Stormed Fortress (icon)
Excerpt
STORMED FORTRESS
The Wars of Light and Shadow: Volume VIII
Alliance of Light: Volume 5
Summer 5671

Alestron the Bull whipped Adruin at darts.
Kalesh slipped behind with a knife in the dark.
Atwood’s secure,
but East Halla’s at war,
and the widows are ever in mourning.

– From an eastshore water-front lay, Third Age

I. Binding Ties

On the night that the portents had named to the elders, stars blazed in white splendour over the obsidian sands of Sanpashir. Their icy light flooded the vista in mercury, knifed with black shade where the ruin cast shadow over a landscape of crumpled dunes. As the signs had bespoken, when the hour foretold by the seers became manifest, the laid pattern of the Paravian stone circle did not arouse to harness the raw powers of the elements. Lane forces did not waken. The indigo coils of starred light did not bloom, as they would for the workings of Sorcerers. Where nothing had been but barren stone and the trackless waste of bare sand, the figure of the man just arrived seemed to shimmer, then settle into firm form. Naked, he sprawled as though asleep at the grand junction of the ancient focus.

His appearance summoned the tribesfolk who lurked, alert and waiting amid the cragged ruin. They sang. Soft chanting that whispered under the starlight: of a hope renewed, promised to them for millennia. They moved out of cover, silently approached. Their seamed hands were gentle as they gathered him up and wrapped his chilled frame in rough blankets. His skin was not marked, except by old scars. Yet the rifts that he bore in the weave of his aura ran deeper than flesh, bone, and blood.

“Keir've arish,' the oldest cautioned in dialect. “Take him most softly.' She pressed forward, brushed back the man's tangled, black hair, and touched a crabbed finger to still the lips that quivered as though to cry out from a nightmare memory of an unbearable agony. “The shock to his life-force has been deep and harsh. He must not arouse through our handling.'

Such damage demanded their vigilant care. Many hands lent assistance. Attentive to need, swift and silent, the desert-folk lifted his form, without jostling. Respectful, they bore him on, past the looming, brick walls of the ruin. Through the cracked, weathered arches that marked the east gate, they turned their steps towards the dawn and made their way into the desert.

The path they walked held no sign-post. Shifting, dark sands erased all past traces of the ancestor’s steadfast footprints. Here, guidance lay in the notes of the stars, heard by the ears of their wisest old man. Staff in hand, with slow steps, he led the company bearing the litter. Yet before they reached the rock outcrops and the spring that promised them shelter and ease, the crone in their midst raised her palm and charged the procession to stop. ‘I will require eight dartmen to serve. For there is another. Before night is done, a traveller will set foot on our shores from the decks of a ship bearing in from the west.’ To the chosen handful of warriors, she pointed the way, and declared, ‘I name him as our guest. Fetch him back.’

#

The waves crashing onto the black shingle at Sanpashir’s cliff head had a muttering voice all their own. From the decks of the Sunwheel Alliance’s flagship, under the ghostly flutter of the gold-blazoned banners, Sulfin Evend watched the white spume jet up and subside, bright and brief as the sparkle of diamond. Sable waters reflected the brilliance of stars, small light to his dark apprehension. This brooding shore-line of rock was a desolate destination. Only adamant use of his superior rank had brought the state galley to anchor. This territory was proscribed, demarked as free wilds, and no town-born man’s place to trespass. Even the lord who held the command of the Alliance of Light’s amassed war host should shun the prospect of landing.

Sulfin Evend took no comfort from the disciplined industry of the deckcrew, launching off the small tender at his insistence. His charge to leave the safe decks of the galley and pursue the unknown course of a promise was unlikely to settle his wracked peace of mind. He could scarcely stem the dread course of the future. Yet the hand-wringing nerves of his subordinate troop captain failed to unseat his resolve.

“Why should you do this?' Gold braid and Sunwheel surcoat reduced to pin-prick glints under starlight, the kindly man tried one last time to dissuade his conflicted Lord Commander. “The desert tribes are not lenient with strangers. They poison the barbed points on their weapons.'

Sulfin Evend breathed in the sea air, freighted with blown salt and the rockscented dew swept off the crags of the headland. ‘Because the cause that we serve is grievously flawed. I cannot engage Lysaer’s orders to recruit, or bear the Alliance standard to assault the s’Brydion citadel. Not before doing all in my power to secure a defensive talisman against the wanton destruction posed by Desh-thiere’s curse.’

