Storm Clouds

STORM CLOUDS

 

Among the many curious groups of ardents to be found upon the land, I encountered a group in northern Blyan who call themselves “Chrystans”. I thought at first that they were an Old Faith group that had wandered from the main, but soon realized that they worship but one god and hold it sacred above all others. They say they were thus when they came through the portal with us. Certainly they live like Celts except for a few odd religious practices that seem to color their daily living, but I am doubtful they ever trod the soil of Gawl. I believe them to be of Rune, since before we came here to tame the land. They are some form of wild folk, not true Celts at all.

Sedd of Odal, Scribe of Bel (FY 521)

 

Front CoverFounding Year 931 – Summer – Dun Celdrya

Celdrya’s capital city lay shrouded in a days-long rain, as if in reaction to the death of the prince. The massive dun, home of the royal family, stood dark-grey against the stark light-grey stone of the Founding Rock, an imposing near-black fist thrust against a glowering sky. The Celdryan people bustled about their prosperous lives, muffled against the damp and wondering if there’d be war.

Deryk ap Chenyn crossed the main ward of Dun Celdrya, shoulders hunched against the drizzle, casting a doleful eye toward the grieving heavens. The sky suited his mood and matched the black armband he wore.

Inside the door to the great hall, Deryk paused to shake water from his cloak, decided it was a lost cause and hung the sodden mess on one of the many waiting pegs among the myriad damp cloaks, quite a few of them plaid, but a notable number also striped. The merchants thought there‘d be war and war was usually good for them, so they loitered about the dun to be the first to know, the first to get in at the trough. Merchants cared little that war meant death. They cared only for profits.

Deryk was expected upstairs in the King’s greeting chamber, but he could pause for a moment to gather his thoughts. A serving lass passed with a pitcher that wafted a scent of wine to him, reminding of all he would rather be doing. Maryn’s death had torn a hole into the center of his life that would not be easily filled. Fun times of hunting and laughter sprang into his memory, only to be replaced with what had happened that night less than a fortnight gone. He’d been awakened by the raven’s scream and sitting up confused on his cot when had come the shouting calls of murder. He’d rushed from the tent to find Maryn ….  Deryk shook himself free of those thoughts and mounted the stairs to the upper floors of the main broch. It wouldn’t do to keep the king waiting. Perryn had warned him that in the liege’s current mood, Deryk could easily be accused of plotting to kill Maryn and take the throne. He shivered at the change of winds that had befallen the court. It never bode well when a lord loved his heir too much.

Deryk heard the shouting before he reached the chamber, even through the closed door. Vanyn was cursing a steady stream and demanding answers. His liegemen were trying to provide the latter, but he wasn’t giving them much opportunity.

“Sire ….”

“I will not have my son murdered in my kingdom and not have the murderer brought to justice!”

“Aye, sire, but ….”

“I will not hear any cursed blathering!” he roared. Deryk thought it might be best just to duck back down the stairs, tell his honor guard to say they’d been delayed, but just as the thought solidified toward action, the door came open and he was left standing there with no opportunity to flee.

“Lord Deryk,” Vanyn acknowledged. “Please, join us! It would be good to have the report of someone who was on the ground.”

Deryk looked into the king’s eyes and saw grief-madness, but raised a warrior, he stiffened his spine and walked into the room where Vanyn’s councillors and several of his honor lords stood round the council table, mostly looking anywhere but at their king. Vanyn looked ill, grey of skin and tight about the mouth. Those who owed him fealty looked either angry or frightened and the anger of some seemed to mask fear. As they shifted to make room at the table for him, Deryk glanced round the room and a serving man brought him a goblet of mead.

“We were camped along the Aver Celt after a day fishing. I turned in because the hour was late, but Maryn felt the need of a walk.”

“And, you didn’t go with him?” Burcan ap Manahan, the king’s son-in-law, demanded. He must have ridden in from Mulyn straightway upon hearing the news. Even an ore boat down the Aver Celt would have taken an eightnight.

“Why would I?” Deryk asked through ice-cold lips. “There were two honor guards each 15 strong outside the tent and we were in settled country. It never occurred to me, certainly, and I doubt if it ever occurred to Maryn, that he would be in danger there. We’d been there since the previous afternoon without seeing anyone outside of our own party.”

He longed to take a sip of the mead, but he feared his hand would tremble, so he kept both fisted behind his back, one thumb hooked in his leather sword belt. He fixed his gaze on a portion of tapestry visible above the head of Councillor Dumyr who, while a man of great political skill, was short.

“Go on,” Vanyn demanded. He set his own goblet of mead near Deryk’s and seemed to steel himself for the report. Deryk had seen the look of confusion on Perryn’s face when he’d told the complete story, so now he told the less detailed one he’d rehearsed on the ride to the capitol.

“I was just drifting off when the alaram was called. I rushed out and found – found Maryn staked to a tree by the spear that my rider brought to you yesterday. There was nothing to be done. It was not a survivable wound.”

Vanyn began to cough, hands upon the table, his face turning from grey to red and then purple as he struggled to regain his breath. Amazingly, his mistress, Malona, glided up to his side and soothed him. He was soon able to take a sip of his drink and ask Deryk to continue. The king’s mistress was a beautiful woman with lustrous black hair and large eyes of a golden brown color, but it was rare to see a woman in such a council and Deryk wondered at her presence and struggled to resume.

“Did Prince Maryn say anything before his death?” Dumyr, Vanyn’s high councillor, asked.

“Naught that made sense. He was already close to death by the time I got there and in the death throes madness.”

“What did he say?”

“Something about ‘she’s beautiful’ and a treasure that could not be his.”

“Might he have been speaking of his betrothed,” asked Lord Gerriant from near the border with Fygal.

“Mayhap, though I do not think they have yet formed a love-bond,” Deryk answered. “Maryn was still mourning his wife. I think it was more likely he was dreaming of her in those last moments. No offence to Gillian of Llyr, of course,” he added, suddenly remembering that Gerriant was a cousin of sorts to Maryn’s betrothed.

“We know you mean the upmost respect,” Gerriant assured, appearing to mean it.

“We searched the area and I spoke to all who were within earshot at the time of the attack. The guard he was speaking with at the time said they heard a raven scream just before the spear flew.”

“A raven at midnight?” Burcan demanded. “And that far south this late in the spring? Most unusual!” Mulyn knew ravens, for they were a more northern bird.

“Aye, I thought so too until I found this.”

Deryk produced the raven feather, laying it upon the hide map that rested upon the massive table top. Glossy black with a thick spine, it was almost as long as his forearm and as wide as his spread hand. The chamber erupted into loud exclamations as Vanyn began to cough again. This time, he brought up blood and withdrew from the meeting. With his son Perryn gone to recover Maryn’s body, the councillor took the lead.

“This is no natural feather,” he noted, which drew no protests. “We all know what this is.”

Deryk raised an eyebrow because he didn’t know what it was any more than Perryn.

“We must deal with this immediately,” Burcan agreed. “If the Assassin’s Guild is once more operating in Celdrya, we must locate and eradicate them while the trail is still fresh.”

The men around the table nodded and lent their vehement support to this plan of action.

“I will take this to the king as soon as he’s had a bit of a rest and I’ll have an answer for you by the evening meal,” Councillor Dumyr assured the lords and left the room.

Deryk watched as the others slowly filed out, talking among themselves. A serving man began to clear the room of the various goblets and tankards. He glanced at Deryk’s goblet and then at the young lord’s face.

“I require a moment,” Deryk explained.

“Of course, my lord. Do you want a fresh drink?”

“Nay, thank you, uh … I do not know your name.”

“Talidd, sir.”

“Thank you for your concern. I just need a moment’s peace.”

Talidd nodded, though his dark eyes still held concern. A good servant, he returned to tidying the rest of the council chamber. Deryk reached for his goblet of mead, distracted by his dark thoughts. As it neared his lips, however, he smelled somewhat that gave him pause. Vanyn’s goblet had been beside his and he’d picked up Vanyn’s goblet by mistake. Like all younger brothers, he’d been trained to detect poisons lest he be required to act as taster to the heir. The pungent aroma of wolfsbane caused him to pull the goblet back before it touched his lips.

Gods, no!

“Poison!” he called, croaking, causing the serving man to pause in his duties and stare at him, throat muscles working. “Poison!” Deryk yelled again, louder this time, running from the room with the goblet in his hand to show the chirgeon. “The King has been poisoned!”

 

Hansorfjord, Northern Sea – Viking Date 741 / Kindred Cycle 24573 – Five Years Past

Hansorfjord celebrated the majority of their future kong. His testing near-complete Eric Magnuson stood upon the testing ground, stripped to the waist in the summer sun, weighing his options. Hovdinkong Magnus Hansorsson watched from the reviewing stand, willing himself not to be anxious. The heavier spear would fly farther, but less accurately. Eric might only wound his prey, which would call his future rule into question. Magnus watched the boy choose the lighter spear and tried not to be anxious. The spear might fall short of the prey and that would also call his future rule into question. The boy had had a near-perfect score so far over the last two days. He’d run 30 miles in full armor the first day and been only a quarter sector off Magnus’ own time. Yestermorrow, he’d rigged a boat for sailing in record time. Hunting should have been the least of trials, but Magnus knew that there were those watching who would make much of the least.

No sooner had the boy made his selection than a flash of movement downfield drew Magnus’ attention. The boy cocked back his arm and let fly. The spear flew straight and true and struck in the gorse-covered shield of a young warrior, who stood to salute the young heir-chief, tugging on the spear to show that the steel had stuck in the wood. Eric saluted him back with the spear he had just picked up and no sooner let the shaft fly, sensing movement just beyond the first warrior who dropped into the hiding brush to avoid being skewered. The heavier spear flew as true and actually toppled the warrior who wielded the shield it struck. The crowd laughed. The warrior stood slowly and saluted Eric in similar fashion, who saluted back empty-handed.

Magnus saw movement at the entry of the testing grounds and watched as a runner marked him and began a run round the pathway that marked the outer edge. The testing grounds occupied a narrow strip of valley with high rocky hills on either side and deep brush along the bottom. Magnus leaned over to consult with his hammer man, Karl Barentson, who got up to relay the message to the guards.

