"Is this by any chance the famous sword called 'Need' that the ancestress of Tale'sedrin Clan once wore?" asked Lo'isha, as the other Shin'a'in gathered in a knot behind him, murmuring. "The one carried by our Clan-sib, Herald Kerowyn?"

"The same," Firesong all but groaned. "To answer you, Sejanes, Need is a magically made sword with the soul of its maker bound into it, and she is unbelievably ancient. Either she or Tarrn can probably tell you the story of why she did such a daft thing—"

:Hardly daft. Reckless, yes, and probably less than wise, but at the time we didn't have many options, and all of those were worse than what I did. Of course, I could have just folded my hands and done nothing at all, but—let's just say that went against my conscience and my nature.:

Those who didn't know what she was went wide-eyed with startlement at the sound of her projected mind-voice.

"The point is, she's from a time that actually predates the Mage Wars and the Cataclysm, at least so far as we can tell and that makes her an expert in magics much older than the ones we know," Firesong said, noting as he spoke that An'desha's eyes were unfocused, which probably meant he was talking privately to her. "She has volunteered to come help us, since her last bearer no longer requires her tutelage."

Master Levy rubbed his chin with one hand as he looked down on the sword with speculation. "What happens if and when the mage-storms overwhelm us here?" he asked. "If she is magically made—"

:Then unless I can manage to shield myself, which I'm not certain I can, I either go quietly or dramatically, and I don't know which it will be,: Need replied bluntly. :These Storms disrupt the patterns of magic so deeply they may as well be spells of Unmaking. But that would happen whether I was here or somewhere else, and I'd just as soon be trying to accomplish something. I told you, I'm not one to sit with folded hands, even if I still had hands to fold.:

"Wait a minute," Sejanes objected, speaking directly to the sword, glimmering with reflected light from above. "If you predate the Mage Wars and the Cataclysm, how did you survive them?"

:In a shielded casket in a shielded shrine in the heart of the triply-shielded Temple to Bestet, the Battle-Goddess,: she replied promptly. :And when the Cataclysm was over, the shields on the shrine and the casket were gone and I felt as if I'd been drained to the dregs. It took me years to recover, and by then I'd been moved to the armory since no one could figure out why I'd been put in with the Goddess' regalia in the first place. If I were inclined to such things, I'd have been indignant.:

Sejanes nodded. "It would be difficult to find such a situation again," he observed, stroking his chin with one hand. "Indeed, it is quite surprising that you were in that situation during the first Cataclysm."

:The only reason they had shields like that was because of the war with Ma'ar. I don't know of any Temples now with that kind of protection,: Need went on :Or to be more honest, I don't know of any that would offer me shelter. I might as well be doing something useful, and I just might be able to save myself while doing it.:

"Do you fear death so much?" Karal asked softly. Light rippled across the surface of the sword, as if Need reacted to that question.

Firesong expected a sarcastic reply, or none at all, but was surprised by both her answer and her sober tone.

:I don't fear death, youngling,: she said, with great honesty. :What I'm afraid of is more complicated than that. I don't want to vanish without fighting, I don't intend to just lie down and accept "death" passively. There is the possibility that I could meet my end violently, and if that is the case—:

"Then it would be better here," Sejanes said with finality, as a chill crept up Firesong's spine. "If there is a second Cataclysm and the effect penetrates this place, your demise will be insignificant compared to the violence that will be unleashed."

Light rippled along the surface of the blade again. :Good. You'd already considered that.:Need sounded relieved :I'd hoped I wouldn't be the bird of ill omen forced to point that out to you.:

 I would rather hope we can pull this off right to the very end, thank you. "No, just the one who forced us to think about it a little earlier than we wanted to," Firesong sighed.

Now she gave him one of her typical sardonic chuckles. :Consider it incentive to find a solution,: she told him.

Now, of course, those who had never met Need wanted to speak with her; Firesong handed her over to An'desha for that, although he was quite aware that she was not going to change her mind about her choice of a bearer. Somewhat to his surprise, Karal separated himself from the group for a moment and approached him.

"I'm not quite sure what to say, except that I know it isn't going to be easy or very entertaining to have Need literally on your back while we work our way through all this," Karal said quietly. "I've had teachers like her. They were very good, but not easy to live with, and you have my sympathy, for what it's worth."

"Thank you, Karal," he replied with some surprise. The last thing he had expected was sympathy or understanding from the Karsite!

"Just trying to—oh, I don't know." Karal smiled crookedly. "Believe it or not, I like and admire you, Firesong. We irritate each other sometimes, but who doesn't? And I never properly thanked you for what you did for me."

Firesong found himself blushing hotly, something he hadn't done since boyhood. "Oh, please," he replied, for once at a loss for words. "Don't thank me, we all—"

Karal shook his head. "I know very well what all of you did, and I won't mention this again since it obviously makes you uncomfortable. I just want you to know that it's appreciated and you are appreciated. And—well, I think I've said enough."

Considering that Firesong didn't think he'd be able to flush any hotter, Karal was probably right. When the Karsite rejoined the group talking to Need, it was a decided relief.

:Ahem.:

This time the mind-voice was Tarrn's, and Firesong was very glad to hear it.

"Can I help you, sir?" he asked, looking down at the kyree, who was in turn looking up at him with amused golden eyes. The white hairs of his muzzle contrasted strangely with the youth in those eyes.

:Since virtually everyone else is involved with speaking to our metallic friend, why don't we go have a look at those notes Silverfox says you are so concerned with? If this device is what I believe it to be, then the translation will be a simple one, and we may have some answers within a quarter-day.:

"Really?" Firesong's eyebrows rose.

:Mind you, this is likely to be the only case where the translation will be so easy,: Tarrn cautioned, :And that is only because I am familiar with similar devices used by our gryphons. I think this is probably an improvement on those devices, allowing visions as well as thoughts and—: He stopped, and shook his head until his ears flapped. :—and we really ought to just see for ourselves before I make too big a liar of myself. Shall we?:

Firesong got the notes and spread the pages out on the floor in one corner of the main chamber. He and the kyree bent over them in intense concentration, with Lyam taking notes beside them, and before very long, Tarrn was able to determine that the device was nothing more than an improvement on something he called a "teleson."

