Sword Maiden Chapter 6

A story told by the magicians in Hurot:

In Zehilhn there lived a boy whose name was Bauren. He was an orphan who had approached the masters in that town to study magic, and one of them, impressed by his boldness, had asked him what he would do if he became a magician. “I do not know,” said Bauren, “but if I had magic, my parents and sisters would not have died when the savages raided our home and stole our sheep.”

So one of the masters took him as an apprentice to study the history of the art and the techniques used to create the artifacts. Bauren was clever, learning these things quickly, and although he was courteous to the other apprentices he did not make friends easily. He always had the appearance of thinking about something else, even when arguing (as he often was) with the masters about the proper duties of a magician. In those days many magicians believed that it had been pride that banished us from our home, that we were driven to these islands by our arrogant belief in our ability to summon and command demons, and it was a heavy burden we carried. Bauren was not one to submit to such a burden, and he decried the cowardice of the archon’s aldermen. “If I was an alderman,” he would say, and then go on to explain his ideas. But for all that he was kind and hard-working, rising quickly to the point where he could take the examination to become a journeyman.

Now a rich merchant’s widow came to Zehilhn with her daughter Celhrid, who was admired by all the young men of the town but paid attention to none. Bauren had shut himself up with his teacher to prepare for the examination, so for a time he did not even know of Celhrid’s being in Zehilhn. But one day he went for a walk along the shore to rest his mind, and when he came across the young woman, washing her feet and picking up stones, he was struck dumb by her beauty, which surpassed (so he thought at the time) the most intricate diagram in his studies. Words came from his mouth unbidden, and he was surprised to hear her respond in kind. So Bauren and Celhrid were in love with one another, though they hid it from her mother, fearing that in her grand hopes for an advantageous marriage she would take Celhrid away from Zehilhn, separating the two forever. Bauren’s studies languished as he became more and more fascinated with Celhrid, and she, fascinated in her turn, did nothing to keep him on the proper path.

Bauren’s master, who was no fool, could not help but notice that the boy was even more distracted than usual, and with an iris he learned of Bauren’s dalliance. He shook his head and left his house, and found the young people kissing in a hidden cave in the northern sheepfolds. Whatever he had been about to say to them, it was forestalled by the savages, who swept down from the surrounding hills with ravening dogs. “Now attend, apprentice,” said the master, and producing a silver rod he bent the minds of the savages and drove them away so that no one was harmed. Bauren saw and understood, and telling Celhrid that he would have to return to his studies for a time so he could pass his examination, departed with his master.

Celhrid waited patiently, keeping silent about Bauren until the time when he would be proclaimed a journeyman. But her mother at last found a match that pleased her, with a cousin of the archon, who was young, handsome, and not at all to the taste of Celhrid herself. Out of necessity, therefore, she found Bauren and together they went to her mother to announce their intention to wed. The worst storm on the eastern sea could not be more violent than her response, and she forbade Bauren and Celhrid to meet again. Now Bauren angrily swore that when he became a master he would make Celhrid his wife by fair or foul magic, so that Celhrid’s mother, horrified, took her away to Faron, which was then nothing more than a border outpost, but an outpost where Celhrid’s prospective husband was stationed as the archon’s representative.

Bauren took the journeyman examination, and he passed with a perfect score. The final lessons began, training his mind to take control of the Ideas of this world, but long before they were complete, he left Zehilhn for Faron, to find Celhrid. He carried with him a hooked blade imbued with a powerful Idea, for Bauren had little need for the final lessons, so far had he surpassed his teachers. He already understood the Ideas and the Forms, and was ready to break the mind of Celhrid’s mother, to drive his rival out into the rain to perish, so strong was his fury!

As he drew near the walls of Faron, Celhrid emerged and threw herself at his feet, begging him not to harm anyone. “We can flee together to another island, no matter what my mother says. Or we can go farther into the wild lands and live alone there. But magic was not given to us to violate the laws Heaven made to govern men and women. Do not let your anger overpower you, beloved, but consider the future and align your magic with the path of moderation.” Bauren was persuaded by her soft words and tearful eyes, and so they went south and founded Hurot, where Bauren started a school of magic following his new precepts: magic should be used for the good of all, never for revenge or petty quarrels. All glory be to Heaven.

~

Once she had been taken back within the walls of the town and fortified with several cups of tea, Halinjae was less despondent, but still she insisted that the islands were doomed, that Talat would be torn apart by war between the Ghadari and the Latoirn, that the School of Shadows would spread their influence further out, like a spider throwing its web. The Native listened to all this without argument, and when she seemed to have finished, he said “That is all very well, but are you going to do nothing?”

“What does a renegade like you care for your people?”

“I hate Mauzil just as much as you do.”

“No you don’t. You don’t hate him. You don’t like his teachings, but you don’t care one way or the other for the man and his followers. You look at them with distant cynicism, like you do everything else. But I should not stay in Hurot any longer. I was warned that I should leave lest I be imprisoned again.”

“Where will you be going?”

Her eyes met his, and for the first time that day she smiled. “I am going to Sotlaci.”

“Do you speak the language?”

“Of course I do. And I have friends there that will be of great help to me.”

The Native nodded, then drained his own cup of tea and stood. “My grasp of the Sotlaci language is rather minimal, but I expect I will be able to pick up what I have forgotten.”

You are coming?”

“It is a personal flaw of mine that once I begin something, I must see it through to the end. I came to Adrall because I wanted to see…well, you don’t need to hear all this. All that you need to know is that, yes, I am coming with you.”

Halinjae rose also and extended her hand. “Then we will go to Sotlaci and retrieve the Di…retrieve our friends.”

He grasped the offered hand. “Let’s get started, shall we?”

~

It had been a very long time since the Native had last traveled from island to island. He had spent most of his youth in Garahelhsu, coming to Talat only so that he could be with Ladefi, an endeavor which had worked out about as well as everyone had warned him. But that was long ago, and now he was going to Sotlaci for the sake of, well, for the sake of ideal principles on the one hand, but he had never cared much for those. He was abstractly opposed to war between the Ghadari among whom he had been born and the Latoirn with whom he had chosen to live, but he had never done much about it before and, as he had told Halinjae, once set on a path he was not easily turned from it. He knew perfectly well, too, that there were already fierce battles between Ghadari and Latoirn, and that Halinjae was sheltered enough to put vast importance on the words peace and war, which meant so much to the Ghadari but almost nothing to the Latoirn. It was all a mess, and he could not see how it was going to end happily for the Latoirn, who had so little when the Ghadari had so much.

These were the sort of things he thought as he sat in the depths of the ship, his hands folded on his lap. He knew, of course, the true reason that he was going along with Halinjae and her schemes: Ladefi, but he did not like dwelling on her or the pull she had over him. Better to meditate on the future of the peoples of the islands, and so distract himself.

Halinjae was somewhere else in the ship, and although a part of the Native knew that he should be concerned about what, if anything, she was plotting, he let the matter go. There was little mischief she could involve herself in, here in these close quarters, and she was not the sort of woman who could be so furtive without giving herself away.

What are you doing? he asked himself sternly. Here you are among your people again, and here all you are doing is sulking. Ladefi would be pleased…

He opened his eyes and left the room, intent now on finding some of his own brethren to talk with. He succeeded better than he hoped, for he found that a number of barrels had been set out in the hall, the setting for several lively games of tas och, where dice made all the difference between victory and loss. A boisterous smile and a friendly word were all that the Native needed to be invited to join the game and conversation.

His new companions were merchants on their way from island to island, and rowers who were resting from their exertions. Although at first the Native found it difficult to keep up with the rapid pace of the conversation and its references to hundreds of names he did not know, but he was quick-witted enough that the difficulty was soon forgotten. It was with sincere pleasure that the Native gave his name as Kalaetnel.

Time drained away in the joy of the game, as numbers were called and dice clattered on the wood of the barrels, as old songs were sung and their ancestors who had first sailed to the islands were praised. Ghadari ancestors, and the Native for the first time in many years did feel truly native, at home with these men, his brothers.

“Ah, but do any of you remember the toys that would come out of Naraiv once, with the ringing bells and the dancers?” The rower’s eyes glinted with the memory as he spoke.

“I do,” said the Native, and he smiled. “My father visited Naraiv every year, and he returned with such toys for me and my brothers and sisters.”

“Ah, then you will be pleased to hear that one of the Naraiv magicians will be making them again! So my brother told me when I visited him last month.”

“A thing to marvel at.”

“The years of Ghadari stagnancy are coming to an end, you know,” said the third man seated at their barrel, a merchant with a remarkably long and greasy moustache. “The archon, Heaven bless him, has seen the sun at last, and certainly our magicians will be let loose to truly build cities like those in the old land, and drive the last of the savages into the west.”

“Perhaps,” said the Native, and the merchant laughed.

“Perhaps, no, certainly! Do you not believe me? Pay attention to my words and mark them in your ledger. It will not be long now before we have made ourselves more than the equal of our fathers in the old lands. Do you not see how the majesty of this ship is greater than the pitiful things that brought us here a hundred years ago?”

The Native made his roll, the knucklebones bouncing on the wooden surface beneath until they came to a stop, one showing zero marks and one showing two. He nudged his token along the path the dice had dictated, then leaned back against the wall. A sudden lurch on the ship’s part sent him reeling, and the barrel slid towards him, but the tokens remained fixed where they were.

“Ahh…you have beaten me,” said the rower sadly. “I will not be able to catch up now.” He scooped up his pieces and scattered them in the center of the board, and with an enormous sigh rested his chin in his hands.

“I have it on good authority,” the merchant said, “that the ridiculous bargain between us and the savages has been broken, that the Order of the Red Star has fallen flat on its face, that their pet savage has killed the archon’s daughter and run off, that blood is already drenching the fields in Vibaldelh.”

The Native raised his eyebrows, but he had learned over the years how to feign innocence. He merely said, “I pay little attention to the rumors I hear.”

“Rumors? Were we talking about rumors?”

“Your turn to roll the dice,” said the Native, and the merchant huffed and did so, silent for a moment.

It was a bad roll, a very bad roll. The merchant’s mustache fluttered over a derisive breath. “You are not cheating, are you? You do not have something hidden, do you?”

“Should I take that as an accusation?” the Native asked, and the merchant glanced away, unable to meet his cool gaze.

“A joke, a joke, nothing more. I did not mean to offend.”

Without saying anything in reply, the Native went on with the game. His luck continued unabated, and it was not long before his token made the complete circuit of the board, and he allowed himself a pleased laugh. “First around the sky. Either of you ready for another game?”

“Stab me and feed my heart to the sharks before I let you fleece me like that again,” said the rower, handing the Native a gold coin.

The merchant said something that the Native couldn’t quite catch, even if he had wanted to, and surprised him by clapping his hands together and remarking, “Now that was a match that the sun itself would envy. But I fear that I do not carry my own money, but that of my master, so I cannot gamble as much as I would wish. Here is what you have won, and here…”

“Kalaetnel!” It was Halinjae’s voice that startled the Native as it echoed dully in the passage. “Why are you wasting your time in frivolity?”

The merchant chuckled. “And here is the mistress of your money, I presume?”

The Native, of course, didn’t disabuse him of the notion. He merely turned and said mildly, “I thought I might as well. Gambling improves upon sitting doing nothing, I have always believed.”

She glowered at him until he stood up and followed her out, amusement dominating his emotions. She was used to ordering people around, the Native suspected, and she would find it difficult to have to deal with a man like himself, who resisted the commands of archon or chieftain. The Native was perfectly happy to let another take the lead, but he could not resist occasionally twisting the nose of that leader, and so he said now, “You should be glad that I won, or I may have had to dip my hand into your purse to repay my losses.”

“I have very little,” she said in clipped tones. “Your Doldeni helped themselves to my property, and what remained I have used in securing our passage. Whatever debts you acquire are your own business.”

“You know, among the Latoirn a good chieftain is one who is generous to his followers.”

“Every day I thank Heaven that I was not born a Latoirn.” The back of her head was to him, so he could not tell if she was joking or not. She stopped suddenly to let him enter the cabin first, which he did, his arms crossed calmly behind his back. He could almost feel her eyes on him – no doubt they would be fierce and hard enough to cut him in two. It would be a disappointment to see anything else when he turned, so he didn’t, but remained looking at the light on the far wall.

“Is this some puritan instinct of yours arising suddenly, or do you have some reason for insisting that I remain here?” he asked.

“We are going to die,” she said.

Taken aback, the Native rubbed his chin for some time before saying, “We’re going to die? A gloomy prophecy.”

“Speak honestly for once, Kalaetnel. Do you believe that we can, the two of us, confront the School of Shadows? And it must be the two of us, alone and unaided. My uncle may be archon, but his office is as weak as it has ever been, and enemies surround him with deadly wands.”

“Have you talked to him since all this began?”

She shook her head. “There are ways for our enemies to detect the Sympathies and eavesdrop. We cannot risk it.”

The Native had not known this, and he was taken aback. There were methods of blocking Sympathies, of course, that had been mastered in the earliest days of Ghadari magic, and methods of detecting where magic was being used, but to identify the two ends of a Sympathy and to…somehow…listen in on the conversation, that was something new. Either new or simply kept secret. He wondered what else was possible that he had thought impossible. Flight perhaps?

Dismissing such absurdities from his mind, he simply asked, “I have heard wild tales of those kinds of powers, but I am surprised that you give them credence.”

“Fool!” Halinjae cried, and the Native, unperturbed, waited for her to regain her composure. But he was beginning to regret pushing her quite so far, for the sake of his own amusement. “Do you take me for an ignorant chatterer? Do you think I know nothing of magic?”

“Forgive me,” he said. “This language, it brings out the glib babbler in me. We are to die, you say, and there is a very good chance that you are right. But I am very fond of the Adrall people, and I will not leave any of them in the claws of Mauzil’s madmen while Heaven gives me breath. My heart died thirteen years ago. I do not fear what lies ahead.”

“I do,” Halinjae said, and turned to face him.

He was silent for a moment, then said, “I was a Raven once. Would you like me to bless you?”

“You were a priest?”

“I never rose very far in the hierarchy, but I do not think Heaven cares much about that.”

“I…yes,” she said. “Please do.”

“Let me see now if I remember. This would work better if I had oil, or if I knew any magic.” He cleared his throat. “Heaven lifts the sun from the underworld; the sun guide your feet. Heaven holds the sun up in the sky; the sun strengthen your back. Heaven draws the light from the sun; the sun illumine your heart. Heaven brings the sun to the ground; the sun gladden your face.” As he spoke he moved his hands in broad circles in the air, moving up from her feet to the top of her head.

Her hands trembled. “I have not heard that blessing before.”

“Many old blessings are kept in our memories, some of which have not been commonly used for generations. That is one that especially captivated me.”

“Thank you.”

“It is my pleasure. As for me, I need no blessing. I have gotten along very well these past years with neither blessing nor sacrifice.”

“You are impossible,” Halinjae said. “But you are positive that the Doldeni will not help us? Their aegis would be of immense value.”

“The Doldeni are cowards, hiding their vast power among their tents. They will not try themselves against the dread School of Shadows.”

Halinjae had withdrawn a tiny translucent marble from her purse and was rolling it in the palm of her hand. Then she tossed it into the air and with a flash and a loud cracking sound it disappeared. The Native jumped despite himself, and she covered her mouth in a poor attempt to hide her smile.

“A cracker,” he said. “You expect to go against the foulest of magicians armed with crackers. I think the School of Shadows have grown past the age where such things astonished them.”

“The only difference between a cracker and a destroying fire is the will and talent of the crafter,” said Halinjae. “As a matter of theory, there is no limit to what we can do.”

“As a matter of custom, though…”

And now she did smile fully. “You would complain about a violation of custom?”

“There was a time when I believed that to use magic for violent ends was blasphemy against Heaven. And then there was a time when I believed that to use magic for any end was blasphemy against Heaven. And now I believe nothing. You can tear up the earth and send the ocean to swallow the land, and it will not matter to me.”

“That is what I thought,” said Halinjae, and released the cracker. There was another pop, and an acrid odor stung the Native’s nostrils. “Soon we will be in Nalsala, where there lives a man who will be able to advise us. An old friend of my uncle’s. You may have heard of his family – the Melin.”

The Native stared, then laughed. “One of that brood? Well, at the very least this will be interesting. And please, no more crackers. You are young, and your nerves are not weakened by years of toil, but I need peace and quiet before I go off to die. And since I cannot gamble, and I have already eaten, I will sleep. Maybe when I wake, the past month will have faded into a dream. Maybe, but I fear not.” He sat back down in his chair and closed his eyes, and when after a few moments he opened them again, all was dark.

