Copyright 2005 by Frank Mitchell
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I wrote most of this during November, as part of NaNoWriMo. (The last ~4000 words were finished in mid-February 2006.) It's a very, very, very rough draft of a novel (novella, actually). Apart from a few spelling changes and the rewording of one sentence, everything is pretty much written off the top of my head, with no further editing
Since this is a single long file, at each scene break I've added hyperlinks that take you back to that spot. Now you can take the term "bookmark" literally.
As the Travellers' wagons rolled toward the village, Rado knew he had to leave.
Rado heard the baker's boy shouting that Travellers had come to the tiny village of Greenway. They seldom did; Greenway was a tiny farming village, with only a few tradesmen and not much in the way of coin. The roads into or out of town were not the stone highways built by the Sarkannian Empire in its better days, but mere dirt tracks for oxen and carts. If Travellers came, they stayed for a night before continuing elsewhere.
Rado walked behind the gathering crowds, keeping to the back. He knew he stood out in a crowd; not only was he nearly a head taller than most Sarkannians, his dusky skin contrasted sharply with the pinks and light tans of the other villagers. Before he let the Travellers see him, he wanted to see them first.
He hoped for the gaudy caravans of the Doro-Rom, or the plainer carts of the Tantari festooned with the wares they tried to sell. He would even have welcomed the Kolari, even if they had worse manners than their trained bears. But, as the wagons rolled closer, he saw the dark wood of the carts, the silver glint of sigils and runes he knew all too well, the tall and lanky shapes so like his own atop and beside the wagons.
Perhaps it's an eastern clan, Rado told himself. Maybe Karam's folk, or the Estari. Yet, as the wagons loomed closer, he recognized the shape atop the lead cart ... the set of the shoulders, the aquiline head turning, searching ...
Lars had been a good master, all these years. Rado knew he owed the old man an explanation, at least a goodbye, but there was no time, no time ...
"Going somewhere, boy?" Rado turned to see the stocky old man in the doorway of the little storeroom Rado had called home for the last seven years. Master Lars had the build of a blacksmith; the few strangers who came to Greenway found out quickly he was the coppersmith, and those stubby fingers could perform surprisingly delicate work. His masterpiece had been bronze roses, which he had given to his wife every year until the winter claimed her, five years back.
Rado looked into the old man's lined face, and all the flippant answers he could have given faded away. "I have to."
"Those are your people coming here, eh boy?" Lars saved all his anger for Rado's mistakes with copper; outside the workshop, the old man talked gruff but had acted with nothing but kindness. Now Rado's master looked sad, disappointed, even a little lonely. "You know I never asked what happened all those years ago --"
"Son, you can't run forever. Sooner or later you'll have to face what you ... I mean, whatever trouble ..."
"I'm not a criminal, if that's what you think."
"No, no, I didn't mean --"
"Anyway, you're better off without me. Travellers are bad luck, you know."
"I don't mind that kind of talk, and you shouldn't neither."
"We steal everything, you know."
Rado turned his face away. "Haven't you heard? Tantari steal your silver, Kolari steal your food, Doro-Rom steal your children, and Parhee ... Parhee steal your soul."
"Rado, whatever it is, we can stand together! You been like a son to me these past years --"
A knock on the door interrupted whatever uncharacteristic sentiment Lars was about to express. He had just enough time to blow his nose before the door opened, and Rado saw the man he dreaded most of all ... Isvan Szigny, King of the Parhee.
The deep, soothing and yet compelling voice of the King said, "Forgive my rudeness, good sir, but no one was tending the shop. I wish to speak with your apprentice, if I may."
King Isvan had changed little in seven years. The last traces of black had left his hair, and perhaps his dark, hawklike face bore a few more lines. Yet his black, fathomless eyes watched everything with a keen and inscrutable interest, his shoulders were unbowed, and his movements were as sure as a man of thirty years. As king, Isvan wore a crimson mantle, but the gray linen shirt and black breeches underneath might have belonged to any prosperous artisan.
Lars tried to shove Isvan out the door. "Sorry, sir, we're closed. You'll have to come back another time."
Isvan sighed. "If I could speak to the lad alone, I can make it worth your while." With a flourish of his long fingers, Isvan produced four silver coins.
Lars's eyes narrowed. "Keep your money, sir, and you need not come back --"
"It's all right," Rado found himself saying.
Lars looked at Rado. "Are you sure, boy?"
"I'll hear what he has to say." Rado hid his trembling, and hated himself for still fearing the King. No, not the King, Rado realized. Isvan Szigny.
Rado nodded, and Lars leaned against a wall. "All right, speak your peace."
"Just the lad, please, kind sir. What we will discuss touches on the mysteries of the Parhee."
Despite himself, Rado laughed. "'The mysteries of the Parhee'", he intoned, in a passable imitation of Isvan. "Spare me."
Unruffled, Isvan continued, "If you wish, you may wait outside the door. I assure you, I only wish to speak with the lad, and then you will never see me again."
Lars looked inquiringly at Rado. "All right. Talking can't hurt." Rado was not entirely sure about his last statement, but he fervently tried to believe it.
Lars shot Isvan a dark look, and then left, closing the door behind him. Isvan made himself at home in a rude wooden chair. "Please, have a seat, young Rado."
"I prefer to stand." At the opposite corner of the room, he noted.
"As you wish. Lad, you were never initiated in the final mysteries of the Parhee" -- Rado felt his stomach clench -- "and I do not propose to do so now."
"It's all lies, anyway. All tricks for the gadje. We can't see the future any more than they can, but we fish for what they want to hear and parrot it back as if spirits told us. We sell them charms that are little more than painted wood, potions that are common spices in colored water. We make faces and speak gibberish, and they sicken themselves with worry. We --"
"You spent too much time with Baba Marra. Yes, we do use simple tricks on the gadje. Sometimes it sickens me how flummery a child could understand fills outsiders with superstitious dread. What you failed to understand then, and still fail to understand, is that we use those appalling pranks to safeguard the true mysteries. The old tales --"
"Children's stories. Badly remembered history, with huge helpings of make-believe."
"No, no, young Rado. Once there were magi who performed wonders, and spoke with the gods of water and wood the way you and I speak now. Once daemons did walk the Earth, and threaten mankind and the Elder Peoples with extinction. Once there was a horrible war, which killed most of the Elder Peoples, and left not only the Waking World but the Dreamlands blasted and barren. In that war, mankind gained dominion over the world, and the old gods and the old arts faded away."
"You want proof, young Rado? In the east lie the mountains of Danwyn, or the Iron Mountains as they are called now. Find the highest peak, and on Midsummer's day you will see a path invisible any other day of the year. Follow that path to a cave. In that cave rests the Dreaming Princess, who sent the Daemon Lords beyond the Dark Gate. Gaze upon her face, and then tell me the old tales are not true."
Rado felt a chill as Isvan spoke ... and then, in the silence, chided himself. "You could always tell a story, old man. But I'm not one of your subjects anymore. And I'm too old to be scared by ghost stories."
Isvan sighed. "Ah, you were such an inquisitive boy. As a young man, you fear the truth. Perhaps I should have expected it, after what happened. You still blame me, do you not? Yes, I see it in your eyes." The old man stood, and turned to go. He paused with his hand on the door handle. "Whether I am your leader or not, you will always be a Parhee, Rado. One day you will learn what an honor that is ... and what a burden." He opened the door, and walked out of the shop forever.
The Parhee stayed only two days. Villagers had their palms read, their fortunes told, their homes warded against the Evil Eye. If some poor idiot was told to bury his silver in the ground so that it would increase, Rado never heard of it. Not that the Parhee would stoop to such tricks; no, they were a breed apart, the nobility among Travellers, and any curious transmutation of silver to tin was undoubtedly due to natural causes.
Rado stayed on in Greenway as a coppersmith throughout the winter, but he became restless. After seven years, he should be a journeyman, and travel with a portable forge and a small anvil to learn more about his trade outside of Greenway. Perhaps his Traveller blood was calling him.
Something was calling him. Calling him east.
In the spring, Lars decided Rado was ready to become a journeyman, after some discreet lobbying from Rado. "Be careful in the big city, boy," the old man had said as Rado towed a cart with his forge, anvil, tools, and spare clothes. (Greenway had few horses, and Lars could not afford one.) "There are wicked folk in Riverbend, and plenty of snares for a young man."
Rado smiled inwardly. As a boy, he had travelled across the length and breadth of the land, from the basalt cities of Tharsu in the far south to the decadent sprawl of Sarkan in the northwest. In many places, the Parhee commanded respect; in the rest, they used their wits. If his tongue and his wits failed him, he always had the knife in a sheath on his left forearm.
The journey to Riverbend held little interest for Rado. He saw only endless fields like the ones around Greenway, or small groves of trees in unsettled lands. Once in a grove he saw a stone that might have been an image of one of the old gods weathered beyond recognitions, and that might have been an oddly-shaped stone. He walked along with other travellers for a little while: a farmer and his sons taking their produce to the ferry, a medicine seller returning home to color more water, a pilgrim of the Mother Goddess heading for a seaside shrine. He exchanged minor pleasantries with each, but they took in his dark skin and cart of clanking metal, and drifted a little ahead of him.
Compared to Sarkan or the southern cities, Riverbend was merely a large town, fortified against enemies who had long ago conquered it by treachery and intermarriage. He wrestled the cart over a ford, and headed toward the only gate into Riverbend. Already a line had formed.
It took most of that morning and the rest of the day to get to the gate. The guard merely waved the others through, but he took special care with Rado. Rado merely gritted his teeth, answered the guard's pointless questions, and finally slipped him four silvers for the privilege of walking on Riverbend's trash-strewn streets. After asking eleven strangers for directions, one condescended to tell him where the Street of Artificers was.
Two hours later, Rado trudged through the streets of Riverbend, still pulling his cart and getting damned sick of it. He cursed the local Metalworkers' Guild, who looked at his letter of introduction, and at the hand that proferred it, and declared that there were no openings for a journeyman. He cursed the town's inns, which charged more than he could afford. Most of all, he cursed the town of Riverbend, which had all the squalor of a large city without the culture.
"The man don't like our town, eh Durk?"
Rado looked up, and realized three things. One, he was walking down a dark alley in a seedier part of town. Two, the two large men in front of him wore shortswords but no guard insignia, and the third sidling up behind him was similarly equipped. Third, that in his trips to the big cities as a child, at least three adults always accompanied him.
"Hello, gentlemen," Rado called cheerfully. "What can I do for you today?"
"He's asking what he can do for us today. Hur, hur."
"Don't see no gentlemen 'round here. You see any gentlemen, Durk."
"Naw. Just a southerner a long way from home. What's in the cart?"
"Glad you asked!", Rado continued cheerfully. "I'm a coppersmith by trade, although I can also work tin, nickel, and even a bit of silver and gold."
"No samples on the cart, I'm afraid." Rado whipped off the tarp, holding it in one hand as he gestured with the other. "But look at this lovely brass horse. An ideal gift for your lady, at a reasonable price." The one called Durk let his hand fall casually on the hilt of his sword, and Rado amended, "Or free! A few free samples to the good people of Riverbend. Just remember the name Rado for all your copper needs! Now, if you'll excuse me, sirs, I've had a long day, and I've friends waiting at the inn --"
The one behind rushed Rado, and he whipped the tarp over his face. Rado had just drawn his knife when Durk grabbed his arm, twisted the knife out of his hand, and slammed him against the wall. Rado landed one punch which only made him angrier, before the edge of the shortsword slid under his chin. Rado felt a rivulet of blood meander toward his collar.
"Now, lad, you just rest easy, and you might live. Then again, you might not. Lucky for you you don't know how to punch, eh?"
The other two rummaged in Rado's cart. "Here, what's this trash? Pans, pipes, a toy anvil?"
"It's good wire, this. Could tie him up a treat, drop him in the river."
"Damn heavy clay thing. Maybe there's gold in here ..."
Rado looked past Durk's manic grin and said, "That's a portable forge. Nothing in there but charcoal."
"Yeah, right." He began hammering on it with the hilt of his sword.
Durk looked back, although his sword never wavered. "Stow it, you lot. Ain't worth fencing." He turned back to Rado. "I'm real disappointed, lad. Thought, here's a southern merchant with his wares, could be a bit of cash." Durk's left hand released Rado's and plucked Rado's purse off his belt. "See, nought but a few silvers, I'll wager. Might even be coppers, copper man. Real disappointing. You was a lady, maybe we could have ourselves a bit of fun."
"Killin's still fun," said the biggest one with the idiot's laugh.
"Yeah, it is at that. Want I should just slit your throat, or wanna die fighting? If you call that fighting. Your choice."
A voice rang out, "It will be you who dies fighting this evening, scoundrels."
All four heads turned, to see a man in a black broad-brimmed hat, sombre black jerkin and breeches, and a gray cloak. What commanded everyone's attention was the gleaming longsword in his hand.
The biggest one rushed the man in black and got the sword in his gut for his trouble. The second tried to come up on the stranger's blind side, and stared stupidly at the gloved left hand holding the dagger in his chest.
Pushing both men off his blades, the stranger glowered at Durk, and took a step forward.
"Bugger this," Durk snarled, and ran for dear life. The stranger gave chase.
Rado checked his throat; no more than a shallow cut. Leaning against the cart for a moment until the shakes went away, he surveyed the damage. Dents could be beaten out, but the horse would require a lot of work to put it close to right, if it ever would be. The crack in the portable forge did not make it unusable. Perhaps it would use some heat, but shaping copper did not require as much heat as forging iron.
He bent to pick up a pan. When he straightened, he saw a black-gloved hand holding the copper horse. "The last brigand has fled, and we'd better be away before the guards ask questions." He glanced at the two bodies.
Rado took the horse and began piling his things haphazardly in the cart, but the stranger laughed. "No, lad, no need for haste. Have you not noticed the guards in this town are, shall we say, less than dutiful? To my way of thinking, a patrol will not disturb us for another hour, at least."
Rado slowed, but watched the stranger warily. "I suppose you'll want a reward."
"No. I have funds enough, and thwarting evil is my calling. I am called Gwynn Greystone."
"Rado Ku- ... uh, Rado Coppersmith. Forgive my manners, it's been a trying day. Thank you for saving me. I'm lucky you came along."
"Not luck, I fear. I saw you in the streets, and wondered what a lone Parhee towing a cart might be up to." Greystone looked at Rado expectantly, and Rado remembered the look on the thug's face as he saw the knife protruding from his chest.
"Just looking for a job," Rado said, as casually as he could. "I'm Parhee by birth, but not by choice. I left the tribe before my fourteenth birthday."
"Ah, before your initiation ritual. 'Awakening', is it called?"
Rado wanted desperately to change the subject, but only managed to say, "Yes."
"Good lad. You are best away from those heathens." Greystone smiled warmly, and Rado realized he had passed some sort of test. Rado hefted the forge into the wagon, and Greystone took the handle. "I have a room at an inn not far from here. Would you care to dine with me?"
The Golden Hart served a passable pot roat, but after a long day Rado would have eaten stale bread and water. He knew the landlord wanted to object to his presence, but something about Greystone made people want to tread very carefully.
Greystone was about Rado's height, which meant he loomed over most people. Unlike Rado, Greystone had broad shoulders, arms thicker than Rado's leg, and a leonine gracefulness at once fascinating and terrifying. His sun-burned, craggy face had not seen a razor for at least a day, and his straight dark hair brushed his shoulders. Greystone's usual dour expression occasionally broke into a smile that never warmed his eyes. Greystone's eyes, startlingly blue, watched everyone and everything, constantly, as if expecting at any moment friend to turn to foe, sudden menace to leap from under a table or drop from the dusty rafters. Rado instinctively knew not to make any sudden moves.
After dinner, Rado related some of the pleasanter memories of the Parhee camp, and his apprenticeship in Greenway. In truth, he had trained as a coppersmith among the Parhee; while the Parhee gained coin from the gadje through flim-flam and tricks, every Parhee had to know an honest trade so that every troupe would be as self-sufficient as possible.
As Rado finished the story of Uncle Podja and his worst Tarot reading ever, Greystone took a swig of beer and shook his head. "Aye, but the daemon taint lurks even among the most pleasant faces."
"Take those Tarot cards of yours. Such things can call to daemons lurking in the Otherworld. At first they merely whisper secrets to mortal men, so quietly that the victim thinks he thought them himself. Then they make promises of power, and the mad fool seeks out the rituals to call them forth, bend them to his will ... or so the thinks. Soon the corruption spreads: sickness, ill fortune, mysterious and horrible death."
"Uh ... huh ..."
"By that time the daemons have eaten the madman's soul, though his body still walks and breathes. Some depraved mortals go willingly, of course, but all go sooner or later. All that can be done is to destroy the rot with sword and fire."
"You ... how shall I put this ... find a lot of daemonic activity, do you?"
"It is my calling, lad. I was a landed knight, once. I had a beautiful wife, a lovely daughter. But my dear lady feared many things, and did not trust me alone to protect her." Greystone drained his beer. "She consulted a fortuneteller, an old woman of the village below. At first I thought little of it; if the soothsayer calmed her fears, we would all be better for it.
"It was two moons later that my daughter disappeared. Vanished, without a trace. My wife and I were distraught. I led the villagers in a search for five leagues, even though a child of eight years could hardly wander so far. The old woman predicted the child would be found soon and alive, but her predictions never came true.
"The villagers, too, complained of the old woman. Missing animals, sick animals, animals with strange wounds not made by man or beast. Another girl-child, Anne Baker, went missing. The villagers accused the old woman, and I set a date to hear evidence for and against. A day before the trial, someone saw her walking across the square, and threw a stone. Others joined in, and soon the old woman was stoned to death."
"You think so? They say that, as she died, a foul black fluid spilled from her mouth, and evaporated in the midday sun.
"When we opened up her hut, and pried up the floorboards, we found --" Greystone stopped, and turned away, his jaw clenched.
"Your daughter?" Rado supplied.
"Parts of her. Parts of the Baker child. Parts of animals. All arranged in an unspeakable shape, within a circle of sorcerous runes." His eyes bored into Rado's. "I swear to you upon the Goddess and the Sky Lord and the Unseen God that the thing moved! One of the heads looked like it was about to speak before I set fire to the monstrosity, and to the whole charnel house.
"But the evil had not yet run its course, you see. I arrived at the keep that night, wearily, wondering what to tell my wife, when a servant told me the old woman had been here this morning. I rushed up the stairs, to find my sweet wife had slit her abdomen open with a knife. I shouted for my manservant to fetch a chirurgeon, and I did what little I could. She said, 'It was inside me, I had to let it out,' and then repeated 'It hurts', over and over, until she died."
"Gods ... that's ... that's ..."
"From that moment on, I swore to avenge myself on the daemon hordes that destroyed my family and my life. Sometimes I hire on as a mercenary to fund my quest, and sometimes I rescue strangers from murderous brigands. As long as I have life in me, though, I will have no rest while daemons still prey upon man, and no mercy on those who deal with them.
"So it is well you have forsaken your people. Perhaps, as you say, their rumored powers are a sham. But they play with forces man has no business dealing with, and among your former friends and family might be some who have made the sham real. Behind the faces you know may be souls twisted and corrupted by forces that use us as their food and their toys. Always beware, lad. Always."
"Uh, sure. Right. Would you like another beer?"
In his bed -- in a private room, Rado was relieved to find -- Rado thought about Greystone's story.
Obviously the old woman was a madwoman, a manipulative psychopath that filled a fragile and neurotic woman's head with who knows what. The mysterious black fluid ... rumors and suggestion, maybe aided by a gush of blood, or some other substance the old woman had with her. The "creature" ... the ghoulish construct of a disturbed mind, but undoubtedly very dead; shadows and fear gave it the semblance of life. Rado once saw a non-Traveller conjuror appear to cut his own head off, and reattach it; two days later, eyewitnesses added the most fantastic and ghoulish details, from the man's decapitated body holding his own head by its hair to a gush of life's-blood from both head and body.
Greystone, too, was mad, maddened by grief and superstition into hunting for creatures that probably did not exist, or exist any longer. As a child, Rado shuddered at tales of the Daemon Wars, and the desperate acts of heroism and horror. As an adult, he wondered if those, too, were embellisments, if daemons themselves were mere metaphors for a savage but very mortal invasion.
Rado's door burst open. Greystone stood in the doorway, and said, "Get up, lad. We have work this night."
"What? Can't we have work next morning?"
"Another witch. Best not delay."
A sudden and overwhelming dread engulfed Rado. He wanted no part of any witch trial, if the word "trial" even applied. But someone had to stop the man's mania before some innocent, or at least non-occult, old woman died. Or die in the attempt? asked a cynical voice, which Rado strove to ignore as he donned his breeches and boots.
"Just a moment," Rado said. "I'll be right behind you." Preferably with a blunt instrument, he added to himself.
Rado knew a little about locks and defeating them, but Greystone picked the lock with an expertise that gave Rado a whole new set of chills: how many times had he done this? Silently they entered the woman's house.
The front room was opulently, even garishly decorated. Draperies and curtains spoke of money, if not necessarily taste. Every horizontal surface but the overstuffed couch and chairs held a throng of knicknacks, china figures, and oil portraits. In one corner stood an solid oak cabinet, with an extraordinarily heavy lock. A smell of old lavender hung in the air.
"Not a pentagram or dark rune in the place," Rado whispered. "You were wrong. Let's get out of here before --"
A lamp flared. "Who are you?" rang a commanding voice. "I'll summon the watch if you don't leave my home this instant!" A stout, middle-aged woman stood in the doorway, glaring at them like servants caught pinching the silver.
Greystone moved quickly to pin her against the wall. Rado caught the lamp as it fell and set it gently on an end table. Greystone clamped a gloved hand over her mouth before she could scream, and leaned close. "We come not to rob you, witch, but to pass judgement." The woman tried to scream again, the sound muffled by Greystone's hand.
"We?" Rado muttered, his mind racing. A blow to Greystone's head and some really fast talking seemed like a plan, but a vision of a thug surprised with a dagger in his chest swam before Rado's eyes again. He glanced at the cupboard: a strong lock, but not a complicated one ...
"Many in this town tell of your dark arts, witch. They say you converse with spirits of the dead, but we both know the dead do not speak, do we not? Yet there are daemons that take on the semblance of the dead. How long have you practiced the Dark Arts, eh? Do daemons do your bidding? Or perhaps I talk not to a mortal, but a fiend in human shape?" Greystone released her hand, drew his dagger, and brought it to her throat in one swift motion. "What say you?"
The woman stared in terror at his fanatical glare; she struggled to find her voice. "Please, mister, I've done nothing wrong." She sounded small, weak, pathetic. "Just comforted some grieveing people is all. I'll pay you anything you like, just please don't kill me." She started sobbing. "Please, please ..."
"Hey, witch hunter", Rado called. Both he and the woman turned to look.
Rado held two blank slates rimmed with wood in his hand, pressed them together. "Boogeda boogeda", he sneered, and brought them apart. On one slate mysteriously appeared a message from beyond: SHE'S A FAKE, IDIOT.
"It's an old trick, and a pretty pathetic one," Rado continued. He held the slate with the writing over his palm, and squeezed the rim. A rectangle of double-sided slate dropped into his hand; he revealed the slate still inset in the wooden frame. "It looks empty, then presto, magic writing. There's dozens of more elegant ways to do it, using ordinary slates, but I guess her clients don't look to closely.
"The cabinet's full of this sort of crap. A little tea, some sympathy, a magic show to prove the dear departed is waiting beyond the veil. I bet you even do the channeling act too, don't you ma'am. Roll your eyes, speak in different voices. I see the cheesecloth for ectoplasm. That must really bring in the rubes, eh?"
The woman nodded, suddenly almost as frightened of Rado as of Greystone.
"So congratulations, Hammer of Witches. You've just broken into a dishonest old woman's home and threatened her life, which must be illegal even in this town. I say we leg it before the guard notices the ruckus. They must patrol this neighborhood, even if only by accident." Rado looked at Greystone's befuddled face, gave up, and ran like hell.
Rado figured he would get his cart out of the inn's stables in the dead of night, and be out of here before dawn. The old fraud might not report their nighttime adventure, for fear of being unmasked; then again, she might pit the word of a respectable member of the community against a Traveller and a violent lunatic.
Greystone caught up several streets away, but Rado only ran faster. Greystone called for him to stop, but Rado would not even consider it until a gloved hand grabbed his arm and he nearly wrenched his shoulder out of its socket.
"Stop, lad." Greystone breathed heavily. "I have to thank you. I nearly made a terrible mistake."
"You think? Dammit, how many terrible mistakes have you made already? Huh?"
"I don't follow."
"Of course not. Stupid credulous gadjo. How many old women have you killed before now, huh? How many frauds like her? How many midwives and mad old baggages died because some psycho bitch convinced your wife to slit herself open, huh?"
Greystone drew himself up, angrily. "You take the side of witches, now. Perhaps I misjudged you, lad. Once a Parhee, always a Parhee."
"What the hell's that supposed to mean?"
"Know you not of the village that killed two Parhee, and a fortnight later floods and lightning wiped the village off the map? Mayhap all Parhee are in league with the Dark --"
"Those two Parhee were my parents, you crazy son of a bitch! And yeah, I don't shed a tear for those ignorant bastards, but it was just a damn coincidence! Gods, you gadje will believe any crap, won't you? You kill and die for delusions and old stories, for stupid tricks a Traveller child of five could see through! And you're the stupidest, sickest rube of all!"
"Have a care, lad ..."
"You want to kill me too? Would that be the righteous thing to do? After all, a darkie who's smarter than you must have pledged to a Daemon Lord, right?" Rado spat. "I'm sick of stupidity, sick of lies," he muttered.
Rado looked into Greystone's face, the blue eyes burning, the brow furrowed ... whether in worry or rage, Rado neither knew no cared. "Tell me, Sir Greystone, are we even now? My life for one less corpse in your wake? I hope to hell I am, because I'm not a damn bit interested in becoming your squire nor your colorful sidekick. I just want to get as far from you as I possibly can."
Rado turned and strode to liberate his cart. At any moment he expected an explosion of rage behind him, a swift blade through his back, something. Instead, he picked the storeroom lock, silently wheeled out his cart, and headed for the road out.
According to legend, when the Dreaming Princess at last sealed the Dark Gate, and the Four Armies slew the last servants of Ktharkalor, she turned to her mentor Elethon of the Fae and said, "I am tired now, and I wish to rest." And Elethon said unto her, "The time of the Fae is nearly done, and Man will inherit the world. Yet the Daemons may rise again, and so you shall rest until that day. For Men live but brief lives, and they shall need thee again." And so he bade her rest in a secret place, to rise again when Mankind had its greatest need.
A load of crap, Rado thought. Perhaps he had a vague notion of looking for her grave in the Iron Mountains before; after meeting that dangerous idiot Greystone a desire to find that secret place burned within him. He would either prove it empty or parade the princess's bones to every city, town, and village and say, "See? How will this woman rise again?"
Part of Rado hated the whole human race, Traveller and gadje alike, and part of him hated himself for his hatred. Mankind is so stupid, he thought to himself over and over again. We could live in a paradise, but instead we cheat and steal and kill, over and over, because our fathers and grandfathers were cheated or stolen from or killed. Some days he caught himself hoping some god would wipe Mankind from the world and start over, perhaps with some species of talking dog.
On the road to Redfang Keep, Rado passed by a few farming villages glad of a coppersmith, and managed to earn a little coin. That lightened his mood somewhat.
The few people on the road avoided him as they had on the way to Riverbend, except for one named Osiric. Osiric stood half a head shorter than Rado, but weighed two if not three times more than him, and was roughly spherical. Under his broad-brimmed straw hat Osiric's skin was as pale as the Kymrians who lived on this land before the Sarkannians invaded, and what hair Rado saw was a reddish brown. Osiric's tunic and cloak were heavily patched, and Rado quickly learned Osiric was a wandering scholar. Rado quickly learned many things from Osiric, because Osiric never stopped talking ... yet somehow listening to Osiric talking apparently to himself was somehow restful.
"... and I tried to explain to the learned doctor that the Theran Hegemony did in fact survive the Daemon Wars for another two centuries, albeit in a severely reduced form. However, as I found to my chagrin, one cannot argue with the foremost authority on the post-catastrophic period even if numerous contemporary sources would correct his egregious error ..."
Osiric towed the cart, seemingly with little effort, while Rado carried Osiric's rucksack. Rado wondered whether Osiric regularly carried lead bricks; as he later discovered, Osiric stuffed his pack to the breaking point with books and beef jerky.
Rado hated to interrupt the flow, but he had a question. "Some say the Therans caused the war, and their decline was a divine punishment."
Osiric rolled his eyes. "Well, of course many claim that, but since the Theran Hegemony ruled half of the southern coast, rather cruelly some claim, its former client states would impute all manner of evil to them. No one really knows who called the Daemon Lords from the Outer Dark; some have named the Therans, others the Reptilian Empire, still others the Djinn -- conveniently, since they did not survive the war, and according to legend had similar natures to the Daemons. Then of course we arrive at the hypothesis of Hansa of Nephar, who claims that the Fae themselves started it, which is patently absurd since Fae and Daemon despised each other above all. Some even blame the Ogres, or one of the Noble Ogres, although plainly --"
"Yes, yes. I'm just telling you what I heard."
"One hears so much nonsense from folk tales and rumors."
"I doubt the Daemons existed at all, at least as immortal monstrosities able to translate to some supposed Other World."
Osiric stared at him in shock. "You cannot be serious."
"Why not? Maybe they were metaphors for some barbarian invaders --"
"Nonsense. Daemons did exist, and they do still."
"You don't hunt them down, do you?"
"Why should I? Best to have as little to do with Daemonic entities and their servants as possible." Osiric shuddered a little.
"Huh. So you've never seen one."
"Seen? No. When I was younger, I sensed the presence of one in a cave a few leagues from our homestead." Osiric shuddered, and his whole body quivered a little with aftershocks. "Some say they speak in the depths of one's mind. I felt nothing like that, only a terrible hatred of all things that walked under the sky. I dared not go far in the cave, for fear of what power it might have in the darkness. So, my young friend, I know that Daemons exist."
You believe they exist, Rado thought, but he said nothing.
Osiric stared at him oddly. "It surprises me that a Parhee disbelieves in the Other World. Does your Astral Form not translate there in a prophetic trance?"
"Mine doesn't. The only prophetic trance I've seen is when Baba Mora has drunk a little too much cider."
"Interesting. I have been gravely misled in my research on the Parhee."
"I'm sure they mean to keep it that way. I'm sick of lies. That's why I want to find her."
"The Dreaming Princess. She's just another lie."
After Rado outlined his project, Osiric stared at him like a madman. Perhaps, Rado reflected, he was mad. Perhaps, just as some madmen see things that do not exist and believe things that are not true, Rado had reached a special state of madness that disbelieved in things that were true. But he had to see with his own eyes whether such a person as the Dreaming Princess ever existed, and if she did whether she was simply another mortal or something beyond. Rado tried to explain this, but Osiric merely stared at him as if he were touched in the head.
They camped in a grove of trees a little off the road. Long gone were the days when centurions patrolled the old Sarkennian roads, so they agreed to keep watch in turns. After tossing a coin, Osiric got first watch. Rado massaged his stiff shoulders, and drifted to sleep.
A sharp poke in his ribs woke him, and Osiric whispered his name, urgently. Rado sat up, and noted six figures standing just out of the fire's light. Instantly he stood, and secretly palmed his knife. "Well met, gentlemen. What can we do for you this night?"
"Gentlemen, he says", chuckled one of the figures, and Rado had a sinking feeling of deja vu.
Another one lifted a crossbow, and let the light catch on the metal quarrel tip. "I'm thinking, maybe you hand over any gold and silver on your persons, and any gemstones or other valuables, and maybe you get to live to see morning."
"Alas gentlemen," Osiric sighed, "I am but a poor student, and my companion here a struggling coppersmith. We have little in the way of valuables. I fear you are wasting your time."
"No, you are wasting my time. I'll count to five, then I'll kill you both and take what I want anyway. One ... two ... three ..."
"Counting," Osiric commented. "Impressive."
"... four ..."
Rado kicked sand on the fire, and jumped to the side as a crossbow quarrel sang past his ear. As his eyes adjusted to the moonlight, he saw a figure not shaped like Osiric, and without a second's hesitation thrust a dagger into its middle. He heard an outcry, and then an elbow smashed into his head, knocking him down and dazing him for a few seconds. He thought he saw a charging bull with a spear stuck in it charge into another highwayman and toss it across the clearing, where it slammed sickeningly into a tree trunk.
A torch flared as Rado got to his knees, and he took in the sight. One man was indeed crumpled at the base of a tree; another, holding his bleeding gut, stood shakily two paces away, holding an unbloodied axe. Another lay on the forest floor, groaning. The remaining three stood, unwounded; one nocked another quarrel in his crossbow, another held a bloody axe, and the third held a shortsword in one hand and a torch in the other.
Rado looked for Osiric, and felt sick. Osiric was down on one knee, a quarrel stuck in his belly, and cruel slashes across his chest. One of his arms had been cut off, and lay nearby. And yet Osiric, hat off and hair mussed, looked more than ready to continue the fight; his eyes watched the highwaymen, and his lips were pulled back in a snarl that made Rado deeply uneasy.
