In another wood east of Paras Derval, the lios alfar were still singing as Jennifer drifted towards sleep. Under the stars and the crescent of the risen moon their voices wove about her a melody of sorrow so old and deep it was almost a luxury.
She roused herself and turned on the pallet they had made for her.
He came over to her and knelt. His eyes were blue now. They had been green like her own the last time she looked, and gold on the hillside that afternoon.
“Are you immortal?” she asked, sleepily.
He smiled. “No, Lady. Only the gods are so, and there are those who say that even they will die at the end. We live very long, and age will not kill us, but we do die, Lady, by sword or fire, or grief of heart. And weariness will lead us to sail to our song, though that is a different thing.”
“Westward lies a place not found on any map. A world shaped by the Weaver for the lios alfar alone, and there we go when we leave Fionavar, unless Fionavar has killed us first.”
“How old are you, Brendel?”
“I was born four hundred years after the Bael Rangat. A little more than six hundred years ago.”
She absorbed it in silence. There was nothing, really, to say. On her other side Laesha and Drance were asleep. The singing was very beautiful. She let it carry her into simplicity, and then sleep.
He watched her a long time, the eyes still blue, calm, and deeply appreciative of beauty in all its incarnations. And in this one there was something more. She looked like someone. He knew this, or he sensed it to be so, but although he was quite right, he had absolutely no way of knowing whom, and so could not warn anyone.
At length he rose and rejoined the others for the last song, which was, as it always was, Ra-Termaine’s lament for the lost. They sang for those who had just died by Pendaran, and for all the others long ago, who would never now hear this song or their own. As the lios sang, the stars seemed to grow brighter above the trees, but that may have been just the deepening of night. When the song ended, the fire was banked and they slept.
They were ancient and wise and beautiful, their spirit in their eyes as a many-colored flame, their art an homage to the Weaver whose most shining children they were. A celebation of life was woven into their very essence, and they were named in the oldest tongue after the Light that stands against the Dark.
But they were not immortal.
The two guards died of poison arrows, and four others had their throats ripped apart by the black onrush of the wolves before they were fully awake. One cried out and killed his wolf with a dagger as he died.
They fought bravely then, even brilliantly, with bright swords and arrows, for their grace could be most deadly when they had need.
Brendel and Drance with two others formed a wall about the two women, and against the charge of the giant wolves they held firm once, and again, and yet again, their swords rising and falling in desperate silence. It was dark, though, and the wolves were black, and the svarts moved like twisted wraiths about the glade.
Even so, the shining courage of the lios alfar, with Drance of Brennin fighting in their midst as a man posessed, might have prevailed, had it not been for the one thing more: the cold, controlling will that guided the assault. There was a power in the glade that night that no one could have foretold, and doom was written on the wind that rose before the dawn.
For Jennifer it was a hallucination of terror in the dark. She heard snarls and cries, saw things in blurred, distorted flashes—blood-dark swords, the shadow of a wolf, an arrow flying past. Violence exploding all around her, she who had spent her days avoiding such a thing.
But this was night. Too terrified to even scream, Jennifer saw Drance fall at last, a wolf dying beneath him, another rising wet-mouthed from his corpse to leap past her to where Laesha stood. Then before she could react, even as she heard Laesha cry out, she felt herself seized brutally as the hideous svarts surged forward into the gap and she was dragged away by them over the body of Diarmuid’s man.
Looking desperately back, she saw Brendel grappling with three foes at once, blood dark on his face in the thin moonlight, then she was among the trees, surrounded by wolves and svart alfar, and there was no light to see by or to hope for anywhere.
They moved through the forest for what seemed an endless time, travelling north and east, away from Paras Derval and everyone she knew in this world. Twice she stumbled and fell in the dark, and each time she was dragged, sobbing, to her feet and the terrible progress continued.
They were still in the woods when the sky began to shade towards grey, and in the growing light she gradually became aware that amid the shifting movements of her captors, one figure never left her side: and among the horrors of that headlong night, this was the worst.
Coal-black, with a splash of silver-grey on his brow, he was the largest wolf by far. It wasn’t the size, though, or the wet blood on his dark mouth; it was the malevolence of the power that hovered about the wolf like an aura. His eyes were on her face, and they were red; in them, for the moment she could sustain the glance, she saw a degree of intelligence that should not have been there, and was more alien than anything else she had come upon in Fionavar. There was no hatred in the look, only a cold, merciless will. Hate, she could have understood; what she saw was worse.
It was morning when they reached their destination. Jennifer saw a small woodcutter’s cabin set in a cleared-out space by the forest’s edge. A moment later she saw what was left of the woodcutter as well.
They threw her inside. She fell, from the force of it, and then crawled on her knees to a corner where she was violently, rackingly sick. Afterwards, shivering uncontrollably, she made her way to the cot at the back of the room and lay down.
We salvage what we can, what truly matters to us, even at the gates of despair. And so Jennifer Lowell, whose father had taught her, even as a child, to confront the world with pride, eventually rose up, cleaning herself as best she could, and began to wait in the brightening cottage. Daylight was coming outside, but it was not only that: courage casts its own light.
The sun was high in a blank sky when she heard the voices. One was low, with a note of amusement she could discern even through the door. Then the other man spoke, and Jennifer froze in disbelief, for this voice she had heard before.
“Not hard,” the first man said, and laughed. “Against the lios it is easy to keep them to it.”
“I hope you were not followed. I absolutely must not be seen, Galadan.”
“You won’t be. Almost all of them were dead, and I left behind ten wolves against the stragglers. They won’t follow in any case. Enough of them have died; they wouldn’t risk more for a human. She is ours, more easily than we might have hoped. It is rare indeed that we receive aid from Daniloth.” And he laughed again, maliciously amused.
“Where is she?”