At that point, Silverfox joined them again, and by the time supper came and went, they had worked out not only the way to activate the devices, but also how to make more.

Provided, of course, that there were sufficient parts to do so. There were some esoteric components that needed to be prepared beforehand, and Firesong wasn't certain whether or not there had been any of those components among the parts in bins on the workbench. Both Tarrn and Silverfox were of the opinion that, although the Kaled'a'in could probably make more of these components eventually, it would take a great deal of trial-and-error to do so, given the vagaries of the way the language had changed over the centuries.

"Well, let's confine ourselves to activating the two we have," Firesong said at last, sitting back on his heels and stretching muscles that had cramped in his shoulders and back. "If they work, then we can see if we can make a third and get it to work. With communication open back to Haven, that will give us more than we'd hoped for; open it to Sunhame, and we're doubly advantaged. We can worry about being able to build more of these devices from scratch later, when we have the leisure."

"That seems a good plan to me," Silverfox concurred, rotating his head and neck to stretch out cramps of his own. "Let me go and get one of the devices and bring it up here, and that way we can actually test it over a little distance." He looked around. "We'll need someone with Mindspeech up here. That would be Tarrn, I suppose."

:That seems reasonable,: the kyree said agreeably. :We will also need a mage—Sejanes, perhaps—to activate it.:

"And I'll go down to the workshop and activate and man the other device down there," Firesong said, getting to his feet. He and Silverfox descended the stairs down into the workshop; Silverfox took one of the two devices from the bench and carried it carefully up the staircase again.

The instructions for activation had been quite unambiguous and equally simple, phrased in language that not even the passage of time had altered. Even a child, had he both true-magic and Mindspeech, would have been able to follow the instructions. It was obvious from the notes now that the reason these devices had not been put into use by Urtho was that anyone could "eavesdrop" on conversations held with their aid. That rather negated their value in a time of war. Urtho's notes had made it very clear that Ma'ar had many folks Gifted with Mindspeech in his ranks, and that he used it as he would any other tool.

Firesong only hoped that communications sent through these telesons would not be forced into the minds of those with Mindspeech; if that were to be the case, their use would be severely limited. Having to maintain ordinary shields was one thing; having to put up shields against something like coercion in order to block these communications out would be very uncomfortable. And for those who were untrained and unaware of their Gift, it would be impossible.

I don't want to drive people mad by having them suddenly forced to listen to strangers talking in their heads!

Well, there was only one way to find out for certain.

A very little magic was needed to help activate the device, and none to maintain it once it was active. There was nothing for mage-storms to disrupt; the device took Mindspeech and amplified it, using some resonance of an arrangement of crystals. The trick was, even those who normally would not be considered to have Mindspeech would be able to use it also; it only needed one so Gifted on one of the two telesons in order for the trick to work.

That would mean that Master Levy could talk with one of his fellow Artificers through the intermediary of a Herald, or a mage so Gifted could speak with Sejanes, who was not.

Hmm. And if the device isn't urgently needed, young Karal can talk with Natoli. The idea delighted him; now and again he had the urge to matchmake, and this was one of those times. It might be the strangest courtship ever on record, but if it worked—

Worry about that when you can get this ancient construction to operate! he scolded himself, and bent his concentration to doing just that.

A moment later—well, it seemed to be working. So far as he recalled the notes, it looked as if he had activated it. But—

:FIRESONG?: If it had been a real voice and not a mindvoice, the shout would have deafened him. As it was, it was excruciatingly painful!

"Aiii!" he shouted, clapping his hands over his ears, even though he knew that wasn't going to make a difference.

:Sorry.: That was a more normal "volume," although there was no sound involved. :Is that better?:

He didn't recognize the mind-voice; it certainly wasn't Tarrn. It also "sounded" rather odd, and he couldn't tell why. :Who is this?: he sent back cautiously, so as not to blast their minds.

:Sejanes. I must say, this is an interesting way to speak.: Firesong blinked for a moment, both to clear his thoughts and to try to pinpoint just why the mind-voice felt so strange. The mental images—

Wait, that's it. There are no mental images! There's no emotional flavor, no images, no leaking over of other thoughts! This is just like speaking, not like Mindspeech at all.

And that, for those who were not Gifted and not used to sorting through the wealth of additional information that came along with Mindsent "words," would be a good thing. :I believe we have a workable Pair of prototypes,: he sent back with glee.

His elation was matched by the others. After making certain that both devices were working according to the notes, and that all of the components were well-seated, the consensus was that they had earned a real respite.

But before they took that well-earned rest, everyone, Gifted and not, had a try at the teleson pair. The notes were correct; so long as one of the operators was Gifted, the result was the same, crisp, clear Mindspeech with no overtones of anything else. If both were Gifted, then the results were different; precisely like "normal" Mindspeech. To Firesong's relief, there was no "spillover" from the devices to those who were Gifted, although, as Urtho had indicated, the Gifted could "listen in" with perfect ease when the devices were in use.

Right now, that might be an advantage. It certainly wouldn't hurt to have more than two people at each Mindsent conference.

Altra had recovered enough from his last Jumps to take the device to Valdemar immediately, and insisted on doing just that, then and there. He saw no reason whatsoever to delay, and every reason to make all speed.

:With every mark that passes, it is more difficult to Jump,: he said firmly. :Why wait? It will be easier to Jump with an inanimate object, but "easier" does not mean "easy." I want to get this over with!:

There were no dissenting voices, so as soon as the mindmirror teleson had been wrapped in a cushion of quilts to keep it from any possibility of damage, Altra left, saying that he thought he would return in four days.

"We'll know if the device still works or if it works at the distances that Urtho claimed in two days, of course," Sejanes observed as they all prepared for sleep. Not that any of them really thought he would get much sleep after all the excitement that day. "In two days he'll be in Haven, and then it will just be a matter of getting one of the Heralds to try calling us."