"Ho, at least one fighter," the crossbowman said, as the axeman quickly moved to guard Rado. "But I think you are not long for this world, friend. You're arm's off, you're grievously wounded, and I could make your death quick or slow at my whim. So tell me, friend: where have you hid your valuables."
"Leave him alone!" Rado shouted. "All we have is what you see here. I've got three silvers to my name, and anything my friend has is in his pack. Just take it and go." A voice in the back of his mind said, there's not enough blood ...
"Hah. Rubbish. Those books show brains, if I'm any judge, and money too." The crossbowman leaned close. "Where's the money, friend?"
Osiric leaned forward, and tore the crossbowman throat out with his teeth. The man fell backward, surpise etched on his blood-spattered face, blood gushing from what was left of his neck. The crossbow shot wildly, the quarrel thudding into the ground.
Osiric stood up and roared like nothing on two legs should roar. Rado took advantage of the confusion to knock the axeman off his feet, but he need not have bothered; the two unwounded men, and one wounded man, took off through the trees. Rado stood and looked at the two corpses, and one man who had stopped groaning and near enough dead. At last he dared to look at Osiric.
Osiric spat several times, and wiped his face with his remaining forearm. "Ptuh! Did that man ever hear of an invention called a 'bath'? I shan't get the taste out of my mouth for a week."
"Gods ... what are you?" Rado looked anew at Osiric's pale skin, his eyes which in the firelight now looked reddish and cat-slitted, at the wounds that had bled only as much as a small cut, and most of all at his teeth, his seemingly endless rows of pointed, needle-sharp, bloodstained teeth. Rado suddenly knew before Osiric spoke.
"An ogre, as you've guessed by now."
"But wha ... why ..." Rado fought for control, and seriously considered running. "Am I next?"
Osiric's smiled, gently if a little sadly. "As long as we're dealing in stereotypes, I promise not to eat you if you promise not to curse me. Might I trouble you to fetch my arm?"
Rado watched in horrifed fascination as Osiric washed the end of the severed arm with water from the canteen, borrowed Rado's knife, peeled the flesh from the stump of his shoulder with only a few agonized snarls, and pressed the severed limb against the stump. They jerry-rigged a sling to hold the arm in place. "A bother, really," Osiric explained, "but I would rather suffer this than wait a fortnight for the arm to grow back on its own."
Without warning Osiric ripped the crossbow quarrel out of his flesh, with a scream. Blood first spurted, then oozed. Rado quickly improvised a bandage out of one of the corpse's tunics, although Osiric protested how unnecessary it was.
"And now, my boy, I am extraordinarily weary." Osiric grabbed a handful of beef jerky from his pack, swallowed it in one gulp, and continued, "I would help you dispose of the corpses, but I honestly don't know if I can stand. Besides, ogres do not touch carrion." With that Osiric drifted off to sleep.
Accompanied by Osiric's snores, Rado dug three shallow graves with one of the brigand's swords. With half the night gone, Rado grabbed a blanket and lay down to sleep ... far away from the clearing.
Rado lay half asleep in the morning sun, chilled but grateful to be alive, when a shape blotted out the light. Rado jumped up and only succeeded in falling on his butt again. He stared up at Osiric's smiling face. Smiling with all those teeth.
"Good morrow, friend Rado," Osiric beamed. "A pity you slept without a fire, but perfectly understandable under the circumstances. Are you well?"
"Er, yeah. A bit chilled."
"Ah, well you'll warm up once we start ambulating. We have a long journey to Redfang Keep." Osiric's smile faded slightly. "Do we not?"
"Yeah, sure." Rado coaxed his stiff legs to stand.
"Excellent, excellent." His smile threatened to take the top of his head off, and Rado thought he could get used to the teeth. "It is two hours till noon, and we best be going."
Rado looked behind Osiric, and saw his own cart, with Osiric's pack and an assortment of weapons piled precariously on the tarp. "Those weapons ..."
"From our uninvited guests, yes. I found only three whole quarrels, including the one I pulled from me last night, but the other weapons look sound. Perhaps a trained metalsmith like yourself would wish to confirm my hypothesis?"
"Uh ... I only do copper. Iron isn't ... look, should we ...?"
"Waste not, want not. If we meet another band of miscreants, it might behoove us to be armed, yes? Mind, my knowledge of weapons is paltry indeed. They're more of a human art."
"Uh, right," said Rado. Apart from a little knife skill, he had not the first idea about weapons, apart from which end to hold. "Still, maybe we'd better hide them under the tarp."
"Lest we attract unwanted attention! Of course. Forgive me, but last night's adventure took more of me that it might first seem."
"Yeah. Let's get going."
On the road, Osiric chattered more or less the same as before, although the subject matter changed. Rado, acquainted with old legends, found he could actually participate.
"Rado, it saddens me to see the Ogrish race fallen so far. Before the Demon Wars we built towering castles, advanced the arts of metallurgy and woodworking, made even barren fields bloom ..."
"With only a little help from hordes of human and goblin slaves."
"No, no, no. Well, all right, yes. But humans learned more culture from Ogres than from the stuck-up Fae or the Djinn. Hah, the only lessons humankind learned from Djinn was not to go out after dark. We also wrote poetry, did you know that? Have you heard of 'Kagrath Gulakru Wodhroq'? Of course not, although it's the most beautiful poem written by any species anywhere."
"I'll take your word."
"You do know who the Four Armies were, yes? The Fae, the Humans, the Oanneans, also called Nommos or Reptilemen in the vernacular ... and us. The Ogres."
"Not many, I hear. Most went over to the Daemons."
"But they perished, and we, the virtuous and foresighted race, survived. And then what happened? We scattered. Skulked in ruined castles and caves. The Great Ogres fell, and all our achievements were forgotten, even by most of us. Now most of my people hunt in the forests like animals, or lurk near roads to prey on passers-by."
"And eat them," Rado commented, mostly to yank Osiric's chain.
"Contrary to popular belief," Osiric countered icily, "ogres do not crave human flesh. I cannot abide the taste of human. Or pig, which tastes similar."
"But most ogres do eat people, nevertheless, right?"
Osiric looked away. "Only because they can."
Rado felt a little guilty, and decided to change the subject. "So what about the Dreaming Princess? She figures in your people's legends too, right?"
"Well ... yes. A bit. Not much more than human legends, really. The mystic warrior who led the battle against Daemonkind, slew the Daemon Lords, and sealed the Dark Gate. Supposedly a human chieftain's daughter until the Fae granted her power in the Other World."
"Other World? There's supposed to be such a place."
"Yes. Also called the Dreaming, the Astral Plane, the Spirit World. The native abode of gods and spirits, and the place from which seers, priests, shamans, magi, and similar folk drew power."
"You would have to ask them, but since most died in the Daemon Wars, that might be difficult. Those traditions are lost to history. I've heard rumors of isolated mystics in the mountains who rediscovered the art, but nothing solid. Apparently the Daemons devastated that world even worse than ours."
"I met a man who thought all magic was inherently evil."
"Not inherently, but the Daemons who still survive in this world wander what's left of the Other World, and according to folk wisdom prey on any who rediscover the Mystic Arts."
"Yet the Dreaming Princess was supposed to be some powerful magician, right? At the height of the Daemon Dominion."
"Perhaps she had the strength of will to resist. This is all supposition, you understand. Merely my hypothesis, piecing together all the legends I've collected in the last forty years."
"Ogres live a long time, my friend. I am older than I look. One of the many ways we are superior to humankind."
"So in your ideal world you'd have a bunch of human and goblin slaves toiling for your greater glory."
"No, of course not. Not goblins, anyway; they're awful people." Osiric glanced at Rado, and said, quickly, "And not slaves, either. Citizens whom we would rule. If we ogres used are natural advantages, we would rise to the top of human civilization."
"Because no arrows and swords could stop you."
"Stop being impertinent. We can die, albeit not as easily as humans. But beyond our physical strengths, we have superior intellects when we learn to use them, and far more years in which to accumulate wisdom. Have you heard about the Theran concept of 'democracy'?"
"Uh, no. Is it something to do with fish?"
Osiric sighed heavily. "The islands of Thera, too, were once greater than they are now. Art, architecture, theatre, poetry ... not as good as 'Kagrath Gulakru Wodhroq', mind, which your face tells me would have been your next question. They pioneered a system of government where every person has a say in who will lead them."
"What, every swineherd, every village idiot?"
"Obviously not. Only those with sufficent education to appreciate the gravity of their choice. Landed gentry, artisans, war leaders. You see the advantage over letting some fools with the strongest sword arms take over, don't you?"
"It's civilized! A bloodless revolution! If a leader proves himself unworthy, the citizens vote him off the throne, and pick another man. Who, in a perfect world, would be an ogre."
"Uh, huh. And in this great government of Thera, the old king would go willingly?"
"Of course. He was bound by law to step down."
"And not, say, bound by a standing army, or an angry mob of citizens, or a swift cut to his jugular? Really? In practice?"
"Er, well ..."
"So, these Therans ... how many slaves did they have?"
Osiric was silent for a moment, then said, "The inn should be four leagues away."
Redfang Keep had been the easternmost outpost of the Sarkennian Empire, although like nearly every other former Sarkennian castle it paid only lip service to Sarkennia; the true ruler was its Baron, currently Hildreth IV.
At the last inn, Osiric had taken his arm out of its sling; it looked miraculously whole to Rado, but Osiric complained that his fingers felt numb. To Rado's horror and gradual annoyance, Osiric kept thumping his arm at the point where he had grafted it back to its stump a few days past. Osiric attracted stares as they passed through the gate in Redfang Keep's outer wall.
In town they found an inn they could both afford, then split up on their respective errands. As sunset approached, they reunited in the inn's common room.
"So, how went your meeting with the Guild?", Osiric asked as Rado sat down across from him, carrying a heavy pack.
"About the same as usual. 'Lars Who?' He'd be severely disappointed if I told him. How'd the legend hunt go?"
Osiric leaned forward, his eyes lighting up, "The Baron's court astrologer Baalthesar, according to rumor, has been collecting scraps of pre-Daemonic lore for decades! Reputedly he has even gathered priceless artifacts from before and during the War. I am endeavoring to procure an introduction, but so far little progress. One courtier suggested I pay an exhorbitant sum and he would 'see what he could do', but I mistrust him. Something in his eyes."
Rado stared into Osiric's reddish, catlike eyes, and tactfully whispered, "I hate to say this, Osiric, but they might not trust an Ogre in the court."
"Certainly they would not," Osiric replied in a low voice, annoyed. "What kind of fool did you take me for."
"How long did it take you to divine my heritage?"
"Well, ripping someone's throat out was a definite clue ..."
"Precisely. We have learned to blend into human society; only an observant human would notice differences, and fortunately those are exceedingly rare. What of your day, then? What do you have in the pack."
"Oh, a few smithing tools, some rations, a pan."
Osiric's brow furrowed. "Did you not keep those things in the cart?"
"Oh, I sold that." To Osiric's slack-jawed stare, he added, "Past the Keep is the Wildlands, and past that the Iron Mountains. What use do I have for a forge and samples there?"
"But ... your samples! Your tools! A gift from your teacher, you said!"
"It's just things. When you grow up on the move, you learn to ditch what you don't need any more. Gods, you look more downcast than I was. Besides, I kept the good tools; the forge wasn't worth much, and where we're going we'll need gold and silver more than copper and tin."
"But ... well, it's your affair. Mine is getting at our astrologer friend."
"Not our friend, I'd bet. Is he supposed to be a real seer?"
"Are they ever? Nevertheless, it is the the habit of astrologers to collect bits of ancient lore, to use when their imaginations fail. My informants seem reliable. If I could but gain entrance to the palace ..."
As Osiric talked, Rado noticed a shabbily dressed, dusky-skinned man handing the barkeep a handful of coins, and taking two jugs of what Rado surmised were rotgut whiskey. The man's dress struck a cord: brown jerkin open a few buttons to reveal a hairy chest, gray pantaloons, and a bright orange kerchief tied around his throat.
"Osiric, I think I may have your introduction. Follow me." Snatching up his pack, he followed the man out the door.
Rado and Osiric discreetly tailed the man until he arrived at an open field just outside the walls. Shabby brown and gray wagons, with peeling gold trim, parked in a rough semicircle. Within the semicircle twenty men and women in a curious blend of gaudy and dull clothes juggled, played clashing snippets of music on violins and cymbaloms, spat flames, and, predictably, coaxed a bear to dance. Every Kolari troup Rado had seen included a dancing bear; Rado wondered if any bears still lived in the woods.
"Just as I thought. It's nearly sundown; just enough time."
"Time for what, pray tell?"
"Time to get new clothes, and come back at dusk." Rado grinned wolfishly, and headed back to town. Osiric, puzzled, followed.
An hour later they had returned, Rado in a new black cloak and his old, hastily polished black boots. "Not the best, but it's mostly attitude anyway." Rado straightened from his slight slouch, assumed a regal expression, and stalked toward the Traveller camp. A few children watched him approach. One ran toward the center of the camp.
Out of the largest wagon strode a middle-aged man with dark skin and curly black hair. Despite his shabby clothing, like a beggar caught in a dye factory explosion, he strode, bow-legged, like a prince about to greet his adoring public. When he sighted Rado, his step faltered, but he quickly recovered and stopped, hands on hips, before Rado.
Rado bowed like another prince, and spoke to what was evidently the troupe's headman. Even Osiric's hearing could not make out the conversation, especially since both men spoke in a Traveller argot composed of several languages, some wholly unknown to Osiric. The ogre got the feeling, though, that the headman treated Rado as an honored guest, or possibly a feared guest.
Rado looked at Osiric, and gestured loftily at him. Osiric trundled forward. The headman scrutinized Osiric's face as he approached, and suddenly, with a cry and a warding gesture, staggered back.
"Ah, Baro Pyoska, you have a keen eye. Yes, my companion is indeed an Ogre, bound to my service."
Service?, Osiric thought, but he bowed courteously to the headman.
"Well done, Osiric," Rado intoned, as if rewarding a trained dog.
The headman stared at Osiric curiously. "The usual compact, Honored Rado? A year and a day?"
"Yes, Baro. It's nearly up, isn't it, Osiric. Less than a month remaining. I shall have to send you away in a few days. I would hate to be your celebratory meal, ha ha."
The headman laughed, uneasily. "Nor I."
Osiric rolled his eyes, and said, "But I had so looked forward to rending your flesh and cracking your bones, Master."
"Life is cruel, Osiric. Well, Baro, are we agreed?"
"It is risky, Honored One. Young Kara said the astrologers tower has watchful guards. Although," the headman smiled, "perhaps we can arrange for them to watch Kara ..."
"Excellent." Rado pressed a gold coin in the headman's hand. "Besides this token of my appreciation, you will have an entertainment worthy of a Duke, let alone a baron. My servant is a creature of many talents."
"As you say, Honored One."
"We shall have the manuscript in your hands tomorrow morning, and by the following night the show will go on."
"You do us a great service, Honored One."
"And you do me a greater one, Baro. The Parhee will remember it."
The headman bowed, and Rado bowed in return. "Come, Osiric", Rado commanded, as he turned on his heel and swept away. Osiric followed, feeling for all the world like a loyal mastiff.
Rado entered the city gates, turned the corner, and doubled over with muffled laughter. He gained control enough to blurt out, "I still got it," before cramming his fist into his mouth to stifle a fresh wave of mirth.
"Might I enquire what that was about?" Osiric purred sweetly.
Rado recovered again. "The Kolari -- heheh -- the Kolari will perform for the Baron two nights from now. We'll go in with them, then sneak away and visit our astrologer friend. By the way, your performance was brilliant." Rado started chuckling again.
"Not entirely feigned. Why did you betray my lineage?"
"What? Oh, I didn't tell him. Travellers just know the signs."
"You did not."
"I wasn't looking," Rado said airily.
"And what manuscript must we deliver?"
"Yours. They need a pantomime to hold the attention of the Baron and his court, while we sneak away. I figured you could write down one of your legends. Maybe how the Ogres joined the Four Armies of the Princess, or something."
"Well, yes. It's for your astrologer, you know."
Osiric sighed. "Very well. Let's go back to the inn. I shall have to consult my notes."
"Right. Thanks for playing a long. Sorry I didn't tell you what was going on, but I was making it up as I went along."
As they headed back, and Rado still chuckled to himself, Osiric asked, "What have you still got?"
"Funds? Oh, enough."
"No. You said 'I've still got it', a moment ago."
"Oh. I meant the Parhee lore."
"By that, you mean the language? Or the legends?"
"Those are easy. I mean the attitude, the sheer brazen arrogance. The ability to convince even another Traveller you're the custodian of some mysterious and dangerous secrets that would blast an ordinary man to charcoal, and might if you say the wrong thing. It's really all attitude."
"You are a man of unexpected talents, my boy."
"Well, once you've grown up near Isvan Czigny --" Rado stopped, his humor turning to a hard, cold expression. "Let's get back to the inn."
Osiric stared glumly at the mask in his hand. It was a sickly blue-green, and the eyeholes formed the irises of saucer-sized red-rimmed eyes. The mouth twisted in a hideous grimace, filled with fangs; upper and lower eyeteeth extended into tusks. Vivid red crepe hair streamed from the upper half of the mask.
"Come on, put on your mask," Rado said. Rado wore a pure white robe; his mask was painted gold, in the image of a beautiful, ageless face; the eyes were almond-shaped and emerald-rimmed. Rado adjusted a wig of long white-gold hair.
Osiric fingered the gray, red-stained rags of his costume, sighed heavily, and donned the mask.
Rado and the Kolari troupe had decided that he and Osiric were too noticeable among the small, dark Travellers. The pair would therefore pass as actors in the pantomime, and later slip away.
Baron Hildreth IV and his baroness, who had seen better days, sat at the far end of the hall. Hildreth's eyes were on Kara in the center of the hall, a voluptuous woman with bewitching eyes who wore only golden straps and enough squares of cloth to satisfy decency. She danced sinuously with and around a staff aflame at both ends, fire just barely avoiding her hair, her back, her breasts, her thighs ...
Osiric punched Rado lightly in the shoulder, and Rado pried his eyes from Kara to note the baroness glaring not at Kara but at Baro Pyoska, at the drummer and other musicians accompanying Kara's dance, at the assistant who lobbed a torch at Kara as she broke her staff in half and began juggling fire, and at last at Rado and Osiric, barely visible in the wings of the makeshift stage. Which was the point, Rado thought.
Rado admired how the Kolari had erected a makeshift stage in the Baron's Great Hall ... and how the curtains deftly concealed the servant's entrance from onlookers.
"Come, Honored Sir", said the boy playing the Dreaming Princess. Pale powder covered his face, a blond wig hid his curly black hair, and white gloves reached up to his elbows, where the blue gown concealed the rest of his arms. The boy made a convincing girl, Rado had to admit. A girl might have made a more convincing girl, but the Kolari held to the old purity laws, which among other archaic rules forbade men and women from sharing the same stage.
Rado donned his mask and followed the boy to the opposite end of the stage. Osiric, sighing heavily, crouched in the darkened corner.
Rado hoped Osiric would remember his lines. Osiric wrote most of the lines, but Rado had insisted on some editorial changes. For example, the Dreaming Princess was now the hero.
"And now, lords and ladies," Baro Pyoska declared, "we have a special entertainment befitting your noble station." Most of Pyoska's accent disappeared when he was on stage; Rado wondered whether which voice was real. "We present a pantomime of the Gathering of the Four Armies. We begin with the noble Dreaming Princess approaching the foul lair of the Great Ogre Gluskrog.
The boy stepped forth into the torchlight, and Rado followed. "Good lord Elethon, stand back and let me speak to this ogre. For indeed he is a terrifying creature, who makes the earth tremble at his footfall."
"My lady," Rado said, in his best Parhee voice, "prithee do not venture in. Let Lord Daladrien and his armies subdue this creature, or the Oannean hosts. We dare not lose you."
"Tales tell of your wisdom, yet at this moment you speak nonsense. The Daemon Horde besets us at every turn. To defeat them we need strong allies, not more enemies."
"Half the Great Ogres serve the Daemon Lords, milady."
"And the other half will serve us, Lord Elethon, with Gluskrog by our side. Fear not, I shall not perish here. With my arts I will charm this Ogre, and calm his fierce spirit. Once thus becalmed, he will surely see the justice in our cause."
"I cannot stop you, Princess. But have a care."
The boy stepped forward. "I hail thee, Great Ogre Gluskrog, greatest of the Ogrish race, who makes Fae and mortal tremble! I request a parley, for the survival of both our peoples!"
Osiric stood, and lumbered forward in a slow, menacing half crouch. Rado expected a line, but Osiric merely eyed the boy. For a horrible moment Rado held his breath; would Osiric ad lib?
"What fool enters my domain!" Osiric thundered, albeit with crisper diction that one expected of a slavering beast. "Why, it is a mere slip of a girl, barely more than a mouthful! Yet I will gladly strip the flesh from your bones, and leave your empty head atop my gates to warn other fools."
"Stay!" The boy waved a shiny tin wand, and glittering gold dust rained around Osiric. "I bind thee, and abjure thee from harming any living thing until I release thee!"
"What witchery is this!" Osiric rumbled. "I neither hunger nor rage!"
"Now, thou will listen to reason, for the first time in thy wretched life ..."
Assistants hooded the torchlight, and Pyoska again stood before the stage. All the actors retired, as Pyoska began, "None know what arguments the Princess used against the mad beast, but when they both emerged from his evil lair, the Great Ogre followed her like a gentle lamb ..."
While Pyoska spoke, Rado and Osiric stripped off their costumes. They each handed their mask to an actor in similar costumes, one on stilts, the other in a heavily padded suit. After a quick peek through the door, they slipped through the servants' entrance.
For someone his size, Osiric was light on his feet; Rado, himself skilled in quiet movement, could not hear him at all. Osiric whispered, "It is a certainty that we will encounter guards at some point. At the tower if nothing else."
"That is my job, friend Ogre." Kara swept between them, wearing a black robe over her skimpy costume. Rado watched her walking away, and nearly stumbled. Osiric gave him an annoyed look.
"You aren't attracted to her even a little?" Rado whispered, apprehensively.
"No." Rado edged away a little; oblivious, Osiric continued, "Human females are far too fragile." He stared wistfully at nothing. "Give me an ogress with teeth like tiny stillettos, and arms that can rend a --"
"Hisst," said Kara, peeking around a corner. "Wait."
They waited for what seemed like hours. Rado thought about looking around the corner to see what the hold up was, but that would bring him closer to Kara, and he did not know if he could trust himself. At last Kara looked back at them -- such beautiful eyes, like a gentle doe -- and whispered, "Passing guards. Gone now."
They continued through passages. Rado had no idea where they were going. The Kolari had scouted the castle the day before ... or so they said. Rado remembered all the unpleasant stories he had heard about Kolari: thieving, betrayal, drunken brawls that caused some gadje to ban them forever from a town ...
"Here." They had come within sight of a tower's base. Two armed and armored guards stood at the entrance, clearly bored out of their tiny minds. Beyond the arch soard a spiral staircase, and presumably Osiric's astrologer. Rado wondered if he shouldn't have thanked Osiric with gold instead ...
"What do we do now?" Osiric asked. He peered around the same edge of the doorway that Kara stood at.
"This." Rado, at the opposite side, watched Kara smile broadly, take off her robe, hand it to Osiric, and back up in one smooth motion. Then she ran out in front of the guards, stopped, and looked nervously from one to the other.
"Oh, I am truly sorry, good sirs," Kara gasped. "I was looking for the privy, and got all turned around."
The two guards looked her up and down. "Who are you?" said the younger, not in challenge but in wonder.
"I am Kara, of the Galdrana Kolari," she breathed. "We were entertaining your lord, and I left to answer the call of nature ..."
The younger made a face. "And here we are, guarding the spook --"
"Shhh! He might hear you."
"I'm sure. Well, we can't have you wandering the keep by yourself. Let me show you where it is --"
"Hold on, hold on," interrupted the elder. "I am the senior officer. I should escort her. You are young, and might be tempted to some impropriety."
"What! Oh, right, and you wouldn't be."
Kara clasped her hands together in helpless femininity, in the process deepening the cleft between her breasts. "Oh, please do not fight over me. Just show me the way ..."
"Wouldn't hear of it," said the elder guard. "It is a duty of a gentleman."
The younger smirked. "And I'm sure Gertrude would agree."
The elder winced, and scowled. "Fine. We both go."
"What about His Nibs?"
"Well, he should have seen this coming, shouldn't he?"
All three walked off together, although Rado had a clear idea of who was leading whom. When they went around a corner, Osiric and Rado darted through the archway and quickly up the stairs.
Osiric paused. "Are you certain the young lady will be safe from those men?"
"Oh, positive. She's Kolari. If they try something, let's say ungentlemanly, she'll be sure to let them know with a knee to the groin." Or a knife to the throat, he added to himelf.
From below, the elder guard's voice said, "Did you hear something?"
Kara squealed, and the last thing Rado heard was her voice pouting, "Oh, I've broken a strap ..."
At the top of the tower, a stout oak door with iron bands blocked their entrance. "What now?" Osiric sighed.
"Never fear." Rado drew a small black cloth package from his tunic, and rolled out an array of tools. Poking a succession of tools carefully in the lock, he heard a gratifying click. The door swung open with only a little effort.
"Perhaps we should have knocked?" Osiric whispered.
"We'll make our apologies inside."
"Still, our purpose requires the good will of the occupant of this tower. He will not look kindly on our breaking and entering."
"I'll think of something." In point of fact, this aspect bothered Rado too. If the man refused all requests for a moment of his time, maybe they should have given up. Osiric looked so disappointed ... but why should he commit crimes just to make an ogre smile?
The chamber inside, half the area of the tower, looked like an astrologer's den. Charts and tables covered the walls, and several tables. An astrolabe and an orrery stood in one corner. In the dim light of an oil lamp, Rado made out a tall shelf of books, and another, lower shelf with an assortment of crystal balls, staffs, and ancient jewelry. A dark-scabbarded sword hung just above it. Rado looked nervously at the curtain which separated the astrologer's workroom from the place where, presumably, he slept.
"Look!" Osiric whispered, gravitating toward the bookshelf. "Khalazian's Book of Eibon! To think a copy survived!"
Despite the fresh and only slightly chill spring air streaming through the high windows, Rado felt a stuffy claustrophobia. He sensed something was wrong, but he could not figure out what. Almost irresistably, he drifted over to the shelf of artifacts.
The crystal balls glittered with a light beyond that reflected from the lamps. The craftsmanship of the jewelry was crude, almost primitive, and the figures wrought to hold the gemstones in place resembled no creature Rado had ever seen ... chimeras of beasts and birds and creatures from the depths of the sea. The two staves had elaborate carvings of similar beasts, and runes that jogged Rado's memory in a vague but unsettling way. He looked fearfully at the sword, and he had the disquieting feeling it was looking back ...
Rado hissed urgently at Osiric, "We have to go. Now."
"But we just got started. And we still haven't met the astrologer --"
"We don't want to. This isn't --"
From behind the curtain a voice boomed, "What fool dares disturb my rest!"
Osiric and Rado froze. And then Rado heard a voice he hoped never to hear again ...
"I am thy judge and executioner, foul sorceror!"
"Oh, no." Rado found himself propelled toward the curtain, and found to his surprise it was his own legs doing it. "No no no no ..." He swept the curtain aside, and stared into the gloom beyond.
Greystone and an old man in black robes glared at each other in a room smaller than Rado expected. Apart from a simple pallet, a chair, and unholy runes drawn in red on every wall, the room was otherwise empty.
"Aha, more assassins!?" bellowed the man in black.
Rado's brain spun madly, and a new plan blossomed. "Oh, thank the gods. Forgive our intrusion, good sir, but we have tracked this poor man across the length and breadth of Sarkennia. Now, Sir Gwynn, please hand me your sword."
"What!?" Greystone bellowed.
Rado turned conspiratorily toward the astrologer. "My lord has a brain fever. We were charged with minding him, but alas he escaped our care. He can be quite clever sometimes."
Greystone looked at Rado as if Rado had gone mad, and the astrologer did not look in the least mollified. First rule of the con, Rado thought, is stick with your lie.
"Now please, my lord, put away your sword, and we'll take you somewhere where those awful sorcerors can't find you ..."
"What nonsense are you spouting, Rado? Are you in league with this fiend?"
"Oh, dear. I had hoped we could do this reasonably. Osiric, please take his sword away?"
Osiric, who stood in the doorway, looked questioningly at Rado, but, making a decision, advanced slowly toward Greystone. "Now, my lord, do hand me that sword. You might hurt someone."
"ENOUGH!!" bellowed the astrologer. "Enough of this farce. I care not who disturbs my rest or why. You shall all pay."
Osiric, midway between an angry astrologer, an angry swordsman, and a lying Traveller, said, "You were right the first time. Let us depart before the guards arrive."
"Guards?" The astrologer laughed maniacally, and the hairs stood up on the back of his neck. "You will wish the guards had stopped you! K'zakra Ghtagn Vrukat!"
Beside the astrologers the shadows deepened, clotted. A shape solidified ... a huge mastiff, with something wrong with its head. No ... there was no head, merely a mass of squidlike tendrils, dripping fluid, around a gigantic maw rimmed with teeth. The monster coiled, and leaped first at Osiric.
If it had been an ordinary dog, Osiric could have ripped its leg off, without trying. But he struggled with it without success, and howled when a tentacle raked across his face.
Greystone let out a war cry and charged at the astrologer, but the astrologer pointed a black rod and a blast of flame erupted from the end. Greystone flew backward, and thudded into the wall heavily. His sword skittered across the floor, tantalizingly close ... if only the hellbeast were not in the way.
The astrologer glared at Rado, and Rado sprinted toward the sword, ducking as another gout of flame singed his hair. The sword was nearly in his grasp when the astrologer gestured, and it skittered across the floor into the corner.
At the same time, the beast stopped savaging Osiric, who lay eerily still. With a growl it coiled; Rado looked desperately around and behind him, saw the chair, and smashed the chair into the beast as it sailed through the air. Rado sprinted desperately toward the curtain and the next room.
Rado smashed against the shelf of artifacts, and grabbed desperately at the sword hanging above it. He tugged at the hilt, but it would not come free of its scabbard.
An unearthly snarl made Rado look up. The beast tore down the curtain with its tentacles, and stalked slowly toward Rado, as if it had no reason to hurry. Behind it, the astrologer strolled into the room, smiling avidly. "What do you think you're doing?" he asked, amused.
Rado pulled with all his strength at the scabbard, at the hilt; he looked for a catch, a strap, a key, anything. The beast stalked closer. Rado drew back the sword, intending to at least club the thing before it ate him. The creature coiled, preparing to spring ...
"Sagn Kras", said Osiric's voice from the doorway. The scabbard flew off as Rado swung downward, and Rado, to his surprise, cut the top part of the things head-shoulder wide open.
It screeched and backed up. Something like an unearthly cross between blood and smoke poured from the wound, upward. Enraged, Rado hacked wildly at the thing, slashing off tentacles, burying the point in its breast, hacking off one leg. At last the thing lay still, and with a foul stench began to liquefy into a slowly evaporating sludge. The tarry ichor still clung to Rado, as he glared at the astrologer.
The man in black ran back through the doorway, and stopped ... impaled on Greystone's sword. Below him lay Osiric, nearly unrecognizable under blood and slashes, but smiling lopsidedly for a moment before falling unconscious.
Greystone stepped over Osiric, and bowed his head. "A brave man, and a wise one. How he knew that incantation ..." Greystone let the matter drop, and smiled. "Well met, good Rado. That ruse of yours threw me, but you needn't have worried about my wellfare."
"YOUR welfare?!" Rado shouted. And then the shock hit him; he let go of the sword, which began to chill his hand, and sat heavily on the floor. "Gods Above and Below ... you found an actual Daemon summoner ..." Rado began laughing, a little hysterically.
"Yes, and I thank you for your assistance. And your friend's. I shall see that he gets a proper burial."
"No need for that yet," Osiric said, mostly to the floor. He rolled painfully to his side, and drew a few breaths. "Mind you, a whole stag and a few days sleep would not go amiss. Perhaps, and I hate to sound a coward, a poultice to dull the pain."
Rado got to his feet, and tried to help Osiric to his feet. As Rado was about to speak, Osiric met his eyes and said, "Saga of Grashnuk. The magic words to release the sword of the Daemon Champion Hlgnatha. Hope that's not actually it."
"What manner of creature is this?" Greystone gasped in horror. "Some demonspawned --"
"SHUT. UP." Rado snarled. "A moment ago you would have given him a hero's funeral. Don't you get it, even now?"
The clang of a bell interrupted Rado's rant. "Oh, gods, the guards?"
"Or our clamor," Osiric breathed.
Greystone stalked toward Osiric, sword raised, but Rado stepped between them. "Are you stupid?! Get out of here! This place will be crawling with soldiers any minute!"
Greystone looked confused for a moment, then leaped up to the window, grabbed a rope that had been hanging there, and climbed out.
"I would prefer the stairs," Osiric sighed. Osiric weaved on his feet, and looked like he might topple over any moment.
