All the night they had been gathering. Stern men from Ailell’s own birthplace in Rhoden, cheerful ones from high-walled Seresh by Saeren, mariners from Taerlin-del, and soldiers from the fastness of North Keep, though not many of these because of the one who was exiled. From villages and dust-dry farms all over the High Kingdom they came as well. For days they had been trickling into Paras Derval, crowding the inns and hostels, spilling out into makeshift campgrounds beyond the last streets of the town below the palace. Some had come walking west from the once-rich lands by the River Glein; leaning on the carved staffs of the southeast they had cut across the burnt-out desolation of the grain lands to join the dusty traffic on the Leinan Road. From the grazing lands and the dairy lands in the northeast others had come riding on the horses that were the legacy of their winter trading with the Dalrei by the banks of the Latham; and though their horses might be painfully gaunt, each mount yet bore the sumptuous woven saddle-cloth that every Brennin horseman crafted before he took a horse: a weaving for the Weaver’s gift of speed. From beyond Leinan they came as well, dour, dark farmers from Gwen Ystrat in their wide, six-wheeled carts. None of their women, though, not from so near Dun Maura in the province of the Mother.
But from everywhere else the women and children had come in noisy, festive number. Even in the midst of drought and deprivation, the people of Brennin were gathering to pay homage to their King, and perhaps to briefly forget their troubles in doing so.
Morning found them densely clustered in the square before the palace walls. Looking up they could see the great balustrade hung with banners and gaily colored streamers, and most wonderful of all, the great tapestry of Iorweth in the Wood, brought forth for this one day that all the folk of Brennin might see their High King stand beneath the symbols of M'ornir and the Weaver both, in Paras Derval.
But all was not consigned to high and sacred things. Around the fringes of the crowd moved jugglers and clowns, and performers doing glittering things with knives and swords and bright scarves. The cyngael chanted their ribald verses to pockets of laughing auditors, extemporizing satires for a fee upon whomever their benefactor designated; not a few revenges were thus effected in the clear, cutting words of the cyngael—immune since Colan’s day from any law save that of their own council. Amid the babble, pedlars carried their colorful goods about or erected hasty booths from which to display their craft in the sunlight. And then the noise, never less than a roar, became a thundering, for figures had appeared on the balustrade.
The sound hit Kevin like a blow. He regarded the absence of sunglasses as a source of profound and comprehensive grief. Hung-over to incapacity, pale to the edge of green, he glanced over at Diarmuid and silently cursed the elegance of his figure. Turning to Kim—and the movement hurt like hell—he received a wry smile of commiseration, which salved his spirit even as it wounded his pride.
It was already hot. The sunlight was painfully brilliant in the cloudless sky, and so, too, were the colors worn by the lords and ladies of Ailell’s court. The High King himself, to whom they’d not yet been presented, was further down the balcony, hidden behind the intervening courtiers. Kevin closed his eyes, wishing it were possible to retreat into the shade, instead of standing up front to be seen… red Indians, indeed. Red-eyed Indians, anyhow. It was easier with his eyes closed. The fulsome voice of Gorlaes, orating the glittering achievements of Ailell’s reign, slid progressively into background. What the hell kind of wine did they make in this world, Kevin thought, too drained to be properly outraged.
The knock had come an hour after they’d gone to bed. Neither of them had been asleep.
“Careful,” said Paul, rising on one elbow. Kevin had swung upright and was pulling on his cords before moving to the door.
“Yes?” he said, without touching the lock. “Who is it?”
“Convivial night persons,” came an already familiar voice. “Open up. I’ve got to get Tegid out of the hallway.”
Laughing, Kevin looked over his shoulder. Paul was up and half dressed already. Kevin opened the door and Diarmuid entered quickly, flourishing two flasks of wine, one of them already unstoppered. Into the room behind him, also carrying wine, came Coll and the preposterous Tegid, followed by two other men bearing an assortment of clothing.
“For tomorrow,” the Prince said in response to Kevin’s quizzical look at the last pair. “I promised I’d take care of you.” He tossed over one of the wine flasks, and smiled.
“Very kind of you,” Kevin replied, catching it. He raised the flask in the way he’d learned in Spain, years before, to shoot a dark jet of wine down his throat. He flipped the leather flask over to Paul who drank, wordlessly.
“Ah!” exclaimed Tegid, as he eased himself onto a long bench. “I’m dry as Jaelle’s heart. To the King!” he cried, raising his own flask, “and to his glorious heir, Prince Diarmuid, and to our noble and distinguished guests, and to….” The rest of the peroration was lost in the sound of wine voluminously pouring into his mouth. At length the flow ceased. Tegid surfaced, belched, and looked around. “I’ve a mighty thirst in me tonight,” he explained unnecessarily.
Paul addressed the Prince casually. “If you’re in a party mood, aren’t you in the wrong bedroom?”
Diarmuid’s smile was rueful. “Don’t assume you were a first choice,” he murmured. “Your charming companions accepted their dresses for tomorrow, but nothing more, I’m afraid. The small one, Kim”—he shook his head—“has a tongue in her.”
“My condolences,” said Kevin, delighted. “I’ve been on the receiving end a few times.”
“Then,” said Diarmuid dan Ailell, “let us drink in joint commiseration.” The Prince set the tone by commencing to relate what he characterized as essential information: a wittily obscene description of the various court ladies they were likely to meet. A description that reflected an extreme awareness of their private as well as public natures.
