Либрусек (книги fb2)
PART ONE: Tarshu
PART TWO: Barda
PART THREE: Angel Isle
PART FOUR: Kzuva
About the Author
Also by Peter Dickinson
(and Jean, who doesn’t have to read it)
A woman led a lame horse across an unpeopled landscape. For much of the way all seemed peaceful, but then she would come to an area where buildings were shattered or gutted with fire, young crops trampled flat, and bodies, both human and animal, sprawling in their blood and now rotting unburied. Ahead of her lay the heavy line of the forest, and close beneath it the remains of one last farm. So Saranja came home to Woodbourne.
Six years ago she had left, swearing to herself she would never return. For five of those years she had been the house slave of one of the warlords beyond the Great Desert, until he and the two children she had borne him had died when his keep was stormed by his brother’s army. In the chaos she had escaped, and continued to stagger on through the darkness. When dawn had broken she had found herself already in the desert.
Six years ago she had almost died, crossing it, though then she had carried food and water. Now she had nothing. But she did not turn back. Death would be better than the life she had been living. This time, though, the desert seemed to let her through as if it had chosen to do so. It provided her with two freak thunderstorms and a waterhole large enough to support a colony of birds which, having no predators, laid their eggs on the ground. With those, and things that she had learned from her first crossing to recognize as food, she had come through.
And then, seeing what had happened in the Valley, she had known that she must go and find out if anything was left of Woodbourne.
Not much. When a thatched and timbered building goes up in flames, very little remains but the central chimney stack, standing amid a pile of ashes and a few rafter ends.
No voice answered her call. She hadn’t expected one. Her brothers would be fighting the raiders, or dead, her mother and aunt hiding in the forest with the animals.
She scuffed with her feet among the fringes of the heap. It was a way of preventing herself from weeping, because she felt she had no right to. Of her own will she had cut every connection with Woodbourne, even grief. All that was over.
Something glinted in the ashes. She stooped and eased out a golden feather, perfect, looking as if it had been shed that very morning. She pulled it free, and another came with it, attached at the quill by a twist of golden hair. She laid them together and ran her fingertips along them. The idiot story flooded back into her mind, the story that she had never believed, thinking it just a mechanism by which her mother could bind her for all her life to Woodbourne, as she herself had been bound, because Saranja had once made the mistake of admitting that she sometimes imagined she could hear the cedars talking.
With a sigh she turned to the horse, a useless old gelding she had found yesterday—or rather he had found her, wandering out of nowhere and nosing up to her for food, and had then simply followed her. She hadn’t driven him off, because he was company of a kind, and also fresh meat that she didn’t have to carry. She had imagined till now that he followed her so persistently only because he didn’t want to be the only living creature in the landscape.
If it’s you, you’ll need a horse as well as the feathers.
“Waiting for me, weren’t you?” she said. “Now all we want is some fellow from Northbeck.”
She looked back along the way they had come. A man was limping up the road toward her, leaning heavily on his staff. Without thought her fingers caressed the golden feathers as she waited for him, until she realized that her hands were full of a peculiar glowing warmth. She looked down. Feathers and hair seemed to shine with their own light. There was no need to go up into the forest. If she could do it at all, she could do it here.
The man came into the yard. He was about forty, slight, dark, with a look of arrogant energy beneath his obvious weariness and pain. There was a bloodstained bandage round his left calf.
“Ribek Ortahlson,” he said.
“Well, I’m Saranja Urlasdaughter. Hold his head, will you.”
She moved round to the horse’s flank.
“I’ve no idea if this will work,” she said.
She whispered the name.
Her hands knew what to do.
Cold, hungry, terrified, Maja watched the two strangers from her secret den beside the mounting block, beneath the burnt barn. That was where she’d run when she’d seen a troop of the savage horsemen from the north come yelling up the lane all those days ago, and lain there cowering. Her uncle and the boys were away fighting the main army of the horsemen, but they must have caught her mother and her aunt. Maja couldn’t see what they did to them because of the smoke, but she’d heard their screaming. Then the smoke of the burning buildings had got into the den and overcome her. After that she didn’t remember anything for a while, and when she woke the savages were gone and the farm was ashes around her.
She had felt too ill to move, and too terrified of the savages, and her throat had been horribly sore, but at last she’d crept out and climbed up to the spring and drunk, and then stolen round the farm like a shadow and found her mother’s body and her aunt’s lying face down in the dung pit, and a lot of dead animals scattered around. Her aunt used to make her help with the butchering, so she cut open a dead pig with her knife and roasted bits of its liver on the embers of her home, and despite the soreness of her throat had managed to swallow it morsel by morsel. By the time she’d finished, it was beginning to get dark, so she’d crawled back into her den and curled up in her straw nest and slept there all night without any dreams at all.
She’d spent the next day collecting dry brushwood and straw and the burnt ends of rafters and beams and piling it all into the dung pit on top of the two bodies. As dusk thickened she’d used a still smoldering bit of timber to set the pile alight.
“Good-bye, good-bye, good-bye,” she’d whispered as the flames roared up, then turned away dry-eyed. She didn’t seem to feel anything. She was vaguely sorry about her mother, and vaguely guilty that she’d never learned how to love her. There hadn’t been anything there to love. She’d dreaded and hated her aunt, but her aunt had shaped her world and she felt a far greater sense of loss at her going. Now that shape was shattered and all she had was emptiness, until her uncle came back from the fighting, if he ever did.
The dead animals had soon begun to rot, but some of the chickens were still alive and hanging around because they didn’t know anywhere else to go. There was good barley out in the little barn in Dirna’s field, which her aunt grew there every year to feed to the unicorns, so the chickens learned to come to her again when she called to them, and she managed to coax some of them into laying. She ate the cockerels one by one and found a few things still usable in the vegetable patch and the orchard, and survived, afraid and lonely.
She had found her den long before. Ever since she could remember she had needed somewhere to hide. Hide from her uncle’s sudden, inexplicable rages, from her aunt’s equally savage tongue, from her boy cousins’ thoughtless roughness. Only occasionally did anyone hurt her on purpose. Indeed, once or twice when she was small and at the end of one of his outbursts her uncle had slammed out to the barn, her aunt had deliberately sent her out to call him in, despite her terror of him. It was one of her aunt’s ways of punishing her, though she’d never been told what for. So she’d crept through the barn door, tensed for his anger, but instead he’d called to her and put her on his lap and fondled her like a kitten for a while, and spoken gently to her, though she could feel his rage still roiling inside him—and it was the rage itself that had terrified her, not the fear that she herself might suffer from it. Usually it had been her big cousin Saranja who’d suffered, or the two boys—and they had been always angry too. Even her own mother had been too vague and feeble to notice her much, let alone stand up for her when she needed help. She must have had a father, of course, but she’d never known him, and had no idea who or where he was. She didn’t dare ask. Saranja had been the only person besides her uncle who had sometimes smiled at her, as though she had meant it.
But then there had come the day she had taught herself never to think of, and at the end of it Saranja had gone away and the rage had been ten times worse than before and her uncle had never spoken to her kindly again.
And it was all Maja’s fault. It always had been, even before that. Since she was born.
There was a bit of the heap of ashes that had been Woodbourne which she fed with fresh wood to keep the embers going, and then hid under layers of ash when she’d finished her cooking. She’d just done that when she’d spotted the woman trudging along the lane with an old horse trailing behind her, and a solitary figure limping along further back. They hadn’t looked dangerous, but all the same she’d clucked to the chickens, who’d come hustling over, imagining it was the start of the evening drill that kept them safe from foxes. She’d laid a trail of barley to lure them into the den and lain in the entrance to watch, letting the scorched branch of fig that screened it fall back into place.
Now the woman came into the yard and stared around. She was grimy with long travel, but despite that was beautiful in her own fierce way, with a mass of glossy dark hair hanging well below her shoulders. Maja had a vague feeling she’d seen her before—or perhaps it had been in a dream, or perhaps she’d just imagined her in one of the stories she told herself. She had the look of a queen, angry, proud and sad—a defeated queen who refuses to accept her defeat. Maja used to tell herself a lot of stories like that during her lonely and miserable years, stories of adventures she would never have and courage that would never be hers.
