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Master of the Cauldron: Chapter Three

       Last updated: Monday, May 10, 2004 23:51 EDT



    Garric sat at the makeshift conference table and for a moment rested his face on his hands, rubbing his brows and cheekbones hard. There's too much for one man to do, he thought in a sudden rush of despair.

    "No, there's not," said the image of King Carus, grinning at Garric with cheerful understanding. "Not if he's the right man, as you are, lad. Not if you do the part that has to be done."

    And that, of course, was the key: first things first. In a swirling battle, the spirit of Garric's warrior ancestor generally took charge. Afterwards Garric was always surprised at how little he remembered--how little he'd actually seen while the fight was going on. Carus focused only on essentials: the shimmer of movement to the side that was the edge of an axe; the bare wrist between an opponent's mail shirt and his gauntlet; the slight lift of a creature's upper lip that meant its lion-like jaws were about to gape wide enough for the point of a thrusting sword.

    The same was true in any complicated situation, and the politics of a kingdom could be more complicated than any mere battle. You had to deal with the crucial items while the rest waited, no matter how important those lesser things might've appeared by themselves.

    "And doing that was harder for me by a long sight that deciding who to put my sword through next ever was, lad," Carus said with a wistful smile. "I marvel to watch you, I swear I do."

    Garric lowered his hands and smiled at the men and women around him: Liane, Sharina and Tenoctris; Tadai, Waldron, Attaper and Zettin. They were his close companions, many of them friends and even those who weren't friends--Lord Waldron certainly wasn't a friend--were people whom he respected and who respected him.

    Cashel and Ilna weren't here. Garric wasn't surprised that they hadn't been located in time for an emergency meeting, but he regretted their absence. Cashel and Ilna weren't sophisticated, but they shared a clarity of vision that cut to the heart of problems where others tangled in the non-essential fringes.

    Peasant wisdom--the part that wasn't superstition and platitudes, at least--was merely common sense. That was as valuable in high governmental circles as it was most other places.

    Waldron still stood, glowering at the world at large. Garric pointed to the stool at his right which Admiral Zettin had properly vacated for the army commander. "Sit down, milord," he said a trifle peevishly. "I'm not going to make Lady Tenoctris stand, nor do I care to look up at you while we're trying to solve the present problem."

    Waldron glared for an instant. Before Garric had to repeat what was, after all, a royal command, he sat down. "I still say it's a family problem," he muttered, but he wasn't really arguing.

    "If your cousin were intriguing over the title to your estate, Waldron," Garric said, "I'd agree with you. As it is--well, more than half the army comes from Ornifal."

    "And three quarters of my officers," added Zettin, who'd placed an upended bucket at one end of the table for his seat. "The common sailors could be from anywhere, but an officer whose home and family are under a usurper's control, well...."

    Lord Attaper shrugged. "When Sandrakkan rebelled twenty years ago," he said, "King Valence took the army to Sandrakkan and put down the rebellion. If the rebels're on Ornifal, I still think it's work for the army."

    He looked up from his hands on the table before him, to Garric and then to Waldron. Both soldiers were nobles from northern Ornifal, but Attaper was from a minor house with less land and money than some prosperous yeomen in the west of the island. He'd joined the army from necessity and risen through skill, intelligence, and unswerving loyalty first to Valence III, then to Garric when Valence abdicated in all but name.

    Waldron was a warrior beyond question, but he commanded because he was head of the richest and most powerful of the northern families who traditionally provided officers and cavalry regiments for the Royal Army. He considered Attaper an upstart who needed to remember his place, while Attaper viewed Waldron as arrogant and narrow to the point of being a fool.

    "Rivalry isn't an altogether bad thing, though," Carus said, musing on the problem. "Since they're both honorable men--and bloody good soldiers too, in their ways."

    "Ornifal isn't rebelling!" Waldron snapped. "Not yet, at any rate, but that'll change in a heartbeat if this boy from Haft sails back at the head of an army."

    He turned from Attaper, across the table, to Garric beside him with an apologetic grimace. "Sorry, your highness, but that's what they'll say, you know."

    "Understood," Garric said calmly. He wished he could feel like a boy again; though he'd thought he'd had problems when he lived in his father's inn. It was all a matter of your viewpoint, he supposed.

    Admiral Zettin pursed his lips. He was in his mid-thirties, a decade younger than Attaper and only half Waldron's age. The royal fleet had had low status during most of the past millennium, but Zettin had accepted the appointment with enthusiasm. He was working to bring his command up to the standards of the Blood Eagles, where he'd served as Attaper's deputy.

    "Is it possible," he said, "that this Valgard really is the son of Valence Stronghand? I realize it's still a rebellion, but--"

    "There's no possibility!" Waldron said. "Bolor says the fellow claims to have been born to a princess of the People who Stronghand captured in the Battle of the Tides. Supposedly Stronghand sent him back with the mother to be fostered in her country. There weren't any women with the People! I'll swear to that, and so will anybody else who was there!"

    Garric frowned. "The People?" he repeated. "Who are they? I don't...."

    "Ornifal was invaded from the east in the fourth year of King Valence II," Liane said.

    "That's Stronghand," Waldron said, looking glumly at his hands again. "Everybody called him Stronghand after the Battle of the Tides, but to tell the truth he never was that again. He took a spear in the hip joint and fought another hour with it sticking out of him, the point stuck in bone. But it ruined him, it used him up."

    Liane had opened her travelling desk. She reached among the books filed in pigeonholes within, then stopped with a stricken look on her face.

    "I didn't bring it," she said in barely a whisper. "I didn't think I'd need--"

    She broke off, clacked the desk shut, and resumed in a crisply businesslike tone, "That was forty-nine years ago, I believe."

