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Excerpt
Initiate's Trial
The Wars of Light and Shadow: Volume IX
Sword of the Canon: Volume I
  • I. Imprisoned
  • Hard Reckoning
  • Tidings
Third Age Year 5922

Declared Under Interdict:
THE KINGDOM OF HAVISH
For crown sanctioned liaison with Darkness,
as the iniquitous haven for Old Blood Talent,
and for armed defense of Heretical Practice.
Henceforth, no True Sect Faithful shall traffic therein,
or flout the High Temple’s Trade Embargo.
—decreed by the Light’s Conclave, Erdane
3rd Year of the Canon • Third Age 5686

 

I. Imprisoned

All of his days began the same way. He awoke without any memory. Nameless, he knew nothing at all of his past. Search though he might, his thoughts churned in circles. He encountered no sense of self‑purpose. Nothing beyond the fact, I exist, that might endow him with a future.

Eyes opened, he surveyed his featureless surroundings. The place did not appear to have walls. Which deception perhaps prompted his first recollection. He understood that the silvery, reflective enclosure was a prison, woven of impenetrable spells. Colourless, textureless, the barrier enveloped him in a suspended state of neutrality, neither hot nor cold, apparently without a ceiling or floor, as seamlessly sealed as a bubble. Bland, like the clothing he was given to wear: a white shirt and dark breeches stitched from a nondescript fabric, fitted comfortably to his slight frame. His diligent keepers, whoever they were, did not wish him to suffer indignity.

Unable to view his reflection, and with no outside window to relieve the monotony, he began with a survey of his own hands. Their structure at least prompted the insight that he was individual, with a claim to both history and character. His fingers were refined, almost delicate, the bones cleanly sculpted beneath his lean flesh. The left ones were tipped with calluses. Insight suggested the wear had been caused by repeated deft pressure to stop off taut strings. First epiphany, he recalled the joyful making of music. But not how he had acquired the scars.

Tentative, uneasy, though he knew not why, he traced the whitened welt, gouged across his right palm and snaked in a half twist up his right forearm, to end at the elbow. The shudder raised by his tentative touch roused an unpleasant recall of searing fire. That burn crossed other weals, surely older. Disturbed, he found that both wrists, and his ankles, bore the chafe marks left ingrained by steel shackles.

Rage stirred in him then, a formless awakening arisen from a prior trauma. Someone else had taken him captive before this. The visceral remembrance of freedom denied and the resurgent echo of rebellious anger shuddered in recoil through him. Still nameless, he knew he had broken that chain and those manacles.

Why was he here? Who held him caged, now?

But his fogged memory refused to unveil the hidden face of his enemy. The record of past violence written into his flesh failed to account for his straits. He remembered no crime, no offence enacted against humanity, to have earned him this punishing state of incarceration.

His questions chased themselves into holes, stubbornly uninformative. By then, the explosive surge of his fury lashed him onto his feet. He paced. Every day, like the trapped tiger, untamed emotion spurred his frantic steps. The blank, silver prison swallowed up his dire restlessness. Its forces encapsulated his person and absorbed his aggression without a ripple. His ire blazed deeper, an unstoppable torrent that stripped his nerves livid. How he hated the fact he was helpless! He was given no target to savage. No captor appeared on which to salve his ravening grief for the loss of his being. He had no means to wreak vengeance for the outright theft of the person he had been, and rightfully should be, since he was kept living.

When the edged intensity of his temper peaked, the old woman always appeared. She came, swathed head to foot in a violet mantle, sewn with nine scarlet bands upon her full sleeves. He never observed her arrival, had no way to detect the means or the moment that permitted her soundless entry. The primal urge to close his grip on her throat always died when she offered him the lyranthe.

The instrument consumed his attention. Seductive snare, its promise bewitched him. Fourteen silver‑wound strings and polished wood woke an ache, unrequited, that glimmered with love beyond hatred and freedoms untouched by captivity. Music, he knew. The structure of melody, cadence, and song framed a power instinctive as breath. Magnetic attraction broke his resistance. He succumbed, every time, and accepted the gift although, beyond question, it came from the hand that abused him. Though such acquiescence should seal his downfall, his innate desire won out. No other choice existed, for him, shut in the unending horror of isolation, except to die without the courage of harmony, bereft of his last human grace.

Imperative instinct silenced his questions as he took the instrument into his arms. His trembling hands caressed lacquered wood. Beyond words, he stroked shining strings with the desperation of the addicted. The brilliance of their sound endowed him with solace. Music opened the channel for healing and lent his last foothold on sanity. Or perhaps the cold stir of true memory served warning: if he failed to ply his art without flaw, he could fall to mortal danger.

Sweet longing transformed into shocking need. Now hurried, he tuned the strings quickly. Shaken, all but undone by foreboding, he broke into a sudden sweat. A prickle lifted the hair at his nape. Then a ranging, unpleasant chill chased his spine.

He remembered, now: thousands upon thousands of days just like this one, each filled by terrors that flitted, unseen, and challenged his innate survival.

His struck notes had seeded a perilous change. As though a tossed stone had crashed through a pool, the ripple broke the stilled tension. His prison was no longer seamless, or safe. An uncanny rift opened up underfoot, letting in an inchoate void that now stirred with purposeful movement. Dread lurked in its shadow. Though the eye could discern neither form nor shape, an unseen invader was stalking him.

He recoiled a step. Fingers flying, he plucked a spray of harmonics, then cranked the drone strings into stinging, true pitch.

Sight still showed him nothing. Warned onto his guard, he trusted the inner panic, that he was not secure, or alone.

Something uncanny had been let inside, though it ranged beyond reach of his senses. The intrusion flicked him as a breath of cold, then jabbed in pure malice and tested his stance, prying to thrust its way into him. The first tingle of etheric assault laced his skin, sharp as the teeth of a starved predator. Anything that possessed life‑force was prey, and in this place, he offered the only available source of nourishment. The old woman had gone the same way she had entered, and left him to his own devices.

Sometime, somewhere, he had gained a master's initiate discipline. Those trained faculties responded to primal fear. Bristled into a state of reflexive defense, he needed no trappings of lost personality to recognize the opening throes of a fatal conflict.

A free wraith battled him for possession. Countless millions of others had done the same, prior to his encounter with this one. He knew what to expect. As its ungoverned whirlwind of hatred sought to unbalance him, his own fervid terror would break him. The entity could feed on his leaked strength and vitality. To sate ravening hunger, it would wring him until exhaustion drained his resistance. Then its ferocity would sap his will and supplant his natural awareness. Against the invasive threat of possession, the only weapon he had was the lyranthe and the empowered expression of music.

Peerless talent, he plied his command over fret and string and unleashed a blazing cascade of bright harmony. Jigs and sprightly reels burst from the suppressed well of his deepest longing, first driving him to stamp in madcap rhythm, then lifting his heart to let go and soar. He played music that cried out for laughter, a consummate fusion of tone and bright artistry woven into boundless exaltation. No intrusive attack might swerve his rapt focus. His fingers carried the dance without stumbling. Aggressive oppression must bow to such banishment. He let no hostile thrust of vicious dissonance raze through his exacting discipline. Dread and ruin could not mar the deathless flame he rekindled from inspiration and hope.

Unaware of a mastery that once had commanded the stature of a formal title, the bard tuned his very being to light. Sound gilded his spirit, then forged him, whole, behind an unbreachable bastion. For as long as he played, he could not be tamed. Spirit, raised to an incandescence of joy, could not be caged, or broken to mindless suffering. Remembrance poured back, as phrase upon phrase of melody took wing through the matchless skill of his fingers. He had weathered assaults as perilous as this one; sublime triumph had brought him the victory.

His safety lay in defining the wraith’s lost identity. He must achieve this before, Name‑forsaken, the howling emptiness of its ferocity beat him down into subjugation.

Cruel desperation guided his tactics. Before he tired, he must find the single, true line of song that could bind the wraith into sympathetic entrancement. Once, before trauma deranged its identity, it had been born enfleshed and human. It had possessed a mother, a father, a family, and a best beloved. More, it also would own the individualized spark of the greater love that sourced its original being. Gently, with tacit tenderness, the musician expanded his range. Poised with single‑minded intent, brave enough to extend his most vulnerable sensitivity, he struck the testing, delicate notes to tease out the first flicker of emotional response. Straining, he listened for the pulsed echo that signalled a harmonic confluence.

He would sound out the wraith's obscured self, his tune led by the resonance of its genuine being.

Note for clean note, it would fight his discovery. Blandished by his music, it still would seek to hide, sundered past sanity and shattered by surly fury that rejected the concept of solace. Cut off from reprieve, its hopeless despair perceived no other option, far less understood any balm great enough to ease its deviant existence.

But the bard possessed a relentless compassion. Cued, measure by measure, he stitched a haunting descant above his foundation of ineffable joy. He formed the darker phrases that whimpered of pain: themes of crippling loss that had cankered, unanswered, amid endless vistas of loneliness. The wraith was affirmed, first of all, as it lived, but without criticism or judgement. Where the deep, questing tones brushed against its true pattern, the musician extended his chord and laid claim. His structured invention raised a forgotten beauty from dissonance and reclothed ancient wounds with love's purity.

He refused to recoil from hideous ugliness. The most horrific shriek of torment must not haze his sweet measures into retreat.