He crept into his own bed—the only one that was a bed, since it was not possible for him to get into and out of a pallet on the floor.

"Or one of us can call them," Karal pointed out, and yawned. He was already in his bedroll, with Florian curled up at his back, taking the place of Altra as a living bedwarmer. "You know, I was really excited a couple of marks ago and I thought I'd never be able to get to sleep, but now—" He yawned again, and looked puzzled. "—now it seems as if this is an anticlimax."

Firesong had the answer to his puzzlement. "Well, we're all worn out—it's been a very busy day—but there's more to it than that." He tied up his long hair to keep it from knotting up while he slept.

:Permit the old pessimist,: Need interjected. :It's not an anticlimax, child, it's that this hasn't been the climax you think it should be. We have a new tool, and nothing more. If those devices hadn't worked, we would have gone on without them. We will find the answers here, if there are answers to be found, but the teleson is not one of those answers, and that is why it feels as if what we accomplished with them is only a minor addition to our work and not a major part of it.:

"Ah." Karal's face wore a sober expression of understanding. "I see what you are saying. We're not at the end of our work, just the beginning, and it's not even close to the point where we can celebrate. Well. That's a little disappointing, but at least we haven't fallen back."

"Exactly," said Firesong. "Which is all the more reason why you should get a good night's sleep. We'll need everyone in the morning." He leveled a sober look at Karal. "Especially you. I think we'll have work enough to make you and Lyam wish there were four of you."

"I'll be glad to get back to work," Karal said, with a weak smile, and on that note, Firesong extinguished the lights with a word, and it was not long before even he was fast asleep.

Five

What is the Shin'a'in saying? Darkwind asked himself, as he watched Duke Tremane trying to make out careful plans for the time when the mage-storms finally overcame the latest efforts to stave them off. Ah, I remember. "The best plans never survive the first engagement with the enemy." How has the Empire done so well when they insist on having detailed plans for everything?

The three of them sat around a small table in the Grand Duke's personal quarters, a table currently quite full, what with papers, glasses of water, and maps strewn across it.

"What do you two think?" Duke Tremane asked, setting aside the plans he and the Valdemarans had been discussing, and leaning over the table. As he looked up at them, his gray-brown eyes seemed anxious. "My scholars haven't been able to unearth any more information about the Cataclysm, and my mages have not been able to predict anything that these mage-storms have done."

Elspeth grimaced. "I don't know that much either, I'm afraid," she replied honestly. She glanced over at Darkwind, who shrugged slightly.

"I can only tell you of the effects the Cataclysm had, according to our records and traditions," he told the Grand Duke. "Those effects were widespread and all-encompassing. All magic was disrupted, from the Ice-Wall Mountains in the north to the borders of the Haighlei Empire in the south, and in an equal distance east, and west of what are now Lake Evendim and the Dhorisha Plains. If any shields survived the Cataclysm, I am not aware of it, but I must add that the Kaled'a'in groups my people are descended from had none of the greater mages with them."

"So shields might survive?" Tremane persisted, fiddling nervously with a pen.

Oh, how he wants to have some way to get his sort of magic back! Now that this area of Hardorn was buffered from the worst effects of the mage-storms, Tremane had given orders for some judicious use of magic to take some pressure from scarce resources—mostly burnables. The barracks and headquarters were all heated and lit with mage-fires and mage-lights now, and about half the time food was cooked using mage-fires in the stoves. It did make things more comfortable, especially in the barracks, which had been heated with dried dung, and were hardly illuminated at all. But Darkwind and Elspeth could both tell how much the Grand Duke wanted to be able to use magic for all of the things he was used to; the only trouble with that idea was that it just wasn't possible to do so. For one thing, magical energy ran thin and low here; Ancar had depleted it sorely, and it would take a long time to recover. There was enough for lights and fires—but not for something more complicated, such as blind scrying, or creating mage-walls to keep the "boggles" out. For another Hardorn was only buffered; there were still slight effects, and those were increasing, a little at a time, with every passing day.

Darkwind spread his hands wide, shaking his long, silverstreaked hair back over his shoulders as he did so. "That, I cannot tell you. The people to ask would be the k'Leshya, and they are somewhat difficult to reach at the moment."

He caught Elspeth's face taking on that slightly vacant look that meant she was Mindspeaking to Gwena, and he waited for her to say something. Tremane was always forgetting that Gwena was "present" in spirit, if not sitting at the same table, and the Companion would hardly forgo a chance to remind him.

"Gwena says that she can relay an inquiry to Skif's Cymry at k'Leshya Vale, and get the answer back in a couple of days," Elspeth said, her dark eyes crinkling at the corners, telling Darkwind that she was holding back laughter. Gwena had probably said far more than that, probably about Tremane and his faulty memory, but this was a diplomatic mission and such things would not be diplomatic to relate. "There are enough mages there that surely someone will know the answer. And she says if not, then she can relay on to Florian at the Tower and see if An'desha knows anything."

Not every Companion had that long-distance capability; in fact, there were only two in all of the world as far as Darkwind knew. One was Gwena, and the other was Rolan, the Companion of the Queen's Own. They were special; "Grove-born," the Heralds called it, and claimed that instead of being physically brought into being in the normal way, they simply appeared, full-grown, out of a grove in the middle of Companion's Field. They had unusually powerful abilities in mind-magic, and through most of the history of Valdemar there had never been more than one Grove-born Companion at once. But then again, this was, by all accounts both sacred and secular, a crucial point in the history, not only of Valdemar, but of this entire part of the world, and if ever there was the need for a second Grove-born Companion, this was the time.

Tremane chewed on his lip, and ran a hand over the top of his balding head. "You know," he said cautiously. "The fact that those weapons they are looking at in the Tower survived at all might indicate that some shields held, wouldn't it? Surely there were very powerful shields on that Tower at the time of the Cataclysm."