    She grimaced and returned to the snarling whisper to add, "I should have brought the Eastern Chronicles with me!"

    Reise'd given his children an education in the classic literature of the Old Kingdom. He hadn't taught them modern history, though, the history of the age in which they lived--because he wasn't interested in the subject.

    Garric didn't know who'd preceded his real mother, Countess Tera, on the throne of Haft, let alone what had been happening across the Inner Sea on Ornifal generations ago. This was one of the rare times that he felt the lack of that knowledge.

    "Forty-nine years, right," said Lord Waldron, looking up at a corner of the marquee while his mind stepped briefly into the past. "I was there, in Lord Elphic's squadron, my foster father...."

    "Yes," said Garric, hoping to cut off a digression into history that--however interesting in the abstract--had no bearing on the present problem. "We can be sure that this Valgard is an imposter, but since he's been accepted by Lord Bolor--and I assume others--already, that doesn't help us."

    "It could," Waldron said, returning to the present with the crashing abruptness of a cavalry charge. "It will if I'm there to talk to Bolor and the others like him. The claim's preposterous, and they'll believe me when I tell them that to their faces."

    "Granting what you say for the sake of argument," Lord Tadai said, touching his fingertips together in a precise pattern. "There'll be others in the conspiracy purely for the hope of gaining wealth, and very likely there are supporters of the former Queen who've been hiding since we overthrew her. They know they won't be safe until we, that is Prince Garric, are put down in turn."

    "There'll be rabble," Waldron snapped. He knew Tadai well enough to respect him, but he and the Valles merchant had so little in common that they consistently spoke past one another while trying to hold discussions. "There's always rabble. But it's the Northern squadrons who're a danger to the kingdom, not bullies and footpads!"

    "That may be," Tadai said in a pointedly patient tone. "And you may be right to discount the presence of a wizard with the conspirators as well. But it appears to me that this rabble has a vested interest in not allowing you to have a manly, honorable chat with your cousin and neighbors as you seem to intend. I'm not usually an advocate of military force, but I'm afraid in this instance it seems necessary. If you go to Ornifal without the army, you'll be assassinated."

    "And while I understand your concern about my presence inflaming the situation," Garric said, nodding to Waldron, "I don't want to give the false impression that Ornifal is less important to me than Sandrakkan. I think I need to deal with Valgard myself."

    "Not without the army!" said Attaper. With a pained expression he raised both hands before him to forestall the reaction his outburst merited. Apologetically he offered an edited version: "That is, I hope you won't go without the army, your highness."

    "No, I won't," Garric said, smiling faintly. King Carus in his mind wore a rueful expression. If one of his officers had flared at him that way Carus would've had his sword clear of its sheath before the statement was complete. They both knew that would've been a bad response. "While I think, I hope, that the presence of the army will convince Valgard's supporters to put down their arms, in the end I'm afraid Lord Attaper is correct. Rebels are rebels, wherever they are."

    "Your highness," Waldron said, clasping his heavy belt in both hands to keep them away from the hilt of his sword. He looked down at the table for a moment before he was able to raise his eyes to meet Garric's. "Your highness, send me and one of the Ornifal regiments. Let me try. Please. For the sake of--"

    He paused, then burst out, "For the sake of the kingdom!"



    "Garric?" Sharina said. She was sitting across the table from him in the seat Lady Lelor had filled during the negotiations. "If Lord Waldron goes back with enough soldiers for safety--"

    She quirked a smile that perfectly mirrored the one Garric felt bending his own lips. They both knew that no number of soldiers could guarantee safety.

    "Anyway...," Sharina continued. "If Waldron goes back and I go with him--then you're neither slighting Ornifal nor antagonizing those who don't like the thought of being ruled by--"

    She grinned very broadly, at Garric and then at Waldron beside him.

    "--a warrior king from Haft, let's say," she concluded.

    "That would also permit your highness to conclude the present negotiations with Earl Wildulf without appearing to be under pressure," Liane said, holding a document which seemed to have been written on a sheet of lead foil, like a curse to be buried in a graveyard. "While I don't want to seem alarmist, it's public knowledge that there's hostility toward the kingdom at all levels of Sandrakkan society, and other indications--"

    Her spies, she meant. Liane appeared to have agents on every island, though for the most part she kept their operations secret even from Garric.

    "--suggest that there would be a very real danger of revolt if your highness were to suddenly withdraw with the royal army at this stage."

    Garric took a deep breath. He smiled, but the expression didn't go deeper than his lips. "Doesn't anybody think I ought to go to Valles?" he asked.

    The truth was, he didn't want to return to Ornifal, not under these circumstances. He'd never felt comfortable in the society of the Valles court. Half of Ornifal's nobles viewed him as the next thing to a usurper, and all of them to some degree resented him for being from Haft. Whatever they might say in public, they knew in their hearts that Garric's ancestors had raised the kingdom to heights which it had never regained under the Dukes of Ornifal.

    'Prince Garric' had been accepted because he brought the stability that'd vanished under Valence III; but if a strong leader from Ornifal appeared, one who claimed to be the son of the warrior king of the past generation, there'd be many who'd be glad to support him. Courtiers, bureaucrats... soldiers. Even some Blood Eagles, perhaps. It was one thing to face enemies. It was another to turn your back on a seeming friend in the knowledge that he might be waiting for just that chance with a dagger in his sleeve....

    "We don't want you to go if there's another alternative," said Tadai, glancing around the table to a series of nods that proved he was speaking for all. "And Princess Sharina just showed that there is."

