Book: Fortress of Dragons

Previous: CHAPTER 9
Next: CHAPTER 11

The hills of Amefel north of the town were utterly changed in their outlines, white and rounded, small trees covered. The road had become a zigzag of sharp-edged small drifts, but Dys' great feet thumped through them with ease and enthusiasm, and even on so grim a mission, Tristen found it a rare pleasure to break through these barriers of winter, he and Uwen, and the small number of Amefin guard behind them… pleasure amid grimmer intent, for it was Crissand's point of encounter with trouble they sought, and the band who had fired at him in the dark and the storm.
That answer might easily lie in error on both sides: they went to confirm that hope at Althalen—for it was quite possible that Aeself's men and Crissand had had a near pass, one with the other.
But in case that was not the source of the arrows, and to be sure of the safety of Modeyneth and Anwyll's camp, at the far end of the road, Tristen had requested a band of Ivanim light horse, armed and ready for encounter, to ride out ahead of him and assure themselves that things were well in that direction.
He rode out himself, then, for he had the gift to know who was in the land, far better than any scout, and Cevulirn himself had volunteered to stand by Tassand and Lusin in administering things in Henas'amef while he was gone… for Lusin and his company had become far too useful there, Crissand was still nursing his wound, and wished to go, but Emuin called it folly, and it afflicted him most when he sat a horse, so there he stayed in the town, assisting Cevulirn and overseeing Tassand's oversight.
So Tristen had no doubt at all in his riding out that he had left the town in good hands—no slight to Uwen, who had not had the authority Cevulirn had, when the Patriarch had deserted the town: not even Cevulirn could have prevented that disaster.
Uwen was glad to be with him, all the same, and said so.
"As I ain't set to be any town mayor, nor ever will be, and gods save me, I didn't know what I was to do when His Reverence up and went."
"No more than I could have done," Tristen said, "except I used magic, and that wouldn't have been wise, would it?"
"Not if His Reverence knew't," Uwen said, "but happens as most times folk don't know, do they?"
"I don't," Tristen said as they rode. "I don't wish people to do things or not to do them. It doesn't seem polite."
Uwen laughed. "No," Uwen agreed. "It don't, at that."
They were on the West Road, since other searchers had gone out to the north. It had seemed good to go by the back route toward Althalen, to be sure that no enemy had slipped in to establish a presence in the lesser-traveled west of Amefel. That brought them generally toward Lewenbrook, though they would not go that close to Marna Wood, and it brought them generally toward Emwy village.
Near Emwy was the ruin of the westernmost bridge, the one that had let Aséyneddin across before Lewenbrook, and it had no garrison, only the observance of Pelumer's rangers, who reported that the bridge stonework still stood, but that it had no decking.
That was quick to mend if an enemy dared use it. With a road to guide them and a means by which stealthy small bands could come deep into Amefel, it seemed a weak point—not utterly so, for it was Auld Syes' land, and under wards far stronger than any he had set at Modeyneth.
But now it seemed worth the inquiry. They would ride out to the west and ride back again by the North Road, where the attack on Crissand had taken place. That way they covered both routes, and Cevulirn's riders were further assurance, deeper into the north than they would go. They would set Modeyneth's men to watching and scouring the hills, which shepherds could do far more efficiently than armed riders or anyone but the Lanfarnessemen.
And well knowing that Pelumer's rangers were abroad from here to Modeyneth and into the rough lands beyond, and that Aeself's men maintained patrols, he rode plainly under the banners, the red of Amefel and the black of Althalen and Ynefel, and with all the equipage of war, besides that they wore the red bands of cloth that Pelumer had decreed to distinguish them from intruders.
And if he needed any other distinction to mark his passage through his province, Owl joined him, soaring past now and again as if to be sure he was still where Owl thought—or perhaps to torment them all with his silent approaches, just near enough the horses to startle.
Owl was not given to lengthy flights, and found perches, Tristen was sure, in one and another of the scattered trees… but Owl passed by them at times when there seemed to be no perch, when the hills were as bare as eggs and the land was flat under winter white, and his coming and going put the men on edge. No few of the Guelenmen blessed themselves when Owl would pass near, and one of his guards remarked that, "That bird's often ahead o' trouble."
That did not seem to be Owl's purpose in joining them, however, not as he thought today. Owl might presage change, but he also presaged discovery.
Change came of finding new things, however; and sometimes those things were not what one might wish. It was an all-day ride, in increasing cold, this ride they had undertaken, down a road he had ridden more than once in Cefwyn's company, again with Ninévrisë, and last of all toward Lewenbrook and home again.
