Beyond the palace gates and the walls of the town, the depredations of drought came home. The impact of a rainless summer could be measured in the heavy dust of the road, in the thin grass peeling like brown paint on hills and tummocks, in stunted trees and dried-up village wells. In the fiftieth year of Ailell’s reign, the High Kingdom was suffering as no living man could remember.
For Kevin and Paul, riding south with Diarmuid and seven of his men in the morning, the way of things registered most brutally in the pinched, bitter features of the farmers they passed on the road. Already the heat of the sun was casting a shimmer of mirage on the landscape. There were no clouds in the sky.
Diarmuid was setting a hard pace, though, and Kevin, who was no horseman and who’d had a sleepless night, was exceedingly happy when they pulled up outside a tavern in the fourth village they came to.
They took a hasty meal of cold, sharply spiced meat, bread, and cheese, with pints of black ale to wash away the throat-clogging dust of the road. Kevin, eating voraciously, saw Diarmuid speak briefly to Carde, who quietly sought the innkeeper and withdrew into another room with him. Noticing Kevin’s glance, the Prince walked over to the long wooden table where he and Paul were sitting with the lean, dark man named Erron.
“We’re checking for your friend,” Diarmuid told them. “It’s one of the reasons we’re doing this. Loren went north to do the same, and I’ve sent word to the coast.”
“Who’s with the women?” Paul Schafer asked quickly.
Diarmuid smiled. “Trust me,” he said. “I do know what I’m doing. There are guards, and Matt stayed in the palace, too.”
“Loren went without him?” Paul queried sharply. “How…?”
Diarmuid’s expression was even more amused. “Even without magic our friend can handle himself. He has a sword, and knows how to use it. You worry a good deal, don’t you?”
“Does it surprise you?” Kevin cut in. “We don’t know where we are, we don’t know the rules here, Dave’s gone missing, God knows where—and we don’t even know where we’re going with you now.”
“That last,” said Diarmuid, “is easy enough. We’re crossing the river into Cathal, if we can. By night, and quietly, because there’s a very good chance we’ll be killed if found.”
“I see,” said Kevin, swallowing. “And are we allowed to know why we are subjecting ourselves to that unpleasant possibility?”
For the first time that morning Diarmuid’s smile flashed full-force. “Of course you are,” he said kindly. “You’re going to help me seduce a lady. Tell me, Carde,” he murmured, turning, “any news?”
There was none. The Prince drained his pint and was striding out the door. The others scrambled to their feet and followed. A number of the villagers came out of the inn to watch them ride off.
“M"ornir guard you, young Prince!” one farmer cried impulsively. “And in the name of the Summer Tree, may he take the old man and let you be our King!”
Diarmuid had raised a gracious hand at the first words, but the speaker’s last phrase brought him to wheel his horse hard. There was a brutal silence. The Prince’s face had gone cold. No one moved. Overhead Kevin heard a noisy flap of wings as a dense cluster of crows wheeled aloft, darkening the sun for an instant.
Diarmuid’s voice, when it came, was formal and imperious. “The words you have spoken are treason,” Ailell’s son said, and with a sideways nod spoke one word more: “Coll.”
The farmer may never have seen the arrow that killed him. Diarmuid did not. He was already pounding up the road without a backwards glance as Coll replaced his bow. By the time the shock had passed and the screaming had begun, all ten of them were around the bend that would carry them south.
Kevin’s hands were shaking with shock and fury as he galloped, the image of the dead man engulfing him, the screams still echoing in his mind. Coll, beside him, seemed impassive and unperturbed. Save that he carefully refused to meet the glance of Paul Schafer, who was staring fixedly at him as they rode, and to whom he had spoken a treasonous word of his own the night before.
In the early spring of 9 Dr. John Ford of Toronto had taken a fortnight’s leave from his residency at London’s St. Thomas Hospital. Hiking alone in the Lake District, north of Keswick, he came, at the end of a long day afoot, down the side of a hill and walked wearily up to a farmyard tucked into the shadow of the slope.
There was a girl in the yard, drawing water from a well. The westering sun slanted upon her dark hair. When she turned at the sound of his footstep, he saw that her eyes were grey. She smiled shyly when, hat in hand, he asked for a drink, and before she had finished drawing it for him, John Ford had fallen in love, simply and irrevocably, which was his nature in all things.
Deirdre Cowan, who was eighteen that spring, had been told long ago by her grandmother that she would love and marry a man from over the sea. Because her gran was known to have the Sight, Deirdre never doubted what she had been told. And this man, handsome and diffident, had eyes that called to her.
Ford spent that night in her father’s house, and in the quietest dark before dawn Deirdre rose from her bed. She was not surprised to see her gran in the hallway by her own bedroom door, nor to see the old woman make a gesture of blessing that went back a very long way. She went to Ford’s room, the gray eyes beguiling, her body sweet with trust.
They were married in the fall, and John Ford took his wife home just as the first snows of the winter came. And it was their daughter who walked, a Dwarf beside her, twenty-five springs after her parents had been brought together, towards the shores of a lake in another world, to meet her own destiny.
The path to the lake where Ysanne lived twisted north and west through a shallow valley flanked by gentle hills, a landscape that would have been lovely in any proper season. But Kim and Matt were walking through a country scorched and barren—and the thirst of the land seemed to knife into Kim, twisting like anguish inside her. Her face hurt, the bones seeming taut and difficult within her. Movement was becoming painful, and everywhere she looked, her eyes flinched away.
“It’s dying,” she said.
Matt looked at her with his one eye. “You feel it?”
She nodded stiflly. “I don’t understand.”
The Dwarf’s expression was grim. “The gift is not without its darkness. I do not envy you.”
“Envy me what, Matt?” Kim’s brow furrowed. “What do I have?”
Matt S"oren’s voice was soft. “Power. Memory. Truly, I am not sure. If the hurt of the land reaches so deeply…”
“It’s easier in the palace. I’m blocked there from all this.”
“We can go back.”
For one moment, sharp and almost bitter, Kim did want to turn back—all the way back. Not just to Paras Derval, but home. Where the ruin of the grass and the dead stalks of flowers by the path did not burn her so. But then she remembered the eyes of the Seer as they had looked into hers, and she heard again the voice, drumming in her veins: I have awaited you.
“No,” she said. “How much farther?”
“Around the curve. We’ll see the lake soon. But hold, let me give you something—I should have thought of it sooner. ” And the Dwarf held out towards her a bracelet of silver workmanship, in which was set a green stone.
“What is it?”
“A vellin stone. It is very precious; there are few left, and the secret of fashioning them died with Ginserat. The stone is a shield from magic. Put it on.”
With wonder in her eyes, Kimberly placed it upon her wrist, and as she did, the pain was gone, the hurt, the ache, the burning, all were gone. She was aware of them, but distantly, for the vellin was her shield and she felt it guarding her. She cried out in wonder.
But the relief in her face was not mirrored in that of the Dwarf. “Ah,” said Matt S"oren, grimly, “so I was right. There are dark threads shuttling on the Loom. The Weaver grant that Loren comes back soon.”
“Why?” Kim asked. “What does this mean?”
“If the vellin guards you from the land’s pain, then that pain is not natural. And if there is a power strong enough to do this to the whole of the High Kingdom, then there is a fear in me. I begin to wonder about the old tales of M"ornir’s Tree, and the pact the Founder made with the God. And if not that, then I dare not think what. Come,” said the Dwarf, “it is time I took you to Ysanne.”