    Garric nodded. "All right," he said. "But there's something none of are talking about. Even you, Tenoctris."

    The old wizard sat beside Sharina, her satchel of paraphernalia placed discreetly on the ground under the table where others wouldn't have to look at it. She gave Garric a quick grin.

    "That's Hani, the wizard who's with Valgard," Garric continued. "If Valgard came from nowhere, then it seems as likely to me that he's Hani's pawn rather than the other way around. And much as I respect your abilities, Lord Waldron, they don't include wizardry."

    "And may the Lady grant that they never do!" Waldron said in gruff honesty. "I figure a wizard's throat cuts as easily as a decent man's, though, and I've got the sword to do it!"

    "Very possibly," Garric said. "But Tenoctris? I'd very much appreciate it if you would accompany Lord Waldron and Sharina. It's not that I don't want you here--and I may very well want your help, I know that. But I'll have the whole royal army, while on Ornifal--"

    He didn't try to finish the thought, just shrugged. He didn't know what words he could've used. Images of numberless disasters kept whirling through his mind like flakes in a snowstorm.

    Tenoctris nodded agreement. "Yes," she said. "I can be only one place at a time, of course. I just wish--"

    She stopping, beaming with the familiar, transfiguring smile that took decades off her apparent age.

    "I wish I had greater powers," Tenoctris said, "but I'll use what I have for the sake of the kingdom, and for Good--which must be real, since Evil so obviously is. And we'll hope that's enough."

    Garric rose to his feet. "Well, friends and fellow soldiers," he said. "Nobody can ask for more than the best we can give. Lord Waldron, you have matters to attend, I'm sure. Sharina and Tenoctris will inform you of their baggage requirements when you consider transportation. Lord Zettin, provide whatever Lord Waldron requests. Inform me after the fact, if you will, but you have my approval already."

    "Of course, your highness," Zettin said, glancing toward the aides waiting outside the ring of Blood Eagles who were ensuring privacy.

    "As for the rest of us," Garric concluded, "I see the barge coming back from Erdin already. I doubt Earl Wildulf would be quite so prompt if he'd decided on war, so we'd best consider the procedure for crowning a loyal vassal. It's something I got very little practice at--"

    He grinned broadly, light-headed to have resolved the question of how to deal with events on Ornifal.

    "--when I was living in Barca's Hamlet."

    Everybody laughed--even Lord Waldron, who burst out with a gust of laughter after he finally understood he'd really heard what he thought he had.

    Garric watched t leaving, helped by his sister. They'd have Cashel with them, of course. That was the next best thing to having a whole army....



    Cashel stepped from the sunlit hillside onto the parapet of a huge palace in the minutes before sunrise. The haze of light that precedes the sun had already turned the eastern sky into liquid crystal bright enough to hide the stars. The hard, smooth surface beneath Cashel's feet was just as translucently pure as the air above.

    "Oh!" he said, as much in delight as wonder. He'd poised his quarterstaff at a slant before him as he stepped through the portal, ready for whatever danger might be waiting. He shifted it to his side but held the ferrule a trifle above the ground. He didn't suppose the iron would mark the gleaming surface, but it still seemed wrong to be rough with something so beautiful.

    Mab was beside him. He hadn't heard or felt her appear. She'd been with him on Volita and she was with him still; it didn't seem to matter that they weren't in the same place as before.

    "This is Ronn," she said, looking around with the gentle smile of a person seeing familiar wonders through the enthusiastic eyes of a stranger to them. "You can think of it as a city, if you like, or as a palace; but all the thousands of citizens live in the same splendor as their ruler."

    Cashel looked at her again. She was Mab, he was sure of that, but--

    "Lady, your hair is dark now," he said. "And you're younger, and you're, well, fuller."

    The woman shrugged dismissively. "Yes," she said, "and very likely I'll change my tunics and sandals at some point as well. Does this concern you?"

    Cashel blushed in embarrassment. "I'm sorry, lady," he said. In truth, her clothes and the jewel-bright paint on her nails were the only parts of Mab's appearance that weren't subtly different from the woman he'd met on Volita. "I don't normally poke into other people's business. I won't do it again."

    Mab smiled. Cashel turned his attention back to his surroundings where he wasn't so apt to make a fool of himself. He hadn't been prying, just surprised; but when you asked folks about how they looked, you were being personal whether you thought about it that way or not.

    There was any number of people around, more than he'd guessed at first because he could see for such a long distance. He was standing near the southeast corner of a broad, curving terrace. It stretched for farther than Cashel could be sure of. To the west, across the ship-filled harbor far below, lights twinkled on the other end of the crescent.

    Because the plaza was so broad, the people got lost in it until you really thought about how many there were. Cashel didn't suppose he'd seen so many folks in one place except when Garric was mustering his army. There were too many to see them all, really, even if the sun'd been fully up.

    "It's like being up on a mountain, mistress," he said. "And it's very beautiful."

    "Ronn was built to be beautiful," Mab said with a nod of agreement. "And it was a mountain, before the city was built. The foundations are carved into the rock to support these crystal levels reaching into the sky."

    Cashel glanced at those standing close by, showing polite interest but being careful not to stare. People stood in pairs and small groups; occasionally one would be alone. They were waiting for something, though they didn't seem to be tense.

    They were an army in numbers, but nothing could be more peaceful than the folk themselves. Almost all wore a loose flowing robe, thin as the finest silk, over an opaque, richly embroidered garment that covered them from feet to neckline as tight as a stocking. The women's fingernails were painted like Mab's, blue on one hand and red on the other, though nobody else's seemed to have the same inner shine as hers.

