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The Gods Return: Chapter Nine

       Last updated: Wednesday, November 12, 2008 20:20 EST



    "Barak knephi . . . ," said Brincisa, kneeling before a basalt nodule originally the size of a child’s skull but now split in half. The hollow interior was lined with amethyst crystals. She used it instead of drawing a figure like most of the wizards that Ilna had watched. "Baricha!"

    Instead of a flash of wizardlight, a bluish haze spread from the nodule in all directions. It was as faint as the sheen of moonlight on nacre; Ilna saw only the boundary between light and non-light, moving outward at the speed of a man running. It vanished through the walls of the workroom.

    She felt only a faint tingle when the light passed through her body, and even that might have been the expectation that she ought to feel something. Ingens stood facing an alcove so that he wouldn’t accidentally catch a glimpse of what Brincisa was doing. He didn’t react at all to the haze; he probably didn’t see it.

    The wizard rose to her feet, then paused with her eyes closed and swayed. "No no," she said sharply when Ilna reached out to support her. "I’m all right. Come, the effect should last till dawn, but we don’t know how long our business with the tomb will take. Master Ingens, bring the rope."

    Ilna nodded curtly. She found Brincisa’s manner brusque and unpleasant, which would amuse her former neighbors in Barca’s Hamlet. On the other hand, Brincisa was commendably businesslike and obviously skilled in her arts. Perhaps Ilna’s distaste was simply a matter of like being repelled by like. Though-

    Ilna had eventually broken the link to the powers of Hell from which she’d gained her skills. Brincisa may well have had the same teachers; but if so, Ilna doubted that she’d turned her back on them.

    Brincisa led the way down the stairs. Until she got to the first landing the wizard used the railing for half her support, but she had full control of her balance from then on.

    A dark-clad servant waited in the entranceway. Ilna expected him to open the street door for them, but instead the man remained where he was. As they passed, she realized that the servant’s eyes were open and staring: he’d been paralyzed by the incantation.

    The full moon lighted the path up the bluff. Ilna wondered if the moon’s phase had anything to do with the other business that was going on, but Brincisa was the only person who would know. Brincisa would say no more than what suited her - and would be pleased that Ilna was concerned.

    Which she was, of course. She wasn’t afraid to die, and she wasn’t worried about meeting the test that waited for her in the tomb. Ilna didn’t think she was arrogant, but she believed down to the marrow of her bones that she would succeed at any task having to do with fiber or fabric.

    The night was silent except for the rustle of breezes through the needles of pine trees clinging to the rock. Their feet scraped on the path, and sometimes Ingens grunted from the burden of the coil of rope; those were the only animal sounds.

    The uncertainty of what Ilna was facing - they were facing; she and the secretary were together in this at least - was what disturbed her. As they climbed, her fingers played with patterns: some that would guide her, and others that would deal with threats they might face.

    As quickly as she’d tied one, she picked it out and started another; they only occupied her fingers. The answer would come, but it wouldn’t come that way.

    "Here," said Brincisa. They’d reached the top of the bluff. "We’ll roll back the stone first. Ingens, set the rope by the post. You can tie it later."

    Two guards sat by a fire which had sunk to a pile of white ash and the ends of billets smoldering around it. The men were as stiff and mute as Brincisa’s servant. A spear, a wicker shield, and an iron cap sat on the ground behind either man, but their real purpose here was the large bronze bell hanging from a yoke nearby. A stroke on the bell with the mallet beside it or even a flailing hand would rouse the whole town to deal with tomb robbers.

    The silence made Ilna uncomfortable. Unlike her brother she didn’t think much about nature, but its chorus was a constant backdrop to night in a hamlet: birds calling and rattling their flight feathers, the varied trills of insects, and frogs making every sound from the boom of a bullfrog to narrow-mouthed toads bleating like a herd of miniature sheep.

    Brincisa’s wizardry had stilled all that. Though Ilna didn’t particularly care for the sounds, she disliked being without them.

    The stone closing the entrance wasn’t a slab as Ilna had assumed. It was a roller as long as she was tall, a large version of the querns women used in villages that didn’t have watermills to grind grain.

    It was limestone like the hill beneath it, pierced through the center so that the thick hardwood pole sticking out on either end acted as a handle for the men moving it to and fro. A fist-sized rock waited on either side to chock the tomb open while bodies were being lowered into the cave.

    "We have to move that by ourselves?" Ingens said doubtfully.

    "We’ll manage," said Ilna curtly as she eyed the situation. Ingens probably hoped that Brincisa would use an incantation to open the tomb. Very probably the wizard could’ve done that if necessary, but Ilna knew that wizardry was better left for matters which nothing else could accomplish. Physical effort was less draining for any task that you could do either way.

    Brincisa turned to the stone roller. The pole extended far enough that two people could push on either side if they didn’t mind rubbing shoulders.

    "Mistress Ilna," the wizard said, "help me on the left side. Your secretary can take the right."

    Ilna looked at her. Brincisa was still breathing hard. She hadn’t stopped to rest on the climb up the hill, but she was far from having recovered her strength after the incantation.

    "Ingens and I will move the stone," Ilna said. "You brought along a lantern for me? Light it now."

    She squatted and braced both hands on the pole. It was smooth from long wear, fortunately. Even if it hadn’t been, Ilna’s palms weren’t soft like a fine lady’s who might be gored by a splinter.

    "Ready?" she said to Ingens. He nodded. Behind them, metal clicked on stone; Brincisa was striking a spark with steel on a chip of pyrites instead of using wizardry to light the wick of the candle she’d taken from the lantern.

    Ilna and the secretary shoved forward together. The roller moved more easily than she’d expected; though the track sloped very slightly upward, years - centuries? - of use had polished it. Ilna’s only problem was that she was too small to easily extend to the stone’s resting position, but by hunching forward from her squat she was able to get the chock in place on her side.

    She stood and looked back at the hole they’d uncovered. There’d been gaps big enough to stick an arm through when the stone was in place, but now that it’d been removed the opening didn’t look any too big. She could crawl through without difficulty, but she wondered how much trouble it would’ve been to bury her Uncle Katchin - a pig in all senses.