That last journey had been very different… joyous for the victory, solemn for the loss of many, many lives. And that journey stayed most on his mind—the last time he had seen this land, at summer's end, with leaves on the trees that now were bare and snow-coated.
They counted on an overnight stay at Althalen, but in consideration of the difficulty of provisioning the residents there, they carried provisions for two days. It was slower going than usual for riders, on account of the snow impeding progress, and although they had started at first light, they began to ask themselves whether they might not need those supplies tonight, fearing they might not reach Althalen before the last glow of day left the sky.
"There's reputed to be haunts," said Gweyl, of his night guard… not that Gweyl or any of his guard would flee if a whole host of Auld Syes' company trooped across the road. The men who served him had all stood their ground under remarkable circumstances. But it was a worried look, all the same.
"We'll miss supper, at least," Uwen said with a sigh, "damn this road and its holes. We can't make speed wi'out ye break your neck, man, so we just keep goin'."
"They'll provide for us," Tristen said. "No need to make camp. We can go as long as there's light and after."
"I don't doubt they'll be glad to see ye," Uwen said, and added with a laugh: "If it was just us metal-coats, we'd have a cold 'un and a foul look from th' landlord… but then, it ain't, and the Elwynim ain't goin'
to grudge you a late arrival."
Ahead of them the banners made their identity sure, and would do so as long as there was light to show the colors: so Tristen hoped, thinking of arrows and Crissand's misfortune: foul looks from the landlords indeed.
But a hill farther on, they came to a tree the snow did not disguise, a lone tree taller than the snow-covered rocks among which it grew, and there they crossed a frozen stream, a small sheet of ice.
Owl, absent for the last hour, called from among the trees, and sat as a lump of feathers in the fading wintry light.
"Damn that bird!" Uwen said, startled, and then: "Forgive me, but he don't give warning."
"He doesn't," Tristen said. But it was as if the land had gone in disguise under the snow. Suddenly, from that old tree and the rocks he recalled, the land looked altogether familiar. He remembered being here with Petelly, before he had met Ninévrisë. He remembered the grass on the bank, how it had grown, and how Petelly had drunk from water now hard as glass.
The sun was beginning to stain the leaden, sifting clouds, but he pointed to the way he remembered, and led them off the road and into the untracked white of the hills.
Untracked, but as they rode Tristen recognized the path all along, an old road, a broad course through the rounded roughness of the sparsely wooded hills, paved, once. He felt the presence of old stones in his very sense of the land, and guided Dys around a buried wall where the road took a turn.
"Wary o' them stones," Uwen cautioned the men. "There's trenches an' foundations to stumble into."
Indeed it seemed to Tristen as if buildings should stand to left and to right, and there, yes, a fountain had once stood, fed by that very spring. Now there was only snow, and a straggle of gorse.
Old stones soon poked edges up atop the snow; and a wind rose, sporting around the horses, blowing up under their bellies and playing around their faces. Owl, tracking them since the stream, dodged and dived through the gusts.
"Damn!" Uwen said in exasperation, for Owl made Cass shy violently under him, and arrows could scarcely do that.
"Is there ghosts?" Gweyl asked.
"I'm sure," Tristen said, and yet had no alarm about reaching out into the land, listening for living souls… and they were there He had a sense of presence, nothing threatening. He found nothing threatening in the sport the gusts made.
But there, he felt something other than living souls, something which grew as the light faded and the wind rose.
"Spooky place," Uwen said. "Wind's talking."
It did make a sound, a soft sighing across the snow.
"It's a welcome, no more."
The banners flew out, snapped and bucked, trying the strength of the men that held them steady. And now the wind acquired voices, a mournful sound.
"Seen this," Uwen said above the sound. "It's the oP lady!"
"Don't fear her," Tristen said. "But go quietly, all."
Uwen had seen Auld Syes more than once, and had seen the Shadows of Althalen. The Amefin guard was for the most part new to this, but they went doggedly ahead toward ruins where they would not willingly have ridden, glancing warily about them.
And a turn or two on, they came on a place where something had made old streaks in the snow, and where strange shapes jutted, half-uncovered, from the depth of the drifts.
They came closer, finding the glint of metal overlaid with ice, then the angle of an elbow, a knee, a shoulder, all frozen in the snow.
"Gods bless," the sergeant of the Amefins said. "It's Elwynim."
It was no hapless band of Amefin that lay thus frozen by the winter, armed and armored. He rode by, giving the area a passing glance, and near a ruined wall they found another such clump of frozen remains, well armored, and that armor sheeted with ice. The faces, for a few showed, were openmouthed, as if they cried out against their deaths.
Suddenly the wind sported with them, and skipped, and streaked the snow and tugged at the banners. Owl swooped near, broad, blunt wings atilt on a snow-laden gust.