Rado guided Osiric to the stairs, and guided him, slowly, downward. Halfway down, they met the older guard coming upward, sword drawn.
"What are you doing --" But a slim dark hand pulled his head back and slashed his throat with a swift, practiced motion.
The guard topple forward, to reveal Kara. "Come quickly."
They followed her as quickly as possible, not outside but back to the Great Hall. Rado dared not ask what happened to the other one.
At last they reached the servant's entrance, and the back stage. The crowd was applauding, and the actors stood around, uncertainly. Rado quickly donned his mask and robe, but Osiric seemed to have trouble with his ... and then he fell backwards, heavily. He started to speak, but his eyes closed, and he started to snore.
A guard poked his head through the servant's entrance. "Filthy drunk," Baro Pyoska snarled, quickly tossing a blanket over Osiric. "Let him sleep it off. Where's the understudy?"
The actor who had been playing Osiric's part stepped forward, adjusting his mask as if he'd just put it on. The guard shook his head, and left.
Rado followed the other actors on the stage, and bowed. The crowd cheered.
Heavily bandaged, and still unsteady, Osiric walked slowly toward the Kolari wagons. It was nearly midnight, and the Kolari asked politely that Rado and his ogre leave. Rado did not to wait for an impolite request.
"Will our packs be all right?" Osiric asked.
Rado replied, "I drew the Maloculo on them both. They'll be safe."
And so he was unpleasantly surprised to see two children picking through their things.
"Ugh. A Parhee should have more interesting stuff in his luggage. I am very disappointed."
"Just a bunch of books, and oooh, dried meat!"
"Don't eat that! It's the ogre's! You don't know who that used to be."
The second child dropped the beef jerky hastily. "I guess it's just the sword and the axe, then."
"The tools might be worth a few brass. Whad'ya think they're for."
Rado pointed at the two and intoned, "WOE UNTO YOU, WHO --"
The two dropped their booty and fled.
"Kid's don't respect signs of protection the way they used to," Rado sighed.
Rado sprang for a mule, to carry Osiric while he recuperated. Most of the time Osiric slept, and the rest of the time he crammed his face with their dwindling rations, which at least gave Rado a chance to think.
Real Daemons ... that had to be the only explanation. If Daemons were real, what else was real? White Magic? Gods? Ancestors? The Dreaming Princess? Would he get to the place Isvan Cigny told him, and find not moldering bones but a young woman in an endless sleep.
One night, Rado dreamed of a cave. In that cave was a stone bier, and on that bier lay a porcelain-skinned woman with flowing red-gold hair, and a white gown bound with silver cords. She lay still, as if dead, yet at any moment she looked like she would open her eyes and sit up.
A shadow fell over her; her face darkened and her hair blackened and curled. Rado suddenly knew who she really was, and woke up screaming.
Two weeks and a dead stag later, Osiric and Rado led their mule down a path, barely a dirt road. They had left the old Sarkannian roads far behind, and soon would leave even dirt roads behind. They stood on the edge of the Eastern Wilderness, abode of only woodcutters and hermits, and toward the center only beasts and birds.
"Perhaps we should go around," Osiric suggested.
"What? We need to be at the Iron Mountains by Midsummer's Day!"
"Maybe a river runs east, or west ..."
"Not according to the map. The only river from the Iron Mountains runs south, and the wrong way. Maybe these woods are unfamiliar, but if we keep to the path we shouldn't get lost."
"These woods are too familiar," Osiric muttered darkly. But he followed, nevertheless.
Three days into the woods, Rado heard a ruckus and the patter of steps ahead. Around the corner burst a tall maiden, with streaming gold hair and porcelain skin. "Oh good sirs, please help me --" She stopped in her tracks when she looked at Osiric, who was attempting to hide under his hat.
"Well, well, well," the woman purred. "As I live and breathe. If it ain't the runt of the litter. And dear little Oshrak brought us a guest. Ain't that considerate, elder brother?"
"Why, yes indeed," said a pleasant tenor behind them. Rado's head whipped around, and he saw a veritable Theran god in a acolyte's plain robe aproaching behind him.
Osiric groaned. "Jyrtak, Gulha ... just passing through."
"With nary a hello to your kin?" the woman -- Gulha -- smiled, with a mouth of razor-sharp teeth. "For shame."
The other ogre, Jyrtak, grunted. "Aw, now that's just rude. Pop asks about you all the time. Mostly, 'where's that fat good-for-nothing huqra', but he ain't remembering things so good these days."
"Sorry to hear that," Osiric lied.
Rado hoped the pair had forgotten him, but Gulha turned her brilliant smile toward him. Even in the dress, he could see the shape of long, lean muscles. Her strange golden cat's eyes, and her full lips stretched over those horrifying teeth, made her exotically attractive. Dying in her embrace would almost be worth it. Almost.
"Little Oshrak's always been so concerned about manners and proper behavior, yet he ain't introduced us yet."
Rado found his voice. "Rado Coppersmith. Of the Parhee."
"Whooo, we got ourselves a Parhee here," Gulha laughed, stepping back in mock awe. "We better be nice to him, or he'll bring down a terrible curse upon us."
"We might get run over by one of them funeral wagons of theirs," Jyrtak smirked.
"Look, brother, sister, I promise to you I shall come back to visit after I escort my friend to where he's going. All right?"
"Naw, we can't be having that," Jyrtak said sadly.
"Yeah, your friend looks terrible hungry," Gulha agreed. "Why don't we go back to the house for some supper."
"Oh, gods," Osiric murmured.
"Come along, now," Gylha said, leading the way. Jyrtak bowed to indicate Osiric and Rado should go first, as honored guests. Reluctantly they complied.
They walked along in silence for a while, following a deer trail deeper and deeper into the woods. Rado tried to memorize landmarks, track their direction from the direction of the sun, and all the other tricks a good woodsman would know but a city boy like Rado had only the barest inkling of. Once he drifted toward Osiric and whispered, "We've got weapons in our packs."
"So?" Osiric replied, miserably.
"What are you two talking about?" asked Jyrtak, a handspan away from Rado's ear?
They continued on in silence.
Rado needed no supernatural Parhee powers to see the situation. Sometimes a few woodsmen, merchants, or other plain folk would travel the roads of the Wild Lands to reach mines in the Iron Mountains, or the northern end of the River Tethys. If they travelled alone or in small groups, and weren't noticeably armed, a maiden in distress would beseech their help, split them up, and dismember one by one. Or an acolyte on a spiritual journey would make their acquaintance, smile gently and not too broadly at them, convince the females in the group that he was the best friend they had ever met ... right until the point when he tore their arms from their sockets and started chewing on them ...
In a clearing in the woods stood a rickety house, of stones and logs and thatch. Some houses looked rickety because their builders had no proper materials; others looked rickety because their owner had no strength to maintain it. This house's owner had not heard of houses except by rough description, and in any case only needed a space out of the rain to sleep and keep things.
The irregular door opened after Gulha pushed on it a couple of times, and she entered, beckoning them in. Rado, who had gone first down the narrower trails, entered.
"Whut tha hail?" snapped a querulous voice from inside. "What's it doin' walkin' around!? If I tole you once, girl, I tole you -- Oh, it's the runt. Brought a peace offerin', have ye?"
Gulha smiled again. "Father dear, our prodigal brother has returned, and brought an honored guest." She looked sideways at Osiric. "See, I know the words, I just don't gotta use 'em morning, noon, and night."
As Rado's eyes got used to the gloom, he noticed a stooped figure heaving itself out of a chair. It was thin, with whipcord muscles and ragged clothes; unkempt hair stood out from its head. It stepped forward into the light, and noticed features very like Jyrtak's, ruined with age and hard times.
"Guest!?" Gulha, Jyrtak, and the old man exchanged glances. "Oh, yeah, guest! Sit yourself down a while. Parhee, ain'tcha?"
Next to the table that dominated the room, Rado found a chair that had come from a castle and then left in the rain for a while, and guardedly sat down. Osiric, similarly wary, pulled up a stool.
"Yes, actually. My name's Rado." Can an ogre eat someone once they know their name?, he thought, desperately.
The inside of the house looked as bad as the outside. Dried meat -- never mind what kind -- hung in one corner of the room, near the fireplace where the old man had sat; the fire had banked to glowing embers, which provided the dim light. In another corner were simple stacks of grass and leaves, with the impressions of two bodies still in them. The third corner was marked off with faint lines of chalk, and a stack of books moldered against one wall ... Osiric's room? In the fourth corner was something that stank and buzzed with flies, and Rado lost all interest in exploring.
Jyrtak sat on the table, and the old man pulled up his chair, little more than a rough-hewn stump with a wooden plank crudely nailed to the back. "My name's Chulloch Gartlak Kratarch, Fourth and last Qothul of the Northern Clans, if ye know what that means."
"Uh, no, I'm sorry I don't."
Osiric cleared his throat. "It means his great grandfather was an Earl, in the old Ogrish Fiefdoms."
Gulha sighed. "That don't matter none, now."
Rado felt confused. "Wait, wasn't that nearly a thousand years ago?"
"Yep. I'm three hunnert and twenty two year come summer."
"Uh .. congratulations. Is there a Mrs, uh, Kratarch."
From the corner, where she was cutting down dried meat, she snapped, "Stupid whore got herself killed in Nithria." The old man snarled something in Ogrish, but she continued, "Left me and Jyrtak with the hunting. And Oshrak, for what use he was."
Jyrtak chuckled. "You know, when that bukurak killt his first rabbit, he cried. He actually cried, over a damn rabbit. Don't that beat all?"
Apparently insulting Osiric got the old man's mind off the insult to his late wife, because he chuckled and shook his head. "Yeah, and then there's all them books. What use are all them books, eh boy? Cain't get you gold or meat or nothing worth having. Just fill your damn head with a bunch of lies."
Rado heard Osiric's teeth grinding from three feet away, and at last Osiric burst out, "We used to be great, once! We --"
"Yeah, yeah," Gulha sneered. "A thousand years ago we would have had slaves aplenty, and fancy hats, and any other damn thing. But we're here now, and this is what we got. It ain't much, but it's ours." She turned sweetly to Rado, and said, "Sorry about the crude arrangements. Like I said, we ain't got much." She put down a string of dried meat, and said, "Jyrtak killed a deer the other day; it ain't fresh, but it keeps pretty good."
"Yep, she was dear." Jyrtak laughed, and Gulha punched his shoulder.
"Uh, I'm not that hungry. Maybe a salad?"
"No vegetables in this house," Osiric sighed.
"Well, that ain't hospitable," Gulha said, putting hands on hips. "We invite you to our humble abode, as the runt would say, and here you are, turning up your Parhee nose at our simple fare." She and Jyrtak exchanged glances.
Here it comes, Rado thought. The old man was at the far end of the table, Jyrtak was seated on the side near the door, Gulha was still standing uncomfortably close to Rado, and blocking the door besides. Osiric would probably jump to his feet and try to take either Gulha or Jyrtak, and the old man may or may not be as feeble as he appears ...
A part of Rado's mind was surprised he was thinking like this, and another part said About damn time.
In the real world, Gulha smiled and said, "Maybe we should get something fresher ..."
Osiric shot to his feet and barked something in Ogrish. Jyrtak snarled something in reply, tried to shove him aside, and was surprised when Osiric punched him in the gut.
At soon as Osiric stood, Rado jumped out of his chair and kicked Osiric's stool into Gulha's legs. She stumbled, but quickly regained her balance against the table. Rado looked briefly into Gulha's exotically beautiful face, and then smashed his chair into it.
For a moment Rado hesitated; he took in Osiric and Jyrtak struggling, Gulha sitting on the floor momentarily dazed, and the old man slowly lumbering toward them both, huge and sinewy hands outstretched. In that moment Osiric turned, and said, "Run."
Rado grabbed both their packs and ran out the door. He scanned the clearing for something to block the door, as he fumbled the sword out of his own pack. The door opened, and Rado raised his sword to attack ... but it was Osiric, who quickly heaved the door shut and pulled on it with all his strength. He turned, and stared at Rado in surprise. "Why are you still here?"
"I can't just --" But his thought was interrupted as someone gave a mighty heave on the door, and Jyrtak's face appeared in the crack. "There you are," he smiled.
From inside, the old man snapped, "What the hell are you doin' on the floor, girl? Git up and help your brother."
With just Jyrtak's strength against Osiric's, inexorably the crack widened ... and Rado thrust the point of his sword over Osiric's shoulder and downward, into Jyrtak's chest.
All three of them looked in surprise at the blade sticking in Jyrtak's chest, the fountain of thick, crimson blood jetting from the wound ... and then Jyrtak's eyes glazed, and he tumbled backward into the darkness.
Osiric and Rado scooped up a pack each, and ran for dear life. Rado heard Gulha's scream of rage. As they got further, Osiric cursed his superior hearing, for he heard more:
The bastards killed Jyrtak!
Well, haul him over here. No sense wasting good meat ...
Somehow the pair stumbled back to the road, to the mule waiting patiently for them, almost looking bored.
Rado breathed heavily, clutching his pack in one hand ... and the bloody sword in his other. He looked to Osiric, and stammered, "Gods ... I'm sorry ... I never ..."
Osiric, also winded, looked at Rado with an unreadable expression. "Fate. Sooner or later, it was destined to happen. Nothing to apologize for, boy." He turned his face away and said. "You look exhausted. Ride the mule for a while."
Rado obeyed, and Osiric pried the sword out of Rado's unresisting hand. With a sudden fierce expression, Osiric rammed the sword, point down, into the earth ... and, calm again, led the mule away from that place forever.
In the pre-dawn light, Rado stared at the peak of Mount Govannon, highest of the Iron Mountains. The lower slopes were the sandy scrub he and Osiric had seen for the past few leagues, but sheer rocky faces quickly rose from the sand, and stretched into a forbidding icy peak, with faint streamers of snow from high winds. He hoped he didn't have to climb the whole mountain to find the Dreaming Princess's resting place, but the last of the gold and silver had gone toward climbing gear and furs, just in case.
"A prudent pilgrim would hire a guide," Osiric said, for about the fourth time since they had sighted the mountains.
"If Czigny is right, then I don't like the idea of everyone knowing where the Princess's grave is. If he's wrong, I don't want everyone knowing what a fool I was."
"As you wish."
Osiric still seemed distant. He had recovered some of his own pedantry, and had continued his virtual monologues about legends of pre-Daemonic civilizations, but his genial and occasionally patronizing attitude had gone. They never talked about Osiric's brother, or his family. Now that Rado thought of it, Osiric never talked about anything in the present. Some days, Rado imagined a trail of bodies from Greenway to Mount Govannon: the brigands in Riverbend, the guard in Redfang's Keep, Jyrtak ...
"Look, the rosy-fingered dawn!" Osiric pointed at the rising sun.
A little while ago, Rado would have quipped, Who is Dawn and what made her fingers rosy, or something equally stupid. Whether his friendship with Osiric had gone beyond that stage -- if friends they still were -- or if this moment demanded more solemnity, Rado could not decide.
Sunlight slowly spread over the mountains, chasing shadows from peaks, creeping into valleys, glittering off ice on the higher peaks ... and the lower?
A trail of lights, like torches, illuminated a path along the boundary between the sandy lower slopes and the rocky upper slopes. The path rose gently from an outcrop of rock, and disappeared in a fracture a little ways away.
"Leave the climbing gear here," Rado said. "We can probably walk this. Take the mule, though."
"To hear is to obey," Osiric replied. Rado was relieved to see Osiric smiled when he said it.
It was well into afternoon by the time Rado and Osiric came to the end of the path. The lights disappeared a tenth of an hour after dawn, but Rado kept his eyes fixed on the outcrop. Once there, he could see a rough but not entirely natural path leading slightly upwards. They rested for lunch, and then walked, single file, with Osiric leading the mule. On the way Osiric pointed out the chunks of quartz hammered into the edge of the path; the stone around them was cut so that the light would glint off them only on one day. This discovery excited Osiric far more than Rado.
Rado kept his eyes fixed on the cleft of rock, still shadowed even well into the day. The mule refused to go into darkness, so they left it there and continued on.
As they neared, they both could clearly see a carved arch, nearly circular, with a boulder placed in the entrance. Rado and Osiric strained together, but after dislodging a buildup of sand and rock it rolled away surprisingly easily. They both peered into the darkness.
"Are you absolutely certain you wish to continue?" Osiric asked.
"It's the end. No matter what happens, I have to see this through to the end." Rado looked at Osiric, and knew what he had to say next. "Osiric, you've been the best companion a person could wish for, and I hope a close friend. You've saved my life, and I'm afraid all I've caused you is grief. When I --"
"Humans!", snorted Osiric. "So appallingly sentimental. Let us finish this." But he clapped Rado on the shoulder, and gave him a small smile. Rado lit a torch, and together they entered the grave of the Dreaming Princess.
The tunnel, hewn smooth, continued for fifty paces, sloping slightly downward, and then made a sharp right turn. The hewn tunnel continued for ten paces, and then they entered a natural cavern, dry and without stalagtites or any living thing. The air had become stale, but Rado detected a hint of some odor, like spices or resin. He had heard of mummification in some of the Southern City-States, but not in Kymric, Sarkannian, or Drochlunder lands.
What Rado had at first taken for a natural rock outcrop turned out to be a giant chunk of quartz, hewn into an oval shape, settled into a granite base almost as if it belonged. The quartz, milky-white, was translucent but not transparent; Rado brought the torch closer, and could see a vaguely humanoid shape within.
"We have come, we have seen, now let us go," Osiric said, in a hushed whisper.
"That could be anybody in there."
"Read the inscription." Osiric pointed at ancient Kymric script around the granite base. He attempted to puzzle it out, but Osiric read, "'Here lies the Dreaming Princess. Disturb her not, until the darkest day has come.'"
"It's pretty dark right now." Rado drew his knife, and after a little searching at the head or foot of the coffin pried open a crack that appeared to go around the quartz. "Help me with this lid."
"You surely do not propose to desecrate a grave?"
"Why not? It's not like her next of kin will complain."
"It ... it isn't right."
Because ogres don't touch carrion, Rado thought, but to his credit did not say. "It's what we're here for. 'To see the face of the Dreaming Princess', right? I can't see a damn thing right now."
Osiric hesitated. "Forgive us, Princess," he murmured, and then he felt with his fingernails for the crack at the opposite edge.
Rado lay the torch on a rock ledge, and pried the lid up enough to get his fingers under it. It was extremely heavy, and without Osiric he had no hope of lifting it. His fingertips touched some unpleasantly sticky stuff, like the hardened sap of trees in the Southlands. "Got it."
"On three. One, two, THREE!"
The lid came off; Rado suspected Osiric bore most of the weight, but Rado's arms nearly came out of their sockets. A sickly-sweet mist engulfed their faces, and they hastily dropped the lid to the side, where it broke.
When they had both stopped coughing, and Rado had massaged life back into his hands, they peered within the coffin.
Rado had expected no more than bones, or barring that a fair maiden in priestess's clothes, beautiful beyond words. That was not what he saw.
The figure inside was, at least female, if only because of the shape of her hips and the two swellings on her chest. She was even human, as far as he could tell. But where Rado had expected silks or linen, he saw a deerskin tunic with hide leggings and fur boots; around her shoulders was draped a cloak of roughest burlap. Instead of a silvery wand she clasped a bronze sword in her hands, notched but of excellent craftsmanship; under her leather belt rested a bronze knife. Her skin was not fair but tanned in the way of northland peasants who spend time under the sun ... except for the livid scars that stood out on her muscular arms and thighs, and on her face.
Her face, in particular, might once have been somewhat attactive, were not for the nasty scar from above her left eyebrow, over her often-broken nose, and down her right cheek. Blue tattoos, circular whorls interspersed with runes, covered her unscarred cheek. Two rows of perplexing circular scars made an irregular ring around her neck. Her hair, strands of brass mixed with dark brown, was braided in tight rows across her skull and down her back. And, Rado decided, her eyes were too far apart, her jaw a little too square. So, not a sleeping beauty at all.
"Huh," Rado said.
It makes perfect sense, Rado thought, once you took your head out of legends. With humans still primitive barbarians, would they wear anything but skins and rough cloth? And, when faced with an overwhelming power, who would be more likely to unite sworn enemies ... a frail, dreamy witch or a battle-scarred war leader? Likely she fell in the final battle, and rather than tell her followers she had died, the other generals spun a legend about a timeless sleep. Perhaps she had even died before the final battle, and only tales put her at the head of the armies at the Black Gate, wherever that was supposed to be.
On impulse, he poked her forehead with his finger; the skin felt only a little cold, and only recently dead.
"What are you doing!?" hissed Osiric.
Truly, they had arts of preservation lost to us, Rado thought. Interesting as that might be to scholars and alchemists, it made no difference to him.
So, Czigny, I've gazed on the face of the Princess, and I've seen the truth ... a hero fell, and the lies began.
"Let's put the lid back on. There's nothing more to see here."
"The lid is in shards,"
"Well, we'll pile it back as best we can. Maybe we can, I don't know, come back with some tar and stick it back together."
"You want to come back."
"She deserves it, I guess. The body will start to rot now, I think, but there's no helping that."
"So, you have abandoned the notion of creating a new sideshow attraction?"
"That's the Doro-Rom. And anyway, what would be the point. No one would believe it." Maybe the truth isn't always a good thing, Rado thought, and wondered that he had done so.
He bent to pick up the largest piece, and as he straightened, he felt a knife edge at his throat. He moved his eyes, just his eyes, and stared into gray, wolfish eyes, set far apart, in a tanned and scarred face. "Coron ai Glaif?" she snarled.
"Um ... sorry?"
"Ah, 'tis some debased Sarkannian speech, I wot. I shall speak plainer: Crown or Sword?"
She crouched in her former grave, balanced on the balls of her feet yet apparently perfectly comfortable. Osiric shifted his weight, and snake-fast her sword-point pricked his chest. Without even looking at him, she added, almost conversationally, "Many an ogrish breast have I cut asunder. Thine poses not the merest hardship. My question remains, southron lad ... serve thee Crown or Sword?"
Osiric frantically mouthed sword, but Rado took a deep breath and said, "Neither, milady." Osiric rolled his eyes.
"Trifle not with me. All choose one or another, save the Djinn, who perished."
"Those who served the Crown are all slain, and those who served the Sword are likely dead as well, save yourself." Ye gods, now I'm talking like her. "The war's been over these last thousand years."
Her eyes widened, and the grip on her knife slackened only slightly. Then the blade broke his skin. "Thou liest!" she shouted. "Tis but a Daemonic ruse, to befuddle me! I slept but days only, did I not?"
"You did not. Sorry to break this to you, so suddenly, especially with your knife about to slit my throat, but it's been about a thousand years. Right, Osiric?"
"Indeed," Osiric squeaked.
"Our legends say that you asked Elethon -- that's the name, right? -- Elethon for rest until you were needed again. And you haven't been needed. We woke you by accident. Sorry."
Her eyes bore into his for a moment, and the hairs on his head prickled, as if someone were sifting through his soul. Abruptly her blades dropped, held limply in each hand. She stared at nothing, or at least nothing in the present. "A thousand years. I slept, unneeded, for a thousand years, and all my companions, late and moul." She laughed for a moment, a little hysterically, and then stopped herself, breathing deeply of the musty air. She fixed Rado with a shrewd stare. "And what be thy tale? What 'accident' brings thee to a grave, eh? Look you for gold and gems, in the barrows of fallen warriors?"
"Grave robbing?" Rado started sweating, in the coolness of the cave. "No, no, of course not. Not as a habit, and I wouldn't have robbed yours, if you'd been dead."
"Aye, and I have not jewels in any case. What seekst thou, then? Mayhap Sir Ogre sought a snack?"
Osiric bristled, but the Princess laughed. "Nay, nay, I ken the few scruples of Ogrish folk, better than thee, I wot." Again the stare. "Thou hast yet not given an account."
"A crazy old man said you'd be here, so I journeyed halfway across the northlands and nearly got killed several times to find out if he was right. You know, now that I tell someone, it does sound stupid."
She chuckled grimly. "Aye, stupid enough for truth." She leaped out of her former bier in one smooth motion, and then leaned against it.
"A little disoriented?" Rado asked.
She stared blankly, and then worked out what the word meant. "Nay, nay, I am as hale as I ever was." She looked around at the cave, at the coffin shards, and finally at Osiric and Rado. "If Crown and Sword truly be forgotten, what masters serve man now?"
"Oh, a bunch. Feudal lords, kings of city states. The Sarkannian emperor, at least in theory."
"An Emperor in Sarkennia? Hah!"
"Well, he doesn't control much any more."
"If ever he did."
Osiric added, "That is a popular opinion."
The Princess glared at Osiric, and he backed up. To Rado, she continued, "I would fain see this world, where Sarkennia has an emperor."
"I shall, er, tend to the mule," Osiric stammered, backing away.
"You didn't need to do that," Rado snapped, and then, added, "Your Highness."
"'Highness'?", the Princess smirked. Then, seriously, she hissed, "Trust thee yon ogre?"
"With my life. Several times."
She nodded. "Tis a powerful friend, an ogre, and a fell foe." She stood on her feet, a little unsteadily, Rado thought. "Let us quit this place." She started to walk forward, then stopped. "We have forgotten our manners."
"Oh, right! My name is Rado Coppersmith, and my companion is Osiric, Princess."
She smiled, a little bemused. Rado thought that the smile almost redeemed the flaws of her face. "'Princess', yet."
"Your name comes down to us as 'The Dreaming Princess'."
She laughed, an honest and girlish laugh of delight. "'Dreaming Princess'! Princess of the Dreaming? Me? What folly!"
"How should I address you, then, High-- ... er ..."
"Thou mayst call me Vala. And thy ogre too."
They walked out of the tunnel together, silently. Rado felt awkward, now that all the implications had sunk in. He walked with a woman from a thousand years past ... not just any woman, but -- as far as he could tell -- the heroine who had united the Elder Peoples, fought Daemon Lords, saved humanity. She stood more than a head shorter than him, and smelled vaguely of sweat and leather, and he was walking right next to her.
She, on the other hand, seemed completely at ease, completely in charge of this world she had just awakened into. Perhaps someone bold enough to lead the entire world never doubted anything. Rado made a mental note never to try to lead the world.
They stepped into sunlight, and for a moment Rado enjoyed the return to life. He glanced at Vala, and followed her hard, cold stare down the path they had come this morning.
Greystone stood behind Osiric, with a blade cutting into his throat. The witch-hunter's cloak and doublet were dusty and torn; his craggy face twisted in a triumphant grimace, and his half-mad eyes flickered from Rado to Vala. "At last I see the truth, Parhee! You would have me believe you had rejected the evil ways of your kind, yet you consort not only with an ogre but a mountain witch as well! What foul deeds have you been plotting?!"
"Greystone, just put the knife down. We can explain everything."
"Surely, another sweet lie, to put me off my guard!"
Vala tilted her head, and murmured. "Either a fell warrior, or a fool ogre."
"Silence, witch! I'll have no ensorcellments from you, either!"
Vala's eyes narrowed. "Thou sayest witch as if a curse."
"The word's gotten a bad reputation, these days. Greystone -- Sir Greystone ... Sir Glynn ... may I call you Glynn? ..."
Vala sighed and strolled, unconcernedly, toward Greystone. Osiric's eyes widened, and he paled to a chalky white.
"Don't kill him!" Rado shouted.
Greystone sneered. "I'll do with this beast what I will."
"I wasn't talking to you. Look, Vala, this man saved my life once."
Vala half-turned, and regarded him out of the corner of her eyes. "Also the ogre?"
"Well, yes ..."
"Canst thou number them that saved thy life?"
"Er, an old man named Lars, in a village called Greenway," Rado recalled, with a pang of guilt.
Osiric said, "Kara? The Kolari dancer?", before a twitch from Greystone's arm made him shut his mouth with a snap.
"Just these? Certes, an ease to my mind. Well, then, cutthroat hero, thou shalt not die today."
"I have faced sorcerors more terrible than a mere hedge hag, and I have one of thy allies in my power. What can you do to me?"
Rado did not even see her move. One moment she stood two paces away, hands on hips, the next the pommel of her half-drawn sword crashed into Greystone's face. Osiric cried out as Graystone's dagger sank into his neck, but Vala shoved Greystone down the path. Somehow he tumbled to a half-standing position, and drew his sword before Vala's sword ducked under his guard and slashed his wrist. Greystone's sword dropped from his hand, and Vala's free hand slammed into his solar plexus and his face, seemingly at the same time. One last kick from Vala and Greystone was down, flat on his back, with the point of a bronze sword seemingly undecided about which eye to poke out first. Vala was scarcely even breathing heavily.
"Did I hear the boy aright? Thou art a knight? What a piteous battle. A gammer of ninety years might acquit herself more nobly."
"Wha ... what witchery is this ...?"
"Ah, again that word. The boy saith I might not slay thee, yet perhaps a lost limb ... or an eye ..."
"No!" Rado shouted, running up beside her.
"I hate to be a bother," Osiric said, still kneeling in the dirt and clutching his neck, "but I'm sodding well bleeding here!"
Vala turned her head slightly in his direction, never taking her eyes of Greystone. "A taste of mortality might instruct thee, methinks." She turned back to Greystone. "Which arm dost thou use for a bow!"
"I said NO!" Rado said, wondering whether to restrain her. And get hacked to ogre steaks for my trouble, he thought.
"Ah, thou commandeth me now, child? Thou findest me, and now I am thy chattel?"
"No, of course not." He moved between Greystone and Vala, surprising all three of them. "But if you harm this man, you will have to go through me."
Vala groaned and turned her eyes heavenward. "Gods preserve me. I yield to thy soft heart and softer head. Bind him, then, and take him along. Any crime of his is thine also." She ambled toward Osiric. "Now, leave me tend to the other mewling babe."
For all her sour comments, she bound Osiric's wound quickly and efficiently, and Greystone's as well. Mercifully, Greystone attempted no counterattack or ruse; he watched Vala carefully, and seemed pensive when she was out of sight.
Rado bound Greystone's hands with a length of rope they had brought on the mule, and then with a disapproving glance Vala undid it and tied his arms more securely and uncomfortably. At Vala's insistence another length of rope, tied to his bound wrists, served as a sort of leash, which she tossed to Rado.
Osiric still seemed a little shaken at having a wound that continued to bleed, but from Rado's brief glance, a human with a gash that size would have died in the first few minutes.
With everyone squared away to Vala's satisfaction, they headed back down the path, and eventually back to the nearest village. Vala, naturally, led. Osiric soon forgot his wound, and began peppering Vala with questions about the Daemon Wars, pre-Daemonic civilization, and various historical figures, mostly Ogres. Vala answered in monosyllables, at first, but something about Osiric's enthusiasm was infectuous.
Rado listened a little, but at last drew alongside Greystone and said, "At least we're even now."
"That w- ... that woman took me by surprise. Another time --"
"Another time she would have cut your fool head off, and you would have deserved it. Gods of Earth and Sky, Sir Greystone, haven't you figured out yet that there just aren't any sorcerors anymore?"
"What about that astrologer?"
"Almost no sorcerors." Rado did not want to think about the monster that nearly ate them all, or that sorceror's hand of flame. "How many like the astrologer have you killed, and how many old ladies who bilk grieving fools out of their silver? What's the score, eh?"
Greystone's lips pursed together, and he turned away from Rado.
Rado listened to Vala talk: "... and then, standing upon his chest, told I Gluskrog that, if he joined us not, I would bury my sword in his heart."
Osiric shook his head, carefully. "Was Gluskrog's heart not in a jar at the top of a mountain, guarded --"
"Oh, that tale! Many an ogre claimed to extract his heart through ancient magic, so that he might never die. Yet I felt it beating, under the tip of my sword. Certain I was, then, that the slightest pressure ... or" -- she laughed -- "a sudden clumsiness might end his life. Twas miraculous, the speed with which he agreed ..."
"Who is she?" Greystone asked.
"If I told you, you'd tell me it was another Parhee lie. You'll have to figure it out for yourself."
They left the mountain, and crossed the scrublands. Vala, still in the lead, topped a rise ... and stopped. Osiric looked from her to the lands beyond, puzzled.
"What is it?" Rado said, hurrying next to her. He saw the lands beyond: only a tree or two dotted the wild grasslands, which after a few hundred paces turned into fields. Kymrian farmers worked the poor soil, growing just enough to keep them and the local lord fed. Beyond, in a thatched hut, two children too small to work the fields played with a dog. In the distance, Rado could see the village center, little more than a storehouse, a smithy, and a stable. The lord's manor, little more than a dot on a far hill, could have been little more than the size of an inn in Riverbend or Redfang's Keep.
Rado looked to Vala for an explanation, and saw the expression on her face: shock, disbelief, wonder. Her eyes were wide, and liquid, as if she were about to cry.
"It cannot ... tis beautiful ... green ..." She looked up, almost in a panic, and her mouth dropped open. "Blue sky ... it flames not, and nary even a cloud ... blue and green, and sweet air ..."
Greystone approached behind them. "Yes, sky is blue, and grass is green. What world do you come from?"
Greystone's voice broke whatever spell Vala was under. "Come along, now. We have leagues to go, and I need food."
And yet, as they walked between fields toward the village center, Vala still stared at the world around her in awe, as if it were either a miracle or a mirage.