"And it might only indicate that things at the heart of the Cataclysm had some natural protection, like things in the eye of a whirlwind," Elspeth reminded him, twisting a silver-threaded chestnut curl around one finger. "I wouldn't count on that. I also wouldn't count on any of us, singly or together, being able to replicate shields created by the mages who lived back then. These were people capable of creating living beings—gryphons, basilisks, wyrsa—and I don't know of anyone living now who would even attempt such a thing."

Darkwind cleared his throat softly to regain their attention. "To get back to your question about the effects of the original Cataclysm—afterward, the natural flows of magic energy in those areas changed completely, and we can only assume that the same thing will happen again. And as for the physical world—well, we Hawkbrothers are still healing the damage that was created in the wake of the original Storms. If you think the monsters that you've seen so far are bad, wait until there are hundreds, thousands of them, when the number of warped and changed creatures equals or exceeds the number of normal creatures." He drummed his fingers on the table for a moment as he made some quick calculations. "To give you an idea, it has taken us something like two thousand years to clear an area approximately half the size of your Empire of dangerous creatures and even more dangerous magic."

Tremane brooded over his stack of paper for a moment. "So your suggestion would be...?"

Elspeth and Darkwind exchanged another look, and it was Darkwind who replied. "If our group at the Tower can't do anything—warn everyone you can reach, create what shields and shelters you can, assume that they won't hold, and endure. Make your plans after you see what the effects are this time."

The Duke made a sour face, but did not respond. Elspeth tried some sympathy.

"Duke Tremane, I know this is difficult for you, but at least you are in command of an area in which much of the magical energy has been drained away, and which never relied on magic to get things done in the first place," she pointed out. "You can count on most buildings staying up, most bridges standing firm, count on fires heating your barracks as they always have, candles lighting the darkness, and food cooking properly in a well-made oven. Hardorn is prepared for everything except what the final Storm will do to the physical world—and in a way, you can even prepare for that, simply by knowing what the last Cataclysm did."

Tremane sighed, and rubbed one temple with his fingers. "Yes, I know this, and I also know that this is not going to be the case in the Empire. Things were falling to pieces so badly that when I mounted my raid on that Imperial warehouse complex, the men there hadn't heard from their superiors in weeks, and now—I can't even imagine the state of chaos the Empire must be in. It's just that things were difficult for us before, and the one comfort I had was that I couldn't envision them getting any worse. Now I have to, and plan for it, somehow."

Elspeth shook her head emphatically. "You can't plan for this, Tremane. All you can do is to warn people of what they might expect, and put things in place that will give you information once the worst happens. The signal-towers, for one thing. They work almost as well as Companions, and you ought to make it a priority to get them manned by people who know how to use them. You ought to make it a priority to get more of them in place if it is at all possible! If every little village had a tower, the way every village has access to a Herald, you'd be able to get help to people long before a messenger could have reached you."

Darkwind nodded. "Don't plan for specific events; doing that will inevitably prove to be an exercise in futility."

"Plan for flexibility, you mean?" The Duke considered that for a moment, and nodded. "All right, I can see that." Then he sighed. "And plan for communication, put ways of bringing in information in place while we still can. That's good, as long as the trouble spots are places where there are still people living. But if they aren't, there could be a nest of something brewing, some monstrous creatures, say, and we wouldn't know about it until the creatures had wiped out an entire town. Maybe not even then."

He rubbed his forehead, and Darkwind saw the shadow of physical pain in his eyes, in the tense muscles of his homely face. "I just wish there was a way to watch the land," he said fretfully. "I used to be able to get my mages to scry entire stretches of countryside, and that's what I'd give my arm to have working again."

Darkwind exchanged another look with Elspeth. :What do you think? This is the best opening he's ever given us.:

:If we can make him believe in earth-sense,: she replied, with some pessimism. :Still, you're right. It isn't just the best opening, it's the only opening he's ever given us.:

:You, or me?: he asked.

:Me first, just to open the subject. I'm the local royalty, the local Herald, and the local expert in mind-magic. I could be expected to know about these things, and know if the Hardornens were just making something up. You pick up if you see an opening to insert something you know.:

He folded his hands on the table in front of him as she cleared her throat. "Duke Tremane," she said, "I may have a solution to that particular problem, and oddly enough it is a part of a proposition that the Hardornens outside your domain wanted me to make to you on their behalf." She smiled apologetically. "I think you probably were anticipating that the loyalists might ask us to serve as their envoys as well as envoys for the Alliance. We promised we would put their proposal before you at an opportune time, but we promised nothing else; that seemed harmless enough."

He looked up sharply, and a little suspiciously. "A proposition? What sort of proposition?"

Elspeth bit her lip and looked down at her strong, well-muscled hands for a moment. They were hardly the hands of a pampered princess, and Darkwind had a suspicion that Tremane had noticed this. "Well... it's a rather interesting one. It seems that they've been watching how you manage things here, and you've frankly impressed them. There seems to be a general consensus that under certain very specific circumstances, they would not only be happy to arrange a truce with you, but they would be willing to offer you the crown of Hardorn itself."

He looked as if she had hit him in the back of the head with a board. It was the first time he had ever actually shown surprise. "The crown? They'd make me their King? What about their own claimants?"

"There aren't any," Darkwind said crisply. "Ancar was very thorough when it came to eliminating rivals. We were told that there weren't even any claimants on the distaff side; apparently he didn't in the least see any reason to exclude his female relatives from the purges, nor children, nor even infants. From all anyone can tell, he went back to the fourth and fifth remove of the cousins. By the time he was finished, well, you have as much right to the throne as any of the natives, that's how thin the royal connections are."

We learned most of that when we were here last, but I don't think it would be politic to mention that little trip.

Tremane didn't exactly pale, but he did look a little shocked. "And I thought that politics in the Empire were cutthroat," he murmured, as if to himself. Then he blinked, and collected himself. "So, just what are these specific circumstances you were talking about? And how will all this give me intelligence about what is happening to the land?"

Elspeth toyed with her glass of water. "This is where I am going to have to ask you to stretch your imagination a bit, Tremane," she replied. "You know that mind-magic exists, now that you've seen the members of our party use it."

He nodded cautiously.