Tegid and Coll stayed; the other two men left after a time, to be replaced by a diiferent pair with fresh wine flasks. Eventually these two departed as well. The two men who succeeded them, however, were not smiling as they entered.
“What is it, Carde?” Coll asked the fair-haired one.
The man addressed cleared his throat. Diarmuid, sprawled in a deep chair by the window, turned at the sound.
Garde’s voice was very soft. “Something strange. My lord, I thought you should know right away. There’s a dead svart alfar in the garden below this window.”
Through the wine-induced haze descending upon him, Kevin saw Diarmuid swing to his feet.
“Brightly woven,” the Prince said. “Which of you killed it?”
Garde’s voice dropped to a whisper. “That’s just it, my lord. Erron found it dead. It’s throat was… ripped apart, my lord. Erron thinks… he thinks it was done by a wolf, though… with respect, my lord, I don’t ever want to meet what killed that creature.”
In the silence that followed this, Kevin looked over at Paul Schafer. Sitting up on his bed, Schafer seemed thinner and more frail than ever. His expression was unreadable.
Diarmuid broke the stillness. “You said it was below this window?”
Carde nodded, but the Prince had turned already and, throwing open the doors, was on the balcony and then dropping over the edge. And right behind him was Paul Schafer. Which meant that Kevin had to go, too. With Coll beside him and Carde just behind, he moved to the edge of the balcony, swung over the balustrade, hung by his hands a dizzy instant, and dropped the ten feet to the garden. The other two followed. Only Tegid remained in the room, his mountainous bulk precluding the descent.
Diarmuid and Paul had moved to where three men were standing by a stunted clump of shrubbery. They parted to let the Prince in among them. Kevin, breathing deeply to clear his head, moved up beside Paul and looked down.
When his eyes adjusted to the dark, he wished they hadn’t. The svart alfar had been almost decapitated; its head had been clawed to shreds. One arm had been torn through, the shoulder remaining attached to the body only by an exposed strip of cartilage, and there were deep claw marks scoring the naked torso of the dark green, hairless creature. Even in the shadows, Kevin could see the thick blood clotting the dried-out soil. Breathing very carefully, shocked almost sober, he resisted an impulse to be sick. No one spoke for a long time: the fury that was reflected in the mangled creature on the ground imposed its own silence.
Eventually Diarmuid straightened and moved back a few steps. “Carde,” he said crisply, “I want the watch doubled on our guests as of now. Tomorrow I want a report on why that thing wasn’t seen by any of you. And why you didn’t see what killed it either. If I post guards, I expect them to be useful.”
“My lord.” Carde, badly shaken, moved off with the other guards.
Coll was still crouching beside the dead svart. Now he looked over his shoulder. “Diar,” he said, “it was no ordinary wolf that did this.”
“I know,” said the Prince. “If it was a wolf.”
Kevin, turning, looked at Paul Schafer again. Schafer had his back to them. He was gazing at the outer wall of the garden.
At length the four of them walked back to the balcony. With the aid of crevices in the palace wall, and a hand over the balustrade from Tegid, they were all soon in the room once more. Diarmuid, Tegid, and Coll departed shortly after. The Prince left them two flasks of wine and an offer; they accepted both.
Kevin ended up drinking almost all of the wine himself, primarily because Paul, for a change, wasn’t in a mood to talk.
“We’re on!” Kim hissed, prodding him with an elbow. They were, it seemed. The four of them stepped forward in response to Gorlaes’s sweeping gesture and, as instructed, waved to the loudly cheering crowd.
Kimberly, waving with one hand and supporting Kevin with the other, realized suddenly that this was the scene that Loren had conjured up for them in the Park Plaza two nights before. Instinctively she looked up over her shoulder. And saw the banner flapping lazily overhead: the crescent moon and the oak.
Kevin, grateful for her arm, did manage a few waves and a fixed smile, while reflecting that the tumultuous gathering below was taking a lot on faith. At this height they could have been any four members of the court. He supposed, impressed with himself for thinking so clearly, that the public relations thing would probably focus on the nobility anyhow. The people around them knew that they were from another world—and someone seemed to be awfully unhappy about it.
His head was killing him, and some indeterminate fungus seemed to have taken up residence in his mouth. Better shape up fast, he thought, you’re about to meet a king. And there was a long ride waiting tomorow, with God knows what at the end.
For Diarmuid’s last offer had been an unexpected one. “We’re going south tomorrow morning,” he’d said as the dawn was breaking. “Across the river. A raid of sorts, though a quiet one. No one to know. If you think you can manage, you may find it interesting. Not altogether safe, but I think we can take care of you.” It was the smile on the last phrase that got both of them—which, Kevin realized, was probably what the manipulative bastard had intended.
The great hall at Paras Derval had been designed by Tomaz Lal, whose disciple Ginserat had been, he who later made the wardstones and much else of power and beauty in the older days.
Twelve great pillars supported the high ceiling. Set far up in the walls were the windows of Delevan—stained-glass images of the founding of the High Kingdom by Iorweth, and the first wars with Eridu and Cathal. The last window on the western wall, above the canopied throne of Brennin, showed Conary himself, Colan young beside him, their fair hair blowing back as they rode north through the Plain to the last battle against Rakoth Maugrim. When the sun was setting, that window would blaze with light in such a fashion that the faces of the King and his golden son were illuminated as from within with majesty, though the window had been crafted almost a thousand years before. Such was the art of Delevan, the craft of Tomaz Lal.