Immersed in a melting sequence of song, the bard let the wraith's deathless rage become mirrored: gently, terribly, unflinching in honesty, he described the balked need, then the hurt, raw enough to devour all resilience of spirit. Human himself, he acknowledged the hollow agony of separation. Captive as well, but unbroken yet, he encompassed the cry for requital that festered the wraith's insatiable need.

His music wept the river of tears that purposeless emptiness forgot how to express. Unreeled as a thread of glittering gold flung downwards into the void, he probed the wrack spun by the wraith's blinded misery. He sifted, patient, through veils of dread fear, and chipped at the tarnish of desolation. Beneath the bleak chasm of alienation lay the buried gleam of forgotten identity. He must plumb the pit and shape the wraith's Name, before its crazed torment wore away concentration and turned at the last to consume him.

Harmonics spiralled into the air and woke other tremors of insight. Touched by echoes of his own buried memories, the bard encountered themes from the essence of his very self. Bright flashes of resonance sprang from strengths he had once expressed in full cognizance. The unconscious awareness shimmered within him, until the aching tremors of stifled experience stormed over his nerves in sweet waves. He had known a forest clearing by night, ringing with cascades of unworldly harmony played upon crystalline flutes. Partnered in matchless love, he had cherished a woman with such bonfire passion that the land's flux had ignited to burning. His own aroused flesh, ablaze with hers, had scalded them both, incandescent …

Even the suggested memory of her evoked longing beyond all threat of danger to bridle.

Loss followed hard on the heels of epiphany. Fast as his fingers spun song to recover her, the gift of her being no longer lived in his mind.

He tasted the cinders of absolute grief, and pain great enough to seduce him. The glass edge of torment nearly made him let go: how easy to embrace the blind ease of oblivion. Surrender beckoned him towards the numb absolution of apathy and promised the end of intolerable sorrow—which was the same lie proffered by the wraith. Almost, he had been lulled to forget the stalking presence of that lethal danger.

Bare‑fisted courage braced the bard's rocked commitment. He firmed his purpose. Determined to ride out the rip tide of unrequited futility, though the cost left him weeping forever, he unleashed his yearning of spirit until his trained fingers howled his agonized emptiness into grace upon silver‑wound strings.

Too late, he realized his effort went wrong. Unstrung past recovery, self‑betrayed by the diabolical mistake that had tripped him, he realized the quickened voice of his past had wakened too many powerful echoes. Taken in, he himself had succumbed to beguilement. The pattern played into structure belonged to no starveling wraith! Waylaid by his own searing mastery, he discovered, stripped naked, the strains of his own Name resounded upon the loom of creation. Left with every guarded boundary undone, he stood shieldless before this antagonist. Of the countless thousands of ravenous entities his talent had peeled down to vulnerability and redeemed with tender compassion, this one did not seize upon his disadvantage. It did not rip hungrily into his essence, hating the blood and the bone of him. Rather than savage him in his defeat, this intelligence met his terror with a gentle pity that steadied his measures to haunted wistfulness. Shocked soul deep, he found his tears streamed for a pain all his own, with himself, the bird caged with clipped wings.

Immersed, he could not tear his rapt focus away. The net of his true Name surrounded him without struggle, soft as a caul, even as the ringing chords under his hands sealed the framework of his imperative summoning.

His wily contender was no wraith at all, and on this day, never had been. Enthralled by the gift of his own nature, he beheld the trickster at the last, illumined by the living force of his music, now upraised to the beacon flare of true magecraft. He faced another veiled crone, not the same who had delivered the lyranthe: that one was never his friend.

This woman wore no shimmering violet mantle. Her cuffs were not banded with scarlet. Instead, a single ribbon of white silk shone moon silver against her plain robe of grey wool.

Initiate discipline quelled the shocked reflex that urged him to stop off his strings and unspin this illusion of substance. Blind rage could at least seize that destructive outlet, even at risk of unravelling the most vital part of himself. Yet before his lightning reflex forced annihilation, she tilted her veiled head and spoke.

"Choose wisely." Voice she had, tender enough to wrench his exposed heart‑strings.

Wracked foolish with dread, all but paralyzed by fear of the price he might pay if he dared to listen, he fought the dark pull of his agony. Dispossessed, he owned nothing else but his music. Will defended that talent. Although sorely afraid, he cherished the strings, infallibly striking the notes that refined the connection, strung thin as a cobweb between them.

"You are finished with banishing free wraiths," the crone said with ineffable gentleness. "That hideous trial is over."

But he heard the clear warning she left unspoken, laced through his echoed counterpoint: that his future course of confinement extended without the fierce solace of the lyranthe. The other hag in her purple robes well knew that his gift for song might be turned to forge the key to wrest back his freedom.

His pealing cry of resentment retorted: repeatedly he had tested the enspelled barrier that hemmed him! Whenever he tried to break through, other forces would answer, bleeding him until he lay helplessly prostrate. The silvery walls of sealed spells locked him down under twisted skeins of revilement. If he ventured too close, he trod a verbal bed of live coals that burned him to humiliation beyond endurance. He crumpled, each time, savaged by accusations that pierced without mercy: 'You have destroyed the woman you loved, left her forgotten and abandoned. Ruin walks in your footsteps. Behold the days when you trampled down hope. Come forward, only to suffer again! Walk your scarlet‑soaked battle-fields and acknowledge your legions of slaughtered dead.'

The veiled woman wept in sympathy with him. While his music transmitted the relentless sting of his cringing nerves, she did not spurn him with scorn. As if he was not wretched, or defiled beyond bearing, she answered with consolation.

"You are not all they say. Truth has many facets, and your eyes have borne witness to more depths than most. If anyone claims that you sold yourself out, and betrayed every love you once cherished, I say otherwise. Your past never followed the ruinous path, as your captors claim, to your detriment. Oh, you have wept! You have survived horrors. Truly, you have suffered all measure of grief, your inner heart cannot lie to you. But emotions can be manipulated to extract an undue toll of cruelty. Never bow to defeat! Not once have you forsaken the ground you stood with steadfast integrity, and even bled to secure."

He let his notes answer, distrustful of words. What facts supported her bed-rock assurance? Against the conditioned responses he knew, her contrary statement meant nothing.

She did not disagree. Would not belittle the terror that clamoured, racing his breath until the black-out pall of self‑hatred threatened to crush him.

"Doubt frames the walls of your prison," she said. "Some of your uncertainties hide deeper truths. Others mask distortions and outright falsehoods, crafted by design to break down your spirit and finally destroy you. Are you alive enough to fight back?"

Battle, he knew. His bitter contests with uncounted free wraiths affirmed his hard‑won experience. No matter how often he tasted defeat, his core fire would not stay doused. He might not remember his history, or the deeds he had written by choice, under Name. But through his skilled hands upon the lyranthe, his defiant joy shouted, undimmed and unbeaten.

Behind her grey veil, the old woman laughed. "True as the line of your birthright," she mused. "Never let go! Not until you reclaim the blood‑born right to your whole being."

She extended her hand and dangled before him a shining white crystal, strung on a silver chain. "This quartz holds the spell that imprisons your spirit. Sing for your liberty with passionate grace, and the matrix that binds you must shatter."

Urgency thrummed the strings under his hands. His rushed pulse chased the reach of his terror. Yet no hesitation remarked the shift as he changed the intent that founded his next measures. Where, before, his shaped art aligned outward to seek the Name of another, now, he pitched his quest inward to ignite the lamp at the source of himself.

The first clear notes he struck from the heart collapsed the sensory web of his perception. Falling, he tumbled. His aware grasp on the lyranthe dissolved as his balance upended.

Then a snap! ripped through his tumbling frame. The old woman vanished, along with the featureless, dreary envelope that sealed his long‑term confinement.

In place of the null grip of emptiness, he stood, ankle deep in muddy loam. Disoriented, utterly, by the nip of brisk wind, he smelled damp leaves, and the tang of hoar‑frost on thickets and grasses. The sudden shock of concrete awareness smashed over his uprooted perception and shattered his equilibrium. Dizzied by the abrupt transition, he crashed to his knees. The jar of firm ground jolted his bones and snapped his teeth shut, while panic spurred his raced pulse and tensioned his breathing.

Who was he? Where was he? No memory of the bodily self he inhabited explained how he came—from where—to awake as though dropped from the void into this sere autumn garden. He stared, benighted, and left at a loss.

Grey mist dripped off a tangle of grape-vines, laddered up a weathered trellis that leaned on a ruined stone wall. The chill in the air suggested daybreak, thickened by the mouldering fust of turned leaves. Whiskered ice silvered the vegetable plot where he shivered, distressed and disoriented. The last hardy stems and a few runners of gourd still hoarded the green bestowed by the last kiss of summer. A wooden rake lay fallen nearby. Sweat laced his wrists, and mud stained the patched cuffs of his shirt and breeches. As if all along, he had laboured to mulch the tough stubble left after a late-season harvest. He had worked the earth here—who knew for how long—to tidy the rows of a field bedded to lie fallow for winter.

Which situation made no living sense, disconnected from all that he knew of existence.

He traced the coarse, callused skin of his palms with a shudder of stark disbelief. These cracked nails and chapped knuckles had not, in this place, ever wrought superlative music on the fret and string of any earthly instrument. Every artful line of his own refined melody deserted his cognizance, lost to him as though hurled to oblivion.

Nameless, rudderless, homeless, he wept shining tears for he knew not what—perhaps he ached for gratitude, perhaps for grief, perhaps for a talent he may never have owned, except in the fled echo of dreams.