"You also have your own Healers who use Healing magic, which is similar to, but not identical with, mind-magic," she continued, "And you know that neither are affected by the mage-storms which are disrupting what we in Valdemar call true-magic."

"I'm following you so far," Tremane said with a nod.

"'Well, as near as we can tell, there is another form of magic which is like mind-magic and like Healing-magic, but isn't exactly either of them," she told him, leaning forward earnestly. "It's called earth-magic, and it seems to have entirely to do with the land, the health of the land, and restoring that health. We think that's what hedge-wizards and earth-witches use, rather than true-magic; people who are trained in those disciplines—so they tell me—also refer to their power as earth-magic, and they call what you and Darkwind and I are accustomed to using by the name of high-magic."

:Right. So you tell him about Hawkbrother Healing Adepts while I figure out how to segue this into the earth-binding ritual.:

Darkwind nodded very slightly and caught up the conversational ball. "We Tayledras have specialized Adepts, called Healing Adepts, who have the ability to sense the poisoned places, the places where magic has made things go wrong, and fix them again," he told Tremane, who was sitting back in his chair with an odd expression that Darkwind could not read. "And if you need evidence of how well this works, it is in the fact that we have restored so much of the land to the pre-Cataclysm days. The special ability that makes this possible—Elspeth's people would call it a Gift—is something we all call the earth-sense."

"It's not just Tayledras Healing Adepts and earth-witches that use this. Both the King of Rethwellan and my stepfather Prince Daren have earth-sense, in fact," she said, taking the narrative back. "It seems that the Gift has always been in the Rethwellan royal line. They haven't needed it for generations, but it's obvious how useful it is when you know that even though Daren was not familiar with Hardorn and not ritually tied to the land here, he could still sense what Ancar had done to it when he came here to help Valdemar drive Ancar out. That actually proved to be of tactical value, since it gave us an idea of where Ancar was finding all the power he needed."

Tremane nodded, his brows knitted intently, and seized on the phrase that they had both hoped he would. "Ritually tied to the land?" he asked. "Just what does that mean?"

"The monarchs of Rethwellan—and I presume, of Hardorn—have always taken part in a very old ritual known as earth-binding," she told him. "Because we in Valdemar do not have that particular ritual, I can't even begin to tell you how it works, or why, but when it is over, every major injury or change to the land is instantly sensed by the monarch. Ancar obviously never participated in that ritual, or he could not have done the things he did—I suspect that, as in Rethwellan, the earth-binding is part of the Hardornen private rites that take place just before the public coronation. Ancar crowned himself, without the usual rituals, so—" She shrugged. "My stepfather says that those who even have earth-sense latently can have it aroused by such a rite."

"The point here is that the people of Hardorn have found some of the priests of the old ways who know that ritual," Darkwind continued, as she glanced at him to cue him to take up the narrative. "They think that if you were to be tested for earth-sense and had it even latently, that would qualify you for the Hardornen crown. And if you were to undergo the earth-binding ritual, thus awakening the earth-sense and binding you to Hardorn, you would be a—a safe monarch for Hardorn, because you would be unable to harm, abuse, or misuse your land the way Ancar did."

"Because harming the land would hurt me." He lifted one eyebrow skeptically.

:Is he going to laugh?: Elspeth sounded dubious, and Darkwind didn't blame her. This was such a primitive, unsophisticated concept—for someone from the Eastern Empire, so sophisticated in the ways of magic that its power was used for practically everything, this must seem incredibly savage and crude.

But he didn't laugh, and in fact, he seemed to be thinking the concept over. "Can you tell me anything else about this earth-sense? Just what does it entail? How do you learn to use it."

"Among my people, it isn't very complicated," Darkwind told him. "You don't so much learn to use it as you learn to keep it from using you. It's rather like Empathy in a way, or extremely strong Mindspeech. You actually learn how to shut it out so that it doesn't affect you all the time."

"Interesting. I can see how it would be inconvenient to be affected adversely by the very condition you are attempting to remedy." His brows creased in thought. "And does it go the other way? Does the physical condition of the King affect the land?"

"Havens, no!" Elspeth exclaimed. "For one thing, the King is not exactly as—as monumental as a country! It would be like a flea stepping on a horse. For another, it's only a sense, like the sense of smell, and..." She trailed off in confusion as Darkwind shook his head.

"I hate to have to contradict Elspeth, but that's not entirely true, Duke Tremane," he said, feeling the need to be totally frank. "Under certain very specific circumstances, the health of the King who is bound to the land can affect the land. He can, in fact, sacrifice himself—give up his own life—to restore the land to its former health. This is something that my people know, and that the Shin'a'in not only know, but have even, very rarely, practiced. I must also say, however, that I personally do not believe that the Hardornens ever practiced that form of earth-binding. As with all crafts, there are scores, even hundreds or thousands of ways to do them, and nothing that they told us gave me any indication that they even know such a possibility exists. And I must also point out that to be valid, to have any chance of working, the sacrifice must be a self-sacrifice, entirely voluntary—and indeed eagerly sought by the sacrificial victim." He managed a thin smile. "Hauling one's King to the stone of sacrifice and spilling his blood upon the ground only serves as a sort of gruesome fertilizer to the local grass; it won't change anything else without that will to be sacrificed."

Tremane's brows crept halfway up his forehead as Darkwind imparted that choice bit of information, but he made no comment. After a moment, he stood up.

"I'd like to go think about this for a little," he said. "I assume you have a way of contacting someone if I make a decision?"

"I can find a contact,: Gwena said firmly in both their minds.

"We do," Elspeth told him.

"Then give me—about a mark," he replied. "I'll send for you, if you have no objections."

Since it had been a very long time since breakfast, and this would provide an excellent excuse to send their Imperial aide in search of food, Darkwind had no objections whatsoever, and neither did Elspeth. With a polite exchange of bows, they retired to their own quarters, leaving him sitting back in his chair, staring at the ducal ring on his finger, clearly deep in thought.