The horse shambled in behind the woman and stopped, as if it didn’t know what else to do.
The woman called out in a strong voice.
No one answered, so she started to wander around, scuffing here and there with her feet at the edges of the pile of ash that a month ago had been Woodbourne. She stooped and pulled what looked like a golden feather from the ashes. Another followed, dangling below it.
Maja stared. The roc feathers! Why hadn’t they burnt with everything else? She knew them well. Once a year, after supper on the eve of Sunreturn, the whole family would sit and listen to her mother telling them the old story of Tilja and the Ropemaker, and her aunt would fetch the feathers out of the box where she kept them—she never let anyone else touch them—to show them it was all true, and then put them back when it was over.
The woman smoothed them between her fingers and turned and said something to the horse, then looked back along the way she had come. After a while a man limped into the yard. He too was stained with travel, but unlike the woman looked sick and exhausted. There was a bloodstained bandage round his left leg. All the same, he also looked like someone out of one of Maja’s stories, the last loyal soldier in the queen’s defeated army, perhaps, a laughing warrior, an officer used to giving orders. Despite everything, his neat triangular beard gave him a jaunty look. Maja decided she liked him. She wasn’t afraid of him.
“Ribek Ortahlson,” he said.
That was obviously his name. Ortahlson! That was in the old story too. He must come from Northbeck and a man in his family sang winter after winter to the snows to make them fall and block the passes, so that the savage horsemen of the northern plains couldn’t come raiding, the way they had now—just as a woman from Woodbourne sang winter after winter to the unicorns in the forest so that the sickness stayed in the forest and the armies of the great empire to the south couldn’t get through to tax the Valley of everything it owned.
The woman answered but she was facing away from Maja, who couldn’t hear what she said. They both turned to the horse, which had wandered up to the mounting block, letting Maja hear and see everything. The woman laid the feathers on the horse’s back, behind the shoulders, and began to stroke them. She whispered something, and the whole Valley seemed to shake and shimmer. The shock-wave thundered through Maja’s body, and she passed out.
When she came to—it could only have been a few seconds—the quills of the feathers were sinking into the hide. The horse shrugged, raised its head, and gave a long sigh as if of sudden, huge contentment.
The woman stood back beside Ribek, watching the feathers twitch as they embedded themselves into the muscles that had grown to receive them. At once they started to thicken and extend themselves. The quills became bone. The individual barbs lengthened into vanes. A joint appeared below them, dragging with it a fold of hide along the undersides of the quill. All along this fresh plumes erupted, as golden as the original pair. The horse itself started to grow to accommodate the major muscles that its wings were going to need, and still to remain in the true proportions of a horse. At the same time its original indeterminate dunnish hue lightened and brightened to a glowing chestnut. It raised its head, stamped a hoof and snorted like a charger. The movement allowed Maja to see that it was no longer a gelding, but a stallion, entire. The whole landscape seemed to pulse and quiver as the woman continued to stroke the now enormous wings.
Vaguely for some time Maja had been noticing a dull drumming that had been coming from the southwest. Abruptly it changed its note. Absorbed in the wonder of the event, neither of the other two seemed to have noticed it.
The woman sighed.
“I never believed it,” she said. “I was still hoping it wouldn’t happen.”
“I’ve always believed,” said Ribek. “To see it is something different. What now? To judge by the story we’re expected to ride it. I’ve never ridden a horse—we’re boat people and millers.”
“We can’t go on calling it ‘it.’ What do you call a horse that’s partly a roc?”
“A rocking horse? I’ve ridden a rocking horse at the Gathering when I was a kid.”
“A name,” said the woman. The tone of her voice, Maja thought, meant she didn’t really get it that anyone could be lighthearted at a moment like this. She seemed to change her mind.
“Well, I suppose Rocky’s not a bad name for a horse,” she said, and repeated it, trying it out on her tongue.
The horse tapped a forehoof gently on the ground as if it approved.
“Rocky it is then,” said the woman. “Bareback’s possible, but it’d be tiring any distance. Suppose…it can’t do any harm…”
She moved forward and laid her spread hands on Rocky’s back. With apparent confidence—but diffidence seemed to be not in her nature—she spoke the single word, “Harness.”
Again that shock-wave. This time Maja stayed conscious, though if she’d been standing she’d have staggered and fallen. Then the tremor and glitter of the landscape and a series of piercing thrills, as one by one a double saddle appeared, stirrups, saddlebags and scallop-fringed reins and bridle, the leather all glossy scarlet, the buckles and studs gold, and the plume on the bridle a fountain of golden feathers. The woman looked up, frowning. The movement broke the spell of the wonderful and beautiful event, and Maja looked up too, and gasped. Something almost as astonishing, but this time terrible and strange, was happening in the sky.
Hidden till now by the treetops of the forest edge beyond the farm, an immense, dark bag-thing had appeared, floating toward it, shaped like a fat sausage pointed at both ends, held up by nothing, but carrying below it a sort of long, thin basket, as big as the largest boat on the river. Even more dangerous and terrifying because they were so much nearer, five enormous birds were flying steadily ahead of it. Each of them towed a bag like the first one, nothing like as huge but still as big as a haystack, below which dangled a harness carrying a man in a bulging dark helmet and jet-black uniform. They seemed to Maja to be flying directly toward her. This had happened to her before, many, many times in dreams—the monsters who knew where she was hiding, and were coming for her now. Always in dreams, she had woken before she saw them. This time she was awake, and they were real. Her limbs locked rigid with terror.
The two humans had their backs toward them and hadn’t seen them. But now the horse had. He didn’t like it at all. He started to fidget, to stretch his great wings for flight, to try to rear. The woman shouted to the man to load the kit into the saddlebags and come and hold the bridle. And as soon as she could she darted round to the mounting block and slid into the front saddle. The man hurried to follow. The horse was almost on his hind legs. Maja broke out of the terror-trance. She scrambled from her den and up the block.
“Take me too!” she shouted. “Don’t leave me behind! Please! Please!”
The horse was rearing, his hind legs tensed to spring, his wings spread for the first mighty buffet that would carry them into the air. Maja felt herself caught by the collar and flung forward and upward. She grasped desperately for something to hold on to. Another hand caught her out of the air and sent her crashing against the horse’s neck. Rocky squealed and bolted north. Maja clutched, found a handful of mane, and then another, and then just clung there, while the great wings smote the air in panic.
She felt some sort of a struggle going on behind her and managed to crane round. By now they were well clear of the ground. Ribek’s legs and waist were dangling down by the horse’s flank, with him grasping the after saddle and wrestling to hoist himself further, while the woman, with one hand twisted into Rocky’s mane, was reaching round with the other to help him. At last he made it and settled down, gasping, into the saddle.
“Sheep-faces, and an airboat,” shouted the woman, as soon as she’d got her breath back.
“More magic?” asked Ribek, like her, shouting to be heard above the wing-thunder. “People like you and me? Or something else?”
“Oh, they’re people all right. Only where I’ve been we call them Sheep-faces. They just don’t think the way we do. And they don’t do magic. We’ll be all right. A horse at a canter is faster than bird-kites, and the birds get tired. The airboat is even slower but it’s driven by engines and can go on for ever.”
“Any idea where we’re going after that?”
“Just getting clear of the Sheep-faces, for the moment. After that…Maybe Rocky knows. He isn’t just bolting. He’s bolting somewhere. I’ve got to get him slowed down. He’ll kill himself, this speed.”
Maja crouched out of the way to let her lean past her and over Rocky’s neck, murmuring in his ear, nudging gently on his bit, letting him feel her legs against his flanks. Ribek watched their rear, calling the news. The bird-kites, far outpaced, turned back to the airboat almost at once, but it continued to follow doggedly until it was a dwindling dot, almost out of sight.
Sometimes in her dreams Maja could fly, and when the monsters came she could soar away from them. Then, at this exact moment, when the danger seemed gone, the gift deserted her, and she was plodding through heavy plowland with the pursuers only a field or two behind. Rocky gave a long shuddering sigh. Now. She tensed herself for the onslaught of terror as the frantic wingbeats slowed.