~

As he took his first steps onto the stable earth of the island, the Native was reciting certain Sotlaci prayers, or trying to, at least. One of the decisions of his wasted youth had been to study the liturgy of the Soltaci, in hopes of greater unity between north and south, and although he had given it up in the end, he had acquired a rough knowledge of the Sotlaci language – a knowledge that for the past sixteen years he had made hardly any use of. Still, he was pleased to find that it had not entirely deserted him.

“Where does this Melin of yours live?” he asked in Sotlaci.

Halinjae did not look back towards him, but she sounded amused. “Your accent makes you sound like a pompous fool.”

“Well, I do not mind that so much. Better to sound a fool than be one…but where were we going?”

“Tunsis Melin lives in solitude in a house not far from the edge of town. We will be there in time for midday meal,” said Halinjae in perfect lilting Sotlaci.

“And after we have drawn up our plans, to Morlizumal?” The Native shaded his eyes and squinted at the rocky spires that rose out of the distant shoreline in the east – the Tyrant’s Teeth, which guarded miles of the coast, and whose name was known even in the farthest corner of Vibadelh. He remained there long enough for Halinjae to notice the object of his attention.

“They tell a strange legend about those rocks,” she said.

“Something about lovers and tragic leaps, I suppose. The Latoirn have a thousand such stories, and all you need to do is replace one barbarous name by another.”

“No…I know what you are talking about, and this is not one of those. It is not a legend about lovers, but about warring magicians. There were two of them, Garin and Magarin, and their feud had begun back in the old country many years before, when they had been hardly more than children. As they learned their art they continued to quarrel, and even on the ship that brought them to Sotlaci their captain had to keep them apart lest a war of magic break the vessel and drown them all.

“They came in the end to this place, once Barsa the Black had pacified the native tribes, and each magician built a house for himself on the coast, one here and one on the far side of the Tyrant’s Teeth – but those Teeth had not yet been crafted. This is how they came to be.

“It was Garin who looked out at the rising sun one day and said to himself, ‘I will build something to make my name remembered for a thousand years, here in this new land.’ And he set to work, crafting marvelous tools that could carve into the rock of the cliffs and dig out blocks for his monument. When he rested from that toil, he saw on the horizon that strong magic was being used, and he knew that it was his rival Magarin.

“On the eve of a storm he came to Magarin’s home and demanded to know what Magarin was doing. And Magarin looked at him said, ‘Do you blame me for what you yourself have done, except that my skill surpasses yours a hundredfold?’

“Garin grew wroth, and with a flourish of his rod he made the ground shake beneath them. But Magarin only laughed and chided him, telling him to go back and play with his toys. ‘For I,’ he added, ‘have a great Work to accomplish.’

“Muttering and stewing in bitterness Garin returned to his own dwelling, holding up a shield of air against the raging storm. And when he was back he found that a bolt of lightning had shattered his monument and cast its fragments into the sea. He stood distraught, tears pouring down his face, and raising his eyes to the thundering clouds gave an agonized cry. Then the clouds answered, and told him that it was Magarin who had committed this desecration. Whether they spoke truly or not, Garin believed them and swore vengeance against Magarin. He took up his greatest weapon, a sword that had been fashioned by the Night King Raekcha himself, and went to face Magarin.

“Few or no words passed between the two before their battle began, the most terrible duel of magic that had ever been seen in the islands. Although Heaven’s storm was gone, thunder and lightning still filled the air, and foot after foot of the solid ground crumbled away and was swallowed by the raging waves. The farmers fled in terror, telling one another that the old days of legend had returned, that soon the land would be blighted and they would be caught up in the wars of the demigods.

“And when a calm descended on the land, the farmers returned, trembling, and found that the magicians had utterly vanished, and were not to be found no matter where they looked. The only signs of the battle were the fragments of stone that now stood off the coast as an eternal reminder of the perils of magic misused.”

“But these magicians,” the Native said, “they were not tyrants. These are not called the Magicians’ Teeth.”

“Well, there are several legends,” said Halinjae.

“You are worried, aren’t you, that you are doing the wrong thing?” When Halinjae was silent, the Native continued. “You are not. This act is as bold and brave as any in the history of the Ghadari, and it is favored by Heaven, I have no doubt. You are striving to fulfill the oath you took as one of the Dini and, if a man with no principles may say so, I admire you for it.”

“Thank you, Kalaetnel,” she said – he thought sincerely – and only quickened her stride. “Now hurry; Tunsis is not expecting us and we should give him enough time to prepare a fine dinner. It will be one of our last.”

Based on Halinjae’s description the Native had rather underestimated the distance to the mansion of this Tunsis Melin. It was a mansion indeed, clearly the dwelling of a rich man with many fields under his protection, or at any rate the protection of his family. A series of earthen terraces led up to the building itself, each terrace with a different arrangement of flowers growing along the edges of the stone path that connected them. An aged man in a broad hat was bending over one of these arrangements, doing something or other with a pot in his hands. Seeing them he looked up, his face brown and leathery. “Morning,” he said, or at least the Native presumed that was what he was saying. His pronunciation was nearly incomprehensible.

“A good morning to you,” said Halinjae. “We are here to speak with your master.”

The gardener tugged at his hat. “Certainly, good lady. He is on the other side, dealing with the zavlála.” Whatever those were.

“Thank you,” Halinjae said, and descended back down the terraces, with the Native trailing behind her.

As they walked around the garden towards the back of the house, the Native caught a glimpse through a window of two women in dark robes carrying bowls. He asked Halinjae, “Didn’t you say that he lived alone?”

“He does not live in absolute solitude. He has servants, of course.”

“Of course.”

“But he has no family, and rarely speaks with the men and women of the town.”

“Ah, a recluse, a man after my own pattern. I shall enjoy speaking with him. Would that be him, engaged in battle with those weeds?”

“Tunsis!” Halinjae called, and the man in question fell backwards.

“Halinjae!” he replied, gathering himself together. “What in the name of Heaven are you doing down here? What has happened? Treason? A savage uprising? Plague?”

“It is a long story.”

“Yes. You would not be here if there were not some long and terrible story behind it all.” He sighed and glanced down at the flowerbed. “Well, you had better come inside and explain. Your silent smirking companion too, whatever it is that he finds so humorous. I was getting peckish anyway. Please, I implore you, join me for some tea. I am sure you remember that from your childhood, Halinjae.”

“Fondly,” she said, and the Native was bemused to see the smile that appeared briefly on her face. “You still have those cheese pies?”

“Day and night I cry out for more cheese pies and berry jam, and my call does not go unanswered,” said Tunsis, and beckoned with a dirt-encrusted hand for them to follow him along a shrub-lined path up to the house and a door that led inside. As he washed his hands in a bowl he continued, “You have just come off the ship, haven’t you? Help yourself to the perfume in the vials over there, if you want.”

The Native laughed. “Courteously put.” Among the Latoirn of Adrall it would not have been impolite to remark simply that they stank.

A tall elderly servant served them with cups of tea, which the Native found to be pleasantly spiced, though his tongue had long grown unaccustomed to discerning the subtlest flavors of Ghadari food and drink. So as he savored the tea he looked around him at the sitting room where Tunsis had taken them. It was a pleasant little room, he decided, comfortable without being over-luxurious, and elegantly decorated with nautical charts and little model ships. Obviously this Tunsis was one who took pride in the exploits of his forefathers, yet the Native knew there was little love lost between the family of the archons and the Melin family. How then had this friendship between him and Halinjae come about?

“…and Kalaetnel thought that when I said you lived here alone, you were utterly alone,” Halinjae was saying, and Tunsis laughed.

“Why, a man could go mad living entirely by himself!” he said.

The Native offered him a grim smile. “Men have.”

“But you promised me a story, Halinjae,” said Tunsis, looking to her. “What has broken the honor of the Order of the Red Star? What has sent the Dini off into the farthest reaches of the islands?”

“What manner of magic do you have in your house?” Halinjae asked.

“The usual trinkets. If you are worried about eavesdroppers…hmm, I can promise you that I have taken measures to assure my complete privacy.”

“Good.” Halinjae leaned her elbows on the table and began to explain. The Native listened keenly, although most of what she said were things he knew already. She left out a great deal of what had occurred with the Doldeni and the Latoirn in Adrall, focusing on the rivalries for power among the Ghadari. As she went on, telling about the School of Shadows, Tunsis began to frown, and his hands beat rhythmically on the table. Quite suddenly he stood up and left the room, returning a few minutes later with a tray of thick yellow-brown pastries that smelled enticingly of sweet milk. The Native helped himself to one and found that half-melted cheese filled its interior. But he kept a careful eye on Tunsis and his halting movements.

When Halinjae had finished her account, Tunsis nodded once, slowly. Then he closed his eyes. “I have been expecting news of this sort for a very long time. Some of my neighbors, I think, regard the School of Shadows as harmless dabblers in magic, keeping to themselves in that hideous castle they have built, but I know better.” He went to a cabinet against one of the walls and threw it open, and with a wave of his hand the empty interior split in two and revealed a set of silver disks mounted on a spire of the same metal. Taking this up with care, he brought it and set it before Halinjae and the Native, so that they could see the patterns etched into its surface and the miniature figures that were set upon it.

It reminded the Native strongly of a tas och board, and he said so.

“There are similarities,” Tunsis said. “Tas och has been used for divination, in the past. But this is something less innocent and more useful. It is a model, the best I have been able to do, of the world the School of Shadows plan to make for us all. Their designs are not secret at all, if you bother to look in the right places.”

Peering more closely at the model, the Native was still unable to make any sense of it. There were five layers – were those the five islands, Vibadelh, Curin, Talat, Garahelhsu, and Sotlaci? If so, what was the significance of their order, and of the tiny dragons that wound up and down the spire between some but not others?

“But what, I wonder, would they want with your Latoirn friends?” Tunsis asked. “The Latoirn may be savages and bloodthirsty hunters of men, but they are not known for their powers of magic. Perhaps as the elements in some spell?” He touched the topmost layer of the silver device and it rotated silently. “I know a great deal about the School of Shadows, but there is still so much that they keep to themselves, passed down from master magician to master magician. If they intend to refashion the islands, they need both a powerful Idea and a powerful Form. The Form they have, but if I could even begin to conceive the necessary Idea I would not be an idle gardener here. The mind is meant to rule its Ideas, but some Ideas are too powerful to be commanded.”

“Do you think it is possible for us to deliver the Latoirn from Morlizumal?” Halinjae asked.

“By Heaven above, no. Certainly not. I would warn you against it with all my strength, but I know you better than to think I can stop you if you have made up your mind. And you will want to avenge your father. I understand that very well. But what do you say?” he asked of the Native. Though his face turned as he looked at him, his eyes and thoughts were clearly elsewhere.

There were many answers the Native could give to that question, but the one he chose was a lie. “Nothing is more important to me than my friends.”

“Most noble of you,” said Tunsis, then his face cleared. “Morlizumal is something of a realm unto itself: its inhabitants bring in no food and no water, and it is rare for them ever to go out.” He tapped a series of cubes that lay clustered around the spire on the bottom level of the model. “In that realm they are as powerful as any magician king of old – it is theirs from foundation to summit, and Heaven only knows what traps are laid all around. Heaven only knows where they keep their prisoners. You have only one choice. There is only one place where they are weak. Have you ever heard of the Silver Dominion?”

The Native certainly hadn’t, but Halinjae half-nodded. “That was one of the Latoirn kingdoms a few generations ago, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, that’s right, though I am not sure kingdom is the right word. A coalition of tribes would be better, I think. The center of this alliance was the fabled lake that sits among the mountains in the west, and there was much intercourse between the Silver Dominion and the Ghadari. It is long gone now, naturally, overtaken by treachery on both sides.” He paused for a second; took a bite of a tart that lay by his hand. “Now tell me, have you ever heard of the aegis of the Doldeni?”

“Heard of it, yes,” Halinjae said, smiling. “Who has not? But what does it have to do with the Silver Dominion?” The Native was listening very closely now.

“It is, perhaps, nothing more than an idle speculation,” said Tunsis. “But when the Doldeni began to withdraw from us, there were no magicians among them, nor have I heard of any magicians who have gone over since. And yet almost immediately they had their aegis to protect them. Perhaps it was not the Doldeni who made the aegis, but the aegis that made the Doldeni.

“It was said by the men who were alive at the time that the Silver Dominion achieved something very special, a unique combination of our magic and their own lore. Of course, what they achieved for the most part was inferior to the purer creations of Ghadari magic, but they dared to do things that no guildsman of the magicians would dream of doing. That is what I have heard, and I do not know more than that. Still, I wonder if among those forbidden works was an artifact that would quell all magic, and if it found its way north to Talat. That is what I wonder.”

“An imaginative account,” said the Native, interrupting Halinjae as she opened her mouth, “but one with little solid ground for the feet.”

“You were close to their leader, I think,” Halinjae said in a flash. “What do you know about the aegis?”

He smiled, and inclined his brow. “I know that it was discovered amid the ruin of a Ghadari town in southern Talat. Where it was before that no one knows. Nevertheless, I can give you solid ground if you like, Halinjae. When Ebrinn, Lrento’, and I were brought by the Doldeni to behold the aegis, the two Latoirn were made to touch its surface, which normally is not a pleasant experience for anyone. And yet they suffered no harm, none at all. What would you say to that, Tunsis Melin?”

Tunsis’s eyes had widened. “That the aegis recognizes its old masters the Latoirn.” For a minute he sat in thought, then came to some decision and nodded. “Would you like a map to the Silver Dominion?”

~

“He is not much like old Barsa the Black, I noticed,” said the Native. “That fearsome blood has run thin, has it?”

“A man is much like his son, a woman much like her daughter,” replied Halinjae. After enjoying Tunsis’s hospitality until the next morning, they had set forth from Nalsala, following the map on an old sheet of leather that supposedly marked the best trail to the meeting place of the Silver Dominion. It was past noon, but their stomachs were still full from the rich breakfast Tunsis had given them. “But as the sun moves on, more and more light shines in the gap between a family’s founder and its heirs. Regardless, Tunsis may be the mildest of all who live in Sotlaci, but did you see his excitement when we brought our problem before him? I have always thought that if given the proper opportunity he would gladly become the greatest strategist that the Ghadari have ever seen. Now his cousin Argis on the other hand…”

The Native paused and shaded his eyes against the glare, holding up a finger to help line up the shadow behind him with the mountains ahead. Halinjae broke off in the middle of her speech and watched attentively – she was far too used to the magical iris to be able to do the slightest bit of navigation on her own. She and all the Ghadari who could afford such things. It had taken the Native himself months under the tutelage of the Doldeni to master the reading of sun and stars and land.

There was something odd nearby, something that set the Native’s nerves on edge. He glanced from the hills that rose in the north to the broad southern plain, but did not see or hear anything to explain his unease. Most likely it was just a trick of his mind, hesitant to go on into confrontation with the School of Shadows, aegis or no aegis. Settling on this conclusion, he nodded to Halinjae. “We have not wandered far off our course. We should quicken our pace – but you do not need me to tell you that time is precious.”

Barely an hour had passed after this, by the Native’s rough judgment, and they had passed from the open land southwest of Nalsala to a more rugged landscape. They came across a small flock of sheep grazing over a slope which they had to descend, and watching the sheep two young boys who sat chewing on sticks and jumped up when they saw Halinjae and the Native. “Who’re you?” one asked at the same time the other said, “Are you scouts, looking for the savages? Because we saw one two days ago, swear to Heaven!”

“We shouted and threw stones until he ran off,” the first said.

“Papa says they’re getting worse and worse, and soon we won’t be able to go as far with the sheep. I’d watch out if I were you.”

Another hour’s walk and they were within sight of a wood nestled in a hill’s shadow and bounded by a stream. The Native thought back to the image of the map he kept in his mind and was satisfied that they continued in the right direction. As he helped Halinjae climb down a nearly vertical incline of a few yards, he heard a sudden hissing from behind him and glanced down at his feet, expecting to see a snake. An arrow was projecting from the dirt near his right ankle.

“You no move!” someone called in a badly accented form of the Sotlaci tongue. The Native found it somewhat difficult to follow these instructions, positioned as he was with Halinjae’s arm in one hand and a projecting root in the other. He craned his neck but saw no sign of whoever was speaking. “You come down quick!”

So once they were on the level earth again, a man clad in only a loincloth and colorful strings hung on his shoulders emerged from whatever fold of rock and shrub had concealed him. Slinging his bow behind his back, he gave Halinjae and the Native long scrutiny, then whistled. After several tense minutes more of his kind began to appear, all armed. “We came to find the Latoirn of Sotlaci,” said the Native quietly to Halinjae. “It would seem that we have succeeded.”