    The people who weren't dressed in that fashion were probably foreigners like Cashel, though he guessed they'd come from the ships in the harbor instead of stepping out of the air. There were more different kinds than he could've counted on both hands, ranging from small, dark men in wrappers of patterned cotton to a pair of hulking, red-haired fellows who wore furs. Those two were taller than Cashel--taller than Garric, even. They gave him the same kind of appraising looks that he offered them.

    "Ah, did wizards build the city, mistress?" Cashel asked, rubbing the pavement with his bare toe to see if he could feel any sort of join between blocks. It was as slick as polished metal, all one piece and not even roughened by the feet that'd walked it over who knew how many years?

    "One wizard did," Mab said, turning toward Cashel. Her voice was calm, but there was something more in her eyes. "He built Ronn, and he ruled as the King for a thousand years."

    She gestured with her left arm and continued, "The plain from Ronn to the northern hills--"

    Cashel could see the hills she meant in the far distance, an irregular darkness rising on the horizon. From where he stood on the southern edge of the broad terrace, the lowlands between city and hills was out of sight.

    "--was planted in crops to feed the city's population and worked by the Made Men whom he'd created as he created Ronn. For a thousand years, till a thousand years ago."

    Cashel nodded to give himself time to decide just how to respond. He wouldn't want not to work himself, but he knew a lot of people didn't feel that way. After fitting the pieces together in his mind he said, "That sounds, well, pretty good, mistress. Did something go wrong back a thousand years ago, then?"

    Looking at the comfortable people, well-fed and well-dressed, it didn't seem like very much could've gone wrong. There had to be something he was missing, or Mab wouldn't have brought it up.

    "Something went right," Mab said. "The Made Men looked like real men except that they couldn't bear the light. They worked in darkness. At first they had windowless huts in the fields. Each dawn they went into their huts and hid from the sun. Little by little they began moving into Ronn, first in the lowest vaults but moving higher as time passed. They blocked the crystals that brought the sun and moon down from the sky to every level. And then a thousand years ago the people rose up behind a Queen, and they drove the King and his creatures into the hills."

    Cashel looked at the other people waiting on the terrace. It was hard to imagine these folks driving anybody anywhere. All but the foreigners looked as smoothly plump as so many palace servants back in Valles. It made him remember what Mab had said before, about Ronn being a palace where everybody lived like the ruler.

    "Well, it seems like things are fine now," he said aloud. He smiled at Mab. "People aren't starving, I can see that."

    Food was on his mind, he guessed. He'd brought bread and cheese in his wallet, figuring that there must be water on Volita since it pastured sheep. It was past time that he'd have eaten if he'd stayed on the island, but he guessed he'd wait a while longer since it was just dawn here.

    "The Queen was a wizard too," Mab said. "She caused crops to grow inside Ronn where the residents themselves could tend them without fear of the Made Men attacking during the night."

    The spectators--despite their total numbers, they were too spread out to call them a crowd--gave a spreading sigh like the murmur of doves in their cote. A group of men and women wearing high golden headdresses walked toward the eastern edge of the terrace. There were seven of them, a handful and two fingers of the other hand.

    "That's the Council of the Wise," Mab said in a quiet voice. The newcomers passed almost close enough for Cashel to have touched them with his quarterstaff. "They aid the Queen with certain tasks, including this one."

    The Councilors reached the parapet and lined up along it. Together they turned westward, stretching both arms out as they began to chant.

    "They're wizards?" Cashel asked, his eyes narrowing slightly. "Or just priests?"

    "Wizards of a sort," Mab said. "Useful in their way, but only candles in the sun compared to the King."

    She sniffed and added, "Though 'sun' is the wrong word to describe what the King's become in a thousand years of rule and a thousand more of exile."

    The Councilors murmured a final word, their voices slurring together so that even though they spoke louder Cashel couldn't have repeated it. Not that it would've meant anything except to another wizard, of course.

    A man who must be at least a mile high appeared in the middle of the terrace, facing the eastern horizon. His whole figure shone slickly. The feathered cap on his head by now should be catching sunlight the way tall trees do while the ground beneath them remains in darkness, but his boots had the same gleam. He raised a golden trumpet to his lips and blew a long call.

    As the sweet, rolling note died out, the sun rose above the horizon and threw the dawn's first real shadows. The trumpeter melted back into the air.

    The spectators resumed their conversations in quicker, brighter tones. The foreigners were jabbering among themselves in wonderment; one of the tall, fur-clad men had half-drawn a long sword before the spectral giant vanished.

    "You're not afraid, Cashel?" Mab asked with a knowing smile.

    "No ma'am," he said. "But it was a pretty thing."

    The Councilors were silent. They'd drawn together like sheep in a thunderstorm; a couple of them were so tired that others had to steady them. It'd been an impressive illusion, but for seven wizards working together, well, Cashel saw what Mab meant about them not being powerful.

    "Yes, very pretty," Mab said as she looked out toward the barren hills. The sunlight falling on them somehow made them seem all the darker. "There are many pretty things here in Ronn, but only the Queen could withstand the King when he led his Made Men back from the hills."

    "The Queen's a wizard too, Mab?" Cashel asked. People were dispersing, either going down broad staircases built onto the city's gleaming flanks or simply promenading along the terrace.

    "The Queen is a great wizard, Cashel," Mab said, still looking northwards. "For a thousand years she kept back the King, and her Heroes led the people of Ronn against the Made Men. But--"

    She turned to face Cashel. For a moment he thought her eyes blazed with the same perfect blue as the nails of her right hand.

    "--the Heroes all sleep in a cavern beneath Ronn... and yesterday, the Queen vanished."