The door was flung open, letting in a dazzling shaft of sunlight. Momentarily blinded, Jennifer was dragged into the clearing.
“A prize, wouldn’t you say?” Galadan murmured.
“Perhaps,” the other one said. “Depending on what she tells us about why they are here.”
Jennifer turned towards the voice, her eyes adjusting, and as they did, she found herself face to face with Metran, First Mage to the High King of Brennin.
No longer was he the shuffling old man she’d seen that first night or watched as he cowered from Jaelle in the Great Hall. Metran stood straight and tall, his eyes bright with malice.
“You traitor!” Jennifer burst out.
He gestured, and she screamed as her nipples were squeezed viciously. No one had touched her; he had done it himself without moving.
“Carefully, my dear lady,” Metran said, all solicitude, as she writhed in pain. “You must be careful of what you say to me. I have the power to do whatever I want with you.” He nodded towards his source, Denbarra, who stood close by.
“Not quite,” the other voice demurred. “Let her go.” The tone was very quiet, but the pain stopped instantly. Jennifer turned, wiping tears from her face.
Galadan was not tall, but there was a sinuous strength to him, a sheathed intimation of very great power. Cold eyes fixed her from a scarred, aristocratic face under the thatch of silver hair—like Brendel’s, she thought, with another sort of pain.
He bowed to her, courtly and graceful, and with a veiled amusement. Then that was gone as he turned to Metran.
“She goes north for questioning,” he said. “Unharmed.”
“Are you telling me what to do?” Metran said on a rising note, and Jennifer saw Denbarra stiffen.
“Actually, yes, if you put it that way.” There was mockery in his voice. “Are you going to fight me over it, mageling?”
“I could kill you, Galadan,” Metran hissed.
The one named Galadan smiled again, but not with his eyes. “Then try. But I tell you now, you will fail. I am outside your taught magic, mageling. You have some power, I know, and have been given more, and may indeed have greater yet to come, but I will still be outside you, Metran. I always will be. And if you test it, I shall have your heart out for my friends.”
In the silence that followed this, Jennifer became conscious of the ring of wolves surrounding them. There were svart alfar as well, but the giant red-eyed wolf was gone.
Metran was breathing hard. “You are not above me, Galadan. I was promised this.”
At that, Galadan threw back his fierce, scarred head, and a burst of genuine laughter rang through the clearing.
“Promised, were you? Ah well, then, I must apologize!” His laughter stopped. “She is still to go north. If it were not so, I might take her for myself. But look!”
Jennifer, turning skyward to where Galadan was pointing, saw a creature so beautiful it lifted her heart in reflexive hope.
A black swan came swooping down from the high reaches of the sky, glorious against the sun, the great wings widespread, feathered with jet plumage, the long neck gracefully extended.
Then it landed, and Jennifer realized that the true horror had only begun, for the swan had unnatural razored teeth, and claws, and about it, for all the stunning beauty, there clung an odor of putrescent corruption.
Then the swan spoke, in a voice like slithering darkness in a pit. “I have come,” she said. “Give her to me.”
Far away yet, terribly far away, Loren Silvercloak was driving his horse back south, cursing his own folly in all the tongues he knew.
“She is yours, Avaia,” said Galadan, unsmiling. “Is she not, Metran?”
“Of course,” said the mage. He had moved upwind of the swan. “I will naturally be anxious to know what she has to say. It is vital for me in my place of watch.”
“No longer,” the black swan said, ruffling her feathers. “I have tidings for you. The Cauldron is ours, I am to say. You go now to the place of spiraling, for the time is upon us.”
Across the face of Metran there spread then a smile of such cruel triumph that Jennifer turned away from it. “It has come then,” the mage exulted. “The day of my revenge. Oh, Garmisch, my dead King, I shall break the usurper into pieces on his throne, and make drinking cups of the bones of the House of Ailell!”
The swan showed her unnatural teeth. “I will take pleasure in the sight,” she hissed.
“No doubt,” said Galadan wryly. “Is there word for me?”
“North,” the swan replied. “You are asked to go north with your friends. Make haste. There is little time.”
“It is well,” said Galadan. “I have one task left here, then I follow.”
“Make haste,” Avaia said again. “And now I go.”
“No!” Jennifer screamed, as cold svart hands grabbed for her. Her cries cut the air of the clearing and fell into nothingness. She was bound across the back of the giant swan and the dense, putrefying smell of it overwhelmed her. She could not breathe; when she opened her mouth, the thick black feathers choked her, and as they left the earth for the blazing sky, Jennifer fainted for the first time in her life, and so could not have known the glorious curving arc she and the swan made, cutting across the sky.
The figures in the clearing watched Avaia bear the girl away until they were lost in the shimmering of the white sky.
Metran turned to the others, exultation still in his eyes. “You heard? The Cauldron is mine!”
“So it seems,” Galadan agreed. “You are away across the water, then?”
“Immediately. It will not be long before you see what I do with it.”
Galadan nodded, then a thought seemed to strike him. “I wonder, does Denbarra understand what all this means?” He turned to the source. “Tell me, my friend, do you know what this Cauldron is all about?”
Denbarra shifted uneasily under the weight of that gaze. “I understand what is needful for me to know,” he said sturdily. “I understand that with its aid, the House of Garantae will rule again in Brennin.”
Galadan regarded him a moment longer, then his glance flicked away dismissively. “He is worthy of his destiny,” he said to Metran. “A thick-witted source is an advantage for you, I suppose. I should get dreadfully bored, myself.”
Denbarra flushed, but Metran was unmoved by the gibe this time. “My sister-son is loyal. It is a virtue,” he said, unconscious of the irony. “What about you? You mentioned a task to be done. Should I know?”
“You should, but evidently you don’t. Give thanks that I am less careless. There is a death to be consummated.”
Metran’s mouth twitched at the insult, but he did not respond. “Then go your way,” he said. “We may not meet for some time.”