    She frowned. The air inside the cave was dank, like the interior of a well. She didn’t smell rotting flesh, however. Three days even deep in rock should’ve been enough for Hutton to turn, quite apart from the reeking corruption of centuries of previous dead bodies.

    "Mistress Brincisa," Ilna said, "I don’t smell death." What she really meant was that she didn’t smell corpses, but she was being polite since the woman’s husband was one of them.

    "There’s a special property of this cave," Brincisa said with a flash of irritation, there and then gone. "It’s of no consequence. Master Ingens, tie the rope around this post. And you, mistress, may want to tie the other end around your waist."

    The ‘post’ was a thick bollard. Ilna rang it with her knuckles and found what the moonlight had led her to expect: it was bronze, not wood or even iron. It was set too deeply in the rock to quiver when she threw her weight against it.

    Lowering bodies into the cave was obviously so familiar a practice that considerable preparation had been made to make it easy and dignified. More dignified than simply tossing them down a hole in the rock as though they were so many turds falling into a close chest.

    Ingens threw his rope around the post. He started to loop the free end around the main length, then paused.

    "I’ll take care of that," Ilna said, trying to keep the disgust out of her voice. Ingens could read and write, after all. She’d have to be out of her mind to trust a knot he’d tied, however. "Since I’m the one who’ll be hanging from it."

    Ingens stepped out of the way obediently. Brincisa rested on one knee, her face set; presumably she was still recruiting her strength. Ilna let her fingers run over the rope for a moment; it was linen, new and easily strong enough for Ilna’s slight weight even though it was the diameter of her fourth finger. It would do.

    She tied it with two half-hitches, simple and satisfactory, then rose. "I’m ready," she said. "Give me the lantern."

    "Mistress, how will you carry it?" Ingens asked in concern.

    Ilna glanced into the hole. The moonlight showed that it slanted slightly for about the length of her body before dropping away. She couldn’t see beyond the initial slope. The rope would rub, but not badly; and anyway, it was new.

    She wore a silken lasso around her waist in place of a sash. Now she uncoiled a two-ell length and tied it around the lantern’s loop handle.

    "I’ll carry it in my hand till I’m over the drop," she said to the secretary. Brincisa remained silent, watching like a cat attending the actions of human beings but holding aloof from them. "Then I’ll let it hang so that it lights the floor of the cave before I reach it."

    "It’s not far," the wizard said. The fact she spoke was by now a surprise. "Twenty feet, no more."

    "Fine," said Ilna, "but I still want light."

    She supposed she’d be dropping into putrid corpses, the remains of centuries. She wasn’t squeamish, but if she could avoid putting her weight on a spike of rotting bone, she would.

    "Shall I lower you, mistress?" Ingens said softly. He seemed genuinely concerned, which made no more sense to Ilna than the other parts of this puzzle. Well, her own task was simple enough.

    "No," she said. "I’ll climb down myself."

    She turned and started down the rope backward. The linen filled her mind with memories of terraced fields rising from a broad brown current - not the North River, at least not the North River of the present. The sun was bright and hot, and little blue flowers nodded from long, kinked stalks.

    It was good to have the rope to touch, because it insulated her from the narrow rock about her. Below, waiting for her, was ancient death.

    But for now, flax flowers smiled at the sun.



    "Since you have an oracle here . . . ," Liane said.

    "Please sit down, milady," Amineus said, gesturing to the cushions along the left wall of the single round room. He must’ve been sitting on the other side, for the table there had a bowl of fruit, a wedge of deep-yellow cheese, and a lidded silver flagon with matching goblet. "Ah, would you like some refreshment?"

    The door across the room had three lock plates in it, all set together in the middle. The panel looked heavy enough to be the street door in a city where folk had to worry about robbers smashing their way in.

    "There’s no need of that," Liane said, flicking the suggestion away with her left hand. "Nor time, I dare say. My colleagues and I need to question the Tree Oracle. And what I was saying -"

    She froze the start of the priest’s protest with a raised finger.

    "- is that since you have an oracle, you are aware that the Worm is approaching Dariada. The city is doomed unless we stop the creature."

    Other than the second door, the room didn’t have much to see. Solidly joined storage chests sat along the walls, two and two, and above the cushioned seats the plaster’d been frescoed with pictures of fountains. Cashel liked paintings; they were the one thing he’d found in cities that he’d have regretted missing if he hadn’t left Barca’s Hamlet. There didn’t seem much reason to paint a fountain when you might’ve had the real thing about as easy, though.

    "You don’t understand the difficulties in what you’re saying," Amineus said, shaking his head in slow frustration. "The College of Priests - all three of us, not just me alone - has to consider the petition and -"

    "I don’t care about the difficulties," said Liane, slapping the words out. "I certainly don’t care about your procedures - and neither should you, since you and your whole city will be destroyed unless my associate Lady Rasile -"

    She gestured to Rasile, who grinned but kept her tongue inside her long jaws.

    "- who is a wizard, is able to find a solution. To accomplish this, she believes she needs to see the Tree."

    "A wizard?" Amineus said in amazement. He stared at Rasile, then back to Liane. "You mean this -"

    "Stop!" said Liane. "If you use the word ‘animal’ again to refer to a friend of mine, Master Cashel will knock you down. You can do that, can you not, Cashel?"

    "Yes ma’am," Cashel said. A cudgel would be handier, but short-gripping the quarterstaff would do the job too. He figured he could probably handle the big man without a weapon at all, but wrestling around inside chanced squashing the women like shoats when a brood sow rolls over.

    "As to your question, yes," Liane continued more calmly. "Rasile is a wizard. Now, take us to see the oracle."

    Amineus sighed and set the bread and knife down on the low table. "You may as well," he said. "It’s improper, but what does that matter if the danger’s as bad as we think? As bad as you say, milady. But I warn you -"

    He looked around the three of them.

    "- we’ve tried ourselves, following all the rituals. And the Tree has told us nothing. Nothing!"

    "We’ll go now, if you please, Master Amineus," Liane said. She wasn’t near as harsh as she’d been a moment before, but she didn’t expect an argument.

    "Yes, yes," the priest said tiredly. He turned to his servant. "Ansco, go tell Masters Hilfe and Conwin that I’m taking a noblewoman and her retinue into the Enclosure. If they want to join us, they’d best hurry."