"Captain," Gweyl said anxiously.
"Stick close," Uwen said, and half turned in his saddle to call out to the guardsmen. "Don't fear the wind, lads! It's on m'lord's side an'
always has been."
The banners flew sideways in the gusts, and the blast of ice-edged cold rocked even Dys' huge strength. Oaths escaped some lips:
"Hush!" others said.
"Auld Syes!" Tristen called out. "Do you hear? Soft! Speak softly to your folk!"
The wind fell somewhat, and gusts skipped away over the nearest hill, streaking deep tracks in the snow. Snow still blew, and ran in small clouds off the tops of old walls, in the last sinking of the sun.
But now they came to higher walls which partially sheltered them from the wind, and entered a maze of ruins, old stone walls long devoid of plaster, all dark gray against the snow, and liberally dusted with new fall from the roiled heavens.
Then, past a narrow convergence of ruined walls, appeared walls built of wood, structures abutted up against the old stoneworks. They rode through a gap in old stones and smelled fires, and heard the high voices of children at play.
They and the children caught sight of each other at the same moment, a few heavily bundled figures that stood stock-still and stared, then ran shrieking in among the wooden walls.
That brought out the elders, into that strange still time between oncoming storm and evening, a dim, snow-veiled number of cloaked men with weapons, and a handful of women tightly bundled in shawls and cloaks, carrying spears.
Owl flew across Tristen's sight, and came back again, and presumptuously spread his great wings for a landing, with no perch, if Tristen had not put out his gloved hand.
On that, Owl settled. The banners flew straight out in the gusting wind and Owl, feathers clamped tight and still ruffling, shifted his grip, rowing with his wings for balance.
The guard had stopped still about him, and the leader of the folk came through the blowing snow to pay his respects, came earnestly, sweeping off the cowl to show his face.
It was Aeself, bearded, bright-eyed, and cheerful at the sight of them.
"M'lord," Aeself said with a deep reverence, and turned and shouted out to the others. "This is the lord of Althalen and Ynefel! This is himself, the lord Tristen and his men, and our lord's guard out of Amefel! Show him respect!"
The heavily cloaked men and women knelt in the snow, and the elder children uncertainly did as their elders did, the youngest huddling shyly into parental arms. More came out of hiding among the buildings, until around about the area there might have been a hundred, two hundred souls, all kneeling, in a great half circle.
Astonished at so many, Tristen stepped down from the saddle, and raised up Aeself, and another of his men, then a woman who chanced to be near, for this kneeling and reverence was not his, and nothing he sought. Aeself he embraced, and looked him in the eyes where he saw the pride Aeself had in what he had made of Althalen.
Encouraged, the people, too, rose to see, and Uwen and the guard silently dismounted, until they all stood facing one another, a gathering so silent for that moment of assessment that the gusting wind and the restless shifting and blowing of weary horses was the loudest sound in their camp.
"Lord of Althalen," Aeself said against that silence, "you've come to your capital."
"You've done very well," Tristen said, for dull as he was to proprieties, he knew how much Aeself yearned to be in the right of matters. "You've made these people safe."
"My lord," Aeself said, and hastily waved a hand at those standing near. "Bring our lord and his men meat and drink! See to their horses.
Hurry there!"
He had forbidden Aeself to hail him king, and Aeself had obeyed that wish, but he knew the thought in Aeself's heart, and he saw it in these people, who welcomed him and his guard and opened up the wide, rough timber doors of their great hall to him.
"Come in, come in," Aeself urged him, and he did so, with Uwen beside him, and Gweyl and his guards, leaving Dys and Cass to the men, with all the horses.
The place was half of that same rough timber and half stone from the ruins. He was anxious to have his men out of the cold, but this place was large enough to receive them, and Aeself left the wide doors open for all to come and go, despite the snow falling outside.
Women, snow-sprinkled and bundled up in shawls and scarves, hurried to bring in trestles and benches, and men brought snowy planks, so that in a moment the barren place had tables. Women hurried back with baskets of hard bread, and men brought bowls, while the chill wind wafted the scent of food around the half-open hall.
"The horses," was all Tristen needed to say to receive Aeself's assurances there was provision for them and that the men had help settling them. In the meanwhile nothing would do but that they sit and accept mulled ale, while onlookers jammed the door, a living wall that cut off much of the wind and made the hall all but snug.
"Are you well here?" Tristen asked, and had Aeself's assurance that they were, and more than that, they thrived: Modeyneth helped them, and they had no sickness in the camp, no lack of warm blankets and dry boots.
