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The Gods Return: Chapter Seven

       Last updated: Friday, October 31, 2008 07:29 EDT



    It seemed to Cashel that the moon was bigger than it ought to be, but this way it threw plenty of light on the sandy hills even though it was just in the first quarter. Liane's shadow stretched back toward him, and ahead of her Rasile's did also.

    The moon phase bothered him more than its size did, because back home it was only two days past the full. He knew that was silly: he was in a completely different world from where he'd been last night. But a shepherd takes the moon and stars as certain when nothing else, not even the seasons, ever is.

    Something croaked from line of horsetails in the low ground to the right. It might've been a frog, though Cashel didn't suppose it was. To see wild animals, all you really have to do is sit in one spot and not do anything at all. If you were moving, though, even somebody as sharp-eyed as Cashel was would be lucky to catch sight of more than a squirrel on a high branch or maybe a rabbit. Rabbits didn't have any more sense than sheep did.

    Rasile's slender legs scissored along quicker than a human's, which made it seem like she was really striding out in the lead. She took short steps, though, so really they weren't moving any faster than Cashel would when he was following a flock of sheep.

    Liane suited her pace to the wizard's. Cashel looked at the thick woolen socks she was wearing and tried again to understand why. He guessed it wasn't just being nosy since they were going to be together in any kind of condition, so he said, "Liane, are your legs cold here?"

    She glanced over her shoulder and smiled. "No," she said, "but my feet aren't used to the kind of walking I thought we might be doing."

    She smiled even wider. "Walking like this, in fact. I wore the socks so that the sandal straps wouldn't chafe my feet, especially in loose sand."

    "Thank you," Cashel said. "I should've guessed that."

    Though thinking about it, he wasn't sure that was true. There weren't a lot of people like Liane. She usually rode horses or even in a carriage, but she was willing to hike across a wasteland if she thought that might help other folks.

    Cashel didn't doubt having Liane along was going to help.

    He saw movement. At first he thought he'd seen a reflection from the surface of a bog a couple furlongs to the east, but the gleam shook itself together and paced along parallel with them.

    "Rasile, we've got company on the left," he said, just loud enough to be sure the wizard heard him. He wasn't nervous. This wasn't a new situation to Cashel, and it might not even turn out to be a bad one.

    Because it wasn't new to him or any shepherd, he turned and scanned the hills to the right instead of focusing on the thing that'd let him see it. Sure enough, another gleam was there behind a reverse slope. Just the top of it showed now and again as it followed along beside Cashel and his companions.

    "And the other side too," he said. He began spinning his staff in slow circles. Blue sparkles spiraled off the iron butt-caps, bright enough that they raised purple reflections from the sand.

    "Wait," said Rasile quietly, pausing on a dune that something the size of a rabbit had crossed recently. Tracks like little hands marked the wind-scallops. To the thing moving on the east she called, "Come join us or take yourselves away. If you choose to follow us, we'll treat you as enemies."

    The creature laughed and walked toward them. "We're not your enemies, wizard," it called. "We know our strength; we do not challenge such as you."

    She called, Cashel thought. The voice was female and perhaps even human.

    "And the other," said one of the figures who'd come out of concealment on the right. There were two of them, much closer than the first. They looked like women wrapped in shining gray silk, but they moved too smoothly to be walking on human feet.

    "Yes . . . ," said her companion. "He's magnificent. Can you imagine . . .?"

    They both burst into laughter as shrill as the cries of screech owls.

    "Stay where we can see you," Rasile said harshly. She resumed walking southward with quick, steady steps. Liane followed, tilting her head toward the figure who'd spoken to them first. Cashel kept his staff spinning and watched all directions as he brought up the rear. Every few circuits he fed in a figure-8 just to keep his wrists supple and show whatever the figures were how quick he could make the heavy hickory change direction.

    "What are you doing in this place, wizard?" asked the figure on the left. "Are you hunting? There's little to hunt here."

    "So very little," said one of her fellows.

    "We're hungry," said the other. "We starve, we always starve, and there's nothing here to hunt."

    "They're empusae!" Liane said. Then, to the creature on the left, "You're an empusa."

    "What do names matter, little one?" the empusa said. She'd come close enough to touch with the quarterstaff and was moving parallel with Rasile. Her passage didn't mark the sand.

    "She would be our prey if she were alone," said one of her sisters.

    "Easy prey . . . ," the third creature whispered.

    "Not easy," Liane said. She flicked a hand toward the speaker, the point of her knife glittering like a jewel. "I have a charm against your like."

    The empusae fell into shrieking laughter. Cashel noticed that they backed away, though.

    "What do you hunt, wizard?" said the figure on the left. The empusae's voices were cool but sweet, like they were speaking through silver tubes - except when they laughed.

    "We have business in another place," Rasile said. "And our business is none of yours."

