Moria saw him fall. She never thought. She ran out onto the walk with Stilcho shouting after her and the bay horse rearing and plunging in hysterics over Straton's body. She ran; and a man's arm grabbed her around the waist and swept her back to the safety of the doorway. In that moment she had time to realize that she had just risked her life for a man she knew for another of Hers, for a man she had seen only twice in her life, who had burst past her down her own stairs, shoved her painfully against a wall and run out like the devils of hell were after him.
She could comprehend pain that strong. Ischade's service was full of it. It was that fellowship which sent her pelting out after him, no other reason; and now Stilcho in a terrible slowing of time and motion drew his hands from her waist, turned in a flying of his cloak, a falling of the hood that normally hid his eye-patched face-for a moment it was the good side toward her, the sighted side, mouth open in a gasp for air, legs already driving in a lunge back to the street. He skidded in low almost under the bay's legs, grabbed the Stepson by the collar and one hand and dragged him toward the door-he looked up as he came, his half-sighted face wild and pale, the dark hair flying, and his mouth opened.
"Get out of there!" he yelled at her, "get out of the way!"
An arrow whisked past with a bloodchilling sound she had heard described and instantly recognized. She spun back around the comer to the door and the inside wall, and saw the arrow lying spent on the rug as Stilcho dragged the Stepson in past her to drop him in the hall.
Moria hurled herself at the door and slammed it with all her might, shot the bolt and went and shuttered the drawing-room window in haste, ducking down beneath to slam the shutters tight and shoot the deadbolts. "Shiey!" she screamed. "Shutter the downstairs! Quick!"
Something banged back in the kitchens. Outside on the street she heard the clatter of hooves, the horse still outside the window: it whinnied loud and stamped this way and that. Hooves struck stone pavings up close to the window; and another shutter banged shut at the rear of the house.
"Upstairs," Stilcho said. He squatted over the unconscious Stepson. He had a knife out and he was cutting away the cloth from around a wound that might have been high enough to miss the lung but which might have cut the great artery under the collarbone-there was blood everywhere, on him, on the carpet. Stilcho lifted a pale face contorted in haste and effort. "The upstairs shutters, woman! And be careful!"
Moria gasped a breath. "Help him," she yelled as Cook came waddling out in panic, one-handed Shiey, who was worse as a cook than she had been as a thief. But they knew wounds in this house. There were servants who knew a dozen uses for a knife and a rope. She never looked back to see what Shiey did, only flew round the newel-post, never minding at all the pain of her sore foot. She had only the new and overwhelming fear that a shutter might be open, someone might find a way in even on the upper floor-
She reached the bedroom and froze in the doorway, dead-stopped against the doorframe.
Not a sound came out of her throat. She was Moria of the streets and she had seen corpses and made a few herself.
But the sight of a man who had lately made love to her lying dead on the floor in her bedspread-her heart clenched and loosed and sent a flood of nausea up into her throat. Then she swallowed it down and ducked down low, got across the room to get the shutters closed and bolted-for the window itself she did not try.
Then she ran, past the dreadful death on the floor, out of that place and down the stairs again for the comfort of Stilcho's presence, for the dead-alive man who was the only ally she had left, and to the Stepson who had come running out of that upstairs room the same as she.
He was still lying on the hall floor, there beside the stairs, with Stilcho's cloak wadded under his head and Stilcho crouching over him. Stilcho looked up as she came down the last steps, and his face and the face of the Stepson on the floor were the same pale color.
"Name's Straton," Stilcho said. "Her lover."
"T-Tasfalen's d-dead," Moria said. She had almost said my lover, but that was not true, Tasfalen was only a decent man who had treated her better than any man ever had, and who had died a fool. Of her doing, never this Straton's fault: Moria knew who she had left him with; and suddenly Moria the thief felt a pang of tears and the sting and ache of all her wounds. "What'll we do?" She leaned with her arms about the bottom newel-post and stared helplessly at Stilcho and stared at the man who was dying on her hall rug. Stilcho had gotten the shaft broken. The remnant of the arrow stood in the wound, with bloodstained flesh swelling it in tight. High in the ribs with bone to help lock it up and gods knew what it had hit. "O gods, gods, he's done, isn't he?"
Stilcho held up the fletching-end of the arrow from beside him. It had been dipped in blue dye. "Jubal," he said.
She felt a twinge of chill. Jubal was another who had owned a piece of her soul, once. Before Ischade took her and set her in this house that no longer seemed safe from anything. "You know how to pull it?" she asked.
"I know how. I don't know what I'm cutting into. Your staff-that cook of yours ran back in the kitchen after another knife. I need two to get on either side of this thing. I need waddings and I need hot oil. Can you get them moving back there?"