Walking between the huge pillars over mosaic-inlaid tiles, Kimberly was conscious for the first time of feeling awe in this place. The pillars, windows, ever-present tapestries, the jewelled floor, the gem-encrusted clothing of the lords and ladies, even the silken splendor of the lavender-colored gown she wore… She drew a deep, careful breath and kept her gaze as straight as she could.
And doing so, she saw, as Loren led the four of them to the western end of the hall, under the last great window, a raised dais of marble and obsidian and upon it a throne carved of heavy oak, and sitting upon the throne was the man she’d only glimpsed through the crowd on the balcony earlier in the day.
The tragedy of Ailell dan Art lay in what he had fallen from. The haggard man with the wispy, snow-white beard and blurred, cataract-occluded gaze showed little of the giant warrior, with eyes like a noonday sky, who had taken the Oak Throne fifty years before. Gaunt and emaciated, Ailell seemed to have been stretched thin by his years, and the expression with which he peered forward to follow their approach was not welcoming.
To one side of the King stood Gorlaes. The broad-shouldered Chancellor was dressed in brown, with his seal of office hung about his neck and no other ornament. On the other side of the throne, in burgundy and white, stood Diarmuid, the King’s Heir of Brennin. Who winked when her gaze lingered. Kim turned away abruptly to see Metran, the First Mage, making his slow wheezing way, attendant solicitously at hand, to stand with Loren just in front of them.
Seeing Paul Schafer gazing intently at the King, she turned back to the throne herself, and after a pause she heard her name being spoken in introduction. She stepped forward and bowed, having decided earlier that under no circumstances was she going to try anything so hazardous as a curtsy. The others followed suit. Jennifer did curtsy, sinking down in a rustle of green silk, and rising gracefully as an appreciative murmur ran through the hall.
“Be welcome to Brennin,” the High King said, leaning back in his throne. “Bright be the thread of your days among us.” The words were gracious, but there was little pleasure in the low desiccated tones in which they were spoken. “Thank you, Metran, Loren,” the King said, in the same voice. “Thank you, Teyrnon,” he added, nodding to a third man half hidden beyond Loren.
Metran bowed too low in response and almost toppled over. His aide helped him straighten. Someone snickered in the background.
Loren was speaking. “We thank you for your kindness, my lord. Our friends have met your son and the Chancellor already. The Prince was good enough to make them guest-friends of your house last night.” His voice on the last phrase was pitched to carry.
The King’s eyes rested for a long moment on those of Loren, and Kim, watching, changed her mind. Ailell might be old, but he certainly wasn’t senile—the amusement registering in his face was far too cynical.
“Yes,” said the King, “I know he did. And herewith I endorse his doing so. Tell me, Loren,” he went on in a different tone, “do you know if any of your friends play ta’bael?”
Loren shook his head apologetically. “Truly, my lord,” he said, “I never thought to ask. They have the same game in their world, they call it chess, but—”
“I play,” said Paul.
There was a short silence. Paul and the King looked at each other. When Ailell spoke, his voice was very soft. “I hope,” he said, “that you will play with me while you are with us.”
Schafer nodded by way of response. The King leaned back, and Loren, seeing this, turned to lead them from the hall.
The voice was icily imperious. It knifed into them. Kim quickly turned left to where she’d noticed a small grouping of women in grey robes. Now that cluster parted and a woman walked forward towards the throne.
All in white she was, very tall, with red hair held back by a circlet of silver on her brow. Her eyes were green and very cold. In her bearing as she strode towards them was a deep, scarcely suppressed rage, and as she drew near, Kimberly saw that she was beautiful. But despite the hair, which gleamed like a fire at night under stars, this was not a beauty that warmed one. It cut, like a weapon. There was no nuance of gentleness in her no shading of care, but fair she was, as is the flight of an arrow before it kills.
Loren, checked in the act of withdrawing, turned as she approached—and there was no warmth in his face, either.
“Have you not forgotten something?” the woman in white said, her voice feather-soft and sinuous with danger.
“An introduction? I would have done so in due course,” Loren replied lightly. “If you are impatient, I can—”
“Due course? Impatient? By Macha and Nemain you should be cursed for insolence!” The red-haired woman was rigid with fury. Her eyes burned into those of the mage.
Who endured the look without expression. Until another voice interceded in rich, plummy tones. “I’m afraid you are right, Priestess,” said Gorlaes. “Our voyager here does at times forget the patterns of precedence. Our guests should have been presented to you today. I fear—”
“Fool!” the Priestess snapped. “You are a fool, Gorlaes. Today? I should have been spoken to before he went on this journey. How dare you, Metran? How dare you send for a crossing without leave of the Mother? The balancing of worlds is in her hands and so it is in mine. You touch the earthroot in peril of your soul if you do not seek her leave!”
Metran retreated from the enraged figure. Fear and confusion chased each other across his features. Loren, however, raised a hand and pointed one long, steady finger at the woman confronting him. “Nowhere,” he said, and thick anger spilled from his own voice now, “nowhere is such a thing written! And this, by all the gods, you know. You overreach yourself, Jaelle—and be warned, it shall not be permitted. The balance lies not with you—and your moonlit meddling may shatter it yet.”