    The wizard didn't turn her head to either side when she spoke to the creatures, but Cashel didn't doubt she knew exactly where each of them was. If she wanted to, she'd finish the things. Just as Cashel would, though they'd use different ways to do it.

    The empusae laughed, but they drifted outward by a half pace or so.

    Rasile's course took her companions along the edge of standing water as broad as a millpond. The empusa on their left slid through the horsetails without making their stems waver or touching the surface.

    When the moon shone on the creatures, they looked like human statues polished out of blocks of lead. In reflection from the water -

    "Duzi!" Cashel said, turning to send the staff through where the empusa had been an instant before. There was a blaze of blue wizardlight but the creature swirled to the other side of the pool without evident motion, more like a puff of breeze than anything physical.

    The reflection he'd seen was tall, twice as tall as Cashel and taller than anybody could be. It was dead, too: strips of skin were hanging down like bark from a sycamore tree, and some places he could see through gaps in its rib cage.

    But it wasn't human anyway. The limbs had too many joints, the skull slanted up a high forehead to a point at the back, and the long fangs in the upper and lower jaws crossed like a crocodile's.

    "You are not our prey, splendid one," called one of the pair of empusae in her clear, liquid voice. They'd dropped back only a pace when Cashel swiped at their fellow.

    "We bow before you," echoed her companion. "You are our lovely master . . . ."

    Cashel grimaced. "I'm not your master," he muttered. "But I shouldn't have done that. I'm sorry."

    He'd swished his staff out without thinking, because what he'd seen was ugly beyond his mind's ability to grasp. He didn't think he was wrong, exactly, because he didn't have the least doubt that the empusae were evil; but Rasile didn't think they were worth the effort of killing, and he knew he'd struck because he was startled, not because of any better reason. That wasn't something people ought to do.

    "Did the Gods of Palomir send you, wizard?" asked the creature that Cashel had swung at. It'd moved closer again now that they were past the pond, but it was drifting along with Rasile instead of staying beside Cashel at the end of the line. "They have returned, you know."

    "They are great and powerful," another empusa said.

    "The old Gods are dead," chorused the third. "They banished us to this hungry waste, but They are gone."

    "The Lady is no more!" the empusae sang together in triumph. Their voices were beautiful. "Franca and His Siblings rule the waking world, and we will return to feast on men!"

    Rasile looked at the pair of empusae, then toward the single creature drifting along to their left. Her tongue lolled out in the Corl equivalent of laughter.

    "Not yet, I think," she said. "Not quite yet."

    Turning back to Liane and Cashel, she said, "This is where we will return to the waking world. I'll step forward, and you follow me."

    Liane nodded. Her face was fixed like an ivory carving, and the little knife was steady in her hand.

    "Yes, ma'am," Cashel said. He didn't see anything different about this place - a ridge of sand with a low outcrop a furlong to the right and a pool and dark vegetation about the same distance to the left. He didn't worry, though: Rasile knew what she was doing.

    The wizard paced forward, blurred, and disappeared. Liane followed just as steady as could be - and blurred, and disappeared.

    Cashel kept the staff spinning and his head swiveling from one side to the other. He didn't trust the empusae, not even a little bit, and if they tried to come close -

    He stepped into fog. He couldn't feel the hickory in his hands for an instant. He was back with Liane and Rasile, and the stone walls of a city loomed before them.

    The shrieking laughter of the empusae still rang in Cashel's ears.



    "There's something out there, lad," said Carus. The ghost's hand caressed the memory of his sword hilt. "I can feel it."

    We know they're out there, Garric thought. But we've got pickets out and a palisade. If the rats attack tonight, we'll be in better shape than any time in the past three days.

    "I don't like it," Carus said, then laughed and added, "But maybe it's just that when I'm on campaign like this, I miss the flesh more than other times."

    "I wonder what kind of tree this is," Garric said aloud to Tenoctris, looking up in the moonlight as he kneaded the backs of his thighs with hard fingers. The grove of tall trees on this slope had branches that came out straight from the trunk, though some turned upward at a right angle; they were covered with needles for their whole length.

    "There were a few in the garden of Duke Tedry," Tenoctris said. The moon silhouetted the strange branches, making them look hairy. "They weren't native to Yole, though; an ancestor had planted them. I heard a gardener call them monkey-puzzles, but I don't know if he'd heard the name or made it up."

    Lights shone below, hundreds of yellow-orange campfires sprinkled across the darkness like dandelions in a meadow. The army was camped on what before the Change had been a nameless rocky islet in the Inner Sea. Now it was a forested limestone ridge rising from rolling plains. The ground was better drained than that near Pandah a few days previous, so the marching was vastly easier.

    The soldiers slept in their cloaks, but none of them would've objected if Prince Garric had travelled with not only a tent but a full entourage of servants. They knew Garric led from the front. If he lived as well as a man could on campaign, that was what a general ought to do.

