Chapters 1 & 2 RUNE OF UNMAKING III -- Caution *Spoilers* for Vols. I and II

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Teresa Edgerton

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As a Christmas (or appropriate Winter holiday) gift for my long-suffering readers, I will be posting the first two chapters of The Rune of Unmaking III THE WINDS THAT MOVE THE WORLDS in this thread. Chapter 1 now, and Chapter 2 on Christmas day.


The contents of this thread are Copyright 2010 Teresa Edgerton





1​


The sun burned like a live coal behind a hazy overcast. The ancient road, seldom used, wound between thickets of bramble and stinging nettle, empty except for one plodding horse, one weary rider, and the unconscious woman he carried like a broken doll in his arms.

There was a spell on that road meant to repel travellers: like an itch at the back of the mind, a faintly unpleasant taste on the tongue, a constant subtle pressure that said, Turn back. You do not wish to go this way. It was a potent spell, potent by its very subtlety, but despite his mind-numbing fatigue Prince Ruan’s instincts remained keen enough to recognize one of lesser and outermost defenses of the Ni-Féa realm: sufficient to repulse the merely curious, enough to discourage the ordinary traveller. It did not discourage him; his errand was far too urgent.

For two long days and nights, Sindérian had remained limp and unresponsive, her heartbeat so faint and irregular, even the senses of a half-blood Faey strained to detect it. Sometimes Ruan had feared that she might wake to agony, crossing this wild, uninhabited country, miles away from any help. Sometimes he feared that she might never wake at all, her life bleeding away from internal injuries he had no power to mend.

Now the bay snorted and sped its dragging pace to a lazy amble, perhaps scenting woodlands ahead, the promise of shade and forage. But the Prince, catching sight of slender white towers rising above a line of dark trees, felt the familiar twinge of an old, old terror. For this forest was Queen Gäiä’s domain and she, who lived always by the Ni-Féa’s cruel code of insults and revenges, could hardly be expected to welcome an erring grandson, particularly one who came bearing a Human woman in his arms.

Yet his resolution remained fixed: if his Ni-Féa kin could restore her, he would not balk at any price they demanded, or count the cost to himself.

The last mile before they came to the eaves of the forest seemed to go more slowly than all the leagues before. Much to his relief, he encountered no impediment. They entered the green shadows under the trees and followed a gently sloping trail, where the scents of moss and bark, the sound of running water, immediately surrounded him. He felt the damp breath of the forest on his skin. Elsewhere, trees stood bare, but here no leaves had fallen. Winters arrived late in Queen Gäiä’s realm, though when they came they were as icy and brilliant as the Queen herself.

Duiré en Fehélein, they still call that forest, the Wood of the Fairies, and Llend Briénnen, the Queen’s Grove, in memory of Gäiä’s long reign. For Ruan as a child, that wood had been a vast and daunting wilderness, a place of terrors and hallucinations, where he often wandered lost and bewildered under the trees, until the careless attendant who had allowed him to slip away finally came looking for him.

Returning for the first time as a man, he saw everything as smaller, tamer, the wood’s apparent wildness a veneer meant to disguise an extremely sophisticated artifice. It was as if everything that grew there, trees, ferns, brambles, mosses, the ivy that climbed the trunks in artistic spirals, even the wild violets growing in the shade, had been intentionally placed for maximum effect. Yet there was more of art to it even than that, and any danger of getting lost would be of a more subtle and insidious kind than any he had dreamed of as a boy—because the forest and everything that grew there was shaped by Gäiä’s will.

On every side, Ruan heard birdsong; otherwise the wood was silent. The towers seen so clearly from a distance might have been illusion, they had vanished so completely. Yet he was keenly aware that Iroshél-Sildérith, The-City-Under-Trees, surrounded him. He sensed the Faey enchantments concealing it, though the city itself remained hidden.

Then two figures seemed to materialize on the path twenty feet ahead of him. He reined in slowly, and the horse ambled to a halt.

The strangers spoke almost in unison. “Prince Anerüian.” Two brief, perfunctory bows accompanied the greeting.

To be greeted by name did not surprise him—for the Ni-Féa hoard grudges as men hoard treasure, and their memory for insults and those who commit them is long indeed—but studying the faces of the two before him he could assign no name or memory to either of them.

They were both male, with waist-length ivory hair and the prominent cheekbones, the sharply defined features, of high-born Ni-Féa. No kinsmen of his, he hoped, which would mean no reason to feel a personal enmity. And since they acknowledged his rank, he had a better chance of gaining their cooperation by pretending to take it for granted than by asking it as a favor.

“Take me to Queen Gäiä,” he said with an arrogant lift of the head, the attitude of command that came so naturally under other circumstances. Yet seeing them stand there so cool and elegant, Ruan (who had always gone light and aloof among Men) was uncomfortably conscious of his own dirty, the clumsiness of his long limbs.

For a moment he thought they would refuse him. The strangers exchanged a swift, calculating glance, and something flared up: Resentment? Surprise at his audacity? Whatever it was, his words and manner produced the desired effect. Again they dipped their heads, and motioned Ruan to follow them further down the path.



