“Yes,” Valaista replied. She tucked her left ring finger under her thumb, crooking the other three in a claw-like configuration.
“Now,” Kalena said, watching the girl closely, “for second-position, we inner-supinate and retract the great finger, while simultaneously adopting second inverse pronation double-bent with the right…what on earth are you doing?”
Valaista was grimacing and shaking her hand furiously. “Cramp!” she squeaked.
“Hara Sophus!” The wizard grabbed the girl’s flailing member and began massaging her fingers. None too gently.
It had been a long and trying afternoon. The two women were seated side-by-side at the work table in Kalena’s study, only a few paces away from the hidden shrine where the party had first appeared in Eldisle. Before them, scattered across the acid-stained and knife-scarred boards, lay the wide variety of minor spell components and magical implements that Kalena was using to attempt to teach the girl how to bend the flux the way a wizard does. There was also a twisted, gnarled wand of hazel-wood, and a packet of a half-dozen candles wrapped in waxed parchment that she had set aside in response to a request from her colleague, Thanos.
That much, she could do for him. But as for teaching the dragon-child how to cast the slightest of incantations…there, she was not having much success.
Also on the table lay the object of the afternoon’s efforts: the short, broad-bladed sword that the would-be assassin Calperyso had used to such devastating effect against Kalena and Thanos. Kaltas had asked his house wizard to investigate the weapon’s magical properties. She had been about to begin when Valaista had scratched timidly at the door, bearing a note from Thanos asking the wizard to take the girl in hand for the day while he and his colleagues rode down an important clue.
Faced with a dangerous magic item and the likelihood that tricky and demanding divinations would be required to read it properly, the last thing Kalena needed was a distraction. But Thanos had shed blood in her defence, and in defence of the Duke; and even if he had not done so, she would have owed him the same courtesy that she would have expected from a colleague. A colleague of sorts, she’d added to herself with a supercilious sniff.
And so she had invited the girl in, sat her down, and had begun teaching her the rudiments of the wizard’s art. That had been nine hours ago. Valaista had yet to mimic even a single cantrip. Let alone master one.
“Ow!” the dragon-child complained.
“Be silent,” Kalena growled, working the girl’s fingers back and forth. “This is ridiculous. You are not even a half-year old, yet you have all the flexibility and manual dexterity of a millenarian.”
“I’m a dragon,” the girl replied, sounding hurt. “We’re supposed to be strong, tough and wise, not…bendy.”
“You won’t learn wizardry if you can’t crook your fingers into the proper gestures!” the magister snapped.
“I’m not supposed to be learning ‘wizardry’ at all!” the girl cried. “I’m dragon! We’re sorcerers! Can’t you teach me that instead?”
Kalena put her face in her hands. A few moments slipped by, until Valaista began to wonder whether the Hiarsk woman was sleeping. At length, however, the wizard heaved a great sigh and raised her head again. “One cannot be taught to become an inborn caster,” she said slowly and clearly. “One is either born with the potential, or not. If the potential is inborn, then the bearer cannot force it; you can only wait for it to emerge.”
“Typically,” Kalena said, holding up her hand to forestall another interruption, “this occurs for dragons when you enter the incalesco for the first time.”
Valaista looked blank.
Kalena sighed again. “ ‘Incalesco’ means the heating of the blood,” she clarified.
“When you first become fertile,” the wizard continued, colouring slightly.
“Hara Sophus!” the wizard hissed again. “Am I to play your mother’s part as well? It means the first time you rise to mate!”
Valaista blinked. “But that won’t be for years!” she wailed.
“Correct,” the wizard said bluntly.
The dragon-girl furrowed her brow. “But...then why was Thanos able to…to teach me to cast spells the way he does? As a warmage?”
Kalena cocked an eyebrow. “For two reasons, I presume. First, the war-magi are intuitive casters, like sorcerers. Thus, the potential for that sort of magic already lay within you. He is simply leveraging your inborn talent – bringing it out, trusting you to learn the power as you progress in might. This is different from your inborn powers, which are a function of your maturity and strength as a dragon.”
Valaista nodded. That made sense. “What’s the second reason?”
The wizard’s gaze grew positively flinty. “The warcaster’s art, while puissant in effect,” she said, “is not intellectually demanding. One simply points and speaks, and something catches fire or blows up. It has all the subtlety of a house collapsing. This is probably why you are having no difficulty mastering it even with your clumsy digits.