    "Servants are a Sister-cursed bother," Carus muttered in Garric's mind. "And a tent doesn't help a bloody bit unless you're going to skulk in it all day, in which case you may as well have stayed home!"

    Garric grinned and seated himself carefully. His back was to the low limestone cliff that ran down the spine of the former island. Blood Eagles were on guard ten feet above him on top of the ridge, and there was another detachment on the slope below with lanterns on poles. Nonetheless, the solid rock behind Garric provided a slight illusion of privacy.

    Aloud he said, "I've been thinking about how nice it would be to be home in Barca's Hamlet. I'd probably be worrying about whether I need to drain the cesspool this fall or if it can wait till spring. And thinking what a terrible job it'll be."

    He, Tenoctris, and the ghost of his ancestor all laughed.

    Garric ached in muscles which two years before he hadn't known existed. Carus' reflexive skill made his descendent as good a horseman as an experienced Ornifal noble, but Garric's muscles hadn't been hardened by a lifetime of daily exercise. Sure, he was strong - but the particular stresses of horsemanship were different from those of walking, digging, or any of the other things that a peasant did.

    His mind slipped away from the simple physical problems that he'd been unconsciously trying to keep it to. "Tenoctris?" he said. "We've - the kingdom has, but you and I have too . . . we've survived a lot of things."

    "Yes, Garric?" Tenoctris said. The lanterns were twenty feet away, sufficient to see by but without the detail of bright sun. In the soft yellow glow, Garric could imagine that Tenoctris was the aged wizard she'd been when she washed up on the shore of Barca's Hamlet. Her new youth and vibrancy were positive advantages in all ways, and it was that rather than vanity which had impelled her to regain that youth. But -

    Garric had grown used to the old woman. The additional change, even though it was for the better, was disturbing at a level well below his consciousness.

    The thought was so foolish that he grinned. It was good to do that, but it didn't lead his mind away from the question.

    "Every time we survive, something new comes at us," he said. "Eventually, we won't survive. You and I won't, and the kingdom won't. Isn't that so?"

    Tenoctris laughed. She'd laughed often throughout the time Garric had known her, but this full-throated, youthful chortling was new. And a little embarrassing, truth to tell, because Garric had the strong impression that he was more the subject of her good humor than the person she was sharing it with. The guards didn't face around to watch, but he could see their heads turn slightly in hopes of learning why the pretty young woman was laughing so hard.

    "I think, now that you've suggested it . . . ," Tenoctris said. She'd choked off a giggle and seemed contrite at her behavior. "I think that perhaps I could become immortal. That's certainly one of the things the wizard whose powers I've borrowed intended to do. But I don't believe I could remain human, or that anyone human would want what immortality entails if they understood it as well as I do."

    She pressed three fingers of her left hand into the palm of her right while she considered how to proceed, then looked up with an affectionate smile. "The kingdom will be replaced, yes," she said. "Not necessarily fall, but no human creation lasts forever. Nor does anything else last forever, of course. Even cliffs -"

    She patted the face of rock. Light reflected from the pale limestone softened her silhouette, thrown onto it by the moon.

    "- will wear down to dust, then be squeezed up again in a different shape and place. Yes you'll die, Garric, though I hope it will be 'full of years and wisdom.' Certainly that's the result I'm striving for, for mankind's sake. But death's a natural part of life, not the triumph of evil."

    "But that's what I mean," Garric said with more heat than he'd intended. "Chaos, evil, will eventually win, won't it? We have to win every time, but if chaos wins even once, the fight's over. Forever."

    "Ah," said Tenoctris, nodding with a look of understanding. "Garric, these past few years have seen a great deal of disruption - a unique amount, even for the thousand year cycle, because this time it brought us to the Change. But the preferred state of the cosmos isn't chaos, it's stasis: things remaining more or less as they are. I think -"

    She paused, apparently looking down past the scattering of strange trees to the encamped army. Garric doubted she was really focusing on her immediate surroundings, though. A trumpet blew, announcing a change in the guard detachments.

    "- I hope, Garric," she said, "that when the Gods of Palomir have been returned to their rest, this world will rest also. Now, I don't mean there'll be perfect peace!"

    Garric laughed. "Not unless people vanish too," he said. "Which I wouldn't regard as a good thing, though I suppose one could."

    "Yes," Tenoctris said. "But if -"

    She waved a hand in the air.

    "- the priest-kings of Seres raise an army and conquer the Land, it doesn't matter in a cosmic sense. The Serians are human, and they'd be fighting for human reasons - the same kind of reasons that cause dogs to fight or boys when they're let out of school."

    "The Serians!" Carus snorted. "Not in this world or any world I'm in!"

    Which is missing the point, Garric thought, or perhaps illustrating it perfectly. Aloud he said, "I'll fight ratmen or lichs or demons, I suppose. I've fought them, and other men have fought them and won. But I hope if there're Gods to be fought, you'll handle the business, Tenoctris. I don't . . . ."