“Alas!” said Galadan.
The mage raised a hand. “You mock me,” he said with intensity. “You mock us all, andain. But I tell you this: with the Cauldron of Khath Meigol in my hands, I will wield a power even you dare not scorn. And with it I shall wreak such a vengeance here in Brennin that the memory of it will never die.”
Galadan lifted his scarred head and regarded the mage. “Perhaps,” he said finally, and very, very softly. “Unless the memory of it dies because everything has died. Which, as you know, is the wish of my heart.”
On the last words, he made a subtle gesture over his breast, and a moment later a coal-black wolf with a splash of silver on its head ran swiftly westward from the clearing.
Had he entered the forest farther south, a great deal of what ensued might have been very different.
At the southern edge of the woodcutter’s clearing a figure lay, hidden among the trees, bleeding from a dozen wounds. Behind him on the trail through the forest the last two lios alfar lay dead. And ten wolves.
And in the heart of Na-Brendel of the Kestrel Mark lay a grief and a rage that, more than anything else, had kept him alive so far. In the sunlight his eyes were black as night.
He watched Metran and his source mount horses and swing away northwest, and he saw the svarts and wolves leave together for the north. Only when the clearing stood utterly silent did he rise, with difficulty, and begin his own journey back to Paras Derval. He limped badly, from a wound in the thigh, and he was weak unto death from loss of blood; but he was not going to let himself fall or fail, for he was of the lios alfar, and the last of his company, and with his own eyes he had seen a gathering of the Dark that day.
It was a long way, though, and he was badly, badly hurt, so he was still a league from Paras Derval when twilight fell.
During the day there were rumblings of thunder in the west. A number of the merchants in the city came to their doorways to look at the heavens, more out of habit than out of hope. The killing sun burned in a bare sky.
On the green at the end of Anvil Lane, Leila had gathered the children again for the ta’kiena. One or two had refused out of boredom, but she was insistent, and the others acceded to her wishes, which, with Leila, was always the best thing to do.
So she was blindfolded again, and she made them do it double so she truly could not see. Then she began the calling, and went through the first three almost indifferently because they didn’t matter, they were only a game. When she came to the last one, though, to the Road, she felt the now familiar stillness come over her again, and she closed her eyes behind the two blindfolds. Then her mouth went dry and the difficult twisting flowered inside her. Only when the rushing sound began, like waves, did she start the chant, and as she sang the last word everything stopped.
She removed the blindfolds and, blinking in the brightness, saw with no surprise at all that it was Finn again. As if from far away she heard the voices of the adults watching them, and further still she heard a roll of thunder, but she looked only at Finn. He seemed more alone every time. She would have been sad, but it seemed so destined that sadness didn’t fit, nor any sense of surprise. She didn’t know what the Longest Road was, or where it led, but she knew it was Finn’s, and that she was calling him to it.
Later that afternoon, though, something did surprise her. Ordinary people never went to the sanctuary of the Mother, certainly not at the direct request of the High Priestess herself. She combed her hair and wore her only gown; her mother made her.
When Sharra dreamed now of the falcon, it was no longer alone in the sky over Larai Rigal. Memory burned in her like a fire under stars.
She was her father’s daughter, though, heir to the Ivory Throne, and so there was a matter to be looked into, regardless of fires in her heart or falcons overhead.
Devorsh, Captain of the Guard, knocked in response to her summons, and the mutes admitted him. Her ladies murmured behind fluttering fans as the tall Captain made obeisance and gave homage in his unmistakable voice. She dismissed the women, enjoying their chagrin, and bade him sit in a low chair by the window.
“Captain,” she began, without preamble, “certain documents have come to my attention raising a matter I think we must address.”
“Highness?” He was handsome, she conceded, but not a candle, not a candle. He would not understand why she was smiling; not that it mattered.
“It seems that the archival records make mention of stone handholds cut many years ago in the cliff above Saeren due north of us.”
“Above the river, Highness? In the cliff?” Polite incredulity infused the gravelly voice.
“I think I said that, yes.” He flushed at the rebuke; she paused to let it register. “If those handholds exist, they are a danger and we should know about them. I want you to take two men you trust and see if this is true. For obvious reasons”—though she knew of none—“this is to be kept very quiet.”
“Yes, Highness. When shall I—”
“Now, of course.” She rose, and so, of necessity, did he.
“My lady’s will.” He made obeisance and turned to go.
And because of the falcons, the moon-touched memory, she called him back. “Devorsh, one thing more. I heard footsteps in the garden the night before last. Did you notice anything by the walls?”
His face showed real concern. “Highness, I went off duty at sundown. Bashrai took command from me. I will speak to him of this without delay.”
“Yes, Highness. We take turns, Bashrai and myself, in leading the night watch. He is most competent, I suggest, but if—”
“How many men patrol the walls at night?” She leaned on the back of a chair for support; there was a pressure behind her eyes.
“Twelve, Highness, in peacetime.”
“And the dogs?”
He coughed. “Ah, no, my lady. Not of late. It was felt unnecessary. They have been used on the hunt this spring and summer. Your father knows about this, of course.” His face was animated by unconcealed curiosity. “If my lady feels they should—”
“No!” It was intolerable that he be in the room another moment, that he continue to look at her like this, his eyes widening in appraisal. “I will discuss this with Bashrai. Go now and do as I have told you. And quickly, Devorsh, very quickly.”
“I go, my lady,” he said in the distinctive voice, and went. After, she bit her tongue, tasting blood, so as not to scream.
Shalhassan of Cathal was reclining on a couch, watching two slaves wrestling, when word was brought to him. His court, hedonistic and overbred, was enjoying the sight of the oiled bodies writhing naked on the floor in the presence chamber, but the King watched the fight, as he heard the news, expressionlessly.