And walking more swiftly, he led her around an out-thrust spur of hill slope, and as they cleared the spur she saw the lake: a gem of blue in a necklace of low hills. And somehow there was still green by the lake, and the profuse, scattered colors of wildflowers.
Kim stopped dead in her tracks. “Oh, Matt!”
The Dwarf was silent while she gazed down, enraptured, on the water. “It is fair,” he said finally. “But had you ever seen Calor Diman between the mountains, you would spare your heart’s praise somewhat, to have some left for the Queen of Waters.”
Kim, hearing the change in his voice, looked at him for a moment; then, drawing a deliberate breath, she closed her eyes and was wordless a long time. When she spoke, it was in a cadence not her own.
“Between the mountains,” she said. “Very high up, it is. The melting snow in summer falls into the lake. The air is thin and clear. There are eagles circling. The sunlight turns the lake into a golden fire. To drink of that water is to taste of whatever light is falling down upon it, whether of sun or moon or stars. And under the full moon, Calor Diman is deadly, for the vision never fades and never stops pulling. A tide in the heart. Only the true King of Dwarves may endure that night vigil without going mad, and he must do so for the Diamond Crown. He must wed the Queen of Waters, lying all night by her shores at full of the moon. He will be bound then, to the end of his days, as the King must be, to Calor Diman.”
And Kimberly opened her eyes to look full upon the former King of Dwarves. “Why, Matt?” she asked, in her own voice. “Why did you leave?”
He made no answer, but met her look unflinchingly. At length he turned, still silent, and led her down the winding path to Ysanne’s lake. She was waiting there for them, dreamer of the dream, knowledge in her eyes, and pity, and another nameless thing.
Kevin Laine had never been able to hide his emotions well, and that summary execution, so casually effected, had disturbed him very deeply. He had not spoken a word through a day’s hard riding, and the twilight found him still pale with undischarged anger. In the gathering dark the company passed through more heavily wooded country, slanting gradually downhill towards the south. The road went past a thick copse of trees and revealed, half a mile beyond, the towers of a small fortress.
Diarmuid pulled to a halt. He seemed fresh still, unaffected by the day on horseback, and Kevin, whose bones and muscles ached ferociously, fixed the Prince with a cold stare.
He was, however, ignored. “Rothe,” said Diarmuid to a compact, brown-bearded rider, “you go in. Speak to Averren and no one else. I am not here. Coll is leading a number of you on a reconnaissance. No details. He won’t ask anyway. Find out, discreetly, if a stranger has been seen in the area, then join us by the Dael Slope.” Rothe spun his horse and galloped towards the tower.
“That’s South Keep,” Carde murmured to Kevin and Paul. “Our watchtower down here. Not too big—but there’s little danger of anything crossing the river, so we don’t need much. The big garrison’s downriver, west by the sea. Cathal’s invaded twice that way, so there’s a castle at Seresh to keep watch.”
“Why can’t they cross the river?” Paul asked. Kevin maintained his self-imposed silence.
Garde’s smile in the gathering dark was mirthless. “That you’ll see, soon enough, when we go down to try.”
Diarmuid, throwing a cloak over his shoulders, waited until the keep gates had swung open for Rothe; then he led them west off the road along a narrow path that began to curve south through the woods.
They rode for perhaps an hour, quietly now, though no order had been given. These, Kevin realized, were highly trained men, for all the roughness of their garb and speech when compared to the dandies they’d met in the palace.
The moon, a thinning crescent, swung into sight behind them as they wound out of the trees. Diarmuid halted at the edge of the sloping plain, a hand up for silence. And after a moment Kevin heard it, too: the deep sound of water, swift-flowing.
Under the waning moon and the emerging stars he dismounted with the others. Gazing south he could see the land fall sheer away in a cliff only a few hundred yards from where they stood. But he could not see anything at all on the far side; it was as if the world ended just in front of them.
“There’s a land fault here,” a light voice said close to his ear. Kevin stiffened, but Diarmuid went on casually. “Cathal lies about a hundred feet lower than us; you’ll see when we go forward. And,” said the Prince, his voice still light, “it is a mistake to mate judgements too soon. That man had to die—had he not, word would be in the palace by now that I was encouraging treasonous talk. And there are those who would like to spread that word. His life was forfeit from the time he spoke, and the arrow was a kinder death than Gorlaes would have granted him. We’ll wait for Rothe here. I’ve told Carde to rub you both down; you’ll not make it across with muscles that won’t move.” He walked away and sat on the ground, leaning against the trunk of a tree. After a moment, Kevin Laine, who was neither a petty man nor a stupid one, smiled to himself.
Garde’s hands were strong, and the liniment he used was extraordinary. By the time Rothe rejoined them, Kevin felt functional again. It was quite dark now, and Diarmuid threw back his cloak as he suddenly rose. They gathered around him at the edge of the wood and a ripple of soundless tension went through the company. Kevin, feeling it, looked for Paul, and saw that Schafer was already gazing at him. They exchanged a tight smile, then listened intently as Diarmuid began to speak, softly and concisely. The words spun into the almost windless night, were received and registered, and then there was silence; and they were moving, nine of them, with one man left to the horses, over the slope that led to the river they had to cross into a country where they would be killed if seen.
Running lightly beside Coll, Kevin felt his heart suddenly expand with a fierce exhilaration. Which lasted, growing brighter, until they dropped to a crouch, then a crawl, and, reaching the edge of the cliff, looked down.
Saeren was the mightiest river west of the mountains. Tumbling spectacularly out of the high peaks of Eridu, it roared down into the lowlands of the west. There it would have slowed and begun to meander, had not a cataclysm torn the land millennia ago in the youngness of the world, an earthquake that had ripped a gash like a wound in the firmament: the Saeren Gorge. Through that deep ravine the river thundered, dividing Brennin, which had been raised up in the earth’s fury, from Cathal, lying low and fertile to the south. And great Saeren did not slow or wander in its course, nor could a dry summer in the north slake its force. The river foamed and boiled two hundred feet below them, glinting in the moonlight, awesome and appalling. And between them and the water lay a descent in darkness down a cliff too sheer for belief.
“If you fall,” Diarmuid had said, unsmiling, “try not to scream. You may give the others away.”
And now Kevin could see the far side of the gorge, and along the southern cliff, well below their elevation, were the bonfires and garrisons of Cathal, the outposts guarding their royalty and their gardens from the north.
Kevin swore shakily. “I do not believe this. What are they afraid of? No one can cross this thing.”
“It’s a long dive,” Coll agreed from his right side. “But he says it was crossed hundreds of years ago, just once, and that’s why we’re trying now.”
“Just for the hell of it, eh?” Kevin breathed, still incredulous. “What’s the matter? Are you bored with backgammon?”
And indeed, there was little chance to talk after that, for Diarmuid, farther along to their right, spoke softly, and Erron, lean and supple, moved quickly over to a large twisted tree Kevin hadn’t noticed and knotted a rope carefully about the trunk. That done, he dropped the line over the edge, paying it out between his hands. When the last coil spun down into darkness, he wet each of his palms deliberately and cocked an eye at Diarmuid. The Prince nodded once. Erron gripped the rope tightly, stepped forward, and disappeared over the edge of the cliff.
