Fate – Chapter 1

Front Cover UpdateFate (Chapter 1)

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 (FY) 931 – A Century Ago

Fate took Maryn ap Trevellyn, crown prince of all Celdrya, by surprise. Naught warned him that he’d been marked. Deryk ap Fyrgal camped with him 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.

Donning his cloak of red and silver plaid, Maryn stepped 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 banqueting 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, sir, 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. He’d been contemplating the freedom of the Basketlands and hating the remembered stench of Celtmen as he dozed off. 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. 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 Daermad and your legend will be writ large and sung round the campfires for a millennium.”

A lifetime, twice that for an elfling, and twenty-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 24578/ Founding Year 1028 – Blue Iris Holt – Three month ago

The music swirled round them, driving hands to clap and feet to stomp. 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 lake blue 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 dark 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. It was Celdryan practice for men to set 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 a sudden 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. Marsamonsynglysel 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.

“A elfling shall seek the True King and find him in the aviary where no bird of a feather may rule. A chill wind from the north shall batter him before he climbs to the tower, but strong companions will lift his arms and bolster him until all bow before the dragon.

“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 pale blue beside her, brighter than any other in the room. “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 downstream, 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 an adventurous 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. A journeyman stood without. Of middling height and slender, with brown hair and eyes, Sawyl 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 shown 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, leading a dapple black pony, 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 louvers, 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 half moon, 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 specter, 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 on another, 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.

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A healer must mend a fractured kingdom and unite two warring races before a greater enemy can destroy them bothFate

 

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

 

Fate 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.

 

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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

 

Fate 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.

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.