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Master of the Cauldron: Chapter Thirteen

       Last updated: Wednesday, September 22, 2004 12:29 EDT



    Ereschigal aktiophi! thundered from no human throat. The Words of Power filled Sharina's mind as she whirled out of the cellars, out of Valles, out of the sidereal universe.

    Berbiti baui--

    She still held the ring. Tenoctris had vanished into the white mist. Everything had vanished except Sharina herself and the clothes she was wearing.


    The ring couldn't have been a trap. It was a tool meant to carry the user from where he was, where she was, to another place. It was a tool but not Sharina's tool, and she didn't know how to use it properly.


    Beneath Sharina a plateau rose through the white mist, an island lapped by a sea of clouds. Squared fields covered the rolling surface, and many of the gleaming watercourses feeding or fed by the lake in the center were laid out in straight lines also.


    The island swelled quickly beneath her. A building of polished marble with a two-story colonnade lay beside the lake, embracing half the shore in its spreading wings. Sharina didn't see any other structures, but except wooded stretches along the canal margins the whole surface appeared to be under cultivation.


    The ground was a hundred feet below, fifty feet below, twenty feet below. Pale men bent over their hoes in fields of squash shaded by maize. The laborers didn't look up.


    The laborers weren't men. They were People, wizard-made creations. The People captured in the Battle of the Tides had said they came from a floating island....


    Sharina landed so lightly that her sandals barely sank into the soft earth. Then she fell backward.

    A horn called.



    Ilna stared at the Citadel, feeling impressed the way she'd been the first time she'd looked west over the Outer Sea from the heights above Carcosa. A thick growth of hardwoods and pine covered the base of the spire, but from midpoint the rock was bare and black and as sheer as a house wall.

    It was beyond her to judge how tall the thing was, but it was very tall. The crystal crown overhung the basalt, though from this angle Ilna saw only the glittering points and arcs which projected beyond the black shaft.

    Chalcus was standing arms-akimbo, leaning back from the waist to view the Citadel instead of just tilting his neck. He straightened and barked a laugh, "I'm happy that we're not going up the outside of that, dear heart," he said. "I've known a few men who could manage it--or could've, for the most of them are dead now--but I wasn't among them."

    Davus smiled and set down the three rocks he'd carried as weapons. He took the bit of snowflake obsidian from a fold of his sash, caressing it with his thumb.

    "Don't claim you're happy till you've seen what the choice is," Davus said in a voice as wan as his smile. "But it's the choice regardless, I'm afraid."

    He nodded to the right. "Time we get to it," he added as he started off in the direction he'd indicated.

    There wasn't a path, even an animal track, but because the ground was stony the undergrowth was too sparse to be a barrier. "I hear the sea," Chalcus called from behind Ilna, sounding surprised.

    "Aye," replied Davus over his shoulder. "A lake, more properly, but too broad to see the other side."

    "Well, perhaps we'll be able to do that from the top, eh my friend?" Chalcus said with a laugh. "We'll learn when we're there, shall we?"

    "Not even from the top," Davus replied. "Which I'll willingly prove to you, Master Chalcus, as soon as we have no greater demands on our attention."

    They came out of the woods onto rock bare even of leaf litter. The basalt was rippled like pond ice. It'd weathered into shades of lighter and darker grays, with patches of the original black where winter had cracked a flake loose. Ahead was the ragged edge of a cliff overlooking water which the sunlight turned a chalky ultramarine; to the left rose the chimney-straight shaft of the Citadel, splotched here and there with blue-gray lichen.

    In the basalt wall was an oval hole taller than a man. The lower half was blocked with squared stones set in mortar. Over the wall, her arms crossed before her, a bare-breasted woman watched the companions with a thin smile.

    "Did that come by nature or did someone, a wizard mayhap, drill it, eh?" Chalcus said as he surveyed what was clearly the next stage on their journey. He grinned like a jester, his hands on his hips.

    "The hole's natural," Davus said, rubbing the obsidian again before slipping it back into his sash. "The lady there that we must treat with is another matter. The Citadel draws in a great deal of power. Part of it leaks back down this channel; and for that reason alone, she'd be uncanny. Her name is Arrea."

    "Is she human?" Ilna asked bluntly. Her fingers were knotting cords without any specific intent.

    "Less than many of us, I'm afraid," Davus said. "But we need her permission to go further."

    "Well, there's ways and ways of treating with a lady," Chalcus said, sauntering forward. Though his clothes were worn by the hard journey, he was every inch the gallant as he said, "So, Milady Arrea, you see before you travellers who want only your good wishes as we pass by to deal with the tenant above. I trust you'll grant us that slight boon."

    "For a price," the woman said. Her voice was clear with a pleasant sibilance. She shrugged her shoulders, sending waves down her long, coppery hair. "Everything for a price, traveller. And for that great thing you ask, a great price."

    Ilna walked forward also, keeping a little back from Chalcus and a double-pace to his left. She knew how wide a swathe a blade swept when wielded in the flashy, curving style the sailor favored.

    Davus, an equal distance to the sailor's right, tossed his obsidian point high in the air. "Arrea bargains from the certain knowledge," he said, "that killing her would close the passage. She'll bargain hard, of that I have no doubt."