“Such strength and courage may not save your skin,' the galley's master broke in from the side-lines. Experience backed up his claim, that no task in this wasteland should ever be tried, even for dire necessity.

“What is my life, if not the desire to stand true at the side of a friend who's endangered?' Sulfin Evend shrugged under the weight of a mail shirt that offered haphazard protection from darts. “Best I die here than fight at Alestron, leading a force of deluded fanatics blinded by Light, with no heart.' Beyond any words, the thought never spoken: the memory of Lysaer's private anguish, turned into a pillow to silence an onslaught of weeping fit to tear spirit from flesh. The stamp of the Mistwraith's design on such greatness was a sorrow not to be borne. The davits squealed, and the tender struck the face of the sea with a splash that slapped wavelets against the state galley. Its crew of four oarsmen scrambled down the side battens. The coxswain assumed his post in the bow and pronounced the craft ready to board.

Since danger was unlikely to change the granite set to the Lord Commander’s intent, the galley’s master stepped back, his face creased with concern under the glow of the deck-lamp. ‘Fare safely, then, and may the Light’s blessing guard you until your return.’

Sulfin Evend snapped off a nod, then strode to embrace the poised jaws of his fate.

Settled in the boat, he claimed a seat in the stern, where his anxious, hatchetnosed equerry awaited, clutching his hobnailed boots. ‘I’ve brought your cloak,’ the servant added with diffidence. ‘The night wind has a bite.’

The Light’s Lord Commander clapped the man’s shoulder as thanks, while the reluctant rowers threaded their looms into the rowlocks, and slashed into black water with the launching stroke. The prow of the boat knifed into the darkness, towards the restless thread of cream surf and the stark shore of Sanpashir.

A landing through snags of rock and tumbling breakers taxed the seamanship of the men, accustomed to harbour-side docks, and the light chop behind sheltered jetties. When the craft reached the strand, the keel jarred against the obsidian sands, tossed like a chip in a mill-race. Sulfin Evend leaped the thwart, boots clutched to his chest, his cloak left behind in the white-knuckled grasp of the servant. Soaked to the waist, and buffeted by cold combers necklaced with foam, he helped steady the boat, shouting against the thundering waves that he would require no escort.

Since the craft would upset if the men stalled for argument, the coxswain shrilled orders for the oarsmen to change seat and reverse stroke back to the flagship. Sulfin Evend strode free of the clawing surf. Barefoot and chilled, stumbling in the ebb currents, he stepped onto the wet sand under the vertical crags of the cliff head. Here, the clammy sea-breeze smelled of flint. The forbidding summit reared above, punch-cut against pre-dawn stars. Except for the wind and the tide, nothing spoke. The night of the dark moon cloaked the rock-face in secretive shadow. All civilized movement seemed far removed from this vista of primal wildness.

Or so Sulfin Evend was wont to presume, until he arrived at the weathered rock above the shingle. He had little chance to stamp on his dry boots. A male warrior issued a challenge out of the night. His speech was in dialect, most likely a fierce demand that the stranger stand forth and declare himself.

Sulfin Evend lost the last hope he had to soften his moment of reckoning. Answer, and he would be tagged by his town-bred, Hanshire accent. Stand silent, or try to run, and his infringing presence must provoke a lethal reaction. Never mentioning the fact that his Alliance rank as Lysaer’s first commander, and his birth as the son of a mayor, marked him out as an enemy.

“I come on a mission of peace,' he announced, and gave nothing else but his name.

No sound attended the flurry of movement arisen out of the shadows. Eight men stepped forth, clad in loose, desert robes, with blow-tubes and darts at the ready. Sulfin Evend’s blood ran chill at the sight. No routine patrol, this many warriors suggested the uncanny thought that his arrival had been expected.

The man at the fore changed tongue and addressed him again, clipped as sparks hammered off hot steel. ‘Whom do you serve with your heart? Whose loyalty binds your body? Whose cause rules your mind?’

Sulfin Evend clamped his jaw. A year ago, he could have given the query an honourable, direct answer. Then, his oath to Avenor and Lysaer had not yet been flawed by the shoals of moral conflict. His hesitation drew the eyes of the dartmen, measuring him with cruel calculation. Courage could not stem the blank well of his terror. Yet he answered with truth. ‘Heart, body, and mind, I’m blood-bound to the land though the ache of that weighs like a shackle.’

The leading desertman arched his brows in surprise. ‘What would you give for release, then?’