Raziel appeared just then in the archway behind the throne with the cup in his hand. It was mid-afternoon then and, taking the drink, Shalhassan saw that the jewelled goblet was blue. Which meant that the northerner’s stone still shone as it should. He nodded to Raziel, who withdrew, their private ritual observed, as every day it was. It would never, ever do for the court to find out that Shalhassan was troubled by dreams of red wardstones.
Turning his thoughts to his daughter, Shalhassan drank. He approved her headstrong nature, indeed he had nurtured it, for no weakling dared sit on the Ivory Throne. Tantrums, though, were irresponsible, and this latest… Tearing apart her chambers and whipping her women were one thing; rooms could be restored and servants were servants. Devorsh was a different matter; he was a good soldier in a country with remarkably few, and Shalhassan was not pleased to hear that his Captain of the Guard had just been garrotted by his daughter’s mutes. Whatever the insult she might say he had given her, it was a rash and precipitate response.
He drained the blue cup and came to a decision.
She was growing too undisciplined; it was time to have her married. However strong a woman might be, she still needed a man by her side and in her bed. And the kingdom needed heirs. It was past time.
The wrestling had grown tedious. He gestured and the eidolath stopped the fight. The two slaves had been brave, though, he decided, and he freed them both. There was a polite murmur from the courtiers, an approving rustle of silk.
Turning away, he noticed that one of the wrestlers was a little tardy in his obeisance. The man may have been exhausted, or hurt, but the throne could not be compromised. At any time, in any way. He gestured again.
There were appropriate uses for the mutes and their garrottes. Sharra would just have to learn to discriminate.
The knowledge of approaching death can come in many shapes, descending as a blessing or rearing up as an apparition of terror. It may sever like the sweep of a blade, or call as a perfect lover calls. For Paul Schafer, who had chosen to be where he was for reasons deeper than loss and more oblique than empathy for an aged King, the growing awareness that his body could not survive the Summer Tree came as a kind of relief: in this failure, at least, there could be no shame. There was no unworthiness in yielding to a god.
He was honest enough to realize that the exposure and the brutal heat, the thirst and immobility were themselves enough to kill him, and this he had known from the moment they bound him.
But the Summer Tree of M"ornirwood was more than all of these. Naked upon it in the blaze of day, Paul felt the ancient bark all along the planes of his body, and in that contact he apprehended power that made what strength he had its own. The Tree would not break him; instead he felt it reaching out, pulling him into itself, taking everything. Claiming him. He knew as well, somehow, that this was only the beginning, not even the second night. It was scarcely awake.
The God was coming, though. Paul could feel that slow approach along his flesh, in the running of his blood, and now there was thunder, too. Low yet, and muted, but there were two whole nights to come and all about him the Godwood vibrated soundlessly as it had not for years upon years, waiting, waiting for the God to come and claim his own, in darkness and forever, as was his due.
The genial proprietor of the Black Boar was in a mood that bade fair to shatter his public image entirely. Under the circumstances, however, it was not entirely surprising that his countenance should display a distinctly forbidding mien as he surveyed his demesne in the morning light.
It was a festival. People drank during festivals. There were visitors in town, visitors with dry throats from the drought and a little money saved for this time. Money that might—money that should—be his, by all the gods, if he hadn’t been forced to close the Boar for the day to redress the damage of the night before. He worked them hard all day, even the ones with broken bones and bashed pates from the brawl, and he certainly wasted no sympathy on employees bemoaning hangovers or lack of sleep. There was money being lost every moment he stayed closed, every moment! And to add to the choler of his mood there was a vile, vile rumor running through the capital that bloody Gorlaes, the Chancellor, intended to slap a rationing law down on all liquids as soon as the fortnight’s festival ended. Bloody drought. He attacked a pile of debris in a corner as if it were the offending Chancellor himself. Rationing, indeed! He’d like to see Gorlaes try to ration Tegid’s wine and ale, he’d like to see him try! Why, the fat one had likely poured a week’s worth of beer over his posterior the night before.
At the recollection, the owner of the Black Boar succumbed to his first smile of the day, almost with relief. It was hard work being furious. Eyeing the room, hands on hips, he decided that they’d be able to open within an hour or so of sundown; the day wouldn’t be a total loss.
So it was that as full dark cloaked the twisting lanes of the old town, and torches and candles gleamed through curtained windows, a bulky shadow moved ponderously towards the recently reopened door of his favorite tavern.
It was dark, though, in the alleys, and he was impeded a trifle by the effects of his wars the night before, and so Tegid almost fell as he stumbled into a slight figure in the lane.
“By the horns of Cernan!” the great one spluttered. “Mind your path. Few obstruct Tegid without peril!”
“Your pardon,” the wretched obstacle murmured, so low he was scarcely audible. “I fear I am in some difficulty, and I…”
The figure wavered, and Tegid put out an instinctive hand of support. Then his bloodshot eyes finally adjusted to the shadows, and with a transcendent shock of awe, he saw the other speaker.
“Oh, M"ornir,” Tegid whispered in disbelief, and then, for once, was speechless.
The slim figure before him nodded, with an effort. “Yes,” he managed. “I am of the lios alfar. I—,” he gasped with pain, then resumed, “—I have tidings that must… must reach the palace, and I am sorely hurt.”
At which point, Tegid became aware that the hand he had laid upon the other’s shoulder was sticky with fresh blood.
“Easy now,” he said with clumsy tenderness. “Can you walk?”
“I have, so far, all day. But…” Brendel slipped to one knee, even as he spoke. “But as you see, I am…”
There were tears in Tegid’s eyes. “Come, then,” he murmured, like a lover. And lifting the mangled body effortlessly, Tegid of Rhoden, named Breakwind, called the Boaster, cradled the lios alfar in his massive arms and bore him towards the brilliant glitter of the castle.