“Wizardry,” Kalena huffed, “is a more subtle science. Observe. Again.” Crooking her fingers in the appropriate gestures, she murmured, “Haivaita Loitsu!”
Immediately, the sword – as well as numerous other items on the table, including the candle-holder, a small wooden box, her robe, two of the five rings she wore, her bracelets, the girl’s rings, the packet of candles, and the crooked, arm-long wand – began to glow with a soft, shimmering azure light.
“See?” the wizard murmured.
“No,” Valaista snorted. She couldn’t see anything.
Rolling her eyes, Kalena seized the girl’s hand, opened her mind, and let a little of the wash from the flux flow into her.
Valaista gasped. Her eyes widened, and her face, already pale, went white. “I do see it!” she whispered. “How…how am I seeing it?”
“The spell enables a wizard to sense active dweomers,” Kalena replied. The effort of speaking while concentrating on her casting forced her to adopt a gentler tone. “I simply opened my mind to yours and drew you into the link. So long as we touch, you should be able to sense the auras as I do.”
“That’s amazing!” the girl breathed. With her free hand, she reached out as if to touch the sword.
Kalena slapped her hand away. The sudden motion broke her concentration and the spell ended.
Valaista looked at the woman, hurt.
The wizard shrugged. “I make no apology. That would have been extraordinarily foolish,” she snapped. “You saw what that blade did to your master.”
“I’m sorry,” Valaista whispered. She put her hands in her lap and stared at the surface of the table, clearly upset.
Kalena rolled her eyes again. She was unaccustomed playing the magister, the counsellor, the friend and the nursemaid all at once. She kept forgetting that, behind the façade of an adolescent elf-girl was a mind which, although definitely sharp and potentially brilliant, was in essence that of a young child. “Perhaps I should just get on with the greater divinations,” she suggested. “You may observe. You will be able to see all of the details, and we will be able to finish up for today. Yes?”
“All right,” the girl whispered.
“Watch closely.” Kalena took a deep breath and began the complicated series of arcane gestures and passes required by her next work of theurgy. The manoeuvres were much more complex, and she took extra care to ensure that she performed them correctly. When she was ready, and the built-up potential of the flux was raising the tiny hairs on the back of her neck, she gathered the strands, bent them into a cage of wisdom around the sword, and intoned the incantation: “Paljastaa kaikki toiminnan lumo!”
As before, the azure glow sprang up around the weapon, limning hilt and blade alike with cold, blue light. The glow was stronger this time, though, with harder edges and deep, flickering bursts of light.
Kalena focussed her attention on these. As she did so, the individual strands of the flux uncoiled, each bringing with it a morsel of information. The strands passed on their wisdom, then spun away through the room, filling the chamber with a storm of whipping, snapping lashes of energy.
Without taking her eyes off the auras, she reached slowly for a sheet of parchment and her inkwell. As the twisting strands of the flux revealed the weapon’s properties, she wrote them down.
Valaista watched all of this with a mixture of amazement and disappointment. The working of the spell had been fascinating, but now all she could see was Kalena staring intently at the assassin’s sword, trembling slightly, and writing unintelligible syllables on a scrap of paper.
When the wizard gasped and dropped the pen, the dragon-girl started slightly. “What is it?” she asked.
“Gods…” Kalena breathed. “Who…how was this done?” Her fists were clenching and unclenching involuntarily. A moment later, she hissed, “Him?”
“Who’s ‘him’?” Valaista asked, growing concerned. Kalena was quivering now, sweating with the effort of unwrapping the strands.
Panting, the wizard held out her left hand, unbending the fingers with an effort. “Let…let me show you.”
The last thing Valaista wanted to do was grasp that sweaty, trembling claw. But she did as the wizard asked.
As before, she felt Kalena’s mind begin to open, and caught a glimpse of the whipping, flailing, skyfire-blue strands of the flux that filled the room. They coiled around Kalena and the sword, drawing out its secrets and feeding them to her.
The dragon-girl cried out at their beauty, their obvious, incredible power.
Then, like sudden nightfall, a cloak of darkness descended, and the shimmering luminescence of the strands vanished. Kalena gasped, and Valaista felt her fingers tighten spasmodically. She caught a brief glimpse of a cold, white face, a bald, hairless skull, and a single eye glowing in the darkness…and through it, as if through a curtain of gauze, a field of vibrant, life-giving green, squirming in terrible agony…
With a cry of shock and fear, Kalena wrenched her fingers out of Valaista’s fist and shoved the dragon-girl away. Valaista fell off her chair and onto the floor…and Kalena did too, writhing and spasming violently. Before the dragon-girl’s horrified eyes, silver-black streaks burst out under the wizard’s skin, running up her face and bringing tears of blood to her eyes. Kalena opened her mouth to scream, but instead of breath, a rush of black bile poured fourth.