A few of the Latoirn stepped behind Halinjae and the Native and grabbed their arms, holding them tight while hands passed all over their bodies searching for weapons, presumably. Halinjae flushed red under this treatment, and her bag of crackers was taken away. The Native wasn’t quite sure how much of a blast her latest efforts would produce, and he hoped that none of the Latoirn would take it into their heads to experiment.

They were taken to stand in the presence of an aged man, all drawn up within his gangly limbs. He looked at them with fixed, somber eyes framed by an untidy mane of hair, but said nothing. When the silence had grown loud enough to crush the hills, the old man gave a single nod, and Halinjae and the Native once again had their arms seized behind them and were pulled away. They were made to sit near the center of the band’s gathering for its evening meal, gnawing with little appetite at mushrooms and a kind of dark blue night-carrot, smaller than those with which the Ghadari were familiar. Although one child did reach with wonder for Halinkae’s golden hair, most of the eyes that were upon them were not friendly, and some of the men walking by pounded their feet on the ground aggressively.

The Native did not rest at all well that night. The crowning discomfort was that when he finally did drop off to sleep it was near morning, and he was awakened from a pleasant dream not long afterward. There was a great commotion and hubbub in the camp, and rubbing his eyes he sat up and looked around. When he finally understood what was going on, he twisted and shook Halinjae’s shoulders to wake her, laughing. “Well, Halinjae, we have succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.”

“Mmm? What do you mean?”

The Native pointed, and her eyes widened. Ebrinn and Lrento’ were standing amidst the other Latoirn, Ebrinn engaged in rapid conversation, Lrento’ looking on quietly. And in Ebrinn’s hands was a spear that glowed with white light. “They have found it,” he said, and stood and called out in the tongue of Adrall. Immediately Ebrinn broke off whatever he was saying and went over to them.

“Aghalidu is still a prisoner,” he said solemnly.

“But you intend to free him,” the Native replied, looking to the spear. “Is that what I hope it to be?”

“It will destroy your magic, if that is what you mean,” said Ebrinn.

“Good,” said the Native. Halinjae was looking at the spear in a sidelong way, and did not approach it too closely. “I suppose it was you who had your friends here fetch us.”

“No,” said Ebrinn. “Lrento’ and I have been wandering in the west. We were only brought here just now. Our movements are being orchestrated by another.”

“Do not tell me you are beginning to believe in Heaven.”

“Not in Heaven,” Ebrinn said, “but in the vision of an old man. We will stay among the Urotneal for a little time and learn what counsel he has to offer, and then we will return to the land of your brethren. I trust there will be little debate. We do not have time to spare.”

“There will be no debate,” said Halinjae. “I don’t know about this old man, but for the sake of the islands, and for both our peoples, we must take whatever help we can get.”

“Good. I am told that he is expecting us.”

“No breakfast?” asked the Native. Ebrinn only looked at him in exasperation.

The old man was waiting in the same place, warming himself at a small fire which smelled oddly astringent. He sighed deeply upon seeing them, then brushed his hands together and said in his own language, “Eal, tran. Raig irr wámib janók.

Beanr janókib kol, poraráig irr a’?” asked Ebrinn.

Again the old man sighed. “Dali’íb mérni’. Twónul dror élbin mi índwor tarr, nik dwodwól om tarr, ea’, ea’, a’.” His eyes fell over each of them in turn as he said these last words.

The Native was only able to catch fragments of meaning from all this, and he interrupted, asking Ebrinn to translate. “He speaks of mysteries,” said Ebrinn. “I do not know if you are fit to hear them.”

“We do not fear your curses,” said Halinjae.

“Our path is before us, he says, and it leads to the…I am not quite sure if this is the proper meaning, but to the salvation of the islands. Yet it leads also into shadow.”

The Native waited, but that seemed to be all. “If a religious mystery, that is the vaguest and least enlightening that I have heard, and I have heard many.”

“The seeker after wisdom would do well not to cease listening after four sentences,” said Ebrinn, little irritation showing in his voice.

All this time the old man had been watching, and now he took a singed branch from the fire and began to draw with it on the ground. He traced in charcoal a rough square and then raised his voice and spoke. “Nei dwodwól mépenor twokítr eab irr na,” he said, adding a detail to the square’s border. “Nei gárrlerr wámib deréntwor.

Lrénto’? Ar?” asked Ebrinn.

Mod keijérrean janr twotwón mi éá’am mib raráigi’or,” the old man said. He closed his eyes. “Mod míam miámib dáior. Mod mi mib dáior, mod nei.

Twónuld, gaptwúlr mi tarr!” Ebrinn cried, but the old man only smiled faintly and began to murmur to himself.

Through all of Ebrinn’s rigid Latoirn self-control, anger was beginning to break, and so the Native stepped close to him and touched his shoulder. “What did he say?” he asked.

“He said nothing,” was the reply. “He promises help and does not give it. He babbles of what cannot be changed and says we are not our own masters. He is an old senile fool. Let us leave at once to do what needs to be done, for Aghalidu’s sake and Lrento’’s.”

“Ebrinn,” said Lrento’. “What did he say about me?”

“He said nothing!” Ebrinn turned and began to walk away, holding the light of the spear firmly in his hand. Lrento’ followed, and after a moment, so did the others.

Sword Maiden Chapter 5

A story told among the Doldeni:

Praise Heaven, whose laws are eternal and whose judgment is certain. Praise Heaven, which has given us eyes and hands to shape the earthly world. Praise Heaven above all men and all teachers.

Magic is a corruption and a blight to the people. It makes us a stench in the nostrils of Heaven. It is the temptation of the dracas and the doom of the islands. The only way to save ourselves is to abandon it, as Saenum learned at the gates of the sun.

This Saenum had been born in the old country, and was thoroughly steeped in the old ways. He was a priest himself, but his father had been a magician who had taught him to defy Heaven with prideful rituals that raise up the soul of man to stand among the high courts. In their household magical toys were common, and even used in sacrifices to Heaven – the same toys that were used to shed blood in the great wars.

When Saenum came to the islands he was an old man, set in his ways and far up in the hierarchy of priests. He expected that soon he would die and pass on into unknown seas, so he took special care to train his subordinates in the same way that he himself had been taught. He praised magic and magicians, unwittingly blaspheming the power of Heaven. But Heaven’s mercy is great, even to such as Saenum.

In his sleep Saenum was translated by good spirits that brought him to the path of the sun to show him all the world. He saw the continents and the oceans, the cities and farms, the ships and soldiers, the priests and magicians, the kings and craftsmen, all laid out before him, tiny and glittering in the sun’s light. He looked up, and saw the sun following its ceaseless glorious track, and cast over the sky was the silver net of the moon’s cycles. Beyond were the stars, and beyond that he could not see.

He trembled then, knowing that he was in the hands of a great power. “I am an impure man,” he said, “of impure birth. Overlook my transgressions, I pray, so that I may continue to kneel in this thin air and perceive what no mortal flesh has seen before.”

A cold breeze chilled his arms but he did not notice, so entranced was he by the glories that were around him. Again the cold struck him, but he did not notice. He stood firm in the sky unmoved by any being. Such is the pride of the Ghadari!

But his hand began to hurt, until he thought that he would surely die from the pain. He looked to see what had hurt him and saw a tiny man standing on his palm, driving a sword into his flesh. “Why do you do this?” he asked the tiny man.

“I am the archon of the entire world,” said the little man. “My sword lets me slay giants such as you.”

“Foolish homunculus,” said Saenum. “I could crush you with my finger.”

The little man laughed so scornfully that Saenum grew angry and began to clench his fist to destroy him, but when he saw the face of the little man he hesitated. It was his own face that he saw, and when he looked closer he saw that the little man was wearing his own clothes and holding in its other hand his own bag of magic tricks.

“My magic,” the little man said, “is great enough to challenge Heaven itself!” And he pulled out from the bag a point of white light and threw it at Saenum’s head. It flared and disappeared. “I wager you felt that in your skull!”

“I felt nothing,” said Saenum in truth.

“You lie!” the little man screamed. “My power is enough to destroy you with a blink of my eye! You are trying to deceive me!”

But now Saenum was tired of this miniature image, so he brushed it aside and looked up to the stars again. To his dismay, clouds were growing to hide the stars from his view. Thunder rumbled, and in the thunder was a voice.

“Who are you, man of the earth, to raise yourself above the simple things of hand and eye, to seek to master the spirits and command them? What evil inspired you to violate the laws that Heaven laid down to govern nature?”

“Forgive me,” said Saenum. “I have reached over my head for things I cannot grasp. I will return to my home and worship Heaven in humility.”

So the vision disappeared and Saenum was in his bed again. When the sun rose the next morning he took all his magic toys and destroyed them, and for the remainder of his life he rejected the magicians’ teachings, preferring the simple things given to us by Heaven for our edification and training in obedience. Heaven be praised above all things.

~

Consciousness returned to Ebrinn only slowly, stirring him out of pleasant dreams to a reality in which he was propped upright against a wooden wall in a room that rocked back and forth as if on water. He was on water, he realized, aboard one of the ships of the Ghadari, taken captive…

He glanced to his side and saw Lrento’, and beyond, Aghalidu, all sitting just as he was. But when he tried to shift his legs, although there were no visible constraints on him, he could not move more than a few inches. The same was true of his arms, his head, even his mouth. Aghalidu was still unconscious, but Lrento’ was stirring, her eyes casting about with some wildness. He wanted to say something to reassure her, but even if he had been able to speak he did not know what he would say. He found, though, that he could move his hand just enough to touch hers.

After some time a woman who was, like the man from earlier, clad entirely in black, entered the room, ducking to avoid striking her head on the low ceiling. She looked at the three prisoners without a word for several minutes, then raised her hand so that Ebrinn cringed involuntarily. “Hello,” she said in perfect Edenlorr, the language of the southern island, which Ebrinn had learned over the course of many hallowed festivals, and then he noticed her dark hair and the features of her face which made it clear that she had little, if any Ghadari blood. “My name is Radwon, and before anything else I must apologize for your treatment. The School of Shadows does not make a high virtue out of treating its enemies and prisoners well. Our leaders are more interested in making sure that you arrive at Morlizumal safely. I have been sent to answer the questions I am sure you have…oh, yes, I was forgetting.” She made a twisting motion, and Ebrinn was able to speak. The first thing he did was to give Lrento’ a quick translation of what Radwon had said, and he continued throughout the conversation to interpret.

“What are you doing with the enemies of the Latoirn?”

“What were you doing with the enemies of the Latoirn? But surely you have a question that is not about me?”

“All right. What is the School of Shadows?”

Radwon began to answer, but her voice was drowned out by Aghalidu’s groans. “I see he is recovering now,” she said. “Good. We were beginning to be worried about him. It is not usual for the sleep to last so long. The School of Shadows is your new master, in whose service you will live, or die. It is an assembly of the greatest magicians in all the islands, who have dedicated their skills to the fashioning of a new world.”

“What do you mean, a new world?” asked Lrento’.

“Well, surely we all can see that this one has significant flaws.”

“An ominous name, the School of Shadows,” said Aghalidu.

“The new world is waiting in the shadows,” Radwon said patiently, “and we will usher it into the light of the sun.”

“And what do we have to do with any of this?” Aghalidu asked.

“That is complicated,” said Radwon with an enigmatic smile. “It would be very hard to explain seeing as I have only an amateur understanding of the School’s magic, and you have none. One of you is of the Dini, and the Dini are the link between the people of the sun, the Ghadari, and the people of the earth the Latwoirn. In this age the earth and sun are separated and only face one another for half the day, and part of the aim of the School is to see them united forever, to still the motion of the sun and to light the darkness of the earth.” As she said this her expression changed, her eyes filling with rapture. “And that will just be the beginning.”

“What, exactly, is going to happen to us?” Ebrinn asked.

“Two of you will be set free, to go wherever you want. There are very many of our kind in the western half of the island. But the Dini must stay among us, to learn our ways and take part in the rituals that are to come. It would be very useful if you could tell me which one of you it is.”

“It is me,” Aghalidu said quickly. “You can let them go. I am one of the Dini.”

“That is generous of you,” Radwon said, continuing to smile at him. “It will be remembered, and valued in our new world.”

Aghalidu smile back crookedly. “We will see.”

“We shall be in Morlizumal in no great span of time. Once I have left, you will be able to move around this room freely, but you will not be able to leave. Be patient. Soon you will behold our future rather than merely hearing about it. Soon you will be enveloped by it.” Radwon’s ever-present smile fell away; she stood and began to walk out of the room again.

“One last thing,” Aghalidu called after her. “Do you really believe what you are saying, all this magic and sorcery?”

“My husband is a remarkable man,” she said without turning. “You should all speak with him when we arrive. I have no doubt you will find it enlightening.” And then she was gone, and Ebrinn felt the invisible bonds go slack and break as he swung his legs forward.

“Are you all right?” he whispered to Lrento’, and she nodded.

“I am truly sorry I got you into this,” Aghalidu said, standing up and rubbing his chin. “It seems I am fated to be forever tossed back and forth from hand to hand of the Ghadari, but I can at least try not to take other Latoirn along with me.”

Ebrinn looked up at him, and found himself smiling. “Don’t worry about me,” he said. “I have Lrento’ and my spear, and I do not turn back from meeting the Ghadari on their own ground. Indeed, I look forward to it.”

“Oh, I am quite sure that you do,” Aghalidu said. “You will fight them until you die. Probably you will die because you fight them. As for me, I intend to go on living as long as I can.”

“While your people suffer all around you.”

“I have no people,” Aghalidu replied, and shook his head. “I have no one except myself, so you see, I only need to worry about myself.”

That’s not true. The thought came into Ebrinn’s mind without warning, and after a moment’s reflection he decided it was not his own, but had emerged from some other mind. Was there a god aboard the ship, or were the Pirbognar speaking to him from the sea? Then his eyes met Lrento’’s, and another possibility occurred to him. Even now he did not fully understand the arcane practices of Tagdam, where Lrento’ had been made into what she was.

Lrento’? he thought. Can you hear me? There was no response; her expression did not change even the slightest fraction. He sighed and touched the hilt of the sword. Maybe there would be opportunity to use it once they were on solid ground again.

~

Although Ebrinn had in his travels ranged all across Gearai, his path had never taken him to another island. Now as he, Lrento’, and Aghalidu were corralled like captive birds and moved from the great ocean-going vessel to a smaller ship, here at the river mouth, he decided that it was nothing particularly special. This was the island of Edenl, which the Ghadari called Sotlaci, and although there were a hundred legends about its sacred hills and fertile river valleys, Ebrinn looked on the brown expanse of dirt and mud before him with disdain – though perhaps his emotions were colored by the circumstances, he admitted to himself.

Then, their short glimpse of the outside world over, they were bound once more in the bowels of a ship, left to talk among themselves as the voyage continued. But there was little enough conversation, for Lrento’ was quiet in her accustomed fashion, and Aghalidu was quiet in an unaccustomed fashion, solemnity having conquered his flippancy. He was prepared, it seemed, to make a sacrifice of himself to allow Ebrinn and Lrento’ to go free, and Ebrinn honored that willingness, though he did not intend to meekly walk away from the Ghadari. Here in Edenl the battle between Latoirn and Ghadari was particularly fierce, and there were very many atrocities to be avenged. Or so Ebrinn had heard, and he had no reason to disbelieve it.

When at last they were brought up again, the ship had been moored along the side of a wooden pier, and Ebrinn’s eye was drawn upwards to the hulking shape of black stone that seemed to fill the entire plain. It was like no other building he had ever seen, and a foreboding dread filled him as he looked on its walls – it seemed to represent the Ghadari themselves: imposing, inscrutable, and impossible to overthrow. He and the others were led along a path bounded by lines that could not be seen, towards the black fortress’s gate, which was tall and set between pillars, devoid of carving.

Ebrinn’s heart and thoughts were racing against one another to see which could be faster. They had let him keep his sword, so they clearly did not fear him or it. Was there magic so strong, that they could dismiss him so casually?

The gate was opening, with the sound of grinding stone and creaking ropes, though whatever machinery moved the doors of wood was hidden, like everything else these people did. Ebrinn was familiar with the varied styles of life of the Latoirn, and to a lesser extent some of the Ghadari villages, but nothing he had ever seen was like this. There were no people in the courtyard ahead, for one thing, not even soldiers. At first glance he took the figures arrayed in lines around the courtyard’s edge to be guards, but their total immobility soon made it clear that they were nothing more than skillfully painted statues. Total silence surrounded them, and even the air itself felt dead.