Whether they had opened the way before him, or his own spoken command had banished the spells that blinded him before, now he could see it all quite clearly: White towers rose up between the trees. A party of Ni-Féa nobles picnicked in a sunny clearing; a trio of silver-haired maidens waded in a sparkling stream. Haughty and efficient Ni-Féa servants hurried between the towers, bearing trays of food or wine. Though none spared him more than a glance, he sensed their curiosity, and once or twice a flash of hostility.

Before very long, the dark green of pine and the brighter greens of birch and willow gave way to apple and chestnut: Gäiä’s orchard where birdsong became more intense. Starlings and sparrows—the Queen’s spies and messengers—perched on the boughs or flitted between the branches. Perhaps she already knew of his approach. Just beyond the orchard loomed an outcrop of the mountain. A narrow staircase cut into the face of the cliff led up to three slender towers , delicately fluted, that rose from the rock at the summit like the horns of some fabulous beast.

A slight but regal figure watched him from one of the lower steps. Her silvery-blonde hair, intricately braided and coiled, was held in place by hairpins tipped with tiny golden bees. Her silken gown flowed like mist on a light breeze. A pair of intensely violet eyes widened as he drew rein at the foot of the stairs.

“Perhaps,” she said, “it would have been better if you had not come at all, than to arrive so tardy.”

Her face, so like his own that they might have been brother and sister, brought with it a sharp pang of memory. “Princess Alisindë.” He marvelled at his control that he could speak so levelly.

A slight frown marred her smooth brow. “Such formality, Anerüian? Are these the manners of your grandfather’s court?”

Ruan knew he could not get what he had come for if he spoke too rashly. But the bitterness of many years welled up inside him, and the word “Mother” stuck in his throat. “I had thought manners were the same everywhere when two meet almost as strangers.”

She gave no answer, only turned and began to climb the stairs, with that light, gliding step he had once tried—and inevitably failed, to imitate.


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re: Chapters 1 & 2 RUNE OF UNMAKING III -- Caution *Spoilers* for Vols. I and II

Reluctantly, Ruan handed Sindérian down to two pairs of waiting arms, then swung down from the saddle to take her back, muttering an eirias under his breath, that she might not suffer from so much handling.

One of his guides took charge of the gelding, while Ruan followed the other up the stairs. He ascended the stairs, teeth gritted in fierce concentration, trying not to think of the fragility of his precious burden, or of what might happen if he missed his footing on the narrow steps, stumbled, and dropped her.

At last he arrived on a wide terrace. A swift glance told him that the Princess had vanished. Her old habit, he thought bitterly, wandering in and out of his sight, in and out of his life as the whim took her. Best to dismiss her from his mind and not expect another meeting.

He followed his guide, noting as he drew abreast that the Ni-Féa, too, were smaller than he remembered them. He did not imagine they had grown any tamer.

They crossed the terrace, passed under a soaring arch, and so entered the loftiest of the three towers. Broad corridors of shining white stone, another stairway—this one of many turns, coiling like the inside of a shell—then a maze of rooms, brought him at last to the Queen’s solar, a spacious chamber where high, unglazed windows welcomed in the mountain breezes no matter the weather.

Surrounded by her favorite attendants, Gäiä sat listening with delicate attention to a fair-haired harper lounging at her feet. As always, she had dressed to outshine her entire court: ropes of freshwater pearls threaded her hair; gemstones whiter than diamonds sparkled on her gown. Only when the harper finished his song did she deign to acknowledge her grandson’s presence and beckon him to approach.

Ruan crossed what seemed to be an enormous expanse of floor, his face burning under the scrutiny of dozens of pairs of eyes: grey, violet, or green, but none of his own outlandish turquoise. Kneeling, he gently placed Sindérian’s limp body at the Queen’s feet, and bowed his head in deep obeisance. Not even to his father’s father, the High King Réodan who inspired his utmost respect, had he ever bowed so low. He only hoped it would appeal so strongly to Gäiä’s vanity that she would not recognize it for the hollow gesture it was.

“This is a strange gift you bring me. But what am I to do with it?”

His submissive pose forgotten, he lifted his head and met her cool grey gaze with a fiery one of his own. If all else had changed, Gäiä had altered not one bit. Her skin was as smooth and as delicately tinted as he remembered; her hair was silver frost but not the frost of age. “Whiter than the lily, more brilliant than the sun”—so her poets had praised her for more than three hundred years, and so she was—but with none of the lily’s softness or the sun’s warmth.

He recalled his purpose only just in time to temper his words. “It is a lady from Leal. I have brought her here to be healed.”

The barest suggestion of a smile lurked about the Queen’s perfect lips. “And why would we wish to do that?”

Ruan drew in his breath, lowered his gaze, and spoke between gritted teeth. “It is for you to tell me what I must do to win this favor.”

“Ah.” A long silence followed that monosyllable, a silence made up of so many curious smaller silences straining to hear what happened next, there was not even an audible movement in the room.