Heedless of any danger, Valaista grasped the woman’s flailing hands and leaned over her, shouting, “What is it? What’s wrong!?”
Instantly, she lunged backwards, releasing Kalena’s fingers. They were cold, ice-cold; a bone-numbing cold that seemed to draw the heat and life from the dragon-girl’s body.
As the wizard’s tremors slowed, Valaista cast her eyes around the room, frantically trying to find some means of succouring her friend.
Kaltas put down the quill and ground a knuckle into his right eye. He was exhausted.
The Lantern had, at long last, set on the Day of the Bargain. Since sunrise, his time had been consumed by a remorseless, seemingly interminable succession of prayers, devotions, ceremonies, feasts, more prayers, more devotions…The Duke revered Tîoreth as much as the next elf and more than most; the Champions of Larranel felt a special kinship to the ancient servant of Tîan who had battled demons hand-to-hand, securing for himself a place in the elven pantheon through his selfless decision to accept the overlordship of the wolves, the wardens of the forest. But a full day of services was trying.
And truth be told, unnecessary. He ground his teeth in frustration. The observances did, of course, serve a number of useful political purposes. They allowed him to demonstrate, for all to see, his exceptional piety, which was always an important consideration when a leader was already under a cloud. And even more so when he was planning something likely to cause his subjects to question his judgement and loyalty.
More importantly, though, the services and feasting had allowed him to spend the whole day in public view with his new bride on his arm.
Myaszæron, as attuned to the need for show and the demands of politics as he was (More so, he grimaced, which was not surprising given the atmosphere in which she had grown up), had blossomed into her newfound role with alarming aplomb. She’d been every inch both the regal lady and the blushing bride. She’d even stolen a march on him; when they’d met at noon (their involvement in the day’s ceremonies having been delayed by the demands of the formal marital coniungere, which the two of them had savoured until they were hilariously interrupted by Valaista), she had shocked him by appearing in the traditional garb of the new-married elf-woman, the snow-white simple gown known as cyclas pudoras, with her hair unbound and reaching, in a shimmering waterfall of gleaming emerald, to the backs of her thighs. Even more astonishing, she had somewhere found a long, priceless length of grass-green silk, and was wearing it over her left shoulder, cinched tight and bound around her waist. The virga lætitia was, under normal circumstances, little more than a symbol of devotion to the Forest Mother. But on a bride’s wedding day, it meant a great deal more.
It symbolized fertility. And a plea to Hutanibu to bless the bearer with children.
Kaltas had been dreadfully wrong-footed by his new lifemate’s fashion choices, and he wondered – given that, until a few hours earlier, she had still been a maid – she knew precisely what she was signalling to all and sundry. He had to admit that it had been an inspired choice, though; when she had emerged from the
Temple on his arm, smiling the tentative, lop-sided smile
that made his heart ache, the throng of city-folk and countryside celebrants
had erupted into a shattering roar of approval.
He shook his head, irritated at the wool-gathering brought on by fatigue. The day’s observances had put him behind in his work, at a time when the hours were flying past, and the minutes were at a premium. He wouldn’t trance tonight; there was too much to do.
Three long rectangles of rich vellum lay on the table before him. All were letters, and all were complete, penned in a strong, fair hand. He always wrote his own correspondence; it kept him in practice, and more importantly it reduced opportunities for unscrupulous copyists to sell their knowledge of their Duke’s doings. But these texts…these he would have entrusted to no one else. Each was, in its own way, a call to arms – an alarm, even. Each was strongly worded; he had eschewed the customary foppish mannerisms of diplomats and the nobility, instead choosing his words to infuriate and inflame.
Am I doing the right thing? he asked himself, for what must have been the fiftieth time. These three missives, and the words they contained, could push the realm over the precipice. There would be a great effusion of blood before all was done; a hot, purifying fire would sweep the Homelands, carrying away the stains of rot and corruption, but carrying away much else besides. Much that was good and untainted would burn. It was inevitable.
And he was sending his new lifemate to ignite the conflagration.
It was her idea, he reminded himself. We reached this course of action together. We see what has gone wrong…what is going wrong. We know what must be done.
And we know what the price might be.
