In the morning came something unheard of: a hot, dry wind, bitter and unsettling, swept down into Paras Derval from the north.
No one could remember a hot north wind before. It carried with it the dust of bone-bare farms, so the air darkened that day, even at noon, and the high sun shone balefully orange through the obscuring haze.
The thunder continued, almost a mockery. There were no clouds.
“With all respect, and such-like sentiments,” Diarmuid said from by the window, his tone insolent and angry, “We are wasting time.” He looked dishevelled and dangerous; he was also, Kevin realized with dismay, a little drunk.
From his seat at the head of the council table, Ailell ignored his heir. Kevin, still not sure why he’d been invited here, saw two bright spots of red on the cheeks of the old King. Ailell looked terrible; he seemed to have shrivelled overnight.
Two more men entered the room: a tall, clever-looking man, and beside him, a portly, affable fellow. The other mage, Kevin guessed: Teyrnon, with Barak, his source. Gorlaes, the Chancellor, made the introductions and it turned out he was right, except the innocuous-seeming fat man was the mage, and not the other way around.
Loren was still away, but Matt was in the room, and so, too, were a number of other dignitaries. Kevin recognized Mabon, the Duke of Rhoden, Ailell’s cousin, and beyond him was Niavin of Seresh. The ruddy man with the salt-and-pepper beard was Ceredur, who had been made North Warden after Diarmuid’s brother was exiled. He’d seen them at last night’s banquet. Their expressions were very different now.
It was Jaelle, they were waiting for, and as the moments passed, Kevin, too, began to grow impatient with apprehension.
“My lord,” he said abruptly to the King, “while we wait—who is Galadan? I feel completely ignorant.”
It was Gorlaes who answered. Ailell was sunken in silence, and Diarmuid was still sulking by the window. “He is a force of Darkness from long ago. A very great power, though he did not always serve the Dark,” the Chancellor said. “He is one of the andain—child of a mortal woman and a god. In older days there were not a few such unions. The andain are a difficult race, moving easily in no world at all. Galadan became their Lord, by far the most powerful of them all, and said to be the most subtle mind in Fionavar. Then something changed him.”
“An understatement, that,” murmured Teyrnon.
“I suppose,” said Gorlaes. “What happened is that he fell in love with Lisen of the Wood. And when she rejected him and bound herself instead to a mortal, Amairgen Whitebranch, first of the mages, Galadan vowed the most complete vengeance ever sworn.” The Chancellor’s voice took on a note of awe. “Galadan swore that the world that witnessed his humiliation would cease to exist.”
There was a silence. Kevin could think of nothing to say. Nothing at all.
Teyrnon took up the tale. “In the time of the Bael Rangat he was first lieutenant to Rakoth and most terrible of his servants. He had the power to take on the shape of a wolf, and so he commanded them all. His purposes, though, were at odds with his master’s, for though the Unraveller sought rule for lust of power and domination, Galadan would have conquered to utterly destroy.”
“They fought?” Kevin hazarded.
Teyrnon shook his head. “One did not pitch oneself against Rakoth. Galadan has very great powers, and if he has joined the svart alfar to his wolves in war upon us, then we are in danger indeed; but Rakoth, whom the stones bind, is outside the Tapestry. There is no thread with his name upon it. He cannot die, and none could ever set his will against him.”
“Amairgen did,” said Diarmuid from the window.
“And died,” Teyrnon replied, not ungently.
“There are worse things,” the Prince snapped.
At that, Ailell stirred. Before he could speak, though, the door opened and Jaelle swept into the room. She nodded briefly to the King, acknowledged no one else, and slipped into the chair left for her at one end of the long table.
“Thank you for hurrying,” Diarmuid murmured, coming to take his chair at Ailell’s right hand. Jaelle merely smiled. It was not a pleasant smile.
“Well, now,” said the King, clearing his throat, “it seems to me that the best way to proceed is to spend this morning in a careful review—”
“In the name of the Weaver and the Loom, Father!” Diarmuid’s fist crashed on the table. “We all know what has happened! What is there to review? I swore an oath last night we would aid the lios, and—”
“A premature oath, Prince Diarmuid,” Gorlaes interrupted. “And not one within your power to swear.”
“No?” said the Prince softly. “Then let me remind you—let us indeed carefully review,” he amended delicately, “what has happened. One of my men is dead. One of the ladies of this court is dead. A svart alfar was within the palace grounds six nights ago.” He was ticking them off on his fingers. “Lios alfar have died in Brennin. Galadan has returned. Avaia has returned. Our First Mage is a proven traitor. A guest-friend of this House has been torn away from us—a guest-friend, I pause to point out, of our radiant High Priestess as well. Which should mean something, unless she takes such things to be meaningless.”
“I do not,” Jaelle snapped through clenched teeth.
“No?” the Prince said, his eyebrows raised. “What a surprise. I thought you might regard it as of the same importance as arriving to a War Council on time.”
“It isn’t yet a Council of War,” Duke Ceredur said bluntly. “Though to be truthful, I am with the Prince— I think we should have the country on war footing immediately.”
There was a grunt of agreement from Matt S"oren. Teyrnon, though, shook his round honest head. “There is too much fear in the city,” he demurred, “and it is going to spread within days throughout the country.” Niavin, Duke of Seresh, was nodding agreement. “Unless we know exactly what we are doing and what we face, I think we must take care not to panic them,” the chubby mage concluded.
“We do know what we face!” Diarmuid shot back. “Galadan was seen. He was seen! I say we summon the Dalrei, make league with the lios, and seek the Wolflord wherever he goes and crush him now!”
“Amazing,” Jaelle murmured drily in the pause that ensued, “how impetuous younger sons tend to be, especially when they have been drinking.”
“Go gently, sweetling,” the Prince said softly. “I will not brook that from anyone. You, least of all, my midnight moonchild.”
Kevin exploded. “Will you two listen to yourselves? Don’t you understand: Jennifer is gone! We’ve got to do something besides bicker, for God’s sake!”
“I quite agree,” Teyrnon said sternly. “May I suggest that we invite our friend from Daniloth to join us if he is able. We should seek the views of the lios on this.”
“You may seek their views,” said Ailell dan Art, suddenly rising to tower above them all, “and I would have his thoughts reported to me later, Teyrnon. But I have decided to adjourn this Council until this same time tomorrow. You all have leave to go.”
“Father—” Diarmuid began, stammering with consternation.
“No words!” Ailell said harshly, and his eyes gleamed in his bony face. “I am still High King in Brennin, let all of you remember it!”
“We do, my dearest lord,” said a familiar voice from the door. “We all do,” Loren Silvercloak went on, “but Galadan is far too great a power for us to delay without cause.”
Dusty and travel-stained, his eyes hollow with exhaustion, the mage ignored the fierce reaction to his arrival and gazed only at the King. There was, Kevin realized, a sudden surge of relief in the room; he felt it within himself. Loren was back. It made a very great difference.
Matt S"oren had risen to stand beside the mage, eyeing his friend with a grimly worried expression. Loren’s weariness was palpable, but he seemed to gather his resources, and turned among all that company to look at Kevin.
“I am sorry,” he said simply. “I am deeply sorry.”
Kevin nodded jerkily. “I know,” he whispered. That was all; they both turned to the King.
“Since when need the High King explain himself?” Ailell said, but his brief assertion of control seemed to have drained him; his tone was querulous, not commanding.
“He need not, my lord. But if he does, his subjects and advisers may sometimes be of greater aid.” The mage had come several steps into the room.
“Sometimes,” the King replied. “But at other times there are things they do not and should not know.” Kevin saw Gorlaes shift in his seat. He took a chance.
“But the Chancellor knows, my lord. Should not your other counsellors? Forgive my presumption, but a woman I love is gone, High King.”
