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"Are they?" Tam demanded. "How came you to this defense tower? Did you ride hither with your men? If so, then"-she gestured to the hall about us-"where stand your guards, your close clan chieftains? Do you see them?"
He frowned, his thick brows almost meeting above his nose. "I was-" he began, then hesitated. "Yes!" His tone became more forceful. "I was in my chamber in the palace. The Chosen came to me that we might find a way to fight the monsters, and-" Arvor fell suddenly silent, and the shadow of fear crossed his face.
"He took my hand," the young ruler continued laboriously, as if pulling word after stubborn word from his memory, "and then I was on the floor, and I was fighting."
"But you remember nothing that happened between," Tam persisted.
Mother and Duty stood silent, withdrawing a little, shrewdly leaving Tam in command.
The king's scowl was heavy, and his face was growing increasingly flushed. Suddenly he turned away. Yet he could not win free of us, for I stepped before him and barred his retreat, as would a guard.
"Your Majesty"-I spoke with little respect in my tone-"you have been ensorcelled, and you are at present free only by our efforts. The Dark has taken you once. If you do not face that fact and ready yourself to do battle, why, then-" I raised my hands and shrugged in a gesture of defeat.
"Witches-all of you!" Arvor was nearly shouting now, his wrath once more heated to the boil it had reached the night before.
But we had forgotten Duty. The Wisewife who now stepped before the raging youth was implacable, a personification of her name, prepared to list his shortcomings aloud, shame him before all the company.
Suddenly I caught a scent I knew well. So sharp was it that I swallowed hurriedly as my eyes began to water. With no fear of reprisal, Duty hurled a lump of herbs that had the appearance of a well-chewed cud into the king's face.
His head snapped back; then he stood blinking as the small wad slipped down his chin to the floor. When he spoke to Duty, he might have been a small boy longing to appease a stern guardian.
"I have done nothing wrong, Feemie. Truly I have not!"
Duty nodded. "No, you have not, Arvor. But if you do not listen, you may. Do you wish the Evil Ones to hide beneath your bed tonight?"
He actually looked stricken. "No-ooo!" he cried in a rising wail.
She nodded again. "Very well. You are king now, Arvor-remember that well. You must lead the clansmen, but you must also listen to those who know what you truly face and are able to guide you." She paused, then snapped her fingers in his face.
The bewildered youth raised his hand uncertainly to brush it across his eyes. A moment later, he shook his head and blinked at our old nurse, whom he had thought his own.
"Feemie-you are not Feemie!"
"No," she agreed calmly. "Feemie has long rested at peace with herself and her world. But her care yet abides, and the life-lessons she gave you remain. You have followed a willful path into a tangle of Evil, and now you must cut your way out. Heed well."
His attention fixed firmly on Duty, the king listened. She spoke simply and clearly, detailing what we had learned in the Dismals and explaining what we faced now. When she had finished, he drew a deep breath; his right hand groped at his side for a sword he did not wear. But he asked no questions.
Then he looked from his new teacher to Mother.
"Gracious lady, I have spoken foully. If you will forgive my words-"
Mother inclined her head. "It is done, Your Majesty, and already forgotten. We must allow no division to come between us, for by the sowing of such discord does the Dark Power reap a harvest of lives. What lies before us now is far deadlier than any war, and in that conflict you may well again serve as the weapon this lord of the Left-hand Path seeks. What we can do in protection for you and for all our forces, we shall; yet our enemy has raised the ancient powers of the land, against which we are often impotent. We cannot cry victory until he is utterly destroyed."
"What I am empowered to do, that I shall do," he replied with the solemnity of an oath.
Thus the king joined forces with us. Throughout the day and much of the next night, meetings were held with the clan chiefs who had answered the Gathering-signal of the tower fires, and messages were sent forth by those already a.s.sembled. Father and his officers attended these war-meets, and there was much coming and going of soldiery in the hall.
We withdrew to quarters in the room above to hold our own strategy discussion. The second clan force to ride in had had among them a long-bearded, green-caped man who climbed the stairs to join us.