Radwon allowed them to stop and drink from a fountain set in the wall: a series of jutting cylinders from which ice-cold water continually poured into a bowl then drained away. After this they were taken up a flight of stairs under an arch, into another empty courtyard that bent at a right angle. Ebrinn heard Lrento’ whimper almost at the edge of his hearing, and he reached out his hand to take hers, comforting her, and himself.

Radwon halted and turned around to look at them, a pleasant expression on her face. “This is Morlizumal,” she said. “You should consider yourself greatly honored. Few indeed have come here.”

“What is the good of a city that no one visits?” Aghalidu asked after Ebrinn translated this. “I imagined that the Ghadari swarmed in their cities like ants.”

“They are not as most Ghadari,” said Radwon. “Morlizumal is a sacred place, you must understand. Taboo, our people might call it. It was designed and built for the purpose of working magic, and to actually be lived in is secondary. Indeed, the wrong person in the wrong place can upset things terribly – I have been told that this is the most subtle and delicate magic that has ever been practiced by the Ghadari.”

She gestured, and they continued on, around the corner, where a new vista awaited them. A series of wide steps brought them to a recessed passage where the walls closed in upon them, and here carvings began to appear: grinning skulls and intricate patterns of lines and curves.

Beyond another arch was yet one more open space, this one marked by a tall pillar in its center, rising to match the highest trees Ebrinn had seen. At the base of the pillar was a chair, and here a man sat, a thick block of what was apparently clay in his lap, looking down at this with his hands folded. His head came up as they approached, and he smiled.

“Sileum is a mute. You have been brought before him to be reviewed,” said Radwon, then stepped forward, closer to Sileum’s chair, and pointed to Aghalidu. “Dará daráje Díni,” she said, and Sileum nodded.

Neijhóah.” The word echoed throughout the area, and it took several confused moments, and the word being said again, for Ebrinn to realize that the voice was coming from the animal’s head worked in the stone a hand’s breadth above Sileum. It was some creature he did not recognize, with a mane of fur surrounding its face and a permanent snarl. “Vúkutle toz darálil saránah, tára aráin.” Again Sileum looked up, and he waved his hand towards a tall pointed door on the wall to their right.

“And now you have heard the voice of Sileum,” Radwon told them. “You have no choice but to obey.”

“What did he say?” Aghalidu asked.

“He spoke an incantation first, an old word whose mundane meaning is roughly… ‘may it be’. Then he said that Vukutle will want to see you. Almost I would pity you, Aghalidu, if I did not know of the glories you will feel within your being.”

Sileum was watching them with a pleasant expression on his face, as if he had just presented them with a heaping basket of fruit. And at the thought of food, Ebrinn realized his stomach was empty as the sky, but he had gone much longer without food before, and so he put his hunger out of his mind. Radwon clicked her tongue and the invisible force at Ebrinn’s back pushed him forward again, guiding him and the others towards the door on the right, within which was blackness.

Radwon and the others with her, Ebrinn noticed, were staying where they were, which did not encourage him. But he had no choice but to take step after step, bringing him closer to, and finally into, the dark shadows beyond the door.

Then he halted, unable to go any further, Lrento’ too remaining at his side. But Aghalidu continued on, until he was swallowed up and vanished from sight. Not a word was spoken by any of them. A combination of solemnity and terror had settled over them, and any speech seemed unnecessary. Lrento’ and Ebrinn stood, hand in hand, waiting for something – anything – to happen.

And then Aghalidu returned, his head tilted down and his stride slow and halting. “Aghalidu,” Lrento’ said, her voice ringing out into the emptiness. “What happened?”

“I was educated,” he replied, keeping his head down. “Radwon was right: Vukutle is indeed a remarkable man, and now I see – or rather, I am seen.” Then he laughed a high, unsettling laugh. “I understand what they are trying to do; it all makes more sense than I had thought. I am needed here. I am needed in a way the fools who called me Dini could not imagine.” He stepped closer to Ebrinn and Lrento’ and lowered his voice. “Now give me your sword. After all, we don’t want you to hinder our plans, do we?” Ebrinn swallowed hard and stepped back, tugging Lrento’ with him, but Aghalidu matched their pace. “Once we have the sword, we will let you free, to go join our brethren in the western mountains. Vukutle!” he called, and a sudden blast of pain threw him to the ground, then struck him again and again until all the world fell away.

~

He came back to himself staring up at the sky, his head resting uncomfortably on a flat rock, his body lying across the stony slope that, raising his neck, he could see descending to a stream. Lifting himself onto his elbows, the first thing that struck his view was the fortress of Morlizumal, dark and square against the horizon. It was evening, and the stars were beginning to appear.

Lrento’ was there too, curled up several feet away from him. The spear that she had carried so faithfully for so long was driven into the earth nearby. But the sword…the sword was missing. Ebrinn staggered around, eyes twisting wildly, but his gaze came to rest on Morlizumal, and his emotions quieted themselves within his heart. He knelt by Lrento’ and put his hand on her shoulder, shaking her gently, and said her name.

Her eyes opened and she rolled over, clutching her side as if in pain. She looked at Ebrinn with a distraught expression, her mouth opening to say words that never came out. “We will recover the sword, Lrento’,” he told her. “I swear by Irlrai that we will.”

She swallowed and gripped his extended arm to help climb to her feet. “I feel strange,” she said. “I don’t know what they are doing to me, but it hurts me…” There were tears in her eyes. “Ebrinn…”

He hugged her and put his forehead against hers. “I will find it and bring it back, though all the cursed School of Shadows stand in my way.”

“They are too many and too powerful for you. I am sorry I made us come here, so sorry…” Her face twisted up and she shrank back from him. “They are cutting me open with their eyes!” Utter panic was in her face, and then she collapsed again, her hands convulsing before her entire body went still. But she was still breathing; her heart was still beating.

“There is nothing dearer to me in the world,” Ebrinn said to her. “I will not leave you to suffer.” He bent and lifted her in his arms, then began to walk away from the fortress, towards the west and the setting sun. He was not wholly sure where he was heading, but he wanted to make sure they would not be molested again. They would need to find food, then learn what they could about the School of Shadows and return when they were ready, to retrieve the sword. Aghalidu, it seemed, was lost forever.

~

After a few hours Lrento’ began to stir, and when she looked up at Ebrinn she appeared untroubled by her earlier pain. “I can walk on my own now,” she said quietly, but there was a dullness to her voice that Ebrinn did not like. “Where are we going?” she asked as he set her down.

“To see if Aghalidu was right, and there are more Latoirn in the mountains.” The sun had now utterly vanished behind the great peaks that cut across the horizon from north to south, and Ebrinn added, “Perhaps we should rest for the night. I judge that it will be another day or so until we reach the foothills, and we will need all our strength if we want to climb.”

They found some beetles under scattered rocks and made a poor meal out of these before lying down. But Ebrinn awoke several times during the night, and each time he saw Lrento’ standing upright, facing the east where Morlizumal stood.

Early the next morning they came upon a stream running from the west, away from the mountains, and began to travel along its course, passing into a thick wood. Ebrinn made use of the spear to catch the fish that were plentiful in the stream, while Lrento’ brought them up out of the water with her hands alone, a trick that her people had taught her, and they filled their stomachs as they traveled.

A little past midday Ebrinn and Lrento’ had paused to sit by the stream and dangle their feet in it, washing away dirt and weariness, when a loud hissing from further up the bank drew their attention. “Name yourselves!” a man called in the Edenlorr tongue, and on every side of them, from among the trees, there appeared men with spears and bows, long colorful strings adorning their bare chests.

“I am Ebrinn of Adrall,” Ebrinn said, “and this is Lrento’ of Tagdam. We are both from the island Gearai.”

“What are you doing here in Sotlaci?”

“We are fleeing the School of Shadows.”

“I see,” the spokesman said, and tilted his spear until it was aimed directly at Ebrinn. “Then you must go back. We do not allow any who have been touched by the darkness to enter Urotneal land. You are not your own masters.”

“It is not we who have been changed by the shadows, but our companion. We were taken along with him by mistake.”

“So you say, but there are few who can judge the changes in their own spirits. Turn back, or we will kill you.”

“Must Latoirn kill Latoirn, brother kill brother?”

“That is the greatest evil the School of Shadows has committed, but we cannot turn away and pretend that they have not done it. Go back; do not attempt to enter our lands, and we will not harm you.”

Ebrinn’s eyes flashed, and he fought to quell the anger that rose up suddenly within him. “May the gods of your land rebuke you for your lack of hospitality! All right, we will leave. But if you grant us some food I will take back my curse.”

The spokesman kept quiet, rubbing his chin with his free hand, then finally said, “If you remain at this place until sunrise tomorrow, we will bring you what you have asked. Your threat is more terrible than you may know; our gods are quick to curse and slow to bless, in these past years.” He gestured, and the strange Latoirn were gone, slipping away quickly and silently enough that if Ebrinn had not been paying attention, he would not have seen them go.

“Do you trust them?” Lrento’ asked him.

“Not in general, no, but I expect that they will supply us with provisions as long as we keep our end of the bargain.”

“And then where will we go?” She was looking at him with wide eyes, and he did not know what to say.

“Maybe…maybe I will ask them if there are any tribes who are more willing to fight the School of Shadows directly. There have to be some, unless the School is not interested in conquest, which would make them strange Ghadari indeed.”

“They are strange,” Lrento’ said. “We know that. I think that it will prove impossible to recover either myself or Aghalidu from that black fortress.”

“I cannot leave you to suffer. Whatever I must do or go through to bring you out of there, I will.” His eyes were wide now, blazing with determination. “Even if it means that I die, or that all within that fortress die, I will.”

“And if you die what good will I be?” she asked. “Do you think I want someone else to wield me? Do you think I want…”

Ebrinn took her hands in his and as he looked into her eyes he felt strange thoughts washing over him, thoughts that were not made up of words but that he understood nonetheless. “Do you want me to wield you at all?” he asked.

“I want you to do what you must for our people,” she said, turning her gaze away. “This is what I have been raised for all my life. I do hope that…” Before she could finish her sentence, she winced and pressed her hand to the side of her head. “Ah…what are they doing now?” Then her eyes widened and she would have fallen over into the stream had Ebrinn not caught her and brought her gently to rest upon the ground. Her eyelids fluttered for several seconds before finally closing. “Are you still there?” she asked.

“Yes,” Ebrinn said. “Always. Are you all right?”

“No…or rather, yes. I am better now, but for a moment…” She opened her eyes, and Ebrinn could now see the tears pooling in their corners. “I never thought that the sword could be used to hurt me thus. My grandfather was a harsh man, but would he have done this to me if he knew?”

Ebrinn held her and put his hand against the back of her neck, comforting her until there were sudden footsteps from above, and he looked and saw the warriors of Edenl were standing on the bank again, but now their weapons were lowered. The spokesman, the same man as before, was crossing his arms and looking at them with measuring eyes. “We have changed our minds concerning you. If you want, you may come with us and spend the night with our tribe. There is one among us who has expressed a strong desire to see you.”

“Do you swear that we will not be harmed?” Ebrinn asked.

“If that is necessary to reassure you, then yes. The one who has asked for you is a man in whom we place very great trust, and he perceives that you are no threat to our tribe, or to anyone except the School of Shadows.”

“Then his sight is good,” Ebrinn said. “We will go with you.”

The people of the Urotneal tribe were encamped further up into the mountains, where the trees grew thin, in the shadow of a looming hill that bulged to the side as it rose. As Ebrinn and Lrento’ went up a tall grassy slope towards the caves where fires burned, the men and women they passed looked at them with wary, yet curious, eyes. On a stool placed next to a tall pointed rock sat an elderly man with his hair falling all about his face. With a withered stick he was tracing patterns in the ground, and as Ebrinn and Lrento’ drew close to him he brought the stick up to point directly at them.

“Will you need the herbs?” the spokesman asked, and the old man shook his head firmly.

“I will not, and kindly do not bring it up again. I am not one of the witless blathering imbeciles you seem to spend a great deal of time with. I am quite capable of keeping my mind on a simple task like this. Ebrinn! Lrento’! I am delighted to meet you at last. This is the first time we have met, is it not?”

“You know of us?” Ebrinn asked.

“Of course! My children, I know all about you.” He tapped a finger against his temple. “I have seen you,” he added, and Ebrinn now understood.

“You have the second sight.”

“Good. If you know about the second sight then that will spare us a long elaborate explanation. Yes, I have seen you and your exploits. It is a pity you were not born into the Urotneal, as we could have made excellent use of you.” But then his brow furrowed, a shadow seeming to pass over his face. “No, that is not right. Because you, Lrento’, could not have been made what you are had you lived here. I am sorry, part of my mind was elsewhere. I know many things about you, Ebrinn and Lrento’, but I have not been able to see what brought you to Edenl. Satisfy the curiosity of a weak old man and tell me that story.”

“We were taken here by the School of Shadows,” Ebrinn said. “They captured the two of us and a third, and brought us to their fortress…Morlizumal, is that its name? I do not understand their magic or their rituals, but they told us that they needed one of us to complete their spell. Lrento’ and I were set free, and our companion remains a prisoner, although they have done something dark to him, turned him into one of them.”

The stick poked and prodded at the dirt. “A terrible thing, but not as terrible as many believe. It is like a cloak thrown over the face, which can be removed.”

“I say we were set free, but part of Lrento’ remains.”

“Ah. Your sword. I said that I have seen your past, but I have also seen your future. Would you like to know your fate?”

“For someone touched by the second sight, you are strangely coherent,” Ebrinn said. “No doubt if you were to give my future you would lay it all out day by day and make it plain, but the idea terrifies me, if I am to be honest.”

“That is a wise thing to say. I was not as wise when I was young, and I made a poor choice that bound me for some years to a waking nightmare. To know precisely what it is to happen the next day is a sure way of finding despair. Quite apart from the confusion of the visions themselves, it is no wonder most of us with the second sight are madmen.” He sighed and the stick fell out of his hand. “Well. Since you have asked, I will not tell you your future, only your past, and the past of all the Latoirn. Perhaps our future also. You know where the Latoirn came from, I trust?”

“From the caves beneath the earth, where we lived until the earthquake tore open passages to the surface and our ancestors emerged.”

“That is part of the truth.”

Now suddenly Lrento’ nudged Ebrinn with her elbow, and he remembered that she did not know what they had been saying for the past while. “I am sorry,” he said to her. “This man has the second sight, and he is going to tell us about the beginnings of Latoirn history.” He would have added his thoughts on this diversion from more important matters, but the old man’s eyes gleamed intelligently and Ebrinn was not at all confident that he did not understand the language of east Gearai.

“We came through a cave, yes,” the old man said. “But what I have seen…and I know that I have been given this vision by the highest gods to save us at this very time…is that the Latoirn first emerged from one specific cave, somewhere in the great valley that sits in the center of the island, and from there they spread out across all the islands. I have seen that cave and plumbed its depths, to the darkness in the heart of the mountain, and then I passed beyond.

“It seems to us as if we are pressed between the Ghadari magicians on one side and the endless ocean on the other. But there is a way for us to escape, through the very cave that gave us birth generations beyond count ago.”

“Are you counseling us to flee, to run away from our danger?” Ebrinn demanded after translating on Lrento’’s behalf. “That is a coward’s advice!”

“I do not think we have any choice. Tell me, in your homeland have the Ghadari ever been halted in their advance, even once?”

Ebrinn began to shake his head, then paused, and with a grim reluctance said, “there is my home, Adrall, where we have begun to accept Ghadari ways.”

“Do not forget the treaty of the Dini,” Lrento’ said.

Ebrinn explained this to the old man, adding, “But the Ghadari are not agreed among themselves about the treaty, and there has been much strife among themselves over it.”

“So. You either die in a futile effort to hold back the Ghadari, or you become Ghadari yourselves. They have not given their magic to you, have they?”

“No.”

“Good! They are a deceitful people, and their magic which disguises one thing as another is the visible manifestation of their deceit. I am glad you have not been corrupted by it. But in time, who can say what will happen to you and your children in the coming years? It must end, and since we cannot stop the Ghadari, our only choice is to flee.”

“You have seen that we will leave the islands?” Ebrinn asked, and the old man looked down, his face becoming troubled.

“It is hard to describe what exactly I saw. Times and places grow so very muddled.” He pressed a hand to his forehead and called out, “Arrein! I am not feeling well, and I think I will have to sleep for a while to refresh my mind. I am sorry, Ebrinn, Lrento’. There is a price that must be paid for every gift. I am sure that you know that very well.” A youth with wild hair approached and, lifting the old man’s stick from the ground, returned it to him, helping him to walk slowly away. “I will speak to you again this evening, and I will explain everything. Everything that is important for you to know, at least.”

