/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy, / Series: Valdemar (08): Mage Winds

Winds Of Fate

Mercedes Lackey

Since Herald Vanyel's time, all forms of magic, except for Mind magic, ceased to exsist in Valdemar's borders. A mage couldn't even go into Valdemar before he was driven out because of the unseen "eyes" watching him or her. But now, magic is slowly coming back and Ancar, an evil bloodpath-mage from Hardorn knows it. Elspeth, Herald and Heir to the throne of Valdemar, must take up the task and go to seek outside help. She becomes bound to Kerowyn's Sword Need and through Elspeth, the Sword "awakens." and tells her story. Elspeth and Skif set off to go to Kethry and Tarma's Mage schools that are in Tale'sedrin. We are introduced to another main character, Darkwind k'Sheyna who is a Tayledras and a Mage. These are troubled times for his clas an well because their HeartStone went rogue, killing half the mages holding a Gate open and destroying the Gate, leaving half the clan somewhere out beyond their reach. Darkwind's father has changed and his mother was killed, so he vowed not to be a mage anymore. During this book, Elspeth's and Darkwind's paths meet and they decide they need to help eachother, for a dark and mysterious mage is trying to destroy the k'Sheyna Vale. It is left up to Darkwind to take up his dormant powers and train Elspeth in becoming the First Herald-Mag since Vanyel Ashkevron's time.

Winds of Fate

By: Mercedes Lackey

Dedicated to the memory of Donald A. Wollheim A gentleman and a scholar

 Prologue The Legend"

Long ago, in the days of the first King, for whom the Kingdom of Valdemar is named, it came to the King that he was growing old. Now Valdemar had led his people out of the hands of a tyrannical monarch and had no wish to see them fall again into the hands of tyranny. He knew that his son and Heir was a worthy, honest man-but what of his son's sons, and theirs?

He longed for a way to determine who would be a worthy successor to the throne, so that Valdemar the kingdom need never become less free than it was at that moment.

So he went into the fields and gardens beside the Palace, alone, and wrought what was half a prayer and half a spell, begging all benign Powers for their aid in this desire of his.

And as the last rays of the sun died from the sky, there was a mighty wind, and a shaking of the ground, and out of the grove of trees before him came a being like unto a white horse. And it spoke into his mind-Then came a second, and a third, and before Valdemar could think to question why these came, his own son and his chief herald came to the place as if they had been called. And these two beings spoke into their minds, also, saying "I Choose you." So did the king know then that these Companions would choose only worthy folk to bear them company, for all their lives-and that these folk would be the instrument of justice and honor for all of the Kingdom from this moment. So did he name those Chosen by Companions to be Heralds, for only one could be a Monarch, and only one could be the Heir, but all could aspire to be a Herald. And he had made for them clothing of white, like the coats of their Companions, so that all might know them at a distance, or in a crowd; and he decreed then that only a Herald could be the Heir or the Monarch. And he decreed that there should be one Herald always to advise and serve and befriend the Monarch, so that his decisions be tempered with another view, and that Herald was to be called the Monarch's Own.

So it was. And so Valdemar has prospered. The Heralds increased, and the Monarch's justice spread.

The Chronicles"

In the first year of Herald Talia's investiture as full Queen's Own, Prince Ancar of Hardorn slew his father and all his father's men in a bloody and successful attempt to take the throne. He slew also Herald Kris who was there as ambassador on behalf of Queen Selenay, and imprisoned and tortured Herald Talia who was with him. She was rescued, out of all expectations, by the power of Herald Dirk, the young Heir Elspeth, and all the Companions together. Such a thing had never been known before, that the Companions would all add their strength to the Heralds to accomplish a task.

Ancar then made a trial of the strength of Valdemar, using both magic and his private army, but he was thrown back.

Some two years later, he made trial of the borders again. This time he was beaten back by the combined forces of the mercenary Company the Skybolts, under Captain Kerowyn; the armies of Valdemar; and the army of Rethwellan under Lord-Martial Prince Daren, who had come in answer to a promise of aid long forgotten. In the heat of the battle, the Prince and the Captain lost their horses and were both Chosen-and the Prince and Queen were taken with a lifebonding, a circumstance that both pleased and disturbed many.

Our ancient enemy, Karse, remains quiet, for Karse is beset with internal troubles. Ancar makes incursions on the Border from time to thing but feints, however.

So it has been to this day, some s years from the last battle, when the events occurred that I now relate...

Herald-Chronicler Myste PCHAPTER One ELSPETH

'"But-," Elspeth protested weakly. The empty salle echoed back her words faintly. She stared at Herald Kerowyn and tried to make some sense of what she'd just been ordered to do. Repair armor? Why should I repair armor? I don't even know the first thing about repairing armor! And what does that have to do with anything? She sat down, her arms sagging beneath the weight of a set of worn-out leather practice armor, a set long past its useful lifespan, and smelling faintly of sweat, leather-oil, and dust. "But I-"

"You know leatherwork, don't you?" Kerowyn asked, her generous mouth twitching as if she were trying not to laugh. Elspeth squirmed uncomfortably on the wooden bench, feeling very much like a tiny brown mouse facing a bored cat.

"Yes, but-" You've seen me and Alberich repair armor before, haven't you?" the mercenary-captain-turned-Herald continued with patient logic, arms folded across her chest. Elspeth looked from Kerowyn's weather-tanned face to the dust motes dancing in the sunlight to the whitewashed walls of the salle in hope of finding an answer.

She was unable to come up with one. She'd been put directly under Kerowyn's command this week, in lieu of the "usual" duties of a Herald. Those "usual" duties-riding circuit on a Sector, acting as lawbringer, occasional judge, paramilitary advisor, and general troubleshooterbrought a Herald into areas of significant risk-risk the Council was not willing to take with the Heir to the Throne.

So her assigned duty at the moment consisted of doing whatever Herald Kerowyn told her to do. She'd assumed her tasks would be things like acting as an assistant trainer, perhaps. Learning command tactics.

Perhaps even acting as liaison between Kerowyn's mercenary Company and the Council.

Especially since the Council members still weren't certain what to do with a mercenary Captain who was also a Herald.

These were all things she knew how to do-or at least make a start on. After all, those were the kinds of things Heralds were supposed to do. They were not supposed to be repairing armor.

"Yes, but-" she repeated weakly, not knowing what else to say.

"You don't happen to think you're too good to repair armor..." Kerowyn's tone held a certain silky menace that told Elspeth that someone had given Herald Kerowyn chapter and verse on the ill-tempered Royal Brat. Of course, the Brat was a phase she had long ago outgrown, but some people couldn't seem to forget that stage of her life.

"No!" she said hastily. "But-"

"But why do I want you to repair armor-especially when it's someone else's job?" Kerowyn unbent enough to smile and shifted her weight to her right foot. "Let's play 'just suppose' for a moment. Let's suppose you are-for some reason-out in the back of beyond. Not even alone.

We could have a situation like the one that brought me up here in the first place-where you're with a fighting force, maybe even in command, but there aren't any armorers around." She gestured at the pile of leather in Elspeth's arms. "Your gear gets damaged, and there's nobody free to fix it. What are you going to do, wear something with a weak spot and hope nobody notices? Hope you can find somebody to fix it before the next engagement?"

"Did you ever have to fix your own gear?" Elspeth countered. She had so been looking forward to a free afternoon.

"I assume you mean after I made Captain?" The Herald laughed out loud, displaying a fine set of strong, white teeth. "My dear child, the Skybolts were so badly off that first year that I helped make armor. And arrows and lances and even some horse-gear. No, dear, you aren't going to wiggle out of this one. Leather armor isn't that hard to repair; merely time-consuming. So I suggest you get to it. As for how, you take apart everything that doesn't look solid and replace it." The former-and currentCaptain of "Kerowyn's Skybolts" nodded her blonde head emphatically and turned away toward the heap of practice armor that had been tossed into the "needs repair" pile.

Resigned to the situation, Elspeth watched Kero toss her blonde braid over her shoulder, thought of her own dull brown hair, and sighed a little enviously. If I weren't the Heir, nobody would ever pay any attention to my looks. Mother is gorgeous, the twins are adorable, my stepfather is the handsomest man at Court-and I'm the little brown sparrow. why couldn't I have been born looking like her?

Kerowyn was certainly an amazing person. Lithe, strong, and with a face even her critics had to call "striking," she would have had dozens of suitors if it hadn't been for the fact that she and Herald Eldan discouraged even the most persistent with their devotion to one another.

The Captain had been blessed with a head of hair as bright as newminted gold and thick as a horse's tail. And despite the fact that she was literally old enough to be Elspeth's mother, it showed no sign of graying.

Whatever Kerowyn's past life had been like, it had left no outward marks on her. And from the stories Kero had told over the past few years, she'd been through enough to gray the hair of four women.

For that matter, her present was just as hectic, and it hadn't left that much of a mark on her. She juggled two dedications, Herald and mercenary Captain, either one of which would have been a full-time career for anyone else.

And there are plenty of folk who think she should stick to one or the other... Elspeth smiled to herself. Those were the same folk who were mightily annoyed that the Herald Captain wouldn't wear Whites unless it was ordered by the Queen herself. She compromised-if one could call it that-by wearing the same kind of dark gray leathers the Weaponsmaster favored. And the Queen smiled and held her peace. Like Alberich, Kerowyn was a law unto herself.

"Besides, you have all the resources of the armory at your disposal," Kerowyn said over her shoulder, as she hefted another corselet in need of repair-this one of metal scale, a mending task Elspeth didn't even want to think about. "You wouldn't have that in the field. Be grateful I don't demand that you fix it with what folks carry in their field kits." Elspeth bit back a retort and spread the shirt out over the bench she was sitting on, giving the armor the kind of careful scrutiny she imagined Kero must have.

Well, it isn't as bad as I thought, she decided, after a second examination proved that some of the worst places had already been repaired.

Evidently the Captain had taken that much pity on her...She bent to her task, determined to make as good a job of it as Kerowyn would.

Her determination did not last more than a few moments.

Someone distracted her as soon as she turned her attention to a tricky bit of stitchery that had to be picked out without ruining the leather. A whisper of air was all that warned her of the attacker's rush-but that was all the warning she needed. What Weaponsmaster Alberich had not pounded into her, the Herald Captain was making certain she learned, and in quick-time, too. And Kerowyn was a past master of the unconventional.

:Gwena!: she screamed mentally, as she acted on what had become reflex. She tumbled off her bench, hit the hard wooden floor with her shoulder, and rolled. She came up on the balls of her feet, poised and ready, the tiny knife she'd been using to cut the stitches still in her hand. Her heart pounded, but from battle-readiness, not fear.

She found herself facing someone who had recovered just as rapidly as she had; he stood in a near-identical pose on the opposite side of the bench, and she sized him up quickly. Taller and heavier than she, an anonymous male, in nondescript clothing, his face wrapped in a scarf and head covered with a tight hood, so that all she could see were his wary eyes.

A thousand fleeting thoughts passed through her mind in that moment of analysis. Uppermost was a second mental scream for help to her Companion Gwena. Hard on the heels of that was the sudden question: Why doesn't Kero do anything? She glanced out of the corner of her eye. The Captain stood with arms crossed, watching both of them, no discernible expression on her handsome face.

The obvious answer was implied by the question. Because she was expecting this.

And because Kerowyn was a Herald and her Companion Sayvil would never permit her to betray another, and further, because Elspeth's own Companion Gwena was not beating down the doors of the salle to get in and help her stand off this attacker, it followed that the "assassin" was nothing of the sort.

Her heart slowed a little, and she dared a mental touch. Nothing: her assailant was shielded. Which meant he knew how to guard his thoughts, which only another Mindspeaker could do.

And a closer look at the bright brown eyes, and the additional clue of a curl of black hair showing outside the assailant's hood gave her all the information she needed to identify him.

" Skif," she said flatly, relaxing a little.

"Good girl," came the voice in her mind. "I told Sayvil you'd figure this out before it got anywhere, but she didn't believe me." She shifted her gaze over to Kerowyn, though without taking Skif out of her line of sight. "This was a setup, wasn't it?" she asked the older woman. "You never really intended for me to fix that armor." Kero shrugged, not at all discomfited. "Hell, yes, I did. And tomorrow, you will. But I also intended for you to figure out that you could," she temporized as Skif relaxed minutely. "That's a good thing for you to know if you're ever in the situation I described. If you don't know you can do something, it doesn't occur to you as an option. But don't relax," her voice sharpened as Skif started to come out of his crouch and Elspeth followed suit. "Just because you've identified him, that doesn't mean that the rest of the exercise is canceled. Take it up where you left off."

"With this?" Elspeth looked doubtfully at the tiny knife in her hand.

"With that-and anything else you can get your hands on. There're hundreds of things you can use in here, including that bench." Kerowyn frowned slightly. "Anything can be a weapon, child. It's time you learned to improvise." Kerowyn did not have to outline the reasons for that statement; even if the current interkingdom situation had been full of light and harmony, there would always be the risk of someone with a grudge or grievance-or even a simple lunatic-who would be willing to risk his life to assassinate the next in line to the throne of Valdemar.

And with at least two enemies on the borders, Hardorn and Karse, the political situation was far from harmonious.

Still-Anything can be a weapon? what on earth is she talking about?

But she didn't have time to question the statement in detail. Elspeth went back on guard just in time to dodge Skif's rush for her.

She sidestepped him and reversed the knife, not wanting to really hurt him, and feinted for his eyes with the wooden hilt. He recognized the feint for what it was and ignored it, Coming in to grapple with her. SO far he hadn't produced any weapons of his own.

So his "orders" must be to capture rather than to kill. That makes my job easier and his harder...Relatively easier. Skif had learned his hand-to-hand skills in the rough world of Haven's slums. Even the capital of Valdemar was prone to the twin problems of crime and poverty, and young Skif had been the godchild of both. Orphaned early, he had apprenticed himself to a thieving uncle, and when that worthy was caught, set up shop on his own. Probably only being Chosen had saved him from hanging like his uncle-or death at the hands of a competitor, like his mother.

His "style" was a mixture of disciplines-a kind of catch-all, "anything that works," devious, dirty, and deadly. The Queen's Own Herald, Talia, had learned quite a bit from him, but no one had ever thought to have him teach Elspeth as well. At least-not that. He had taught her knife throwing, which had saved her life and Talia's, but even Queen Selenay had been horrified a few short years ago at the notion of her Heir learning street-fighting. Elspeth had begged but to no avail.

Many things had changed in those few years. Among them, the arrival of Kerowyn, who had sent one of her commandos to prove to Selenay that she and her daughter needed the kind of protection only instruction in the lowest forms of fighting could provide. Alberich undertook the Queen's instruction; Kero and Skif got Elspeth's. The lessons were frequently painful.

Dirk's taught me a thing or two since the last lesson- she told herself as she circled him warily, testing her footing as she watched his eyes. and I bet neither of them knows that.

She sensed the pile of armor behind her, and tried to remember what was topmost. Was it something she could throw over his head to temporarily blind him?

"Pick up the pace, boy," Kerowyn said. "Take some chances. You only have a few more moments before she either calls for help herself with Mindspeech, or her Companion brings the cavalry." Skif lunged just as she made a grab for the nearest piece of junk, a leather gambeson. He waited until she moved, then struck like a coiled snake. He caught her in the act of bending over sideways and tackled her, both of them flying over the pile and landing in a heap on the other side of it. Her knife went skidding across the floor as her cheek hit the gritty floor, all the breath knocked out of her.

She writhed in his grip and grabbed the edge of his hood and tried to pull it down over his eyes, but it was too tightly wrapped. She struggled to get her knee up into his stomach, clawed at the wrappings around his head with no effect, and kicked ineffectually at the back of his legs. He simply pinned her with his greater weight, and slapped the side of her head at the same time, calling out "Disable!" Damn. She obediently went limp. He scrambled to his feet, heaved her up like a sack of grain, slung her over his shoulder and started for the door.

She watched the floor and his boots, and wondered what her Companion was supposed to be doing while the "assassin" was carrying her off.

"Not that way," Gwena said calmly in her mind, right on cue. "I've got the front door blocked, and Sayvil has the rear. The only way out is by way of the roof."

"No good, Skif," Elspeth said to his belt. "The Companions have you boxed in."

"Well, then I'll have to abort and follow my secondary orders," he replied, "Sorry, little kitten, you're dead." He put her down on her feet, and she dusted herself off. "Crap," she said sourly. "I could do better than that. I wish I'd had my knives." She couldn't resist a resentful glance at Kero, who had made her take them off when she entered the salle.

"Well," Kero told her. "You didn't do as badly as I had expected.

But I told you to get rid of those little toys of yours for a reason. They aren't a secret anymore; everybody knows you carry them in arm-sheaths.

And you've begun to depend on them; you passed up at least a half dozen potential weapons." Elspeth's heart sank as Skif nodded to confirm Kerowyn's assessment.

"Like what?" she demanded. She didn't-quite-growl. It was ironic that a room devoted to weaponswork should be so barren of weaponry.

There was nothing in the room; at least, nothing that could be used against an enemy. The salle's sanded wooden floor stood empty of everything but the bench she sat on and the pile of discarded armor. There were a few implements for mending the armor that she'd brought in from the back room. There were no windows that she could reach; they were all set in the walls near the edge of the ceiling. Even the walls were bare of practice weapons, just the empty racks along one wall and the expensive-but necessary-mirrors on the other.

"The bench," Skif said promptly. "You were within range to kick it into my path."

"You should have grabbed that leather corselet when you went off the bench," Kero added.

"Any of the mirrors-break one and you've got a pile of razor shards."

"The sunlight-maneuver him so that it's in his eyes.

"The mirrors again; distract me with my own reflection."

"The leather-needles-"

"The pot of leather-oil-"

"Your belt-"

"All right!" Elspeth cried, plopping down heavily on the bench, defeated by their logic. "What's the point?"

"Something that you can learn, but I can't teach in simple lessons," Kerowyn told her soberly. "An attitude. A state of awareness, one where you size everyone up as a potential enemy, and everything as a potential weapon. And I mean everyone and everything. From the stranger walking toward you, to YOUR mother-from the halberd on the wall to your underwear."

I can't live like that," she protested." Nobody can." But at Kero's raised eyebrow, she added doubtfully, "Can they?" Kero shrugged. "Personally, I think no royalty can afford to live without an outlook like that. And I've managed, for most of my life."

"So have I," Skif seconded. "It doesn't have to poison you or your life, just make You more aware of things going on around you."

"That's why we've started the program here," Kerowyn finished. "A salle is a pretty empty room even with repair stuff scattered all over it; that makes YOUR job easier. Now," she fixed Elspeth with a stern blue-green eye, "before you leave, you're going to figure out one way everything in here could be used against an assailant." Elspeth sighed, bade farewell to her free afternoon, and began pummeling her brain for answers.

Eventually Kerri left for other tasks, putting Skif in charge of the lesson. Elspeth breathed a little easier when she was gone; Skif was nowhere near the taskmaster that Kerowyn could be when the mood was on her. Heraldic trainees at the Collegium used to complain of Alberich's lessons; now they moaned about Kerowyn's as well, and it was an open question as to which of the two was considered the worst. Elspeth had once heard a young girl complain that it was bad enough that the Weaponsmaster refused to grow old and retire, but now he'd cursed them with a female double and it wasn't fair!

But then again, she had thought at the time, what is?

Skif grilled her for a little longer, then took pity on her, and turned the lesson from one on "attitude" to simply a rough-and-tumble knife-fighting lesson. Elspeth found the latter much easier on the nerves, if not on the body. Skif might be inclined to go easy on her when it came to the abstract "lessons," but when it came to the physical he could be as remorseless as any of the instructors when he chose.

Finally, when both were tired enough that they were missing elementary moves, he called a halt.

In fact, she thought wearily, as he waved her off guard and stepped off the salle floor, I doubt I could be a match for a novice right now.

"That's... enough," he panted, throwing himself down on the floor beside the bench, as she slumped down on the seat and then sprawled along the length of it, shoving the forgotten leather armor to the floor.

The angle of the sunlight coming in through the high clerestory windows had changed; there was no longer a broad patch of sunlight on the floor.

It was starting to climb up the whitewashed wall. Not yet dinnertime, but certainly late afternoon.

"I have to get back to drilling the little ones in a bit," he continued.

"Besides, if I spend too much more time in your unchaperoned company, the rumors are going to start again, and I don't feel like dealing with them." Elspeth grimaced and wiped sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. The last time rumors had started about a romance between her and Skif, she'd had to placate half the Council, and endure the knowing looks of half the Heralds. She wasn't sure which group was worse.

Now I know how Mother and Stepfather felt when they were my age.

Every time someone gets interested-or interesting-most of the time they're frightened off by the matchmakers. You'd think people would have more important things to worry about.

But it was too bad poor Skif had to pay the price of her rank. There ought to be something she could do about that, but right now her weary mind was not supplying the answer.

"I'll see you later, then," she said instead. "I've got a few things of MY own I'd like to do before dinner-if you're satisfied with my progress, that is." 'you're getting there," he told her, getting up with an effort, his sweat-damp hair curled even tighter. "I was making more mistakes than you were, toward the end. What's the closest weapon to your right hand?"

"The bench I'm on," she replied without thinking. "I roll off it and kick it in your direction."

"I was thinking of the shears on the floor there, but that'll do," he said with a tired chuckle. "See you at dinner?"

"Not tonight. There's some delegation from Rethwellan here to see Father. That means all meals with the Court until they're gone." She levered herself up on her elbows and smiled apologetically. "I guess they won't believe I'm not plotting against the rest of the family unless they see us all together." Skif was too polite to say anything, but they both knew why that suspicion of treason might occur to a delegation from Rethwellan. Elspeth's blood-father, a prince of Rethwellan, had plotted to overthrow his own wife and consort, Queen Selenay-and in the end, had attempted to assassinate her himself.

Not the best way to handle foreign relations...As it happened, though, no one in Rethwellan had any idea he might attempt such a thing-certainly there was no one in the royal family who had backed him. In fact, there been no love lost between him and his two brothers, and there had been no repercussions from Rethwellan at the news that he had not survived that assassination attempt. The Queen quietly accepted King Faramentha's horrified apologies and disclaimers, and there the matter had rested for many years.

But then war and the redemption of a promise made to Selenay's grandfather had brought one of those brothers, Prince Daren, to the aid of the Queen of Valdemar, and the unexpected result of that first meeting had been not only love, but a lifebonding. Rethwellan lost its Lordmartial, and Valdemar gained a co-ruler, for Daren, like Kerowyn, had been Chosen, literally on the battlefield.

Whether the bedding had followed or preceded the wedding was moot; the result had been twins, nine months to the day after the ceremony.

Which left the titular Heir, Elspeth, with two unexpected rivals for her position. Elspeth, whose father had tried to murder the Queen and steal her throne... And there were the inevitable whispers of "bad blood."

King Faram, the current king of Rethwellan and brother to both her father and stepfather, held no such doubts about her, but occasionally some of his advisors required a reminder that treason was not a heritable trait. Elspeth slipped out of her musings and stretched protesting muscles.

I wish-" she began, and stopped.

"You wish what, kitten?" Skif prompted.

"Never mind," she said, dragging herself to her feet. "It doesn't matter. I'll catch up with you tomorrow, after Council. Assuming Kerowyn doesn't have me mucking out the stables or something equally virtuous and valuable." He chuckled and left the salle, leaving her alone with her thoughts.

She cleaned up the scattered equipment from their lesson while the sweat of her exertion cooled and dried, and took herself out before her erstwhile mentor could return and find her "idle." A warm summer wind whipped her hair out of its knot at the back of her neck, and dried her sweat-soaked shirt as she left the salle door. She made a hasty check for possible watchers, trotted around the side of the salle, and didn't slow until she reached the edge of the formal gardens and the relative shelter of the tall hedges. The path she took, from the formal garden and the maze to the herb and kitchen gardens of the Palace, was one normally used only by the Palace's husbandmen. It ran along the back of a row of hedges that concealed a line of storage buildings and potting sheds. She wasn't surprised that there was no one on it, since there was nothing to recommend it but its relative isolation, a commodity in short supply at the Palace/Collegium complex.

Not the sort of route that anyone would expect to find her taking.

Nor was her destination what anyone who didn't know her well would expect. It was a simple potting shed, a nondescript little building distinguished from its fellows only by the stovepipe, a stone kiln, and the small, glazed window high up on one side. And even then, there was no reason to assume it was special; the kiln had been there for years, and had been used to fire terra-cotta pots for seedlings and winter herbs.

Which made it all the more valuable to Elspeth.

She opened the door and closed it behind her with a feeling of having dropped a tremendous weight from her shoulders. This unprepossessing kingdom was hers, and hers alone, by unspoken agreement. So long as she did not neglect her duties, no one would bother her here, not unless the situation were direst emergency.

A tiny enough kingdom; one bench in the middle with a stool beside it, one sink and hand pump, one potter's wheel, boxes of clay ready for working, shelves, and a stove to heat the place in the winter and double as a small bisque-firing kiln in the rear. But not one implement here reminded her of the Heir or the Heir's duties. This was the one place where Elspeth could be just Elspeth, and nothing more. A proper kingdom as far as she was concerned; she'd been having second thoughts about ruling anything larger for some time now.

Up on the highest shelf were the finished products-which was to say the ones, to her critical eye, worth keeping-of her own two hands. They began with her first perfectly thrown pots and bowls, ranged through more complicated projects, and ended with some of the results of her current efforts-poured-slip pieces cast from molds that had in turn been made from her own work.

The twins were going through a competitive stage at the moment=and any time one of them got something, the other had to have something just like it. But different.

If Kris got a toy horse, Lyra had to have a toy horse-same size, shape, length of tail, and equipage. But if Kris' horse was chestnut, hers had to be bay, dapple-gray, or roan. If he got a toy fort, she had to have a toy village; same size, number of buildings, number of toy inhabitants as his fort. And so on. The only thing they agreed on was toy Companions; they had to be twins, like the twins themselves.

Not that they need "toy" Companions, Elspeth thought with amusement.

They have the real thing following them around by the nose every time Mother takes them with her into the Field. No doubts there about whether or not they'll be Chosen!

In fact, Gwena had remarked more than once that the only question involved would be which Companion did the Choosing. There were apparently a number in the running. "Mark my words," she'd said with amusement. "There are going to be fights over this in a couple of years." But that made gift giving both harder and easier. Trying to find-or make-absolutely identical presents in differing colors had been driving Elspeth (and everyone else) to distraction. They were able to pick out the most amazing discrepancies and turn them into points of contention over whose present was "better." Finally, though, she'd hit on the notion of making a mold and copying a successful piece. Her first effort had been a pair of dragon-lamps, or rather, night-lights; comical, rolypoly fellows who gently burned lamp-oil at a wick in their open mouths., Those had been such a hit that Elspeth had decided to try dolls, specifically, dolls that looked as much like the twins themselves as she-who was not exactly a portrait sculptor-could manage.

It's a good thing that they're in that vague sort of "child-shaped" stage, she thought wryly, as she surveyed the row of greenware heads waiting to be cleaned of mold-marks and sorted for discards. I doubt if I could produce anything more detailed than that.

Well, dressing the completed dolls in miniatures of the twins' favorite outfits would take care of the rest. And providing the appropriate accessories, of course. She would have to appeal for help on that. To Talia for the outfits, since she could probably bribe the Queen's Own with an offer of another doll for Talia's son jemmie; her plain-sewing was as good as many of the seamstresses attached to the Palace staff, though her embroidery was still "enough to make a cat laugh," as she put it.

To Keren for the rest. Lyra was in a horse-crazy phase at the moment, a bit young for that, perhaps, but the twins-and Jemmie-were precocious in most areas. Kris had gone mad for the Guard; half the time, when asked, he would assert that he wanted to be a Guard-Captain when he grew up (which usually made any nearby Companions snort). Tiny swords and miniature riding boots were a little out of Elspeth's line, but perhaps Keren or Sherrill, Keren's lifemate, could arrive at a solution.

The first three heads weren't worth bothering with; bubbles in the slip had flawed the castings badly enough to crack when they were fired.

The fourth was perfect; the fifth, possible, and the sixth-The arrangement of the window and door in the shed made it a regrettable necessity that she sit with her back to the door. That being the case, she had left the hinges unoiled. It simply was not possible to open the door, however carefully, without at least some noise, however slight.

She froze as she heard the faintest of telltale squeaks from behind her, then continued examining the head as if she had heard nothing. A lightning-quick mental probe behind her revealed that it was Skifagain-at the door. This time his thoughts were unguarded. He assumed that she had already put this afternoon's lessons out of her mind, a little tired and careless, here in the heart of the Palace grounds.

Not a chance, friend, she thought. And as he slipped through the door, she shifted her weight off the stool she had been using, and hooked one foot around one of the legs.

At a moment when he was poised and unbalanced, she pulled the stool over, whirled, and kicked it under his feet, all with a single motion.

He was hardly expecting opposition, much less that he would be on the defensive. He lost his balance as his feet got tangled up with the stool and couldn't recover. He fell over backward with a crash of splintering wood as her stool went with him, landing ingloriously on his rear.

She stood over him, shaking her head, as he blinked up at her and grinned feebly.

"Ever heard of knocking?" she asked. She picked up her stool without offering him a hand and made a face. He'd broken two of the bottom rungs and loosened all four of the legs, and it had not been that sturdy to begin with.

"You owe me a new chair," she said, annoyed all out of proportion to the value of the stool. "That wasn't just a dirty trick, Skif, that was dangerous. You could have broken some of my best pieces, too."

"Almost broke some of mine," he grumbled. "You aren't going to get an apology, if that's what you're looking for. You knew very well we'd be springing these surprise attacks on you.

But not in the one place I can relax, she thought, seething with resentment.

Not in the only place I can get away from everything and everyone.

"You still owe me, lout," she said stubbornly, righting the stool and rocking it to check how wobbly it was going to be. She sat on it and folded her arms, making no attempt to disguise how put out she was.

"You still could have broken something. I don't ask for much, Skif' and I give up a lot. I think it's only fair to be off-limits when I'm out here." He didn't say, Will an attacker go along with that? and he didn't give her a lecture, which mollified her a little. Instead, he grinned ingenuously and pulled himself up from the floor, dusting off his white uniform once he reached his feet. "I really have to congratulate you," he said.

"You did a lot better than I expected. I deliberately came after you when I knew you were tired and likely to be careless."

"I know," she said crisply, and watched his bushy eyebrows rise as he realized what that meant. First, that she'd detected him soon enough to make a mental test of him, and second that she'd gone ahead and read his thoughts when she knew who it was. The second was a trifle unethical; Heralds were not supposed to read other's thoughts without them being aware of the fact. But if he was going to violate her precious bit of privacy, she was going to pay him back for it. Let him wonder how much else I read while I was peeking and sweat about it a little.

"oh." He certainly knew better than to chide her for that breach of privacy at this point. "I'll see you later, I guess."

"You'd better have a new stool with you," she said, as he backed hastily out the door, only now aware that she was still clutching the much-abused doll's head. She looked at it as soon as he was out of Sight. Whatever shape it had been in before this, it was ruined now.

She disgustedly tossed it into the discard bucket beside her bench.

It wasn't until she had a half dozen usable heads lined up on the bench in front of her, and had smashed the rejects, that she felt as if her temper was any cooler. Cleaning them was a dull but exacting task, precisely what she wanted at the moment. She didn't want to see or talk to anyone until her foul mood was gone.

So when she felt the stirring of air behind her that meant the door had cracked open again, she was not at all amused.

I'm going to kill him.

She readied a mental bolt, designed to hit him as if she had shouted in his ear-when her preliminary Mindtouch told her something completely unexpected. This was not Skif-or Kerowyn, or anyone else she knew.

And she ducked instinctively as something shot past, overhead, and landed with a solid thunk point-first in the wall above the bench.

A hunting knife, ordinary and untraceable. It quivered as she stared up at it, momentarily stunned. Then her training took over before the other could react to the fact that he had missed.

She kicked the stool at him as she rolled under the bench and came up on the other side. He kicked it out of the way, slammed the door shut behind him, and dropped the bar; a few heartbeats later, the door shuddered as Gwena hit it with her hooves.

Now I wish this place wasn't quite so sturdy-The stranger turned with another knife in his hands. Gwena shrieked and renewed her attack on the door. He ignored the pounding and came straight for Elspeth.

With her lesson so fresh in her mind, she flung the first thing that came to hand at him-the half-cleaned doll's head. It didn't do any damage, but it made a hollow popping sound which distracted him enough so that she could get clear of the bench, get to where he'd kicked the stool, and snatch it up. Using it as a combination of shield and lance, she rushed him, trying to pin him against the abused door with the legs.

But the battering the stool had taken had weakened the legs too much to hold; his single blow broke the legs from the seat and left her holding a useless piece of flat board. Or almost useless; she threw it at his head, forcing him to duck, and giving her a chance to grab something else as Gwena's hooves hit the door again.

That "something else" proved to be one of her better pots, a lovely, graceful, two-handled vase. But she sacrificed it without a second thought, snatching it off the shelf and smashing it against the wall of the shed, leaving her with a razor-sharp shard. A knife-edge, with a handle to control it.

She took the initiative, as he started at the crash of shattering crockery, and threw herself at him.

He wasn't expecting that either, and she caught him completely off guard. He tried to grapple with her, and she let him, sacrificing her own mobility for one chance to get in with that bit of pottery in her right hand.

He grabbed her, but it was too late to stop her. Before he realized what she meant to do with that bit of crockery, she slashed it across his throat, cutting it from ear to ear, as Gwena's hooves hit the door and it shattered inward.

"Are you going to be all right?" Kerowyn asked, as she wiped Elspeth's forehead with a cold, damp cloth. Elspeth finally finished retching and licked her lips, tasting salt and bile, before she nodded shakily.

"I think so," she replied, closing her eyes and leaning back against the outer wall of the shed. The others had arrived to find her on her hands and knees in the grass, covered in blood-not her own-with Gwena standing over her protectively as she emptied her stomach into the bushes.

Her stomach still felt queasy, as if she might have another bout at any moment. No matter that she had seen death before-had even killed her share of the enemy in the last war with Hardorn-she'd taken down Lord Orthallen with her own two hands and one of Skif's throwing nives. that wasn't close, not this close. I was dropping arrows into people from a distance. I threw a knife from across the room. Not like this, where he bled all over me and looked up at me and Her stomach heaved again, and she quelled the thoughts. "Who was he?" she asked, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, trying to get her mind on something else. "How did he find out where I was?

And how did he get past the guards?"