The Priestess’s eyes flickered at that—and Kim suddenly remembered Diarmuid’s reference the night before to a secret gathering.
And it was Diarmuid’s lazy voice that slid next into the charged silence. “Jaelle,” he said, from by his father’s throne, “whatever the worth of what you say, surely this is not the time to say it. Lovely as you are, you are marring a festival with your wrangling. And we seem to have another guest waiting to be greeted.” Stepping lightly from the dais, he walked past all of them, down to the end of the hall, where, Kim saw as she turned to watch, there stood another woman, this one white-haired with age and leaning on a gnarled staff before the great doors of Ailell’s hall.
“Be welcome, Ysanne,” said the Prince, a deep courtesy in his tone. “It is long since you have graced our court.” But Kim, hearing the name spoken, seeing the frail figure standing there, felt something touch her then, like a finger on the heart.
A current of sound had begun to ripple through the gathered courtiers, and those lining the spaces between the pillars were crowding backwards in fear. But the murmur was only faint background for Kim now, because all her senses were locked onto the seamed, wizened figure walking carefully towards the throne on the arm of the young Prince.
“Ysanne, you should not be here.” Ailell, surprisingly, had risen to speak, and it could be seen that, even stooped with years, he was the tallest man in the room.
“True enough,” the old woman agreed placidly, coming to a halt before him. Her voice was gentle as Jaelle’s had been harsh. The red-haired Priestess was gazing at her with a bitter contempt. “Then why?” Ailell asked softly. “Fifty years on this throne merits a journey to pay homage,” Ysanne replied. “Is there anyone else here besides Metran and perhaps Loren who well recalls the day you were crowned? I came to wish you bright weaving, Ailell. And for two other things.” “Which are?” It was Loren who asked. “First, to see your travelers,” Ysanne replied, and turned to face Paul Schafer.
His responding gesture was brutally abrupt. Throwing a hand in front of his eyes, Schafer cried out, “No! No searching!”
Ysanne raised her eyebrows. She glanced at Loren, then turned back to Paul. “I see,” she said. “Fear not, then, I never use the searching—I don’t need it.” The whispering in the hall rose again, for the words had carried.
Paul’s arm came down slowly. He met the old woman’s gaze steadily then, his own head held high—and strangely, it was Ysanne who broke the stare.
And then it was, then it was, that she turned, past Jennifer and Kevin, ignoring the rigid figure of Jaelle, and for the first tune saw Kimberly. Grey eyes met grey before the carven throne under the high windows of Delevan. “Ah!” cried the old woman then on a sharply taken breath. And in the softest thread of a whisper added, after a moment, “I have awaited you for so long now, my dear.” And only Kim herself had seen the spasm of fear that had crossed Ysanne’s face before she spoke those quiet words like a benediction.
“How?” Kim managed to stammer. “What do you mean?”
Ysanne smiled. “I am a Seer. The dreamer of the dream.” And somehow, Kim knew what that meant, and there were sudden, bright tears in her eyes.
“Come to me,” the Seer whispered. “Loren will tell you how.” She turned then, and curtsied low before the tall King of Brennin. “Fare kindly, Ailell,” she said to him. “The other thing I have come to do is say goodbye. I shall not return, and we shall not meet again, you and I, on this side of the Night.” She paused. “I have loved you. Carry that.”
“Ysanne—” the King cried.
But she had turned. And leaning on her staff, she walked, alone this time, the length of the stunned, brilliant hall and out the double doors into the sunlight.
That night, very late, Paul Schafer was summoned to play ta’bael with the High King of Brennin.
The escort was a guard he didn’t know and, walking behind him down shadowy corridors, Paul was inwardly grateful for the silent presence of Coll, who he knew was following them.
It was a long walk but they saw few people still awake. A woman combing her hair in a doorway smiled at him, and a party of guards went by, sheathed swords clinking at their sides. Passing some bedrooms Paul heard murmurs of late-night talk, and once, a woman cried out softly on a taken breath—a sound very like a cry that he remembered.
The two men with their hidden follower came at length to a pair of heavy doors. Schafer’s face was expressionless as they were opened to his escort’s tapping and he was ushered into a large, richly furnished room, at the center of which were two deep armchairs and a table set for ta’bael.
“Welcome!” It was Gorlaes, the Chancellor, who came forward to grip Paul’s arm in greeting. “It is kind of you to come.”
“It is kind,” came the thinner voice of the King. He moved out from a shadowed corner of the room as he spoke. “I am grateful to you for indulging an old man’s sleeplessness. The day has worn heavily upon me. Gorlaes, good night.”
“My lord,” the Chancellor said quickly. “I will be happy to stay and—”
“No need. Go to sleep. Tarn will serve us.” The King nodded to the young page who had opened the door for Paul. Gorlaes looked as if he would protest again, but refrained.
“Good night then, my lord. And once more, my deepest well-wishes on this brightly woven day.” He walked forward, and on one knee kissed the hand Ailell extended. Then the Chancellor left the room, leaving Paul alone with the King and his page.
“Wine by the table, Tarn. Then we will serve ourselves. Go to bed—I will wake you when I want to retire. Now come, my young stranger,” Ailell said, lowering himself carefully into a chair.