Finally, unable to bear the suspense any longer, he glanced up. Gäiä sat slightly inclined forward, studying the dusty, blood-stained figure lying at her feet. Even in his eyes, the contrast was extreme: the Ni-Féa queen’s dainty loveliness, and the wizard woman’s bruised face, tangled hair, and travel-worn clothes. Yet had the woman been whole, how greatly the contrast would have been in her favor! Ruan longed to tell his grandmother what Sindérian had been—the generous, impulsive nature, the dauntless courage and aching compassion—all things that Gäiä was not. But again he stifled the impulse.

At last, the Queen spoke. “I must have time to think, Anerüian. You have taken me by surprise. And after all that has gone before, I would not wish to set the price too cheap. The skills of my physicans are worth far more than a false show of humility from a disobedient grandson.”

He heard a light step on the floor, and there was a scent of violets. He felt silken skirts brush his arm as Alisindë moved past and bent to speak in the Queen’s ear. In that room of sharp-eared auditors not one word carried, not even to Ruan, so close he could hear the beating wings of a butterfly hovering over his mother’s head. No Human would have known she was even speaking. It was the Shira-dis, that nearly silent form of communication slighter than a whisper, requiring a perfect control of the breath that only the Ni-Féa could master.

When Alisindë moved aside, the Queen’s smile flashed out, and that was an unnerving sight. “I understand this creature at my feet may not last long enough for me to reach a decision. Do you agree in advance to any and all conditions I may choose to impose?”

“To anything,” said Ruan, without hesitation. “Anything you ask, providing that I alone suffer for it. My death if you want it. My—”

“Enough.” She cut off his rush of words with a flick of one hand. “Your life I will not ask. We are not savages here, whatever you may choose to think. In any case, your death would scarcely provide sufficient satisfaction. Under the circumstances, it would give you far too high an opinion of yourself. And I will see you genuinely humbled before this is over.”

At a signal from the Princess, three Ni-Féa entered the room. Two were servants carrying a litter. Ruan recognized the other as Cüfré, the Queen’s physician. Oldest of all the Faey, he had seen the first towers rise in Iroshél-Sildéreth a thousand years ago. It was rumored that only Gäiä knew the secret of his age and origins. Under the doctor’s instructions, the servants lifted Sindérian onto the litter and carried her out.

The Queen rose from her chair. “No,” she said, as Ruan shifted his weight to ease his aching muscles. “You may stay just as you are for as long as it takes me to consider this matter.”

She crossed the room, moving beyond his range of vision, but her voice came floating back to him. “Regard it as preparation for what is undoubtedly to come.”

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re: Chapters 1 & 2 RUNE OF UNMAKING III -- Caution *Spoilers* for Vols. I and II

And as promised, Chapter Two (in two messages)

2​

Winloki thought she would go mad if this torture continued much longer. With every mile, with every rough patch of ground or change in the horse’s gait, the pain struck deeper. There were the times when the stallion found the road again, the way ran a little smoother, and she could catch her breath between the waves of pain, but soon there was another agonizing jolt, and then another, and she knew the road had disappeared again amidst the rocks and thorns.

How Camhóinhann bore it she did not know. At nineteen, the empathy that marked her as a natural healer went back as far as memory, but she had never before encountered such suffering without being able to alleviate it, if only to grant the mercy of sleep. Now she was helpless, unable even to step away. Riding double behind Ouriána’s High Priest with her arms around his waist, she could not block out a gut-wrenching awareness of broken bones grinding, the agonized protest of bruised and battered flesh under his scarlet robes. Yet by some miracle of self-discipline he remained painfully erect in the saddle the whole time.

At last he pulled in on the reins. “We will rest here for the night.”

Winloki slid down to the ground, then went around to hold the stallion’s head while Camhóinhann dismounted, stiff in his movements but with his head held high.

“I will see to the horse,” she said. A wind was rising, fluttering her cloak, ruffling her hair. Fleets of dark clouds sailed overhead. But he had chosen their campsite well. There was a stretch of crumbling wall to shield them from the coming storm—perhaps it was the same wall, meant to mark some long-forgotten boundary, that had appeared and disappeared along with the road—and off to the right, not very far, she heard running water.

To put distance between herself and Camhóinhann was blessed relief. She led the horse around to the other side of the wall, waited until her hands stopped shaking and she could catch her breath, then set to work, removing the saddle and rubbing down the stallion with a bit of rag. She took him down to the stream and watched him drink. The water ran clear in the dying light, so she stretched out on the bank to scoop up handfuls for herself. By the time she returned, Camhóinhann had already gathered enough sticks and brush to start a small fire.

He sat with his back supported by the wall. On his face, inhumanly pale at all times, there was a dull sheen of sweat. The strange eyes, without white or pupil, had lost their glitter. A bloody gash from jaw to temple still seeped blood, and so did a nasty-looking cut across the back of one hand. Still he maintained the impression of power: in his strong proud features, in the firm set of his mouth.

Why, she wondered, had she not left him while she still had the chance? None of the answers she could think of had the ring of truth. The right one, she suspected, was more complex and tangled than she could unravel.

“I could heal you—” she began, only to be silenced with a slight motion of his ununjured hand.

“We have discussed this before. The peril to you would be extreme.”