Ailell regarded him for a long time without speaking. Then he gave a small nod. “Well spoken,” he said. “Indeed, the only person here who truly has a right to be told is you, but I will do as you ask.”
“My lord!” Gorlaes began urgently.
Ailell raised a hand, quelling him.
In the ensuing silence there came a distant roll of thunder.
“Can you not hear it?” the High King whispered on a rising note. “Listen! The God is coming. If the offering holds, he comes tonight. This will be the third night. How can we act before we know?”
They were all on their feet.
“Someone is on the Tree,” Loren said flatly.
The King nodded.
“My brother?” asked Diarmuid, his face ashen.
“No,” said Ailell, and turned to Kevin.
It took a moment, then everything fell into place. “Oh, God,” Kevin cried. “It’s Paul!” and he lowered his face into his hands.
Kimberly woke knowing.
Who kills without love shall surely die, Seithr the Dwarf-King had said to Colan the Beloved long ago. And then, lowering his voice, he had added for only the son of Conary to hear, “Who dies with love may make of his soul a gift to the one marked with the pattern on the dagger’s haft.”
“A rich gift,” had murmured Colan.
“Richer than you know. Once given, the soul is gone. It is lost to time. There can be no passage beyond the walls of Night to find light at the Weaver’s side.”
Conary ‘s son had bowed very low. “I thank you,” he said. “Double-edged the knife, and double-edged the gift. M"ornir grant us the sight to use it truly.”
Even before she looked, Kim knew that her hair was white. Lying in bed that first morning she cried, though silently and not for long. There was much to be done. Even with the vellin on her wrist, she felt the day like a fever. She would be unworthy of the gift if she were undone by mourning.
So she rose up, Seer of Brennin, newest dreamer of the dream, to begin what Ysanne had died to allow her to do.
More than died.
There are kinds of action, for good or ill, that lie so far outside the boundaries of normal behavior that they force us, in acknowledging that they have occurred, to restructure our own understanding of reality. We have to make room for them.
This, Kim thought, is what Ysanne had done. With an act of love so great—and not just for her—it could scarcely be assimilated, she had stripped her soul of any place it held in time. She was gone, utterly. Not just from life, but more, much more, as Kim now knew—from death as well; from what lay after in the patterns of the Weaver for his children.
Instead, the Seer had given all she could to Kim, had given all. No longer could Kim say she was not of Fionavar, for within her now pulsed an intuitive understanding of this world more deep even than the knowledge of her own. Looking now at a bannion, she would know what it was; she understood the vellin on her wrist, something of the wild Baelrath on her finger; and one day she would know who was to bear the Circlet of Lisen and tread the darkest path of all. Raederth’s words; Raederth whom Ysanne had lost again, that Kim might have this.
Which was so unfair. What right, what possible right had the Seer had to make such a sacrifice? To impose with this impossible gift, such a burden? How had she presumed to decide for Kim?
The answer, though, was easy enough after a while: she hadn’t. Kim could go, leave, deny. She could cross home as planed and dye her hair, or leave it as it was and go New Wave if she preferred. Nothing had changed.
Except, of course, that everything had. How can you tell the dancer from the dance? she had read somewhere. Or the dreamer from the dream, she amended, feeling a little lost. Because the answer to that was easiest of all.
Some time later she laid her hand, in the way she now knew, upon the slab below the table, and saw the door appear.
Down the worn stone stairs she went, in her turn. Lisen’s Light showed her the way. The dagger would be there, she knew, with red blood on the silver-blue thieren of the blade. There would be no body, though, for Ysanne the Seer, having died with love and by that blade, had taken herself beyond the walls of time, where she could not be followed. Lost and forever. It was final, absolute. It was ended.
And she was left here in the first world of them all, bearing the burden of that.
She cleaned Lokdal and sheathed it to a sound like a harpstring. She put it back in the cabinet. Then she went up the stairs again towards the world that needed her, all the worlds that needed what it seemed she was.
“Oh, God,” Kevin said. “It’s Paul!”
A stunned silence descended, overwhelming in its import. This was something for which none of them could have prepared. I should have known, Kevin was thinking, though. I should have figured it out when he first told me about the Tree. A bitterness scaling towards rage pulled his head up…
“That must have been some chess game,” he said savagely to the King.
“It was,” Ailell said simply. Then, “He came to me and offered. I would never have asked, or even thought to ask. Will you believe this?”
And of course he did. It fit too well. The attack was unfair, because Paul would have done what he wanted to, exactly what he wanted to, and this was a better way to die than falling from a rope down a cliff. As such things were measured, and he supposed they could be measured. It hurt, though, it really hurt, and—
“No!” said Loren decisively. “It must be stopped. This we cannot do. He is not even one of us, my lord. We cannot lay our griefs upon him in this way. He must be taken down. This is a guest of your House, Ailell. Of our world. What were you thinking of?”
“Of our world. Of my House. Of my people. He came to me, Silvercloak.”
“And should have been refused!”
“Loren, it was a true offering.” The speaker was Gorlaes, his voice unwontedly diffident.
“You were there?” the mage bristled.
“I bound him. He walked past us to the Tree. It was as if he were alone. I know not how, and I am afraid here speaking of it, as I was in the Godwood, but I swear it is a proper offering.”
“No,” Loren said again, his face sharp with emotion. “He cannot possibly understand what he is doing. My lord, he must be taken down before he dies.”
“It is his own death, Loren. His chosen gift. Would you presume to strip it from him?” Ailell’s eyes were so old, so weary.
“I would,” the mage replied. “He was not brought here to die for us.”
It was time to speak.
“Maybe not,” Kevin said, forcing the words out, stumbling and in pain. “But I think that is why he came.” He was losing them both. Jennifer. Now Paul, too. His heart was sore. “If he went, he went knowing, and because he wanted to. Let him die for you, if he can’t live for himself. Leave him, Loren. Let him go.”
He didn’t bother trying to hide the tears, not even from Jaelle, whose eyes on his face were so cold.
“Kevin,” said the mage gently, “it is a very bad death. No one lasts the three—it will be waste and to no point. Let me take him down.”
“It is not for you to choose, Silvercloak,” Jaelle spoke then. “Nor for this one, either.”
Loren turned, his eyes hard as flint. “If I decide to bring him down,” he said driving the words into her, “then it will be necessary for you to kill me to prevent it.”
“Careful, mage,” Gorlaes cautioned, though mildly. “That is close to treason. The High King has acted here. Would you undo what he has done?”
None of them seemed to be getting the point. “No one has acted but Paul,” Kevin said. He felt drained now, but completely unsurprised. He really should have known this was coming. “Loren, if anyone understood this, it was him. If he lasts three nights, will there be rain?”
“There might be.” It was the King. “This is wild magic, we cannot know.”
“Blood magic,” Loren amended bitterly.
Teyrnon shook his head. “The God is wild, though there may be blood.”
“He can’t last, though,” Diarmuid said, his voice sober. He looked at Kevin. “You said yourself, he’s been ill.”
A cracked, high laugh escaped Kevin at that.
“Never stopped him,” he said fiercely, feeling it so hard. “The stubborn, brave, son of a bitch!”
The love in the harsh words reached through to all of them, it could not help but do so; and it had to be acknowledged. Even by Jaelle and, in a very different way, by Loren Silvercloak.
“Very well,” said the mage at last. He sank into a chair. “Oh, Kevin. They will sing of him here as long as Brennin lasts, regardless of the end.”
“Songs,” said Kevin. “Songs only mess you up.” It was too much effort not to ache; he let it sweep over him. Sometimes, his father had said, you can’t do anything. Oh, Abba, he thought, far away and alone inside the hurt.