Other questions waited on their supper, which waited for the men to come in, and when they did, it was a good thick stew with their hard bread, rough fare which came wonderfully welcome after a long cold ride.
With so many bodies already to block the drafts and a good fire in a chimneyed old hearth giving off a grateful warmth on the right side, still more of Aeself's folk crowded in, a living blanket of well-wishes and earnestness.
"I came to see how you fared," Tristen said, broaching the business on which he came, "and to learn whether there might be Tasmôrden's men across the river, and I found dead men outside your walls, frozen in the snow."
Heads nodded solemnly. No one seemed surprised, but no few blessed themselves.
"Two bands came at us here," Aeself said, "and each time the wind came up, and the snow blew. We said to ourselves it was a ghost wind when first we heard it. And the next day we went out to find whether they'd been back, and there they lay, stiff and frozen, Tasmôrden's men, and up to no good. So it happened the second time, two days after that."
Even among the Amefin men blessed themselves, and Uwen said, softly, "It were the old lady got 'em."
"Your enemies aren't welcome at Althalen."
"Gods bless," Gweyl said, and his men with him, while the Amefin echoed the same.
Tristen said quietly, "The earl of Meiden said he fell in with armed men to the west and south, as he was riding from Modeyneth, and so we sent Ivanim by the north road and came by the west, to see if they had come toward you. We thought we should come see if you needed help. And clearly not."
"As you see… no, my lord. We have help."
"Do you need anything? Are you in want of anything?"
"We want for nothing but the chance to serve," Aeself said, "to post our own guards along the river, to defend you, my lord. We are your men to order. And if Tasmôrden's men come into this land, we know them, and we know whom to trust."
"Do it," Tristen said without a qualm, and to Uwen's slight unease in the matter.
"M'lord," Uwen said softly, "the rangers is out, too, an' there wight be a misfortune."
Tristen shook his head. "They'll wear the red badge." He had looked Aeself in the eyes and knew this was a loyal man, and that Aeself of all men would countenance no spies.
"Here are three hundred men," Aeself said, "and eleven women who know the bow and who can stand and shoot, and the women can keep a tower, if we raise one, if we have your leave. We can take the field.
We have men skilled in woodcraft and in stealth, and we can range up and down the river and be sure who comes and goes here."
"So do the Lanfarnessemen, to the west," Tristen said, "but the land east of Modeyneth, there we have no eyes but the villagers who live there. There you might do us a great deal of good."
. "Only so's ye choose good an' loyal men who'll not make off wi'
pigs an' th' like from the villages," Uwen said, "them as feed ye."
"That we won't countenance," Aeself said solemnly, to Uwen's blunt concern, and on a second cup of ale, they shared news… not a great deal from the camp, but very much from the town, which was as far from Aeself's knowledge as Guelemara itself. Aeself and his two companions having been as far as Henas'amef had told every detail on their snowy evenings, so Aeself confessed—so now these folk born to Elwynor knew the names of no few earls of Amefel, and all the lords of the south, and their devices and colors, knowledge that might be vital in the struggle to come.
And of Henas'amef, they, being many of them countryfolk, wanted to know the sort of shops there were, and the taverns, and food—oh, very much the food: such things fed them while they dined on hard bread and barley stew.
All these things they freely provided, besides the news out of Guelessar and the quarrel of Lord Cevulirn with the lord of Ryssand, and all the doings in both courts, besides the voyage of Umanon with Sovrag, his longtime enemy in the south… while Aeself and his lieutenants told them a darker story, of Tasmôrden's connivance with the Saendal, the hill bandits, his marriage with a Saendal daughter and his theft of Aséyneddin's gold, from the time Aséyneddin had gone south to what would become the battle of Lewenbrook. With that gold Tasmôrden had rewarded the Saendal, and well armed and well fed, they had taken advantage of the fall of other leaders to gain the service of masterless men, for hire.
That was the core of Tasmôrden's army.
"Not that they love one another," Aeself observed, "but that they have no other master, and hate one another, but serve him, because not to serve him means to fall to the others—no man walks away from Tasmôrden's army. The dogs find him."
Many among the Elwynim blessed themselves at that, and none of the Amefin had heard the tale, so Aeself provided it.
"The Saendal hunt with dogs," Aeself said, "and Caswyddian when he was claiming the kingship had a large kennel himself, which Aséyneddin took, and let his dogs and Caswyddian's fight, and the ones that lived he had guarding his camp. So Tasmôrden had a number of Saendal hounds as a gift from his father-in-law, and when he took Aséyneddin's holdings he took all the dogs he found and had them and the hounds fight, and the ones that lived guard his camp. He hunts men with them, and sets them on anyone that defies him. If a man leaves the army, the hounds hunt him down."