In silence, Paul walked foward and took the other chair. Tarn deftly filled the two glasses set beside the inlaid board, then withdrew through an inner doorway into the King’s bedroom. The windows of the room were open and the heavy curtains drawn back to admit whatever breath of air might slide in. In a tree somewhere outside a bird was singing. It sounded like a nightingale.
The beautifully carved pieces glinted in the light of the candles, but the face of the tall King of Brennin was hidden as he leaned back in his chair. He spoke softly. “The game we play is the same, Loren tells me, though we name the pieces differently. I always play the black. Take you the white and begin.”
Paul Schafer liked to attack in chess, especially with white and the first move. Gambits and sacrifices followed each other in his game, designed to generate a whirlwind assault on the opposition king. The fact that the opposition this night was a king had no effect on him, for Schafer’s code, though complex, was unwavering. He set out to demolish the black pieces of Ailell just as he would have those of anyone else. And that night, heartsick and vulnerable, there was even more fire in his game than usual, for he sought to hide from torment in the cold clarity of the black-and-white board. So he marshalled himself ruthlessly, and the white pieces spun into a vortex of attack.
To be met by a defence of intricate, resilient subtlety. Whatever Ailell had dwindled from, however his mind and authority might seem to waver, Paul knew, ten moves into the game, that he was dealing with a man of formidable resources. Slowly and patiently the King ordered his defences, cautiously he shored up his bulwarks, and so it was that Schafer’s free-wheeling attack began to exhaust itself and was turned inexorably back. After almost two hours’ play, Paul tipped over the white king in resignation.
The two men leaned back in their chairs and exchanged their first look since the game had begun. And they smiled, neither knowing, since there was no way they could know, how rare it was for the other to do so. Sharing that moment, however, as Paul raised his silver goblet to salute the King, they moved closer, across the twin gulfs of worlds and years, to the kind of bonding that might have allowed them to understand each other.
It was not to happen, but something else was born that night, and the fruit of that silent game would change the balance and the pattern of all the worlds there were.
Ailell spoke first, his voice husky. “No one,” he said, “no one has ever given me a game like that. I do not lose in ta’bael. I almost did tonight.”
Paul smiled for the second time. “You almost did. You may next game—but I’m not very certain of it. You play beautifully, my lord.”
Ailell shook his head. “No, I play carefully. All the beauty was on your side, but sometimes plodding caution will wear down brilliance. When you sacrificed the second rider….” Ailell gestured wordlessly. “I suppose that it is only the young who can do a thing like that. It has been so long for me, I seem to have forgotten.” He raised his own cup and drank.
Paul refilled both goblets before replying. He felt drained, simplified. The bird outside, he realized, had stopped singing a long time ago. “I think,” he said, “that it is more a question of style than of youth or age. I’m not very patient, so I play the way I do.”
“In ta’bael, you mean?”
“Other things, too,” Paul answered, after a hesitation.
Ailell, surprisingly, nodded. “I was like that once, though it may be hard for you to credit.” His expression was self-deprecating. “I took this throne by force in a time of chaos, and held it with my sword in the early years. If we are to be a dynasty, it begins with me and follows with… with Diarmuid, I suppose.” Paul remained silent, and after a moment the King went on. “It is power that teaches patience; holding power, I mean. And you learn the price it exacts—which is something I never knew when I was your age and thought a sword and quick wits could deal with anything. I never knew the price you pay for power.” Ailell leaned over the board and picked up one of the pieces. “Take the queen in ta’bael,” he said. “The most powerful piece on the board, yet she must be protected when threatened by guard or rider, for the game will be lost if that exchange is made. And the king,” said Ailell dan Art, “in ta’bael you cannot sacrifice a king.”
Paul couldn’t read the expression in the sunken, still-handsome face, but there was a new timbre in the voice, something shifting far under the words.
Ailell seemed to notice his discomfort. He smiled again, faintly. “I am heavy company at night,” he said. “Especially tonight. Too much comes back. I have too many memories.”
“I have too many of my own,” Paul said impulsively, and hated himself the instant the words were spoken.
Ailell’s expression, though, was mild, even compassionate. “I thought you might,” he said. “I’m not sure why, but I thought you might.”
Paul lowered his face to the deep wine goblet and took a long drink. “My lord,” he said, to break the ensuing stillness with a new subject, any new subject, “why did the Priestess say that Loren should have asked her before bringing us? What does—”
“She was wrong about that, and I will send to tell her so. Not that Jaelle is likely to listen.” Ailell’s expression was rueful. “She loves to make trouble, to stir up tensions she might find ways to exploit. Jaelle is ambitious beyond belief, and she seeks a return to the old ways of the Goddess ruling through her High Priestess, which is how it was before Iorweth came from oversea. There is a good deal of ambition in my court, there often is around the throne of an aging king, but hers runs deeper than any.”
Paul nodded. “Your son said something like that last night.”
“What? Diarmuid did?” Ailell gave a laugh that was actually evocative of the Prince. “I’m surprised he sobered up long enough to think so clearly.”
Paul’s mouth twitched. “Actually, he wasn’t sober, but he seemed to think pretty clearly anyhow.”
The King gestured dismissively. “He is charming sometimes.” After a pause he tugged at his beard and asked, “I’m sorry, what were we speaking of?”
“Jaelle,” Paul said. “What she said this morning.”
