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This Rough Magic: Chapter Three

       Last updated: Wednesday, July 9, 2003 23:28 EDT



    Grand Duke Jagiellon looked at his new shaman with a strange glow in those inhuman eyes. Count Mindaug was sure he understood the thoughts moving in that now-demonic brain: This particular shaman's skin would offer more eating than the last. It was very wrinkled, and the tattoos would give it an interesting color and flavor.

    The face, especially, was heavily tattooed. The shaman wore a coat of reindeer-fur, the shoulders of which were covered in feathers and the back with small brass bells. He carried a quodba, a magic drum, so large that it seemed to dwarf the wrinkled old man; the drum-head had also been tattooed. There was no expression on the old face. Only the eyes, narrow and slightly up-tilted, showed any signs of trepidation. They darted about, taking in details, faintly shadowed with unnamed and secret thoughts.

    Count Mindaug detected the battle of wills going on between the huge, meaty Grand Duke and the scrawny old man. Not a word was said, but the air itself shivered as if with heat.

    Eventually the old shoulders slumped. "The haltija is too strong." He bowed to the Grand Duke. "Master."

    "Remember that," Jagiellon said coldly. "But you are stronger than my last shamans."

    The shaman said nothing. He waited.

    Jagiellon turned to Count Mindaug. "This one is not Karelian. Why has he come?"

    Pacifically, Mindaug held out his hands with their perfectly manicured and sharpened nails. "I sent emissaries into the north seeking out their most powerful. Your new shaman, the one from Karelia, killed himself some days back. This one is from Kandalaksha."

    The shaman nodded. "I am master of many words of power. Many sea words. Many water words. Some forest words. I kill small Karelian. He challenged my power, but I too strong for him." His Lithuanian was good, if accented.

    This was talk Jagiellon understood. "You will give me that strength. All of it. And you will only kill at my express command." The dark eyes flared. "There will be plenty of opportunity."

    "Who do I go kill?"

    The big hands carved a shape in the air. A vision appeared, of a tall, willowy boy. "This one. Marco Valdosta is his name. See him. Taste his magic. He is weak in skill but deep in power."

    The shaman's drum seemed to shiver. But other than the faint throbbing that came from it there was no sound or movement for some time. Eventually the shaman shook his head. "Not one. Is two. One human, very strong but no skill. And one big but not human. You no kill this one."

    This did not, to Mindaug's surprise, anger his master. Not visibly, anyway. The purple scar on Jagiellon's forehead pulsed briefly. "The non-human one is limited to a place. If the human comes out of that, you can kill him."

    The shaman nodded. "Eat his haltija. He strong, but not skilled yet."

    "Good." A gesture and the vision was dispelled. "Now, this one." Again a shape formed in the air. Reddish hair. An aquiline nose, a single line of eyebrow, and eyes that burned. "Eneko Lopez, this one's name."

    The drum-skin shivered. And then, with a sound like tearing cloth, split.

    The shaman averted his face, making a warning-sign. "Make it go, master!" he said urgently. "He will see us too."

    The vision disappeared. The shaman shook himself, like a dog ridding water. "Too skilled, master. Not so strong as the last two, but very skilled. And much haltija. Much strength to that soul! More than the skill or power."

    Jagiellon nodded. "Then we will work through intermediaries. There are powers in the shadow-world that are mighty—at least within their geographical area. And we can misdirect. He must be watched. Watched from a distance."

    "Yes, Master." The shaman bowed. "I have two watchers at my call. Birds can see a great distance."

    "They are not magical creatures?" asked Jagiellon. "He will be aware of magical watchers."

    The shaman flicked his fingers against the drum, scowling and muttering. The skin began to knit itself. As soon as it was entire, he began to drum a steady demanding beat. Count Mindaug could see his lips moving, but despite listening intently he could not make out the words.

    Two birds battered at the window. Jagiellon motioned to the Count to open it. The Count pulled open the window and then had to duck as two enormous goshawks streaked past his head to land on the shaman's now outstretched arms. Beneath his reindeer-hide robe the shaman wore heavy leather vambraces of what could only be the thickest bullhide. And well he did so—those powerful talons would have pierced anything less right through.

    Like most nobles, Mindaug had flown falcons. There was something wrong with these birds. Those eyes were red insanity. Goshawks were always a little mad, but these two...

    It was said that a goshawk with a threatened nest would attack anything short of an elephant. Mindaug had the distinct impression that these two would not hesitate at the elephant, with or without a nest under threat. Most birds of prey killed only enough to feed on; goshawks and their kin sometimes went into killing frenzies if the opportunity presented itself. Mindaug sensed that this pair would create the opportunity if one didn't already exist.

    "Feel them, Master. Feel them with your power."

    Jagiellon looked hard at the birds. "Hmm. It is there. But very, very light. Just a hold."

    "Just their names, master. But I can see through their eyes."

    Jagiellon turned to the Count. "You served me well with this one, Mindaug. I am pleased."

    The Count bowed, his fingernails digging into his palms. The shaman was a very valuable tool to give up to his master. But the Count had one thing that the Grand Duke did not have.

    He had the shaman's own name of power.

    Mindaug wasn't too sure how he'd use that, yet. But treachery was after all the core value of his world. His researches into magical creatures had stretched a wide net away from the Polish-Lithuanian power base that was his master's realm. He'd looked far, far back. What he'd found was this old one. The shaman was not entirely human any more himself.

    But then, in the Ionian islands was something far, far older; quiescent, but far from dead. Jagiellon knew it had been a powerful place once, but actually he knew very little that was verifiable about the island once referred to as Nausicaa, an island which was settled before Etruscans came to the Venetian lagoon. Mindaug wondered if this was, at long last, the moment that the Grand Duke had overreached himself.

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