    He turned up his other hand: the point dropped into it. His nonchalant gaze had been on Arrea the whole time, without so much as a glance to judge the trajectory of the bit of stone.

    Chalcus looked at his companion with a blank expression which hinted nothing of the fury Ilna was sure lay beneath it. Davus had blandly removed any chance they had to bargain. That would've disturbed Ilna also if she'd had only the words on the surface to go by, but she felt what she did not hear--a pattern weaving, subtle and deep.

    "Certain, you say, my dear friend?" Chalcus said, his voice a song like the ringing whisper of a blade drawn from its scabbard.

    "As certain as the rock--"

    Davus rubbed the ball of his right foot against the basalt, an oddly sensuous gesture.

    "--beneath us, friend Chalcus," he replied. "We must find the price she demands, not the one we wish to pay. Whatever that demand may be."

    "Then for Merota's sake..," Chalcus said, suddenly relaxing. "That is what we shall find. What is your great price, milady?"

    Arrea laughed in a voice as cold as the winter moon. "I need a task performed," she said. "Look into the sea and tell me what you see. It may be that none of you is fitted to carry it out."

    "I've looked at water before," said Chalcus as he swaggered to the edge. "So far I can go with you, milady."



    Davus walked after him, tossing and catching the chip of stone as if his hands were wholly separate from the man himself. He glanced at Ilna with a soft expression; turned then to Chalcus and twisted his mouth into a broader, harder smile.

    Ilna faced Arrea squarely. It was like looking at a snake, though the woman's features had the chiseled beauty of a temple statue. Ilna turned and followed her companions. Behind them, Arrea laughed triumphantly.

    The men were looking down from the cliff. The fierce updraft ruffled their hair into the liquid curves of candleflames. Ilna stepped between them and peered over, holding her tunic to her thighs with her hands.

    The cliff was sheer--undercut, even--but at present the lake a furlong below had only waves enough to dapple the light reflecting from it. It was deep, much deeper than the Inner Sea off Barca's Hamlet.

    Chalcus scowled, then composed his face into a smile and looked over his shoulder at Arrea. "I look and I see water, milady. Water and a bird in the distance, a very large bird to look as big as a gull within bowshot but in fact be so far away. Is that what we're to see?"

    Ilna frowned. In a voice meant for the sailor's ears alone she said, "Surely she means the cloud there in the water, don't you think? That cloud in the depths, and the silk strands glued to the rock and running down to it."

    Wrist-thick cords, tens and tens of them, were anchored to the rock face for as far as Ilna could see in either direction. They looked like the lines supporting a spider's web, but these were as heavy as a ship's cordage. They slanted toward the water and wove themselves into a hollow tube just above the surface.

    "What is it, dear heart?" he said, obviously puzzled. "The water's clear as a baby's conscience, I'd have said."

    "Davus, what do you see?" Ilna said, irritated to hear a desperate undertone to her voice. "There, where I'm pointing? And the lines running down to it!"

    "I see nothing, mistress," Davus said calmly. "The same nothing that Master Chalcus sees. But if you see something, then it's there and it's you who must go the next part of the way."

    He stepped back so that he could look straight at Chalcus without Ilna between them. He crossed his arms behind his back, leaving his chest open to a blow or a sword thrust. "As I feared might be the case, though I hoped it would not. Still, the price is the price; and it has to be paid."

    Ilna turned and walked the ten double-paces back to where Arrea faced them over the masonry wall. She could've shouted to the other, but Ilna didn't like to raise her voice; particularly when she was angry.

    She grinned. She had more experience with being angry than most people did--or anybody should, she supposed.

    "I see a cloud in the water," Ilna said. "A cloud or a silk bag, I suppose it must be, since silk cords hold it to the cliff. Is that what you wanted to know?"

    Instead of answering directly, Arrea gave her a broad, tight-lipped grin and said, "You'll do, then. It's not a sack, it's a cocoon. In it you'll find a great jewel. Bring the jewel to me and in exchange I'll open the passage for you and your friends."

    "I can see the cords," Ilna said, speaking in a cold tone to hide the anger blazing within her. "That doesn't mean that I can breathe water, mistress. Nor can I swim!"

    That last was a little more tart than she'd intended. She couldn't swim, and the thought of suffocating as the waters closed over her filled her with a disgust that wasn't the same as fearing to die.

    "The larva needs air," Arrea said in an arch tone. "It's a white bloated thing with no eyes and no limbs and no mind, so it will neither know nor care that you're breathing some of what was meant for it."

    "And has it a mouth, milady?" said Chalcus, come to Ilna's side now as she had come to his. "A mouth to swallow those who've come to steal its jewels?"

    Arrea laughed. "Have you nothing to worry about on your own account, Master Chalcus?" she said. "The larva is squirming blubber which eats nothing and knows nothing about the jewel. It will not be aware that your slip of a girl here has come and gone."

    "On your life!" Chalcus said, the planes of his face rigid.

    Arrea laughed again.

    Ilna turned on her heel and walked to the cliff, eyeing the task she'd taken on herself. Davus, who hadn't moved from the edge, said, "The threads weave themselves into a floor you can walk on before you're a hundred feet out, and they twist over in a tube well above the water."

