It was night when they came through, in a small, dimly lit room somewhere high up. There were two chairs, benches and an unlit fire. An intricately patterned carpet on the stone floor. Along one wall stretched a tapestry, but the room was too darkly shadowed, despite flickering wall torches, for them to make it out. The windows were open.
“So, Silvercloak, you’ve come back,” a reedy voice from the doorway said, without warmth. Kevin looked over quickly to see a bearded man leaning casually on a spear.
Loren ignored him. “Matt?” he said sharply. “Are you all right?” The Dwarf, visibly shaken by the crossing, managed a terse nod. He had slumped into one of the heavy chairs and there were beads of perspiration on his forehead. Kevin turned to check the others. All seemed to be fine, a little dazed, but fine, except—
Except that Dave Martyniuk wasn ‘t there.
“Oh, God!” he began, “Loren—”
And was stopped in mid-sentence by a beseeching look from the mage. Paul Schafer, standing beside Kevin, caught it as well, and Kevin saw him walk quietly over to the two women. Schafer spoke softly to them, and then nodded once, to Loren.
At which point the mage finally turned to the guard, who was still leaning indolently on his weapon. “Is it the evening before?” Loren asked.
“Why, yes,” the man replied. “But shouldn’t a great mage know that without the asking?”
Kevin saw Loren’s eyes flicker in the torchlight. “Go,” he said. “Go tell the King I have returned.” “It’s late. He’ll be sleeping.” “He will want to know this. Go now.” The guard moved with deliberate, insolent slowness. As he turned, though, there was a sudden thunk, and a thrown knife quivered in the panelling of the doorway, inches from his head.
“I know you, Vart,” a deep voice said, as the man whipped around, pale even by torchlight. “I have marked you. You will do what you have been told, and quickly, and you will speak to rank with deference—or my next dagger will not rest in wood.” Matt S"oren was on his feet again, and danger bristled through him like a presence.
There was a tense silence. Then: “I am sorry, my lord mage. The lateness of the hour… my fatigue. Welcome home, my lord, I go to do your will.” The guard raised his spear in a formal salute, then spun again, sharply this time, and left the room. Matt walked forward to retrieve his dagger. He remained in the doorway, watching. “Now,” said Kevin Laine. “Where is he?” Loren had dropped into the chair the Dwarf had vacated. “I am not sure,” he said. “Forgive me, but I truly don’t know.”
“But you have to know!” Jennifer exclaimed. “He pulled away just as I was closing the circle. I was too far under the power—I couldn’t come out to see his path. I do not even know if he came with us.”
“I do,” said Kim Ford simply. “He came. I had him all the way. I was holding him.”
Loren rose abruptly. “You did? Brightly woven! This means he has crossed—he is in Fionavar, somewhere. And if that is so, he will be found. Our friends will begin to search immediately.”
“Your friends?” Kevin asked. “Not that creep in the doorway, I hope?”
Loren shook his head. “Not him, no. He is Gorlaes’s tool—and here I must ask of you another thing.” He hesitated. “There are factions in this court, and a struggle taking place, for Ailell is old now. Gorlaes would like me gone, for many reasons, and failing that, would take joy in discrediting me before the King.”
“So if Dave is missing…?” Kevin murmured.
“Exactly. I think only Metran knows I went for five—and I never promised him so many, in any case. Dave will be found, I promise you that. Can I ask you to keep his presence a secret for this time?”
Jennifer Lowell had moved to the open window while the others talked. A hot night, and very dry. Below and to her left, she could make out the lights of a town, lying almost directly adjacent to the walled enclosure of what she assumed to be Paras Derval. There were fields in front of her, and beyond them rose the thick, close trees of a forest. There was no breeze. She looked upward, apprehensive, and was desperately relieved to find she knew the stars. For though the slender hand on the window ledge was steady, and the cool green eyes gave little away, she had been badly thrown by Dave’s disappearance and the sudden dagger.
In a life shaped of careful decisions, the only impulsive act of significance had been the beginning of her relationship with Kevin Laine one night two years ago. Now, improbably, she found herself in a place where only the fact that she could see the Summer Triangle overhead gave her any kind of security. She shook her head and, not lacking in a sense of irony, smiled very slightly to herself.