Hypnotically, they all watched the taut line of the rope. Coll went over to the tree to check the knot. Kevin became aware, as the long moments passed, that his hands were wet with perspiration. He wiped them surreptitiously on his breeches. Then, on the far side of the rope, he saw Paul Schafer looking at him. It was dark, and he couldn’t see Paul’s face clearly, but something in the expression, a remoteness, a strangeness, triggered a sudden cold apprehension in Kevin’s chest, and brought flooding remorselessly back the memory he could never quite escape of the night Rachel Kincaid had died.
He remembered Rachel himself, remembered her with a kind of love of his own, for it had been hard not to love the dark-haired girl with the shy, Pre-Raphaelite grace, for whom two things in the world meant fire: the sounds of a cello under her bow, and the presence of Paul Schafer. Kevin had seen, and caught his breath to see, the look in her dark eyes when Paul would enter a room, and he had watched, too, the hesitant unfolding of trust and need in his proud friend. Until it all went smash, and he had stood, helpless tears in his own eyes, in the emergency ward of St. Michael’s Hospital with Paul when the death word came. When Paul Schafer, his face a dry mask, had spoken the only words he would ever speak on Rachel’s death: “It should have been me,” he had said, and walked alone out of a too-bright room.
But now, in the darkness of another world, a different voice was speaking to him. “He’s down. You next, friend Kevin,” said Diarmuid. And there was indeed the dancing of the rope that meant Erron was signaling from the bottom.
Moving before he could think, Kevin went up to the rope, wet his hands as Erron had done, gripped carefully, and slid over and down alone.
Using his booted feet for leverage and control, he descended hand over hand into the growing thunder of noise that was the Saeren Gorge. The cliff was rough, and there was a danger that the line might fray on one of the rock edges—but there was little to be done about that, or about the burning in his hands as the rope slid abrasively through his grip. He looked down only once and was dizzied by the speed of the water far below. Turning his face to the cliff, Kevin breathed deeply for a moment, willing himself to be calm; then he continued, hand and foot, rope and toehold, down to where the river waited. It became a process almost mechanical, reaching for crevices with his foot, pushing off as the rope slid through his palms. He blocked out pain and fatigue, the returning ache of abused muscles, he forgot, even, where he was. The world was a rope and a face of rock. It seemed to have always been.
So oblivious was he that when Erron touched his ankle, Kevin’s heart leaped in a spasm of terror. Erron helped him step down onto the thin strip of earth, barely ten feet from where the water roared past, drenching them with spray. The noise was overwhelming; it made conversation almost impossible.
Erron jerked three times on the slack line, and after a moment it began to sway and bob beside them with the weight of a body above. Paul, Kevin thought wearily, that’ll be Paul. And then another thought invaded him and registered hard over exhaustion: he doesn’t care if he falls. The realization hit with the force of apprehended truth. Kevin looked upwards and began frantically scanning the cliff face, but the moon was lighting the southern side only, and Schafer’s descent was invisible. Only the lazy, almost mocking movement of the rope end beside them testified that someone was above.
And only now, absurdly too late, did Kevin think of Paul’s weakened condition. He remembered rushing him to hospital only two weeks before, after the basketball game Schafer shouldn’t have played, and at the memory, his heart angled in his breast. Unable to bear the strain of looking upwards, he turned instead to the bobbing rope beside him. So long as that slow dance continued, Paul was all right. The movement of the rope meant life, a continuation. Fiercely Kevin concentrated on the line swaying slowly in front of the dark rock face. He didn’t pray, but he thought of his father, which was almost the same thing.
He was still gazing fixedly at the rope when Erron finally touched his arm and pointed. And looking upwards then, Kevin drew free breath again to see the slight, familiar figure moving down to join them. Paul Schafer alighted moments later, neatly, though breathing hard. His eyes met Kevin’s for an instant, then flicked away. He tugged the rope three times himself, before moving down the strand to slump against the rock face, eyes closed.
A time later there were nine of them standing spray-drenched by the river bank. Diarmuid’s eyes gleamed in the light reflected off the water; he seemed feral and fey, a spirit of night unleashed. And he signalled Coll to begin the next stage of the journey.
The big man had descended with another coil of rope in the pack on his broad back. Now he unslung his bow and, drawing an arrow from its quiver, fitted an end of the rope to an iron ring set in the shaft. Then he moved forward to the edge of the water and began scanning the opposite shore. Kevin couldn’t see what he was looking to find. On their own side a few shrubs and one or two thick, short trees had dug into the thin soil, but the Cathal shore was sandier, and there seemed to be nothing growing by the river. Coll, however, had raised his great bow with the arrow notched to the string. He drew one steady breath and pulled the bowstring all the way back past his ear, the gesture smooth, though the corded muscles of his arm had gone ridged and taut. Coll released, and the arrow sang into arching flight, the thin rope hurtling with it high over Saeren—to sink deep into the stone cliff on the far side.
Carde, who’d been holding the free end of the rope, quickly pulled it tight. Then Coll measured and cut it, and, tying the free end to another arrow, proceeded to fire the shaft point-blank into the rock behind them. The arrow buried itself into stone.
Kevin, utterly incredulous, turned to Diarmuid, questions exploding in his eyes. The Prince walked over and shouted in his ear, over the thunder of the water, “Loren’s arrows. It helps to have a mage for a friend—though if he finds out how I’ve used his gift, he’ll consign me to the wolves!” And the Prince laughed aloud to see the silvered highway of cord that spanned Saeren in the moonlight. Watching him, Kevin felt it then, the intoxicating lure of this man who was leading them. He laughed himself in that moment, feeling constraint and apprehension slip away. A sense of freedom came upon him, of being tuned to the night and their journey, as he watched Erron leap up, grab the rope, and begin to swing hand over hand, out over the water.
The wave that hit the dark-haired man was a fluke, kicked up from an angled rock by the shore. It slammed into Erron as he was changing grips and threw him violently sideways. Desperately Erron curved his body to hang on with one hand, but the wave that followed the first buffeted him mercilessly, and he was torn from the rope and flung into the mill-race of Saeren.
Kevin Laine was running before the second wave hit. Pelting flat out downstream along the strand, he leaped, without pausing to calculate or look back, for the overhanging branch of one of the knotted trees that dug into the earth by the river. Fully extended in flight, his arms outstretched, he barely reached it. There was no time to think. With a racking, contorted movement he twisted his body, looped his knees over the branch, and hung face down over the torrent.
Only then did he look, almost blinded by spray, to see Erron, a cork in the flood, hurtling towards him. Again, no time. Kevin reached down, tasting his death in that moment. Erron threw up a convulsive hand, and each clasped the other’s wrist.
The pull was brutal. It would have ripped Kevin from the tree like a leaf—had not someone else been there. Someone who was holding his legs on the branch with a grip like an iron band. A grip that was not going to break.
“I’ve got you!” screamed Paul Schafer. “Lift him if you can.”
And hearing the voice, locked in Schafer’s vise-like hold, Kevin felt a surge of strength run through him; both hands gripping Erron’s wrist, he pulled him from the river.
There were other hands by then, reaching for Erron, taking him swiftly to shore. Kevin let go and allowed Paul to haul him up to the branch. Straddling it, they faced each other, gasping hard for breath.