    "And the larva isn't danger?" Chalcus said, come up on Ilna's other side.

    "Not the larva," Davus said, "but there may be parasites in the cocoon sucking its blood."

    He shrugged. "They're not lions or wolves, Master Chalcus," he said. "There'll be danger, but there's danger in life. And we cannot go in her place or even go with her, because we're blind to what must be seen."

    "Yes," said Ilna. "And while I regret seeming to agree with Arrea, whom I neither like nor trust--"

    Chalcus chuckled and even Davus, who hadn't known Ilna long, smiled.

    Ilna grinned also, pleased that the unplanned joke had broken the tension. "Yes, I suppose that does put Arrea with the great majority of the people I've met," she agreed. "Nonetheless, I don't see that my going down to a room in the sea, for that's all it is, is so greatly more dangerous than you waiting for me up here."

    "We'll keep our eyes open," Chalcus said. He stepped close and kissed her, then turned. "I'll watch our backs, Master Davus," he said. "You keep an eye on her and tell me if there's anything I should do. That way we'll come out all right, I think; or anyway, come out best."

    "Right," said Davus, fitting a good-sized rock into the pocket of his sash. He swung it idly, watching the far horizon where the bird soared.

    Ilna touched the nearest line, attached only a handsbreadth below the top of the cliff where she was standing. The cord appeared to have melted onto the stone in a splotch wider than Ilna could circle with both hands. Given that the strand was strong enough to tow a trireme, and as best Ilna could estimate there were more strands than there were rowers in that trireme, the risks she was taking didn't include the chance of the cocoon breaking loose with her in it.

    Turning backwards and wrapping her legs around the silk, she started down. The slope was gradual and the cord so thick that she could probably have walked it like a rope dancer, but she didn't need to do that now.

    That would've been showing off, behavior Ilna disliked and particularly disliked in herself. Besides, her companions both knew what she really was; and respected her, for what she was and--she felt--despite it.

    I know what I am too. And if there was a God to forgive me, I would still never forgive myself.

    Above her Chalcus began to sing, "Don't bury me here, in the cold gray sea...."

    "Where the seagulls cry...," Davus joined in with his pleasant baritone.

    Ilna reached a point that three strands joined. She turned and stood, walking down the widening pavement and luxuriating in the feel of the silk against her soles.

    " mournfully...," her companions sang.

    Ilna began to laugh, a thing she did rarely and would never have imagined doing under the present circumstances. She'd been alone most of her life, for all that there'd generally been people about her.

    She wasn't alone any more.



    Just ahead of Cashel the cavern narrowed to a knife-edge. The walls stepped back a bit at every level rising to the dimly-glimpsed ceiling, but down where he followed Mab and the Sons it was going to be tight. Cashel figured he'd have room to spin his quarterstaff crossways but only just, and that because a staff didn't wobble when he spun it the way it did for most folks.

    "Mistress Mab?" he said. "Ought I to lead here, or maybe...?"

    He stopped because he didn't even know how to ask the question. Truth to tell, it seemed to Cashel he ought to be all places in the line, since the only direction he didn't worry about things coming at them from was up through the floor. And if there turned out to be a floor grate in the crevice, he'd be looking down between his feet too.

    "I'll make a light and lead, Cashel," Mab said. "Shall we have...."

    She made a sign in the air before her with her right hand; a blob of blue wizardlight bloomed. After an instant's pause, Mab signed again, this time with her left hand and a completely different gesture. Red light swelled beside the blue.

    "The crimson, I think," Mab said. The blue light vanished and the red flooded soft color over everything within a stone's throw ahead and behind her. "Neither's more natural than the other, but the crimson makes things look more natural to our human senses, don't you think?"

    "Thanks for giving us light, mistress," Herron said. All the Sons had taken to carrying their swords in their hands instead of wearing them in their belt scabbards, but only Herron held his with the point up where it might be good for something against a sudden attack. "I was... I wondered how much darker it was going to get."

    "Algae grows over the light pipes," Mab said, not sounding very concerned about it. "It's natural, but the way it grows isn't."

    "Like the mushrooms we saw," Orly said.

    "And the rosebush that tried to follow us," said Enfero.

    And also like the big spider you didn't see, Cashel thought. And probably a lot of things I didn't see besides.

    But he didn't say any of that aloud. They were decent boys, trying hard to be brave doing something they didn't begin to understand. Cashel didn't understand either, but he was used to that and the Sons weren't.

    "I see something," Orly said. "On the fifth terrace above us. To the left."

    He pointed with his sword, then jerked it back. Cashel guessed he was afraid of calling attention to himself.

    "They're white!" Stasslin said. "It's the Made Men!"

    Cashel saw not figures but the pale shadows of figures, watching from just above where the glow lighted. There were a lot of them, many times more than he could count without a tally stick. They moved back and forth along the edge overlooking the crevice.

    Stasslin turned to face Mab. In the tone of angry accusation that seemed to be pretty usual for him, he said, "You told us the Made Men couldn't get in, but here they are waiting!"

