Book: Fortress of Dragons

Previous: CHAPTER 2

The lords came to the summons with snow still unmelted on their cloaks, tracking icemelt through the lower hall and into the great hall itself and delaying not at all for conversation or for ceremony. No one pleaded excuses, except Crissand, who did not appear at all.
It needed no magic to know why they had been so quick and why the summons had met with immediate compliance. Cevulirn would have come, regardless, out of friendship, and Sovrag, who detested to be left out of any proceedings, would have come, for one thing, to be sure he was not the object of the council.
But Umanon, the stiff, Quinalt lord of Imor, had come with as great a haste, and so had Pelumer, who viewed schedules as mutable at need.
Together with Amefel these four comprised the muster of the south.
War was their agreement, war with the rebels in Elwynor, supporting Cefwyn's intended attack from the east.
And now with neither preface nor prologue the exiled duchess of Amefel had turned up and gained admittance to the center of their Preparations?
Folly, they might well be saying among themselves.
Certainly they were due an accounting.
In all sober consideration of that fact, Tristen took his seat on the dais that dominated the great hall, that seat which had been the throne of Amefel when Amefel had been a petty kingdom. Around him hung the tapestries that portrayed the triumphs of the Aswydd line, figures stitched in stiff rows, conspicuous in the Aswydd personal heraldry of gold and emerald. He was conscious of that, too: the Aswydds'
long dominance in this hall—and in that consciousness he wore the red of the province of Amefel itself, with the black Eagle crest, the colors of the people, not the Aswydd house.
He had Uwen by him on the one side, Uwen being his captain of the guard, and he had master Emuin, who generally held to his tower.
That Emuin had come down was in itself remarkable, and a sure sign of the seriousness of the situation—but Crissand, who should have been here, on his right, was at least a day away by now, a perpetual, worrisome silence.
Crissand was not the only absent earl of Amefel—there was in fact a general scarcity of local faces, not that the earldoms had no interest in the current matter: indeed, they had a more acute concern in Orien Aswydd's return than did the dukes of the southern provinces, who had never been under her rule. But most of the Amefin court had gone out to see to their lands and villages after Midwinter Day, attending ordinary needs and necessities, and traditional observances—in truth, more than one of them simply disappearing from court much as Crissand had done, with no more leave: Tristen reminded himself it was the habit of the court, that no one had ever held them to any different courtesy, and that it was not so different with Crissand—but he knew and Crissand knew that there was an assumption between them that demanded a leave-taking, and that had not been satisfied.
So, too, likely Crissand and likely the other absent earls would be slower returning than they had planned, thanks to the unexpectedly heavy snow: and there was serious business to do out in the villages, plans to make for the spring, justice to hear, even winter weddings…
all such things the earls had under their hand, and reasonable enough they rode out after the Midwinter festival to see to their duties—if Crissand had ridden to his own lands, to Meiden.
He had not.
So now with Crissand and Drumman both out among the snowdrifts and the wretched roads, it fell to old Earl Prushan to stand by his duke's right hand, an honor usually several degrees of precedence removed from that good old man… in fact, beside Prushan, next, were only a handful of the lesser earls and the ealdormen of the town, a set of faces all grave and curious, all come to hear the circumstances of Lady Orien's uninvited return… but not the representation of the highest lords in Amefel that Tristen would have wished. It was instead the gathering from Lewenbrook, the southern army, the neighbors, who came to him at his call.
How many of the earls had gotten wind of Orien Aswydd and absented themselves?
Fearing what? Had they not seen Auld Syes enter the hall on Midwinter Eve? Had they not seen enough strange things in this turning of the year to send them uneasy sleep?
A whisper of wind wafted past Tristen's head. Owl swooped down and lit on his forearm, piercing his flesh with sharp talons, caring not a whit for his discomfort, it was certain. He was more and more distressed, and yet refrained from a general call into the gray space, a shout to rouse all that was his against all that was Orien Aswydd's.
"Last night," Tristen began, addressing those who had come, the locals, and the southerners, "last night I heard travelers in the storm, and I found Orien and Tarien Aswydd walking toward the town.
They say armed men burned the convent at Anwyfar, and killed their nurse along with the nuns there. They say they had a horse at first, and lost it, and walked the rest of the way, hoping for shelter here. I don't think it's a lie, how they came here. But they're not welcome guests. They're still under Cefwyn's law. I had nowhere to send them, but I don't set them free."