Ebrinn sighed and turned to Lrento’. When he had finished explaining what was happening, he saw her press her lips together and look away. “And what does any of this have to do with the sword?” she asked.

That is what I have been thinking too,” Ebrinn said. “But it is best to indulge the whims of the second sighted, to help keep them from drifting away into another world altogether. I will make sure that we find out how to enter Morlizumal and retrieve you, I promise.”

Despite the old man’s welcome, Ebrinn and Lrento’ were treated with suspicion by the other people of the Urotneal. They were given little food at the sharing of the evening meal, and it was not until darkness had well and truly settled over the land that the old man returned. When he saw them his face lit up and he ran forward to clasp Lrento’’s hands in his own. “I am delighted that I have been able to meet you at last. You…you…but words cannot express all that you mean to us. And this, your companion, who is he? Oh. Oh, we have met before.”

“Just yesterday,” said Ebrinn.

The old man’s eyes flickered. “Yes, of course. You are still here. That is good,” he said.

“Can you tell us anything about Morlizumal, and how to fetch back our sword?” asked Ebrinn, and the old man chuckled and shook his stick at them.

“The visions come as they come, and there is no guiding them any more than one can guide the wind. I summoned you not to help you find your sword, but because I have seen you enter the cave where the Latoirn were born.”

“You said you wouldn’t tell us our future,” Ebrinn said, a visceral disgust rising in him unexpectedly.

The old man’s face twisted into a smirk. “Well, some things must be, whether I tell them or not. You will enter that cave before another month has passed.”

“You do not intend to help us, then,” said Ebrinn.

“I want to help all the Latoirn. The happiness of two individuals is of no concern in comparison with the fate of our people.”

Ebrinn translated all this for Lrento’, and her eyes closed wearily. Ebrinn laughed. “Well, we thank you for your hospitality to us, but I think that we will be on our way again. I have no interest in helping you run away. I must continue my fight.”

“Even if it means continuing to put her in danger?” asked the old man, and nodded towards Lrento’. Ebrinn took a step towards him, and the old man raised his stick to bring him to a halt. “You are going to help me, whatever you think and whatever you plan. I have seen it, and it cannot be denied.”

“Keep your visions to yourself,” Ebrinn said. “Come, Lrento’, this is an unfriendly place. By morning we should be well into the mountains.”

“But where are we going?” she asked him. “Besides, I am tired, Ebrinn, and more so now that half of me is in the hands of our enemies.”

“We are in the hands of enemies either way,” he said, and gave the old seer a dark, withering look. “I do not trust any of these Urotneal.”

The old man cleared his throat, a long torturous process which finally ended with him rubbing at his windpipe. “Whatever you are discussing, would it help to know that I promise you safe passage to the spring where some of the Reatam tribe are camped? They know many secrets that have been forgotten elsewhere, and it may be that you will find help from them. I will not interfere with you any further.”

“Very well,” Ebrinn said, and once he had translated for Lrento’, she nodded in agreement. “We will do as you suggest.”

“Good. I will send you with the hunting party that I believe will be setting out tomorrow morning. They will take you to the ridge that divides our lands from those of the Reatam. From there follow the stream that flows past the arrúl bushes, and you will be sure to find them. Be wary, and when you first meet the Reatam, tell them that Nrodw sent you.” His smile diminished, leaving only a pensive expression in its wake. “It may be that you will escape your destiny. But I doubt it, I very much doubt it.”

~

There was a stream, half-buried behind a thick cluster of purple-star bushes, and when Ebrinn asked the Urotneal hunters if these were arrúl he received a positive response. As Ebrinn and Lrento’ made their way through the knee-deep herbage, they saw the hunters were watching them go.

A few hours’ trek up the slope brought them to the source of the stream in a narrow steep ravine, and they paused by the cracks in the earth from which the water trickled forth. “He said this was where the Reatam would be,” said Ebrinn, sipping the water in his cupped hand. “But I see no signs that anyone has been here in the past weeks.”

“Did he lie to us?”

“I am not sure why he would have,” Ebrinn said, turning to look around the rocks around them. “Unless his cave is somewhere around here and he is trying to trick us into fulfilling his supposed vision. Well! The Reatam remain the only hope we have for now.” His gaze fell on Lrento’, and he saw that her face was paler than he had ever seen it, her eyes drawn down. “And if we do not find them,” he said, and his voice came out as more of an exhalation than anything else, “I do not know what we will do.”

“Are you sure of that?” Lrento’ asked, and glanced aside.

“I will not deprive our people of the best weapon we have simply to gratify my desires,” he replied, reciting the words that had so often gone through his mind. “I swore that oath and I mean to keep it.”

“Even if it causes me pain?” He didn’t know what to say, and as he continued to look at her, began to wonder what it was that she wanted. For years she had served others and denied her own will, only once breaking free, when she had left Tagdam with him. But before he could say anything, she continued, “No, you are right. I am a sword, and you are my bearer. We cannot and should not change that.”

Ebrinn nodded, then tore his eyes away from her and went to lift himself up on a neck-high ledge. From here he could see that the trail they were on led further up the mountain’s slope for some ways yet, and he leapt down – then paused, catching a glimpse of faded color on the rock face by his hand. It was a red line that curved slightly, and he stepped back to get a fuller view, pointing it out to Lrento’. It seemed to portray one of the griffins, the great birds that roamed the plains with their terrible beaks ready to rend flesh, and all around the griffin were human figures, black in color. It was one of the petroglyphs that the Latoirn used to record their histories when human memory and tongue failed, and Ebrinn looked at it with admiration, for it was a skillful example of the art.

“If we cannot…” Ebrinn started to say, but Lrento’ quickly put a finger to her lips to warn him to silence. He froze and carefully looked around, alert for whatever had startled Lrento’.

There was a curious sound, almost like stone grinding against stone but with a whining edge to it. He whirled to face the direction of the sound. Where just a second ago had been nothing but grass and rocks, a man was now standing, arms folded over his tattoo-covered chest. He was looking at them with obvious disdain, but Ebrinn stepped forward and said, “Are you of the Reatam tribe? We were sent by Nrodw of the Urotneal.”

“Sent by Nrodw, were you?” The accent was thick, nearly impossible for Ebrinn to understand. “And what did Nrodw have in mind for you?”

“We intend to enter the fortress of Morlizumal and retrieve an item which was stolen from us there.”

The man’s face did not change, a slight flicker of his eyebrows being his only reaction. “You have chosen a perilous path to walk.”

“Nrodw told us that you might be able to give us advice on how to successfully battle the School of Shadows.”

The man finally uncrossed his arms and made a short, abrupt, gesture for them to follow him. They continued on through the crevasse until the walls around them grew lower and they emerged up into a flat area elevated up over the surrounding ground. Here there were twenty or so men and women, the people of the Reatam tribe. All were standing, and all were silent. The man who guided Ebrinn and Lrento’ raised his voice and said, “These fools are going to Morlizumal, to challenge the wizards in their own castle. They think that we can help them.” There was general laughter, and Lrento’ drew closer to Ebrinn. “But they say that they were sent by the Urotneal seer, Nrodw. So although they will certainly die, it may be that it will be wise to give them our aid. Where is Galm?”

“Down by the pit,” a woman said, looking over Ebrinn and Lrento’ with an almost hungry curiosity. “He and his sons went to look for bones to offer to Draika’.”

Their guide made another sharp gesture for Ebrinn and Lrento’ to follow him, and they went down a slope towards a series of hillocks, where by a tall pile of rubbish three men were standing. The guide approached these men and they conversed briefly before the oldest of the men nodded and came over to speak to Ebrinn. “I am Galm,” he said.

Ebrinn had been expecting someone older, like Nrodw had been, a man wrinkled and sun-darkened with long years of toil and learning, but Galm was not thus. He was a tall man, strongly muscled, his hair falling straight down about his shoulders. “I am Ebrinn of Adrall, and this is Lrento’ of Tagdam.”

“Welcome, in the name of the old gods. I have not heard the names of your tribes before.”

“They dwell in Gearai.”

“You have crossed the sea, then. Remarkable. Rrul tells me that you are setting yourself to battle the School of Shadows. That is not an easy thing. It may be that it is the greatest and most difficult task that any of the Latwoirn have set for themselves since the days of legend, when we fought the gods themselves.”

Ebrinn was careful not to translate this for Lrento’. He was shocked himself at this casual blasphemy, and as a follower of Kajam, Lrento’ would be even more horrified. But if they had to deal with him to get the sword back, so be it. “But is it impossible?”

Galm turned away from them to look out towards the east. “Is it impossible? That is what we all want to know. There are things the Latwoirn have put behind them, some for good and some for ill.” After several quiet moments he said, “Let us go hunting together, you and I. I will see the strength of your soul, and perhaps you will find what you are looking for.”

Ebrinn translated, and Lrento’ cast her eyes downward, her face solemn, and said, “I will be waiting for you.” A spasm tore through her face and tears came to her eyes. Ebrinn brushed away a drop of liquid that was rolling down her cheek, but when his fingers touched her skin a faint blush appeared. She lifted the spear from her back and placed it in his hands. “May the spirits favor you.”

“Thank you,” he said, then to Galm, “I am ready.”

Galm took a deep breath, smelling the air. “Let us go.”

~

All around him the darkness seemed to recede, and for a moment he did not know where, or even who, he was. Ebrinn? Was that his name?

Aghalidu.

That was it. He was Aghalidu. Ebrinn was the serious one with the sword and the female companion. But no, he had the sword, didn’t he? It was very confusing, keeping everything straight. If he had the sword, then he was Ebrinn. That made sense to his muddled brain. He was Ebrinn. But if so, where was Lrento’?

Aghalidu! Wake up!

He blinked. Lrento’ was with Ebrinn, of course. And he had taken the sword away, because he was Aghalidu, and he was a friend of Vukutle. He was fortunate to be among Vukutle’s many friends.

For the sake of Heaven and all your gods, cease your babbling and collect yourself. I demand it of you, if you truly are my friend.

It took a great effort for Aghalidu to sit up, and when he did he discovered that he had been placed on a hard cold bed made from metal of some sort, in a small chamber of red stone. There was no one nearby, yet the voice echoed in his mind with its calm words that made him think back to a day in his childhood when he had fallen on the rocks trying to catch up with his father. He had badly cut up his legs, and desperately trying to control his tears he had been scooped up and comforted by his elder sister, who had cooed to him in tones that were now brought irresistibly to mind by the voice.

You have done well so far.

“Thank you,” Aghalidu said, making a quick bow. The part of him that was sealed away by stone dragons wanted to scream out that it was not him, that he had been forced, but the dragons were too strong and too cunning to let him have even the slightest hint of freedom.

That sword they carried has proven to be most valuable to our craftsmen.

There was a part of Aghalidu that basked in this praise, yet another part of him protested that he had not taken it for the sake of Vukutle, but to make sure that Ebrinn and Lrento’ would come back to find him. The subversive thought was gone in an instant, so quickly that even the dragons did not have enough time to hunt it out.

But now it is time for you to begin work on your true purpose. Stand up, and come visit me again.

Aghalidu lifted himself to his feet and overcame the queasiness that rose within him suddenly. One foot ahead of the other, he moved unsteadily out of the room.

~

Ebrinn did not move, and hardly even breathed, as he watched the two ápannu grazing at a fringe of grasses and flowers that grew along the base of an outcropping of rock. He was not familiar with whatever signals Galm would use, and so he could only hope that they would be able to cooperate successfully. One of the ápannu looked up, its long curved ears flicking back and forth, but then lowered its head and returned to tearing up the plants with its teeth.

Ebrinn propped his spear up on his shoulder, careful to not let the ápannu see his motion, and glanced over at where Galm crouched, his gaze fixed straight ahead. Then, for just an instant, his shoulders twitched leftward, and Ebrinn’s eyes followed, resting upon the selected victim. Galm’s fingers began to tap, one after another, and when his final finger jerked, Ebrinn let his spear fly. It was just a second too early – Galm tapped his thumb before hurling his spear – and Ebrinn’s sank deep into the shoulder of the animal, while Galm’s missed as the animal bolted away.

“Five fingers, not four!” Galm shouted, and both hunters jumped up and chased after the injured ápannu, legs pushing against the ground as they darted from their hiding places. Frightened bleats went up into the air as the ápannu fled.

And as the injured one ran, and Galm and Ebrinn ran after it, bounding from rock to rock, feet landing at awkward angles, they began to steadily catch up with the animal, whose pace began to slow and who began to emit pained cries. Then its front leg folded underneath it and it fell, sliding down in a clatter of gravel into a ravine, and the hunters leapt down after it and delivered the final killing blows with their spears.

“Well done,” said Galm, and dabbed his finger in the blood. “The Ghadari are fools who would bind all of nature and all the spirits to be their slaves, but we know better than to think that possible, don’t we? We have put all of that behind us. We have abandoned power.” He stood up, a twisted smile marring the otherwise perfect symmetry of his face. “So you believe. The Reatam, however, do not easily forget. Do you want me to show you?”

“If you think whatever you are showing me will help against the Ghadari, then yes, I do.”

In a single motion Galm lifted the ápannu over his shoulders, showing no strain at all, and began to walk through the ravine, back in the direction of the Reatam camp, with Ebrinn following behind. It was late evening when Galm paused and set down the carcass by the entrance to a narrow cave. “This is where the nraatronr is kept, since the time of Tearoi, whom most other tribes call the Blessed but whom we call the Accursed. No matter. Do you in Gearai tell the stories of Tearoi?”

“It may be that we call that person by a different name.”

“It was Tearoi who fought the duel of magic that decided the fate of our people, and who triumphed, and thereby doomed us to extermination. The nraatronr was the culmination of the efforts to master the magic of our enemies and combine it with the lore of our glorious Silver Dominion. But Tearoi and his allies drew back their hand, as frightened cowards. The nraatronr had the power to quench all magic, but Tearoi buried it here and made sure that no one would be able to use it.” Galm’s face was impassive as he spoke. “Cursed be Tearoi the traitor; curse him all generations,” he chanted, but without any real heat. He appeared as calm and hearty as he was when Ebrinn had met him earlier in the day.

“There is something in there that quenches magic?” he asked.

Galm nodded. “There is, if you will believe it.”

The aegis, thought Ebrinn, and said, “I believe it.”

“Then follow me,” Galm said, and went into the darkness, with Ebrinn following.

“Wouldn’t it be best to take a torch?” Ebrinn asked, but Galm didn’t answer. Very soon he was feeling his way blindly through the twists and turns of the passage, aware of Galm ahead of him only by the sound of his feet and hands brushing against the rock. Then ahead of them a light began to grow, a pure white brilliance that Ebrinn’s mind immediately caught up and connected with the aegis that was in the keeping of the Doldeni. And then they emerged into a chamber illuminated by the light, which shone from a pool ridged with stones in the chamber’s center.

“The aegis,” Galm said. “If a Ghadari sorcerer were to come in here with his talismans, he would find that none of them worked. He would be baffled, and he would be easy prey for our spears.”

“But as the Ghadari are all out there, I am not sure what good it does me.”

“Put the end of your spear in the pool,” said Galm, and Ebrinn gave him a puzzled look. “Go on, do it.” Once it had touched the bright water, the stone head of the spear shone with a similar light. “Now your weapon is a little aegis of its own, but it will only remain so for ten days. Maybe a little longer, maybe a little shorter. But you have only that time to do what you intend with the School of Shadows.”

“It will be enough,” said Ebrinn. “What do you ask in return?”

“Nothing,” Galm said. “It is enough that one of our warriors goes forth, armed with our magic, to fight and slay them. That is all I ask, or ever have asked. I thank every god of mine and yours that old Nrodw sent you. Now let us go, and ask the gods to give wings to your feet!”

~

They returned to the band of Reatam with the ápannu they had killed, and as they crested the slope Ebrinn saw that a number of the women were clustered around a fallen figure. He caught a glimpse of the face and his heart sank within him.

Lrento’ was rolled on her side, her face lost in her flowing hair. Her breathing was slow, almost nonexistent, and Ebrinn was immediately next to her, demanding to know what happened. The reply was confused and hard to understand, but it seemed that Lrento’ had fallen down without any warning and had even stopped breathing for a terrifying moment. Immediately Ebrinn knew what had happened. He put his hand on Lrento’’s forehead and he whispered, “I will find you and bring you back, I promise. I love you, Lrento’.”