At the village center, Rado found that there was no inn, and that the gaffers and children stared at Vala's strange clothes, Osiric's wound, and especially Greystone's bound arms. The village headman, a stout old man with ginger hair and a sugar-and-cinnamon beard, came forward, and gave them a questioning look.
"Forgive our intrusion, sir. My name is Rado, and these are Vala and Osiric, my partners." He looked at Vala and added, "Silent partners." He returned his stare, without blinking but also without speaking, and Rado continued, "The man bound before you is a wanted fugitive, accused of murdering several men and women. We bring him back to Riverbend for trial."
"Brave you are, for apprehending such a violent criminal. What do you require of us?"
"We would like to find lodging for the night, for it has been a long and tiring chase."
"Hmm. Did you two not set out this morning, with ropes and climbing tools?"
"Yes, our partner sent us word that our quarry was making for the Iron Mountains, and we prepared to scale them. Thankfully, she caught the man before he had gotten too far up. Isn't that right, Vala?"
Vala nodded, with an innocent look.
"Truly a fearsome fighter, though but a slip of a girl. And all those scars ... well, no matter. I'm afraid to say we have no lodging for strangers, much less cells for a dangerous killer. We're but a peaceful farming folk."
"Ah, I see. Thank you for your time, then." He turned to Osiric, and said, "We'll have to camp out tonight. We can spend our advance on an inn the next night."
"Advance, you say?" the headman said.
"Yes. One of the victims was a nobleman's son, and so in addition to the Mayor's bounty we will get Lord Gareth's reward as well. He was even gracious enough to give us a tenth up front, in gold. Well, we'll not keep you --"
"On consideration, I hate to see brave and just men -- and women -- such as yourselves out on a hot night, and certainly in the open this dangerous criminal might escape. He might even come back here. No, as headman, I cannot expose our little community to such danger. You'll stay with us tonight. We have a sturdy root cellar, which will suffice for the likes of him. Ugly brute, I must say."
Greystone, turning ever redder as Rado talked, at last burst out, "I'll not stand for such slander --" and stopped abruptly, as a bronze knife-point pricked the side of his neck.
Rado smiled and bowed. "How can we repay such generosity?"
The headman smiled, even more broadly, "A way will surely come to us."
In the root-cellar, stinking of damp, mushrooms, and beets, Greystone begged to be untied before his arms rotted off. As Rado untied his knots, Vala kept her sword at his throat. Osiric, understandably averse to Greystone, left to look after their accomodations.
Through the door above them, Rado heard the headman and his wife arguing. "Letting those ruffians stay here! What were you thinking, husband? They might slit our throats!"
"No, the tall dark one seems a pleasant enough lad, and the fat one's only a danger if he sits on you."
"So you say. You can't trust Southern darklings. And what of that woman? Dressed like that? Nought but a common whore!"
"Whore? Have you eyes, woman? What man would lie with such an ugly creature as that, eh?"
Rado looked quickly at Vala, whose eyes had narrowed to slits, and whose other hand fiddled with her dagger. "Vala, look, they're just simple folk ..."
"Simple, greedy folk. If thou canst ignore yon barbs, guileful darkling, I can also."
Greystone spoke up. "I do not like them thinking I am a murderer."
"La," Vala grinned, "so the noble witch-slayer hast killed no witches?"
Greystone met her eyes. "Yes, I have killed those who consorted with Daemons."
"Gladdens my heart, it does. But I ask about witches."
"Are they not the same?"
Rado cleared his throat. "The word 'witch', or 'wicca' in the Kymric, referred to a type of free-lance priest or priestess who interceded with the gods and spirits of the Other World. Other terms in other languages include Sarkannian 'wizard', Drochlund 'shaman', and Simurgian 'magus'." As both of them stared, Rado said, "Osiric's not here."
"Tis a lesson appreciated," Vala said, shaking her head rapidly. "And raises the question of how many holy folk thou hast slain?"
"Holy? None! I have touched not a priest of the Unseen God, or the many pagan gods, or even the Southern City Gods whose forms and deeds freeze the blood."
"Tis also glad tidings," Vala replied, although Rado could tell she had no clue what Greystone was talking about. "Leave me ask again, in new words: How many men and women hast thou killed? In truth?"
"Lots and lots," Greystone sulked. "I'm a vicious murderer, remember."
"Faugh." She dropped her sword, and stalked toward the ladder. "Boy, thou mayest spend thy time in futile argument. I shall find yon promised meal, and yon promised bed. Leave him untied, if thou wish. I'll take the next watch, or avenge thy death." So saying, she climbed up the ladder, and shut the trap door on them both.
Rado sat on a sack of beets, opposite Greystone. "Honestly, I am sick of you too. I was sick of your whole damn crusade that day in Riverbend, remember?"
"I seek only justice." Greystone cradled his head in his hands, and spoke distantly, as if he no longer quite believed what he said. "All those who call upon Daemons must follow them to their black pit."
"You never answered her question. How many people have you killed, in the name of your justice?"
Greystone was silent a long time. "Two," he said at last. "One you know. The other was an old woman, who threw some accursed powder in my eyes. For three hours afterward I saw nightmares in the waking world, and when I regained my senses, she lay dead at my feet, and my sword dripped blood."
Rado had not realized he was holding his breath, and exhaled. "How long have you been at this?"
"Two years. Two years since Rowena and Elysia died. I followed rumors and trails, talked to soothsayers who turned out frauds. In Riverbend I thought I had at last found an authentic sorceress." He lifted his head in triumph. "In Redfang I found a true sorceror, did I not?"
"Yes, you did. By accident, I think."
Greystone's shoulders sagged. "Perhaps so. They do exist, but I have no hope of finding them." His head snapped up, and his eyes met Rado's with a mad, desperate hope. "Join me, Rado. Forget the ogre and the virago, and help me. You have the wit and the discernment I lack. My knowledge of the uncanny is mere wives' tales next to yours."
"And have you try to kill me again, because I know a little too much? Not a chance."
"No, I promise upon my honor as a knight, and on the honor of the Greystone family --"
"Is there any left?"
"You mock me," Greystone snarled angrily.
"And you spit upon my honor, as a ... former Parhee and a ... coppersmith. And a human being, come to that. Osiric is my friend, and Vala ... it's complicated ..."
"What!? No, no! Hardly. She thinks little more of me than she does you or Osiric, or anyone else come to that. But ... she's part of something bigger -- gods, she is something bigger -- and if I'm destined to be someone's colorful sidekick, as seems to be the case, I'd rather be hers than yours."
"Ah, I understand," Greystone smiled, although Rado dared not ask what he thought he understood.
"Think whatever you like. Anyway, it's been a long day, with you trying to kill us all, so why don't you get some sleep, while I ... stay awake. Damn that woman."
In the morning, Rado set out, a few gold Imperials poorer, but almost well rested, and well fed. They left the farming village, and struck out back along the dirt road that led to the Wilds.
"So, where are we going?" Rado asked.
Vala, staring almost lovingly at a rabbit, started a little bit. "Eh? Ah ... Sarkennia. The capitol of thy fabled empire."
"It has fallen far, since Imperial days," Osiric said. "The emperor is but a nobleman with a grand title, yet fewer lands than a viscount."
"Yet I wish to see, with my own eyes, the bones of Aelfric's grand conquest."
"It was Aelfred, Lady Vala. Aelfric's grandson."
"Ah, yes. Aelfric had the strength of an ogre, and the wits of a goblin. And he feared nothing save a bath. Tis a wonder a woman bore his child."
Greystone, securely bound again, said, "You speak as if you knew him."
Osiric and Rado exchanged glances, but Vala merely looked back at Greystone briefly with a tiny smile.
They walked on in silence for a little while, and then Vala, who gradually became more agitated, muttered, "I must see," ran off the road to a grassy patch, and lay down full length on her back, her eyes closed. Her breathing slowed.
"What's she doing?" Greystone asked.
"I cannot hazard a guess," Osiric replied.
Rado watched her face, as her habitual wary and sardonic expression smoothed away to an almost peaceful calm. She looked as she did in her tomb, before she awakened, except she still breathed. The muscles in her face twitched slightly, although her scars made some movements look more profound. Her expression turned dismayed, then sorrowful ... and her eyes snapped open, although they saw nothing.
"Gone," she sighed, as if from far away. "All gone ... silent, like a grave -- nay, a battlefield with earth thrown o'er. Life, all around, but no shapes, no speech, no movement ... all have died, or yet sleep like seeds in winter ... yet when will spring come, pray? Dost any know? Who may I ask?"
Rado peered into her eyes. "Vala? Are you all right."
Her eyes focussed on him. "Aye." She rolled to her feet and stood in one smooth motion. "I am well. The land is not."
"What can that mean?" Osiric asked, a little crossly. "You yourself admit everything is green and growing."
Vala looked at him, subdued but grim. "As a girl my father tended a young warrior kicked in the head by his own horse. The lad saw not, spoke not, yet his heart beat and his chest drew breath. My father forced chewed food and fresh water down his throat, yet he never once wakened. One night he died.
"The world is like that warrior. Even in the dark days, I heard gods of wood and stream, weakened but crying for help. Life was near extinguished, but spirits large and small remained. Yet, in this age -- a thousand years, say you -- life abounds, but the gods are silent. Woods abound, but wood spirits sleep. Tis unnatural and blood-chilling. How can the world survive without gods?"
Greystone sneered. "I know not what nonsense you are spouting. There are gods aplenty, from the smallest village shrine to the great temples of Sarkennia and the Southern Cities. The Unseen God dwells in all places where men gather in his name."
Vala looked at him sourly. "What does this Unseen God sound like?"
"He speaks not, except in the heart of the believer."
"And mayhap he bears no odor? Then how dost thou know he exists?"
"Blaspheme not, woman. He does great deeds on behalf of his people."
Rado, whether annoyed by Greystone or chilled by Vala's pronouncements, chimed in with, "So his believers assume anything good that happens is the work of the Unseen God?"
"Then what if something evil happens? Floods, plagues, accidents."
"He sends these to test us."
"Us? So, if something bad happens to a believer, it's the Unseen God's will. If something good happens to a believer, it's the Unseen God's will. Do bad things happen to unbelievers more often than believers?"
"Not ... I do not know ..."
"So, anything happens to anybody, it's the work of the Unseen God. Then what good is it to believe?"
"The reward is after this life."
"Which no one has seen either, and come back to tell. This god doesn't show us a lot, does he?"
"It is not our place to question His will."
Osiric cleared his throat. "This comparative theology is fascinating, but perhaps we should locate a suitably shaded clearing. The sun is reaching its zenith."
Greystone looked angry, Osiric looked uncomfortable, but Vala smiled a little. Rado felt good the rest of the day.
At nightfall, Osiric, Vala, and Rado took shifts again, to watch Greystone and scan the woods for other dangers. Osiric took his, woke Vala at midnight, and curled up to snore the rest of the night away.
Rado slowly awakened, hearing an unfamiliar noise. Osiric's rumbling snores? No, he had gotten used to those by now. He looked at Greystone, but he was apparently asleep; moonlight and the dim fire showed his eyes closed, at any rate, and he had moved little since they had all made camp. Rado, moving as little as possible, scanned the treeline for any unnatural shadows, or unexpected reflections.
At last Rado looked toward Vala, sitting near the fire. She hunched over, hugging her knees, her hair hanging over her face. And then he heard the sound again ... a woman sobbing.
Rado quietly propped himself on one elbow. Was this some private sorrow? Should he intrude? Was it any of his business? His sudden impulse was to put his arms around her, comfort her in some way, offer to help any way he could ... but then he asked himself, Vala? Would she simply pummel him senseless for taking such a liberty?
Suddenly Vala started, looked in surprise at Rado, sniffling. Tears glistened in the moonlight, before she wiped them away with a forearm. "Tis dusty in these lands. Inflames the eyes."
"Oh, I'm sure. If you ever have another attack of dust, though ..." Rado let the sentence hang between them.
Vala's brow furrowed. "Tell not the others --"
"Tell them what? That I had a strange dream, probably caused by Osiric's dried beef? I would look like a fool."
Vala started to say something, then stopped. "Truly beef? Thou art certain?"
"Reasonably. He said he hates the taste of human."
"Like unto pork, I have heard said."
"He hates pork, too."
"Ah." Again an awkward pause. "Before thy dream ends, I would remind thee that thou must waken in little more than an hour."
Rado smirked. "Thank you, dream version of Vala. I wish I could get to know you, but you'll be gone once I digest that bit of beef. Good night."
"Mayhap thou wilt dream me anon," Vala whispered, under her breath.
Rado rolled over, but he did not sleep again. In a little more than an hour, Vala kicked him and told him to take his turn at watch. Rado stared at the treeline, and the sunrise, and did not truly see either.
In the morning, after they had breakfasted, Vala checked Greystone's bindings, and Osiric, Vala, and Rado shouldered their packs. "If I remember aright, Sarkennia lies beyond yon forest."
Osiric interjected, "Yes, but perhaps we can follow the treeline, and locate another path? Or possibly skirt the forest entirely?"
"Twill add more than a week to our journey."
Rado explained, "There's some people we'd like to avoid. Long story."
Vala sighed. "We shall not lack for time to tell it. Ah, well, I have nought else to do." The thought seemed to cheer her somewhat, and they set out on a road along the forest border.
"What of me?" Greystone asked Vala. Rado almost jumped; Greystone had not said a word since that night in the village, despite Rado's attempts to make conversation, and Vala's desultory interrogation.
"Aye, what of you?" Vala replied. "Thou art the boy's chattel now, so ask his mind."
Rado took a breath. "So he's mine now? To do with what I wish?"
"Aye. I have before said."
"Very well then." Rado drew his knife, hauled Greystone toward him, and cut off his bonds. "I'm sick of this game."
Osiric glared at them both with undisguised anger. Vala watched Rado coolly, and said at last, "Remember thou what I also said? His crimes be thine?"
"Yes. I'll take that risk." He turned to Greystone. "Do what you want. Go away, find some poor old woman to burn, try to kill us again even. I would rather you didn't do the last, though, since Vala would probably gut me after she dismembered you. Just ... get out of here."
Greystone looked at the three of them, and then knelt. "Lad, sir ogre, and especially milady ... there is much here I do not understand. I suspect I may have been a fool, and have done great harm. To understand the depth of my folly, I beg your forgiveness, and ask that I may join you in whatever quest you follow."
Rado looked to the other two. "Vala? Osiric?"
Vala shrugged. "Do what thou wilt."
Osiric still glared. "I do not trust that man. Despite his courtly language, his actions lack a knight's honor, not to mention common decency. And at this juncture, I would like to point out the scar on my throat, but alas there is no scar on my throat. But I will point out where it would be, if I were human." He pointed at his neck, which had little more than a long scratch, nearly healed. "So I'll ask you to keep away from me, and if I ever see you point a weapon at me I'll rip out your throat with my teeth, and ask questions later. Rado knows I'd do it, too."
Vala smirked. "Friend Osiric, hast thou never heard the Ogrish proverb, 'Keep thy friends close, and thy enemies closer'?"
"It's not Ogrish, you silly woman. It's from Keshket, or possibly Urshanibal."
"Thou may compliment my beauty all day, but I first heard an Ogre speak it."
"That an Ogre adopted it proves nothing. And, in these times, the word 'silly' means foolish."
"Aye, I am a fool, am I? Which of us thought Soqoth died in the River of Fire?"
"Kalantan of Badun-Sarn wrote that he saw Soqoth fall --"
"Kalantan drank more wine than half my army. I saw with my own eyes ..."
The two walked down the road as they argued, and Rado told Greystone, "Come along, if you're coming." They both ran to catch up.
That night, Vala could not sleep. She saw Rado keeping watch until dawn, and felt safe enough to try what she had wished to ever since her brief descent into the Dreaming.
She closed her eyes, breathed deeply, and, in her mind, swam to That Place. Her other eyes opened.
She rose, and regarded Rado for a moment. More clearly than in the waking world, she felt the turmoil in his spirit: self-doubt, worry, a concern for the people around him struggling against a cynicism possibly beyond his years. Watch well, good Rado, she thought, as she looked at her own supine form, foggy in the Near Dreaming. Protect me whilst I wander.
She walked around the perimiter of their camp for a little while, sensed the small souls of owls and rabbits, the tiny flickers of crickets. She startled a fox, who sensed her presence and, unable to see or smell her, took flight.
She thought of going further south to scout their path, or northwest to discover what secret Osiric and Rado forced them both to take such a long route, but even in the Dream time was short, and so she walked dreamward.
As she left the Waking World further behind, and gazed upon what the Dreaming had become, her sadness and dismay grew. In the old times, she felt the movement of small spirits, ancestors conversing slowly in the timelessness of the Dream, or minor dryads and naiads calling, each to each. Sometimes one of the local gods would pass through, checking his or her domain; at major battles or catastrophes, the High Gods would descend to watch, and lend their strength to one side or another. Even at the height of the Daemon Wars, some dread eldritch presence would seek prey, and Vala's heart would sing with joy as she tore it asunder.
Yet now, the Spirit World held no life or even anti-life, no color or sound, no arbitrary valleys of glamour where a spirit made its nest. She wandered through gray fog, directionless. As before, she felt life, spirit, essence, a vast pool of holy and magical potentiality waiting to take form, but when or how it might awaken, she knew not.
Moving deeper into the Dreaming, she found the realm of archetypes, at once very small and incomprehensibly vast. She wandered as if through a ruined temple, the eidolons forgotten or toppled, until she found the center of the Dreaming and Waking Worlds ... the World Tree.
The World Tree's roots descended to the bottom of the World and its branches spread above the sky, in both Dreaming and Waking Worlds; it was said that, when one reached above the sky or below the earth, the two worlds became one. Perhaps the Fae knew for sure, ascending above the sky on the pearly wings that existed only in the Dreaming, but Vala was a mere mortal, and had never climbed to the highest branches.
Sensing time rushing in the Waking World, she climbed now. She strained as she pulled herself up the trunk, sought handholds and footholds; to her, she might as well have climbed an impossibly vast tree in the Waking World. Elethon had once said that actions in the Dreaming mirrored the Waking World, because minds born in the Waking World could not comprehend the true Dream. Vala tried her best to understand, but in the end knew only that her arms and legs would hurt when she returned to her body.
In the Waking World, such a journey would take months, with rest stops in between; in the Dreaming, Vala climbed for an eternity without stopping, and at last reached the familar branch. Even the World Tree sickened, but leaves still grew ... except on that branch, dead and blackened, yet as thick as a Waking tree. She stood upon it, automatically tested its weight, and followed it to its end.
Again, the journey took a painful time in the Dream, made worse by the increasing chill, the widening emptiness as Vala neared her goal. Part of her chided herself for her worry, part of her feared to ever see that place again, but the part that earned the name Vala walked ever on, and at last saw it.
The Black Gate.
To her Dreaming eye, it loomed incomprehensibly vast, but as she mastered her fear, it shrank to the size of three men laid end to end ... and many, many more were laid to rest that day. It looked like no more than a circular chunk of obsidian, fitted into a circular black iron doorway. Around the doorway, a red aura burned eternally, like hellish Northern lights or an inflamed wound that would never truly heal. Cold stars burned around Vala, weirdly distorted near the red aura.
Yet Vala looked most closely at the obsidian gate itself, at the blood-seals hanging on clay tablets, stuck to the rock itself. One burned brightly in the center, another dully on the perimiter. The center one had been hers; she could not see the other rune, for it was writ too small. Once there had been hundreds of runes burning on the surface, but after a thousand years the Fae faded away, humans died, Ogres and Nommos passed away. Her seal alone would hold the stone, and even the seals of the dead would brace it against the Others waiting to bring horror and death to the Two Worlds again.
As Vala watched, another figure walked up steps leading to the Black Gate. For a moment, the space around him assumed tenuous but oddly familar shapes, carvings in a place she shuddered to remember. And then they were gone, and the figure, cloaked and hooded in gray robes, stared at the hundreds of dead seals. And then, one by one, he tore them off ...
Rado and the others jumped to their feet when they heard Vala's scream. She huddled in front of the fire, rocking back and forth, muttering disjointed phrases like "The Black Gate", and "Must stop".
As Rado and Osiric tried to calm her down and get a coherent sentence out of her, she leaped to her feet, grabbed her sword, and charged off toward the southeast. Osiric grabbed her arm, but she twisted and threw him onto his back before going forward.
Rado sprinted ahead of her and stopped in her path, hands outstretched; she still charged forward, not even seeing him. "Vala, please, what's wrong."
He watched her eyes, wide with rage and, incredibly, terror, focus on him. "Thou knowest not ... thou cannot know ..."
"Then explain it to me. To us."
Vala stopped, scarcely a pace in front of him. Her eyes, calmer now, met his. She bowed her head, nodded, and walked with him back to the fire. After apologizing to Osiric, and making herself comfortable, she began:
"This night I stepped into the Other World."
Greystone looked puzzled. "Do you say you died?"
Vala looked at him, even more confused, "Nay ... what ..."
Osiric explained, "In our time, the Other World is a synonym for the land of the dead. Vala means the Spirit World, the Astral Realm, or the Dreaming in some traditions. Magicians of old once sent their soul roaming through this other world, to commune with spirits and gods."
"She is a witch?" Greystone muttered, darkly.
Rado rolled his eyes. "Just let her finish. Vala?"
"Aye, the Dreaming we named it. It is not like the dreams of other folk, which are but shadows a sleeper amuses himself with. It is the Great Dream, like a great ocean of which the Waking World is but the surface, or a boundless sky that those with the knowing can fly.
"So, I walked it a bit, to get the feel of it. Gods, it was cold! Cold and barren, like a barrow down at the darkest hour. Neither meanest god nor daemon larva had ventured near for many a time, I wot. And so I climbed higher, or swam deeper -- I ken not the truest word -- and found the World Tree, and there the Black Gate."
Her hands bunched into fists, and her face darkened. "And some madman tore away the seals, the seals of departed warriors whose will kept that foul portal closed for eternity! Who would wish that the Daemon Lords return?" Rado almost thought she would cry. "Who? Tell me?"
Rado resisted the urge to pat her hand, or worse. "I don't know, Vala. I really don't."
"Still I cannot make head nor tail," Greystone muttered.
Osiric rolled his eyes. "When the Dreaming Princess and her warriors sealed the Daemon Lords beyond the Black Gate, each placed their blood-seal, to hold the door closed. Some say the Fae wrought the gate itself, to block the hole in the world that the Daemons poured through."
"And where is this gate, that the girl could run there."
"Nowhere in this world," Vala said, dully, "but in the heart of the Dreaming itself. Yet I saw clearly where this sorceror dwells ... the ruined temple of Tsath-Thoggua, in the Sathrib marshes."
Osiric shook his head. "It is a great distance, my lady. Certainly you cannot undertake such a journey alone."
Rado said, "Well, you probably could, but we won't let you. Someone has to watch your back."
Vala smirked. "Aye, if but to say, 'Look out'."
Greystone leaned back. "It was nothing but a dream. The girl is fevered."
Rado noted Vala's hand fall on her dagger-hilt, and said quickly, "This from a man who thought a petty con-artist was a fell sorceress ... and then saw a real sorceror and its pet daemon for himself."
"Daemon?" Vala looked at Rado with alarm.
Osiric smiled, "Indeed. Something shaped like a large dog, with a mass of tentacles instead of a head. Which Rado slew very handily by the way."
Rado snorted. "Messily, more like. In a fit of terror."
Vala looked at Rado with new respect. "Twas an tulatyrkul. A lesser breed, to be sure, but still more than a match for a mortal."
"Osiric took most of the brunt of it. I just got lucky."
Osiric seemed to be sounding something out for himself. "Tulatyrkul ... isn't that Fae for 'tentacle-headed dog'."
"Ah ... aye."
Everyone chuckled, or at least smiled.
"We must proceed on the assumption that Lady Vala's vision is true," Osiric concluded. "Yet such a long and perilous journey would take considerable time."
"Doth the Tethys still run?"
"It has shifted since your time, milady, but it still runs southwest. Yet we have no boats."
Vala goggled. "You have not the art to make boats!?"
"You can teach us," Rado said.
"Well, then," Osiric declared, "we are resolved to journey to Sathrib as speedily as possible. Tell me, were any seals left on the Black Gate."
"Aye, mine and one other. He cannot remove them while their makers remain."
"So, he cannot open the gate," Rado declared, relieved. "We can sort him out once we get to Sathrib."
"Aye, and I mean to raise an army, lest he have one of his own."
"Surely the kings of North and South have not forgotten the Compact."
Rado scratched his head. "Uh ... I have."
"After the Black Gate closed, all the ancient kings swore to flock to the Princess's banner if the Daemons returned. Alas, milady, Sarkennia can barely levy enough tax collectors, let alone soldiers, and the northern kings would sooner kill each other than daemons."
"Southward, then. Assuredly, the High King of Gilash would heed the ... ancient call."
Osiric and Rado exchanged looks, but Osiric said, "Assuredly."
"Wait, wait!" Greystone interrupted. "Armies? And why would the girl's seal be on the Black Gate."
Rado rolled his eyes. "Haven't you figured it out by now? This is the Dreaming Princess. The same one who fought the Daemon Lords, and waited until some pillock woke her up."
Vala added, "Aye, but mayhap Fate guided thy clumsy hands."
Greystone looked awestruck. "This wi- this woman? No ... it is but a legend ... it cannot ..."
"Her friends call her Vala," Rado added.
"Aye," Vala smiled, "although Sir Greystone, methinks, must needs call me Princess."
In the morning, the company set out for the Tethys river. Along the way, she hunted down a few deer, smoked the meat, and prepared the skins for boat hulls.
Rado and Osiric showed them the weapons they had taken from brigands in the clearing. (Was it only a few months ago? Rado thought.) After testing the brigand's iron sword, she chose to keep her bronze.
In two days of quick march, they reached the river. Vala taught the others to fell saplings and bend them in the shape of a boat, despairing that they did not do it properly.
In the evening, the boats were done, and Vala tested their river-worthiness in the moonlight. Satisfied that at least they all would not drown right away, she curled up and apparentlywent to sleep. Greystone took first watch. Vala and Osiric trusted him enough to take watch, but Rado suspected they both slept lightly, or not at all.
Rado could not sleep, either, and not because of Greystone. He remembered Vala testing the boats ... stripping down to only her deerskin shift, water glistening on her arms and legs in the moonlight ... and forced himself to remember the scars, the quick temper, the constant disapproval. And those eyes, too far apart ... yet with endless depths ...
Rado slapped himself. Greystone looked at him sharply, and Rado said, "Insect."
Vala was the only woman for leagues, Rado decided. That was all. Yes, there was somthing almost alluring about her physicality, her strength and speed. Beyond the sharp tongue, maybe there was a gentler person ... but also a nobler person, a far better person than Rado. What about him could possibly interest a world-saving hero?
In the morning, their lashed-together boats made their maiden voyage. Vala and Osiric took the lead boat, with Greystone and Rado taking the other. Rado looked ahead, saw Vala laugh at something Osiric said, and felt a pang of jealousy.
"Truly the Dreaming Princess, lad?" Greystone said.
"Well, she came out of a crystal coffin in the cave my elder said was the Dreaming Princess's grave. Either she's the Dreaming Princess, or someone's gone to a lot of trouble to hoax me. Or I'm lying."
"No. But that might be a lie, too."
Greystone shook his head, as if to dislodge a bug. "You confound me more than the ... the Princess. More than the ogre."
"He has a name. Osiric."
"I don't know what village you used to live in, or near. I guess you didn't leave it until ... your wife died. Right?"
"Five generations of Greystones lived in Greystone Keep, after King Aeolas took it from the cowardly King Roderick."
"I bet King Roderick's kin would tell it differently. That's the problem, Sir Glynn ... everyone has his own story, his own perspective. To you, Osiric is some monster out of a book; to me, he's the best friend I've ever had, who wouldn't hurt a fly except to talk it to death." Unless it threatened to kill him, Rado added to himself. "Vala's ability -- magic, I guess -- seems like evil witchery to you, but in her day it was another way, maybe the only way to defeat Daemons. I think Osiric might even tell you, after half a day of talking, that in the old days people respected witches and wizards and seers, the same way they respect blacksmiths and soldiers today. It was another profession, maybe more dangerous and creepier than most. The Daemons changed all that, of course, but --"
"You'll never convince me that witchery is good."
"Then you're an idiot. A fanatic who believes in a god that everyone admits can't be seen --"
"I'll talk no more of this." Greystone grabbed the paddle -- little more than a flat chunk of wood -- and rowed furiously to catch up with the other boat.
The next day, Osiric and Rado shared a boat, with Greystone and Vala sharing the other. After watching that neither one attempted to kill the other, they settled into their usual pattern: Osiric monologuing about some point of history of interest only to him, and Rado half-listening and nodding at appropriate moments.
"... and Lady Vala concurs with my analysis. Perhaps she can tell that fool from Porafian that the Ogrish Horde did not --"
"Is that what you two talked about? Old times? Ancient times?"
Osiric stopped, and thought for a moment. "Well, Lady Vala has no knowledge of history beyond her time, so naturally I informed her of recent developments. But as an eyewitness she is an invaluable resource for my studies --"
"Maybe she doesn't want to be a resource."
Osiric smiled. "If Lady Vala dislikes a thing, she is not coy about saying so."
"I'm just saying." Actually, Rado did not really know what he was saying. He looked ahead at the next boat. Somehow Vala had coaxed a small smile out of Greystone, and Rado felt another pang of jealousy. He chided himself: Greystone's a knight, however he acts sometimes, and Vala is a princess, no matter how she looks ... they're better suited for each other than ... He clamped down on the thought quickly, and noticed Osiric smiling in a vaguely annoying way.
"What are you thinking?"
"I? Nothing relevant." His smile faded. "She also asked about my family, my attempts to study at various centers of learning, my other travels."
"Sooner or later, someone would notice my heritage. Then there would be ... scandal, and I would be forced to depart."
"Oh. I guess I should have realized." Or asked. "Where have you travelled?"
Rado listened to Osiric recount a more recent past, and added his own observations where appropriate.
The third day dawned, much like the first. Rado always had last watch, so he always saw the sunrise. He woke up Vala, Osiric, and Greystone, and drew some river water to boil.
Vala disappeared for a while, and Rado assumed she had gone hunting. She came back half an hour later, with the tips of her hair sopping wet and mopping the side of her neck with a rag.
"Fall in?" Greystone asked.
"Meet any water sprites."
She gave him an icy stare, and then wordlessly tucked into the venison and tea.
After they had all eaten, Vala strode to the boats. "We waste daylight. Rado, lad, help me get this in the water."
And so Rado and Vala took the lead boat, with Osiric and Greystone behind. Rado split his attention between the river ahead, the boat with Osiric and Greystone, who exchanged sporadic conversation, and Vala, sculling easily. Rado felt guilty about rowing, but each boat had one paddle, and predictably Vala wanted to steer.
Through the scars, Rado could see Vala had once been a pretty if not beautiful young woman. Perhaps with her hair unbraided ...
"What interesteth thee so greatly?"
"Huh? Oh, ah, Osiric and Greystone. I'm not sure whether Greystone will attack Osiric again, or whether Osiric will tear his throat out before being wounded himself."
Vala smiled, which annoyed Rado for once. "Ah, yon pair. Methinks neither will harm the other. Greystone begins to doubt what he once held certain, and Osiric is more man than ogre. Tell him not I spake thus."
"Yeah, he's pretty intense about 'Ogrish Destiny'."
"Aye. In truth, Ogres art better folk than they know, or care to act. Like human folk, mayhap."
"Hm. Speaking of ogres ... when an ogre drives a sword into the ground, what does it mean?"
"A sword? I ken not all the ogrish ways, and that custom I know not. Of old, ogres hath marked their territory with the remains of their enemies. Mayhap Osiric could enlighten thee."
Vala looked at him shrewdly. "Only if thou wish."
There was an awkward silence. Vala broke it.
"What of thee? How didst thou come to awaken me?"
Rado began an abbreviated version of how King Czigny told him the legend, and ended up telling his life story, or at least the parts he told Greystone.
"And why didst thou leave thy own people? It is no small thing."
"Oh, I just got sick of the lies, the deceptions, the hypocracy. A lot of little things, really."
Vala gave him another shrewd look, but said nothing.
"What about you?"
"Me?" She grinned. "Am I not famous, my tale told in the world's four corners?"
"The official story, yes. I've found that that's not always the truth."
"Not much in the telling. Only child born to a Kymric chieftain named Govannon, who trained me to rule. For a time our village escaped the Daemon Scourge, until that day when they found us." Her brow knitted, her eyes relived whatever horrors she witnessed. "They descended upon us, things like men with their innards outside and bestial faces, things like bloated frogs with tentacles, things like birds with reptile skin, poisonous to the touch. Father gathered his warriors to fight them, while I guided the women and children to safe haven. The last I saw, he stood in the thick of the man-monsters, shouting 'You lead them now, girl'."
Vala stared fixedly at a bank of the river, and continued, "For four days I led the remainder of our village ... I thought we had reached safe ground. Truly I thought .... They set upon us in a clearing. One moment I spoke to Terrwyn, five years my elder ... and then she screamed, and a froglike head engulfed her to the waist. So much blood ... as her lower parts dropped from the creatures mouth, I pierced its dark heart with my blade. Surely the other women fought bravely and well, aye and children too. They sold their lives dearly, in Daemon blood. And yet I lived ... I stood with back to a tree, three monsters closing in ... and there Elethon found me."