"I don't know the answers to your second and third questions," Kero replied, as Elspeth closed her eyes and concentrated on the coolness against her forehead. "But I can tell you the answer to the first. There's a spider-web brand on his palm. He's one of the followers of the Cold God. They hire themselves out as assassins, and they're very expensive because they don't care if they get caught. He was either providing a legacy for a family, or doing penance for some terrible sin. If you hadn't killed him, he'd have killed himself." Kero dropped the cloth and sat back on her heels, and Elspeth opened her eyes and gaped at the older Herald, her nausea forgotten.

"I've never heard of anything like that!" she exclaimed.

Kero nodded. "Not too many people have; the Cold One's advocates come from farther south than anyone I know has been except Geyr. He's the one who told me about them, after the last try at your mother, and told me what to look for. Said that if Ancar really got desperate and knew how to contact them, he might try hiring one of the Cold Blades." She frowned. "I didn't take the threat seriously, and I should have-and believe me, it won't happen again. Frankly, you were lucky-they usually aren't that careless. And there is nothing, nothing, more dangerous than a suicidal fanatic."

"But-how did he get in here, in the gardens?" she asked, bewildered. "How could he? We have guards everywhere!" Kero frowned even harder. "If Geyr's to be believed, by m-m-m-mmagic," she said, forcing the word out around the compulsion that seemed to overtake all Heralds when discussing anything but the mental Gifts and the Truth-Spell. "There're m-mages among the Cold Ones that give them a kind of invisibility. My grandmother could do it-make people think that when they looked at her, they were actually seeing someone they knew and trusted and expected to be there. Works with the mind, like Mindspeech, but it's set up with a spell. Dangerous stuff-and now the guards are going to have to double-check everyone they think they know. There're going to be some unhappy folks, unless I miss my guess... " He either underestimated me, or he was inexperienced, she thought soberly, as Kero left her to talk quietly with some of the Guard who were dealing with the body. And-I don't think we're ever going to find out how Ancar found him because I have the funny feeling that he used magic.

She shivered and stood up, her knees shaking. Her Whites were ruinednot that she'd ever want to wear this set again. Magic again. Whatever had protected Valdemar in the past, it was not proof against Ancar anymore.

*Chapter Two DARKWIND

Darkwind k'sheyna balanced his bondbird Vree on his shoulder, and peered out across the sea of grass below him with a touch of-regret?

Envy? A little of both, perhaps. From where he stood, the earth dropped in a steep cliff more than a hundred man-lengths to the floor of the Dhorisha Plains-a formidable barrier to those who meant the Shin'a'in and their land any ill. It took knowledge and skill to find the paths down into the Plains, and from there, intruders were visible above the waisthigh grass for furlongs.

His bondbird lifted narrow, pointed wings a little in the warm, grassscented updraft that followed the cliff. "Prey," Vree's thought answered his own, framed in the simple terms of the bondbird's understanding.

Not so much a thought as a flood of images; tree-hares, mice, quail, rabbits, all of them from the viewpoint of the forestgyre as they would appear just before the talons struck.

Prey, indeed. Any would-be hunter attempting to penetrate the Plains without magic aid would find himself quickly turned hunted. The land itself would fight him; he would be visible to even a child, he would never guess the locations of seeps and springs, and without landmarks that he would understand, that intruder would become disoriented in the expanse of grass and gently rolling hills. The guardians of the Plains, and the scouts that patrolled the border, had half their work done for them by the Plains themselves.

Darkwind sighed and turned away, back to his own cool, silent forest.

No such help for him-other than the fact that the eastern edge of k'sheyna territory bordered the Plains. But to the south and west lay forest, league upon league of it, and all of it dangerous.

"Sick," complained Vree. Darkwind agreed with him. Magic contaminated those lands, a place Outlanders called the "Pelagir Hills" with no notion of just how much territory fell under that description. Magic flowed wild and twisted through the earth, a magic that warped and shaped everything that grew there-sometimes for the better, but more often for the worse.

Darkwind took Vree onto his wrist, the finger-long talons biting into the leather of his gauntlet as Vree steadied himself, and launched him into the trees to scout ahead. The forestgyre took to the air gladly; unlike his bondmate, Vree enjoyed the scouting forays. Hunting was no challenge to a bondbird, and there was only so much for Vree to do within the confines of k'sheyna Vale's safe territory. Scouting and guarding were what Vree had been bred for, and he was never happier than when flying ahead of Darkwind on patrol.

Darkwind didn't mind the scouting so much, even if the k'sheyna scouts were spread frighteningly thin-after all, he was a vayshe'druvon.

Guard, scout, protector, he was all of those.

It's the magic, he told himself-not for the first time. If it wasn't for the magic-Every time he encountered some threat to k'sheyna that used magic or was born of it, and had to find some way other than magic to counter that threat, it scorched him to the soul. And worse was his father's attitude when he returned-scorn for the mage who would abandon his power, and a stubborn refusal to understand why Darkwind had done so ...If I could go back in time and kill those fools that set this loose in the world, I would do so, and murder them all with my bare hands, he thought savagely. His anger at those long-dead ancestors remained, as he chose a tree to climb, looking for one he had not used before.

A massive goldenoak was his choice this time; he slipped hand-spikes out of his belt without conscious thought, and pulled the fingerless, backless leather gloves on over his palms. The tiny spikes set into the leather wouldn't penetrate the bark of the tree enough to leave places for fungus or insects to lodge, but it would give him a little more traction on the trunk. As would the shakras-hide soles of his thin leather boots.

In moments he was up in the branches. The game-trail along the edge of the territory lay below him. When two-legged intruders penetrated k'sheyna, most of the time they sought trails like this one.

When scouts patrolled, it was often up here, where the trails could be seen, but where the scouts themselves were invisible.

He shaded his eyes and chose a route through the next three forest giants by means of intersecting limbs, stowing his climbing-spikes and removing his double-ended climbing tool from the sheath on his back.

Then he picked his way through the foliage, walking as surefootedly on the broad, swaying branch as if he were on the ground, pulling another branch closer with the hook end of his tool and hopping from his goldenoak to the limb of a massive candle-pine just as the branch began to bow beneath his weight. He followed the new branch in to the trunk, then back out again to another conifer, this time stowing the tool long enough to leap for the branch above him and swing himself up onto it.

As he chose his next route, his thoughts turned back to that wild magic, as they always did. "what it has done to the land, to us, is unforgivable.

What it could do is worse.

Never mind that the Tayledras tamed that magic, cleansed the places it had turned awry, made them safe for people and animals alike to live there. Not that there weren't both there now-but they often found their offspring changed into something they did not recognize.

But that isn't our real task. Our real task is more dangerous. And my father has forgotten it ever existed, in his obsessions with power and Power.

Darkwind looked back at the treeless sky where the Plains began. The Shin'a'in had no such problems. But then, the Shin'a'in had little to do restricted parts of the Palace dressed in Grays-and I'm a bit too young kujwith magic. Odd to think we were one, once.

Very odd, for all that there was no mistaking the fact that Tayledras features and Shin'a'in were mirrors of each other. The Kaled'ain' they had been the most trusted allies of a mage whose name had been lost over the ages. The Tayledras remembered him only as

"The Mage of Silence," and if the Shin'a'in had recorded his true name in their knotted tapestries, they had never bothered to tell anyone in the Tayledras Clans.

Fatherforgets that the real duty of the Hawkbrothers is to heal the land of the scars caused by that war of magics, even as the Goddess has healed the Plains.

He often felt more kinship with his Shin'a'in "cousins" these days than he did with his real kin. The Lady gave them the more dangerous task, truth to tell, he admitted grudgingly. He looked back again, but this time he shuddered. The Hawkbrothers cleansed-but the Shin'a'in guarded.

And what they guardedsomewhere out there, buried beneath grass and soil, are the weapons that caused all this. And not all of them require an Adept to use them.

Only the Shin'a'in stood guardian between those hidden weapons and the rest of the world.

I don't envy them that duty.

"Men," Vree sounded the alert, and followed it with a vocal alarm-call.

Darkwind froze against the tree trunk for a moment, and touched Vree's mind long enough to see through the bondbird's eyes.

He clutched the trunk, fingernails digging into the bark. Direct contact with the forestgyre's mind was always disorienting. His perspective was skewed-first at seeing the strangers from above, as they peered up through the branches in automatic response to Vree's scream, the faces curiously flat and alien. Then came the dizzying spiral of Vree's flight that made the faces below seem to spin. As always, the strangeness was what kept him aware that it was the forestgyre's eyes he was using and not his own-the heightened sharpness of everything red, and the colors Vree saw that human eyes could not.

He was a passive traveler in Vree's mind, not an active controller. It was a measure of the bond and Vree's trust that the forestgyre would let him take control on occasion, but Darkwind took care never to abuse that trust. In general it was better just to observe-as he found yet again.

Vree spotted one of the strangers raising what was probably a weapon. and kited up into the thick branches before Darkwind had registered more than the bare movement of an arm.

Darkwind released his link with Vree, and his hold on the trunk at the same time, running along the flat branch and using his tool as a balance-aid, and leaping to the next tree limb a heartbeat later. In his first days with Vree it had taken him a long time to recover from a linkand some never did, especially the first time. Caught up in the intoxication of the flight and the kill, they never detached themselves. And unless someone else discovered them, they could be lost forever that way-their bodies lying in a kind of coma, while their minds slowly merged with that of the bird, diminishing as they merged, until there was nothing left of what they were.

That had never happened in Darkwind's lifetime by accident, although there had been one scout, when he was a child, who had a lightning-struck tree crush him beneath its trunk. He had been far from a Healer, and had deliberately merged himself with his bird, never to return to the crippled and dying wreck of his body. He remained with k'sheyna within his bird's mind, slowly fading, until at last the bird vanished one day, never to return.

Slower death, but death all the same. Darkwind thought pragmatically, climbing a pine trunk by hooking the stub of a broken branch above him to ascend to a crossover branch. He preferred to avoid such a nonchoice altogether.

He slowed as he neared the strangers, and dropped to all fours, stalking like a slim tree-cat along the branch and taking care not to rustle the leaves. Not that it would have mattered to the intruders, who called to each other and laughed as if they had no idea that they were being observed, or that they were in forbidden territory.

His jaw tightened. they are about to find out differently. And they're damned lucky that it's me who found them. there are plenty of others-including Father-who would feather them with arrows or make ashes of them without waiting to find out if they're ignorant, stupid, or true hostiles. Not that they'll ever know enough to appreciate the difference, since I'm going to throw them out.

There were seven of them, however, and only one of him, and he had not survived this long as a scout by being incautious. First he called to Vree, for his Mindspeech was not strong enough to reach to the two nearest scouts.

"Call alert," he said shortly. Vree knew what that meant. He'd contact the birds of the two scouts nearest, and they, in turn, would summon their bondmates. If Darkwind didn't need their help, he would let them know through Vree, and they would turn back. But if he did need them, they were already on the way.

He followed the intruders for several furlongs as they blundered along the game trail, their clumsiness frightening all the creatures within a league of them into frozen silence, leaving behind them a visible trail in the scuffed vegetation, and an invisible one in the resinous tang of crushed pine needles and their own human scent. Two of the men bore no visible weapons; the rest were armed and armored.

Vree's scorn, as sour and acidic as an unripe berry, tempted him to laughter. "Cubs," the bird sent, unprompted, images of bumbling young bears and tanglefooted wolf pups.

Well, this was getting him nowhere. Nothing that the intruders had said or done gave him any idea of their intent. With a sigh, he decided that there was no choice in the matter. He was going to have to confront them.

Decision made, he worked his way up ahead of them, climbed down out of the branches, restored his climbing-tool to his back, limbered his bow, and waited for them to catch up to him.

They practically blundered into him; the one in the lead saw him first; an ordinary enough fellow, his brown leather armor marking him as a fighter rather than a forester. He shouted in surprise and quite literally jumped, even though Darkwind had not moved. Of course, Darkwind's own intricately dyed scouting gear and hair dyed a mottled brown made a near-perfect camouflage, but he wasn't that invisible.

Citymen, Darkwind groaned to himself. I ought to just let the ice-drakes do my job for me...Except that there were no ice-drakes in k'sheyna territory, nor anything else large and deadly enough to eliminate them. Except the gryphons or the firebirds-but that might well be what brought them here in the first place. Darkwind did not intend to have either his friends or his charges wind up as some fool hunter's trophies.

Instinctively, they closed ranks against him. He spoke before the strangers recovered from their startlement; using the trade-tongue that the Shin'a'in favored in their dealings with Outlanders. "You are trespassing on k'sheyna lands," he said, curtly. A bluff, but I doubt they'll know how thin we're spread. And let them wonder if they'd have been taken by Tayledras, or something else. "You must leave the way you came.

Now." They certainly couldn't miss the bow in his hands, his hooked climbing-staff on his back, or the steely menace in his voice. One of them started to object; the man next to him hushed him quickly. The fellow in the lead narrowed his eyes and frowned, looking him up and down as if measuring him.

"There's only one," the objector whispered, obviously unaware of how keen Tayledras hearing was; his silencer cut him off with "Only one we can see, you fool. Let me handle this." The man stepped forward, moving up beside Leather Armor. "Your pardon, my lord," he said, with false geniality. "We didn't know, how could we? There are no signposts, no border guards-"

"Tayledras have no need of signs," Darkwind interrupted coldly.

"And I am a guard. I am telling you to leave. Your lives will be at hazard, else." Did that sound as stupid as I think it did? Or did I convince them they don't dare chance M I may not be as f~bk as I'm pretending to be?

"I shall not permit you to pass," he warned, as they continued to

hesitate.

The Objector plucked at Speaker's sleeve; Leather Armor frowned and turned his head to listen to the others' whispered conference without taking his eyes off Darkwind. This time they spoke too softly even for him to hear, and when they turned back to face him, Speaker wore a broad, bright-and empty-smile.

Damn. they've seen through me. I look like a lad, and I didn't feather one of them before I stopped them. My mistake.

"Of course we'll leave, my lord," he said with hollow good humor.

"And we're very sorry to have trespassed." Darkwind said nothing. Speaker waited for a response, got none, and shrugged.

"Very well, then, gentlemen," he said and gestured back down the path. "Shall we?" They turned, as if to go-I've seen this before. They somehow know-or guess only one of me right now. They think they're going to catch me off-guard. Idiots. He alerted Vree with a touch, dropped, and rolled into the brush at the side of the trail They were making so much noise they didn't even hear him move.

They turned back, weapons in hand, and were very surprised to see that he wasn't where they expected him to be. Before they managed to locate him, he had popped up out of the brush, and the one Darkwind had mentally tagged as "Speaker" was down with an arrow in his throat.

He dropped back into the cover of the bushes as Vree dove at the unprotected head of one of the men in the rear of the party, the one who had been making all the objections. The man shrieked with feminine shrillness and clapped both hands to his scalp as Vree rose into the branches with bloody talons.

That's one down and one hit. I think that takes out anyone who might be a mage.

It didn't look as if the rest of this was going to be that easy, though.

Leather Armor was barking orders in a language Darkwind didn't recognize, but as the rest of the men of the party took to cover and began flanking him, Darkwind had a fairly good idea what those orders were.

Do they want a live Hawkbrother, or a dead border guard? The question had very real significance. If the former, he could probably take them all himself; they would have to be careful, and he wouldn't. But if the latter, he was going to have his hands full.

His answer came a few moments later, as an arrow whistled past his ear, and no rebuke from Leather Armor followed. A dead border guard, then. Damn. My luck is simply not in today...There were at least two men with bows that he recalled, and he was not about to send Vree flying into an arrow. He told the forestgyre to stay up in the branches and worked himself farther back into the bushes.

That proved to be a definite tactical error. Within moments, he discovered that he had been flanked. just my luck to get a party with an experienced commander. Now he had the choice of trying to get to thicker cover, or taking on one of the men nearest him.

Thicker cover won't stop an arrow. That decided him. He put aside his bow, and slid his climbing-staff out of the sheath at his back.

He rose from cover with a bloodcurdling shriek not unlike Vree's, the staff a blur of motion in his hands. The man nearest him fell back with an oath, but it was too late. He had misjudged the length of the staff, and the wicked climbing-hook at the end of it, designed to catch and hold on tree bark, caved in half his face and lodged in his eye socket.

Darkwind jerked the hook free and dropped, as another man belatedly aimed an arrow at him. It went wild, and Darkwind took to cover again.

That leaves four.

"Brothers come," Vree said. And, hopefully, added, "Vree hunt..."No, dammit, featherhead, stay up there!"

"P: Vree replied.

Darkwind swore at himself Got too complicated for him again. He thought emphatically, "Arrows!"

" replied Vree, just as rustling in the dry leaves told Darkwind that he was being stalked.

He Mindtouched cautiously, ready to pull back in an instant if it proved that the stalker had any mind-powers.

Ordinary, ungifted-but this one was Leather Armor. Darkwind knew he wasn't going to take him by surprise with a yell and a hooked stick.

He worked his way backward, wondering where the other two guards that Vree had called for him were. His Mindspeech wasn't strong enough to hear them unless they were very near, but Vree and the other bond birds of the scouts patrolling nearby were in constant contact. Vree was trained to serve as a relay point-if there was anything to relay.

The rustling stopped, and Darkwind froze so that he did not give himself away. They remained where they were, he and Leather Armor, for what seemed like hours. Finally, just when Darkwind's leg had started to cramp, Leather Armor moved again.

Meanwhile, Darkwind had an idea. "Vree, play wounded bird. Find a

man with no arrows, and take him to the brothers." It was an old trick in the wild, but it just might work against citybred folk. After a moment, Darkwind heard Vree's distress call, faint with distance, and growing fainter. The rustling stopped for a moment; someone cursed softly, then the rustling began again. that's four.

Darkwind moved again, but the cramp in his leg made him just a little clumsy, and he overbalanced. He caught himself before he fell, but his outstretched hands brushed by a thick branch and it bent, shaking enough to rustle the leaves, and betraying his location.

Damn!

No hope for it now, he half-rose and sprinted for the shelter of a rock pile, pounding feet and crackling brush not far behind him. The woods were too thick here to afford a good shot; it was going to be hand-to-hand if Leather Armor overtook him.

Ill luck struck again; just as he reached the rocks, something shot at ankle-height out of the shadows. He leapt but couldn't quite avoid the tangle-cord. It caught one foot, and he tumbled forward. He tucked and rolled as he went down, but when he came back up, he found himself staring at the point of a sword.

Behind the sword stood Leather Armor, frowning furiously. A few moments later, panting up behind him, came the man with the bloody, furrowed scalp.

"No spindly runt is going to tell us where we can go," sneered Leather Armor. "One little brat to play guard-man, hmm? So much for your big bad Hawkbrothers, milor-" Two screams from out in the woods interrupted him, and both their heads turned for a fraction of a heartbeat. just long enough for Darkwind to reach the kill-blade he had hidden in his boot-and Vree to begin his stoop.

"What made you think I was alone?" he said, mildly. Leather Armor's head snapped back around, giving Darkwind a clear shot at his eye. A quick flick of the wrist, and the knife left his hand and went straight to the mark, just as Vree struck the second man from behind, his talons aimed for the neck and shoulders, knocking the mage to the ground with the force of the blow. As Darkwind's victim toppled over, Vree's talons pierced the back of his target's neck, and he bit through the spine, the powerful beak able to separate even a deer's backbone at need. It was over in moments.

Vree flapped his wings and screamed in triumph, and Darkwind licked the blood away from his lip; he had bitten it when he fell. The taste was flat and sweet, gritty with forest loam.

He rose slowly and brushed himself off, waiting for Vree to calm down a little before trying to deal with him. Like all raptors, the bondbirds were most dangerous just after a kill, when their blood still coursed hot with excitement, and they had forgotten everything but the chase and strike.

When Darkwind's own heart had settled, he turned, and called Vree back to the glove. The bondbird mantled and screamed objection at him, still hot with his hunting-rage, but when Darkwind Mindtouched himcarefully, for at this stage it was easy to be pulled into the raptor's mind-he calmed. Darkwind held out his arm and slapped the glove again, and this time Vree returned to his bondmate, launching himself from the body with a powerful shove of his legs, and landing heavily on Darkwind's gauntlet. The wicked talons that had so easily pierced a man's neck closed gently on the scout's leather-covered wrist.

Darkwind pointedly ignored the second body, Vree's victim, and stooped over the first corpse to retrieve his knife, Vree flapping his wings a little to keep his balance. Admittedly, it was no uglier a death than the one he had just delivered, but it was easy to forget that the Tayledrasbred forestgyres, largest of all the bondbirds other than the eagles, were easily a match for many wild tiercel eagles in size, and fully capable of killing men. And when Vree did just that-sometimes the realization of just what kind of a born killer he carried around on his wrist and shoulder every day came as a little shock.

At least he doesn't try to eat them, Darkwind thought with a grimace.

In fact, Vree was even now fastidiously cleaning his talons, his thoughts full of distaste for the flavor of the blood on them.

The bird looked up, suddenly. Darkwind tensed for a moment, but "Brothers come," the bird said and went back to cleaning his talons.

Even to Darkwind's experienced eyes it seemed as if a man-shaped piece of the forest had detached itself and was walking toward him when Firestorm first came into view. The sight gave him a renewed appreciation for the effectiveness of the scouts' camouflage.

He'd heard somewhere that one of the Outlanders' superstitions about the Tayledras was that they were really all mirror-copies of the same person.

I suppose it might look that way to strangers...The scouts all dressed so identically in the field that they might well have been wearing uniforms; close-fitting tunic and trews of a supple weave and of a mottled, layer-dyed green, gray, and brown. There were individual differences in the patterns, as distinct as individual fingerprints to the knowledgeable, but to an Outlander the outfits probably looked identical. And their hair was identical, except for length. Hair color among the Hawkbrothers was a uniform white; living in the Vales, surrounded by magic, hair bleached to white and eyes to silver-blue by the time a Tayledras was in his early twenties-sooner, if he was a mage.

The scouts dyed their hair a mottled brown to match their surroundingsthe rest of the Clan left theirs white.

I suppose Outlanders have reason to think us identical.

Firestorm's bondbird was nowhere in sight, but as the younger scout came into the clearing, Kreel dove down out of the treetops to land on Firestorm's casually outstretched arm. Kreel was a different breed from Vree; smaller, and with the broad wings of a hawk, rather than the rakish, pointed wings of the falcon. Neither bird had bleached out yet; since Darkwind no longer used his magic powers, and Firestorm never had been a mage, it would be years before either bird became a ti'aeva'leshy'a, a "forest spirit," one of the snow-white "ghost birds," with markings in faint blue-gray.

Too bad, in a way. the white ones frighten the life out of Outlanders who see them. We could use that edge, Vree and I If this lot had seen him first, they might not have chanced taking me on.

Vree's natural coloration was partially white already. His white breast sported brown barring; the same pattern as the underside of his wings.

His back and the upper face of his wings were still brown, with a faint black barring. Kreel was half Vree's size, with a solid blue-gray back and a reddish-brown, barred breast. Kreel's red eyes had begun to fade to pink; Vree's eyes had already faded to light gray from his adolescent color of ice-blue.

"I got one of the bastards, Skydance got one, and Skydance's Raan got the third," Firestorm said, ruffling the breast-feathers of his cooperihawk.

He shook his head in admiration at the gyre on Darkwind's wrist, as Vree fastidiously preened the blood from his breast-feathers.

"Makes me wish I'd bonded to a gyre, sometimes. This little one is faster than anyone would believe, but she can't take down a man."

"A bird doesn't have to be able to take a man down to take one out," Darkwind reminded him. "Kreel does all right. You're too damned bloodthirsty." Firestorm just chuckled, reached into his game-pouch, and fed Kreel a tidbit. Vree clucked and shifted his weight from one foot to the other, in an anxious reminder that he was owed a reward as well.

Darkwind scratched the top of Vree's head, then reached into his own game-pouch for a rabbit quarter. Vree tore into the offering happily.

"Funny, isn't it," Firestorm observed, "We can shape them all we like, make them as intelligent as we can and still have flight-worthy birds, but we can't change their essential nature. They're still predators to the core. Who were those fools?"

"I don't know." Darkwind frowned. "I listened to them for a while, but I didn't learn anything. I think there were two mages and the rest were fighters to guard them, but that's only a guess. I don't know what they wanted, other than the usual." Flies were beginning to gather around the fallen bodies, and he moved out of the way a little. "Dive in, steal the treasures of the mysterious Hawkbrothers, and try to get out intact. Greedy bastards."

"They never learn, do they?" Firestorm grimaced.

"No," Darkwind agreed soberly. "They never do." Something about the tone of his voice made Firestorm look at him sharply. "Are you all right?" he said. "If you got hurt but you're trying to go all noble on me, forget it. If you're not in shape for it, we can take over your share for the rest of the day, or I can send back for some help. ' Darkwind shook his head, and tossed his hair out of his eyes. "I'm all right; I'm just tired of the whole situation we're in. We shouldn't be out here alone; we should be patrolling in threes, at least, on every section. K'Sheyna is in trouble, and anyone with any sense knows it.

Most of our mages won't leave the Vale, and the best of our fighters are out of reach. I don't know why the Council won't ask the other Clans for help, or even the Shin'ain-" Firestorm shrugged indifferently. "We haven't had anything hit the border that we couldn't handle, even shorthanded," he replied. "After all, we had cleaned this area out, that's why the children and minor mages and half the fighters were gone when-" He broke off, flushing. "I'm sorry-I forgot you were there when-"

"When the Heartstone fractured," Darkwind finished for him, his voice flat and utterly without expression. I'm not surprised he doesn't remember.

Darkwind had been "Songwind" then, a proud young mage with snow-white hair and a peacock wardrobe-Not Darkwind, who refused to use any magic but shielding, who never wore anything but scout gear and wouldn't use the formidable powers of magic he still could control-if he chose-not even to save himself.

He was-had been-Adept-rank, in fact-and strong enough at nineteen to be one of the Heartstone anchors...Not that it mattered. He watched Vree tear off strips of rabbit and gulp them down, fur and all. "I don't know if you ever knew this," he said conversationally, not wanting Firestorm to think he was upset about the reminder of his past. "I watched the building of the Gate to send them all off." Firestorm tilted his head to one side. "Why did they send everyone off? I wasn't paying any attention-it was my first Vale-move."

"We always do that," Darkwind said, as Vree got down to the bones and began cleaning every scrap of flesh from them he could find. "It's part of the safety measures, sending those not directly involved in moving the power or guarding those who are to the new Vale-site, where they'd be safe in case something happened."

"Which it did." Firestorm sighed. "I guess it's a good thing.. The gods only know where they are now. Somewhere west." Somewhere west. Too far to travel, when over half of them were children.

And not an Adept able to build a Gate back to us in the lot of them." Darkwind scowled. "Now that was a mistake. And it was bad tactics.

Half of the Adepts should have been with them, and I don't know why the Council ordered them all to stay until the Heartstone was drained and the power moved." Firestorm relaxed marginally, and scratched Kreel with his free hand.

"Nobody ever tells us about these things. Darkwind, why haven't we built a new Gate and brought them back?" A damned good question. Darkwind's lips compressed. "Father says that what's left of the Heartstone is too unstable to leave, too dangerous to build a Gate near, and much too dangerous to have children exposed to.

Firestorm raised an eloquent eyebrow. "You don't believe him?"

"I don't know what to believe." Darkwind stared off into the distance, over Firestorm's shoulder, into the shadows beneath the trees. "I probably shouldn't be telling you this, even. That kind of information is only supposed to be discussed by the Council or among mages. There's another thing; Father was acting oddly even before the disaster-he hasn't been quite himself since he was caught in that forest fire. Or that's the way it seems to me, but nobody else seems to have noticed anything wrong."

"Well, I haven't, at least not any more than with the rest of the Council." Firestorm laughed. sarcastically. "Old men, too damned proud to ask for help from outside, and too feeble to fix things themselves.

Which is probably why I'm not on the Council; I've said that in public a few too many times." The scout tossed his hawk up into the air and turned to go. Kreel darted up into the trees ahead, and all the birds went silent as he took to the air. Everything that flew knew the shape of a cooperihawk; nothing on wings was safe from a hungry one. And no bird would ever take a chance on a cooperi being sated. "If you're all right to finish, I'll get back to my section. Do we bother to clean up, or leave it for the scavengers?"

Leave it," Darkwind told him. "Maybe a few bones lying around will discourage others."

"Maybe." The younger man laughed. "Or maybe we should start leaving heads on stakes at the borders." With that macabre suggestion, the scout followed his bird into the forest, moving in silence, blending into the foliage within moments. Vree had finished his rabbit, dropping the polished bones, and Darkwind launched him into the air as well, so that they could resume their interrupted patrol.

He'd meant what he told Firestorm, every bitter word of it. I hardly know Father anymore. He used to be creative, flexible; he used to have no trouble admitting when he was wrong. Now he's the worst of the lot. Every time another Clan sends someone to see if we need help, he sends them away.

How can we not need help? We've got an unstable Heartstone, we don't have enough scouts to patrol a border that we had to pull back in the first Place. Our children are gone and we can't get them back-and we don't dare leave. And he's pretending we can handle it.

That was part of the reason he spent so little time in the Vale anymore; the place was too silent, too empty. Tayledras children were seldom as noisy as Outlander children, but they made their presence-and their absence-felt.

The once-lively Vale seemed dead without them.

And another part of the reason he avoided the Vale was his father.

The fewer opportunities there were for confrontations with the old man, the better Darkwind liked it.

He would have to go in at the end of his patrol, though, and he wrinkled his nose in distaste at what he would have to endure. This invasion would have to be reported. And as always, the Council would want to know why he hadn't handled things differently, why he hadn't blasted the intruders or shot them all when he first saw them. And because he was an Elder, the questions would be more pointed.

I didn't kill them because they could have been perfectly innocent, dammit!

And Starblade would want to know why he hadn't used magic.

And as always, Darkwind would be unable to give him an answer that would satisfy him.

"Because I don't want to" isn't good enough. He wants to know why I don't want to.

Darkwind pulled his climbing-staff out of the sheath, and hooked a limb, hauling himself up into the tree and trying not to wince as he discovered new bruises.

He wants to know why. He says. But he won't accept my reasons because Adept Starblade couldn't possibly have a son who gave up magic for the life of a Scout.

Even when the magic killed his mother in front of his eyes. Even when the magic ruined his life. Even when he's seen. over and over, that magic isn't an answer, it's a tool, and any tool can be done without.

He looked out over the forest floor and briefly touched Vree's mind.

All was quiet. Even the birds, frightened into silence by the noise of the fight and the appearance of the cooperihawk, were singing again.

Well. he'd better start learning to change again, Darkwind decided, because I've had enough. I'm taking this incident to the Council as usual, but this time I'm going to make an issue of it. And I don't care if he doesn't like what he's going to hear; we can't keep on like this indefinitely.

And if he wants a fight, he's going to get one.

*Chapter Three ELSPETH

Elspeth bit her lip until it bled to keep herself from losing her temper.

Queen Selenay, normally serene in the face of any crisis, had reacted to the attack on her eldest child with atypical hysteria.

Well, I'd call it hysteria, anyway.

Elspeth had barely gotten clean and changed when the summons arrived from her mother-accompanied by a bodyguard of two. As a harbinger of what was to come, that bodyguard put Elspeth's hackles up immediately. The sight of Selenay, standing beside the old wooden desk in her private apartments, white to the lips and with jaws and hands clenched, did nothing to make her daughter feel any better.

And so far, Selenay's impassioned tirade had not reassured her Heir either. It seemed that the Queen's answer to the problem was to restrict Elspeth's movements to the Palace complex, and to assign her a day-and-night guard of not less than two at all times.

And that, as far as Elspeth was concerned, was totally unacceptable.

But she couldn't get a word in until her mother stopped pacing up and down the breadth of her private office and finally calmed down enough to sit and listen instead of talking. It helped that Talia, though she was privy to this not-quite-argument Elspeth was having with Selenay, was staying discreetly in the background, and so far hadn't said a word, one way or the other.

I think if she sided with Mother, I'd have hysterics.

"I can't believe you're taking this so-so-casually!" Selenay finally concluded tightly, her hands shaking visibly even though she held them clenched together on the desktop, white as a marble carving.

"I'm not taking it 'casually," Mother," Elspeth replied, hoping the anger she thought she had under control did not show. "I'm certainly not regarding this incident as some kind of a bad joke. But I am not going to let fear rule my life." She paused for a moment, waiting for another tirade to begin. When Selenay didn't say anything, she continued, trying to sound as firm and adult as possible. "No bodyguards, Mother. No one following me everywhere. And I am not going to live behind the Palace walls like some kind of cloistered novitiate."

"You're almost killed, and you say that? I-"

"Mother, '-'Elspeth interrupted. "Every other ruler lives with that same threat constantly. We've been spoiled in Valdemar-mages have never been able to get past our borders, and the Heraldic Gifts-especially the Queen's Own's Gifts-have always made sure that we knew who the assassins were before they had a chance to strike. So-now that isn't necessarily true anymore. I am not going to restrict my movements with a night-and-day guard just because of a single incident. And, frankly, I'm not going to lose any sleep over it." Selenay paled and seemed at a loss for words.

"That doesn't mean I'm going to be careless," she added, "I'm going to take every precaution Kerowyn advises. I'm not foolhardy or stupid-but I am not going to live in fear, either." Finally Talia spoke up. "There really isn't that much more danger than there always was," she said mildly. "We've just been a lot more careless than the monarchs were in-say-Vanyel's day. We have been spoiled; we thought we were immune to danger, that magic had somehow gone away. The fact is, we didn't learn from the last two wars. We have to do more-much more-than we have in finding ways to counter this threat. Or should I say, in rediscovering them-" Now that's odd. No one seems to have any trouble discussing magic when it's in the past-the stories of Vanyel's time, for instance. It's only when we're talking about it happening now-and here, inside Valdemar-that the restriction seems to hold.

But before she pursued that train of thought, she had to come up with some convincing arguments first. "Mother, I'm a Herald first, and your Heir second. The fact is, I can't do my job with somebody hovering over me all the time." When Selenay looked blank, Elspeth sighed. "I'm still on duty to the city courts, remember? And on detached duty with Kerowyn.

What if she wants me to go work with the Skybolts for a while?

What would your allies say if I went over there with a set of bodyguards at my back? They'd say you don't even trust your own people, that's what." Not to mention what a pair of hulking brutes at my back is going to do to MY love-life, she thought unhappily. there wasn't a lot there to begin with, but I can't even imagine trying to have a romantic encounter with half the Guard breathing down my neck.