“Tomorrow,” Ailell the High King said, rising again, gaunt and tall. “I will meet you here at sunrise tomorrow. We will see what the night brings.”
It was a dismissal. They withdrew, leaving the King sitting at the last alone in his council chamber with his years, his self-contempt, and the image of the stranger on the Tree in his name, in the name of the God, in his name.
They went outside into the central courtyard, Diarmuid, Loren, Matt, and Kevin Laine. In silence they walked together, the same face in their minds, and Kevin was grateful for the presence of friends.
The heat was brutal, and the sour wind abraded them under the sickly, filtered sun. A prickly tension seemed woven into the texture of the day. And then, suddenly, there was more.
“Hold!” cried Matt the Dwarf, whose people were of the caverns of the earth, the roots of mountains, the ancient rocks. “Hold! Something comes!”
And in the same instant, north and west of them, Kim Ford rose, a blinding pulse in her head, an apprehension of enormity, and moved, as if compelled, out back of the cottage where Tyrth was laboring. “Oh, God,” she whispered. “Oh my God!” Seeing with distorted vision the vellin bracelet writhing on her wrist, knowing it could not ward what was coming, what had been coming for so long, so terribly, what none of them had seen, none, what was here, now, right now! She screamed, in overwhelming agony.
And the roof of the world blew up.
Far, far in the north among the ice, Rangat Cloud-Shouldered rose up ten miles into the heavens, towering above the whole of Fionavar, master of the world, prison of a god for a thousand years.
But no more. A vast geyser of blood-red fire catapulted skyward with a detonation heard even in Cathal. Rangat exploded with a column of fire so high the curving world could not hide it. And at the apex of its ascent the flame was seen to form itself into the five fingers of a hand, taloned, oh, taloned, and curving southward on the wind to bring them all within its grasp, to tear them all to shreds.
A gauntlet hurled, it was, a wild proclamation of release to all the cowering ones who would be his slaves forever after now. For if they had feared the svart alfar, trembled before a renegade mage and the power of Galadan, what would they do now to see the fingers of this fire raking heaven?
To know Rakoth Maugrim was unchained and free, and could bend the very Mountain to his vengeance?
And on the north wind there came then the triumphant laughter of the first and fallen god, who was coming down on them like a hammer bringing fire, bringing war.
The explosion hit the King like a fist in the heart. He tottered from the window of the council chamber and fell into a chair, his face grey, his hands opening and closing spasmodically as he gasped for breath.
“My lord?” Tarn the page rushed into the room and knelt, terror in his eyes. “My lord?”
But Ailell was beyond speech. He heard only the laughter on the wind, saw only the fingers curving to clutch them, enormous and blood-colored, a death cloud in the sky, bringing not rain but ruin.
He seemed to be alone. Tarn must have run for aid. With a great effort Ailell rose, breathing in high short gasps, and made his way down the short hallway to his rooms. There he stumbled to the inner door and opened it.
Down the familiar corridor he went. At the end of the passageway, the King stopped before the viewing slot. His vision was troubled: there seemed to be a girl beside him. She had white hair, which was unnatural. Her eyes were kind, though, as Marrien’s had been at the end. He had managed to win love there after all. It was patience that power taught. He had told that to the stranger, he remembered. After ta’bael. Where was the stranger? He had something else to say to him, something important.
Then he remembered. Opening the slot, Ailell the King looked into the Room of the Stone and saw that it was dark. The fire was dead, the sacred naal fire; the pillar carved with images of Conary bore nothing upon its crown, and on the floor, shattered forever into fragments like his heart, lay the stone of Ginserat.
He felt himself falling. It seemed to take a very long time. The girl was there; her eyes were so sorrowful. He almost wanted to comfort her. Aileron, he thought. Diarmuid. Oh, Aileron. Very far off, he heard thunder. A god was coming. Yes, of course, but what fools they all were—it was the wrong god. It was so funny, so funny, it was.
And on that thought he died.
So passed, on the eve of war, Ailell dan Art, High King of Brennin, and the rule passed to his son in a time of darkness, when fear moved across the face of all the lands. A good King and wise, Ysanne the Seer had called him once.
What he had fallen from.
Jennifer was flying straight at the Mountain when it went up.
A harsh cry of triumph burst from the throat of the black swan as the blast of fire rose far above to separate high in the air and form the taloned hand, bending south like smoke on the wind, but not dissolving, hanging there, reaching.
There was laughter in the sky all around her. Is the person under the mountain dead? Paul Schafer had asked before they crossed. He wasn’t dead, nor was he under the Mountain anymore. And though she didn’t understand, Jennifer knew that he wasn’t a person, either. You had to be something more to shape a hand of fire and send mad laughter down the wind.
The swan increased her speed. For a day and a night Avaia had borne her north, the giant wings beating with exquisite grace, the odor of corruption surrounding her, even in the high, thin reaches of the sky. All through this second day they flew, but late that night they set down on the shores of a lake north of the wide grasslands that had unrolled beneath their flight.
There were svart alfar waiting for them, a large band this time, and with them were other creatures, huge and savage, with fangs and carrying swords. She was pulled roughly from the swan and thrown on the ground. They didn’t bother tying her—she couldn’t move in any case, her limbs were brutally stiff with cramp after so long bound and motionless.
After a time they brought her food: the half-cooked carcass of some prairie rodent. When she shook her head in mute refusal, they laughed.
Later they did tie her, tearing her blouse in the process. A few of them began pinching and playing with her body, but some leader made them stop. She hardly registered it. A far corner of her mind, it seemed to be as remote as her life, said that she was in shock, and that it was probably a blessing.
When morning came, they would bind her to the swan again and Avaia would fly all that third day, angling northwest now so the still-smoldering mountain gradually slid around towards the east. Then, toward sunset, in a region of great cold, Jennifer would see Starkadh, like a giant ziggurat of hell among the ice, and she would begin to understand.
For the second time, Kimberly came to in her bed in the cottage. This time, though, there was no Ysanne to watch over her. Instead, the eyes gazing at her were the dark ones, deepset, of the servant, Tyrth.
As awareness returned she became conscious of a pain on her wrist. Looking, she saw a scoring of black where the vellin bracelet had twisted into her skin. That she remembered. She shook her head.
“I think I would have died without this.” She made a small movement of her hand to show him.
He didn’t reply but a great tension seemed to dissolve from his compact, muscled frame as he heard her speak. She looked around; by the shadows it was late afternoon.
“That’s twice now you’ve had to carry me here,” she said.
“You must not let that bother you, my lady,” he said in his rough, shy voice.
“Well, I’m not in the habit of fainting.”
“I would never think that.” He cast his eyes down.
“What happened with the Mountain?” she asked, almost unwilling to know.
“It is over,” he replied. “Just before you woke.” She nodded. That made sense.
“Have you been watching me all day?”
He looked apologetic. “Not always, my lady. I am sorry, but the animals were frightened and…”
At that she smiled inwardly. He was pushing it a bit.
“There is boiling water,” Tyrth said after a short silence. “Could I make you a drink?”
She watched as he limped to the fire. With neat, economical motions he prepared a pot of some herbal infusion and carried it back to the table by the bed.
It was, she decided, time.
“You don’t have to fake the limp anymore,” she said.
He was very cool, you had to give him credit. Only the briefest flicker of uncertainty had touched the dark eyes, and his hands pouring her drink were absolutely steady. Only when he finished did he sit down for the first time and regard her for a long time in silence.
“Did she tell you?” he asked finally, and she heard his true voice for the first time.
“No. She lied, actually. Said it wasn’t her secret to tell.” She hesitated. “I learned from Eilathen by the lake.”
“I watched that. I wondered.”
Kim could feel her forehead creasing with its incongruous vertical line.