Or maybe he cried for the merciless hurt inflicted by bewildered confusion.

The only congruity left was the scars, graven into the chapped grain of his skin. They alone marked the frightful proof of a history that some event, or someone had snatched away, then left him bereft. Beneath a brightening sky, buffeted by a southerly wind that forepromised the misery of cold rain by evening, he shook off his distress and reclaimed his feet. A resiliency he had forgotten he possessed raised his courage to survey the landscape. Ahead, a wrought-iron gateway led through the crumbled wall. The barred portal hung open. Chafed mad by confinement, he kicked clear of the furrow that mired his toes. Whether the way out was a baited trap, he welcomed the reckless risk. Though the impulsive presumption should kill him, he assayed the first bold step towards the overgrown lane, that led towards the unkempt fringe of autumn woodland beyond the gap.

No one's hand stopped him. When no outcry arose in alarm, he tried another stride, then another. Then he stumbled headlong into a run, upon legs that felt clumsy and strange, bearing his ungainly weight.

He never sighted the lady in grey though she observed his terrified departure. Concealed in one of the tangled thickets that bounded the deserted garden, she took extreme care not to draw his attention. Motionless, she watched his panicked spurt down the carriage-way, once in antiquity paved with white gravel to welcome refined guests to an earl's summer palace. The ancient woman relaxed her clasped hands and sighed in grateful relief.

Blessed she was, to assist the release of a spirit intact and unbroken.

For the prisoner just restored to liberty had endured an incarceration far longer than any mortal being should ever be made to withstand.

Once his flight reached the tree-line, barely moments after his lonely form vanished from sight, the crone knelt amid the browned stems of wild thorn. She opened her clenched and bloodied palms and buried the smeared fragments of shattered crystal and broken links that remained of the sigil‑forged chain that had bound him. Tears of bitter anger striped her withered cheeks as she rammed cold earth overtop the unpleasant remnants. For his life’s sake, no more could be done to assist his escape without danger.

Her fugitive must be left alone on the run. To survive the long reach of his enemies, he would take the harsh road to rediscover himself. If he had been granted the most slender chance to foil the deadly pursuit of the captors who soon would be hunting him, she could not spare him from the brutal whip-lash of consequence: the obliteration of his identity provided his only protection. No friendly hand could shield him from the blow, when in due time he encountered how sorrowfully he had been sold out and betrayed.

The crone’s prayer was not empty as she turned her back on the man whose charge had encompassed her life’s work. "May Mother Dark’s powers lend you the strength to stand your firm course through the maelstrom."

On the very same crisp autumn morning, already saddled with troubles that threatened a crofter’s mean livelihood, two brothers worked side by side, set at odds, as they hitched the yoked ox to the wagon shafts. Neither guessed, at the time, what that fateful market-day trip into Kelsing would bring. Except for the unusual, fierce pitch of their argument, nothing about their hard‑nosed, haunted quiet seemed out of the ordinary. The bushels of apples and crates of runt poultry bound for sale had already been loaded. Square jaws clenched, their seething rage crammed into hurtful silence, Efflin and Tarens both struggled, and failed, to bury the axe resharpened by their wounded grief.

The toll taken by last summer's outbreak of fever had been too swift, and their losses, too tragically recent. No more would their badgering nephews pull pranks. No filched lengths of garden twine, strung underfoot, tripped up the feet of the unwary. No rash little hands misdirected the buckles and entangled the harness, or exasperated them with the endearing hindrance, as hysterical poultry flapped free of mischievously unlatched crates. Never again would their chatterbox aunt pounce into the fracas, or tuck in loose shirttails with floury hands. Adult males and wild offspring alike would not wince as she scolded over their foolish laughter and larking idiocy.

Which hurt that much worse, when the shouting match over the surly bull’s fate devolved from scorched language to fisticuffs. Big men, as honest with fights as they were with the stewardship of family assets, both brothers now puffed, grazed scarlet as schoolboys, stiffly nursing the sting of scuffed knuckles.

“Could be we’ll regret not keeping yon beef on the hoof to ease the pinch at midwinter,” said Tarens. Tenderly, he fingered the bruise that swelled into a noxious, black eye. Not the price of his brother’s mulish punch, but from a headlong bash into a fence-post, caused by the cantankerous, four‑legged creature his argument still defended.

“Be claimed off us for our unpaid taxes, first!” Efflin snapped, shoulders hunched, with his back turned. Leaf brown beside his younger sibling’s blond fairness, he scowled under his hat brim and waited. Since the snorting, loose bull still rampaged at large, not yet ready to settle and graze, he declared, “Sell that brute for a breeder, we could pay off the debt. Maybe have a little left over. A brace of coneys could set young in time for the feast over solstice.”

“Without corn to fatten them? They’d just grow ribs.” Tarens braced himself upright, forced to maintain a resentful stand-off while the parked wagon propped his shaky legs. “Shadow take the damned coin and the rabbits! We can’t brazen through a live sale since you know the randy calves by that bullock would be hell-bound to suffer abuse.”

 Efflin rounded, fists cocked to strike, when their younger sister Kerelie burst, railing, out of the cottage door.

“Leave you to yourselves, and here’s both of you, trading blows like two frothing theosophers!” She snatched her embroidered skirt clear of the frost‑rimed mud. A wet dish-cloth bunched over her stout forearm, she thrust into the fray with a raw slice of meat robbed off the hook in the pantry. The cut was too choice to succour a sibling, never mind one whose daft habit of sentiment had lately laid him out cold in the barn-yard. “Here’s a fine supper, wasted! Aren’t we burdened enough, without you louts bickering fit to break your necks?”

The work and the winter would not forgive the fact they were drastically short‑handed. Still huffing, Kerelie tossed the chilled meat to the reeling victim. Then she laced into her unrepentant older brother, whose level good sense had flown south since their untimely inheritance placed him at the head of the household. "Tarens is right! ’Tis a hazard to breed that cantankerous beast, and no! You will not sell it dear for its ugly temperament! That's cruelty. The dastards who buy such rogues use them to bait their vicious dogs for blood‑sport wagers!"

Efflin tipped back the lumpish felt hat that lent him the semblance of an unsheared ram. Eyebrows raised, without sympathy for his battered younger brother, he stonewalled his sister with a stoic shrug, wiped a blood smear from his split lip, and that fast, caught the black bullock. With its nose ring roped fast to the tail-gate, the brute pawed and gored the stout slats, unaware it had wrecked its last claim to long life and a docile maturity.

The beast snorted yet when the wagon rolled out, dragging it towards the stock-yard and slaughter. The brothers perched side by side on the seat, their broad shoulders rubbed by the jounce at each bump. They winced with the same hissed breaths as the vehicle swayed to the rake of the furious animal's capped horns. The bone‑jarring journey to Kelsing market promised them no respite from their ill‑gotten injuries. A stupid predicament, which once would have made them the butt of their uncle’s banter.

But the care-free family of those days had gone. Truth brooded amid their sullen silence: that the bull’s sale might buy a month’s time but not turn the tide of bad fortune. Rigid tradition still ruled in the westlands: a married man always left home to increase the prosperity of his wife’s family. This moment’s immoderate pain was a pittance against straits that could force them to sacrifice their remaining measure of happiness.

The wagon rolled into the morning’s choked mist and turned north on the rutted trade-road that wound through the wood. Already, the maples had shed their foliage cloaks of bright russet and flame. The crabbed oaks wore drab brown, shorn of acorns. The spoked wheels turned, sucking, through the ice-glazed puddles, and grated where frost crusted the verges. Only the mourning doves’ doleful calls fluted through the overcast gloom.

Determinedly buoyant in his muddy clothes, Tarens started to whistle, while Efflin clutched at sore ribs and withdrew, his scowl ingrained as chipped wood. The patience that had been his virtuous mainstay had disappeared with their burned dead. Soon enough, his tense brooding would drop a wet blanket back over his brother’s vivacious spirit.

Like Kerelie, Tarens refused to dwell on the problem, that the croft demanded more coin than they owned. Half of the harvest rotted in the field for the lack of strong hands to wield the scythe and hay-rake. The milch-cow in the barn was too aged to breed, which a healthy bull's service to a neighbour’s dairy herd might have done something to remedy.

"The pair of you ought to be facing the butcher's knife, and not that savage wretch of a beeve, who should've been culled as a yearling!" The puckered scar on her cheek shadowed under the rim of her pert straw bonnet, Kerelie wrung out the dish-cloth and gave up her effort to dab the stains off her holiday finery. The spatters of meat juice already set, without lye soap and a pail of hot water.

Her grumbled oath made the jaunty tune pause.

"Forget that we never asked for a nurse-maid," her cheerful brother pointed out, reasonable. “Are you going to geld me to settle the score?" Tarens liked his risks spicy, though usually not by acting as shield for star‑crossed, recalcitrant livestock.

Efflin risked a baleful glance sidewards. "More of somebody's bloodshed never did gag a woman hell-bent on a scolding."

"I ought to whack someone's bravado, straight off!" Kerelie shoved a strayed wisp of wheat hair underneath the delicate row of blue flowers stitched into her headscarf. Flushed pink, she gazed fondly at her brothers’ broad backs, alike in size and yet so different in demeanour.