You could always try confining your pursuits to your bodyguards," Gwena suggested teasingly.

"oh, thanks. That's a wonderful idea. I'll take it under advisement," she replied, trying to keep her level of sarcasm down to something acceptable.

To suddenly start trailing bodyguards around isn't going to do much for my accessibility, Mother," she continued, thinking quickly. "People come to the Heir when they are afraid, for one reason or another, to come to the Monarch-and you know that's been true for hundreds of years. If there's something you want done, but don't want the open authority of the Crown behind it, you give it to me. Talia is your double in authority-she can't do that. I'm your unfettered hand, and now you want to shackle me. It just won't work, anyone could tell you that. It not only cuts down my effectiveness, it cuts down on yours. ' "Good girl; that's the way to win your argument. I agree with you, by the way. Bodyguards are not a solution. Not unless those bodyguards were also Heralds, and we have no Heralds to spare." Elspeth felt a little more relaxed and confident with Gwena's support.

"thanks. At least I'm not just being boneheaded and stubborn about this."

"oh, you are being boneheaded and stubborn, her Companion replied cheerfully. "But it's for the right reasons, and there's nothing wrong with a little stubbornness for the correct cause." Elspeth could hear the gentle good humor in Gwena's mind-voice and couldn't take offense,'though for a moment she was sorely tempted.

Selenay did not look convinced by the argument, however.

"I can't see that it's worth the risk-" she began. Talia interrupted her.

"Elspeth's right, I'm afraid," she said, in her quiet, clear voice. "It is worth the risk. When Elspeth goes out, off the Palace grounds, you could assign her a discreet guard, but other than that I think that extra care on everyone's part will serve the same purpose. If Kero is right, simply having the guards question anyone they see who doesn't seem to be acting normally will prevent another incident like the last one." Selenay's jaw tightened in a way Elspeth knew only too well. "You think I'm overreacting, don't you?" Yes, Elspeth replied-mentally. And kept a very tight shield over the thought.

"No," Talia said, and smiled. "You're just acting the way any mother would. I know if it were jemmie-let's just say I'd have him hidden away with some family-say, a retired Guardsman-turned-farmer-so far out in the country that no one could counterfeit a native and any stranger would cause a stir."

"Maybe-" Selenay's expression turned speculative, and Elspeth started to interrupt the thought she knew was going through her mother's mind.

Talia did it for her. "That won't work for Elspeth, I'm afraid. She's too old to hide that way, even if she would put up with being sent off like an exile. However-her uncle's court is very well protected... " Not too bad an idea, Elspeth had to admit, even if it doesn't feel right.

"That's a thought," Selenay acknowledged. "I don't know; I'll have to think about it."

"So long as you aren't planning on putting me under armed guard, like the Crown jewels," Elspeth said, in a little better humor.

"Not at the moment," her mother admitted.

"All right, then." She ran a hand over her hair and smiled a little.

"I can put up with one guard in the city; we probably should have had one anyway. If I'm not safe on the Palace grounds, after Kero gives the Guards one of her famous lectures, I won't be safe anywhere. I should know, I got one myself today. Two, in fact. As soon as she figured I was all right, she gave me a point-by-point critique on my performance." Talia chuckled, and Selenay relaxed a little. "I can just see Kero doing that, too," Talia said. "She doesn't ever let up. She's like Alberich.

The more tired you are, the more she seems to push you."

"I know, believe me. Uh-on that subject, sort of-would there be any problem if I had a tray in my room?" she asked, drooping just a little-not enough to resurrect Selenay's hysteria, but enough to look convincingly tired. "I don't think I can handle Uncle's delegation right now..."After this afternoon, I doubt anyone would expect you to," the Queen replied, sympathetically. "I'll make your apologies, and hopefully, after this afternoon, the current batch of rumors will be put to rest for a while."

"And I'll see that someone sends a tray up," Talia offered. "With honeycakes," she added, giving Elspeth a quick wink.

Elspeth managed to keep from giving herself away, and stayed in character." Thanks," she sighed, throwing both of them grateful looks. "If anyone wants me, I'll be in the bathing room, under hot water. And frankly, right now all you need to worry about is whether or not I drown in the bathtub. All I want is a hot bath and a book, dinner, and bed." She made a hasty exit before she betrayed herself. After all, it was partially the truth. She really was tired; her afternoon's double-workout had seen to that even before the attack. She really did want a hot bath and a tray in her room.

But she had no intention of going to bed early. There was too much to think about.

A candlemark later, wrapped in a warm robe and nibbling on a honeycake as she gazed out into the dusk-filled gardens, she still hadn't come to any conclusions of her own.

Things just felt wrong; she was restless and unhappy, and she wasn't certain why. The restrictions Selenay had wanted to place on her movements had merely heightened those feelings, which had been there all along.

It's almost as if there was something I should be doing, she decided, as the blue dusk deepened and shrouded the paths below in shadows. As if somewhere I have the key to all this, if I can just find it.

One thing she was certain of.. this would not be the last time Ancar attempted an assassination, or something of the sort. He wanted Valdemar, and he was not going to give up trying to annex it. There was no way he could expand eastward; the Aurinalean Empire was old and strong enough to flatten him if he attacked any of its kingdoms. North was Iftel-strange, isolationist Iftel-guarded by a deity. He could not move against them; not unless he wanted a smoking hole where his army had been. South was Karse, and if rumor was true, he was already making moves in that direction. But Karse had been at war with Valdemar and Rethwellan for generations, and they were quite prepared to take him on as well. Taking Valdemar would give him protection on the north, a western border he would not need to guard, and another place from which to attack Karse. Besides doubling his acquisitions.

He probably assumed that if the rightful rulers and their Heirs died, it would leave the country in a state of chaos and an easy target for takeover.

He might not be ready for another war now-but he would be, given time and the chance to rebuild his forces.

So no matter what, there's going to be another war, she thought, shoving the rest of her dinner aside, uneaten. I know it, Kero knows it, Stepfather knows it-Mother knows it, and won't admit it.

She turned away from the window and rested her back against the sill.

She'd had a fair number of discussions with Kero and Prince-Consort Daren on this very subject. Her stepfather didn't treat her like a child.

Then again, her stepfather hadn't ever seen her until she was adult and in her full Whites. It was an old proverb that a person was always a child to his parents... but it was war she should really be worrying about, not how to make her mother realize that she was an adult and capable of living her own life. The two problems were entwined, but not related. And the personal problems could wait.

The next try Ancar makes is going to involve magic, I know it combative magic, war-magic, the kind they use south of Rethwellan. the kind the Skybolts are used to seeing. Kero says so, and I think she's right.

She can talk about real magic, and I can... and that might be a clue to what I need to be doing right there.

For Valdemar was not ready to cope with magic, especially not within its borders. For all the efforts to prepare the populace, for all the research that was supposed to have been done in the archives, very little had actually been accomplished. Yes, the ballads of Vanyel's time and earlier had been revived, but there was very much a feeling of "but it can't happen now" in the people of Elspeth had talked to. And she wasn't the only one to have come to that conclusion. Kero had said much the same thing. The Captain was worried.

Elspeth licked her bitten lip, and thought hard. Kero's told me a lot of stories she hasn't even told Mother. Some of the things the Skybolts had to deal with-and those were just minor magics.

"Most of the time the major magics don't get used," she'd said more than once. That was because the major mages tended to cancel one another out. Adept-class mages tended to be in teaching, or in some otherwise less-hazardous aspect of their profession.

Most mages, Adept-class or not, were unwilling to risk themselves in all-out mage-duels for the sake of a mere employer. Most employers were reluctant to antagonize them.

But when the ruler himself was a mage, or backed by one-a powerful mage, at that-the rules changed. Mages could be coerced, like anyone else; or blackmailed, or bribed, if the offer was high enough. There was already evidence of coercion, magical and otherwise; outright control, like the men of his armies. And where there was a power broker, there were always those who wanted power above all else and were willing to pay any price to get it.

So Valdemar wasn't protected anymore because there was someone willing to pay the price of breaking the protections.

Or bending them...All right; when the Border-protection has failed, what's been the common denominator? She rubbed her temple, as she tried to think of what those failures had in common.

It didn't keep Hulda out-but she didn't work any magic while she was here. It didn't keep some of Ancar's spells out, but they were cast across the Border. It didn't keep that assassin out-but the spell must surely have been cast on him when he was with Ancar. And it didn't keep Need out, but Need hasn't done a blessed thing-openly-since Kero got here.

So; as long as there wasn't any active magic-casting within the borders, the protections they had relied on weren't working anymore.

Or else there were now mages who were stronger than the protections, so long as they worked from outside.

And, without a doubt, Ancar had figured that out, too.

Furthermore, no matter how powerful the protections were, unless they were caused by some deity or other-which Elspeth very much doubted-they could be broken altogether, instead of merely circumvented.

And when-not if, but when-Ancar accomplished that, they were going to be as helpless as a mouse beneath the talons of a predator.

As if to underscore that, Elspeth heard the call of an owl, somewhere out in the gardens.

Someone was going to have to find a mage-preferably a very powerful mage, one who wouldn't suffer from whatever had kept the Skybolts' mages out-and bring him to Valdemar.

That was going to take a lot of money, persuasion, or both. The first they had-or could get. The second just required the right person. Someone who was experienced in diplomacy and negotiation.

Or, failing being able to bring someone in, a Herald was going to have to learn magic herself.

That's it, she decided. that's what I need to do-find a mage and bring him in. I'm the perfect instrument for the job. Or learn magic; Kero says there are some things-according to her grandmother-that just need a trained will. I've certainly got that.

And as for where to find a mage-I think I know just the place to start.

This time Elspeth called the meeting, at breakfast, in her mother's suite. She hoped to catch her in a malleable mood-which she often was in the early morning. Not that Elspeth enjoyed being up that early; on the whole, she preferred never to have to view the sunrise.

But for a good cause, she'd sacrifice a bit of sleep.

She stated her case as clearly and logically as possible, before Selenay had finished her muffins, but after she'd had her first two cups of tea.

She'd thought about her presentation very carefully; why someone had to go chasing mages, and why that someone had to be her. Then she sat back and waited for her answer.

She has to agree. There's no other choice for us.

"No," Selenay stated flatly. "It's not possible." For a moment she was taken aback, but she rallied her defenses, thought quickly and plowed gamely onward. "Mother, I don't see where there's any choice," Elspeth replied, just as firmly as her mother. "I've told you the facts. Kero backs up my guesses about what's likely to happen, and she's the best tactician we have. And Alberich backs her up. The three of us have talked this over a lot."

"I don't-" Selenay fell strangely silent, looking troubled and very doubtful. Elspeth followed up her advantage. I can't give her a chance to say anything. Look at her hands, she's clutching things again. It's conflict between being a mother and the ruler. I think I can convince the Council, but I have to convince her before I convince the Council.

"We can't do this on our own anymore; we have to have help. We have to have a mage-'Adept-class," is what Kero says. Someone who can work around whatever it is that keeps active mages out. We have to find someone like that who is willing not only to help us but to teach Heralds if he can."

"I don't see why-" Selenay began. "We've managed all right until now. Why can't the Gifts provide an adequate defense? They've worked so far.

"Mother, believe me, there hasn't been a real trial of them," Elspeth countered. "I've listened to Kero's stories, and frankly they won't hold against a real effort by several mages. I'll tell you what, I suspect that we have people capable of becoming mages. The Chronicles all talk about a"Mage-Gift' just as if it were something like-oh, Firestarting; rare, but not unusual. I don't think it's been lost. I think that we've just forgotten how to tell what it is, and how to train it. But to do that, we need a mage. A good one. And Kero says that all the good teachers are Adept-class."

"Even if all that is true," Selenay said, after a long silence, her hands clenched around her mug. "Why should you be the one to go?"

"Well, for one thing, I've got Crown powers. When I find a mage we can trust, I can offer him anything reasonable-and I know what's reasonable; Kero's briefed me on hiring mages. For another-I'm not indispensable.

You have two more heirs, and if you want to know the truth, I'm not certain I should wear the crown." She smiled ruefully. "I take shortcuts a little too often to make the Council comfortable." Selenay returned the smile reluctantly, but if faded just as quickly as it came.

Elspeth shrugged. "The truth of the matter is that the twins are probably going to be better rulers than I would. The Council can't object to letting me go, with two more candidates for the throne still here. I'm a full Herald, I know what we need, Kero can probably give me contacts, and I have Crown authority. I'm the best-absolutely best-person for the job." Selenay started to say something-Elspeth waited for the rebuke-but it never came. It was almost as if something had interrupted her before she could say anything.

Odd.

But she followed up on her advantage.

"Let me give you another reason. You wanted me safe, right? You can put forty layers of guards on the twins and they won't mind, but you know very well that I won't put up with it. On the other hand, if you send me to Uncle Faram, Ancar won't know where to find me at first-and when he finds out, he won't risk a try for me in Rethwellan.

Uncle has a larger army, he has mages, and I don't think even Ancar would risk all-out war with him." She firmed her jaw and raised her head stubbornly. "Besides, I won't be there for long, I'll be looking for Kero's old mage Quenten. He has a school, she says, and if anybody can find us mages, I should think he would. When I'm there, I'll be surrounded by mages. I couldn't possibly be safer than that." Selenay finally sighed and unclenched her hands. "There must be something wrong with that logic, but I can't figure out what it is," she said, her brow furrowed with an unhappy frown.

Elspeth turned a look of appeal on Talia, who bit her lip and looked very uncomfortable. As if part of her wants to side with me, and part of her doesn't.

"I just don't like it," Selenay said, finally. "You're far too vulnerable.

Even traveling through Valdemar, I wouldn't feel comfortable unless you had a full company of troops with you. Traveling across the Comb is nearly as dangerous in summer as winter-there are thunderstorms, wild beasts-and the only decent pass is too close to Karse for my comfort." She shook her head. "No, I can't allow it. Bringing in a mage-that's not a bad idea. I think you're right about that much. But the person I send won't be you." Selenay's chin came up and her voice took on a steely quality that Elspeth knew only too well. There was no arguing with her mother in this mood.

She could appeal to her stepfather and Alberich. Kero was already on her side.

But not now.

And it might take weeks, even months, to get Selenay to change her mind. By then it would be fall or winter, and she would have another excuse to keep Elspeth at home-the weather. And perhaps by then it would be too late.

She closed her eyes for a moment. The odd pressure inside her, now that she had a goal in mind and a task that really needed to be done, was already uncomfortable. Any delay would make it intolerable.

She had to go-had to. And she couldn't. She wanted to scream, argue. cry, anything.

But just one word at this point would ensure that she would never win Selenay's permission. And without that permission, there was no point in going to the Council; they would never override the Queen on this.

If I just ran off and did itno, that wouldn't work, either.

She had to have Crown and Council authority to make this mission a success, and running off on her own was not going to win her either.

So instead of bursting out, as she really wanted to, she simply clamped her mouth shut.

She got up, leaving her breakfast untasted, bowed stiffly, and took herself out of the room altogether.

She managed to keep her temper as far as her rooms-where she slammed the door shut behind her, and yanked open the closet so hard she nearly took the door off the hinges. The handle did come loose in her hand, and she flung it across the room without a single word, grabbing a set of old clothes from the back of the closet, pulling off her uniform and throwing it in a heap on the floor, and pulling on the new clothing with no care whatsoever.

She heard several stitches pop as she pulled the shirt over her head and ignored them.

"Kitten?" Gwena said, tentatively. "Dearest, don't be too discouraged. things can change, sometimes in a heartbeat. there are events occurring out on the borders that none of us know about yet-one of those may force your mother to change her mind."

"Don't patronize me," Elspeth snarled. "I'm past the age when you can tell me that everything will be all right. We have trouble, and no one wants to admit it or let me do my part in meeting it. So leave me alone, all right?

Let me cool down my own way."

"oh-: Gwena replied, very much taken aback by the barely-suppressed rage in Elspeth's mind-voice. Then she remained silent though Elspeth sensed her watchful presence in the back of her mind.

She ignored it; leaving her rooms with another slamming of doors and heading defiantly out to the gardens and her pottery shed.

No one even tried to stop her. Several people looked curiously at her as she stormed past, but no one spoke.

Most of the evidence of the assassination attempt was gone, along with the remains of those pieces that were smashed in the struggle. The floor had been swept clean-much, much cleaner than Elspeth ever kept it.

No, it was more than that. There was a new stool beside the bench where the old one had stood, there was a new door in place of the shattered one. Her old stove had been replaced with a new kiln and a new stove, her shelves had been replaced with stronger ones, the walls had been scoured, the floor scrubbed, and the place had been tidied up with meticulous precision.

Elspeth stared around with a sense of affront.

Bad enough that she'd been attacked here-but someone had taken it upon himself to "improve" the place.

Her sanctuary had been violated. With good intent, but violated, just the same. It wasn't hers anymore...But it was all she had.

Resolutely, she squared her shoulders, went to one of the waiting boxes of raw clay, and cut herself a generous chunk-quite enough to make another two-handled vase.

Better than the last one.

And she set about grimly wedging the helpless hunk of clay into submission.

Stubborn, unreasoning woman, she fumed, punching the defenseless clay as hard as she could, flattening it to a finger-wide sheet on the smooth slate top of the bench.

A lot like her daughter, whispered her conscience.

So what? she answered it. I can see sense when I have to, whatever it costs me. She won't even consider what this could mean if I succeed-or what it will mean if I'm not allowed to try. I don't even know if she'll send someone else-she might decide not to. She might even forget.

Her conscience persisted as she rolled the sheet of clay up into a cylinder and flattened the cylinder into a sphere. You've never been a mother, so how can you know what letting you go would cost her? You heard Talia-if it were her son that was in jeopardy, she'd be just as irrational, and she is the most sensible person you know. And besides, you aren't the only one who could take this mission on and make a success out of it.

Oh, no? she snarled at her conscience, picking the ball of clay up, and throwing it down on the slate, over and over again. Who else is there?

Kerowyn, for one, her conscience replied too promptly. After all, her uncle-if he's still alive-is a White Winds Adept. And Quenten used to be one of the Skybolts' mages. She has the same contacts she would be giving you. Surely one of them could be persuaded to help.

And if not? she challenged.

If not-there're King Faram's court mages. they aren't exactly apprentices, and they've already proved they'll work for hire by being in his employ.

And Kero is Daren and Faram's very good friend. She could probably even persuade Faram to part with one or more of his mages, if they are willing to come up here.

But I'm their relative, she countered. That should be twice as effective.

Her conscience had no counter to that, but she had no answer for it, either. So she wasn't the only person who could go-,so what? She was still the best choice, if not the only one, if only Selenay would admit it.

The clay was ready-but she wasn't. She continued to pound her temper out on it as she sought reasons why Kerowyn could not be spared to go in her place.

She's the Captain of the Skyboltswho are in Valdemar's employ. And she has perfectly adequate stand-ins.

She doesn't have Crown authority, in case she has to negotiate with someone besides the people she knows.

Well, there's always a writ.

She's too old.

That sounded like a stupid excuse even to Elspeth. Too old, sure. She can beat me nineteen falls out of twenty. Not even close, girl.

She doesn't know what we need.

Now that might be a good reason. The needs of a mercenary Captain and the needs of a country like Valdemar were vastly different. A Company might be able to use someone who didn't necessarily fit their profile.

Valdemar was going to need someone very special.

For one thing, he's going to need a pretty good set of ethics. He'll have to be able to get along with people. He'll have to know when not to use his power. And most especially, he'll have to be someone who would never, ever, abuse either his power or position.

In other words, he would, for all intents and purposes, be as much like a Herald as possible.

And ideally, really, he would be Chosen as soon as Elspeth returned to Valdemar with him. That would be perfect.

But that would make him the first Herald-Mage since Vanyel...She shook off the haze of speculation. What mattered was that Kero-if she went-was all too likely to bring back someone who was picked with a Captain's eye, rather than a Herald's. And that could be a major mistake.

She might well take the best of a dubious lot, without looking any further.

She could get someone who had managed to conceal his motives. She could even get someone in alliance with Ancar, who had not only managed to conceal his motives, but his intentions.

Kero was smart, but she hadn't been a Herald for very long. She still took some folks aback by her attitudes. That was amusing inside Valdemar, but in a situation where Valdemar's well-being depended on her attitudes-a difference of opinion could be dangerous.

And there was always the possibility that she would pick someone who was not strong enough to pass the borders. Then what?

Would she simply conclude that this mage-hunting was a waste of time, and return?

Elspeth wouldn't-but she wasn't sure that the same would be true of Kero. this may be one case where my stubborn streak is an advantage. I won't give in until I have someone. Kero might. And if she winds up having to go outside of Rethwellan-I think her reputation as a mercenary might be held against her. There might be mages with active morals who would feel that working with a mercenary, former or no, wasn't ethical, no matter how worthy the cause.

Kero had worked all of her life to keep her emotions out of her negotiations.

That lack of obvious passion might work against her in a case like this.

But Elspeth might be convincing enough...I have all the reasons and counters I need, she thought, grimly kneading her clay. Now if only someone would be willing to listen to them.

*Chapter Four DARKWIND

"So, you have encountered another situation," Starblade k'sheyna said coldly as he regarded his son without blinking. The ekele was too low on the tree trunk to sway, but the branches surrounding it moved in a gentle wind. Darkwind tried not to shift position in any way that might be interpreted as showing his discomfort. It was difficult to remain cool beneath that measuring, inscrutable gaze. Starblade's bondbird, a huge, hawk-sized crow, gazed at him with the same, impassive expression as its bondmate. It might have been a stone bird, or a shadow made into flesh and feathers.

"What ever happened to the Father I knew? He's gone as thoroughly as Songwind.

"Let me see if I understand this correctly. You were on patrol along the border. Your bondbird located invaders. There were some seven intruders, two of whom may have been mages, the rest of whom may simply have been in their employ." Sun poured through the leaves, beyond the open windows, engulfing them in a dappled silence.

"Yes, Elder," Darkwind replied, just as impersonally. Perhaps if I give him a little taste of his own a~e...Starblade inclined his head a little, in mocking acknowledgment of the imitation, and the tiny multicolored crystals braided into his waist-length, snow-white hair sang softly as he moved, echoing the wind chimes strung in each window. "But you are not sure."

"No, Elder." Darkwind knew very well what Starblade was up to and did not rise to the bait. He wants me to get angry, and I won't. That would be an acknowledgment of weakness and lack of control.

"Why not?" Starblade persisted, narrowing his ice-blue eyes to slits. "What was it that you did to try and determine what they were?" As if he didn't know what would be the proper procedure. "I followed them for some distance, before I judged they had ventured too far into k'sheyna territory. Nothing in their conversation gave me any clues as to their identity, Elder," Darkwind replied, holding his temper in check.

There was no real reason for this interview. They had already been over this several times; once before the entire Council, once with the other three Elders, in detail, and now, for the second time, with his father alone. The Council had heard his story without allowing him to confront them over the situation of being so shorthanded on the border. that they had assigned to Starblade, as the most senior Adept, and presumably the one who could make a decision about the situation. Perhaps he is supposed to conjure up something, Darkwind thought bitterly.

Which meant he had to go over this as many times as Starblade wanted in order to get his point made. "I listened carefully to the conversation. what there was of it. The armed men treated the unarmed men with a certain amount of deference, but there was no outward sign that they were not-say-adventurous traders. I thought they might be mages because they were unarmed, so I moved to neutralize them first."

"You did not spellcast to determine if any of them were using magic of any kind?" Starblade settled back in his green-cushioned chair. In contrast to his son's camouflage outfit, his own elaborate clothing made him look like an exotic. silver-crested, blue-plumaged bird perched in the shrubbery.

"No. sir," Darkwind replied, allowing a hint of effrontery to carry into his voice. "I did not."

"And why not?" Starblade asked softly. "You have the power, after all.

"Because I do not choose to use that power, Father," Darkwind said, holding in his temper with an effort. "You know that. As you know my "As I know your excuses," Starblade snapped. "They are not reasons.

You put k'sheyna in jeopardy because you refuse to use your abilities."

"I did no such thing. I kept k'sheyna from jeopardy because I destroyed the interlopers when they would not turn back," Darkwind interrupted." I did so without the foolish use of magic, which might have attracted more trouble, that close to the border. Despite being shorthanded, I did so with the limited resources at my disposal."

"Without magic."

"Without magic," Darkwind repeated. "Because it was not needed, and because other things might have been attracted that it would not have been possible to combat, with only three guards and their birds within range to stand against the threat." He glared at his father. , "If you are so insistent on having mages on the border, Father, perhaps you would care to join us for some of our patrols." And we can lead you about by the hand.

They could not have been more of a contrast, he and Starblade. The mage wore his waist-length, silver hair braided with crystals, feathers, and rainbow beads. His costume, of peacock-blue spider-silk, cut and decorated elaborately, was impressive and impractical in the extreme.

Darkwind, when he was not in his scout clothing, tended to wear brown or gray, cut closely to his body, high-collared and mostly without ornament; his hair was barely shoulder-length.

Most of the mages dressed the way Starblade did, though some made concessions to camouflage by wearing white in the winter and leaf-colors in the rest of the year, garments that could blend in with the woods after a fashion. Not that long ago, he had looked like the rest of them. this is growing tedious.

"Father, we have been over this any number of times. I did my duty; I rid k'sheyna of the interlopers. The point is not that I did or did not get rid of them using magic. The point is that we are chronically shorthanded.

We shouldn't be here at all, Father. More than half of k'sheyna is-elsewhere. What's wrong with us? Why haven't we done something about this situation?"

"That is none of your concern," Starblade began coldly, drawing himself up and staring at his son in astonishment.

"It is my concern," Darkwind interrupted. "I'm on the Council, too.

I am the representative of the scouts. I'm one of the Clan Elders now, which you seem to have forgotten. And as the scouts' representative, I would like to know exactly what we are doing to drain the Heartstone, or stabilize it, and rejoin the rest of our Clan." He drew himself up to match his father's pose, and looked challengingly into Starblade's eyes.

Starblade met the challenging gaze impassively. "That is the business of the mages. If you wish to have a say in the matter-" he smiled, you may take up your powers again. then you may join the mages and have your words heeded." Darkwind felt himself flushing with anger, despite his earlier resolutions." What I choose to do with my powers has nothing to do with the matter. Those of us who are not mages have a right to determine what is k'sheyna's future as well." He paused a moment, and added, the tradition, after all-that every voice in a Clan has some say in the running of the Clan." Starblade looked past his son's shoulder for a moment and took a long, slow breath. "What you choose to do with your powers.is precisely at issue here. He lowered his eyes to meet Darkwind's again, and there was an anger to match his son's in his gaze. "You are risking the lives of your scouts by your refusal to use your magic. Your abilities are required on our boundaries, and yet you will not use them. And I do not accept why you refuse." Darkwind closed his eyes, but he could not block the memories.

 The Heartstone, a great crystal-laced boulder taller than he, pulsing with all the life and power of the Vale. Its surface glowed with intricate warm red and golden tracings, as the inner circle of Adepts continued to drain the excess mage-energy from the land about them, to empty the nodes and the power-lines so that there was nothing left that could be used to harm.

That was how the Tayledras left a place; concentrating all the realigned power of the area in their Heartstone; then draining the Heartstone and channeling most of its awesome energy into a new one, at the site of their new Vale.

Power crackled and seethed, pouring into the stone, as Darkwind held to his position, anchoring the West-outside the circle of Adepts that contained his mother and father. the shunting off of the great stone's energy was a dangerous task and required many protectors and guides from outside the main circle; he was an important part e in age. ngw eyna was the youngest Adept of his Clan ever to take such a task and quite conscious of the responsibilities involved.

There was no warning, no unsettling current of unclean energy. just a brightening of the stone, more intense than the last, and a disorienting sensation like lightning strikinghell opened in front of him. A blaze of incandescent white, power that scorched him to the soul. Silhouetted against the hellfires, his mother "I don't trust my so-called 'abilities," Father," he said slowly, shaking off the too-vivid memories. "No one knows why the Heartstone fractured, and the power broke loose." Was it his imagination, or did his father start a little?

"I was the youngest Adept there," he persisted. "I was the only one who had never participated in moving a Heartstone's power before. What if it was something I did, and everything I do magically is forever flawed that way? I will not take that chance, Father, not when what is left of our Clan is at stake." Starblade would not look into his son's eyes, but his voice was implacable.

He gazed down at his hand as if he had never seen it before, examining the long fingers as he spoke. "I have told you, many times, it was nothing you did or did not do. It... it had nothing to do with you."

"Can you be certain of that?" He shook his head and started to stand up. "Father, I know exactly what my abilities are with my hands, my senses. I can't count on my magic-" Starblade looked up, and his expression had changed to one of scorn.

If you have no confidence in yourself," the Elder finished. "Your magic is flawed only if you choose to believe it is so. Songwind was not that-fearful. I remember and loved Songwind. He saw his power as a source of pride, and our Clan was proud of him for it. Our children and old ones are gone from us now, and you have refused those powers to defend what is left of us here. I have little respect for you for that, Darkwind." The heat of Darkwind's anger cooled to ice, as he felt the blood draining from his face. The golden sunlight drifting through the windows and making patterns upon the white wooden floor suddenly lost all its warmth. "The Starblade who is my Elder is not the Father I remember either," he replied. "Perhaps a change of name is in order for you, as well. Iceblade, perhaps-or Brokenblade, for you seem to have lost both your courage and your compassion. Starblade gaped at him in startled surprise. "You are unwilling to face the fact that circumstances have changed. I think that you are terrified to face that change. I don't know-I only know that you seem to think that we who work without magic are not worth aiding. If you see no reason to help the scouts, Father, then we must take what help we can get-even to calling on the hertasi, the dyheli, and the others of the Hills whose wellbeing you scorn in your arrogance." He started to turn, and had taken one step toward the door, when Starblade's voice stopped him.

"Arrogance?" the Elder said, as coolly as if Darkwind had not said anything at all. "An interesting choice of words from you. Songwind was the youngest Adept in the Clan-but it has occurred to me of late that perhaps that distinction was not enough for you." Darkwind turned back to his father reluctantly. "What is that supposed to mean?" he asked, the words forced from him unwillingly.

"Songwind was only an Adept. Darkwind is on the Council-is, in fact, an Elder." Starblade shrugged. "That was an opportunity that would not have been given to Songwind for some time-but with the scouts so shorthanded, and poor, newly-bereft Darkwind so eager to join them-and so-charismatic-"

"If you are suggesting that I have left magic solely for the sake of another kind of power-" Darkwind could feel himself going red, then white, with anger. He struggled to control his temper; an outburst now would win him nothing.

"I am suggesting nothing," Starblade replied smoothly. "I am only saying that the appearance is there." A hundred retorts went through Darkwind's mind, but he made none of them. Instead, he strove for and regained at least an appearance of calm.

"If that were, indeed, the case, Elder," he said quietly, but with just a hint of the rage that he held tightly bottled within, "it seems to me that I would already have been acting on those ambitions. I should have been moving to consolidate that power, and to manipulate both the nonmages and the weaker mages. As you are well aware, I have been doing' no such thing. I have simply been doing the work assigned to me-like any other scout. Like any responsible leader. I never sought the position of leader or Elder, it was pressed upon me; I would never have used personal attraction to get them." Starblade smiled, tightly. "I merely suggest, Darkwind, that if you returned to magic you would be forced to give up that position. In fact, in light of the fact that you are out of practice, you might be asked to return to the position of student rather than Adept. And that perhaps unconsciouslyyou are reluctant to return to the position of commanded, having been commander."

"You have hinted that before, Elder," Darkwind answered him grimly. "And the suggestion was just as repellent the first time as it is now. I think I know myself very well now, and there is no such reluctance on my part for that ridiculous reason. If there were anyone else within the scouts who wanted the position, I would give it to him-or her-and gladly." And if we were a less civilized people, those words would be cause for a challenge.

"I have said that I do not know this thing you have become, Darkwind-" Starblade began.

Darkwind cut him off abruptly with an angry gesture. "Indeed, Elder," he replied, turning on his heel and tossing his last words over his shoulder as he left the outer room of Starblade's ekele. "You do not know me at all, if you think that little of me." It was not-quite-the kind of exit he would have liked. There was no door to slam, only a hertasi-made curtain of strung seeds-and it was difficult, if not impossible, to effectively stamp his feet the few steps it took to reach the ladder, without sounding like a child in a temper.

Which is how he wants me to feel, after all.

And if he rushed angrily down the ladder, even so short a distance as he needed with his father's tree-dwelling, he risked taking some stupid injury like a sprain or a broken limb. Starblade's ekele was hardly more than a few man-heights from the floor of the Vale, and had several rooms, like a bracelet of beads around the trunk of the huge tree it was built onto. The access leading to it was more like a steep staircase than a ladder.

So it was quite impossible to descend in any way that would underscore his mood without playing to his father's gloating.

He settled for vaulting off of the last few feet of it, as if he could not bear to endure Starblade's "hospitality" a moment more. He landed as lightly and silently as only a woods-scout could, and walked away from the ekele without looking back, his purposeful steps taking him on a path that would lead him out of the Vale altogether.

He knew that he was by no means as calm as he looked, but he was succeeding in this much at least. He was working off some of his anger as he pushed his way through the exotic, semitropical undergrowth that shadowed and sometimes hid the path. The plants themselves were typical of any Tayledras Vale, but the state of rank overgrowth was not.

The Hawkbrothers always chose some kind of valley for their Clansites, something that could be "roofed over" magically, and shielded from above and on all sides, so that the climate within could be controlled, and undesirable creatures warded off. Then, if there were no hot springs there already, the mages would create them-and force-grow broad trees to make them large enough to hold several ekele.

The result was always junglelike, and the careful placement of paths to allow for the maximum amount of cover and privacy for all the inhabitants gave a Vale the feeling of being uninhabited even when crowded with a full Clan and all the hertasi that served them.

It appeared uninhabited to the outsider. To a Tayledras, there was always the undercurrent of little sounds and life-feelings that told him where everyone was, a comforting life-song that bound the Clan together.

But there was no such song here, in k'sheyna Vale. Instead of a rich harmony, with under-melodies and counterpoint, the music halted, limped, within a broken consort. Hertasi made up most of the life-sparks about Darkwind, as the little lizard-folk went about their business and that of the Clan, cleaning and mending and preparing food. And that was not right.

Further, there were no child-feelings anywhere about. Only adults, and a mere handful of those, compared to the number a full Clan should muster.

Any Tayledras would know there is something wrong, something out of balance, just by entering the Vale.