“No coin is left,' Sulfin Evend replied. “None that won't cost me my life, or far worse, the ruin of a friend who's endangered.'

Again, the ring of robed dartmen advanced, the one at the forefront closest of all. The dusky features under his hood held a scouring intensity that might read a man’s very thoughts through his skin. ‘Sacrifice brings you to Sanpashir’s free wilds?’

The sorrow welled up, then, too fierce to deny. Sulfin Evend shook his head. ‘No. Concerning a pledge to a Fellowship Sorcerer, I have come to your tribe to consult.’

If that startling statement was greeted by murmurs, the lead dartman’s gesture restored his warriors to formal silence. ‘Your friend,’ he said carefully. ‘He needs no defence. Not if he still lives, and so has the power of choice.’

Sulfin Evend disclosed the unsavoury fact. ‘He is cursed. A vile binding that clouds his sight and warps his nature until he cannot know how much his will has been compromised. I have given my pledge to stand guard for him, and for that claimed burden, I place my appeal.’ The lead dartman bowed his mantled head. ‘By your will, then, disarm. All your weapons. You will also strip off every item you own that is not woven or braided from sun-ripened fibre.’

At Sulfin Evend’s stiff resistance, the lead dartman smiled, a flash of white teeth in the gloom. ‘This is our way, town-bred! You are advised. One chance is given to respect our customs and stand on the truth that has brought you. Do you merit?’

Sulfin Evend shot back his most cynical smile. ‘Surrender, or else I’ll be taken?’

The lead dartman bridled. ‘Did you think the least step of your path is not known? Our eldest has Seen you! Your trespasser’s foot on our shores bears a portent, locked tight in the wheels of destiny. You will come, town-bred man. Though how you embrace the fate that awaits you as yet remains to be written.’

Sulfin Evend caught back his self-deprecative laughter. Had he wished to turn back, the moment was forfeit, gone with his past consent to a Sorcerer’s knife cut. He had no option but to lift off his helm, doff his belt and surcoat, shed his coat of mail, then peel off his laced leather gambeson. Stripped to his linen shirt and soaked breeches, and still braving the cruel rocks, barefoot, he unhooked the thong that secured the wrapped bundle that hung at his neck. The sheathed knife inside should not be left with the other steel weapons abandoned to rust on the beachhead.

He extended the wrapped dagger. ‘This blade is flint, and not fashioned for killing. The deer-hide still shrouds it, as it was entrusted to me by the woman who made me its bearer.’

The lead dartman stepped forward, a wraith in jet robes. Backed by his tense dartmen, he lifted lean hands. His clasp, light and warm, briefly caged the slim bundle, overtop of the townsman’s cold fingers.

“Feiyd eth sa!' he snapped to his dartmen, in dialect. The inflection sounded amazed. Then he tipped his head, perhaps with respect. “I will take charge of this knife, town-bred man. It will be unveiled, and its purpose made known to you if you come to win the petition you've asked for.'

Upon his signal, the robed dartmen closed in. They offered no word, no grace of assurance. Sulfin Evend found his hands strapped at the wrists. A blindfold obscured his vision. Then an impatient prod urged his stumbling, first step into an unknown future.

#

The same stars that wheeled above Sanpashir’s headland bathed wan light over the vista of waste, due east of the Paravian circle. The ruin’s gapped wall, with its forlorn tracery of carved arches, was not visible from the barren vale where the desert tribe’s elder signalled her people to pause. The litter-borne man was let down on black earth, his blanket-swathed frame aligned to the north. ‘Softly, now. His deep shock will release, soon.’ The wise crone who spoke as the voice of the tribe settled herself on the ground at the crown of the unconscious one’s head. Stillness reigned then, while the night sky revolved around the pole star that glimmered at its fixed axis. The dark moon passed nadir, reversed its fierce grip, and gave way at last to the hush that preceded the dawn. At that hour, the life tide that swept through land and air breathed through all things on Athera. First herald of the paean that came with the sunrise, its current was acknowledged by the circle of male elders, also seated in cross-legged stillness.

To their listening presence, the subtle quickening recharged the nerves like a sweet flare of lightning. The wounded survivor tucked in the blankets would not be overlooked by that benison. In thanksgiving for all things that lived, the ancient woman raised her voice and sang welcome, eyes trained upon the man at her knees as though his limp flesh held the flame of a lamp indescribably precious . . .