It didn’t happen. Instead, she felt the tension of the great body ease as he started to glide. They came lower and lower. Looking down, Maja saw fields and a farm beneath them. A boy was driving cows in to be milked. He gazed up, and his mouth fell open. She heard his faint shout, saw him point, and Rocky shuddered again, deliberately this time, shaking away the final shreds of both nightmares, his and hers, and flew purposefully on. Somewhere.
“If the story’s any guide—” Ribek said.
“Don’t tell me!” snapped the woman. “I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want to know. That stupid story’s ruined my life. I’ve never believed it. I never wanted to believe it. I don’t now. If you’re trying to tell me that Rocky’s taking us to look for the stupid Ropemaker, I’m getting off right away, soon as we’re clear. You can keep Rocky, and welcome.”
“I don’t know how to ride a horse,” said Ribek, obviously teasing. He seemed to be like that.
“Then Rocky can tell you that too,” snarled the woman.
“Maybe our new friend knows how to ride a horse,” said Ribek, still teasing. “Who are you anyway? We can’t go on calling you uh.”
“Me?” said Maja, astonished to be asked, to be even noticed. “I’m…I’m Maja Urlasdaughter.”
“Maja!” said the woman in a totally different voice. “You’re still alive! Oh, thank the stars! I’ve thought of you so often. It was the worst thing of all, leaving you behind there in that hell. I was sure she’d have…”
She didn’t finish the sentence. It didn’t matter. It wasn’t important, swept away like a leaf in a stream on the flood of hope that welled up in Maja, unstoppable. Normally she would have pushed it away, having decided long ago that hope was only the insubstantial shadow that solid, real disappointment cast in front of it wherever it came. Not now.
“You’re…you’re Saranja?” she whispered, and then had to say it aloud because her whisper was drowned by the wing-thunder.
“Oh, Maja!” said Saranja, laying the reins down on Rocky’s neck and hugging Maja to her like a doll. “That’s wonderful! That’s absolutely wonderful! Ribek, this is my cousin Maja, who I never thought I would see again. I think this is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
“Hello, Maja,” said Ribek. “Glad to have you with us. Perhaps you can persuade your big cousin to stop talking nonsense about not coming to help look for the Ropemaker.”
Saranja snorted, let go of Maja and picked up the reins.
“What happened to them?” she said after a while. “My parents, your mother, the boys?”
Maja told her about finding the bodies, and the bonfire she’d made on them. She didn’t say anything about the screams.
“Your father and the boys went off to fight the horsemen,” she said. “I don’t know anything about them.”
“If they were in the same fight I was,” said Ribek, “it wasn’t good. We held the horsemen for a while and it looked like we were winning, but then some of them came round and caught us from the side, and after that it was a massacre. I got out by the skin of my teeth, but a lot of people didn’t.”
Again Saranja was silent for a while.
“Well, that’s all over,” she said at last. “I suppose I can stop hating her now.”
The Valley flowed backward beneath them. Maja had never been so far from Woodbourne and had no idea of the names of any of the farms and villages she could see, but Ribek knew the Valley well and told them old scandals and new gossip about the people who lived there, though Maja had to strain to hear through the wind-whistle and wing-thunder. After a while he got hard biscuity bread out of his satchel and passed it forward.
“How come you showed up so pat at Woodbourne, Ribek?” said Saranja. “Or were you just running away?”
“At first I was. Slinking back to Northbeck and hoping for the best—it’s pretty out of the way up there—but, well, I’d known we were for it when the Ice-dragon didn’t show up last winter. My grandfather saw him once, but mostly you don’t. You just know he’s there. I came down to Woodbourne and tried to ask your mother if anything was happening to the cedar magic. She didn’t answer. Her mouth was a slit. She just shook her head and shut the door in my face. So that was that. Nothing for it but to stand and fight and hope for a miracle. It didn’t happen.
“I headed for the river with a bunch of others who’d been in the fight, but the horsemen caught up with us just as we got there. Some of us tried to hold them off while the rest got onto a couple of rafts. That’s when I got hurt, but someone hauled me onto a raft and off we floated. Down river, of course. South. That’s how I finished up less than half a day from Woodbourne. I thought after all I’d better come and see if your mother had changed her mind about talking to me—I’d never have thought well of myself again if I hadn’t. Pretty sure nothing would come of it, but, well, it didn’t turn out like that and here we are.
“Know what we’re talking about, Maja?”
“Me?” said Maja, again startled to be asked. “Er…er…Yes, of course. It’s in the story. There’s always one boy born at Northbeck who can hear what the stream is saying and when he’s old enough he has to climb up into the mountains and sing to the snows every year so that the Ice-dragon comes and blocks the passes with fresh snow and the horsemen can’t get through; and there’s always a girl born at Woodbourne who can hear what the cedars are saying, and when she’s old enough she has to go into the forest to sing to the cedars and feed the unicorns so that they bring the sickness that stops the Emperor’s armies coming through because they’re supposed to be defending us but they’re just as bad as the horsemen.”
“And that’s what I ran away from,” muttered Saranja. “All that rubbish about being bound to those stupid unicorns and cedars.”
Maja’s words, when they’d come, had come with a rush and now she was gasping for breath. She’d had to crane round Saranja’s body so that Ribek could hear her through the wing-thunder. He laughed.
“So you know the story,” he said.
“Do you want me to go on? It’s rather complicated.”
“Let’s get ourselves somewhere a bit more comfortable, so we can talk without having to shout. Your ancestor Tilja and my ancestor Tahl will have seen things differently, and there’s twenty generations of storytelling since then, so the stories themselves may be pretty different by now.”
Time passed, and more time. Gradually Maja became aware of a strange, throbbing sensation running through her—through all of her, body, mind and soul. She had no words for it. She had never felt anything like it before…Yes, she had! Those sudden, fierce thrills when Saranja was conjuring Rocky’s harness up out of nowhere—this was the same kind of thing, but very different, as different as a howling tempest from a breeze so faint that you can’t feel it, and can only tell it’s there by the drift of thistledown it’s carrying along. It came from Rocky.
This was the feel of magic, she realized. When it was strong magic, suddenly happening, when Saranja had whispered the Ropemaker’s real name—Maja knew from the story that must be what she had said—it was like a thunderclap straight overhead, stunning the senses. Things like giving Rocky his wings and harness were thunder not far off, startling in its suddenness, thrilling in its power. But what came from Rocky now was like continuous thunder rolling along distant hills, almost beyond hearing, vaguely menacing but at the same time comforting.
Rocky was magical all the time because the two gold feathers Saranja had found in the ashes of Woodbourne were roc’s feathers, and a roc is a magical animal. Twenty generations ago the magic that protected the Valley started to fail, and four people, Tilja and her grandmother Meena from Woodbourne, and Tahl and his grandfather Alnor from Northbeck, had set out into the Empire to look for the man who had put the magic there in the first place, a magician called Faheel. He had been very old and tired, and had sent them on to look for a magician who called himself the Ropemaker. But while they were on Faheel’s island Tilja had picked up a couple of roc feathers. Then, when they’d found the Ropemaker and he’d done what they asked him, he’d used the feathers to give Meena’s bad-tempered old mare a pair of wings so that Tahl and Alnor could fly safely over the forest, without being killed by the magical forest sickness that was only fatal to men and was now back in place to protect the Valley from the Emperor’s armies.
The story, as Maja had said, was a lot more complicated than that, so she started sorting the rest of it out in her mind for when the time came to tell Ribek the Woodbourne version.
By the time she’d done that they were flying up a prodigious valley carved into the northern mountains. Soon Rocky curved to the right and, still flying strongly, climbed steadily to cross a snow-covered ridge and glide smoothly down into the next valley.
“By all the waters!” said Ribek. “I know where we are! Our mill’s in the next valley! Think we’re far enough in front to spend the night? If we haven’t lost them completely.”
“We’re going to have to stop somewhere,” said Saranja. “Anything to eat at your mill? For him, I mean. He’ll need more than grass after that effort. Assuming we can get him over that.”
She pointed toward the mountain spur now facing them, almost half again as high as the one they’d crossed.