Silence; Tayledras that were not mages undertook all the skilled jobs that hertasi could not manage-besides the scouts, there should have been artisans, musicians, crafters. All those activities made their own little undercurrent of noises, and that, too, was absent. The rustle of leaves, the dripping of water, the whisper of the passing of the shy hertasi, sounds that he would never have noticed seemed too loud in the empty Vale.

Then there were the little signs of neglect; ekele empty and untenanted, going to pieces, so that hertasi were constantly removing debris, and trying to get rid of things before they fell. Springs were littered with fallen leaves. Vegetation grew unchecked, untrimmed, or dying out as rare plants that had required careful nurturing went untended.

It all contributed to the general feeling of desolation-but there was an underlying sense of pain, as well. And that was because not all of the ekele stood empty by choice.

Half the Clan had moved to the new Vale, it was true, and were now out of reach until a new Gate could be built to them. There were no mages strong enough in the far-away, exiled half of the Clan to build that Gate, and not even the most desperate would choose to take children and frail elders on a trek across the dangerous territory that lay between them. But k'sheyna-that-remained was at a quarter of its strength, not a half. And most of those were not Adepts. The circle of Adepts that had been charged with draining and moving the Heartstone had been the strongest the Clan could muster; they had taken the full force of the disaster. fully half of those that had remained behind-most of the Adepts-had died in the catastrophe that claimed Darkwind's mother. Many of those that were left were still in something of a state of shock, and, like Darkwind himself, trying to cope with the unprecedented loss of so many mates, friends, and children. The silence left by their absence gnawed at the subconscious of mage and scout alike.

Only a few went to Darkwind's extreme, and changed their use-name, but he was not completely alone in his reaction. To change a use-name meant that, for all intents and purposes, the "person" described by that name was dead." That was why "Songwind" became

"Darkwind." When he had recovered from his burns and lacerations, he repudiated magic altogether.

Then, when that move brought him into conflict with his father, he moved out of the family ekele, and took up life on his own, with the scouts and craftsmen who were left.

Another mage, Starfire, became Nightfire, and became obsessed with the remains of the Heartstone, studying it every waking moment, trying to determine the cause of the disaster.

And the most traumatized mage of all, Moonwing, became Silence.

I could have been like Silence, he thought, beating a branch aside with unnecessary force. I could have retreated into myself, and become a hermit.

I could have stopped speaking except mind-to-mind. I could be broadcasting my pain to anyone who dared touch my thoughts. I didn't do that; I'm doing something useful.

But that, evidently, was not enough for Starblade.

He'll have me as a mage, or not at all. Darkwind scowled at the trail before him, frightening a passing hertasi into taking another route. He should look to the Clan; there are more important problems than the fact that I will not use magic.

The physical wounds had mended, but the emotional and mental injuries were still with k'sheyna, and they were not healing well.

But then, those that could have taken care of such deep-seated problems had all perished themselves.

There was no one skilled enough, for instance, to enter Silence's mind and Heal her-Heal Silence? there's no one even skilled enough to Heal me ...There should have been help coming from other clans-there can only be only one reason why there isn't, he thought, and not for the first time. the Elders' pride. they will not admit that we failed so badly, or that we need help at all.

Fools. Fools and blind.

In the first few weeks after the disaster, there had been messengers from other Clans. That much he knew for a fact; the rest was a guess, for he had been delirious from brain-fever and the pain of his burns. He had been in no position to make any pleas, but the visitors did not stay long, in any case. He had no doubt that they had been rebuffed. Now no visitors-or offers of help-came at all.

Darkwind reached the edge of the Vale, where the shield met the outside world. The boundary line was quite clear; within the Vale grew a riot of flowers and plants with enormous, tropical leaves, all of it surrounding individual trees that reached higher than the cliffs beside them, trees with trunks as large as houses. Flowers bloomed and plants flourished no matter the season. Outside the Vale-one scant finger-length from the shield-it was pine forest, with the usual sparse undergrowth.

And if Darkwind looked closely enough, he could see a kind of shimmer where the one ended and the other began.

Of course, if he cared to use Mage-Sight on that barrier-which he did not-that shimmer was a curtain of pure energy, tuned only to allow wildlife, the Hawkbrothers, their allies, and select individuals across.

He paused before crossing that invisible border, and looked reluctantly at a stand of enormous bandar-plants. Behind those plants lay a hot spring, one of many that supplied the heat and moisture the plants required... and provided places of refreshment as well.

Gods above, I could use a soak... it's been a long day, and there is still more ahead of me.

Well, perhaps a short pause would not hurt anything.

He slipped between two of the plants and shed his clothing quickly, leaving it in a pile on the smooth stones bordering the spring.

This was not one of the larger springs, nor one of the more popular.

It was too close to the edge of the Vale and the shield, and the reminder of the Real World outside their little sheltered Vale made many of the remaining mages too uneasy to use it.

While the scouts, who were more than a little uneasy within the heart of the Vale, in close proximity to the shattered, but still empowered and dangerous Heartstone, did not much care to use the larger, carefully sculptured springs there, with their pools for washing as well as pools for soaking away aches-or disporting.

Hertasi did their best to keep all the little pockets of hot, bubbling water free of fallen leaves and other debris, but they had too many other duties to attend to. This particular spring had not been attended to in some time and ran sluggishly, the surface covered with fallen vegetation.

Darkwind tossed a half dozen huge leaves out to the side, and scooped out quite a bit of debris at the bottom before the spring bubbled up freely again.

Then he relaxed back into the smooth stone of the seats built into the sides, created by magically sculpting the rock before the water had been called here.

As the warm water soaked away his aches and bruises and relaxed too-taut muscles, he closed his eyes and, for once, tried to remember back to those dark and chaotic days immediately following the catastrophe.

Did we know then how bad the area was outside our own borders? He didn't think so; it seemed to him that no one had paid any attention to the lands outside the purview of the Clan, and to be fair, they had their hands full with the territory they had undertaken to cleanse.

We definitely had enough to do-and whatever was out there tended to leave us alone while we were strong. there was no reason to think that it was any worse than our own lands.

It was only after they had cleaned up their own areas, and were preparing to move, that they realized that the blight they faced on their southern border was at least as pervasive as the one they had just dealt with. And was, perhaps, more dangerous than the area to the west that they had chosen as the new Vale-site.

Why hadn't they seen the blight? Well, it might have been because there had been a clear zone between the two, a zone that disguised the true nature of what lay beyond. It was only after the disaster, when creatures from across that clear zone swarmed over the wreckage of the Vale, that anyone realized just how tainted that area was.

Now, of course, they could not deal with it, could not clean it out, and could not eliminate it.

There's at least one Adept in there, Darkwind thought, clenching his jaw involuntarily. It was his constant "attentions" after the accident that forced us to pull back our borders in the first place.

And now that there were no more offers of help from the other Clans, they could not ask for one of the others to lend aid. They could not even push the unseen enemies back, not without help.

I'd try to contact the other Clans myself, but I would have to do so by magic means. I don't know where the other territories are, and Father isn't about to give me a map.

And using magic would only have attracted more unwelcome attentions.

He had seen all too often how blatant use of magics brought a wave of attackers from the Outside. The one mage who had been willing to work with the scouts had fallen victim, he suspected, to just that.

He was certainly overwhelmed before we could reach him. And I know there were not that many Misborn there before.

He suspected that the Adept watched for magic-use, and turned his creatures loose when he saw it. So long as k'sheyna confined themselves and their magic to their Vale, he seemed content to pursue his own plans, only pressing them occasionally, rather than sending an army against them.

There may be more than one Adept out there, but somehow I don't think so. Dark Adepts don't share power willingly.

So far, they had been able to beat all attempts to penetrate the new boundaries. So far, they had not lost more than a handful of scouts, and a mage or two.

And right now, we seem to be operating under an uneasy truce, as if he had decided we were too weak to threaten him, but too strong to be worth moving against. At least nothing major has come out of there for about a year.

And there haven't been any attacks from Outlanders that I can prove originated from there.

Nothing had made any attempt at the creatures k'sheyna protected, either. So far the hertasi enclaves remained untouched, the dyheli herds had not been preyed upon. The firebirds had fled the area though-and that bothered him.

And there were no human villages within k'sheyna territory anymore.

Crops had failed, wells dried up, traders ceased to come; only a handful of hunters and a religious hermit or two stayed behind.

No overt attacks for a year. But who knows what that means, he thought pesimistically. We have a weak and unstable Clan facing a nebulous enemy, and our options grow fewer with every passing day.

Starblade's answer to their troubles was simple: more magic. More mages. Everyone who had a spark of Mage-Gift should train it, and use it in their defense, while the handful of real mages worked to find an answer to their unstable Heartstone. Magic was the answer to every problem.

But how many times have I seen that using magic attracts problems? Hundreds.

And what happens when we attract something we can't handle?

No, more magic was not the answer. Not to Darkwind's way of thinking.

What we should do is appeal for help to one of the other Clans; we need Adepts who can drain the old Heartstone or stabilize it and take over this Vale for us. Then we can build a Gate and rejoin the rest. So what if they can't Gate in to us? That doesn't matter; and while we wait for the Heartstone to be made safe, we can defend ourselves with stealth, with cleverness.

He had to force his shoulder muscles to relax again, and sank a little deeper into the hot water. In fact, that's what we should be doing about this Adept. We should find some way of luring him out into the open, maybe by "playing dead." then we should neutralize him-but the one thing he wouldn't be expecting is a physical assault.

He nodded to himself, the pieces finally falling together for him. that Adept wants something-the power in the Heartstone, probably. He has to be watching constantly for magic power in use, and sending things against us only when he sees it. He really hasn't made an all-out assault against us because he's clever. He knows it would cost him less to take us by attrition than by full force.

And right now, he's hoping to lull us into forgetting that he's out there.

He tightened his jaw, thinking about how Starblade kept dismissing the importance of the scouts, and the threats on the borders. Right. He just might, too.

That brought up another thought. I wonder if he sent those intruders to test us. It could be. And not using magic told him-what? that we don't have mages to spare, probably. He should have a pretty good idea of how weak we really are at this point.

But what if I can use that against him? what if I can lure him out into the open, and find out who and what he is?

What if I could destroy him-or at least convince him that we're too strong, still, to be worth the trial?

He shook his head at his own ambitions. Certainly. And what if I could grow wings and fly out of here for help? the one is as likely as the other.

Best to stick to what he knew he could accomplish.

He looked up through the leafy canopy above him; not long until sunset, and that meant he had better get back to his own ekele. The dayscouts would be waiting to report, the night-scouts to be briefed. And Vree would be waiting for his dinner, for that bit of rabbit earlier was hardly enough to satisfy him.

Reluctantly, he pulled himself out of the spring, dried himself with his shirt, and pulled on the rest of his clothing.

If I can see what needs taking care of, then it's my job to take care of it.

My duties won't wait-whether or not Father approves.

*Chapter Five ELSPETH

Elspeth stood on guard, trembling with exhaustion, with the last of the dulled practice swords in her hands. The Captain went off-guard and nodded. "Right," Kerowyn said, just a hint of satisfaction in her voice.

"Let's go through it again." Did I hear satisfaction? Approval? Gods, maybe all the bruises are worth it after all.

Elspeth shook sweat out of her eyes, picked up the scattered practice blades with hands that still tingled from Kero's disarms, and distributed them randomly around the perimeter of the circle. It was kind of funny, really. This was the one and only time she had ever been ordered to just drop weapons carelessly, leaving them exactly where they fell.

This had been another one of Kero's little exercises in "attitude." Today had been entirely defensive; she had not been permitted to strike a single blow.

And she'd had one of the most strenuous workouts she'd ever had in her life.

The exercise was simple; Kero disarmed her, and she would try to get to another weapon-by whatever means possible-before Kero could corner her. Hence the rough circle of weaponry scattered around the Salle.

Her setup-such as it was-completed, she stood in the middle of the circle, sword in hand, and waited for Kero to disarm her.

Kero went into "ready" stance, and Elspeth matched her.

Here it comes- Her heart beat a little faster, and her mouth dried. No matter that it was "just" a practice. With Kerowyn or Alberich, nothing was ever "just" a practice. When they delivered killing blows, they left bruises, as a reminder of what could have happened.

The Captain came in slowly this time; Kero feinted and fenced with her for a few moments, forcing her to move away from her original position. Then, when Elspeth was not expecting it, the Captain bound her blade and sent it flying out of her hand.

She didn't waste a moment; the instant she lost the blade, she dove to one side, rolled, and came up with another in her hand; a shortsword, this time. Without thinking, she shifted her grip until the balance was right.

This time Kero rushed her before she had a chance to settle herself, catching her off-guard while she was still finding the balance for the blade.

Crap!

She back-pedaled but not fast enough; Kero got to her and literally swatted the blade out of her hand.

She did the unexpected-as Kero had been trying to get her to do. She rushed the Captain. barehanded, shouldering past her and springing for the next sword on the floor.

This time, she didn't even get a chance to get her hands on it. Kero beat her to the spot and kicked it away before she reached it.

She dove after another, sliding belly-down across the wooden floor; she got it and started to roll over-but Kero was on top of her, and swatted that one out of her hands. too.

This one fell short. and Elspeth made a short dive and grabbed it again; her hand tingled, and she had trouble feeling her fingers, but she got it all the same, just as Kero reached her and cut down.

This time she didn't lose it. This time she managed to hold onto the hilt long enough to counter Kero's first three attempts at disarming her-even though her grip was an entirely unorthodox, two-handed one, and she never managed to return a blow.

"That's enough," Kero said, stepping back and wiping the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. Elspeth simply collapsed where she lay for a moment, spread-eagled on the floor. She blinked several times to clear her eyes, and rolled over onto her side. And when Kero offered her a hand to help her up, she took it without shame.

"Not bad," the Captain said, as she started to pick up the scattered swords. "Not bad at all." Elspeth cast her a startled glance. "oh, I mean it," the Captain grinned. "You were exhausted, your hands were numb-and you still always managed to get a weapon in your hands before I could close with you. Good job, kitten." And this is the person Alberich says is better than he is. For a moment Elspeth truly did not know what to say in reply. Finally, she managed to think of something that wouldn't get her into trouble. "Do you think I could have kept myself alive for a little while longer?" she asked.

"At least until help came-and if Gwena couldn't get to you in time to help, you'd be in deeper compost than anyone could be expected to get out of," Kero told her, as she got the remainder of the practice blades and took them over to the wall to rack them. "And that is all anyone can ask for." Someone cleared his throat conspicuously, and Skif emerged from the shadowed entry of the door leading to the outside of the salle. "Excuse me, Captain," he said meekly, "but if you're through with Elspeth, the Circle and Council want to talk to her."

"Now?" Kero asked, her eyebrows arching.

Dear gods, now what? Elspeth wondered. Skif looked very odd, and unusually subdued.

"Well, yes, sort of," he replied, uncomfortably. "I mean, they're meeting now, with the Queen, and they really wanted to talk with her now."

"Well, they can just give her a moment to sluice herself off," Kero replied firmly. "There's no sense in making her show up looking like a shambles."

"Kitten," she Mindspoke, in private-mode, "there's a set of my Whites and a kind of wash area in my office; you'll fit my uniform closely enough. I know from experience that it's easier facing an official situation if-you feel as if you look presentable."

"thanks," Elspeth replied gratefully, surprised a little at the Mindspeech.

Kero seldom used it, except with Eldan and her Companion, having had to conceal the fact that she had the Gift for most of her life.

She was almost as flattered by Kero's use of it with her as by the Captain's earlier compliments.

Elspeth darted into the Weaponsmaster's office before Skif had a chance to stop her; there was, indeed, a pump and a deep basin in a little room in the back behind a screen, and a stack of thick towels beside it. The basin was deep enough for her to duck her head under water, and she did so. The water, fresh from the pump, was cold enough to make her yip, but it revived her considerably. She was toweling off her hair when the promised set of Whites appeared over the screen.

She scrambled into them, and discovered, as Kero had promised, they were a close fit.

I didn't think Kero had a set of whites-I thought she'd convinced everybody she was never going to wear them. Well, there are times when she plays the uniform game with everyone else. Not often, but I've seen her do it. I suppose if she absolutely has to show up as a formal Herald, this is as good a place to keep her Whites as any.

They were a little loose across the shoulders and tight in the chest, but no one was likely to notice. And she realized, as she wound her wet hair into a knot at the back of her neck, that she did feel a little more confident.

Skif was still waiting for her when she trotted out of the office, and he didn't look too impatient. "Let's go," she said; he just nodded, and fell into step beside her. The two left the building side-by-side, setting a brisk pace toward the Palace.

She glanced at him in open inquiry, but he avoided her eyes. Dear gods. What is it I'm supposed to have done? she wondered. Is this over that argument I had with Mother about recruiting mages? She tightened her jaw stubbornly. If it is-I'm not backing down. I'm right, I know I'm right.

Why would they take her to task about that, though? What was the problem? It wasn't as if she was espousing open revolt against the Crown ...On the other hand, she'd been pressuring Selenay to allow her to do the mage-hunting. That might well be the problem. Some of the Councilors considered her to be impetuous, and sometimes hotheaded. Maybe they figure I intend to go riding out of here anyway, with or without permission.

Now that was a stupid idea, if that's what they were thinking. Not that I hadn't considered it... if I could get Gwena to go along with it.

But I didn't think about it for more than a couple of heartbeats. Really, it was a stupid idea. the only way I could get a decent mage to go along with this, would be if I had official blessing-and how would I have gotten that by running off on MY own?

But while she had been thinking about that, would anyone have "eavesdropped" on her? She didn't think so.

But if they had-She stifled a slow wave of hot anger. No use in getting angry over something that might not have happened.

But if it has-someone is going to pay.

They kept her cooling her heels for some time before finally letting her into the Council Chamber. Skif left her at the door and disappeared, leaving her no one to question, and being kept there did not help her smoldering temper any.

But after she had waited, impatiently, for what seemed like hours, she heard footsteps coming down the hall leading to the Council Chamber.

She turned to see the rest of the Council approaching-and at that point the door to the Council Chamber opened, and they all filed in to take their places. Elspeth no longer felt quite so annoyed at being dragged off to see the Circle, then left in the hall.

Though it would have been nice if someone had bothered to tell her they were waiting for the other Council members to arrive.

She took her seat with the rest, casting covert glances at the faces of those Councilors who were also in the Heraldic Circle: Teren, who had taken Elcarth's place as Dean of the Collegium; the Seneschal's Herald, Kyril; the Lord Marshal's Herald, Griffon; the Queen's Own Herald, Talia; Selenay; and Prince Daren. Their expressions didn't tell her much; their faces were tightly controlled. That, in itself, was something; it meant they were worried. And since there was a White-clad Herald with the silver-arrow insignia of the Special Messenger sitting on the extra chair reserved for guests and petitioners, chances were slim that the Circle and Council were going to take Elspeth to task for her notions.

She relaxed and sat back a little into the familiar bulk of her Council seat. So this is just Council business after all. If the others hadn't looked so serious, she'd have chuckled at herself. See, Elspeth, the world doesn't revolve around you!

Selenay rose when the others had settled themselves. "This messenger arrived from the Eastern Border earlier this afternoon, from Shallan, one of Herald-Captain Kerowyn's lieutenants. She had ordered this messenger to come to me, first, before reporting to his Captain." Elspeth stifled a smile. there's one in the eye for anyone who still wonders where Kero's loyalties lie. Or the Skybolts'. for that matter.

"Since the Circle was in session, and since I understood that his message was fairly urgent, I had him brought here. After hearing what his message was, I decided to call an emergency Council meeting." She nodded at the messenger as she sat down. "Herald Selwin, the floor is yours.

The messenger cleared his throat-though not self-consciously, Elspeth noted-and stood. "I think most of you know that the Eastern Border is considered a sensitive enough area for messengers to be posted at garrisons full time. My current post is the town garrisoned by Kerowyn's Skybolts. Now, what you probably don't know is that the Skybolts have-with the Queen's knowledge and permission-been engaging in some-ah-covert activities." He flushed a little, and Elspeth raised a surprised eyebrow. Some of the other Councilors muttered a little, and one of them stood up; Lady Kester, speaker for the West. "Just what do you mean by 'covert' activities?" she asked sharply, looking a great deal like a horse who is about to refuse a jump.

"Well-" Herald Selwin glanced at the Queen, who shook her head imperceptibly. "Some of them-I can't talk about. I'm sure you'll understandthe Queen and the Consort both know every move, but it's very much a situation where the fewer who know, the better."

"I trust the situation that brought you here is something you can talk about," the woman said dryly.

"Uh-yes, of course." Selwin quickly regained his aplomb. "We've been smuggling; people and information out of Hardorn, and-uhsupplies in. One of the people we just smuggled out was not just one of Ancar's farmers who has been pressed too far; this was an escaping prisoner."

We? Huh, that means Selwin's involved, too. He's not just a messenger.

Elspeth glanced around the table; from the looks of speculation, she suspected that this had not come entirely as a surprise.

"This wasn't an ordinary prisoner, either," Selwin continued. "He had been one of the under-secretaries in Ancar's officer corps." This time murmurs of surprise met the statement. "He held the same position under Ancar's father, and the reason he was never replaced, like so many were, is that he is so ordinary as to be invisible. He says-and we've Truth-Spelled him, so we believe him-that he didn't know what was going on until recently." Elspeth was very skeptical of that statement, until Selwin finished describing the former prisoner. Then she could believe it. Lieutenant Rojer Klinseinem was exactly the kind of focused, obsessive individual their own Seneschal and Lord Marshal prayed to see come into their secretarial corps. His life was in his accounting books; he never left his office except to eat and sleep, and he truly never thought about what those figures he toted up daily meant.

Until Ancar's excesses among his people began to affect even him. He found officers and court officials he had known all his life vanishing without a trace. He discovered friends, neighbors, even children in the street avoiding him when he wore his uniform. Then he noted some odd discrepancies in his accounts. One of his duties was to take care of the prison accounts. The number of prisoners in the cells had gone up, substantially, but the amount of money allotted for their maintenance had not increased in the corresponding amounts. Furthermore, the names of those imprisoned changed, sometimes weekly. For all his shortsightedness, he was an ethical man, and all these things worried him, so he decided to investigate them himself, an investigation that led him eventually to the prisons and the barracks rooms, then the king's own dungeons.

What he discovered horrified him. Then one of the king's sorcerers caught him.

He'd had the sense to keep his mouth shut about most of what he'd learned, and because he was so completely ordinary, with no record of ever thinking for himself, he was actually put under house arrest until he could be questioned by someone they called the

"Truth-finder General." He didn't wait to discover who or what that was; he got out a back window, stole a horse, and fled toward Valdemar.

He remembered the old days, the days of friendship with Valdemar and its Queen, and he was no longer inclined to believe the official stories about the cause of the hostilities between Valdemar and Hardorn. He fled toward a hoped-for sanctuary with the hounds on his heels.

"I won't go into all the details," Selwin said, "You can question him yourself when we bring him here. Right now he's not up to much traveling."

Elspeth nodded, grimly. Nothing Rojer said would surprise her, not after some of Kero's stories-and not after what had happened to Talia.

"What's important at the moment is that he learned where the prisoners were vanishing to. They're being used as sacrifices in blood-rites-and there are more of them dying every week. Ancar is bringing in mages, lots of mages, and those he is not buying outright or coercing, he's making alliances with. Rojer says that Ancar's long-range plans include another major war with Valdemar, and this one is going to include those mages as a major part, rather than in a support capacity.

The one that caught him boasts that not even a god would be able to hold defenses against all the mages Ancar is gathering." Now the muttering around the Council table grew louder, and there were distinct undertones of alarm.

"That's not all," Selwin said, over the voices. The Councilors quieted, and some looked at him with real fear in their eyes. "Right after we got Rojer out, there was an attack on the Skybolts' garrison town. A magical attack, and it got across the Border. Past the protections."

"Why?" asked the Lord Patriarch-Father Ricard, who had replaced elderly Father Aldon. At the same time, the Lord Marshal asked "How?"

"Why should be fairly obvious," Prince Daren said, the first time he'd spoken since the meeting began. "They knew we had Rojer, and they felt what he had to tell us was important enough to try to silence him.

Selwin nodded. "Precisely, Your Highness," he replied. "As for 'how," I presume the mage managed to overcome the Border-protections somehow. I saw the attack. At first, I thought it was some kind of mist, and I didn't think it looked all that dangerous. But Lieutenant Shallan said the Skybolts had seen this sort of thing before, and got us all evacuated; she said they had something to take care of it, but it would only work at a distance. The 'mist' turned out to be a swarm of tiny insects, no bigger than gnats, but poisonous enough to drop a man. And they were guided, there's no doubt of that. They came out of a kind of hole in the sky." He shook his head. "I really can't properly describe it. But the hole appeared near the outskirts of town, inside the Valdemar Border."

These insects," the Seneschal asked, "are they gone now?"

"Not gone, my lord," Selwin replied. "Dead. The Skybolts, as I said, have seen this kind of weapon before. They evacuated the town, then used small catapults to lob pots of burning herbs into the streets. The insects were killed so completely that there were none to follow us, and few to return when the hole in the sky reopened." He sat down again when no one else had any more questions. Prince Daren stood up in his place. "This is not going to be the last attempt, my lords and ladies," he said grimly. "I think we can count ourselves fortunate that it was the Skybolts who encountered this first. If it had not been-if it had been a regular garrison-they would have died to a man, and we would never have known what it was that killed them." prince Daren sat down and took his wife's hand; Selenay looked very pale.

"I must admit," she said, "that I doubted when Kerowyn and my daughter swore that Ancar would find a way to penetrate our Border with magic. I was wrong." Selenay looked over at Elspeth, and bit her lip. "My daughter also proposed a solution that I rejected out of hand; she suggested that Valdemar seek out magical allies as well, and find some mage who was strong enough to pass our borders to help us from within, and perhaps even teach new mages. She suggested that, since the Chronicles all speak of a"Mage-Gift," that there may still be Heralds carrying that Gift. She thinks that Gift has simply gone unrecognized and untaught because there was no one to teach it. She also suggested that she be the one to leave Valdemar, find such a mage, and bring him-or her-back to us." Silence met her words as the Councilors turned looks of doubt toward Elspeth's end of the table. She did her best to look as mature and competentand confident-as any of them could have wished. She was very glad now that Kero had insisted she wash and change before the meeting.

She doubted she would have been able to convince any of them looking like a disheveled hoyden.

"May I speak?" she asked. At Selenay's nod, she stood up.

"Always speak to the Council from a standing position, kitten." Kero had tutored her a few weeks ago, after watching one of the sessions from the visitor's seat. The Council had wanted a report on what the Skybolts had been assigned to-and now Elspeth knew why Kero had been fairly reticent.

But what the Council didn't realize was that Kero had learned more about them than they had from her. The Captain had made careful assessments of the Council and their reactions to Elspeth, and had some fairly shrewd observations to make afterward.

"Always speak to them from a standing position. that will put your head higher than theirs, and give you an emotional advantage. Put your hands on the table, and lean forward a little. Showing your hands tells their guts that you have nothing to hide, leaning says that you are comfortable with your power, and leaning forward tells them that you are earnest. Never raise your voice; in fact, if you can, speak a little lower than usual. that tells their guts that you're not just an emotional female. But if you feel passionately about something, choose your words carefully, and put some punch behind them." Talia and Selenay did all these things, but they did them without thinking, without knowing the reasons why they worked. Talia analyzed the audience through her Gift of Empathy, and adjusted herself accordingly, all without ever thinking about it. Selenay had been trained by her father-who may have known why his advice worked, but didn't bother to explain it to his daughter. Kerowyn, on the other hand, had to fight her way up to the top in a predominantly male profession-and she was a superb tactician in any arena. She knew how to deal with authority figures, and why the tactics she used worked.

Elspeth tried to keep all her advice in mind as she began.

"Herald-Captain Kerowyn and I have had several conversations about this eventuality," she said, quietly. "That in itself is unusual, because until now, it seems as if it has been very difficult even to speak about magic within the bounds of our realm, especially for Heralds. Please think back, think about what has happened every time in the past that you've spoken about magic in this Council Room-you've gone outside these walls, and gradually forgotten all about it, haven't you?" She looked around, and got slow nods from most of the Councilors.

"Somehow, as urgent as the threat seemed to be, it became less urgent once the immediate danger was over, didn't it? It did for me, too, until I met Kerowyn. I suspect that 'forgetting' may be a symptom of whatever it is that has protected us until now. But now-if you'll notice, we're speaking about magic, all of us, and I don't think we're going to forget about it outside the room. And I am terribly afraid that this is a symptom of something else-a symptom of the fact that this protection is weakening." A swift intake of breath was the only sound that broke the silence following her words, but she couldn't tell who it was that had gasped.

She glanced around the horseshoe-shaped table. Several of the Councilors were nodding, though not happily. She continued.

"I don't think we have a choice; I believe we must find a mage or mages to help us. I have several reasons why I think that the person who goes to look for one should be me." She paused again, waiting for opposition, but she didn't see anyone leaping to his-or her-feet to object.

"A Herald must be the person we send to find us a mage-or mages.

That is because only a Herald is likely to be able to weigh the motives of those we consider, and find a person of sufficient ethics to do us any good. As to my qualifications, first of all, my rank is such that I'm not likely to encounter anyone who doubts my ability to negotiate. Now, Talia is the Queen's Own, but she also has a small child. I think it would be unreasonable to ask her to leave him for an indefinite length of time.

And there is a very sinister reason for her to avoid taking him with her; if someone captured her child, jemmie could be held to be used against her. ' Emphatic nods around the table gave her confidence to continue. "As you know, Ancar has made an assassination attempt on me. I think he will find it harder-as Kero would say-to hit a moving target. There may be other Heralds who have sufficient rank to be able to negotiate, but of all of them, only Kero and I seem to be able to even speak of magic clearly, much less assess the capabilities of a mage. And Kero was a mercenary-frankly, the kind of mage we are looking for may hold that against her." She spread her hands and shrugged. "The answer seems obvious to me. And if I may be so blunt as to say so, I am expendable.

Mother has the twins, either of whom can easily succeed me as Heir." She sat down carefully, and then the uproar began.

Elspeth had a pounding headache before it was over, and the arguments went on long past dinnertime and well into the night. Servants were sent out for cold meat, cheese, and other provisions, then called in again to light the lamps. Because of the nature of the arguments, young Heraldic trainees in their final year were brought in to serve at the table, and keep a steady supply of tea and other nonintoxicating drinks on hand. This was not the longest Council session on record, but it was certainly right up with the record holders.

And Elspeth was right in the middle of it all. Half the time, the Councilors went at her like a horde of interrogators, shouting questions, each one trying to make himself heard over the rest. The rest of the time, they acted as if she weren't even there, arguing about her and her competence at the tops of their lungs. Talia spared her a sympathetic glance or two, but she had her own hands full And besides, this was Elspeth's fight. It was up to her to win it; no one else was as convinced of her mission as she was. And her mother was still dead set against it.

So she fought by herself, grimly determined that she would win, no matter how long it took.

She did notice something odd, however. Every time it looked as though one of the Heralds would say something against her decision-he or she would freeze for a moment, sometimes in mid-sentence, and then fall silent.

Heralds often did that when their Companions were speaking to them, but Elspeth had never seen it happen so many times-or so abruptly. It was almost as if the Companions were arguing on her behalf, against their Chosens' better judgment. Elspeth even caught her mother in that momentary "listening" pose.

Shortly before midnight, the Council was finally in reluctant agreement.

Elspeth could go; in fact, must go. She had succeeded, she and Selwin, in persuading everyone of the urgency of the situation. She had persuaded even her mother that she was the only person with the right combination of talents and credentials to successfully carry it off.

However, her route and ultimate destination would be watched over, at least inside Valdemar, and she would not go alone.

"You can't possibly go without an escort," the Lord Marshal said firmly. "I would say-twenty armed at the least."

"Thirty," said the Seneschal, over her squawk of outrage. "No less than that."

"Absolutely," Lady Cathan of the Guilds seconded. "Anything less would be inappropriate." I'm trying to track down mages, she thought in exasperation. I'm trying to find people who are notoriously shy, and they want me to bring an entire army with me?

But she didn't say that; instead, she waited while the Councilors argued about the size of her escort, building it up until it did resemble a small army, then entered into the affray again when she thought she had a chance of being heard over the din.

"Impossible," she said, clearly. All heads turned in her direction.

"Absolutely impossible," she repeated, just as firmly. "You're asking me to haul an entire armed force along with me. I'm trying to make speed-and I doubt if you could find fifty fighters with beasts able to keep up with a Companion even among the Skybolts. I may have to leave Rethwellan, and the presence of a troop like that could greatly offend the rulers of other countries that I might find myself in. But most importantly of all, insofar as my movements remaining a secret from Ancar, you might just as well post him a message every day telling him where I'm going, because that's how visible I'd be with that many armed fighters around me."

That brought all the arguments to a dead silence. The Lord Marshal actually looked sheepish.

Now," she continued reasonably, "if you really want to make a big, fat target out of me, I wish you'd tell me. There are easier ways to get rid of me."

"oh, come now," replied Lord Palinor, the Seneschal, wearing a superior expression that made her want to bite something. "Surely that's an exaggeration."

"Is it?" she asked raising one eyebrow, but otherwise keeping her expression sweetly innocent. "You just heard a description of something that could have destroyed an entire garrison-a weapon Ancar deployed inside our borders, and without having to come within sight of Valdemar.

Protected Valdemar. What's likely to happen if he knows my every movement outside our borders?" She chuckled dryly. "Kind of negates the benefit of being a moving target, I'd say." Silence for a moment, while they thought that one over. "Well," said Prince Daren. "What do you want to do?"

"My preference is to go alone," she admitted. "Basically, I'm safest if no one else knows where I am." But the Prince shook his handsome head. "No," he said, with a touch of regret. "If it were anyone else, that wouldn't be a problem-but not you. You may think you're expendable, but you're still the Heir right now. You can't go running off the face of the earth all alone. And there is one argument that applies to Talia that also applies to you. If you were taken, you could be used as a hostage as well." Elspeth sighed, but nodded in agreement. "That's true, Stepfather. I admit that I hadn't thought too much of that-but frankly, between Gwena and myself, I don't think we could be taken by anything but a small army."

"There's always treachery," Daren said firmly. "You'll have to take at least one other person with you. And personally, I would suggest a Herald."

"Someone responsible, capable-" said Father Ricard.

"Crafty and clever," said Talia.