Tristen listened in deep distress, thinking of the yellow dog that had used to follow him out on his rides in Guelessar, fond, foolish creature, and thinking that nothing he heard of Tasmôrden recommended him, this not the worst he had done, but nothing savory either.
He wished the men such dogs hunted might escape them. He saw how some of Aeself's men were very quiet and apprehensive as Aeself told the tale, and he wondered whether among these fugitives who listened to him some might have served Tasmôrden, or Aséyneddin, or Caswyddian before now.
"Well, too grim to go to sleep on," Uwen said quietly—indeed, some of the children huddled close to parents' sides at the edges of the gathering, and many a man had a gloomy look, brooding over weapons that Tristen recalled he had forbidden.
But Uwen told the matter of the feast at Midwinter, and how the Lady of Emwy had come to dance, and how Owl, who had found somewhere else to shelter, had flown right out of the walls: it made a good story, Tristen thought, who was part of it—better, in fact, than it had worrying about the rift at the time. But the people were awed to hear about the Lady, and astonished about Owl.
"The Lady watches this place," Tristen said, "and very likely your intruders fell afoul of her. I know at least that the men who ambushed Lord Crissand haven't come here to trouble you thus far, and they're very likely those in the drifts outside the walls. The Lady stopped them."
"Is she a pretty lady?" asked one of the children.
"I think she might be," Tristen said, recalling the gown of golden lace, the gown like cobwebs, and a face that never would stay in the memory, no more than snowflakes in the hand. "She has a daughter.
Auld Syes is the Lady's name, and Seddiwy is her daughter, and if you speak kindly to them, I've found they'll be good neighbors."
"I would give her bread," the child said, at which her mother hushed her, and rough men laughed a little.
"That you would, sweet," Uwen said, tousling a small dark head.
"And sweet dreams to you tonight."
So all of them began to settle for the night. And there was a nook curtained for warmth and furnished with fine cloth… where or how they had come by it, Tristen had no idea, but Aeself gave him and Uwen this finest bed, and all the guard had their bedrolls, so they could lie down in comfort. Aswys reported the horses well fed and settled, and chose, himself, to sleep in the shed nearest his charges, where he was accustomed to rest.
It was in one sense easier to rest here than in the Zeide with all its duties and expectations… here Tristen settled, sure he had satisfied every request, and fulfilled everyone's needs, and answered their curiosity, and that now he could close his eyes, with Uwen beside him and ale-bound for sound sleep.
But he had no sooner said as much to himself and attempted rest than he became aware of a furtive presence, a movement on the edge of his sensibilities, and not a comfortable one.
He lifted his ear from the pillow, not certain whether he had heard something or imagined it. But the wind had begun to blow, breathing cold through the cracks and making the curtains move.
"M'lord?" Uwen rose on an elbow in a dark less only by the fire outside the curtains. "M'lord, there's an uneasy sound, sum'meres."
He felt the same, not that they were threatened, but that something untoward had happened out there. Lives were out in the wind, but they went out one by one, and three at one instant, and if he listened he could hear angry voices.
If he listened, he could hear them speak of traitors, and angry retribution; and one there was with a quieter voice, a Shadow… not the One he expected, not Uleman, who had rebuilt the old ivards here, but a gentler one, one seated far in the recesses of the gray space, who rose, and came forward what seemed a long, longdistance, yet remained far from him, and trying to speak.
He wished to know what this one had to say, and strove to close the gap, but every effort turned him aside. He became aware of darkness where that Shadow moved, of strange shapes shifting and flowing, Shadows within shadow.
Then a blue light flared up and ran along the foundations of the old capital. Wards leapt up bright and strong, and he could no longer see the Shadow he had been watching at all. The web of light spread outward from where be stood, bright and clear as he had seen it shine before Lewenbrook.
This was the web that was Uleman's making, so strong now it sang and rippled like harp strings. Outside was dark and danger, but where the web reached, embracing all the sleeping people, was safety.
Yet there were doors within the Pattern: it Unfolded to him that within the weaving there was such an access as existed in the Zeide…
and had always been.
He could go through that portal and reach Ynefel.
Another path led to the Zeide's lower hall.
A third ran to a place somewhere to the north and east, one as easily within his reach as the other two, but of great peril: a place of muddled sound and strange shapes, yet familiar to him in the way many things he had never seen seemed familiar, and Unfolded to him.
He could reach that third place. And he could reach Ynefel. And he could take one step and be in the old mews, from which he could walk straight into the lower hall of the Zeide.
And beyond that, from the Zeide's portal, to still other places, places unvisited in very long…
"M'lord, will ye hear? The wind's takin' on fit to blow the roof off."