Then he stood up and weighed the spear in his hand. Its light seemed to give the grass and rocks around a pallid white glow, and even the faces of the women, and that of Lrento’ herself, were as the faces of corpses. He resisted a temptation to shudder and without a word began to walk away.

Nak!” someone shouted and he turned back. Lrento’ was sitting up, supported by the others, smiling faintly.

“Ebrinn,” she said. “You are back.”

“I am.” He took her hand. “How do you feel? What happened?”

She swallowed. “I am not sure. I don’t remember any of it…”

“I have been given a weapon I can use against the Ghadari. If you want, you can stay here among the Reatam until I return.”

Her hand tightened fiercely around his. “I will not abandon you now, not ever.”

“Then come,” he said. “We don’t have any time to waste.”

Chapter 6

Sword Maiden Chapter 4

A story of the Adrall tribe:

In old times the Adrall were not bound by walls, but wandered free across the earth as the birds do in the sky. We carried with us our god, Irlrai, who was kind to us and kept famine far away, and the rumors of strangers in the east meant nothing to us. But even gods cannot guard against evil forever, and the first scouts of the Ghadari began to appear, curious to learn our tongue and our ways.

Irlrai warned us against the Ghadari, telling his bearers that the newcomers were fated to destroy the Adrall, but we saw no harm in them at first, and so we chastised Irlrai, telling him that he should not be so quarrelsome. For did the Ghadari not give us fine necklaces and garments of the wool that grew on their sheep? Were they not our friends, mighty friends who understood the nature of the world and the souls of men and women?

“Mighty friends are mighty enemies of the Adrall,” said Irlrai. “You should be wary of these strangers who do not know the gods of the land, but who force souls and plants to do their bidding. The time will come when the land spits them out and drives them into the sea again.”

Although we heard and remembered the words of Irlrai, they passed over our perceptive souls like the wind over a field, and did not change us. Our wisest men and women learned much from the Ghadari and we began to change in their image, though still we continued to follow the river like the fish, free like the birds. But we were fish and birds that were beginning to be snared in the net.

So eventually even one of Irlrai’s bearers was enticed by the gifts of the Ghadari and gave up his trust, turning to the god from across the sea. The posts of Irlrai rocked and twisted in the wind, and as they became roosts for birds we lamented these dark days and wept for our idol.

Our wise men and their wives spoke with one another, arguing about whether we should flee to the west, away from the strange folk who had brought this sorrow to us. Some said that it was the only way to preserve our tribe for generations to come, but others spoke of the grim future that we would find hunting in the hills for horses and birds, fearing the nets of our old rivals the Karaidam. In the end the oldest and wisest of the women suggested simply that we ask Irlrai what we should do.

As we approached Irlrai one of the keepers was overcome by the soul of the god and spoke in a voice that was not his own. And he said, “I have looked on the Ghadari and found many of them cruel and impious, yet others of them are mighty. I have seen the beautiful waters that hold up the islands, and the most beautiful is the river that flows under your feet. Bring her up to me, that I may touch her and take her to be my wife.”

“How?” asked the oldest and wisest of the woman. “How can we break the earth and bring forth the water?”

“The Ghadari have the power to break the earth. In this way they can make friends with Irlrai and his people.”

We heard the words of the god and knew that they were good, so we went to the Ghadari with the proposal. The priests and magicians muttered back and forth for two days before they agreed and sent forth their chief magicians with rod in their hands to strike the ground, tearing a great hole in the earth and drawing up, in a great blue torrent, the well of Adrall.

That is how Irlrai came to marry the water of the well, and we came to Adrall to live in peace and security and raise a thousand children.

How lovely stands the bride our well,
Now loosed is she to bathe and wash
And looming still in black and wood,
Our lord of sun and beast to wed.

~

Ebrinn soon discovered, much to his distress and the amusement of his fellow travelers, that even the gentle motion of the ship on the river troubled his stomach, enough that he had to remain in the bed all day or be thoroughly uncomfortable. The only thing that drew him to walk about was the chance to talk with Lrento’. And soon enough Saenum’s ship reached the city of Lenelh, which was on a small tributary from the main river. By fortune Lenelh had become the largest and one of the most important cities of Talat, and the site of a partially completed round building that Halinjae explained was a temple to the Ghadari god.

“It will be glorious when it is finished,” she said. “Even now it one of the greatest feats of the Ghadari.” Based on what he could see of it from his vantage point on the dock, Ebrinn was not at all sure why she spoke so glowingly. He supposed if the Ghadari adored plain buildings without color or decoration it would be nice, if a bit on the large side. The entire tribe of Adrall could live inside that temple easily, he estimated, and did not exaggerate by much.

Halinjae held up her iris and after a moment’s consideration pointed towards the south side of the city. “Xavoert is this way. Are we ready to go?”

“Of course,” said Ebrinn. “The sooner this is over with, the better.”

By this time Ebrinn was almost used to the smell of the Ghadari cities, though he doubted that inhaling the air was at all healthful. He wondered how they could stand to live in these conditions. Without their magic it would no doubt be impossible. And the dogs, the lean furry creatures following in hopes of edible scraps, having abandoned their rightful place as man’s companions in exchange for a wretched life in these streets.

Halinjae guided them through one of the larger avenues of the city, arriving finally at one of many entranceways set into the side of a wooden wall. She frowned, looking up and down at the wall. “This does not seem right,” she said, but stepping forward into the bend of the entrance she announced herself anyway.

Tes ra hatámulh rovíl hirú…ha, tára áérain lo va ra lénun,” said the man who came out through the entrance. He glanced with narrowed eyes at Ebrinn, Lrento’, and Aghalidu, then looked back to Halinjae. “Vazálho jaerv tára kántalh tára vazálhut hatamkáélae rovíl. Ra táseg radá da tára…

“Stay!” Halinjae commanded, and followed the man inside. Although Ebrinn looked to the Native, he was silent, leaning against a wall and by all appearances sound asleep. He stirred and cast an eye in her direction when Halinjae emerged several minutes later. She was walking with her back straight and her face was perfectly still. She took a deep breath and said, “There is a small problem with our plans.”

“And what would that be?” Aghalidu asked.

She sighed. “Xavoert Darat is dead.” Ebrinn’s head snapped up and he stared at Halinjae, whose fists tightened. “He was murdered several months ago. And if we hadn’t been dallying with the Doldeni and your primitive friends…” Again she sighed, and stared up into the heavens.

“What do we do now?”

“I don’t know! I don’t know who would kill him, I don’t know where best to go now. Give me some time to think, please!”

The Native opened both his eyes and said casually, “Pardon me for speaking in the language of these Latoirn, but my tongue has grown accustomed to it. Surely you have an idea who it was that killed your father.”

Halinjae remained unmoving. “I do. And that is why we will need to be very careful about our next move…” Suddenly her hands went up to her face, hiding it from view, and her shoulders shook. She turned away for a moment and said, “Find someplace they can all stay, Kalatnael. I have things I need to do. We’ll meet again here tomorrow morning.”

“You will know how to find us again? You trust me to watch over these children?” asked the Native.

“Of the choices I have right now, it seems the best. And you realize, I hope, that you have associated yourself with Aghalidu and me, and so made yourself a target for the assassins.”

“Do you think that the Order of the Red Star is trying to recover you?”

“I think murder is beyond them, but I…I…” she began to stammer, still facing away from the others, and with a quick wave of her hand she went back inside.

“This is enough!” Aghalidu said finally. “All of her words and promises have fallen into the chaos of the sea! I am certainly not going to wait around in this strange place for her to devise a new plan. I am going to be with my own people, and never mind the doleful consequences. I am meant for the mountains. Goodbye, Ebrinn, Lrento’. May the spirits that attend you be kind ones.” With this said he walked away, pausing for a moment at a junction before turning left.

“Well, that is that,” said the Native. “I can be your guide and interpreter on the way back to Adrall, if you pay a suitable price.” Despite giving his typical offer, he was not smiling.

“I suppose we will have to,” Ebrinn said.

“But first tell me one thing, Ebrinn. You seemed very surprised when you heard Xavoert was dead. What, exactly, had you heard about him?”

Very faintly, a grin crossed Ebrinn’s face. “I had heard that he was the man who orchestrated the massacre of Rroke’anam. I had fully intended to kill him myself. So you understand that I was taken aback by the news that someone had beaten me to it. But if the butcher is dead, I have no reason to be here. And it would be foolish of me to kill his daughter if what she says about the treaty of the Dini is true.”

“Well said,” the Native replied, amused suddenly. “I will find us the first passage I can back to the western lands. We may have to wait a few days; in that case I will arrange for another guesthouse to take us in.”

Ebrinn nodded. “When we return to Adrall, I will see that you receive your reward.

“We should wait long enough to tell Halinjae we are returning,” said Lrento’, and the Native shrugged.

“If you like.”

~

Later that day, Ebrinn found himself sitting at a table eying a tall jar of beer. The Adrall tribe knew about beer, of course, and occasionally would celebrate a harvest, a festival, or the defeat of a griffin with intoxication, but they did not have the quantities necessary to imbibe this much in one night. As he looked at the jar, the Native sat next to him and said, “If you aren’t going to drink that, I certainly will. We will…how would you say….count it against what you owe me.” Ebrinn’s forehead wrinkled in confusion, and the Native explained, “Once you have paid me, I will give you back the price of the beer.”

“Ah. That is very reasonable.”

The Native shook his head. “Who knows what you would say if you saw the complicated tallies our merchants keep. You would be utterly bewildered, I am sure, and that is why you and your people will fall in the end. One of the reasons.”

“Yet you joined us.”

“You will fall, but that does not mean that you deserve to fall. Seek fairness in Heaven or the gods, but not in the individual’s fate.” The Native sighed, and his eyes peered into the distance. “I tried to make things fairer, once, but I only made things worse in the end. That is why I came to Adrall, and that is all you will ever need to know. If you will pardon me, I have not spoken with my countrymen over drinks in many years, and I don’t intend to pass up this chance.” He straightened and left Ebrinn and Lrento’ alone.

“Something is wrong, isn’t it?” Lrento’ asked. Ebrinn was staring at the table, his drink untouched, his mind wandering back to Rroke’anam and the tired dull-eyed man who had brought him the tale of its destruction. He had certainly paid the Ghadari back for that crime, but these days he was haunted by an uneasiness that told him he had not done enough, not nearly enough, on behalf of his people. Lrento’’s words reached his awareness, and he glanced upwards, then took a long gulp from the drink.

“Nothing is wrong,” he said.

“Nothing?”

Ebrinn didn’t answer at first, but put his hand on hers and sighed. “Perhaps my father was right. Perhaps all these years I have been wasting my time, just as this eastward trek has been a waste of our time. I don’t know.”

“You are in a dark mood,” Lrento’ said, “but it will pass. You will see.”

“Perhaps, or perhaps not.” He was feeling light-headed suddenly, whether from utter despair or the amount of beer he was drinking. “What would you do, though, if I gave up this life? You are what you are, and you cannot settle down to a life of peace.”

“I have not yet tried,” Lrento’ said softly.

“Didn’t Kajam teach something like that? Take your swords and make them into the gate between the earth and the sky? Maybe someday, but not in this world. Not with the Ghadari ruining the balance of everything. But you, Lrento’, you make things better. You would make things better wherever you went. You are wonderful.”

“Hush,” she said, but he shook his head.

“Without you I would have died a hundred times over. I have told you that already. But without you I would have also given up a hundred times. You keep me from losing hope. Whenever I look at your face I am reminded that all is not grim and worthless…” He stumbled over his words. Lrento’ was looking distressed for some reason, but he pressed on with what he was trying to say, which was suddenly very important. “I am sorry that I kept you…a…apart from…your family, your home.”

“Ebrinn,” she said, her voice sharp now. “I left because they were cruel to me in the end, and because you were the only one who could both use my sword and treat me as one of the Latoirn at the same time. You could not possibly have treated me better. I think you have had enough beer, and it is time for you to sleep it off.”

His eyes flashed. “And I…I do not… What was I saying, could you remind me? Was I telling you about how I think you are the best and most beautiful woman in all Gearai? And how hard it is for me not to touch you when I so dearly love you?” Now why was she looking at him like that? He had told the truth, hadn’t he? “I’m sorry,” he said, and was rather unnerved to discover tears in the corners of his eyes. “I’m not thinking straight – all these Ghadari around us are clouding my head with their magic. I hate them and their spells.” Then he roared, “Hear this!” and Lrento’ desperately tried to hush him. “I will see all of you dead and burned on your pyres! I will kill all of you!”

He saw the Native heading towards him and said, “I am excepting you, of course.”

“Lrento’ is right,” the Native said, and in one motion lifted Ebrinn completely out of his chair. He said something to the people around them, but it sounded like nonsensical blabbering to Ebrinn. Then Ebrinn found himself being pulled by the Native and Lrento’ together out of the room and through a narrow passage that tilted upwards. He saw that the Native was holding a flat square piece of wood, and tried to ask what it was, but found his mouth unable to form the words. “By Heaven, you are a lightweight,” said the Native. “Take that sword away from him, Lrento’, so he doesn’t hurt someone.”

Then he was, with little ceremony, deposited in a smaller room with no furnishings, the Native letting go of him roughly while Lrento’ helped him more gently down. “Stay here,” the Native said, and sticking the piece of wood into the side of the door, went out.

Ebrinn’s vision spun around him. Slowly he lowered his head to the ground and felt Lrento’’s hands support him. He was crying again, and could not even begin to articulate why.

~

Halinjae stood in the doorway of the tiny room, and her head slowly fell so that her chin rested on her chest. Her father never had been a man for much comfort, and seeing his room here brought suddenly to mind all the familiar things she remembered about him. In the past few years, as she had taken up her own role in the Darat family and traveled to the northern island to do her duty for the Islands, she had not seen him much, but she had missed him and all her family greatly. And now he was suddenly gone, and in one of the most horrible ways possible. His killer was unknown, and no justice could be meted out.

She scrutinized the room, remembering his last words to her. It may be that I will be unable to meet you in Lenelh. If so, see if I’ve left a message for you. You know the system by now, I trust.

She took a deep, choking breath and relaxed, listening to the buzz of ambient magic at the edge of her awareness, turning to face every corner of the room. As she turned to the wall farthest from the door, she felt the buzz break up and modulate itself into a simple pattern of rising and falling tones. There it was.

Halinjae stepped closer to the wall, closing her eyes and reaching out for what seemed to be the source of the music. Her hand closed around something cold and metallic, and she looked to see a tiny red crystal. She clenched her hand tighter yet, and now she heard her father’s voice in reality, not just memory.

“Halinjae,” he said. “My dearest. Things have not gone quite as I hoped they would. Somehow our plot has been discovered, and this place is no longer safe. Your iris will tell you where to go next. Remember…remember that I love you, very much.”

She squeezed the crystal harder, until it fell apart in her grasp, crumbling into powder. “Father,” she said into the emptiness, and turned to leave.

~

The next morning Ebrinn’s head felt like a marching ground underneath the sea where the Pirbognar would walk up and down in heavy boots, never stopping to rest. Through squinted eyes he looked at the corner of the room where wall met floor and a spider was hanging in its web. Where was he again? Yes, that was right, a guesthouse in Lenelh. Halinjae’s grand mission had failed, and so last evening they had come here and…

He sighed and sat up despite the shock it sent through his skull. “Lrento’? Are you there?” Silence, and he stretched out his stiffened limbs and looked around the room. The door was slightly ajar, the flat piece of wood still embedded in the frame. Ebrinn took this in his hand to examine it, and saw that it was carved in strange patterns that meant nothing to him. He returned it to its place, knowing better than to disturb live magic.

As he began to step outside he paused, seeing Lrento’ approach. When she noticed him her cheeks reddened slightly, and she bowed her head. “Good morning.”

“Where are you? The sword, I mean.”

“Oh. Oh, I still have it. See?” She turned so that he could see the hilt tied to the waist of her skirt, and her fingers went to work at unfastening it.

“I am sorry for what I said yesterday, when I was drunk. I was lax and my inmost self got the better of me. I apologize.”

She shook her head slightly. “It is all right…” she began to say, before the Native appeared around the bend in the passage.

“Ah, you are up. Good. I have some words I want to share with you. If you will excuse us, Lrento’…” The Native gestured for Ebrinn to follow him into the room, where he shut the door behind him. “You behaved quite shamefully. By all the gods and fetishes you worship, you need to shape up.”

“It was an error,” Ebrinn said. “I was in low spirits, but I will not attempt to make excuses for myself. I acted unforgivably, and that should be the end of the matter.”

The Native waved his hand. “To profane Irlrai would be unforgivable. What you did was merely to behave foolishly, which we have all done at one time or another. I know that you are unused to drink, so you would do well to keep a better grasp on your souls in the future.”