Of course, the belligerent idiots behaved as though neither had just hammered the other to pulped flesh and cracked ribs. Tarens returned a wolf’s grin, brazen calm flaunting his innocence, while Efflin goaded the plodding ox with his felt-cap jammed down to his ears. The odd little goat-bell some past affectation had tied onto the band gave sweet tongue, belying his sour expression. The tucked feather, sported for the courtship that, somehow, he never found time for, defied the low cloud that threatened a drizzle.

Kerelie attacked, moved by fierce affection. "A good thing you bumble‑butts have no children to hobble the next generation."

Where Tarens’s gleeful insouciance failed, Kerelie’s nagging at last lifted Efflin’s grim mood: the brothers exchanged pointed glances from equally guileless blue eyes. Having made rueful peace, in sore need of distraction from their hitched groans of discomfort, they vied to see which one would bait their sister's flaying tongue first.

"Stubborn? Me?" Efflin snorted. His flicked finger jingled the ridiculous bell, mocking her fire‑brand common sense. "I can’t take that prize, sweet. Not since the time you kissed the neighbour’s mule on the muzzle in an attempt to make friends when it bit you."

"Once!" Kerelie howled. "I was three years of age!" Would anyone, ever, mature enough to overlook that blighted mistake?

As Tarens's broad smile renewed the embarrassment, Kerelie slapped his wrist, then masked her rioting blush, bent in half, as a squabble among the crated hens drew her repressive notice. More than one stabbing beak sought to rip the rush baskets and peck holes in the harvested apples. Through a shriek meant to shock thieving poultry out of their natural appetite, she buried the branding humiliation: that her face was grotesquely spoiled, no matter how neatly the village healer had stitched her ripped cheek. She cringed to count the grasping suitors lately chased from the door with thrown pots. None of them had trampled the garden-path muddy before Uncle’s death left an inheritance.

She would be forced to marry. If her brothers remained too kindly to speak, they must broach the sore subject, and soon. A croft in dire straits for the lack of grown field-hands could not stall for long while she pined for a love match.

"Folly lights up no candles, dear girl," Efflin soothed, wisely quick to dismiss the mishap that marred her porcelain complexion. "And Tarens won't sow anyone's moronic by-blow, today. The strumpets will snatch coin for his kisses, up front. Unless, with that toad’s mug, he plans to hide his licks at the butcher's?"

"Why would he?" Kerelie shot up straight in offence. "Most women turn into simpering idiots shown a damned fool with an injury!"

"And you never dote on the lame ducks, yourself? Then I don't smell cinnamon bread in that basket, and we all never noticed how much you loathe baking." Tarens’s snorted laughter transformed to a cough, as her toe poked into his banged ribs. Sobered, not chastised, he ploughed ahead, "A bashed eye from a bull is no hero's fare.”

“The damaged tomcat better make himself scarce!” Kerelie turned her unmarked cheek and warned, “Forbye, who said the basket was brought for your sake?”

Tarens laughed, boyish dimples and handsome features rugged with the sunburn peel on his hawk nose. "Never claimed, did I, that you had good taste." Sheepish, he ducked Efflin’s fraternal cuff and avoided being knocked off the wagon seat.

"You randy louts!” Kerelie shrieked. “Your manners alone will wreck my last hope of netting a decent husband!"

But Efflin wheezed because he was chuckling. The three of them never could stay at odds for long. “Doused in beef juice,” he quipped, “your smell’s about right."

"To impress someone’s hog? Good thing, then, we need to," Tarens said, suddenly serious. As his sister glared back, fair brows pinched with outrage, he winked. "Lure ourselves a stud pig, that’s the issue, directly. Her highness at home's stopped producing.” Owlish, he added, “That’s been true since the night Efflin downed uncle’s stash of rye whiskey. Did you know he mistook the stall with the cow? I caught him shoved in with the farrow, his lewd mitts busy squeezing the sow’s udder."

The chickens were left their free take of the fruit as Kerelie groaned, giggles muffled behind her chapped palms. She tried not to imagine what might have prompted that odd bout of maudlin drunkenness.

“Oink,” Tarens gasped, then dodged like a weasel, aware he had earned another black eye from his brother’s punitive fist.

But no trouncing rejoinder hammered him flat.

Efflin was too busy, hauling back on the reins to slow the yoked plod of the ox. Abused leather harness squeaked in complaint. The trundling wagon slewed in the ruts and jerked the bullock on its short tether. Through the bucketing creak as stout wood took the strain, the vehicle ground to a stop just in time to avoid the odd fellow whose aimless stance blocked the roadway.

"Light's grace!" exclaimed Kerelie, above the distressed cackle of upended hens. "Is that someone's lost child?"

But the drifting mist unveiled a grown man, mistaken by his slight stature. Back turned, unaware that his loitering obstructed traffic, he wore a laborer’s seedy clothes. The hard-worn cloth had been repeatedly mended, the original color lost beneath a tatterdemalion motley of patches. His stained knee breeches, napped hose, and holed shoes were dirt‑caked, their style beyond recognition. Filthy hair nested with snapped twigs and leaves hung in snarled hanks to his shoulders.

Efflin's shout did not chase him out of the thoroughfare but raised a flinch that near startled him out of his skin. His unkempt face turned. An unshaven black tangle of beard buried most of his features. Not the whites of his eyes, distinct with alarm as he stared in blank shock. Despite his sad state of frightful neglect, his manner seemed too confused to be dangerous. His empty hands dangled, unthreatening.

Nonetheless, Efflin reached for the cudgel wedged behind the cart's buckboard.

"That's no marauding bandit." Tarens’s urgent grip on his brother's wrist checked the move to brandish the weapon.

"You're that sure he's not been sent out as bait?" Brass chinked, as Efflin tipped his hatted head towards the wood, where late‑season briar laced the dense undergrowth, dank with fog, and impenetrable. "If that's a tinker, then someone unfriendly's already lifted his pack."

"Here?" Kerelie scoffed, too riveted to brush out the hen feathers snagged in her sleeve. "Don’t be a fright‑monger!" Astute when it counted, she gestured towards the tipsy stone finials that loomed through the murk a stone’s throw to the left. Those moss‑splotched markers were well-known, even feared, where the overgrown track branched off the trade-route.

Efflin's ruddy face flamed. The site was no place for wise folk to linger. Travellers avoided the tangled lane, which led into the ancient ruin. Oftentimes, Koriathain practised their uncanny rituals there. When the enchantresses pitched their silken pavilions amid the tumble-down walls of the grounds, or if birch smoke rose from the crumbled chimneys, the charcoal men who cut trees for their kilns did their rough‑house drinking in taverns, safe behind Kelsing’s brick walls. They spoke of queer doings in whispers, while the ivied remains of the Second Age hall were reclaimed by the order’s sisters. Nobody dared to stray past the wood or till the rich soil of the fallow pastures.

This had been true well before the Light’s avatar had tamed the Mistwraith’s malevolence. Older legends held that the place harboured haunts from the days before Mankind settled Athera.

Like most Taerlin crofters, Efflin and his family were blessed for the Light since their birth. They went out of their way to avoid the wild places where the mysteries were believed to linger. Such arcane trouble as walked in the world was best left to the dedicate priests. Sound sense suggested their wagon ought to be set rolling at once.

Except the bewildered man in the way displayed no inclination to move.

Efflin shook off his brother's clamped hold. "Why not make yourself useful? Step down and shift that seedy fellow aside."

"I say he isn't right in the head." Tarens flexed his shoulders to mask his uneasiness. Deliberate, as if nonchalant, he arose, ahead of the moment his sister lost patience and fetched him a kick on the backside. He slid to the ground. His solid build should deter anyone’s urge to pick a fight or try robbery.

“Don’t place undue trust in mild appearances,” Kerelie blurted, concerned.

“Who’s the fright‑monger, now?” Yet Tarens honoured her anxious prompt and lifted his quarterstaff from the wagon-bed. Step by easy step, as though stalking a poised hare, he closed on the befuddled stranger.

The brazen creature regarded him, motionless. Close up, his eyes were a startling green, brilliantly clear, and focused to a frenetic intensity. Drilled by that keen survey, Tarens felt the bristle of hair at his nape. "Who are you?" he asked, cautious.

The stranger presented his opened hands. If he understood language, he chose not to answer. His fixated regard never left Tarens's face. Diviners who owned arcane Sight had that look: as though they could read a man, past and present, then project the unwritten course of his fortune and sense his future demise.

"Who are you?" Tarens repeated.

The man's uncanny regard showed him emptiness. As though human speech chased his thoughts beyond desolate, he seemed absorbed by an unseen inner vista that stretched forlorn and unutterably lacking. He might stand on two legs as a man. But the rapt poignancy of his expression suggested he grasped no firm concept by which to define himself, or anything else in the world he inhabited.

Tarens shivered. Distrust dissolved to heart‑rending pity, he pronounced in swift reassurance, "He's a lack‑wit."

The queer fellow listened, head tipped to one side, but without sign of comprehension.

"I mean you no harm," Tarens added, contrite. "I only thwap others who cross me, besides. Mostly, after my brother hammers me, first." Aware that his purpled eye lent him a frightening aspect, Tarens slowly shifted the quarterstaff into the crook of his elbow. By nature, he was prepared to be gentle as he eased the odd vagabond clear of the road.

"Any idea where he came from?" Kerelie ventured from her anxious seat in the wagon-bed.

"No." Tarens grasped the man's ragged shoulder. The unsavoury shirt was too thin for the season, and the bony frame, disgracefully underfed. Outraged, he exclaimed, "Wherever that was, naught can forgive the wrongful fact someone was starving him."