"Fine," she agreed-and then, before they could engage in a till-dawn debate on exactly who she could take with her, said, "But it's going to be Skif, or no one. There is no one in the entire Heraldic Circle who is better suited to watching my back." She expected an explosion of argument; after all, given the fuss there had been over the rumors started simply by being in Skif's company, the Councilors should, one and all, roundly denounce such a notion.

And after they argued themselves into exhaustion, she just might be able to talk the Council into letting her have her own way and going out alone.

"Fine," Selenay said, instantly. "Skif is perfect. He's everything we could ask; responsible, capable, clever, crafty-" Lord Palinor laughed. "Aye, and tricky, the young devil. Ancar wouldn't catch him napping, I'd wager." And while Elspeth gawked, caught entirely flat-footed with surprise, every single one of the Councilors agreed to the choice she would have bet money they thought unsuitable. Before she quite realized what was happening, they approved her authority as negotiator for the Crown, approved her escort, and closed the session.

And began filing out, heading straight for their beds, while she stared at them, dumbfounded. Talia even patted her on the shoulder as she left, whispering, "Good choice, kitten. I think it was the only thing that could have convinced them." Finally she was alone in the Council Chamber, sitting back in her seat, still wondering what on earth had happened-staring at the guttering candle And wondering just who, exactly, had been outmaneuvered.

*Chapter Six DARKWIND

council meetings. Endless dithering about nothing, while we guardians dance with death out there on the border. And no help for us, either. If I could get anyone else to do this, I'd give up the Council seat in a heartbeat.

Darkwind pushed aside a tangle of vines covered with blue, trumpetshaped flowers and restrained himself from pulling the whole curtain of vegetation down in a fit of anger. It had been days-weeks-since his confrontations with his father and the Council, demanding that they do something about the situation of the Clan, of the scouts, and what had they done?

Nothing. Or rather, they had "taken it under advisement." They would "weigh all the possible options." They were "studying the problem." they're sitting on their backsides, afraid to do anything, that's what's really going on. Father won't let them act because he's afraid of what it will do to the Heartstone. And they still won't go outside k'sheyna for help.

Not that he had really expected anything else after the way Starblade had treated him- Really, when it came to anything important, especially where magic was concerned, the entire Council spoke with Starblade's I'll have to start considering those other plans of Dawnfire's, using the hertasi and some of the others. They've left us no choice; if we're going to guard them effectively, we'll have to use whatever allies we have.

And he didn't particularly care if pulling the hertasi away from their other duties left some of those jobs undone. So what if the Vale got a little more overgrown? It didn't look to him as if it would make much difference. And maybe if some of the Elders had to suffer a little, if their ekele went unrepaired and their gardens untended because the hertasi were out helping keep their Vale safer-well, maybe then they'd notice that there was something wrong with their little world. And maybe they'd decide that it might be a good idea to try and fix what was wrong.

I hope. But I'm not going to count on anything like sense out of them.

He took the shortest possible route to the pass out of the Vale, cutting down long-neglected paths until he reached the boundary and the shieldwall.

As he burst through a stand of wildly overgrown, flowering bushes, he saw Vree waiting for him in a tree growing just outside the mage-barrier.

The gyre preferred not to enter the Vale itself if he could help it; many of the other bondbirds demonstrated Vree's distaste for the Vale proper, and tried to stay outside of the shield. Darkwind wasn't sure if it was because they shared their bondmates' dislike of magic, or sensed the problems with the Heartstone. One thing was certain, he knew that aversion dated back to the disaster, and not before.

He just wished he could avoid the Vale as well.

The place made him uneasy, for all its luxury. Here, near the edge, it wasn't so bad. The flora were tropical and wildly luxuriant, but it was nothing that couldn't be found in a glassed-over hothouse. But the closer he came to the damaged Heartstone, the stranger the plants became-and the odder he felt; slightly disoriented, off-balance, lethargic. As if something was sapping his energy, clouding his thoughts.

And it's not my imagination, either, he thought stubbornly. If Vree and the other birds don't like the Vale, that should tell us all something. No matter what Father claims. What would he know, anyway? His bondbird is that damned crow-hardly bred out of the wild line, and it might as well be a metal simulacrum for all the intelligence it shows. It does what he tells it to, it doesn't talk to the other birds at all, and most of the time it sits on its perch in the corner of the ekele, like some kind of art object.

He passed through the barrier-a brief tingling on the surface of his skin-and emerged into the real world again. Already he felt lighter, freer, and it seemed to him as he walked out on the path taking deep breaths of the pine-scented air, that even his footfalls were more confident.

No cloying flower-scents, no heavy humidity-just an honest summer breeze. No one to answer to, out here. No one questioning his judgment unless it really needed to be called into question.

"Vree!" He Mindcalled the gyre, suddenly anxious to feel the bird's familiar weight on his shoulder. Vree obliged him by sweeping down out of the top of the nearest pine, landing on his leather-covered wrist with a thunder of pinions, and stepping happily from there to his favorite perch, on the padded shoulder of Darkwind's jacket.

"Don't like Vale," the falcon complained. "Too hot, too empty, feels bad.

Don't like crow, stupid crow. Don't go back." He Sent agreement tinged with regret. "I have to, featherhead. But you don't have to go in if you don't want to. And I don't have to go back for a While." The bird crooned a little, and preened a beakful of Darkwind's hair, as the scout laughed softly. Feeling considerably more cheerful now that he was outside the Vale and wouldn't have to face another Council meeting for days, Darkwind returned the bird's affectionate caress, scratching the breast and working his fingers up to the head-feathers. Vree made a happy chuckling sound, and bent to have his head scratched a little more.

"Sybarite," Darkwind said, laughing.

"Feels good," the bird agreed. "Scratch"

"Report, featherhead," he told the gyre, "Or no more scratches." Vree actually heaved a sigh, and reluctantly complied. The bondbirds had some limited abilities at relaying and reporting messages; while Darkwind was in the Vale, he depended on Vree to keep in contact with the rest of the scouts under his command. Vree had messages from most of the scouts; all those who had not reported in person before Darkwind went to the Council meeting this afternoon.

Most of the messages were simple enough, even by Vree's standards"

"Nothing to report,"

"All quiet,"

"All is well." A normal enough day; he'd been half expecting that something disastrous would happen while he was out of touch, but it seemed that all the scouts had things well in hand.

All except for the handful of scouts who shared the southern boundary with him.

Those sent back messages that there were problems. Three of them said that they had turned their watch over to the night-scouts and would meet him at his ekele, to make their reports in person. Vree could not imitate the emotional overtones of those Mind-sent messages, relayed through their birds to Vree, but the terse quality did not auger well.

He swore silently to himself; the last time he'd had to take reports in person, he and the rest of the scouts had faced a week-long incursion of magically-twisted creatures that ultimately cost them two scouts and the only mage who had deigned to work with them.

That had been shortly after he'd joined the scouts, and before they made him their spokesperson. He could only hope that if this was the situation they faced again, they were sufficiently aware of the problems now to deal with it without more losses.

"Home?" Vree asked hopefully when he'd finished listening to the last of those messages.

Yes," he confirmed, to the bird's delight. "Meet me there." He let Vree hop back down to his wrist and tossed the heavy gyre into the air; Vree pushed off and flapped upward, driving himself up through the branches with thunderous wing-claps. Darkwind waited until he had disappeared, then started off through the forest at a trot-not on one of the usual paths, but on a game-trail-heading for his ekele.

He never took the same route twice; he never approached his ekele the same way. While he ran, as silently as only a Tayledras scout could, he kept his mind as well as his other senses open, constantly on the alert for traces of thought that were out of the ordinary, for the scent of something odd, for a color or texture where it didn't belong, or movement, or the sound of a footfall in the forest beyond him.

Other scouts had not been that cautious. Rainwind hadn't; he'd been ambushed halfway between the Vale and his ekele after a long soak in one of the springs. He'd been lucky; his bondbird had spotted one of the ambushers first, so he had only had to deal with one enemy. The creatures had not sported the kind of poisoned fangs and claws so many others had and he'd escaped with only a permanent limp from a lacerated thigh.

Others had not been so fortunate; they had been just as careless, and had paid for it with limbs or lives.

That was the cost of living outside the Vale. No single Tayledras could hope to shield more than his ekele, even if he were an Adept-class mage.

Since most of the scouts weren't, they paid the price of freedom in personal safety.

But anyone who lived out here felt it was worth that cost.

There were too many other things that were bad about living in the Vale these days; it was good to have a little distance from the Heartstone, and space between themselves and the mages.

The run stirred up his blood, and made him feel a little readier to face whatever trouble was coming. He Felt the presence of the other scouts long before they knew he was there. Out of courtesy, they had not climbed to his ekele while he was not in it; instead, they waited below, patiently, while Vree perched above, impatiently.

"Hungry," Vree complained, as soon as his keen eyes spotted Darkwind approaching. The three scouts waiting caught the edge of the Mind-sent plaint, and he Felt their attention turning toward him, little brushes of thought, as they each tested for him and found him with their individual Gifts.

They waited until he came into view, though, before tendering some very subdued greetings. And not the usual "zhaihelleva," either; Winterlight and Stormcloud only raised their hands in a kind of sketchy salute, and Dawnfire tendered him a feather-light mental caress, a promise of things to come, but also carrying overtones of deep concern.

This did not indicate good news at all.

He signaled to Vree, who swooped down and landed on one of the lower branches. Although he could not see the bird, hidden as he was by growth, he knew what Vree was up to. The gyre sidled along the branch to the trunk, and pulled a strap on the hook holding his rope ladder out of reach. The ladder dropped down to the ground with a clattering of wooden rungs; Darkwind motioned the others to precede him, and followed after with the strap that was attached to the end of the ladder tucked into his belt.

The others were far above him on the ladder; he had to go slowly, as he was bringing the end of it up with him. They were already hidden in the branches when he was only halfway up. His ekele, like those of the other scouts, was actually more elaborate than any of those inside the Vale. It had to be; it had to withstand winter winds and summer downpours, snow and hail, and the occasional "visit" from some of the distinctly hostile creatures from the Outlands.

At last, after penetrating the growth of the first boughs, he reached the place where the ladder-release was fastened to the bark of the trunk.

He hooked the end of the ladder back in place, and followed his guests up through the trapdoor in the floor of the first chamber of the ekele.

The tree holding his home was an amazing forest giant, but it was nothing like the trees that supported a half-dozen ekele apiece, back in the Vale. Like them, though, it was a huge conifer, with a girth more than ten men could span with outstretched arms, and an arrow-straight trunk that towered without a single branching up for several man-heights above the forest floor. The first branches concealed his ladder; his ekele began, well sheltered, another man-height above that.

He pulled himself up onto the floor, closed and locked the trapdoor, then went to the glazed window of the first chamber, unlocked the latch at the side, and held it open for Vree. The forestgyre dove through it in a rush, landing on his outstretched arm, then hopped to his shoulder.

Darkwind shut the window and relatched it, then turned to climb the stairs to join his guests.

The entire ekele was built of light, strong wood, stained on the outside to resemble the bark of the tree, but polished to a warm gold within.

The first chamber was nothing more than a single, barren room, meant to buffer the effects of the wind coming up from below; there were allweather coats hung on pegs on the wall, some climbing-tools and weapons, but that was all. The other scouts had already gone ahead of him, following a staircase built into the side of the trunk, a stair that spiraled up to the next chamber.

Each chamber was built upon the one below it, in a snailshellspiral pattern, using the huge branches as supports for the floor. The next chamber was one commonly used for the gathering of friends; it was considerably larger than the entrance chamber, and covered an arc fully one-third of the circumference of the trunk. Heated in winter by a clever ceramic stove that he also used for cooking, it supplied warm air to the two chambers above it. One of those was a sleeping room, the other, a storeroom and study. To bathe, he had to descend to the ground.

As soon as his head and shoulders had cleared the doorsill-if one could rightly call an entrance that was placed in the floor a "door"-Vree hopped off his shoulder and bounced sideways toward his perch, in the ungainly sidling motion of any raptor on the ground. The floor and wallmounted perch was a permanent fixture of the room, placed in the corner, where it could be braced against two of the walls, and near one of the windows. Vree leapt up onto it, roused his feathers, and yawned, waiting for his dinner.

Aside from the perch and the stove, the only other permanent features of the room were the low platforms affixed to the floor. Those platforms, upholstered in flat cushions, now hosted the three scouts: Winterlight, Stormcloud, and Dawnfire. three of the best. If they have problem, it's not from incompetence.

Winterlight was the oldest of all of them; he had held the position of Council-speaker and Elder but had given it to Darkwind with grateful relief when the others suggested him.

Now I know why he gave it up. I'd gladly give it back.

He seldom dyed his hair; longer than his waist, he generally kept the snow-white fall in a single braid as thick as his own wrist. Winterlight was actually Starblade's elder by several years but was of such a solitary nature that he had lived outside the Vale for most of his life. He was also unusual in that he flew two bondbirds; a snow-eagle, Lyer, by day; a tuft-eared owl, Huur, by night. Both birds had mated, and although the mates had not bonded to the scout, they provided extra security for Winterlight's ekele, nesting near each other in a rare show of interspecies tolerance, for given the chance, owls and eagles would readily hunt and even kill one another. Huur and Lyer's offspring had been in high demand as bondbirds.

Had been-but the reduced population and the absolute dearth of children meant that this year's crop of nestlings would probably go unbonded, and fly off to some other Clan to seek mates. Unless one of the scouts chose to bond to a second bird, or lost his bird before the eyases fledged and became passagers. Darkwind had briefly toyed with the notion of bonding to an owlet, but Vree had displayed a great deal of jealousy at the idea, and he had discarded it, albeit regretfully. stormcloud might have been a mage, but as a child his Gift was not deemed "enough" by Starblade and the other Adepts, and now he refused to enter training at all. His argument, using their own words against them in a direct quote, was "It's better to have a first-quality scout than a second-class mage." And I don't blame you, old friend. No matter what Father says about "ingratitude and insolence." I'd have said and done the same as you.

He was Darkwind's oldest and best friend, their friendship dating back to when they were both barely able to walk. His features differed from the aquiline Tayledras norm considerably, with a round chin and a snubbed nose. He alone among k'sheyna cut his hair short, with a stiff, jaylike crest. He flew a white raven, Krawn, that was as loquacious as Starblade's crow was silent. Krawn was easily the brightest of all the corbies flown in k'sheyna, and very fond of practical jokes, as was Stormcloud. It was a measure of how serious the situation among the scouts was that neither Krawn nor his bondmate had played any of their famous jokes for months.

Dawnfire flew a red-shouldered hawk, Kyrr, a bird as graceful-and as sought-after for mating-as her bondmate. Dawnfire cast Darkwind a look full of promise as he entered the room, and he marveled that he, of all the scouts had captured her fancy. She typified the opposite end of the extreme from Stormcloud; in her the aquiline Tayledras features had been refined to the point that she resembled the elfin tervardi, the lovely flightless bird-people she often worked with. That was her strongest gift; she Mindspoke the nonhuman races with an ease the others could only envy, and communicated equally well with animals of all sorts. Her hair, now bound tightly into three braids, was as long as Winterlight's when she let it down. An errant beam of light reflected from the snow-goose lanterns touched her head, giving her an air of the unearthly as Darkwind watched her.

That light was provided during the day by four windows, all of which could be opened, that were glazed with a flexible substance as clear as the finest glass, but nearly impossible to break. Tayledras artisans created it; how, Darkwind had no idea, but it was as impervious to wind and weather as it was to breakage. By night, the light came from Darkwind's single concession to magic; mage-lights captured in the lanterns, that began glowing as dusk fell, and increased their Pure light as the external sunlight faded.

 Darkwind dug into his game-pouch as soon as his feet touched the floor of the room; Vree had waited long enough. He came up with a half rabbit; a light meal by Vree's standards, but enough to hold him until the discussion was over. Vree looked up at him with an expression of inquiry when presented with the rabbit. the bird said, reminding Darkwind of his hunger.

 "More, later," he Promised the bird. "I have a duck waiting for you." Vree chirped a happy acknowledgment, and began tearing the meat from the bones, gulping it down as fast as he could. One thing the bondbirds were not, and that was dainty eaters.

"So," he said, leaving Vree to his snack, and sitting cross-legged on one of the couches. "What's the problem?"

"The barrier-zone," said Winterlight succinctly, his hands resting palm-down on his knees, a deceptively tranquil pose. "We've got some real problems on the south. Things moving in, things and people, and we don't like the look of either. They're coming in from that bad patch of Outland, and it looks like they're settling. They're making dens, lairs, and fortified homes. I don't like it, Darkwind; it's got a bad feel to it, these creatures aren't overtly evil, but they make the back of my neck crawl. They're inside the old k'sheyna boundaries now, and not just in the old 'barren' zone. You know how one bird will 'crowd' another, getting closer and closer until the other one either has to peck back or be forced off a perch? That's what it feels like they're doing to us."

"I've got the same," stormcloud told him, wearing a slight frown.

"And I've got enough Mage-Gift to read some other things as well.

There's a new node that's being established just off my area, and a lot of ley-lines have been diverted to feed it. There's a new line going off that node, too-and it's feeding straight into Outland territory, into one of the places we know that Adept has made his own. It's bad, Darkwind, it's feeding him a lot of power, and anyone that can divert lines is damned good. He's pulled some of the lines away from us completely. And I've caught him trying to read the Vale for power, too. I think he might be planning to use one of the lines to tap into the Vale itself." Darkwind frowned. "This is a new tactic for him, isn't it? He's never stolen power before that I can recall."

"Exactly," Stormcloud said, and bit his lip. "I don't like it, Darkwind.

And I like it even less that our own mages haven't sensed him doing anything. Unless that was what this meeting you had to attend was all about-?" Darkwind shook his head. "No. At least, that wasn't on the agenda. So unless they're keeping it from me-and they could be, I'll admit-they haven't noticed either the new node or the diversion of the ley-lines." Winterlight snorted his contempt. "You could probably start a magewar out here and they'd never notice inside the Vale. They're lost in their own little dream of what-was-once. Even if they were alert, the Heartstone just blanks out everything that's not in there with them." Darkwind's frown deepened a trifle; that was not the way it was supposed to be. The Heartstone was supposed to sensitize the mages to what was going on with energies outside the Vale, not destroy or bury their sensitivity. But he realized that Winterlight was right; that was another of the side effects he disliked about being inside the Vale. When he was within the shield-area, it was as if he had been cut off from the energy-flows outside.

No one had said anything about that, not even right after the Heartstone shattered-which meant either that the effect was new, another developing side effect of living next to the broken stone or it's been that way since the disaster, and nobody noticed. which is worse.

Dawnfire had been silent up until now; he turned toward her and raised an eyebrow.

"Well," she said, with a frown that matched his own, "Stormcloud is the one who knows energies, and winterlight's Huur is absolutely the best at spying. so I'll just say that I think the same things have been happening in my area, but I'd like someone to check to be sure. What I have that they don't is a network of allied species acting as my informants-hertasi, dyheli, tervardi, and a few humans who aren't fond of civilization. Most of the humans are a little crazy, but they're sharp enough when it comes to noticing what's going on around them." Darkwind nodded; Dawnfire was the one who had suggested taking volunteers among the nonhumans in the first place, and she had proved the idea was viable by establishing a network outside the k'sheyna

boundaries.

"Well, some of my informants are missing," she said, some of her distress coming through despite her best efforts to control it. "And when I sent someone to try and find them, there was nothing. They haven't just disappeared, they've gone without a trace. That wouldn't be too hard to do with dyheli, but hertasi have real homes-they actually build furnishings for their caves and hollow trees-and tervardi build ekele, and even those are gone. It's as if they never existed at all."

"gone? ' Darkwind repeated. "How could anyone make a tree vanish?

Dawnfire shook her head. "I don't know-though the trees themselves don't vanish, just the hollows and ekele. But the caves do vanish; there's solid earth and rock where the cave used to be. At least, that's what my bird tells me." Winterlight frowned. "Could that be illusion?"

"It could," she acknowledged with a nod. "Kyrr can't tell illusion from the real thing, and she's not particularly sensitive to magic. I wasn't about to ask her to test it. But my tervardi and hertasi aren't mages, either, so they wouldn't have used illusion to conceal their homes. Something took them, then covered its tracks by making it look as if there had never been anything living there."

"Who, why, and how?" Stormcloud asked succinctly. "There is an Adept out there-"

"But again, this isn't like anything he's ever done before," said Winterlight.

That we know of," Darkwind added. "He might have decided to change his tactics. And it might not be him-or her-at all. It might be another Adept entirely."Why' is another good question; why take them at all, and why try to make it look as if they never existed?"

"To confuse us?" Stormcloud asked facetiously. "And make us think we're crazy?"

"Why not?" was Dawnfire's unexpected reply as she sat straight up, with a look of keen speculation on her face. "He has to know how badly the Heartstone has been affecting us. If we were only in sporadic contact with those particular creatures, erasing their very existence might make us uneasy about our own sanity." Winterlight nodded, slowly, as if what she had said had struck a note with him, too. "A good point. But the question is, what are we going to do about it?"

"About losing neutral territory-there's not much we can do," Darkwind sighed. "We could make it uncomfortable for the things moving in, I suppose; uncomfortable enough that they might move back without our having to force a confrontation we haven't the manpower to meet."

"Like some really nasty practical jokes?" For the first time in the meeting, Stormcloud's eyes lit up." Krawn and I could take care of that.

Now that it's summer, there are a lot of things we can do to make them miserable, as long as we have your permission." He grinned evilly. "I know where there are some lovely fire-wasp nests. And Krawn can bring in absolute swarms of other corbies. They aren't going to be able to leave anything outside without having it stolen or fouled."

"Do it," Darkwind told him. "And don't stretch yourself too thin, but if you can extend your reach into Dawnfire's and Winterlight's areas, do so."

"I can," Stormcloud replied, with barely concealed glee. "The thing about tricks is that they're more effective if they're sporadic and unpredictable.

Krawn is going to love this."

"What about the power-theft?" asked Winterlight anxiously. "We can't do anything about that-as well try to bail water with a basket-but surely someone should."

"I'll tell the mages," Darkwind said, "But I can't promise anything.

They might seal off the leaks, they might not. There's no predicting them these days."

"And my missing creatures?" Dawnfire was giving him that look of pleading he found so hard to resist, but there wasn't anything he could do that would satisfy her.

"They'll have to stay missing," he said, and held up his hand to forestall a protest. "I know, I know, it's not right, but we haven't enough guardians to spare to send even one into the neutral territory to find out what happened to them and protect the rest."

"If your gryphon friends were the ones missing," she said, her eyes sparking with momentary anger, "would you still be saying that?" yes, I would," he replied. "If they had nested outside our boundaries, And even then, well, anything Treyvan and Hydona couldn't take care of themselves, I rather doubt we could handle. But I promise this much; if you and Kyrr can catch our predator in the act, we'll see what can be done to save whoever he's after. And if we can catch him in the act, we may have a chance at figuring out a defense for the rest of your friends." Dawnfire obviously didn't like the answer, but she knew as well as he did that it was the only one he could give her.

"Anything else?" he asked, stifling a yawn, and casting a look at the windows. The sky beyond the branches was a glorious scarlet; they had spoken until sunset, and if the others were to get back to their ekele before dark, they'd have to leave soon. "I'm going to have to get out On patrol before dawn to make up for stealing a couple of hours of Amberwing's time so I could go to the blamed meeting. So I've got a short night ahead of me."

"I think we've covered everything," Winterlight said, after a moment of silence. "I'll catch up with the others, and let them know what we've decided." He got up from the couch, and started down the stairs. Stormcloud followed him, then paused at the top of the stairs just long enough for a slow wink.

Dawnfire glanced at the windows, at the heavy branches standing out blackly against the fire of the sunset. "Are you really that tired?" she asked. She didn't get up from the couch.

"Not if you're going to stay a while," he replied, with a slow smile.

"You haven't taken back your feather," she said, somehow gliding into his arms before he was aware she had moved. "And I certainly don't want mine back. Of course I'll stay a while."

The scent of her, overlaid with the musky trace of her bird, was as intoxicating as tran-dust, and the soft lips she offered to him made his blood heat to near-boiling. He lost himself in her, their two minds meeting and melding, adding to the sensuality of the embrace. Her hands caressed the small of his back and slid down over his hips; his right was buried in her hair at the nape of her neck, his left crushed her to him.

He had just enough wit to remember he still had to pull up his ladder.

So did she, fortunately. "Go secure the door. The sunset, if I recall correctly, is incredible from upstairs." She pushed him away; he moved down the stairs in a dream. The trapdoor was still unlatched; he brought the ladder up, rung by rung, and rehung it, latched down the trapdoor, and keyed the mage-light to a dim blue.

Then he ran up the two flights of stairs to the sleeping room.

She was waiting, clothed only in her loosened hair, curled like a white vixen on the dark furs of his bedspread, her hair flowing free and trailing behind her like a frozen waterfall.

She turned a little at his footfall, and smiled at him, holding out her hand-and they didn't see a great deal of the sunset.

"Brother comes, fast," said Vree. Then, with an overtone of surprise,

"Very fast." Vree's alert interrupted what had been an otherwise completely dull and uneventful patrol along the dry streambed that formed part of the k'sheyna border. It hadn't always been dry-in fact, a week ago, there had been a stream here. Evidently not only ley-lines were being diverted.

Darkwind had not been overly worried when he discovered the condition of the stream; the diversion could easily have had perfectly natural causes. It could have gone dry for a dozen reasons, including the "helpful" work of beavers. But it was one more thing to investigate... That was when Vree's call alerted him. Before Darkwind had a chance to wonder just what that "fast" meant, he heard the pounding of hooves from up-trail. A moment later, a dyheli stag plunged over the embankment above him, coming to a halt in a clatter of cleft hooves, and a shower of sand and gravel. The graceful, antelope-like creature was panting, his flanks covered with sweat, his mane sodden with it. As Dawnfire slid from his back, he tossed his golden head with its three spiraling horns and Mindspoke Darkwind directly.

"Cannot run more-help my brothers-" Then he plunged back into the brush, staggering a little from exhaustion, as Darkwind turned toward his rider.

"What-"

"There's a dyheli bachelor herd just outside the boundaries," she said, her words tumbling over each other with her urgency. "They're trapped in a pocket valley, one they can't climb out of. I don't know what chased them in there, or even if they just went in there last night figuring it was a good place to defend in the dark-but they've been trapped, and they're going mad with fear-"

"Whoa." He stopped the torrent of speech by placing his hand over her lips for a moment. "Take it slowly. What's holding them there?"

"It's-it's like a fog bank, and it fills the outer end of the valley," she replied, her voice strained, "Only it's bluish, and all that goes into it doesn't come out alive. Darkwind, we have to get them out of there!"

"You say they're outside the borders?" he persisted.

She nodded, her enormous, pale-silver eyes fixed on his.

I-" he hesitated, presented with the pleading in her expression. I shouldn't. It's outside, it could be a diversion to get several of us out there-it could be an attempt to ambush us-But her eyes persuaded him against his better judgment. "I-all right, ashke. I'll come look at the situation. But I can't promise anything."

It took them a while to reach the spot, even with the assistance of two more dyheli from a breeding herd inside k'sheyna borders. By the time they reached the valley, the situation had worsened. The fog had crowded all the young dyheli bucks into the back of the valley, and they milled around the tiny space in a state of complete, unthinking panic. Trampling everything beneath their churning hooves, with horns tossing, their squeals of desperation reached to Darkwind's perch on the hill above them.

He studied the situation, his heart sinking. The sides of the valleyit was really a steep cup among the hills, with a spring at the bottom-were rocky, and far too steep to bring the dyheli up, even if they'd been calm. In their current state of panic, it was impossible.

The fog was mage-born, that much he could tell, easily. But the mage himself was not here. There was no one to attack, and no way to counter such a nebulous menace. Even calling up a wind-if he could have done so-would not have dispersed the evil cloud.

It roiled beneath him, a leprous blue-white, thick and oily, too murky to see into. Twice now, he'd seen young bucks overcome with fear and madness, try to break through into the clear air beyond. They had never come out on the other side.

"We have to do something!" Dawnfire pleaded. He hesitated a moment, then gave her the bad news.

"There isn't anything we can do," he said, closing his mental shields against the tide of fear and despair from below. The dyheli were so panicked now that they weren't even capable of thinking. "Maybe the rain tonight will disperse it in time to save them." '*No!" she shouted, careless of what might overhear her. "No, we can't leave them! I'm a guardian, they're my responsibility, I won't leave them!"

"Dawnfire-" he took her shoulders and shook them. "There isn't anything we can do, don't you understand that? They're too panicked to get harnesses on and haul them up-even if we had enough people here to try!

And I won't call in all the scouts from their patrols. It's bad enough that I left mine! don't you see, this could still be a diversion, to clear the way for something else to come in over the border while it's unguarded!" She stared at him, aghast, for a long moment. Then, "You coward!" she spat. "You won't even try! You don't care if they die, you don't care what happens to anyone or anything, all you care about is yourself,.

You won't even use your magic to save them!" As the envenomed words flew, Darkwind kept a tenuous grip on his temper by reminding himself of how young Dawnfire was. She's only seventeen, he told himself. She lives and breathes being a guardian, and she doesn't understand how to lose. She was barely assigned her duties when the Heartstone blew. She doesn't mean what she's saying...But as her words grew more and more hurtful and heated in response to his cool silence, he finally had enough. His temper snapped like a dry twig, and he stopped the torrent of abuse with a mental "slap." And as she stood, silent and stunned, he folded his arms across his chest and stared at her until she dropped her eyes.

"You say you are a guardian. Well, you pledged an oath to obey me, your commander, and abide by my decisions. Have you suddenly turned into a little child, regressed to the age of ten, when sworn oaths mean only 'until I'm tired of playing'? No?" He studied her a moment more, as she went from red to white and back again. "In that case, I suggest you calm yourself and return to your assigned patrol. If you comport yourself well and if you can keep yourself under control, I will consider leaving you there, rather than nm~ you elsewhere. Is that understood?"

"Yes, Elder," she replied, in a voice that sounded stifled.

"Very well," he said. "Go, then."

*Chapter Seven ELSPETH

" Elspeth?" Despite the anxious tone of Skif's voice, Elspeth didn't look up from her book. "What?" she said, absently, more to respond and let Skif know she'd heard him than a real reply. She was deep in what was apparently a firsthand description of the moments before Vanyel's final battle.

It was then that we saw how the valley walls had been cut away, to widen the passage, and the floor of the vale had been smoothed into a roadway broad enough for a column of four. And all this, said Vanyel, was done by magic. I knew not what to think at that moment.

"Elspeth, don't you think we should be getting out of here?" Skif persisted. "On the road, I mean." She looked up from her page, and into Skif's anxious brown eyes. There was no one else to overhear them; they were the only ones in the library archives, where the oldest Chronicles were stored.

Sunlight damaged books, so the archive chamber was a windowless room in the center of the library. Smoke and soot damaged them as well, so all lighting was provided by smokeless lanterns burning the finest of lamp oil, constructed to extinguish immediately if they tipped over. No other form of lighting was permitted-certainly not candles. Elspeth realized, as she looked into Skif's anxiety-shadowed face, that she didn't know what time it was. If any of the Collegium bells had rung, she hadn't noticed them.

Her stomach growled in answer to the half-formed question, telling her that it was past lunchtime, if nothing else.

She rubbed her eyes; she'd been so absorbed in her reading that she hadn't noticed the passage of time. "Why?" she asked, simply. "What's your hurry?" He grimaced, then shrugged. "I don't like the idea of riding off south with just the two of us, but since you seem so set on it-I keep thinking your getting the Council to agree was too easy. They didn't argue enough."

"Not argue enough?" she replied, making a sour face. "I beg to differ. You weren't there. They argued plenty, believe me. I thought they'd never stop till they all fell over from old age."

"But not enough," he persisted. "It should have taken weeks to get them to agree to your plan. Instead-it took less than a day. That doesn't make any sense, at least, not to me. I keep thinking they're going to change their minds at any minute. So I want to know why we aren't getting out of here before they get a chance to."

"They won't change their minds," she said, briefly, wishing he'd let her get back to her researches. "Gwena says so."

"What does a Companion have to do with the Council changing its mind?" he demanded.

That's what I would like to know, she thought. Gwena's playing coy every time I ask. I don't know, but ask yours. I bet she says the same thing."

"Huh." His eyes unfocused for a moment as he Mindspoke his little mare; then, "I'll be damned," he replied. "You're right. But I still don't see why we aren't getting on the road; everything we need is packed except for your personal gear. I should think you'd be so impatient to get out of here that I would be the one holding us back." She shrugged. "Let's just say that I'm getting ready. What I'm doing in here is as important as the packing you've been doing."

"oh?" He shaded the word in a way that kept it from sounding insulting, which it could easily have done.

"It's no secret," she said, gesturing at the piles of books around her.

"I'm researching magic in the old Chronicles; magic, and Herald-Mages, what they could do, and so forth. So I know what to look for and what we need." if he noticed that some of those Chronicles were of a later day than Vanyel's time, he didn't mention it. "I suppose that makes sense," he acknowledged. "Just remember, the Council could change their decision any time, no matter what Gwena says."

"I'll keep that in mind," she replied, turning her attention back to her page. After a moment, Skif took the hint; she heard him slip out of his chair, and leave the room.

But her mind wasn't on the words in front of her. Instead, she gave thought to how much Skifs observations mirrored her own.

This was too easy. There was no reason why the Queen should have agreed to this, much less the Circle and Council. The excuse of the magical attack on Bolton, the Skybolts' deeded border town, was just that; an excuse. She had checked back through the Chronicles of the past several years, and she had uncovered at least five other instances of magical attacks on Border villages, all of which looked to her as if they showed a weakening of the Border-protections. The records indicated no such panic reaction as she'd seen in the Council Chamber; rather, that there was a fairly standard way of responding. A team of Heralds and Healers would be sent to the site, the people would be aided and removed to somewhere safer, if that was their choice, then the incident was filed and forgotten.

Farther back than that had been Talia's encounter with Ancar, that had signaled the beginning of the conflicts with Hardorn. There had been long discussions about what to do, how to handle the attacks of mages; Elspeth remembered that perfectly well. And there had been some progress; the Collegium made a concerted effort, checking the Chronicles following Vanyel's time, to determine how Heralds without the Mage-Gift could counter magical attacks. Some solutions had been found, the appropriate people were briefed and trained-And that was all. The knowledge was part of the schooling in Gifts now, but there was no particular emphasis placed on it. Not the way there should have been, especially following Ancar's second attempt at conquest.

File and forget.

For that matter, there was even some evidence that Karse had been using magic, under the guise of "priestly powers." No one had ever followed up on that, not even when Kero had made a point of reminding the Council of it.