    Ilna felt momentarily as though her skin had been turned inside out and bathed in ice water. A flash of crimson light left her sitting on pebbly soil at the base of an escarpment. It was night, and blinking afterimages of the wizardlight filled her eyes.

    There was another flash, silent but so vivid that Ilna's ears rang with the expectation of a thunderclap. Light rippled up a section of the rock face nearby.

    "Don't move!" shouted a voice, unfamiliar but the same one which had warned them to get away in the ruined garden. Too late, of course, but Ilna couldn't complain since the person speaking was the one who'd been transformed from a statue when she severed the spell binding him. "The troll can't hear, but it sees well even in the dark."

    What does he mean by troll?

    A second flash outlined a section of the escarpment. It scaled off of the surrounding rock, crackling and popping like a much louder version of the sounds a treelimb makes when the weight of ice breaks it.

    Landslide! Ilna thought, but she was wrong. It was a stone figure, walking away out of the wall it'd broken free from. Her eyesight was returning, but from what she could see in the moonlight the creature was featureless--a lump of head on a squat torso with arms and legs as crude as a child's clay figure. It was easily four times her height, however.

    "We're all right unless it happens to walk toward one of us," the voice said. "If it does, run--and pray if you're of that persuasion. Generally a troll will wander into the desert, though, so we ought to be all right."

    "Ilna, my heart?" Chalcus called from Ilna's right, the other side from where the stranger was speaking. "Are you in this place as well?"

    The figure--the troll--was between them, but as the stranger said, it was shambling away from the cliff without taking notice of the humans nearby. Its limbs bent where the knees and elbows would've been on a human being, but the joints made a squealing hiss. Its weight shook the ground.

    "Yes," Ilna said. "Merota, are you here?"

    No one answered, just the wind and the wheeze of the troll walking away from them. The girl had been standing just a little behind Chalcus on the other side of the wisteria when Ilna made the final cut. Was there a range beyond which the broken spell had no effect? There must be or all Volita would be here in this stony wasteland!

    "Merota, child?" Chalcus called. She still couldn't see him or the stranger on the irregular ground, though they must be close. "Can you hear my voice, dear one?"

    Still no reply. Perhaps the child was safe, then.

    A pine tree grew within a furlong of the escarpment, silhouetted against the brighter sky. Dead limbs thrust straight out from the sides all the way up the trunk, but at the top sprays of needles formed a flat brush. The troll stumbled into the tree--literally, it seemed to Ilna. The creature walked with the rolling gait of a sailor on land, and the ground's slight slope nudged it toward the tree in a slow curve.

    The troll's right arm lashed horizontally at the thick trunk. Splintered wood sprayed outward. The stone hand smashed through the tree so swiftly that the top portion hung for a moment, then fell straight down onto the stump instead of being flung outward by the blow.

    The troll staggered on. It'd destroyed the pine tree in no more than the time it'd take to sneeze. The severed bole wobbled, then toppled sideways onto the creature's head.

    Wood splintered on stone. The tree rolled off and crackled into the ground, shedding branches. The troll didn't seem to have noticed the impact. Ilna could hear the wheeze of rock bending and the thud of heavy footfalls long after the creature was out of sight in the darkness.

    "There's no danger now," the stranger said, rising into sight beyond a patch of wormwood whose white-dusted leaves glowed in the light of the quarter moon. He was nude; as the statue had been, of course, but it was still a surprise to see what had been a crude carving reformed in tightly muscled flesh. "Not for us, at least. If it stumbles across a village in the night, it'll treat the huts and the people in them just as it did the tree."

    Ilna got to her feet, patting the grit off her tunic. Chalcus rose also. His sword drew a figure in the moonlight, then slipped back into its sheath as quickly as it'd appeared. He stepped over to Ilna and hugged her fiercely--but only with his left arm, as his eyes continued to dart about the landscape.

    He stepped away from her. "My name is Chalcus, friend," he said to the stranger, "and the lady is Mistress Ilna."

    His tone was friendly, but the quick dance his blade had made a moment before was as much threat as anyone with eyes needed. "Who would you be, then? If you don't mind my asking."

    "I'm Davus," the man replied. "And since you must be the ones who freed me, then you have my thanks and my sincere regrets that the backlash brought you to this place also when it snatched me home."

    Davus picked up a pebble, caressing it with the thumb of his other hand. Chalcus was poised to move with what Ilna knew was lethal speed, but Davus dropped the stone by his side instead of throwing it. He seemed to have wanted nothing more than contact with the pitted surface.

    "When we saw you," Ilna said carefully, "you were a statue. Were you alive, then?"

    Davus laughed. "That I can't say, milady," he said. "I wasn't aware, that I can tell you with certainty. I was in a garden, a lovely green place. A wizard had brought me there, pulled me there, I think. And then the garden was a ruin. I saw you bending over me and I was slipping back here. I didn't know anything in between."

    He chuckled. "Time will have passed, I'm sure. Likely a good deal of time."

    "Tenoctris said the buildings on Volita were destroyed a thousand years ago," Ilna said. She tried to imagine a thousand years. She couldn't. All it meant was a time long enough to throw down the walls of Carcosa, that were still a mountain range in their ruin.

    "Then a thousand years," Davus said, shrugging. "It doesn't seem to matter when you're stone. Though I wouldn't mind having clothing again, for the nights here near the rim can be chilly and the sand the wind blows stings me."

    "Here," said Ilna, loosing the redoubled silken noose she wore in place of a sash. She lifted off her outer tunic and tossed it to him. "This may be a little short for you and you may feel that the pattern doesn't suit, but perhaps it will serve for the time being."