    He paused, frowning. "Better see Conwin first," he said, correcting himself. "I can’t imagine Hilfe will be willing to tear himself away from his counting house so early in the day."

    The servant nodded and trotted off. From his look of disappointment, Cashel guessed the fellow wanted to watch whatever happened next.

    Amineus lifted the key he wore chained to a heavy leather belt. Cashel expected him to go to the back door, but instead he knelt beside one of the storage chests.

    "The priests of the Tree are elected to three-year terms, you know," he muttered as he fitted the key to chest’s lock. Maybe Liane knew that; Cashel certainly didn’t. "One a year, and the senior man is high priest. I took it for an honor and thought it worth the trouble, but this business now . . . ."

    He lifted the lid. There was nothing in the chest but three more keys.

    "I don’t know what to do, none of us do!" Amineus said. "An army of ruffians coming toward us with a monster - everybody says they’re coming for the Oracle! We’ve got refugees from Telut, they tell us what’s going to happen. I’m responsible and I don’t know what to do!"

    He rose with the three keys in his hand. They were the kind that had thin pins sticking out from the end to fit and turn in arcs cut in the face of the latch plate.

    "We’re each supposed to keep our key with us at all times," he said, "but the gardeners have to go in and out at any hour. That’s, well . . . . There’s always one priest in the office. That’s inconvenience enough."

    "You’re doing what you needed to do, Master Amineus," Liane said firmly. "You’re putting the problem of the Worm into the hands of those who may be able to solve it."

    The priest sniffed. "Am I?" he said, fitting the three keys into the locks. "Well, I hope you’re right, but it doesn’t really matter. Since I don’t know of anything else to do that would be better."

    He turned and looked at Liane. From his expression, he might’ve just learned that his whole family had died.

    "I don’t know anything at all to do!" Amineus said. "Except run, and I won’t do that."

    Liane stepped past the big priest and turned the keys one after the other. Each bar withdrew with a solid clack.

    She looked up at him. "We won’t run either, Master Amineus," she said. "That’s why we’re here. Now, lead us to the Tree."

    Instead of pushing the panel herself, Liane gestured and stepped aside. Amineus smiled crookedly and opened the door, leading them through. Beyond was what seemed like another room, only this one was as big as a stadium and the roof was the branches and leaves of trees growing around the inside of the wall.

    The one tree. Each trunk was joined to the trunks on either side, just like it’d looked from outside the wall. The limbs arched overhead like the beams of an impossibly great hall, linking to one another in a wooden spiderweb.

    "This way," the priest said, taking them to the left around the curve of the enclosure. "The Stone of Question is across the enclave."

    The ground was bare, dry and packed from ages of exposure. The only undergrowth Cashel saw, if you wanted to call it that, was moss in places where rock had broken through the top of the dirt. The soil under these leaves and branches didn’t get any more sunlight than it would on a thatched porch; that was why it was barren, not because the gardeners Amineus talked about had dug out everything but the Tree’s own roots.

    Though the roots were everywhere. Amineus kept wide of the boles by longer than Cashel could touch with his staff; even so it was like they were walking on a floor of ridged wood, the roots lay so thick. Cashel would’ve avoided stepping on them, but there wasn’t any way he could; and the priest wearing leather-soled sandals - Cashel was barefoot - didn’t seem concerned about it himself.

    The reason for going around the side of the enclosure was to avoid what was left of a building in the center. It’d been a temple, Cashel guessed, but not a very fancy one even before it’d all fallen in.

    A foundation course of rough limestone showed a rectangle three times a tall man’s height on the long sides and not quite that wide on the front and back ends. There’d been two stone pillars framing the doorway at the front, but extensions of the side walls had carried the ends of the porch roof.

    There wasn’t any sign of a roof or the rest of the walls, either one. If there’d been a statue, it was gone too. All there was inside the base course was a litter of fallen leaves and husks from the Tree’s seedpods.

    "Sir?" Cashel asked. "The temple there in the middle? What is it?"

    Amineus had been lost in his own thoughts. He gave Cashel a look that was peevish if not quite angry.

    "That’s no matter of ours," he said. "It’s a temple, yes, but it’s very old. Nobody knows who it was dedicated to."

    He cleared his throat. "We avoid it," he added, "out of courtesy for those who worshipped here in former days."

    "You’re afraid of it, Master Amineus," Cashel said, as polite as he could be while calling another man a liar. It wasn’t something he often did, but he couldn’t take the chance that Liane and Rasile would mistake what was going on before they spoke to the oracle. "It sticks out all over you. I’m sorry, but it does."

    Amineus stumbled but caught himself the next step. His face went red, then white. He didn’t say anything or even look over his shoulder at Cashel.

    "He is right to be afraid, warrior," said Rasile calmly. "There is much power focused here, power that could turn this universe. Power enough perhaps to put the very cosmos into a spin."

    Her tongue lolled in laughter. Either she thought the priest was smart enough to understand she wasn’t slavering for his blood, or maybe she didn’t care.

    "When we came beneath the walls of this great place made of stone," the wizard continued, "I thought the great power I saw was the oracle. It made me doubt our success, for power like that would make nothing of such as me. It was too great for any person, of the True People or of the Monkey People. Who are true in their own way, as I now see."

    She cocked her head to look at Amineus. He must have felt her foxlike sharpness, but he didn’t turn to meet it.

    "But it is not your tree that has the power, elder," she said. "The tree has grown here because of the power of the temple in its center. And you fear it."

    "The temple is very old," Amineus said softly. "Its walls were mud brick. They’ve been gone, crumbled to dirt, from long before records. And the records of the priesthood of the Tree, the questions and responses, go back to the age before the age before the Old Kingdom."

    He stopped and turned to face the three of them. "I didn’t lie to you, Master Cashel," he said. "We know nothing about the temple beyond what you yourself see. And if you prefer to think that I would not act respectfully to a site of ancient worship if I didn’t fear it, then you go ahead and believe that. But you’re wrong."

    Cashel felt uncomfortable. He wasn’t sorry for having brought the business out in the open, but it now seemed that the priest hadn’t had any bad intention in not wanting to discuss it.