“Yes, yes, of course. Once her words would have been true, but not for a long time now. In the days when the wild magic could only be reached underground, and usually only with blood, the power needed for a crossing would be drained from the very heart of the earth, and that has always been the province of the Mother. So in those days it was true that such an expenditure of earthroot, of avarlith, could only be made through intercession of the High Priestess with the Goddess. Now, though, for long years now, since Amairgen learned the skylore and founded the Council of the Mages, the power drain in their magic runs only through the mage’s source, and the avarlith is not touched.”
“I don’t understand. What power drain?”
“I go too quickly. It is hard to remember that you are from another world. Listen, then. If a mage were to use his magic to start a fire in that hearth, it would require power to do it. Once all our magic belonged to the Goddess and that power was tapped straight from the earthroot; and being both drained and expended in Fionavar, the power would find its way back to the earth—it would never diminish. But in a crossing the power is used in another world—”
“So you lose it!”
“Exactly. Or so it was once. But since Amairgen freed the mages from the Mother, the power will be drained from the source only, and he rebuilds it in himself over time.”
“Or she, of course.”
“But… you mean each mage has…?”
“Yes, of course. Each is bonded to a source, as Loren is to Matt, or Metran to Denbarra. That is the anchoring law of the skylore. The mage can do no more than his source can sustain, and this bond is for life. Whatever a mage does, someone else pays the price.”
And so much came clear then. Paul remembered Matt S"oren trembling as they came through the crossing. He remembered Loren’s sharp concern for the Dwarf, and then, seeing more clearly still, the dim torches on the walls of that first room, the torches frail Metran had so easily gestured to brightness, while Loren had refrained to let his source recover. Paul felt his mind stretch away from self-absorption, stiffly, as if muscles had been too long unused.
“How?” he asked. “How are they bound to each other?”
“Mage and source? There are a great many laws, and long training to be endured. In the end, if there is still willingness, they may bind with the ritual, though it is not a thing to be done lightly. There are only three left in Fionavar. Denbarra is sister-son to Metran, Teyrnon’s source is Barak, his closest friend as a child. Some pairings have been strange ones: Lisen of the Wood was source to Amairgen White-branch, first of the mages.”
“Why was it strange?”
“Ah,” the High King smiled, a little wistfully, “it is a long tale, that one. Perhaps you may hear a part of it sung in the Great Hall.”
“All right. But what about Loren and Matt? How did they…?”
“That, too, is strange,” Ailell said. “At the end of his training, Loren sought leave of the Council and of me to travel for a time. He was gone three years. When he returned he had his cloak, and he was bonded to the King of the Dwarves, a thing that had never happened before. No Dwarf—”
The King broke off sharply. And in the abrupt silence they both heard it again: a barely audible tapping on the wall of the room across from the open window. As Paul looked at the King in wonder, it came again.
Ailell’s face had gone queerly soft. “Oh, M"ornir,” he breathed. “They have sent.” He looked at Paul, hesitating, then seemed to make a decision. “Stay with me, young Paul, Pwyll, stay and be silent, for you are about to see a thing few men have been allowed.”
And walking over to the wall, the King pressed his palm carefully against it in a place where the stone had darkened slightly. “Levar shanna,” he murmured, and stood back, as the thin outline of a door began to take shape in the seamless structure of the wall. A moment later the demarcation was clear, and then the door slid soundlessly open and a slight figure moved lightly into the room. It was cloaked and hooded, and remained so a moment, registering Paul’s presence and Ailell’s nod of endorsement, then it discarded the concealing garment in one smooth motion and bowed low before the King.
“Greetings I bear, High King, and a gift to remember your crowning day. And I have tidings needful for you to hear from Daniloth. I am Brendel of the Kestrel Mark.”
And in this fashion did Paul Schafer first see one of the lios alfar. And before the ethereal, flame-like quality of the silver-haired figure that stood before him, he felt himself to have grown heavy and awkward, as a different dimension of grace was made manifest.
“Be welcome, Na-Brendel of the Kestrel,” Ailell murmured. “This is Paul Schafer, whom I think we would name Pwyll in Fionavar. He is one of the four who came with Silvercloak from another of the worlds to join the fabric of our celebration.”
“This I know,” said Brendel. “I have been in Paras Derval two days now, waiting to find you alone. This one I have seen, and the others, including the golden one. She alone made the waiting tolerable, High King. Else I might have been long hence from your walls, with the gift I bear undelivered.” A flame of laughter danced in his eyes, which were green-gold in the candlelight.
“I thank you then for waiting,” said Ailell. “And tell me now, how does Ra-Lathen?”
Brendel’s face went suddenly still, the laughter extinguished. “Ah!” he exclaimed softly. “You bring me quickly to my tidings, High King. Lathen Mist-weaver heard his song in the fall of the year. He has gone oversea and away, and with him also went Laien Spearchild, last of those who survived the Bael Ran-gat. None now are left, though few enough were ever left.” The eyes of the lios alfar had darkened: they were violet now in the shadows. He stopped a moment, then continued. “Tenniel reigns in Daniloth. It is his greeting I bring you.”
“Lathen gone now, too?” the King said, very low. “And Laien? Heavy tidings you bear, Na-Brendel.”