Magnus had missed the third throw, but it seemed to have gone well for Eric. He knew he would miss others once the runner reached the reviewing stage.

Eric threw four more spears in the interim, all accurate and powerful. He was starting to sweat and where his skin was not permanently kissed by the sun, he was starting to redden. This too was part of the trials. Magnus remembered his own sunbite with grim fondness.

“Kong, a runner comes before you with a message from Hovda Orma,” Karl announced.

“Bring him forward.”

The runner walked boldly to his chief, aware that such as him were very valuable. He struck his breast with his right clenched hand.

“Kong Magnus, there comes a merchant of Orenthal, bearing fine gifts and the seal of their king.”

There were few things that would interrupt Magnus viewing his son, but the king of Orenthal or one of his designees was among them. Magnus glanced at the sun. There were perhaps two more spears and then would come the field run, which could not be easily viewed at any rate.

“Return to Hovda Orma with this message. I will come within the half-sector. She is to provide the emissary with all comforts.”

“Yes, Kong Magnus.”

The runner turned crisply and began his run round the testing grounds to the exit and then to the five mile track back to Magnus’ fortress at the top of the fjord. Karl awaited his orders.

“I must attend to this. See that Eric knows I viewed all the spears and that I will return after the midday rest for our contest.”

“Of course, Kong Magnus.”

Magnus signaled two of the guards to walk with him and struck out for the small harbor where his canoe awaited him. As soon as they were free of the narrow valley of the testing ground, they jogged toward the sea.

Hansorfjord, straddling the top of the fjord, hemmed in by spruce forests and slate crags, was merely a quarter-sector’s hard paddle across the stunning blue water and Magnus lent his own considerable skill to the endeavor, so that they were soon upon the shingle below the fortress. There was a large Orenthal ship anchored a bit off the shingle here, the yellow-skinned sailors watching him cooly from the deck. Magnus wondered if they would do so in the presence of their employer. Were they not servants to him? Although in Svardin society, all men were free to come and go as they chose, Magnus understood that the servants of other rulers were not.

The ship impressed, dwarfing the fishing boats beached on the shingle.. The carved and painted masthead showed a beautiful woman of Orenthal featues, her dark hair braided tight against her back. The Svardin had nothing like it. The death ferries were carved such, but no boat in all of Svardin was so large. Truth-be-told, they didn’t need to be. The long boats were fast and cunning and, if many of them were amassed, carried more than enough men to overwhelm any community of land-lockers.

Magnus climbed the long switchback of steps hewn into the rock that brought him up to the fortress. Death awaited those who trod those steps unaware, but the Hovingkong had no fear. He greeted each vikking by name as he passed through their ranks in the guard house at the top of the stairs, then he crossed the courtyard where some husbandmen were shearing sheep and entered the great hall.

On this fine day, the window shutters were blocked open to allow air and light into the heavy-timbered room. His wife Orma, nearly as tall as he and with the dark hair common to her island, strode up to him.

“He’s relaxing in the gardens,” she announced, offering him the cloak of state. “Gilyn is his name.”

“That’s not a Orenthal name,” Magnus noted, frowning, settling the sealskin cloak on his shoulders. It was too hot for such on this day, but appearances mattered to the outfolk.

“Nah. His hair is light, his features not slanted. But he bears the seal-mark of the Orenthal king and letters patent.”

Magnus fingered the torc of braided gold round his neck, considering.

“Has he supped?”

“He accepted water only.”

Magnus frowned at her. Tall, with a windburn face and sun-bleached blond hair, he was a man of action. Some supposed he was not given to deep thought. Their assumptions were occasionally their death. Therefore, he eschewed assumptions himself. He did not know what to make of this emissary. He checked the knife at his waist and signaled the guards to follow him.

The Orenthal emissary stood in the garden, at the wall overlooking the plunging river. His hands rested upon the ledge. Magnus did not try for stealth as he approached; still he was surprised when the emissary turned well before he’d traveled halfway to him.

“Hovdin Magnus,” Gilyn said. Unlike Orenthal emissaries, this one was as tall as Magnus, though slender, with long arms and a thin face. His hair was light brown, his eyes an impossibly light grey shot with vines of ice-blue. Hovdin was a Svardin term for clan leader. The Orenthal did not recognize him as chief-king. For now, Magnus could not argue. Someday, he would crush them — or Eric would.

“Emissary Gilyn,” Magnus replied. Orma had glided up beside him. Although her Orenthal was only passing, it far exceeded his. “Hovda Orma will interpret for us” just about exhausted his Orenthal.

“That will not be necessary,” Gilyn said in slightly accented Svard. “I am conversant in your language.”

Orma and Magnus exchanged looks, hers saying she had been unaware of this, and then she withdrew. By design, she would lie in the board and have a servant bring out a platter in the garden.

“Shall we sit then?” Magnus asked, indicting the table and benches that stood nearby.

“Of course.” They took their seats. Gilyn wore black Orenthal silks, the lower garment cut in trews. His cloak, draped over the bench, was a fascinating grey that seemed to shift with the light.“You are no doubt confused, as I am not what you expected.”

“You are not as the other emissaries, nah.”

“I am in the employ of the Orenthal emperor, but I am Celdryan and Kin by descent.”

Magnus knew of the Celdryans who occupied the mainland to the south. He’d heard of the Kin who lived in the mountain fastnesses. He’d heard tales. Gilyn seemed to suggest that they were fantasy. The Kin were men like any other.

“And you have come to Hansorfjord for some business or to deliver a message?”

“For business. I understand your heir has reached his majority.”

“Yah.”

“He must undertake a great task to prove his worthiness to rule, yah?”

“He must.”

“Has he selected it yet?”

“Not as yet.” Truth-to-told, Eric had been fleeced of a great accomplishment by his own father, who had been all too successful in his conquest of the Northern Isles.

“Ah, good waters then.” Magnus refused to show it, but he was impressed with Gilyn’s command of the language. Usually idioms troubled speakers who were not Svardin. “I believe the continent to the south is ripe for the taking with a well-organized invasion. If your son is willing to attend an inspection with me, I believe he will come away with the same impression.”

Magnus was familiar with the lands to the south. Now desert, there were signs of a great past civilization. A few vikkings had followed a river up into the mountains, but the formidable barrier had not been surmounted by Svards to his knowledge. Then there was the matter of Gilyn’s employers.

“And, what is in this for the Orenthal?”

Magnus knew well that somewhat was always to the Orenthal credit. A devious and rapacious race. The human face of his guest notwithstanding, Magnus trusted the Orenthal not at all.

“Of course, the spoils can be divided according to contribution,” Gilyn said. “The Orenthal desire a partnership with the Vikking.”

“Hmm. The last emissary suggested subjugation might be in order.”

“The last emissary had limited vision.”

Magnus considered the offer a moment.

“Eric’s testing is not yet complete. Should he pass it, you may discuss the future with him. Is that acceptable to you?”

“It is.” Gilyn held out a slender, but muscular hand to clasp Magnus’. Magnus held him firm.

“Just remember, Emissary. What a vikrus can count and carry is his by right and we’ll not be playing any games of who owns what when the day is done. Yah?”

“Yah,” Gilyn assured him. He laughed, a bit daft sounding. “You have my word as a Celdrya and a Kin that this will be above-board and honest.”

“Against your own people?”

“My peoples turned their backs on me many cycles ago. I hold no affection for either of them. You’ll learn to trust me on that.”

“We’ll see,” Magnus replied. Magnus trusted few men, which was how he had become kong, but he knew an opportunity when one presented itself. Would Eric be so wise? It was time to find out.

 

Spring FY 1028 – Blue Iris Holt – Present

The community of Kin Padraig had departed from sheltered in the high mountains to the northeast of Faren. At one time, this elfholt had been a dwarven mine, but the dwarves had given it to the elves when the mine played out and now a thriving community of Kin called the caves home. The beautiful half-elf Morynsionryanna sat beside a large stone basin, trailing an idle finger through the water to keep the visions active. In an ethereal window, Ryanna saw a tired-looking Padraig saddling the sorrel mare in a copse of trees somewhere in Dublyn. She didn’t know how she could know that for certain, but she did know, beyond just the guess that he would still be in Dublyn. He looked hale enough and she supposed that after living in the holt for so many years, sleeping upon the ground would take some getting used to, thus explaining the shadows around his eyes. She wished that she could reach out to him and touch his mind. He could reply to a touch, though he was not able to scry in his own right. Alas, she’d been forbidden by Gly and to disobey would mean to lose these sessions where she might view Padraig. This was better than no contact at all, so she restrained her more rebellious tendencies.

Truly this must be love, she thought. I never acted this way with Gil. I’ve scried often enough for him, but not with longing.

The thought of Gil shifted the images in the basin to a faraway city that Ryanna knew she’d never visited. Dark haired people with almond-shaped dark eyes walked immaculate streets of the finest tile before white-washed buildings of a style she did not recognize. Their clothes were of the finest Orental silk. What she did not understand was why thoughts of Gil always brought her to this faraway foreign city. For five years she’d felt naught that would convince her that her husband was still among the breathing, yet thoughts of him always brought her visions of the Orental city. Had he perished there? She’d never heard that mage work could hone in on the last knowings of a departed soul, so perhaps it came from some human part of her abilities. Certainly no elf had ever claimed it as possible and none of her tutors could help her decipher its meaning.

As sometimes happened with her, her vision shifted, so that she now saw a Morikan caravan stopped in the desert, where a dark, turbaned trader haggled with a stout dwarf over some goods – nay, over human slaves. Not dwarfs then, but goblins. The dwarvish cousins were easily confused on first sight, but their ways had diverged in the millennia since their rift. From one of the little cottages on the back of a wagon, a woman completely covered in a veil watched the transaction. Ryanna supposed the desert-dwellers felt no compunction over keeping slaves since they kept their mates in virtual slavery.

Her irritation at that thought caused the visions to collapse completely. Ryanna paddled in the water for a moment more, hoping to return a vision of Padraig, but it was no good. Sighing, she sat up and looked around the Hall of the Wise. The large rock basin that she sat beside was filled by an artfully worked waterfall that fell in courses down the wall, yet somehow the surface was always reflective enough for scrying, tempting her to remain and continue her activities. The morning meal scented the air with warm yeast as acolytes, apprentices and the Wise descended from their chambers to the Hall. Her time of indulgence had passed. Time to embrace the day. In time, Gly would allow her more freedom, but only if she earned it. There’d be time enough for indulgences later.