    He rubbed his cheekbones to give himself a moment to put into words the thought he was struggling with.

    "Tenoctris," Garric said, "when I think about fighting with Gods, I feel like there's a wall of crystal stretching up to the sky. There's nothing I can grip, nothing I can even see."

    "I'd like to say I know exactly how to deal with that problem," Tenoctris said with a wry smile, "but I don't think that lying to you would be helpful. I do hope that we can continue to gain information which will give me a better idea of what to do."

    She chuckled, though this time Garric thought the cheeriness was a bit forced. "And I also hope we survive the process of getting the information."

    "Yes," said Garric. "I -"

    His face was turned toward Tenoctris. The shadow of her head in profile lay softly on the limestone behind her. Rippling over the pale stone was another shadow. It was faint as undulations in still water, but it was there.

    "Hoy!" Garric shouted, leaping to his feet. He'd shifted his swordbelt to the front of his body so that he could sit comfortably on the ground, but his ancestor's reflexes had the blade clear in a singing arc before he was fully upright. "Tenoctris, watch out!"

    But there's nothing to see!

    The slope down twenty feet to where the guards stood was bare. Something might've been hiding against the trunk of the monkey-puzzle tree, but the moon would surely have shown anything approaching close enough to throw its shadow on the wall.

    It's clear!

    Tenoctris had snapped a twig off a shrub growing at the base of the outcrop, ignoring the spines. Using it for a wand, she was murmuring words of power. A spiral of dust lifted from the gritty soil.

    Garric slashed the air in front of him. His long sword cut higher than it would've done against a human enemy, judging from the moon's angle to where the extra shadow had hirpled on the stone. To his utter amazement, the blade met a faint resistance as though he'd cut a jellyfish floating in clear water.

    Half the guard detachment ran toward Garric with weapons ready for use; the remainder of the platoon was faced out as before, though with their spears raised. Blood Eagles above on top of the ridge were standing to, their boots and equipment clashing.

    "Your highness!" said the commander. He must have thought the swipe of Garric's sword was directed at him and his men. "Friend! Friend!"

    An overpowering stench flooded the night, thrusting Garric and the captain back in opposite directions. The next trooper got a long stride ahead his commander before he drew in a breath. He stopped, wobbled to his knees, and threw up on the inside of his shield.

    "Neber saudry rish!" Tenoctris shouted. The tip of her makeshift wand flashed brilliantly red, turning the air a lingering rose color for a dozen double-paces around. In its pale warmth, a bloody splotch dissipated into rags where Garric had cut at nothing.

    Two dirty-looking creatures of serpentine horror swam through the air toward him; each was over ten feet long. Instead of fangs, their mouths were circular pits. In the wizardlight, the rows of teeth within gleamed like rusty iron.

    "Duzi!" Garric cried, jumping sideways more in disgust than fear. He held his sword between him and the nearer creature.

    A Blood Eagle stepped forward and hurled his javelin. The head was a four-sided pyramid, slender enough to punch through a bronze cuirass and the ribs it covered; it slid through one of the floating hagfish without slowing, then chipped rock from the cliff face twenty feet beyond. The creature began to deflate around the exit wound, spilling a brighter color out in tendrils.

    "Sister!" Carus said. "I've smelled mules that'd burst after a week in the sun and they weren't as bad!"

    The stink was something you could touch, worse than a tanyard at the height of summer. Even the worst smells quickly dull the ability of people to sense them, though. Garric had his equilibrium back.

    The haze of wizardlight was fading, and the third creature was blurring back into the air through which it wriggled. Garric could still see it undulating toward him. He lunged to meet it with his sword point. The captain and two of his troopers struck at the same time.

    The creature parted like gossamer at the touch of multiple weapons. It drifted away in pieces that dissolved as they sagged toward the ground. As they did so, the rosy glow vanished and with it Garric's ability to see the floating monsters. Only the smell remained, and even that was disappearing.

    Garric sank down on one knee. The physical effort hadn't been excessive, but his blood was seething from the attack. Now that there was nothing left to fight, he was afraid he was going to throw up.

    "What were they, Tenoctris?" he asked, his eyes on the ground. He was taking deep breaths, trying to cool down. All his muscles were trembling. Men had come running, Lords Waldron and Attaper among them, but Garric wasn't ready to talk to them yet. "They were invisible!"

    "They weren't invisible," said the wizard, "but they were the same color as air, at least in this light. How did you see them?"

    Garric's body was beginning to settle again. There were soldiers all around them. "A rag!" he said. "Somebody find me a rag to wipe my sword blade!"

    "Here, your highness!" someone said, handing Garric a cloth. It was the sleeve of his tunic; Garric could've torn his own sleeve off, but he hadn't thought of that because he was still reacting to what had happened.