"Send them to Elwynor," was the immediate suggestion, from more than one voice, and others had a more direct suggestion: "Better if they'd burned."
"Point o' that—who burned Anwyfar?" Sovrag asked, above the rest, and that was the question.
"Who burned Anwyfar?" Tristen echoed the question. "Orien said it was Guelen Guard, Cefwyn's men—that it was Captain Essan."
"Essan!" old Prushan exclaimed, and no few with him. The earls knew the name, if the dukes of the south did not, and for a moment there was a general murmur.
"There's another should have hanged," someone said. "Turned right to banditry."
"I know Cefwyn didn't order it," Tristen said. "If he wanted to kill them, he certainly didn't need to send men to burn a Teranthine shrine and kill all the nuns, who never did him any harm."
"Ryssand," said the Bryaltine abbot, standing forward, hands tucked in sleeves. "Ryssandish, it might well be. Parsynan was Ryssand's man, and every other trouble he visited on us Captain Essan had a hand in. And why not this?"
The ealdormen thought so. There were nods of heads, a small, unhappy stir.
"And what when the king in Guelessar finds it out?" Prushan asked, and Earl Drusallyn, who was almost as old: "And what when the king blames us?"
"Send 'em to Elwynor!" an ealdorman said.
And Sovrag: "Hell, send 'em to the Marhanen, done up in ribbons!"
"No," Tristen said. "No. Not Elwynor, and not Guelessar." He drew a breath, not happy in what he had to tell. "Lady Tarien's with child.
"Blessed gods," Umanon said, under the gasp and murmur of the assembly, and a deep hush fell.
"I haven't told Cefwyn yet," Tristen said. "I have to write to him, and my last messenger to Guelemara came and went in fear of his life. I don't know what's happened there, with Guelen Guard burning shrines and killing nuns. I don't know if Cefwyn knows what they did."
"His Majesty doesn't know about the child?" asked Umanon.
"He last saw the lady this summer," Cevulirn said. "So did we all."
"There's the gift in both of them," Emuin said in the low murmur of voices. "What they didn't want noticed, even the ladies of the convent might not have noticed. The king doesn't know. But someone may."
"Cuthan," Tristen said, provoking another hush. "I think Cuthan kept her informed, and informed himself."
"Then Parsynan might know," Prushan said.
It was true. It was entirely possible.
"Marhanen issue with an Aswydd and a witch to boot," Pelumer murmured. "The Quinalt will be aghast."
"Not only the Quinaltine," Umanon said, who was Quinalt himself.
"Any man of sense is aghast. How many months is she gone?"
"Eight," Emuin said.
"Gods save us," Umanon said, letting go his breath. "Gods save Ylesuin."
"And gods save Her Grace," Sovrag muttered, for Sovrag adored Ninévrisë. " There's a damn tangle for us."
What indeed would Ninévrisë say? Tristen asked himself in deep distress. What indeed could she say? She loved Cefwyn, and eight months was before they were married and before Cefwyn ever laid eyes on her—from that far back a folly arrived to confound them all.
And folly it was. Cefwyn had not done it on his own, he was surer and surer of that: Cefwyn, who had not a shred of wizard-gift, was utterly deaf and blind to the workings of wizardry, but not immune: no man was immune, and there was every reason in the world these two women had worked to snare him and cause this.
"The legitimate succession in Ylesuin," Cevulirn said, "was already in question, with the Quinalt contesting Her Grace at every turn, and them wanting to refuse the war if they can't have the land they take.
The unhappy result is that there is no settlement on an heir in the marriage agreement. And that is unfortunate."
No one had thought of that. Tristen had not. The stares of those present were at first puzzled, then alarmed.
"We're to fight a war to bring the Elwynim under Her Grace's hand,"
Umanon said, "and now Tarien Aswydd bears a pretender to Ylesuin?"
"No legal claim," Pelumer said, "since there was no legal union, no matter the vagueness of the marriage treaty. In either case, there is an heir: Efanor."
"But the Aswydds claim royalty," Umanon said, "and royalty on both sides of the blanket, as it were. It's not as if our good king found some maid in a haystack. This is troublesome."