“There’s a good pass a dozen miles south,” said Ribek. “And it’s a mill, you know. Been a rotten year for custom, with all the fighting, so the barn’s full of last year’s grain. We do a line in crimped grain for horse-feed.”
It was drawing toward evening by the time Rocky had beaten his way up through the thinner air to the top of the pass and started the long glide down.
“He’s getting tired,” said Saranja. “No wonder—any ordinary horse would be dead, what he’s done. What are they going to make of him at your mill?”
“If it’s there. If they’re there. Depends whether the horse people came raiding up this far. But if they’re there they’ll be all right. We’re Ortahlsons, remember—my grandad saw the Ice-dragon. But listen. I’ve been thinking. Those fellows who’re after us—they knew we were there. I’d heard an odd noise just as I was getting to Woodbourne, but then you started putting Rocky’s wings on and it stopped, and I decided it didn’t matter. They must’ve been trying to sneak up on us.”
“Yes. My fault. I heard it too, but I was too busy dealing with Rocky to think about it, and I know what engines sound like. You’re right. They’d turned them off and started to drift toward us. The bird-kites are quicker, so they got them out as soon as they were close enough. They’ve got a magician on board. Anything magical the way Rocky is sends out a bit of a signal, and if he’s good enough the magician can pick it up until we can land somewhere and I can take his wings off him, supposing I can. I don’t know anything about flying horses.”
“I thought you said the Sheep-faces didn’t do magic.”
Saranja started to explain. Maja tried to listen, sleepy still, and only half hearing.
“They don’t. But they want it. That’s what they’re like. Anything they haven’t got. You’ve got an opal mine, they want it. All the warlords keep a magician in their household. They’re not mighty magicians, not like the ones in the story, and when their warlords start fighting mostly they cancel each other out, but they can usually tell when someone else is brewing up magic anywhere near. The Sheep-faces have got hold of a few—they pay them the earth. I couldn’t help picking up a lot of this sort of thing because my owner liked to have a woman sitting at his feet when he was in council or anything—pet dogs, we were. Added to his status.
“First off the Sheep-faces ran up against the Empire. Wanted to trade, they said. Empire took a look at them, worked out what they were at, wouldn’t let them in. So they tried to force their way in. They’ve got some amazing weapons, but they hadn’t met dragons before, or directed lightning, or some of the other stuff that got flung at them in the Empire. Those airboats burn—get a flame against one of those bags and it goes up like gunpowder….”
“Too long to explain now. So the Sheep-faces started trying to encircle the Empire and ran up against the warlords. The only thing that stops warlords fighting each other is somebody else to fight. Magic doesn’t work as well the other side of the desert, but some of the warlords’ magicians could fling fire—not as good as dragons or lightning, but enough to stop an airboat getting in close, and the warlords fought hit-and-run on the ground, which they’re good at and the Sheep-faces weren’t, so it was a really bloody business down south until the Sheep-faces backed off. Now they’re working to set the warlords fighting each other—doesn’t take much doing—and meanwhile mopping up all the magicians they can. I reckon that airboat was a patrol coming up through the desert, looking for magic stuff over on their left, and all of a sudden they found out there was more on their right than they expected now the Valley’s open. Six years ago, when I crossed the desert, nobody that side had any idea it was there. The Sheep-faces must have been coming to take a look when I happened to be giving Rocky his wings—that’d send out a signal you could pick up a hundred miles off.”
“So they can follow us wherever we go?”
“Until they run out of fuel for the engines. It’s a patrol. They’ll be carrying plenty. Could last for days. How far to your mill, Ribek?”
“Five miles from the bottom of the pass. That’s it, ahead. You can see the river. Better get him down while we’re still over the forest, I suppose.”
“Umph. Not something they teach you in riding school.”
Maja saw her do something with the reins and felt the slight shift of her body. Rocky steepened his glide, landed with barely a jolt and folded his wings. Ribek and the woman dismounted. Saranja lifted Maja down and helped Ribek unbuckle the saddlebags and harness, then moved to Rocky’s flank. Her hands seemed to know what to do. She laid one on the root of each wing. She was a tall woman, but even on tiptoe she could barely reach across to the further one. At her touch the horse half spread both wings. Her lips moved, soundlessly. Again that shock-wave, the fierce, glittering tremor in the golden evening light sweeping along the opposite mountainside, that pang of excitement deep in Maja’s soul, so intense this time that she cried aloud.
Saranja looked at her with raised eyebrows.
“I…I’m all right,” she said. “It’s just when you do that…”
“Your Sheep-faces’ magician will have felt it too, surely,” said Ribek. “I felt it a bit myself.”
“Uh-huh. Probably still feel it when they get here,” muttered Saranja.
Gently she stroked each hand up the two massive bones that carried the wings. And again. And again. Each time she repeated the simple movement the wings became smaller, and the horse itself dwindled in proportion, until only an ordinary chestnut stallion stood there, in a harness of brown leather, with a couple of golden feathers lying on each shoulder. Even so, it was a handsome beast, tired after a long day, but well muscled, its coat glossy with health, and with an odd, humorous look in its eye, as if it knew some secret no other horse was aware of.
Saranja unwound a golden hair from her wrist and bound it round the quills. As she did so Maja felt the strange Rocky-sensation die away. Saranja slipped the feathers into her belt-pouch, and the world was ordinary again.
They walked the hundred paces to the edge of the woods. Maja gazed around as they went on. Small interlocking fields, not a square foot of good earth wasted, lay in two narrow strips either side of the river. She could see a dozen farms from where she stood. All had a winter-hardy look. There was no sign of the ravages of the horse people. The slopes above were clothed with dense woods all the way to the tree line.
“Five miles to your mill?” said Saranja. “They’ll be sending patrols out the moment they land.”
“Should be enough for tonight,” said Ribek. “They won’t see much. It’s a waning moon, doesn’t clear the ridge till well after midnight.”
“Suppose they’re here before morning, is there another way out of the Valley?” said Saranja. “We’ll need to start well before dawn. They’ll have bird-kites up watching for us soon as it’s light. We could fly, but I’m not sure he’d make it over the next ridge.”
“I can take us up through the woods and along to the next pass. It’s a bit more exposed after that. Won’t their magician be able to pick up your feathers soon as he gets near them?”
“I don’t think so, not with the hair round them. Can’t be sure, but I can feel them sort of come into their power when I unwind it.”
“So can I!” said Maja. “It was there, like a kind of background buzz, but it stopped as soon as you put the hair round.”
“Funny,” said Ribek. “I can’t tell, but that sounds all right.”
“Let’s move,” said Saranja. “I want to take a look at that leg of yours. You’d better ride—you look dead beat. I ought to be, too, but I’m not. Still, I wouldn’t mind sleeping in a bed, even if it’s just three or four hours. Maja too, I expect.”
Bed! Maja thought, as Ribek climbed wearily into the saddle and Saranja lifted her up behind him. She settled sidesaddle, leaned her head against his back, reached her arms as far as they would go round his waist and fell asleep.
It seemed to Maja that she woke in the same place that she’d fallen asleep, sitting sidesaddle on Rocky, leaning against Ribek’s back, with the whole side of her face numb and creased with the imprint of his jacket. Only it was now daylight, daylight sweet with the dewy airs of early morning. Saranja was on foot, leading the way up a steep hill path through dense old woodland. From far down the slope to her right she could hear a drowsy throbbing sound.
“Ahng…are…,” she mumbled. “Are we nearly there?”
“Nearly where, kid?” said Ribek.
“We were going to your mill. We were going to sleep in a bed.”
“Been and gone, kid. You slept four hours in a real bed.”
“Oh! I thought that was only a dream. There was a blue clock on the wall.”
“That’s right. In the kitchen. My grandfather made clocks for a hobby. That’s where I belong. Best place in the world.”
“I don’t belong anywhere.”
“Not now. It’s gone. Anyway, it wasn’t like your mill. It wasn’t a good place. Saranja ran away.”
“She was telling me. That sort of thing shouldn’t…I wonder if I should have left you at the mill. They’d have looked after you there.”
“No. I’m going with you. Wherever it is. Do you know yet? What’s happening?”