They were about halfway through a solid, if uninspired meal of bread and cold sliced meat and pickles, when Gwena announced that she had found the contact she had promised. :Go to the Hanging Goose Tavern after dark,: she told Darkwind. :It will have to be you, since I don't think that Elspeth would be welcome in this particular tavern, and if there are two of you, he might suspect a trap.:

Elspeth exchanged a wry glance with Darkwind and shrugged, applying herself to her food.

:You want to speak to the bartender who dispenses the beer, not the one who handles the harder drinks,: she continued. :You tell him, "I drink my beer very cold." He is supposed to reply, "That's an odd habit," and you say, "I picked it up in the West." He'll nod and ask you what your message is. He has a perfect memory, he'll pass it on word for word. If Tremane decides to take the gamble, I suspect you'll have your delegation, priest included, within a few days. Maybe sooner. They might have moved someone into a village nearby, hoping you would be able to offer him the proposition soon after we arrived."

"I rather suspected that the loyalists had agents in the city," Elspeth said, as she ate the last bite. "I couldn't imagine how they knew so much about him just from 'hearing things.' But this sounds as if the network has been well in place for some time. It takes a long time to find someone with a perfect memory who is trustworthy enough to act as a message drop. It makes me wonder if this tavern wasn't a contact point for... other things." She smiled suggestively at Darkwind.

He chuckled. "I am just a poor Hawkbrother scout with no knowledge of you city dwellers and your ways," he protested. "What other things?"

"Smuggling, maybe. Possibly intriguing against Ancar. And I'll bet the reason Gwena doesn't want me to go there is not because I wouldn't be welcome alone there either." She grinned at something Gwena said only to her. "I thought so." She reached out and patted Darkwind's hand. "The ladies working in this tavern will be selling more than just strong drink and food, my poor, uncivilized Hawkbrother. I suggest that you make it very clear to them that you aren't interested in their wares, or you might bring something inconvenient and uncomfortable home with you that would require a Healer's help to clear up."

He grinned back at her, and was trying to think of a clever retort when Tremane's aide came to fetch them.

The Grand Duke was waiting for them when they arrived, looking no different than when they had left him. They took their seats and waited for him to speak.

"Frankly, I am not entirely convinced that this earth-sense you told me about really exists," he said after a moment. "'And I honestly do not think, if it exists, that I happen to have it. It just seems all too very pat and too coincidental that out of all the people who might have been sent here, I would happen to have this sense which is needed at this particular time." He frowned a little. "It's rather too much like something a tale-seller might make up."

"Possibly," Darkwind replied. "But you might consider it before you dismiss this proposition out-of-hand. If you take as your premise that earth-sense does exist, and that the extreme form of it could only be... induced, let us say... by this ritual, then the lesser, or latent forms would be very useful to anyone who was in a position to rule even a small area. Having such a thing could explain why some landowners are more successful at managing their property than others—why some landowners have an uncanny ability to gauge what is going on with their property and people, and why some have remarkable hunches that always prove correct."

"I can see that," Tremane acknowledged.

"So, given that, it is logical to assume that those landowners whose lines were so Gifted would be more prosperous than others. would accumulate more property, and would eventually rise to higher and higher positions of power over the many generations," Darkwind persisted. "And in short, it would actually be logical to assume that a man who had been a ruler of property or even a King would be so Gifted, because his predecessors could not have prospered so well without it."

Tremane laughed out loud; it was the first time that Darkwind had ever heard him laugh, and he liked the sound of it. He often judged aspects of peoples' character by their laughter; Tremane's laugh was open, generous, and not at all self-conscious.

"I think that if you had not been born among the Hawkbrothers, you would have become a diplomat, a courtier, or a priest, Master Darkwind," he said finally. "You certainly can turn a fine argument. Now, hear me out, if you please."

Darkwind and Elspeth both nodded, and Tremane set forth his own reasoning.

"You must know, and they must know, that with or without this earth-sense, if my men and I can recreate order here—as we already have done, you might note—people will come to my banner without the title attached to it. That is the great secret of Imperial success. We wait until a land is disorganized and demoralized, and then we move in, offering peace, order, and prosperity. Usually people welcome us. Then, when they see the high level that Imperial prosperity represents, word spreads, and the lands we move on generally are half-conquered before the Army itself ever reaches them."

"That makes rather too much sense," Elspeth put in dryly.

He nodded his acknowledgment and continued, tapping his index finger on the table to emphasize each point. "You must make it very clear to these people that no matter what happens, I intend to go on holding this particular piece of Hardorn from now on, for myself, my men, and those Hardornens who have accepted my rule and my order without any of this earth-binding business."

"I think they are already well aware of that, Tremane," she answered just as frankly. "But I will make sure that arrangement is openly acknowledged on both sides. To be honest with you, there is no way that you can be dislodged with the few resources these Hardornen loyalists have at their command. That would take an army. The only armies large enough are those commanded by the Allies, and we are here representing the Allies in a gesture of peace and goodwill, so I don't think you need concern yourself about losing your hold on this place."

"Good. just so that we're all clear on that." He toyed with a corner of a piece of paper for a moment. "I can't say that I really care for the idea of subjecting myself to this ritual. It all sounds terribly primitive, somehow. But perhaps even if I don't believe I have this so-called earth-sense, the priest will be convinced that I do, and will let me go through with this ritual even if it is meaningless. Frankly, if that happens, it would be the easiest and quickest way to get all of Hardorn under my wing, and it would be done with absolutely no bloodshed." He smiled; an oddly shy smile, and Darkwind had the feeling that it was a rare smile, as if Tremane had even less to smile about than to laugh about. "How could I possibly turn away that kind of opportunity?"

"In your position, I certainly would not," Darkwind told him. "Well, is that the whole of your message?"

Tremane nodded. "And if you'll excuse me, I have matters regarding my men to see to. My aide can escort you back to your quarters, and if there is anywhere in the city you need to go, he can give you the proper directions."

:That won't be necessary,: Gwena said.

"Thank you," Darkwind replied, without giving any indication that he would take Tremane up on his offer.