“You idiot!” Paul shouted, his chest heaving. “You scared the hell out of me!”
Kevin blinked, then the too, too much boiled over. “You shut up! I scared you? What do you think you’ve been doing to me since Rachel died?”
Paul, utterly unprepared, was shocked silent. Trembling with emotion and adrenalin afterburn, Kevin spoke again, his voice raw. “I mean it, Paul. When I was waiting at the bottom… I didn’t think you were going to make it down. And Paul, I wasn’t sure if you cared.”
Their heads were close together, for the words to be heard. Schafer’s pupils were enormous. In the reflected moonlight his face was so white as to be almost inhuman.
“That isn’t quite true,” he replied finally.
“But it isn’t far wrong. Not far enough. Oh, Paul, you have to bend a little. If you can’t talk, can’t you cry at least? She deserves your tears. Can’t you cry for her?”
At that, Paul Schafer laughed. The sound chilled Kevin to the core, there was such wildness in it. “I can’t,” Paul said. “That’s the whole problem, Kev. I really, really can’t.”
“Then you’re going to break,” Kevin rasped.
“I might,” Schafer replied, scarcely audible. “I’m trying hard not to, believe me. Kev, I know you care. It matters to me, very much. If… if I do decide to go, I’ll… say goodbye. I promise you’ll know.”
“Oh, for God’s sake! Is that supposed to make me—”
“Come on!” Coll bellowed from the shore, and Kevin, startled, realized that he’d been calling for some time. “That branch could crack any second!”
So they moved back to the strand, to be disconcertingly enveloped by bear-hugs from Diarmuid’s men. Coll himself nearly broke Kevin’s back with his massive embrace.
The Prince walked over, his expression utterly sober. “You saved a man I value,” he said. “I owe you both. I was being frivolous when I invited you to come, and unfair. I am grateful now that I did.”
“Good,” said Kevin succinctly. “I don’t much enjoy feeling like excess baggage. And now,” he went on, raising his voice so they could all hear, while he buried again that which he had no answer for and no right to answer, “let’s cross this stream. I want to see those gardens.” And walking past the Prince, his shoulders straight, head high as he could carry it, he led them back to the rope across the river, grief in his heart like a stone.
One by one then, hand over hand, they did cross. And on the other shore, where sand met cliff in Cathal, Diarmuid found them what he had promised: the worn handholds carved into the rock five hundred years ago by Alorre, Prince of Brennin, who had been the first and the last to cross the Saeren into the Garden Country.
Screened by darkness and the sound of the river, they climbed up to where the grass was green and the scent of moss and cyclamen greeted them. The guards were few and careless, easily avoided. They came to a wood a mile from the river and took shelter there as a light rain began to fall.
Beneath her feet Kimberly could feel the rich texture of the soil, and the sweetness of wildflowers surrounded her. They were in the strand of wood lining the north shore of the lake. The leaves of the tall trees, somehow untouched by the drought, filtered the sunlight, leaving a verdant coolness through which they walked, looking for a flower.
Matt had gone back to the palace.
“She will stay with me tonight,” the Seer had said. “No harm will touch her by the lake. You have given her the vellin, which was wiser perhaps than even you knew, Matt S"oren. I have my powers, too, and Tyrth is here with us.”
“Tyrth?” the Dwarf asked.
“My servant,” Ysanne replied. “He will take her back when the time conies. Trust me, and go easily. You have done well to bring her here. We have much to talk of, she and I.”
So the Dwarf had gone. But there had been little of the promised talk since his departure. To Kim’s first stumbled questions the white-haired Seer had offered only a gentle smile and an admonition. “Patience, child. There are things that come before the telling time. First there is a flower we need. Come with me, and see if we can find a bannion for tonight.”
And so Kim found herself walking through shade and light under the trees, questions tumbling over each other in her mind. Blue-green, Ysanne had said it was, with red like a drop of blood at the heart.
Ahead of her the Seer moved, light and sure-footed over root and fallen branch. She seemed younger in the wood than in Ailell’s hall, and here she carried no staff to lean upon. Which triggered another question, and this one broke through.
“Do you feel the drought the way I do?”
Ysanne stopped at that and regarded Kim a moment, her eyes bright in the seamed, wizened face. She turned again, though, and continued walking, scanning the ground on either side of the twisting path. When her answer came Kim was unprepared.
“Not the same way. It tires me, and there is a sense of oppression. But not actual pain, as with you. I can—there!” And darting quickly to one side she knelt on the earth.
The red at the center did look like blood against the sea-colored petals of the bannion.
“I knew we would find one today,” said Ysanne, and her voice had roughened. “It has been years, so many, many years.” With care she uprooted the flower and rose to her feet. “Come, child, we will take this home. And I will try to tell you what you need to know.”
“Why did you say you’d been waiting for me?” They were in the front room of Ysanne’s cottage, in chairs beside the fireplace. Late afternoon. Through the window Kim could see the figure of the servant, Tyrth, mending the fence in back of the cottage. A few chickens scrabbled and pecked in the yard, and there was a goat tied to a post in a corner. Around the walls of the room were shelves upon which, in labelled jars, stood plants and herbs of astonishing variety, many with names Kim could not recognize. There was little furniture: the two chairs, a large table, a small, neat bed in an alcove off the back of the room.
Ysanne sipped at her drink before replying. They were drinking something that tasted like camomile.
“I dreamt you,” the Seer said. “Many times. That is how I see such.things as I do see. Which have grown fewer and more clouded of late. You were clear, though, hair and eyes. I saw your face.”
“Why, though? What am I, that you should dream of me?”
“You already know the answer to that. From the crossing. From the land’s pain, which is yours, child. You are a Seer as I am, and more, I think, than I have ever been.” Cold suddenly in the hot, dry summer, Kim turned her head away.
“But,” she said in a small voice, “I don’t know anything.”
“Which is why I am to teach you what I know. That is why you are here.”
There was a complex silence in the room. The two women, one old, the other younger than her years, looked at each other through identical grey eyes under white hair and brown, and a breeze like a finger blew in upon them from the lake.
The voice abraded the stillness. Kim turned to see Tyrth in the window. Thick black hair and a full beard framed eyes so dark they were almost black. He was not a big man, but his arms on the window sill were corded with muscle and tanned a deep brown by labor in the sun.
Ysanne, unstartled, turned to him. “Tyrth, yes, I meant to call you. Can you make up another bed for me? We have a guest tonight. This is Kimberly, who crossed with Loren two nights past.”
Tyrth met her eyes for an instant only, then an awkward hand brushed at the thick hair tumbling over his forehead. “I’ll do a proper bed then. But in the meanwhile, I’ve seen something you should know of…”
“The wolves?” Ysanne asked tranquilly. Tyrth, after a bemused moment, nodded. “I saw them the other night,” the Seer went on. “While I slept. There isn’t much we can do. I left word in the palace with Loren yesterday.”
“I don’t like it,” Tyrth muttered. “There haven’t been wolves this far south in my lifetime. Big ones, too. They shouldn’t be so big.” And turning his head, he spat in the dust of the yard before touching his forehead again and walking from the window. As he moved away Kim saw that he limped, favoring his left foot.
Ysanne followed her glance. “A broken bone,” she said, “badly set years ago. He’ll walk like that all his life. I’m lucky to have him, though—no one else would serve a witch.” She smiled. “Your lessons begin tonight, I think.”