As a farewell to her self-indulgence, she trailed a finger through the water one last time, though without any power behind it. She expected to see nothing beyond the ordinary sparkles of lantern light thrown off moving water, but a window opened unexpectedly in the depths of the pool. She leaned forward, curious, expecting to see Padraig once more, but espying instead a dark room lit by a steady low light that shimmered off scales of green and gold. While she contemplated the possible nature of those scales, a large brow ridge hove into sight. The head turned, dipping into a pool of darkness and then rose so that Ryanna could see the enormous eye with a vertically slit pupil surrounded by multi-faceted golden iris. Ryanna realized with a jolt that the eye saw her and in that moment, she lost the vision.

“Running a bit long on your scrying, yes?” a voice asked.

Flustered, Ryanna looked up at her tutor in wisdom. Gly, like all full elves, was a tall slender man of indetermined years. His hair was a pale color, just a bit lighter than straw and his vertically slit eyes were violet. His ears were furled like sea-shells and rose in sharp peaks.

“I think I just scried a dragon,” Ryanna gasped. Being a half-elf, Ryanna looked human. Her eyes were remarkable only in being beautiful and brilliant green and her ears were rounded.

Gly raised an eyebrow, but after a moment, a smile transformed his slender face.

“This is why I enjoy having you as a pupil,” he announced. “You break all the boundaries. A dragon?”

“Yes, a dragon in its lair. She was beautiful.”

“In its lair?” Now Gly frowned, the expression furrowing his unlined brow. Among men, Gly seemed a young man scarcely into his third decade, but he was near a half-millennium-old. “It would be a rare gift if you could scry into a dragon’s lair. They have their own ways to prevent that, such as we protect the holt.”

“And do I not have a rare set of gifts?” Ryanna asked. This elicited another grin from her tutor. She stood up from the fountain’s edge, her simple cotan robe falling around her ankles to drape her lean frame. A tall elfling with a long braid of dark hair, she hardly rated a glance among the Kin. Elflings were not rare in the Kinholts, but they were still a minority. Her human eyes and round ears were odd-seeming to her mother’s race, but in human society, many a man had chased after her like cat-mint. As she approached a half-century of life, she now recognized that her half-elven beauty had been part of the problem all along.

“I have not heard of any Kin in my lifetime who could scry a dragon,” Gly assured her. “Not even Shanara is so gifted.”

“Or she has chosen not to share,” Ryanna suggested.

“Well, true. Shanara does prefer her privacy. When next she wanders this way, or at least scries to me, I’ll have to ask after that ability. She is a connoisseur of historical lore.”

They stopped at the long table near one of the two hearths that heated the enormous central chamber of the Hall of the Wise and collected breakfast – seed bread with eggs and dried berries soaked in goat’s milk. They took their food around a corner to Gly’s workshop. In the darkness, Ryanna smelled drying herbs and essential oils. She lit the lamps with a thought as Gly moved a tray from his work table. To protect the quality of his wares, Gly’s workshop had no windows, so even on a cool spring day, the room was blackness without lamps.

“I had planned to discuss Scripture today, but I think rather we should investigate history,” Gly said, selecting a codex from a floor to ceiling shelves of similar books and setting it before her. “Dragons are much on my mind now. What do you know of them?”

While Ryanna recited what she remembered of dragon lore, Gly ate some of his breakfast, not even looking at her.

“They are one of the elder races in the Basketlands, perhaps the oldest. Certainly they predate the creation of Kin and Dwarf alike, though there is question if the Wardens might have walked the land before. They once lived in consort with Kin and were considered councilors of the Wardens, until the coming of the Celts. With the loss of the basketlands, we also lost contact with the Wardens and the dragons. Some still claim to see them flying in the high valleys, but they avoid the company of the other sentient races.”

“You grasp the major understanding of the situation,” Gly observed. “Please seek a deeper knowledge,” he encouraged as Ryanna spooned a bit of berries and creme into her mouth.

Swallowing, Ryanna opened the codex, found the subject in the index and flipped to the pages. A line-drawing in colored ink showed a scarlet and black dragon that looked remarkably like the one from her vision.

“They live many thousands of years, it is thought. They live in caves on the sides of fire mountains. They’re monogamous and bear live young that spend their early development in a mother’s pouch. They are thought to have a language that is all their own, but they also speak Elvish. Ho, there, this writer believes they may all be gone.”

“Garanthalgravynsyn,” Gly identified. “He lived through the Scourging. That book dates from the last years of his life when he had not seen a dragon for four hundred years.”

Ryanna swallowed a bite of seed bread before continuing.

“That’s before we moved into the Dragon’s Back,” Ryanna said thoughtfully. “Could it be that dragonkind were wiser than we and simply moved away from the Celtman early?”

“It well might be, though I have heard that the Celts hunted them where they remained in the basketlands. How we know that for certain, I cannot say.”

“Yes, I remember the tales they told at Peace River. Hunting dragons was among them. The lives of men are so short, however, that they thought they were telling mere fancies. Except for those who lived with us there, most Celtmen thought elves a fancy, actually.”

“They live short lives, men,” Gly agreed. “Is there more about dragonkind there?”

“Not really. References to other books. He was writing from Moryn. I suppose these might be found in the collegium.”

“No doubt. Perhaps I can scry to Tav, see if he can bring some of Garanthal’s books back with him in the spring.”

“You’re excited by this topic.” Ryanna did not form it as a question.

“Yes, yes, indeed. So much of this time seems so exciting. Winter People brought prophesy and prophesy ignites, sending Padraig to seek the king. After centuries of waiting, it feels as if the world turns once more on its axis.”

“The Celdryans will not easily accept that a king that unites both people,” Ryanna reminded gently.

“They cannot stand against the One True God’s choice,” Gly assured her.

Ryanna flipped a page of the codex and gasped. Behind the dragon in flight, a fire mountain erupted, red ink enveloping a village far down the page. The artist’s rendering seemed to suggest that the dragon was somehow responsible for the eruption. She pointed out the drawing to Gly.

“They are always tied to fire mountains in the lore. I don’t know why the artist would suggest this, however.”

“Could it be a gift of the dragons, such as I can call forth fire from wicks? They can somehow draw fire from mountains?”

“Perhaps. Our ancestors took dragons for granted and either didn’t write about them or the books have been lost. We really know very little about them now.”

“The Celts believe dragons can breathe fire from their mouths or noses.”

“That sounds painful,” Gly said wryly.

“That was my thought round the story fire. What am I to learn from all this?”

“I’m uncertain. What I know for certain is that the Gifted receive their Gifts from the True God as they are needed. If you can see into a dragon’s lair, Ryanna, then God must have a purpose for it.”

Ryanna sighed. Elves usually developed their gifts as children and their childhoods reflected the restraints needed. Powerfully gifted children were often apprenticed to the Wise. Ryanna, like many elflings, had exhibited only mundane gifts as a child, coming into increasing power as a young adult, already married and seeking her own life story. She had not submitted easily to the tutoring and the demands upon her freedom and she still did not seek to be a Wise One.

“Why does the Council still refuse to block me from the Source?” she asked. “They know that I will never use my abilities in a position of leadership, so why do they not allow me to end my studies?”

“They do not owe you an explanation, Ryanna,” Gly said. “Seems a shame to waste gifts such as you have.”

“They could always unbind me if needed. I do not seek this life, Gly.”

“No, you’d rather chase after Padraig.”

“Not true,” Ryanna insisted. “I accepted the restraints put upon me back the Wise. Even if I had not, Padraig would not have me until I had fulfilled my responsibility.”

“And, you do not feel in the least rebellious about this?”

“I didn’t say that,” Ryanna said with a quick smile. “Of course I’m impatient. Elflings always are, by Kin standards. I have matured in my perspective, however. I will not go haring off to repeat the mistakes of my youth. Although I have never worn goi’tan grey, I understand why I earned it and would not earn it again.”

Gly nodded.

“I think perhaps you are acquiring wisdom, pupil.”

Ryanna smiled at him, warmed by a high compliment indeed. Then Gly pulled the codex from her and set another one in its place.

“What did Pol have to say about being content?” he asked.

Ryanna paused for a heartbeat, considering the Scriptos before her.

“The letter he wrote to Filipai,” she said, searching the pages. “Ah – here it is.”

Before moving on to the next portion of the lesson, however, Ryanna looked at Gly.

“If Padraig is to find the king,” she asked. “Are my gifts to be used in some way to secure the king’s reign?”

“We have no way of knowing and thus the council chooses not to restrain that which God appears to find needful.”

Ryanna shivered as a sensation like snow sliding off a roof washed down her back.

“I think you might speak truth,” she said.

“The Wise always speak the truth as it is available to us,” he replied. “Now let’s get back to your lesson so that you are ready when God calls.”

When God calls? Ryanna thought. What if I see the trumpets being prepared right now? And another shovelful of snow slid down her back.

 

Spring Founding Year 1028 – East Faren, County Dublyn

Not to be too melodramatic, Lord, but did the ancient Believers feel this way as they were forced to leave home to do Your work?

Along a lonely mountain trail, a sorrel mare bore an elven-dressed human, his hair plaited with beads in Kindred fashion that identified his heritage to those who knew the meaning. Tall and slender with long fingers and strongly blue eyes that subtly hinted at elvishness, the man bore regular features and dark brown hair that showed rich in the sun; in most of the kingdom he would have been thought handsome and naught more.

Padraig ap Chenyn of Cenconyn traveled home, but he felt very much as though he departed his true home, for he left people he truly loved who would mourn his absence, to whom he hoped fervently one day to return.

He reined his horse to a stop at the top of a rise and caught his first glimpse of the Basketlands, to use its proper Kindred name Since leaving the camp at the end of the highway, he’d encountered some difficult trail, with washaway and downed trees, evidence of scant use in recent years. What he saw ahead looked more pleasant for horses’ legs. This part of Dublyn was rolling hills of grassland broken by occasional copses of trees. Far to the north where the mountains began to rise round Cenconyn way lay a stretch of old forest between him and the dun he’d been raised in. He didn’t think he’d be going there just yet.