Once again, after a polite exchange of bows, they departed for their own quarters. Elspeth had a thoughtful look on her face, but waited until they were alone again before saying anything.

She stood with her back to the cast-iron-and-brick stove holding the mage-fire, warming herself at it. A real fire also burned on the hearth, and between the two, their rooms were as comfortable as any in Valdemar. But the hallways of this fortified manor were still cold, despite the addition of such stoves, and they both tended to get chilled going from their quarters to Tremane's.

There was no doubt that this was one of the worst winters that Hardorn had ever experienced, even without the effect of the magestorms. The main difference in the weather now that the mage-storms had abated, according to their aide, was that now there were only snowstorms, not killing blizzards, every two weeks or so. With the incredible blanket of snow covering the ground, the sun couldn't even begin to melt it before another layer fell.

The modified Heralds' Whites that the hertasi had designed for her seemed particularly well-suited to the icy landscape outside. He wondered what the Imperial soldiers thought when they saw her; did they believe that her costume was meant to reflect the season, as Tayledras scout gear did?

"You know," Elspeth said finally, in Tayledras. "This situation has some interesting parallels in the history of Valdemar—the Founding, specifically."

"Oh?" Darkwind joined her, hands outstretched to the warm stove, wishing that there was something like a Hawkbrother hot spring or soaking pool about. It never seemed possible to be entirely warm except in bed. He responded in the same language. "I wasn't aware of that."

"'Well, Valdemar was fleeing the Empire rather than serving it when he and his followers trekked out in this direction, but when he got to the point where Haven is now and started building, he actually built beside an existing village," Elspeth replied, turning to face the stove and rubbing her hands together. "The locals there were not entirely thrilled with having a foreign power moving in, although they never actually opposed him. But once they saw the advantages of coming under his protection—and the way in which his own followers were treated—they began to act the way the Hardornens are with Tremane. And eventually, of course, they insisted that he call himself a King." She chuckled. "That was really rather funny; it seemed that every little petty ruler for leagues in every direction was calling himself a 'King,' and his own people were embarrassed to be led by a mere Baron. They had a crown made up, called in a priest to concoct a ceremony, and had him crowned before he had a chance to object. I gather that he was rather startled by it all."

Darkwind laughed. "That may be the first time I've ever heard of someone being tricked into becoming a King," he responded. "But you're right, I do see the parallels there."

She stared at the stove, frowning. "I think we can assume that Tremane is going to be offered the Crown, no matter what."

"I think that is a foregone conclusion, yes, lover"" Dark wind admitted. "Even if he doesn't have earth-sense, the priest may perform the binding anyway, just to make him eligible. I think he was right about that."

She sighed and nodded. "The next question may be how we arrange for there to be the same cheeks on the King of Hardorn that there are on the Son of the Sun, the King of Rethwellan, and the Queen of Valdemar. Solaris has to answer to Vkandis, Faram has both the earth-binding and his family's sword to contend with, and Selenay has her Companion." She chewed her lip. "Then again—we may already have those checks partially in place. Solaris did curse him with speaking only the truth, after all."

"Yes, but not the whole truth," he reminded her. "There are ways of lying simply by not telling all of the truth."

She grimaced, and turned away from the warmth to pace the room as she often did when she was thinking. "You may think I'm going mad, but I'm beginning to agree with young Karal; I think this man has a basically good nature. That entire interview about the assassins when we first arrived...."

Darkwind nodded, for he had come away with the same impression out of that interview; that Tremane was a man who would bear the dreadful burden of indirectly ordering the deaths of innocent people, and he would feel guilt about that for the rest of his life. Real guilt, not feigned. And it didn't matter that he had good reason at the time for his actions; what mattered was that he himself had changed over the course of these several months. What had been acceptable to him before no longer was.

But Darkwind also was aware that the man could be a very good actor. Most rulers were, to a greater or lesser extent.

"I still have some reservations," he said after a moment. "What occurred in the past is immutable. He has done terrible things to us, and without any provocation. Perhaps he has regrets now. but I find myself wondering if he might not revert to his old ways under pressure."

She sighed. :I think we'd better continue this conversation in a way that can't be overheard,: she cautioned.

:Good idea. Sejanes had some magical way of learning Valdemaran and other tongues; there might be someone else here who can do the same thing.: Granted, there might not be enough mage-energy for them to do so. but why take the chance? :We Tayledras are more suspicious than any other race, I think, but I wish I knew if it was Tremane's better nature that had been subverted by the expediency of the Empire, or his expedient nature that has chosen to disguise itself as a good heart for—well—!:

:He's in a position to do everyone more good than harm right now,: Gwena pointed out, joining the conversation.

:Gwena's right; and in fact, that's exactly what he has done,: Elspeth seconded. :Look at his record: granted, he coopted the best structure in the area for his headquarters, but other than that, he lives a relatively lean life for someone who is basically the uncrowned king of this area. He eats exactly the same food as his men, he isn't wasting precious resources on extravagant entertainments for his own benefit; in fact, he's pouring a lot of those resources back into the community here. He never asks his men to do anything he wouldn't, and he's usually out there leading them in person.:

:He thinks first of his men, then of the local folk, then of their land and their beasts, and then of himself,: Gwena put in. :That is the pattern that I'm seeing, and honestly, while some of that might be expediency, it can't all be explained by that.:

Darkwind chuckled. :I'm glad he's not handsome; I'd be jealous. He's managed to seduce both my ladies away from me.:

Elspeth picked up an inkstand and pretended to throw it at him; he ducked.

:Consider yourself kicked,: Gwena retorted.

:Honestly, ke'chara, I would like to give him the chance to prove himself, and the way he handles the next crisis—which is going to be very, very bad, I think—will tell us what he's really made of," Elspeth replied.

Darkwind chewed on that thought a while before replying, wondering if they were all making a terrible mistake. He wanted to believe in Tremane, and in the idea that the man was finally allowing himself to behave in a moral fashion rather than a calculated one. How must it have felt, to spend most of one's life having to plot each and every action without regard to whether or not it was ethically right? If he himself had been in that position, he'd have been driven mad.