Ysanne nodded towards the bannion resting on the table top. “It begins with the flower,” she said. “It did for me, a long time ago.”
The waning moon rose late, and it was full dark when the two women made their way beneath it to stand by the edge of the lake. The breeze was delicate and cool, and the water lapped the shore gently, like a lover. Over their heads the summer stars were strung like filigree.
Ysanne’s face had gone austere and remote. Looking at her, Kim felt a premonitory tension. The axis of her life was swinging and she knew not how or where, only that somehow, she had lived in order to come to this shore.
Ysanne drew her small figure erect and stepped onto a flat surface of rock jutting out over the lake. With a motion almost abrupt, she gestured for Kim to sit beside her on the stone. The only sounds were the stir of the wind in the trees behind them, and the quiet slap of water against the rocks. Then Ysanne raised both arms in a gesture of power and invocation and spoke in a voice that rang over the night lake like a bell.
“Hear me, Eilathen!” she cried. “Hear and be summoned, for I have need of you, and this is the last time and the deepest. Eilathen damae! Sien rabanna, den viroth bannion damae!” And as she spoke the words, the flower in her hand burst into flame, blue-green and red like its colors, and she threw it, spiralling, into the lake.
Kim felt the wind die. Beside her, Ysanne seemed carved out of marble, so still was she. The very night seemed gathered into that stillness. There was no sound, no motion, and Kim could feel the furious pounding of her heart. Under the moon the surface of the lake was glassy calm, but not with the calm of tranquillity. It was coiled, waiting. Kim sensed, as if within the pulse of her blood, a vibration as of a tuning fork pitched just too high for human ears.
And then something exploded into motion in the middle of the lake. A spinning form, whirling too fast for the eye to follow, rose over the surface of the water, and Kim saw that it shone blue-green under the moon.
Unbelieving, she watched it come towards them, and as it did so, the spinning began to slow, so that when it finally halted, suspended in air above the water before Ysanne, Kim saw that it had the tall form of a man.
Long sea-green hair lay coiled about his shoulders, and his eyes were cold and clear as chips of winter ice. His naked body was lithe and lean, and it shimmered as if with scales, the moonlight glinting where it fell upon him. And on his hand, burning in the dark like a wound, was a ring, red as the heart of the flower that had summoned him.
“Who calls me from the deep against my desire?”
The voice was cold, cold as night waters in early spring, and there was danger in it.
“Eilathen, it is the Dreamer. I have need. Forgo your wrath and hear me. It is long since we stood here, you and I.”
“Long for you, Ysanne. You have grown old. Soon the worms will gather you.” The reedy pleasure in the voice could be heard. “But I do not age in my green halls, and time turns not for me, save when the bannion fire troubles the deep.” And Eilathen held out the hand upon which the red ring burned.
“I would not send down the fire without a cause, and tonight marks your release from guardianship. Do this last thing for me and you are free of my call.”
A slight stir of wind; the trees were sighing again.
“On your oath?” Eilathen moved closer to the shore. He seemed to grow, towering above the Seer, water rippling down his shoulders and thighs, the long wet hair pulled back from his face.
“On my oath,” Ysanne replied. “I bound you against my own desire. The wild magic is meant to be free. Only because my need was great were you given to the flowerfire. On my oath, you are free tonight.”
“And the task?” Eilathen’s voice was colder than ever, more alien. He shimmered before them with a green dark power.
“This,” said Ysanne, and pointed to Kimberly. The stab of Eilathen’s eyes was like ice cutting into her. Kim saw, sensed, somehow knew the fathomless halls whence Ysanne had summoned him—the shaped corridors of seastone and twined seaweed, the perfect silence of his deep home. She held the gaze as best she could, held it until it was Eilathen who turned away.
“Now I know,” he said to the Seer. “Now I understand.” And a thread that might have been respect had woven its way into his voice.
“But she does not,” said Ysanne. “So spin for her, Eilathen. Spin the Tapestry, that she may learn what she is, and what has been, and release you of the burden that you bear.”
Eilathen glittered high above them both. His voice was a splintering of ice. “And this is the last?”
“This is the last,” Ysanne replied.
He did not hear the note of loss in her voice. Sadness was alien to him, not of his world or his being. He smiled at her words and tossed his hair back, the taste, the glide, the long green dive of freedom already running through him.
“Look then!” he cried. “Look you to know—and know your last of Eilathen!” And crossing his arms upon his breast, so that the ring on his finger burned like a heart afire, he began to spin again. But somehow, as Kim watched, his eyes were locked on hers all the time, even as he whirled, so fast that the lake water began to foam beneath him, and his cold, cold eyes and the bright pain of the red ring he wore were all she knew in the world.
And then he was inside her, deeper than any lover had ever gone, more completely, and Kimberly was given the Tapestry.
She saw the shaping of the worlds, Fionavar at first, then all the others—her own in a fleeting glimpse—following it into time. The gods she saw, and knew their names, and she touched but could not hold, for no mortal can, the purpose and the pattern of the Weaver at the Loom.
And as she was whirled away from that bright vision, she came abruptly face to face with the oldest Dark in his stronghold of Starkadh. In his eyes she felt herself shrivel, felt the thread fray on the Loom; she knew evil for what it was. The live coals of his eyes scorched into her, and the talons of his hands seemed to score her flesh, and within her heart she was forced to sound the uttermost depths of his hate, and she knew him for Rakoth the Unraveller, Rakoth Maugrim, whom the gods themselves feared, he who would rend the Tapestry and lay his own malignant shadow on all of time to come. And flinching away from the vastness of his power, she endured an endless passage of despair.
Ysanne, ashen and helpless, heard her cry out then, a cry torn from the ruin of innocence, and the Seer wept by the shore of her lake. But through it all Eilathen spun, faster than hope or despair, colder than night, the stone over his heart blazing as he whirled like an unleashed wind towards the freedom he had lost.
Kimberly, though, was oblivious to time and place, to lake, rock, Seer, spirit, stone, locked like a spell into the images Eilathen’s eyes imposed. She saw Iorweth Founder come from oversea, saw him greet the lios alfar by Sennett Strand, and her heart caught at the beauty of the lios in that vision, and of the tall men the God had called to found the High Kingdom. And then she learned why the Kings of Brennin, all the High Kings from Iorweth to Ailell, were named the Children of M"ornir, for Eilathen showed her the Summer Tree in the Godwood under stars.
The Dalrei she saw next, in a whirling away to the north and west; on the Plain she watched them in pursuit of the glorious eltor, their long hair tied back. The Dwarves delving under Banir Lok and Banir Tal she was shown, and the distant men of wild Eridu beyond their mountains.
Eilathen’s eyes carried her south then, across Saeren, and she saw the gardens of Cathal, and the unrivalled splendor of the Lords across the river. The heart of Pendaran she touched, and in a bright vision, bittersweet, she saw Lisen of the Wood meet Amairgen Whitebranch in the grove and bind herself to him, first source to the first mage; and she saw her die by the sea tower, fairest child of all the turning worlds.