"A witch," Sovrag said, "no less; a sorceress. And what's our blessed chance it's a daughter?"
"Small," Emuin said, hedging the point.
"It is a son," Tristen said bluntly. "And he has the gift."
Another murmur broke out, with no few pious gestures against harm.
Blow after blow he had delivered to the alliance, with no amelioration, and he had nothing good to offer except that the lady and Cefwyn's son were not at this moment in Elwynor, in Tasmô-
den's hands.
"There's some as'd drop the Aswyddim both down a deep well,"
Sovrag said. "And solve our problems at one stroke."
Tristen shook his head, lifted his hand to appeal for silence, and Owl bated and settled again on his shoulder. "No," he said in the stillness he obtained.
'Ye're too good," Sovrag said. "Give 'me to my charge. My lads'll take 'em downriver, an' they'll go overboard with no qualms at all."
'No," Tristen said again, and the gray space came to life. The hall seemed a hall of statues, everything set, the very pillars of the roof and the occupants of the hall one substance, set and sure and warded against the queasiness just next to this hall, that one place of slippage and weakness in the wards which he could not continue to ignore.
"I've thought of our choices. I've asked myself whether it's wise to be good, or good to be wise and, aside from all I can think of, or all I can do, the truth is that the Aswydds built this place. Their wizardry is in these stones. It makes them part of the defenses of the Zeide and Henas'amef. Emuin can tell you so."
"Woven into its defenses like ribs in a basket," Emuin said in the attention that came to him. "The stay and support of it, and every chink and weakness in it, they know in their bones. Wisest was what Cefwyn did, sending them to Anwyfar. They were as safe there as it was possible for them to be, given it was nuns watching them and not an armed guard or a half a dozen wizards. Now someone's made a move to free them, and they've come here not only because they had to come here rather than Guelemara, but because they know the same as I their protections are here. They're bound to Henas'amef. That's one point, and never forget it. The second: Ryssand may have burned down a Teranthine shrine, but if Ryssand, not only Ryssand was in on it. The man's too canny to do something like this openly, or recklessly. He has concealment he believes will hold, or he has overwhelming reason to do something so rash."
"What reason, then?" Umanon asked.
Tristen tried to answer, and in Emuin's silence he could only shake his head, eyes widely focused, taking in all the room at once, on all levels, as the gray winds tugged and pulled at his attention. "A wizard doesn't even need to be alive," he said, determined to be honest with his hearers as Emuin had never been honest with him.
But once he had said it he felt fear coursing through his hearers. He felt the courage of some, the apprehension of most. Hasufin was his fear; it had now to be theirs, and every man who had stood at Lewenbrook knew what he meant: that a wizard need not be alive.
Hasufin Heltain had not been alive when he had cost so many lives, when the dark had rolled down on the field like a living wave, and no man among them forgot that hour.
In that general dismay Emuin came to the center of the steps and stood with arms folded in his sleeves, waiting, waiting, silently commanding the assembly's attention.
"His Grace is telling you difficult things," Emuin said when quiet came and every eye was on him. "He means to say that the Aswydd sisters aren't strong enough to have released themselves from the bindings I set on them—yes, I! But if they move with currents already moving they might well have done it themselves, and without the knowledge or help of our enemy. But be assured there are such currents. There are currents in waters that have been moving for some time, and now these two have cast themselves and Cefwyn's son into that flow, if not with their attempt to free themselves—which hasn't, in fact, gained them their freedom—then certainly early last summer, when they worked petty hedge-witchery to get a child."
"Saying what?" old Prushan asked. "What does your honor mean?
That there's some other wizard? The wizard from last summer?"
"Do you mean this is all foredoomed?" Umanon asked uneasily.
Emuin held up a finger. "Not foredoomed as to outcome." The hand flourished, vanished again into tucked sleeves, to reappear with a silver ball, that again vanished. "Say that a wizardous river is in spring flood, and the shore's become damned uncertain. The Aswydds and the usurper are deep in the waters. Hear the lord of Amefel. Hear him! He's the only swimmer in the lot."
Tristen cast Emuin an uneasy look of his own in the murmur of the assembly, not wishing to hear what he had heard, not taking it for any more solid truth than the maneuvering of the ball, and wondering why at long last Emuin, who shied from discussing wizardry directly even with him, had suddenly spoken in council and employed this trickery of the eye.