"We're not hauling a stray!" Efflin bellowed, at once shouted down by Kerelie's protest.

"For shame! Would you turn a blind eye on misfortune? If the man’s a simpleton, how can we not show him kindness?"

Efflin grumbled, unmollified, "You're that sure he's not one of the ungrateful orphans, scarpered from the witches' protection?"

"Nonsense!" Kerelie batted his arm. "Since when has a boy ward of theirs grown a beard?" Truth disarmed the argument. Koriathain always placed their male charges with an honest apprenticeship before they reached virile manhood.

"Worse," Efflin persisted, "we could be caught harbouring one of their order's half‑witted servants."

Which cruel guess was the more likely prospect. Rumors and grannies' tales said Koriathain coveted idiots for the brainless service of fetching and carrying. Coin endowments, word held, were awarded for deaf‑mutes. Ones unable to read or write could not betray the order’s secretive business. "If that creature's stumbled away from such keepers, we're not safe assisting a runaway."

Tarens overheard. Susceptible to soft‑heartedness, he jumped at fresh cause to brangle with his older brother. "I wouldn't leave my worst enemy, here!" If his prized bull must be condemned to the knacker's knife, he had never allowed better sense to abet any form of mistreatment. Nor would he stand for the callous abuse of a person luckless enough to be moonstruck.

Efflin understood well enough when to humour his brother’s obstinacy. "Lead the wretch here, then. We'll grant him a ride into Kelsing and leave him the coin to buy a hot meal." He set the brake, resigned, looped the reins, and climbed down to restrain the bull, while Kerelie pulled the latch pins and lowered the tail-board.

If the creature had been a witch's familiar, he stayed docile as Tarens boosted him into the wagon. He curled up by the chicken crates, knees hugged to his chest, soothed by the ponderous rumble of wheels, and contentedly pleased to watch the autumn landscape pass by. When the ox-wain trundled into the sprawling farm market, shadowed beneath Kelsing’s walls, he observed with bright eyes as Efflin hauled the ox to a stop. Before Tarens could hitch the draught beast to a rail, the fellow leaped out, saw where he was needed, and with no one's asking, helped Kerelie unload the baskets and poultry. His small size masked an unexpected, fierce strength. He hefted the heaviest crates without difficulty and arranged them as she directed for display and sale.

While Efflin took charge and untied the bull, Tarens dug into his scrip. The last silver left to his name, he placed in the vagabond's hand. Sadness struck him afresh, that the man's nails were dirt‑rimed, and his palm, welted over with callus.

Peculiar, how those oddities niggled. Tarens had never heard mention that Koriathain worked the land or kept destitutes for field labor. He shrugged off curiosity, aware by the heat on his back that the risen sun burned through the mist. Already he risked being late to nose‑lead the beeve to its fate at the butcher's. Loose half-wits were scarcely his problem, besides. At large in the open market, someone might recognize the mute stranger and claim him.

If not, surely the industrious fellow might find some sort of menial labor in town. Aware he was unwanted, he moved off unasked, to assist an old woman who struggled to lift hampers of yarn from a neighbouring wagon. Diligent as he seemed, the local tavern might hire him to scrub tankards and sweep.

"He will be better off," Efflin snapped, and dealt Tarens a shove to break his reverie. "Anything here offers much better prospects than blocking the trade-road for shiftless amusement."

Autumn 5922

Hard Reckoning

The Fellowship Sorcerer entered the order’s sisterhouse at Whitehold empty‑handed, his purpose to close the terms of an ancient score, declared in an hour of bitter defeat on a morning well over two centuries ago. He came clothed in formality. His robe of immaculate indigo velvet brushed the marble floor, while the silver braid that bordered his sleeves gleamed in the early sun shafted through the hall’s sea-side windows. Pale steel were his eyes, steady as he took the measure of the Prime Matriarch of the Koriathain, enthroned in state panoply to meet him.

Always dangerous, the enchantress sat above everyone else in the room. Her coquette’s beauty was regaled in the deep purple gown and red ribbons of her supreme office, and her massive chair, atop a canopied dais, overshadowed the initiate sisters selected to witness the momentous audience. Where the Sorcerer was required to stand at her feet, his immense strength leashed in stilled patience, she glittered in extravagant triumph. Pale aquamarine were her eyes, hard as her jewels of amethyst and diamond, and just as stone cold, while she savoured her moment to hound him to humiliation.

She had cornered his game, or so she believed. The flicker of gilt thread in the gloves worn to mask her grotesquely scarred hands all but shouted her defiant scorn. Peremptory, invigorated by the thrill of her victory, she gestured for him to open the proceedings.

“Prime Matriarch,” he greeted, too self‑contained to sound cowed, though the grandiose hall with its stone‑vaulted splendour had been staged for demeaning spite. Lean and tall though the Sorcerer was, the soaring pillars that upheld the domed ceiling diminished his upright stature. More, the silent regard of the ranked Senior sisters picked to share his Fellowship’s demise seared the atmosphere to contempt.

The weathered lines on the Sorcerer’s features might have been quarried, with his hawk’s profile straitly expressionless. “I have come in accord to confirm the reckoning owed by our mutual promise.”

Perfect with youth, though she was in fact aged, her vitality engineered by dark spellcraft that had repeatedly cheated mortality, the Prime Matriarch tipped her coiffed head to acknowledge his careful greeting. “Asandir.” Her coral lips turned, a smile made cordial by poisonous satisfaction. “We accept, by your presence, the promised acknowledgement that your Fellowship’s debt is now due. The last invasive free wraith from Marak has been duly banished by Athera’s Masterbard. The event occurred yesterday. This dawn, by the covenant carved onto stone in the King’s Chamber at Althain Tower, the stay of execution your Fellowship demanded in behalf of Prince Arithon of Rathain is named forfeit. Our order’s sovereignty requires his death. By the pledge held and sworn by Crown auspices to Koriathain, and sealed by the prophet apprentice under your Fellowship’s oversight, we choose to reject a further hearing.”

Asandir said nothing.

Stung, perhaps, by his dead-pan silence, Prime Selidie sat forward and jabbed. “My order will seize its deferred satisfaction! Did you really believe our initial demand would be softened by your past effrontery when you forced our hand?”

Malice spiked the Prime’s anger. The sweet hour of ascendancy heated her blood, all the more rich since the vicious riposte thrust upon her by the Fellowship Sorcerers’ underhand tactic: a deadly influx of wraiths unleashed on the world as their ruthless weapon in counter-threat. Unconscionably, they had gambled! The survival of Mankind on Athera had been callously tossed on the board as their bargaining chip, with the innocent populace placed at risk under a lethal threat to buy Arithon’s chance for reprieve. Centuries she had waited for the deferred moment to exact her treasured revenge. She fully intended to relish this long‑sought, moral requital.

“Such arrogance!” Selidie chided, drunk on the precedent that the Sorcerer stood at her mercy. “Did you lie awake night after night, all these years, hopeful that time would soften our committed stance?”

Asandir only inclined his head, hair glinted white in the unkind glare that stabbed down from the lancet window.

“Well, our terms have not changed.” The Prime restated, crisp, “I will have the Koriathain released from the tyranny of your compact. Grant our demand. Or Prince Arithon dies before sundown. For his life, and the continuance of Rathain’s royal lineage, how will your Fellowship plead?”

“We choose not to plead,” Asandir stated, quiet. “The old law that grants humanity’s right to exist on Athera remains intact. And enforced! We stand upon principle. My dear!” he exclaimed, not amused as the Matriarch stiffened. “Should my ultimatum surprise you? This world’s future has never been mine to bequeath! Mankind dwells here by the grace of our surety. That interest is our charge to balance and never set under your order’s purview to negotiate!”

Selidie’s eyes narrowed. Her malice had roots. Beyond question, she knew: Arithon s’Ffalenn was the linch-pin on which the Fellowship’s purpose depended; also, the cipher to leverage her gain. If Asandir would not bend his terms, if his Fellowship’s stance remained obdurate, she would follow through. Arithon would be killed, and with no mercy, if only to void the old prophecy that forecast the failure of her succession.

“I live for the day!” the Matriarch pronounced. “Your stubborn ethics have just signed the death warrant for your captive prince.”

Asandir raised open hands. “So be it.” Like rinsed granite, his face, as he added, “My course of noninterference is hereby confirmed. Expect me to remain as the Fellowship’s witness. I will stay present only until the bitter ending’s accomplished.”

Selidie regarded him, dissecting his manner to gauge the hidden depths of his discomfort. Field Sorcerer to the Fellowship, he would keep his adamant poise, along with the letter of his spoken pledge: no record in history ran contrary. Nonetheless, the air trembled, taut as a roughly plucked string. The breadth of raw power in his contained presence could have broken the natural rise and set of the sun.

Selidie laughed until the hall echoed. “Your Warden should have sent someone more inventive! How the collar and leash must chafe your proud neck! Or is this a novelty? A twisted attempt to pique your jaded nerves? Are you grown tired enough in your dotage to find relief as a passive observer?”

“I am waiting,” said Asandir, clipped impatient. “My word, struck in closure, is all you require.”