“I don’t understand. If you would only let me try—”

His jaw set hard; the contours of his face grew even sterner. “You see what I am. These recent injuries are nothing compared to the wounds I have lived with over many years. Once you were in the healing trance, you would try to mend what cannot, what must not be healed. I would suck you as dry as a spider sucks a fly, and still I would be exactly as you see me now.”

Winloki swallowed a protest. Part of her insisted that she could make him whole. But the thing was forbidden. Ouriána’s magic had crippled him and shaped him the better to serve her. He was meant to inspire horror.

“You may, however, do whatever you think advisable with bandages and splints. That much you may do, but no more.”

He handed her one of the long knives he carried in his belt, the wicked blade that could pierce a man through. Or a woman, if she made that choice. But Winloki knew she no longer had the will for that, and perhaps the courage had always been lacking. She frowned at the drab young woman she saw reflected on the surface of the blade: the face smudged with dirt and fatigue, the dull hair hanging down in a limp braid. What, after all, was such a spiritless-looking creature good for?

As she started to cut a strip from the hem of her cloak, he reached out to stop her. “It is unnecessary to sacrifice your own garment, Princess. My cloak is far more ample.”

Of necessity it was ample, to match his great stature, though whether he felt heat or cold as other men did she had never been able to determine. She nodded once and set to work, eventually contriving a splint, a rude affair made of sticks and pads of cloth, tied in place with bits of leather she cut from the harness. It would have to do for now.

When she had finished, Winloki flung herself down by the fire. She was weary beyond measure, but when she closed her eyes it was only to call up memories of the carnage at Ceir Eldig. To sleep, she feared, would only bring nightmares.

She opened her eyes. “Do you think—do you think any of the others are alive?”

“Perhaps one or two of the guards who were swept away by the wind. If so, they will be heading in the same direction we are. With luck, we may meet with them along the way.”

Winloki sighed. Only Camhóinhann could find a road with so little to guide him, and the clouds overhead had assumed a blacker and blacker hue. It would rain by morning, covering any tracks, and then what chance of fortunate meetings along the road?

*****

Long before daybreak they were in the saddle again, and riding through a drenching downpour. But they outrode the storm, and in a grey, dreary dawn came upon a cluster of small buildings below a manor house. A clamor of barking dogs and honking greese broke out at their approach, and four or five men came out from behind the cottages of the laborers to investigate the disturbance.

Gazing down into their hard, suspicious faces, Winloki saw no welcome there for two such muddy and bedraggled strangers. One of the men bent down, scooped up a jagged piece of rock from the ground, and stood tossing it from hand to hand in obvious threat. Two others did likewise, and she braced herself for a hail of stones. But Camhóinhann spoke a Word, a nearby bush burst into flame, and the men stumbled back, dazzled by the glare.

She read in their faces the moment of recognition, as their eyes adjusted, and they took in his scarlet robes, white hair, and bleached countenance. Dumbstruck and paralyzed, no one moved until the High Priest spoke.

“We need food, horses, an escort.”

One of the men, quicker to recover than his fellows, ran up the hill to the manor house, carrying the news. Then the others sprang into action, and still more came pouring out of the cottages, attracted by the light. There followed a brief period of pandemonium, distressing to see: Men and women flinging themselves down into the mud, gabbling words that Winloki could scarcely understand. Faces turned pale and sickly with fright. The smell and taste of panic.

“Enough,” he said. “Your piety is duly noted. But we are still sitting here in the rain.”

Then there were strong arms lifting her down from the saddle, a rough blanket thrown over her sodden cloak. Camhóinhann dismounted without assistance, the people falling back, making way before him as he moved toward the nearest house.

They behave, she thought with a flare of contempt, as if even the brush of his sleeve might blast them to ashes. Can’t they see he is weary and hurt? Then she blushed for shame to think how arrogant she had become, remembering a time when she, too, had been afraid.

A moment later she was inside the cottage, breathing the smoke of a peat fire. She looked around her. Though the building had looked snug enough from outside, it was dirty and cramped within, a wretched dirt-floor dwelling of only one room.

She edged closer to Camhóinhann, who seemed to fill most of the hut, standing head and shoulders above the villagers, broad-shouldered and imposing for all he was so gaunt. “We are in Rhuadllyn now?” she said under her breath.

“Yes. We are in the Empress’s territory now, where we may be sure of a welcome . . . though few would seek the honor of such a visit.”

Before long, servants came running back from the big house, bearing baskets of food: fine white bread and cold roast fowl, a haunch of mutton, a sweet, straw-colored wine. Seated on a tipsy bench by the fire, Winloki suddenly discovered a ravenous appetite and made a hearty meal. She hoped for a bed and a few hours of rest, but it developed that Camhóinhann had other ideas.

All too soon they were on their way again: this time mounted on horses from the manor. The men chosen to form an escort brought up the rear on bony plough-horses; an equally sorry-looking packhorse carried a scrambling together of supplies. The rain had begun to drizzle again, and it was a dismal prospect on all sides. The land itself looked starved to the bone, overworked and ill-tended.

“Is everyone here so poor?” she wondered aloud.

“You know of your own experience that war breeds hardship. The kingdoms of the south have been at war for more than forty years.”