Was it because he had resolved to speak out the truth to these men, and Emuin followed him?
Emuin made a final flourish, hurled the ball at the wall, making the assembly at that side flinch.
Nothing hit. Nothing happened.
"Don't trust your eyes," Emuin said, serenely passing the silver ball from finger to finger, to the assembly's disquiet. A glow possessed his hand, which vanished. So did the ball. "Don't believe what you see. Don't believe what you suspect. Listen to your lord."
A stillness followed.
"Your Grace," old Pelumer said then, "what about Orien Aswydd in our midst, telling whoever might want to know all she can see here?
There's the depths of cellars. I'm sure the town itself has a number of them that could host the lady. I'm sure the Zeide has."
"I'd rather have her here," Tristen said, "over all, I'd rather have her where master Emuin can keep an eye on her."
Master Emuin snorted. "Great good that will do."
"But while they're here, Tasmôrden can't get his hands on His Majesty's child," Cevulirn said, "which would be disaster if it happened. And if we place the Aswydds somewhere we can't watch, there's a greater chance he might reach them."
"When he does know," Umanon said, "he's bound to be sure the whole world knows. Her Grace of Elwynor a bride, and a queen without a title, and now there's a bastard in the Marhanen line, out of an Aswydd sorceress, no less, and will the Quinalt abide it? I don't think so."
"Sink 'er," Sovrag said. "I tell ye, that's the way out o' this muddle."
"Oh, aye," Emuin said. "We have that choice: kill the child, or let it live: two choices more: kill the sisters or let them live; and again, two choices: keep them prisoner or let them free. The child is male, and has the wizard-gift, and she claims it's His Majesty's. Again two choices: believe her or don't believe. Those are your choices, lords of the south, eight choices we all have, but not a precious one else can I think of."
"Do you doubt her?" Umanon asked.
"I believe her," Tristen said, "and I know her son has the gift. In the storm I thought there were three; and there were only Orien and Tarien when I found them. I felt it again when I spoke with them. I have no doubt at all."
"And doubt as to the father?"
"I never felt they were lying." Tristen watched Owl wander down to his hand and he lifted it to oblige Owl, as claws pricked uncomfortably through the fabric of his sleeve. Owl arrived at his fingers, and swiveled his head about to regard him with a mad, ruffled stare, as if utterly astonished by the things he heard—before he bent and bit, cruelly hard.
He tossed Owl aloft, and Owl fluttered and flew for a ledge.
The eight choices Emuin named, whether those present thought of it or not, were the same choices Emuin had had in Selwyn's time— the choices Emuin had had when he killed a prince of the house of Elfwyn, the last High King, the last reigning descendant of the Sihhë.
Gentle Emuin had killed a child.
And Mauryl, the Mauryl who had fostered him, had ordered it.
He stared at the wound Owl had made, blood, that smeared his fingertips: he worked them back and forth, and looked up where Owl had settled.
Wake, Owl seemed to say to him. Rule. Decide. Blood will attend either choice.
He drew a breath, looked at the solemn, shocked faces of the assembly, with the blood sticky on his fingertips… and knew that the question was Orien Aswydd.
"She won't rule here again," he told the assembly. "Cefwyn set her aside. Now I do." And as he said it he made that doom certain with all his force, all the might that was in him. Emuin turned in alarm and mouthed a caution, half lifting a warding hand, for Emuin above all others felt the currents shift, much as if he had cast a mountain into the flow.
And half the fortress removed and upstairs, Orien and Tarien surely felt it—for something like a cry went through the very stones of the Zeide and the rock of its hill.
Owl took to his wings, and flew off across the hall to settle on the finial of the ducal throne.
"Amefel," Cevulirn said—Cevulirn, who alone of all of them but Emuin could hear that protest of the wards—"What of the child?
What for it?"
He was less sure of that. On few things he was certain. On the matter of Tarien's child and Amefel, he was not.
"I say what I can," he answered Cevulirn.
"So what does His Grace think is coming down on us?" Pelumer asked. "We've Marna on our borders, and an uneasy neighbor it always is, but this winter nothing goes right near it… fires die, bowstrings break, men who know the paths lose their way. Is something coming, the like of what we saw this summer?"