“At the moment we’re trying to get away from the Sheep-faces. Anything else can wait. That’s them you can hear buzzing away down in the valley. We aren’t trying for the main pass, because that’s pretty exposed over the top, and we think they’ll have those kite-men up, but there’s another little one they mightn’t spot.”
Nightmare flooded back. The throbbing from the Valley was no longer drowsy. It was the purr of the monsters who would find her in the end.
Ribek’s voice, ordinary, calm, faintly teasing, dissolved them.
“Hungry? There’s raisin cake.”
“That means you need raisin cake.”
He was right.
“Why aren’t we flying?” she mumbled between the delectable mouthfuls.
“Because their magician will be on to us the minute Saranja puts Rocky’s wings on and they’ll start following us all over again. We’re hoping that if we can get a bit of the mountain between us and them before she does it that might damp the effect and perhaps we’ll shake them off here. You agree?”
“Ahng,” said Maja, startled out of the returning nightmare, simply by being asked, and then deciding he was probably joking.
“I hope your leg’s better,” she said.
“A bit,” said Ribek, sounding surprised in his turn. “Saranja cleaned it out at the mill and put a new bandage on. She knows a lot about wounds. Rough lot of thugs she’s been living among, she says.”
Maja was bewildered. She wasn’t used to being talked to like this—wasn’t used to being talked to at all, in fact, apart from when her mother took it into her head to tell her one of her stories. Otherwise at Woodbourne she’d been talked at—told what to do, or not do, or how furious the speaker was with somebody else. If she hadn’t been there, they’d have told the cat. She liked this new experience, but she didn’t know how to cope with it so she didn’t say anything. The path twisted and began to climb back the other way, and then twisted again. And again. After a bit she settled into a light doze, in and out of sleep, reliving bits of her dream that hadn’t been a dream.
“Was there a big yellow cat?” she mumbled.
“Monster,” said Ribek. “His mother was killed by a fox and our old bitch finished suckling him, so he’s got it into his head he’s a dog. He won’t let another dog through the gate. He’ll see foxes off too.”
“And an owl on a shelf?”
“Woolly. My pet owl when I was a kid. My grandfather stuffed him for me when he died.”
And green plates and bowls on the dresser, she thought, and the steady, peaceful rumble of the millstream over the weir. A place to belong. She fell into a pleasant daydream of living at the mill, deliberately replacing the purr of the monster with the sound of the weir.
The path zigzagged to and fro, steeper now, and the trees on either side almost all pines, gloomy and mysterious. Even gallant Rocky had begun to plod, but Saranja still strode ahead, apparently tireless. There wasn’t much to do or look at, so Maja settled back into her daydream, less satisfactorily because she didn’t know enough about the real mill to make the dream one solid. She’d have to ask Ribek. At last the steady rhythm of Rocky’s stride fell still. They had reached the end of the trees. The dazzling light from beyond, bright sun glittering back off a vast white sweep of snowfield, made her screw up her eyes. Through a haze of tears she could just make out somebody—Saranja—out in the middle of the dazzle, shading her eyes as she gazed back over the treetops. She waved to them to come on up into the open.
“All clear, far as I can see,” she said. “I want to give Rocky a bit of a rest and a feed. You go on ahead with Maja and we’ll catch you up.”
It was only when Saranja lifted her down that Maja realized she was wearing someone else’s coat, a bit too big for her, but very warm and comfortable.
“One of my nieces lent it to you,” said Ribek. “You’ll need it over the top. We’ve got other stuff in the saddlebags. Ready, kid? Off we go. One child and one cripple set out to conquer the mountain.”
He led the way out of the woods and along the edge of the forest to the right. After a little while he turned up across the snowfield. It was last winter’s snow, almost as hard and slippery as ice with daily thawing and freezing. Maja couldn’t see any sign of a path, but before long the snowdrifts began to rise on either side of them and they were walking along a little valley that soon became almost a canyon with ice-sheeted black crags poking through the snow on either side. The footing was rough and treacherous and Ribek was limping heavily, sometimes just taking a single step, and pausing, and leaning on his stick and leading off again with his hurt leg. Maja worked her way up beside him and put her arm round his waist and did her best to help him along.
“Thanks, kid,” he muttered, and plodded grimly on. Saranja and Rocky caught up with them just as they reached the top of the pass.
“You don’t look too good,” she said.
“Cold’s got into it a bit,” Ribek answered. “Maja had to carry me most of the way.”
He was such a lovely man, Maja decided. He was only joking, of course, but still, when his leg was really hurting him, he’d found a way of saying thank you to her.
“Good for her,” said Saranja. “We’ll get you back on Rocky soon as we’re off the ice, and we’ll get his wings back on him first good place we come to.”
The slope down wasn’t so steep, but still horribly slippery in places. Maja stayed with Ribek, helping him best she could. Saranja hurried ahead with Rocky, tethered him at the edge of the trees, and came back and took Ribek’s other side. Together they heaved him into the saddle, where he pretty well collapsed.
The downward path was much like the one they’d climbed, twisting through pines, and then ancient deciduous trees, which reminded Maja of the forest behind Woodbourne. The air grew warmer. They came to a large, open glade, with a stream tumbling through, and halted.
“Put me by the water,” said Ribek. “It’ll tell me soon as the Sheep-faces cross the ridge. And I might be able to tickle a fish or two for lunch, if you get a fire going.”
“I’ll want one anyway,” said Saranja. “Much better deal with your leg using warm water. Maja, dear, see if you can find us some dry stuff for firewood.”
(Maja, dear…Amazing. Unbelievable.)
Half an hour later Rocky was grazing contentedly at sweet mountain turf, Maja was nursing a good steady blaze with a small iron pot balanced over its heart, Saranja was carefully cutting a mat of blood-soaked bandages away from Ribek’s leg, while he lay face down at the edge of the stream with his left arm trailing in the water. Even as Maja watched he swung it up out of the water, something silvery arced through the air, and there was a plump fish flopping to and fro on the grass. Saranja reached out and grabbed it, reversed her knife in her hand and whacked the fish firmly, just behind the head, with the heavy hilt. She dropped it back on the turf, where it jerked a couple of times and lay still. She went back to Ribek’s bandages as if she hadn’t done anything clever at all.
Maja realized she was still a bit afraid of her cousin, though she used to look after her and try to protect her when she got the chance, in a way Maja’s mother had always been too feeble to do, and her aunt too bitter. Saranja was so strong and certain, so tireless and brave. But deep down inside her, banked and controlled and hidden, Maja now sensed something else. She knew it from twelve years of hiding from it at Woodbourne, raging like a brush fire on the surface of everyone’s life there, her uncle’s day-long, week-long, year-long fury, and the midwinter bitterness of her aunt’s response. It had never crossed Maja’s mind to wonder why Woodbourne was like that. It just was, and always had been, ever since she could remember. And somehow it was all her fault.
No wonder Saranja had run away. But it had been too late. That rage was already there, inside her, like a family illness. She’d taken it into exile with her, and brought it back fiercer than before.
And there was something else about her, strange, different. A sort of inaudible hum, rather like the odd, buzzing sensation that Maja picked up from Rocky when he was wearing his wings but not when he wasn’t. Except that that had been part of Rocky, coming from inside him. This was much fainter, and it wasn’t part of Saranja. It came from something she was wearing or carrying. And it was doing something to her, something magical…
How did Maja know all this anyway? She had no idea, but she did.
Ribek shifted a little way up the bank and caught another fish, and then another. Maja knew what to do from tagging along on her boy cousins’ fishing expeditions, and had them gutted and spitted by the time the fire was hot enough to roast them. Saranja disappeared into the wood to look for healing herbs and didn’t find any, but came back with a pouchful of sweet wild yellow raspberries instead.
Ribek unpacked one of the saddlebags and produced fresh brown bread from the mill, and butter churned from the rich milk of mountain pasturage. Maja ate purring inwardly, like the old farm cat over its bowl of scraps. She’d never in her life felt so happy. Perhaps she never would again. She’d like to have stayed here for ever. But of course she couldn’t. The other two weren’t just escaping. They were going to look for the Ropemaker. They wouldn’t want her with them for that, she’d only be in the way, no help at all. They’d find someone to leave her with on the journey. And then it would all be over, probably.