In the broad valley below, Padraig could make out the road and a faint trail of smoke rising a half day gone. Being past midday, he faced a choice. Uncomfortable with camping in the open grasslands until he knew exactly where he was, yet recognizing he could not reach the first settlement that day, he decided to bide time and camp in a copse of trees within an easy ride of the mountains. He couldn’t just ride there without preparation.

Padraig dismounted to begin stripping off his clothes. Good quality elven clothes consisted of a pair of leather trousers and a coton tunic embroidered with flowers and vines. He folded these up and stowed them in the bottom of a pannier on the back of the pony he led behind the horse, replacing them with the traditional Celdryan clothing of loose woolen breecs and a shapeless linen siarc. He tightened the breecs with a draw cord and drew in the shirt with a wide leather belt. He’d have to wear his elven boots since he didn’t have a Celdryan pair, but he supposed it wouldn’t matter. Many a Denygal wore them and he planned to travel as a Denygalman. After four years of wearing the practical elven dress, Padraig felt near-to naked in the loose-fitting Celdryan garb.

Get used to it, man! he chided himself. There’s naught for it!

As a final act, he removed the beaded braid from his hair with the edge of his dagger. That saddened him. Given different timing, he’d have given the braid to Ryanna against promise of his return. Sighing, he stowed the beads with his elven clothes, repacked the herbs on top and faced the kingdom.

As he mounted, he felt a tug on his mind. Thinking it one of his elven friends, he responded, then sensed the mind that touched his and recoiled at the filth encountered. With a sharp mental parry, he closed his mind and set seals against any unknown entrance.

“I suppose it might have been a dark one,” Padraig said aloud, a bit breathless. “They are known to scry for those sensitive.” Padraig laughed nervously then, and patted the mare’s golden  neck with an affectionate hand. “Listen to me,” he scoffed, “spouting forth like I actually know somewhat about dark ones. I suppose I’ll likely learn, don’t you think, Joy?”

The horse’s mind touched his, just the beginnings of communication, a sense that she understood what he was saying, or at least understood his tone and agreed with it.

“Well, I suppose you know more about dark ones than I do. They say animals are naturally attuned to what men ignore. I hope that’s true, because one of us should know somewhat about things.”

Joy snorted, perhaps because a fly bothered her or, more like she found him ridiculous. He supposed that they were the same maturity level within their species and like any headstrong young lass, she found the folly of lads dreaming of adventure humorous. The Companion link allowed her to understand his species in a way horses usually did not.

Padraig reined to a halt at the bottom of the slope where a marker stone announced the border. The leaping hart on the kingdom side announced the vyngetrix of Dublyn. On the mountain side the marker stone sported a hideously demonic face with peaked ears and evil eyes. He chuckled at the folly of man’s mind that he would believe such nonsense. Still shaking his head, he clucked to Joy, continuing into the kingdom.

On the morrow, he awoke early to ride toward the chimney smoke he’d spotted on the horizon. He had dreaded the kingdom while in the mountains, remembering it more for crowded towns and bustling cities, yet as he rode along the barely discernable dirt track that passed for a road, the experience grew enjoyable. A faintly unreal color of gold covered the rolling hills, signaling they were about to burst into green. Leafless shrubs and occasional trees he rode past hovered on the edge of bursting into verdant life. Birds flitted from branch to branch and tree to tree in a riot of mating, their song filling the air.

The hard blue sky promised warmth, yet couldn’t really produce it.  He wore his good warm cloak, throwing it back on his shoulders. As he rode he began calculating the date as he had quite lost track of the wheel of the year in Celdrya while in the mountains. The Kindred kept their own calendar; by their reckoning it was about the spring equinox — halfway between Imbolc and Beltane. The green would brighten the hills quite soon; already the grassland lay wet with run-off streams and many of the trees had water round their roots.

Padraig encountered a herd of sheep guarded by a watchful dog just before midday. The large black dog watched him with such suspicion that Padraig waited until he’d rounded a bend in the road before he dismounted to eat a bit of lunch.

He’d have to reach a farmstead or tavern soon as his tuck bag was nearly empty. The thought caused him to grimace, already wishing that he didn’t have to give up some favorite elven foods.  Naught for it, of course! He’d come home with a mission and no choice but to complete it, come what may.

He approached the first farmstead a bit after the meal. He topped a rise and looked down at the compound set behind tall stone walls. The chimney stood cold, but the thatch looked sound on the roof and he could hear chickens. He winced as at least a couple of dogs launched themselves against the wooden gate to announce his presence. He tried the latch, relieved it was bolted from the inside.

A wise farmer, then! Padraig thought. Sensible, given that they’re alone out here.

Just as he noted the stones of the walls were dressed with a finery he wouldn’t have expected from a farmer a face appeared at the opening at the top of the gate. Those blue eyes could only belong to a pretty lass.

“Hallo?” she greeted.  “Are you wanting somewhat?”

“I’m a traveler on the roads,” Padraig replied, slowly, his mouth unpracticed with Celtman speak after a lapse of years. “I’m hoping to buy some bread and per — mayhap water my stock.”

“Traveler?”

“Herbman. I’ve been foraging in the eastern mountains.”

The blue eyes judged him cooly. Padraig waited. Naught more would convince the farmwife to let him in or send him away.

“You be at Sion’s steading, herbman.  I be Sion’s wife, Marya.”

“Padraig of Denygal.”

The eyes continued to weigh him. He waited again. This time the wait wasn’t too long.  The latch rattled and the gate swung outward.

“You don’t look like a daimone anyway,” Marya said, holding the gate open wide. Her smirk indicated she wasn’t much afraid of daimones. The dogs slunk off as if shamed by their rudeness. They were the same large breed, one a buckskin and the other black, as their fellow guarding the sheep. “I baked bread last night and we’ve some dried apples left from the winter.”

“Four coppers for two days’ worth?”

“Five and I’ll throw in a bit of jerked meat.”

“Done.” He released his tuck bag from a saddle hook and handed it over.

“Stock trough’s over there. The barrel’s by the door.”

Padraig watched her walk away, noting that she just topped his shoulder and had blond hair tucked up under a headscarf. Her skirts hitched up into her kirtle in improvised breecs, she still carried the pitchfork she’d used for mucking the stables. She disappeared into the house, pausing long enough to scrape her bare feet off on a stone outside the door.  She took the pitchfork with her.

That one’s wise in the ways of men, Padraig admired.

Padraig allowed Joy and the pony to make their way to the trough while he approached the barrel with his water skins. He drank long from the clear, cool water before washing his face and wetting his hair, careful not to let the waste water trickle back into the barrel.

That midden heap should be farther away, he thought.

Typical of a farm, every bit of soil in the yard turned to vegetables except for the composting pile, the walkways, and small spaces before the door and round the well. Padraig noted with surprise that the same stone built the cottage as the fence; he recognized the type — had seen it oft in the basements of Dun Cenconyn, but never outdoors.

Pale pearly pink, almost luminous, it was not a common stone, dressed and in some places carved.  Farmers would not have labored so hard on the esthetics of a cottage, much less a defense wall. The steading must have been built, as Dun Cenconyn, on the ruins of an elven city. There were a few scattered throughout the basketlands. He’d never known any humans willing to use the old stone; most considered it haunted, if not evil.

“Admiring our witch stone?” Marya asked, coming up behind him on silent bare feet.  Padraig managed not to startle, though his heart thumped once. She held out his tuck bag. She’d left the pitch fork by the door.

“It’s indeed lovely. Did Sion do the dressing himself?”

“Nay, nay, but the fields about here are filled with the stuff.  Big blocks like that. Some say the Fey did leave it behind them when they moved on to the fairy realm … or, more like, the mountains.”

“Aye? Do you see the Kin hereabouts?” Padraig asked, establishing immediately that they both knew the elves to be real.

“Nay, they don’t come here anymore. Traveled to the Cenconyn faire long ago and we saw some. Beautiful people. Sion and I’ve been here five years and we’ve seen none.”

“Then why the defense wall?”

“Tis a long way from the village and my Sion does worry about the troubles elsewhere, that those who are desperate may come someday. So far we’ve only seen the nobleborn, come each fall to the hunting track into the mountains. Still Sion built the walls. He used the stone because there’s so much of it throughout the valley and, though there are some that call it witchstone, why throw away what is both beautiful and functional when you have need of it?”

Padraig nodded, impressed by her practicality. Sion needn’t have put the vines and stylized flowers where they’d be visually pleasing either.

“Do they stop here?” She cocked an eyebrow at him in question. “The nobles?” He hoped for some gossip.

“Aye, to eat my bread and use our water without so much as a copper or a thank you very much.”

Padraig laughed at her humored indignation, which won a full-mouthed grin from his hostess. She showed good teeth.

“The noble-born often show little care for those who fill their bellies and cellars,” he agreed. “I’m a bit turned about coming from the mountains. Where exactly is Sion’s steading?”

“Faren, County Werglidd. The village of Nalyn be about a half-day’s journey west by horseback. Dun Werglidd is mayhap one day’s journey farther. Lord Jarvys is rig there.”

Padraig remembered County Werglidd within the Dublyner rigdon of Faren.

“How far is Dun Trevyllan?”

“Good four days by wagon. Mayhap two, two and half days on horseback.”

“How are the roads?”

“The villagers in Nalyn have been repairing the road from the village to Dun Werglidd. I’ve heard that there’s a proper road from Trevyllan to Clarcom. I suppose Cunyr wants his taxes more quickly.”

“Cunyr is still vyngretrix then?”

“Aye. His heir, Bryan, be about 15 summers, I think.”

The way Marya spoke she might just have been passing on information or she might hope for Cunyr’s passing. Perhaps she hoped he wouldn’t pass soon. Afterall, a cur like Cunyr was apt to whelp cruel pups. The elves sayd the hand that rocks the cradle held a stronger influence.

“Who is rig at Dun Trevyllan now? Still Beryl?”

“Nay, but Beryl did die in a hunting accident last fall. We got the news of Lord Geran’s ascension just at snowfall. I suppose we’ll be seeing what sort of overlord he’ll be round Lughnasa.”