"Not only Marna," Sovrag said. "Haunts here. The servants in the halls is saying there's haunts in the downstairs and a cold spot right next the great hall—and in sight of all of us ye went into the dark and come out with that owl at that very spot, did ye not, Amefel? Spooks in Marna I can swear to, and so can my neighbor here who sailed in with me. We come here to fight Tasmôrden. So what are we makin'
war on? I ask the same question. Is it Lewen-brook all over again?"
Emuin, too, had heard that shriek through the stones. In him was no fear of haunts in the hall, only a calm assessment that, yes, there was risk.
And it was his assessment.
And all these men knew now what sided with them, and if they were not willing to face what arrayed itself against them, they above all others, knew what it was to face it—they had stood on Lewen held.
He did not count any man in this hall as other than brave.
And oh, he missed Crissand's presence now—missed the assessment of the other presence who might read the gray space and steady him.
"You want to know what we make war on," he answered Sovrag's question. "And I wish there were a simple answer. I don't know what may happen. I know what I have to do. Tasmôrden claims the banner of Althalen."
That dismayed them. No, they had not known.
"Well," said Sovrag, "that man's a fool, ain't he?"
There was a small breath of laughter, a relief, in the hall.
"The camp at the river is secure," Cevulirn said in his quiet, customary calm. "The roads are not so badly drifted. The grain supplies are secure. Our enemy has resources. We trust Your Grace has better. Your Grace proved the stronger at Lewenbrook… and will again."
"I've no easy feeling," he said honestly. Among Guelenfolk he had so carefully tried to be like everyone else; but these, his allies, had drawn away all the concealment and spoken to him frankly until now he felt compelled to give them all he knew, an exchange of honesty, a revelation so private and so profound in this room it was all but painful. "None from the riverside nor anywhere about, either. I can usually hear things if I listen hard, and there's only Earl Cris-sand, who's chosen to ride out that way, but it worries me. Everything along that road worries me, and I wish he may come back safely."
"Does Your Grace see any stir out of Elwynor?" Pelumer asked.
"—Counting that the owl might, as't were, fly abroad."
"Where Owl goes I don't myself know. Nor the pigeons." They saw the birds as spies, he was aware, and were wrong in that, attributing to Owl what he might learn from the gift. But that Owl guided him in his dreams, and that his dreams were less fair than the condition of the land he knew around him… that he still kept secret until he knew what to make of it. "I don't know their number, daily at Althalen, but I know it's defended. Aeself and his men have my leave to guard the camp, and they do; and Drusenan guards Modeyneth."
"Nothing's troubled them," said Cevulirn.
"Not that I know. None of Tasmôrden's men have tried the bridges that I know, either. And Tasmôrden himself is still in Ilefi-nian, but a great many who survived have left it and come toward our border villages. This I'm sure of."
A silence had attended his words. It persisted, a little fear, and a hopeful confidence.
"And Your Grace knows this," Pelumer said, the third attempt on his secrecy.
"I know," Tristen said, more than knowing— aware of the gift, though a very small one, in Pelumer himself, and Pelumer's asking as an uncertainty perhaps keenly self-directed.
"Far less a trouble than riders and horses," Sovrag said under his breath.
"Is Your Grace ever mistaken?" Umanon asked: Umanon did not have a shred of the gift, the only one among the lords who had not the least glimmering of it.
"Yes," he said, "I've made mistakes. A great many of them. But not so many now."
"Wizardry or magic," Emuin said, "alike has its weaknesses, and worst when one commits one's entire plan to them. Lean on a single staff . . . and another wizard or some traveling tinker can tip it right aside in a heartbeat. That there are more settlers at Althalen, yes, that's so, and he knows, does His Grace, who put them there. That they're a resource, yes, I have no doubt. That they're any sort of an answer to Tasmôrden and his army, no. If they were strong enough to fight him, they'd not have lost Ilefínian in the first place."
"But the weather," Pelumer said. "There's some that have weather-luck… as the Sihhë Kings had. Is that so? And that great storm and the Aswydds—was that in Your Grace's intentions?"
"I wished good weather for us," he said, keenly aware that the land lay deep in snow, and that at this very moment Crissand struggled through a windblown drift, remnant of the Aswydds' storm, leading a strange horse, fearful and berating himself for his plight. Now he heard the thought in Crissand's heart—or perhaps Crissand had heard him a moment ago. "I didn't wish the storm, no, and I don't think Orien could."