"How old were you?"
"Twelve summers." She looked at him oddly. "Passing strange. Tis a long time ere I told this tale to another."
"I ... thank you ... but I'm sorry to bring up bad memories."
"Nay. Tis never far from my thoughts. As long as I live, no other child will lose her girlhood, much less her life, to some thing from the Outer Dark."
Rado was silent.
Vala watched him for a while, and then said, "'Ware, rapids ahead."
They stopped at the banks of the Tethys a few leagues north of Gilash. They hid their boats, shouldered their packs, and joined the stream of people entering the main gates of Gilash.
Rado looked at the other dusty travellers on the road. Some walked along in dull workman's chiton, in the local style; others, from the Great Desert further away, dressed in light robes and a white headscarf. Some rode mules or human-drawn carts, but others rode in silk-curtained palanquins with gold-painted supports. Far behind them, Rado saw a giant beast that could only be one of the fabled "elephants", bearing what looked like a small royal-purple tent on its back.
Once through the gates -- the guards only waved people through -- Rado openly gawked. He vaguely remembered passing through the Southern Cities as a child, but assumed his memories of colors and sights were the jumbled memories of a child. Not so.
Every building along the main road sported brightly-painted pillars with golden trim, marble frescoes of battles and marvellous beasts, and high copper domes. The people of Gilash all seemed to dress in fine silks and brocades, with gold and silver trim. Even laborers wore tri-color tunics, or dyed loincloths. Rado could scarcely hear himself think for the din of squawking animals on creaking carts, people arguing in several languages, and wandering fruit sellers selling somewhat suspicious wares.
Rado then looked at himself and his companions, bedraggled and in barbaric clothing: Osiric with his patched scholar's clothes, Greystone's severe black clothing, Vala's skins and furs, and his own rough-cut and torn tradesman's clothing. "How much gold do you have," Rado asked Osiric and Greystone.
"A few pieces," Osiric replied, puzzled.
"Why must you know?" Greystone added.
"Aye, what would you do with it?" Vala added, over her shoulder.
"Er, well, if we're going to ask a king to help, I think we should get better clothes. Make more of an impression."
"Thou sayest 'We', but thou meanest me," Vala added, with a cocked eyebrow.
"Well, er, mainly ... I mean, there's nothing wrong with ... you look very warrior-like, but well, the clothes you slew a thousand Daemons in might not be appropriate for dealing with kings."
"Indeed," Osiric added, whether to bail him out or as an honest opinion Rado could not tell. "Most people picture the Dreaming Princess as a princess of their times, with silk and samite and flowing gowns."
Still not quite able to meet Vala's silent stare, Rado explained, "People don't care about who or what people really are; they respond to what they think somebody should be. Image is everything."
Vala continued to stare an uncomfortable amount of time, while eluding collisions and waving away fruit-sellers she could not have possibly seen. "Aye, it troubled me that none would know me in these days. Tis clear thou knowest the ways of influence. I place my seeming in thy hands, lad."
"Right." Rado was beginning to hate the word "lad", but decided to ignore it. "Where can we find a clothing shop ..."
Greystone scowled even deeper. "I like not dealing with heathen kings. They have strange ways, and worship graven images."
Vala perked up. "There be temples here?"
"Certainly," Osiric replied. "Each of the Southern Cities has a patron god, and all have lesser shrines to the gods of allied cities. Which poses a problem when alliances shift." He chuckled. "Once in Ur-Kesh I witnessed the priestess of Irianna thrown out of her shrine by armed guards, after Ur-Kesh declared war on Balathakai."
"So man yet worships the gods," Vala murmured. "Let us go to this patron god's temple."
Rado had a premonition of doom, like the rumbling of a storm during flood season. "That might not be wise. Gilash takes its god very seriously. Anyone showing disrespect to the god can get twenty lashes, or worse."
"Never in my life have I offended a god," Vala replied indignantly. "More than half my life I have spoken with gods, and never have I slackened in courtesy. One served as my most loyal general." She scanned the rooftops, found a vaguely pyramidal building. "Friend Osiric, is that not the temple we seek?"
"Indeed," Osiric sighed, looking like Rado felt.
Without a second's hesitation, Vala strode toward the temple.
"So, which god do we visit?" Vala asked, eagerly. They had just entered the temple's iron gates. Rado's concerns about their barbaric dress turned out unfounded; kneeling among the supplicants in the main hall were a number of laborers still coated with brick dust or mud, and a number of foreigners who did not seem to know what they were doing.
Osiric replied, like a weary uncle, "None of the gods we know from the North. Since the War many new gods arose, including most of those in the Southern Cities. The patron of Gilash is called Kalos, or The Great Sky-Bull, or --"
"Kalos?!" Vala nearly shouted, her hand touching the hilt of her sword.
"Shhh!" Rado and Osiric said, at the same time.
"Knew I a King Kalos, of Gilash," Vala mused, sourly.
"The Great Sky-Bull was said to be a man once, a hero of the War."
"Hero!", Vala scoffed. "The Kalos of memory rushed into battle only after my armies had nearly won it, and told tales of turning the tide. Once I hit him. And now he is a god?"
"Maybe it's a different Kalos," Rado offered. Nervously he noted two Gilash soldiers watching them a little too closely. He hoped neither of them spoke Sarkannian.
"Nay, nay, even mortal may become god, with priests and prayers enough. Mayhap Dagda was once a man, who belched and picked his nose." She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. "And the god is not the man. Not another word shall I say against Kalos, man or god."
Osiric and Rado sighed with relief, but out of the corner of his eye he noted Greystone, looking like he might explode. "Are you all right with this?" Rado asked. "You can wait outside, if this bothers you."
"What foul acts are perpetrated in this place?" Greystone grated, eyeing the kneeling and bowing supplicants as if they were souls damned by the Unseen God.
"A lot of long-winded words, mostly," Rado replied.
"On high holy days," Osiric added, "they sacrifice turtle-doves. On the Day of Remembrance, they sacrifice a kid."
"What?" Greystone stared at Osiric in horror.
"A goat," Rado explained, slowly and carefully. "A baby goat."
Greystone relaxed, but not completely. "Perhaps I will wait outside. And pray."
"Good. Do that," Osiric said, a little sourly.
Greystone swept out.
"Well, we have unburdened ourselves of one problem," Osiric said.
"You shouldn't insult his religion. I think it's the thing that kept him from going insane. More insane, I mean."
"You have never read the Book of the Unseen God? Do so, and then tell me how insane our friend is."
Rado leaned toward Osiric, and whispered, "Are Ogres religious?"
"I have met few, and many of them worship only themselves. I myself believe in no gods, except for Reason and Learning. What of Travellers."
"Parhee have their own beliefs; the others may or may not. Generally we stay away from gadje religion; it's mostly trouble."
"Ah. Perhaps we had better pay our respects." Osiric had noticed the soldiers as well.
"Good idea. How does that work?" Rado spotted Vala among the worshippers, with a generous amount of space around her; while the others bowed and muttered prayers, she merely knelt, her head lowered.
"There is a complex cycle of prayers to Kalos. Foreigners might merely bow in time with the other supplicants."
"Right." By unspoken agreement they knelt on either side of her. Rado got into the rhythm of bowing after a few false starts. He risked a sidelong glance at Vala, whose eyes stared at nothing, but whose face betrayed puzzlement, even dismay.
"Vala?" Rado whispered.
"Dim ... y duw marw da ...."
"Um, Vala? Sarkannian, please?"
"'The god is dead?'" Osiric whispered, aghast.
"Yes," she replied, dreamily. "Nothing ... Prayers to nothing ..."
Vala stood and walked to the far end of the chamber. Rado grabbed her arm, but she twisted away easily. Rado and Osiric exchanged glances, and then stood to bring her back.
Vala stepped between he worshippers easily, more easily than Rado or Osiric, so they were already three strides behind her when she mounted the steps from the worshipper's pit to the man-height shielding the Holy of Holies from the gaze of ordinary mortals. A simple wooden door at one end, not even locked, permitted entry.
"Vala!" Rado hissed. "Come back here!"
"Only priests can pass beyond!" Osiric added.
Rado stepped past the last worshipper, who cursed at him, and ran up the steps. Let's try this again, he thought, as he stepped in front of her ... but she sidestepped him, eluded his grasp, and continued toward the wall, as if entranced.
Rado noted with alarm that the two soldiers, merely watching, had begun heading purposefully toward them, their spears held in a way that promised menace at any moment. Rado shot a panicky glance at Vala, who had pressed her whole body against the wall, arms and fingers outstretched. Her forhead rested on the wall, and she was muttering to herself.
Rado smiled at the soldiers. "Uhh ... old Kymrian custom, when worshipping their gods. They, uh, press themselves against the wall of their temples."
"Ana laa afham," the lead soldier said. Rado quickly repeated his lie in Kuraishi. They scowled, and conferred among themselves.
In Kuraishi, the lead soldier said, "We would prefer that the lady pray to The Great God as we his people do."
"Right. I understand. I'll tell her." Nervously mounting the steps, Rado said, "Vala, we're attracting too much attention. You can't speak to the king in jail, now can you?"
She looked at him solemnly. "There is no god here. I hear their prayers, but no one will answer."
She stepped away from the wall, her arms fell loosely at her side. "This place rends my heart. Let us go."
Rado's heartbeat slowed as they stepped outside, into the heat and crowds of Gilash. Greystone stood off to one side, his hands clasped in prayer.
"Twas an unexpected event," Vala called out, recovering some of her usual swagger. "Our brave Sir Greystone spoke wisely, for once."
"Pardon?" Greystone said, as they approached.
Vala leaned close, and whispered, "Nought but graven images. Mayhap I may meet this Unseen God of yours. Tis always a delight, to speak with a god."
Greystone smiled uncertainly. "The Unseen God is everywhere. One may speak to him at any moment."
"And doth he answer? Nay? A pity. Mayhap I shall seek out his true home one day. Ah, well ... garments, then."
Rado and Osiric, supplementing each others' deficiencies in the local languages, located a garment shop with affordable prices. Greystone merely needed a new cloak, and maybe a clasp to offset his severe appearance. Rado got new clothes, in the local style: sleeved tunic to the knees with a standing collar, matching pantaloons, and a light robe, half-open. Osiric chose a simple blue robe, with an off-white cloak and hood. Surprisingly, Osiric's size was less of an issue than Rado's height; perhaps Gilash contained more fat merchants than tall merchants.
The female members of the staff had been working feverishly on Vala while the men selected their clothes. Rado offered to keep her sword and dagger -- wisely, as the cursing from behind the curtain indicated. At last, the two tired hand-maidens unveiled ... the Dreaming Princess.
Rado had to admit, the layer of powder and makeup hid Vala's scars admirably. Her many braids had been undone, and her brown and blonde hair draped with a silver caul and restyled into a single, loose braid that hung over one shoulder. The green samite gown, with puffy sleeve tops and cuffs that nearly brushed the ground, set off her grey eyes wonderfully. Vala truly looked like a princess.
And it was wrong.
The woman in front of him was undeniably pretty, but she was not Vala. Not the true Vala. Not the leader of armies, the hero of the Demon Wars, the woman who looked into the depths of the Abyss and shut a door on it. Not the true Dreaming Princess.
Osiric gaped. Greystone began, "If I were not still in mourning, milady ..."
"Hmph," Rado said. "We might have to go another way with this."
Vala favored him with a brief smile. Glowering at the two handsmaids, she said, "Did I not tell thee?", picked up her sleeves and her skirts, and disappeared behind the curtains.
In the end, they chose a mannish military uniform for her: ochre doublet, gray leggings, black leather boots, and a red cloak. Rado also thought she should have some sort of armor, but they could only afford a pair of vanbraces.
Vala insisted her hair could not simply hang loose, and after trying two variations settled on hair gathered in a ponytail behind her. She gratefully washed off the makeup, and never wore it again.
One night Vala embroidered the insignia of a sword on a square of cloth. Osiric decided that a long pole in front of the King might make him nervous, and mounted it on a short pole that he insisted he would carry.
They spent four days, waiting in a single room at a not-too-clean inn in the poorer section of town; not a copper dome or pillar adorned the buildings here, only square mud walls and crude wooden signs. Vala disliked the poverty, the mass of humanity crammed together in squalor, but the others, used to cities, paid it no mind.
Not that they were idle, during those days. Rado spent his time in taverns, drinking as little as he could get away with but always talking, mainly about the rumor that the Dreaming Princess -- Shirbanu, as she was known locally -- had returned to right wrongs. He also tried to mention the Daemonic threat, but the people he talked to first wanted to start with unreasonable taxes, with brutal guards, and sometimes with people who spoke against the king or the priests who disappeared into a prison cell, or worse. Osiric attempted the same tactic with local scholars; Greystone followed suit with the small community of believers in the Unseen God, even if he later complained bitterly about "heretics".
Vala, too, was not idle. She did not speak any of the languages of Gilash except Sarkannian, and the few speakers of Sarkannian were either rich merchants or foreigners without status. Instead, she practiced her sword work in a secluded field outside the city walls. It was her favorite after-dinner occupation, when talk became dull and no one was ready to sleep. Sometimes Rado found her in the inn near the end of the day, sitting on her knees, her soul elsewhere. He wondered what she was looking for.
The day came, at last: the day every month when the Kings of Gilash listened to the common people's requests. That morning, the four of them trooped to the palace, in their new finery. A courtier met them as they entered the vast archway, and Rado only explained that they came to warn the King of a dire threat before the courtier shooed them into the surprisingly short line leading to the palace. If so many people have complaints, Rado thought, why aren't they hear to complain?
"Pardon me, elder one," Osiric asked the man in front him, in Kuraishi. He appeared to be an elderly farmer, wearing his best clothes. "This is the queue to see the King, is it not?"
"Yes, stranger. King Goram ibn Sharat deigns to hear from common folk today."
Osiric and Rado exchanged glances, and Rado asked, "King Goram? What happened to King Sharat?"
"King Sharat died twenty-one moons ago, stranger. His son Sharat now sits upon the throne."
Osiric smiled uncertainly. "It grieves me to hear that. King Sharat was renowned for his justice and wisdom. But at least King Goram continues his father's legacy, does he not?"
The farmer laughed bitterly. "You truly are strangers in Gilash. I come to complain about the taxes, and the leaks in the levees that preserve our farmlands from yearly floods. It is my hope that the King is simply unaware of anything outside the city walls. In any case, I am old, and none will miss me if I am gone."
Osiric translated for Greystone and Vala. "Perhaps it would be advisable to leave."
Vala considered for less than a heartbeat. "Nay. I would meet this new king, that heeds not the farmers."
Rado really did not like the sound of that.
The farmer entered, and after a quarter-hour did not return. A courtier called for "Lady Vala, daughter of Govannon, and Retinue." They entered the bronze double doors.
Inside, they beheld a magnificent throne room, with marble pillars. Tiles in the floor, of rare stones and gems, formed abstract geometric patterns which suggested meaning without actually forming shapes. A red and purple rug, with gold threads, led from the bronze doors to the marble steps, upon which sat a throne of ebony, ivory, and rubies. Courtiers in shimmering robes gathered around the throne, but Rado most noticed the king: a handsome, olive-skinned man with brown, sensitive eyes, curly black hair, a neatly trimmed beard, and long fingers, each bearing a golden ring. He wore simple robes of expensive fabric which shifted from gold to red to a warm brown as he moved.
Rado noted Vala glancing to either side, and saw the twelve soldiers, six lining each wall. All wore peaked helmets, fine mail, and the phoenix insignia of Gilash; all carried spears and shortswords.
The party reached a respectful distance, knelt before the king; by agreement, Rado was at the front. In his best Kuraishi, Rado began, "Greetings, O Thrice-Honored King of the greatest city the world has ever seen. We humbly thank Your Highness for this audience, and regret we bear but ill tidings --"
"And what ill tidings come from the Northlands, young Parhee?" the King replied, in perfect Sarkannian.
"Ah ..." This is easier, at least, Rado thought. "We have reason to believe that an old enemy rises to threaten not only your kingdom, but all the kingdoms of mankind. A sorceror works great evil in Sathrib, and if unchecked, he may bring the Daemon Lords back to this world."
Gasps and murmurs broke out among the courtiers ... and, to Rado's dismay, some muffled laughter. The king silenced it with an upraised hand. "Have you been to Sathrib, to witness these events?"
"Regrettably, we have not reached that far, Your Highness."
"Then how do you know it is taken place? Rumor?"
Rado took a deep breath. "One of our number has seen it while travelling in the Spirit World."
This time there was outright laughter from the courtiers, and the king let it trail off naturally.
"We realize this is unusual, Your Highness, but --"
"And who is this great seer among you?"
"Tis I, milord," Vala said, to Rado's dismay. "I am Vala verch Govannon, once Chieftain of the Ciwdod y Helygen."
"And you saw this in a dream?" the king smirked.
"In the Dreaming, milord, which some call the Spirit World. Atop the World Tree, at the Black Gate, if such words hath meaning to thee."
"Ah ... and how do you arrive in the Dreaming? Through some magic potion? Herbs? Mushrooms?"
Rado glanced back. Vala looked irritated, but she replied evenly, "Nay. Tis a Gift acquired with much effort, and honed with much practice."
"Really. Demonstrate it, then. Prophesy for me."
Rado started to speak, but the king silenced him with a look.
Rado could hear the rising anger in Vala's voice. "Prophecy is not one of my arts, milord. I see but what is, not what may be. Yet I need not walk the Dreaming to know that yon farmer who entered before now lieth in thy dungeons, for speaking to a King."
Courtiers whispered again, and the king said, "Any mortal might guess that, but I ask you, where did you learn this Gift of yours."
"From Elethon, wisest of the Fae. Any mortal might guess thy next question, milord, so I shall tell the I am the one named Shirbanu in these lands, and the Dreaming Princess in tales to the north. As foretold, I awake to warn thee of the return of the Daemon Lords."
The king laughed long; the rest of the room was silent. "That ... that is the most amusing thing anyone has said to me all year. Perhaps in the last ten years. You are well preserved for your age."
Rado heard teeth grinding, and then a deep breath, behind him. "Milord ... Your Highness, thou mayest doubt my identity, but please doubt not our sincerity. Send with us at least a handful of thy soldiers, including thy best runner. If we speak truly, thou hast discovered a great threat, and the glory may go entirely to thee. If we speak falsely, thou hast risked but a few men on a fool's errand."
The king sobered, and nodded sagely. "That solution might have appealed to Father. But, then again, Father was a fool, ruling the richest kingdom in the world as if it were a poor dungheap in the desert. I sit on the throne now, and I decide what to do with my troops. And I have decide you should join that pathetic farmer with delusions of virtue."
Rado spoke up. "Your highness, you cannot mean that!"
"You are right, Traveller, I do not. Guards, kill them."
The king made a hand-signal, and the palace guards closed in, pikes at the ready. Vala, Greystone, Rado, and Osiric leapt to their feet, as the king muttered, "A Traveller, a fat scholar, a petty knight, and a scullery maid dressed like a soldier. What kind of fool do they take me for?"
Almost as one, the four turned their backs to each other. Rado watched the points of pikes advance relentlessly, and the grim, impassive faces behind them. The group had left their weapons behind; Osiric might fare well for a while, until a pike hit something vital.
And then many things happened at once.
One moment Vala stood at Rado's elbow, the next a guard staggered backwards, his pike broken, blood streaming from his nose and mouth. Vala drew the man's sword, cut down the soldier next to him, and grabbed the dead man's sword as he fell. Four soldiers dropped their pikes as Vala tossed the sword at Greystone's feet. Vala cut down two more men almost at the same time, and snatched their swords from their belts almost as an afterthought.
Four whole pikes, and pieces of a fifth, clattered on the floor.
The king shouted, "Kill them!", as Greystone bent towards the sword at his feet, and Osiric, ignoring the sword skittering towards his, charged the men on his side, catching a pike-point in his hands and shoving the handle hard into a man's gut. Two other pikes swung toward him, as Greystone lunged under another pike and stabbed its wielder. Another pikeman dropped his pike, and lunged at Greystone.
Rado faced two pikemen of his own, and ducked and rolled as they nearly pierced him. He grabbed wildly at the sword, cut himself, and found two angry men with big pointy sticks turning toward him. He raised the sword, not sure what to do with it ... and Osiric barreled into the two men, blood-rimmed wounds on his arms and chest. One of them thrust the blade into Osiric's stomach before he roared, snapped the pike haft, and clotheslined the two guardsmen.
Osiric pulled the pike-head out of his gut. Rado began to ask if he was all right, but Osiric snarled, "Go!".
Vala and Greystone had slain or wounded the other guards, but someone had run for more. At least two dozen poured from the main doors, side doors, and a door behind the throne. Courtiers had fled, and only the king watched, ashen-faced, from his throne.
Vala, a sword in each hand, scythed through the mass of soldiers; blood spurted, hands and arms flew, heads rolled from shoulders. In the center was a whirlwind of savage blood-spattered death.
A few soldiers ran; a few others headed for the other three, but Greystone and Osiric guarded Rado, and dispatched each soldier without undue effort.
Around Vala, the last, foolish soldier fell. Rado and the others ran for the exit, but Vala stalked toward the king. Blood drenched her from head to toe, spoiling new clothes; her ponytail had come undone, and blood matted her hair against her head. Only the wolfish grey eyes marked her as even remotely human; she might have been some cruel battle goddess, or a Daemon barely holding onto human form.
The King scrabbled backwards, in pure terror, unaware that his throne held him in place. Vala leaped up all the steps in a single bound, and slammed one of her swords between the king's legs.
"Hath thou any doubts of me now, Highness? Nay? Wilt thou join my army?" She paused, but her only reply was the king's terrified whimpering. "I think thou sayest, 'nay'. Pity." With that, she turned, and stalked through the front door.
"And now," she murmured, as she passed by the others, "we run."
They ran through the palace, led by Vala, and came at last to an alley where they all too briefly gained their breath. "Thou three to the gates," Vala said. "I shall risk the inn, and fetch our goods." So saying, she hared out of the inn. Rado watched her go, weaving through the crowd like a fish navigating a turbulent stream; the crowd became more turbulent as they noted a blood-drenched person dashing through the streets.
Greystone pushed Rado's shoulder. "Let us leave."
Greystone exchanged his new cloak clasp for his old pin, Rado reluctantly shed his robe, and Osiric raised the hood on his cape. With that pathetic disguise, they ambled as casually as they could toward the main gate, more than a little aware of every uniform, every passer-by who watched them leaving.
"Hsst," said a voice in an alley. Rado saw a woman in the head-to-toe robes popular in the Southern Cities, carrying four very familiar packs. The woman pulled down her veil briefly to show a scarred face. "Here, nickninnies."
The three ducked into the alley, and sholdered their packs. Rado put on his old, ratty cloak, and despite the heat drew it around him. Quietly, they all trooped to the gate, blending into the crowd.
"There!" called a voice, and the portcullis dropped ... on Osiric, whose mad dash for the exit left him on his back, holding up the portcullis. Without prompting Vala, Rado, and Greystone slid or crawled under the gap, and Vala and Greystone heaved Osiric out. The portcullis nearly took off Osiric's legs.
Through the scattering, panicked crowd inside and outside the gate, Rado saw guards pounding towards them: not palace guards, but ordinary guardsmen ... from behind the portcullis, along the walls on either side, from up the road. Vala knocked the two closest unconscious.
"Kulhatak!" Osiric spat, looking above them, and Rado saw bowmen taking position on the ramparts. As one man they drew arrow, nocked them to their bows ...
... and Vala clambered up the portcullis like a spider, vaulted onto the ramparts, and slugged the nearest bowmen. Some turned their bows on her, others dropped theirs to draw knives; Vala dodged among the confusion, stabbing or punching bowmen out of her way.
Osiric and Greystone closed ranks around Rado, still foolishly holding his sword. Greystone cut and parried with his longsword far better than the guards with their shortsword. Osiric ignored most cuts, bashing and in one case biting anyone who came near. Rado fished the axe out of Osiric's pack and handed it to him; Osiric looked confused for a moment, and then instinct took over and he swung wildly at his attackers.
Two guards advancing from the road sprouted arrows from their chests. "Mind me not!" Vala shouted, nocking two more arrows and firing them at once. "Go!"
Rado, Osiric, and Greystone went.
Leagues away from Gilash, Rado worried that Vala might have met a force even she could not handle ... or that she would get lost and never meet up with them again. If something happened to her --
"Ouch," Osiric said. "If you must insist on bandaging me, please do me the courtesy of paying closer attention."
"Sorry." Rado bound Osiric's last wound. Ogres did not bleed, and apparently never got infections, but Rado felt better protecting Osiric's wounds, especially since he got most of them on his behalf.
Greystone sulked by the fire. He bandaged his own wounds, which admittedly were small cuts and abrasions, not huge gashes that would have been mortal on a human. "That went well," he sneered.
"Yes, that was a most abject failure. The project had miniscule chances of success, admittedly."
Rado looked from one to the other. "Couldn't we try another city?"
"Alas, friend Rado, Gilash was our best hope, or would have been if the former king were still alive. From my previous travels, I would estimate that we would meet as bad or worse receptions among the other kings. Most are either hedonists or petty tyrants. At best we would be mocked. At worst, we might be imprisoned, or used as pawns in some pointless power struggle."
"So, it's just us, then."
Greystone spat, which did not seem like proper knightly behavior to Rado. "And the Princess," he growled. "Where is she?"
"Detained," Osiric said, in a leaden voice.
Rado stood up. "If they captured her, we have to rescue her."
"Us rescue her?" Greystone stared at Rado, as if he were mad.
"I fear he is correct. In our present condition, we cannot mount a rescue, especially against anything that might restrain Lady Vala. Gods, how could any mortal move like that? Even the Great Ogres ... it beggars the imagination, it truly does."
"So, what? We sit and wait?"
Greystone sighed. "In the morning, I shall disguise myself and return to that den of iniquity. Perhaps I may learn something."
"But what if ..." Rado left the thought incomplete, because they all heard a rustle in the long grass.
They turned, and even Greystone looked a little relieved to see Vala striding toward them. Her hair was wet, and her face and limbs cleaned of blood. She wore her deerskin outfit, and her bronze blade on her hip. Rado thought she looked tense, even angry.
Rado stepped forward. "Vala, thank the gods you --"
Her fist shot out, and connected painfully with Rado's jaw. He flew back a pace, and tumbled backward into the grass. The sky whirled above him.
"What madness is this?" thundered Greystone.
"I shall not have a coward in my army."
She stalked forward, but Osiric stepped in her path. "You will not harm this boy."
I have a name, Rado thought fuzzily.
"Thou would stop me, little ogre?" Vala purred.
"I shall, if the ogre fails." Greystone's sword whispered from its sheath.
Rado, his vision clearing, saw Vala tense. Rado thought of blood gushing, limbs flying, and despite the pain in his jaw, said "Coward?"
Vala turned her cold gaze to Rado. "Aye, coward I name thee. In yon battle thou held a sword and yet cowered behind these two muttonheads, then as now. Thou hast hardly a scratch. If thou wilt not fight, thou should crawl away, and cease offending my eyes."
"The boy doesn't even know how to use a sword," Osiric snapped, irritated.
Vala stared at him as if he had said humans were small flowering plants. "Now who is mad! He is nineteen summers, if I am any judge, and yet he knows not how to use a sword?"
Greystone said, surprisingly gently, "Only the nobility has the right to bear arms, although some other miscreants do so regardless."
"Indeed. These days, few people ever take up arms: knights, nobles, mercenaries, criminals. The last serious war ended twenty years ago; apart from some border skirmishes, the kingdoms are fairly peaceful. Artisans like young Rado here can go their whole lives without touching a weapon."
"If I'm any judge," Greystone added, "the boy never touched a sword before that incident at Redfang; he hacked like he was chopping wood. Maybe a bit of knife technique there, but he's certainly no swordsman."
That's true, Rado thought ... apart from a lucky thrust in the Wilds ...
Vala looked from Osiric to Greystone, puzzled. She stared at Rado, and again he had the feeling of his hair standing on end, and a breeze blowing through his soul. Then, coming to some private decision, she said, "Art thou badly hurt?"
"Yeth," Rado slurred. Already his jaw had swelled, a tooth tumbled out of his mouth -- one of the back ones -- and he felt disturbingly sleepy.
"Thou needeth a poultice. Sir Glynn, dost thou know of herbcraft? Hah, nay, tis witches' work. Friend Osiric?"
"A little botany, from books."
"Then thou shalt help with that 'botany' from books, and thy keen eyes. Mayhap there be useful herbs near yon trees. Greystone, talk with the boy, and see not that he sleeps. We shall return anon." She trooped off toward a small grove, Osiric in tow.
More than two hours later, Rado sat still while Vala applied an evil-smelling wad of pulped herbs to his jaw, and bound it with a cloth. "That should help thee. Twas not the herbs I remembered, but near enough, I wot."
"Thanks," Rado said, for politeness's sake. They were doing something to his jaw at any rate; he felt a penetrating coolness from the poultice. And at least she was no longer hitting him. But Rado felt an indignation he could not ignore. "Do I get an apology?"
"Twas an honest mistake."
"Do I get to hit you?"
"Nay." She smiled in a way that chilled Rado even more than the herbs, or the moonless night. "Quite the contrary."
"What does that mean?"
"I spake truly; I cannot stand to look upon a man who will not fight. Yet thou art a man who would fight, if he knew the art. So I will teach thee."
"I shall teach the the art of swordsmanship. Canst thou pick a better teacher?"
"I'm supposed to fight with a sword before we get to Sathrib?"
"Aye. Not a sword, at first. A stick would challenge thee enough. Tonight we rest; tomorrow, we march, and thou learnst."
She turned to Osiric and Greystone. "And thou, Osiric, must learn how to use thy axe. Tis a deadly weapon in skilled and strong hands, and thou art strong. And mayhap Sir Glynn might learn the proper use of swords, as well."
"Proper use!?" Greystone spluttered.
The lessons started on the march, with Rado learning footwork while Vala tried to trip him with a stick.
"Bend thy knees -- nay, not that far." She whacked his right knee with that damned stick, as he stood in the grass, right foot forward, feeling like a prize fool.
"Keep springy, but not loose. And keep thy shoulders above thy hips; thou leanest too far forward. Now, step forward." She sighed. "Lightly, lightly. Like a Kymric dance, not an ogrish stomp. Again. Fore, fore, back, back, fore -- strike! Nay, not the dirt!"
Rado spat out a mouthful of grass and earth. "They're getting ahead of us."
"On thy feet again, quickly! Again ... step step ... passable, again ... step step back -- cross not thy feet! Only posing dandies prance like horses! Again: step, back, step step, strike! Ugh. At least thou kept thy feet. One day thou might be a danger to someone else."
"Look, I'm tired, I can't see the others ..."
"If thou would step forward smartly, thou might have not fallen so far behind. Again: step, step, step ..." Vala groaned, and pushed Rado's shoulder; he fell over.
"Did I not tell the about centering? In a real battle an enemy would not push thee over with his hand. Get up."
"Damn it, Vala!" Rado was about to say something like this is pointless, but he just knew the tongue-lashing he would get ... if Vala would stop with words. Instead, he said, "Isn't it time we caught up to the others now."
"Certes," Vala grinned happily. "Tis time to run."
At dusk, when Rado could barely stand without his legs wobbling dangerously, Vala switched her sadistic training to his arms.
"Now, watch carefully." She held her stick as if it were a sword, in a guard position in front of her. "Il." The stick moved upward, parallel to the ground, at slightly above head level. "Tuov." She moved her arm so the stick was almost perfectly vertical, in front but off to her right. "Si."
Vala glared at him in annoyance, then turned thoughtful. "Hah. That stiff-necked Daladhriel drilled Fae so deeply in my brain ... plain Sarkannian would suffice, would it not? Once more: first." Front guard. "Second." Head guard. "Third." Right guard ...
Over and over ...
Now thoroughly exhausted, Rado and Vala returned to another exciting meal of hard tack and dried venison.
"How did it go?" Osiric asked.
Rado started to speak, but Vala beat him to it, with a mouthful of food no less. "Not a total disaster. So far, only footwork and guard positions."
"No attacks?" Greystone asked.
"Tis true, I prefer attacking before the enemy to any defense. But I dare not hope such for the lad."
"It's the first day, for gods' sake ..."
"And tis but a fortnight to Sathrib. Even I cannot teach the sword arts in a fortnight. We must do what we can. Ah, would you were a blacksmith and not a coppersmith. A strong arm is essential."
"Look, I hauled a cart with a bloody huge stone forge across half of Sarkennia --"
"Aye, I said nothing of your legs. A midge clumsy, but strong enough at least. And thou hast quick wits. But if thy arms cannot hold a sword for more than two strikes, thy wyrd is sealed."
"True," Greystone nodded, and Rado glared at him.
"In the morrow, we find heavy rocks for you to carry."
"My instructor used pushups." Off Vala's puzzled look, Greystone explained, "It's pushing your body off the ground with only your arms, keeping your legs straight."