    Davus held the tunic to the moonlight and let his thumb trace the swirls woven into the hem of the garment's sleeve. Ilna'd used gray fleece from three ewes. The shades were so subtly different that she hadn't thought anybody else would notice the distinctions. She'd been wrong about that.

    "I'm honored, Mistress Ilna," Davus said. "This is your workmanship?"

    "Yes," said Ilna, letting the syllable stand for itself.

    "Honored indeed," Davus said, and shrugged the garment over his head. It was a little tight at the shoulders until he loosened the neck laces, but otherwise there was nothing to complain about in the fit.

    Ilna started to tie the rope around her waist, then thought again about it. In daylight she usually depended on her knotted patterns for defense. Now with only the doubtful light of the moon to display her work to an enemy, she supposed the running noose in the silken cord was the better weapon. She held the coil in both hands, ready to cast if necessary.

    Animals too small to see clearly scurried in the shadows, movements rather than shapes. Quail called, and once she heard was the whit-whit-whit of an owl. The landscape wasn't familiar, but it seemed normal enough.

    Apart from the fact that pieces walked away from cliffs.

    Chalcus stretched his arms up, then back, without ever ceasing to scan his surroundings. "So, Master Davus," he said. "Are these trolls a common thing we'll meet here?"

    "That was a small one," Davus said easily. "I once saw one hundreds of feet tall."

    He scooped up pebbles, a handful of them this time, and began to juggle with the same unthinking skill as Chalcus sometimes spun his dagger while his mind was working. "There's a good deal of power in this place," he went on. "The sort of power wizards use, I mean. But you'll have known that, I suppose, since the way you freed me shows that you're--"

    He nodded first to Chalcus, then to Ilna.

    "--wizards yourselves."

    Chalcus said nothing. There was enough light for them to see one another's features but not enough to read them.

    "I see patterns," Ilna said harshly. "I broke the pattern I saw in the vines that were holding you, Master Davus. I'm not a wizard."

    "No offense meant, mistress," Davus said contritely. He gave her a small bow. "But there's power in this land, as I say; in the earth more than in the air or the water. When it builds, or a spell like the one you broke pours itself over the landscape, the rocks can come alive. As you saw."



    Ilna stared in the direction the troll had taken. She couldn't hear it any more, though she thought she felt its tread through the soles of her bare feet.

    "I hate rocks," she said, musing aloud rather than intentionally talking to her companions. "They're bad enough when they lie still like they're supposed to, but walking around like this...."

    Davus laughed, tossing his pebbles one at a time over his shoulder. They fell to the ground in a tight group. "There's good rocks and bad rocks, mistress," he said. "Like everything else."

    He walked a little way out on the plain and turned to view the escarpment. It curved for as far as Ilna could see in either direction.

    "The king who ruled in my day," Davus said, "was a great wizard. He ordered trolls back into the cliffs here, then turned them again to rock. But that hasn't happened for a long time."

    He gestured. "See the niches in the cliffs? And at the bottom of each there's the chips that fell where the overhang weathered out after the troll walked away."

    Ilna dutifully turned and looked. Chalcus gave only a quick glance before he resumed scanning the brush and sparse trees of the plain into which the troll had gone. The sloping cliffs were notched, right enough, and there were spills of pebbles and larger rocks at the base of them. That was nothing that would've seemed unusual if Davus hadn't called her attention to it. He seemed to be an expert, though.

    "Who rules now, then," Ilna said, "if your wizard-king doesn't?"

    "I don't know," said Davus with a smile. "I know only that the Old King wouldn't have allowed this to happen. Therefore--"

    He turned his palm up as if holding the proof in it.

    "--he no longer rules."

    In a more sober tone he went on, "He wasn't perfect, the Old King. It's not good for any man to hold the power he did. He kept a loose rein on this land in the main, but he wouldn't abide kings or armies. When folk made enough problems that he took notice, he changed them into stone. Like enough he made mistakes; he was human, after all. But he took his duties seriously."

    "If they say no worse of me when I die...," Ilna said. It was only when she heard the words that she realized that her thoughts had reached her lips. "Then I'll have no right to complain."

    She cleared her throat and looked sharply at Davus, bringing her mind back to the present. She'd been lost in memories of the things she'd done in the past. "Was it your wizard-king who made you into a statue, then, Master Davus?"

    Davus chuckled. "Not that I recall," he said, "and not that I believe, either. A wizard of your world drew me to him, for purposes that were none of mine. But who turned me to stone... I don't know."

    "There's a thing I see in the distance there," Chalcus said. He pointed, his left arm to the first two fingers indicating a glitter where the dark gray sky met the black horizon to the north. "That looks like the face of a glacier; which is nothing I'd expect to see in these warm latitudes. Can you tell me what it is, friend?"

    "I could say that it's new to me as well...," Davus said, following the line of Chalcus' arm with a grim expression. "For it's been built since I was snatched away. In my time the Citadel was in that place, the king's dwelling, on a tall spire of rock standing out from the plain."

    Chalcus nodded. "That's the palace, then," he said, seeming to settle inside now that he had a name to give what had been unknown and therefore threatening.

    "You can call it that if you like," Davus said, his tone cool but leaving no doubt of his disagreement. "They say the King lived as simply as any peasant, though; the King that was, I mean. And those crystal spires that're so high we can see them even from here on the rim, well, they're nothing that King built in the thousands of years he ruled this land."

    He grinned with a sort of humor that made Ilna realize that Davus, whoever he was, wasn't out of place in company that included folk as hard as Chalcus and herself.