Grieving still for that loss, she was taken by Eilathen to see the war—the Great War against Rakoth. Conary she saw, and knew, and Colan his son, the Beloved. She saw the bright, fierce array of the lios, and the shining figure of Ra-Termaine, greatest of the Lords of the lios alfar—and she saw that brilliant company torn apart by wolves and svart alfar, and most terribly of all by the flying creatures older than nightmare unleashed by Maugrim. Then she watched as, coming too late, Conary and Colan were cut off and trapped in their turn by Sennett, and as a red sun went down on a night Conary would die, she saw, and her heart exploded within her to see the curved ranks of the Dalrei ride singing out of Daniloth, out of the mist behind Revor into the sunset. She did not know, though Ysanne did, that she was weeping as the Riders and the warriors of Brennin and Cathal, terrible in their fury and their grief, drove the armies of the Dark back north and east through Andarien to Starkadh, where the Lion of Eridu came to join them, and where the blood and smoke cleared at last to show Rakoth beaten to his knees in surrender.
Then she was shown the binding, and knew the Mountain again for the prison it had become, and she watched Ginserat make the stones. Faster then, the images began to fly, and to Ysanne’s eyes the speed of Eilathen’s turning became as a maelstrom of power, and she knew that she was losing him. The joy of his release she tasted, even amid her own deep ache of loss.
Faster he spun, and faster, the water white beneath his feet, and the Seer watched as the one beside her who was no longer a girl learned what it was to dream true. To be a dreamer of the dream.
And there came a time when Eilathen slowed and stopped.
Kimberly lay sprawled on the rock, drained of all color, utterly unconscious. The water spirit and the Seer gazed at each other a long time, unspeaking.
At length, Eilathen’s voice was heard, high and cold in the moonlight. “I have done. She knows what she is able to know. A great power is in her, but I do not know if she can bear the burden. She is young.”
“Not anymore,” Ysanne whispered. She found it hard to speak.
“Perhaps not. But it is no care of mine. I have spun for you, Dreamer. Release me from the fire.” He was very close, the ice-crystal eyes gleaming with an inhuman light.
The Seer nodded. “I did promise. It was past time. You know why I needed you?” There was an appeal in her voice.
“I do not forgive.”
“But you know why?”
Another long silence. Then, “Yes,” said Eilathen, and one listening for it might have imagined gentleness in his tone. “I know why you bound me.”
Ysanne was crying again, the tears glinting on her lined face. Her back was straight, though, her head high, and the command, when it came, rang clear. “Then go free of me, free of guardianship. Be free of flowerfire, now and evermore. Laith derendel, sed bannion. Echorth!”
And on the last word a sound burst from Eilathen, a high, keening sound beyond joy or release, almost beyond hearing, and the red-stoned ring slid from his finger and fell on the rock at the Seer’s feet.
She knelt to gather it and, when she rose, saw through still-falling tears that he had already spun back out over the lake.
“Eilathen!” she cried. “Forgive me if you can. Farewell!”
For reply, his motion only grew faster, wilder somehow than before, untamed, chaotic, and then Eilathen reached the middle of the lake and dived.
But one listening for it—wanting, praying even, to catch it—might have heard, or imagined she heard, just before he disappeared, the sound of her name called out in farewell in a voice cold and free forever.
She sank to her knees cradling Kim, and rocked her upon her lap as one rocks a child. Holding the girl, gazing out through almost blinded eyes at the empty lake, she did not see the dark-haired, dark-bearded figure that rose from the cover of a sheltering rock behind them. The figure watched long enough to see her take the ring Eilathen had guarded and slip it carefully upon Kimberly’s right hand, where it fit her ring finger as perfectly as the Seer had dreamt it would.
After seeing this, the watching figure turned, still unseen, and walked away from them, and there was no trace of a limp in his stride.
She was seventeen that spring, not yet accustomed to men calling her beautiful. A pretty child she had been, but adolescence had found her long-limbed and coltish, prone to skinned knees and bruises from rough play in the gardens at Larai Rigal—activities ultimately deemed unfitting for a Princess of the realm. The more so when Marlen died hunting and she became heir to the Ivory Throne in a ceremony she scarcely remembered, so dazed was she by the speed of it and the death of her brother. Her knee was hurting, from a fall the day before, and her father’s face had frightened her. There were no falls after that, for the play in the gardens and on the lake of the summer palace came to an end. She learned to school herself in the ways of a decadent court and, in time, to deal not unkindly with the suitors who began to come in such numbers, and she did grow beautiful, the Dark Rose of Cathal, and her name was Sharra, daughter of Shalhassan.
Proud she remained, as were all of her blood, and strong-willed, a quality rare in dissolute Cathal, though not unexpected in her father’s daughter. Within her, too, there flickered yet a secret flame of rebelliousness against the demands of position and ritual that trammelled her days and nights.
Even now the flame burned, within beloved Larai Rigal, where the scent of calath and myrrh, of elphinel and alder enveloped her with memories. Memories that fired her with brighter longing than had any of the men who had knelt before her father’s throne seeking her hand, with the ritual phrase: “The sun rises in your daughter’s eyes.” She was young yet, for all her pride.
And it would have been for all of these reasons, the last perhaps more than any of the others, that when the letters had begun to appear in her room—how, she knew not—she kept them secret unto herself; deeply secret, too, she kept the suspicion, burning like a liena in the gardens at night, of who had sent them.
Of desire they spoke, and called her fair in words more strung with fire than any she had ever heard. A longing was in the lines that sang to her, and it awoke within her breast, prisoner that she was in the place she would one day rule, longings of her own: most often she yearned for the simplicity of mornings that were gone, leaving this strangeness in their place, but sometimes, when she was alone at night, for other things. For the letters grew more bold as time went by, and descriptions of desire became promises of what hands and lips might do.
Still, they were unsigned. Finely phrased, elegantly penned, they bespoke nobility, but there never was a name signed at the close. Until the last one came, as spring was spilling calath and anemone all over Larai Rigal. And the name she read at last gave shape and certainty to what she had long guessed and held in her heart as a talisman. I know something you don’t know was the refrain that had carried her lightly, even kindly, through mornings in the reception chamber, then closely escorted afternoon walks with one suitor or another along the curving pathways and arched bridges of the gardens. Only at night, her ladies at last dismissed, her black hair brushed and falling free, could she take from its hiding place that last letter and read again by candlelight:
Too long. Even the stars now speak to me of you, and the night wind knows your name. I must come. Death is a dark I seek not to find, but if I must walk within its provinces to touch the flower of your body, then I must. Promise only that should the soldiers of Cathal end my life it will be your hands that close my eyes, and perhaps—too much to ask, I know—your lips that touch my cold ones in farewell.
There is a lyren tree near the northern wall ofLarai Rigal. Ten nights past the full of the moon there should still be light enough at moonrise for us to find each other.
I will be there. You hold my life as a small thing between the fingers of your hands.
Diarmuid dan Ailell
It was very late. Earlier in the evening it had rained, releasing the scent of elphinel from below her window, but now the clouds had drifted and the waning moon shone into her room. Gently its light touched her face and glinted in the heavy fall of her hair.
It had been full nine nights before.
Which meant that he had somehow crossed Saeren and was hiding somewhere in the dark of the land, and tomorrow…
Sharra, daughter of Shalhassan, drew a long breath in the bed where she lay alone, and returned the letter to its secret place. That evening she did not dream of childhood or of childhood games when at length sleep found her, twisting from side to side all night, her hair loose and spread upon the pillows.