    "I saw the shadow on the wall beside you," he said. "Please, give us some room. Everybody! Back away if you please."

    A moment before he must've sounded like the worst sort of nobleman ordering his servants about. He'd apologize later - not that anybody else would care that the Prince had barked out orders.

    "Carus knew something was wrong, though," he said, looking up to meet Tenoctris' quiet gaze. The ghost of his ancestor beamed from his mind. "I don't know how. Experience, I suppose."

    "Your highness!" Lord Attaper said forcefully. "Captain Willer says there were snakes in the air. Do we need to get you out of this place? Lady Tenoctris, do we?"

    Garric raised an eyebrow toward the wizard. "No," she said. "There were only three and they're dead, thanks to his highness. It must've taken weeks to prepare this attack and it would take even longer to prepare another one."

    Her expression became unusually serious. "Garric, this wasn't precisely wizardry, because the creatures are natural. But they're not natural in this world and time, and there certainly was wizardry behind their presence here. I should have been ready. I'll not fail you in this fashion again."

    "I don't think anybody failed," Garric said. "Except the wizard or whatever in Palomir who was behind this."

    He got up. Lurched up, really, but he felt better with each movement.

    He sheathed his sword and held up the borrowed sleeve. "Thank you, whoever gave this to me," he said. "But I think it'd better be burned immediately. I couldn't see what I was wiping with it, maybe nothing, but I'd burn it just in case."

    "At once, your highness!" a Blood Eagle murmured, snatching the rag from him. He'd say the same thing if I ordered him to jump off a cliff!

    "Just as you'd jump off a cliff if the kingdom required it," Carus said with a hard grin. "Duty is duty."

    Garric grimaced, but he knew that was true. Well, he'd work not to be the sort of leader who ordered men to jump off cliffs.

    "We'll be meeting the first contingent of militia from Haft tomorrow, your highness," Lord Waldron said, putting up his sword also. "Before they arrive, I'd like to discuss with you my plan for how we'll use them, if you would."

    "Yes, we'll do it now," Garric said, seating himself against the rock face again.

    And how many boys from Haft would he have to order over cliffs? Because the kingdom required it . . . .



    Ilna lurched to her feet. The boat shifted with a scrunch of gravel, throwing her down again. This time her bruised right knee landed on the gunwale. The additional sharp pain on top of the battering she'd just taken made her dizzy, but she managed to catch herself before she tumbled onto the beach.

    She closed her eyes and steadied herself. She supposed she should've gotten up more carefully, but if she'd been seriously injured she wanted to know about it now. Besides -

    Ilna smiled, not widely but widely for her.

    - while she wasn't rash, she generally acted on her initial impulse. Once that had taken her to Hell, but who was to say that she wouldn't have gotten there anyway? Anyway, that was in the past.

    The beach was shingle like at Barca's Hamlet; here the fist-sized chunks of rock were red sandstone instead of the black basalt she was used to. Though by this time, Ilna supposed she was used to anything the world could put her into, as well as some things that had nothing to do with the waking world at all.

    Ingens groaned. He was still holding onto the mast, so he hadn't been clubbed unconscious while the vessel was being thrown around.

    Ilna leaned over the secretary and removed her lasso. She had to lift his right leg to get the silken noose clear.

    "Ouch!" Ingens cried, twisting his head to look up at her. He'd bloodied his nose, though it wasn't broken or he'd been giving it more attention than he did the leg he was kneading with both hands. "What did you do me?"

    "Beyond saving your life?" Ilna said coldly as she looped the cord so that she could loop it around her waist again. "If I hadn't taken it off when I did, you'd have died of gangrene in a week or two. What you're feeling is the blood coming back into your leg."

    "I'm sorry," the secretary muttered to his hands. "I wasn't . . . I didn't mean to complain. I wasn't thinking clearly. Wasn't thinking."

    People were coming from huts to the right, above what would have been the shoreline before the Change. Ilna saw nets drying on racks; the men of Ortran must still fish, though now in the river rather than the Inner Sea. Two men, then a third, began to trot when they saw Ilna was watching.

    "Good day!" Ilna said as they approached. "We've been thrown here by the earthquake."

    Her fingers were knotting a pattern that would sear anyone looking at it like a bath in boiling oil. That was her reflex when she met new people, but in this case there was more than the usual reason for it.

    The whole village was coming, down to babes in their mothers' arms. The villagers didn't look hostile, precisely, but they certainly didn't seem friendly. The men wore the crude knives that were as much a part of peasant dress as a tunic.

    "You're on Ortran, now!" called a burly man whose beard was lopped off square a hand's breadth beneath the point of his chin. He'd lost his right ear in the distant past; only a lump of gristle and scar tissue remained. "You're under our laws!"

    The three leaders paused a double-pace short of the boat. Ingens got to his feet, but he seemed willing to let Ilna talk for both of them. He usually travelled with Hervir, of course.