#

Arithon Teir’s’Ffalenn recovered the full range of his senses one disparate strand at a time. The alkaline tang of dry mineral came first: the unmistakable, signature scent of the wind hissing over the bleak sands of Sanpashir. With sound came the lilt of an old woman’s voice, crooning over his head. His limbs were kept warm by a rough, goat-hair blanket that bristled his sensitized skin. That discomfort lost meaning, undone by the joy that moved through the song. Though the crone’s aged tone held a rasping quaver, her wise intent showered his mage-sense in glittering waves of sweet harmony.

Terror lurked outside, a drowning, black fear held at bay by the singer’s lines of protection: the agonized memory, not formless! of bone knives and unnatural, dark seals wrought to seed dire torment and ensnare the spirit at the threshold of death.

Arithon loosed a shuddering sigh and wept through a flood of relief: first for the clean air that entered his lungs, then for the gift of mage-guided company. He responded in thanks with his eyes shut. ‘Mother Dark’s blessing. Increase to the tribes, for your kindness.’

The grandame’s evocative melody ceased. Not her warding, which shimmered still, an ephemeral embrace wrought from moving light that laced her guest’s form in sealed quiet. ‘What can a destitute teidwar return?’ said Arithon Teir’s’Ffalenn, quite undone by the piercing tenderness of her insight. The word he had chosen was in deep desert dialect, meaning ‘outland, strange person, who fares through another’s place, kinless.’

Clothing rustled, to movement. His benefactress laid her tender hand on the blanket. Even that brief instant of pressure over his heart caused a flinch.

Her murmur held sympathy. ‘There, do you see? The scar remains, yet. Though your body has knitted, and the ritual cuts are closed over, the etheric mark you still bear is not healed. Lie calm. Here is safety. Nor are you teidwar. Spirit who serves the true light, and this land, D’aedenthic himself has delivered you.’

“Fire Hands?' whispered Arithon in puzzled translation. The desert-folks' habit of speech often wound through convoluted, layered meanings. Since given names rarely were spoken aloud, he guessed with a wry twist of irony, “Kewar's Sorcerer. You know him? Then I must apologize. Given the choice, I would not have burdened your people with my infirmity.'

The crone clicked her teeth. ‘We asked. Yes, harken! You are here because your distress is our provenance.’

That direct claim shot Arithon’s eyes open. As refined vision darkened to sensory sight, he stared upward: into crinkled, brown features, framed in wind-tangled snags of white hair. The woman sat against the wide, lucent sky, tinted aqua by on-coming daybreak. Her fringed head-dress was patterned with the beautiful yarns the tribes spun from silk and dyed goat hair. The gaudy colours seemed fit to stun his uncertain grasp on recovery.

“Your problem, old one?' He searched her burled face. Respectful, as Masterbard, he chose to use her cultural phrasing for absolute clarity. “I don't see how our lines cross. Therefore, I don't understand.'

She cackled, amused. Seamed fingers brushed his cheek like a child’s, while her patience chided his insolence. ‘Lines! They are ancient. Older than Biedar have lived on Athera. Mother Dark has shown us your name for that long. The winds speak your voice, at each birthing.’

“I don't see how our lines cross,' Prince Arithon restated, the edge to his tone all but warning.

“Torbrand's get! Truly.' Black eyes glinted. The elder settled back on her heels. Ever restless, the breeze whirled stray sand on the blanket through the moment she peered at him, slantwise. “You wish to leave, naked?' Outplayed, not yet irritated, Arithon sighed. “Fire Hands was remiss not to leave me a cloak.'

“He knew you that well,' the old woman agreed. Her dry grasp shifted, cupped over the frown that troubled his brow. Since he was tired, he chose to allow her: the touch brought him sleep that carried him, dreamless, into the gold of new morning.

Since the desert tribes travelled by night in deep summer, he was not aware of the strong, younger hands that tucked him in a litter and bore him into a cairn of stacked rocks. He slept the day through. When sundown came, the aged crone rubbed his wrists and his feet with sweet oil, and set a fresh warding to ensure that he did not awaken. Her nod roused the camp. The young men who stood guard shouldered the litter again, then resumed their careful trek eastward under the slender sickle of the waxing moon. Arithon rested. The trackless, black wastes erased the night’s journey from memory, while the wheeling stars passed overhead without record. The soft lilt of voices, and the bright ching! of the goat-bells glanced off his unhearing ears.