Venassar of Gath was so young and shy, he made her feel protective. Walking the next morning on the Circle Path, she did most of the talking. In yellow doublet and hose, long-faced and clearly apprehensive, he listened with desperate attentiveness, tilted alarmingly towards her as she named the flowers and trees past which they walked, and told the story of T’Varen and the creation of Larai Rigal. Her voice, pitched low to exclude their retinue, which walked a careful ten paces ahead and behind, gave no hint of how many interminable times she had done this before.
They walked slowly past the cedar from which she had fallen the day her brother died, the day before she had been named heir to the throne. And then, following the curve of the path over the seventh bridge past one of the waterfalls, she saw the giant lyren near the northern wall.
Venassar of Gath, gangling and discomfited, essayed a series of coughs, snorts, and comments in a hapless attempt thereafter to revive a dead conversation. The Princess at his side had withdrawn into a stillness so profound that her beauty seemed to have folded upon itself like a flower, dazzling still, but closed to him. His father, he thought despairingly, was going to flay him.
Taking pity at last, Sharra carefully placed her hand on his arm as they crossed the ninth bridge, completing the Circle, and walked up towards the pavilion where Shalhassan reclined, surrounded by the scented finery of his court. The gesture launched Venassar into a state of petrified automatism, despite the predatory look it elicited from Bragon, his father, who was sitting beside Shalhassan under the waving fans of the servants.
Sharra shivered as Bragon’s glance lingered on her and the smile deepened under his dark moustache. It was not the smile of a potential father-in-law. Beneath the silk of her gown, her body recoiled from the hunger in his eyes.
Her father did not smile. He never did.
She made obeisance to him and moved into the shade, where they brought her a glass of m’rae, deeply chilled, and a dish of flavored ices. When Bragon took his leave, she made sure he saw the coldness in her eyes, and then smiled at Venassar, extending a hand he almost forgot to touch to his forehead. Let the father know, she thought, with no possibility of mistake, why they would not be returning to Larai Rigal. And the anger in her almost showed.
What she wanted, Sharra thought bitterly, even as she smiled, was to climb the cedar again, past the branch that had broken under her, and, reaching the very topmost point, to turn into a falcon that could fly over the shining of the lake and the glory of the gardens all alone.
“A brute, and the son is a callow fool,” Shalhassan said, leaning towards her so only the slaves, who didn’t matter, could hear.
“They all are,” said his daughter, “the one or the other.”
The moon, thinning down, had risen late. From her window she could see it surfacing from the eastern arm of the lake. Still, she lingered within her room. It would not do to arrive on time; this man would have to learn that a Princess of Cathal did not scurry to a tryst like a servant from Rhoden or some such northern place.
Nonetheless, the pulse under the fine skin of her wrist was beating far too fast. A small thing between the fingers of your hands, he had written. Which was true. She could have him taken and garrotted for his effrontery. It might even start a war.
Which, she told herself, was irresponsible. Shalhassan’s daughter would greet this man with the courtesy due his rank and the secrecy the passion in him deserved of her. He had come a long way through very great peril to see her. He would have gracious words to carry back north from the gardens of Cathal. But no more. Presumption such as his had a price, and this, Diarmuid of Brennin would learn. And, she thought, it would be well if he told her how he had crossed Saeren. It was a thing of no small importance to the land she would one day rule.
Her breathing seemed to be under control; the race of her pulse had slowed. The image of the solitary falcon in her mind fell away as on a down drift of wind. It was the heiress of Cathal, well schooled in duty and obligation, who descended, careful of her skirt, down the easy branches of the tree outside her balcony.
The lienae glowed, flying through the dark. About her were woven the deep, disturbing night scents of the flowers. She walked under starlight and the crescent illumination of the moon, sure of her way, for the walled gardens, for all their miles, were her oldest home and she knew every step of all the paths. A night walk such as this, though, was a vanished pleasure, and she would be severely chastised if discovered. And her servants would be flogged.
No matter. She would not be discovered. The palace guard patrolled the outer perimeter of the walls with their lanterns. The gardens were another world. Where she walked, the only lights were those of moon and stars, and the hovering, elusive lienae. She heard the soft chirring of insects and the plashing of the sculpted waterfalls. There was a breath of wind in the leaves, and somewhere, too, in these gardens there was now a man who had written to her of what lips and hands might do.
She slowed a little on the thought, crossing the fourth bridge, the Ravelle, hearing the gentle sound of tamed water over colored stone. No one, she realized, knew where she was. And she knew nothing beyond rumor, which did not reassure, of the man who was waiting in the dark.
But courage was not lacking in her heart, though it might be foolhardy and unwise. Sharra, dressed in azure and gold, one lapis lazuli pendant hanging between her breasts, came over the bridge and past the curving of the path and saw the lyren tree.
There was no one there.
She had never doubted he would be waiting—which, given the hazards that had lain in his path, was absurd.
A besotted romantic might somehow bribe a servant of hers to plant letters, might promise an impossible tryst, but a Prince of Brennin, the heir even, since his brother’s exile, would not dice his life away on a folly such as this, for a woman he’d never seen.
Saddened, and angry with herself for feeling so, she walked the last few steps and stood under the golden branches of the lyren. Her long fingers, smooth finally, after years of abuse, reached out to caress the bark of the trunk.
“If you weren’t in a skirt, you might join me up here, but I don’t imagine a Princess can climb trees anyhow. Shall I come down?” The voice came from directly above her. She checked a sudden motion and refused to look up.
“I’ve climbed every climbable tree in these gardens,” she said evenly, over the acceleration of her heart, “including this one. And often in skirts. I do not care to do so now. If you are Diarmuid of Brennin, then come down.”
“And if I’m not?” The tone, for a supposedly infatuated lover, was far too mocking, she thought, and she didn’t answer. Nor did he wait. There was a rustle in the leaves above, then a thump beside her on the ground.
And then two hands took one of hers quite comprehensively, and brought it not to his forehead but to his lips. Which was all right, though he should have knelt. What was not all right was that he should turn the hand over to kiss her palm and wrist.
She snatched her hand away, horribly aware of the pounding of her heart. She still hadn’t even seen him clearly.
As if reading the thought, he moved out of shadow, to where the moonlight could find his bright, tousled hair. And he did drop to a knee then—letting the light fall like benediction on his face.
And so she did see, finally. The eyes, wide-set and deep, were very blue under long, almost feminine lashes. The mouth was wide as well, too much so, and there was no softness in it, or in the lines of the beardless chin.
He smiled, though, and not mockingly. And she realized that from where he knelt she, too, was in the light to be seen.
“Well—” she began.
“Fools,” said Diarmuid dan Ailell. “They all told me you were beautiful. Said it sixteen different ways.”
“And?” She stiffened, anger ready as a lash.
“And, by Lisen’s eyes, you are. But no one ever told me there was cleverness in you. I should have known. Shalhassan’s heir would have to have subtlety.”
She was completely unprepared. No one had ever said this. Off balance, she fleetingly remembered all her Venassars, so effortlessly handled.
“Forgive me,” this man said, rising to stand beside her, very close. “I didn’t know. I was expecting to deal with a very young woman—which you are not, not in the ways that matter. Shall we walk? Will you show me your gardens?”