    "I don’t think that, sir," he said. "You’ve showed yourself polite to us, for which we thank you."

    "Yes," said Amineus, "but perhaps less forthcoming than a man in fear of his life should be to his rescuers, eh? My pardon to all of you."

    He turned again and gestured with his left hand. "Milady," he said. "This is the oracle itself."

    Cashel hadn’t known what to expect. There was an aspen grove in Cafardstown, three days north of Barca’s Hamlet. Folk said that if you slept in it, the Lady would speak to your dreams in the rustling of the leaves. Cashel had never seen the grove or cared about it one way or another, but he knew folk who’d made the journey.

    Some said they’d got their answer, too. Widow Bassera had asked the trees to pick between her suitors, then married young Parus or-Whin instead of a settled man her own age. The match had worked out well, but Bassera was a clever one who might’ve decided to get the Lady’s support for the choice her own wits had made.

    Here at Dariada . . . .

    A flat stone was set into the ground. It was polished black granite an ell across, not local limestone like the foundation of the old temple. Though the stone had been cut to be round, the surface was etched with many figures inside each other, from a triangle up to something with more sides than Cashel could count with both hands.

    Describing the Tree would make it sound like the stands of mangroves that Cashel had seen in his travels. That was nothing like what it really looked like, though, because these individual boles were as thick as the trunks of live oaks.

    Slanting up from the nearest trunk was a branch thicker than Cashel could’ve spanned with both arms. From it a seedpod hung almost to the ground in front of the granite slab. This pod was huge, bigger than Cashel in every dimension. Its casing had turned a brown as dark as walnut heartwood, and the seam running from tip to stem was almost black.

    That seam had started to split open at the top. Inside the pod was the face of a man with his eyes shut. It was the same deep brown as the casing around it.

    "I’ve brought you to the oracle, milady," Amineus said, turning his hand toward the pod. "The querent always asks his - or her - own questions. We of the priesthood merely make the administrative arrangements."

    "Thank you, Master Amineus," Liane said. She seemed a little taken aback. "Which . . . which of us is to do the questioning?"

    The priest shrugged. "That’s up to you," he said. "I’ve already explained that the oracle refused to tell us - the priests of the Tree - anything beyond the fact that the Worm will come to Dariada regardless of what we wish or do."

    "All right," said Liane with a crisp nod. "Rasile, this is your business properly."

    To the priest she added, "Master Amineus, is there a form she’s to use in addressing the oracle?"

    Amineus shrugged again. "The Tree will speak if it chooses to," he said.

    Rasile stepped onto the slab, placing both feet carefully within the triangle that was the innermost of the forms. Before she could speak, the eyes within the pod opened.

    I thought it was a statue, Cashel thought. A carved statue . . . .

    "What have I to do with a Corl?" said the wooden head. "Other than kill it as an affront to the world that is given to men, that is. Or do you think that because you are a wizard, you can force me to speak?"

    "If you know my heart . . . ," said Rasile, standing as straight as the joint of her hips permitted. Cashel had seen the wizard’s face when she confronted a wyvern that had just torn a muscular Corl chieftain to dollrags. Then too she’d shown a fierce certainty that though she would die, she would die fighting. "Then you know I claim no power over such as you."

    The face - the Tree - laughed. "I will not harm you," it said. "But step away, Corl. You have no part in my world."

    Rasile bowed, then hopped onto the bare ground without touching the slab again. Liane, delicately but without hesitation, stepped into her place.

    The Tree laughed again. Its voice was a deep baritone. It reminded Cashel of stormwinds booming through a hollow log.

    "Greetings, Lady Liane," the Tree said. "Another time I would speak with you, but now as the world of men nears its end I will talk to your champion instead. Cashel or-Mab, come face me."

    "Sir," said Cashel, stepping onto the granite. He held the staff crossed before him at waist height. It wasn’t a threat, but it showed he didn’t intend to be pushed around.

    Cashel knew the Tree’s sort. He was the Tree’s sort; which he guessed was why it’d called for him.

    "My father’s name is Kenset, sir," he said. "Not Mab."

    The Tree’s laughter boomed. The carven face was handsome, but its lines were just as hard as the wood it was shaped from.

    "Your father was a weakling," the Tree said harshly. "He made bad choices and drank because he regretted them. Your mother Mab, though . . . she is not weak. Nor is her son. Ask me what you want to know, Cashel son of Mab."

    "Sir," said Cashel. Without really thinking about it, he pivoted the quarterstaff to stand straight up beside him, gripped in his right hand. "There’s a Worm loose in the world, now. How do we kill it, please?"

    "No man living can kill the Worm, Cashel," the Tree said. Its words were rumbling like distant thunder. "In times more ancient than you can imagine -"

    The eyes looked from Cashel to the women beside him, just like they were in a human face instead of a wooden one.

    "More ancient than even Lady Liane has read of in the oldest books. In those times lived a hero named Gorand. He was the champion of his people as you are of yours, Cashel. He vanquished the Worm when fools let it into the world of men."

    "Yes sir," Cashel said. He was speaking like the wooden face was another man; but it talked like another man, and anyway that was the polite thing to do. "Can you teach me to do what Gorand did? To beat the Worm?"

    The Tree boomed another peal of laughter. "No, Cashel, I cannot," it said. "That is a thing not even you can learn. You must rouse Gorand and convince him to banish the Worm for you. To banish it for mankind, as he did before."

    Cashel didn’t say anything for a moment, making sure that he understood what he’d just been told. He caught Liane out of the corner of his eye: her mouth opened like she was going to speak, but she closed it again. Rasile reached out and touched her arm. Both women were looking at him.

    "Sir," said Cashel, "how do I find Gorand and rouse him? Please."

    The Tree had said that Cashel couldn’t learn to fight the Worm. Cashel wasn’t sure that was true, but that didn’t matter if there was another way to get rid of the creature. If the Tree said to rouse Gorand, that meant it thought they could do it. All they needed now was to learn how.

    There was no point saying that Gorand was long dead. The Tree knew that, had told them that.

    "There is a stele in front of the Office of the Priests," the Tree said. "On the reverse of the stele are carved directions to reach Gorand. But I cannot tell you how to convince Gorand to return to help you, Cashel son of Mab. The people of this world repaid Gorand with evil for his good, and the people of Dariada worst of all. Gorand was a citizen of Dariada, and they treated him ill."