It had to be done. The humans, the half-breed…if what they had told him was the truth, then there was no other way. It had to be done.
I’m sending them into the fire as well, he reminded himself bleakly. Poor payment for their many services. Poor payment indeed, he thought, his heart aching, for my Ally’s last earthly comrades. But it had to be done. There was no alternative. Fire could destroy…but it could also purge. It could sweep away dead wood, and make room for new life. Sometimes, fire was hope.
Taking a deep, steadying breath, he drew the first letter towards himself. He dipped his quill in the inkpot, tapped it gently against the silver lip of the vessel, and signed with a flourish, the elaborate ducal ‘K’ taking up most of the bottom half of the page. He sanded the ink, blew on it, and then shook the residue onto the floor. With a swift gesture he folded the missive in three, waxed and sealed it, and scrawled Ad Scriptor Imperio Coniugium on the outside.
Pushing the letter away, he sighed again. That had been the easy one; Myaszæron could deliver it to the Imperial Registrar of Unions when she arrived at the palace in Starmeadow. He had already begged her to do so before taking any other steps, and she had agreed without demur. They would not be safe until their vows had been officially recorded. Once that had been done, no earthly power could separate them.
The second letter had been more difficult. It was not very much longer than the first, but he had laboured over the language, choosing his words with exquisite care. He had never before written to this individual, not in this way, and he doubted that anyone had ever written to her using the words that he had used.
He sighed again. It had to be done. He signed the second letter with the same flourish as the first, and was pleased to note that his hand wasn’t trembling a jot even as he did so. A sanding, a careful sealing, and another inscription: Ad Maiestatis Imperiosa Ælyndarka, Deus Gratia Regina Elvorum.
He laid the second letter carefully alongside the first. They stared back at him like a pair of serpents. He would have to have someone other than his new bride deliver this second missive. Ælyndarka had a habit of being a trifle short with messengers when she didn’t like the message.
Then, slowly, reluctantly, he turned his gaze to the third document. It was less a letter than a handbill, twice the size of the others, and covered in big, bold letters. His seal, the mermaid superimposed on the Tree of the Protector, was affixed near the bottom edge of the page.
This was the most terrifying document of the three; once he signed it, the die would be cast. There would be no turning back.
He started slightly – proof, as if any more were needed, that he was engaged in a desperately nerve-wracking venture. More than one, in fact.
He turned toward the voice. A shiver slithered down his spine; the last time a woman had called to him from that doorway, it had been his beloved Alrykkian.
This time, it was his new lifemate. Her hair was still down and unbound, and she still wore the cyclas – but now it was unbelted and hung partially open. The look in her eyes was one that he hadn’t seen in the better part of a century.
Suddenly dry-mouthed, he swallowed hard. An idiot grin seized him, and he cursed himself for feeling like a thumb-fingered boy instead of a general and a lord who had seen more than six hundred turns of the seasons. But he couldn’t help himself. Rykki had been a wonder – brilliant, fiery and intense. Mya was something else entirely – a servant of the Forest Mother, a force of nature, lush, potent and indomitable. How - how could he ever love them both?
How could I not?
Out loud, he said, “Quid est, amora?”
“Aurora venat ocior,” she whispered. Dawn comes swiftly.
“E vero,” he replied. Turning back to his desk, he seized the third document and dashed off his signature. He stabbed the pen back into the inkwell and stood so swiftly that his chair toppled to the carpets with a heavy thud.
As he approached, he cocked his head. “Quomodo est virga tuus, amicula?” Where is your sash, my love?
Myaszæron grinned roguishly. “Cinctus est, dominus,” she replied. I’m wearing it, my lord. And with that, she parted her robe, and he saw that, beneath it, she wore nothing but the green silk scarf, bound about her slender waist.
A second, almost subliminal chill shook him. “You’re serious,” he murmured. “It wasn’t a ploy? You’re truly beseeching Hutanibu to kindle you?”
“Well,” the princess said with a slight smile, “I’m hoping for a little help from the green, yes. But I’m afraid you still have to do most of the work, my lord.”
He shook his head. The situation was too gravely serious for jests. “Do you think that’s wise?” he asked softly. “To bring a child into a world that stands on the edge of ruin?”
She put her arms around his neck and raised her lips to his. “No,” she replied, her voice the barest whisper.
Then there was no more time for words. Nor any need for them.
Moments later, with a rattling bang, a gust of wind from the open window blew the door to the bedchamber shut. The breeze lofted the third document – the handbill – from the Duke’s desk, whirling it briefly through the air and depositing it on the floor.