Ebrinn took a deep breath. “So. We are to meet with Halinjae, and then we go to Adrall.” He made a step towards the door, and the Native cleared his throat as if to say something but didn’t. Outside, Ebrinn smiled at Lrento’ but did not draw closer to her. There was something new between them, he felt, an awkwardness that he knew he was responsible for. He wondered if she felt the same. No doubt she did. Well, he hoped that with time the incident would be forgotten, and that he and Lrento’ would go on as they always had.

Or could things possibly change between them? For the better, perhaps? For the worse?

He put it out of his mind as they descended into the common room of the guesthouse, which was largely empty now. There were far more important things to concern himself with, especially here in the heart of the Ghadari realm. He gave a keen glance at everyone they passed, wondering if the man with the silver necklace bore some responsibility for the death of a Latoirn child or if the hunched cloaked figure shuffling by had burned a village. He felt himself to be surrounded by evil, evil that buzzed at the edge of his hearing, and drew closer to Lrento’, his hand tightening on the sword. His muscles tightened, bunched up like the tight cords lashing together a hut. His heart was pounding in the house of his chest, and not even looking at Lrento’ could calm him.

Then he heard a shout, and looking down the side street to its origin he saw Halinjae waving her hand, a solemn-looking Aghalidu at her side. “Wait a moment!” she called. “I know where we need to go next!”

“All right. Where?” the Native asked, slowing his pace but not stopping.

“It doesn’t matter,” she replied as she drew closer. “Our journey is not over yet, and Aghalidu has agreed to continue onward. Xavoert – my father was not the sort of man whose plans could be overthrown so easily.” As she spoke this last sentence, her voice changed, filling with pride. “We two will go on and fulfill the design of the archon. You may go where you wish, if you do not want to help forestall the terrible war between our peoples that will surely arrive if we fail.”

“Rather dramatic, aren’t you?” said the Native. “One would think you were some kind of prophet declaring the will of Heaven.”

“Go back to your home, then. I certainly will not miss you.” The Native smiled, but that was all. Ebrinn glanced at Lrento’, then back to Halinjae. He considered, and took long enough in his pondering that Halinjae threw her hands in the air. “So be it! Follow me, Aghalidu.” She turned and began to walk away.

“We will go with you,” Lrento’ said suddenly. Ebrinn could do nothing but stare as these words reached his ears.

“The statue speaks at last? Marvelous,” said Halinjae.

“We…” Ebrinn began to say, but when Lrento’ gave him a sharp look his voice trailed off.

“We will help you reach your destination safely,” Lrento’ continued. “I swear it by my fathers’ souls.”

The Native had been looking at Ebrinn and Lrento’ with obvious amusement, and now he laughed. “I might as well continue on with you. It will be amusing, if nothing else, to see what happens next. Do you know how far we have to travel?”

“No farther than the southeastern coast.”

“Thank Heaven. I was worried we would have to walk across the water.” Halinje looked at him without expression and he sighed. “We will need sufficient provision, of course.”

“Of course.”

~

Late that evening, sitting in the guesthouse’s common room, they considered the best route to take. Halinjae sketched a partial map of the island with ash from the fire, adding the line that was indicated by the iris. The Native’s finger made small circles on the map. “I think we should make as much use of the rivers as possible. So if we continue along until this point…we can travel west the remainder of the way to track down the place the iris wants us to go.”

“We want to avoid notice as much as possible, I hope you realize.”

“Wandering through the fields and sheepfolds is not exactly a good way of doing that.”

Ebrinn and Lrento’ listened to this argument without saying anything, as of course neither knew much about the eastern regions of Talat. This was the center of the Ghadari invasion, the place that all Latoirn feared as the sanctuary of the dark god the Ghadari worshipped. All that Ebrinn could do now was tag along as Halinjae and Aghalidu went wherever they went, and wonder why Lrento’ had chosen to go with them. He was resolved to take the first opportunity for him to be alone with Lrento’ to ask about it.

Finally Halinjae nodded and struck the table with her hand. “You are right, Kalaetnel, I admit it. The river will be best. But we will need to keep the Latoirn under disguise, and to leave very soon now. Those beasts responsible for killing Xavoert…” For just a moment her face fell, her lips twisting and her eyes screwing shut. “They will be on the watch for Latoirn. I am surprised we have not already been detected.”

“Maybe we have,” Aghalidu said, glancing darkly around. “Maybe they are watching us right now.”

“That kind of paranoia will not help you,” the Native said. “Be on your guard, all of you, but do not be afraid. This is not the first time I have found myself in a situation like this, so you should follow my example. Make sure to get enough sleep that you are alert in the morning.”

The next day Ebrinn and the others awoke to find that during the night the Native had arranged for them to take one of the ships that were constantly traveling up and down the river. Their ship in particular was a low wide vessel that the Native claimed ought to be one of the fastest in all Talat. “We will be missing the rest of the festival, I am afraid,” he said. “But you no doubt have not even noticed that the festival was going on, have you? It is too bad. ‘The flowers are springing up, the sun warms my neck…’ It doesn’t really work in this language, especially not when translated on the run like this. Oh well, you will not know what you have missed. To the southern coast, then, and let us hope we are led to an empty field rather than some haunt of criminals.”

Halinjae held the iris up to the dawn’s light and nodded. She had obviously not been listening to the Native’s rambling conversation. “Shall we go?” she said.

“Of course,” the Native said, in a wry voice, and gestured for her to precede him up the ramp to the ship.

Halinjae had procured a dye somewhere that could make the hair of the three Latoirn shine with the golden tint of the Ghadari’s heads. Their faces were still somewhat distinctive, but they could pass for Ghadari nevertheless. She had resorted to the mute trick again, telling them to pretend that they had taken religious vows that forbade them from speaking until their pilgrimage was complete. “You are from a priestly family,” she had told them, “and Kalaetnel and I are your servants. Don’t worry about not knowing anything of the Ghadari priesthood: Kalaetnel and I will be able to cover for you. I am sure that Kalaetnel in particular is a skilled liar, since he has spent so much time pretending to be one of your kind.”

So Ebrinn kept his head down as he trailed the rest of the group down into their quarters. This time they had all been given the same room, rather than being split off by sex, and Halinjae told the Latoirn firmly not to wander about. “Kalaetnel will bring us our food. There is no need for any of us to leave this room except for necessary reasons.”

“Is seeing the open air one of those reasons?” Aghalidu asked, and Halinjae shook her head fiercely.

“Certainly not. There are eyes everywhere, even in the empty air. Do not let anyone in this room who is not one of us five. Be careful. I will let you know when it is time for us to disembark.” She clasped her hands together and folded herself into a corner, and said nothing further.

Ebrinn cast a brief glance at Lrento’, feeling more distant than ever from her, wishing with every part of his soul that he could speak with her alone. She was looking away from him, her face thoughtful, but for just a moment she tilted her head and their eyes met. She smiled at him, and he smiled back, feeling his head go light, before she turned away.

He really did want to talk to her, and soon.

~

Very soon, no more than two days later, Halinjae was examining her iris when she gave a low cry and tucked the glass disk back into her pockets. “It is time that we began to travel by foot,” she said. “Where is Kalaetnel?”

“He went out just a moment ago,” Aghalidu said, his eyes opening. “When you weren’t paying attention.”

“He will be back. Our next stop is…let me see, I think we are somewhere near Hurot. That should be interesting, considering it is still close to midsummer’s day.” She laughed to herself.

“Do you know anything about this Hurot?” Aghalidu asked Ebrinn and Lrento’ in a low voice.

“Nothing,” Lrento’ said.

“Not even the name,” Ebrinn added.

“Hurot,” said Halinjae, “is a city where the great and glorious guild of magicians has one of its primary chapters. And if I am not mistaken…well, you will see for yourselves, won’t you?”

“And that is all you will learn from her,” said Aghalidu, and his eyes closed again.

There was a knock before the door opened and the Native appeared, bearing a plate piled with dark green delicacies. “Enjoy yourselves,” he said, putting it on the floor. “I do not care for gelomadála myself.”

As Ebrinn half-heartedly took one of the green things and eyed the pieces of meat wrapped within it, Halinjae said, “We will leave the ship now, Kalaetnel.”

The Native didn’t say anything in reply at first, and when he did speak he said nothing related to her statement. “You are a strange woman, Halinjae.”

She looked at him with an inscrutable expression on her face. “What do you mean by that?”

“It is peculiar, isn’t it?” the Native asked, addressing the Latoirn now. “Her father is dead, and she hardly reacts at all. She remains focused on her mission with no time for sorrow. Admirable dedication, I think, especially when measured by the standards of the Ghadari who divide all things into good and evil. But we see things differently, don’t we? We know that the spirit of tragedy needs to be satisfied before our souls can be whole.”

“I am at peace with myself and Heaven,” Halinjae said, her voice even colder than it had been before. “Finish your food. We will disembark early next morning.” The Native laughed once, and Halinjae stood up, crossing her arms, giving a dour glare to him. “And the sooner we reach our destination, the better.”

~

Hurot was actually visible from the spot on the river where they left the ship, across the plain that stretched before them. They soon came across a road, though it was not one of the glass roads, but instead a crude path paved with stones and dirt that curved from the north to the west, towards Hurot. “I thought the magicians dwelt here,” Ebrinn said.

“If you are asking about the road, then the answer is complicated,” Halinjae said.

“Remember what I told you. Things are never as they appear. Especially not her,” the Native said, speaking rapidly and quietly. Halinjae didn’t seem to notice, or care.

Hurot itself was surrounded with silver spires that came to sharp points at about a man’s height, and only a gap on the eastern side allowed entrance. Halinjae held up her hand for the others to halt some distance from the wall of spires and examined her iris once more. She frowned and clenched her fist around the iris, then pointed at the entrance. “We have to go in there.” But her words were hesitant, and not just from her normal difficulties with the Latoirn tongue.

“Could it be a trap?” Ebrinn asked. “Is there a way that the iris could be made to lead us to the wrong place?”

“I hate magic,” Aghalidu said. “I think you all should know that.”

“If I may suggest something,” said the Native as Halinjae stared down at the iris and twisted it from side to side. “We should not simply stand here, nor should we be blathering among ourselves in what is obviously not the Ghadari language. Keep silent, and follow the iris. If it is a trap, there is nothing we can do about it.”

Halinjae nodded, and grudgingly said, “You are right”. She put her finger to her lips, and they proceeded forward through the gap in the spires into the crowded buildings beyond. The streets were filled with dancing men and women, twirling around, colorful ribbons in their hands. Ebrinn’s eye was caught by the way the colors seemed to merge and separate as the dance sped up, the ribbons spinning faster and faster. He started when the Native touched his shoulder and gave him a warning look, then he turned back and began wondering how many of the dancers were magicians. He wondered if there was an occult significance to their dance.

Without a word Halinjae gestured for them to follow her, down a side street away from the main celebration. The jubilant cries of “Solív! Solív jaerv!” faded, and Halinjae paused to examine the iris again before giving a quiet but triumphant laugh and leading them several feet to an entrance with blue flowers hanging over its top. “Stay here,” she said, and went inside. After several nervous minutes she returned, a man shrouded in dark cloths following her. She made one final motion, and the group entered.

“This is Jaka,” Halinjae said as they navigated the turn into a narrow room ending in a flight of stairs. “He is the one assigned to meet us here and tell us what we should do now.”

“You trust him easily,” Aghalidu said.

“Do I?” replied Halinjae, then as Jaka turned back to face them, her smile faded from her face.

Ákon njolh!” Jaka said, clapping his hands together. “Ra Halínjae Dárat, te?

Te.

Jaka snapped his fingers, and Ebrinn heard a low whistle behind them. Turning his head, he saw thoat the lights by the entrance had gone out, and the passage could no longer be told from the walls. He watched Jaka very closely now, consciously keeping his hands still and away from his sword. There was dead silence until Jaka turned and walked away, the only sound his shoes on the floor.

“Do we wait now?” Aghalidu asked. Halinjae and the Native did not reply. Lrento’ bit her lip as the seconds dragged on and there was nothing to tell them what was happening.

Tes rai sarác cilh rai lénun tókan, te?” said Jaka as he returned. “Rambájjol Meché sadél lo hirú belh Dárat tes Díni…” He smiled broadly, showing his white teeth.

“This man is a foe of ours,” said Halinjae almost casually. “This is a trap, and he intends to make us his prisoners. Ebrinn?”

Before her words had finished echoing in the still room, Ebrinn leapt forward, his sword leaping to his hand, and fell upon Jaka, knocking him to the ground. Jaka was holding up a hand with fingers like claws, but the sword cut through his neck and left him in a bloody mess on the floor. Ebrinn wiped the sword on Jaka’s clothes – the stain was hardly visible on the dark cloth – and stood up. “Should we go now?” he asked.

“A murder in the city of magicians will hardly go undetected for long. And we are utterly ruined thanks to this villain. Damn him! May Heaven damn him thrice over!” She swallowed as she spoke, her eyes shying away from Jaka’s ruin.

The Native rubbed at his own neck, perhaps not consciously. “You see, without the iris to guide her, Halinjae is utterly lost, and so are we all.”

“No!” Halinjae said, her face snapping around to stare at the Native fiercely. “We are not lost. We can return to my family’s lands up in Vibaldelh. There we can –”

“We do not have time,” the Native said. “We should not even be discussing this here.”

Halinjae pointed, and for the first time Ebrinn noticed the jars sitting in each corner of the room, each filled with a dark fluid. “We are at least safe from invisible eyes. Jaka was well prepared.”

“And we do not know the full extent of his preparations. It may be already too late.”

Aghalidu cleared his throat. “Am I allowed to have a say in my fate?”

“You are ignorant of everything beyond your tiny domain,” Halinjae said. “You could not say anything useful.”

“I just thought you should know that I am not impressed by your efforts so far. We seem to be worse off than when we started.”

“And now,” murmured the Native, “it seems very likely that we will have our minds torn out by magicians.”

“Don’t be absurd,” Halinjae replied. “They are nowhere near that powerful. The worst that will happen to us is…well, never mind that.”

“What exactly are we going to do now?” Ebrinn asked. Jaka’s head had rolled around to stare up at him with a smirk forever fixed on it, as if mocking him. He reached out with his foot – uncomfortably shoed now in the fashion of the Ghadari – and rolled the head over to hide its face. “Because if you have no plan, I see nothing to keep Lrento’ and me from returning north.”

Halinjae clenched her fists. “We…”

Suddenly there were footsteps in the passage, and Halinjae whirled around. Ebrinn stepped forward to stand at the entrance, holding up the sword in calm, steady hands. The footsteps paused briefly, then continued on, out of hearing.

Taking a deep breath, Halinjae went on, “We are the Dini, and we have to make it known to the Ghadari at large that we are alive and unharmed. All our plans have failed, and we must now make the best of what we have.” She rubbed her forehead as she spoke. “To return to the Order of the Red Star would be suicidal. Maybe we should return to Lenelh…”

“Maybe we can enlist the help of some magicians,” said the Native, and Halinjae’s eyes widened. Ebrinn looked down at Lrento’, who had seated herself on the floor as far away from the body as she could. “They would help immensely.”

“Any one of them could be in league with Jaka and the School of Shadows,” Halinjae said. “At least we know who our enemies are now.”

“I have friends here in Hurot,” the Native said.

“I trust none of them,” was Halinjae’s quick response. “I trust no one, and certainly not you.”

“Well,” the Native said, looking down and shaking his head with an amused grin. “You might not have any choice.”

“I will not put the Dini in danger.”

“Oh, it is too late for that, I think. And if you want to keep yourselves alive you should listen to my advice.”

“I have no need for your advice,” said Halinjae. “I have made up my mind. We are returning to Lenelh, and that is that.”

The Native was quiet for a moment, still looking down, and Ebrinn felt as if the room was closing in around him, tightening because of the dread that filled him. He looked again at Lrento’, then sheathed the sword and went to sit beside her. “How are you doing?” he asked, and she smiled back at him.

“I am fine,” she said. “Don’t worry about me.”

“I don’t have much to do besides worry,” he replied. She glanced away and was quiet after this, as Halinjae and the Native continued to argue and Aghalidu paced back and forth in front of the stairs. Finally Ebrinn touched her hand. “I wonder what is up those stairs. Want to see?”

Standing, they approached the narrow passage in the back. Halinjae and the Native didn’t notice them go, and Aghalidu watched them with a wry look. Up the stairs, Ebrinn holding Lrento’ close, and there was a passage that brought them into another room, a room of sharp corners and a high pointed ceiling. In the middle of this room was a round table that curved almost organically from the floor. Ebrinn reached his hand out in curiosity, but as his fingers brushed the smooth surface of the table he seemed to hear a voice in his head. Here you are, and here you are, and here you are.