By the heavy golden pendant lying on his breast and the ma.s.sive signet on his right thumb, he was one long in service of the Light. However, those adornments were not truly needed to identify him, for his Power flowed palpably before him as he came.
Mother arose to greet him with such deference as she would our queen. He, in turn, held out his ringed hand for her to lay fingers on, as if they were priest and priestess in the same shrine and therefore of equal standing.
"May your Light shine, Brother," she said.
"As may yours, Sister. You have come a hard and long way in the service of the Great One." The Lightwielder made a gesture of benediction that included myself and my sisters as he said, "May the Power bless you all."
Having been made known to this newcomer-Arthter by name-we settled ourselves once again, and Mother took up our tale, even as Duty had earlier for the king. The Shrine Speaker saved his questions until she was done. Then he centered on the three of us, had us each in turn tell of the Dismals, then of the woman of the Jugged Folk and the task she had laid upon us.
Arthter asked to see Tam's gem but, though he looked at the stone, he would not touch it.
"Lady Tamara, you hold a treasure; therefore, you also will have much asked of you," he said quietly. "Guard it well, for its like has not been seen in this land, North or South." Then he addressed Mother.
"So this foul soul has tampered with the forbidden gate, and the Wild Magic comes to his call. However, it may be that we have been given more knowledge of the ways of the Old Ones than he knows. For the Green Power is of the heart of the land itself, and we are also the earth's children, though of another breed. I must speak now with Zolan."
That statement was not quite an order, but I felt at once the Power gathering for a potent Send. Earlier Zolan had been with the armsmen below, though he kept well to the rear of Father's group, as if he wished to escape notice as much as possible.
Mother cast forth a mind-message. Within a few moments, we heard quick steps on the stair, and the man from the Dismals came among us. The Shrine Dweller did not speak at once, nor did Zolan break the silence. I grew uneasy, for the two men almost appeared for a moment to confront each other in the manner of undeclared enemies.
Arthter at last held out his beringed hand. Zolan still hesitated, then finally extended his own so that they touched palm to palm.
"Var si dun-" Our companion's voice was hardly above a whisper, but it was very firm.
Arthter clapped his hands together and then held them out a little, palms down. "Thirtam," he replied.
Zolan's mask broke as he responded eagerly to the other.
"Ask!" he fairly cried. "That which I have will be given."
Thus was our company increased by one, and though I had visited the Shrine many times with Mother, some of the matters that were discussed now were as far in advance of my training as if I were still a novice pet.i.tioner, unvowed to the Light.
"We face a battle of spirit as well as steel," Zolan said at length. "The soul of the hermit that was driven from his natural body may well have ceased to exist; therefore it cannot be summoned back. The absence of that spirit weakens us, as the hermit's desire for what is his own could add mightily to our strength. We must also remember that Tharn himself has no refuge if he is deprived of the body he now inhabits, for the clay vessel that held his essence in the Dismals has been destroyed. Desperation will thus arm him to the fullest extent."
He hesitated before adding, "He took the king once; he may try again. A second possession may be even easier to achieve. Therefore Arvor must be Warded as completely as may be achieved."
"And as soon as possible," Mother added. "It remains to be seen if we are able to go up against Wild Magic, which is not of the Light."
"Yet neither," Arthter interjected as she paused, "is it of the Dark-it is a Power that chooses its own way. But whatever tactics of the Talent we would employ, we must move as soon as possible-and not with the armsmen."
As he made that very definite statement, he turned to regard Bina and me. Swinging his chain of office well to one side, he delved into the breast-fold of his cape to bring into view a roll of cured skin. This cylinder he carefully unrolled. It was a map, a very old one-indeed, the outlines upon it were so dim that it must needs be held close for eyes to see them at all.
Tam caught my thought and held her gem down to those faint tracings.
Arthter rose, pushing back towards the wall the bedroll that had been his seat. Wordlessly the rest of us did likewise until we had won a free s.p.a.ce on the floor. When that area, circular in shape, had been cleared, he came to my side.
Again the Shrine Servant reached under his green garment and this time brought forth a slender rod of strange wood, green also, but with dots of gold undulating over it. With this wand, he pointed to portions of the map, at the same time giving me instructions.