A shape came out of the gray, a woman of grays and gold, gowned in cobweb lace. It was Auld Syes, and the small Shadow of her daughter went after her, skipping and flitting.
But after them ran an entire troop of shadows, less comely, and less dangerous than these two.
He wished them not to cause any harm in Aeself's camp.
Owl came swooping by, and on the edge of his wings the light glowed white, white that blinded.
He blinked, still dazed, and was aware of Uwen in the dark. Through a seam in the curtain, he saw the banked fire that had broken forth into flame where wood jutted from the ash. A gust of wind must have wakened it.
The wind outside moaned around the eaves.
"What a blow!" Uwen said, "It's woke the fire up. Gods!—D' ye see somethin', lad, where ye're lookin'?"
He shook his head, hearing the murmur of the guardsmen wakened from their sleep. He was still dazed from the vision of other places, convinced he could reach the Zeide from here as easily as wishing: he could walk through the old mews; he could stand in Ynefel's ruined hall between one blink and the next, and truly bethere, and touch and be touched.
Had he fallen asleep within such a place as the mews in the Zeide, and not known it?
Or was it within his dream that such possibilities existed?
And suddenly his waking mind made sense of the memory of that third place he had seen in his vision, which was the Quinaltine, beside the Guelesfort—and his heart beat fast to think that he could come that near Cefwyn.
It beat faster still to feel the trouble he felt in that place, and to know danger moved in it, danger which Cefwyn might not see. He himself had stood in the Quinaltine before the altar. He had seen the tangled shadows mill behind the Lines the Patriarch had drawn— he had pitied them, unhappy, angry shadows, Quinalt souls laid to rest above Bryaltine and Teranthine, all jumbled together, all within walls raised contrary to the Lines earlier masons had made. The Patriarch had seemed utterly unaware of what screamed and strained at the barriers: it was all silent to him. It was utterly outside the priests' awareness how later masons had laid down contrary Lines, blind to the proper Lines of the earth, blind to what earlier ma-sonwork had stood there—these later builders, Quinalt builders, for whatever reason, had laid their own structure over that place and crossed the Lines in impossible tangles, pockets, dead ends, traps, from which the anguished souls could not escape.
Oh, there was power there, but it was not any power Efanor's little book described as godly power. It was a terrible place, like the hell of Efanor's book.
And far from curing it, the priests before that altar had walked one principal Line, over and over, deaf to the pain and anguish which roiled just behind it, souls in torment, imprisoned for all eternity in spaces too small for their smallest longings.
That was the place that third passage went.
And with a breath and a wish he might cross that distance tonight and find Cefwyn.
But disturbance among the priests would not serve Cefwyn: he foresaw panic among them if he stepped out of the stonework, by magic, in the place these men called holy. He feared to do it, and was unsure, moreover, what he might disturb there.
It was a chance. A risk. It was nothing to undertake inconsiderately.
"It's eased way off," Uwen said with a sigh, meaning the wind.
"At least the roof is stayin'.—Are ye all right, m'lord? Ye wasn't havin' a dream, like?"
"Somewhat of a dream," he said faintly, but he did not say what he had learned, not even to Uwen. He doubted it would reassure Men in the least to know that their wards both intersected Althalen and reached to Henas'amef, though they were leagues apart. He saw possibilities in it. He saw a way he dared not take yet.
He ought to ask Emuin, among other matters he had discovered here.
A blast of wind made the wooden beams groan, and woke the fire to full life in the heart.
"Damn," he heard one of his guards say, and knew honest men were afraid of the violence in the dark. More, he knew in himself the power to mend that fear, and he knew it was time to mend it.
Calm, he wished the heavens. Be calm.
And in his own heart he was sure now, sure that it was time to move the war against Tasmôrden, sure that he must move, even if it made things more difficult for Cefwyn to explain to the other lords… and sure now, reaching out through the maze of the wards, that he could reach not one, but three Places and perhaps others.
He had seen the Lady walking the hills hereabouts, and knew the secret traces between the wards: walls were no barrier to the Old Power. She had asked admittance to the wards of Henas'amef, and he had granted it—to the good, he was sure now, for now the Old Power ran as it had been accustomed to run, between here and there, between here and Guelemara, until the priests' Line dammed it—on purpose or otherwise.
He had said he ruled in Henas'amef, and in Althalen, and on that hill above the river, where stood ruined Ynefel: and now, having laid his head on the stones of Althalen, having dreamed here, he had found the Lines as apt to his hands as the reins of his horse. He drew in a deep, deep breath, sitting disheveled in the dark, amid his blankets, knowing all these wards at once, all the work of Masons and all the Lines on the earth, all the lives of common folk at their work and all the nobles and wizards who had ever ruled—
And these Lines, often walked over the generations of Men, often worked, these graven paths of habit and deed… all were his. They were not his by Cefwyn's grant, although that had confirmed his lordship for Men; they were not even his because Mauryl had meant him to rule them, though that was so, too.