Paul Schafer was speaking, answering the mage. “It seems,” he said softly—they were all speaking quietly—“that if you brought us here, then we’re already a part of your group, or we’ll be seen that way anyhow. I’ll keep my mouth shut.”
Kevin was nodding, and then Kim. Jennifer turned from the window. “I won’t say anything,” she said. “But please find Dave soon, because I really am going to be very frightened if you don’t.”
“Company!” Matt growled from the doorway.
“Ailell? Already? It can’t be,” said Loren.
Matt listened for a moment longer. “No… not the King. I think…” and his dark, bearded face twisted into its version of a smile. “Listen for yourself,” the Dwarf said.
A second later Kevin heard it, too: the unsteady caroling of someone coming down the hallway towards them, someone far gone in drink:
Those who rode that night with Revor
Did a deed to last forever…
The Weaver cut from brighter cloth
Those who rode through Daniloth!
“You fat buffoon!” another voice snarled, rather more controlled. “Shut up or you’ll have him disinherited for bringing you in here.” The sardonic laughter of a third person could be heard, as the footsteps made their tenuous way up the corridor.
“Song,” the aggrieved troubadour said, “is a gift to men from the immortal gods.”
“Not the way you sing, Tegid,” his critic snapped. Loren was suppressing a smile, Kim saw. Kevin snorted with laughter.
“Shipyard lout,” the one called Tegid retorted, not quietly. “You betray your ignorance. Those who were there will never forget my singing that night in the Great Hall at Seresh. I had them weeping, I had—”
“I was there, you clown! I was sitting beside you. And I’ve still got stains on my green doublet from when they started throwing fruit at you.”
“Poltroons! What can you expect in Seresh? But the battle after, the brave fight in that same hall! Even though wounded, I rallied our—”
“Wounded?” Hilarity and exasperation vied for mastery in the other speaker’s voice. “A tomato in the eye is hardly—”
“Hold it, Coll.” The third man spoke for the first tune. And in the room Loren and Matt exchanged a glance. “There’s a guard just ahead,” the light, controlling voice went on. “I’ll deal with him. Wait for a minute after I go in, then take Tegid to the last room on the left. And keep him quiet, or by the river blood of Lisen, I will be disinherited.”
Matt stepped quickly into the hallway. “Good even, Prince.” He raised his dagger in salute. A vein of blue glittered in the light. “There is no guard here now. He has gone to bring your father—Silvercloak has just returned with four people who have crossed. You had best move Tegid to a safe place very fast.”
“S"oren? Welcome home,” said the Prince, walking forward. “Coll, take him quickly.”
“Quickly?” Tegid expostulated. “Great Tegid moves at his own pace. He deigns not to hide from minions and vassals. He confronts them with naked steel of Rhoden and the prodigious armor of his wrath. He—”
“Tegid,” the Prince said with extreme softness, “move now, and sharply, or I will have you stuffed through a window and dropped to the courtyard. Prodigiously.”
There was a silence. “Yes, my lord,” the reply came, surprisingly meek. As they moved past the doorway Kim caught a glimpse of an enormously fat man, and another, muscled but seeming small beside him, before a third figure appeared in the entranceway, haloed by the wall torch in the corridor. Diarmuid, she had time to remember. They call him Diarmuid. The younger son.
And then she found herself staring.
All his life Diarmuid dan Ailell had been doing that to people. Supporting himself with a beringed hand upon the wall, he leaned lazily in the doorway and accepted Loren’s bow, surveying them all. Kim, after a moment, was able to isolate some of the qualities: the lean, graceful build, high cheekbones in an over-refined face, a wide, expressive mouth, registering languid amusement just then, the jewelled hands, and the eyes… the cynical, mocking expression in the very blue eyes of the King’s Heir in the High Kingdom. It was hard to judge his age; close to her own, she guessed.
“Thank you, Silvercloak,” he said. “A timely return and a timely warning.”
“It is folly to defy your father for Tegid,” Loren began. “It is a matter far too trivial—”
Diarmuid laughed. “Advising me again? Already? A crossing hasn’t changed you, Loren. There are reasons, there are reasons…”he murmured vaguely.