    "I’m sorry for that, sir," Cashel said. "A man like you say Gorand is, though, he won’t let that keep him from doing what he needs to do."

    Sure, there were people who’d cheat and do all manner of low things to the folks who helped them; it’d happened to Cashel and he’d seen it happen to others. But you couldn’t hold it against everybody.

    "Do you think so, Cashel?" the Tree said. Cashel thought it might laugh again, but instead there was something else in the tone that he couldn’t place. "That’s for you to convince him, then."

    The eyes of the wooden face closed; the mouth settled back into grim silence. Cashel stepped off the slab.

    Liane’s face worked with frustration and a touch of anger that she was trying to conceal. "The stele’s worn smooth!" she said. "Any information there was lost ages ago. Perhaps -"

    She looked from the pod to Amineus.

    "- we can speak to the oracle again?"

    "Milady," said the priest, "you’re welcome to speak to the Tree as much as you wish. But as you saw, the Tree was unwilling to answer you even once."

    "It’s all right, Liane," Cashel said. He stretched with the quarterstaff, but he didn’t spin it as he might’ve done in another place. There was room here, but it didn’t seem, well, respectful. "He knew what he was doing. The Tree did, I mean. We’ll go look at this stele. You think he meant the slab out in front of the door here?"

    "Yes, of course," said Liane sharply. That wasn’t like her, but she wasn’t used to being off on her own this way. By now, Cashel was. "That’s a stele, the stele. And I did look at it. The image on the obverse is clear, but the legend on the reverse has been completely worn away."

    The priest was watching. He seemed even more worried than before. He probably hoped the three of them were marvels who never doubted what to do next. Seeing that they were human after all put him right back where he’d been before they came, frightened and despairing.

    "Warrior Cashel is correct," Rasile said calmly. "We must trust the oracle."

    She dipped her head to Amineus. "Thank you, wise one," she said. "We will examine the stone outside your gate again. I think we will find that the stone is not as blank to a wizard as it might be to a layman -"

    Her tongue wagged toward Liane.

    "- no matter how wise that layman is."

    Liane’s face went hard for an instant; then she stepped forward with her arms spread, managing to sort-of hug both Cashel and Rasile. "Thank the Lady!" she said.

    Cashel figured they could all agree with that.



    "Ah, your highness . . . ," said Lord Tadai, looking around the room in which Sharina had told him to meet her. "Wouldn’t we be more comfortable discussing this religious problem, ah, elsewhere?"

    No, I wouldn’t, Sharina thought grimly. Obviously.

    They were in the little chamber off the bedroom of her suite, intended for the maid or manservant who’d normally be attending a noble at night. There was only room for a cot, a wash stand with a chest of ease beneath it, and ordinarily a rack holding additional sheets and blankets for the main bedroom.

    Sharina’d had the rack replaced by the chair in which she now sat; a cloak hung over the back of it. She gestured Tadai to one end of the cot and said, "We won’t be here long, milord," she said. "There’ll be a one more - ah, here he is. Master Dysart, close the door behind you, if you will."

    Liane’s deputy seemed more like a coney than a mouse: plump, soft and timid. That can’t have been true - well, he was plump enough - but nonetheless Sharina felt a pang at Liane’s absence. Even though Dysart had to be competent to hold his position, she still missed her friend’s presence and advice.

    "Before we proceed to the matter of Scorpion worship . . . ," Sharina said.

    Dysart was still standing, though he’d pulled the door to. It was very quickly going to become close in this small chamber with three people and the flames of a two-wick oil lamp.

    "Please sit, Master Dysart," Sharina snapped, gesturing to the other end of the bed. She had no right to be irritated with the man for being afraid to do the obvious without permission, but the night’s business had disturbed her.

    She cleared her throat. "There’s another matter you need to know as my closest advisors," she said. "Master Burne, you may come out now. Master Burne helped me -"

    The rat squirmed from behind a fold of the cloak. He rose to his hind legs, bowed, and hopped to Sharina’s lap. Both men kept blank expressions, but Lord Tadai had stiffened to leap up before he caught himself.

    "A new pet, your highness?" he said in a neutral voice.

    "Not exactly, milord," said Burne. "Though it’s probably better if most people think that’s what I am. Otherwise they’ll start whispering that the princess is a wizard herself, you know, and there’s no telling where that will end."

    "By the Lady," Tadai said quietly.

    "Master Dysart, do you have any comment?" Sharina asked, raising one eyebrow.

    "I defer to your highness’ judgment," the spymaster said. He didn’t shrug, but there was a shrug in his tone. "If I might suggest one thing?"

    "Just speak, Master Dysart," Sharina said, her voice again sharper than she’d intended. "We all want to get out of this closet as soon as we can."

    "Yes, your highness," Dysart said, making a seated bow. "A gold chain or the like around the . . . around Master Burne’s neck might be useful to prevent an accident with your guards or the palace staff."

    Sharina looked at the rat. "Oh, he’s right, I know that," Burne said disgustedly. "You wouldn’t believe the prejudice -"

    He paused and wrinkled his whiskers. "Well, you probably would," he said. "And to tell the truth, I find my fellow rats a rather unsavory crew - though there are rough diamonds among them, I assure you, gentlemen. Still, I think a ribbon will be satisfactory, don’t you? Because chains chafe my fur. Yes, a nice ribbon of bleached linen will do admirably."

    "Now that we’ve seen Master Burne," said Tadai with a flick of his perfect manicure, "perhaps we can remove to more a comfortable meeting place, your highness?"

    "We’re here because I’m afraid of being overheard," Sharina said, "by scorpions. There are suddenly a lot of scorpions in Pandah -"

    "Yes indeed," said Tadai. He might not have interrupted Princess Sharina at a formal council meeting, but she’d noticed that the prefect had a tendency, despite his formal politeness, to disregard things that a woman said. "That’s why I requested a meeting, your highness. The infestation of scorpions in concert with the new worship, that is."

    "City Prefect Tadai," Sharina said in clipped syllables. "Will you please listen to me?"

    Tadai’s face became very still. "Your highness," he murmured, dipping his head.