“How far is it still?” she said.
“Where to this time?” said Ribek.
“To find the Ropemaker. You were getting ready to go and do that when the Sheep-faces came and we had to run away, weren’t you?”
“Not really,” said Saranja. “We were being got ready for this, I suppose you could say. All my life I was being got ready, I’m beginning to think. All my life I’ve been fighting against it, without realizing, and in the end I ran away from it, but it brought me back when the time came, or that’s how it feels. I still don’t like it. I still don’t want to believe it. Why me? It makes me mad. But I’ve got to start believing it now. I’m stuck with it.
“The snows failed last winter so the glaciers melted and that let the horsemen through from the northern plains. I don’t love the Valley the way everyone else seems to, but I’m not going to stand for Valley people being raped and murdered year after year by those savages. Somebody’s got to go and look for a magician to renew the magic, so that Ribek can sing to the snows and bring the Ice-dragon back to block the passes; and so that someone from Woodbourne who can listen to the cedars can feed the unicorns in the forest so they’ll keep the sickness there and stop the Emperor’s armies coming through and taxing everyone of all they’ve got. The Ropemaker’s the obvious person. He put the magic there in the first place, so I suppose we’re starting with him.”
“That reminds me,” said Ribek. “What about the forest? Did your aunt say anything, Maja?”
“Who to? She didn’t tell anyone anything, except when they’d done wrong. Um, I suppose she’d been in a bad temper all the time, not just some of the time, like she used to be.”
“You can’t know everything,” said Ribek. “We’ll just have to assume it’s happening. And I’m no keener than Saranja is on the idea of coming haring off to look for the Ropemaker. I’ve got work to do.”
“You should have seen him last night,” said Saranja. “He’s wonderfully proud of that mill of his, aren’t you?”
“Well, I’ve never asked for anything better,” said Ribek. “It’s a good life. If a farmer wants to send his prettiest daughter up with his grain, because he thinks I’ll give him a better deal, why should I discourage him?”
“Only you always knew this might happen, because you believed the stupid story,” said Saranja. “I didn’t. And you didn’t either, Maja, because there’s no one like you in the story.”
“Me!” said Maja.
“Well, you’re here, aren’t you?” said Saranja. “I don’t believe you would be if you weren’t wanted. Same with Rocky. He looked like a completely useless old nag when he started tagging along after me. Nobody could possibly have wanted him for anything. But there had to be a horse for me to put the wings onto, so there he was, and here we are, the four of us, setting out together at the start of another stupid story. We’re going to find the Ropemaker, wherever he is, so that he can seal the Valley off for another twenty generations, and I expect there’ll be all sorts of adventures on the way for you to enjoy.”
“I…I don’t think I’ll be very good at that sort of thing.”
Ribek laughed aloud.
“Do you imagine I do? Or Rocky? I don’t know about Saranja—she’s obviously made for it. You know the story, don’t you? Do you imagine Tilja thought she’d be good at that sort of thing when she set out with the others to find Faheel? But in the end they couldn’t have done it without her. No, kid, you’d better face it. You’re going to have to dare and adventure with the rest of us, and Rocky’s going to take us wherever we’re supposed to be, and that’s all any of us knows, and Rocky doesn’t even know that. He’ll just find himself doing it.”
At the top of a long mountain meadow, with the morning sun full in their faces, sat a man and a boy. Between them on a boulder crouched a squat blue and yellow lizard about the size of the man’s shoe. A huge old cedar rose close behind them, and below, scattered across the bright upland turf, a small flock of sheep grazed, watched by a neat black-and-white sheepdog.
The man was talking to the lizard.
“I think we may have made a breakthrough—or rather Benayu may have.”
“I didn’t do it on purpose,” said the boy. “I just thought I’d give it a go, running my spell backward through the screen—not exactly backward, more inside out, if you see what I mean.”
“What he did, in effect, was to set up an exact counter-resonance to the active resonances of the spell so that on reaching the screen they canceled each other out. He was lucky, of course, in that the spell was ideally suited to the treatment, but all the same it was a whole level more powerful than anything we’ve managed to screen before.”
The lizard’s voice answered in both their minds. If granite could speak it would do so in such a voice.
“Yes, it will not always be so easy. Each screen must be custom-made to what it screens. But the principle…Wait. A thing of power is coming. You may have brought it here. Hide yourselves.”
Man and boy rose and stood for a moment, staring north, and saw a dark fleck in the pale blue sky above a massive snow-streaked ridge. Tension swept up the hillside. It was as if the placid turf had been the nape of a giant neck, every grass-blade prickling with sudden apprehension. Quietly they walked toward the cedar, laid a hand on its bark and disappeared.
By now the stone where the lizard had been was mottled with blue and yellow lichen, and the place was empty apart from the sheep and the dog, and the small creatures that clicked and chirruped in the sun-warmed turf. The tension remained, electric.
Rocky circled down toward the mountain meadow, apparently empty apart from a flock of sheep and a sheepdog.
“I think this may be where we’re going,” called Saranja over her shoulder. “To start with, anyway. I didn’t ask him to land, and he can’t be hungry yet. There’s got to be a shepherd somewhere around. Perhaps he’ll tell us what happens next.”
The dog below yapped a warning. The sheep started to scatter and the dog raced to round them up as Rocky swung in a full circle and glided in toward the slope, closer and closer, and with a sudden bell-like booming of wings landed some twenty paces below the cedar.
All three riders climbed stiffly down. Rocky folded his wings and started to nose discontentedly at the sheep-nibbled turf, too short to be much use to him. The dog streaked toward them, snarling, only to halt almost as suddenly, but with hackles still bristling.
Maja stared around. Something was wrong. Apart from the spectacular view she couldn’t see anything different from any of the half-dozen lonely and peaceful places where they’d stopped to rest, but the feel of this place was like the twanging stillness before the thunder breaks.
“If there’s a shepherd he’s probably hiding in the wood,” said Ribek, apparently untroubled. “That’s where I’d be, seeing something like us show up. Unless that dog’s magical.”
“No,” said Maja. “But the place…”
“What about the place?”
They looked at her. Saranja shrugged.
“Rocky chose it,” she said. “We may as well stay here for a bit, anyway. There must be some better herbs in this lot of woods. I didn’t like the look of that leg of yours at all this morning. How’s it feeling?”
“Not too good,” said Ribek. “It’s been throbbing a while. But it’ll do a bit longer. I’ll just see if that stream’s got anything to say.”
Maja helped him limp across the slope. He paused at an odd little pool, an exact circle of still clear water cut into the grass.
“Nothing there for me,” he said. “Somebody made that.”
“By magic,” she whispered, afraid of her own voice.
“I’ll take your word for it,” he said, and limped on.
For a while he stood by the stream with his head cocked, apparently listening to the ripple of the water over the boulders. Maja had a strange notion while she waited for him that she could actually feel whatever he was listening to. Not hear it, the way he seemed to, but feel it as a sort of soft rippling tickle somewhere at the back of her mind. Momentarily it soothed the throb of tension.
“Well?” muttered Saranja sarcastically, when Maja had helped him back. “What’s the news from nowhere?”
“That tree’s watching us,” said Maja.
Ribek turned and looked.
“Isn’t that a cedar, Saranja?” he asked gently.
Saranja too turned.
“Oh, gods!” she yelled as she strode toward the tree and thumped her clenched fists against the bark. “I never asked for any of this! I tell you I don’t want any of this!”
A breeze woke in the stillness of the afternoon and whispered among the needles of the tree. Just as with the stream, Maja imagined she could somehow feel its mutterings in her mind. Saranja listened to them, frowning and biting her lip, and strode back unappeased.
“All right,” she said. “So this is the place, and we’ve got to wait. Same from the stream, I suppose. And I’m starving, and there’s almost nothing in the saddlebags.”
“There’s mutton,” said Ribek with a jerk of his head toward the flock. “Only I don’t like the look of that dog.”
Maja jumped with sudden shock. A moment later, with a faint sound of air abruptly displaced, a basket landed on the turf beside them. The smell of fresh bread added itself to the mountain odors.
“And you don’t want any of that either?” said Ribek. “What do you think, Maja? You’re jumpy about something?”