“I doubt it,” the mage replied. “Other than perversity and South Keep wine.”
“Good reasons, both,” Diarmuid agreed, flashing a smile. “Who,” he said, in a very different tone, “have you brought for Metran to parade tomorrow?” Loren, seemingly used to this, made the introductions gravely. Kevin, named first, bowed formally. Paul followed suit, keeping his eyes on those of the Prince. Kim merely nodded. And Jennifer—
“A peach!” exclaimed Diarmuid dan Ailell. “Silvercloak, you have brought me a peach to nibble.” He moved forward then, the jewellery at wrist and throat catching the torchlight, and, taking Jennifer’s hand, bowed very low and kissed it.
Jennifer Lowell, not predisposed by character or environment to suffer this sort of thing gladly, let him have it as he straightened.
“Are you always this rude?” she asked. And there was no warmth in the voice at all, or in the green eyes. It stopped him for an instant only. “Almost always,” he answered affably. “I do have some redeeming qualities, though I can never remember what they’re supposed to be. I’ll wager,” he went on, in a swift change of mood, “that Loren is shaking his head behind my back right now in tragic disapproval.” Which happened to be true. “Ah well, then,” he continued, turning to look at the frowning mage, “I suppose I’m expected to apologize now?”
He grinned at Loren’s sober agreement, then turned once more to Jennifer. “I am sorry, sweetling. Drink and a long ride this afternoon. You are quite extravagantly beautiful, and have probably dealt with worse intrusions before. Indulge me.” It was prettily done. Jennifer, somewhat bemused, found she could only manage a nod. Which succeeded in provoking yet another sublimely mocking smile. She flushed, angry again.
Loren cut in sharply. “You are behaving badly, Diarmuid, and you know it.”
“Enough!” the Prince snapped. “Don’t push me, Loren.” The two men exchanged a tense look.
When Diarmuid spoke again, though, it was in a milder tone. “I did apologize, Loren, do me some justice.” After a moment, the mage nodded.
“Fair enough,” he said. “We don’t have time to quarrel, in any case. I need your help. Two things. A svart attacked us in the world from which I brought these people. It followed Matt and me, and it was wearing a vellin stone.”
“And the other thing?” Diarmuid was instantly attentive, drunk as he was.
“There was a fifth person who crossed with us. We lost him. He is in Fionavar—but I don’t know where. I need him found, and I would much prefer that Gorlaes not know of him.”
“Obviously. How do you know he is here?”
“Kimberly was our hook. She says she had him.”
Diarmuid turned to fix Kim with an appraising stare. Tossing her hair back she met the look, and the expression in her own eyes was more than a little hostile.
Turning without reaction, the Prince walked to the window and looked out in silence. The waning moon had risen—overly large, but Jennifer, also gazing out, did not notice that.
“It hasn’t rained while you were gone, by the way,” said Diarmuid. “We have other things to talk about. Matt,” he continued crisply, “Coll is in the last room on the left. Make sure Tegid is asleep, then brief him. A description of the fifth person. Tell Coll I’ll speak with him later.” Wordlessly, Matt slipped from the room.
“No rain at all?” Loren asked softly. “None.” “And the crops?”
Diarmuid raised an eyebrow without bothering to answer. Loren’s face seemed molded of fatigue and concern. “And the King?” he asked, almost reluctantly.
Diarmuid paused this time before answering. “Not well. He wanders sometimes. He was apparently talking to my mother last night during dinner in the Great Hall. Impressive, wouldn’t you say, five years past her death?”
Loren shook his head. “He has been doing that for some time, though not in public before. Is there… is there word of your brother?”
“None.” The answer this tune was very swift. A strained silence followed. His name is not to be spoken, Kevin remembered and, looking at the Prince, wondered.
“There was a Gathering,” Diarmuid said. “Seven nights past at the full of the moon. A secret one. They invoked the Goddess as Dana, and there was blood.”
“No!” The mage made a violent gesture. “That is going too far. Who summoned it?”
Diarmuid’s wide mouth crooked slightly. “Herself, of course,” he said.
Loren began pacing the room. “She will cause trouble, I know it!”