No nightmare struck until the dark just past midnight, when the spirit tide ebbed, and frayed boundaries were most wont to weaken. The horror that stalked was not real, not present; but the dream-state both altered and rippled the veil, blurring the line between time’s world of substance, and the vistas beyond, that lapped at the unfettered mind.

Hammer to anvil, the emotional impact shuddered through breathing flesh. Arithon thrashed. The insufferable feeling lived with him, still: a remembered horror that had occurred, as his being was drawn by arcane constraint, then forced into shackling bondage. The experience of being disbarred from death shocked a howl that began in his viscera and opened his throat in raw agony. A callused palm muffled his outcry. Other hands, agile and youthfully strong, caught his battering wrists and his ankles. While spoken words that meant nothing tried and failed to bring surcease to his torment, he struck out with deranged ferocity.

“Nay so!' rapped a voice of incisive command. The restraint – not bloodied rope ties, or wax seals – fell away.

Abruptly freed, Arithon curled on his side. Aknot laced into himself, trapped in misery, he trembled, until a tentative, kindly touch laid a strung lyranthe against his clenched fingers.

His shuddering breath took in the familiar: a fragrance of citrus-waxed wood and old varnish. The clean scent of the resin used to stiffen the instrument’s tuning pegs raised the forgotten echo of joy. Closed fists unbent. Tortured, Arithon reached out and stroked the cool, silken finish of shell inlay and gemstones. These had voice in the darkness. A beauty that whispered through mage-sense, imprinted by generations of masterbards, each devoted, unswerving, to harmony. Most recent of these, Halliron sen Alduin, still seemed to be chiding him with the wise vehemence given to elderly men before dying: ‘If a masterbard’s music can one day spare your life, or that of your loyal defenders, you will use it . . .’

Successor now bearing his mentor’s title, Arithon fought the surge of his nightmares to listen. His outer ear heard the brushed voice of the wind, drawn across ten courses of silver-wound wire, with the bass drone strings, thrumming beneath. No matter how emotionally raw, his sensitized talent could not refuse their sweet resonance. Arithon gasped a ripped word of gratitude. Reunited with the heirloom lyranthe last played at Sanpashir to raise the lane flux in transfer two years ago, he shoved erect and acknowledged the desert tribes’ generous stewardship. Then he gathered the instrument into his arms. His trembling clasp traced over the fretboard. Desperation guided his tuning. When the first chord rang out in corrected pitch, he immersed his torn faculties into the weaving of music.

His measures plunged into the well of blind fear. Sliding falls carried him deeper. He wrought his brutal despair into melody, carving out the courage and calm to plumb the most ravaging depths. In harmony, he sought to shatter the terror and break the cycle of endless reliving. He would heal by such art, though recovery took days. The Biedar crone allowed him that space. Her dartmen pitched camp and kept watch at her bidding, until the afflicted had played his horrific dreams to a state of prostrate exhaustion.

Then their journey resumed, with Arithon litter-borne. Once they reached the haven of Sanpashir’s deep caverns, they slipped into the womb of the earth. In the split cavern they called by the Name of the air, they granted their guest a tight, warded circle of privacy. There, his days passed in silence. By night, his cascading spill of struck notes drilled through rock and wind and raised tears in the far-sighted eyes of their gifted.

#

That incongruous, sheet-silver curtain of sound was the first thing to greet the outland intruder brought in tribal custody from the sea-side. Herded in before dawn a moon’s quarter hence, this one the Biedar still held under blindfold. Town-born, he had come uninvited, bearing forged arms to the headland. Because his outspoken protests were ignorant, his escort maintained their precautions. Besides the rag, this trespasser’s wrists were lashed behind his stiff back.

Since sunrise eased the dread pull of rank dreams, the new arrival need not bear the heart’s cry of the other guest’s lyranthe for long. While the final, struck notes spun dying echoes through the maze of Sanpashir’s caverns, Sulfin Evend was pressed, stumbling, down a steep incline of stone. The deft hands of four dartmen guided him through the narrows that guarded a cul-de-sac. There, the tied cloth was pulled from his eyes. A silent young woman swathed in veils cut the rope from his wrists. She replaced the rough bonds with soft rag, more graciously knotted in front of his waist. A damp cloth was offered to cleanse his dust-caked face. Then dried meat, sour cheese, and an unleavened biscuit were set into his anxious grasp. For the first time since setting foot on the shore-line, Sulfin Evend was permitted to eat and drink on his own. His escort of silent, robed dartmen remained. They tracked his least move with inimical, dark eyes and answered none of his questions.