Padraig knew Geran and decided to risk a bit, though truly the risk seemed small.

“My master in herbs and I wintered in Dun Trevyllan several years gone. A good teacher, Geran’s father. I think his son’ll act honorably toward those who support him.”

“Truly?”

“Aye. At least Geran never cheated at dice and he didn’t quibble when he lost.”

Padraig smiled inwardly at the lad he’d been back then, using his gift at guessing dice to win against the brash young lord. Geran might have suspected him of cheating, but he’d always paid his losings and he’d not used his position to call Padraig to justice.

“How long were you in the mountains?” Marya asked.

There was somewhat so open about her question that Padraig felt drawn by her human attractiveness. Her wide blue eyes set in a pretty face with a pert nose and a warm smile could make a man forget that she stank of the stables; Padraig reminded himself you couldn’t muck out without smelling of muck. A tendril of blond hair had worked its way loose from her headscarf and it shown clean. The golden hair brought a response of longing from deep inside him.

He reminded himself sharply that he was not the sort of man who trifled with married women, but bitter truth presented itself. Sin is sin and you’ve  flown close to its flame your first contact back with humans. I repent Lord! As soon as he thought that a small gust of wind wafted her scent to him. She stank of the stables and his desire stepped back into the shadows.

“I’d best be going if it’s a half-day’s ride to the village,” he said. “Tis a lovely steading, Marya.” He’d never know quite why he asked, but he did. Maybe it was to deny what he’d felt only a moment before. “Are your children with Sion, then, out tending the fields?”

She hesitated for a moment.

“Nay and you did say you were an herbman, didn’t you? You’ve been in the eastern mountains. Among the Fey, aye?”

“I won’t deny that I studied some of their lore, aye.”

“I’ve heard that they’ve different sort of lore than we do, ways of healing our herbmen don’t know.”

“Some such, aye.”

Marya hesitated again, considering some sad thought, then spoke quietly, but in a rush, as if she wanted to get the words away and have her answer before somewhat stopped her.

“Sion and I married five years ago. There’s no children and I was wondering, well, if there’s somewhat ….  The herbman that travels through the village now and again said there’s naught, but he did suggest the Fey might have a cure or two, then made it into a joke, like.”

Padraig’s heart went out to her. Although farm wives weren’t likely set aside for barren, their husbands and the townspeople were sometimes less than kind.

“Sion wants children then?” he inquired.

“We both do. We even danced round the Beltane tree again last year to see if somewhat would happen, but naught.”

Padraig understood this to mean that they had normal sexual relations. He opened his Sight to have a look at her, pretending that he considered his words carefully. It took only a moment to see that she was in perfect health. All the colors of a healthy young woman were present.

“I have some herbs that might help, but I have to ask some – some questions.”

“Aye.”

He queried about delicate matters like her monthly courses and whether her husband had ever had mumps. His healing Sight told him that Marya wasn’t the problem. He couldn’t Heal what wasn’t broken. He asked God for permission to Heal Sion, but he wasn’t sure of the response, did not feel anything that would tell him if God had granted the healing.

“I’ve some herbs I’ll give you. Hold a bit.”

He found what he was looking for in one of the pony’s panniers and he quickly spooned somewhat out into two bags, one for each type of herb.  Padraig swallowed hard at what he was doing. The red raspberry leaves were common enough, but the palmetto was a swamp plant and not so easily come by. Ah, well, he wasn’t returning to the kingdom to make his fortune.

“The red cloth is for you and the blue cloth is for Sion.  Make a tea of it every morning until it’s all used up. I can’t promise it will work, mind you. These things are often vexing. But, it does work sometimes.”

“Thank you,” Marya said, taking the bags and clasping them to her kirtle like a suspected treasure.  “How much do I owe you?”

“Naught.  Pleased that I may help you.”

He caught Joy’s halter and led the stock toward the gate.  Marya followed, kicking back the dogs who had come to say goodbye as if Padraig were an old friend.

“If we bear a child, we’ll name the boy after you.”

“Only if it pleases Sion,” Padraig insisted.

“If it works, your name will please him well. What name do you favor for a girl?”

Padraig didn’t have to consider the question.

“Ryanna,” he replied.  He swung up into the saddle, nodded once to Marya and rode off down the road. He’d not gone far before he realized that he felt totally at peace with the encounter. He glanced back over his shoulder to view the farmstead one last time, and found himself staring in awe.

There had indeed been an elven city here in the long ago and its memory still lingered for them that are sensitive to such things. Though by no means a gifted seer, there was elven blood in his veins and he saw what there remained – the echo of the city.

Built of pale stone that caught the sunlight and made it shimmer, the city rose in delicate spires and graceful towers throughout the valley where Sion’s steading now rested. Broad avenues divided blocks of buildings, all in rectangles and squares, shaded by graceful trees. The stream flowing just east of Sion’s steading was bridged by a graceful span of stone and there was not a defense wall to be seen.

Padraig blinked and the vision faded.  He’d seen what had been there to be seen, almost as a beacon of light against the darkness. He’d come west with a mission and he must never forget that.  Rescuing the basketlands was important not only for the society of men that now lived there but, for some unfathomable reason, for the Kin who had long ago fled those precincts.

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Fate

Fate

 

As a tree’s leaves are nourished by the roots, the present is established in the past. The history of the kingdom is older than the lives of man. We are upon the land only a moment and then depart, leaving others to learn anew lessons our fathers grasped. The map of the kingdom overlays an older land, but none remember it so. The true king descends from God, not the king in High Celdrya. Celts, ignore that strong truth at all our peril!

Gwenedd, Druidess of the Christian Celts (FY 448)

 

Spring in Founding Year 931 – A Century Ago

 

Front CoverFate took Maryn ap Trevellyn, crown prince of all Celdrya, by surprise. Naught warned him that he’d been marked. He and Deryk ap Fyrgal camped in a wood off the King’s Highway between the coastal city of Llyr and High Celdrya on a pleasant eve following a relaxing day of fishing. They enjoyed cups of wine with fresh bread, soft cheese and rolls of thinly-sliced spiced meat.

“I do think that second marriages agree with a man,” Deryk commented. He’d already had a bit too much to drink, as was his wont. Soon the tall blonde swordsman would settle back on his cot and sleep, leaving Maryn to contemplate the eve and his own thoughts alone. Twas always the way with them since boyhood.

“How so?” Maryn asked, leaning back in his camp chair, his darker brown hair and beard setting off his merry blue eyes. As heir-apparent to the High Seat of Celdrya, he craved the rare honest moment with a vassal who would speak freely.

“Do you not remember the first marriage, my friend? You were cockled for months before the ceremony. This time, you ducked into Llyr, confirmed the engagement and flitted away for the important things in life.” Deryk demonstrated this by waving his wine cup about this den of manly comfort. Owing to his lighter hair, he had not yet grown a full beard, though his moustache had grown in nicely.

“She’ll be in Dun Celdrya soon enough,” Maryn assured his friend. “Aye, you are correct about Melynda. I was much in love. I’ll not make that mistake with this one.”

Maryn’s first wife had died at childbed, delivering a stillborn daughter, at midwinter. He still mourned them both, but the kingdom demanded an heir, so his father had arranged a betrothal as soon as the official period of mourning was over. He would not lose his heart to this one, so it would not hurt so much if the gods were cruel again.

“Good for you.” Deryk was on record as one more in favor of lust than love. “This one’s already tried and found fertile, for all that she’s a widow and childless. What more could a prince ask for?”

Gillian of Llyr, one year junior to Maryn’s 23, had been married to a younger son of Galornyn and borne him a healthy son, but both the husband and child had perished in a fever last fall. With King Vanyn in ill health, it became urgent for Maryn to produce an heir and clearly Gillian could provide that. There were worse reasons to marry beyond political expediency.

“I liked her well enough,” Maryn explained. “She’s intelligent and being raised in court at Llyr made her wise. I won’t love her, truly, but we’ll enjoy each other, I think.”

Deryk gave Maryn a searching gaze until the younger man set his cup aside.

“What are you thinking?”

“Did you sample the wares?”

“Oh, aye!” Maryn assured with a roguish grin. “She seemed as pleased with me as I with her. We’re not children to mince about the issue.”

“As I thought,” Deryk said, draining his cup and yawning hugely. “I’m for sleep, my brother. And, you?”

“I think I will walk the pickets,” Maryn decided.  “Tis a pleasant evening and that cheese will disturb my sleep if I don’t let it settle.

“Then good night to you,” Deryk said.

Maryn donned his cloak of red and silver plaid and stepped out into the night. A few riders still talked round fires here and there, but most were retiring to tents and blankets. It must be nearing middle of the night, for a moon hung like a golden dining plate just above the southern trees and the cool air scented more of dew than spring flowers. Several fires burned down to coals, though the guards would keep one of the cook fires going through the night.

Maryn strolled along the horse picket first, knowing that there would be a guard stationed at the far end. He found Traegyr staring out into the quiet dark, standing at ease with his hand near, but not on, the pommel of his sword.

“Good even,” Maryn called long before he approached. Traegyr, captain of Maryn’s personal guard, knew his voice well and did not startle.

“Sir, is somewhat the matter?”

“Nay except for a belly of fine wine and good cheese. I’ll walk tonight. Anything about?”

“I saw a fox at the start of my watch, but nay, naught else beyond a few night birds.”

“Good then. I’ll say good night to you.”

The next sentry, having heard him chatting with Traegyr, greeted Maryn with good cheer. Leomyr, a grizzled man who had been with the warband at Maryn’s earliest memory, expected not but a quiet night with a few mosquitoes and naught more to disturb the camp. Maryn moved on.

The alder wood seemed to shimmer toward the south as moonlight passed through fog. Somewhere nearby, a raven tek-tekked. Maryn thought he’d not heard many ravens at night. There must be a nesting ground nearby.

“Sir,” the sentry at the south greeted. “I’m honored that you would review my work.”

“Truly?” Maryn said with humor. He had learned from his pagehood that a liege lord should acknowledge the common-born men who guarded his back, so his personal guard were mostly comfortable with him in a respectful manner. This guard was new to him, having been part of the dun’s war band until Traegyr had called him forth to the personal guard this winter. He was just shy of his middle years, with a lean unlined face and curiously slender through the hips. “You don’t think that I am inquiring beyond what is needful?”