“Of course she will. She means to. And my father is too old to deal with it. Can you see Ailell on the Summer Tree now?” And there was a new thing in the light voice—a deep, coruscating bitterness.
“I never could, Diarmuid.” The mage’s tone had suddenly gone soft. He stopped his pacing beside the Prince. “Whatever power lies in the Tree is outside my province. And Jaelle’s, too, though she would deny it. You have heard my views on this. Blood magic, I fear, takes more than it gives back.”
“So we sit,” Diarmuid snarled, stiff anger cracking through, “we sit while the wheat burns up in fields all over Brennin! Fine doings for a would-be royal house!”
“My lord Prince”—the use of the title was careful, admonitory—“this is no ordinary season, and you do not need me to tell you that. Something unknown is at work, and not even Jaelle’s midnight invocations will redress the balance, until we touch what lies beneath.”
Diarmuid sank into one of the chairs, gazing blankly at the dim tapestry opposite the window. The wall torches had almost burnt out, leaving the room webbed with lighter and darker shadows. Leaning against the window ledge, Jennifer thought that she could almost see the threads of tension snaking through the darkened spaces. What am I doing here, she thought. Not for the last time. A movement on the other side of the chamber caught her eye, and she turned to see Paul Schafer looking at her. He gave a small, unexpectedly reassuring smile. And I don’t understand him, either, she thought, somewhat despairingly.
Diarmuid was on his feet again by then, seemingly unable to be still for any length of time. “Loren,” he said, “you know the King won’t come tonight. Did you—”
“He must! I won’t let Gorlaes have—”
“Someone’s here,” Paul said sharply. He had quietly ended up in Mart’s post by the door. “Five men, three with swords.”
“I know. You haven’t seen me. I won’t be far,” and the heir to the throne of Brennin leaped in a rustle of cloth and a moonlit flash of yellow hair through the window, reaching out, almost lazily, for a handhold on the wall outside. For God’s sake, Kevin thought.
Which was all he had time for. Vart, the surly guard, appeared in the doorway. When he saw that Matt was nowhere to be seen, a thin smile flicked across his face.
“My lord the Chancellor,” Vart announced.
Kevin wasn’t sure what he’d expected, but it wasn’t what he saw. Gorlaes, the Chancellor, was a big, broad-shouldered, brown-bearded man of middle years. He smiled generously, showing good teeth as he came sweeping in. “Welcome back, Silvercloak! And brightly woven, indeed. You have come in the very teeth of time—as ever.” And he laughed. Loren, Kevin saw, did not.
The other man who came in, an armed aide close beside him, was stooped and very old. The King? Kevin wondered, for a brief, disoriented moment. But it was not.
“Good evening, Metran,” Loren said deferentially to this white-haired new arrival. “Are you well?”
“Well, very well, very, very,” Metran wheezed. He coughed. “There is not enough light in here. I want to see,” he said querulously. A trembling arm was raised, and suddenly the six wall torches blazed, illuminating the chamber. Why, Kim thought, couldn’t Loren have done that?
“Better, much better,” Metran went on, shuffling forward to sink into one of the chairs. His attendant hovered close by. The other soldier, Kim saw, had placed himself by the door with Vart. Paul had withdrawn towards Jennifer by the window.
“Where,” Loren asked, “is the King? I sent Vart to advise him I was here.”
“And he has been so advised,” Gorlaes answered smoothly. Vart, in the doorway, snickered. “Ailell has instructed me to convey his greetings to you, and your—,” he paused to look around, “—four companions.”
“Four? Only four?” Metran cut in, barely audible over a coughing fit.
Gorlaes spared him only the briefest of glances and went on. “To your four companions. I have been asked to take them under my care as Chancellor for the night. The King had a trying day and would prefer to receive them formally in the morning. It is very late. I’m sure you understand.” The smile was pleasant, even modest. “Now if you would be good enough to introduce me to our visitors I can have my men show them to their rooms… and you, my friend, can go to your richly deserved rest.”
“Thank you, Gorlaes.” Loren smiled, but a thin edge like that of a drawn blade had come into his voice. “However, under the circumstances I count myself responsible for the well-being of those who crossed with me. I will make arrangements for them, until the King has received us.”