"Hm. Yet we cannot do so walking. Rocks it is, then."
Rado groaned. "At least I can rest tonight."
Vala looked at him sternly. "Hath I said thou could rest? After we sup, we drill again. Thy second near crushes thy skull, and thy third could not ward a child's stick."
Rado fell backward, and stared at the stars.
And on it went: sword drills every waking hour save meals and midday rest time, when even Vala succumbed to the southern heat.
Nearly a week later, Rado heaved himself out of his blanket, for another day of torture. By common assent, he was exempted from watch duty, and at least in dreamless sleep he could elude a scarred and tatooed maniac barking orders and tut-tutting his best efforts. With awakening came awful realization, and he cursed silently but long as he arranged his clothing and folded his blanket. He winced as Vala approached.
"So what today? Walking on my hands? Clearing a field of wheat single-handed?"
"No drills today, lad. We come to true peril."
Now wide awake, Rado packed up his gear and followed the others.
An hour away from camp, Rado topped a small ridge and looked down on a huge forest. The spreading boughs of cedar trees blocked out nearly all light; in the gloom Rado dimly saw woodland detritus, and a few plants struggling in the few patches of light. He sensed, rather than saw, pairs of animal eyes watching him and the others. Rado had seen other forests, even thicker and darker ones, yet he never felt a sense of foreboding, even menace, as strongly as he did staring at those woods.
"The woods do not like guests," Greystone said, in a hushed whisper.
"But it is merely a cluster of trees inhabited by animals who fear man and ogre," Osiric protested, although Rado wondered if Osiric believed what he said.
"Nay." Vala looked saddened and angry at the same time. "Twas once the domain of a wood-sprite named Banamala. In the wars, she shielded many a soul driven far from home, aye and many a weary warrior. One day a Daemon overcame her, and ate her."
"Ate ...?" Greystone looked a little pale.
"Aye, Daemons can devour a soul, gain its power and its memory. Twas one of the mindless Devourers that consumed poor Banamala, and afterward it started to think it was Banamala. Twas not, though; damnable thing hates all who walk on two legs."
Rado cleared his throat. "Maybe we can crawl through. Say 'moo' a lot."
The other three stared at him for a little, although Vala smiled despite herself. "Nay, it smells the spirit of all that approach. We cannot guile it. Tis only two ways; walk around, or ask for safe passage. I mislike losing time, so we try the last first." So saying, Vala strode until she was ten paces away from the forest's edge, and drew a circle in the earth with her sword. "Come here," she commanded.
They obeyed, and watched as she drew a seven-pointed star within the circle, and scratched mystic runes inside and out. Some of them Rado recognized, and others drew frowns from Osiric and Greystone.
At last, Vala sheathed her sword. "Give me a strip of linen," Vala said, as she drew her knife. Rado complied, and saw to his horror Vala slash her own arm. She dripped blood into the seven points of the star, and into the rune facing the forest, then quickly tied off the wound.
"Blood Magic?" Greystone snarled.
"Tis the only way to call Daemons." Looking into his scowling face, she added, "Worry not; that which calls them also binds them. Step now into the circle, and stray not from it until I say."
The four of them crowded into the circle, and Vala closed her eyes for a moment. Already Rado sensed a deepening gloom, an uncanny attention from the forest.
"Daemon, hear me!" Vala shouted.
"Thou who taketh the name Banamala, Truly I name thee Dera, Come forth!
Terror of the dark wood, Eater of god-souls, Come forth!
Parley with Shirbanu, Slayer of Daemons, Come forth!"
In the still air, a wind rattled leaves and debris at the base of the trees. A dust-devil formed just inside the gloom, a whirling pillar of leaves. Within, Rado saw the bones of some animal, or several animals, link together; leaves and grass and earth stuck to the bones, giving it the appearance of flesh and clothing. Suddenly Rado knew he looked not at lifeless matter, but a woman in a flowing gray dress, with moss-colored hair and pale, corpselike flesh. Her eyes opened, shining like glowing orange coals, and the black lips smiled mirthlessly.
"Ah, dear little Shirbanu," the apparition trilled, in accented Sarkannian. It had a low, throaty voice, sultry and seductive. Rado had a sudden impulse to jump out of the circle into the creature's arms, but one look at Vala's scarred neck and shoulders brought him to his senses. "Are you still walking the world? How is that meddler Elethon doing?"
"I ask a boon of thee: thy promise to walk unharmed through thy woods. Banamala of old never broke her word, and thou who are her and not her share the same honor."
"Really? And why should I grant that request, slayer of Daemons?"
"Tis no affair of thine. Name thy price."
"Mmm. How about the tall lanky one? I smell a powerful spirit, the like of which I have not eaten in many a year."
"None of my companions will be thy food. Name aught else."
"My dear, please see it from my side. A sworn enemy is before me, asking for a favor, not willing to offer the only thing of value she has in exchange."
"Thou must have a task to be done, an enemy to be slain."
The daemon shook her magnificent head. "Not any more. I am quite happy here. Hungry, but otherwise happy. Maybe if you gave me more information, I might be more inclined to help. I get so little news out here. A few mortals stumble in on occasion, but they say nothing at all." Her smile widened. "Just screams. Pleasant, but not informative."
"What would thee like to know?"
"I am at a loss where to begin, darling. I gather that mortals discovered iron, and that they squabble as tiresomely as ever. Occasionally I travel the Dreaming, but it is ever so empty. Not even a magus to chew on."
"I will answer any three questions, save my purpose in crossing, in exchange for safe passage."
"Mmm. Tempting, but no. Really I cannot think of anything truly interesting, except that."
Rado could tell that Vala had nothing up her sleeve. She could either fight a creature powerful enough to eat a forest god, or walk around. He had seen maps of this area; the forest stretched at least a hundred leagues on one side, and nearly to the sea on the other. If this Daemon controlled the whole area, they would lose several weeks of time.
"Really, darling, what are you doing walking around after, what, a thousand years? You do not look a day over a hundred. What is your secret?"
"The Daemon Lords are coming back," Rado shouted.
Vala spun and clamped her hand over his mouth. Osiric and Greystone grabbed him, and Greystone hissed, "Are you mad?"
Ignoring Vala's furious stare and bared teeth with great difficulty, Rado saw the effect on the daemon, and knew he had guessed right. For a moment she staggered back, her glamour fading; he could see leaves and earth and animal bones. Then she recovered, and stood tall and proud again.
"What was that, love?" the daemon asked, coolly.
Rado twisted out of Vala's grip, using a sword-breaking technique she had showed him, and found himself standing outside the circle. Ignoring his companion's horrified stares, Rado continued smoothly, "The Daemon Lords are coming back. Vala has an idea she can stop them, but I'm beginning to wonder. I mean, they're so powerful, and really there's just us. Bet you'll be glad to see them again, right?"
The daemon looked like a prosperous and mildly corrupt Unseener who'd just been told the Day of Judgement was scheduled for tomorrow afternoon. "Ah, yes, of course. The glorious day when all mortals perish from the earth ..."
"Yes, exactly. I bet the Big Guys will be so happy you held onto this bit of turf, before it perishes in flame. They'll probably pat you on the head and say, 'Job well done' ... er, Dera, wasn't it? 'Job well done, Dera.' After they run out of mortals, they might honor you by eating you last."
"No, they would not ... they will keep a breeding stock, surely ..."
"Ah, my mistake. Big thinkers, the Daemon Lords. That's what I've always heard. I'm sure that Devourers of Worlds, Endless Abyss stuff is pure propaganda. But think of it, they'll run the whole world, and surely they'd let you have this little patch, right?"
Dera looked distracted in a strangely human way. It's nice to be right about people, even if they aren't technically people. Only then did Rado risk a glance at the others. Osiric looked thoroughly confused, Greystone mentally burned him at the stake, and Vala ... Vala stared at him with an odd mixture of surprise, anger, and grudging respect.
Vala recovered, and assumed a pose of defeat. "Aye, the lad told all. We have no choice but to hasten another way, although I fear we may not reach Sathrib in time."
"The Daemon Lords return," Dera said, with a sickly smile. "How ... wonderful. What glad tidings. For that, you deserve safe passage. Quickly, now, before I change my mind." The false body dissolved into forest detritus, and subtlely the trees shifted to reveal a deer track.
Dera's disembodied voice continued, "As guardian of this forest, I promise unto you, as long as no living thing of this forest dies by your hand you may pass safely to the other side."
With that, Vala stepped out of the circle, grabbed Rado by the shoulder, and hissed, "Quick wits, lad. Thou has succeeded where I failed. Try its like again, and I swear I shall shatter thy jaw and pull thy serpent's tongue from thy head."
She let go, and Rado followed her down the deer path. Behind him, Osiric asked, "How did you deduce that would work?"
"One thing I learned on the road: the one thing a petty noble hates more than his underlings is his liege. Am I right, Sir Glynn."
Greystone muttered something unintelligible.
Under the canopy, the air was stiflingly hot, and unnatural sounds mixed with the calls of birds and the whirr of crickets. Something large seemed to pace next to them sometimes, first on one side, and then the other. Something in or under cedar aroma made Rado drowsy, and Osiric had to prod him awake a few times.
The trip continued silently, except when Vala hissed something like, "'Ware the ants", and they all had to step carefully over a train of ants across their path. Rado had heard of Daemons that kept the letter of their word, but somehow twisted the meaning to their advantage. Rado and the others, therefore, took care not to trample even a blade of grass; the walked along the bare earth of the deer trail as if it were a tightrope.
At night, they conveniently came to a small space among the trees. Vala carefully scouted it for small plants or worms, and then carefully bade them lay down in the safest spots. They dared not light a fire, so they huddled in blankets and spare clothes, still keeping watch. As Rado saw daylight break through the canopy, he woke the others, and after a brief meal of hard tack and dried meat, they continued, carefully and silenty, down the deer trail.
For three tense days, they progressed in this fashion. To Greystone's whispered question, Vala replied, "Nay, tis a true path. I ken the direction we travel." And indeed, on the afternoon of the third day, when Rado wondered if they would ever stop marching in this twilight hell, he glimpsed daylight ahead.
"Stop!" Vala barked instantly. "Be on guard. Tis very like a Daemon to snare us at journey's end."
They plodded as they had before, slowly and carefully. Rado began to notice midges buzzing around his head, and told Vala. "Aye, tis a stagnant pool nearby. Seek not for it; likely tis poison or worse. We shall likely find a stream beyond the forest."
The midges became thicker, and started darting into Rado's ears and nostrils. He snorted and waved his hands, which kept them at bay only briefly. Vala glanced back at him, and said, "Have a care, and --"
A ringing slap sounded behind them. Rado and Osiric turned to stare at Greystone, who looked at his hand in satisfaction at first, and then in horror.
"RUN!" Vala shouted, and they sprinted toward the light. Tree boughs and vines. descended on them like skeletons hands, and, unslinging his axe, Osiric surged forward to slash them out of their path. Roots broke the earth and snatched their boots, owls swooped down upon them in a mad rage. Rado and Greystone drew their swords, and slashed at the various threats behind Osiric; Rado, fearing he might hit Osiric, grabbed an owl trying to peck out Osiric's eyes and threw it as hard as he could against a tree trunk.
Vala fell back, guarding the rear. A low moan resounded through the forest; Rado and the others felt their ears pop as the pressure changed. Something huge charged through the underbrush, following their path, getting closer, ever closer. Rado felt an oppressive presence behind him, a palpable hatred of every particle of his being, and would have turned to look at it had Vala not screamed, "Look forward! Turn not, if thou value thy lives!"
And suddenly they broke into sunlight and fresh air, a gentle breeze wafting the cedar scent away. They continued running, stumbling a few hundred paces onward, and then collapsed on the grass, staring into blue sky, darkening in the east.
"Thou fool," Vala said. "Thou thrice-damned, addle-pated, god-enslaved, ill-dressed fool of a knight. By all rights, thy grey stone should seal thy tomb, lest any folly escape into the sunlit world." She began chuckling, then laughing the slightly hysterical laugh of someone who had once again escaped death. Soon, even Greystone joined in.
They rested that night, exhausted. In the morning, Rado learned to his dismay that his sword lessons would resume.
"Methinks thou art past forms and rotes. In Dera's forest thou showed some small skill with the sword, enough for a green soldier, mayhap. Today, then, we learn true fighting." She picked up her sword and his, both with the scabbard tied to the hilt. "I would not have thee slice off thy own foot, so scabbards must needs blunt the edges. Tis a wee bit heavier, and the balance may be off, but thou must accustom thyself to the weight, and sticks will not do. What say you, lad?"
"I have a name," Rado said, through gritted teeth.
"Aye, tis Rado, to be sure. What of it?"
"I'm not a 'boy', or a 'lad', and certainly not a 'child'. Use my damn name."
"Not a child, thou sayest? Well, lad, if thou art a man, prove it." She tossed him his sword. "Battle me."
"You're kidding, right?"
"Thou fearest a woman, lad?" She sighed. "I shall not use any 'witchery' on thee. Today I fight like an ordinary mortal. Now come at me, if thou darest."
Rado hefted his sword, sighed, looked at the treeline for a moment, and came at Vala in a screaming rush. She sidestepped easily, and smacked his backside with the flat of her scabbard. Somehow Rado recovered his physical balance, and glared at her.
"Nay, nay," she grinned. "Tis serious work we do here. No time for play."
He stalked toward her, slowly, looking for an opening. He feinted left, and stabbed right, which she parried easily.
Rado tried every trick he could think of, including simply whaling away at her, but nothing worked. Always she parried easily, lazily. Sometimes she looked bored outright.
After one thrust, she knocked his sword out of line and jabbed his solar plexus savagely. He staggered back, struggling to breathe.
"Were this unsheathed, thou wouldst be dead," she scowled. "Hast thou forgotten the guard positions? Must I drill thee again?"
When Rado recovered his breath, he attacked her again. They sparred for the better part of an hour. This time she offered helpful comments, like "Thy left is wide open", or "Call that an underthrust?"
They stopped, and Rado rested a while, as Vala offered more pointers and demonstrations, and then they went at it again. Rado felt only more frustrated, as he noted Vala shouting the same things over and over, and he simply could not remember them all. And how could he guard his left and his right and his head and his legs and his center all at once? He had only one sword.
Plus, Vala did not play fair. She had taught him all this fancy footwork, and yet, even as slowed as she was, she used stances she had never taught, strikes that did not fit neatly into the Nine Points she demonstrated. Once she had got behind him, and only remembering the sixth block saved him from being clouted on the head. "Told thee it might save thy life," she grinned, as she danced back and came at him again.
Once again, her scabbard came at him frustratingly slowly, and yet he could not move his sword fast enough to prevent a numbing blow to his sword-arm. He staggered against a tree, looking into her mocking face, and remembered Master Lars barking at him for getting the copper too hot, or Baba Marra rapping his knuckles because he revealed a palmed ball while moving the cups around. Most of all, he thought of Vala, always mocking, always insulting, always treating him like an empty-headed fool who would be utterly lost without him. And something snapped.
He charged at her, swinging with intent to hurt. And yet she parried every thrust, every swing, perfectly, and with insulting slowness. He pushed his muscles to the limit, tried to bear her against a tree or trip her up, and yet still she danced out of reach and came from some unexpected angle. Finally she tripped him, and send him sprawling.
"Twas a fine effort," Vala sighed, "were it not for thy anger. Many a man died because passion overwhelmed reason. A swordsman needs a cool head, to plan his attack. Tis not just swinging; tis strategy. Ever played shah or septi?"
"A few times," Rado panted. "Never won."
"Pity. Tis good training. Thou hadst the right notion earlier; convince thy enemy of an attack east, and attack from the west. Accustom me to a head strike, then gut me. Rest thee a little, and cool thy head. Then try to defeat me."
Rado rested his tired limbs, while his mind raced. Blame the craftsman, not the copper, Master Lars had said time and time again. Vala could move far more quickly if she chose, and could sense his intentions even without her type of magic. And it was strange that he thought of Baba Marra after all this time ... did she not always say that to gull a mark, you had to make yourself believe the ball was in one cup even though you had just palmed it into another?
He slowly got to his feet, and Vala stood on guard, on the balls of her feet, smirking at him. All right, woman, I'm going to hammer at your left side a bit. Rado inched forward carefully, striking at her left side over and over. Once or twice he feinted at her head or her right, but kept to her left. She looked bored, disappointed. Once she even dropped her guard deliberately, just to show him how quickly she could guard her left again.
Rado feinted to her middle again, and as her arm drifted to her left his wrist turned and he drove the scabbarded sword straight into her gut.
Vala's sword swung down hard and snake-fast to block his, and swung upward in a blur that struck Rado on the side of the head. He lost his footing and toppled backward, his ears ringing and his head throbbing. Through the pain, he had the grim satisfaction of seeing Vala doubled over for a moment.
"Good trick," Vala panted, kneeling beside him. "Simple, and more fool I for being deceived, but it might serve thee in good stead. Thou didst well, Rado."
"Is that why you hit me on the head?"
"Reflex. Took me by surprise, that did. Leave us see that bump." Her fingers parted his hair, surprisingly gently. "Ach, tis nothing."
"Yeah, I'm sure that's just a gentle kiss where you came from."
"Nay." Before he could react, Vala drew near, touched his lips with hers for three loud heartbeats. "That is a gentle kiss, where I hail from."
Seemingly of its own accord, Rado's hand cradled the back of Vala's head, and drew her toward him. He expected at any moment a slap or a punch, but she only sighed as their lips met. Her lips tensed, softened, parted ...
"Oh, I am terribly sorry."
Vala darted to her feet fast enough to nearly dislocate Rado's hand. He could see himself as Osiric saw him, sitting on the ground, mouth open, a dopey expression on his face.
Vala squared her shoulders. "We were but ... I was looking to Rado's bruise ..."
"Ah, yes. Sorry to interrupt practice. Sir Greystone caught some rabbits, and he is cooking them as we speak." To himself, he added, "Not all, I hope." To the pair, he added, "He should finish the preparations in half an hour."
Rado nodded. "Oh. Thank him, for us -- me! We'll be done in a little while."
"Please, do not hurry on my account. Carry on." Osiric left, his face deadpan.
After a brief and curiously distracted lecture on sword strategy from Vala, practice was over for the morning. Vala and Rado followed the smell of roasting rabbit, without speaking. Rado had a veritable army of questions he dared not ask, and Vala looked as if she would not answer them in any case. At last they returned to their day's camp in a grove of trees, and heard Osiric and Greystone talking.
"I specifically requested you set one rabbit aside."
"You can eat cooked meat, same as us."
"Yes, but I prefer meat, not charcoal."
"Bah, it is but singed. And what kind of person eats raw meat?"
"As you were so quick to point out a fortnight ago, I am an ogre."
"Ugh. Humans. Look, lad --"
"Lad?! I am two score and four winters old!"
"Really? I would have guessed fifty. To me, though, you are but a lad."
"Why? You cannot be but twenty-seven summers."
"Ogres age better than humans. In point of fact, I am -- ah, here they are."
"We do not lack for rabbit." Rado counted at least five rabbits, and he wondered how Greystone had caught them all, with not even a bow.
"Edible rabbit, perhaps," grumbled Osiric, chewing a cooked rabbit leg with a sour face.
Despite the casual conversation, Rado thought Osiric and Greystone watched them carefully. His eyes strayed to Vala, whom he caught looking at him. They both glanced away.
Vala tore off a strip of rabbit with her teeth, and, with her mouth full, said, "Tell me of this Unseen God, Sir Knight."
"No, you would only mock me again."
Vala swallowed, and said, "Nay, surely not. If I am to seek him out, I must know of him."
"You cannot 'seek him out'. He is not one of your heathen spirits, woman; he is the Creator of the world, the God who exists outside time. He will call you to the Final Judgement at the Day of Reckoning, and take account of your good deeds and bad."
"Truly? Why should he do that?"
"It is his Covenant with all that live, that they should praise him and follow his words."
"Mayhap he should have spoken sooner. I hath heard none of him, ere now."
"The Unseen God's prophet Caelin of Thorhald," Osiric interjected, "lived and died more than two hundred years after the end of the Daemon Wars."
Greystone nodded. "The Book of the Unseen, written shortly before his glorious martyrdom, conveyed the words of the Unseen God, as bestowed by the Messenger Cenobius from golden tablets given to the Holy Prophet."
"And these tablets lieth in some temple now?"
"No, they rest at the feet of the Unseen God, after he assumed them back into the heavens. The Prophet was enjoined to let no other man see them."
"Ah." Vala seemed to be having trouble keeping a straight face.
"A few words might be familiar to you, Lady Vala," Osiric added. "About a third of the Book of the Unseen is a heavily redacted version of the Laws of Heru'ur, the god of a nomadic tribe who claimed the land just south of Chaldekon and west of the Great Desert, before Chaldekon exterminated them."
"What?" Greystone's jaw dropped. "That is not so --"
"And about a fourth apparently comes from the Sayings of Ashul, a Theran philosopher a little after your time. He claimed to converse with a new god, and was stoned to death. A few of his followers still persist in Thera, wearing little stones around their necks."
"Surely those heathens merely copied a few passages from the Golden Tablets --"
"The rest does seem to come from Caelin himself --"
"No! From the Unseen God, who --"
"Although rumors that he wrote the book after a bar bet are surely untrue." Osiric smiled innocently at Greystone, who had become very red in the face.
"I knew you would mock me," Greystone sulked. "I have fallen in among infidels."
"Be of good cheer, good Sir Knight." Vala patted his knee, consolingly. "Tis a mark of courage to believe that which the world tells thee is untrue. None of us might be here, if a band of human barbarians and seemly Fae chose to resist an irresistable power.
"Consider the Djinn, who stood neither with us nor with the Daemons." Vala's voice took on a distant tone, as if recounting a memory whose pain had dulled with time. "This happened after we had already won back the Northlands, and the Oanneans had destroyed the Dark Temples in the East, albeit at a terrible cost."
"A lot of casualties?" Rado asked.
"Aye, and more. What thou calleth the Great Desert was once a fertile land, the homeland of the Oanneans. Through their great arts they made weapons too terrible to describe, and in the contest between the children of Oannes and the spawn of the Outer Dark that beautiful land became dry and barren. Towering cities, the like of which you cannot imagine, lay shattered and poisoned, and the desert swallowed all.
"Twas also the home of the Djinn, who minded not the desert, for they were beings of smokeless fire. Stiff-necked and proud were they, and they would neither abjure the Daemons nor truly ally with them; they sought to play Daemon Lord against Daemon Lord, with our cause as a further pawn. On that fateful day we rode to their last stronghold, the City of Brass, only Elethon and I. We entreated them to stand with us, but they hated the Fae with every mote of their being, and they would not deign to speak with a creature of mud, as they named all mankind. We camped at an oasis, and spoke well into the night of how we might win them, when I heard a terrible noise. We climbed a hill and watched the Daemon Host swarm like wasps above, and plummet into the city. That day every djinni and djinniya, aye, and even their few children, died in screaming agony. Their death-flames joined with the flames of the city, and soon the City of Brass was merely a slag-heap in the desert.
"So I entreat thee, Sir Knight, to believe in lost causes, and cleave to impractical virtue. Thou art a blind fool, and thou might use thine eyes and ears a little more, but to follow the way of the world alone leads to excuses and evasions, and makes cowards of men.
She took a deep breath, and smiled. "La, I have delivered a sermon this day. Enough talk; time for practice."
Rado started to rise, but Vala said, "Friend Osiric, I would teach the the proper use of thy axe. Tis a fell weapon in strong hands, but alas not thine. Come, then."
They both left the camp together, and Rado, vaguely disappointed, helped clean up.
"She is a good woman, lad," Greystone said.
"Oh? I thought she was a witch."
"Yes, well ... she is that, and a sharp-tongued shrew, and willful, and far too unwomanly. But a good woman, nonetheless."
"Maybe you should try your luck with her," Rado said, biting down on the word next.
Greystone looked surprised, and a little confused. "Me? No, Rado my lad, I would not choose her, nor she me; if thrown together, we would fight every day of our lives. But ... some people belong together in spite of their flaws -- no, sometimes because of them." Greystone smiled at happy memories. "When I took Kaitlin to wife, comrades told me she was too young, too childlike, too fey to make a good wife. Yet those were the happiest years of my life, and she bore me a fine daughter --" The happiness faded instantly.
"Look, Sir Glynn ..." Rado began, but Greystone cut him off.
"Rado, lad, when you at last take a wife, remember that she is not truly yours. You must win her anew, every day, and thank the God for every day He grants you together. And let not the business of the world keep you apart; stay close to her, no matter what others may say behind your back. A good husband ... hah, perhaps I know not what makes a good husband ..."
Embarassed, Rado said, "Let me check on Osiric." Rado left.
"Leave us try this again," Vala sighed, wearily. "Attack me."
Osiric charged, swishing his axe back and forth in front of him. Vala ducked under it easily, and grabbed the haft. "Nay, nay, nay." She yanked it out of his hand. "Step back, and I shall show thee how it is done."
Osiric stepped back twenty paces to the edge of the clearing, and Vala took a deep breath. Letting out an ululating war cry, she hurtled toward Osiric, the axe weaving in the sign of infinity, a glinting blur that would shred anything to enter it. Osiric stumbled backward in the face of the onslaught, stopped only by a tree, as Vala lunged forward and sank the axe four thumbs into the wood of the tree, a hair's breadth from Osiric's head.
They paused there for a moment, Osiric's face a rictus of fear, Vala staring into his eyes with nothing more than slight annoyance. Then she turned and strode back to her place, saying, "Now, dost thy superior intellect comprehend that?"
As she reached her place and turned, she barked at Rado, "Hast thou some work thy might be doing? Maybe our noble knight might practice with thee."
"Maybe I should wait until you improve his swordsmanship."
"Naught on the land can improve his swordsmanship," Vala said, sourly. "Cease thy gawping and practice on thy own, if naught else."
Rado turned and headed back to camp. As he left, he heard an ogrish roar, a thunderous tread, and an even more thunderous fall. "Good Osiric," he heard Vala say sweetly, "pray tell me how I eluded thee then ...?"
In the afternoon, they decamped and moved onward; at dusk, they found a wooded area with a small freshwater stream. In less than a week, they would meet the Tethys again, which ran into the Sathrib marshes; their journey would end.
Vala had gone off to scout the area, and Osiric, Rado, and Greystone were left to set up camp.
"You have travelled widely, Osiric," Greystone said, as he lit the campfire. "Have you ever seen goblins?"
"Oh, once or twice. The wild tribes get ever more scarce as the years go by, and few take to civilization. Rado, are there not goblin Travellers?"
"Goblins in wagons, yes. Not Travellers."
"Come now, is not the definition of a Traveller one who roams the countryside in settled lands?"
Rado made a face. "They don't have the right songs, just gabbling chants to the time of stones clashing together. The gadje are smarter than them most of the time, and they resort to outright theft when they grow poor enough. They sell nothing but trash and rags, make nothing but crude tools of stone and wood. Goblins don't have treaties with the other Travellers, and barely have laws among themselves. They're not Travellers."
"Well, I am disappointed, Rado. I would never have dreamed you were prejudiced."
"Prejudiced? Me? What about you and the inherent superiority of the Ogrish People?"
"That is not the issue. Your irrational dislike for Goblins is."
"It's not irrational. The last Goblin nomads I met nearly killed me. We met by accident, attempted trade, next thing I knew they were rushing at us, brandishing clubs. I still remember that one, towering over me."
"Were you five at the time?"
"Six, actually." Rado still remembered that misshapen head, those red-rimmed eyes in a face like mashed clay.
Osiric sighed. "One cannot but feel sympathy for the poor sods. Smaller and weaker even than humans, and even more stupid."
"Excuse me?" said the two humans, almost simultaneously.
They argued for a half-hour more, about whether goblins were inherently primitive, and (mainly Greystone) whether they would also be raised on the Last Day to give the Unseen God an accounting of their deeds. Stars twinkled overhead, and Rado decided to look for Vala.
He had last seen her following the stream, and so he did likewise. At last he heard a splash ahead, and ran forward.
The stream widened to a normally still pool, perhaps only waist-high for Rado. Rushes grew at its edges, and small shrubs lined its shores.
Rado saw Vala's head and shoulders emerge from the surface. She had not been facing him, but abruptly she turned, rising slightly, and stared at him. She smiled, and Rado realized how clear the water was. He quickly shut his eyes and turned away. "I'm sorry ..."
"Nay, tis my fault. I sighted this pool, and wished to cleanse the dust of travel. I have evidently tarried too long. Yet ... mayhap thou wishest to bathe also? Tis cool, but not chill."
"Uh ..." In truth, Rado had bathed only seldom, usually in the few villages inns they stopped at, when Vala decided they could afford to spend a few dinars, obols, or shekels. In truth, their purse was dangerously light, and Rado marvelled he could think of money when a naked woman swam right in front of him.
A series of splashes told Rado that Vala had stood up and walked out of the pool. Dangerously nearby, he heard her voice, oddly husky, coo, "Tis thy choice. A manly smell bothers me not." Rado caught her scent, stream water with a hint of something floral ...
"Vala please," Rado said, stumbling back and bumping his head on a low-hanging bough. "I mean, the kiss earlier today, and ... well, it's not that I'm not interested, but under the circumstances ... it's just kind of awkward, and I wonder if I'm just imagining too much, or babbling like a lunatic, and if I am I'm sorry, but I'm just really confused right now --"
"Shhhh." Her fingers rested lightly on his lips for a moment. "I ken what thee sayest. Tis an old habit. When man might die at any hour, man reaches for a thing desired without a second thought. Mayhap you are right; the time is not auspicious, and we have companions to think of." Rado heard the rustle of clothing, and after a moment he risked opening his eyes.
Vala wore nothing but a linen loincloth, and as Rado watched she tied a sort of linen sash around her ... her chest ... She half-turned, saw him standing there, and turned her back. "My tunic is behind thee. Wouldst thou bring it?"
"Sure." He located the deerskin tunic hanging, slightly damp, on a bush, and handed it to her at arm's length. She started to pull it over her head, stopped with her arms still in it. "Rado, tell me truly. I know well that I am not beautiful, but ... dost thou fancy me at all?"
Rado looked at her back, muscles standing out sharply even in the moonlight, criscrossed by scars. He followed the curve of her back, the shape of her legs. He noted the swell of her arm muscles, the broken profile of her face, the luminous gray eyes staring at him with an unaccustomed uncertainty. He fixated on the nape of her neck, and knew he could not leave without kissing it.
Stepping behind her, he encircled her waist, nuzzled her neck, and in her ear whispered, "Yes."
She giggled almost girlishly, and said, "Wilt thou step back, that I may dress?"
The tunic fell to the ground. "Good."
The moon had ascended to its highest point when Rado and Vala rested again, their limbs still entwined. In truth Rado had gotten his bath after all, after the first disappointing attempt when Vala had pushed him into the pool and jumped in after him. They played like children for a little bit, splashing each other, and then, both chilled, they warmed each other up again like adults.
"I never imagined ..." Rado began, and chiding himself for sounding like a teenager.
"Tis a surprise. Hast thou never lain with a woman?"
"Lain? No, not as such. Some of the village girls ... well, they did not want a dusky-skinned child, so I only got as far as -- oh, gods! Children! You haven't been taking those herbs, right? I didn't even think. What else is there? The wise woman said something about a calf-skin glove, but then Master Lars showed up --"
"Hush. Tis naught to worry. Feel this?"
"Didn't I just get done there."
"Nay, nay," Vala smiled. "Above that place. The scar."
Indeed, Rado did feel a nasty scar on Vala's lower abdomen.
"Twas the horn of a Kshaug, who charged me as I dispatched its brother. Tossed me into the air, and after I landed and cut its heads off, I swooned. The Fae healers allowed how I nearly died. They took to calling me 'poor poppet'."
"They felt sorry for you?"
"Nay, they compared me to the toy of a tempermental child. But, when I awoke, the healers told me I would never bear a child."
Rado looked into her face, and saw the beginning of tears. He kissed her cheeks and nose and lips gently, and said, "I'm sorry."
"Tis past. Naught to do about it."
"Still, there's plenty of orphans in the world, who might want a mother like you."
Rado had the air almost squeezed out of him by Vala's arms. "Thou art the kindest man I have ever known."
"What kind of men have you known?"
She pulled back, and eyed him cynically. "Aye, and by that you mean how many."
"No, not as such," Rado said, although he would have liked to know.
Vala sighed. "Six. One a human chieftain much like myself, another a human servant of the Daemon Lords I swayed to our cause, another a warrior in my army. Another chieftain, another warrior, and at last a priest of Mjorl, bereft after the death of his god."
"What about this Elethon you keep mentioning."
Vala reddened. "Him? Noblest of the Fae, and second only to King Taltheon? Nay, I would not dare to even think of it. He was my tutor, naught more."
There was a silence.
"So," Rado began. "what do we do now?"
"Mayhap what we did not long ago?" Vala grinned. "Tis not only swordsmanship that improveth with practice."
"No, I mean ... about us ..."
"Like I sayest to thee ..."