And so she found herself in stride with him on the northern perimeter of the Circle Path, and it seemed foolish and young to protest when he took her arm. A question, however, insinuated itself as they moved in the scented darkness, haloed by the lienae flying all about them.
“If you thought me so simple, how could you write me as you did?” she asked, and felt her heartbeat slow again, as a measure of control came back to her in his silence. Not so easily, my friend, she thought.
“I am,” said Diarmuid quite calmly, “somewhat helpless before beauty. Word of yours reached me some time ago. You are more than I was told you were.”
A neat enough answer, for a northerner. Even honey-tongued Galienth might have approved. But it was well within her ability to compass. So although he was handsome and disturbing in the shadows beside her, and his fingers on her arm kept shifting very slightly, and once brushed the edge of her breast, Sharra now felt secure. If there was a twist of regret, another downward arc of the mind’s falcon, she paid it no attention.
“T’Varen laid out Larai Rigal in the time of my great-grandfather, Thallason, whom you have cause to remember in the north. The gardens cover many miles, and are walled in their entirety, including the lake, which…” And so she went on, as she had for all the Venassars, and though it was night now, and the man beside her had a hand on her arm, it really wasn’t so very different after all. I might kiss him, she thought. On the cheek, as goodbye.
They had taken the Crossing Path at the Faille Bridge, and began curving back north. The moon was well clear of the trees now, riding high in a sky laced with windblown clouds. The breeze off the lake was pleasant and not too chilly. She continued to talk, easily still, but increasingly aware of his silence. Of that, and of the hand on her arm, which had tightened and had grazed her breast again as they passed one of the waterfalls.
“There is a bridge for each of the nine provinces,” she said, “and the flowers in each part of—”
“Enough!” said Diarmuid harshly. She froze in midsentence. He stopped walking and turned to face her on the path. There was a calath bush behind her. She had hidden there, playing, as a child.
He had released her arm when he spoke. Now, after a long, cold glance at her, he turned and began walking again. She moved quickly to keep up.
When he addressed her, it was while staring straight ahead, his voice low and intense. “You are speaking like someone scarcely a person. If you want to play gracious Princess with the petty lordlings who mince about, courting you, it is none of my affair, but—”
“The lords of Cathal are not petty, sir! They—”
“Do not, please, insult us both! That emasculated whipping-boy this afternoon? His father? I would take great pleasure in killing Bragon. They are worse than petty, all of them. And if you speak to me as you do to them, you cheapen both of us unbearably.”
They had reached the lyren again. Somewhere within her a bird was stirring. She moved ruthlessly to curb it, as she had to.
“My lord Prince, I must say I am surprised. You can hardly expect less formal conversation, in this, our first—”
“But I do expect it! I expect to see and hear the woman. Who was a girl who climbed all the trees in this garden. The Princess in her role bores me, hurts me. Demeans tonight.”
“And what is tonight?” she asked, and bit her lip as soon as she spoke.
“Ours,” he said.
And his arms were around her waist in the shadows of the lyren, and his mouth, descending, was upon her own. His head blocked the moon, but her eyes had closed by then anyway. And then the wide mouth on hers was moving, and his tongue—
“No!” She broke away violently, and almost fell. They faced each other a few feet apart. Her heart was a mad, beating, winged thing she had to control. Had to. She was Sharra, daughter of—
“Dark Rose,” he said, his voice unsteady. He took a step towards her.
“No!” Her hands were up to ward him.
Diarmuid stopped. Looked at her trembling figure. “What do you fear in me?” he asked.
Breathing was difficult. She was conscious of her breasts, of the wind about her, the nearness of him, and of a dark warmth at her center, where—
“How did you cross the river?” she blurted out.
She expected mockery again. It would have helped. His gaze was steady, though, and he stayed absolutely motionless.
“I used a mage’s arrow and a rope,” he said. “I crossed hand over hand above the water and climbed a ladder cut into the cliff several hundred years ago. I give you this as between you and me. You will not tell?”
She was Princess of Cathal. “I make no such promise, for I cannot. I will not betray you now in any way, but secrets endangering my people—”
“And what do you think I did in telling you? Am I not heir to a throne, just as you are?”
She shook her head. Some voice within was wildly telling her to run, but instead she spoke, as carefully as she could. “You must not think, my lord Prince, to win a daughter of Shalhassan, merely by coming here and—”
“Sharra!” he cried, speaking her name for the first time, so that it rang in the night air like a bell tolling pain. “Listen to yourself! It is not just—”
And they both heard it then.
The jangling clink of armor as the palace guard moved up on the other side.of the wall.
“What was that?” a gravelly voice exclaimed, and she knew it for Devorsh, Captain of the Guard. There was a murmured reply. Then, “No, I heard voices. Two of you go have a look inside. Take the dogs!”
The sound of armored men walking off jarred the night.
Somehow they were together under the tree. She laid a hand on his arm.
“If they find you, they will kill you, so you had better go.”
Incredibly, his gaze on hers, close and above, was undisturbed. “If they find me, they kill me,” said Diarmuid. “If they can. Perhaps you will close my eyes, as I once asked.” The expression changed then, the voice roughened. “But I will not leave you now willingly, though all of Cathal come calling for my blood.”
And gods, gods, all the gods, his mouth on hers was so very sweet, the touch of his hands blindingly sure. His fingers were busy at the fastenings of her bodice, and dear Goddess, her own hands were behind his head, pulling him down to her, her tongue sought his in hunger long denied. Her breasts, suddenly released, strained towards his touch, and there was an ache in her, a burning, something wild being set free as he laid her down on the deep grass and his fingers touched her here, and here, and her clothes were gone from about her, and his from him as well. And then his body along hers was all the night and garden, all the worlds, and in her mind she saw the shadow of a falcon, wings beating wide, fly across the face of the high moon.
From where they were, outside the walls, they heard the name cried out within the gardens. “What was that?” one of them exclaimed. “I heard voices. Two of you go have a look inside. Take the dogs!”
Two men moved quickly to obey the sharp command, jogging urgently in the direction of the western gate.
But only for a few jangling strides. After that, Kevin and Coll stopped running and looped silently back to the concealing hollow where the others lay. Erron, whose disguised voice had barked the order, was already there. The soldiers of Cathal were, at that moment, flanked ten minutes’ walk away on either side. The timing and the plan were Diarmuid’s, worked out as they lay watching and listening to the patrol in the early evening.
Now they had nothing more to do but wait for him. They settled quietly into the dark hollow. A few slept, using the time to advantage, for they would be running back north as soon as the Prince rejoined them. There was no talk. Too wound up to rest properly, Kevin lay on his back and watched the slow transit of the moon. Several times they heard the guards cross and cross again in their circuit of the walls. They waited. The moon reached its zenith and began to slide west against the backdrop of summer stars.
Carde saw him first, a black-clad, bright-haired figure on the top of the wall. Quickly Carde checked right and left for the patrol, but the timing, again, was flawless, and rising briefly to be seen, he gave a thumbs-up sign.
Seeing it, Diarmuid leaped, rolled once, and was up running lightly and low to the ground. When he dropped into the hollow beside them, Kevin saw that he was carrying a flower. Hair dishevelled, doublet loose and half unbuttoned, the Prince’s eyes flashed with an intoxicated hilarity.
“Done!” he said, raising the flower in salute to all of them. “I’ve plucked the fairest rose in Shalhassan’s garden.”