“Silvercloak, are you implying that their well-being can be better attended to than by the Chancellor of the realm?” There, too, Kevin thought, his muscles involuntarily tensing: the same edge. Though neither man had moved, it seemed to him as if there were two swords drawn in the torchlit room.
“Not at all, Gorlaes,” said the mage. “It is simply a matter of my own honor.”
“You are tired, my friend. Leave this tedious business to me.”
“There is no tedium in caring for friends.”
“Loren, I must insist—”
There was a cold silence.
“You realize,” said Gorlaes, his voice dropping almost to a whisper, “that you offer me little choice?” The voice came up suddenly. “I must obey the commands of my King. Vart, Lagoth…” The two soldiers in the doorway moved forward.
And pitched, half-drawn swords clattering, full-length to the floor.
Behind their prone bodies stood a very calm Matt S"oren, and the big, capable man named Coll. Seeing them there, Kevin Laine, whose childhood fantasies had been shaped of images like this, knew a moment of sheer delight.
At which point a lithe, feral figure, shimmering with jewelry, swung easily through the window into the room. He landed lightly beside Jennifer, and she felt a wandering hand stroke her hair before he spoke.
“Who makes this noise at such an hour? Can a soldier not sleep at night in his father’s palace without— why, Gorlaes! And Metran! And here is Loren! You have returned, Silvercloak—and with our visitors, I see. In the very teeth of time.” The insolence of his voice filled the room. “Gorlaes, send quickly, my father will want to welcome them immediately.”
“The King,” the Chancellor replied stiffly, “is indisposed, my lord Prince. He sent me—”
“He can’t come? Then I must do the family honors myself. Silvercloak, would you…?”
And so Loren carefully introduced them again. And “A peach!” said Diarmuid dan Ailell, bending, slowly, to kiss Jennifer’s hand. Against her will, she laughed. He didn’t hurry the kiss.
When he straightened, though, his words were formal, and both of his arms were raised in a wide gesture of ritual. “I welcome you now,” he began, and Kevin, turning instinctively, saw the benign countenance of Gorlaes contort, for a blurred instant, with fury. “I welcome you now,” Diarmuid said, in a voice stripped of mockery, “as guest-friends of my father and myself. The home of Ailell is your home, your honor is ours. An injury done you is an injury to ourselves. And treason to the Oak Crown of the High King. Be welcome to Paras Derval. I will personally attend to your comfort for tonight.” Only on the last phrase did the voice change a little, as the quick eyes, malicious and amused, flashed to Jennifer’s.
She flushed again, but he had already turned. “Gorlaes,” he said softly, “your retainers appear to have collapsed. I have been told, in the few hours since I’ve been back from South Keep, of entirely too much drinking among them. I know it is a festival, but really…?” And the tone was so mild, so very reproachful. Kevin fought to keep a straight face. “Coll,” Diarmuid went on, “have four rooms made ready on the north side, please, and quickly.”
“No.” It was Jennifer. “Kim and I will share. Just three.” She resolutely avoided looking at the Prince. Kimberly, watching him, decided that his eyebrows went higher than they had any right to go.
“We will, too,” said Paul Schafer quietly. And Kevin felt his pulse leap. Oh, Abba, he thought, maybe this will do it for him. Maybe it will.
“I’m too hot. Why is it so hot everywhere?” Metran, First of the Mages, asked, of no one in particular.
The north side of the palace, opposite the town, overlooked a walled garden. When they were finally alone in their room Kevin opened the glass doors and stepped out onto a wide stone balcony. The moon, waning, was high overhead, bright enough to illuminate the shrubs and the few flowers below their room.
“Not much of a garden,” he commented, as Paul came out to join him.
“There’s been no rain, Diarmuid said.”
“That’s true.” There was silence. A light breeze had finally come up to cool the evening.
“Have you noticed the moon?” Paul asked, leaning on the parapet.
Kevin nodded. “Larger, you mean? Yes, I did. Wonder what effect that has?”
“Higher tides, most likely.”
“I guess. And more werewolves.”
Schafer gave him a wry look. “I wouldn’t be surprised. Tell me, what did you think about that business back there?”