“Nay, sire, for I am employed in your service and good work should welcome attention.”

“What is your name?”

“Pedyr, sir,” the guard said.

“Unusual name,” Maryn noted.

“Aye, my mam was from Dublyn.”

“Dublyn, is it? My brother Donyl is at the collegiate there – or will arrive shortly, I suppose.”

“The collegiate is up in Denygal,” Pedyr explained. “My mam does hail from there, but I’ve never been. I did travel to Clarcom with your father once.”

“Mayhap we can arrange for you to be in the honor guard to collect Donyl when the time comes. He’ll not want to go, knowing him. Bit of a bookworm, you see.”

“I have heard,” Pedyr said with a slight smile, then jerked round as a raven scream split the night. Before he could draw his sword, there came a whistling and Maryn was thrown back against a tree.

Death took him by surprise as he looked down at the two feet of dressed wood protruding from his chest. He couldn’t feel his legs, but he knew that he was staked to the tree like a squirrel.

I’m done for! I thought death would be more painful.

Pedyr bellowed for aid and the camp came alive as Maryn died, staring up at the moon with his life leaking away into the dirt by his feet and wondering why the shaft that killed him was the only one to fly.

 

Kindred Cycle 24573 – Trading Grounds – Five Cycles Past

 

The moon shone out of time and dumped a shovelful of cold down Gil’s back as he stared up through the smoke hole of the conical tent. Fully awake now, he rolled from under his blankets to pull on a pair of trews under the loose siarc he’d worn to bed. He walked out of the tent into what was meant to be darkest night and was as bright as day.

The silence had awakened him. A Kin camp was never silent, even in the dark of night. There was always someone singing, horses nickering, goats chewing on ropes.

Where is that cursed goat?

Nothing moved save the fires in a dozen rings scattered among the tall conical Kin tents. The goat had laid down asleep outside of Astralyn’s tent. On the other side of the nearest campfire, Gil could see one of the dogs had also fallen asleep.

Where are the guards?

The female standing by the central fire must have something to do with it. Dressed in a black shift of breast-skimming fabric, her waist length dark tresses moved in a wind that he could not feel as the power of her golden eyes drew him forward.

The most beautiful female I’ve ever seen, he thought. She was not so tall as Ryanna, but here was a woman who was comfortable being a woman. A female to make a man forget his woes and foes.

“Do I owe the music of silence to you, my lady?”

“You owe all to me, Farenlucgilyn.” She spoke Celdryan with an odd accent.

The silver-eyed witch was right, and that bitch I’m mated to did nothing to forestall my fate. Do I even care? Should I?

“You know who I am?” Gil queried. A fragrance of roses wafted from her white skin. When was the last time I scented a female wearing essence. They all think they don’t need it.

“I know your soul, Gil. And, if you allow, I might be yours.” Her voice flowed like warm honey, full of music. The cadence of her accent made him think of the old Celdryan texts his father read aloud.

“Many females have been mine,” Gil told her.

“Have they? Lying with one such as me is not the same as possessing. Would not your mate agree?”

“What do you know of my wife?” he demanded.

“She is not here.” It wasn’t a question and the hair on the back of Gil’s neck tingled.

“No,” he agreed. The bitch is Wise now! “She chose another,” he explained. True enough!

She had moved closer … or he had. He scarce remembered. Her hands lay upon his chest, heat radiating through his siarc.

“Do you love your people, Gil?’ she asked.

Odd question! Does she know me so well?

Shanara’s silver eyes filled his memory. The seer foresaw this.

“Both my peoples can burn in the deepest hells for my amusement,” Gil admitted.

“Aye, you have anger enough to possess me,” she announced.

“What must I do?” Gil asked. A quality mare always came at a price. He felt himself, his will, falling into her golden eyes. “Shall I burn them?” His eyes scanned the rough circle of hide tents and he smiled.

“That would be a good beginning, but a beginning only. You will be rewarded as you serve me.”

“What grand treasure does my goddess desire?”

This won a smile from her winsome lips.

“Very perceptive, Farenlucgilyn! And you willingly pay the price?”

“Oh, yes,” he said in Elvish and then switched back to Celdryan. “Gladly, so long as my father’s people suffer as deeply as they deserve.”

“I think I can arrange that if you can give me a basketful of offerings.”

“My mother’s people in the bargain? What a rich treasure indeed!” Gil bowed his head, which was as much as he could do with her standing so close. “I’m yours, my goddess, but what weapon do I possess that will destroy both Kin and Celt?”

Her laugh was music.

“Not destroy – enslave. The dead cannot worship me and give me offerings. That is not to say there won’t be streams of blood wherever we go. I envision many deaths and much blood, but we will preserve a remnant for my temples.”

“Of course, my goddess.”

“After you burn this camp, enter the byway to the north. You’ll know where I wish you to go. Others have already laid the pyre. They need only your spark. We shall blaze across Rune and your legend will be writ large and sung round the campfires for a millennium.”

A lifetime, twice that for an elfling, and five for the Celt. That is reward enough.

A torch appeared unbidden in his hand, the flame hot upon his face. The tall conical tents caught easily as one by one they blossomed against the night sky. When the last was lit, she grabbed his braid in a strong hand and sliced it free. The heat from the fires beat the air round them as they kissed for the first time, but all was forgotten as she pulled him into his tent to lie with him. He climaxed to the smell of burning flesh. Only later would he wonder why no one screamed.

When Gil awoke from the dream, the Kin were dead down to the goat and dog and he owned a hundred strangely docile horses laden with a fortune in trade goods. He left his people where they lay, the beaded braid laid beside the central campfire. Due north was the opening to a long-unused byway. With confidence to which he had no rightful claim, Gil opened the portal and set forth north to claim the treasure he deserved.

 

Kindred Cycle 24577/Founding Year 1028 – Blue Iris Holt – Three month ago

 

The music swirled round them, driving hands to clap and feet to move. Padraig spun Ryanna round in a complicated reel of dancers, letting go, weaving, circling, rejoining. Ryanna laughed as the other dancers called the steps and feet tapped to the rhythm of the harp and pipe.

At last Padraig lost step and pulled Ryanna down on a ledge to watch the other dancers continue their revelry. Ryanna giggled, her eyes aqua in the lantern light, twinkling with merriment.

“It’s been so long since I laughed like this,” she admitted. Some said he’d brought the light back into her eyes. Such was an awesome responsibility.

All round them the merriment of the solstice feast spun as they smiled at one another. Her full lips were pink and moist. He thought of kissing them, but she remained a married woman, as testified by the single beaded braid tangled in her loose tresses. Padraig straightened, putting distance between them, and her grin grew rueful.

“There’s a council a half moon from now,” she said in Celdryan. Although many in the crowd knew Celdryan, it provided them with a modicum of privacy, at least from the children. “I’ll make my intentions known. It’s been a five-cycle and I’ve done all I can. He removed his braid and left it. Even if he had not … done what he did … I am within my rights.”

Padraig’s Denygal upbringing rankled over divorce. He knew it was in reaction to the Celdryan practice of men setting aside women to starve or be dishonored. The Kin and Denygal mated for life, but mates died without witness or fell to disaster. Farenlucgilyn had walked away apparently guilty of a horrendous act. Ryanna’s petition was a formality and … yet …. Marriage was for life … unless your mate abandoned you following a horrific act of murder. When Gil sliced his braid off and left it behind, his intentions had been clear.

“You seem troubled,” Ryanna noted.

“It’s the clash of cultures,” he assured her. That must be it. The Denygal, hybrid race that they were, lived shorter lives than the Kin. They had taken the lesson of mating for life, but not the pragmatic understanding that sometimes this was not true.  “My love for you grows daily, but I would not love you against the One’s will and miss His direction.”

Ryanna nodded and moved to say somewhat, but suddenly a gust of wind set the lanterns guttering as snow swirled through the high hall. The music stopped as the crowd turned to stare at the three men standing in the open doorway. Snow-covered and heavily cloaked, they stood amid the swirling ice of a solstice day. Goi’tan rushed to close the double set of iron doors that stood as tall as a dun’s gate as the extinguished lanterns were quickly replaced by etheric light from a dozen sources.

The central figure of the three appeared sculpted in ice until he swept back the deep hood of his coat and focused bright purple eyes upon Padraig.

“Navaransenmador” Ryanna whispered.

Padraig glanced at her, confused, as Navaransenmador gazed about the chamber. His hair was silver, plaited with beads Padraig did not recognize, but his features were elven – furled ears, catslit eyes, slender face with high cheek bones.

“You besmirch the solstice with this celebration of your false god,” he announced in flawless Elvish. Marsamonsyglysel stepped forward as he spoke for the Wise this five-cycle.

“You do not speak for the Kin,” he said, as if reminding. “Please, join our celebration. You are welcome at our fire to eat our bread.” He gestured toward the banquet tables.

Navaransenmador frowned, his silver eyebrows drawing down, accentuating his purple eyes.

“I’ve come to deliver a message, though why the One gives a message to heretics, I do not know.”

His gaze fell upon Padraig once more. His frown deepened.

Yes, man, I’m Denygal, Padraig thought. I am not the only one.

Navararansenmador drew himself up and began to speak.

“Thus says the One Whose Name We Are Not to Know, hear Me, Kindred, and know that I am One God.

“The raptors fight over the aviary, but only one can rule and no bird of a feather will mount the throne. The dragon stirs and the One’s King will arise. Go you then to find him and win him free of those who would exploit him. Who shall go? One who knows both worlds and can heal both the body and the rifts of men, one whose brothers rule, yet who would walk barefoot himself, one whose Companion shines like the sun.

“And how shall you know the One’s King? He will be obscure — near the rule, but not of it. He will be of the Kin, but not know the Kin. He will pass through tribulation. He will be plain of speech, heroic and thoughtful. The dragon will claim him.

“The raptors fight over the aviary, but all will bow before the dragon.

“Know this and hear the One speak.”

When Navaransenmador was done, he sagged a bit, as if he had exhausted himself. One of his companions offered a steadying arm.

“You speak only to this elfling,” Gly noted, indicating Padraig. “Why is that? Is this prophesy only for him?”