“Do as I say, and be done here?” Prime Selidie laid the swathed stumps of her hands on the purple silk over-dress, artfully draped over her lap. Her sharp focus heightened like a hunting cat’s toying with a pinned mouse. “Should I rush the moment? When every exchange made with you before this has demeaned our needs as a pittance?” Emotion leaked through, the first tremor of rage, transmitted by volcanic fury. “How does it feel, now the tables have turned? Should I not enjoy watching your years of planned strategies flicked hither and yon, hapless as chaff in a storm wind?”

On an occasion less fraught with peril, Asandir might have smiled before he attacked. “Glendien’s bastard daughter threw a wrench in your works? Is it true, as I’ve heard, that every quartz crystal she ever touched became shattered to fragments? I could relieve your order of that embarrassment. If her natural father is condemned to die, you’ve no further need for a hostage to guarantee our share of the bargain. I would gladly accept on my Fellowship’s behalf if the Koriathain would release Teylia back to us.”

“What! Leave you the means to extend your pestiferous royal lineage and seat a successor on Rathain’s vacant throne?” Selidie gloated outright. “Not a chance! Teylia was wrested away from your charge. Inept or not, even aged past senility, she may find a useful place in our order yet. No. Her loyalty stays tied to me. Unless you would care to rethink your position and release your ironclad grip, binding my will to your compact?”

The Sorcerer inclined his head, his large hands with their capable callus and the worn tracery of scarred experience now lowered and quiet. “Impasse. I rest my case.”

No more could be said. He would not lie. Even by inference, he dared not tip his hand. His last wild card must stay invisible: that the secret truth, and all of the facts still in play with regard to Prince Arithon’s issue, were not, and never had been, made known to Selidie Prime. Terrible, the self‑restraint that checked Asandir’s urge to speak his mind; overwhelming, his fury for the twisted practice that permitted the abomination he confronted on the dais to live. He capped his latent rage for the abhorrent abuses that kept Selidie’s creamy skin smooth; smothered his heart’s need to let fly with rebuke for her cruelty, which once had commanded the separation of a three-year-old girl from the arms of her widowed mother.

While Selidie drew out his agonized wait, well aware how her practice offended, Asandir checked his torrential emotions. His nerves must withstand the terrible course!

Exposed, he endured the grueling pause, as the Prime prolonged the climactic chance to snatch her long‑sought recompense. Too viciously clever to act on rash eagerness, she expected to cede him a failure to trump the annals of abject defeat.

For her crowning blow, she chose insult. “I shall not rely on your spoken word.” Unable to resist the temptation, she meant to bond him with the validation demanded of common petitioners. Her tight gesture encompassed the gleaming white marble that paved the floor under his feet. “Seal your promise, Sorcerer. As was done before at Althain Tower, I would have your surety set into stone.”

An offence, past impertinent, fashioned to desecrate every clean ethic he cherished! Asandir bent his head. This was no time to give way to weakness.

“Do this on your knees!” Prime Selidie crowed, enraptured to vindication.

But the matter at stake did not stand or fall upon the blows to his dignity. Asandir knelt. His height made the gesture convincingly awkward. The long fingers he laid flat were a workaday labourer’s, the strong, weathered knuckles strangely naked against the pale mineral. No artifice masked his humility as he begged the stone slab to grant him forgiveness. His requisite permission was asked with apology for the betrayal: that the quarried marble came from a mountain under the sovereign charge of Rathain.

Asandir braced his will. He must proceed! The past’s cruel balance had to be served, despite the unknown course of the outcome. Nothing could be raised out of ashes if he failed to shoulder the crux. Under a loyalty commandeered by the dragons, his obligations had been fixed long before the dread purpose that brought him.

The quartz vein in the marble gave to his need, fearless in generosity. Into its patient suspension, the Sorcerer spoke a phrase tuned to yielding compassion. Light flashed. Between his spread palms, the firm slab blazed red and ran suddenly molten. No heat attended the empowered change. His flesh was not seared, while substance embraced transformation.

“Stone as my impartial witness, behold!” intoned Asandir, hammered steady. “The terms of the Fellowship’s stay of execution for Arithon Teir’s’Ffalenn are withdrawn. Crown debt to Rathain, sworn at Athir, is confirmed. Koriathain are freed to determine his Grace’s fate, henceforward.” The Sorcerer flipped back his right sleeve and bared a silver bracelet incised with runes. Deftly, he rolled the metal across the cherry red magma.

A swipe of his hand quelled the rouge glow. When he straightened, the paved floor underfoot subsided to its former polish: except the impressed string of ciphers remained as irrefutable proof of his vow.

“I stand on my word,” declared Asandir. “The hour is yours for the reckoning.”

Prime Selidie’s venomous gesture acknowledged the challenge that thwarted her passionate drive to claim unlicensed autonomy for Koriathain on Athera. Denied yet again, she would wreak the full score of havoc in retaliation and deny the Sorcerers their sole hope of requital.

“Bring me the closed coffer!” she commanded the enchantress in silent service behind her state chair. While the summoned Senior came forward, obedient, and proffered the requested item, the Prime’s icy study of Asandir’s face never wavered. “Open the lock.”

Inside, darkened to black by the sigil fashioned to end life, rested a prepared crystal. The artifact radiated a halo of dire cold. Unfazed by its unpleasant proximity, Selidie directed her female attendant to remove her embroidered mitts and place the enabled jewel into the crippled stubs of her hands.

“Now, bring the filled basin,” she ordered, though usually others performed her brute work to spare the fumbling embarrassment of her deformity. “I shall align the spell of fatality myself.”

Asandir looked on, eyes open, unbending, although the practice enacted before him wrenched horror and sickness down to his viscera. He held on, lips sealed against outcry, as Arithon’s imprint was taken from a dried blood-stain, soaked out of a ripped scrap of cloth. The same shirt, torn off on the ruinous hour the prince had been run down and captured, now framed the foul means to target him as the Prime’s victim.

By force of character, Asandir did not flinch though all could be lost! The moment brought agony as Selidie dropped the crystal with its lethal directive into the turbid solution swirled in the glass bowl …

Far to the west, in the garden of the ruined earl’s palace where the shards of another crystal had lately been buried, a black ring of energy darkened the ground. The blight spread like ink, rippling outward, then stopped, contained by the hands of a hooded crone. She who still waited in steadfast vigil spoke no word of incantation. Shrouded in nothing else but fast silence, she let the blood heritage in her own veins intercept the vile binding, then absorb the spell’s lethal directive. The hideous taint crawled up her arms. Its vicious passage blackened her flesh, then razed skin and muscle to instant corruption. Stripped to a cadaverous horror, she toppled into a grisly heap as the final breath left her lungs. Shortly, naught but a tangle of bones lay wrapped in the rags of singed clothing. Above her grotesquely murdered remains, the violent release of her spirit stirred autumn brush and rattled the frost-brittle grasses …

Within the grand hall at Whitehold, the basin exploded. Water whined into a cloud of white steam, and the spent crystal crumbled to powder. At Prime Selidie’s shriek, her slavish attendant beat showered sparks from her hair and rich gown. The Fellowship Sorcerer observed her distress, impassive, his fierce eyes relieved.

“What have you done?” the Prime Matriarch shouted.

But, of course, upright upon bonded stone, Asandir had not lifted a finger: at his shoulder, wrapped in ephemeral spirit light, came the ghost of the departed crone. Gravely direct, his heart saddened, the Sorcerer bowed to the flame of her transient shade. “Have I your leave, Teylia?” he asked, gently reverent. “Your remains properly should be returned to be blessed by the Biedar tribe in Sanpashir.”

The crone’s discorporate imprint smiled, fleeting, but like her wayward, importunate mother, without any shred of regret. “Kingmaker,” she answered, “look after your own. My birth purpose has been accomplished.”

She faded then, fully, her subtle light snuffed like a candle.

Through the chill vacancy left by her passage, the gathered sisters exchanged whispers sharpened by uneasy fear and suspicion. Prime Selidie glared above them, her soaked finery dusted with chipped quartz and glass, her volatile rage beyond perilous. “We demanded custody of the child to vouchsafe your Fellowship’s intent,” she accosted the Sorcerer. “What did you plant by your endless deceit but a serpent into our midst?”

Asandir sighed. “Your accusation carries no substance. Or did you brush off Sethvir’s statement when you struck your vile contract and demanded a hostage of us, back at Althain Tower? Our Fellowship has never endorsed, or permitted, the parting of child and mother! Teylia chose to dedicate to your order. She declared her destiny with her first words, long before that unkind fate was asked of her.”

“As an infant, under three years of age?” The Prime Matriarch rammed straight, seethed to outrage, while her coterie of Seniors drew hissed breaths of stark disbelief.

The Sorcerer answered with unabashed sorrow. “Don’t play your line of indignant ignorance. Teylia was no commonplace child! What arts she possessed sprang direct from her birthright. Admit the straight evidence in your own records! I assure you, her advanced age was no fluke, and her fate, without ties of our Fellowship’s making.”

“Spin me another false tale!” snapped the Prime. “The woman was gifted by a precocious lineage and stubbornly wayward as well! You foisted her on us. Gave us bad blood, foreknowing such headstrong stock would never submit to our discipline! Honestly, tell me she would have suited your purpose as a candidate heir for Rathain!”

Asandir looked up at the dais, his steely glance harsh but not with pride or vindication. “The body begotten amid the raised mysteries on that signal moment at Athir was Arithon and Glendien’s, delivered by natural birth. But the spirit was purely of the old Biedar ancestry. Under the auspices of an ancient rite, Teylia’s incarnate destiny was claimed by the tribal matriarch on the hour of her conception. Your sisterhood embraced that enemy’s legacy at your own peril!”