    "Burne believes that the scorpions are communicating with one another," Sharina resumed. "Ordinarily if I wanted to speak to you without being overheard I’d go out in the middle of a park, but we couldn’t possibly avoid such small eavesdroppers there. It should be possible to keep this room clear for the time we’ll be here."

    "I know they talk to each other," the rat said. "It’s arm signals, a regular little semaphore with their pincers, and they can see each other in what’s the dark to you or me. Now, though, they’re saying more than the usual, ‘This is my patch,’ or ‘I’m too big for you to eat.’"

    He shook his head in disgust. "I’d say that scorpions didn’t have any more society than a pile of rocks does," he said, "but at least rocks don’t eat each other."

    "Are you saying that scorpions are intelligent, Master Burne?" Dysart said. He carried a document file of heavy black leather, much like Liane’s collapsible travelling desk. Unlike his mistress, he kept the case locked while he was in conference.

    "Them?" Burne jeered. "You could have a more intellectual conversation with the lamp up there."

    His muzzle twitched toward the simple pottery appliance hanging beside the door. Because the suite’s wealthy occupant was never expected to look into this alcove, the lamp’s only decoration was a leaf pattern impressed around the filler hole on top.

    "But whoever’s sending the beasts here must be pretty intelligent," he added.

    "The same person who’s behind the scorpion worship, presumably," Tadai said. He raised an eyebrow in question. "There’ve been hundreds of people stung by the creatures in the past few weeks. That’s not serious -"

    "Not serious?" Sharina said in amazement.

    Tadai waved a hand. "Your highness, we must keep the matter in proportion," he said. "There’ve been that many knifings in the dives that the drovers and rivermen frequent. And soldiers, I’m afraid. For the most part a scorpion sting is merely unpleasant."

    "Yes, your highness," said Dysart. He stretched out his right leg and pointed to a welt the size of a thumbnail just above the inside of his ankle. The swelling was red, but the center was dead white. "It’s numb, is all. Though I’d rather it hadn’t happened."

    For an instant Dysart’s eyes rested on Burne, grooming the base of his tail. He continued, "We made a sweep of the offices after this happened and found seven more, but they keep creeping back in the nighttime."

    "Is it possible that the priests of this new scorpion god control the scorpions themselves?" Tadai said, frowning in concentration. "That they have real power, in other words?"

    "I think . . . ," Sharina said, pausing to consider how much to say. If Liane were here, she’d discuss her dreams fully; but though Sharina trusted these men’s ability, she didn’t care to disclose her secret fears to them. "I think that there’s someone or something beyond the priests. I think if we question a priest, though, we’ll get . . . closer to the source of the plague."

    "Right," said Tadai, nodding agreement. "I’ll give orders to the city patrols to report to their district headquarters immediately if they see signs of another gathering, and for the watch officers to report to me."

    "If I may suggest, your highness and milord?" Dysart said, running the tips of his pudgy fingers over the document case.

    "Speak," Sharina said, this time with icy calm.

    "Rather than the uniformed patrols, let my department locate the gathering," Dysart said. "If the Prefect would keep a strong body of his patrolmen ready to respond at once, I think we may have better results."

    "What about the city garrison?" Sharina said. "Milord, you have four regiments, do you not? Have one company ready to move instantly with the rest of the regiment to follow in ten minutes."

    "Yes," said Tadai, nodding and frowning. "Yes, a very good idea. I’ll have to talk with Lord Quernan, my military advisor, however. Though the city garrison is under my command, quite frankly I don’t know very much about soldiers."

    "If I may suggest -" Sharina said.

    Burne, crouching on her right thigh, snickered. She realized that she’d just used the form that Dysart had irritated her with.

    "Of course, your highness," said Lord Tadai - of course. But the matter really was in his department, and Sharina didn’t want to seem to be acting arbitrarily.

    "You might use Lord Baines’s regiment for the purpose," she said.

    "If you have confidence in Lord Baines, that’s quite enough for me, your highness," Tadai said.

    "I have nothing against Lord Baines," Sharina said with a wry smile, "but as I chance to know his Camp Marshals, men named Prester and Pont. They’d probably be in charge of a task like this, and I have a great deal of confidence in them."

    "Then if we’re agreed on a plan . . .?" said Tadai.

    Burne launched himself from Sharina’s lap to her shoulder, then sprang to the top of the closed door. His long chisel teeth clicked as he bounced back onto the bed between the two men.

    Tadai started sideways. Dysart thrust his arm out to protect the rat, then withdrew it when he saw that Tadai hadn’t tried to strike.

    Scorpion legs spurted from the edges of Burne’s mouth. "Scarcely a mouthful," he said, "but it could have sent word to whatever wants to know. I heard it on the top edge of the door, but I had to wait till it came out enough for me to snatch it."

    Sharina rose to her feet. "Thank you, Master Burne," she said. "I’m going to be very pleased when we’ve found the source of this problem."



    "You’ve become an exceptional horseman," Reise said in muted surprise as he and Garric trotted in the midst of the escort. They were within half a mile of Barca’s Hamlet, but only the tall slate roof of the millhouse was visible. Since the Change a pine forest covered what had been the Inner Sea east of Haft.

    "Thank you," said Garric. Carus was almost as skilled a rider as he was a swordsman, and there’d been no better swordsman in the kingdom while he ruled it. "You’ve learned to ride well too."

    His father chuckled. "I’ve known how to ride since before you were born," he said. "I was part of the entourage which accompanied the Countess. It wasn’t a skill I needed in Barca’s Hamlet."

    "Ah," said Garric. In the borough where he grew up, plowmen followed oxen and the only horses were those on which a few drovers arrived during the Sheep Fair. He tended to forget that Reise’s life extended beyond being a father and the keeper of a rural inn.

    "The difficulty wasn’t remembering how to ride," Reise said. He gave Garric a rueful smile. "It was in managing not to scream from the pain until my thighs got back in shape. Or as close to shape as is possible at my age."

    Garric and Carus laughed together. "I’m familiar with the problem," Garric said. Carus provided a horseman’s instincts and techniques, but the ghost could do nothing to train muscles which weren’t used to gripping the flanks of a horse.