A casual observer, looking past the illuminated salutation and the ruffles and flourishes of the first few lines, would have read the following:
His Excellency Kaltas Aiyellohax, by the grace of Hara Sophus Duke of Eldisle, Imperator of the Armies of the South, and Viceroy in the Sunswept Realms of Her Serene Majesty, Ælyndarka the Fair, doth by these Presents, and by the Authority Entrusted unto him by Our Beloved Queen, Command every Man of Military Age to give Heed to this Summons; and, Bearing Arms and Armour, and each Mounted and Companioned According to his Station, to Present himself at his assigned District Staging Point, and make him Ready for War…
Reticia tapped lightly at the door, and was answered by a surly growl. “What?”
“May I enter?” she asked politely, struggling to avoid the stilted idiom that tended to creep in whenever she used the humans’ speech.
“Can’t talk otherwise,” was the reply.
Rolling her eyes, she took that as license to work the latch. For all the aged ruggedness of the wood, the door swung open soundlessly. Obviously, the hinges had recently been oiled.
The blast of stale air – a miasma of sweat, ale, tobacco, lamp oil, cheese, mildew and the horrid, feculent stench of rats and bilge – washed over her. It was near to midnight, and she was tired after a day’s busy labour punctuated by religious observances, hungry, and nauseated after the jolting carriage ride down to the harbour.
She gagged slightly, but managed to combine it with a deep curtsey.
Behind the door was a small room. Cabin, she reminded herself. This is a ship; I’m standing on a deck, not a floor, she thought, and am about to vomit on a bulkhead rather than a wall. So this is a cabin.
Inside the cabin, which was no more than a dozen feet on a side and less than half that in height, were a trundle bed, a desk and chair, a small table, and a pair of sea chests. The remaining deck space was occupied by a burly human who looked as though he might have difficulty fitting through the door. He was bald, browned, and muscular, wearing a sleeveless leather vest above baggy, pitch-stained pantaloons tucked into high boots. He had one eye (the other, rather than being tastefully concealed by a patch, was a jagged mass of scar tissue), a large earring, and at some point, someone appeared to have carved part of his upper lip away.
“Heya!” this worthy crowed upon seeing her. “How can I service thee, missy?”
Reticia ignored his patent leer and, with somewhat less success, struggled to ignore the odour of the ship. “You are the Captain?” she asked.
“Aye. Goran Fall, of Lindenhale in the Imperium. Master and Commander of Odergrav. Who asks?”
“Reticia,” the elf-woman replied. “I am ancilla…that is, handmaiden. To Dame Excordia of Arx Incultus.”
The man waited, saying nothing.
“I wish to book passage to the capital,” Reticia continued, speaking swiftly to minimize the length of the interview. “For my mistress and myself.”
“No room,” the man replied, shrugging. “Sorry.”
“What?” She was taken aback. “I was told that you carry passengers as well as cargo!”
“I do,” he replied. “But Odergrav’s a merchantman first, and there’re only six cabins, and they’re all taken. To Starmeadow and beyond.”
She shook her head. “That is unacceptable.” Her mistress would not forgive failure. Not in this case!
The man looked perplexed. “What do you expect me to do?”
Reticia frowned. “What do you normally charge? For passage to
at Astrapratum?” she asked.
“Two-score sovereigns,” the man replied. “Or aureae. Or crowns, if you prefer.”
“I will pay you two hundred,” Reticia said crisply. “Aureae. For my mistress, myself and our baggage. Right now.”
Fall blinked. “Each?” he asked hopefully.
The sailor knew money when he saw it. With this chit, he could smell it. “Three hundred,” he counter-offered.
“Tell you what,” he said after a moment’s pause. “Make it three hundred, and you can have my cabin.” For thirty-score aureae, he would happily doss in the bilge.
The maid glanced around the dingy, smelly room. “You must be joking!”
A barked laugh. “This ain’t my cabin, missy,” the human chortled. “It’s the purser’s doss. My cabin’s all the way aft. I’m in here because it’s being painted.”
She was wavering, so he added, “It’s much bigger than this. Comfier, too. Windows and heads and everything.”
He gave her a slow, insolent once-over. “Maybe you’d like a private tour, heya? It’s got a nice, big bed.” He added a wink as a sweetener.
It was a struggle, but Reticia managed to keep her gorge under control. Heads? she wondered. What did that mean? “Perhaps later,” she said as calmly as she could manage. “After we are under way.”