    "I don't see any sign of damage here," he murmured, nodding toward the village. "Those flimsy huts should've been thrown down. Can the earthquake just have followed the river?"

    "We have no intention of breaking your laws," Ilna said coldly, letting bigger questions wait on immediate need. "We're only here because we were caught by the earthquake. We'll go on as soon as we're able to arrange a crew for our boat."

    This place must be about the size of Barca's Hamlet, several double handfuls of huts. The villagers lacked the bits of ornamentation - a bracelet of carved wood, a ring mounted with a pretty piece of quartz - that some of them would've had back home, but they seemed well fed.

    "I want enough cloth for a tunic!" said a woman with a voice like stones rubbing. She glared at the woman beside her as she spoke; they both could've been any age from twenty to forty beneath the grease. "I want cloth for two tunics, because I got shorted last time. You know I was, Achir!"

    "We don't take slaves here on Ortran," said a pale blond man, another of the three leaders, "but you're castaways and all you come with is salvage to us. You have the tunics you're wearing, no more."

    "Aye, that's the law of Ortran," said the third leader, a fat old man who'd taken this long to catch his breath after scurrying to reach the vessel. He nodded solemnly. "The law of our fathers and their fathers before them."

    "You're under royal law now," said Ingens sharply. "You can't rob travellers simply because your fathers used to rob them!"

    A boy from the back of the crowd shied a stone. It missed Ingens' head, but he shouted and ducked away.

    Ilna held up the pattern she'd knotted. The villagers staggered back screaming as if she'd flung live coals in their faces. The fool who'd been nattering about the laws of his fathers gasped twice, clutching his chest. His face flushed so red it was almost purple; he toppled forward onto the shingle.

    Good, thought Ilna. Maybe you'll have a chance to chat with your ancestors about why they should've come up with different laws.

    "I curse you!" she shouted to the departing crowd. The words didn't have any effect except to frighten the unpleasant fools further, but that was worthwhile. "May your limbs burn till they fall off!"

    Not everybody had been looking when she'd displayed her loose pattern, and those at the edges of the mob hadn't gotten the full effect. They all joined the panic as their neighbors fled in screaming agony. The only remaining villagers were the red-faced fellow, now breathing in snorts like a hog, and a girl of eight or nine who'd been knocked down. She was bleeding from a cut on the forehead.

    "What did you do?" Ingens said. "Have you killed them?"

    "No," said Ilna, folding the pattern into her sleeve. There were more people coming, but these were on a path through the hills farther inland. "Well, not most of them. The effect wears off in an hour or two."

    She climbed from the boat and knelt beside the trampled child. Pity that it couldn't have been the brat who'd thrown the rock, but he'd been glaring at Ilna when she spread the pattern. Being stepped on and hitting your head was minor by comparison with what the boy was feeling now.

    The girl started crying. The fallen man wore a silk sash, probably stolen from some earlier castaway. Ilna jerked it off, then reached back to dampen it in a puddle nearer the river.

    It wasn't clean - neither the cloth nor the water - but it would do for the purpose. She daubed blood away from the cut, then lifted the girl's hand and pressed it onto the bandage. "Just hold it here till you stop bleeding," she said. "And stop whimpering, girl! You and your fellows can expect worse if you don't stop trying to rob travellers."

    "There are more people coming," Ingens said, apparently thinking Ilna wouldn't have noticed them herself. "Four men and a woman."

    Ilna glanced up. The newcomers approached with a deliberate dignity which set them apart from the fisher folk even more sharply than the excellent quality of their garments. The men were in dark tunics with appliqués of indigo around the hems, while the woman's mantilla and white gown both had the sheen of silk.

    "Girl?" Ilna said. She gripped the child's chin and turned her face toward the newcomers. "Who are those people?"

    "I don't know!" the girl said shrilly. "They're from the new town! They don't belong here!"

    "What do you mean 'new town?'" Ilna said. The girl tried to tug away; Ilna held her shoulder firmly. "When you've answered my questions, you can go back to your home, but not before."

    "I don't know," the girl repeated, but this time she whined the words. She seemed to have given up struggling, which saved her from being bruised. "It wasn't there before the sea disappeared. It hasn't any business here!"

    Ilna didn't speak for a moment. "Mistress?" Ingens said in a worried whisper. "I know that the Change mixed the eras widely, but where there's an enclave in a district which is generally of another period, it means . . . I mean, it seems to me to mean . . . ."

    "Wizardry?" said Ilna. "Yes, I've noticed that too."

    She released the girl's shoulder and rose to her feet. "All right, child," she said. "Tell the people in your village that if I see them anywhere near this boat, they'll regret it. For a time. Now, go."

    The girl was already running back the way she'd come. She was a dirty little thing whose eyes were set too close, like a pig's; but as she darted away, Ilna thought of Merota. Her mouth tightened.