"Lady Drucilla, copy these as carefully as can be done on the floor here and now."
Mother's Send came quickly: "Do your best, daughter."
I knelt beside Tam who held the Dismals jewel. The light grew ever stronger as she fed it Power. Taking Arthter's rod, Sabina began to transfer to the old wood flooring those parts of the map he had indicated. I knew the picture now for what surely was-a section of Kingsburke.
Wind whistled about us, burdened with the stench released by violent death. Fear, rage, and pain tainted the air almost as thickly, as well as other emotions I could not determine.
Bina, Cilla, and I stood together, as did Mother and Ison. Zolan held himself a little apart, just as he had remained aloof from Father's forces, though Climber sat beside him. The focus of our company, its core, was Arthter, Duty at his right hand.
I kept my eyes fixed on the two of them, not daring to look about, though I was sure I knew where we were. The buildings of Kingsburke walled us in, and beneath our boots we could feel the earth of the open s.p.a.ce before the palace. Cilla's hand gripped tightly the rod with which she had drawn a map of this place on the floor of the defense tower.
I was not even sure that we existed as more than wisps of ident.i.ty, delivered here by such high Power as only the greatest of adepts could summon. We had been in the tower, and now we were in the city-that was all I could swear to. Still, none of the storm clouds of raging color surrounded us such as had heralded the arrival of Arvor.
The gray of early dawn gave us a measure of light. Light-I fixed my gaze upon the gem I held with all the focus I could summon. It was as cold now as any dew-wet stone, seemingly dead. Had the Power that had transported us here burnt it out?
The foulness, rising from the lifeless things lying on the cobbles, continued to intensify until it choked our nostrils and throats, and the aura of terror and suffering grew more oppressive with it.
"Ready-" The adept did not turn to address any of our group, but his tone alerted us. Bina's hand was on me, catching mine in her hold, as she linked also with Cilla. We were tightly three in one again, and so we would be-we must must be-until the end came, one way or another. And our joining was but the beginning of a melding with the others that increased steadily in strength. be-until the end came, one way or another. And our joining was but the beginning of a melding with the others that increased steadily in strength.
As yet there was no opposition; Kingsburke might be a long-deserted ruin. We felt a pulsation, like the beating of a great heart. Then we sensed a Gathering begin.
Four streets fed into the blood-spattered square, one at each corner. Movement was commencing on each, and it was easy to sense, though none of us looked to see what advanced. Instead, the palace looming before us held our attention.
It must have begun as a defensive castle, that pile, for some of its stones were dark with age, while others, marking later additions, were lighter. Wide steps led up to a door so large that a full company of armsmen might enter it four abreast.
The vast door had the sheen of metal under the strengthening glow of approaching day. It was shut, and we saw no sign of guards on duty.
"Hicar vorlun tee.
Iscar, wun, inze..."
The ancient words rolled easily from the combined tongues of Duty and Arthter. I had thought I knew our old nurse well, but this seeress was strange, her Gifts beyond those we three had ever learned or practiced.
The largely unseen motion down the streets was increasing, a darkness rising with the light. Its flow was now edging out into the square. Yet, strangely, the sickening stench that had plagued us was now being overlaid by cleaner odors. I felt no breeze, but I smelled the scent of herbs and other healing, growing things; of earth freshly plowed after rain; of pine; and of flowers-not the blossoms tamed for a garden but rather the shy ones that hid themselves in the wild places.
"Evo-EVO!" That cry voiced no threat, no order, rather a welcoming hail.
The things that had poured in from the streets like a fourfold tide did not advance farther into the open square but cl.u.s.tered together. Even now I could not look directly at them. Surely if they were the monsters I had seen in Mother's viewing mirror, we were now nearly surrounded by danger. Yet we were held in this place.
"Sansong, Lare"-Duty and Arthter again mingled voices.
Zolan strode forward, one hand resting on Climber's head. His head tilted back a fraction as he shouted: "Strength to strength, Dealer-in-Death!"
He was not greeting the Wild Ones as I was sure the Wisewife and the adept did, but rather addressing the door.