He glanced around him. Though she could never quite track the movements of his silver eyes, she thought she detected an added grimness about his mouth. “Nevertheless, these acres show signs of neglect. Sometimes, good men die in battle, and leave fools and rascals to succeed them.”


continued in next message.
 
re: Chapters 1 & 2 RUNE OF UNMAKING III -- Caution *Spoilers* for Vols. I and II

Seen from a distance through a curtain of falling rain, it was an austere grey city of turrets and steeples and pepperpot towers, all harsh outlines against the sky. Though she knew that the sight of any shelter ought to be welcoming, the sight struck cold at Winloki’s heart.

She had lost count of the days they had already been on the road, the journey one long misery of sodden discomfort in unceasing rain. Since that first stop to acquire horses and an escort, they had passed by numerous towns and villages, and stopped in none of them. Their only respite had come in brief pauses along the margins of the road, sheltered under a canopy of dripping canvas. In such conditions one learned to sleep in the saddle, and stand shivering, pressed up against her sleeping horse for warmth, when they stopped to rest the horses.

But this time, instead of passing on the south, their road brought them right up to the town walls, and the Princess sat up a little straighter in the saddle, her curiosity aroused. She had begun to fear that Camhóinhann intended to maintain the same pitiless pace until they reached the coast. And now this.

They stopped before a heavily fortified gateway. One of the men dismounted and pounded on the oak timbers. They waited for some response shouted down from the battlements above, but it came instead as the rattle of a barred window opening in the gate itself, and the blurred outline of someone peering out from a dimly lit interior. Words passed between the man outside and those within. By the sound of it, Winloki guessed the gate guards were reluctant to admit strangers so late in the day. Then Camhóinhann rode forward and lowered the hood of his cloak.

There was a babble of high-pitched voices on the other side of the wall. If, in the wet and the gloom, the guards had mistaken the color of his robes, the sight of his ravaged face produced immediate results. The gate swung open.

They passed through a short, dank tunnel, faintly illuminated by a single torch, and came out in a narrow lane walled in on two sides by tall stone houses. The way ahead lay bleak and empty, the only sign of recent use a line of muddy tracks on a footpath to one side of a wet cobblestone road.

Yet a welcoming orange glow of firelight spilling out from some of the windows, a scent of smoke and of cooking from inside the houses, reassured Winloki that the city was not entirely deserted. Perhaps it was only the hour and the dirty weather that kept everyone inside.

She urged her mare forward, until she and Camhóinhann rode abreast. His wounds, never quite healed, had opened again. The cut on his face seeped blood, and she saw ominous dark stains on his bandaged right hand.

The lane broadened and cross-streets ran in both directions. After about a mile they turned down one of them. Penetrating deeper and deeper into the city, Winloki gradually began to comprehend the sheer immensity of it, the great sprawl of buildings stretching out for miles in every direction. King Ristil’s capital at Lückenbörg was not even a tenth the size.

“What is this city?” she asked Camhóinhann in a subdued voice.

“It is Quiranöerion, which in the Old Tongue is ‘fortress of shadows.’ You will find that here in the south the old names sometimes linger on uncorrupted.”

The name seemed all too apt. Under the overcast sky, the way grew dimmer and dimmer between the tall houses. She thought that even when the sun shone the narrowest streets would lie in deep shadow most of the day. The buildings were all hard stone and slate. What wood there was in door and shutters had weathered to the same stony grey. Perhaps it would not seem so forbidding by day when the streets teemed with activity—yet the windows of all the inns and taverns she had passed were dark, and she had not seen a single open door. Would even daylight bring these reclusive people out?

They turned a corner and a formidable wall flanked by square turrets loomed up ahead of them. It was a great castle or fortress within the fortress that was the city, and she had not even seen it behind the high houses. Torches smoking and sputtering in the rain illuminated a wide public square at the foot of the gatehouse.

“That is where we are going?” she asked.

“We will stay in Quiranöerion for perhaps a fortnight, as guests of the Lord Governor.”

This time, men came out in immediate response to a knock at the gate: men in dark armor and dull orange tabards. They looked tough and wary, not one of them younger than middle age. But she had seen no young men in Rhuadllyn. The wars, perhaps, had taken them all.

This time no one asked questions; there was no difficulty gaining admittance. Inside the courtyard, a flurry of fevered activity erupted. The grooms who took hold of her horse and Camhóinhann’s looked ready to expire of fright. As for the men of their escort, no thoughts of food or shelter seemed to stay them once Camhóinhann dismissed them. They turned their horses immediately and rode back out the gate. They had survived many days in company with Ouriána’s High Priest, days of white knuckles and cold sweats. They would have such a tale to tell their children and grandchildren, thought Winloki, but for now they were simply glad to be released from his service.

Camhóinhann led the way inside the central pile, the castle folk scattering before him. He seemed to know the place well, striding through the torchlit corridors with the air of one taking possession. Before long, they reached a great hall hung round with bright silken banners. Candles burned in tall stands around the room, but the central hearth was cold.

A man sumptuously attired in velvet and furs came bustling in, with a crowd of whey-faced attendants behind him. His greetings to “the Great Lord and Most High Lady,” were accompanied by so many abject expressions of respect, Winloki half expected him to fling himself down on the stones as the men at the manor had done. Meanwhile, his attendants milled around like a hive of ants, apparently expecting some order that never came.