Then, as now, they refused to soften despite his peaceful entreaty. An impatient man, Sulfin Evend leashed rage. He had little choice. Adead seeress’s loan of their elder’s flint knife had been the sole grace that once defended his sworn liege’s life. Since the talisman had delivered the spirit, intact, from the hideous rites of Grey Kralovir’s necromancers, the Lord Commander of the Alliance’s war host stifled his rampant frustration. He was not such a fool, to transgress arcane bargains. Neither could he evade the harsh charge of his oath to a Fellowship Sorcerer.

His overtaxed nerves would have to be nursed, one hard-set breath at a time. Sulfin Evend ate the simple fare without savour. Wary of the poison that tipped desert darts, he would endure till these uncivilized people chose to grant his appeal.

The haunting strain of the lyranthe remained silenced when at length his warders allowed him to sleep. Yet somehow the searing measures lived on, unleashing a torrent of unquiet dreams. Sulfin Evend catnapped upon the damp stone, while the taciturn dartmen kept watch from the dark, their vigilance stubborn as bed-rock. Later, an older man came with a torch. Words were exchanged in thick dialect. Then the elder departed. The robed dartmen allowed Sulfin Evend a brief walk outside to stretch his legs and relieve himself. Under daylight, he snatched the opening to ask once again if he might be given a fair hearing. As usual, no one deigned to reply. The desert-folk hustled him out of the glaring white sun. Dazzled and stumbling, he was prodded back into the gloom of the rock cave. While he was still blinking and cursing stubbed toes, they rebound his wrists with their twisted rag ropes. Then he was ushered back underground, but not to the same cave of imprisonment.

This pass, he was led through a narrower cleft, worn smooth by the footsteps of centuries. The close wall on both sides had been carved. Sulfin Evend need not be a scholar to recognize the interlaced coils of Mother Dark’s mystic serpents. Heart pounding, unprepared, he realized his hour for audience had arrived. The reddish gleam of a lit cavern loomed at the far end of the corridor.

“There, you will go,' the lead dartman instructed, and although no other order was given, the escort of warriors melted behind. The outland stranger was left the choice to proceed of his own free will.

Sulfin Evend steadied his harrowed nerves. Past turning back, he advanced to confront a power of mystery that had stood in the breach to curb an entrenched binding of necromancy. Such strength, perhaps, fit to rival the arcane reach of a Fellowship Sorcerer, whom none but a fool approached lightly.

Across that carved threshold, rinsed in carnelian glare, a crone sat beyond the embers of a neat fire. She was shrouded. Black silk veils melted at one with the shadow thrown off by the coals. Her motionless presence might have been overlooked had the intricate whorls of embroidery that patterned her hems not chiselled her form in the darkness. The rock floor underneath her tucked knees had been channelled with similar patterns. Their looping spirals confounded the eye, while the gravid air wove an uncanny dance with a fragrant blanket of herb smoke.

Afraid for no reason, Sulfin Evend stopped cold. Instinct insisted that he should take flight without any care for the consequence. Before he risked death as a dartman’s pinned target, his trailing escort grabbed hold. They shoved his reluctant, awkward step forward, then pressed him face-down on the earth.

“She is eldest!' snapped one in the stilted accent imposed by his wilderness dialect. “Here, she rules. All others brought inside of our circle must show their seemly respect.'

The townsman submitted until they let him up, though the sensitivity brought by his errant clan lineage prickled his nape with unpleasant warning. An odd charge of awareness seemed to attend the ancient woman’s rapt stillness. Almost, the cave’s stone seemed to whisper and speak, while the flickering fire hissed in the cold air like the breath of a thousand vipers.

Sulfin Evend crouched on his heels. A brave man in battle, he could not stop shivering. The crone never moved. She looked unassuming in her rags and raw silk. Yet her wisdom spoke volumes through silence. Worse than Enithen Tuer’s, her eerie knowing unsettled his calm as she uncovered her wizened face. No matter how seasoned, the grown man wrestled dread, while her black, shining eyes stared him through.

The well-rehearsed greeting Sulfin Evend intended stuck on his paralyzed tongue.

The crone motioned him closer.

The skilled dartmen behind disallowed his insane urge to try protest. Sulfin Evend edged towards the fire and sat. Hands tied, he could not refuse the goathorn flask the barbaric matriarch uncorked and pressed to his lips. He managed the trial, though the swallow he took seized his breath like a fist in the guts. The bitter taste of strange herbs made his eyes water, while the bite of alcohol kindled a bonfire inside, wringing his body to sweat and rushed pulse.