    "So there's a new king in the land," he said, sweeping up more pebbles. "And he's a wizard too, a great one to have built such a splendid thing as we see. But he's not so good for the people of this land as the man he replaced, I fear; and maybe he's not a man at all."

    He turned slightly. Instead of resuming his juggling he drew back his right arm, then snapped a pebble toward the base of a stand of thorn scrub several double-paces distant. Ilna heard the thwock! of the stone hitting flesh. A quail shot straight into the air, thrashing wildly but silent. It flopped back onto the dry ground, still twitching. It'd been dead from the instant the stone took its head off.

    "Well thrown, friend," Chalcus said, his voice neutral but leaving no doubt at all the praise was sincere.

    "It won't make much of a dinner for three," Davus said. "Still, it's something to sleep on, and at dawn perhaps we can do better."

    Ilna grinned as she walked over to clean and pluck the bird. Davus was obviously proud of his skill, but the quiet fashion he displayed it was one she found familiar from her own life.

    Chalcus began shaving twigs to make tinder into which he'd strike a spark from back of his dagger. Davus cleared his throat, looking at neither of them. "Mistress," he said uncomfortably, "I saw three persons around me in the moment you broke the spell. The third would be the child Merota you were calling?"

    "Yes," said Ilna. Then, with emphasis, "Yes. But she wasn't caught in this... trap the way Chalcus and I were. That's right, isn't it?"

    "From where Mistress Merota was standing," said Davus, his eyes on the far-off crystal glint, "I'm afraid she must have been caught as well. If she's not here on the rim of the land, close by the rest of us--"

    "She'd have answered if she was," Chalcus snapped. "Unless she was hurt?"

    "The transition would no more have hurt her than walking through a doorway would," Davus said, dipping his chin in negation. "But if she's not here at the edge, then she's at the center. She's at the Citadel."

    Ilna eyed the jagged glitter on the horizon. Normally moonlight softened the lines of what it fell on. It wasn't softening that thing; or if it was--

    She chuckled, a brittle sound in keeping with her present mood. She began to pluck the quail, anger and her strong fingers making up for the fact she hadn't been able to scald the feathers first to loosen them.

    "If that's a mast of rock, then it's a very long way from here," Chalcus said as he laid his fireset methodically. He looked up at Davus. "Not so, sir?"

    "Very much so," Davus agreed. "Since we've only our legs for transport it'll take us many days to get there."

    "Us," repeated Ilna without expression. "You plan to come with Chalcus and me, Master Davus?"

    "I'm the reason you and the child are here, mistress," Davus agreed. "It's only justice that I should help you as much as I can. Don't you think so?"

    "Yes," said Ilna, thrusting the point of her bone-cased paring knife under the quail's breastbone and slicing its belly open. "I do. And the fact you do as well, Master Davus--"

    She looked up at him with what was for her a warm smile.

    "--is the best news I've heard in this place!"



    "One advantage of having been poor all of my life...," Tenoctris said, eyeing her sturdy leather satchel. It held the tools of her art and was the only luggage she was taking to Valles. "Is that I don't find it difficult to pack all I need."

    Sharina laughed. Tenoctris was a friend and colleague, but she'd been born into a noble family. An impoverished noble family, to be sure: but that meant there were only half a dozen servants in Tenoctris' household. Sharina'd served tables herself for the customers in her father's inn.

    "I never thought of myself as poor," Sharina said. "We weren't poor for Barca's Hamlet, of course; but nobody in Barca's Hamlet had very much. I didn't have trouble packing either."

    "People don't need very much," she added, watching the bustle as Lord Waldron's squadron loaded for the voyage east. By now she'd seen enough similar scenes to appreciate what was really going on instead of viewing it as a wildly chaotic swirl.

    For all the great weight of gear going into the five ships of the squadron, the individual soldiers had almost nothing of their own. Besides arms and a spare tunic, they might carry some little talisman of home or souvenir of a place they'd been and liked. A religious icon, a flute or ocarina; perhaps a letter or a girl's face painted on the inside of a folded wooden notebook.

    "A little peace wouldn't come amiss," Tenoctris said, a trifle wistfully. "I had that when I was poor, too."

    She laughed, back to her normal sprightly self. "Until the world ended, literally for tens of thousands of people and very nearly for humanity," she added. "In part because I was living peaceably with my books instead of helping whoever was trying to prevent the disaster."

    "King Carus was," Sharina said, looking down the beach to where her brother met with the second delegation from Earl Wildulf. She couldn't see Garric. He was encircled by Blood Eagles, and around them a thicker ring of people who wanted to talk with the Prince or be close to the Prince or just see the Prince. It was hard to imagine that....

    "Carus was trying," Sharina repeated, "but wouldn't have welcomed your help or any wizard's help. He was determined to hold the Isles together with his sword and army alone, and so he became part of the problem."

    As Carus himself would say--and had said, using the tongue of his distant descendent Garric or-Reise to shape the words.

    Tenoctris looked back into the distant past, her face turned in the direction of the granite knob. She focused on Sharina again with a smile of apology for her brief absence. "Yes," she said, "I suspect you're right. But that doesn't matter, dear. I should've tried and I didn't."

    "Well, you're trying now," Sharina said, getting up from a block of the fallen porch which also supplied the older woman's seat. She hugged Tenoctris. "We all are, and so far we're succeeding."

    She looked back the way Tenoctris had been facing, feeling an edge of disquiet. She'd expected Cashel to be back by now. The messengers she'd sent should've brought him if he hadn't simply returned on his own after stretching his legs from the confinement of being on shipboard.

    Barely aloud she said, "Of course Cashel has even less to pack than you and I do."