“And there are heavier yet to tell,” the lios replied. “In the winter, rumor came to Daniloth of svart alfar moving in the north. Ra-Tenniel posted watch, and last month we learned that the word was not false. A party of them moved south past us, to the edgings of Pendaran, and there were wolves with them. We fought them there, High King. For the first time since the Bael Rangat, the lios alfar went to war. We drove them back, and most of them were slain—for we are still something of what we were—but six of my brothers and sisters fell. Six we loved will never now hear their song. Death has come again to us.”
Ailell had collapsed into his chair as the lios alfar spoke. “Svarts outside Pendaran,” he moaned now, almost to himself. “Oh, M"ornir, what wrong of mine was so great that this need come upon me in my age?” And aged he did seem then, shaking his head quiveringly back and forth. His hands on the carved arms of the chair trembled. Paul exchanged a glance with the bright figure of the lios. But though his own heart was twisted with pity for the old King, he saw no trace of the same in the eyes, now grey, of their visitor.
“I have a gifting for you, High King,” Brendel said at length. “Ra-Tenniel would have you know that he is other than was the Mistweaver. My tidings of battle should tell you that. He will not hide in Daniloth, and henceforth you will see us more often than at the sevenyear. In token of which, and as earnest of alliance and our interwoven threads of destiny, the Lord of the lios alfar sends you this.”
Never in his life had Paul seen a thing so beautiful as the object Brendel handed to Ailell. In the thin scepter of crystal that passed from the lios to the man, every nuance of light in the room seemed to be caught and then transmuted. The orange of the wall torches, the red flickers of the candles, even the blue-white diamonds of starlight seen through the window, all seemed to be weaving in ceaseless, intricate motion as if shuttling on a loom with the scepter.
“A summonglass,” the King murmured as he looked down upon the gift. “This is a treasure indeed. It has been four hundred years since one of these lay within our halls.”
“And whose fault was that?” Brendel said coldly.
“Unfair, my friend,” Ailell replied, a little sharply, in his turn. The words of the lios seemed to kindle a spark of pride in him. “Vailerth, High King, broke the summonglass as a small part of a great madness—and Brennin paid a blood price for that madness in civil war.” The King’s voice was firm again. “Tell Ra-Tenniel that I accept his gift. Should he use it to summon us, the summons shall be answered. Say that to your Lord. Tomorrow I will speak with my Council as to the other tidings you have brought. Pendaran will be watched, I promise you.”
“It is in my heart that more than watching may be needed, High King,” Brendel replied, softly now. “There is a power stirring in Fionavar.”
Ailell nodded slowly. “So Loren said to me some time ago.” He hesitated, then went on, almost reluctantly. “Tell me, Na-Brendel, how does the Daniloth wardstone?”
“The same as it has been since the day Ginserat made it!” Brendel said fiercely. “The lios alfar do not forget. Look to your own, High King!”
“No offence was meant, my friend,” said Ailell, “but you know that all the guardians must burn the naal fire. And know you this as well: the people of Conary and Colan, and of Ginserat himself, do not forget the Bael Rangat, either. Our stone is blue as it ever was, and as, if the gods are kind, it ever will be.” There was a silence; Brendel’s eyes burned now with a luminous intensity. “Come!” said Ailell suddenly, rising to stand tall above them. “Come, and I will show you!”
Turning on his heel he stalked to his bedroom, opened the door, and passed through. Following quickly behind, Paul caught a glimpse of the great four-postered, canopied bed of the King, and he saw the figure of Tarn, the page, asleep on his cot in a corner of the room. Ailell did not break stride, though, and Paul and the lios alfar hastened to keep up as the King opened another door on the opposite wall of the bedchamber and passed through that as well into a short corridor, at the end of which was another heavy door. There he stopped, breathing hard.
“We are above the Room of the Stone,” Ailell said, speaking with some difficulty. He pressed a catch in the middle of the door and slid back a small rectangle of wood, which allowed them to see down into the room on the other side.
“Colan himself had this made,” the King said to them, “when he returned with the stone from Rangat. It is told that for the rest of his days, he would often rise in the night and walk this corridor to gaze upon Ginserat’s stone and ease his heart with the knowledge that it was as it had been. Of late I have found myself doing the same. Look you, Na-Brendel of the Kestrel; look upon the wardstone of the High Kingdom.”
Wordlessly the lios stepped forward and placed his eye to the opening in the door. He stayed there for a long time, and was still silent when at length he drew back.
“And you, young Pwyll, look you as well and mark whether the blue of the binding still shines in the stone.” Ailell gestured and Paul moved past Brendel to put his eye to the aperture.
It was a small chamber, with no decorations on the walls or floor and no furnishings of any kind. In the precise center of the room there stood a plinth or pillar, rising past the height of a man, and before it was set a low altar, upon which burned a pure white fire. Upon the sides of the pillar were carven images of kingly men, and resting in a hollowed-out space at the top of the column lay a stone, about the size of a crystal ball; and Paul saw that that stone shone with its own light, and the light with which it shone was blue.
Back in the room they had left, Paul found a third goblet on a table by the window and poured wine for the three of them. Brendel accepted his cup, but immediately began a restless pacing of the room. Ailell had seated himself again in his chair by the game-board. Watching from the window, Paul saw the lios alfar stop his coiled movement and stand before the King.