    The leading troops of cavalry had ridden into the hamlet and were lining both sides of the only street. Attaper and the first section of Blood Eagles followed, their horseshoes clinking and sparkling on flagstones laid during the Old Kingdom.

    "Duzi!" said Garric. He’d never seen the street when it wasn’t covered by a layer of dirt, save for the doorsteps of the more fastidious householders. "They’ve swept it!"

    "Mucked it out, rather," Reise said proudly. "The prince is visiting them, you know."

    There’d been changes at the mill; indeed, clay soil heaped to either side of a new channel showed that work was still going on. A tall man whom Garric didn’t recognize stood in front of the building at the head of his household: his wife holding an infant, three other children in ascending order of age, and a servant boy with the features of Arham or-Buss - a farmer from the north of the borough who raised more children than he did any other kind of crop.

    The tall man took off his velvet cap - an Erdin style, like the short matching cape - and waved as he cheered. The whole household did the same, causing the startled infant to begin screaming.

    "Mordrig or-Mostert," Reise murmured. "He’s the Sandrakkan merchant who bought the mill from Katchin’s widow. He had to convert it from tidal operation to a flume brought down from Pattern Creek now that Barca’s Hamlet isn’t on the sea any more."

    There were more people in Barca’s Hamlet than Garric had ever seen before, even during Sheep Fairs and the Tithe Processions when priests from Carcosa dragged images of the Lady and the Shepherd on large carts through the hamlet. There were outsiders, the various sorts of entertainers who’re drawn to large gatherings the way flies find a fresh corpse, but mostly they were people from the borough and neighboring boroughs.

    He recognized many faces, though not always with a name attached; but mostly he recognized the sort of folk they were. They were the same as Garric or-Reise had been, but he didn’t belong here any more.

    "I didn’t expect all these people!" Garric said. It wasn’t that the crowd was huge in absolute terms: Valles and now Pandah had larger populations than the whole eastern coastline of Haft, and an address by the Prince brought out a good proportion of either city.

    But it was too many for Barca’s Hamlet. They were overwhelming the eighteen years of Garric’s memories.

    "You should have expected them," his father said quietly.

    Garric wore his silvered breastplate, but the helmet with flaring gilt wings was miserably uncomfortable to ride in and unnecessary now, even though he was well ahead of the main body of the army. Instead he wore a lacquered straw hat with a wide brim - in the latest Valles style, he’d been told, but practical nonetheless. Hidden beneath the colorful straw, because he was the prince and Lord Attaper had insisted, was a leather-padded steel cap.

    He didn’t want to uncover the armor by waving the straw hat to the crowd, so he waggled his right arm high instead. The saddle raised him as much as a dais would in a more formal setting.

    "Fellow citizens of the kingdom!" Garric called. He doubted anybody but Reise and the closest Blood Eagles could hear him, because the crowd was screaming its collective heart out. The sound seemed thin, though: open air didn’t give the cheers the echoing majesty that he’d become used to in squares framed by high stone buildings.

    Garric swept his arm down, hoping to cut off the shouting. "Fellow citizens of Haft!" he cried.

    The gesture worked pretty well. When a few people decided they were supposed to stop cheering, those around them had an excuse to quit also. He wondered if everybody in the borough would be speaking in raw whispers tomorrow morning.

    "Friends!" Garric said. "Not only because I see the faces of many who have been my friends since childhood, but because all those who stand firm against evil and chaos are my friends. My duties will carry me away soon - but please, since you are my friends and neighbors, give me a chance to visit the inn where I grew up. I’m not here for reasons of state: I’m here because Barca’s Hamlet was my home and is still the home of my heart!"

    Garric thrust his arm skyward again; the cheers resumed as he’d hoped and expected. He clucked to his horse and gave it a touch of his left knee, turning it toward the gate arch of the inn.

    He didn’t have to worry about the crowd respecting his privacy: the troops of his escort would make sure of that. Making it a matter of courtesy which the soldiers were merely enforcing was better policy than giving the impression of being an aloof brute, however. And as for claiming that Barca’s Hamlet was still home to him -

    I lied to them, Garric thought bitterly.

    The ghost of his ancestor shrugged. "Sometimes kings have to lie," Carus said. "I didn’t mind that - or mind killing people, to tell the truth - nearly as much as I minded sitting through arguments on tax policy. But sometimes kings have to do that too."

    Laughing, Garric rode under the archway. There was room for two horsemen - or a coach, not that there’d been a coach in Barca’s Hamlet since the fall of the Old Kingdom - but Reise held his mount back for a moment to follow rather than accompany the prince.

    Bressa Kalran’s-widow, who’d sold their poor farm when her husband died and supported herself - poorly - with spinning and whatever else she could find, and her son - he must be fifteen now; he’d gotten his growth since Garric left the hamlet - stood to either side of the well in the center of the yard. The boy bowed so deeply that his carrot-blond forelock almost brushed the ground. Bressa threw herself onto her knees and elbows gabbling, "Your highness! Your royal highness!"

    "Get up, for Duzi’s sake!" Garric said. Shouted, rather; he was shocked and disgusted.

    "Arise, Mistress Bressa," said Reise, swinging from his horse to lift the widow by the hands, politely but firmly. "You honor neither your prince nor your old neighbor Garric by this sort of antic. We’re free citizens of Haft, you and I and Prince Garric."

    Bressa got up with a stunned expression. She dabbed her face with the kerchief pinned over her bosom, a poor woman’s alternative to an expensively embroidered outer tunic. "Begging your pardon, your highness, I’m sure," she said in a frightened whisper.

    Of course Lara would need to hire help for the inn, Garric realized. She couldn’t run it by herself with Reise and both children gone. And where is-

    His eyes went to the door of the inn. His mother stepped out as though she’d been listening to his thoughts. She was wearing a light gray tunic over a white one. Both were so well made that they might have been Ilna’s work were it not for the cloth-of-gold borders appliquéd at the throat, cuffs, and hems. Even so, they were excellent examples of peasant dress, not a peasant’s garish idea of what the nobility wore.

    Lara lifted her skirts and dipped in a perfect curtsey. She didn’t raise her eyes or speak, because one didn’t do either of those things when greeting royalty. Lara knew the correct etiquette because she’d been maid to the Countess of Haft.