As for herself, standing there wet and shivering in that cold hall, she would have gladly traded her share of compliments for a hot bath, dry clothes and a warm bed. Camhóinhann stood impassive, listening to it all with a dreadful kind of patience, until the flow of eloquence came to an end. Then he raised one hand, and all movement in the room ceased.

“The Princess,” he said, “requires a chamber and servants.”

As if he had conjured them, a party of women came fluttering in, relieved Winloki of her dripping cloak, and swept her away to a bright, over-heated room in one of the towers.

*****

“Nobody here calls me by my right name,” she protested four days later. Bathed, combed, gowned, and scented, something of the old Winloki was coming back to life—confident, headstrong, and just at that moment flushed with indignation. “I tell them again and again that my name is not Princess Guenloie, but still they persist.”

“That is according to my instruction,” Camhóinhann said from his chair. He too presented a better appearance, having traded his tattered red robes for immaculate scarlet. “By the Empress’s command, now that you are come among her own people you will no longer be addessed by a name that can only be a rude attempt to render the one your mother gave you at birth into the barbarous northern dialect.”

“Barbarous!” She might have thrown something, had anything been conveniently to hand. But they were in his cell-like bedchamber, even more bare of ornament than it was of furniture. No carpets softened the floor, no tapestries the walls. The only concessions to his comfort—and those, she suspected, because he was still convalescent—were a fire on the hearth and a large chair pulled up beside it, from which she had hardly seen him stir. “My people in Skyrra are not barbarians.”

“You are hardly in a position to judge, having only just come into civilized lands. But the men of Skyrra were not always unlettered, ignorant of the wide world. It was their choice to abandon the knowledge we of the south gave them, and revert to their ancient ways.”

Winloki started to protest, but then she remembered—how unwelcome the thought!—that she had often entertained similar ideas herself. She knew in her heart that the Skyrran people had lost too much: too much knowledge, too much magic. If they had not abandoned their cities of stone, banished their wizards, and allowed even their native arts of magic and divination to wither, the primitive tribes of Eisenlonde would not now be harrying them across their own lands. Indeed, the war in the north might already be lost, and how would she know?

“It is always foolish to turn your back on knowledge,” Camhóinhann said. In the firelight, his skin and hair had taken on a warmer tint, ivory instead of snow, but his eyes were still cold. “Those who lack it will always be at the mercy of those who possess it.”

“Those who have it,” she retorted, “might practice mercy.”

As usual, her barbs failed to penetrate. For what had mercy to do with him, who cared nothing for his own pain, his own disfigurement? What had mercy to do with any of Ouriána’s warrior-priests? She felt a fool for even suggesting it.

“And when you have more knowledge,” he said, “you may choose how to make use of it. For you will not then be a slave to the choices of others.”

Having no ready reply, she turned her back to him, and was drawn by the pale gleam of a small window in one corner of the room. There was a similar window on the opposite wall overlooking the river; this one faced the city. Looking past the inner and outer baileys, and over the castle wall to the houses beyond, the prospect proved disappointing. All she could see through the dim old glass was a landscape of wet roofs piled one above the other, and falling water under a low grey sky.

And the unceasing rain had provided a convenient excuse to keep her penned up indoors. She turned sharply about. “Am I a prisoner here?”

One white eyebrow rose almost imperceptibly. “A prisoner? You came with me out of Alluinn of your own volition.”

“And if I decided to leave you,” she pressed, “would I be allowed to do so?”

“You know that I am charged by the Empress to take you to Phaôrax. Whether you are forced to remain there afterwards it is not for me to say. But if you have any complaint to make of your treatment here, be sure it will be dealt with promptly.”

She sighed and shook her head. If anything, she had been the victim of too much cossetting. The Governor’s wife and daughters seemed to live in fear of dread reprisals if they failed to shower her with gifts or smother her with flattering attentions, ransacking their own wardrobes to offer their own rich gowns, silken slippers, and jeweled trinkets. The gown she wore now, of plum-colored velvet with trailing sleeves and much lavish embroidery of gold thread, would be deemed too extravagant for a girl of her years on the highest feast day in Skyrra.

She accepted these offerings, not because she truly believed anyone would be punished for failing to please her, but because they believed it, and she had discovered no better way to put them at ease. Meanwhile, the servants approached her with a cringing servility, which any attempt to discourage only increased.

And is this what awaits me on Phaôrax? she thought, returning to her gloomy view of the rooftops. Am I to spend the rest of my days a terror to the servants and a stranger to myself?

“Might I at least be allowed to explore the city? If I promised not to venture too far—”

“I would gladly arrange a suitable escort, were it not for a circumstance I never anticipated. There is a pestilence spreading, one that baffles the healers. We are safe here in the fortress, but those who venture out on the streets risk the contagion.”

She turned eagerly to face him. “If there is disease here, I can help them. I could—”

“No.” He cut her off with a slight gesture of his bandaged hand. “It is true that you might be able to save a few, but against such numbers of the sick and dying you could accomplish very little. And perhaps you would die instead, or carry the disease with you to Phaôrax.