“We believe the wardstones, High King, because we must,” he began softly, almost gently. “But you know there are other powers that serve the Dark, and some of them are great. Their Lord may yet be bound beneath Rangat, but moving over the land now is an evil we cannot ignore. Have you not seen it in your drought, High King? How can you not see? It rains in Cathal and on the Plain. Only in Brennin will the harvest fail. Only—”
“Silence!” Ailell’s voice cracked high and sharp. “You know not of what you speak. Seek not to meddle in our affairs!” The King leaned forward in his chair, glaring at the slim figure of the lios alfar. Two bright spots of red flushed his face above the wispy beard.
Na-Brendel stopped. He was not tall, but in that moment he seemed to grow in stature as he gazed at the High King.
When he finally spoke, it was without pride or bitterness. “I did not mean to anger you,” he said. “On this day, least of all. It is in my heart, though, that little in the days to come can be the affair of one people alone. Such is the meaning of Ra-Tenniel’s gift. I am glad you have accepted it. I will give your message to my Lord.” He bowed very low, turned, and walked back through the doorway in the wall, donning his cloak and hood as he moved. The door slid silently closed behind him, and then there was nothing in the room to mark his ever having been there, save the shimmering scepter of glass Ailell was twisting around and around in the trembling hands of an old man.
From where he stood by the window, Paul could hear a different bird now lifting its voice in song. He supposed it must be getting close to dawn, but they were on the west side of the palace and the sky was still dark. He wondered if the King had completely forgotten his presence. At length, however, Ailell drew a tired breath and, laying the scepter down by the gameboard, moved slowly to stand by Paul, gazing out the window. From where they stood, Paul could see the land fall away westward, and far in the distance rose the trees of a forest, a greater darkness against the dark of the night.
“Leave me, friend Pwyll,” Ailell said at length, not unkindly. “I am weary now, and will be best by myself. Weary,” he repeated, “and old. If there truly is some power of Darkness walking the land I can do nothing about it tonight unless I die. And truly, I do not want to die, on the Tree or otherwise. If this is my failing, then so it must be.” His eyes were distant and sad as he gazed out the window towards the woods far off.
Paul cleared his throat awkwardly. “I don’t think that wanting to live can be a failing.” The words rasped from too long a silence; a difficult emotion was waiting within him.
Ailell smiled at that, but with his mouth only, and he continued to look out at the darkness. “For a king it may be, Pwyll. The price, remember?” He went on in a different voice, “Some blessings I have had. You heard Ysanne in the hall this morning. She said she had loved me. I never knew that. I don’t think,” the King mused softly, turning at last to look at Paul, “that I will tell that part to Marrien, the Queen.”
Paul let himself out of the room, after bowing with all the respect he had. There was a queer constriction in his throat. Marrien, the Queen. He shook his head, and took an uncertain step along the corridor. A long shadow detached itself from the wall nearby.
“Do you know the way?” Coll asked.
“Not really, no,” Paul said. “I guess I don’t.”
They passed through the hallways of the palace, their footsteps echoing. Beyond the walls, dawn was just breaking in the east over Gwen Ystrat. It was dark still in the palace, though.
Outside his doorway Paul turned to Diarmuid’s man. “Coll,” he asked, “what’s the Tree?”
The burly soldier froze. After a moment a hand went up to rub the broad hook of his broken nose. They had stopped walking; Paras Derval lay wrapped in silence. For a moment Paul thought his question would not be answered, but then Coll did speak, his voice pitched low.
“The Summer Tree?” he said. “It’s in the wood west of the town. Sacred it is, to M"ornir of the Thunder.”
“Why is it important?”
“Because,” said Coll, lower yet, “that’s where the God would summon the High King in the old days, when the land had need.”
“Summon him for what?”
“To hang on the Summer Tree and die,” said Coll succinctly. “I’ve said too much already. Your friend is with the Lady Rheva tonight, I believe. I’ll be back to wake you in a little while; we’ve got a long ride today.” And he spun on his heel to walk off.
The big man turned, slowly.
“Is it always the King who hangs?”
Coll’s broad, sunburnt face was etched with apprehension. The answer, when it came, seemed almost to be against his will. “Princes of the blood have been known to do it instead.”
“Which explains Diarmuid last night. Coll, I really don’t want to get you in trouble—but if I were to make a guess at what happened here, I’d guess that Ailell was called because of this drought, or maybe there’s a drought because he hasn’t gone, and I’d guess he is terrified of the whole thing, and Loren backs him because he doesn’t trust whatever happens on the Summer Tree.” After a moment Coll nodded stiffly, and Schafer continued.
“Then I’d go on to guess, and this is really a guess, that Diarmuid’s brother wanted to do it for the King, and Ailell forbade him—which is why he’s gone and Diarmuid is heir. Would that be a good guess?”
Coll had come very close as Schafer was speaking. He searched Paul’s eyes with his own honest brown ones. Then he shook his head, a kind of awe written into his features.
“This is deeper than I can go. It would be,” he said, “a very good guess. The High King must consent to his surrogate, and when he refused, the Prince cursed him, which is treason, and was exiled. It is now death to speak his name.”
In the silence that followed it seemed to Paul as if the whole weight of the night was pressing down upon the two of them.
“There is no power in me,” Coll said then, in his deep voice, “but if there was, I would have him cursed in the name of all the gods and goddesses there are.”
“Who?” Paul whispered.
“Why, the Prince, of course,” said Coll. “The exiled Prince, Diarmuid’s brother, Aileron.”