The old one nodded, apparently appeased by his effort to honour her customs. She opened without need to ask for his name, or inquire what purpose had brought him. ‘Your kinsman who lay under threat of the shadow that consumes the spirit is dead.’

'Raiett?' gasped Sulfin Evend. “Lysaer's appointed Lord Governor of Etarra? He can't be!' The shock left him stunned, that the crone's uncanny faculties might read even the branching ties of his blood-line. “I wished to petition your people for knowledge! Beg a stay of protection, that my uncle might be permitted the chance of salvation.'

'Done!' said the old woman. 'The cult you knew as Grey Kralovir has been sundered. Already, the one you name Raven has passed from this world, cut free from the ties of black craftmarks. Your need was released on the hour his remains were consumed, cleansed of all taint by white mage-fire.'

She moved. Paper dry as the scald of sun on baked rock, her crabbed finger tapped his moist forehead. ‘You need not plead for our help, town-born man! Nor do you owe any debt to Biedar. Not for your kinsman, departed.’

Rattled by the uncivilized drink, or perhaps by the jab of her censure, Sulfin Evend wrestled the scatter of his wheeling, irrational thoughts. For in fact, the dire peril to his uncle had been the lesser of two threats that brought him. ‘I bore a flint knife, made by your ancestry, that your warriors reclaimed at the time I made landfall.’ Unblinking, the crone nodded. ‘The knife you brought back here has always carried but one written Name on its destiny.’

Sulfin Evend gathered his courage. ‘Then I ask leave to plead for your favour.’

The old woman strummed a hand through her necklet of bone, jangling its strings of carved fetishes. If not encouragement, the gesture suggested he had her due leave to explain himself.

'I once gave my word to a Fellowship Sorcerer to return the knife's legacy to your keeping. This, I have done. The boon I would ask of your grace is to loan me the talisman for additional protection. I make the appeal on behalf of my liege. Lysaer s'Ilessid lies entrapped under a vile curse by the Mistwraith. Could you grant a stay to defend him when the madness saps his right mind? As the prince's sworn man, pledged to safeguard his virtue, I speak the truth. The Alliance behind him is built on false cause. I petition your people for assistance. Don't leave me stripped of all recourse as my liege loses ground to the blood-lust imposed by Desh-thiere.'

The crone laced her seamed fingers. ‘Your obligation not being ours, you shall meet the one whose true gift has arranged for your uncle’s deliverance.’

Sulfin Evend bristled. ‘Did you hear nothing? Lysaer’s misguided policy seeks to cleanse every trace of initiate knowledge from the five kingdoms. Backed by the fanatical, armed might of the towns, this self-righteous crusade may yet come to threaten the ancient roots of your heritage.’

'Refuse?' snapped the crone, not one whit inclined to reverse her lofty dismissal. 'A fool's errand, truly! Do you realize whose Name you spurn to know? His hand is the same, that will wield our ancestor's knife! Through him, the Kralovir's vile works have just been undone for all time. Ahead, if his strength stays the course of his fate, he bears the very flame of your hope.'

Frowning, his throat left seared raw from her wretched decoction, Sulfin Evend forced the stark inquiry. ‘You claim that this man has brought Lysaer’s salvation?’

'Past, and perhaps for the future.' The crone bent her head, deferent. 'Alone on Athera, he is the key to secure your liege's deliverance from jeopardy!'

Sulfin Evend lost his breath. Rocked dizzy, he ventured, ‘Whose Name, then, Lady?’ Sweating beneath her discerning, hard stare, he barely sustained without cringing. ‘Do you speak of a Fellowship Sorcerer?’ No other power abroad, that he knew, could have routed the works of the Kralovir.

The crone hissed in the negative. ‘Mother Dark’s chosen is not of the Starborn.’ Both wrists chinked with bracelets, twisted of blown glass and copper, as she spread her red-dyed palms in a gesture that acknowledged the forces that lived and moved through the world, unseen. ‘Know him, and the boon that you ask of Biedar is well answered. For there will come the dark hour. His life thread crosses the palm of your hand. The choice is yours, seithur, whether or not to stay blinded.’