“Yes,” he added, “I see you look at the ring on your finger and I know what you are thinking. You believe you achieved the miraculous with it at Lückenbörg, and again at Tirfang. Though the spells of the ice giants simulate death, they are slow to kill.”

Winloki flushed and bit her lip. “You tell me I did not raise the dead after all,” she said in a subdued voice.

“You should know this about the ring: to fully command any of its powers—and they are many—you must first gain understanding of the great Runes, and most particularly of those written inside the band.”

He paused, and then went on. “If you wish, we might resume the lessons I was teaching you in Alluinn. We could begin again today.”

She felt a constriction in her throat, a fluttering in her chest, part hope, part fear. By how many twists and turns, she asked herself, had he led the conversation around to just this point? Or was she the one who had willed it so? For was not this, this heritage of magic, her true birthright—and the thing above all others she longed for the most.

But, oh, it was a perilous, perilous gift he offered her, and was she wise enough to foresee all the consequences?

“It is possible,” he said, “that once we arrive in Apharos there will be no opportunity. The lessons you have had already, I taught at my own discretion. The Empress may have other ideas.”

She drew in her breath. It was true he had taught her nothing that touched on the mysteries of Ouriána’s cult. The spells she had learned of him travelling through Alluinn had been, she believed, of a cleaner sort, the discipline of wizardry he had studied in younger days, before the rise of his false goddess. But that he had been teaching her without first securing Ouriána’s consent had never entered her mind.

As always it was impossible to read anything in his face. He sat gazing into the fire with his flat metallic gaze, as though his thoughts were already elsewhere, as though she were not even in the room. It came to her then, with a sudden misgiving, that if she hesitated too long the offer might slip away.

“Yes,” she answered, before she could lose her nerve. “Yes, I would like to begin again.”

Eagerly, she moved a stool closer to the fire and sat down beside his chair. Without commenting on her lengthy hesitation or taking his eyes away from the fire, he sketched, with his hand, a figure on the air.

“This is the rune Erienilos, which in the Old Tongue is brightening, brilliance.”

When he spoke the name, the intensity of the flames increased tenfold until her eyes were blinded with the beating of the light. It was like looking into the furnace of the sun’s fiery heart, almost unbearably brilliant, though the heat of the fire had not changed. Then he whispered another Word under his breath and the glare diminished.

“But as well as the light we see with our eyes, it symbolizes the light of the mind, the mind in a heightened state of awareness, which some call the magician’s sixth sense, though it encompasses the other senses as well. One might say that it is a way of perceiving the world as it truly is.”

The rune had faded, but everything Winloki saw was haloed with light. “I have experienced something like that. I believe so,” she said, just above a whisper.

“It would be surprising if one with your natural gifts had not, and you are at just that age when such gifts rapidly develop. But without training it is what we call a wild talent.”

Her mind and her eyes remained dazzled. “I never know when it will come. I can’t call it, any more than I can banish it. Weeks will pass when I fear I have lost it. Is that what you mean by a wild talent?”

“That is part of what I mean. But if you meditate on the Rune long enough, you may begin to understand how to control that gift.”

She closed her eyes and the brightness was still there, behind the lids. And it seemed to her as if a door opened in her mind, admitting new thoughts, terrifying and wonderful in their immensity, giving at the same time glimpses of even greater possibilities. She felt breathless and giddy, ready to do whatever he asked, if only—

“I do not expect or deserve your gratitude,” he said. “Take care how you bestow it.”

Her eyes flew open. Had he heard her thoughts or merely read her face?

“In another time, another life, I taught this same lesson to generations of young wizards. In any case, it is but the first step in a long, long road.

The prospect of what she might find at the end of that road intoxicated her. And once she had tasted that power, what would she not give for more of the same? Though he cautioned her against gratitude, she remembered how he had cautioned her in much the same way before, and in doing so had gained a measure of her trust.
Of one thing only was she certain: When used by someone like Camhóinhann, honesty was a two-edged weapon, more dangerous than any deceit.

*****

Sometime during the night, the endless beating of rain on the roof tiles ceased. When Winloki woke in the morning it was to a bar of pale sunlight across the foot of her great white bed. Her interest in visiting the town had waned; all her thoughts were centered on the lesson of the day before, all her desire on the lessons yet to come.

It was all that she could do to stand still while her servants laced her into a gown, all she could do to contain her impatience while they brushed out her hair until it crackled, and then began to dress it. Finally, unable to endure any more, she broke away and headed—barefoot, and with the ends of her braids coming loose—toward Camhóinhann’s room.

A strong odor of incense brought her to an abrupt halt outside his open door. She listened several minutes for the familiar chants of his morning worship, but there was only silence. Finally reassured that she would not find him prostrate before his goddess, or in the painful act of rising, she lifted her heavy skirts and swept across the threshold.

He stood by the fire, his silver medallion glowing faintly, and the air was heavy with more than incense. Something that smelled of blood and night had been tipped into the flames, and the lingering scent of it brought a cold shiver across her skin. Once, it would have deterred her, but not today.

As she took her place on the stool, he lowered himself stiffly into the chair.