The man’s eyes hardened slightly. Reticia slid her hand surreptitiously inside her gown, feeling for the hilt of her knife. If this toad so much as twitches, she thought bleakly, he’ll be standing in a pile of his own guts.
After a moment of locked gazes, the captain looked away. “Suit yourself, sweetling,” he shrugged. “First Mate’ll see you aboard. Be here with your lady and your dunnage no later than the first dog watch. Don’t be tardy, or you’ll find yourself swimming to
The elf-woman’s eyebrows rose. “Why are you watching dogs?”
The sailor sighed. “It’s a time, missy. Call it five sticks past high noon. Scitum?”
“Yes, I understand,” she replied, relieved. “When do we sail?”
“Sunset. Any other questions?”
“Yes,” she said, frowning. “What is ‘dunnage’?”
The sailor sighed, rubbing his eyes.
Dawn was already colouring the sky when the party, bone-weary and drooping from fatigue and the exertions, mental and physical, of their journey, clattered back over the palace draw-bridge. Breygon and Thanos had been silent for most of the ride back; each had been lost in his own thoughts, struggling with the impact and import of what had befallen them at the Fountain. Joraz had been silent, too, but that didn’t bother Karrick as much; he was used to the monk’s taciturn nature. Their three horses led the way, followed closely by the immense black cat, who flitted through the night like a shadow. Karrick followed a dozen paces or so behind, walking his horse, doing his best to rest the tired animal.
For his own part, he wasn’t all that fatigued; not really. The journey to the fountain had been marked by a few moments of excitement – especially when the turtle-hill had stood up, and the colossal tree had come stomping out of the forest – but it had been nothing to write home about. He hadn’t even had to unsheathe his sword once. The only exciting part – aside from trying to catch a glimpse or three through the splashing river-water at the pale-eyed fey-woman who had puzzled them with her riddles – had been watching his colleagues risk the waters of the fountain itself. Karrick still couldn’t understand that. There were too many unknowns; too many things that might have gone wrong. He’d spent years trying to protect Thanos from all manner of bizarre threats and dangers – and here the man had gone and taken a swig from a faerie creek, without so much as a how d’ye do! It was infuriating. The man had no sense of peril.
No matter, he thought. The boss’ll do what he’ll do, and I’ll do the same. What Karrick was mostly looking forward to was a few hours of sleep in a soft bed (he was not looking forward to a week in a ship-board hammock) and a chance to refill his flask from the keg that Lallakentan had thoughtfully sent over. He might be a skinny old sot, the warrior thought gratefully, but he had fine taste in spirits.
Karrick’s head snapped around. Something – someone – had whistled in the darkness. They were passing the armoury, en route to the stables. He glanced around, trying to keep from fixing his gaze on the many lighted windows, and caught a flash of white. A wave.
Pursing his lips, he slid quietly off his horse. When it paused, he gave it a swat on the dumper. To his relief, it obediently turned and followed its stable-mates.
Stepping quietly, one hand on the hilt of his sword, he followed the white flicker into the shadows between the armoury and the smith’s shop, keeping a cautious eye out. One could never know. Even in the palace…
When he stepped into the narrow alley between the two structures, he relaxed slightly. The flash of white had been a shirt beneath a dark grey cloak. Above the collar of the shirt was a pale, green-eyed face surrounded by a halo of golden hair.
Surprised, Karrick nodded. “Captain.”
“Cohors,” she replied.
There was something odd in her voice; a stilted formality. And hesitation, maybe. Not surprising, he thought, given the furtiveness of her approach. What on earth is she on about? “How can I serve?” he asked, mimicking her seriousness.
“You are leaving tomorrow,” she said. She wasn’t looking at him, she noticed; or at least, not at his eyes. She seemed to be looking at his hands.
Karrick smiled, a little confused. “Yes, at dusk, or so I’m told,” he confirmed. “Why?”
“I wish to give you something.”
The warrior frowned. Was it going to be one of those moments? An exchange of mementos? He’d brought nothing with him; no trinkets or oddments. He didn’t think an empty brandy flask would be an appropriate gift, given the circumstances.
Wracking his brains, he replied, “No gifts are necessary, lady.”
“This is not a gift,” the elf-woman replied. “It is a…a...I am sorry. I do not know the word. Provocatio?”
Karrick shrugged. “Sorry.”
“What one warrior says to another. When asking him to fight.”
Karrick’s eyebrows drew together. “A challenge?”