“Ysanne is gone, you know.” She said it as calmly as she could.
He nodded. “That much I know, but I don’t understand what has happened. Your hair…”
“She had Lokdal down below,” Kim said bluntly. Almost, she wanted to hurt him with it. “She used it on herself.”
He did react, and she was sorry for the thought behind her words. A hand came up to cover his mouth, a curious gesture in such a man. “No,” he breathed. “Oh, Ysanne, no!” She could hear the loss.
“You understand what she has done?” she asked. There was a catch in her voice; she controlled it. There was so much pain.
“I know what the dagger does, yes. I didn’t know she had it here. She must have come to love you very much.”
“Not just me. All of us.” She hesitated. “She dreamt me twenty-five years ago. Before I was born.” Did that make it easier? Did anything?
His eyes widened. “That I never knew.”
“How could you?” He seemed to regard gaps in his awareness as deeply felt affronts. But there was something else that had to be said. “There is more,” Kim said. His name is not to be spoken, she thought, then: “Your father died this afternoon, Aileron.”
There was a silence.
“Old news,” the elder Prince of Brennin said. “Listen.”
And after a moment she heard them: all the bells in Paras Derval tolling. The death bells for the passing of a King.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
His mouth twitched, then he looked out the window. You cold bastard, she thought. Old news. He deserved more than that, surely; surely he did. She was about to say as much when Aileron turned back to her, and she saw the river of tears pouring and pouring down his face.
Dear God, she thought shakily, enduring a paroxysm of self-condemnation. He may be hard to read, but how can you be that far off? It would have been funny, a Kim Ford classic, except that people were going to be relying on her now for so much. It was no good, no good at all. She was an impulsive, undisciplined, halfway-decent intern from Toronto. What the hell was she going to do?
Nothing, at any rate, for the moment. She held herself very still on the bed, and after a minute Aileron lifted his tanned, bearded face and spoke.
“After my mother died, he was never the same. He… dwindled. Will you believe that he was once a very great man?”
This she could help him with. “I saw by the lake. I know he was, Aileron.”
“I watched him until I could hardly bear it,” he said, under control now. “Then factions formed in the palace that wanted him to step aside for me. I killed two men who spoke of it in my presence, but my father grew suspicious and frightened. I could not talk to him anymore.”
The question seemed to genuinely surprise him. “My brother? He was drunk most of the time, and taking ladies to South Keep the rest. Playing March Warden down there.”
“There seems to be more to him than that,” Kim said mildly.
“To a woman, perhaps.”
She blinked. “That,” she said, “is insulting.”
He considered it. “I suppose it is,” he said. “I’m sorry.” Then he surprised her again. “I am not good,” Aileron said, his eyes averted, “at making myself liked. Men will usually end up respecting me, if against their will, because at some things they value I have… a little skill. But I have no skill with women.” The eyes, almost black, swung back to hers. “I am also hard to shake from desires I have, and I am not patient with interference.”
He was not finished. “I tell you these things, not because I expect to change, but so you will know I am aware of them. There will be people I must trust, and if you are a Seer, then you must be one of them, and I’m afraid you will have to deal with me as I am.”
A silence followed this, not surprisingly. For the first time she noticed Malka and called her softly. The black cat leaped to the bed and curled up on her lap.
“I’ll think about it,” she said finally. “No promises; I’m fairly stubborn myself. May I point out, on the original issue, that Loren seems to value your brother quite a bit, and unless I’ve missed something, Silvercloak isn’t a woman.” Too much asperity, she thought. You must go carefully here.
Aileron’s eyes were unreadable. “He was our teacher as boys,” he said. “He has hopes still of salvaging something in Diarmuid. And in fairness, my brother does elicit love from his followers, which must mean something.”
“Something,” she echoed gravely. “You don’t see anything to salvage?” It was ironic, actually: she hadn’t liked Diarmuid at all, and here she was…
Aileron, for reply, merely shrugged expressively.
“Leave it, then,” she said. “Will you finish your story?”
“There is little left to tell. When the rains receded last year, and stopped absolutely this spring, I suspected it was not chance. I wanted to die for him, so I would not have to watch him fading. Or see the expression in his eyes. I couldn’t live with him mistrusting me. So I asked to be allowed to go to the Summer Tree, and he refused. Again I asked, again he refused. Then word came to Paras Derval of children dying on the farms, and I asked again before all the court and once more he refused to grant me leave. And so…”
“And so you told him exactly what you thought.” She could picture the scene.
“I did. And he exiled me.”
“Not very effectively,” she said wryly.
“Would you have me leave my land, Seer?” he snapped, the voice suddenly commanding. It pleased her; he had some caring, then. More than some, if she were being fair. So she said, “Aileron, he did right. You must know that. How could the High King let another die for him?”
And knew immediately that there was something wrong.
“You don’t know, then.” It was not a question. The sudden gentleness in his voice unsettled her more than anything.
“What? Please. You had better tell me.”
“My father did let another go,” Aileron said. “Listen to the thunder. Your friend is on the Tree. Pwyll. He has lasted two nights. This is the last, if he is still alive.”
It fit. It fit too perfectly. She was brushing tears away, but others kept falling. “I saw him,” she whispered. “I saw him with your father in my dream, but I couldn’t hear what they said, because there was this music, and—”
Then that, too, fell into place.
“Oh, Paul,” she breathed. “It was the Brahms, wasn’t it? Rachel’s Brahms piece. How could I not have remembered?”
“Would you have changed anything?” Aileron asked. “Would you have been right to?”
Too hard, that one, just then. She concentrated on the cat. “Do you hate him?” she asked in a small voice, surprising herself with the question.
It drove him to his feet with a startled, exposed gesture. He strode to the window and looked out over the lake. There were bells. And then thunder. A day so charged with power. And it wasn’t over. Night to come, the third night…
“I will try not to,” he said at last, so softly Kim could scarcely hear it.
“Please,” she said, feeling that somehow it mattered. If only to her, to ease her own gathering harvest of griefs. She rose from the bed, holding the cat in both arms.
He turned to face her. The light was strange behind him.
Then, “It is to be my war,” said Aileron dan Ailell.
“You have seen this?” he pushed.
Again she nodded. The wind had died outside; it was very quiet. “You would have thrown it away on the Tree.”
“Not thrown away. But yes, it was a foolishness. In me, not in your friend,” he added after a moment. “I went to see him there last night. I could not help myself. In him it is something else.”
“Grief. Pride. A dark kind.”
“It is a dark place.”
“Can he last?”
Slowly, Aileron shook his head. “I don’t think so. He was almost gone last night.”
Paul. When, she thought, had she last heard him laugh?
“He’s been sick,” she said. It sounded almost irrelevant. Her own voice was funny, too.
Aileron touched her shoulder awkwardly. “I will not hate him, Kim.” He used her name for the first time. “I cannot. It is so bravely done.”
“He has that,” she said. She was not going to cry again. “He has that,” she repeated, lifting her head. “And we have a war to fight.”
“We?” Aileron asked, and in his eyes she could see the entreaty he would not speak.
“You’re going to need a Seer,” she said matter-of-factly. “I seem to be the best you’ve got. And I have the Baelrath, too.”
He came a step towards her. “I am…” He took a breath. “I am… pleased,” he managed.
A laugh escaped her, she couldn’t help it. “God,” she said on a rising note. “God, Aileron, I’ve never met anyone who had so much trouble saying thank-you. What do you do when someone passes you the salt?”
His mouth opened and closed. He looked very young.
“Anyhow,” she said briskly, “you’re welcome. And now we’d better get going. You should be in Paras Derval tonight, don’t you think?”