From the two side streets that paralleled the palace now trooped forth beings whose like I had only seen pictured in books of ancient legends. A great bear shambled on its hind legs behind the much smaller form of a girl, her greenish white hair by turns hidden, then revealed, by a gold veil that floated about her. Coming to meet them from the opposite side of the open s.p.a.ce was an armored figure, his war-gear that of an ancient time. Drifting from his closed helm like a plume was a vine studded with small flowers. With him strode a ma.s.sive cat wearing a gemmed chain that gleamed through long neck fur-not a collar of service but a decoration of honor.
Others came into sight, two by two, each different from the others of their company. Here were none of the monsters we had seen; rather, all these beings had the appearance of those able to walk in the Light without fear. I understood then that even the Wild Magic had its good and evil and that its followers had-as did we-a choice of two paths to follow.
None of us greeted the newcomers, nor did any of them look to us. However, Duty and Arthter moved forward a step or so. Behind them Mother, myself, and my sisters did likewise. Zolan showed no interest in either our group or the Children of Earth. He stood now at the foot of the stairs leading to the palace door.
"In the name of the Nine Daughters of Lazar, by the Blood of the Sooks, and by the Kinship of the Last Ship, Tharn-let it be decided between us, here and now, in this place. Dishonored bones cry out!"
I could not see the object he held, but he hurled it. The missile struck against the steely surface, to be answered by a reverberation such as a mighty blow would waken from a great drum.
Metal rasped, grating over stone. Slowly that barrier opened. None of the daylight penetrated within; the portal was only a wide aperture filled with the black of a moonless, starless night.
Then that darkness was pushed aside like a curtain, and a single figure appeared.
I gasped, and my hold on the hands of Tam and Cilla tightened. Before us stood neither a hermit nor a human with the stature and presence of an adept-even a Dark one. This was indeed an enemy, but not the one we expected-it was Maclan, wearing the smile of the successful hunter planting a triumphant boot on the carca.s.s of a fresh-killed stag after a royal hunt.
He laughed as he raised a hand to beckon Zolan forward. Just so he had behaved when we lay captive. And suddenly I was healed, not only by my own anger but by that which overflowed from Tam and Cilla. I dropped linkage with my sisters; my fingers curled, then straightened to curl again. Within the flesh, the heat of Power was rising. The old rules could not hold now-we were ent.i.tled to our vengeance. This time the predator would face no helpless prey!
Maclan/Tharn addressed Zolan. "Pharsali favors me," he observed, eyeing our companion. "She sends me her treasure: the fool! Yes, I have taken another body. This husk"-he shivered affectedly to draw attention to the stolen form he wore-"is wanting in some ways. Yours is more to my taste, youngling. Do not think you can deny me this time, even backed by these cringing Light-lickers you dare to mistakenly depend upon."
He extended both hands and gestured imperiously. "Come, you believer in Power, and discover what it may truly be."
Zolan remained exactly where he was; however, he swayed in his struggle to hold his ground, and the outmost cord of the flung noose of force he dodged touched us.
I did not deny I had been wrong. As a man would change his garments or a.s.sume armor to work his purpose, this Tharn from the Dismals now wore the body of Maclan the Breaksword. For a brief instant I wondered what had chanced with the true Reiver.
Then we three became one again: Tam became me, and became Cilla, as I became each of them. During our sharing, however, unlike the possession performed by the Evil One, our bodies remained our own. We sharpened our Talent, fastened our attention once more on the one before the door. His smile faded, and I could see his lips beginning to shape words unheard. Much of what had been Maclan was gone. Force boiled in that stolen body, as the renegade from the Dismals grew ever stronger, calling down Power into himself that he did not yet wish to use.
Whatever spells he might be muttering were completely drowned out by a great coughing cry. Climber had reared onto his hind legs, in that posture almost matching Zolan in height. His long tail lashed out like a fiery war banner.
Zolan caught at the roll of thick fur and flesh at the animal's neck. The cat-creature tried to turn his head, snapping vainly at the air, but he was unable to reach the restraining hand.