"No, I mean, what are your intentions. Agh, I mean, what do you --"
"My intentions!" she laughed. Her fingers stroked his brow, toyed with his hair. "My intention is to lie with thee as oft as I can, until thou grow tired of me. And to teach thee the sword, and many other useful skills, and to converse with thee, and stand beside thee when we reach the Dark Temple, and make this world safe for me and thee once more. And mayhap, when we journey home ... I have plans for then, but I shall not tell thee just yet."
She glanced at the stars, and then stared. "Sword of Yorath! Tis that late?" Hurriedly she put on her linen undergarments, and donned her skin tunic and leggings.
"Tis too near my watch!" She stopped, and caressed his cheek. "Twas a joyous time, and thou art most dear to me, but duty is duty." She pulled on her boots, grabbed her sword, and rushed back along the stream, nearly tripping over something ... two plates of hardtack and cured venison, neatly covered with cloths.
Rado dressed and did his watch as well. He watched over Greystone and Osiric, both fast asleep when he arrived, or at least seeming so. He watched, especially, over Vala, who bade him sleep by the fire, and woke him at his turn, and with a last kiss curled up and fell fast asleep. A good woman, indeed.
In the morning, all four of them acted as if nothing changed. Vala gave him his usual morning sword lessons, laced with abuse and disappointment and a fair amount of pain. They marched in the afternoon, rested at midday except for yet another lesson, and marched again until near nightfall. At the beginning of the evening, Rado said, "Look, about last night --" but Vala silenced him with a look. Not that she was embarrassed; they had whispered briefly to each other on the road. Rather, Rado knew that, to Vala, there was a time for love and a time for battle, and their lessons were solely about battle.
It was only at the end of the lesson that differed. Vala looked pensive, and Rado said, "Yes, I know, not even to the standard of your rawest recruit."
"Mayhap I stretch the truth, but tis not far from the mark. In a few days we may face enemies that might whelm me, and I would not be able to protect thee." Her face softened for a moment, and she caressed his cheek; then she recovered her stern manner and continued. "If I had months thou might be a seasoned veteran, but months I have not. There is another way that I have long pondered on, yet I must needs think on it some more."
"Some sort of 'be an invincible warrior in twenty-four hours' sort of thing?"
"Aye, a little like. Tis perilous though, and I must choose whether risk justifies reward."
"Tell me what it is. I'll choose."
"Nay, not yet. I shall ponder it some more. Come, leave us join the others." She smirked. "Who can say what they might think, if we tarry."
Rado followed her back to camp, worried.
After dinner, Vala took Rado aside for his usual sword lessons, and then for passionate love-making. They returned to camp together, Rado utterly exhausted, Vala with a slight spring in her step, humming an old Kymric air. Rado had to marvel at her; she had been doing most of the work ...
Osiric snored near the fire; Greystone, on watch, watched them approach. Vala simply bade him good night, and curled in her bedroll. Rado also arranged himself for sleep, but he could feel Greystone's eyes on him.
Finally, he could take it no longer. "Have something to say, Sir Glynn?"
"You were not merely at swordplay, were you?"
"A gentleman doesn't tell."
"But you are a commoner. And though you may not tell me, you will one day answer to the Unseen God."
"If I meet him, I'll explain myself to him, not you." Rado turned to Vala for support, but to all appearances she was fast asleep. Angrily, he turned his back on Greystone and went to sleep himself.
The next morning, as they were breaking camp, Vala knelt by Rado as he was packing up his gear. "I have decided. Thou art stronger than thy appearance tells, and, though tis a perilous way, thou wilt surely walk to the end of it safely."
Despite Vala's upbeat words, Rado could see the tension in her face. "So, what is this miraculous way? Do I walk over hot coals?"
"Nay, tis an easy trick, that." She took a deep breath. "Hast thou wondered how I fight as I do?"
"Some sort of unique power given to you by Elethon, according to the tales." Rado noticed the others listening.
Vala shook her head, smiling slightly. "Nay, twas given by Elethon, but in my day not unheard of. Nearly every village and tribe had at least one mortal who walked in the Dreaming, and talked with the gods. True, the gods are no more, or sleepeth in the halls of Annwyn, but to walk in the Dreaming helps thee in the waking world.
"Everything in the waking world exists also in the Dreaming. Tis like ... a man standing in a river; above the water thou sightest the man himself, and below thou may glimpse his shadow, and mark the flow of water around him. With sight in the Waking World, I see the man; with eyes in the Dreaming, I sense the shape of his thoughts, the direction of his will. With practice, I mayest also shape the life-tide that flows within the Dreaming, and draw upon it to strenthen my limbs and speed my way."
"All right, then ... I only need to study with a wizard for twenty years --"
"Nay, I can open thy Dreaming eyes in a day, if thou will undertake the journey. Tis not a journey outside, but inside, into the depths of thy soul. Every man has the Gift, though some may have a greater share than others. Thou merely must find it, find eyes that have been closed since birth, and open them."
"Sure. No problem."
"Thou doubtest me? I ken the way well, since I travelled it myself. Tis a simple ritual called the Awakening --"
Rado sprang backward, crawling crabwise till he fetched up against a tree. He stared at Vala in horror. "What are you trying to do to me, woman! Are you mad? What kind of thing would you change me into?" With that, he gained his feet, and sprinted further into the woods.
Greystone found him later, as morning crept toward noon, sitting on a fallen log. At Greystone's approach, Rado jumped to his feet, preparing to run. "I won't do it!"
"Of course not, Rado. Please, sit and calm yourself. No one will force you to do what you hate so, not while I draw breath. Please, sit." Greystone sat on his haunches, and Rado, tenatively, sat on the log again.
"You agree with me, right? What she wants me to do is insane ... dangerous ... I'd lose my soul ..."
"I have heard how those who pry into the Dark Arts fall prey to Daemons, but surely the lass knows of what she speaks. She'd let no Daemon come near you."
Rado came closer to panic. "You don't know ... you don't understand what she's asking ..."
"Then tell me, lad."
"Aye, and tell me." Vala stepped silently between two trees. "I held hope that I and thou shared between us a bond of trust. Sir Knight speaks truly; I would not expose thee to a harm thou could not endure." She sat next to him, and tentatively grasped his hand in his; Rado looked like he might bolt at any second, fear in every line of his face.
"No ... I ..."
Vala gently caressed his cheek. "I cannot compel thee to take the Inward Journey if thou dost not wish it. So tell me; what frightens thee so? Tell me."
Rado refused to talk without Osiric there as well, so they returned to camp and waited for him to return.
Osiric stumbled back a few minutes later; leaves covered his hat and his shoulders, and brambles stuck to his legs. "Indeed, a merry chase ..." Osiric began crossly, but at the sight of Rado's face he sat down, concerned. "What is the matter, dear boy?"
"Aye, we have all gathered." Vala turned to Rado. "Speak, then."
Rado took a deep breath. He had to tell someone sometime ...
"I was raised by the Parhee. They hold themselves aloof from other Travellers; they say they guard secret wisdom, ancient ways that even other Travellers are not prepared for. I used to think it was all lies and trickery; now I'm not so sure.
"There's an initiation among my former people, called the Awakening. Every child, shortly after their fourteenth birthday, undergoes the ritual. It's kept secret from children; it's held in one of the wagons, usually the troupe leader's or the eldest in the troupe. It always scared me; afterward, you were different. I'd see older playmates go into that wagon, and come out dazed, or aloof, or just strange. Suddenly they were too old for kids like me, too busy, too important.
"And then ... after my parents died, I stayed with my father's brother Lazlo, and his wife Aliya, and ... and their daughter, Yamina. Yamina was only a few months older than me, and ... how can I describe her? Grown up and childlike at the same time; one minute kind and wise and unflappable, the next utterly delighted by a butterfly or a flower. Everyone thought she was special; everyone was her friend, and as we grew older boys practically lined up just to have a kind word or a glance from her. She didn't seem that interested in boys, at least in the usual way; she was interested in them only because she was interested in everyone, everything around her."
"And thou wert in love with her?" Vala asked.
"Maybe a little. We all were, a little. And then ... her turn came, for the Awakening. That morning and afternoon, she was still the same Yamina I knew and ... that I knew, and I was scared of losing her. But all the old people insisted that she go through Awakening, just as they and their mothers and their grandmothers did, and you can't fight tradition. Not and be a true Parhee. King Isvan himself would lead the ceremony, and everyone told me not to fear.
"The screaming woke me up. I knew it was Yamina instantly; beyond those anguished, almost animal howls, the curses that I'd never heard from Yamina in my life, I still knew her voice.
"We all piled out of wagons and tents, half-dressed, groggy. We heard the screams over and over again ... horrible sounds, I hear them in nightmares sometimes. I would have strode right into the King's wagon, but Papa Georgiu held me back. At last the screams quieted, into whimpers and moans, and finally silence. King Isvan walked out, after a while, and told us the ceremony had gone wrong, that her mind had broken under the strain. We should go back to our beds, he said, and see what the morning brought.
"I saw Yamina two days later, and once or twice thereafter ... her hair tangled, dressed only in a shift that was torn and dirty, no matter how Baba Aliya tried to keep her clean. She was mad, stark raving mad. Sometimes I'd see glimpses of the old Yamina, especially when she saw a flower; sometimes she'd be a stranger, spouting gibberish or crying or screaming. She couldn't stand the sight of King Isvan; even the name sent her into violent fits. Mostly, Aunt and Uncle kept her in the wagon, especially while gadje were around.
"A week before my own Awakening, I left. I took odd jobs when I could get them, stole most of the time. Eventually I ended up in Greenway, as a coppersmith's apprentice. And I want nothing to do with the Parhee, or their damn rituals."
Osiric said, "Perhaps the two rituals are alike only in name."
"Nay," Vala scowled. "Sounds very like. Only the initiate and one elder, in a sheltered space?"
"Sometimes two or three elders, but yes."
Vala thought for a moment. "Mayhap tis a debased version of the rite I know. Truly it may happen, even in a true Awakening, that a lax awakener might let the initiate slip into darkness, or that the initiate hath a flaw that cracks under stress ... although an awakener should seek such flaws, and abjure the rite."
"You're saying that Yamina was flawed somehow?"
"Tis not obvious to the eye, and mayhap she could have lived an untroubled life ... but aye, it happens, sometimes." She held Rado's hand again. "But such a tragedy cannot happen with thee. I have examined thee closely -- nay, not only in the way thy smirk betides, but thy heart and mind and soul. I say again, thou art strong and courageous, and thy flaws are of no account. Thou can walk to the end of the path, and I shall guard thee in thy journey with my life. Wilt thou place thy faith in me?"
Rado looked into her gray, clear eyes for a long while. "Yes."
Vala found a rock outcrop near the stream; the rock provided a sort of shelter, and the sound of the stream was somehow soothing. Greystone and Osiric waited on the other side, anxiously.
Vala sat crosslegged on the sandy soil near the rock, and Rado lay with his head in her lap, and his body resting comfortably on a blanket. Vala stroked his temples soothingly. We might just be ordinary lovers enjoying an autumn day, Rado thought to himself.
"Our friends will see little but us both resting a while," Vala began. "Yet once I send thee off I will stand in the Dreaming, waiting for thee to Awaken, and warding off any ill spirits that might attack thee. Thou wilt appear asleep, and dreaming, and yet thy dream will lead thee to me. Thy dream will surely terrify thee, but if thou keepeth thy wits, and never lose courage, thou wilt prevail."
"All right." Rado started to worry again, but Vala was guarding him, so he would be all right. Wouldn't he? "I'm ready."
"Here, chew these." Vala dropped a mass of bitter leaves into Rado's mouth. "These herbs will speed thee on thy way, and bring thee closest to the Dreaming. Twould not be the herbs I would prefer, but tis the closest I can come in this land.
"Now, take thy ease, and calm thy mind. Simply follow the flow." Vala stroked his face, his brow, his temples. She began humming, lightly, gently, an old Kymric tune Rado could not quite place. Rado felt himself drifting off to sleep, his hands and feet becoming a little numb and fuzzy. Air drifted into his lungs, and drifted out, and Rado fell asleep.
He lay on a cold stone slab; above, in a wan light that came from everywhere and nowhere at once, he saw a stone ceiling. The room itself seemed little more than stone slabs, with no windows. A chilly mist swirled in the air, and bits of rags and bones had collected into the edges and corners.
With a sudden stab of fear Rado realized he could not move his arms and legs; he tried to shout, but his voice came out only in the slightest whisper. Only his eyes still responded to his will.
Rado heard a scrape, and saw rags and bones assemble themselves, slowly, haltingly. In what seemed like hours they formed into a shape vaguely like a man, with bones in the wrong places and rags and mist substituting for an arm, a leg, and a head. Scraping sounds echoed throughout the chamber, and more of the shambling things arose, all missing limbs, or at least limbs of substance. They converged on him, crowding around as if at a strange new beast. Chill fingers of mist or bone touched his face, his arms, his legs, his chest. Rado tried to tell them to keep away, but only the faintest whisper came out.
One of them, grown bold, pulled at his arm. On the third pull, Rado felt the arm tear away; he felt no pain, only the tug as flesh and bone ripped like wet paper, and the chill as air hit exposed muscle and bone. It was then Rado realized he was dead, and screamed in terror, again and again.
Other spectres pulled away his other arm, and his legs. One broke open his chest, and others pulled out organs like party favors. When his torso was empty, one of the spectres pulled it away from his neck and wore it like a long coat. A last spectre claimed his head, and Rado watched his own dead, waxy face, staring blindly, tottering atop a specter's shoulders.
Then, each spectre, cradling its prize, scuttled back into the corners of the room, and collapsed into a heap.
Rado screamed for Vala, but heard nothing but a faint echo. He cried, he cursed, he raged for what seemed like an eternity. And then, like a sudden gust of fresh air, a thought arrived: They have my head. My eyes are in my head. So ... what am I seeing with.
Rado could not think properly; it seemed like the chill mist filled his ... brain? ... mind? He could probably think better with his head. He turned his ... gaze? ... attention? ... toward the corner where he last saw the spectre with his head. "Bring back my head," he attempted to say, but heard nothing. He pictured the spectre bringing back his head, willed it to bring back his head ... and in the corner, rags and bones stirred.
He focussed all his will on that corner, on those stirring bones to reconstruct themselves. Once again, bones and rags and mist reassembled into a vaguely manlike form. The thing bore in its upper limbs a head ... not Rado's, but an olive-skinned head with noble features and shining eyes; its hair was straight and purest white. That's not my head, Rado began to protest, but the thing put it where Rado's head should be, and Rado felt a shock, as if his head had exploded and reassembled itself.
Slowly, Rado turned his attention to other parts in the room, commanding by force of will each spectre to return what it had taken. Eventually they all returned, with something better than they had taken: a muscular torso wearing archaic thigh-length robes, that burned like fire when a spectre rejoined it to his head ... strong arms and legs that jolted Rado when they were rejoined ... viscera that trembled with life, and a heart that seared his insides like a hot coal.
Rado jumped off the slab, and the thronged spectres shrank from him, and collapsed into trash once again. He found an iron door that he had not seen before, and with a heave of his new muscles he pulled it open. He strode forward into a long gray corridor that forked; one direction headed upward, and at the end he saw light, true sunlight, and he could hear a woman's voice humming a Kymric tune.
And yet ... down the other way lay darkness, and an oppressive presence, but something told him he must take this way before returning to the light.
He strode down that path, down into a world of shadows and half-heard whispers. He felt a weight descend on his back, and, reaching back with his hand, he felt feathers.
Before him stood another iron door. He drew his bronze sword (bronze sword? part of Rado thought), pried open the door, and entered a vast stone chamber. At the far end were two torches, and between them was an obsidian throne seemingly carved into the rock, and on that throne sat a figure in white robes. Rado took three steps in. In the empty space, he nevertheless heard the creaks and clicks of a giant mill, or perhaps a giant clock, and the sighs of a thousand despairing souls.
The figure on the throne removed its hood. Rado gazed into the face of Istvan Czigny, who looked at him in surprise. "You have joined us at last, my lord," Czigny smiled, although his eyes remained cold. "I have not seen you in centuries."
And then Rado fled, up from the darkness into light, and warmth, and a old Kymric song.
Vala's face hung above him, upside down. She stared intently into his eyes for a moment, then smiled gently. "Good morrow, Rado my love. How dost thou feel?"
"Uh ..." Cold sweat chilled his skin, and his limbs felt like they really had been torn off and put back on. Isvan's voice echoed in his memory. Still ... colors seemed more vivid, and he felt a curious elation, a strange peace and confidence. More than that, he became intensely aware of everything around him: grass and sand, the overhanging rock, the music of the river and the caress of the wind, and most of all the reassuring solidity of Vala. "All right, I guess."
Rado sat up, looked across the river at Osiric and Greystone, just getting to their feet. Vala waved her hand for them to sit, and Rado did not actually see; he could feel it, behind his back.
"Rest thee a little. Awakening can befuddle a man ... you may not be sure which world thou hast awaken to."
"No, this is the Waking World, as you call it."
"Dost thou wish to tell me what thou saw? Tis not required of thee."
"What did you see?"
"Nay, I cannot tell thee until I first hear thine. Tis the rule."
"Someone might fake an Awakening?"
"Mayhap. From the Dreaming, I saw thine eyes open, and thy form rise above shadow for a moment. But not all is as it seems, in the Dreaming."
"Nay. We shall soon see whether thou hast truly Awakened. When thou feel revived."
As late as they started, the four made good progress that afternoon, partly because the trees thinned into an open plain. Already Vala and Osiric, gazing across the plains, said they could see the edge of the Sathrib Marshes. Vala kept close to Rado; Osiric and Greystone shot him worried glances, although Rado suspected each had slightly different worries.
As they walked along, Vala taught him lessons, albeit not with the sword. "Seest thou yon rabbit?"
"Which way will it run?"
The answer came to Rado, although he did not know how. "Left. Its burrow is that way." And, as they approached, the rabbit bolted left.
Later, "Where is the nearest source of flowing water?"
Rado took a little while longer; it was neither thinking nor remembering, nor sight nor hearing, but another sense entirely. "Three leagues, ahead and to the right." And, three leagues later, they saw another stream to the right of them, fresh water gurgling across the rocks.
Later, on a patch of rocky ground, Vala said, "Close thy eyes, and keep walking." And Rado closed his eyes, and stepped across the sliding shale without missing a step ... in a strange way, the shale told him where it was.
They camped at sunset near a small grove of trees, and after they had eaten and rested a little, Vala took him aside for another sword lesson. "Let us see, then, whether Awakening has truly improved thy sword." She lunged, fast, faster than most humans could move but not her fastest.
Rado parried without even thinking, and goggled for a moment.
Vala grinned, "Aye, might be luck." She attacked, slicing and weaving, seemingly from all sides at once, and Rado could barely keep up. Even with her sword scabbarded, he knew a single hit could knock the wind out of him, and his shoulder already ached from the force of her blows.
In Rado's head, the thought arrived: She wants to play, does she?. After her constant and unrelenting comments on his swordsmanship, Rado felt the urge to make Vala pay. He ducked one of her swings, and jabbed upward; Vala blocked, and Rado effortlessly flicked his sword to clip her arm.
Vala leaped away. "Not bad, not bad." She counterattacked ferociously, but Rado could tell where she would be and blocked, riposted, used her block to push her momentarily off balance, barely missed hitting her in the head.
"Tis very good, Rado", Vala said, but Rado could hear the worry in her voice as he pressed his attack. He drove her toward a tree, never relenting in his attacks, dodging hers, using her parries to push her ever backwards. He wove a net of feints, real attacks, and counter-thrusts around her.
"Rado, enough! I wish not to hurt you!" Vala shouted, but Rado smelled the panic coming from her, and smiled as she pressed her back to the tree, unable to retreat any further. She still kept him at bay, but it would only be a matter of time. Now the mortal bitch gets hers, said a voice in his head, and part of Rado realized in horror that the voice was not his ... but he could not stop himself.
An opening, and then Rado knocked the sword from Vala's hand, and laid the edge of his scabbard against Vala's throat. "Culha vanoinen jesha, cullaich?" Rado said, though he knew not why.
Vala's eyes widened, and then narrowed. With a snarl she drove her forehead into Rado's face, twisted the sword out of his hands, and bore him to the ground. Her fist smashed into the side of his head; she knelt on his legs, and pinned both arms with her other hand. Through the ringing in his ears he could hear her calling his name, and she slapped him once, twice, three times.
"What? What happened?" Rado slurred, and Vala grabbed his jaw and peered into his eyes, as if she were gazing into the windows of an abandoned cottage. For a moment she look relieved, then a new panic seized her. She stood quickly, and fled back to the camp.
Rado groggily, painfully got to his feet, and followed her. At the camp, he saw Vala and Osiric in earnest conversation, with Greystone standing by, looking dismayed. All three stared at him in mingled fear, pity, and anger, and somehow that scared Rado far more than hearing voices.
Night had fallen, and Rado had come to rest underneath a curious tree with no branches, and broad leaves at the very top. He had begun seeing more of them as they travelled. Right now, though, any solid object to lean against would do.
Rado sat, and for a moment sensed pulsing life inside the tree, the slow vegetable processes of a thing that could easily outlive a man. Irritably he pushed the sensation aside, and concentrated on the recesses of his own head.
-- Anybody there? he asked.
After a long silence, Rado was a little disturbed to get an answer.
-- Yes. It is I.
-- And who are you, exactly.
-- I am you, but once I was once Daladhrien.
Rado could see him in his inner eye, the dream-self he became when he Awakened: tall, muscular, regal, with ancient robes and eyes shining like the moon. He sat, cross-legged, opposite Rado, like a mirror image.
-- I'm not anyone named Daladhrien. I'm Rado.
-- Once we were Daladhrien, leader of the Fae Host, most honored warrior, Lord of the Green --
-- You might have been all that, but I'm Rado Kalderash, I mean Coppersmith, the runaway Traveller, who loves Vala, the Dreaming Princess.
-- That filthy barbarian, a Princess? Do not make me laugh. Elethon must have been mad ...
-- That's history. And you're history. The Fae passed away, all of them.
-- No, I am reborn again, in you. You must continue --
-- I don't have to continue anything. This is my life now, and I will not let you hurt the woman I love. Your time is over; your grudges died with you.
-- We are inseparable. I am you, the forgotten self you remembered when you Awakened in the Dreaming.
-- I don't CARE! Listen to me very carefully, forgotten self. I love Vala. I will not hurt her again. I would throw myself over a cliff rather than hurt her again ... taking you with me. If I could forget you again, I would ... and I just might ask Vala or Osiric how.
-- You would not ... you cannot ...
-- Oh, I would, fey Lord of the Fae. You had your life. This is my life now. Now shut the hell up and let me take care of it.
-- You need my guidance, my skill, my wisdom ...
-- When I need it I'll ask for it. Until then, stay quiet. Are we absolutely, perfectly clear?
There was a pause, and then a mental whisper:
-- ... yes ...
Rado took a deep breath, and opened his eyes. He could feel the presence, no, the memory of Daladhrien of the Fae settling in his mind, filed away like a leaf pressed in a book. He knew he truly was Daladhrien once, but he now was Rado, and that he preferred to be Rado, as foolish and clumsy as the person called Rado was.
"Rado?" Vala called, softly, as she were not entirely sure.
"Oh, hello Vala. Please, have a seat. I'm just sitting here, talking to myself."
Vala sat, cautiously, as if prepared to run or strike at any moment.
"Vala, I'm sorry." Rado blurted it out; he meant to say it more eloquently, more sincerely, but the look of hurt and confusion on Vala's face robbed him of all clever speech. "I don't know what happened. Well, I sort of do know what happened, but I don't understand why ..."
"Let me tell thee. The Fae Lord Daladhrien has possessed thee somehow. Tis not so?"
"He says he's part of me, that I'm him reborn or something. But he promises not to come out until ..." Rado's words trailed off; a new look of horror had dawned on Vala's face.
"Oh, Elethon," she whispered. "What hast thou done?"
"I don't understand any of this ..."
Vala gazed into his eyes, and controlled herself. "Before I slept, Elethon spake to me, and promised the Fae would disappear from history, but arise again. At the time I knew not what he meant. But now ... it is said among my people that when a man dies, his soul wanders the underworld until it finds the River of Forgetfulness. It then drinks of the water, and travels up it to its source. When it reaches the source, it is reborn into another body. Perhaps tis but a tale, but ..."
"But what if the Fae could somehow avoid forgetfulness, be reborn in a mortal form. Daladhrien said he only came forward after my Awakening."
"No other spirit latched on to thee; I made sure of that. Tis truth, I ken."
"So the Fae are reborn in human bodies? What if they never Awaken?"
"I have suspicions on that too, but I shall say nought until I learn more."
Rado was less than happy with that answer, but he let it drop. "Who was this Daladhrien, anyhow. He doesn't think much of you."
"Arrogant martinet," Vala spat. "Would not accept my leadership until I defeated him in combat, which I did right handily. Even then, he grumbled ever ... about my human birth, about my misunderstanding of Fae manners, about any small imperfections." Vala affected a haughty, musical voice. "'Ah, does the little barbarian not know the ilkoaw form? P'raps if I have naught better to do, I shall teach it to her.' Faugh!"
"Thou art blameless. Twas before thou were born."
"So he was jealous of you. Maybe he thought he should have been in command." As the words left his mouth, he knew for a certainty Daladhrien had been intensely jealous.
"Twere all jealous, or contemptuous. All Fae looked upon me as a hairy barbarian. In this age, the Fae art remembered as fair and virtuous, aye?"
"Yeah, more or less."
"Even in my time, Fae would hunt a man who trespassed on their domains as if he were nought but a beast. Many a kinsman wandered into the wrong field or forest, and never returned. At least Ogres marked their lands. So, no kindness had I from the Fae, save from Elethon and Melangell."
"Melangell? Who was he?"
"She, thou meanest?" Vala smiled fondly. "Twas the seeress of the Fae, greatest in the Old World save for Elethon. I loved her dearly."
Vala made a face. "As a sister. Aye, 'friend' seemeth too feeble a word. I met her first when the Fae gave a ball, following the retreat of Chulkatoth's minions ... premature, it seemed then, and truly I was right. Fae danced in the center of the Great Hall at Tolathriel, clad in shimmering garb I had never known the like of; the whole hall seemed made of light. And there I sat, crouched in the corner, eating what little food I knew aught of. They say that once thou tasteth Fae food thou wilt never leave, but tis only because it isn't fit for mortal stomachs and would likely kill thee.
"And then a Fae maid -- all looked like maids or young princes, to be sure -- a Fae maid with long raven hair and shining golden eyes stands before me, and asks if I am Vala verch Govannon, the Chosen One. I make myself presentable as best I can, and say aye.
"And she sayeth unto me, 'Thou art more exalted than any prince in this hall. Would thou dance with me?' And, before I could say aught, she tows me into the center of the floor and dances with me in the Fae style, which I know naught of, even to this day. Yet she tolerates crushed toes and missed steps, and acts as if a maid in coarse skins were the finest silk-clad prince in the hall. At the end, she curtseys, and says, 'Twas truly an honor, and an experience I shall not forget ... nor care to repeat'. She smiled though, as if at a joke between us, and she pulled me into the chair beside her, and we talked into the night."
"You sure you were just sisters?"
Vala rolled her eyes. "Thou art truly a man. To return to my tale ... I saw her oft when I returned to Tolathriel, and even when Tolathriel lay in ruins we would meet sometimes, in the Waking World or Dreaming. Never said she an unkind word, save about my dancing. When I heard the tidings later, I grieved."
"Surely you ... ah, nay, Osiric might. Melangell is called the Mad Seer now, though it near maddens me to hear it. Some cruel vision given to her, or ill meeting in the Dreaming, must have broken her mind. She spoke nonsense, and acted queerly ... once she even tried to stab Elethon through the heart with an iron knife. After that, they sealed her in the tower at Kuracluan, and fed her only through a small slot in the door. Once I came there to see her, and heard only screams and the most horrible words. I left then, my heart breaking ... and now my heart breaks, that I was such a coward."
"Your life back then must have been an unending hell."
"Nay, not unending. Twere moments I would cherish forever ... but aye, most I would forget. Art thou well now?"
"Sure. If I start speaking Fae again, though, just hit first and ask questions later."
"Aye, I shall."
"What did he say to you, by the way?"
"I would take your leave not to repeat it."
"That bad, huh?"
In the morning, Vala tested Rado's swordsmanship cautiously, making sure it was only Rado's. Surprisingly, except for the aggression, it was nearly as good as Daladhriel's.
They moved quickly that day, to make up for lost time, and rested only a little while at midday. With Sathrib in sight, the travel seemed less onerous, and Osiric once again burst into full pedantry. Only Greystone still seemed dour. In the evening, Osiric sighted some sort of encampment off to the east. Vala sensed a large number of people and decided to head that way. Rado sensed a mass of living things, but he felt an eerie familiarity; he went along, reluctantly.
It was close to the evening of the next day when the camp came within human sight, and Rado noted with dismay the circled wagons of dark wood, painted with silver runes, and the tents of black, crimson, and deepest blue. To him, it looked like nearly the whole clan had gathered; he even noted a few of the gold-trimmed wagons of Karim's branch of the tribe, and one of the Estari wagons, bright gold with black runes. Only the King could have gathered that many Parhee together at once.
In the largest gap between wagons, almost like a makeshift gate, sat a gatekeeper: Baba Marra, one of the elders of Rado's tribe. Seemingly unchanged by the years, she still wore the same faded rose-colored blouse, the same blue-gray skirt, the same red head-scarf hiding iron gray hair. Her toothless gums clenched the same foul-smelling pipe, and she sat there on an empty crate, watching the world go by. As the group approached, she took the pipe out of her mouth and said, "Hola, strangers ..." and then her squinting eyes went wide.
"That's not our Rado, is it? Back after all these years? Where you been, boy?"
"And ye've brought gadje -- er, guests. An Unseener, and a person of the ogrish persuasion, if my old eyes don't deceive me. Is he tame?"
Over Osiric's angry response, Rado said, "He doesn't eat people, if that's what you mean. He won't hurt anyone who doesn't aim to hurt us."
"That's fine, boy, that's fine. And who's your lady friend. Some Drochlunder barbarian, although she's got a Kymric cast ..." Again her eyes went wide, and, unprecedented in Rado's lifetime, Baba Marra stood and bowed. "Forgive me, my lady. I meant no disrespect."
"Thou knoweth me?"
"A witch of the Old Ways, of a power I've never seen the like of. Any more than that Baba Marra will not say."
"As thou wishest."
Rado interrupted. "Did the King bring you here?"
"Yep, he called us to winter here this year. Don't see why; it's a barren spot, with naught but swamp water we have to boil to make drinkable. But the King has his reasons."
"Where is he?"
"Rado Kalderash, asking for the King? Ye've changed, boy; you used to be scared of him. I've seen naught of him; perhaps he's been delayed. But Lazlo and Aliya are in the northeast corner; they'd be glad to see you." Baba Marra grinned, and added, "Not to mention --" She stopped, and looked from Rado to Vala and back, shrewdly. "And an old friend, too," she finished lamely. "Aliya's likely making dinner now; she'd love a chance to feed you up. If your ogre doesn't eat the whole dinner hisself." Baba Marra cackled.
"Look here, madam," Osiric began, but Rado took him by the arm.
"I thank thee, grandam," Vala said.
"And blessings be upon you all," Baba Marra replied. Seemingly losing interest in the group, but watching them still with her squinting eyes, she sat and puffed on her pipe.
Rado led the others into the camp. Unlike the Kolari, the Parhee practiced their special arts inside, and close up. Those outside either watched the children play, or simply stared at the clouds. A few coppersmiths, blacksmiths, and weavers plied their trade in the chilling air. All watched the group with mild interest.
On an impulse Rado closed his eyes, and opened his other eyes. The children glowed dully, full of life but with no real presence in the Dreaming. Osiric and Greystone, too, looked like shifting patterns of faint light, and he could almost see Osiric's annoyance giving way to keen interest, and Greystone's frosty disapproval. But the adult Parhee ... there was an aura, a presence, like pale moonlight, or the light of a firefly grown to human size; he could feel them watching him with other sets of eyes as well.
He turned to Vala, and was nearly blinded by a light like the sun behind clouds. Like a physical blow he felt her wariness, her sadness, her scars deeper than mere flesh, her fitfully stirring anguish at a world lost ... and her love for a new world untroubled by war, and ... her love for him. Rado opened his waking eyes.
"You look pensive," Rado said.
"Aye, I have strange thoughts, and sad ones. If my guess be right, I shall tell the of them."
After a few false turns in the maze of wagons, Rado finally came to a familiar wagon, and a familiar face: a husky, elderly woman stirring a kettle. At the sight of Rado, she dropped her ladle and waddled over as fast as her legs would carry her; she grabbed Rado in a bear hug, half-sobbing, "Rado, child, you've come home at last."
"I missed you, Baba Aliya," Rado replied, and he did not realize how deeply he did until he said it. A flood of memories came back: a delicious smelling stew pot even in lean times, a gentle kiss on his forehead at night, stern words when needed, kind words when deserved ...
"Let me look at you boy," Baba Aliya said, pulling away almost reluctantly and standing back. "Still thin as ever, I see." She looked at the others. "And you bring guests ..." She stopped, and stared at Vala, and Rado knew she wasn't looking with ordinary eyes.
"Where's Tati Lazlo?"