It seemed that he had already saddled the horse in the barn, and had only been waiting for her. While Aileron went out back to bring the stallion around, she set about closing up the cottage. The dagger and the Circlet would be safest in the chamber down below. She knew that sort of thing now, it was instinctive.
She thought of Raederth then, and wondered if it was folly to sorrow for a man so long dead. But it wasn’t, she knew, she now knew; for the dead are still in time, they are travelling, they are not lost. Ysanne was lost. She still needed a long time alone, Kim realized, but she didn’t have it, so there was no point even thinking. The Mountain had taken that kind of luxury away from all of them.
From all of them. She did pause, at that. She was numbering herself among them, she realized, even in her thoughts. Are you aware, she asked herself, with a kind of awe, that you are now the Seer of the High Kingdom of Brennin in Fionavar?
She was. Holy cow, she thought, talk about over-achievers! But then her mind swung back to Aileron, and the flared levity faded. Aileron, whom she was going to help become King if she could, even though his brother was the heir. She would do it because her blood sang to her that this was right, and that, she knew by now, was part of what being a Seer meant.
She was quiet and ready when he came round the side on the horse. He had a sword now, and a bow slung in the saddle, and he rode the black charger with an easy grace. She was, she had to admit, impressed.
There was a slight issue at the outset over her refusal to leave Malka behind, but when she threatened to walk, Aileron, a stony expression on his face, reached a hand down and swung her up behind him. With the cat. He was very strong, she realized.
He also had a scratched shoulder a minute later. Malka, it seemed, didn’t like riding horseback. Aileron, it also seemed, could be remarkably articulate when swearing. She told him as much, sweetly, and was rewarded with a quite communicative silence.
With the dying of the wind, the haze of the day seemed to be lifting. It was still light, and the sun, setting almost directly behind them, cast its long rays along the path.
Which was one reason the ambush failed.
They were attacked at the bend where she and Matt had first seen the lake. Before the first of the svarts had leaped to the road, Aileron, some sixth sense triggered, had already kicked the stallion into a gallop.
There were no darts this time. They had been ordered to take the white-haired woman alive, and she had only one servant as a guard. It should have been easy. There were fifteen of them.
Twelve, after the first rush of the horse, as Aileron’s blade scythed on both sides. She was hampering him, though. With a concise movement he leaped from the saddle, killing another svart as he landed.
“Go on!” he shouted.
Of its own accord, the horse sped into a trot and then a gallop down the path. No way, Kim thought, and, holding the terrified cat as best she could, grappled for the reins and pulled the stallion to a halt.
Turning, she watched the battle, her heart leaping into her throat, though not with fear.
By the light of the setting sun, Kimberly bore witness to the first battle of Aileron dan Ailell in his war, and a stunning, a nearly debilitating grace was displayed for her then upon that lonely path. To see him with a sword in his hand was almost heartbreaking. It was a dance. It was more. Some men, it seemed, were born to do a thing; it was true.
Because awesomely, stupefyingly, she saw that it had been a mismatch from the first. Fifteen of them, with weapons and sharp teeth for close fighting, against the one man with the long blade flashing in his hand, and she understood that he was going to win. Effortlessly, he was going to win.
It didn’t last very long. Not one of the fifteen svart alfar survived. Breathing only a little quickly, he cleaned his sword and sheathed it, before walking toward her up the path, the sun low behind him. It was very quiet now. His dark eyes, she saw, were sombre.
“I told you to go,” he said.
“I know. I don’t always do what I’m told. I thought I warned you.”
He was silent, looking up at her.
“A ‘little’ skill,” she mimicked quite precisely.
His face, she saw with delight, had suddenly gone shy.
“Why,” Kim Ford asked, “did that take you so long?”
For the first time she heard him laugh.
They reached Paras Derval at twilight, with Aileron hooded for concealment. Once inside the town they made their way quickly and quietly to Loren’s quarters. The mage was there, with Matt and Kevin Laine.
Kim and Aileron told their stories as succinctly as they could; there was little time. They spoke of Paul, in whispers, hearing the thunder gathering in the west.
And then, when it became clear that there was something important neither she nor the Prince knew, they were told about Jennifer.
At which point it was made evident that notwithstanding a frightened cat, or a kingdom that needed her, the new Seer of Brennin could still fall apart with the best of them.
Twice during the day he thought it was the end. There was very great pain. He was badly sunburned now, and so dry. Dry as the land, which, he had thought earlier—how much earlier? — was probably the point. The nexus. It all seemed so simple at times, it came down to such basic correspondences. But then his mind would start to spin, to slide, and with the slide, all the clarity went, too.
He may have been the only person in Fionavar who didn’t see the Mountain send up its fire. The sun was fire enough for him. He heard the laughter, but was so far gone he placed it elsewhere, in his own hell. It hurt there, too; he was not spared.
That time it was the bells that brought him back. He was lucid then for an interval, and knew where they were ringing, though not why. His eyes hurt; they were puffy with sunburn, and he was desperately dehydrated. The sun seemed to be a different color today. Seemed. What did he know? He was so skewed, nothing could be taken for what it was.
Though the bells were ringing in Paras Derval, he was sure of that. Except… except that after a while, listening, he seemed to hear a harp sounding, too, and that was very bad, as bad as it could be, because it was a thing from his own place, from behind the bolted door. It wasn’t out there. The bells were, yes, but they were fading. He was going again, there was nothing to grab hold of, no branch, no hand. He was bound and dry, and sliding, going under. He saw the bolts shatter, and the door opening, and the room. Oh, lady, lady, lady, he thought. Then no bolts anymore, nothing to bar the door. Under. Undersea down…
They were in bed. The night before his trip. Of course. It would be that memory. Because of the harp, it would be.
His room. Spring night; almost summer weather. Window open, curtains blowing, her hair around them both, the covers back so he could see her by candlelight. Her candle, a gift. The very light was hers.
“Do you know,” Rachel said, “that you are a musician, after all.”
“I wish,” he heard himself say. “You know I can’t even sing.”
“But no,” she said pursuing a conceit, playing with the hairs on his chest. “You are. You’re a harper, Paul. You have harper’s hands.”
“Where’s my harp, then?” Straight man.
And Rachel said, “Me, of course. My heart’s your harpstring.”
What could he do but smile? The very light.
“You know,” she said, “when I play next month, the Brahms, it’ll be for you.”
“No. For yourself. Keep that for yourself.”
She smiled. He couldn’t see it, but he knew by now when Rachel smiled.
“Stubborn man.” She touched him lightly with her mouth. “Share it, then. Can I play the second movement for you? Will you take that? Let me play that part because I love you. To tell.”
“Oh, lady,” he had said.
Hand of the harper. Heart of the harpstring.
Lady, lady, lady.
What had brought him back this time, he didn’t know. The sun was gone, though. Dark coming down.
Fireflies. Third night then. Last. For three nights, and forever, the King had said. The King was dead.
How did he know that? And after a moment it seemed that very far down, below the burnt, strung-out place of pain he had become, a part of him remained that could fear.
How did he know Ailell was dead? The Tree had told him. It knew the passing of High Kings, it always did. It had been rooted here to summon them far back in the soil of time. From Iorweth to Ailell they were the Children of M"ornir, and the Tree knew when they died. And now he knew as well. He understood. Now I give you to M"ornir; the other part of the consecration. He was given. He was becoming root, branch. He was naked there, skin to bark; naked in all the ways there were, it seemed, because the dark was coming down inside again, the door unbolting. He was so open the wind could pass through him, light shine, shadow fall.