"They've locked themselves in the cellar, that's where they are!" The silence out of the servants' end of the house suddenly interpreted itself and filled her with blind rage. She knew her staff. She flung herself from the newel-post and started down the hall.
And screamed as a light and a thunderclap burst into the drawing-room beyond the arch beside them. Wind hit her.
She turned and saw Haught there, Haught disheveled and without his cloak, and holding a pottery sphere in his hands, a sphere that by odd seconds seemed not to be there at all and at others seemed to spin and glow.
Haught grinned at them, a wolf's grin. And he let go the globe which hung where he had left it, in midair, spinning and glowing white and a thousand colors. The light fell on him and on her drawing room and paled everything. Then he tucked it up again under his arm and ran one hand through his hair, sweeping it from his face in that child-gesture that was like the Haught she had known, the Haught who had shared her bed and been kind to her. Both of them stood there on the same two feet, the mage she feared and the man who had given her gifts and loved her and gotten her and him into this damned mess.
Whatever it was he had gotten, it was not a natural thing and it was not something the Mistress meant him to have, Moria knew that by the look of it and of him. And she was cold inside and full of a despair so old it made her only tired and angry.
"Dammit, Haught, what the hell are you into?"
He grinned at her. Delight radiated from him. And he looked from her to Stilcho to the man on the floor, the grin fading to curiosity.
"Well," he said, and came closer, his precious strange globe tucked up in his arms. "Well," he said again when he looked down at Straton. "Look what we've got."
"You can help him." Moria remembered her foot and a touch of hope came to her. "You can help him. Do something."
"Oh, I will." Haught bent down and laid one hand on the Stepson's booted ankle. And the Stepson's whole body seemed to come back from that diminished, shrunken look of something dead, to draw a larger breath and to run into pain when it did. "How did this happen?"
She opened her mouth to say.
"That's all right," Haught said. "You've told me." He still had his hand on the Stepson's ankle, and closed it down till his fingers went white. "Hello, Straton."
Straton's eyes opened. He made a small move to lift his head from the wadded cloak, and perhaps he saw Haught, before the pain got him and twisted his face. "Oh, damn," he said, letting his head back, "damn."
"Damned for sure," Haught said. "How does it feel, Rankan?"
"Haught!" Moria cried, as the Stepson made a sound nothing human ought to make. She jerked with both hands at Haught's shoulders. "Don't! Haught!"
Haught stopped. He stood up, slowly, the globe still beneath his arm. And Moria flinched in the first backward step, then stood her ground, jaw clenched, muscles shaking in the threat of this utter stranger who stared at her with eyes that held nothing of the Haught she had known. There was something terrible inside. Something that burned and touched her inside her skull in ways that ran constantly through her nerves.
"Oh, I know what you've done, I know everything you'll say, and what you really think. It's more than a little trying, Moria." He reached and brought a finger under her chin. "It can be a damned bore, Moria, it really can."
"Ischade doesn't own you anymore. I do. I own you, I own Stilcho, I own this house and everything in it."
"There's a dead man in my bedroom! Dammit, Haught-"
"A dead man in your bedroom." Haught's mouth tightened in the ghost of an old smile. "You want me to move him?"
"O my gods, no, no-" She backed away from Haught's hand. He could. He would. She saw that in his eyes, saw something like Ischade mixed with Haught's prankish humor and a slave's dire hate. "O gods, Haught-"
"Stilcho," Haught said, turning his face to him, "you've just acquired company."
Stilcho said nothing at all. His mouth was clamped to a hard line.
While upstairs something thumped, and that board that always creaked near the bed-creaked; and sent ice down Moria's back.
"Gods, stop it!"
"You don't want your lover back?"
"He's not my lover, he wasn't my lover, he was a poor, damned man She got her hands on, I just-I just-I was sorry for him, that's what, I was sorry for him and he was good, and I don't give a damn, Haught, I'm not your damn property, I'm not Hers, you can blast me to hell if you like, I've had all I'll take from all of you!"
Her shouting died. Her fists were still clenched. She waited for the blow or the blast or whatever it was wizards did and knew she was a fool. But Haught's face stressed and it smoothed, and something flowed over her mind like tepid water. "Congratulations," he said. "But you don't get those kind of choices. The world doesn't give them to you. / can. I have the power to do whatever I like. And you know that. Stilcho knows it. You want power, Moria? If you've got a shred of talent I can give you that. You want lovers, I can give you those, whatever amuses you. And I'll amuse you myself when the mood takes us. Maybe you'd like Stilcho. Ischade's probably taught him a lot of interesting things. I'm not jealous."
The hell you're not.
Haught's eyebrow twitched. Dangerously. And the cold eyes took on a little amusement. "Only of your loyalty," he said. "That, I'll have. What you have in your bed is your business. As long as I have the other. I don't hold anybody my property. Moria."
Slave, she remembered, remembered the whip-scars on him, and saw his face grow hard.