    "The grove where Hervir went to buy the spice was like that," Ingens said quietly. "Not Caraman itself, but that grove. That's why nobody from the town went there."

    "Good day, Mistress Ilna os-Kenset," called the woman. Her voice was a cracking contralto which sounded as though the speaker was much older than the twenty-five or six that she appeared to be. "My name is Brincisa. I hope my servants and I can assist you in your present difficulties."

    "How do you know my name, mistress?" Ilna said. She fished out the pattern she'd used on the villagers, but the part of her mind that fitted things together was quite sure it wouldn't be of any use against this woman. Though perhaps the four men with her . . . .

    "Like you, I have certain skills," Brincisa said. She walked to within a double-pace of Ilna though her servants halted well back. "I saw that you were coming here and that you'd be in distress. Therefore I came to offer my assistance to a sister in the art."

    Ilna grimaced. "Thank you for your offer," she said, "but we can pay our own way. Perhaps you can help us find a new crew, though? Ours were lost in the earthquake."

    Brincisa wobbled and closed her eyes. A servant started toward her, but Ilna already had the other woman's arm; the servant stepped back.

    "Are you all right?" Ilna asked. Brincisa was trembling as if she'd gotten up too quickly after a long illness.

    "Yes, I'm sorry," Brincisa said. She opened her eyes again but put a hand on Ilna's shoulder to brace herself for a moment longer. "Just a spell of dizziness. It will pass."

    She paused. Her eyes were a pale gray-blue, a startling color in a brunette with a dark complexion. Ilna wondered how she was able to keep her garments so shimmeringly white in this place.

    "You said you would pay your way?" Brincisa said.

    "Yes," said Ilna. "Of course."

    She was aware that her tone had returned to its usual stiff reserve. For a moment she'd been reacting to Brincisa the way she would Tenoctris, weak after executing a major incantation.

    Brincisa gave her a satisfied smile and took her hand away. "I'm all right now, thank you," she said. "In fact I was hoping that you could do me a service while you're here, Mistress Ilna. I have some ability in the art, but there is a thing I cannot do and I think you can. I would appreciate your help."

    "What sort of help?" Ingens interrupted. "With respect, mistress, we have our own business to attend. We can pay for lodging in the usual fashion."

    Brincisa looked at the secretary, then laughed. "Your concern does you honor, Master Ingens," she said, "but I'm not an innkeeper. And this isn't your affair."

    Returning her attention to Ilna, she continued, "The favor I ask will be a trivial one for you to grant, and I can help you in return. But we can discuss that later, after you've eaten."

    She gestured to her servants. "Two of you carry my guests' belongings to the house," she said. "You others wait here to keep the vermin who live on the shore from rummaging through the boat. I'll send you relief at sundown."

    Ilna glanced at Ingens, but the secretary returned her gaze without expression. He was obviously deferring to her.

    "All right, thank you," Ilna said. "And we can talk about the favor later."

    She walked at Brincisa's side toward the track through the hills. Ingens was giving the servants directions about what they should bring from the boat.

    Brincisa seemed to have recovered from whatever had caused her weakness. Ilna looked at her, wondering if a pattern would tell her anything. She doubted it, and anyway it would be discourteous to weave one her in Brincisa's presence.

    Sairg had hated wizards and blamed Ilna for the earthquake, because she was one. He was quite wrong about Ilna.

    But he hadn't been wrong that a wizard was responsible for the boat being picked up and deposited here, where the wizard Brincisa waited for them.



    "Bravo!" cried Sharina as the trained rat spun end over end between the jugglers' wooden batons as they crossed. "Oh, marvelous!"

    Lord Tadai, clapping with his usual polite languor, leaned closer and said, "Yes, they are good, aren't they? Though I suppose it's impolite of me to say so about the entertainers I hired."

    The pair juggling were a youth of seventeen and a girl - his sister judging from her features - a year or two younger. At the open end of the U of tables, their parents played lutes while a ten-year-old boy piped on a treble recorder.

    The family wore matching blue pantaloons and tight-fitting white jerkins - as did the rat. That a rat would wear a costume instead of ripping it off instantly was even more amazing than the way it danced and tumbled with the human performers.

    "Everyone else agrees with you," Sharina said, looking around the cheering enthusiasm of the other guests. "And I certainly agree!"

    Attending a banquet given by the city prefect was one of the duties expected of the regent, but Sharina was having a good time as well. She was probably as relaxed as she could be at any affair that required her to wear formal robes. Not only was Tadai a cultured, intelligent man, he had what he claimed was the finest kitchen staff in the kingdom.

    The dishes seemed overly exotic to Sharina, but they tasted marvelous. She particularly liked the pike that'd been skinned, boned, and then molded back into its skin with a filling of rabbit sausage.

    The jugglers bowed and somersaulted to where the musicians played. The rat pranced off with them, turning high cartwheels while holding its tail out straight behind it. How in goodness could you train a rat to do that?