    Before Cashel could act, Mab flicked her left index finger. The rosy haze expanded suddenly, filling the whole vast cavern and the passage ahead. A treefrog hung with its mouth open on the wall just below the terrace where the figures'd been, blinking at the light. Its webbed feet were much broader than those of frogs Cashel was used to, and its body was as large as a lamb's.

    But the figures had vanished.

    Mab shrank the light down to what it'd been a moment earlier. Cashel couldn't see the big frog any more, but the white shapes came capering back.

    "The Made men were gone," Athan said, "and now they're there again."

    "They never existed except as ghosts in your minds," Mab said coldly. "They have no physical presence, and they can do you no physical harm."

    She looked at Stasslin and smiled. Her lips could've cut glass.

    Stasslin glowered and turned his head away. "I didn't know!" he said in an angry voice. "I'm not afraid of ghosts."

    "There's reason to fear these," Mab said, her voice gentler as she glanced across all those with her. "The King's spirit never really left these depths, and in the past decades his power here has increased to levels it's not reached in a thousand years. He can't touch your bodies, but he can trick your minds into seeing things that aren't there. He can make you feel things that're to his benefit. Not your benefit or the benefit of the citizens of Ronn."

    "Lady Mab," said Herron, pretty much succeeding in keeping his voice steady. "What are we supposed to do?"

    Mab smiled and raised an eyebrow at Cashel, passing the question to him. He shrugged, uncomfortable with everybody looking at him; but that'd happened to him before, and worse things had happened too. And the answer was always the same.

    "We go on," Cashel said. "We go to the Shrine of the Heroes, and we wake them to come back with us."

    He cleared his throat. "Or anyway, we try."

    "Yes," said Mab, "that's what we'll do. As I said, I'll lead."

    She walked forward, the light moving with her step by step. Several of the Sons started after her right away, but Herron glanced over his shoulder at Cashel.

    Cashel smiled, pleased that Herron'd been concerned about him. They were good boys; most of them, anyhow.

    "I'll bring up the back, Herron," he said. "That gives me a little more space if I need it."

    So speaking, he spun his staff slowly. Just the simple sunwise turning made him feel better right away, so he crossed his arms behind him and reversed his spin to widdershins.

    The Sons all gasped. Cashel didn't see why. He was showing his skill, but these fellows didn't know enough about quarterstaffs to see that.

    Then he brought the hickory around before him again. The ferrules were trailing blue wizardlight.

    "Oh," Cashel said, feeling his cheeks flush. He twisted his staff to a halt and butted it on the ground beside him.

    "Master Cashel, how did you do that?" Manza said in amazement. The Sons were staring at him. Mab watched too, but she had a crooked smile.

    "He's a wizard, Manza!" Enfero snapped at his friend. "How else would he do it?"

    "I'm not a wizard!" Cashel said, looking at the deep passage they were supposed to be going down. "Anyway, let's get going."

    He made a shooing motion with his free hand. Since he wanted to be at the back of the line, he couldn't very well stride off down the crevice the way he'd have done otherwise to get them moving. He felt like Stasslin had a moment ago, embarrassed at what he'd done and having no idea what to say about it. He didn't understand the power that came over him sometimes, but he wasn't a wizard.

    Mab walked on. The Sons followed, most of them right on her heels, though Herron and Stasslin both tried to keep a decent separation. Cashel couldn't pretend he liked Stasslin--and unlike Ilna, Cashel generally found he did like people--but even Stasslin was doing his best. That counted for more than the results did.

    Well, it did to Cashel. Ilna, well, Ilna didn't have much time for failure either, even when it was somebody besides herself who was failing.

    "Master Cashel believes a wizard is a person who uses spells and symbols to work changes in the waking world," Mab said. She spoke in a normal voice without looking back over her shoulder, but Cashel at the end of the line heard her clearly. "That defines many wizards, of course."

    They were well within the crevice, now. The walls oozed, but the way the drops ran made Cashel wonder if they were something thicker than water. The floor was slimy, and the air had the musty closeness of something long dead but covered up. He remembered the time he'd opened the tarred seal of a storage jar and found that a rat had managed to hop in with the oats before the jar was closed the August before.

    He heard something ahead, different from the dismal plink of water falling into water. One of the Sons was whimpering. There weren't any words to what was coming out of his mouth, just cold misery.

    "They're up above us again," Manza said. "They're coming closer, I think."

    "They aren't there!" Athan said. His head was bent forward as if he needed to watch his feet for every step. "Just don't look and they'll go away!"

    "They will not go away," said Mab. "But they can't do you physical harm. Follow me and we'll make it through."

    One of the Sons clustering close behind her turned. Hard to tell what he was thinking, but when he saw Cashel bringing up the back with his quarterstaff across his body--and across the width of the crevice, which was just as tight as it'd looked before they entered--he jerked his face forward again and kept on the way he'd been going.

    Cashel wouldn't have sworn which of them it'd been; and anyway, Orly needn't be ashamed for being scared. He'd proved he was brave when he'd charged Cashel on the exercise ground after seeing what the quarterstaff'd done to his friends.