“The prophesy is for all of us,” Shanara spoke from the shadows. A moment later an etheric light bloomed a pale blue beside her. “The One’s king is born, somewhere in the basketlands. Padraig is uniquely qualified to search for him and we are to aid him however we are able.”

“How could the One’s king be born among the Celt?” someone demanded from the crowd.

Navaransenmador seemed no longer interested in the topic. He and his two companions had withdrawn to a banquet table.

“Are they not God’s children also,” Barana, Gly’s wife, reasoned.

Padraig groped for the ledge behind him, sitting down heavily, stunned. Ryanna placed a hand upon his shoulder. Many voices echoed past him, full of questions and awe, but he understood none of them. He felt the stream of history catch him up and drag him down stream, tossing and tumbling, helpless to stand against it.

He found himself holding Ryanna’s hand as reality slowly shifted back into place. Gly was standing in the center of the hall; the Council of Wisdom stood near to him.

“The Council will call to order after the morning meal tomorrow. Padraig, we will require your presence. Shanara as well.”

“What of Navaransenmador. Should he not speak?” Padraig whispered. Ryanna sat beside him.

“They’ll be gone when we awake in the morning,” she explained. “They come to chide us for violating the solstice. This is not the first time we’ve had prophesy from them.”

“Who are they?”

“Winter people. That’s what we called them when we were children. Gly’s father, Marsamon, says they are the Sentinels.”

“I thought the Sentinels perished in the Scouring.”

“So did we, until we moved into Blue Iris Holt. Now they come and we listen, though often it is madness that they spout. This is the first time I’ve heard of any receiving interpretation.”

“Shanara was not just speaking as Wise?”

“Nay, Padraig, she’s not of the Council. The Holy Spirit does give her understanding.”

A shudder shivered down Padraig’s spine. I’m trumpet-called. There’s naught for it but to do as commanded.

Easier said than done, he thought soberly, sadly, glancing sideways at Ryanna.

Would they let her go with me? Will she if they allow it?

 

Spring Founding Year 1028 – Southern Blyan – Present

 

The raven on the roof peak slept. The ethereal tides lay still as a shimmering lake. Tariq felt no fear, no outward encroachment as he picked up his stirring stick to scry.

Even pirates avoided the Tongue, a low pestilent peninsula east of Galornyn, where the Averblyan fanned out into the Stormor. Rumors of haunts lived among the mangroves, and pirates feared haunts more than rival pirates. That suited the inhabitants of the few islands of dry land amid mosquito ponds just fine; the folktales of murdering fogs and monsters protected their privacy without stretching their creativity. An ordinary man, possessed of a suicidal bent, would never survive the real dangers of the swamp to find Tariq’s compound on one of the larger islands.

Thus protected, the greatest black mage in Celdrya tried to clear his mind, praying to Nudd that he might see the omens that the god of the underworld had for him. A month of ethereal fog foreshadowed anxiety in a highly trained mind that sought omens like common men seek water.

Amid the glimmering reflections in the black surface, a window appeared. After many decades studying the arcane arts, Tariq expected the vision to clear quickly, but mist had wrapped the occult for days. This one came just clear enough for Tariq to make out a young man riding through the hilly country of the north. From the snow still clinging to the craggy hills around him, Tariq guessed this a glimpse of now, rather than a true look on the metaphysical. A war horse, bearing a dark-haired rider who wore no plaid, trod a track near a road. Why is a soldier off the road before the spring thaw? The vision collapsed.

Muttering in consternation, Tariq stirred the ink, but no occultic window came in the settling surface. Growling, Tariq lurched to his feet to limp to the other work table. His workroom, one quarter of the ground floor of the rectangular main lodge, housed a fortune in furniture – two chairs, three stools, two tables, a shelf of books, and two cupboards stuffed full of materials and tools of his dark trade.

A quiet knock interrupted him midway across the chamber. Tariq frowned and opened the door. Sawyl, one of the journeymen, stood without. Of middling height and slender, with brown hair and eyes, he looked no more interesting than a merchant, but was one of Tariq’s stronger journeyman and a whoreson bastard in the bargain.

“Why do you disturb me at nadir of the astral tides?” Tariq demanded. Sawyl’s 25 years under Tariq’s tutelage kept him from quailing.

“My apologies, Master Talidd,” he said calmly. “Eaddyn seized.”

“When?” Tariq demanded.

“We worked on the stations ritual.”

“How is he now?”

“It’s been a watch. He remains unconscious. His pupils are unequal.”

Tariq nodded, expecting the news. Pity. That lad had great promise.

“I will attend later, ascertain if there’s aught to be done.”

“As you say, Master Talidd,” Sawyl assured as Tariq closed the door in his face.

Tariq, a thin, swarthy man of middle height, had more important things to investigate than a potential apprentice who could not withstand the rituals. Only an apprentice who could loosen the ethereal blockage would be of use. Tariq leaned on a crutch, dragging a leg, to reach a stool at the second worktable, where he began to mix the tiles waiting there. When satisfied they’d been thoroughly mixed, he separated five tiles and laid his hand upon the back of them, intoning in power:

“Nudd, god of the underworld and darkest night, hear my request. Show me the past, oh, Lord, that I might learn from it.”

Methodically, speaking powerful words in the ancient tongue, Tariq turned over each of the five tiles.

The first rank showed the same combination he’d drawn for more than a year. The Fool, or important personage, might mean the true king. The Chariot, representing journey or change, and the Star, suggesting renewed hope, was followed by the Sun, representing success. The World, signifying true desire, finished the rank. The message seemed clear to the mage after long hours of meditation. The true king was born, somewhere in the land.

He considered the tiles with his highly trained mind. A constant message suggested stability. The king had to be growing somewhere in the kingdom, anywhere from a babe in arms to a young man with his first blush of beard. Omens had limits; the tiles didn’t tell Tariq where to find the nascent king. He and his journeymen had scattered the seeds, but the harvest might be a long time off. If the king were found young enough to be influenced rightly, the outcome would be more than worth the effort.

The next rank of five depicted the near past, within the last month, most like: these tiles were not at all what Tariq expected. The Fool of Swords, the Emperor, Strength, Death, and the High Priestess. Oft you could only hope to make a story of the tiles and at this he was adept. A soldier important to the king had undergone a change or a trial and been set on a new goal. What does the High Priestess represent — wisdom, vision? Even long thought did not bring clarity.

A tug upon his mind drew him to the ink once more. This time when he swirled the black liquid he saw another rider in unidentifiable mountains. Although the rider had no snow right round him, the stark mountains behind him were still white with it. This window too swirled and pulled like cloud shapes, but Tariq discerned a tall young man riding a sorrel mare and wearing elven clothing. The lad had that tall, slender look that might mean a man of the Denygal. Curious, Tariq sent a line of thought out through the vision. The mind at the other end responded, replying with an equal curiosity. When he prepared to delve further, the rider’s mind suddenly hardened and rebuffed him so thoroughly that the link collapsed. Growling with annoyance as he stirred the ink again, the black mage could not recall the vision. Too much effort failed, so he had decided to turn his attention to distillation, when a window unexpectedly appeared in the reflections.

A slender hand held a sword, working it with great skill. Knowing little of swordcraft, he could still tell the hand clearly knew its way around the weapon it wielded. The vision remained stubbornly small; against all his efforts to widen it, he could see only the hand, somewhat of the arm, and the sword, naught more. An attempt to send a line of thought out to the mind of whomever held the sword was turned aside as though by an iron shield and the link dissolved, the connection snapped like sewing thread from the other end.

Tariq shuddered in the spring warmth. Never in his long years of psychic workings had he encountered a mind that could simply repel him without even pausing in what the body was doing. Who possesses such power? Outside the open louvre, the raven shook its feathers, aware of its master’s mood as he was aware of its.

Tariq returned to the tiles. The third rank represented the present. The Fool, the Magician, the High Priestess, the Hierophant, and, the Star. Senseless omens! What ails in the ethereal?

The future, found in the fourth rank, remained closed to him, the tiles jumbled; he actually drew an empty one, somewhat that rarely happened as there was only one in the entire set. He set the fifth rank without any hope of spying the far-future. His expectations fulfilled, he prepared to put the tiles away when the raven cawed from the roof peak. He had seen Gregyn in the ink this morning and knew the lad neared. Heartened, he now sent his thoughts out and felt the lad’s mind near to hand. The boy didn’t respond; to become distracted in the swamp was a danger that he had trained his apprentices never to allow.

The stew he’d begun that morning neared perfection in a meal! Tariq set the table with a wooden bowl and spoon, cheese and a basket of bread — a rich spring meal even in the swamp, for there was a limit to what might be grown in winter. The lad rode into the compound just as his master came to the porch. A tall, narrow-hipped young man with the wide shoulders and long arms of a man-at-arms, Gregyn rode a grey warhorse. Despite the sword at his hip, the old man saw an eight-year-old lad with a shock of dark hair shading wise grey eyes set in a half-starved face. He had to remind himself that his apprentice was no child now. Gregyn possessed great skill to go with a phenomenal power. What Tariq had done to prevent the squander of that power had been necessary; if the lad ever knew the extent of his power, the mage might wish that he’d been a less harsh master.

Gregyn, filthy, dismounted and led his mud-splattered horse to the porch.

“Master Talidd, may I have permission to bathe and care to my horse before I attend on you?” the lad asked, using the name Tariq presented to the world. He’d grown a bit more over the winter and his voice seemed deeper. His jaw was shadowed with stubble.

“Of course. There’ll be a meal waiting.”

The swamp could tire one who lacked what Tariq possessed to keep him safe. Was it the bravery of youth or did Gregyn possess skills that Tariq knew little about? An apprentice of his strength could write his own lesson book and therein lay the risk to the master.

Gregyn returned to the lodge nearly a watch later, shaved, washed and dressed. The man Gregyn knew as Talidd remembered when the lad walked the island in little more than a linen breech cloth. Now he’d donned blue linen breecs, probably left behind when he’d gone to Galornyn, and a white shirt blazoned with the dolphins of Galornyn. His feet were bare, though.

“Eat!” Talidd encouraged. “You may report later.”