    This hall was perhaps the largest single room in Pandah, and its coffered ceiling was thirty feet high. One might've expected it to be part of the royal residence, though it wasn't unreasonable that it should be given to the city prefect who needed a courtroom at least as much as the prince needed a hall of audience.

    Besides, Tadai cared - which neither Garric nor Sharina did. And Tadai gave much better banquets than anybody raised in Barca's Hamlet could've imagined.

    The older woman began dancing, balancing a bottle on her head with a lighted candle stuck in the neck of it. Her feet darted a quick rhythm as she rotated, facing each of the three long tables in turn, while the flame remained remarkably steady.

    Her husband accompanied her on his lute. Beside him, the rat played a miniature xylophone with six bars, syncopating the plucked strings in a plangent descant.

    "There's a new religion appearing in the city, your highness," Tadai said, his voice covered by the music and his attention ostensibly on the dancer. "I didn't think it was worth mentioning to you at first, but it seems to be growing."

    "People are worshiping the Gods of Palomir?" Sharina said, jerking her eyes onto the prefect. She wasn't nearly as good at dissembling as Tadai. He was not only older, he'd been a financier before becoming a member of Garric's council. Bankers had more occasion to lie than peasants did, except perhaps peasants who made much of their income in buying and selling cattle.

    "No, your highness, or I would've said something immediately," Tadai said in a tone of mild reproof. "That would be high treason. This was something so absurd that I thought it must be a joke. It appears to be real, though."

    "Go on," Sharina said, turning her eyes toward the dancer again. She already felt uneasy, but perhaps her fear wouldn't come true if she didn't say it out loud.

    Thinking logically about her superstition made her grin at how silly she was being. That didn't make the fear itself false, of course.

    "There are gatherings at night all over the city," Tadai said. "We've had reports of nearly a score of different locations. Well, seventeen. Some of them may be the same congregation moving to avoid patrols, but regardless it's a widespread business."

    The dancer trotted out of the performance area, still balancing the bottle. The guests, council members with their spouses and so many more of the Great and Good as there were places available, stamped their feet and cheered in applause.

    "Is it confined to Pandah?" Sharina asked. "Master Dysart hasn't said anything about it to me."

    "I haven't discussed the matter yet with him," Tadai said, "because I couldn't bring myself to believe that it was real. I will of course, now that I've spoken to you."

    He coughed slightly and added, "I regret that Lady Liane is absent, though I'm sure she's left her duties in capable hands."

    "Yes," said Sharina. And I regret that Cashel is absent, for better reasons yet.

    The mother and daughter entertainers picked up lutes; the older boy sat cross-legged holding a drum between his insteps. He beat a quick rhythm with his fingertips as his father did a series of back-flips that brought him into the center of the hall. The tumbler flipped again, stood on his right hand alone, then his left, and finally bounced to his feet as his ten-year-old son back-flipped out to join him.

    "At least one of the leaders of the new cult is a priest of the Shepherd," Tadai said. "Very likely several are. I'm making inquiries, but discreetly of course. It's no proper business of the kingdom to tell people how to worship."

    He coughed again. "Within reason."

    The young entertainer gripped his father's outstretched hands. Acting in concert, they front-flipped him onto the older man's shoulders, facing the opposite direction. The audience shouted and stamped its delight.

    Sharina touched her dry lips with her tongue. "You haven't said what they were worshipping," she said.

    "That's the absurd thing," said Tadai. His mouth scrunched as though the words he was preparing were sour. "It's a scorpion. They claim their god is a scorpion!"

    Sharina's mind was cold, as cold as the Ice Capes. She'd known what he was going to say. She'd known as soon as he mentioned a new religion.

    The rat bounded out to join the human tumblers. It jumped to the father's right shoulder, then to the son's left. With a final delicate hop it reached the boy's head and perched there, standing on its hind legs.

    "To be honest," Tadai said, "I was hoping that all this was a joke. It seems utterly insane."

    "Men of Pandah, honor calls us!" the rat piped, throwing its little right foreleg out as though it were an orator declaiming. "No proud foe can e'er appall us!"

    "By the Lady!" Tadai blurted. "Why, the rat's singing. They didn't tell me he could do that. Why, this is marvelous!"

    "On we march, whate'er befall us," the rat sang. "Never shall we fly!"

    "Bravo! Bravo!" bellowed Lord Quernan, who commanded the city garrison. He lurched to his feet. Foot, rather, because he'd lost his right leg at mid-thigh during the capture of Donelle a year earlier. The whole audience began to stand in irregular waves.

    Lord Tadai started to rise, but he subsided when he saw Sharina remained frozen in her seat. "I must admit that I find this new cult disturbing," he said. "How could anyone worship something as disgusting as a scorpion?"

    "How indeed?" Sharina whispered. The dream of the night before filled her mind with blackness and horror.

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