    They walked on, surrounded by Mab's light. Cashel knew from watching other wizards that it was a lot of work to keep up a steady thing like that light. Mab didn't seem to show the strain. She'd walked and talked with them just like always, but she must feel like she was carrying a load of timber.

    Yes, that was pretty impressive; but in the long run it wouldn't make any difference. The light would go out and Mab would sink under the effort, fall down right here in the ooze and darkness. She'd be the lucky one. Cashel and the Sons wouldn't die right away but there wasn't anywhere for them to go, neither forward nor back. They'd die slowly, covered by the slime that was slowly filling the crevice. It'd fill the greater hall in back of them, and eventually slime would own all the places that men had been.

    The world would be a better place when slime filled it.

    He stumbled into Enfero, who'd knelt on the narrow path and was weeping. Though Cashel's eyes were open he'd been putting one foot in front of the other, scarcely aware of his surroundings. The collision shocked him back to the present. Though the light was no fainter than before, it was losing the rosy tinge. It turned the stone walls and the thin-stemmed plants that still lifted their leaves in hope a pale gray.

    Cashel grabbed Enfero by the back of the collar, lifting him and shoving him forward. "Get on!" he said. "Keep walking! It's not time for us to die yet!"

    At another time the words would've bothered Cashel to hear from anybody's mouth, let alone his own. Now it was the only truth in the world: they had to go on till they died and the world died and the sun grew cold. Cashel didn't know why that was, but he generally couldn't answer questions starting with "Why?" He just did the thing that'd been set him.

    Stasslin hacked at the wall beside him. His sword made a nasty clang.

    "It won't spark!" Stasslin cried. "It won't spark!"

    Nor did it, maybe because of the slime that covered the stone. Stasslin struck three times more; then his sword broke just above the guard. The blade flew off, and Stasslin flung his hilt after it.

    Enfero was marching forward again. He'd lost his sword too, either back where he'd knelt or maybe earlier that that. That didn't matter: the swords weren't good for anything. Nothing was, not even Cashel's quarterstaff.

    Furious at the hopelessness of it all, Cashel whirled his staff before him. It moved sluggishly, like he was trying to spin it underwater. Something ripped sizzlingly; a brilliant azure flash lit the crevice. Momentarily, just for a heartbeat, the feeling of despair lifted.

    Cashel spun the staff again. This time it moved the way it usually did, sliding through the air in an arc as pointless as the one the sun made every day: rising and setting, looking down on lands which slowly crumbled; sinking into a sea of cold gray slime that rose till the sun itself drowned in darkness.

    The Sons stopped where they were, whining like a litter of puppies. Cashel set his staff crossways and shouted, "Go on!"

    He shoved them forward. Altogether they weighed much more than he did, but that didn't matter in Cashel's current temper. It was like dragging a bullock--and he'd done that, more by determination than by main force, hauling against the rope and, every time the beast relaxed, jerking it a further hand's-breadth on.

    "Go on, you puppies!" Cashel said. "We've got to keep going till we die. Walk on!"

    The Sons gave before him, stumbling on again. They didn't have the will to resist. There was no will that could've resisted Cashel's now. He'd go on and go on driving them with him till they all died.

    They came out from the crevice between the down-tapering walls. They were now in a natural cave, a huge bubble in the rock. There were no crystal windows from here to the surface, not even those smeared over with algae. The glow shimmering from between Mab's hands was the only light in these depths, and that was as faint as the sky an hour before winter dawn.

    The walls had the layering of natural rock; stalactites pointed the distant roof. Across the great opening was a bronze door, impressive but smaller than those of some temples Cashel had by now seen in the waking world.

    "Come!" said Mab, her voice shrill. She hobbled toward the doorway, taking full steps with her right leg but only half steps with her left. At some time during the journey she'd become an ancient harridan, toothless and hunching under the weight of years.

    What was the truth of her? Cashel wondered, but the answer didn't matter because nothing mattered in a world that was merely a prelude to the end.

    The Sons hesitated, their heads bent. "Get moving, you!" Cashel said. "Soon we can die, but not yet!" The boys obeyed because they didn't have the strength to do anything else.

    Mab reached the bronze door. Close up it was larger than Cashel'd thought from across the cave. The metal was perfectly smooth except for the line down the center where the panels joined.

    She raised her hands. The light she'd projected to that moment vanished; the dark closed in, complete. Now we can die, Cashel thought in a great wave of relief.

    "Cashel, keep them off me," said a voice from the blackness. It must be Mab, but it sounded like a little girl. A frightened little girl.

    "There's nothing I can do," Cashel said, too bleak to be angry, but he turned his back to the door and gave his staff a trial spin. First he rotated it widdershins, but that wasn't right, didn't feel right. He reversed the spin, turning the shaft sunwise, a little quicker each time and with all the power of his thick wrists behind it.

    The touch of the hickory, smooth and familiar, reminded Cashel of times that things did matter. Things like the sun and the way clouds piled up before a storm; and love, his for Sharina and the heartstopping wonder of hers for Cashel or-Kenset. He didn't feel those things, but he viewed them in memory as if in a mirror of black glass.