“Yes!” Kovakaunis said firmly. “This is not a gift to you; it is a challenge.” She half-turned away from him and reached for something lying concealed against the corner between the two buildings. It was big; a long package, wrapped in woven sacking. Holding it carefully in her arms, the elf-woman undid a number of bits of knotted twine, and threw back the cloth.
Karrick’s eyes widened. Beneath the rough material lay a sword. A big sword; enormous, in fact, like a scimitar made for an ogre’s fist. He could not see the blade, but the hilt, wrapped in blood-red cord, was at least a third of the blade’s length, which was itself easily four feet long. The scabbard, the breadth of which suggested that the blade was broad and heavy, was covered in fine-grained emerald leather, with fittings of polished silver.
“Take it,” she said, proffering him the hilt.
Karrick grasped the weapon and pulled it out of the scabbard. When the point cleared the mouth, it tilted sharply upwards; he had been unconsciously overcompensating for weight, but the weapon was a good deal lighter than it looked. “What is it?” he asked. “I’ve never seen one of these before.”
“That is because you have never been to the capital,” Kovakaunis replied. “That is chalybs
the High Glaive. It is the great sword
of the Guard, the Queen’s own defenders.”
Karrick swung the thing experimentally. Despite its feather-lightness, the blade had considerable momentum, and he discovered that it required a two-handed grip to control it properly. Once he put his left hand on the hilt, the water-coloured blade whickered through the air with frightening speed and finesse.
“This is no show-soldier’s cheese knife,” he said, glancing sidelong at the elf-woman. “This is magnificent. A work of art.”
“It is called Anaclast,” Kovakaunis replied. “ ‘Spell-Breaker’ in the ancient tongue. It is the bane of the mage-born.” She put a finger out as if to touch the blade, but held back at the last instant.
Karrick approved; one never laid one’s hand on so fine an edge. Such a blade should feel only silk, the whetstone, and the flesh of an enemy.
“It was given to me by one of my masters,” she went on, looking pensive. “His name was Cailas Saldonekko. He was a Tribune of the High Guard, once. A great swordsman, and a good friend. He is gone now.” She looked pensive, as though the memory moved her.
“What happened to him?” Karrick asked, certain that he knew the answer.
“He fell,” she shrugged. “At Duncala.”
“That was a while back,” Karrick murmured. “Threescore years.”
The elf-woman laughed without humour. “Human, I have seen nearly three hundred summers. For me, Cailas died yesterday.”
The warrior nodded. He performed a quick reverse-moulinette, ending the manoeuvre by snapping the sword back into the scabbard in the woman’s hands with a flourish. “Why give it to me?” he asked bluntly.
She looked him in the eye. “Because I want to.”
They stood together in silence for a long moment. At last Karrick sighed. “I can’t accept it, captain. It’s an heirloom of your house. A treasure! It should go with you.”
“It is the tool of a hero,” she hissed fiercely, “and it should go where it can do the most good!
“The Duke,” she continued, keeping her voice low, “must stay here. And so, therefore, must I. But you are riding into the fire. War is coming, cohors, and the fate of the realm will be on your shoulders, and on the shoulders of your companions. If our fears are correct, you will find yourself facing fearsome magic. You will need the power that Anaclast bears.”
She put a hand on his forearm. “There is little enough I can do to aid you,” she whispered. “I beg you…permit me this one thing.”
Karrick was not one to refuse a noble gesture, whatever its source and cost. The elf-woman’s naked plea touched his heart. Without a word, he took the blade from her hands, inspected the baldric closely (it was too small to fit over his shoulder, but he didn’t think it politic to mention the fact), and simply held the weapon loosely in his left hand. “Thank you,” he said. He added a bow for good measure.
“You are very welcome,” Kovakaunis replied softly. “I wish you a good journey. May Feynillor guide your blade, and Larranel guard your heart.” She touched her fingers to her breast and lips, then raised her hand in farewell.
Karrick – who had seen it performed countless times – repeated the gesture with surprising grace.
Kovakaunis smiled. “Do you know what Anja Antaíssin told her lifemate, Fineleor Orkarel, when he took his leave of her to face Bardan’s hordes, and their general, the undead fire-fiend, Gryshgranax?”
Karrick wracked his brain. Ancient elven historical prose had never been his strong suit. “Ah...no,” he said with an embarrassed grin. “No, I don’t. What did she say?”
“Cælum absque astrum, donicum coniugo sum,” Kovakaunis quoted.
“And that means?”
She flushed a little. “ ‘There will be no stars in my heaven until we meet again’.”