"I was apprenticed on Wizardwall," he said. "And Ischade was fool enough to take me on. Now I have what I need. I have this house, I have hands to do what I want, and I have one of my enemies. That's a beginning, isn't it?"
He looked up toward the head of the stairs. Moria did, unwillingly, and saw Tasfalen standing there naked to the waist and with his hair all rumpled as if he had just risen from sleep.
But there was something wrong in the way he stood there, in the lack of reaction, in the way the hand reached out listlessly for the bannister, all the reactions of life but no reaction to what ought to stir a man. As if he did not know that there was anything amiss with him or in what his eyes must register in the hall below him.
"The body's working," Haught said. "The mind's rather spotty, I'm afraid. Memory's not what it was. The soul might retain the missing bits-decay sets in very soon, you know; some tiny bits of him have just rotted, already. So a lot it had is gone. But it doesn't need a soul, does it? It doesn't need one for what I want."
"You said you'd help me," Stilcho said from where he knelt by the wounded Stepson.
"Oh. That. Yes. Eventually." As the body that had been Tasfalen came down the stairs in total disinterest. And stopped and stood at the bottom. "It doesn't have much volition. But it doesn't need that either. Does it?"
Niko's body went into still another spasm. Jihan had gotten his jaws open and Tempus had forced a small wooden rod there-gods knew where Randal had come up with it, out of what debris of the office. It kept Niko from biting his tongue through. And Randal had pulled another thing out of that otherwhere of a mage's storage-had gotten bits and pieces of that armor he had worn and tried to fit the breastplate to a body that kept trying to break its own spine.
Niko screamed when that touched him. He screamed and flung himself into a spasm that Molin would not have thought was left in that wracked body; his own muscles ached with pity and his hands sweated. "It's killing him," Tempus yelled, and shoved Randal and the collection of metal aside. "Dammit, let him be; Jihan, hold onto him, hold onto him-"
Tempus hugged him hard against him and shut his eyes and tried. Molin saw what he was trying, sensed the effort to break through the barrier that existed in Niko now. He threw his own strength into it, and felt Randal add his.
Trees groaned in the wind, crashed and fell, and the ground quaked. Ischade put out all her effort to stay others, her arms about the sleeper, Janni's white shape holding him from the other side. The wind grew colder, and the thing battering at the gate grew more powerful.
Even Roxane was afraid now. Ischade knew it. "Get out of him!" Ischade yelled into the wind. "Witch, you've lost, get out of him, leave this place!"
I'll know when to go, the voice came back. Give me Niko. "Fool," Ischade murmured, holding tight. "Fool, fool-You won't get him, Roxane, I'll send his soul to hell before you get your hands on it, hear me?"
And then a gate would exist indeed, snake swallowing its tail, a gaping hole in the world's substance which would pull them all in. She said it and knew it was not bluff, that she was not going to let go; she did not know how to let go, in the way that Roxane did not know how; and at the end that was what would happen, the thing would find its way up out of the pit that had opened in this place and take the sleeper, and when it did, when it did, that snake-swallowing-tail effect would envelop them all. Her doing, and Roxane's.
Storm broke overhead.
Something else had manifested. Lightnings crashed. The ground shook; and of a sudden a bolt crashed down nearby, where the gate was. All of existence shuddered.
And there was sudden nothingness in her arms and in Janni's. The sleeper melted from them. The sky dissolved in rack and lightnings.
And a dark shape flew from the direction of the meadow to mingle with it, one fused whirling mass of lightnings, of gray cloud, and of night that shot destruction everywhere....
Niko's unbandaged eye opened. He flung himself in a spasm against Jihan's strength and Tempus's inert weight and Molin flinched at the scream that came past the gag. Let him die, he prayed, was praying, when Randal scrambled out of his disarray with the armor and reached after something else. The painting manifested in his grip.
"Get a light," Randal yelled at him. In one dullwitted moment Molin knew what Randal was after, recoiled from the thought of the deed and wondered in the same numb-minded flicker why a candle, why not call fire: but a candle was apt for fire, the canvas was magical and unapt, it resisted destruction. "Light!" Molin bellowed at the priest who hovered terrified in custody of Ischade's body. The priest cast about this way and that, and in that selfsame moment Randal snatched up a handful of papers and blasted them into flame. The fire whumphed up and took the corner of the canvas on which Tempus and Niko and Roxane existed in triad, and Molin clenched his hands on the back of the chair in front of him and flinched as the smoke poured up from it, as Randal held onto burning paper and burning canvas, his face twisted in the pain of the burning that went up and up, the fire licking out at sleeves, at robe, at hair, at anything it could get while Randal turned and twisted in what looked like some grotesque dancer's contortions, keeping it away from himself and what else it reached for. Silver smoke poured up, mingled unnaturally with black. There was a stench of sulphur, and a shadow poured out of that smoke, a presence of intolerable menace. The priest screamed and covered his head. Then that darkness went- somewhere.