    The quarterstaff spun. He brought it overhead, then shifted it before him again because that was what felt right. He couldn't see anything and there was nothing in the darkness to touch, but the spinning wood calmed him and the thrum of the staff as it sliced arcs from the air quieted the Sons' whimpers.

    Mab spoke in an undertone. Hissing wizardlight, red weaving with blue, glanced from the bronze and threw back the endless night for a few moments more.

    Cashel had his rhythm now. He kept the staff spinning, feeling the weight of what he couldn't see and knowing he was pressing back on it. He gasped with laughter. It was a fight after all, even though he didn't know what he was fighting. That didn't matter: a fight was a fight, and he'd win it or die.

    "Brimaio thiahiao...," Mab said. Cashel didn't look behind him, but he heard metal squeal on metal and the bronze valves begin to rumble open. "Chermari!"

    "Get in there, you Sons of Heroes!" Cashel said. The pressure was driving him backward and the quarterstaff turned in treacle, not air; but it turned. "Get in while I hold them!"

    There was a shuffle behind him. He kept the staff spinning though it felt as though he was turning millstones against all the force of the flume.

    "Cashel, now!" Mab cried. But he couldn't take another step back. They had him in their power, the things he'd been fighting. They hemmed him before and behind and there was no way--

    Brilliant bolts of wizardlight, blue and then red, flashed before him. The concussions threw him backward, face-up on a stone pavement. For a moment there was darkness again, but this time it was filled with the savage leering faces of white things that weren't men.

    Then the bronze doors slammed shut, and Cashel's mind surrendered him to sleep.



    Garric looked at the reading room's painted ceiling. On it a gorgeous fresco showed the Shepherd in a wolf-skin cape standing against the lightning-shot storm clouds in one corner. He carried a crook to help him lift bogged animals, rather than the simple staff that shepherds used on Haft. The rest of the painting was of vineyards and merchant ships, shops and a procession of city officials: all under the Shepherd's shielding presence.

    "There's not a soldier in the whole picture," Carus observed from Garric's mind with a grin. "It must've been painted by a priest. Or a woman."

    That depends on the woman, Garric thought, glancing at Liane as she turned pages quickly. Liane never hesitated to deal with reality. The realities of today, when the powers on which the cosmos turned were rising to their thousand-year peak, certainly included soldiers.

    The stresses twisting the world affected ordinary people as well as wizards. Lust and greed and anger were never far beneath the surface of human interactions, but the membrane between those emotions and civilization was thinner now.

    "The painting must've been cleaned recently," Garric said to Attaper, standing at his side. "The paint's very bright, though I'd imagine it dates from hundreds of years ago."

    Attaper glanced up and grunted. He returned to glowering at the priests entering and leaving the room.

    Garric smiled faintly. The Blood Eagle commander wasn't an art lover, and he'd been understandably nervous ever since Garric announced he was crossing to Erdin with limited forces. This trip added another level to Attaper's concern. The Temple of the Shielding Shepherd was a mile from the palace.

    Attaper and Garric stood near the eastern reading table where Liane turned the pages of a vellum-bound codex. Across the room a squad of Blood Eagles guarded the trio of priest/librarians--two old men and an eager young woman with very short hair. They were fetching books Liane had asked for, either by name or more often by subject.

    Some of the works were in the reading room's ceiling-high wall cases, but for the most part the priests had to go through the gilt-arched doorway to other portions of the library past more Blood Eagles. When they returned they set their finds on the west table, from which soldiers carried them to Liane.

    The process seemed cumbersome and silly to Garric, but it didn't slow Liane's search and it made Attaper happy. Well, a little less unhappy. Besides, deep in a corner of Garric's mind was the recollection of the things in the semblance of men which'd attacked him and Liane in the night. Attaper was here to vouch for the identity of his troops, but who would know if a seeming librarian was human?

    Liane read swiftly, a page half-lifted to turn against the moment she finished the one she was scanning. "No," she muttered. "No, not that--"

    She flipped the page. Her face was set in stern lines. She didn't look so much angry as like a judge preparing to deliver deservedly harsh punishment. Even so it was disconcertingly different from any of Liane's normal expressions. Garric kept his eyes on other things instead of making himself uncomfortable by watching her.


    Instead of glazed casements, the windows across the room's southern and northern walls were covered with vertical strips of bleached parchment sewn together at the edges. They lit the reading tables well but the illumination was softer than what glass would've provided.

    Liane closed the book she'd been using. Though frustrated, she treated the volume with the respect due its age instead of banging it shut. She opened a waiting scroll. The temple librarians had already untied its cords of gold-colored silk for her.

    Attaper cleared his throat. "Ah...," he said. "You're something of a scholar yourself, aren't you, your highness?"

    Meaning, "Why are you standing here with your thumb up your ass instead of helping her?" Garric translated mentally. Aloud he said, "Yes, I am, but in this kind of research two people would just get in each other's way. Much of it's a matter of remembering what one writer said and connecting it with an item from somewhere else. All the information has to be in the same place."

    He tapped his temple, smiling. "In the same mind, that is."

    The image of King Carus chuckled at him. "Don't expect me to help you there," he said. "The best use I found for a book in my own day was to prop up a wobbly table leg."

    "Ah!" Liane said. "Garric, read this."