"Then who?"
"I don't know. It might have just needed to snow. The weather's like that. It lasted a fair time, but whether the snow would have its way or just what turned it, I don't know. I think I can turn the weather good again. But so very much has happened since yesterday I haven't wanted to confuse things further."
"Wise notion," Emuin muttered.
"It can snow a while," Pelumer said, "so long as it snows hard in Elwynor."
"If you enter on that," Emuin muttered, "be advised of the danger.
Wish for good."
"Pray for it," said Umanon, the Quinalt among them.
"That, too," Emuin said, laying a hand to the Teranthine sigil he wore. "Prayers. Wishes. Many of them. Candles by the gross. Gods bless all of us."
Gods remained a mystery to Tristen, but no one had flinched from the questions or the answers.
And he had never depended on mastering the weather.
"The granaries are full," he said. "I can't say whether the river may freeze; but we have the wall at Modeyneth if it lets the enemy across.
I can't say whether Tasmôrden may turn east or south, but there's Cefwyn to one side of the hills and us to the other, and when the weather does serve, we'll not receive an attack: we'll bring one."
"And camp that night in Elwynor!" Sovrag shouted out. "There's the word! In Elwynor!"
"In Elwynor," others echoed, and, In Elwynor became the word throughout the hall.
Then Owl let out an eerie cry that came from every place and no place. Some laughed nervously. Umanon blessed himself.
Tristen wished the recreant bird back to him, and Owl plummeted down and settled onto his arm, turning his head backward to look at the assembly.
He had intended to quiet Owl and make him less a disturbance.
But he doubted his effort had had that effect.
As for the lords' wishes for the weather to improve, he hoped, no, wished with all his might for fair skies and a warm wind out of the south—and he wished that Cefwyn might begin to move against Tasmôrden sooner if the weather bettered itself.
It was time. It was indeed time.
And Sovrag was right: a camp just the other side, by the riverside and still within the compass of his orders not to undertake to win the war, could discomfit Tasmôrden.
More than that, considering rumors of internal weakness in the steady arrival of fugitives at Althalen… he hoped his disturbance at the edge of Elwynor might search out the hollow heart in Tasmor-den's power, the ones only marginally loyal to the usurper, most in fear for their lives. Those Elwynim who would turn again and swear to Ninévrisë Syrillas as liege lady might in such a presence find a place to stand, and Tasmôrden then would find his strength melting away, as the commons found the Lady Regent more to their liking.
In point of fact, it was not alone the weather he wished to change, and had no compunction at all about wishing Elwynim to serve Ninévrisë Syrillas. She had the right to their allegiance, and the good heart to mend the land after its years of war and waiting. There could be no better fate for the Elwynim.
"Time, then," he said aloud, "time for us all to set to work."
So the lords agreed. They were pleased when they left. He had accomplished that.
He remained seated a moment, Owl spreading his broad wings and settling claws into his flesh. "Go," he wished the recalcitrant bird, and encouraged him with a toss, but Owl only moved to his hand, and drew blood, and clung.
"You were very plain, young lord," Emuin advised him, neither approving nor disapproving. Emuin had stayed, along with Uwen; and Lusin and his men. "Some of your army might be afraid. Not the great lords, perhaps, but some of your ealdormen looked green as new apples."
"Cefwyn says I'm a poor liar." Wind brushed his cheek, distracting him with a flap of wings as Owl flew up to his other favored perch, up on the cornice. "When should they discover the danger, master Emuin? On the field?"
"And what will you? When will you make up your own mind?"
"To what?" He was genuinely bewildered.
Emuin's glance followed Owl's course, and came back to him, dark and direct under his snowy brows. "That you lead this army."
"I know I lead it."
"That you rule this province."
"The man who should rule is freezing in a snowdrift right now, between here and Modeyneth."
"Yes, Crissand. In this one thing I'm certain. About the war itself I won't wish. I observe caution. I learn, you see, I do learn, master Emuin."
"That you do." Emuin walked a few paces to the left, and turned again. "So now the truth is out. Cefwyn's child. Gods save us. A Marhanen Aswydd. A white crow. A black dove. And ours to deal with."