But the bitter-sweet victory of today’s ordained sacrifice never would console the deep ache of the Sorcerer’s grief—for a small girl consigned, life to death, on cruel terms to an ignoble service: a child conceived in rare joy, brought into the world with prodigious talent, and sprung from an ancestry too mighty to tame. Asandir pressed onwards, left empty‑handed, except to honour her steadfast achievement.

“I clearly warned your machinations would fail,” he told the Prime enthroned on her dais. “So did Althain’s Warden advise you with caution. Pretend you did not heed our words at the start, and I will have Sethvir recall the event, bonded under a sealed oath of truth.”

Prime Selidie fumed in her spoiled state robes. “This will not end here! Our lawful rights have become stymied by premeditated manipulation. I demand my due forfeit. By your oath of crown debt, grant me the access you owe to my order! Give over the key to Prince Arithon’s true Name.”

Now Asandir smiled. He gazed down at his feet, planted atop the runes just etched into the slab of cold marble. “My dear, I am sorry. You have no grounds at all. I stand on my oath of noninterference, as witnessed by impartial mineral.”

Entrapped as the spider in her own web, Prime Selidie lifted her mangled hands for her diligent attendant to slip into mitts. “Your Fellowship cannot side-step this obligation! I will take satisfaction. How dare you presume to forget? The Teir’s’Ffalenn is still my kept prisoner, and through him, you shall suffer undying regret.”

“Perhaps,” Asandir allowed with dry irony.

He understood the unmalleable stakes. Upon his departure, the Prime would invoke the fury of her obsession. For hours, or days, she would seek Arithon’s demise through an invocation aligned to his auric pattern. She would try and fail. For the personal imprint no longer existed, as sworn by the Mad Prophet long ago on the night sands at Athir. Arithon Teir’s’Ffalenn had been stripped of that memory, along with his greater identity. Nor was the prince still confined by the Prime’s power, not since the Biedar crone’s secretive working at dawn smashed the crystal that constrained his consciousness.

By the earth‑linked assurance, sped to Asandir on a thought from the Warden at Althain Tower, the man the Koriani Prime Matriarch would cry down for murder had just crawled, anonymous, under a tarp in a crofter’s rattletrap oxcart. Precariously hidden from hostile eyes, he lay curled in oblivious sleep. As yet, no one realized he was there.

Arithon Teir’s’Ffalenn was safe, for this moment. Until greater peril should stalk his location and fashion the ambush to snare him, the refugee slipped from the Prime Matriarch’s clutches did not recall his own name. More, he had lost a daughter he had never known, or been told that his love had bequeathed to existence.

The Sorcerer bled with inward sorrow for that; and for the unparalleled courage that had sealed Teylia’s silence through two hundred and forty-nine years of agonized secrecy. Rivers of tears should have fallen to acknowledge her selfless memory. No consolation might salve such a loss. Grieving, and saved beyond recompense by her monumental achievement, the Sorcerer tendered his final word to Selidie Prime. “You will not threaten anyone further, today, madam! Above any faithless action of ours, your debt of constraint against Rathain’s crown for now has been summarily thwarted.”

Autumn 5922

Tidings

The enchantress already knew, aware even before the visitation sent by Althain’s Warden brought news. From extreme isolation, immersed in a healer’s work from an old ice-cutter’s hut shadowed under the aquamarine wall of the Storlain glaciers, she had sensed the profound change on the moment when shock stopped her breath in the pre-dawn chill. Her satchel of simples slipped out of her hand. All her rare herbals and specialized instruments tumbled down an alpine cliff, lost amid puffed explosions of powdery snow.

She had not paused to swear. Had scarcely cared, that her follow-up check on the trapper’s wife’s recent childbirth would be set back by the inconvenience.

Hours later, in daylight, after the long hike round the ridge to access the base of the vertical drop, she wept yet, whiplashed between unbridled release and bouts of joyous laughter. Gratitude overwhelmed her last grip on decorum. Never mind that her russet braid had torn loose. Or that her last pair of gloves became frayed to soaked holes at the finger-tips. She was heedlessly burrowing through rumpled drifts in search of her misplaced belongings when the shade of the Sorcerer tickled her presence.

A power to turn the world’s course in his own right, he slipped in softly, a breath of deeper cold against the sharp chill of high altitude.

“He’s set free!” the enchantress was first to declare, overcome once again. Arithon. She could not speak his name for the tears that spilled through another fierce smile of wonderment. The miracle rocked her, that she had endured: decades, then centuries, heart braced to withstand season upon season of unreconciled anguish. The onslaughts survived under crushing despair, when dreaming into the horrors he fought, she wakened each night bathed in terrified sweat, gasping for mercy from every bright power that she might live to see the impossible.

A Sorcerer come hard at the heels of reprieve triggered her most fearful question. “Whose help lent his Grace the chance to escape?”

A deep voice, wrought of wind, framed the Sorcerer’s reply. “The double-blind scheme was the careful work of the Biedar tribe of Sanpashir.” Which was no lie, except by omission. If the enchantress sensed the gravity of the particulars that weighted the statement, she was wise enough not to broach the dangerous inquiry. “The tribe’s eldest wise woman and her male dreamers invoked the world’s greater mysteries,” the Fellowship emissary to Elaira hastened to qualify. “Their reach extended across the veil and split time to achieve this triumph on Prince Arithon’s behalf.”

“My Matriarch knows this,” Elaira mused, quick to wield her trained intuition as circumspect caution required. She straightened up, turned, a slender woman with misted grey eyes, but courageous past measure to face the discorporate being sent as the Fellowship’s harbinger.

He stood, an illusion less solid than air, displayed before her as a dapper personage with tanned skin, and dark hair streaked white at his craggy temples. His extravagant dress was embroidered with lace, jaunty accents of emerald studs and silk ribbon agleam against elegant velvet. Orange satin cuffs set off his clever hands, expressive as his narrow, fox features and clipped spade‑point beard: which aspects perfectly mirrored his rapacious preference for edged conversation.

“Kharadmon,” the enchantress greeted him, pleased. “Always, the suave touch. This isn’t an ambush?”

“Since Sethvir doesn’t favour the vogue for snared hostages, no.” The image of the Sorcerer bowed, ever delighted to flights of dry irony by her tart wit. Their last meeting, of course, had been brusquely uncivil, her reproach the piquant reminder that once he had broached her close‑warded cottage and disturbed her sleep while in her bed.

Today’s underhand tactic of announcing himself from behind was also deliberate though not a discourtesy. His amused glance directed her attention downwards, where a zephyr winnowed the snow at his feet and exposed the strap of her buried satchel. His own flagrant flourish: a long-stemmed red rose, too fresh to seem real, pierced the pristine drift alongside. “I’m not always ungallant. Or demanding. Or rude.”

“Intrusive,” Elaira corrected, and laughed. Flushed, she bent and accepted the bloom, her uncovered remedies left until later. “Should I also thank your Fellowship for a scandalous hand in the prisoner’s release?” Her cross‑grained concern was not overlooked, however she strove to stay circumspect.

“We broke none of our covenant!” Kharadmon snapped. “Would that we had, and years earlier!”

No need to expound upon his sudden rage: on-going for millennia, the sparring enmity between Fellowship Sorcerers and Koriani Matriarchs. A foregone conclusion, that the long, vicious pitch of the order’s rivalry must entangle the pawn just wrested away from the covetous Prime’s close control.

“You can protect him?” Elaira pressed gently.

Kharadmon dissolved into a self‑contained whirlwind that whipped up a cyclone of ice-crystals. “Asandir was forced to swear! He laid down an oath by the witness of stone, of Fellowship noninterference. Damn your Prime’s machinations to Sithaer! The terms that completed her claim of debt towards the Crown of Rathain have extracted that ruthless stay!”

Which bad news delivered a blow to weaken the knees. Elaira drew in a bracing breath. Under the astringent blue sky of altitude, chilled in the pine‑scented shade of the rock scarp, she fought for the balance to curb draining fear. If few staunch spirits could match her bold strengths, none equaled the depth of her love for Prince Arithon. Or her steel endurance, as she dared to challenge the turbulent fury repressed by the Sorcerer’s shade. “You cannot lift even one finger to help,” she accused in bald-faced distress. “What of the Biedar? Will their shamans stand guard for your prince? Now he’s freed, might they warrant his safety?”

The discorporate mage drifted to a freezing pause. “Who knows what might move the desert tribes to act? In this world, who dares to try them? Biedar wisdom lies outside the compact.”

Elaira gaped in dumbfounded surprise. “I never imagined! More tellingly,” she added the moment her paralyzed wits sorted consequence, “has that sharp fact escaped the Prime Matriarch?”

“Oh, past question, she knows.” Kharadmon’s image unfurled again, smiling with forthright malice. “That sore point’s a matter of recorded history, and no secret buried at Althain Tower. The Biedar people came to Athera before the terms of the compact were struck. They set foot in Sanpashir, just ahead of the Fellowship’s promise of surety, which granted the rest of humanity’s right to fair settlement.”

“How could that happen?” Elaira asked, stunned. She had never envisioned the paradox!

Kharadmon’s grin displayed wicked humour. “Their tribe’s revered elders did not petition for leave through our Fellowship’s auspices. Are you breathing? Here’s the stinging fly in your Matriarch’s cup! Her Biedar counterpart treated for residence directly with the Paravians.”