“I dreamt again,” Kim said. “A swan.” It was dark outside the cottage. She had been silent all day, had walked alone by the lake. Throwing pebbles.
“What color?” Ysanne asked, from the rocking chair by the hearth.
“I dreamt her as well. It is a bad thing.”
“What is it? Eilathen never showed me this.” There were two candles in the room. They flickered and dwindled as Ysanne told her about Avaia and Lauriel the White. At intervals they heard thunder, far off.
It was still a festival, and though the King looked haggard and desiccated in his seat at the high table, the Great Hall gleamed richly by torchlight, festooned as it was with hangings of red and gold silk. Despite their morose King and his unwontedly bemused Chancellor, the court of Ailell was determined to enjoy itself. The players in the musicians’ gallery overhead were in merry form, and even though dinner had not yet begun, the pages were being kept busy running back and forth with wine.
Kevin Laine, eschewing both his seat at the high table as a guest of honor and the not-very-subtle invitation of the Lady Rheva, had decided to ignore protocol by opting for a masculine enclave partway down one of the two tables that ran along the hall. Seated between Matt S"oren and Diarmuid’s big, broken-nosed lieutenant, Coll, he attempted to preserve a cheerful appearance, but the fact that no one had seen Paul Schafer since last night was building into a real source of anxiety. Jennifer, too: where the hell was she?
On the other hand, there were still many people filing into the room, and Jen, he had cause to remember, was seldom on time for anything, let alone early. Kevin drained his wine goblet for the third time and decided that he was becoming altogether too much of a worrier.
At which point Matt S"oren asked, “Have you seen Jennifer?” and Kevin abruptly changed his mind.
“No,” he said. “I was at the Boar last night, and then seeing the barracks and the armory with Carde and Erron today. Why? Do you—?”
“She went riding with one of the ladies-in-waiting yesterday. Drance was with them.”
“He’s a good man,” Coll said reassuringly, from the other side.
“Well, has anyone seen them? Was she in her room last night?” Kevin asked.
Coll grinned. “That wouldn’t prove much, would it? A lot of us weren’t in our beds last night.” He laughed and clapped Kevin on the shoulder. “Cheer up!’
Kevin shook his head. Dave. Paul. Now Jen.
“Riding, you said?” He turned to Matt. “Has anyone checked the stables? Are the horses back?”
S"oren looked at him. “No,” he said softly. “We haven’t—but I think I want to now. Come on!” He was already pushing his chair back.
They rose together and so were on their feet when the sudden babble of sound came from the east doorway, and the courtiers and ladies gathered there moved aside for the torches to reveal the enormous figure with a bloodstained body in his arms.
Everything stopped. In the silence Tegid moved slowly forward between the long tables to stand before Ailell.
“Look!” he cried, grief raw in his voice. “My lord King, here is one of the lios alfar, and see what they have done to him!”
The King was ashen. Trembling, he rose. “Na-Brendel?” he croaked. “Oh, M"ornir. Is he…?”
“No,” a faint, clear voice replied. “I am not dead, though I might yet wish to be. Let me stand to give my tidings.”
Gently, Tegid lowered the lios to stand on the mosaic-inlaid floor, and then, kneeling awkwardly, he offered his shoulder for support.
Brendel closed his eyes and drew a breath. And when he spoke again his voice, by some act of pure will, rang out strong and clear beneath the windows of Delevan.
“Treachery, High King. Treachery and death I bring you, and tidings of the Dark. We spoke, you and I, four nights past, of svart alfar outside Pendaran Wood. High King, there have been svarts outside your walls this day, and wolves with them. We were attacked before dawn and all my people are slain!”
He stopped. A sound like the moaning of wind before a storm ran through the hall.
Ailell has sunk back into his chair, his eyes bleak and hollow. Brendel lifted his head and looked at him. “There is an empty seat at your table, High King. I must tell you that it stands empty for a traitor. Look to your own hearth, Ailell! Metran, your First Mage, is allied with the Dark. He has deceived you all!” There were cries at that, of anger and dismay.
“Hold!” It was Diarmuid, on his feet and facing the lios. His eyes flashed, but his voice was under tight control. “You said the Dark. Who?”
Once more the silence stretched. Then Brendel spoke. “I would not have ever wanted to bear this tale to the world. I spoke of svart alfar and wolves attacking us. We would not have died had it been only them. There was something else. A giant wolf, with silver on his head like a brand against the black. Then I saw him after with Metran and I knew him, for he had taken back his true form. I must tell you that the Wolflord of the andain has come among us again: Galadan has returned.”
“Accursed be his name!” someone cried, and Kevin saw that it was Matt. “How can this be? He died at Andarien a thousand years ago.”
“So thought we all,” said Brendel, turning to the Dwarf. “But I saw him today, and this wound is his.” He touched his torn shoulder. Then, “There is more. Something else came today and spoke with both of them.”
Once more Brendel hesitated. And this time his eyes, dark-hued, went to Kevin’s face.
“It was the black swan,” he said, and a stillness fell upon stillness. “Avaia. She carried away Jennifer, your friend, the golden one. They had come for her, why I know not, but we were too few, too few against the Wolflord, and so my brethren are all dead, and she is gone. And the Dark is abroad in the world again.”
Kevin, white with dread, looked at the maimed figure of the lios. “Where?” he gasped, in a voice that shocked him.
Brendel shook his head wearily. “I could not hear their words. Black Avaia took her north. Could I have stayed her flight, I would have died to do so. Oh, believe me,” the lios alfar’s voice faltered. “Your grief is mine, and mine may tear the fabric of my soul apart. Twenty of my people have died, and it is in my heart that they are not the last. We are the Children of Light, and the Dark is rising. I must return to Daniloth. But,” and now his voice grew strong again, “an oath I will swear before you now. She was in my care. I shall find her, or avenge her, or die in the attempt.” And Brendel cried then, so that the Great Hall echoed to the sound: “We shall fight them as we did before! As we always have!”