They were his because they obeyed him. And they did, now. It seemed that the power in them ran through his veins, and stood the hairs on his arms and the hair on his head on end. He could have lived without breathing, for the power that ran through him needed no such thing.
But breath was what he chose, and the solidity of the lives around him. He strove to make out some detail of Uwen's presence in the dark, desperate for it of a sudden, for he had strayed that far, that remote from Men. And when his eyes had searched out the least hint of Uwen's shape, and his hand had found Uwen's solid, strong arm, then he told his heart it could beat again.
"Go back to sleep," he said to Uwen.
It was quiet now, all the moaning of the wind stopped, the wards quiet and not in evidence. Uwen was all shadows, and all loyalty, and all love, and if there was a moderation to the power that ran through the air and through his bones, if there was a caution and a reminder in his heart, it was Uwen's.
Perhaps it was not a good thing to wish too hard, too absolutely.
Perhaps, he thought, considering Uwen, it was well to do his weather-wishing not absolutely, but with regard of Men, and with love of the men around him, and of the men who were his friends: there was his safety. There was the assurance he would do good and not harm.
In that thought alone he could lie back down and let his guard deal with the fire and the questions what that storm might do outside. It would abate. In time it would abate as a storm should, and the weather would moderate, and he would have done no harm with the power that ran through him to the tips of his fingers and the soles of his feet. He would still be Tristen. He remained as Mauryl named him, and as he named himself, and nothing could tempt him out of that choice, no offer of the enemy, no pure sensation, no curiosity.
Tristen, he said to himself, and summoned that youth who ran naked on the battlements of Ynefel, that young man who raced Dys across the pasture, chasing dying leaves.
Being Tristen, and flesh and blood, he could sleep.
And in the morning, in the silence of all the world, Aeself's men opened the doors and they all walked out into a strange sight.
"It ain't snowin'," Uwen exclaimed. "Gods, I forgot what the sun is!"
The sun glanced off the recent fall as if jewel dust had been the last sifting from the heavens. And Tristen looked about him at the still edge of winter and drew a deep breath. When he looked carefully into the gray space, he saw the soft blue fire of wards not only about the old buildings, but the new.
That had happened in the night, and not, he thought, of his doing.
"Lord Uleman," Tristen said softly, for he realized for the first time in the clear light of this morning, and without the driving snow, that Aeself's camp included the tomb they had made. The Lord Regent's burial place stood within the wall just outside their makeshift great hall… Ninévrisë's father, walled into his grave by the devotion of his last remaining men, on a night when Caswyddian's hunt was closing on them and all their lives had been in jeopardy.
Tristen walked across the untracked snow and laid his hand on those stones he had last seen the night the old man had died; and within them he felt no threat such as Auld Syes could send, but rather a sense of peace and great strength and safety.
"Sir," Tristen said, just for the two of them. "Is it you who've stopped the snow this morning? I take it very kindly if you have. Your own people live here, now, have you seen? I think you must have. Protect them."
There was no clear answer to his touch, so he thought at first, but when he drew back his hand he saw the blue fire running on his fingers and tracing its way up his arm.
Owl, wretched bird, came and perched on the crest of the ruined wall, and asked his silly, persistent question.
"Foolish bird," he said, not ill meant, and Owl swiveled his head remarkably far about and glared at him from eyes like black-centered moons. He was not a creature of the daylight… but he was here, ruffled, looking like Emuin with too little sleep. "Why do you follow me?" he asked, and then knew that was a wrong question: Owl never followed him. Owl preceded him, like a herald.
He turned around again, unaware he was observed, and met the awed faces of the whole of the people that had gathered, marveling at the snow and now at another strange sight.
"This is the Lord Regent's grave," he said, for it was Uleman who deserved their reverence. "Did you know?"
"We chose this place by chance," Aeself said. "Or believed we had.
But could we settle in such a place by accident?"
"It was his accident," Tristen said. "The Shadows in this place can be dangerous. He's remade the wards all about your building: I saw them last night, and I couldn't improve them. The Shadows here respect the Lord Regent above all. And if you do see an old woman or a little girl, respect them. They always give good advice."
"My good lord," Aeself said in a hushed voice.
"Might there be breakfast?" he asked then, for he hated the awkwardness of their reverence; he wanted only to have a warm cup and a friendly converse, and to be on their way. He had seen so much he wanted to think about, and so much he thought he should report to Emuin, and now for no reason in particular his thoughts, skittering like mice, had darted toward Tarien and toward Cevulirn and all there was yet to do. "We should be on our way."