    Still, she wished she saw his big, comfortable figure ambling through the ruins with his quarterstaff over his shoulder. Cashel rarely moved quickly, but he never failed to get where he was going--no matter what was in the way.

    Instead of Cashel she saw a pair of soldiers from one of the line regiments approaching: a common soldier with a puzzled expression, and a half-angry, half-worried company commander whose horsehair crest was across his helmet instead of running front to back like the soldier's. They stepped purposefully through the stones and shrubbery, ignoring other soldiers except as obstacles to go around.

    Tenoctris watched the men also, her lips pursed. Soldiers who weren't on guard duty didn't usually wear their helmets in camp, let alone mount the detachable crests. The most likely reason for these two to be formally dressed was they were coming to see Princess Sharina....

    The six Blood Eagles loosely guarding Sharina and Tenoctris stiffened noticeably when they saw the men approaching. Lord Attaper had probably placed the guards by his own decision. Sharina hadn't protested, though she found their presence uncomfortable and probably pointless. She knew that she or Tenoctris either one could be attacked, even here in the midst of the royal army. She didn't believe there'd be an attack of a sort that soldiers could prevent, however.

    "I'm Lieutenant Branco, Third Company of Lord Quire's regiment," the officer said. He spoke to the under-captain commanding the guards but in a deliberately loud voice so that Sharina and Tenoctris couldn't help but overhear. Branco was at least forty, a commoner promoted to company command after long service instead of a noble on the first step of his military career. "Trooper Memet here says he's got a message for Princess Sharina from Lord Cashel."

    Memet had been looking straight ahead, uncomfortably waiting for his commander to sort things out while he pretended he was a piece of furniture. Now his eyes flew open. "Lord Cashel?" he blurted. "Enver bless me, I thought he was a shepherd like me!"

    "Memet," snarled the officer. "If you made this up, you're going to wish you were a shepherd. You're going to wish you were a sheep!"

    Branco looked at Sharina and, without even pretending he wasn't addressing Sharina directly, said, "Your highness, Trooper Memet here hasn't ever lied that I know. There's some who'd say he doesn't have brains enough to lie. His story don't make sense, but I brought him to you anyhow."

    Four Blood Eagles were lined up between the women and the two soldiers like thick bars across a window. The other two were behind them, watching the other way in case Memet and Branco were a diversion from the real attack. Sharina didn't imagine the guards really thought there was any risk--she herself certainly didn't--but they viewed their duties as putting themselves between the women and any possible danger. Branco and Memet were the closest thing there was to a threat, so they were making the most of it.

    The Blood Eagles didn't keep Branco from talking to Sharina, though. Unless she told them different, that wasn't any of their business.

    "Let the trooper talk for himself, Lieutenant," Sharina said, hoping the words weren't as harsh as they sounded in her ears. She was afraid for Cashel and afraid for the kingdom, because anything that could harm Cashel was a danger to far more besides.

    "Right," Memet said, standing at attention with his eyes on the far horizon. "Ma'am, this big guy, he said he was Cashel or-Kenset, not any kind of lord?"

    "She's a princess, you bonehead!" Branco whispered savagely. "Call her 'your highness!'"

    "That's all right, Memet," Sharina said. "Go on."

    Tenoctris had seated herself on the ground, tracing a figure in the dirt with a bamboo splinter. Bits of stone that'd crumbled off the ruins made the task difficult.

    "We were talking about sheep," Memet said. His eyes edged toward where Sharina stood before him, then jerked to the side as though sight of her had burned him."I'd been a shepherd on Ornifal, though I stuck with the army even after my dad died. A lady came and talked to us. I didn't see her come up but she must've done. She said her name was Mab and Cashel had to come right away or his mother was in trouble."

    "His mother?" Sharina repeated, shocked into speaking when she'd intended to let the soldier get his story out in the way he found easiest. Cashel didn't have a--

    But of course he did.

    "Right, his mother," Memet said. He wasn't relaxing but he seemed to have sunk deeply enough into telling the story that he could forget who he was telling it to. "So he said he'd go, Cashel did, and he told me to tell Princess Sharina what he was doing. And then...."

    He suddenly met Sharina's eyes squarely. "Ma'am? Princess, I mean?" he said. "Then they walked into the rock. It was just a rock, I swear, till she said words and they walked into it. And it was a rock again."

    The soldier scratched his scalp under the brow of his helmet. This unique experience had driven years of training out of his head. He was a puzzled shepherd again who didn't remember he was talking to a noble because his sort never talked to nobles.

    Sharina's stomach knotted. She looked at Tenoctris, still sitting on the ground though she'd given up on the figure she'd started to draw. "Tenoctris," she said, "nobody who knows Cashel would expect him to do anything but go. Do you think it was a trap?"

    "Cashel always seems to make the right decision in a crisis," Tenoctris said. "His simplicity cuts to the core of matters that less... simple people get confused by. Myself, for example."

    She put one hand on the ground. Sharina knelt immediately and helped the old woman up. Leaning forward to see past the backs of the Blood Eagles, Tenoctris said, "Can you take me to where this happened, Memet?"

    "Sure, ma'am," the soldier said. He looked sideways at Branco. "I mean, if the lieutenant says it's all right?"

    "It's all right with Lieutenant Branco," Sharina said absently, taking a wax tablet and stylus out of her sleeve. "One moment, Tenoctris. I'll need to write a note to Garric, telling him what's happened. He'll want to know. And to Ilna. Then we'll both go with Memet."

    The under-captain of the guard detachment looked at her. "Then we'll all go, your highness," he said, "if that's what you're bound to do. And if anybody gets the notion that you and Lady Tenoctris ought to step into rocks too, well, they'll discuss it with us first."

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