“I think it’s all right,” muttered Maja. “It was just the way it came. And this place.”
“Still worried? Any idea what about?”
Maja concentrated. The worry-feeling was like an itchy patch of skin round an insect bite that causes it, sometimes almost too small to see, but…yes…there.
“Rocky,” she said.
“What are you two talking about?” said Saranja, still sounding inwardly furious.
“Maja seems to be extra sensitive to magic,” said Ribek. “That’s why things like putting Rocky’s wings on shake her so badly. That must be really big magic. I bet that cedar is watching us, too. You’re not going to trust her about the food?”
“I’m not that pig-headed,” said Saranja.
They settled either side of the basket and checked through the contents. Ribek took out a mutton chop, shrugged, bit and chewed.
“Tastes fine,” he said. “But I suppose it would. Help yourself, Maja.”
She took one too. No thrill of magic came from it, though it tasted still warm from the grill.
“Well, you haven’t grown donkey’s ears,” said Saranja sourly, and started to eat. She continued to brood as she munched.
“What now?” she said. “Just sit here and wait for the Ropemaker?—Is there any reason, by the way, why we can’t just call him Ramdatta?”
The whole landscape answered her. The three syllables throbbed through Maja as if she’d been a hard-struck bell. Rocky lifted his head and neighed, a sound that seemed to shake the hillside. Birds exploded from the wood and wheeled clamoring above it. Something thumped onto the turf behind them. They turned and saw two figures sprawled on the ground beneath the downsweeping branches of the cedar. These now rose groggily to their feet, shaking their heads as if to clear them.
All three travelers stood to face them. They saw a man in early middle age, stocky, muscular, with close-cut curly brown hair, a smooth, unreadable face, clean-shaven but with remarkably hairy legs revealed by the odd leather kilt he was wearing. His skin was golden brown tinged with olive. Next to him stood a gawky boy with a strong family likeness despite the difference in build.
“One moment,” said the man, and strode past them with the boy beside him, then stood staring out southward across the immense landscape. They could feel the tension too. Maja could see it in their poses, and feel it humming from them. They relaxed at last, and the man shrugged his shoulders and sighed as they turned to face the newcomers.
“That name,” he said. “Don’t say it again, please. Your horse is more than signal enough of your presence here. Can anything be done to mitigate that?”
Maja could hear the strain in the quiet, slow-spoken words.
“I can take his wings off,” said Saranja. “Maja says he doesn’t feel at all magical without them.”
The man glanced at Maja, frowning.
“Maja seems able to feel magic,” said Ribek. “She knew you were in the cedar.”
Saranja picked an apple out of the basket, cut it in quarters with the knife from her belt, walked down to Rocky and offered him a piece of it, which he took neatly from her open palm. She waited while he munched, gave him another piece, teased at his mane and moved to his shoulder, and gave him the rest of the apple. She reached for the wing-roots and stroked her hands gently up the massive bones.
“Hold me,” said Maja, and braced herself against Ribek’s side.
This time she was ready and could pay attention to the actual event. For a few moments the fierce electric tingle seemed to vibrate through the whole mountain on which they stood, and through her too, as if she’d been a boulder on that mountain. She watched the wings shrink into themselves, dwindling to a pair of golden plumes which Saranja could ease free, and Rocky became his other self, no more than an unremarkably handsome golden chestnut. He followed Saranja up the slope, clearly hoping for another apple, and not thinking anything at all strange had happened to him, but was distracted by a pile of fresh clover that had appeared on the turf beside him. When it was over Maja realized that the mountain pasture was almost at ease, though deep beneath the turf something remained. Something extremely strange.
“I hope that’s better,” said Saranja, turning toward where the man had been. But by now he was crouching beside a large blue and yellow lizard that had appeared on the rock close to where they had been sitting. It seemed to be having some kind of fit. Spasms of shuddering overcame it and its eyes kept closing to vertical slits and opening again.
“Much better,” he said over his shoulder. “Thank you, and let us hope it is not too late.”
“We would have known by now, wouldn’t we?” said the boy, obviously as anxious as the man.
“Probably,” said the man with a sigh, and rose to his feet.
“I must apologize for the informality of your reception,” he said, pulling himself together. “I am Fodaro, and this is my nephew Benayu. That’s his dog, Sponge. And this on the rock here is Jex. The name you spoke must have affected him even more powerfully than it did us, but he seems to have done his best to protect us before that happened. Evidently he has not yet recovered from the effort. The food is to your taste?”
Maja stared at the lizard, bewildered. She’d assumed it must be some kind of pet, but it didn’t sound like that. She couldn’t feel anything like the magical vibrations coming from it that she’d felt from Rocky when he had his wings on, though there was a sort of silent humming from both the man and the boy. They were still really scared of something too—something, she guessed, that might have noticed the explosion of magic when Saranja had spoken the Ropemaker’s name, and Jex had been trying to protect them from that happening. Yes, and they’d have known by now if it had done so….
Ribek glanced down at her. His face seemed unusually drawn. She realized that his leg must be hurting more than he let on, but he caught her expression, laughed, shrugged and spread his hands. He was as bewildered as she was.
“The food?” he said, turning back to Fodaro. “Just what we needed. Thank you very much. I’m Ribek Ortahlson, and my friends are Saranja and Maja Urlasdaughter. They’re cousins, but I’m not related to them. In fact we barely know each other.”
“Those are your true names?”
“What on earth is the point of a false name?” said Saranja. “That’s who I am.”
“Hm. And you appear not to be yourselves magicians?”
“Not as far as we know,” said Ribek. “There’s very little magic where we come from.”
“But the horse…?”
“Rocky’s different,” said Saranja. “He doesn’t belong there. At least his wings don’t. I put them on for him, but I’m not a magician. The feathers told me what to do. It’s a long story. Thank you for the fodder, by the way.”
“My pleasure,” said the boy.
She turned and stared at him.
“You too?” she said, as if this were the last straw.
“The talent runs in the family,” said Fodaro, “though his is in some ways different from mine. He takes more after his father, my brother-in-law.”
“And, um, Jex?” said Ribek.
“Jex is something else,” said Fodaro.
Ribek waited for him to explain, but he changed the subject.
“May we please look at your feathers?”
Without hesitation Saranja drew them out of her belt-pouch and offered them to him, but he held up both hands in a gesture of refusal and simply studied them as she held them, his nephew coming to his side to do so too. Their breathing slowed as they stared, while Saranja twisted them to and fro to let them see every aspect.
“Astonishing,” whispered Fodaro. “Can you tell us what they are?”
“Ask Ribek. I’m still trying not to believe it.”
“I’m not,” said Ribek. “After all, I believe in the Ice-dragon. They are roc feathers, according to the story we tell in the Valley, which so far has proved a pretty good guide, judging by what’s happened to us in the last few days.”
“Roc feathers. I have never seen one. But yes, of course. And the hair that binds them? That is something of another order.”
“It belonged to…to the Ropemaker—the fellow whose name Saranja said just now, but mostly he’s called the Ropemaker in the story we tell in the Valley.”
Fodaro didn’t respond, didn’t even move. It seemed as if he had stopped breathing. Benayu stared at him frowning.
“You know the Ropemaker’s true name?” he whispered at last, speaking the words even more slowly than before. “You carry a hair of his head? But you know nothing of magic? What brought you to this place? How do you come by a horse with the wings of a roc? Are you, at last, who I think you are?”
“Rocky brought us here,” said Saranja. “We were just running away from the Sheep-faces, but he seemed to know where to go. Until I found the roc feathers he was just an old nag who insisted on following me, but then everything changed and Ribek showed up and I knew what to do because of the story. Then the Sheep-faces came looking for us, but Rocky was faster than they were so we got away, and after that we just came where he took us.”
“Come to that,” said Ribek, “I think we’re entitled to ask who you are and what you are doing here.”
Fodaro relaxed enough to manage a smile.
“We are in much the same boat,” he said. “We too are running away, or rather hiding. Until you came we believed we were here to take advantage of certain magical aspects of this place to conceal ourselves from our enemy, and to develop Benayu’s powers with the help of Jex. I cannot tell you more about Jex because we have promised not to, but I’m extremely worried about him, both for his sake and ours. We need him well.”