Staggered dizzy by her upended assumptions, Elaira required more than a moment to measure the implications. She felt as if mountains had moved at a stroke, with every familiar landmark thrown into radical rearrangement. Changed truth arrived as a blast of fresh air, that the latent power possessed by the tribes far outstripped the reach of the Prime Matriarch’s bidding.

“A bit of a quandary,” she sympathized to the discorporate spirit, poised in rapt interest before her.

Kharadmon’s corrosive manner turned fierce. “Quite.” Even his Fellowship must be hard-pressed to reconcile the salient question of sovereign authority. Should Sanpashir’s desert-folk choose to exert their enigmatic autonomy, the might behind their least action could throw any power on Athera an untoward wall of obstruction.

“You don’t know the limits on the tribe’s intentions,” Elaira needled, point-blank.

“Your guess would fall under the provenance of Sethvir,” the Sorcerer evaded with delicacy. “Or else be found among the lore kept by Athera’s living Paravians.”

But the creatures he referenced were lost to the world, and such knowledge, a quest of futility. Elaira smothered a frustrated sigh. The Warden of Althain was unlikely to send her the grace of his counsel. Sethvir’s adamant silence had stayed unbroken since the desperate decision forced upon her on a lonely beachhead at Athir two hundred and fifty sad years ago. Naught remained to be said beyond dogged pursuit of what pressed Kharadmon to broach the indelicate point. “If the Biedar cannot be trusted to act, how will my beloved defend himself against the vicious designs of my order?”

Kharadmon raised his eyebrows. He had no glib words. Nothing of comfort to soften the blow bestowed by his shattering news. “There, rare lady, the inspiration was guided. The Biedar followed after the tactic his Grace himself used at the terrible crux, to spare you.”

“They displaced his memory?” Elaira cried, drained white, the rose fallen from her nerveless fingers. “Left him blind to himself? How deeply? To set him past reach of a Prime Circle’s scrying  … !” There, her appalled reason faltered.

Kharadmon stated for her, with terrible calm, “Arithon’s remembrance had to be stripped. Completely, without reservation. To stay undetected, safely out of sight, he could not have access to the least knowledge of his identity.”

She collapsed to her knees. “You’ve thrown him naked before baying wolves with nothing but his primal instincts!”

“That, and his born gifts, which are not inconsiderable!” Kharadmon assured, beyond ease. A Sorcerer, and powerful beyond measure, he could but watch and wait, since that bleak encouragement brought no consolation.

Gloved palms pressed to her face, Elaira shuddered as though the pressure of the icy, wet leather might shore up her frail flesh. Some hurts plunged too deep. Alone, she battled for the toe‑hold to assay the shaken first step towards recovery.

The Sorcerer’s spirit ached for her struggle, insouciant sarcasm shredded away. Once, he had owned the warmth of human hands. He had loved, and known how to clasp a devastated woman and lend her raw tears the intimate patience of a warm shoulder. Helpless to offer that solace now, he gave her smashed courage his inadequate words. “Dear lady. Handfast to Rathain, of us all, you must not lose your heart.”

For in fact, every hope of Arithon’s hale future lay in this enchantress’s unsteady hands. More: the very thread of Athera’s grand mysteries could dwindle, or snap, or perhaps be raised to renewal through her tenacious constancy.

Kharadmon bore witness through her torment. He did not plead. Not while the balance hung trembling, and all that his Fellowship laboured to heal relied on a destiny yet to be claimed. An interval passed, filled by the wind through the snow‑laden pines, and the ice‑scoured scent of the Storlain glaciers. Inhospitable country, where a proud woman had nursed her solitary pain, clinging to hope with her hands tied. Unbroken then, she could crumble here, with no trusted ally to steady her.

Then Elaira contained herself. Possessed of a dignified calm that outmatched her diminutive resource, she unshuttered her hands and began to remove one soaked glove.

Before she bared her right hand, the Fellowship Sorcerer guessed her desperate retort. No poise could mask the wrench of her regret as she hardened herself to offer back what never in life, or bound service, ought to be returned.

Kharadmon spoke quickly to forestall a decision that could only launch a disaster. “Lady! Don’t do this. Did your best beloved not grant you that ring? And has he, since that terrible day, or in his hour of darkest despair, ever asked to rescind his left token?”

“No,” Elaira admitted, pinched white. “But you know the Prime’s use of me as her personal weapon against him was stopped when he bound his own recall of me beyond reach—”

“Hush!” The ghost of the Sorcerer raised a forefinger with admonishment. “I’ve seen how you’ve suffered in his Grace’s behalf. My dearest, yes, I know what he sacrificed for your sake! Althain’s Warden has been party to all that you’ve borne through the earth‑link wrought by the Paravians. If Sethvir were here now, he would tell you the future you dread is not written, besides!”

“Arithon doesn’t know me!” Elaira cried, pained. “He may never remember. Why should he not be set free of a past that is dangerous unless it stays lost to him? Where I have the bitter-sweet joy of remembrance, he has been left nothing at all! Is my love so small that I cannot let him discover anew what happiness life has to offer? Who will he have at his side, and what caring, unless he finds joy in another companion?”

Kharadmon applied reason, profoundly relieved that his status as spirit disbarred her impulsive appeal for requital. “I cannot take charge of an object, except to unmake the thing, stone and setting, which would be a breach of the Major Balance. I cannot revoke your ring’s reason for being, or break the purpose for which it was wrought.” As she stared at him, stricken, he added, “Put straightly, the royal signet of Rathain will not cede me due cause by permission!”

She made a choked sound, but not in protest.

Kharadmon smiled, then. “Elaira, lean on your instinct! That ring stays with you, with all it entrusts. Honour the covenant of Arithon’s promise, and guard his intention as sacred!”

She stayed unconvinced. “And if I should not?”

The Sorcerer’s ephemeral presence gentled with compassion as he spoke the truth. “If you honestly wish to renounce your heart’s beloved, even the Warden of Althain cannot stand as his Grace’s proxy. Should you resolve to cast Arithon off, then hear me! You must face him in person. A vow from a crown’s heir may not be released. With royal heritage invoked, there is no other course, except to return his token directly into Prince Arithon’s hand.”

Elaira stood up. Eyes filled with all of the day’s blazing light, she regarded the high mountain peaks, white and cold as a sword’s edge above her. “You feared to add that our paths must stay separate?” Too well, she perceived the quandary that stifled her future happiness. “I dare not meet him, or touch him, or speak, lest for his life’s sake, he should he be prompted to recover his past, prematurely?”

Solitary, left only the shadow of their cherished passion for comfort, Elaira faced her core terror: for too many years, the ring’s custody had burned her lonely heart with bright longing. The withering need for Arithon’s partnership opened a constant wound of stark agony.

For how long? How many more unendurable days and nights must she tread a trackless path that led nowhere?

The Sorcerer’s fraught silence did not presume to salve her with empty platitudes.

Kharadmon bowed, instead. He could do naught else. Ever and always, Elaira’s female wisdom stayed infallible where Arithon’s welfare was concerned. “My dear,” the Sorcerer murmured. “You are beyond compare. Among women, no other will match you.”

He recovered the perfect rose from the snow, slipped the stem through the flap on her satchel. And then his discorporate presence was gone, a tacitly bitter-sweet grant of the needful space for inviolate privacy: to weep, as she must, and to come to raw terms with the terrible trial laid on her. She had retreated for over two hundred years to the desolate hardship of these remote mountains. Held out and stayed sane, and endured the hurt of an inconsolable separation. For the world’s sake, and for a crown prince’s safety, Kharadmon could not beseech her for the exigency of his Fellowship’s need or further burden her course for a cause he had no other choice but to champion.

Nothing rested secure. Not while the Prime Matriarch bade to unhinge the compact and grasp the reins of her unconstrained mission barehanded. Arithon, freed, remained the obstructive cipher that promised her downfall. The Black Rose Prophecy still governed his fate: by himself, quite unguarded, he remained the sole stay that promised the restoration of the Fellowship of Seven.

All over again, Kharadmon could not bear to watch as Elaira regrouped her lacerated spirit. As she chose to hold firm in the face of redoubled conflict and uncertainty, she must stand or fall on her own merits.


Autumn 5922

Changes

As Koriani scryers fail to trace the released prisoner, Prime Selidie rages across her defaced floor at Whitehold, “Our arcane vision is thwarted, you say? Then we’ll seize the True Sect’s faith as our instrument in Tysan. Send a warning dream to the Light’s High Examiner. Spur him with the notion his calling has come, that past evil wakens from dormancy. Show that a minion of Darkness moves abroad for his priests to destroy!”

Her healer’s work finished by midafternoon, the enchantress Elaira repacks her satchel for a speedy departure: since the Fellowship Sorcerers have disbarred themselves from defending her best beloved, and given the news of the Biedar tribe’s active meddling, she resolves to risk the journey to Sanpashir to measure their wild-card stake in his destiny herself …

“How can either party withstand the brute course? Worse, Elaira’s just made herself a naked target!” Kharadmon rails, lately made aware that the Koriathain twist Asandir’s oath to exploit the Light’s zealot religion; from Althain Tower, Sethvir returns a dismal silence, too distraught to weigh the bad odds: which enemy faction will trace Arithon first, if not strike him down in the vulnerable gap, before he rediscovers his natural talent … ?

 

© Janny Wurts