The words rang among them like a stern bell of defiance, and in Kevin Laine they lit a fire he did not know lay within him.
“Not alone!” he cried, his own voice pitched to carry. “If you share my grief, I will share yours. And others here will, too, I think.”
“Aye!” boomed Matt S"oren beside him.
“All of us!” cried Diarmuid, Prince of Brennin. “When the lios are slain in Brennin, the High Kingdom goes to war!”
A mighty roar exploded at those words. Building and building in a wave of fury it climbed to the highest windows of Delevan and resounded through the hall.
It drowned, quite completely, the despairing words of the High King.
“Oh, M"ornir,” whispered Ailell, clutching his hands together in his lap. “What have I done? Where is Loren? What have I done?”
There had been light, now there was not. One measured time in such ways. There were stars in the space above the trees; no moon yet, and only a thin one later, for tomorrow would be the night of the new moon.
His last night, if he lived through this one.
The Tree was a part of him now, another name, a summoning. He almost heard a meaning in the breathing of the forest all around him, but his mind was stretched and flattened, he could not reach to it, he could only endure, and hold the wall of memory as best he might.
One more night. After which there would be no music to be laid open by, no highways to forget, no rain, no sirens, none, no Rachel. One more night at most, for he wasn’t sure he could survive another day like the last.
Though truly he would try: for the old King, and the slain farmer, and the faces he’d seen on the roads. Better to die for a reason, and with what one could retain of pride. Better, surely, though he could not say why.
Now I give you to M"ornir, Ailell had said. Which meant he was a gift, an offering, and it was all waste if he died too soon. So he had to hold to life, hold the wall, hold for the God, for he was the God’s to claim, and there was thunder now. It seemed at times to come from within the Tree, which meant, in the way of things, from within himself. If only there could be rain before he died, he might find some kind of peace at the end. It had rained, though, when she died, it had rained all night.
His eyes were hurting now. He closed them, but that was no good, either, because she was waiting there, with music. Once, earlier, he had wanted to call her name in the wood, as he had not beside the open grave, to feel it on his lips again as he had not since; to burn his dry soul with her. Burn, since he could not cry.
Silence, of course. One did not do any such thing. One opened one’s eyes instead on the Summer Tree, in the deep of M"ornirwood, and one saw a man come forward, from among the trees.
It was very dark, he could not see who it was, but the faint starlight reflected from silver hair and so he thought…
“Loren?” he tried, but scarcely any sound escaped his cracked lips. He tried to wet them, but he had no moisture, he was dry. Then the figure came nearer, to stand in the starlight below where he was bound, and Paul saw that he had been wrong. The eyes that met his own were not those of the mage, and, looking into them, he did know fear then, for it should not end so, truly it should not. But the man below stood as if cloaked in power, even in that place, even in the glade of the Summer Tree, and in the dark eyes Paul saw his death.
Then the figure spoke. “I cannot allow it,” he said, with finality. “You have courage, and something else, I think. Almost you are one of us, and it might have been that we could have shared something, you and I. Not now, though. This I cannot allow. You are calling a force too strong for the knowing, and it must not be wakened. Not when I am so near. Will you believe,” the voice said, low and assured, “that I am sorry to have to kill you?”
Paul moved his lips. “Who?” he asked, the sound a scrape in his throat.
The other smiled at that. “Names matter to you? They should. It is Galadan who has come, and I fear it is the end.”
Bound and utterly helpless, Paul saw the elegant figure draw a knife from his belt. “It will be clean, I promise you,” he said. “Did you not come here for release? I will give it to you.” Their eyes locked once more. It was a dream, it was so like a dream, so dark, blurred, shadowed. He closed his eyes; one closed one’s eyes to dream. She was there, of course, but it was ending, so all right then, fine, let it end on her.
A moment passed. No blade, no severing. Then Galadan spoke again, but not to him, and in a different voice.
“You?” he said. “Here? Now I understand.”
For reply there came only a deep, rumbling growl. His heart leaping, Paul opened his eyes. In the clearing facing Galadan was the grey dog he had seen on the palace wall.
Gazing at the dog, Galadan spoke again. “It was written in wind and fire long ago that we should meet,” he said. “And here is as fit a place as any in all the worlds. Would you guard the sacrifice? Then your blood is the gateway to my desire. Come, and I shall drink it now!”
He placed a hand over his heart and made a twisting gesture, and after a brief blurring of space, there stood a moment later, where he had been, a wolf so large it dwarfed the grey figure of the dog. And the wolf had a splash of silver between its ears.
One endless moment the animals faced each other, and Paul realized that the Godwood had gone deathly still. Then Galadan howled so as to chill the heart, and leaped to attack.
There took place then a battle foretold in the first depths of time by the twin goddesses of war, who are named in all the worlds as Macha and Nemain. A portent it was to be, a presaging of the greatest war of all, this coming together in darkness of the wolf, who was a man whose spirit was annihilation, and the grey dog, who had been called by many names but was always the Companion.
The battle the two goddesses foreknew—for war was their demesne—but not the resolution. A portent then, a presaging, a beginning.
And so it came to pass that wolf and dog met at last in Fionavar, first of all the worlds, and below the Summer Tree they ripped and tore at one another with such fury that soon dark blood soaked the glade under the stars.
Again and again they hurled themselves upon each other, black on grey, and Paul, straining to see, felt his heart go out to the dog with all the force of his being. He remembered the loss he had seen in its eyes, and he saw now, even in the shadows, as the animals rolled over and over, biting and grappling, engaging and recoiling in desperate frenzy, that the wolf was too large.
They were both black now, for the light grey fur of the dog was matted and dark with its own blood. Still it fought, eluding and atacking, summoning a courage, embodying a gallantry of defiance that hurt to see, it was so noble and so doomed.