Like a child again. Light and shade. Simplicity. When had all the twisting started? He could remember (a different door, this) playing baseball on the street as darkness fell. Playing even after the streetlights kicked on, so that the ball would come flashing like a comet out of brightness and into dark, elusive but attainable. The smell of cut grass and porch flowers, the leather of a new fielder’s glove. Summer twilight, summer dark. All the continuities. When had it turned? Why did it have to turn? The process changing to disjunctions, abortings, endings, all of them raining down like arrows, unlit and inescapable.
And then love, love, the deepest discontinuity.
Because it seemed that this door had turned into the other one after all, the one he couldn’t face. Not even childhood was safe anymore, not tonight. Nowhere would be safe tonight. Not here at the end, naked on the Tree.
And he understood then, finally: understood that it had to be naked, truly so, that one went to the God. It was the Tree that was stripping him, layer by layer, down to what he was hiding from. To what—hadn’t there once been a thing called irony? — he had come here hiding from. Music. Her name. Tears. Rain. The highway.
He was skewed again, going down; the fireflies among the trees had become headlights of approaching cars, which was so absurd. But then it wasn’t, after all, because now he was in the car, driving her eastward on Lakeshore Boulevard in the rain.
It had rained the night she died.
I don’t, I don’t want to go here,he thought, clinging to nothing, his mind’s last despairing effort to pull away. Please, just let me die, let me be rain for them.
But no. He was the Arrow now. The Arrow on the Tree, of M"ornir, and he was to be given naked or not at all.
Or not at all. There was that, he realized. He could die. That was still his choice, he could let go. It was there for him.
And so on the third night Paul Schafer came to the last test, the one that was always failed, the opening. Where the Kings of Brennin, or those coming in their name, discovered that the courage to be here, the strength to endure, even love of their land were none of them enough. On the Tree one could no longer hide from the living or the dead, from one’s own soul. Naked or not at all, one went to M"ornir. And oh, that was too much for them, too hard, too unfair after all that had been endured, to be forced to go into the darkest places then, so weak, so impossibly vulnerable.
And so they would let go, brave Kings of the sword, wise ones, gallant Princes, all would turn away from so much nakedness and die too soon.
But not that night. Because of pride, of pure stubbornness, and because, most surely, of the dog, Paul Schafer found the courage not to turn. Down he went.
Arrow of the God. So open, the wind could pass, light shine through him. Last door.
“The Dvorak,” he heard. His own voice, laughing. “The Dvorak with the Symphony. Kincaid, are you a star!”
She laughed nervously. “It’s only at Ontario Place. Outdoors, with a baseball game in the background at the stadium. No one will hear a thing.”
“Wally will hear. Wally loves you already.”
“Since when have you and Walter Langside been so close?”
“Since the recital, lady. Since his review. He’s my main man now, Wally.” She had won everything, won them all. She had dazzled. All three papers had been there, because of advance rumor of what she was. It was unheard-of for a graduate recital. The second movement, Langside of the Globe had written, could not be played more beautifully.
She had won everything. Had eclipsed every cellist ever to come out of Edward Johnson Hall. And today the Toronto Symphony had called. The Dvorak Cello Concerto. August 5, at Ontario Place. Unheard-of. So they had gone to Winston’s for dinner, to blow a hundred dollars of his bursary money from the history department.
“It’ll probably rain,” she said. The wipers slapped their steady tattoo on the windshield. It was really coming down.
“The bandstand’s covered,” he replied airily, “and the first ten rows. Besides, if it rains, you don’t have to fight the Blue Jays. Can’t lose, kid.”
“Well, you’re pretty high tonight.”
“I am, indeed,” he heard the person he had been say, “pretty high tonight. I am very high.”
He passed a laboring Chevy.
“Oh, shit,” Rachel said.
Please, a lost, small voice within the Godwood pleaded. His. Oh, please. But he was inside it now, had taken himself there, all the way. There was no pity on the Summer Tree. How could there be? So open, he was, the rain could fall through him.
“Oh, shit,” she said.
“What?” he heard himself say, startled. Saw it start right then, right there. The moment. Wipers at the top of their sweep. Lakeshore East. Just past a blue Chevrolet.
She was silent. Glancing, he could see her hands clasped tightly together. Her head was down. What was this?
“I’ve got something to tell you.”
“Evidently.” Oh, God, his defences.
She looked over at that. Dark eyes. Like no one else. “I promised,” she said. “I promised I’d talk to you tonight.”
Promised? He tried, watched himself try. “Rachel, what is it?”
Eyes front again. Her hands.
“You were away for a month, Paul.”
“I was away for a month, yes. You know why.” He’d gone four weeks before her recital. Had convinced them both it made sense—the time was too huge for her, it meant too much. She was playing eight hours a day; he wanted to let her focus. He flew to Calgary with Kev and drove his brother’s car through the Rockies and then south down the California coast. Had phoned her twice a week.
“You know why,” he heard himself say again. It had begun.
“Well, I did some thinking.”
“One should always do some thinking.”
“Paul, don’t be like—”
“What do you want from me?” he snapped. “What is this, Rach?”
So, so, so. “Mark asked me to marry him.”
Mark? Mark Rogers was her accompanist. Last-year piano student, good-looking, mild, a little effeminate. It didn’t fit. He couldn’t make it fit.
“All right,” he said. “That happens. It happens when you’ve got a common goal for a while. Theatre romance. He fell in love. Rachel, you’re easy to fall in love with. But why are you telling me this way?”
“Because I’m going to say yes.”
No warning at all. Point-blank. Nothing had ever prepared him for this kick. Summer night, but God, he was so cold. So cold, suddenly.
“Just like that?” Reflex.
“No! Not just like that. Don’t be so cold, Paul.”
He heard himself make a sound. A gasp, a laugh: halfway. He was actually shivering. Don’t be so cold, Paul.
“That’s just the sort of thing,” she said, twisting her hands together. “You’re always so controlled, thinking, figuring out. Like figuring out I needed to be alone a month, or why Mark fell in love with me. So much logic: Mark’s not so strong. He needs me. I can see the ways he needs me. He cries, Paul.”
Cries? Nothing held together anymore. What did crying have to do with it?
“I didn’t know you liked a Niobe number.” It was important to stop shivering.
“I don’t. Please don’t be nasty, I can’t handle it… Paul, it’s that you never truly let go, you never made me feel I was indispensable. I guess I’m not. But Mark… puts his head on my chest sometimes, after.”
“Oh, Jesus, Rachel, don’t!”
“It’s true!” It was raining harder. Trouble breathing now.
“So he plays harp, too? Versatile, I must say.” God, such a kick; he was so cold.
She was crying. “I didn’t want it to be…”
She didn’t want it to be like this. How had she wanted it to be? Oh, lady, lady, lady.
“It’s okay,” he found himself saying, incredibly.
Where had that come from? Trouble breathing still. Rain on the roof, on the windshield. “It’ll be all right.”
“No,” Rachel said, weeping still, rain drumming. “Sometimes it can’t be all right.”
Smart, smart girl. Once he would have reached to touch her. Once? Ten minutes ago. Only that, before the cold.
Love, love, the deepest discontinuity.
Or not quite the deepest.
Because this, precisely, was when the Mazda in front blew a tire. The road was wet. It skidded sideways and hit the Ford in the next lane, then rebounded and three-sixtied as the Ford caromed off the guard rail.
There was no room to brake. He was going to plough them both. Except there was a foot, twelve inches’ clearance if he went by on the left. He knew there’d been a foot, had seen the movie in slow motion in his head so many times. Twelve inches. Not impossible; very bad in rain, but.
He went for it, sliced the whirling Mazda, banged the rail, spun, and rolled across the road and into the sliding Ford.
He was belted; she wasn’t.
That was all there was to it, except for the truth.