There had to be another reason for letting her go on this "quest." Especially since there were overtones in the Council meetings she attended of "the Brat is getting her way." It would have been obvious to anyone with half a mind and one ear that now that the initial excitement was over, they regretted giving her their permission to leave, even to as safe a destination as Bolthaven, deep in the heart of her uncle's peaceful kingdom.

Even the Heralds on the Council gave her the unmistakable feeling that they were not happy about this little excursion, and they'd gladly use any excuse to take their permission back.

But they didn't. Gwena had said repeatedly that they wouldn't. There was something going on that they weren't talking about. And it didn't take a genius to figure out that, whatever it was, the Companions, en masse, were hock-deep in it.

And did it have something to do with her growing resistance to this compulsion to forget magic, to avoid even thinking about it?

Once her suspicions were aroused, Elspeth had decided that, before she ran off into unknown territory, she was going to do a little research on the Herald-Mages. Not just to find out their strengths and weaknesses, nor to discover just what the limits and gradations of the "Mage-Gift" were, but to see just how extensive the apparent prohibition against magic was; how deeply rooted, and how long it had been going on.

And what she had learned was quite, quite fascinating. It dated from Vanyel's time, all right-but not exactly. To be precise, it dated from the time that Bard Stefen, then an old and solitary man, vanished without a trace.

In the Forest of Sorrows.

At least, that was Elspeth's guess. He was supposed to be in the company of some other young, unspecified Herald, on a kind of pilgrimage to the place where Vanyel died. He never arrived at his destination, yet no one reported his death. Granted, he had not yet achieved the kind of legendary status he had in Elspeth's time, but still, he was a prominent Bard, the author of hundreds of songs, epic rhymed tales and ballads, and the hero of a few of them himself. He was Vanyel's lifebonded lover, the last one to see him alive, and Vanyel did have the status of legend.

Someone would have said something if he had died-at the very least, there should have been an impressive Bardic funeral.

No mention, no funeral He simply dropped out of sight.

Nor was that all; even if he had vanished, someone should have noticed that he disappeared; surely searches should have been made for him.

But no one did notice, nor did anyone look for him.

He simply vanished without a trace, and no one paid any notice. And that-possibly even that precise moment-was when it became impossible to talk about magic, except in the historical sense. That was when the Chronicles stopped mentioning it; when songs stopped being written about it.

When encounters with it outside the borders of Valdemar-or, occasionally, just inside those borders-were forgotten within weeks.

Fortunately those encounters were usually benign, as when ambassadors from Valdemar would see the mages in the Court of Rethwellan performing feats to amuse, or ambassadors from outside of Valdemar would mention magic, and some of the things their kingdoms' mages could do. The Chronicler of the time would dutifully note it down-then promptly forget about it. So would the members of the Council-and the Heralds.

Did they attribute all of that to boasting and travelers' tales? Now I wonder if, when other people read the Chronicles over, do their eyes just skip across the relevant words as if they weren't even there?

It wouldn't surprise her. Elspeth herself had noticed whole pages seeming to blur in front of her eyes, so that she had to make a concerted effort to read every word. She had initially ascribed the effect to fatigue and the labor of reading the archaic script and faded inks, but now she wasn't so sure. It had gotten easier, the more she had read, but she wondered what would happen if she stopped reading for a while, then came back to it.

She had even found a report from Selenay's grandfather, back when he was plain old "Herald Roald," and the Heir, about his encounter with Kero's grandmother Kethry and her partner.

Tarma shena Tale'sedrin, a Shin'a'in Kal'enedral, sworn to the service of her Goddess, was plainly some kind of a priest. In fact, much to Roald's surprise, she had achieved a physical manifestation of her Goddess right before his eyes. Never having seen a Goddess, he was rather impressed.

So would I be!

He'd described the manifestation; the impossibly lovely young Shin'a'in woman, clothed as one of her own Swordsworn-but with strange eyes with neither pupil nor white; just the impression of an endless field of stars.

Brrr. I would probably have passed out.

He and Tarma had become quite firm friends after that; Roald's Companion approved of both the priest and her Goddess, which Roald had found vastly amusing. But if Tarma was a powerful priest, Kethry was just as clearly a talented and powerful mage. Roald had quite a bit to say about her; it was evident that he was quite smitten with her, and if it hadn't been for the fact that she was obviously just as smitten with the Rethwellan archivist they had rescued, he hinted that he might well have considered a try in that direction.

A superb tactician, however, he knew a hopeless situation when he saw one and wisely did not pursue his interest any further.

It was Roald's account of Kethry's magical abilities that interested Elspeth. It was in this account that she got a clearer idea of the differences between journeyman class and Master, of Master and Adept. That alone was useful, since it proved to her that what Valdemar needed was indeed an Adept, more than one, if at all possible. Certainly a teacher.

There was no reason why the Mage-Gift should have vanished from the population of Valdemar, when it was clearly present elsewhere.

Roald did not have a great deal to say about Kethry's magical sword, "Need," other than the fact that it was magical, with unspecified powers, and would only help women. So at that point in time, the song "Threes" had not migrated up to Valdemar, or Roald would have made certain to mention it.

Interesting about songs...As evidence of just how strong that magic-prohibition had been, Elspeth had come across another fascinating bit of information in the Bardic Chronicles, which were also stored here. The song "Kerowyn's Ride" had preceded the arrival of the real Kerowyn by several years-ascribed to "anonymous." Which it wasn't; several times visiting Bards had attempted to set the Valdemaran record straight. Each time the attribution was duly noted, then the very next time the song was listed in a Court performance, it was ascribed to "anonymous." It was the habit of Master Bards, particularly the teachers, to write short dissertations on the meaning and derivation of popular songs to be used as teaching materials. Out of curiosity, Elspeth had made a point of looking up the file on " Kerowyn's Ride." At that point, it would have strained the credulity of even a dunce to believe that there was nothing working to suppress the knowledge of magic-for even after the arrival of the real Kerowyn, Master Bards were writing essays that claimed it was an allegorical piece wherein the Goddess-as-Crone passed her power to the Goddess-as-Maiden at Spring Solstice. She found several other papers stating that it described an actual event that had taken place hundreds of years ago, as evidenced by this or that style.

That was quite enough to get Elspeth ~ into more of the Bardic Chronicles, and that was when she discovered corroborating evidence for her, theory that something was suppressing the very idea of magic.

Despite the fact that there had been a concerted effort to get the songs about Herald Mages and magical conflicts" back into the common repertory, despite the fact that this was Bardic Collegium's top priority-and despite the fact that perfectly awful, maudlin songs like the unkffiable ,MY Lady's Eyes" stayed popular-the "magic" songs could not be kept in repertory. Audiences grew bored, or wandered away; Bards forgot the lyrics, or found themselves singing lyrics to another song entirely. When given a list of the songs for various occasions, a Seneschal or Master of the Revels would inexplicably choose any song but the ones describing magic.

Only those songs that did not specifically mention magic, or those where the powers described could as easily be ascribed to a traditional Gift, stayed in popular repertory. Songs like the "Sun and Shadow" ballads, or the "Windrider" cycle, songs that were hundreds of years older than the Vanyel songs and written in archaic language, were well known-was it because not once was there a reference to a specific spell, only vague terms like "power" and "curses?" Furthermore, Elspeth herself had heard the "problem" songs being sung, not once, but fairly often, and with a great deal of acclaim and success. So it wasn't that there was anything wrong with the songs themselves.

It had to be because of their content. And was it possible that the reason the songs had been successful was that they were sung in the presence of many Heralds? For at seemed to be the common factor. It was when they had been sung with no Heralds present at all that the worst failures occurred.

She had learned several other things from the Chronicles of Vanyel's time-things which had no direct bearing on her present mission, but which explained a great deal.

For instance: there had been something called "The Web," which demanded the energy and attention of four Herald-Mages. Those four apparently had been somehow tied to one-quarter of Valdemar each, and were alerted to anything threatening the Kingdom by the reaction of the spell. The problem was, by the end of Queen Elspeth the Second's reign, there were not enough Herald-Mages to cover the four quarters... not and deal with enemies, too.

That was when Vanyel altered the spell, tying all Heralds into this "Web," so that when danger threatened, everyone would know. Before that, it was only chance that a Foreseer would bend his will to a particular time and place to see that something would be a problem. After, it was guaranteed; Foreseers would see the danger, and would know exactly what Gifts or actions were required to counter it. Heralds with those Gifts would find themselves in the saddle and heading for the spot whether or not they had been summoned. The Chronicles were not clear about how he had done this, only that it definitely worked, and there was a great deal of relief knowing that the Kingdom no longer depended on having four powerful Herald-Mages to act as guardians.

Vanyel had done something else at that time, though whether or not it was part of the alterations to this "Web" or not, the Chronicles were unclear. He had summoned-something. Or rather, he had summoned things. Having called them, he did something to them or with them, somehow gave them the job of watching for mages and alerting Heraldmages to their presence in Valdemar.

What happened when there weren't any more Herald-Mages? she wondered.

Did they just keep watching, or what? Have they been trying to alert Heralds, or not?

At least this accounted for something Kero had said, about why Quenten and the rest of the Skybolts' mages couldn't stay inside Valdemar.

"He said it felt like there was someone watching him all the time," she'd told Elspeth. "Like there was someone just behind his shoulder, staring at him. Waking or sleeping. Said it just about drove him crazy." That certainly made a good enough reason for Elspeth; she didn't think she would want to stick around anywhere that she felt eyes on her all the time.

Unless, of course, she was a truly powerful mage, one able to shield herself against just about anything. One that knew she was so much the superior of other mages that she felt totally confident in her ability to hide from the enemy.

Like Hulda, maybe? We still don't know everything she can do. We've been assuming she was just Ancar's teacher and attributing all his success to Ancar himself... But what if it's really Hulda, letting him think he's in control, while she is really the power and the mind behind his actions?

Again, that would explain a great deal, particularly Ancar's obsession with eliminating Talia, Selenay, and Elspeth.

It could be he simply hated suffering defeat at the hands of women.

But it also could be Hulda, egging him on. If he felt somehow shamed at being defeated by females, she could be playing on that shame, making him obsessive about it. After all, she had very little to lose. If Ancar was goaded into defeating Valdemar, she won. And if he lost, or was killed during the conflict-she would be there to inherit his kingdom and pick up the pieces. And Hulda would never repeat his mistakes...It all made hideous sense, a good explanation of otherwise inexplicable behavior. And Elspeth didn't like the explanation one bit. Ancar as an enemy was bad enough. But the idea of an enemy like Hulda who had been plotting for decades-It was enough to send a chill down the toughest of spines. It was more than enough to give Elspeth nightmares for three nights running.

Elspeth closed the book she'd been reading, fighting down a queasy sensation in her stomach.

She had just finished reading the passages in the Chronicles about Tylendel, Vanyel's first lover; his repudiation and his suicide. It didn't make for easy reading; it had been written, not by the Chronicler of the time, but by a non-Herald, a Healer, who had been a friend of Tylendel' s mentor. Evidently the Heralds had all been affected so strongly by this incident that they were unable to write about it.

But that was not why she was fighting uneasy feelings.

Tylendel-at seventeen-had evidently been able to construct something called a "Gate" or a "Gate Spell," which enabled him to literally span distances it would take a Companion days or even weeks to cross.

Her blood ran cold at the idea, and even though the author had hinted that the mage who used this spell had to know precisely where he was going, that fact was no comfort. Hulda had been to Valdemar-and it would not be very difficult to insert other agents into Valdemar simply to learn appropriate destinations.

What if Ancar were to control this spell? What if he were able to get it past the protections? There would be no stopping him; he would be able to place agents anywhere he chose.

In fact-Hulda had been in the Palace. For years. There was probably very little she didn't know about the Palace.

She could place an agent in the Queen's very bedroom, if she chose, and all the guards in the world would make no difference.

That might even be how that assassin got onto the Palace grounds. She shuddered. I think I'm going to have nightmares again...This had not been an easy day for reading. Elspeth was just as disturbed by the Chronicle she had completed before this one, the one describing Vanyel's last battle.

The Herald-Mage had commanded tremendous power; so tremendous that the author had made an offhand comment to the effect that he could have leveled Haven if he so chose. Granted, Haven was a smaller city then than it was now, but-the power to level a city?

It simply didn't seem possible, destruction on that kind of scale seemed absurd on the face of it. Yet for the writer, such power seemed to be taken for granted.

At first reading, she had been skeptical of such claims; Chroniclers had been known to indulge in hyperbole before this. She had assumed that the descriptions were the embroideries of a "frustrated Bard," a Chronicler's version of poetic license. But on the second reading she had discovered the signature at the end, modestly tucked away in small, neat handwriting that matched the rest of the Chronicle, but not anything else in the book.

Bard Stefen, for Herald-Chronicler Kyndri.

Now there was no reason for Stefen to have invented outrageous powers for his lifebonded. There was every reason for him to have been absolutely factual in his account. He was not a would-be Bard, like many of the Chroniclers; he was a Bard, with all the opportunity to play with words that he wanted, outside of the Chronicles. And everything else in those Chronicles had been simple, direct, without exaggeration.

So it followed that Herald Vanyel had that power, that ability. The ability to level a city.

And if Vanyel had commanded that kind of power, there was no reason to suppose that Ancar could not ally himself to a mage with that same power, sooner or later. There probably weren't many with that kind of ability, but if there was one with the same kind of lust for conquest that drove Ancar, the King of Hardorn would eventually find him.

Elspeth sat for a moment with her head in her hands, overwhelmed by a feeling of helplessness. How could Valdemar possibly stand against the power of a mage like that?

By finding another like him, she finally decided. If there is one, there have to be more. And surely not all of them will find Ancar's offers attractive.

And that's exactly what I'm going to have to do.

She shook back her hair, and pushed her chair away from the book-laden table. She was a little surprised by the bulk of her scattered notes; she'd been so engrossed she hadn't noticed just how much she'd been writing down.

All right, she decided. I've learned all I can from books. Now it's time to get out there and see how much of it applies to current reality.

She collected her notes into a neat stack, and shoved them into a notebook. Then she rose, stretched, and picked up the books, restoring them to their proper places on the shelves. Finally, though, she had to admit to herself that she wasn't being considerate of the librarians, she was putting off the moment of departure.

She squared her shoulders, lifted her head, and walked out of the archives with a firm step-showing a confidence she did not feel.

Not that it really mattered. This was her plan, and she was, by the gods, going to see it through. And the first step on that road was to go find Skif and tell him it was time to leave; that she had everything she needed. if nothing else, she told herself wryly, Skif will be ready. Even if I'm not sure I am.

Skif was ready; he had wisely refrained from repeating just how ready he was, but he was so visibly impatient that she decided to get on the road immediately, instead of waiting for morning. She headed back to her room at a trot, to throw her personal things into packs, while he had the Companions saddled and loaded with saddlebags. It was, after all, only a little after noon. They could conceivably make quite a bit of progress before they had to stop for the night.

From the look on his face, that was exactly what Skif intended.

She intercepted a young page and sent him around with farewell messages for everyone except her mother and Talia; those farewells she would make in person.

Mother would never forgive me if I just sent a note, she thought ruefully, as she stuffed clothing into a pack. Not that I wouldn't mind just slipping out of here. She's bound to raise a fuss...Selenay still was not resigned to the situation; Elspeth was as sure of that as she was of her own name. She had been so involved in her researches that she hadn't spent much time in her mother's company, but the few times she had, she'd been treated to long, reproachful looks.

Selenay hadn't said anything, but Elspeth would have been perfectly happy to avoid any chance of another motherly confrontation.

She fully intended to plead the need for a hasty departure, putting the

blame on Skif and his impatience if she had to. If I can just get this over quickly-just as she thought that, someone tapped on her door. She started, her heart pounding for a moment, then winced as she forced herself to relax. She hadn't realized just how keyed up she was.

A second tap sounded a little impatient. Don't tell me; Mother's already found out that I'm leaving!

"Come in," she called, with a certain resignation. But to her surprise, it wasn't Selenay who answered the invitation, it was Kero.

A second surprise: the Herald-Captain was carrying a sword; Need to be precise. Not wearing it, but carrying it; the blade was sheathed in a brand new scabbard, with an equally new sword-belt, both of blue-gray leather. And before she had a chance to say anything, Kero thrust the sword-sheath, belt, and all-into her hands.

"Here," she said gruffly, her voice just a little hoarse, as if she was keeping back emotions of some kind. "You're going to need this. No pun intended." Her hands left the sheath reluctantly, and it seemed to Elspeth as if she was wistful-unwillingly so-at parting with the blade.

For her part, Elspeth was so dumbfounded she felt like the village idiot, unable to think at all coherently. I'm going to what-she's giving me-that's Need, it's magic, she can't mean me to have it! Why-what" But-" was all she could say; anything else came out as a sputter.

But-why?"

"why?" Kero shrugged with an indifference that was obviously feigned. "Right after you and I met, Need spoke for you. I couldn't do without her, not right then, and she hasn't said anything since, but there's never been any doubt in my mind that you're the one she was supposed to go to."

"Go to?" Elspeth repeated, dazedly. Now that the blade was in her hands, she felt-something. An odd feeling. A slight disorientation, as if there was someone trying such a delicate mental probe on her that it was at the very edge of her ability to sense it. It was a little like when she'd been Chosen, only not nearly as strong.

"It's something like being Chosen, I suppose," Kero said, echoing her thought. "She picks the one she wants to be passed to. Better that than just getting picked up at random, or so I'd guess, though women are the only ones that can use her. Grandmother got her from an old female merc when she left her mage-school; she gave Need to me, and now I'm giving her to you. You'd have gotten her from me in any case eventually, but since you're going out past the borders, I think it would be a good idea if you take her with you." Suddenly, the blade seemed doubly heavy.

"You mean the sword talks to you?" Elspeth replied vaguely, trying to sort out surprise, the odd touches at the back of her mind, and just a touch of apprehension.

Not exactly talks, no," Kero chuckled. "Though let me warn you now, she is going to try and exert a lot of pressure on you to do what she wants-which is to rescue women in trouble. Don't give in to her more than you have to. She'll try two things-she'll either try to take over your body, or she'll give you a headache like you've never had in your life. You can block it and her out; I learned to eventually, and I should think with all the training you've had in the Gifts you should be able to manage just fine. After all, when I faced her down, I was only half-trained at best. Whatever you do, don't give in to her, or you'll set a bad precedent, as bad as giving a troublesome falcon its own way. She manipulated my grandmother, but I never let her manipulate me if I could help it." Elspeth regarded the gift dubiously. "If she's that much trouble-"

"oh, she's worth it," Kero said, with a rueful chuckle. "Especially for somebody like you or me, somebody who doesn't know beans about magic. For one thing, she'll Heal you of practically any injury, even on the battlefield in the middle of a fight. That alone is worth every bit of bother she ever gave me. But for the rest of her abilities, if you're a swordswinger, she'll protect you against magic-and I mean, real protection, as good as any Adept I've ever seen. I had some encounters with some mages of Ancar's that I haven't talked about-there wasn't anything any of them threw at me that she couldn't deflect." Kero chuckled." ' Gave them quite a surprise, too."

"But your grandmother was a mage," Elspeth said.

"Right. If you're a mage, she protects you, too-but she doesn't do anything for you magically."

"She takes over your body and makes you a good fighter?" Elspeth supplied.

"Right! But she doesn't do anything for a fighter in the way of fighting ability." ~

"I think I remember something about your grandmother being a fighter in some of the songs, only I knew you said she was a mage," Elspeth said, looking down at the blade in her hands with a touch of awe. "I never could figure out how the confusion happened. From everything I've read, becoming a mage takes up so much of your time you couldn't possibly learn to fight well." Kero shrugged. "Yes and no. It really depends on how much you want to curtail your social life. If you want to be a celibate, you could learn to be both." Huh. Like Vanyel...

"Anyway, Need makes you a swordmaster if you're a mage, protects you from magic if you're a fighter. And if you aren't either-"

"Like in"Kerowyn's Ride'?" Elspeth asked, with a sly smile.

Kero groaned. "Yes, gods help me, like in that damned song. If you aren't either, she takes over and makes you both. Her way, though, which tends to make you almost as big a target as one of your'here I am, shoot me' uniforms." Elspeth chuckled; Kero was, as usual, not wearing Whites. Then she sobered. "But you said I can fight the compulsion, right?" Kero nodded. "I did it. It takes a little determination, if you don't know what you're doing, but it can be done. I had to threaten to drop the damned thing down the nearest well. And I've already told it that you'll do the same if it gives you too much trouble." Seeing Elspeth's hesitation, she added, "If you don't want it, don't draw it-it can't force you to take it, you know. If you don't draw it, it won't have any kind of hold on you." Elspeth wasn't entirely sure of that-not after the tentative touches in the back of her mind, but she was certain that the hold the blade had on her could be fought. If she chose to. If Kero could, so could she.

Carefully, she weighed all the factors in her mind. This was not going to be a decision to make lightly.

She'll have a hold on me-but she'll protect me from things I not only don't understand, but might not detect until it's too late. And the

 Healing-that's damned important. If I'm hurt, I may not be able to get to a Healer, but I won't have to if I have her.

Not such a bad trade, really. And since Elspeth had already been Chosen, perhaps the hold would be that much less. Gwena would surely help fight it; she could be very possessive when she wanted to be.

Another good reason to take the blade suddenly occurred to her. One that Kero might not have thought of If I don't find a mage-I'm a woman, and Mother's a woman. How well would this magic sword work against Ancar, I wonder?

Given that scenario, how could she not, in good conscience, accept the blade?

Without hesitation, she pulled Need from her sheath.

For a moment, nothing at all happened.

Then-Time stopped; a humming, somehow joyful, gleeful, filled the back of her head. It is just like being Chosen, she thought absently, as the blade glowed for a moment, the fire coalescing into script, runes that writhed, then settled into something she could actually read.

Woman's Need calls me, as Woman's Need made me, she read, as her eyes watered from the fiery light. Her Need will I answer, as my Maker bade me.

The runes writhed again-then faded, the moment she had the sense of them. The hum in the back of her mind stilled, and Time hiccupped, then resumed its stately progress.

"What the hell was that supposed to mean?" she demanded, as soon as she could speak again.

Kero shrugged. "Damned if I know," she admitted. "Only the gods know her history now. Grandmother said that's what happens when she gets into the hands she wants. But that, my dear, is the first time she's roused since I brought her inside the borders of Valdemar." Elspeth slid the blade gingerly into her sheath.

Her. I doubt I'll ever call her "it" again..."What happens when I take her outside Valdemar?" she asked with trepidation. There had been such a feeling of power when Need had responded to her-a feeling of controlled strength, held back, the way a mastiff would handle a newborn chick.

And I'm not sure I like feeling like a newborn chick!

"I don't know," Kero admitted. "She hasn't been outside Valdemar for a long time. Whatever happens, you're going to require her, of that much I'm certain."

"But what about you?" Elspeth was forced by her own conscience to ask. "Where does that leave you?" Kero laughed. "The same as before; I haven't ever depended on her to bail me out of a tough spot. And to tell you the truth, I don't think I'm going to be seeing anything worth being protected against."

"And I am." Elspeth made that a statement.

"I'd bet on it." Kero nodded, soberly. "I'll tell you this much; while she's given me trouble in the past, she's always been worth the having.

I may not have depended on her, but she's bailed me out of things I could never have gotten myself out of alone. I feel a lot better knowing you have her." I-" Elspeth stopped at a loss for words." Kero, 'thanks' just doesn't seem adequate... "

"oh, don't thank me, thank her," Kero grinned. "She picked you, after all."

"I'm thanking you anyway." Elspeth hugged her, sword and all, then bade her a reluctant farewell. It was hard saying good-bye; a lot harder than she thought it would be. She stood with the sheathed sword in her hands for a long time after Kero was gone.

Finally Elspeth buckled the swordbelt over her tunic, and wriggled a little to settle Need's weight. Once in place, the sword felt right; most swords took some getting used to, they all weighed differently, their balance on the hip or in the hand was different.

But most swords aren't magic.

The thought was unsettling; this was the stuff of which ballads and stories were made, and although Elspeth had daydreamed herself into a heroine when she was a child, she'd given up those daydreams once she achieved her Whites.

I thought I had, anyway.

That made for another unsettling thought, though; stories all had endingsand she was beginning to feel as if the ending to this one was already written.

As if she had no choice in where she was going, or how she was going to get there; as if everyone knew what her goal was except her.

"Destiny" was one word she had always hated-and now it looked as if it was the one word that applied to her.

And she didn't like the feeling one bit.

*Chapter Eight DARKWIND

"Stupid," said Vree, with profound disapproval.

Darkwind's stomach lurched as Vree made another swooping dive-not quite a stoop-skimming through the pocket valley that held the trapped dyheli bucks.

There were times when the gyre's viewpoint was a little-unsettling.

The gyre wheeled above the dyheli herd, just above the highest level of the mist, giving Darkwind the loan of his keener eyes and the advantage of wings and height. "Stupid, stupid. We should go." Not that Darkwind needed a bird, even a bondbird, to tell him that.

The gentle dyheli huddled together in an exhausted, witless knot, too spent by panic to do anything sensible.

Through the gyre's eyes he looked for anything that might pass as a track out of the valley-and found nothing. The spring dropped from a height five times that of the dyheli to the valley floor, down a sheer rock face. The other two sides of the valley were just as sheer, and sandstone to boot.

Nothing short of a miracle was going to get them out of there.

Vree's right. We should go. I can't risk all of k'sheyna for the sake of a dozen dyheli. I made pledges, I have greater responsibilities.

So why was he here, lying under the cover of a bush, just above the mist-choked passage out of the dead-end valley, searching through his bondbird's eyes for a way out for the tiny herd? Why was he wasting his time, leaving his section of the border unpatrolled, tearing up his insides with his own helplessness?

Because I'm stupid.

One of the bucks raised a sweat-streaked head to utter a heartbreaking cry of despair. His gut twisted a little more.

And because I can't stand to see them suffering like that. they're fellow creatures, as intelligent as we are. they looked to Dawnfire for protection and help, even if they did range outside our boundaries. they acted as her eyes and ears out here. I can't just abandon them now.

Which was, no doubt, exactly the way Dawnfire felt. There was no difference in what he was doing now, and what she wanted to do.

Except that I'm a little older, a little more experienced. But just as headstrong and stupid.

The mist-whatever it was-rose and fell with an uneasy, wave-like motion, and wherever it lapped up on the rock wall, it left brown and withered vegetation when it receded. And it took quite a bit to kill those tough little rock-plants. So the mist was deadly to the touch as well as deadly to breathe. There was no point in trying to calm the dyheli enough to get them to hold their breath and make a dash for freedom... they'd never survive being in the mist for as long as it would take them to blunder through.

As if to underscore that observation, the mist lapped a little higher just below his hiding place. A wisp of it eddied up, and he got a faint whiff of something that burned his mouth and throat and made his eyes water. He coughed it out as the mist ebbed again.

Poisonous and caustic. First, burns to madden them further, then the poison.

They're horribly susceptible to poisons; they'd probably get fatal doses just through skin contact, through the area of the burn.

No, no hope there.

He rubbed his eyes to clear them, and sent Vree to perch in the tree over his head. Another of the dyheli called mournfully, and the cry cut into his heart. He knuckled his eyes again, blinking through burning eyes, but still could see no way out of the trap.

Even the spring-fed waterfall was not big enough to do more than provide a little water spray and a musical trickle down the rocks. There was no shelter for even one of the dyheli behind it.

I can't bear this, he decided, finally. All I could do is shoot them and give them a painless death, or leave them, and hope that whatever this poison is, it disperses on its own-or maybe won't be able to get past the mist that the waterfall is throwing.

Two choices, both bad, the second promising a worse death than the first. His heart smoldered with frustration and anger, and he swore and pounded his fist white on the rock-hard dirt, then wiped the blood off his skinned knuckles. No! Dammit, it's not fair, they depended on Tayledras to protect them! their has to be somethhe looked back into the valley, at the tugging of an invisible current, a stirring in the fabrics of power, the rest of his thought forgotten.

A sudden shrwing along his nerves, an etching of ice down his backbone, that was what warned him of magic-magic that he knew, intimately, though he no longer danced to its piping-the movements of energies nearby, and working swiftly.

His fingers moved, silently, in unconscious response. He swung his head a little, trying to pinpoint the source. there-the mist below him stirred.

The hair on the back of his neck and arms stood on end, and he found himself on his feet on the floor of the valley before the wall of mist, with no memory of standing, much less climbing down. It didn't matter; magic coiled and sprang from a point somewhere before him, purposeful, and guided.

Striking against the mage-born wall of poison.

The mist writhed as it was attacked, stubbornly resisting. Magic, a single spell, fought the mist, trying to force it to disperse. The mist fought back with magic and protections of its own. It curdled, thickened, compacted against the sides and floor of the valley, flowing a little farther toward the dyheli.

The spell changed; power speared through the mist, cutting it, lance-like.

A clear spot appeared, a kind of tunnel in the cloud. The mist fought again, but not as successfully this time.

Darkwind felt it all, felt the conflicting energies in his nerves and bones. He didn't have to watch the silent battle, he followed it accurately within himself-the spell-wielder forcing the mist away, the mist curling back into the emptying corridor, being forced away, and oozing back in again. He reached out a hand, involuntarily, to wield power that he had forsaken Then pulled his hand back, the conflict within him as silent and devastating as the conflict below him.

But before he could resolve his own battle, the balance of power below him shifted. The magic-wielder won; the mist parted, held firmly away from a clear tunnel down the middle of the valley, with only the thinnest of wisps seeping in.

But he could feel the strain, the pressure of the mist on the walls of that tunnel, threatening to collapse it at any moment.

It can't hold for long!

But again, before he could move, the balance shifted. The ground trembled under his feet, and for a moment he thought it was another effect of the battle of mist and magic being fought in front of his very eyes. But no-something dark loomed through the enshrouding mist, something that tossed and made the ground shake.

The dyheli!

Now he dared a thought, a Mindspoken call It didn't matter that someone or something might overhear; they had been started, or spooked, but without direction, they might hesitate, fatally. "Brothers-hooved brothers! Come, quickly, before the escape-way closes!" There was no answer except the shaking of the ground. But the darkness within the mist began to resolve into tossing heads and churning legs-and a moment later, the dyheli bucks pounded into sight, a foam of sweat dripping from their flanks, coughing as the fumes hit their lungs. And behind them-something else.

Something that ran on two legs, not four.

It collapsed, just barely within the reach of the mist. And as it collapsed, so did the tunnel of clear air.

He did not even stop to think; he simply acted.

He took a lungful of clean air and plunged into the edge of the roiling, angry mist. His eyes burned and watered, his skin was afire. He could hardly see through the tears, only enough to reach that prone figure, seize one arm, and help it to its feet.

He half-dragged, half-carried it out, aware of it only as lighter than he, and shorter, and still alive, for it tried feebly to help him. There was no telling if it was human or not; here in the borderland between k'sheyna and the Pelagirs, that was not something to take for granted.

But it had saved the dyheli, and that was enough to earn it, in turn, aid.

The mist reached greedily for them; he reached clear air at the edge of it; sucked in a lungful, felt his burden do the same. Both of them shuddered with racking coughs as a wisp of mist reached their throats.

He stumbled into safety at the same moment that the other collapsed completely, nearly carrying Darkwind to the ground with him.

Him?

At that moment, Darkwind realized that this was no male. And as he half-suspected, not human either.

"Run!.. Vree screamed from overhead, with mind and voice, and Darkwind glanced behind to see the mist licking forward again, reaching for them, turning darker as if with anger.

From somewhere he found the strength to pick her up, heave her over his shoulder, and stumble away at a clumsy run.

He ran until exhaustion forced him to stop before he dropped the girl, fell on his face, or both. Vree scouted for him, as he slowed to a weary walk, muscles burning, side aching. He figured he must have run, all out, for furlongs at least; he was well out of sensing range of the evil mist, if that still existed and had not been dissipated. That was all that mattered. By the time he came to a halt, in the lee of a fallen tree, he was sweating as heavily as the dyheli bucks.

He knelt and eased his burden down into the grass beside the barks-tripped trunk of the tree, and didn't bother to get up. He sat right down beside her, his legs without any strength at all, propping himself against the tree with his back against the trunk.

For a long time he just sat there, his forehead against his bent knees, wrists crossed over his ankles, every muscle weak from the long run, relying on Vree to alert him if anything dangerous came along. Sweat cooled and dried, his back and scalp itched, but he was too tired to scratch them. He was only aware of his burning muscles, his aching lungs, the pain in his side.

After a while, other things began to penetrate to his consciousness as his legs stopped trembling and the pain in his side and lungs ebbed.

Birds called and chattered all around, a good sign, since they would have been silent if there had been anything about to disturb them.

He began to think again, slowly. His mind, dull with fatigue, was nevertheless alert enough to encompass this much; as a nonhuman and an Outlander, she was not going to be welcome in k'sheyna. She was not, as he recalled from the brief glimpse he'd had before he had to pick up and run with her, a member of any of the nonhuman races k'sheyna had contact with. And unknown meant "suspect" in the danger-ridden lands beyond the borders of the Vale.

Now what am I going to do with her? he wondered, exhaustion warring with the need to make a quick decision. I'd better take a closer look at her. We aren't inside the Vale yet. If she isn't badly hurt, maybe I can just leave her here, keep an eye on her until she comes around, then make sure she takes herself off, away from the Vale.

He raised his head and turned his attention to his silent companion-still unconscious, he saw. As he turned her over to examine her, everything about her set off ripples of aversion.

Not only was she nonhuman, she was only-too-obviously one of the so-called " Changechildren" from the Pelagirs, creatures modified from either human or animal bases-at their own whims, frequently, if the base was human; or that of their creators if they were modified from animals. It was what the Tayledras had done with the bondbirds, and what they had done to horses on behalf of the Shin'a'in, taken to an extreme. An extreme that many Tayledras found bordering on the obscene-perhaps because of the kinds of modifications that had been done at the time of the Mage Wars. It was one thing to modify; it was quite another to force extreme changes for no good reason, be the base human or animal.

His experienced eye told him which it was; there was only so much that could be done with an animal base. You couldn't grant equal intelligence with humans to an animal, except over the course of many generations.

It had taken the hertasi many generations to attain enough intelligence for a rare mage to appear among their ranks, and that event itself had been centuries ago. Human base, modified to cat...Even unconscious, she oozed sexual attraction, which made him both doubly uneasy and pitying. That attraction-it was a common modification, based on smell and the stimulation of deep, instinctual drives in the onlooker.