The wolf was bleeding, too, and its flesh was ripped and torn, but it was so much larger; and more, more than that, Galadan carried within himself a power that went far deeper than tooth and gashing claw.
Paul became aware that his bound hands were torn and bleeding. Unconsciously he had been struggling to free himself, to go to the aid of the dog who was dying in his defence. The bonds held, though, and so, too, did the prophecy, for this was to be wolf and dog alone, and so it was.
Through the night it continued. Weary and scored with wounds, the grey dog fought on; but its attacks were parried more easily now, its defences were more agonizing, more narrowly averting the final closing of jaw on jugular. It could only be a question of time, Paul realized, grieving and forced to bear witness. It hurt so much, so much…
“Fight!” he screamed suddenly, his throat raw with effort. “Go on! I’ll hold if you can—I’ll make it through tomorrow night. In the name of the God, I swear it. Give me till tomorrow and I’ll bring you rain.”
For a moment the animals were checked by the force of his cry. Then, limp and drained, Paul saw with agony that it was the wolf who lifted a head to look at him, a terrible smile distorting its face. Then it turned back, back for the last attack, a force of fury, of annihilation. Galadan who had returned. It was a charge of uncoiled power, not to be denied or withstood.
And yet it was.
The dog, too, had heard Paul’s cry; without the strength to raise its head in reply, it found yet in the words, in the desperate, scarcely articulate vow, a pure white power of its own; and reaching back, far back into its own long history of battle and loss, the grey dog met the wolf for the last time with a spirit of utmost denial, and the earth shook beneath them as they crashed together.
Over and over on the sodden ground they rolled, indistinguishable, one contorted shape that embodied all the endless conflict of Light and Dark in all the turning worlds.
Then the world turned enough, finally, for the moon to rise above the trees.
Only a crescent she was, the last thin, pale sliver before the dark of tomorrow. But she was still there, still glorious, a light. And Paul, looking up, understood then, from a deep place in his soul, that just as the Tree belonged to Morair, so did the moon to the Mother; and when the crescent moon shone above the Summer Tree, then was the banner of Brennin made real in that wood.
In silence, in awe, in deepest humility, he watched at length as one dark, blood-spattered animal disengaged from the other. It limped, tail down, to the edge of the glade, and when it turned to look back, Paul saw a splash of silver between its ears. With a snarl of rage, Galadan fled the wood.
The dog could barely stand. It breathed with a sucking heave of flank and sides that Paul ached to see. It was so terribly hurt, it was scarcely alive; the blood so thick upon it he could not see an untorn patch of fur.
But it was alive, and it came haltingly over to gaze up at him, lifting its torn head under the light and succor of the moon it had waited for. In that moment, Paul Schafer felt his own cracked, dry soul open up again to love as he looked down upon the dog.
For the second time their eyes met, and this time Paul did not back away. He took in the loss he saw, all of it, the pain endured for him and endured long before him, and with the first power of the Tree, he made it his own.
“Oh, brave,” he said, finding that he could speak. “There can never have been a thing so brave. Go now, for it is my turn, and I will keep faith. I’ll hold now, until tomorrow night, for you as much as anything.”
The dog looked at him, the eyes clouded with pain, but still deep with intelligence, and Paul knew he was understood.
“Goodbye,” he whispered, a kind of caress in the word.
And in response the grey dog threw back its proud head and howled: a cry of triumph and farewell, so loud and clear it filled all the Godwood and then echoed far beyond it, beyond the bounds of the worlds, even, hurtling into time and space, that the goddesses might hear it, and know.
In the taverns of Paras Derval, the rumor of war spread like a fire in dry grass. Svarts had been seen, and giant wolves, and lios alfar had walked in the city and been slain in the land. Diarmuid, the Prince, had sworn vengeance. All over the capital, swords and spears were rescued from places where they had rusted long years. Anvil Lane would resound in the morning to the clanging sound of fevered preparation.
For Karsh, the tanner, though, there was other news that eclipsed even the rumors, and on the crest of it he was engaged in drinking himself happily to incapacity, and buying, with profoundly uncharacteristic largess, drinks for every man in earshot.
He had cause, they all agreed. It wasn’t every day that saw a man’s daughter initiated as an acolyte in the Temple of the Mother. The more so, when Jaelle, the High Priestess herself, had summoned her.
It was an honor, they all chorused, toasting Karsh amid the bustle of war talk. It was more, the tanner said, toasting back: for a man with four daughters, it was a blessing from the gods. From the Goddess, he corrected himself owlishly, and brought everyone another round with money marked until that day for her dowry.
In the sanctuary the newest acolyte drifted towards the sleep of the utterly exhausted. In her fourteen years she had never known a day like the one just past. Tears and pride, unexpected fear, and then laughter had all been part of it.
The ceremony she had barely understood, for they had given her a drink that made the domed room spin softly, though not unpleasantly. The axe she remembered, the chanting of the grey-clad priestesses of whose number she would soon be one, and then the voice, cold and powerful, of the High Priestess in her white robe.
She didn’t remember when she had been cut, but the wound on her wrist throbbed under the cloth bandage. It was necessary, they had explained: blood to bind.
Leila hadn’t bothered telling them that she had always known that.
Long past midnight Jaelle woke in the stillness of the Temple. High Priestess of Brennin, and one of the Mormae of Gwen Ystrat, she could not fail to hear, though no one else in Paras Derval would, the supernatural howling of a dog, as the moon shone down upon the Summer Tree.
She could hear it, but she did not understand, and lying in her bed she chafed and raged at her inability. There was something happening. Forces were abroad. She could feel power gathering like a storm.
She needed a Seer, by all the names of the Mother, she needed one. But there was only the hag, and she had sold herself. In the darkness of her room, the High Priestess clenched her long fingers in deep, unending bitterness. She had need, and was being denied. She was blind.