“Nice,” the warrior grinned. “Mine either.”
He bowed again. When he straightened up, he said, “D’ye think it’s likely? That we’ll meet again, I mean?”
“ ‘Non sub lanterna, proinde Exedrae Longinquus’,” the elf-woman replied gravely.
“That’s a quote too, isn’t it?”
“ ‘If not under the Lantern, then in the Long Halls’,” she smiled. “It is what Fineleor replied to Anja.”
Karrick nodded. “Appropriate.”
“And true,” the elf-woman said pensively. “In the fullness of time, in a far northern vale, they stood together, and fell together, buying the escape of their soldiers and another two-score years for the realm at the cost of their lives.”
“So they met again both under the sun, and in the Long Halls,” Karrick nodded. He’d heard the tale of Fineleor Orkarel before.
“I will pray for the former,” Kovakaunis murmured. “I hope to see you again soon, Karrick of Ekhan, under the Lantern, that stars may once again fill my heaven. We have unfinished business, you and I.”
And with that, she turned and strode away down the alley, disappearing into the pre-dawn darkness, leaving the warrior standing there holding the enormous sword in one hand, and feeling happily bemused.
For the first time in countless seasons, the grove was silent.
The Lantern rose on a scene of sylvan glory: a broad glade ringed by mighty morbannon trees, bristling with thick, waxy leaves as the waxing warmth and late-winter’s rain called forth all the beauty of the green. Though a casual observer – if any chanced by, something that had never yet happened – might not have noticed, any true servant of the
Mother would have thought that the trees were bending inwards, towards the
centre of the ring. As if they were
paying homage to the passing of a king.
They faced one of their own; a tree, a mighty oak, ancient and indomitable. Grim, grey and twisted, it stood more than a hundred feet tall, with a trunk like a war-tower, and massive roots sunk deep into the soil of the glade. The tree, which towered over its neighbours, stood next to a tiny brook; the merest trickle of cool, clear water of shimmering blue, that emerged from a spring concealed beneath a small mound of broken stone. The only sound in the glade emanated from the water as it gurgled and bubbled over the smooth, round rocks in its bed.
The mighty oak was clothed not in green, but brown. He was no more; his jiwa, the divine spark that once had animated him, had returned to kesatuan, and in time his body would return to the green, enriching the soil for the benefit of generations of mighty oaks to come. But for now, and for years to come, the vast trunk would stand here, shading the glade. The husk of a once-mighty sentinel would become a home for beasts and a vantage point for birds – a suitable if humble fate for one who had walked the star-lit glades of Anuru when there was naught in the world but the trees, the flowers and the vines – before the animals of Bræa and the beasts of Bardan; before the Ender brought forth the First-Born and the Giants; before the Holy Mother took the four elements in hand, and from them wrought the Kindred, setting in motion the doom of the World Made, and its salvation; before she gave up her light, and her Children and the Lantern rose for the first time over a green and wondrous world.
He had walked the wold through five ages. Born in the Making, he had endured the Age of Wisdom, exulting in the rise of Tîor, and struggling to evade the treason of his successors; shepherding the forests through the Empires of Men; striving to save what he could of the green during the wars launched by Bardan, that culminated in the Field of Oldarran, and the Fall of Harad, and the Gloaming of the Wyrms; preserving the wilderness through the Eon of Darkness, with his friend Arngrim, and his brothers and sisters among the trees; and standing with the other Wardens to watch over the woodlands, and safeguard the Arms of the Elflord through the ages of Discovery and New Hope, when the servants of the powers returned to the world, and men flourished again, and great cities rose once more, and the Shadow King cracked the earth. Time had at long last brought him here, and he had passed his guardianship and the sacred trust of the forests to another, and moved on, joining the Fallen of the Anari in the night sky.
The jiwa of Kayubesi, Ironwood, Trétrúa, Kuno the Ancient, was gone; but the echoes of such power as once animated his heartwood do not fade all at once. As the light of the lantern struck the withered, brown leaves, as the breeze of dawning day rustled them in their final slumber, the ancient branches stirred. With a gentle clatter, something fell from the highest bough, bouncing erratically from branch to branch, plummeting to earth to land in the soft muck alongside the stream.
It was an acorn. And it was bright with promise, and heavy with verdant life.
As the Lantern rose high above the glade, its beams fell upon the tiny thing, warming it, causing it to stir. Calling to it; summoning anew, as but one more spin in the eternal gavotte of nature, the life and purpose of the green.