"Ours. And hers." He still felt Emuin's disapproval. "I did the best I knew, bringing them here. I still think it's safest. I think it was best to tell the lords."
"Safest, yes. Safer than most dispositions."
"We could not send Cefwyn's son to Elwynor. Nor have him in Ryssand's hands."
"I agree. He'll be born here, under all the auspices of this place— and if I read the stars aright—he aims for your birth night."
"For mine." He had not remotely thought.
"Wizardry, wizardry, wizardry, young lord! Wizardry is an art of time and place. We have the place, we've missed the turn of the Great Year… what time shall we suspect is coming?"
He was appalled. It cast everything in a new and threatening light.
"And we need a midwife," Emuin said. "A woman skilled in childbirth—a woman with the gift—and proof against Orien Aswydd."
"Are there such women in the Zeide?"
"The best is in town. Sedlyn. Paisi's gran, so he calls her, though no more kin to our young jackanapes than Cefwyn is. And she may serve. The date of birth is the question. Sedlyn might help us. A child can be encouraged to come into the world, or held out of it."
He had only book knowledge of births. He sat on the ducal throne of Amefel, empowered to dispose life and death over a province.
But to change a birth, to hasten, to delay, to meddle with what a child in his very existence wanted to be—the sort of meddling Emuin proposed troubled him.
"Was I wise or unwise to obey Mauryl?" the old man asked him, apropos of no question he had asked aloud, and walked away without another word—more, left without a whisper or a breath of wind in the gray space.
No one else could be so silent, or so secret.
No one in his knowledge had done such a deed as Emuin had done—no one carried such a wound as Emuin carried, having murdered the last prince of Althalen, a child he knew… or had known. That was what Emuin meant.
And in the silence Emuin wrapped about him like a mantle, in his secret going, cloaked even from him, for the first time Tristen knew why Mauryl must have chosen this one wizard, of all the others, and sent him to kill Hasufin Heltain—for the silence Emuin could wrap about himself was so great, so deep, that he had never realized it was uncommon among wizards.
He had never truly known, in his reckless, innate magic, that not every wizard could tell him no.
And now that he saw into that silence, he found himself grateful for master Emuin, deeply, profoundly grateful that his first venture into the world had brought him into Emuin's hands. It seemed now no chance had directed him.
And all this time there had been a warm, soft blanket wrapped about him, protecting him, shielding him, containing him in every sense.
Now, in this moment, Emuin quietly folded it and took it away, and left him feeling the cold winds of wizardry in all its reach.
Behold the world, young lord.
Behold the choices of those who choose for others, and who hold life and death of thousands in their hands.
"Ye ain't quarrelin' wi' master Emuin," Uwen said uneasily.
"No," he said, finding it difficult even to speak in master Emuin's silence. But the mortal world went on. "He just now challenged me. A lesson."
"A wee bit late for learnin'," Uwen said, "by me."
"He contains the Aswydds. They can't work while he holds them in. I don't know they even know it. He contains what I can do. I see now how much harder that is. And now he's let me go, to do what I wish to do."
A clatter startled the silence, right by him. Syllan had dropped a spear, and was red-faced, gathering it up.
Dropped, perhaps. There were small, darting movements, as the servants quietly snuffed all candles on the far side. Darkness advanced, flowed along the channels of the pavings, spread soft grays from its harsher dominion over the deep, curtained corners of the hall. It chased under tables, at the side of the hall. It divided itself and extended tendrils of dark along the joining of wall with floor, and ran between the paving stones, reminding one that 'within the wall, all was dark.
Tristen saw movement within that dark from the utmost tail of his eye. He felt a draft from some source that might not be the opening of the robing room and its corridor. The drapery there did not stir. Nor did the great green velvet curtains near the front of the dais.
"We've Shadows in the hall tonight," he said to his guards in the faintest of voices. "Listening. But there's no harm meant."
"Ghosts, m'lord?" Lusin looked anxiously at those dark corners, and Syllan and all his guards gripped their weapons the more tightly.
"Something like. Some were Crissand's men, not bad men at all." He drew a deep breath, and stood, listening. "The hall's been threatened."
"I think it comes from outside, and far." He could see the little shadows moving, back among the pillars, and the littlest of all running along the masonwork, like darts of dark fire, flickering like lame. "They're uneasy. They listen. Something's trying to get in."