Lost and forever, she cursed again, and lay awake all the rest of the night, feeling it gathering, gathering.
Kimberly thought she was dreaming. The same dream as two nights before, when the howling had shattered her vision of Paul and Ailell. She heard the dog, but this time she did not wake. Had she done so, she would have seen the Baelrath glowering ominously on her hand.
In the barn, among the close, familiar smells of the animals, Tyrth the servant did awaken. One moment he lay motionless, disbelieving, as the inner echoes of that great cry faded, then an expression crossed his face that was composed of many elements, but had more of longing than anything else. He swung out of bed, dressed quickly, and left the barn.
He limped across the yard and through the gate, closing it behind him. Only when he was in the strand of trees, and so hidden from the cottage, did the limp disappear. At which point he began to run, very swiftly, in the direction of the thunder.
Alone of those who heard the dog, Ysanne the Seer, awake in her bed as well, knew what that cry of pain and pride truly meant.
She heard Tyrth cross the yard, limping west, and she knew what that meant, too. There were so many unexpected griefs, she thought, so many different things to pity.
Not least, what she had now, at last, to do. For the storm was upon them; that cry in the wood was the harbinger, and so it was full time, and this night would see her do what she had seen long ago.
Not for herself did she grieve; there had been true fear at her first foreknowledge, and an echo of it when she had seen the girl in the Great Hall, but it had passed. The thing was very dark, but no longer terrifying; long ago she had known what would come.
It would be hard, though, for the girl. It would be hard in every way, but against what had begun tonight with the dog and the wolf… It was going to be hard for all of them. She could not help that; one thing only, she could do.
There was a stranger dying on the Tree. She shook her head; that, that was the deepest thing of all, and he was the one she had not been able to read, not that it mattered now. As to that, only the sporadic thunder mattered, thunder in a clear, starry sky. M"ornir would walk tomorrow, if the stranger held, and no one, not one of them could tell what that might mean. The God was outside of them.
But the girl. The girl was something else, and her Ysanne could see, had seen many times. She rose quietly and walked to stand over Kim. She saw the vellin stone on the slim wrist, and the Baelrath glowing on one finger, and she thought of Macha and Red Nemain and their prophecy.
She thought of Raederth then, for the first time that night. An old, old sorrow. Fifty years, but still. Lost once, fifty years ago on the far side of Night, and now… But the dog had howled in the wood, it was full, fullest time, and she had known for very long what was to come. There was no terror any more, only loss, and there had always been loss.
Kimberly stirred on her pillow. So young, the Seer thought. It was all so sad, but she knew, truly, of no other way, for she had lied the day before: it was not merely a matter of time before the girl could know the woven patterns of Fionavar as she needed to. It could not be. Oh, how could it ever be?
The girl was needed. She was a Seer, and more. The crossing bore witness, the pain of the land, the testimony in Eilathen’s eyes. She was needed, but not ready, not complete, and the old woman knew one way, and only one, to do the last thing necessary.
The cat was awake, watching her with knowing eyes from the window sill. It was very dark; tomorrow there would be no moon. It was time, past time.
She laid a hand then, and it was very steady, upon Kimberly’s forehead, where the single vertical line showed when she was distressed. Ysanne’s fingers, still beautiful, traced a sign lightly and irrevocably on the unfurrowed brow. Kimberly slept. A gentle smile lit the Seer’s face as she withdrew.
“Sleep child,” she murmured. “You have need, for the way is dark and there will be fire ere the end, and a breaking of the heart. Grieve not in the morning for my soul; my dream is done, my dreaming. May the Weaver name you his, and shield you from the Dark all your days.”
Then there was silence in the room. The cat watched from the window. “It is done,” Ysanne said, to the room, the night, the summer stars, to all her ghosts, and to the one loved man, now to be lost forever among the dead.
With care she opened the secret entrance to the chamber below, and went slowly down the stone stairs to where Colan’s dagger lay, bright still in its sheath of a thousand years.
There was a very great deal of pain now. The moon had passed from overhead. His last moon, he realized, though thought was difficult. Consciousness was going to become a transient condition, a very hard thing, and already, with a long way yet to go, he was beginning to hallucinate. Colors, sounds. The trunk of the Tree seemed to have grown fingers, rough like bark, that wrapped themselves around him. He was touching the Tree everywhere now. Once, for a long spell, he thought he was inside it, looking out, not bound upon it. He thought he was the Summer Tree.
He was truly not afraid of dying, only of dying too soon. He had sworn an oath. But it was so hard to hold onto his mind, to hold his will to living another night. So much easier to let go, to leave the pain behind. Already the dog and wolf seemed to have been half dreamt, though he knew the battle had ended only hours before. There was dried blood on his wrists from when he had tried to free himself.
When the second man appeared before him, he was sure it was a vision. He was so far gone. Popular attraction, a faint, fading capacity of his mind mocked. Come see the hanging man!
This man had a beard, and deep-set dark eyes, and didn’t seem about to change into an animal. He just stood there, looking up. A very boring vision. The trees were loud in the wind; there was thunder, he could feel it.
Paul made an effort, moving his head back and forth to clear it. His eyes hurt, for some reason, but he could see. And what he saw on the face of the figure below was an expression of such appalling, balked desire that the hair rose up on his neck. He should know who this was, he should. If his mind were working, he would know, but it was too hard, it was hopelessly beyond him.
“You have stolen my death,” the figure said.
Paul closed his eyes. He was too far away from this. Too far down the road. He was incapable of explaining, unable to do more than try to endure.
An oath. He had sworn an oath. What did an oath mean? A whole day more, it meant. And a third night.
Some time later his eyes seemed to be open again and he saw, with uttermost relief, that he was alone. There was grey in the eastern sky; one more, one last.
And this was the second night of Pwyll the Stranger on the Summer Tree.