Whether he decided ultimately on pity or revulsion would depend on whether she'd had it done to her, or done it herself. If herself-Already he felt a deep, smoldering anger at the idea. I may pitch her back into the damned mist.

Those who modified themselves for sexual attractiveness were generally doing so with intent to use themselves and their bodies as a weapon.

And not an honest one, either.

On the other hand, if she'd had it done to her-it was likely with the intent of her master to use her as a kind of sexual pet. That was as revolting to Darkwind as the first, but it was not a revulsion centered on the girl.

For the rest, the overall impression was of a cat, or something catlike.

Her hair was a dark, deep sable, and rather short, with a subtle dappled effect in the direct sunlight, like his own dyed hair-camouflage.

Her face was triangular, with very little chin; her ears, pointed, with furlike tufts on the ends. Her eyebrows swept upward, her eyes were slanted upward, and when he pulled an eyelid open to see if she really was conscious, he was unsurprised to see that her golden-yellow eyes had slit pupils. Which were dilated in shock; her stunned condition was real.

She wore the absolute minimum for modesty; a scanty tunic of creamcolored leather, and skin-tight breeches that laced up the side, showing a long line of dark golden-brown flesh beneath. Not practical garb for woods running.

Even unconscious, she lay with a boneless grace that echoed the cat theme, and her retractile fingernails were filed to sharp points, like a cat's claws.

Whatever she had been, she was not even as human now as the Tayledras.

The changes had been made to her from birth; possibly even before. In fact, in view of the extensiveness of the changes, it was increasingly unlikely that she'd done them to herself. Unless she was born in one of the contaminated areas, the poison twisted her in this direction, and she decided to continue the shift.

She was barefoot, but the tough soles of her feet convinced him that she had spent most of her life without wearing foot coverings. Again, not practical for woods running, which argued that she had run away from something or someone.

Then he saw the patterns of old and new bruises over much of her body, as if someone had been beating her on a regular basis. Nothing to mar the pert perfection of her face-but everywhere else, she was marked with the signs of frequent blows. The darkness of her skin had hidden it from him at first, but she was covered with the greenish-yellow of old, healing bruises, and the purple-black of fresh ones. Some of them, on her arms, were as big as the palm of his hand. He could only wonder, sickened, about the parts of her hidden under her clothing. The evidence was mounting in her favor.

She was thin-too thin, with bones showing starkly, as if she never had quite enough to eat.

Darkwind sat back on his heels, no longer certain what to think. The Changechild was a bundle of contradictions. If she was, as she seemed, the escaped chattel of an Adept-level mage, how was it she had commanded the power to free the dyheli herd? No mage would have permitted a "pet" to carry the Mage-Gift, much less learn how to use it.

But if she was an enemy, why did she bear the marks of beatings and semistarvation? And why had she freed the herd in the first place?

She represented a puzzle he did not have enough information to solve.

I have to give her the benefit of the doubt, he decided, after pondering the question for a moment. She did save the dyheli. Whatever else she is, or is not will have to wait. But I can't make a decision until I know what she is. He thought a moment more. I have to see that she stays safe until she wakes. I do owe her that much, at the very least-and I owe her the protection of a place to recover afterward.

At a guess, she hadn't breathed enough of the poison to have put a healthy creature into the unconscious stupor she lingered in. But she had not been healthy, and she had depleted her resources considerably in fighting that evil mist. She was not Adept-level; that much was obvious.

She was not even a Master; no Master would have exhausted herself in fighting the mist directly. A Master would have transmuted the mist into something else; an Adept would have broken the spell creating it and holding it there. Both would have involved very powerful and difficult spells and would have alerted every mage within two days' ride that there was another mage plying his powers. That was what Darkwind would have done-before he swore that nothing would ever induce him to wield magic energies again. Before it became too dangerous for him to draw the attentions of other Adepts to the depleted and disrupted Clan of k'sheyna.

She had not-probably could not-either break or change the spell.

She could only fight it. That meant she was Journeyman at best, and that the energy to create the tunnel of safety had come directly from her. It was what made journeymen so hard to track; since the only disturbances in the energy-flows of mage-energies were those within themselves, they couldn't be detected unless one was very nearby. And, thank the fourfold Goddess, that was what had kept her magics from attracting anything else. Probably he had been the only creature close enough to detect her meddling.

But that was also what limited a journeyman's abilities to affect other magic, and limited his magical "arsenal') as well. When the energy was gone, the mage was exhausted, sometimes to the point of catatonia depending on how far he wanted to push himself, and there was no more until he was rested.

That was what brought the Changechild to this pass; depleting herself, on top of her poor physical condition, then taking one whiff too many of the poison mist. She might be a long time in recovering.

But Darkwind could not, in all conscience, leave her where she was. it wasn't safe, and he could not spare anyone to protect her. And even if it was safe, she might not recover without help; he didn't know enough of Healing to tell.

He rested his chin on his knee and thought.

I need someplace and someone willing to watch her and keep her out of mischief. But I can't take her into the Vale; Father would slit her throat just for looking the way she does. I need a neutral safe-haven, temporarily-and then I need a lot of good advice.

He knew where to find the second; it was coming up with the first that was difficult.

Finally with a tentative plan in mind, he hefted her over his shoulder again-with a stern admonition to his body to behave in her proximity, as her sexual attraction redoubled once he was close to her.

His body was not interested in listening.

Finally, in desperation, he shielded-everything. And thought of the least arousing things he could manage-scrubbing the mews, boiling hides, and finally, cleaning his privy. That monthly ordeal of privy-scrubbing was the only thing that ever made him regret his decision to move out of the Vale...The last worked; and with a sigh of relief, he headed off to the nearest source of aid he could think of.

"Vree!" he called.

The bondbird dove out of the branches of a nearby tree; he felt the gyre's interest at his burden, but it was purely curiosity. The Changechildthank the stars-was of the wrong species to affect Vree.

If she'd been tervardi, though-she'd have gotten to both of us. And I don't think Vree's as good at self-control as I am. I would truly have had a situation at that point.

"where?" the bondbird replied, with the inflection that meant "Where are we going?"

The hertasi, Vree," he Mindspoke back. "the ones on the edge of k'sheyna. this-one hurt-sleeps."

"Good." Vree's mind-voice was full of satisfaction; the hertasi liked bondbirds and always had tidbits to share with them. He could care less about Darkwind's burden; only that she was a burden, and Darkwind was hindered in his movements. "I guard." Which meant that he would stay within warning distance just ahead of Darkwind, alert at all times, instead of giving in to momentary distractions.

Unae his bondmate...Latrines, he thought firmly. Cleaning out latrines. most part, would start out chasing a helpless-looking old Nera looked up at Darkwind-it was hard for the diminutive hertasi to do anything other than "look up" at a human-his expressive eyes full of questions.

"And what if she wakes?" the Guard Mindspoke. He turned his head slightly, and the scales of the subtle diamond pattern on his forehead shifted from metallic brown to a dark gold like old bronze. Nera was the Elder of the hertasi enclave and an old friend; Darkwind had brought his burden-and problem-straight to Nera's doorstep. Let the mages discount the hertasi if they chose, or ignore them, thinking them no more than children in their understanding and suited only to servants' work.

Darkwind knew better.

"I don't think she will," Darkwind told him honestly. "At least not until I'm back. I risked a probe, and she is very deeply exhausted. I expect her to sleep for a day or more." Nera considered that, his eyes straying to the paddies below, where his people worked their fields of rice. The hertasi settlement itself was in the hillside above a marsh, carefully hollowed out "holes" shored with timbers; with walls, floors and ceilings finished with water-smoothed stone set into cement, and furnished well, if simply. The swamp was their own domain, one in which their size was not a handicap. They grew rice and bred frogs, hunted and fished there. They knew the swamp better than any of the Tayledras.

That had made it easy for Darkwind to persuade the others to include them within the bounds of the k'sheyna territory. The marsh itself was a formidable defense, and the hertasi seldom required any aid. A border section guarded by a treacherous swamp full of clever hertasi was something even the most stubborn mage would find a practical resource.

Though they knew how to use their half-size bows and arrows perfectly well, and even the youngest were trained with their wicked little sickle-shaped daggers and fish-spears, the hertasi preferred, when given the choice, to let their home do their fighting for them. Enemies, for the

lizard-rn2n, only to find themselves suddenly chest-deep and sinking in quicksand or mire.

The hertasi were fond of referring to these unwelcome intruders as fertilizer. ' Nera was still giving him that inquisitive look. Darkwind groaned, inwardly. There were some definite drawbacks to a friendship dating back to childhood. Old Nera could read him better than his own father. thank the gods for that.

The Changechild's attraction didn't work on Nera, any more than it did on Vree-but Darkwind had the feeling that the hertasi knew very well the effect it was having on the scout. And he was undoubtedly giving Darkwind that look because-he assumed the attraction was affecting his thinking as well as-other things.

Darkwind sighed. "All right," he said, finally. "If she wakes and gives YOU trouble, she's fair game for fertilizer. Does that suit you?" Nera nodded, and his flexible mouth turned up at the corners in an approximation of a human smile. "Good. I just wanted to be certain that your mind was still working as well as the rest of you." Darkwind winced. Nera was so small it was easy to forget that the hertasi was actually older than his father, and was just as inclined to remind him of his relative youth. And hertasi, who only came into season once a year, enjoyed teasing their human friends about their susceptibility to their own passions.

It didn't help that this time Nera's arrow hit awfully near the mark.

"I'm still chief scout," he reminded the lizard..Anything that comes out of the Pelagirs is suspect-and if it's helpless and attractive, it's that much more suspect."

"Excellent." Nera bobbed his muzzle in a quick nod. "then give my best to the Winged Ones. Follow the blue-flag flowers; we changed the safe path since last you were here." With that tacit approval, Darkwind again shifted his burden to the ground, this time laying her on a stuffed grass-mat just inside Nera's doorway. When he turned, the hertasi Elder had already rejoined his fellows, and was knee-deep in muddy water, weeding the rice. He might be old, but he had not lost any of his speed. That was how the hertasi, normally shy, managed to stay out of sight so much of the time in the Vale; they still retained the darting speed of that long-ago reptilian ancestor.

Darkwind pushed aside the bead curtain that served as a door during the day, shaded his eyes, and looked beyond the paddies for the first of the blue-flag flowers. The hertasi periodically changed the safe ways through the swamp, marking them with whatever flowering plants were blooming at the time, or with evergreen plants in the winter. After a moment he spotted what he was looking for, and made his way, dry-shod, along the raised paths separating the rice paddies.

Dry-shod only for the moment. When he reached the end of the cultivated fields, he pulled off his boots, meant mostly for protection against the stones and brambles of the dryland, fastened them to his belt, and substituted a pair of woven rush sandals he kept with Nera.

Rolling up the cuffs of his breeches well above his knees, he waded into the muddy water, trying not to think of what might be lurking under it. The hertasi assured him that the plants they rooted along the paths kept away leeches, special fish they released along the safe paths would eat any that weren't repelled by the plants, and that he himself would frighten away any poisonous water snakes, if he splashed loudly enough, but he could never quite bring himself to believe that. It was very hard to read hertasi even when someone knew them well, and it was all too like their sense of humor to have told him these things to try and lull him into complacency.

He could have gone around, of course, but this was the shortest way to get to the other side of the swamp, where the marsh drained off down the side of the crater-wall into the Dhorisha Plains. The swamp, barely within k'sheyna lands, ended at the ruins he sought-and when he had apportioned out the borders, he had made sure that both were within his patrolling area.

One advantage of being in charge; I could assign myself whatever piece I wanted. Dawnfire gets the part facing on the hills that hold her friends, and I get the area that holds mine. Seems fair enough to me.

Normally he didn't have to get there by wading through the swamp.

This was not the route he chose if he had a choice.

The water was warm, unpleasantly so, for so was the heavy, humid air. A thousand scents came to his nostrils, most of them foul; rotting plants, stale water, the odor of fish. He looked back after a while, but the hertasi settlement had completely vanished in waving swamp-plants that stood higher than his head. He thought he felt something slither past his leg, and shuddered, pausing a moment for whatever it was to go by.

Or bite me. Whichever comes first.

But it didn't bite him, and if there had been something there, it didn't touch him again. He waded on, watching for the telltale, pale blue of the tiny, odorless flowers on their long stems, poking up among the reeds. As long as he kept them in sight, he would be on the path the hertasi had built of stone and sand amid the mud of the swamp. There were always two plants, one marking each side of the path. The idea was to stop between each pair and look for the next; while the path itself twisted among the reeds and muck, it was a straight line from one pair of plants to the next. And there were false trails laid; it wasn't a good idea to break away from the set path and take what looked like a more direct route, or a drier one; the direct route generally ended in a bog, and the "dry" one always ended in a patch of quicksand or a sinkhole.

Once again he was sweating like a panicked dyheli, and that attracted other denizens of the swamp. Below the water all might be peaceful, but the hertasi could do nothing about the insects above. Darkwind had rubbed himself with pungent weeds to enhance his race's natural resistance to insects, but blackflies still buzzed about his eyes, and several nameless, nearly invisible fliers had already feasted on his arms by the time he reached dry land again.

There was no warning; the ruins simply began, and the marsh ended.

Darkwind suspected that the marsh had once been a large lake, possibly artificial, and the ruins marked a small settlement or trading village, or even a guard post, built on its shore. If whatever cataclysm had created the Plains had not altered the flow of watercourses hereabouts, he would have been very surprised-and after that, it would have been logical for the lake to silt up and become a swamp. He climbed up on the stones at the edge of the swamp, slapping at persistent insects, vowing silently to take the long way around, on his return.

He looked up to make sure of Vree, and found the bondbird soaring overhead, effortlessly, in the cloud-dotted sky.

Not for the first time, he wished for wings of his own.

"And what would you do with them, little one?" asked a humor-filled mind-voice. "How would you hide and creep, and come unseen upon your enemies, hmm?"

"the same way you do, you old myth," he replied. "From above."

"Good answer," replied Treyvan, and the gryphon dove down out of the sun, to land gracefully on a toppled menhir in a thunderous flurry of backwinging, driving up the dust around him and forcing Darkwind to protect his eyes with his hand until the gryphon had alighted.

"Sssso, what brings you to our humble abode?" Treyvan asked genially, somehow managing to do what the tervardi could not , and force human speech from his massive beak.

"I need advice, and maybe help," Darkwind told him, feeling as small as the hertasi as he looked up at the perching gryphon. Those handclaws, for instance, were half again as wide and long as his own strong hands, and their tips were sheathed in talons as sharp and black as obsidian.

Treyvan jumped down from the stone, and his claws clenched and released reflexively as the gryphon changed its position before him, absentmindedly digging inch-deep furrows into the packed earth.

"Advissse we will alwayss have forrr you, featherlessss sson. Advissse you will take? That iss up to you," Treyvan smiled, gold-tinged crest raising a little in mirth. "Help we will alwaysss give if we can, wanted orrr not.

Darkwind smiled, and stepped forward to grasp the leading edge of the great gryphon's folded wing, and leaned in to run a hand through the spicy-scented neck feathers, seemingly unending in their depth.

"Thank you. Where is Hydona?"

"Sssearrrching for nessst-lining, I would guess." Treyvan let a trace of his pride show through, fluffing his chest feathers and raising his tail-tip.

"So soon? When... when will you make the flight?

"Sssoon, sssoon. You will be able to tellll. Treyvan chuckled at Darkwind's blush, then half-closed his eyes, and Darkwind felt the wing-muscles under his hand relax.

It was easy-very easy-to fall under the hypnotic aura of the gryphon, a state of dreamy relaxation brought on by the feel of the soft, silky feathers, the faintly sweet scent, the deep-rumble of Treyvan's faint purr.

It was the gryphon himself who broke the spell.

"You have need of usss, Darrrkwind," he reminded the scout. The muscles in the wing retensed, and he stood, wings tucked to his side under panels of feathers. "Let usss go to Hydonaaa." He turned and paced regally on a path winding deeper into the ruins.

Darkwind had to hurry to keep up with his companion's ground-eating strides.

The gryphons had arrived here, in these ruins, literally out of the sky one day, when Darkwind was seven or eight. He'd claimed these ruins-then, well within the safe boundaries of k'sheyna territory-as his own solitary playground. There was magic here, a half-dozen ley-lines and a node, but the mages had decreed it safe; tame and unlikely to cause any problems. It was a good place to play, and imagine mysteries to be solved, monsters to conquer, magics to learn.

Watching Treyvan's switching tail, he recalled that day vividly.

He had rounded a corner, the Great Mage investigating possibly dangerous territory and about to encounter a Fearsome Monster, when he encountered a real one.

He had literally walked into Treyvan, who had been watching his antics with some amusement, he later learned. All he knew at the time was that he had turned a corner to find himself face-to-face with-Legs.

Very large legs, ending in very, very large claws. His stunned gaze had traveled upward; up the furry legs, to the transition between fur and feathers, to the feather-covered neck, to the beak.

The very, very, very large, sharp, and wickedly hooked beak.

The beak had opened; it seemed as large as a cave.

"Grrr," Treyvan had said.

Darkwind had turned into a small whirlwind of rapidly pumping arms and legs, heading for the safe-haven of the Vale, and certain, with the surety of a terrified eight-year-old, that he was not going to make it.

Somehow he had; somehow he escaped being pounced on and eaten whole. He had burst into the ekele, babbling of monsters, hundreds, thousands of them, in the ruins. Since he had never been known to lie, his mother and father had set up the alarm, and a small army of fighters and mages had descended on a very surprised---and slightly contrite-pair of gryphons.

Fortunately for all concerned, gryphons were on the list of "friendly, though we have never seen one" creatures all Tayledras learned of some time in their teens. Treyvan apologized, and explained that he and Hydona were an advance party, intending to discover if these lands were safe to live and breed in. They offered their help in guarding k'sheyna in return for the use of the ruins as a nesting ground. The Elders had readily agreed; help as large and formidable as the gryphons was never to be disdained. A bargain was struck, and the party returned home.

But all Darkwind knew was that he was huddling in his parent's ekele, his knife clutched in his hand, waiting to find out if the monsters were descending on his home.

Until his parents returned: unbattered, unbloody, perfectly calm.

And when he'd demanded to know what had happened, his father had ruffled his hair, chuckled, and said, "I think you have a new friend-and he wants to apologize for frightening you." Treyvan had apologized, and that had begun the happiest period of his life; when everything was magical and wondrous, and he had a pair of gryphons to play with.

He hadn't realized it at the time, but it hadn't entirely been play.

Treyvan and Hydona had taught him a great deal of what he knew about scouting and fighting, playing "monster" for him as they later would for their fledglings, teaching him all about dangers he had not yet seen and how to meet them.

Now he knew, though he had not then, that they had chosen the ruins deliberately, for the magic-sources that lay below them. Magic energies were beneficial for gryphon nestlings, giving them an early source of power, for gryphons were mages, too. A different kind of mage than the Tayledras, or other humans; they were instinctive mages, "earth-mages," Hydona said, using the powers about them deftly and subtly for defense and in their mating flights, for without a specific spell, a mating would not be fertile.

That was what Treyvan had meant by "you will know;" when he and Hydona flew to mate for their second clutch, any mage nearby would know very well that a spell with sexual potency was being woven.

The last time they'd risen, he'd been fourteen, and just discovering the wonders of Girls. Fortunately he had been alone, and there had been no Girls within reach...The offspring of that mating were six or seven years old now, fledged, but not flying yet, and still sub-adult.

Pretty little things, he thought to himself, with a chuckle, though the term "little" was relative. They were bigger and stronger than he was.

At fourteen he'd already acquired Vree, and the appearance of the gryphlets hadn't appalled him the way it might have. Vree had looked much scrawnier and-well-awful, right out of the egg. Lytha and Jerven were born alive, and with a reasonable set of fluff-feathers and fur-and Treyvan hadn't let him see them until their second or third day, when their eyes were open and they didn't look quite so unfinished.

The gryphons' nest was very like an ekele, but on the ground, presumably to keep the flightless gryphlets from breaking their necks. The pair had created quite an impressive shelter from stone blocks, cleverly woven vegetation, and carefully fitted logs.

As Darkwind neared it, he realized that it was bigger than it had been; it wasn't until he got close enough to measure it by eye that the difference was apparent. From without it looked almost like a tent made of stone and thatch, with a roof quite thick enough to keep out any kind of weather; it looked very much as if the gryphons had dismantled and rebuilt it, keeping the same shape with an increase in size.

He glanced in the door as Treyvan turned, a look of proprietary pride on his expressive face. Obviously he was waiting for a compliment. Inside, there were three chambers now, instead of the two Darkwind remembered; the fledglings', the adults', and a barren one, which would probably be the new nursery. The other two were basically large nests, piled deep with fragrant grasses that the pair had gathered down on the Plain, and changed periodically.

Treyvan's neck curved gracefully, and he faced his human friend eye to golden eye. "Well?" he demanded. "Whaaat do you think?"

"I think it's magnificent," Darkwind replied warmly-which was all he had time for, as the gryphlets heard and recognized his voice, and came tumbling out of their chamber in a ball of squealing fur-and feathers.

Darkwind was their favorite playmate-or plaything, sometimes he wasn't entirely certain which. But he'd used Treyvan and his mate the same way as a child, so turnabout only seemed fair.

Mostly... they tried to be careful, but they didn't always know their own strength-and they were very young. Sometimes they forgot just how long and sharp their claws and beaks were.

They hit him together, Lytha high, Jerven low, and brought him down, both shrieking in the high-pitched whistles that served the gryphons for howls of laughter.

Darkwind tried not to wince, but those whistles were enough to pierce his eardrums. I'll be glad when their voices deepen. Human children are shrill enough as it is..

Lytha grabbed the front of his tunic in her beak and "worried" it; Jerven "gnawed" his ankle. He struggled; at least they were big enough now that he didn't have to watch what he did; he could fight against them in earnest and not hurt them, provided he didn't indulge in any real, ~g blows. They seemed to have improved in their "playing" since the last time; he'd needed a new tunic when jerven got through with him. Treyvan watched them maul him indulgently for a moment, then waded in, gently separating his offspring from his friend, batting at them so that they rolled into the far corners of the chamber, shrieking happily.

Darkwind did wince.

Treyvan whistled something at them; they bounced to their feet and bounded out the door. Darkwind still wasn't fluent in Gryphon, it was a very tonal language, and hard to master; but he thought it was probably the equivalent of "Go play, Darkwind needs to talk to Mother and Father about things that will bore you to sleep." Treyvan shook his head, then turned, and settled himself into a graceful reclining curve, with his serrated, meat-rending bill even with Darkwind's chin, bare inches away, gazing into the human's face. "Your indulgenssss, old friend. They aaare veeeery young."

"I know," he replied, picking himself up off the floor, and dusting himself off. "I distinctly remember doing the same thing to you." Treyvan's beak opened in a silent laugh. "Aaaah, but I wassss ssstill thissss ssssize, and you were much ssssmaller, yesss? The damagesss were much lessss."

"I think I'll survive them," Darkwind responded. "And I owe you both for more than just being gracious about playing 'monster' for me." Treyvan shook his head. "Weee do not think of sssssuch," he said immediately. "Thissss issss what friendssss do." Darkwind remained stubbornly silent for a moment. "Whether or not you think of it, I do," he said. "You two helped me cope with Mother's death; you've been mother and father to me since. It's not something I can forget." The memory was still painful, but he thought it was healing. It certainly wouldn't have without their help.

"Sssstill," Treyvan objected. "You are uncle to the little onesss. At consssiderable perssonal damage." He shrugged. "To quote your own words," he replied wryly," 'that's what friends do." I think they're well worth indulging. So, you've obviously enlarged the nest-and it's wonderful, the new chamber doesn't look tacked-on, it looks like it was built with the original. What else are you planning to do?"

"We thought, perhapsssss, a chamber for the younglingssss to play in foul weather-" They discussed further improvements for a moment until a shadow passed over Darkwind, and he looked up at the sound of his name whistled in Gryphon-Then once again, he had to protect his eyes, as Hydona, Treyvan's mate, landed in the clearing before the nest, driving up a stronger wind with her wings than Treyvan had.

Darkwind rose to his feet to greet her. She was larger than Treyvan, and her dusty-brown coloration was a muted copy of his golden-brown feathers. There was more gray in her markings, and less black. Her eyes were the same warm, lovely gold as Treyvan's, though, and she was just as pleased to see him as her mate had been.

She nuzzled him and gripped a shoulder gently, purring loud enough to vibrate his very bones. He buried his hands in her neck-feathers and scratched the place at the back of her neck she could never reach herself; the most intimate caress possible to a gryphon, short of mating behavior.

She and Treyvan had been extraordinarily open with him, especially after the death of his mother, allowing him glimpses of their personal life that most humans were never allowed to see. They were, all in all, quite private creatures; of all the Tayledras, only Darkwind was considered an intimate friend. They had not even allowed Dawnfire, who was possibly the best of all the k'sheyna at dealing with nonhumans, to come that close to them.

"Ssssso," Hydona sighed, after a long and luxurious scratch. "Thisss is your patrol time-it musst be busssinesss that bringsss you. And bussinesss isss ssseriousss. How can we help?" Darkwind looked into her brilliant, deep eyes. "I want to ask advice, and maybe some favors," he said. "I seem to have acquired a problem." Hydona's ear-tufts perked up. "Acquired a problem? Interesssting word choicssse. Ssssay on." He chose a comfortable rock, as she curled up beside her mate.

"Well," he began. "It happened this way.

*Chapter Nine ELSPETH

Master Quenten reread the message from his old employer, Captain Kerowyn. Herald Captain Kerowyn, he was going to have to remember that. Not that the new title seemed to have changed her much.

"Quenten, I have a job for you, and a sizable retainer enclosed to make you go along with it. Important Personage coming your way; keep said Personage from notice if possible; official and sensitive business.

Will have one escort along, but is capable of taking care of self in a fight. Personage needs either a mage-for-hire, a damn good one, or training.

Or both. Use your own judgment, pass Personage on to Uncle if you have to. Thank you for your help. Write if you find a real job.

Kerowyn." He smiled at the joke; no, Kerowyn hadn't changed, even since becoming one of the white-clad targets for the Queen of Valdemar-although Quenten also had no doubts that she refused to wear the white uniform without a royal decree. Quenten thanked the courier for the message, and offered him the hospitality of the Post for his recovery-stay.

It was graciously accepted, and the young man-one of King Faram's squires-offered to share gossip of the Rethwellan Court with him in return come dinner.

And people wonder how we get our information. the squire was an affable youngster, fresh from the hill district, with the back-country burr still strong in his speech. He made Quenten quite nostalgic for the old days with the Skybolts; a good half of them came out of the hill district facing Karse, with their tough little ponies and all their worldly goods in a saddle-pack up behind them. What they lacked in ~ons, they tended to make up for in marksmanship, tracking, and a tough-minded approach to life; something Kero had called "Attitude." He had all of that, with a veneer of gentility that told Quenten he was from one of the noble families that hung on there, after fighting their way to the local high seat and holding it by craft, guile, and sheer, stubborn resilience. His eyes went round at Quenten's pair of magelights over the table, though he never said a word about them. He knew how to use the eating utensils though, which was more than Kero's hill lasses and lads generally did. He'd gotten that much out of civilization.

But because he was so new to Court, he couldn't tell Quenten what the mage really wanted to know-just who and what this Personage was.

"There's two of 'em, about a day behind me, I'd reckon," the young man said around a mouthful of Quenten's favorite egg-and-cheese pie.

"One man, one girl, done up all in white, with white horses. Fast, they are, the horses I mean. I say about a day 'cause I started out a week ahead, but I reckon they've made it up by now, that's how fast them horses are." Well, "done up all in white" in connection with the note from Kero meant they were Heralds out of Valdemar, but what Heralds could possibly want with a mage was beyond him. He recalled quite vividly his encounter with Valdemar's Border-protections. He didn't think they'd be able to pay any mage enough to put up with that.

Still, that wasn't for him to say; maybe there was a way around it.

He'd have to wait and see.

But who were these Heralds? They'd have to be important for Kero to exert herself on their behalf-and equally important for King Faram to have sent one of his own squires on ahead with Kero's message to warn him that they were coming.

He put that question to the youngster over dessert, when the squire had sipped just enough of Quenten's potent, sweet wine to be a little indiscreet.

Ehrris-wine does it every time.

The young man rolled his wide blue eyes. "Well as to that," he replied," No one's said for sure. But the young lady, I think she must be related. I overheard her call His Majesty"Uncle," when the King gave me the packet and instructions just before I left. I reckon she's Daren's get, though I'd never heard of her before." Daren's child? Quenten snorted to himself with amusement. And a Herald of Valdemar? Not unless the twins are aging a year for every month since they've been born. But Selenay's oldest child, now that's a possibility, though I wouldn't have thought they'd let her out of the city, much less the Kingdom. Interesting. Something must be going on in that war with Hardorn that I don't know about. I'd thought it was back to staring at each other across the Border.

He sat back in his chair while the young man rattled on, and sipped his own wine. Suddenly the stakes were not just Kero asking a favor; not with a princess riding through Rethwellan incognito, looking for mages to hire. This had all the flavor of an intrigue with the backing of the Valdemaran Crown, and it promised both danger and the possibility of rapid and high advancement. Quenten had a good many pupils that would find those prospects attractive enough to chance the protections keeping mages out. Maybe they even found a way to cancel them. that might be why they're finally coming down here now.

In fact-now that Quenten was Master-Class, and could be a low-level Adept if he ever bothered to take the test-it was possible that it was attractive enough to interest him. It might be worth trying to find a way around those "watchers," whatever they were, if they hadn't been countered already.

Court Mage of Valdemar... For a moment visions of fame and fortune danced in his head. Then he recalled why he wasn't a Court Mage now-the competition, the rivalry, and above all, the restrictions on what he could and could not do or say. He'd been offered the position and more than once. So had Jendar, as far as that went. Both of them had preferred to help friends to the post-friends who would tell them what was going on-and keep up casual ties with the rulers of the time. Sometimes a King preferred to go outside his Court for advice... to a mage, say, with no other (obvious) axes to grind.

He laughed at himself, then, and bent his attention to the amusing stories the young squire brought from Court. And remembered what he had once told Kero.

If I have to choose between freedom to do what's right, and a comfortable High Court position, I'll take the freedom.

She had shrugged, but her smile told him that she tacitly agreed with him. Which was probably why she was making a target of herself in Valdemar right now.

We're both fools, he thought, and chuckled. The squire, who thought the mage was chuckling at one of his jokes, glowed appreciatively.

Quenten used the same office and suite of rooms that the Captain had, back when Bolthaven was the Skybolts' winter quarters, and not a mage-school.

Placed high up in a multistory tower that overlooked most of the town as well as the former fortress, he had a clear view of the main gate and the road leading to it, the exercise yard, and most of the buildings.

Kero might not recognize the place at first sight anymore; the exercise yard had been planted and sodded, and turned into a garden, he'd had trees and bushes brought in and scattered about to provide shade, and most of the buildings had been refaced with brick. The barracks were a dormitory now, and looked it, with clothing drying on the sws, food or drink placed there to cool, kites flying from the rooftop, and youngsters sitting or hanging out of most of the windows. The main stable was a workshop, where anything that was likely to blow the place up could be practiced in relative safety. Only the smaller visitors' stable remained to house the few horses Bolthaven needed. While he kept the stockade, as a means of defining boundaries beyond which the students were not permitted without permission, the place didn't look like a fortress anymore, it looked like what it was; a school. And not just any school; the largest White Winds school in Rethwellan. The only one that was larger was the school Kethry had attended, in Jkatha. Her son jendar, Quenten's teacher, had founded a school near Petras, the capital of Rethwellan, in a little town called Great Harsey, but it had never been this large. then again, mage-schools can be dangerous for the innocent townsfolk. Sometimes things get a little out of hand. Townsfolk can get downright touchy over the occasional earth-elemental in the scullery. Can't imagine why...That hadn't been a problem for Quenten. The town of Bolthaven had been built around the garrison, the folk here depended on it for their custom. They'd been relieved to learn that there would still be custom here, and most of them had been able to turn their trades to suit young mages instead of young mercs. And, all told, an earth-elemental in the scullery did less damage-and was less of a hazard to the problematical virtue of the help-than any drunken merc bent on celebration.

The worst that ever came up from Bolthaven now was an urgent call for one of the teachers, followed by a polite bill for damages.

Quenten's desk was right beside the window; a necessity, since he spent very little time in doing paperwork-that's what he had clerks for-and a great deal of time in overseeing the pupils and classes. Some of that "overseeing" was conducted from his desk-an advantage mages had over mercenary captains. He could "look in" on virtually anything he chose, at any time, simply by exercising a little of the power that came with the rank of Master mage. just now he was keeping an eye on the road, in between considering the proposed theses of four would-be journeymen. The messenger had departed early this morning; since then, he'd been waiting for the Personage.

Not with impatience-a mage soon learned the futility of impatiencebut with growing curiosity.

He wasn't certain what to expect, really. On rereading the note, he saw that Kero had said that he should give this girl training, something he hadn't taken a great deal of notice of the first time around. Now that was interesting- Kero herself was not a mage, but she had somehow managed to spot potential mages in the past and send them to either him or her uncle. Had she seen something in this girl?

Or was it simply something the girl herself wanted? Had she absorbed tales of what Kero's mages had done until she had convinced herself that she, too, could become a mage?

Well, that was possible, but not without the Talent for it. Unless you could See and manipulate the energies mages used, she could fret herself blue without getting anywhere.

Even those who followed the blood-paths had at least a little of the Talent. There were varying degrees in what mages could do, too. Not only did the strength of the Talent vary-thus dictating how much energy a mage could handle-but the kind of Talent varied-thus dictating the kind of energy he could handle. Some never became more than earth-mages and hedge-wizards, using their own life-energies to sense what was going on in the world around them, augmenting the natural attributes of plants and animals to serve them, and Healing. Not that there was anything wrong with that; Quenten himself had seen some very impressive merc work done by hedge-wizards with a firm grasp of their abilities and a determination to make the most of them. The tiniest change at the right moment can down a king... or an army.

But he rather doubted that being told she would never be anything other than a hedge-wizard would satisfy a headstrong princess. Nor would being told she could not be any kind of a mage at all.