The truth was that there had indeed been twelve inches, perhaps ten, as likely, fourteen. Enough. Enough if he had gone for it as soon as he saw the hole. But he hadn’t, had he? By the time he’d moved, there were three inches clear, four, not enough at night, in rain, at forty miles an hour. Not nearly.
Question: how did one measure time there, at the end? Answer: by how much room there was. Over and over he’d watched the film in his mind; over and over he’d seen them roll. Off the rail, into the Ford. Over.
Because he hadn’t moved fast enough.
And why—Do pay attention, Mr. Schafer—why hadn’t he moved fast enough?
Well, class, modern techniques now allow us to examine the thought patterns of that driver in the scintilla—lovely word, that—of time between the seeing and the moving. Between the desire and the spasm, as Mr. Eliot so happily put it once.
And where, on close examination, was the desire?
Not that we can be sure, class, this is most hazardous terrain (it was raining, after all), but careful scrutiny of the data does seem to elicit a curious lacuna in the driver’s responses.
He moved, oh, yes indeed, he did. And in fairness—do let’s be fair—faster than most drivers would have done. But was it—and there’s the rub—was it as fast as he could move?
Is it possible, just a hypothesis now, but is it possible that he delayed that scintilla of time—only that, no more; but still—because he wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to move? The desire and the spasm. Mr. Schafer, your thoughts? Was there perhaps a slight, shall we say, lag in the desire?
Dead on. St. Michael’s Emergency Ward.
The deepest discontinuity.
“It should have been me,” he’d said to Kevin. You had to pay the price, one way or another. You certainly weren’t allowed to weep. Too much hypocrisy, that would be. Part of the price, then: no tears, no release. What had crying to do with it? he had asked her. Or no, he had thought that. Niobe, he had said. A Niobe number. Witty, witty, defenses up so fast. Seatbelt buckled. So cold, though, he’d been, so very cold. Crying, it seemed, had a lot to do with it, after all.
But there was more. One played the tape. Over and over, like the inner film, like the rolling car: over and over, the tape of her recital. And one listened, always, in the second movement, for the lie. His, she had said. That part because she loved him. So it had to be a lie. One should be able to hear that, despite Walter Langside and everyone else. Surely one could hear the lie?
Not so. Her love for him in that sound, that perfect sound. Incandescent. And this was beyond him; how it could be done. And so each time there came a point where he couldn’t listen anymore and not cry. And he wasn’t permitted to cry, so.
So she had left him and he had killed her, and you weren’t allowed to weep when you have done that. You pay the price, so.
So he had come to Fionavar.
To the Summer Tree.
Class dismissed. Time to die.
This time it was the silence. Complete and utter stillness in the wood. The thunder had stopped. He was cinder, husk: what is left, at the end.
At the end one came back because, it seemed, this much was granted: that one would go in one’s own self, from this place, knowing. It was an unexpected dispensation. Drained, a shell, he could still feel gratitude for dignity allowed.
It was unnaturally silent in the darkness. Even the pulsing of the Tree itself had stopped. There was no wind, no sound. The fireflies had gone. Nothing moved. It was as if the earth itself had stopped moving.
Then it came. He saw that, inexplicably, a mist was rising from the floor of the forest. But no, not inexplicably: a mist was rising because it was meant to rise. What could be explained in this place?
With difficulty he turned his head, first one way, then the other. There were two birds on the branches, ravens, both of them. I know these, he thought, no longer capable of surprise. They are named Thought and Memory. I learned this long ago.
It was true. They were named so in all the worlds, and this was their nesting place. They were the God’s.
Even the birds were still, though, each bright yellow eye steady, motionless. Waiting, as the trees were waiting. Only the mist was moving; it was higher now. There was no sound. The whole of the Godwood seemed to have gathered itself, as if time were somehow opening, making a place—and only then, finally, did Paul realize that it was not the God they were waiting for, it was something else, not truly part of the ritual, something outside… and he remembered an image then (thought, memory) of something far back, another life it seemed, another person almost who had had a dream… no, a vision, a searching, yes, that was it… of mist, yes, and a wood, and waiting, yes, waiting for the moon to rise, when something, something…
But the moon could not rise. It was the dark of moon, new moon night. The last crescent had saved the dog the night before. Had saved him for this. They were waiting, the Godwood, the whole night was waiting, coiled like a spring, but there could be no moon-rise that night.
And then there was.
Above the eastern trees of the glade of the Summer Tree, there came the rising of the Light. And on the night of the new moon there shone down on Fionavar the light of a full moon. As the trees of the forest began to murmur and sway in the sudden wind, Paul saw that the moon was red, like fire or blood, and power shaped that moment to its name: Dana, the Mother, come to intercede.
Goddess of all the living in all the worlds; mother, sister, daughter, bride of the God. And Paul saw then, in a blaze of insight, that it didn’t matter which, all were true: that at this level of power, this absoluteness of degree, hierarchies ceased to signify. Only the might did, the awe, the presence made manifest. Red moon in the sky on new moon night, so that the glade of the Godwood could shine and the Summer Tree be wrapped below in mist, above in light.
Paul looked up, beyond surprise, beyond disbelief; the sacrifice, the shell. Rain to be. And in that moment it seemed to him as if he heard a voice, in the sky, in the wood, in the running of his own moon-colored blood, and the voice spoke so that all the trees vibrated like living wands to the sound:
It was not so, will not have been so.
And when the reverberations ceased, Paul was on the highway again, Rachel with him in the rain. And once more he saw the Mazda blow and skid into the Ford. He saw the spinning, impossible obstruction.
He saw twelve inches’ clearance on the left.
But Dana was with him now, the Goddess, taking him there to truth. And in a crescendo, a heart-searing blaze of final dispensation, he saw that he had missed the gap, and only just, oh, only just, not because of any hesitation shaped by lack of desire, by death or murder wish, but because, in the end, he was human. Oh, lady, he was. Only, only human, and he missed because of hurt, grief, shock, and rain. Because of these, which could be forgiven.
And were, he understood. Truly, truly were.
Deny not your own mortality. The voice was within him like a wind, one of her voices, only one, he knew, and in the sound was love, he was loved. You failed because humans fail. It is a gift as much as anything else.
And then, deep within him like the low sound of a harp, which no longer hurt, this last: Go easy, and in peace. It is well.
His throat ached. His heart was a bound, constrained thing too large for him, for what was left of his body. Dimly, through the risen mist, he saw a figure at the edge of the glade: in the form of a man, but bearing the proud antlers of a stag, and through the mist he saw the figure bow to him and then disappear.
The pain was gone. His being was shaped of light, he knew his eyes were shining. He had not killed her, then: it was all right. It was loss, but loss was allowed, it was demanded. So much light, there seemed to be, even in that moment when the mist rose to his feet.
And at last it came, at last, sweet, sweet release of mourning. He thought of Kevin’s song then, remembered it with love: There will come a tomorrow when you weep for me.
Tomorrow. And so. So. It seemed that this was tomorrow, and here at the end, at the last, he was weeping for Rachel Kincaid who had died.
So Paul cried on the Summer Tree.
And there came then a roll of thunder like the tread of doom, of worlds cracking asunder, and the God was there in the glade, he had come. And he spoke again, in his place, in the one unchanging voice that was his, and forged by the power of that thundering, the mist began to flow together then, faster and faster, to the one place, to the Summer Tree.
Upwards it boiled, the mist of the Godwood, up through the sacrifice, the great trunk of the Tree, hurled into the night sky by the God like a spear.
And in the heavens above Brennin, as the thunder crashed and rolled, suddenly there were clouds piling higher and higher upon each other, spreading from the M"ornirwood to cover all the land.
Paul felt it going. Through him. His. His and the God’s. Whose he was. He felt the tears on his face. He felt himself claimed, going, mist boiling through him, ravens rising to fly, the God in the Tree, in him, the moon above the clouds riding in and out, never lost, Rachel, the Summer Tree, the wood, the world, and oh, the God, the God. And then one last thing more before the dark.