    She thrust the scroll she'd been reading toward Garric in her left hand while with her right index finger she worked down through the stack of codexes which she'd reviewed earlier in the morning. When Garric was hesitated a moment, Liane waggled the scroll impatiently. He took it, freeing her hands to lift the top three books off her pile and retrieve the second from the bottom.

    Garric cleared his throat. Attaper was looking toward the door with the forced nonchalance of a man who was determined not to have seen or heard something that would otherwise be embarrassing.

    "It's from the annals of a temple or possibly a city," Garric said to Attaper, holding the document by both winding sticks. A full two columns were open between them. "It's headed Sixteen, that'd be Year Sixteen of someone's reign--"

    "Aguar the Fourth, Earl of Sandrakkan," Liane said as with forceful impatience she turned the pages of the book she'd chosen. "He acceded at about the time Carus became King of the Isles. And the document is the Chronicle of Sandrakkan compiled at Kremsa, sixty miles east of Erdin. I'm looking for something I found in the Chronicle compiled at Erdin during Aguar's reign."

    Garric waited a moment to make sure Liane wasn't going to interject something more. She continued to page through the codex in silence. Catching Attaper's eye, Garric read, "'In this year a great pirate host came from the Outer Sea and took Erdin. They dwelt in the city for eleven months, and in the twelfth month Earl Aguar attacked them from the Island, that'd be Volita, with a great....'"

    He paused, changing the angle of the document to the light. The ink was sepia and the parchment had yellowed over the centuries, making the contrast less than ideal. "'A great band of warriors,' I think this must be," Garric resumed, "'whom his advisor Dromillac had brought to him with his, that is, its leader, the band's leader, a man of great power. The band of warriors, the army, split the earth and cast the pirates into the Underworld.'"

    "The priest who wrote the Kremsa Chronicle...," Liane said, relaxed again now that she'd found the place she was looking for and was marking it with her finger. "Was afraid to use the word 'wizard'. 'A man of great power,' is his code for wizard, I believe. Now here's a passage from the Erdin Chronicle, 'And Earl Afrase died and his son Aguar succeeded. Aguar was a great warrior but an unlucky ruler, and he was too beholden to the wizard Dromillac who came to him out of Dalopo--or some said out of the Underworld, for they thought him a demon.'"

    "What does that book say about the pirates, milady?" Attaper said, frowning as he considered what he'd just heard.

    "Nothing, because there's a five year gap starting in the fifteenth year of Aguar's reign and continuing through the second year of his successor Afrase the Third," said Liane with a smile of triumph. "Which is exactly what you'd expect if the Kremsa account is true, because the priests of the Erdin temple would've had to flee if pirates captured the city. If they even survived."

    "Liane," Garric said, frowning at the passage he'd just read to Attaper. "I understood this as 'large band of warriors,' but what it actually says is 'a large warrior'. If Dromillac was a wizard, is it possible that he brought a giant to help Aguar? And what I read as 'the leader of the band' could be another wizard, a wizard who controlled a giant."

    "Yes," Liane said, nodding three times quickly to emphasize her agreement. "That'd explain why Tenoctris said Volita is a focus of power still, even after a thousand years. But Garric--I read the passage the same way you did at first, 'cast the pirates into the Underworld,' as meaning 'killed them.' But what if... Garric, Dromillac was a wizard and probably so was the ally he brought to Volita to help him. What if they cast the pirates under ground, literally? Under where the palace now is built."

    "And they're coming back up," Garric said, speaking the words to see how they sounded. "The pirates are coming back from underground after a thousand years. I don't see how men could live... but there would've been a wizard with the pirates too, wouldn't there? Even so, how could they live underground?"



    The two male librarians came through the cordon of guards carrying a roll of oxhide which was almost too heavy for them. The female librarian following saw Garric's frown of puzzlement. She said, "It's a map of Sandrakkan, your highness. It was copied from a marble original that was destroyed in the palace at the end of the Old Kingdom."

    Attaper glared at the priests, then looked from Liane to Garric and said, "Your highness, were these pirates like the People who attacked Ornifal from the sea in Stronghand's time? Because those were led by a wizard and they weren't, well, ordinary men."

    He cleared his throat and added, "Of course, I don't mean they could live in caves underground. But nobody was sure where they really came from, because there isn't any island where they said it was."

    "It's...," Garric said. He meant to go on, "... a thousand years so there can't be a connection," and of course it was a thousand years. But that was true whether you connected the pirates who attacked Sandrakkan here in the West at the end of the Old Kingdom with the People who'd fallen on Ornifal in the past generation, or if you were suggesting that those pirates might still be alive in the caverns beneath Erdin.

    Which he and Liane had both thought of as soon as they read the passages in the Chronicles. And both might be true.

    "I don't know, milord," Garric said instead. "It's at least possible. As possible as anything else I can come up with now."

    "Garric," said Liane. She paused and dabbed her tongue to her lips, less to wet them than to give herself time to order her words. "If it required a wizard to defeat the pirates the first time... a pair of wizards, if we understand the Chronicles correctly. Should you recall Tenoctris from Ornifal, do you think?"