Head spinning from the heat of the fire and the searing influence of the strange herbs, Sulfin Evend grappled to make sense of the crone’s oblique phrases. She insisted the threat at Etarra was cleared. If so, the dread taint of necromancy had been expunged from the core of Lysaer’s Alliance already. Sulfin Evend cradled his head in roped hands. Prompted by gratitude, he yielded to the tribal elder’s request to confront her prodigal champion. What would her folk show him, after all, but another primitive shaman, steeped within the queer, uncouth mystery of her nomadic tradition?

Blindfolded once again by the dartmen, Sulfin Evend found himself ushered away from the crone’s revered presence. His steps were not steady. Either the pungent drink or the smoke from the coals had befuddled his natural senses. Drawing deep gulps of clean air in the passage, he let his escort draw him farther into the caves that riddled the deeps of Sanpashir. They guided him downwards. The way turned in switchbacks upon a steep slope, sometimes carved with the semblance of steps. Generations of inhabitance had smoothed the limestone into worn hollows. The dank tang of mineral mingled with smells of rancid fat and cold soot. Sulfin Evend was held back while someone lit a torch. Footfalls echoed around him as he was prodded leftwards, into a passage. The air changed, the last of the desert’s dry heat smothered out by the bone chill of underground bed-rock and damp. He heard the trickle of fresh water, and waded through cold, shallow pools. The cavern whispered with the splashed plink of springs, no help to salvage his bearings.

The dark and the blindfold unstrung his mazed faculties. Now, each stumbling step and the close taint of smoke wrung him to visceral nausea. He lost count of the turnings and thresholds he crossed before the path wended upwards. He panted, distressed, though the sharp ascent seemed not to trouble the desertmen. He tasted the scorched flint of dry, outdoor air. The grave chill of the deeps gave way to close warmth, threaded through by the fragrance of embers reduced from a birch fire. There, Sulfin Evend was steered to a halt.

The warrior beside him gave warning. ‘Take care, town-born man. Do not stray too near. The one you approach is a sensitive, and for this, we ask your respect. A warding circle laid down by our elders keeps guard for his fragile peace.’

The blind was removed. Though no one came forward to untie his wrists, the armed escort stepped back and stood down. Their cloaked forms melted into the shadow behind, leaving Sulfin Evend alone to regain his strayed bearings. He stood at the verge of a narrow rock-chamber. A raw crack in the ceiling let in the fresh air. The errant, hot breeze from outside winnowed smoke from a clay pot packed with coals, several yards from his planted feet. That carmine glow, and the pallid scatter of ambient light glanced lines of reflection off a lyranthe’s silver-wound strings.

The instrument leaned against the far wall, its lacquered wood inset with a shimmer of jewels. Sulfin Evend shivered. The instrument owned a spare symmetry fit to pierce a man to the heart. Such beauty bespoke nothing less than the grace of Paravian craftsmanship. Startled to find an heirloom beyond price in this unlikely, rough setting, Sulfin Evend peered into the gloom. There, he picked out a supine form, sprawled on a woven blanket.

The stranger the elder dispatched him to meet was no swarthy offshoot of tribal heritage. This man was pale-skinned. His arched feet were bare. Healed abrasions gleamed white on his ankles. The rest of his frame was obscured by the loose, silk garb of the desert. He did not seem either unsettled or dangerous. Asleep, his slight stature and angular face appeared refined, even strikingly vulnerable.

The contrary fact that he looked unimposing jarred every natural instinct. First the glossy black hair, then the savage old scar, half-twisted the length of his right forearm, cued the uncanny awareness. Sulfin Evend realized he beheld none else but the Master of Shadow: for three decades, the author of unconscionable massacres and the sorcerer whose conniving wiles had once lured an elite band of Hanshire light horse to a nightmarish ruin inside a grimward.

Reason fled. Tied wrists notwithstanding, Sulfin Evend surged forward. His graphic memories of lost comrades, undone one by one, and consigned to hideous slaughter, lit his primal urge to retaliate.

Fierce hands jerked him backwards. Jabbed at the knees, knocked down by brute force, Sulfin Evend was cuffed and pinned flat by the hands of his wrathful escort. The tribesfolk were not a forgiving race. They gagged his mouth, trussed his legs, and rendered him helpless before they abandoned him to his fate. Their matriarch’s decree left him sprawled at the feet of his liege’s most merciless enemy: the same wanton criminal he had striven to destroy on Lysaer’s failed campaign in Daon Ramon. The last warrior to leave shed his dusty robe and tossed it over the prostrate outlander. ‘To spare the sight of the one you offend, since our revered eldest has charged us to keep you here!’
© Janny Wurts