“Well, Loren and Diarmuid seem to be on the same side.”
“It looks that way. Matt’s not very sure of him.”
“Somehow that doesn’t surprise me.”
“Really. What about Gorlaes? He was pretty quick to call in the marines. Was he just following orders, or—”
“Not a chance, Paul. I saw his face when Diarmuid made us guest-friends. Not happy, my friend.”
“Really?” Schafer said. “Well, that simplifies things at least. I’d like to know more about this Jaelle, though. And Diarmuid’s brother, too.”
“The nameless one?” Kevin intoned lugubriously. “He of no name?”
Schafer snorted. “Funny man. Yes, him.”
“We’ll figure it out. We’ve figured things out before.”
“I know,” said Paul Schafer, and after a moment gave a rare smile.
“Oh, Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” came a plaintive cry from off to their left. They looked over. Kim Ford, languishing for all she was worth, swayed towards them from the next balcony. The leap was about ten feet.
“I’m coming!” Kevin responded instantly. He rushed to the edge of their own balcony.
“Oh, fly to me!” Kimberly trilled. Jennifer, behind her, began almost reluctantly to laugh.
“I’m coming!” Kevin repeated, ostentatiously limbering up. “You two all right there?” he asked, in mid-flex. “Been ravished yet?”
“Not a chance,” Kim lamented. “Can’t find anyone who’s man enough to jump to our balcony.”
Kevin laughed. “I’d have to do it pretty fast,” he said, “to get there before the Prince.”
“I don’t know,” Jennifer Lowell said, “if anyone can move faster than that guy.”
Paul Schafer, hearing the banter begin, and the laughter of the two women, moved to the far end of the balcony. He knew, very well, that the frivolity was only a release from tension, but it wasn’t something to which he had access any more. Resting his own ringless, fine-boned hands on the railing, he gazed out and down at the denuded garden below. He stood there, looking about him, but not really seeing: the inner landscape demanded its due.
Even had Schafer been carefully scanning the shadows, though, it is unlikely that he would have discerned the dark creature that crouched behind a clump of stunted shrubs, watching him. The desire to kill was strong upon it, and Paul had moved to within easy range of the poison darts it carried. He might have died then.
But fear mastered bloodlust in the figure below. It had been ordered to observe, and to report, but not to kill.
So Paul lived, observed, oblivious, and after a time he drew a long breath and lifted his eyes from sightless fixation on the shadows below.
To see a thing none of the others saw.
High on the stone outer wall enclosing the garden stood an enormous grey dog, or a wolf, and it was looking at him across the moonlit space between, with eyes that were not those of a wolf or a dog, and in which lay a sadness deeper and older than anything Paul had ever seen or known. From the top of the wall the creature stared at him the way animals are not supposed to be able to do. And it called him. The pull was unmistakable, imperative, terrifying. Looming in night shadow it reached out for him, the eyes, unnaturally distinct, boring into his own. Paul touched and then twisted his mind away from a well of sorrow so deep he feared it could drown him. Whatever stood on the wall had endured and was still enduring a loss that spanned the worlds. It dwarfed him, appalled him.
And it was calling him. Sweat cold on his skin in the summer night, Paul Schafer knew that this was one of the things caught up in the chaotic vision Loren’s searching had given him.
With an effort brutally physical, he broke away. When he turned his head, he felt the motion like a twist in his heart.
“Kev,” he managed to gasp, the voice eerie in his, own head.
“What is it?” His friend’s response was instant.
“Over there. On the wall. Do you see anything?” Paul pointed, but did not look back.
“What? There’s nothing. What did you see?”
“Not sure.” He was breathing hard. “Something. Maybe a dog.”
“And it wants me,” Paul Schafer said.
Kevin, stunned, was silent. They stood a moment like that, looking at each other, not sharing, then Schafer turned and went inside. Kevin stayed a while longer, to reassure the others, then went in himself. Paul had taken the smaller of the two beds that had been hastily provided, and was lying on his back, hands behind his head.
Wordlessly, Kevin undressed and went to bed. The moon slanted a thin beam of light into the far corner of the room, illuminating neither of them.