    Garric looked at her as he thought. Then he grinned. There were side-effects that he couldn't possibly guess no matter which choice or what choice he made. Liane was trying to follow every thread back to what would be the right answer, the perfect answer. She had a splendid mind, but no human being was capable of carrying out the task she'd set herself. There wasn't a perfect answer, period.

    "No, love," he said. "I shouldn't."

    Attaper's eyes flicked between them as if he were watching a handball match, while the ancient king in Garric's mind grinned. "We had good reason to send Tenoctris with Lord Waldron," Garric continued. "Nothing we've learned or guessed here changes that. While I'd very much like to have Tenoctris' advice right now, she'd be the first to say that summoning warrior giants is beyond her. If they're what's required, I'm afraid we'll have to find them on our own."

    There was a jangle in the hallway; the guards stiffened. Garric found his hand going to his sword pommel by reflex.

    He and Carus grinned together. The reflex was that of the king, but there'd been times Garric had found it the difference between life and death.

    "Between your death and somebody else's, I'd put it," Carus said, laughing with his usual good humor. "And I'll always pick somebody else for the job of dying, having done it once myself."

    The noise was one of the soldiers who'd been stationed outside the temple double-timing down the hall, his equipment and studded apron clattering. Priests peering in at the visiting prince jumped out of the way. The Blood Eagle's shield banged clear one who didn't jump fast enough.

    Attaper placed himself slightly forward of Garric. "What's the trouble, Muns?" he said, louder than a normal speaking voice.

    "Sir, there's people gathering down the streets outside," Muns said, halting in the archway with the troops on guard there instead of coming through. "It's not a mob yet, not exactly, but I think we'd best get back to the palace."

    He paused. Attaper turned to Garric with his mouth open, but before he could speak Muns added, "Sir? I think I saw that one-eyed scut as made the trouble at the coronation. I think he's leading them."

    "I should've put my sword through Tawnser when he first turned his one bloody eye on me!" Attaper snarled. He looked at the three librarians, then pointed to the woman.

    "You!" he said. She drew herself up sharply, as anyone would at Attaper's tone; Garric felt his own back straighten instinctively. "We came in by the front entrance but there's a back way, isn't there? Come on, where's the back way?"

    The librarian blinked. "Yes, of course," she said, "you entered from Factors' Square, but there's the door onto Lantern Street. I'll take you."

    "Right," Attaper said. "Muns, tell Under-Captain Fiers to hold the front as long as he can with his section, but to send the rest of the regiment to me at the Lantern Street entrance. Go!"

    He scowled and muttered to Garric, "I figure we'll need everybody we've got available, and we'll be bloody lucky if we don't need more. A mile to go through somebody else's city!"

    They followed the librarian at a quick trot. The parties of Blood Eagles guarding corridor intersections fell in behind at Attaper's barked commands. They'd already snatched off the gilt balls that blunted their spearpoints.

    If the mob was gathering on side-streets until it was fully prepared to attack, it wasn't really a mob. And if Lord Tawnser had arranged things so neatly at the front of the temple, Garric doubted that he'd have neglected the back entrance too. But it was the best choice available.

    "There!" the librarian cried, pointing down a short hall to a door lighted by a transom glazed with bulls-eye glass. An attendant was dozing in the corner. He jumped up with a shout of terror when Garric and the leading Blood Eagles crashed along the corridor at him. The soldier's hobnails sparked on the stone floor.

    "The Cattle Market's on this side!" said Liane from Garric's heel. "It's near Erdin's north gate!"

    "Keep behind me!" Garric snapped as Attaper lifted the cross-bar from its staples. Garric pushed the door open with his left hand; his sword was bare in his right. He and Attaper stepped through the doorway together.

    Lantern Street was a narrow alley facing the twenty-foot high stone terrace that supported the Cattle Market, a plaza surrounded by stalls for beasts who'd been separated after sale. The street was empty but the terrace was full of people, most of them men and all armed.

    The mob gave a shout of bloody triumph. Garric and Attaper threw themselves backward, shoving against the troops who'd started to follow them. A shower of stones and rooftiles arched downward. Garric slammed the door just as the missiles thundered into it. A javelin hit the panel hard enough to thrust its quivering tip a hand's-breadth into the temple.

    Attaper touched the steel with a fingertip to damp it for examination. "From the Earl's arsenal or I miss my bet," he said.

    "Some of the people in Erdin who don't like us are bound to be soldiers," Garric said with a lopsided grin. It seemed odd to be coolly rational at a time like this, but there was no time they'd need cool reason more. "It doesn't mean that Wildulf himself is a traitor."

    Though his wife Balila--that was another matter.

    "Leave a squad here," Garric went on, taking charge now because in a fight he trusted his judgment and his ancestor's instincts farther than he did those of anyone else present. "The rest of us will take our stand at the front where we're above anybody who comes at us. Trying to get out that gauntlet would be suicide."

    As Attaper turned the troops around with a great deal of shouting and clanging in the strait surroundings, Liane leaned close to Garric's ear and said, "Perhaps we can signal Lord Rosen from the roof."

    "We'll hope so," Garric said grimly. "Because if there's as many people in front as there were waiting for us in the market, we're not getting out of here on our own."

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