    Garric dismounted. He - Garric or-Reise, not Carus - had first ridden a horse here in the innyard, a guest’s mount being exercised. He’d been bareback and used a rope halter. At the memory, he was eight years old again.

    Lara was smaller than he remembered, a doll of a woman. Even after decades of work in a rural in, her face and figure would allow her to pass for a beauty at any distance at all. When she was younger . . . . Well, it wasn’t a surprise that the Count of Haft had found his way into her arms.

    "Mother," he said, stepping toward her. Could it really have been only three years?

    Lara looked up with an expression of anger and pain. "Pardon me, your highness," she said, "but I’m not your mother. Your father, Lord Reise, has made that abundantly clear to me!"

    Garric looked at her for a long moment. No one who’d known Lara for even as much as a day would deny that she was a shrew: utterly focused on appearances and in lashing others with her barbed tongue until they did her will. Garric and his sister had been under her control for their first eighteen years, so they knew her personality better than most.

    Reise had educated the children. He’d given them a wider and more sophisticated understanding of the world than they would have gotten if they’d been raised as royalty in Valles. And yet, and yet . . .

    The ghost of King Carus had taught Garric many things about war and fighting, but he hadn’t had to give the boy a backbone. Garric had been a man before he became a prince, and he’d learned to be that from Lara, not Reise.

    He stepped forward and put his arms around Lara. She was even smaller than she looked, as delicate as a bird.

    "You’re the only mother I ever had," Garric said.

    Still holding her, he stepped back so that their eyes could meet and continued, "Listen to me! When I was a boy, merchants coming to Barca’s Hamlet looked forward to the meals they’d have at the inn here. They were better than they’d get in Erdin or Carcosa or even Valles. I hope you can find food for a pair of hungry men today."

    Lara didn’t move for a moment, her eyes glittering like sword points. At last she said, her voice wobbling with emotions Garric didn’t care to speculate on, "I’ve never turned away a hungry man with the price of a meal in his purse; and for the sake of the relation, there’ll be no charge to you."

    "Right!" he said, kissing her on the cheek. He didn’t remember ever doing that before.

    "But!" Lara said. "You’ve grown to a husky young fellow, so you can draw me some water so that I can wash up later."

    Laughing, Garric strode into the inn to get the cauldron. Chickens scattered from before his boots.

    "Kalmor?" he called to the red-haired boy, hoping he remembered his name correctly. "Water our horses and give them each a peck of oats. But don’t overfeed them, because we’ll be riding to the camp after what I expect to be the best meal I’ve had in three years!"



    Ilna backed to the edge on her elbows and knees, then eased herself over carefully. She’d already dropped the free end into the cavern, so the rope wouldn’t rub at all if she avoided swinging.

    She smiled wryly. It made no practical difference: she could scrape the linen against the soft limestone for the next three days and it’d still be strong enough to hold her. She just didn’t want to hurt a good rope more than she had to. She tried to be equally thoughtful toward her fellow human beings, but it didn’t come naturally to her.

    Ingens’ worried face was the last thing Ilna saw before she let herself down into the open air. The lantern was dangling beneath her.

    Ilna went down hand over hand rather than choosing a more complicated method that the short distance didn’t require. She could see the cave floor, a glitter of grave goods, as the lantern twisted back and forth on the length of silk. She didn’t see bodies or the remains of bodies, though, and the air smelled of mold but not corruption.

    "Mistress, are you all right?" Ingens called.

    "Yes, of course I am!" Ilna said, pausing her own height above the ground to make a real assessment of what was around her. "I see Hutton, I suppose. Is he wearing a gold robe?"

    "Yes, cloth-of-gold," Brincisa said. "Do you see the box? It was tied to his chest."

    The voices from above echoed off into the considerable distance. Ilna was certain she felt a current of air and thought there was a tang of salt in it.

    "Wait," Ilna said. She pulled up the lantern, hooking a little finger over the loop, and handed herself down the rest of the way. At the last she twisted sideways to drop beside Hutton instead of on top of him.

    She untied the lantern and turned slowly, surveying the cave. "Mistress Brincisa?" she called. "I see the box, but there are no more bodies here. This place hasn’t been used as a burial chamber."

    "You’re wrong," the wizard said, "but that doesn’t matter. Untie the box and send it up as quickly as possible."

    The corpse lay on its side. Hutton’s face was that of a sixty-year-old man; the features were cruel rather than merely ruthless. He’d worn a skullcap of cloth-of-gold like his robe and slippers, but it must’ve slipped off when the ropes that’d lowered him were jerked away. His hair was iron-gray and cut short.

    As Brincisa had said, a box the size of a document case was tight against his chest. Hutton’s hands grasped it, but beneath them a filament as thin as spider silk tied it to his torso. Ilna moved the lantern carefully to every angle, shifting the corpse with her left hand.

    The knots were amazingly subtle. How had this Hutton, however great a wizard, been able to tie them? Why, no human being could have reached behind himself to make some of -

    Oh. Hutton hadn’t created this fabric of knots himself. Ilna could have tied them, and so might the Power Who had taught her to weave in Hell. She doubted that there was a third possibility.

    Brincisa’s voice echoed down: "Are you going to be able to loose the casket?"

    "Be silent!" Ilna said as her fingers began to undo the majestic detail.

    Brincisa had said that Ilna wouldn’t like Hutton if she’d known him in life. Now that she knew who Hutton’s friends had been, she was more than ready to agree.

    Brincisa must have been telling the truth about people being buried here. The bodies had vanished but all around were robes, jewelry, and weapons - the sorts of things people buried with the dead. The lantern glinted on a lavaliere of cloisonné and jewels; its thick gold chain had been raggedly cut.

    The atmosphere had a silent chill, very different from the normal unpleasantness of rocks dripping lime water in a cave. Ilna supposed it was a result of Brincisa’s spell. It didn’t affect her, precisely, but she felt like she was moving in something thicker than air.

    Ilna began to work. She smiled, remembering the secretary’s blithe offer to cut the box free. These knots bound far, far more than merely a wooden box. Some of what they controlled was harmless or even beneficial when properly treated, but even those aspects were dangerous if they weren’t respected.


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