Gregyn hesitated for only a moment before setting to. After living on flat bread and hard cheese for a catmoon, he naturally warmed to real food. Talidd thought he sensed wariness. At 17 or 18 (for truly none knew Gregyn’s birth year) was a difficult age for apprentices. He’d been away at Galornyn all winter where there were many young lasses to turn a lad’s head. That could bode ill if he’d decided the rituals were distasteful. Tariq needed his power in the rituals.

Gregyn finished his first bowl, got up and refilled, then ate more slowly, starting to give Talidd the information for which he’d taken the journey.

“Wergyn sends greetings,” he began, speaking of the journeyman sent to Galornyn some years ago. “The Lady Peddryna seems pleased with him and she still has no idea of his true mission at the dun.”

“Good. And what did you think of court?”

“From my view from the riders’ table I found it entertaining. I think riders should not envy the nobles. They live life upon a stage and everybody waits for them to trip and fall.”

Gregyn’s intelligence and insight would serve Talidd’s plans well, the master knew.

“Your status is appropriate for now. The day will come, though, when you will advance.  Were you able to do as I asked?”

“I was able to get to know the younger members of the household. Two of the family members have the Talent.”

“Not surprising. Did you begin preparing them?”

“Nay. One will not do because he’s too old and because he’s too honorable. Apparently Wergyn tried with him years ago. Tried and failed miserably.”

“Aye, I know of that. Go on. The other?”

“He lacks the strength of mind to study the craft.”

“Pity. That family should be mined. There’s no reason for you to return there then.”

“I found another,” Gregyn reported. Talidd wondered if he had spoken too quickly.

“Tell it,” Talidd encouraged.

“His talent isn’t as great, but he’s of a character and strength of mind to study and to – desire the power that comes with it.” Gregyn’s blue eyes twinkled for a moment. Talidd remembered the first lad he’d brought over. It truly warranted some excitement.

“A rider?”

“Nay, but he is noble-born and from a house you want roots in.”

Talidd smiled. Gregyn shared a brief bit of information on this lad, who was young enough to worship Gregyn as an older friend. As a page, the lad would be in Galornyn for at least another three years and that would allow plenty of time for the initial training.

“I already set seals to control him, so that even once he’s learned to shield himself from others I ought to be able to ensorcel him easily.”

“Good, good. I wish that I were able to meet the lad and enforce your workings.”

“I doubt much that I could convince him to come here. Not without thoroughly ensorceling him. I thought our plan was to leave the one we choose with a mind so that he might be useful in his own right.”

Does he suspect that I can overrule his control if I get the apprentice early enough?

“True, true. An apprentice, though, might not be able to set the seals that truly control the lad.”

“I got him to cut his thumb with his own table dagger,” Gregyn reported. My, but you are powerful for one whose potential is not fully realized. “We’ve only just begun. Wergyn thought I’d done enough for one winter.” Good, Wergyn is trying to slow him down and keep him from making discoveries I’m not ready for yet. “We want the lad to think this is all his own idea, don’t we?”

“Aye. Have you done more?”

Was that a heartbeat of hesitation Talidd noted?

“Nay. He already has likes. If the time comes to crush him, I’ll use it, but as long as we’re keeping everything friendly-like, I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

Gregyn seemed so reasonable, so logical. Is it distaste that holds him back or mere prudence?

“I will defer to your wisdom in this. Begin working on him to travel with him when he returns to his family. He can probably make you captain of the warband or somewhat.”

Of course, with power like Gregyn possessed, his acolyte might well put him in a much stronger position and think it all his own idea.

“Done. Should I begin teaching him basic rituals?”

This was a tricky choice. Gregyn’s power would only grow with practice and might, in time, outgrow Talidd’s control.

“If you feel he’s ready. I will rely on your judgment in this. Keep seeking a participant in the family at Galornyn. I prefer male, but I’d settle for a second female.”

“Lady Peddryana doesn’t seem to possess much of the Talent. There’s a toddler lass, but any attention there by me would draw scrutiny.” He is wise beyond most acolytes.  “Lady Berdda prevents me from scrying as often as I know you would like.”

“She’s the source of the Talent that runs in the family. Are you certain you haven’t missed any?”

“The vyngretrix himself or the heir and spare might be candidates, but a mere rider like me will never get close enough to find out. I thought Wergyn was supposed to worry about that aspect.”

“Wergyn has been at court too long. I need fresh eyes.” Always spread suspicion and rivalry between the underlings whenever possible.

“You have my report.”

Talidd stared out into the jungle for a bit, then spoke.

“How long may you remain?”

“No more than three nights. The spring weather slowed my travel.”

“I wish to work a ritual tomorrow night. See to it that you’re rested and refined.”

“Of course,” Gregyn replied. His tone suggested no disloyalty, but Talidd sensed reluctance. He worried about the bond he and Gregyn shared. Was it weakening?

The lad stretched, rose and put his bowl and spoon in the pan for washing up.

“I am tired,” he admitted. “I think I’ll get some sleep.”

“Of course,” Talidd replied, giving him leave. Gregyn picked up the saddlebags he’d brought with him and looked from the ladder to the loft to the door to the smaller bedchamber.

“I’ve a full house right now,” Talidd admitted. “There’s an unoccupied bed in there,” he indicated, pointing to the bedchamber. Gregyn hesitated.

“Who will I be sharing it with?”

“Sawyl.”

This time Gregyn’s carefully controlled features showed a glimmer of the dislike the lad felt for the man he’d grown up with. Talidd understood. As an elder apprentice, Sawyl had used his status to torment the younger, more talented lad. Gregyn had never voiced his hatred, but men in their craft rarely felt love for any but their masters, who liked it that way.

“It’s warm. I’ll sleep outside.”

Talidd didn’t argue. Gregyn’s choice was not altogether unexpected. If he were to be the master that Talidd thought he could be someday, he would need to be strong in his hatreds.

Gregyn went out to the wide porch and walked slowly to the far side of the lodge. The night air lay moist and heavy with just a hint of orchid and lily fragrances. Here the morning sun would break through the trees, a time of day Gregyn particularly liked. Gregyn chose the widest and most stable of the many hammocks stretched from the overhanging rafters, found blankets in a cupboard, and arranged a bed for himself.

The year at court had proven to Gregyn what he had learned growing up on Talidd’s island — he was alone only in his own head. The freedom at court had taught him somewhat else.  He hated Talidd, the rituals, and having to participate in them.

When he’d been an eight-year-old street urchin, scrabbling for crumbs in Dun Llyr’s worst slum, Talidd’s journeyman, a man Gregyn knew as Baddyn, had seemed quite attractive with his fine clothes and ample food. Initially, Gregyn had gloried in life in the swamp, away from the noise and confinement of the city. He’d not objected to the first simple lessons in the craft, excited by that first taste of power. Talidd’s attentions had at first seemed odd to an orphan, but not terrorizing. The terror hadn’t started until the night that Talidd had allowed Sawyl to have his way with the lad. Gregyn had been about nine. Seven years of first apprenticeship had followed. Sawyl had been allowed to do whatever he wanted with the younger boy. For reasons he did not entirely understand, the other apprentices and journeymen preferred Gregyn as a channel; thus he had never been the perpetrator of the terror.

A creak of the floorboards caused Gregyn to focus his eyes at the lodge. He saw Sawyl and Talidd walking across the compound. Gregyn wove Air and thought of Sawyl. It never worked on the master, but the journeyman had proven remarkably easy to work magicks on. Gregyn wondered that Talidd had not caught him out yet.

“He still breathes,” Sawyl said as they crossed the compound. This spell made it seem as if he were riding Sawyl like a spectre, privy to every sensation Sawyn encountered. “His eyes opened for a bit.”

Talidd did not appear in the mood to talk. They entered the apprentice quarters. There were two boys sitting silently upon their narrow bunks and a third boy lying still, attended by a servant. Gregyn recognized old Jaryn from his crippled side. The servants were almost all palsied or speechless. Gregyn had only recently begun to wonder why.

Talidd leaned over the lad in the bed for a good while. Sawyl stood back, so that Gregyn could not see through his eyes, but he could smell urine through his nose.

“It’s not worth the effort,” Talidd announced. “We’ve enough imperfect vessels here. Take him to the swamp now. The beasts will make quick work of him.”

Sawyl moved to look down at the lad then and Gregyn recognized Eaddyn, a young acolyte Sawyl himself had brought in. A surge of grief and rage roared through the journeyman before being quickly tamped down. Gregyn let the weave dissipate. He had no desire to feel Sawyl’s emotions.

Since he’d found a possible apprentice in Dun Galornyn, he’d had to face what that meant. Being able to bring another over shortened the apprenticeship and Gregyn desired the power that would come with this arrangement, but he felt decidedly squeamish about being the master, if the master must do such distasteful things to the apprentice. The rituals galled, but the consequences could be deadly. Do I truly want to leave a potential mage broken and unconscious for the swamp beasts to eat?

Staring up at the night sky, Gregyn wondered if Talidd knew what he thought. The old man often seemed able to read the minds of his apprentices. He was doubtful that most apprentices guarded their thoughts as tightly as he, for he somehow knew that Talidd’s respect was won by showing his dislike of Sawyl and his own death earned by showing his hatred of Talidd himself.

A year and a half into the second part of his apprentice, though not completely free of supervision, he was now allowed to travel and act somewhat independently from Talidd. He knew Wergyn reported to Talidd on him as he reported concerning Wergyn. A dark master must keep his hounds at heel or risk being devoured by them. There was advantage in that knowledge.

Gregyn wished he could simply run away, but as he prepared to return to the swamp, Wergyn had pointedly warned him that Talidd had power to draw Gregyn back and it would not be a pleasant reunion. Nay, better to bide his time. When the dark master died, the journeymen became free to set out on their own. Although other dark masters posed danger, a journeyman mage with strength could find all sorts of places in this world. Gregyn doubted he would enjoy being a noblewoman’s lap dog as Wergyn was, but he might find better than that. If he could survive until Talidd died. If he could make it through the following night. If …..

Gregyn fell asleep contemplating if.

Toward dawn, he heard a scream like a weak child out in the swamp and then birds exploded into the sky. Gregyn lay still with pent-up breath until he heard the distant grunt of a contented bull croc. Eaddyn was no more.

Gregyn returned to sleep.