"Into your hall, my lord?" Lusin seemed to take it in indignation, regarding a hall he was charged with guarding.
"The candles don't truly dispel them," Tristen said. "They're al -
ways here. They're part of the wards, or they're tangled with them: but they're harmless. Don't wish them harm. Especially the Shadows in the great hall. They're all our Shadows, honest Amefin Shadows, and a few Guelen. They're guards, standing their own watch."
"And elsewhere?" Lusin dared ask. "Elsewhere, m'lord? The old mews… what's that place?"
"The old mews leads places. I don't know how many."
"To Ynefel," Uwen said.
He nodded slowly, thinking on that place of strange light and bating wings, row on row of perches, for Ynefel had indeed been within that light and he had been in Ynefel. He recalled the high, rickety stairs and wooden balconies, all bathed in the blue, strange light.
But he had explored them in all their brown, dusty webwork when he was new and when the light was the leakage of daylight through the cracks and the soft glow of candles, casting a shifting, wind-driven light along balconies and out into impenetrable dark of further distances. He had had no idea in those days that dark spots and cold spots and bumps in the night could mean ruin. His fears had been all surmise in those days… Mauryl's anger, the whisperings of the wind, the surprise of a carving on the stairs—such things he had feared.
Had the old mews always led there?
He had never discovered any other place from Ynefel. He had run amongst the Shadows in Ynefel and not known to fear them— at least not the little ones that came out and went back again in the trickery of candlelight. The stone faces within the walls of Ynefel . . . they were Shadows, themselves, of a sort, that seemed to change and shift on uneasy nights.
And were they destroyed when he drove out Hasufin? Or did they still stand?
"The mews leads to Ynefel, and leads from," he said to Uwen. "And it's a cold spot in this hall. It's the cold spots I like least. Shadows there always are, but the cold ones are never happy."
"What is that place?" Uwen asked. "We saw the light, things flutterin' and movin', leastwise we thought we saw. We agreed we might ha' seen.—And I could see you, almost, but for the life o' me, all I touched was solid stone."
"Could you see that much?" Tristen asked, surprised and all attention, now.
"I don't know ye could quite call it seein'," Uwen said. "It wasn't like I was lookin' with me eyes."
"You saw into the gray place. Into the haunt. If it opens to you, don't go in, no matter what. Stand on solid ground, and call to me if you find reason to take alarm."
"Take alarm, lad!" Uwen laughed. "I was cold scairt!"
"Did you see it?" Tristen asked the other guards, Lusin and Syllan, Tawwys and Aran. "What did you see?"
"Like the cap'n," Lusin said. "Not at first, but the longer we stood there, we all saw a blue light, cold-like. It weren't fire and it didn't burn. And ye come walking toward us like a movin' bright light, and ye had this owl wi' ye."
"Which hadn't any place it come from, that any of us could see," Tawwys said. "He scares the lot of us, perchin' outside your door, starin' while we're on watch."
"Does he? I'd thought he was in the stables."
"He comes an' goes," Tawwys said, and Aran:
"An' he ain't friendly. He bit Syllan's finger."
"I offered 'im a tidbit," Syllan said, "but 'e weren't grateful."
"He's not," Tristen said, and considered the wounds Owl'had dealt him, with the stain on his fingertips. "I fear he'll eat the pigeons. But I can't wish him away."
"Why not?" Uwen asked.
"For one thing, I don't think it would do any good and for another I don't think I ought to. He lived in the loft when I was at Ynefel.
When I lost my way in Marna Wood he guided me. And on Lewen field he flew ahead of me. He's always there when I don't know where to go."
"Then he has a use," Uwen said.
"He seems to. At least when he flies I'm not lost. He's here now, and I don't see my way through, but he's here." He had not thought of Owl's presence as a comfort, but he began to think that way.
"Someday he'll fly, and I'll know it's time to follow him."
"Don't ye talk of goin' after that bird!" Uwen said. "Or of followin'
'im. I don't trust 'im, not a bit. An' if he goes to Ynefel or worse, don't ye dare go wi'out me. There's roads. We can take 'em, the lot of us."
He was silent. He dared not promise that. He looked at Uwen's honest, worried face. "I can't promise you," he said, and looked away again with a shake of his head, as honest with Uwen in return.
Previous: CHAPTER 2