"Oh, it's his turn to watch ... watch Yamina for a while. They're out in the fields."
"Rado!" shrieked a happy voice close by, and as he turned a woman slammed into him, nearly knocking him off his feet, and threw his arms around him. He got a face full of tangled curly black hair, and the soft, curvy shape in his arms felt unfamiliar. Yet he knew who he would see when she pulled away ...
Yamina took her face out of his shoulder, and looked at him with bright, childlike eyes, as emerald as ever. She had grown from a coltish teenager into a truly beautiful woman. "Rado, you've come back!" She grinned happily, and then sighted Vala. For a moment she looked confused, and then she swept toward Vala like a queen. "Vala, my sister, how I have longed to see you again!" She wrapped the surprised Vala in a loving embrace.
"Erm ... do I know thee?"
Yamina looked at Vala with amused surprise. "Dost thou know me? Remember thou that dreadful party at Tolathriel? Thou wert the brightest spot in that whole glavannisa affair, even with thy uncouth manners -- nay, because of thy uncouth manners! I had not seen Beriel so disconcerted since the beginning of the world! And now thou hast joined us again, so close to the end ..." Yamina's voice trailed off; she looked confused, angry, and Rado saw the signs of another of her fits coming on ... and then Yamina became an overgrown child. "Look," she grinned, holding out flowers that had been clenched in her fist and battered by two passionate embraces. "I picked these for you!"
Vala took them wordlessly, staring at Yamina with concern and sorrow.
Rado noted the distraught expression on Baba Aliya's face. Before he could say anything, Tati Lazlo jogged around the corner of the wagon, panting, "The girl got away from me again. I think she came ..." He stopped, and stared at Rado, at Osiric, at Greystone, and finally at Vala. He looked like he might kneel.
Aliya recovered her composure and said sharply, "We have guests, husband."
Rado made introductions, and they all sat down to eat. Vala and the others agreed to stay the night. Vala talked long with Aliya and Lazlo, nodding grimly, as if a suspicion were confirmed. Rado and Osiric played with Yamina as if she were still a little girl, although sometimes she would act like a woman on the threshhold of adulthood, and sometimes much older.
Greystone chose to stay outside; he said he could not abide the "heathen symbols" inside the wagon: a few Southlander idols, a Drochlund dreamcatcher, a Kymric circle, some protective runes. To Rado, they were mere decorations, gathered in travels across the known world. Osiric confided that some of the runes on the outsides of wagons, Drochlunder and Theran and Kymric and old Dalchean, said things like "Four bales of chick-peas" and "Do not urinate in the alley".
In the morning, they prepared to depart, but Yamina grabbed Rado's sleeve and towed him across the grasslands behind the wagon. Rado asked what she was doing several times, but she merely smiled impishly and shook her head. The look on Vala's face as they left haunted Rado on the whole trip: concern, sadness, and perhaps a hint of jealousy.
At last Yamina stopped on a slight hill, where stood a strange tree whose roots rose from the ground. Yamina said, "You love her, don't you?"
"Who? I ... uh ..."
"Don't treat me like a child," Yamina pouted, stamping her foot. "Why does everyone treat me like a child?" She muttered, "I am no child, nor am I a fool. I see farther than you can. I have beheld the future; it smells of blood, screams until I cannot bear it ..." Rado grabbed her arm, thinking she would go into another fit, but Yamina pushed him away irittably. "It's still not here, and I can turn away."
"Our future is that bleak."
Yamina stared at him as if he were an idiot. "There are many futures. One of fear, one of joy, one tommorrow just like yesterday. One where you and Vala live happily ever after."
"Yamina, look, I --"
"It's all right, Rado. I understand. I'm not ... whole ... not well. I don't know whether I'm a princess dreaming she's a Traveller, or a Traveller dreaming she's a princess. Maybe I'm a butterfly, dreaming she's a Traveller dreaming she's a princess. Maybe there's no Yamina, and that would be good because there would be no Yamina to hurt ..." Tears rolled from her emerald eyes, and Rado drew her close.
"Yamina, I'm sorry, I'm sorry."
"Do you love her?"
"Yes. I'm sorry."
"I love you. And I love her. So you have nothing to be sorry about." Yamina pulled away, and smiled through her tears. "Love her, and cherish her, so long as you both shall live. I'll bring you flowers."
Rado glanced back at her wagon, and noticed Osiric trying to attract his attention, and Vala standing with her arms folded. "Uh, I think its time we got going."
Yamina nodded, and ambled back, stopping only to pick two wildflowers.
Vala looked at Yamina, then Rado, then back to Yamina. "Saying farewell, were you not?"
"For now." She handed Vala and Rado each a wildflower. "Take care, and gods go with you."
Vala's face softened. "No gods abide now, sister. But be well."
Lazlo handed Rado his pack, and said, "Fare well, Rado. We will pray for your safety, even if no gods hear it."
Aliya hugged him, crying, and said, "Remember, you will always have a place here, child."
Dreamily, Yasmina said, "Vala, my sister, remember, whatever road you take, you too will always find rest here."
Osiric bowed to both Lazlo and Aliya, and all three went to pick up Greystone, sleeping under a tree outside the den of heathens.
Carefully the four picked their way through the marshes of Sathrib, Vala in the lead. She used a stick to probe the land ahead, to make sure it was solid.
Greystone smirked and said, "Why not use your witchery to find the safest path."
"The land desireth not to reveal its true nature," Vala replied. "Why not pray to your god for a path?"
"I would not pray for such a frivolous thing."
"Frivolous?" Vala asked, then decided to let the matter drop.
Osiric spoke what was on everyone's mind. "We are but four, Lady Vala, and we know not the numbers of the enemy."
"Mayhap we will find allies."
Rado goggled. "In this swamp? There are people here?"
"People, mayhap. If they yet abide here." Abruptly she smiled. "Aye, and they do."
From the waters on either side rose six towering forms. Each looked like some sort of giant reptile balanced on its two hind legs. In powerful forelegs ending in prehensile claws, each carried a club studded with flint points. All six wore leather harnesses, from which dangled pouches, flint knives, and tools Rado could not identify.
Rado, Osiric, and Greystone drew their weapons, but Vala raised her hands and said "Peace," and took a slight step forward. She made disturbing rasping, coughing, and hissing sounds, and then waited.
An uncomfortable silence passed.
"Mayhap they understood not my speech," Vala frowned.
"Or perhaps it was your accent," Osiric offered.
At last one, the largest, stepped forward. It had heavier jaws than the rest, and its scales were greener and more irridescent than the greenish-gray of its compatriots. The lips of its dangerous-looking snout seemed pulled back into a sneer, revealing a row of huge sharp teeth that put Osiric to shame; its orange slitted eyes, set more forward than on an ordinary reptile, narrowed. It barked and rasped a short reply, but one of its compatriots rasped something that sounded like an objection.
Vala rasped something else, but the leader made a slicing gesture. Rado let his waking eyes unfocus, and opened his other eyes; he sensed contempt, and arrogance, and a frustrated ambition.
The other reptileman, in annoyance, raised a wooden cylinder to its mouth and blew a loud, mournful note. The leader grabbed the cylinder away, and cracked it in its powerful claws ... but the damage, whatever it had been, was done. They all stood still, waiting; Vala looked perfectly at ease.
Within a few minutes another reptileman rounded a hillock, and ambled down the stretch of land. Rado noted how their legs, jointed somewhat like a birds, gave them a strangely graceful, prancing gait; their huge tails helped them keep their balance. This one was also fairly large, and indicated strength without the bulk of the brown one; his scales were a muddier brown, with a black diamond shape slightly off-center on his forehead.
When the newcomer got within a few paces, he fitted a strange wooden contraption into his mouth, and said, in a rough but intelligible Sarkannian, "Leave here. These are the lands of the" -- hiss, cough, rasp, cough -- ", who are the Keepers of the Sathrib. You have no business here."
"Nay, indeed we do, as I told this" -- hiss, long rasp, cough.
The others stepped backward, except for the green one, who stepped forward as if to rip her head from her body, and the brown one, who put a claw on the green one's bicep, and said, "You speak the old speech, human."
"Aye, and many others besides. I seek the Black Temple of --"
"Shah! Say not the name. It is an evil name, and if it is what you seek go now. We will not permit any near it."
"Yet at least now one crouches within it, with an intent that freezes my blood. I have seen it within the Dreaming."
The brown one's eyes narrowed. "And who are you, that ventures into the Land of Ghosts?"
"I am Vala, called the Dreaming Princess, or" -- a long sequence of reptilian sounds.
The green one began to argue, but the brown one made a cutting gesture. "A bold claim, human female, and one I am not fit to judge. We will take you to our elder." The brown one reacted with incredulity, but relayed the order to its subordinates, who also seemed dismayed. Rado looked at the brown one's harness, and found a contraption like the one the green one put in his mouth. So you could speak to us after all, he thought, and filed away the information for future reference.
Flanked by eight creatures, each twice even Osiric's size, they walked through the marshes of Sathrib.
At the end of the marshy, muddy road, the procession ended at what Rado had at first taken for a ridge of small hillocks or moss-overgrown trees. In fact, Rado realized he beheld a small village, bustling with reptile folk of all sizes. Some were little taller than a five-year old child, albeit built far more powerfully, while others were nearly the size of the brown and green leaders. They knotted nets, carved wood, chipped flint; one toted an armful of fruit to a large hut, and others removed pieces of fruit in ones or twos.
Out of a tall but tiny hut near the edge of the village, a huge reptileman, taller even than his doorway, crawled out on all fours, then stood up with the help of a thick branch. His limbs, thicker than treetrunks, nevertheless seemed unable to bear his weight, and his chest heaved with each breath. For all his size, and apparent ability to rip even the large reptilemen asunder, Rado thought he looked weak and frail.
The green one snarled out an explanation, and then the brown one spat out the wooden apparatus and gave his own report. The huge reptileman, his scales bluish grey and irridescent, bent down -- painfully, to Rado's eyes -- and squinted at Vala. It palmed its own apparatus, opened its huge fang-rimmed jaws to fit it in properly, and then said, in a strangely creaky voice, "You are the Chosen, are you?"
"I am," Vala said. "These are my compatriots, Rado Kalderash of the Parhee, Osiric of the Ogres, and Sir Glynn Greystone, follower of an unseen god."
"Finally," grumbled Greystone. "And it's THE Unseen God."
The large one rumbled, almost like a giant cat's purr. "The prophecy did not mention them. But you are all welcome, for now. Our names are hard for most humans -- and ogres -- to say, so call me Second Eldest, and these ... hmmm ... First Speaker and Strong Hunter." Second Eldest gestured to the brown and the green, respectively.
The brown one, Strong Hunter, rasped something, and Second Eldest said, "We have not had guests for a long time, and if they speak truly, we must treat them with all courtesy. If they speak falsely, we will teach them not to mock the Guardians." Rado did not like the sound of that last part. "We have ways to know the Chosen. If you deny now that you are she, I promise you safe conduct out of Sathrib."
"I deny it not; I am Vala verch Govannon, known among Oanneans as the Chosen. Bring forth the mask of Kardur, if that be thy proof."
Even on the reptilian face, Rado saw surprise, and sensed approval. "It is. Bring it, First Speaker." First Speaker walked into the hut, and a moment later walked out with an obsidian mask, little more than an oval about the height and width of a human head, and one and a half thumbs' depth; in his other talon he bore a clay jar. Second Elder poured some of the contents of the jar into the concave part of the mask, swirled it around, and peered at the contents. He handed the mask to Vala, who bowed, pressed the mask to her face, and held it there for a few minutes.
After a hundred heartbeats, Vala removed the mask and presented it to First Speaker; to Rado's shock, her face looked as if it were coated in blood. Second Eldest and First Speaker peered at Vala's face, and conferred for a moment. Brave Hunter looked on, disdainfully.
"And what is the purpose of this mummery?" Greystone asked.
Osiric rolled his eyes. "You really do not comprehend? It is the only proof that would suffice, especially for a non-humanoid species."
"We are satisfied," Second Eldest said, at last. "Welcome, Chosen One."
Vala smirked at Greystone, and said "Thou art a ninny." She snatched the mask from First Speaker, and thrust it into the muddy ground. She removed it, leaving behind a perfect image of her face.
The Reptilemen agreed to send two guides along with Vala's scouting mission: First Speaker, who could talk to humans, and Swift Hunter, who had ventured closest to the ruined temple. As the group prepared to head out again, Second Eldest hobbled to Vala and spoke with her in his native tongue. Vala, already burning with impatience, rolled her eyes and protested in the same language, but finally nodded her head.
Rado looked to Osiric, who said, "I know only about their language; I have no understanding of the language."
Vala stalked toward the rest of the group, scowling. "The children of Oannes have yet another task for us, ere we go."
Rado said, "But I thought they already accepted you as the Chosen."
"Second Eldest said" -- Vala briefly coughed and hissed -- "so tis a task, not a test."
"What kind of task?" Osiric asked.
Vala shrugged. "If thou art so curious, come and see. Rado, Glynn, pack only what we need. We shall be but a day." Vala stalked off, Osiric catching up.
As Osiric drew beside her, he whispered, "Why me? Why not Rado?"
"Couldst thou wrestle a Reptileman?"
"Not well. You suspect treachery?"
"I suspect all things. Tis what kept me alive."
Beyond a small thicket of trees waited a greyish-green Reptileman. They followed him a few hundred paces to a river of clear water, stretching beyond the horizon, and presumably to the sea. On the nearer shore stood three upright posts, carven with caricatures of reptilemen and strange chimerae. Beside each post stood a Reptileman with a wooden club in each hand, standing silently, waiting as if for a signal.
Behind Vala and Osiric hobbled Second Eldest. He regarded Osiric briefly, rasped something to Vala, and then raised his hand.
The three Reptilemen drummed a complicated three-part rhythm on the posts, which sounded hollow. The sound rippled water, thrummed through the earth, shook Osiric's teeth ... and yet he heard little noise. The sound was at the lowest limit of his hearing; he wondered if Vala could hear it at all.
In a few minutes, the water rippled as if something huge had swum upstream. Waves lapped the riverbank, and Second Eldest dropped his arm. The three drummers stopped, and backed away. Osiric looked to Vala, who looked puzzled but unafraid.
A last surge of waves, and then something surfaced. For a moment thought of a giant rock, or a small island ... and then details resolved: an eye, a nostril, an expanse of black scaly hide, a symmetrical outline. Osiric had seen crocodiles before, but not one that big. And the shape was wrong: the snout too short, the skull behind the eyes too long and high, the limbs too thick.
Second Eldest walked painfully to the nearest post, unstoppered a hole, and howled down it, a long, modulated cry punctuated by coughs and clicks. The creature swam forward a little, its eyes scanning the shore, and finally locking on Vala. It moved slightly, and Osiric saw a crosshatched scar just under the eye.
Vala's mouth dropped open, and she rasped a word in Reptile-speech. She walked forward, entranced, and stopped at the water's edge.
The creature stood upright for a moment, its head and shoulders blotting the sun, water sheeting down its sides. It was a Reptileman grown monstrous, forearms grown and fused into flippers, legs thick as an ancient tree and yet insufficient to support its bulk for long. It posed for a moment, standing erect like its land-walking brethren, then crashed back into the river. A wave of water drenched all on the shore.
Oblivious, Vala waded into the water, toward the mouth that could have swallowed her whole. She caressed the creatures snout, and rasped a few more words of Reptile. Then, in Sarkannian, she said, "You were but waist-high when you joined my army, Little Shadow."
Second Eldest added, "A thousand years ago you told the Old One to wait for your return. He has waited, as his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren died on land or grew forgetful in the sea. He has waited until he received new orders from you, his commanding officer."
Vala looked at the creature with pity. "Thou hast discharged thy duty, Little Shadow. Thou art relieved of duty. Go forward, and live as thou deem best."
Another sound vibrated through earth and water, one with the rhythm of speech. The Old One submerged, and teltale ripples followed it as it swam out to the sea.
Vala stared after it until all ripples ceased, then she waded ashore.
Six journeyed, then, to the unholy temple: Vala, Rado, Osiric, Sir Glynn Greystone, Swift Hunter, and First Speaker. Swift Hunter and Vala lead, with the two other humans behind, and Osiric and First Speaker taking rear guard.
Rado swore they had passed the same clump of trees, the same rock, the same foul-smelling moorlands at least three times. Sometimes he just swore. He thought of speaking to Greystone or Osiric or Vala, some light banter to pass the time, but all three looked grim. First Speaker, as far as he could tell, also looked tense, and Swift Hunter's body language, half strut and half angry stalk, warned him against trying to start a conversation there.
As a ruined stone spire rose above the scrub and hillocks, the group slowed and drifted toward cover. Vala and Osiric could see nothing, and neither Reptileman could smell anything on the air. As far as Rado could tell, the place looked deserted, and he could see why.
Rado thought nothing could look grimmer than the blocky temples of Gilash, but the squat basalt construct ahead proved him wrong. It crouched like a beast, with two broken tower bases riven clawlike into the earth, and a central dome like a cracked skull defiling the sky. The highest surviving tower had broken off halfway, and leaned markedly, threatening to collapse at any moment.
Cautiously they approached, and horrible details resolved themselves: bas reliefs of skulls and horrifying demonic creatures crawling up the towers, carvings of strange and disquieting chimeras leering from the dome's edge, distorted and dismembered human figures writhing around the cavernous hole that had once been a cyclopean gate. Rado found himself wondering if the size of the doors indicated architectural excess, or a necessary opening for something six times the height of a man and five times the width.
Vala took position on one side of the door, Greystone on the other. Cautiously they peered inside, and after a moment Vala sighed and walked inside casually. Greystone, Osiric, and Rado followed, hesitantly, with the two Reptilemen guarding the rear.
"Nothing", Vala sighed, standing already in the middle of the floor.
Rado tripped over rubble as he stepped forward, and he stayed put until his eyes got used to the gloom. In a moment he made out a pitted floor strewn with rubble and the mercifully shattered fragments of hideous statues. At the far end was a steep flight of steps, also strewn with rubble, and a platform far above Rado's head; it looked empty, from where he stood, but the shadows were deepest there.
Greystone snorted. "All this way for nothing."
"I do hope not," a voice echoed. The sound of flint against steel, a small light, and then Rado made out a black-cloaked figure lighting black candles on the four corners of the platform. "I have been waiting here nearly two months. I would hate to think it was in vain."
Something about the voice chilled Rado's blood. As if in confirmation of the answer forming in Rado's mind, the figure threw back its hood, and Rado saw the familiar white hair, the dark hawklike features ...
"Lord Elethon?" Vala asked. "My Lord Elethon, hast thou stopped the opening of the Black Gate?"
"Far from it," Rado groaned.
"Indeed, young Rado. Sometimes your reason rises above your stubbornness, unlike others chivalry prevents me from mentioning. I have come not to close the gate, but to open it. And the means has finally come into my grasp."
"What?" Vala gasped, weakly.
"Have your finely-honed tactical plans not considered this? No matter; except for Melangell, even the Fae failed to consider the possibility."
"You would ... open the Black Gate?" Vala still attempted to understand that one fact.
"Well, it would not be the first time."
"YOU!" Osiric bellowed. "YOU opened the Black Gate?"
"Oh, yes." Elethon, once called Isvan, chuckled. "I hope you will excuse me for placing blame on others, my ogrish friend. If I'm not mistaken, your next question will be 'why', yes? So predictable, the lesser species. Well, I shall tell you: I was bored.
"Yes, bored. Have you any idea how tedious those days were? The petty intrigues of the Fae court, the smug comfort of Reptilemen, the posturing of Djinn, and yes the ceaseless cruelty of Ogres? All the elder races so disorganized, so aimless, so ... ah, what's the word? Untidy. Yes, untidy.
"So, I thought, perhaps a common enemy would unite them ... an insidious enemy, a challenging enemy, one that would require all their talents. Alas, I underestimated the Daemons, and overestimated the elder peoples. Yet the Daemon Wars succeeded even better than I dreamed, for it cleared away the stagnant cultures and made way for the Era of Mankind. Petty mortals, and yet surely the brevity of their lives, their awareness of their own weakness would unite them against a pitiless and hostile cosmos? Hah, it was not to be. Humanity is a deep disappointment.
"Well, if it worked once, it might work again. Exterminate the stagnant nations of man, as arrogant as their predecessors with so little cause. Give another species their turn: goblins perhaps, or ... yes, maybe the Reptilemen will rise again. They might learn from their mistakes, after all."
"You're mad," Rado breathed.
"Hah, hardly. I am the wisest, sanest being in the world. All the sagas say so. Trust me when I tell you man is not fit to live. Give the Daemons another century of dominion, and after a few centuries we shall see another civilization arise that just might get it right. Well, I shall see, at any rate."
"... not again ..." Vala whispered.
Phrases drifted through Rado's mind:
... Father stood in the thick of the man-monsters ...
... the center seal was mine ...
... she screamed, and a froglike head engulfed her to the waist ...
... the seals of departed warriors whose will kept that foul portal closed ...
... as long as I live, no other child will lose her girlhood, much less her life, to some thing from the Outer Dark ...
Rado shouted and charged forward, but his foot caught on a stone skull and he slammed into the ground. As he raised his head, he saw Vala hurtling up the stairs, sword drawn, howling in fury.
Time slowed, and Rado's limbs moved as if they were trapped in mud. He stood and watched ...
... as Elethon drew his own sword, and parried Vala's wild strike effortlessly ...
... as Vala pressed forward, her face a tear-stained mask of rage, her sword seeking to strike off Elethon's head, cleave him asunder, hack him into chunks of meat ...
... as Elethon's sword ducked under Vala's guard and drove straight through her chest, tenting her cloak in the back, blood streaming from the hilt to the floor in a torrent as Vala's mouth and eyes widened in shock and horror ...
... as Vala's body tumbled down the stairs as easily as down a hillside, each step battering her face, snapping her limbs ...
... as Osiric and Greystone charged up the stairs, far slower than Vala or Elethon moved ...
... as, behind him, First Speaker took two steps forward, only to have Swift Hunter snarl something and sink his fangs into First Speaker's shoulder ...
... as Elethon shattered Greystone's sword and slashed him savagely in the side, then dodged away from Osiric's weaving axe blade to drive his sword into Osiric's gut, then kick him off the sword-point and off the platform ...
... as Vala's body rolled to a stop, practically at Rado's feet.
Rado knelt and stroked Vala's ruined face, and two strong, scarred arms kneaded bread. The sound of a door opening, and the vision shifted to a doorway, with a tall, angular man entering, and Vala stood and rushed forward with outstretched arms
A foolish dream, whispered a voice in Rado's ear, yet mayhap one shared. Remember me, and kill the bastard. Rado felt a faint breeze, like a gentle caress, and then something left the world.
Rado stood, and glared up at Elethon. Slowly he mounted the stairs.
The sounds of an approaching storm could not drown out Yamina's screams.
Aliya and Lazlo sat under a tarp outside their wagon, hands clapped over their ears, weeping. They had tried to stay with Yamina during this latest fit, calm her, simply reach her ... all in vain. They tied her to her bed so she wouldn't hurt herself, but they could not bring themselves to gag her. At last, they no longer stand her expression of terror, the wild eyes that seemed to behold something beyond human endurance ... so they left.
Amid the screams were phrases in Sarkannian, Traveller Argot, and Fae: "Black Gate", "traitor to Creation", "the blasphemous voices", "sister is dead", "puppet of the Uncreated", "the last seal" ... and, over and over again, "blind me!", "kill me!", "make it stop!" ...
After a seeming eternity, Lazlo stood, drew his knife, and took a step toward the wagon. Aliya grabbed his knife arm, dragging him back. They shared a look of mutual anguish, then Lazlo flung the knife away and sat down again.
Aliya patted her husband's arm. "Wait for the King," she crooned. "He'll know what to do."
Rado mounted the stairs, slowly, carefully. Above him, Elethon gestured and passed the blood-stained sword over the floor, chanting. A hellish blood-red glow rose from the floor; his impassive face looked like a demonic death-mask, not like that of a living human being.
In the depths of his mind, he asked, Are you with me, Lord Daladhrien?. Something responded, Aye.
Rado mounted the last step. At his feet, the blood of Vala and Greystone had run into grooves in the basalt slab, forming a glowing circle of eldritch glyphs surrounding a seven-eyed caricature of a face.
"Ah, young Rado", Elethon smiled, for a moment resembling the Isvan Czigny everyone else knew. "Or is it Lord Daladhrien? Yes, I remember that expression of perpetual affront. I had always fancied you would see the world the way I do ... ah well." Elethon flicked the last few drops of blood off his sword. "Shall we get this over with?"
Daladhrien drew his sword in an instant and parried Elethon's first lunge instinctively. Daladhrien thrust at Elethon's eyes, but he leaped back lightly and slashed toward Daladhrien's neck. Daladhrien started to guard, but recognized the feint and just barely dodged the attempt to sever his sword-arm.
Elethon circled and smiled, avoiding the channels of blood. "You have not taken possession for long, Lord Daladhrien, and in the end he is but a clumsy boy. My Awakening was sixty years ago, and my limbs are as strong as they were in my youth. The seals are already broken. What do you really think you can do, eh?"
Daladhrien lunged, binding Elethon's sword ... and Rado's left hand thrust a dagger under Elethon's ribcage and into his heart.
Elethon tottered for a moment, looking bemusedly at the hilt protruding from his solar plexus, then tumbled backward. Rado/Daladhrien followed him down and, kneeling on his chest, grabbed his spirit. He/they spread his/their wings and soared into the Dreaming.
Rado held Elethon's spirit tightly as Fae wings bore them up the trunk of the World Tree. Already Elethon's dying spirit was disintegrating, shreds and shards spiralling away like mist, joining with the Stream of Life; Elethon's wings, little more than a few feathers on bone, beat furiously but ineffectually. Daladhrien knew that if Elethon's spirit shell disintegrated, his soul would fade and rejoin the Cycle of Rebirth, still encysting all that made Elethon Elethon. They did not have much time.
Daladhrien found the dead limb; Rado remembered Vala's tale, but Daladhrien had closed the Gate a millenium ago. Together, the composite entity that thought of itself mainly as Rado followed the limb, and settled on the obsidian platform before the Black Gate.
"What are you doing?" the dying Elethon whispered. Already most of his spirit-substance had decayed, and only mist-shrouded bones remained. "Let me go. I give you my word as a kinsman I will not try this again ... take me away from here ..."
The Gate had already opened halfway. The last seals lay strewn across the floor -- a small and barely living one with the Reptile rune on it, and Vala's broken one.
With a roar of rage, Rado hurled Elethon's disintegrating spirit through the Black Gate. Elethon's soul screamed -- a scream cut short by a snap of jaws.
One ruby eye shone in the darkness within the gate. who are you? a gurgling voice asked.
"Uh ... no one," Rado replied quickly. He gathered up the fragments of broken seals and kneaded them in his hands.
is it time? the thing beyond the gate asked. Rado could see a suggestion of a shape, and even that gave him nightmares forever after.
"No. Sorry. It's a big mistake. Go back to sleep. Sorry I woke you." Rado pushed on the doors with all his will.
when will it be time? the thing asked, like a disappointed child. when can we rule again?
"When the race of man is gone," Rado crooned soothingly, "and the Sun burns out, and the moon falls out of the sky, you and yours will rule once again." The doors snapped shut, and Rado the slapped the raw seal on the gate.
Something else -- several somethings else -- awoke. Rado heard a cacophany of horrible voices thundering, insinuating, commanding:
KSH'GLHK KWTHN SAKFNALKU!
open this door, and i shall give thee thy heart's delight
I SHALL REND THY SOUL PITIFUL MORTAL!
Life Is Hope, Hope Is Illusion, Illusion Is Emptiness, Only Death Is Escape ... You Cannot Resist Us ...
i aM tHE eYE, i sEE aLL, i aM aLL, i cANNOT bE bOUND
Rado leaned against the door with all his will, resisting hammer-blows of great beasts beating against the other side. He bit hard into his hand, let blood flow, and drew his sigil on the hardening seal.
The blows ceased, the voices grew silent. Rado cautiously stepped away. The Black Gate held.
Yamina's screams stopped.
Aliya and Lazlo looked at each other fearfully, and stumbled over to the wagon. Lazlo wrenched open the door.
Yamina lay in her bedding, sweaty and exhausted, as if she had just delivered a child. She looked at her parents and smiled gently. "At last, it is done. We are safe now."
Rado returned to his body, lying in a pool of mostly other people's blood. He spat out his wounded hand, and raised himself up on his elbows. A glance at Elethon/Isvan's face proved a mistake ... that mask of unimaginable horror became the other recurring feature of his nightmares for the rest of his life.
A grunt from his right propelled him to his knees. Glynn Greystone, holding a bloody hand over the wound at his side, groaned, "Good work, lad. Rado."
Rado helped him to his feet, and they limped down the stairs. At the bottom, Osiric crouched by Vala's body, his gut and chest drenched in black blood and makeshift splints on two legs and one arm, but otherwise all right.
Near the doorway, First Speaker lay, breathing heavily, next to the still body of Swift Hunter. Both Reptilemen had numerous bites, bruises, clawmarks, and knife-gashes. At Rado's approach, First Speaker rolled, slowly, onto his feet, and stood shakily. "He said, 'We can rule again'. Fool."
Rado, weak and shaken but mostly unharmed, bound Greystone's wounds and helped him back to the Reptileman village. Osiric and First Speaker limped behind, dragging Vala on a makeshift litter.
The Reptilemen gave Vala a Kymric funeral. Smoke from her pyre rose to the heavens, and her ashes scattered over the earth and sky she loved.
Elethon and Swift Hunter lay in the ruined temple, food for rats and worms.
Sir Glynn Greystone, surprisingly, survived, under the care of Reptileman healers who never touched a human before. He returned to his ancestral home, and became the defacto leader of the nearby village. As ever, he hunted witches and those who consorted with daemons, for the glory of the Unseen God ... but those witches whose power derived from spirits of earth and sky found a haven in his domain. As wonderworkers gathered in the barren hills of Greystone, farms that had mostly yielded rocks now yielded bumper crop after bumper crop. Grass grew lush and wild, trees strained toward the sky, and at twilight, some said, translucent figures danced in the glens. Rumors of the Witches of Greystone spread over the land, and even after Sir Glynn's death his heir, a distant cousin, maintained Greystone as a haven for the Old Magic. Eventually the Witches of Greystone sent emissaries across the old Sarkannian empire, forming chapterhouses of healers and seers ... but that is a tale for another time.
Osiric resumed the life of an itinerant scholar, dreaming of one day reuniting the Ogrish people into a great and benevolent nation. Pursuing rumors of a wild ogre in the Green Hills, he was ambushed by a shaggy and unkempt creature, with long claws and a strength very near his own. After it nearly disemboweled him, Osiric wrestled it to the ground. To his surprise, he beheld an ogress with glittering gold eyes and an expression of panic. It was love at first sight.
First Speaker became leader of the tribe after Second Eldest, now First Eldest, forsook land for water. As First Speaker's first duty, he held a funeral for the Old One, whose gigantic body had washed ashore several miles away; after a brief service, they pushed him back into the water, to feed life in the marshlands.
Rado spent the winter with the other Parhee. Officially, Karam Bardo of the Eastern Clans became King of the Parhee. Unofficially, though, even Karam sent messengers to Rado Kalderash, to settle points of lore and ask for advice. He married Yamina after a brief courtship. In the spring they went back to Greenway, but the winter had claimed Lars Coppersmith. As a last tribute, Rado laid a bouquet of copper roses on his grave. Ever after, not a week went by in Greenway without a Traveller coppersmith wandering through.
After her crisis, Yamina always talked like the same person, who was neither exactly the old Yamina nor Melangell. Yet she sometimes stared at an empty space and smiled or frowned or talked at people not there; she reacted to events that had not yet happened, or made odd and cryptic comments that never made sense until weeks later. Some said Yamina was still not right in the head. Rado knew she merely saw what others could not.
Yamina watched herself making bread, thin brown arms and slender brown hands kneading dough. She turned a second before the tent flap opened, and a tall, angular shadow resolved itself into Rado. She rushed toward him with outstretched arms, and enveloped him in a floury embrace.
"Making bread, I see. Let's hope some of that actually makes it into the oven."
Yamina smiled impishly and returned to the countertop.
"Wipe your hands," Rado sighed.
A little sulkily, Yamina wiped her hands, then plunged them back into the dough. Conversationally, she added, "We have a visitor."
Rado nearly dropped the tools he had come in to get. Again? "Who is it? Anyone we know?"
"Ugh, you're impossible. Of course we know her. You really can't tell?"
Rado opened his other eyes. He could not distinguish spirits as well as Yamina, not without entering the Dreaming completely, but he did sense a presence. He heard a faint Kymric lullaby, and smelled riverwater and sweat. Rado's eyes widened. "Uh ... hello ...?"
"Sorry, sister," Yamina said to apparently empty air. "He never learned manners. Oh, well, you'll have plenty of time to make it up to her."
"What ...?" Rado imagined Vala's tortured spirit, haunting them forever ...
"Don't make that face. She's come back from the Wheel. She's one of us now." Yamina took his hand and laid it on her abdomen, which had began to swell. "She's coming with us."