At the same moment Niko's body went limp as the dead and a slow trickle of blood flowed down from his nose and around the comer of his mouth where the stick was set between his jaws. Jihan looked puzzled and Randal stood there breathing in great gasps with the sweat standing on his white face and his hands all black and red, his lips drawn back in a grimace of pain and doubt.
Cloth whispered. Molin glanced aside in his distress and saw Ischade move and rise on one elbow and the opposing hand. Her dark hair hid her face. She looked up then, toward Niko, and that face was drawn and grim.
Tempus stirred and shoved himself up off the floor. His jaw clenched and knotted as he looked into Niko's face; while Jihan carefully pulled the stick from between Niko's jaws and closed his mouth, down which a ribbon of blood still poured.
"He's alive," Ischade said. Her voice was ragged and hoarse. "He's free of her."
"But not of it," Tempus snarled, "dammit, not of it-"
"Let it alone!" Ischade shouted. Her voice broke. She reached out a forbidding hand and straightened the other arm, supporting herself. "It's not loose. Yet. Don't meddle with it. It's not something you can handle. Or that I can. I don't make that kind of bargain."
"No!" She got herself up on her knees and staggered to her feet. "He's got Janni still. And Janni on that ground is power enough to keep him till he wakes. She's still loose, do you hear me? Roxane's still free, and she's pacted with that thing. She's somewhere, and your meddling in that Place can only make it worse: she's still got ties there. She doesn't want that gate open any more than we do: not unless she can get it what she promised. Then she'll open it. She's lost her power, she's lost her hiding-place, we're that much better off, but not if you go head-on against her ally-"
"That's not the worst of it," Randal said. "Your apprentice just stole the globe in all the confusion. I heard him coming and I couldn't get here in time. I do trust it wasn't your idea." Ischade opened her mouth to say something. The air shuddered and Niko choked and moaned. Then she shut it and her jaw went hard, her fists clenched. "It wasn't," she said. And did not speak any curse, which restraint sent a chill down Molin's back and reminded him what she was. "Well," she said, "now we know where Roxane's gone, don't we?"
"Don't hurt him," Moria said, "Haught, don't."
"Another of your lovers?" Haught asked, and prodded Straton's side with his booted toe.
"No. For Shalpa's sake-"
"Your old patron." Haught shifted the globe he held to the crook of his arm and touched her under the chin. "Really, Moria, I make you a lady and look at you, you smell like a whore and you swear like a gutter-rat. Carry a knife in your garter, do you? No? Your brother stole it. What a life you lead."
"Stay out of my mind, dammit!"
"You're going to have to leam to control yourself, you know. Stilcho does. He thinks about things when I ask him questions. He thinks about things other than what I'm asking, he's gotten very good at it. Sometimes he remembers being dead. That's his greatest weapon. Sometimes I see other things in his head, like what it feels like to have people flinch away from you- bothers you terribly, doesn't it, Stilcho? You ran right out there to collect this bit of dogmeat just because Moria was going to do it, just because death doesn't mean a damn to you and you wanted to do something she wanted, you wanted her to look at you and not flinch, you want her, don't you, you sorry excuse for a living man?"
"Stop it," Moria cried.
"I just want the ones I love to know themselves the way I know them. Isn't that fair? I think we ought all to know where we stand. You want to go to bed with him? He's dying to."
"That's very funny," Stilcho said. "Excuse him, Moria, he's not himself."
She clenched her hands together to stop their shaking and clenched her jaw and stared up the bit she had to go to stare Haught in the eyes. "Well, dead, he's still got a heart in him. Where's yours? They beat it out of you?"
It scored. It scored all too well. For a moment she thought she would die for that, and she ought to be scared; but she was what he had said, she was a gutter-rat, and a rat was a coward until it got cornered, its back to two walls. Then it would fight anything. And these were her walls. This was her house. "My house, damn you, and mind your manners, I don't care what you've brought in with that damn jug. Get this man off my floor, put him to bed where he belongs, get this other poor thing set down somewhere where he won't scare my servants, and let me go up and take a bath, I've had enough of this goings-on."
"There's a love." Haught chucked her under the chin. She hit at his hand. "Go clean up. I'll take care of the rest."
She tightened her lips as if she would spit at him. It occurred to her. Childhood reflex. Then her eyes fixed on a move behind his shoulder. On Tasfalen, who had stood listless till then; now Tasfalen's head lifted and the eyes focused sharp; the chest gave with a wider breath and the whole body straightened. Damned trick of his, she thought, to scare me with it.
"Not a trick," Haught said, turning even while that cold touch ran over her mind. "We have a visitor. Hello, Roxane."