He was prepared for just about anything, or so he told himself; from a spoiled brat who thought a white uniform and a coronet entitled her to anything she wanted, to a naive child with no Mage-Talent whatsoever, but many dreams, to someone very like some of his older pupils-That would be the best scenario in many ways, to have her turn out to be teachable; with Mage-Talent present, but unused, so that he could give her what she wanted, but would not have to force her to unlearn bad habits. Theoretically, the discipline required by the Heralds' mindmagic would carry over, and give her a head start over Talented youngsters who had yet to learn the value of discipline.

A flash of white on the road just below the gate alerted him, and he paused for a moment to key in his Mage-Sight. That, in particular, had improved out of all recognition since the joining the Skybolts and his elevation to Master-class. If this child had any ability at all, he would be able to See it, even from the tower. Then he would know what to tell her if she asked for training. And he'd have some time to think about just how he was going to phrase it, be it good news, or bad.

Two dazzlingly white-clad riders on pure white horses entered the main gate and paused for a moment in the yard beyond before dismounting.

And that was when Quenten got one of the greatest shocks of his life.

Whatever he had been expecting-it wasn't what he Saw.

The ordinary young woman with the graceful white horse was-not ordinary at all. She was the bearer of an untrained, but major Mage-Gift; one so powerful it sheathed her in a closely-wrapped, sparkling aura in his Mage-Sight, that briefly touched everyone around her with exploratory fingers she was apparently unaware of. Quenten was astonished, and surprised she hadn't caused problems with it before this.

Surely she must have Seen power-flows, energy-levels, even the nodes that he could See, but could not use. Surely she had wondered what they were, and how could she not have been tempted to try and manipulate them? Then he recalled something; these Heralds, one and all, had mindmagic and were trained in it. If they didn't know what Mage-Talent was-it could, possibly, be mistaken for something like Sight. And if she was told that this was just another way of viewing things, that she could not actually affect them, she might not have caused any trouble. they have no idea how close they came. If she had ever been tempted to touch something...

That was not the end of the surprises. She was carrying at her side something that radiated such power that it almost eclipsed her-and only long familiarity with Kero's sword enabled him to recognize it as Need.

The sword had changed; had awakened somehow, and it was totally transformed from the relatively simple blade he had dealt with. Now there was no doubt whatsoever that it was a major magical artifact-and it radiated controlled power that rivaled the Adepts he knew.

It's a good thing I never tried mucking around with it when it was like this. It probably would have swatted me like a fly.

He wondered how he could have missed it when they were riding in; it must have been like a beacon. And how the mages at Faram's Court could have missed it-he had his answer, as it simply-stopped what it was doing. It went back to being the simple sword he had known; magical, yes, if you looked at it closely enough, but you had to look very closely and know what you were looking for.

Did it put on that show for my benefit? he wondered. Somehow that idea was a little chilling. No one he knew could detect Mage-Sight in action; it was a passive spell, not an active one.

No one he knew. That didn't mean it couldn't be done. That notion was even more awe-inspiring than the display of power had been. Need was old; perhaps the ancient ways of magic it was made with harbored spells he couldn't even dream of.

The creature she was riding-not a horse at all, even if it chose to appear as one-rivaled both the young woman and the sword, but in a way few would have recognized. The aura enveloping it was congruent with the creature's skin, as if controlled power was actually shining through the skin. Which was very much the case... Although few mages would have known it for what it was, Quenten recognized it as a Guardian Spirit of the highest order. And from the colors of its aura, it was superior even to the Ethereal Spirits he had once, very briefly, had conversation with when some of the Shin'a'in relatives came to Bolthaven for the annual horse-fair-the ones Kero's other uncle called " spirit-Kal'enedral," that served the Shin'a'in Goddess. The "veiled ones," shaman Kra'heera had called them; the unspoken implication being that only the spirit- Kal'enedral went veiled. They were to this "horse" what an eating knife is to a perfectly balanced rapier.

One blow after another, all within a heartbeat. He practically swallowed his tongue with shock and dropped his arms numbly to his sides.

For a moment, he felt like an apprentice again, faced with his Master, and the vision of what that Master had become after years and years of work in developing his Talent to its highest pinnacle placed before him.

All that power-all that potential-and he hadn't the slightest idea what to do with it.

His mind completely froze for a moment as he stared at her. I can't take her on! his thoughts babbled in panic. One slip-and she wouldn't just blow up the workshop, she could-she could-and that Guardian-and the sword-and-and-Only years of self-discipline, combined with more years of learning to think on his feet with the Skybolts, enabled him to get his mind working again so that he could stop reacting and start acting like a mage and a competent Master, instead of a dumbfounded apprentice.

And the first thing he did was to turn away from the window. With her out of his sight and Sight, he was able to take a deep breath, run his hand through his sweat-damp hair, and think. Quickly. He had to come up with an answer and a solution.

One thing was certain; it wasn't a question of whether she could be trained or not; she had to be trained. One day, she might be tempted to try to manipulate some of the energies she could sense all around her, and then-No telling what would happen. Depends on what she touched, and how hard she pulled.

It could be even worse if she were in a desperate situation and she simply reacted instinctively, trying to save herself or others. With the thrust of fear driving her-Gods.

And the very first thing we are taught is never, ever, act in fear or anger.

She would be easy prey for anyone who saw her, and wanted to use her. There were blood-path Masters and even Adepts out there who wouldn't hesitate to lure her into their territory with promises of training, and then exploit her ruthlessly, willing or not. Anyone could be broken, and no mage had gotten to the Master level without learning the patience it took to break someone and subvert them, even if it took a year or more.

No, she had to be trained. Now the question was, by whom?

Kero said if I couldn't handle her to send her on to old Jendar, her uncle.

He's an Adept; hellfires, he taught me, he ought to be able to handle anyone.

He can deal with her. I don't have to.

That burden off his hands, he sighed and relaxed. Gradually the sweat of panic dried, his heart went back to its sedate pace, his muscles unknotted. The problem was solved, but he wasn't going to have to be the one to solve it. He was glad now that he'd delegated one of the teachers-a very discreet young lady, who was, bless the gods, an Herbalist-Healer earth-witch with no Mage-Sight worth speaking of-to greet them when they arrived, just in case he suddenly found himself with his hands full.

God only knows what I'd have been like if I'd met them at the gate.

Babbling, Probably. Hardly one to inspire confidence. By the time word reached him that they had arrived, he was back to being the calm, unruffled image of a school-Master, completely in control of everything around him.

"Yes?" he said; the child poked his head inside, cautiously. All the apprentices were cautious when the Master was in his office. Quenten had been known to have odd things loose in the room on occasion, just to keep people from interrupting him. The legend of the constable's scorched backside was told in the dormitory even yet, and that had happened the first year the school had been founded.

"Sir, the people you expected are here. The lady's name's Elspeth, the gen'man is Skif, Eirodie says. If you're able, sir, you should come down, Elrodie says." The child looked the way he must have a few moments ago; it wasn't often an apprentice got to see the inside of the Master's office. Usually he met the youngsters on their own ground, and when he wasn't actually in the office, he kept it mage-locked, for his office also served as his secondary workroom. There were things in here no apprentice should ever get his hands on.

"I'll be right there," he said. The child vanished. He waited a few moments more to be certain his stomach had settled, then turned, and started down the stairs.

By the time he reached the ground, he felt close to normal, and was able to absorb the shock of his visitors' appearance without turning a hair. Outwardly, anyway. The sword was "quiet"-but the girl and her so-called horse weren't.

So long as they don't do anything...

He turned first to greet the young lady, as her companion held back a little, diffidently, confirming his guess that she was much higher-ranked than he was. And given her strong family resemblance to King Faram, she was undoubtedly the "Elspeth" that was Heir to the Valdemar throne. She took after the dark side of the family, rather than the blond, but the resemblance was there beyond a doubt.

To all outward appearances, she was no different than any other young, well-born woman of his acquaintance. Wavy brown hair was confined in a braid that trailed down her back, though bits of it escaped to form little tendrils at her ears. Her square face was not beautiful or even conventionally pretty and doll-like-it was a face that was so full of character and personality that beauty would have been superfluous and mere "prettiness" eclipsed. Like Kero, she was handsome and vividly alive. Her brown eyes sparkled when she talked; her generous mouth smiled often. If he hadn't had Mage-Sight, he would have guessed that she had Mage-Talent in abundance; she had that kind of energy about her.

She'd studied her Rethwellan; that was evident from her lack of accent." I am very glad to meet you at last," she said, when she'd been introduced. "I'm Kero's problem child, Master Quenten. She's told me a lot about you, and since she's a pretty rotten correspondent, I guess you're rather in the dark about me." Her smile widened. "I know what her letters are like. The last time she was with the Skybolts, there was a flood that got half the town, and all she wrote was,"It's a little wet here, be back when I can."

" He chuckled. "Well, she neglected to supply me with your name and she kept calling you a Personage. I expect that was for reasons of security?

You are the Elspeth I think you are-the one with a mother named Selenay?" Elspeth nodded, and made a face." I'm afraid so. That was part of what I meant by being a problem child. Sorry; can't help who my parents are. Born into it. Oh, this is Skif; he's also assigned to this job."

" By which she's tactfully saying that my chief duty is to play bodyguard," Skif said, holding out his hand. Quenten released his Mage-Sight just a little, and breathed a silent sigh of relief. This young man was perfectly ordinary. No Magical Artifacts, no Adept-Potential.

Except that he was also riding a Guardian Spirit. Not as exalted a Spirit as the girl's, but-The mare turned, looked him straight in the eye, and gave him a broad and unmistakable wink.

He stifled a gasp, felt the blood drain from his face, then plastered a pleasant smile on his lips, and managed not to stammer. "Since there is only one Elspeth with a mother by that name that I know of-that Kero would have been so secretive about-I can understand why you are in that role," he said. "It's necessary."

"I know it is," they both said, and laughed. Quenten noted that they both had hearty, unforced laughs, the laughter of people who did not fear a joke.

Elspeth made a face, and Skif shrugged. "We know it's necessary," Skif replied for both of them. "But that doesn't mean Elspeth much likes it." Quenten had not missed the sword calluses on her hands, and the easy way she wore her blade. She had the muscles of a practiced fighter, too, though she didn't have the toughened, hard-eyed look the female mercs had after their first year in the ranks.

He coughed politely. "Kero did, at least, tell me what brings you here, and I have to be honest with you. I wish I could help you, but I can't. None of my teachers are interested in anything but teaching, and none of the youngsters ready to go out as journeymen are up to trying to cross your borders and dealing with the magical guards of that border.

I assume you know about that; I couldn't pass it when Kero first took the Skybolts north, and I don't know that I could now that I'm a more practiced Master with years in the rank." Elspeth's face fell; Skif simply looked resigned.

"What about you teaching us?" she asked-almost wistfully. "I mean, I don't suppose either of us are teachable, are we?" Do I tell her right now? He thought about that quickly; well, it couldn't do any harm to tell her a little about her abilities right off. It might make her a little more cautious. "I'm afraid Skif isn't-but, young lady-you are potentially a very good mage. Your potential is so high, in fact, that I simply don't feel up to teaching you myself And you have to be taught, there is absolutely no doubt about that." Her face was a study in contradictory emotions; surprise warred with disappointment, elation with-was it fear? He hoped so; she would do well to fear that kind of power.

"I don't have the time," he said truthfully. "You're coming to the teaching late in your life, and as strong as you could be-well, it will require very personal teaching. One to one, in fact, with someone who will be able to deal with your mistakes. And I can't do it; it would take time away from the students I've already promised to teach. That wouldn't be fair to them. And I gather that you're under some time considerations?" Both of them nodded, and Elspeth's "horse" snorted, as if in agreement.

Dearest gods, it's looking at me the way old Jendar used to when I wasn't up to doing a particular task and said so. Like it's telling me, "at least you know when not to be stupid." it It wouldn't be fair to you to give you less attention than you need, especially given that." Her shoulders sagged, and her expression turned bleak. "So I've come on a fool's errand, then?"

"Not at all," he hastened to assure her. "What I can and will do is send you on to my old master, Kero's uncle, Adept jendar. He's no longer teaching in his school-he will, on occasion take on a very talented pupil like yourself. But without my directions, introduction, and safe-conduct, you'd never find him. He's very reclusive."

"I don't suppose we could get him to come back with us, could we?

Skif asked hopefully. "That would solve all our problems." Quenten shrugged. "I don't know; he's very old, but on the other hand, magic tends to preserve mages. I haven't seen him in years and he may still be just as active as he always was. He's certainly my superior in ability and knowledge, he's just as canny and hard to predict as Kero, and I won't even attempt to second-guess him. The best I can offer is, ask him yourself." Skif looked a great deal more cheerful. "Thanks, Master Quenten, we will." Quenten felt as if a tremendous burden had just been lifted from his shoulders. there's nothing quite like being able to legitimately pass the responsibility, he thought wryly. And, feeling a good deal more cheerful himself, he told both of them, "Even if I can't offer you the dubious benefits of my teaching, I can still offer the hospitality of the school.

You will stay for at least the night, won't you? I'd love to hear what Kero's been up to lately. You're right, by the way," he concluded, turning with a smile for Elspeth, "She's a terrible correspondent. Her letter about you was less than half a page; the letter I'm going to give you for Jendar is going to be at least five pages long, and I don't even know you that well!" The young woman chuckled, and gave him a wink that was the mirror image of the one Skifs spirit-horse had given him. He racked his brain for the right name for them-Comrades? No, Companions that was it.

I can even offer something in the way of suitable housing for yourahfriends," he said, bowing a little in their direction. "Your"Companions," I believe you call them. I don't know what kind of treatment they're accustomed to at home, but I can at least arrange something civilized." Elspeth looked surprised at that; but the Companions themselves looked gratified. Like queens in exile, who had discovered that someone, at last, was going to give them their proper due.

"We have two loose-boxes, with their own little paddock, and you can fix the latch-string on the inside, so that they can open and shut it themselves," he said, hastily, trying to look as if he had visits from Guardian Spirits all the time. "Kero always had Shin'a'in warsteeds, you know, and they needed that kind of treatment; they aren't Companions, of course, but they're a great deal more intelligent than horses."

"That's lovely," Elspeth said as he fell silent, her gratitude quite genuine. "That really is. I can't tell you how hard it is even in Valdemar to find someone who doesn't think they're just horses."

"oh, no, my lady," he replied fervently, convinced by the lurking humor in both sets of blue eyes that the Companions found him and his reactions to them very amusing. "oh, no-I promise you-I know only too well that they aren't horses." And you don't know the half of it, friend," whispered a voice in his mind.

For a moment he wasn't certain he'd actually heard that-then the light of amusement in the nearest one's eyes convinced him that he had.

I think I should ignore that. If they wanted me to treat them like heavenly visitors, they wouldn't look like horses, would they? Or would they? Do the Heralds know what they are? If they don't-no, I don't think I'd better tell them. If the Companions want them to know, they'll know. If not-no, it would not be a good idea to go against the wishes of a Guardian Spirit, in fact, it would be a very stupid idea-He realized that he was babbling to himself now, and decided to delegate the tour of the stables and school to someone else. He was going to need a chance to relax before he dealt with these two again.

Dinner, held without being under those disturbing blue eyes, was far easier. They exclaimed over his mage-lights, and over the tame little fire-elemental that kept the ham and bread warm, and melted their cheese for them if they chose. They marveled at a few of his other little luxuries, like the stoves instead of fireplaces, which kept his quarters much warmer in winter, even without the aid of more fire-elementals. He exchanged stories with them of what he knew of Kero, and Faram and Daren, from the old days with the Skybolts, and what Kero was up to now, at least, as a Herald. He actually got quite a bit of useful Court gossip from her; she knew what to look and listen for.

But he got even more from Skif, who evidently didn't miss anything. that young man bore watching; he reminded Quenten of another one of the Shin'a'in, one he knew was trained as an assassin, who'd been one of the Skybolts' specialist instructors for a while-an instructor in techniques he knew, without being told, that he didn't want to know anything about.

There was a great deal more to Skif than met the eye. Quenten had the feeling that he was not only very resourceful, he could probably be quite dangerous. He also had the feeling that Skif's presence had a great deal to do with the reason why Elspeth hadn't been bothered by mages eager to use her before this.

Elspeth was, he discovered, an extremely well-spoken young lady, but in many ways she was still a girl.

She knew how she was treated inside Valdemar, and how her rank worked within that Kingdom, but had very little notion of how knowledge of her rank would affect people, for good or ill, outside it-or how they could and would exploit her, given the chance.

"You see," Skif said, after he'd explained some of the ways in which she would have to be careful around local nobility. "I told you it was complicated down here." She made a face, and the mage-light picked up golden glints in her eyes as she turned toward her partner. "You told me a lot of things, and some of them I was right about." Quenten intervened. "It's not her fault, Skif; she's always dealt with very highly-ranked nobles. It's the local lordlings you have to be really careful with around here. I'd say that half of them were never born to their titles-or at least, weren't the first sons. They didn't get where they are now by being nice, and most of them want to climb a lot higher before they die. You can't even count on blood relations to be honest with you. Well, take Kero's brother, for instance. He's all right, but the Lady Dierna is pretty much an information-siphon for her relatives. And there are a couple of them that none of us trust, not even the King. Go to Lordan and within half a day every one of Dierna's relatives will know that something brought Heralds down out of Valdemar. Let Lordan know who and what you are, and I personally wouldn't vouch for your safety once you got off his lands. Ransom is too tempting a prospect."

"Huh," was Skif's only comment. He reached for another piece of smoked ham, thoughtfully. There were odd markings on his hands; old scars that looked like they might have been left by knife fights.

Interesting, Quenten thought. A strange sort of partner for a princess. For Skif was a partner and not "just a bodyguard;" the body-language of both of them said that. More than a partner, a ~, maybe? That seemed likely at first-Then again, maybe not. They were both Heralds, and the little he'd managed to pry out of Kero on the subject indicated that Heralds had an even closer brotherhood than the tightest merc company. Emotionally, sexually, whether the two were lovers didn't bear any thought after that; they were Heralds, and that was a good enough answer for Quenten.

Even if you were left alone, they'd find a way to use your presence," he continued. "Believe me, the more you act like common folk, the better off you are." He waited for understanding to dawn, then said, patiently but forcefully, "Get out of the white outfits." Skif snickered; Elspeth simply looked bewildered.

"Look, common people don't ride around in immaculate white outfits.

The horses are bad enough, add the uniforms, and you might as well hire barkers to announce you in every little village. I'll get you some clothes before you leave; save the white stuff for when you need to impress someone. Your simple presence as someone's guest could lend weight to some quarrel they have that you know nothing about." And I wish there was a way to dye the Companions, too, but I'm afraid the amount of magic energy they have simply by being on this plane is going to bleach them again before they get half a day down the road. that's assuming dye would take, which I wouldn't bet on.

Elspeth sighed, and finally nodded a reluctant agreement. "Damn.

Being able to pull rank on someone who was being stupid would have been awfully useful. All right. You know more about the way things are around here than we do."

"That's why he's got Bolthaven as a freehold of the King," Skif put in unexpectedly. "As long as it's a freehold, none of the locals can try and bully each other by claiming he's with them." He turned to Quenten, gesturing with a piece of cheese. "Am I right?"

"Exactly," he replied, pleased with Skif's understanding. "Not that anyone who knew anything about magic would ever suspect a White Winds school of being on anyone's side. We don't do things that way." Skif grinned crookedly. "I kind of got the impression from Kero that YOU folks were the closest thing there was to Heralds down here."

"oh," he replied lightly, trying to keep away from that subject. The brotherhood of the White Winds mages wasn't something he wanted to confide to an outsider. There were things about White Winds people that weren't shared by any other mage-school, and they wanted to keep it that way. "We aren't that close."

"I'll second that," whispered that voice in his mind. He started involuntarily.

So what exactly are these 'mage-schools," anyway?" Skif persisted, showing no notice of his momentary startlement. "I mean, some of you are real schools, and some of you seem to be philosophies, if you catch my meaning."

"We're-both," he replied, wondering who, or what, had spoken.

Surely not the Companions? Surely he would have detected them "listening in" on the conversation. Wouldn't he?

"Each method of teaching is a philosophy," he continued, mind alert for other intrusions. "We differ in how we use our magic and how we are willing to obtain power." How much should he tell them, and how much should he leave in Jendar's hands?

Better stick to the basics. "White Winds takes nothing without permission, and we try to do the least amount of harm we can. We also think that since Mage-Talent is an accident of birth, we have the obligation to use it for the sake of those who were never born with it." Then he grinned. "But there's no reason why a mage can't make a living at the same time, so long as he doesn't knowingly use his powers to abet repression or aid others who abuse their powers. But that's why you don't find many White Winds mages working with mercenary companies.

When you're a merc, you can't guarantee that you're going to be working for the right side."

"At least we don't have to worry about that," Elspeth said. Skif simply raised an eyebrow-and Quenten had the distinct feeling that Skif was debating how much to tell him.

"I assume you've heard of blood-path mages?" he asked, and was surprised when Skif shook his head. "oh. Hellfire, I guess I had better tell you, then. They're mages who take their power from others." He waited expectantly, for them to make the connection, then added, a little impatiently, "By killing them. Usually painfully. And by breaking and using them, if they have the time to spare." Elspeth's eyes widened. "That's what Ancar is doing-or at least, that's what some of the people who've escaped from Hardorn say he and his mages are doing. I didn't know there was a name for them." Skif scowled. "So, which school teaches people to do that?" he asked, growling a little.

Quenten shrugged. "There are schools, but the moment anyone finds out about them, they're destroyed. If the mages haven't scattered first, which is what usually happens. No sane ruler wants that on his soil. But to tell you the truth, that kind of magic usually isn't taught in a school, it's usually one-to-one. A blood-path mage who decides to take an apprentice just goes looking for one. They try to find people who have potential but are untrained."

"And can't tell one mage from another?" Skif asked, with a hard look at him. Quenten nodded; Skif had already seen what he was driving at.

"Sometimes; sometimes they look for someone who is impatient, who is power-hungry and ruthless. That's the kind that usually rebels-eventually; has a confrontation with his master, and either dies, wins, or has a draw that both walk away from. And that is how they reproduce themselves, basically." Quenten did not mention what happened in the first example; he decided, all things considered, it was better to wait until Elspeth was gone.

"Now, there's one thing I have to warn you about, and it's back to the same old story of 'you aren't in Valdemar anymore." For every rule there's an exception-and this is the one to blood-magic. There are perfectly good people that practice a couple of forms of magic that require a blood-sacrifice. The Shin'a'in shamans, for one. Sometimes they spill their own blood, just a little, because any spillage of blood releases a lot of power. And in times of a very dire problem, a shaman or Swordsworn may actually volunteer as a sacrifice, as a kind of messenger to their Goddess that things are very bad, they need help, and they are willing to give up a lot to get it." Elspeth's eyes got very wide at that. "You're joking-" Quenten shook his head. "I am not joking. It's very serious for them.

It hasn't happened in the last three or four generations-and the last time it did, the Plains were in the middle of a drought that had dried even the springs. People and herds were dying. One of the shamans threw himself off the top of the cliffs that ring the Plains. Right down onto an altar he'd set up down there."

"And?" Skif asked.

"And the drought ended. They say that he roams the skies of the Plains as a spirit-bird now. Some even say he transformed as he fell, that he never actually hit the ground." It was Quenten's turn to shrug. "I'm not their Goddess, it's not my place to make decisions. What's better; answer every little yelp for help, or make people prove they need it?"

"I don't know," Skif admitted. Elspeth just bit her lip and looked distressed. "But I can see what you mean; we really aren't home, are we?

"There's a lot of gray out here, and precious little black and white," Quenten replied with a hint of a smile. "The Shin'a'in aren't the only odd ones, either. There're the Hawkbrothers, what the Shin'a'in call Tale'edras. Nobody except the Shin'a'in shamans knows anything about them, mostly because they tend to kill anybody that ventures into their territories." Skif scrutinized him closely for a moment. "If you're waiting for a gasp of horror, Master Quenten, you aren't going to get one. There's a reason you told us this, and it has to do with the situation not being black and white. So? Why do they kill people who walk across their little boundary lines?" Quenten chuckled. "Caught me, didn't you? All right, there's a reason that I think is a perfectly good one-and to be honest, they will try and turn you back; it's only if you persist that they'll kill you. The Shin'a'in say that they are the guardians of very destructive magics, that they 'purify' a place of these magics, then move on. And that they kill persistent intruders so that those intruders can't get their hands on that magic. Seems like a good reason to me." Skif nodded. "Any evidence to support this?" Quenten raised an eyebrow. "Well, their territories are all in the Pelagirs, and there are more weird, twisted, and just plain evil things in there than you could ever imagine. And they do periodically vanish from a place and never come back, and once they're gone, anybody that moves in never has trouble from the oddling things again. So? Your guess is just as valid as mine. I'd believe the Shin'a'in, personally." Skif's eyes were thoughtful, but he didn't say anything. Elspeth stifled a yawn at that moment, and looked apologetic.

"It isn't the stories, or the company, Master Quenten," she said ruefully." It's the long ride and the wonderful meal. We started before dawn, and we got here just before sunset. That's a long day in the saddle; Skif's used to it, but I'm a lot softer, I'm afraid."

"Well, I can't blame you for that," Quenten chuckled. "The truth is, I'm not up to a day in the saddle myself, anymore. Why don't you find that bed I showed you? I was thinking of calling it a night, myself."

"Thanks," she said, and finished the last of the wine in her glass, then pushed herself away from the table. She gave Skif an opaque look but didn't say anything.

"Good night, then," Quenten supplied. "I'll see you off in the morning, unless you want to stay longer."

"No, we're going to have to cover a lot of ground and we're short on time," she replied absently, then smiled. "But thank you for the offer.

Good night." ~ Skif looked after her for a moment after the door had closed, then turned to Quenten. "There's something- else you didn't want her to hear," he said, "About those blood-path mages. What is it?" A little startled by Skif's directness, Quenten came straight to the point. "It's about the ones who are looking for an 'apprentice'-or at least they call it that-who is untrained but powerful. The ones looking for someone who is totally naive about magic. Like your young friend there.

Skif nodded, his eyes hardening. "Go on."

"What they're looking for is the exact opposite of someone like themselves.

They have two ways of operating, and both involve subversion." He paused to gather his thoughts. "The first is to corrupt the innocent."

"Not possible," Skif interjected. "Trust me on that one. If you've ever heard that Heralds are incorruptible, believe it." Well, anyone who rides around on a Guardian Spirit probably is, no matter what people say about everyone having a price. I suppose Heralds do, too, but it's not the kind of Price a blood-path mage could meet. "Well, the other is destruction. Luring the innocent into a place of power, then breaking him. Or her." Quenten gave Skif a sharp look. "And don't tell me that you can't be broken. Anyone can be broken. And a blood-path mage has all the knowledge,, patience, and means to do so. Their places of power are usually so well guarded that it would take a small army to get in, usually at a terrible cost, and by the time they do, it's usually too late.

That's if you can find the place because besides being protected, it will also be well-hidden." Skif had the grace to blanch a little. "Nice little kingdom you have here."

"Oh, there aren't ever a lot of that kind, but they do exist," Quenten replied. "And that's why I'm warning you. You don't have the ability to see the kind of potential she carries-but I do, and so will anyone else of my rank who happens to see her. That's Master and above. And there are not only blood-path Masters, there are Adepts, trust me on that. One of those would be able to persuade you that he was your long-lost best friend if you weren't completely on the alert for someone like that. In fact, the truth is that unless you've got introductions like I'm going to give you, I would be very wary of anyone who seems friendly. The friendlier they are, the warier I'd be. There isn't a mage out here who has to go looking for pupils-they come to him. It's a matter of the way things work; power calls to power. So if someone is out looking, it usually isn't for anyone's purposes but his own. The only people as a group that you can trust without hesitation are the Shin'a'in and whoever they vouch for. Anyone else is suspect." Skif's eyes narrowed. "And you say she looks-attractive?" Quenten nodded soberly. "I hate to send you to bed with a thought guaranteed to create nightmares, but-yes. More than attractive. To put it bluntly, my friend, you are riding out into wolf territory with a young and tender lamb at your side. And the wolves can look convincingly like sheep." Skif licked his lips, and the look in his eyes convinced Quenten that he hadn't been wrong. This man was very dangerous, if he chose to be.

And he had just chosen to be.

Quenten could only hope the man was dangerous enough.

*Chapter Ten DARKWIND

Vree dove down out of the sky with no warning whatsoever, coming straight out of the sun so that Darkwind didn't spot him until the last possible second, seeing only the flash of shadow crossing the ground.

"Treyvan! Look out!" he shouted, interrupting whatever it was Hydona was about to say.

Treyvan ducked and flattened his crest, and Vree skimmed right over his head, his outstretched claws just missing the quill he'd been aiming for.

Then, without faltering in the slightest, he altered his course with a single wingbeat, and shot back up toward the clouds, vanishing to the apparent size of a sparrow in a heartbeat.

That was the single bad habit Darkwind had never been able to break him of. The gyre was endlessly fascinated by Treyvan's crest feathers, and kept trying to snatch them whenever the gryphon wasn't careful about watching for him.

"Sorry," Darkwind said, apologetically. "I don't know what gets into him, I really don't...

Hydona smothered a smirk. Treyvan looked up at the bird-who was now just a dot in the sky, innocently riding a thermal, as if he had never even thought about snatching Treyvan's feathers-and growled.

"Darrrrkwind, I do love you, but ssssome day I aaam going to sssswat that birrd of yourrrsss." Hydona made an odd whistling sound, halfchoked; Treyvan transferred his glare to his mate.

"Sorry," Darkwind repeated, feebly. "Ah, Hydona, you were saying?"

"oh, that therrre ssseems no rrreassson for the Changechild to haave sssaved the dyheli." Hydona's eyes still held a spark of mirth as Treyvan flattened his crest as closely to his skull as he could. "Unlessss she trrruly meant to be altrrruissstic. And I sssuppose you could not judge how powerrrful a mage sssshee iss?" He shook his head. "Not on the basis of a single spell. If I were an Adept trying to worm my way into a Clan, I'd probably try and make myself look as harmless as possible, actually."

"Shhheee isss Otherrr," Treyvan said, unexpectedly. Both Darkwind and his mate looked at him in surprise. "It iss the clawsss. Thossse cannot be changed from human bassse, only brrred in. Which meansss that she isss Otherrr, for the clawsss come frrrom the unhuman, and only the Othersss brrreed with them. Ssso ssshe is Otherrr, at least in parrt." Hydona nodded, slowly. "That iss trrue. I had forrgotten that." Darkwind bit back a curse. That would make her even harder to slip past his father if he had to. A Changechild he might accept, with difficultybut one who was even in part of the Others, the blood-path mages of the Outlands? Not a chance.

"But if she's Other, what was she doing, that close to k'sheyna?" he asked.

Treyvan ruffled his feathers in the gryphon equivalent of a shrug. "It ssseemsss obviousss that sshe could haave many motivessss." True Darkwind could think of several. She could be a spy; she could still have been trying to escape a cruel master. She could even be an Adept herself, and have inflicted all those hurts on herself with the intent of lulling their suspicions.

"We could," Hydona offered unexpectedly," her for you.

We arrre asss effective asss the vrondi at sssensssing falsssehood. It isss insstinct." they are? That was news to him-though welcome news. Somehow the gryphons kept pulling these little surprises out of nowhere, keeping him in a perpetual state of astonishment.

"That would be-damned useful," he replied honestly. "The Truthspell is still a spell, and I don't want to use it. Not this close to the border. I can't chance attracting things to the hertasi settlement, or to k'sheyna, either."

"It isss insstinct with usss," Treyvan repeated, to reassure him. "Not a ssspell. Perhapsss, though, you ought to be therrre alsso. Ssshe will probably be verrry afrraid of usss." He smiled. "Considering that you're large enough to really bite her head off if you wanted to, you're probably right," he said. "And that might not be a bad thing, either. If we keep her frightened, we have a better chance of catching her in a lie, don't we?"

"Yessss," Treyvan agreed. "It doesss not affect the trrruth asss we sssensse it, fearr."

"Good. I'll be with you, so that she doesn't try to run, but you two loom a little bit. Be the big, bad monsters, and I'll be her protector." But another thought occurred to him, then. He'd been planning on what to do to find out more about her; he still had no idea what to do with her.

"What do I do with her if she seems all right?" he asked. "I can't possibly take her into the Vale."

"Worrry about that when-and if-the time comesss," Treyvan said quietly. "It isss eassy to make a decission about a frrriend. I would worrrry more about how to dissspossse of herrr. If ssshe issss falssse, leave herrr to usss. If you like. We can dissspatch her.

"No," he said, quickly. "No, that's my job." It made him sick to think of killing in cold blood, but it was his job, and he would not put the burden on someone else. Not them, especially. there's such an innocenceabout them. I won't see it stained with a cold-blooded murder, no matter how casually they think of doing it. It would matter to me, even if it, doesn't seem to matter to them.

Treyvan shrugged. "Very well, then," he said. "Ssshall we meet you' therrre?"

"Fine," he replied. And couldn't help but grin. "Even if it does mean another trek through the marsh. The things I do for duty!" Treyvan just laughed, and spread his wings. "Jussst keep that birrrd frrom my crrrest. He beginsss to look tasssty!" And as Darkwind turned to head back, he was mortally certain that the gryphon was thinking of all those quill-snatching attempts by Vree, and chuckling at the notion of dining on the poor gyre. The gryphons were very catholic in what they considered edible; just as Vree would happily dine on a kestrel, a fellow raptor, the gryphons would probably be just as willing to make a morsel of Vree.

Except that Vree was Darkwind's. That alone was saving him from becoming Treyvan's lunch-in reality, if not in thought.

"Featherhead," he Mindspoke up to the dot in the blue, "You have no notion how close to the cliff you've been flying."

"Cliff?" responded Vree, puzzled. "what cliff? "where cliff?" I can't tell if he's playing coy, or he really doesn't understand me.

Darkwind sighed, and waded into the murky water. "Never mind. just stop teasing the gryphons. Leave Treyvan's feathers alone, you hear me?"

"Yes," said Vree slyly. "Yes," that he'd heard Darkwind, not that he'd obey.

Darkwind groaned. No wonder Father doesn't listen to me. I can't even get respect from a bird.

Nera met him at the edge of the swamp, popping up out of nowhere right into his path and scaring a year out of him. He yelped, one foot slipped off the path and into who-knew-how-deep, smelly water, and he teetered precariously for a moment before regaining his balance.

He glared at the hertasi, snarling silently. Nera blithely ignored the glare :the winged ones are here,: he Mindspoke :the creature you brought is also awake.: And with that, he vanished again, melting back into the reeds.

Darkwind closed his