There was breakfast first, porridge and honey that lent a comfortable warmth all the way to their fingertips, and the men were glad to be setting out toward their own home in the evening—toward a place, perhaps, where the wind was less noisy and less threatening.
They were glad to saddle up, on this bright morning: even the horses seemed eager to be under way.
But as they were mounted and about to set out, Aeself, reaching up, pressed a small and much-used paper into Tristen's hand. "We had but two scraps of paper, my lord, in all the camp, and forgive me the condition of them. The one is the muster of Althalen, for your use; and the other… the other is a letter to Lady Ninévrisë, on our behalf.
I know you sometimes send to the king in Guelemara; and if it please Your Grace, send it on to her. The burden of it is the news we have of Ilefínian, such as we put together by all our accounts: you know from last night all we have to report, but read it: I send it unsealed. I'm her remotest cousin. She may know my name; to that end, I signed it. But I ask you put your seal on it, my lord, if you approve it, and recommend me to her."
Aeself had never confessed before that he was in that degree Ninévrisë's kin, never claimed rank in the Regent's house, and in the tangled nature of the noble houses, perhaps he had never held it.
But now he held the post of seneschal of Althalen, at very least, the keeper and the protector of all the loyal Elwynim who made it across the river. He was the defender, and the man who saw to the commonest, most necessary things to keep alive the folk who came to him, against weather and Tasmôrden's men. Auld Syes herself had taken Aeself under her protection, and perhaps safeguarded Crissand, too, against the worst they could do.
"You will have all I can give," he said, "when we come into Elwynor."
"To bring my lord into Elwynor is the honor I want," Aeself said, looking up at him. "Grant me that."
"When you see the fires alight," Tristen said, "then ride to the bridge."
"My lord," Aeself said fervently, and Tristen took the two precious scraps of paper and put them in his belt as he rode away. The well-wishes of all the folk of Althalen were at his back, the banners out in front, and the Amefin guard about him, and a clean, clear sky above all.
" 'At were well done," Uwen said. "Well done, on your own part, m'lord. 'At's a good man, that."
Owl turned up, flying across their path. And Uwen blessed himself, and so, Tristen guessed, did many of the men in his company, but he did not turn to see.
In time, on the way, to Dys' rolling gait, he read the unsealed papers, written with a crude pen in a fine, well-schooled hand.
There were the number of men Aeself had said in the muster, by name and quality, as fairly written as any such account his clerks brought him. The message to Ninévrisë was respectful and sadly informed her of the death of very many of the family, by name, and of the execution or death in battle of friends, by name.
And it told her of the fate of the treasury, put away in cisterns deep in Ilefínian, so, the missive said, the Usurper will have hard shift to bring it out again in the winter.
Aeself Endior, your cousin.
Aeself had been right to have given him the letter unsealed, and at his discretion. Knowing what news it had, he might send or not send—and he did not find it prudent to send the original into Guelemara, where his messengers were in danger. He feared the letter might fall into hostile hands, and inform Ryssand where the missing treasury was… although Tasmôrden might have guessed, and doubtless Tasmôrden had probed the wells: Cook had thought of a similar stratagem to save her utensils during Parsynan's regime, and it was not the first time such things had been done. But in the winter, and near-freezing water, Aeself was right: it was not secrecy that would keep the treasury safe, it was the bitter cold of the water.
And by the time the water warmed enough to lower a man in, he intended the wells might have changed hands again… but not that Ryssand should find some way to the gold first. It was knowledge for Ninévrisë to have, first and foremost. He had a gift to give her, when they met in Ilefínian. He saw the moment clear before him, Cefwyn safe and well, and the Regent's banner flying over the courtyard.
The weather in the Amefin hills around him held clear and the sun warmed his back in a way it had not done since the first of winter.
Even the air held a different smell, of moisture and melt, and the snow underfoot lost the crispness of deep cold.
"The weather's taken a turn," Uwen said. "It even smells like spring."
So he imagined, and thought a while, and tried to imagine consequences, as Emuin and Mauryl had taught him.
But at the last he saw there was nothing to gain by waiting.
So gathering up the courage to wish change on the world, and blind to all untried things it meant, he willed that the spring come in earnest and the snow depart.
Nothing seemed to oppose that wish, nothing this near, nothing at this moment opposed him.
He did not trust the ease with which the weather obliged him: he felt his wishes all unfettered, unopposed, unmatched in the world.
Therein, too… he had learned to question his own wisdom.
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Next: CHAPTER 11