“What? What…Lrento’, did you say something?”

Find the Dini. They were thoughts that appeared in his mind as if they were his own, but they were not his own. Both of them, the Latoirn and the Darat girl. You are my finest student, you always have been, and I know that you will succeed. Once you have them, hold them there until Barai can come for them. You know what to do.

The voice ceased quite suddenly, and Ebrinn looked around blinking. Lrento’ was kneeling over on the other side of the room now, examining a wickedly curved knife. Light glinted off the blade, even through there was little light in the room, seemingly too little to account for the way the blade shone. “Was Jaka a magician?” Ebrinn wondered aloud. “If so, what would he need with a normal knife?”

“Cutting things?” Lrento’ replied.

“Magicians are not as mortal men,” Ebrinn said. “They are more like the spirits of the land, who can shape this world as they will. It would not surprise me if…” He trailed off and came over to take the knife from Lrento’, eying it closely.

Then there was the sound of feet coming up the stairs at a run. Halinjae burst into the room, with the Native right behind her. “Where is it? Where is the trap?” She seized the knife and held it at arms’ length from her. “Xak!” she exclaimed. “I should have known that it would not be that easy.”

“What is wrong?”

“That knife there is keeping us from leaving the house,” the Native said. “That must have been what he was doing up there before. Clever, wasn’t he? And now his compatriots will be on their way to take us. I am surprised they have not arrived yet.”

“There is no time to lose,” Halinaje said.

“Why?” asked the Native. “What can we do?”

“Defuse the magic, of course.”

“Ah, I see. You have cunningly concealed from us the fact that you are actually a powerful magician…”

Halinjae ignored him and knelt at the table, placing the knife on its surface. She gripped the table’s sides with her hands and closed her eyes. “What is –” Ebrinn began to say, but Halinjae quickly shouted, “Do not interrupt me!”

“She is a magician,” said the Native in a soft voice. “By Heaven, she is.”

“What is she doing?” Ebrinn whispered back.

“I am not sure – I am certainly no magician. But as I understand it, she is finding out what the…oh…you might say, idea…the Idea that infuses the knife is. It is amazing, isn’t it?” The Native was watching Halinjae, almost admiringly. “Only the most disciplined yet creative minds can keep the Idea in focus and see how it relates to the physical object, yet keep the whole thing from falling apart as they work. Wonderful…”

~

Halinjae was not feeling particularly wonderful as she allowed the knife’s presence to draw near to her on the mental plane. The Form was strong: a knife that had been used to kill, and that carried the stain of that death, always drew the inquisitor’s mind to it, distracting from the reality that lay behind. She began to pry the Form away from the Idea, opening up just enough of a gap in its presence to listen to the Idea, allowing it to enter her mind.

A trap. Keep them from leaving. A trap. Keep them from leaving.

She bit her lip and reached through the gap to take hold of the Idea, to match its shadow in her own mind with the Idea of the knife so that she could take control of both. But she was only a journeyman, and she had not practiced in some months. She heard Ebrinn whispering, and despite herself she found herself trying to understand what he was saying.

No! She had to concentrate. The bonds holding the Idea to the Form were slippery – whoever had made this artifact was very skilled indeed – but she had to break them. At any moment the others could arrive to take her and Aghalidu off to whatever fate was planned for them. They had to escape –

The Idea fell out of the Form, away from the bronze and stone of the knife, disintegrating into incoherence as it lost its support in the material plane. Halinjae took a deep breath of surprised relief and opened her eyes to see the table and the knife, harmless now. “We can go,” she said, speaking at first in her native tongue before catching herself and saying it again so that the Latoirn could understand.

“It is done?” asked Kalaetnal.

“It is done. The knife no longer has any magic in it.”

“Then we should be on our way,” said Kalaetnal. “And as quickly as possible. It may already be too late.”

“Where are we going?” Aghalidu asked.

“To the north again,” Halinjae said, her voice catching with uncertainty.

“That is not a good plan,” Kalaetnal said. “Go wherever you want, but whoever wants to remain free should accompany me. While you were dealing with the knife, for which I very sincerely thank you, I was thinking up my own plan, which, I dare say, is superior.”

“I don’t mean any offense to you, Halinjae,” said Aghalidu, flashing her his annoying grin, “but I would rather follow Kalaetnal.”

“Fine, very well,” said Halinjae, too exhausted to argue. “But your idea had better be an excellent one.”

“Follow me,” he said, and so they went out. As Ebrinn passed through the threshold he held his breath, expecting an invisible wall of magic to sear his flesh, but there was not even the slightest tingle. Once outside, they found the street filled with a crowd of people slowly moving towards the left. Ebrinn saw the Native’s eyes widen, but saw also that he hardly skipped a beat in his pace, gesturing merely for the others to follow him.

Ebrinn was pressed tight now in the crowd, nearly suffocated from the nearness of it: the air warm and stuffy, the sweat of strangers upon him. Above them some sort of banner was hanging dead in the air, its red and orange colors wrapped around its pole. The shouts of the magicians were incomprehensible to him, and he was tugged along by the momentum of the crowd, but kept his hand tight around Lrento’’s so that they would not be separated, and trusted that she was following whichever of their group was right ahead of her.

And then after what seemed like an entire year of the world, Ebrinn found the crowd thinning, and he could at last see the others ahead of him, the Native turning back around and running his eye over them all to make sure they were there. “Halinjae?” he asked suddenly in some alarm, and looking, Ebrinn saw that Halinjae was gone.

~

She found herself separated from the others and pushed up against a wall by the press of the crowd, helpless for just a moment, but long enough that she lost track of the others. And when she was finally able to move again, she was staring into the eyes of a man who wore a curious smile. “Pardon me,” she said, and began to shift away, but his hand came out to tighten on her shoulder. Instinctively she lashed out, but her hand was caught halfway through its arc, and the man broadened his smile.

“I think I know you, don’t I?”

“You are mistaking me for someone else, I think,” she replied.

“Perhaps. But the aldermen will decide that. They have heard with great interest of the woman who has fled her family and her responsibilities, a matter of portent for the islands. You have entered the city of Hurot and the aldermen have a right to summon you to the questioning.”

“Fine,” she said, and swallowed. “It seems that I have no choice. But be warned that the longer you keep me here, the more danger we are all in.”

The aldermen were the master magicians who governed the city, and Halinjae knew they tended to be fiercely jealous of their privileges, resenting the archon’s claims to universal rule. They would not be fond of her, not fond at all. She could only hope that they would not pry too much into the matter, and let her go quickly. She hoped, too, that the others would not make some ill-fortuned attempt to come after her. That was the last thing any of them needed.

Halinjae was taken to an unimposing building, seemingly like any other, in the northern section of the city, which rose with the land so that by the time she reached the aldermen’s building she could look down over the slope to see Hurot spread out before her – but she turned dismissively away and followed her captor inside.

Through another passage was the chamber where the aldermen sat, arrayed in their shining silver robes. They were talking among themselves, and when Halinjae entered they looked up at her, and the scorn was obvious in their arrogant eyes. Halinjae smirked and crossed her arms. “You have summoned me?”

One of the aldermen, an older man with wary, distant eyes, stood up to face her. The conversation of the others quieted into silence, and the standing alderman made a small bow. “Halinjae Darat, it is a pleasure to meet you. I am Master Jhalus, and I welcome you to our city. Unfortunately there are reasons we cannot give you the full hospitality you deserve, for which I do apologize.” His eyes did not smile even as the corners of his mouth drew upwards. “You are one of the Dini, aren’t you? You are very far from where you ought to be, I believe. What brought you to this island and our city? We hear curious rumors about the Dini and their disappearance. The Order of the Red Star is in an amazing uproar – you would not believe just how frantic they are.” His left hand began to caress the silver ring he wore on his right hand. “And now you are here. Why?”

Halinjae swallowed. Suddenly she felt a compulsion within herself to tell this man everything, explain how her father had decided it was necessary to wrest the Dini away from the Red Star folk and all that had happened since then, and it was only with a great mental effort that she resisted. Jhalus touched his ring again, and the feeling within her changed, shifting to her memory, where she kept all the remembrances of her father stored away.

There he was, musing over a board in one of the games he so dearly loved to play with her uncle, the archon. And there, he was sitting with her and a few of her brothers, explaining what had brought the Ghadari to leave the lands in the east where they had learned the ways of Heaven, coming to settle these islands. And there, he stood by the pyre where her mother’s body lay, his face perfectly still as he looked down at it, Halinjae and all her siblings quiet and solemn.

But now…now he too was dead. She felt tears burning the corners of her eyes, and closed them tight so she could not see Jhalus and his mocking expression. He had been murdered, betrayed, slaughtered like a sheep on an altar.

“We can make sure that everything turns out all right,” said Jhalus softly. “Just trust us, and tell us what has happened to you.” And then she felt warmth towards him, a friendliness that urged her to do as he said. His voice was so kind and…she opened her eyes. He was looking at her not with kindness but with a cold dull hunger, like a shark watching for blood. The spell was broken, and she shook her head.

“It is of no importance. I left for my own reasons.”

Jhalus pressed his lips together and held up his left hand, which bore a jeweled ring. The corners of Halinjae’s vision turned red, and her head pounded with agony. She wavered on her feet as Jhalus stepped closer to her. “You will tell me everything. This is our city, and if your archon thinks he can meddle with it, meddle in our affairs, he will learn otherwise!” The pain doubled, and Halinjae’s stomach clenched. “I enjoy this sort of magic,” said Jhalus with a sigh. “I do not know how acquainted you are with the art, but I am entranced by the power of it. It is most wondrous…”

Halinjae began to smile, the expression of delight slowly spreading over her face. “You knew I was Darat,” she said. “You knew who my uncle was. Shouldn’t you have expected that I would be prepared for situations such as this? Are you really willing to do what it would take to break me?”

His lips turned downward and his brow furrowed as his hands fell to his side. “Well. I certainly expect you to talk eventually. If I guess correctly, you have no one who is able to deliver you from captivity here. We will keep you until we are confident that you are no danger to this city.”

“You do not have the authority to hold me,” Halinjae said, but her vision flashed red again, and as Jhalus rubbed his hands together spikes of pain drove into her mind.

“We will see.”

“Do the rest of you have anything to say for yourselves?” Halinjae asked. “Or does Jhalus have you all under his thumb?”

“We decided before you came that as I happen to be the best at…questioning recalcitrant prisoners, I would take the lead. We are all quite firmly agreed on this course of action. I know that the archon’s favored strategy is to drive a knife between ally and ally, but that will not work here, not with us.”

Halinjae put her hands together. “Where will you take me?”

“We have excellent prisons.” Jhalus stepped even closer to Halinjae and put his hands over hers. “Do what is right and lawful, and in accord with the order laid down by Heaven, and you will do well.”

“I will be my own judge of what is right.”

Jhalus gave her a sudden wink and a smile. “You are a wise fool,” he said, and she was led away, puzzled.

The prisons of the Ghadari of Talat were not built to hold its captives for a long period of time, but merely until the day arrived for their punishment. Her room were not particularly clean, Halinjae thought as she looked around, but at least she did not have company. Heaven only knew what kind of thieves and murderers would dare commit their crimes in a city where the magicians were known to hold sway. Nevertheless, anxiety consumed her, fear for not only herself, but the Darat family, the future relations of the Ghadari and Latoirn…even for Aghalidu, who would now be in terrible danger from the School of Shadow.

She looked up as a woman several years younger than her entered, passing through the invisible barrier with something gleaming clutched in one hand and a plate of food and drink balanced on the other. She set this down and, while crouched by Halinjae’s side, whispered “Not all of the aldermen wish to make an enemy of the archon. You are not as alone as some would have you think.”

“What would they advise me to do?”

“Wait and be patient. Deliverance will come.”

And so you think I have some other choice? But Halinjae didn’t say the words that occurred to her – it was after all not this girl’s fault. She nodded. “Thank you,” she said, and the girl left. With a sigh, Halinjae reached out towards the barrier and felt how it resisted her, how she seemed to lose control of her hand, unable to move it any further. It was truly a marvelous example of the magical art – closing her eyes she could not even discern where its Form resided – but now she was willing to curse it with all her heart.

But she waited as she had been told, and the next time the girl appeared, late that evening, she was holding an elaborate copper key with several worked figures jutting at regular intervals from its side, each a perfectly formed representation of a phoenix in flight. “You can go now,” the girl whispered. “I was told to tell you to leave the city immediately and not come back.”

Halinjae put forth her hand again and found that the barrier was no longer there, then with a nod to the girl, she hurried out. It was only now occurring to her that this could be a trap, to provide her with a definite crime to commit, but she was set on her path now. She could only hope that the others would be easily found.

~

“So what do we do now?” Ebrinn asked, and the Native made an annoyed gesture.

“I am thinking! Unless you propose assaulting the city with nothing but that sword of yours, I imagine what would be best would be for me to go and see if I can find Halinjae. All three of you go to that hill over there, and find shelter in one of those hollows under the trees. I will not be long.”

“How fortunate we are that you are able to guide us,” Aghalidu said, and the Native turned his glare upon him.

“Do you have different plans, Aghalidu?”

“I am the Dini, and the way I see it, if I do have different plans, you don’t have any choice but to go along with what I say.” He was not speaking scornfully, but calmly, his arms folded over one another.

“Do not be a child,” snapped the Native. “Do you have a better plan, or are you simply trying to impress us all with a demonstration of your self-confidence? If the Dini is not a fool, he will listen to my counsel.”

Aghalidu’s arms came loose and he waved his hand, dismissing the Native’s words. “As it happens, I do think you are right in this case.”

“I am extraordinarily pleased to hear that,” said the Native. “Now go; I will return soon.”

They reached the hill before long, and found that behind a broad laurel was an opening into the earth in which they all could fit. Ebrinn knelt by the entrance and watched the city gate and the road leading to it, waiting to see the Native emerge with his distinctive lope. He waited for some time.

There were footsteps suddenly above their heads, and Ebrinn pulled himself backwards, back into the cave. Aghalidu’s eyes darted around in panic, but Lrento’ remained calm, pressing close to Ebrinn. And someone appeared in front of the entrance, a man dressed all in black and wearing gloves of the same shade. He saw them, and smiled, slapping his hands together. “Xulín!” he called. “Darái xulín!

Ebrinn sprang forward, the sword leaping to his grip and plunging towards the man in black’s body. A gloved hand raised, and a wave of pain pierced Ebrinn’s skin, twisting all his organs around inside and burning until the agony was too much and shadows seized him.

~

Aghalidu saw Ebrinn collapse, saw Lrento’ shudder and fall by Ebrinn’s side. He looked up to face the man who was now taking a step into the cave, the sound of his boots echoing on the ground. “Are you one of the Dini?” he asked, Aghalidu barely able to understand him. “Do you speak the language of the northern Ghadari?”

“A little,” Aghalidu said, leaning against the black earth of the cave. Terror filled him and compelled him to treat this man with more than his usual nonchalance, to defy his own fear. “Who are you, and why do you want the Dini?”

“I want to keep him safe.”

“It seems that everyone does.”

“The School of Shadows is the strongest power in the islands, and you have seen our strength. You have no choice but to come with us.” Aghalidu hesitated, and the black-gloved man saw this, and raised his hand again.

“Wait! I –”

The pain was almost unimaginable.

~

Halinjae was taking rapid steps towards the gate when a hand landed on her shoulder and she twisted away with a violent motion. The Native stepped back with an apology, and Halinjae demanded “Where are they?”

“I left them in hiding not far from here.”

“Good. Let’s gather them and leave immediately.”

“Leave to where, exactly?”

“We can decide that…” Halinjae broke off, and the Native halted in his tracks. Perhaps fifty yards away a group of black-clad men and women were marching across the dirt perpendicular to Halinjae’s path. “Why are they not taking the road?” she asked quietly.

When it was safe, Halinjae and the Native hurried to the cave where the Latoirn had been left. There was no sign of them, and a search of the surrounding area revealed nothing. Finally Halinjae threw herself against one of the trees. “That was the School of Shadows, no doubt, and they have taken them.”

“I have been out of touch for many years. Who exactly are the School of Shadows?” the Native asked.

“That’s what Mauzil’s group is calling themselves now.”

“Him? Oh. This is an unpleasant turn of affairs.”

“I do not see how we can possibly recover them now,” Halinjae said, and sank to the ground. “We have lost.”

Chapter 5