Ram, rain, rain, rain, rain.
In Paras Derval that night the people went down into the streets. In villages all over Brennin they did so, and farmers bore their children out of doors, only half awake, that they might see the miraculous moon that was answer of the Mother to the fire of Maugrim, and that they might feel upon their faces and remember, though it might seem to them a dream, the return of rain, which was the blessing of the God upon the Children of M"ornir.
In the street, with Loren and Matt, with Kim and the exiled Prince, Kevin Laine wept in his turn, for he knew what this must mean, and Paul was the closest thing to a brother he’d ever had.
“He did it,” whispered Loren Silvercloak, in a voice choked and roughened with awe. Kevin saw, with some surprise, that the mage, too, was crying. “Oh, bright,” Loren said. “Oh, most brave.”
But there was more. “Look,” Matt S"oren said. And turning to where the Dwarf was pointing, Kevin saw that when the red moon that should never have been shone through the scudding clouds, the stone in the ring Kim wore leaped into responding light. It burned on Kim’s finger like a carried fire, the color of the moon.
“What is this?” Aileron asked.
Kim, instinctively raising her hand high so that light could speak to light, realized that she both knew and didn’t know. The Baelrath was wild, untamed; so was that moon.
“The stone is being charged,” she said quietly. “That is the war moon overhead. This is the Warstone.” The others were silent, hearing her. And suddenly her own voice intoning, her role, seemed so heavy; Kim reached back, almost desperately, for some trace of the lightness that had once defined her.
“I think,” she tried, hoping that Kevin, at least, would catch it, would play along, help her, please, to remember what she was, “I think we’d better have a new flag made.”
Kevin, wrestling with things of his own, missed it completely. All he heard was Kim saying “we” to this new Prince of Brennin.
Looking at her, he thought he was seeing a stranger.
In the courtyard behind the sanctuary, Jaelle, the High Priestess, lifted her face to the sky and gave praise. And with the teachings of Gwen Ystrat in her heart, she looked at the moon, understanding far better than anyone else west of Lake Leinan what it meant. She gave careful thought for a time, then called six of her women to her, and led them secretly out of Paras Derval, westward in the rain.
In Cathal, too, they had seen the Mountain’s fire in the morning, and trembled to hear the laughter on the wind. Now the red moon shone above Larai Rigal as well. Power on power. A gauntlet hurled into the sky, and answered in the sky. This, Shalhassan could understand. He summoned a Council in the dead of night and ordered an embassy to leave for Cynan and then Brennin immediately. No, not in the morning, he snapped in response to a rash question. Immediately. One did not sleep when war began, or one slept forever when it ended.
A good phrase, he thought, dismissing them. He made a mental note to dictate it to Raziel when time allowed. Then he went to bed.
Over Eridu the red moon rose, and the Plain, and down upon Daniloth it cast its light. And the lios alfar, alone of all the guardian peoples, had lore stretching back sufficiently far to say with certainty that no such moon had ever shone before.
It was a reply to Rakoth, their elders agreed, gathered before Ra-Tenniel on the mound at Atronel, to the one the younger gods had named Sathain, the Hooded One, long, long ago. It was an intercession as well, the wisest of them added, though for what, or as to what, they could not say.
Nor could they say what the third power of the moon was, though all the lios knew there was a third.
The Goddess worked by threes.
There was another glade in another wood. A glade where one man alone had dared to walk in ten centuries since Amairgen had died.
The glade was small, the trees of the grove about were very old, extremely tall. The moon was almost overhead before she could shine down upon Pendaran’s sacred grove.
When she did, it began. A play of light first, a shimmering, and then a sound following, unearthly like a flute among the leaves. The air itself seemed to quiver to that tune, to dance, to form and reform, coalesce, to shape finally a creature of light and sound, of Pendaran and the moon.
When it was ended, there was silence, and something stood in the glade where nothing had stood before. With the wide eyes of the newly born, dewed so that her coat glistened in the birthing light, she rose on unsteady legs, and stood a moment, as one more sound like a single string plucked ran through Pendaran Wood.
Slowly then, delicately as all her kind, she moved from the glade, from the sacred grove. Eastward she went, for though but newly birthed, she knew already that to the west lay the sea.
Lightly, lightly did she tread the grass, and the powers of Pendaran, all the creatures gathered there, grew still as she passed, more beautiful, more terrible than any one of them.
The Goddess worked by threes; this was the third.
To the highest battlement he had climbed, so that all of black Starkadh lay below him. Starkadh rebuilt, his fortress and his fastness, for the blasting of Rangat had not signified his freedom—though let the fools think so yet awhile—he had been free a long time now. The Mountain had been exploded because he was ready at last for war, with the place of his power rising anew to tower over the northland, over Daniloth, a blur to the south, where his heart’s hate would forever lie.
But he did not look down upon it.
Instead his eyes were riveted on the impossible response the night sky held up to him, and in that moment he tasted doubt. With his one good hand, he reached upwards as if his talons might rake the moon from heaven, and it was a long time before his rage passed.
But he had changed in a thousand years under Rangat. Hate had driven him to move too fast the last time. This time it would not.
Let the moon shine tonight. He would have it down before the end. He would smash Brennin like a toy and uproot the Summer Tree. The Riders would be scattered, Larai Rigal burned to waste, Calor Diman defiled in Eridu.
And Gwen Ystrat he would level. Let the moon shine, then. Let Dana try to show forth empty signs in heavens choked with his smoke. Her, too, he would have kneeling before him. He had had a thousand years to consider all of this.
He smiled then, for the last was best. When all else was done, when Fionavar lay crushed beneath his fist, only then would he turn to Daniloth. One by one he would have them brought to him, the lios alfar, the Children of Light. One by one by one to Starkadh.
He would know what to do with them.
The thunder was almost spent, the rain a thin drizzle. The wind was wind, no more. A taste of salt on it from the sea, far away. The clouds were breaking up. The red moon stood directly over the Tree.
“Lady,” said the God, muting the thunder of his voice, “Lady, this you have never done before.”
“It was needful,” she replied, a chiming on wind. “He is very strong this time.”
“He is very strong,” the thunder echoed. “Why did you speak to my sacrifice?” A slight reproach.
The Lady’s voice grew deeper, woven of hearth smoke and caves. “Do you mind?” she murmured.
There came a sound that might have been a god amused. “Not if you beg forgiveness, no. It has been long, Lady.” A deeper sound, and meaningful.
“Do you know what I have done in Pendaran?” she asked, eluding, voice gossamer like dawn.
“I do. Though for good or ill I do not know. It may burn the hand that lays hold of it.”
“All my gifts are double-edged,” the Goddess said, and he was aware of ancient blood in that tone. There was a silence, then she was finest lace again, cajoling: “I have interceded, Lord, will you not do so?”
“And to please me,” said the moon.
“Might we please each other?”
“We might so.”
A roll of thunder then. Laughter.
“I have interceded,” M"ornir said.
“Not the rain,” she protested, sea-sound. “The rain was bought.”
“Not the rain,” the God replied. “I have done what I have done.”
“Let us go, then,” said Dana.
The moon passed away behind the trees to the west.
Shortly thereafter the thunder ceased, and the clouds began to break up overhead.
And so at the last, at the end of night, in the sky above the Summer Tree, there were only the stars to look down upon the sacrifice, upon the stranger hanging naked on the Tree, only the stars, only them.
Before dawn it rained again, though the glade was empty by then, and silent, save for the sound of water falling and dripping from the leaves.
And this was the last night of Pwyll the Stranger on the Summer Tree.