:All right,: he said at last, :but I have one proviso.: His jaw tensed as he hardened his mind. :If he proves treacherous, and a danger to the Alliance—if he is going to cost more lives—we take care of the situation ourselves.:

:You mean, kill him.: Elspeth nodded, very slowly. :I don't like it—but I don't want another Ancar, much less another Falconsbane. He's used to using magic, and it would be very tempting to resort to the blood-path to get the power he's used to having.: She shivered, and so did he; they had both seen far too much of the results of that path. :We've done this before, and I'd rather the blood were on our hands, I suppose, than find that even more innocent blood had been spilled.:

It was a nasty moral trap; when was murder acceptable? But that was the moral trap that the Tayledras had always been in. Darkwind himself had faced it many times—warning trespassers three times, and assuming that if they did not heed the warning, they were in Hawkbrother lands for evil purposes. How many would-be enslavers of tervardi and hertasi, mages hunting for yet more power for the wrong purposes, and would-be murderers of Hawkbrothers had he eliminated over the years? Enough that he had lost count.

Elspeth only had a handful of deaths on her conscience, but she was prepared to add another if the need was there.

:And with any luck, we'll all discover that our pessimism is unfounded,: Gwena said cheerfully. :I'll tell you what; I will see if I can tell whether or not Tremane has earth-sense, while you make contact with the loyalists. Darkwind, my dear, we need to rummage through your wardrobe and find something in it that will not scream foreigner to every person in the town.:

:What do you mean, we, horse?: he asked her.

Darkwind found his messenger—and Gwena's careful probe of Duke Tremane uncovered only a verdict of "maybe." Four days later, their aide knocked tentatively on the door to their quarters just after they'd finished breakfast. "Excuse me, Envoys?" he said, when Darkwind opened the door to him. "I don't want to interrupt, but there's a religious gentleman below who says that you called for him?"

Elspeth turned in surprise. Despite Gwena's assurance, she hadn't really expected an answer to their message this quickly. The man really must have been fairly close by; that argued for certainty on the part of the Hardornens that they had made Tremane an offer he would find irresistible.

"We have been expecting him, Jem," Darkwind told the young man. "We just didn't know when he would arrive. If you are reasonably sure that it is safe to do so, please show him the way up. Otherwise, if you are not happy with a potential breach of security, we can arrange to meet him in the town."

Jem flushed. "Oh, no. He's just an old man—it won't cause any problems. I just didn't know if you wanted to be bothered with him, if he might be a charlatan or—" He flushed even redder, realizing that he might have inadvertently insulted all of them.

"That's fine, Jem. Please show him here, and arrange for something hot for all of us to drink. And perhaps more food, he might not have broken his own fast yet," Elspeth said, in her kindest tones.

The aide bowed a little, still red with embarrassment, and left quickly. Tremane's aides were far more used to military situations than to the diplomatic ones they now found themselves hip-deep in. Elspeth found it rather charming, actually; military men were, in general, much easier to deal with and much more straightforward than civilians.

The old man and the second breakfast arrived at the same time; Elspeth privately thought that she wasn't too surprised Jem had taken him for a possible charlatan. There was nothing at all remarkable about him. His hair, gray and a touch on the shaggy side, looked as if he had not put a scissors to it lately. His build was that of a long-time clerk whose parents may have been merchants or tradesmen of modest means. His face, square, with a small beard, was lined with care, yet had smile-creases bracketing his mouth and eyes. His robes and cloak were clean and serviceable, but hardly impressive, he wore no liturgical jewels, and his manner was unassuming and cheerful. All of which, in her experience, meant that he was probably a very good priest; good priest, like good leaders, gave more to their followers than they kept for themselves, and were not particularly conscious of appearances.

They introduced themselves and offered the old man, who called himself Father Janas, their hospitality. As Elspeth had anticipated, he hadn't eaten, and he applied himself to the food with a hearty appetite. They kept conversation to a minimum until he had finished; once he had taken his cloak off, it was fairly obvious that, like most Hardornens, he had been sharing in the hard times. He wasn't emaciated, but he was thin enough that he had probably been on the same short rations as his followers.

"Oh, that was lovely," he said at last, when he had finished, and leaned back in his chair cradling a cup of hot tea laden with honey. "I'm afraid that my besetting sin is that I cannot resist good food." He laughed. "Since we are supposed to be concentrating on the spiritual world rather than the secular world, I suspect I shall be chided for my failing sooner or later by those to whom I must answer."

Darkwind smiled at that. "I would rather say that you were showing proper joy and respect for the bounty of the earth," Darkwind replied, and the old priest chuckled, a twinkle in his eyes.

"Well, shall we deal with the reason that I am here, rather than engage in rationalizing my shortcomings" he asked, after taking a sip of his tea. "As I assume you suppose, I have come to test Duke Tremane for earth-sense, which will mean that I will awake it if it is there; and once I have done so, I will bind him to Hardorn. Now, nothing I have been vouch-safed has given me any indication that he does or does not have the Sense, and I am quite sure that he has no idea what is going to happen, do either of you?"

Elspeth shook her head. "We don't use that Gift in Valdemar, or, rather, if we do, it isn't used by Heralds, Bards, or Healers. And those are the only ones whose training I'm familiar with," she said. "My stepfather has it, but we've never discussed it much, and he was never formally bound to Valdemar. I've heard of other latent Gifts being awakened as a theoretical possibility, but no one in my lifetime has ever tried such a thing."

Darkwind shrugged, as the priest turned to him. "The Tayledras Healing Adepts all develop earth-sense along with their other abilities," he replied. "It doesn't come on them all at once, and if anyone has it latently, we've never bothered to awaken it. I haven't any idea how someone would react in such a circumstance."

Father Janas raised an eyebrow. "It can be rather dramatic," he said cautiously. "Assuming that one has it latently, rather than having a very weak version of the Sense, that is. We have always conducted this particular ceremony several days before the actual coronation of our kings, precisely because of that. It sometimes takes the recipient a good deal of time to get u