“You are an eager pupil,” he said. “But today we will concentrate on the history and philosophy of magic. You may find the lesson a dull one.”

Yet, whether through the power of his voice, or his gifts as a storyteller, the tale he proceeded to tell was a compelling one. He spoke of the chaotic elemental forces and of men’s early attempts to harness them. Much of ancient history, he told her, was the tale of men and women who struggled to gain that mastery, their strivings and aspirations, their disastrous failures. Slowly, their knowledge began to accumulate. Magic advanced from its first reckless beginnings to a high art, and then to a most excellent discipline.

As he spoke, she had glimpses of shadows and terrors, so huge as to defy comprehension. Then, in a few words, he would describe to her some formula, which reduced it all to a pattern she could dimly understand. Yet there remained some truths, majestic and unreachable as the stars, she feared she would never be able to grasp.

His knowledge, she realized, was formidable, the brilliance of his mind breathtaking. How great a wizard he had been in his time, how gifted a teacher, she was only just beginning to recognize.

And yet he was Ouriána’s servant. Then what must the Empress herself be to command such a man, his fealty, his worship?

That thought plagued Winloki all through the day and followed her to bed that night, so that she lay all through the dark hours in a restless agitation, while the question circled through her tired brain.

For decades the self-proclaimed goddess on Phaorax had waged her wars. So many had died in those wars, it made one ill to think of such a vast slaughter. Could such a woman be worthy of service, such a deity worthy of worship? But suppose—Winloki was by no means ready to accept the idea, but she might for a moment entertain it—suppose that those who resisted Ouriána had only suffered through their own folly? Might they have avoided decades of bloodshed simply by paying her the homage that she demanded? Opposed, she had been a wrathful goddess; in peace, might she not have been a compassionate and loving one?

Either way, it was too dreadful to contemplate.

At last, Winloki turned her weary thoughts to the mystery that was Camhóinhann’s past. His origins were on Thäerie—he had taught young wizards on Leal—though she had seen him do terrible things, she could not believe that he was utterly and irredeemably wicked. Then by what strange courses, by what remarkable turn of events, had he been led to his present allegiance to Ouriána?

And would that deep reserve she had so often observed prevent him from providing the answers she craved, if she could finally summon up the courage to question him directly?

*****

But when she entered Camhóinhann’s chamber in the morning, her head aching after her long, restless night, he was gone. The cold cell from which he had not stirred in a week was dim, a new fire laid but not rekindled, the candles replaced but not relit.

Her first reaction, panicky and unreasonable, was that he had left for Phaôrax without her. Then she spied a door, narrow and scarcely noted during her previous visits, now standing halfway open, letting in the light and a gust of wet air. Her heart resumed its normal rhythm, and she scolded herself for being so foolish.

Stepping through the narrow opening, Winloki came out on a balcony overlooking the river. Camhóinhann stood by a stone railing, gazing down at the rushing waters. His white hair, as fine as she silk, floated on the wind. By daylight, he seemed to gather all the brightness in the air to him.

She felt a strange mingling of hope and dread. This was the farthest she had seen him move from his chair or bed since they arrived in Quiranöerion. Part of her rejoiced at his returning strength. Part of her dreaded the day they would continue their ride to the coast, and eventually set sail for Ouriána’s island of Phaôrax.

“I do not sense a storm anywhere north, south, or west,” he said, when she joined him by the railing. “It would be good weather for riding, but I think we must stay here yet a while.”

There was a long pause, during which they both stood listening to the roar of the river. All the length of the fortress wall, immense rocks raised their heads above the flood, creating dangerous rapids that formed part of the castle’s outer defenses. After the storm, the waters sped by in an agitated torrent, so that even two stories above Winloki felt the spray off the rocks. Further down the river, she saw many bridges tiny with distance, linking the two halves of the city.

Finally, the question that was uppermost in her mind burst out. “You told me, once, that you were born on Thäerie, and that there was . . . some sort of kinship between us. I have been thinking that you and my father must have been cousins in some degree.”

“It would be more accurate to say that I was his great-uncle many times removed. I have lost track of the generations between.” Her involuntary exclamation brought the ghost of a smile to his face. “I was in Ceir Eldig before the Old Empire fell, and even then I was not a young man. By ordinary standards I have lived three lifetimes, and during those years I have been a wizard, a mage, and finally a priest.”

“And you were a prince on Thäerie?” It was only a guess, but one she felt must be true—how could he have been anything less?

“I was. Of the old line, only distantly related to the Pendawr emperors.” He turned from the railing and moved toward the open door. “But of all the things I have been, that one mattered least. It was an accident of birth only.”

But an accident, thought Winloki, trailing behind him, that you and I share. In that moment, the pull of kinship was strong, even stronger than the pull of his personal magnetism, which had always been great. And she was far from home, more keenly aware of her orphaned state than she had ever been in Skyrra.

“Then as you have lived so long, perhaps many years ago you had a daughter?” As he paused just inside the door and turned to face her, she looked down, and then up, blushing at the thought. “A daughter who was a little like me?”

“I had two sons,” he said, with surprising gentleness, “nor was it long ago, though both are dead now.”
 
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