He turned to Saranja.
“Will you try something for me?” he said. “I’ve never seen him like this before. He should have started pulling himself together by now, but if anything he’s getting worse. This may not work, but it’s the best I can think of. Kneel beside him, and when you are settled untie the quills, lay them close in front of him on the boulder, without the hair—don’t let that touch him. Leave them there only an instant. Don’t even whisper the name—just think it, and then pick them up and retie them at once. I’m sorry to have to ask you. I wouldn’t if I thought it was safe for anyone else to do this.”
Saranja actually grinned at him, if a bit sourly.
“If it works, it works,” she said. “I just don’t have to pretend to like it.”
With deft, careful movements she did as he’d told her. The feathers rested on the rock for little more than a heartbeat, but for that splinter of time the hillside again seemed to twang with tension. The lizard gave a convulsion that almost toppled it from its boulder. And then Saranja was rewinding the long gold hair round the quills, and the hillside was at peace, and the lizard was no longer shuddering but crouched in the sunlight with its eyes closed and the slow come-and-go of its breath gently stirring the ruffles of its neck.
Saranja slid the feathers into her pouch and rose. Fodaro held his spread hands above the lizard, as if warming them over a fire.
“Well, he’s here, at least,” he said. “But not yet as fully here as we need him to be.”
“Would that work on Ribek’s leg?” asked Saranja, obviously impatient with such abstractions. “It’s pretty bad, isn’t it, Ribek, by the look of you?”
“Not too good, but it can wait. Depends how urgent everything else is.”
“Not that urgent, I hope,” said Fodaro. “But Jex and the roc from which your feathers came are of a different order of being from ourselves,” he said. “A human hurt requires human healing, whether physical or magical. Benayu will see to it…. No, better not for the moment. I’m sorry.”
“I’d rather let Saranja take a look at it first, in any case,” said Ribek wearily. “I’m sorry, Benayu. I don’t distrust what you do the way she does, but I’m not used to it, and I prefer to stick with what I know. And there’s always a price, if you’ll excuse my saying so. Where Saranja’s been these last six years the men did precious little besides fighting each other, so she knows about wounds. Mine wasn’t too good when she dealt with it this morning, but your mountain water is clear and clean. I’ll ask it to help. They’ve all got a bit of deep-earth healing in them, water sources, until we start poisoning them lower down.”
He turned and limped over to the stream. The other four followed him. The two magicians watched for a while in silence as Saranja unwound the ragged bandage as far as she could, cutting off a bit of the loose end and using that to sponge and soften the clotted blood until she could pick the next winding free with her knife-point. It was clear from her movements that as he’d promised she knew what she was doing.
“Yes, you are right,” said Fodaro suddenly. “Any use of magic demands a price from the user. Out there, in the Empire, a serious magician would have demanded silver for healing a wound like yours—gold, even, if the wound was badly infected. Up here, though—”
“‘Would have demanded’?” interrupted Saranja without looking up, but Fodaro waited as she eased the last winding away and began on the blood-drenched pad that covered the torn flesh. The blood was still oozing, and the scabbing for the most part soft enough for her to peel the pad gently away. Ribek’s breath hissed between teeth and lip, but he didn’t flinch. The wound was a tear rather than a slice, not deep but angry-looking, running slantwise across the upper part of the calf. Saranja sniffed at it and frowned.
“Do you know what you need?” asked Benayu.
“Should do. Ribek told you. Mothermoss would be nice, but I’ll be lucky to find it here. There should be harmsain in the wood, though. Here, Maja—clean it up best you can, while I look. When you’ve finished, put a pad over it—here—and wrap it up to keep warm.”
She dampened one of the cleaner bits of bandage, folded another into a wad, gave them to Maja.
“Don’t go too far,” said Fodaro. “It’s still possible that you may need to leave in a hurry.”
She nodded and walked off toward the trees. Benayu glanced enquiringly at his uncle, who shook his head.
Ribek had caught the look.
“Let her find what’s there, if that’s what she wants,” he said. “I’ll do. We aren’t used to this sort of thing. There was almost no magic in the Valley. Saranja’s family can hear what the cedars are saying, and mine can listen to moving water, and that was about it. There was a chop or two left in the basket, wasn’t there?”
Benayu fetched the basket and then joined Fodaro, and crouched with him beside the lizard. They talked in low and worried voices. Ribek ate slowly while Maja worked away at his wound, which had clearly been troubling him more than he had let on. Then he hunkered away from the stream, stretched out in the sunlight and closed his eyes. By the time Saranja returned with a sheaf of twigs and leaves he was fast asleep, and Benayu had a small fire going beside the little circular pool, with a metal pot suspended over it.
Saranja eyed this, frowning.
“How did you know?” she said, instantly suspicious.
“Maja told me you’d need it, and Fodaro says we’d better lay off magic—even silly little things like lighting a fire—for the moment. So I did everything else your way, fetched the pot and the flint with my own hands, I mean. There’s good clean water in the pool. What have you got?”
“Nothing I was looking for. Most of this is only a bit better than nothing, but the bitter-bark’s fine, only it’s got to be an infusion.”
She picked out a bunch of twigs bound with a rag, and used this to handle them as she peeled the bronzy bark from the white wood. Maja reached to help.
“Watch it,” she said. “The raw sap is poisonous. You can use a couple of other sticks to put the bark in the pot. Keep it stirred, and just simmering if you can. Are we actually in a hurry, do you know?”
“There’s remarkably little we do know, these days,” said Fodaro, looking up. “Less than ever now, until Jex comes to himself. He exists simultaneously in two…places. That’s all it’s safe to tell you. But normally he can communicate through his other self with creatures of his kind elsewhere in the Empire and tell us what’s going on out there. In the meanwhile perhaps you could tell us this story which you’ve mentioned from time to time. It could very well be useful.”
“I suppose I’ll have to,” she said. “Better get it over. We’ll let this cool now. Put me right, Maja, if I get it wrong. It’s been a long time.”
She lifted the pot from the fire with a stick and wedged it behind a boulder, then moved with the other three into the shade of the cedar, and they settled down close above the lizard.
“You’ll have to check with Ribek,” she said. “Everyone in the Valley tells it a bit differently, but his family and mine are the only ones it really matters to.”
“The Valley?” asked Fodaro.
“It’s over there,” she said, pointing west. “I don’t know how far. We came a bit roundabout, because first off we were escaping from some Sheep-faces in an airboat…. Forget about that—I’ll draw you a picture and explain later.”
She picked up a twig and started to scratch an outline in a patch of bare earth.
“Rocky flies incredibly fast,” she went on, “and that second day he kept going till it was too dark to see. Then we slept on a sort of ledge in the mountains and flew on all next day, with one short break by a river. We slept again halfway up a mountain and got here, when? A bit after midday, about?
“Anyway the Valley’s completely cut off from everywhere else, and has been for—oh, I suppose it’s got to be twenty generations, however long that is. But it wasn’t always. According to the story, we used to keep getting invaded by wild horsemen from the north and—just as bad, if not worse—the Emperor’s armies coming up from the south to drive them back. In the end things got so bad that we decided to send a sort of delegation to look for a powerful magician to stop this happening. She was called Asarta—”
Maja heard the stone whisper in her mind, coming, it seemed, from unbelievable distances away. Saranja must have heard it too. She shuddered.
“I don’t know if I can take much more of this,” she said. “I don’t mind giving Rocky his wings and taking them off again, for some reason, but otherwise…And I really hate it when it happens inside my head. In the story there’s an ancestor of ours—mine and Maja’s—called Tilja, who could undo magic. That was the only part I used to like.”
“Many people in the Empire feel the same,” said Fodaro. “There’ve been waves of lynchings of magicians over the years. Go on with the story. Your people went to this magician—I know her name, of course, but not much else. What did she do?”
“She didn’t. She’d finished her work and was just getting ready to leave, to ‘undo her days,’ according to the story, so she sent our people on to a magician called…Can I say his name?”
“It will not have been his true name,” he said. “But it will still have resonance for Jex, as Asarta’s did. Try mouthing it only. You can tell us later.”
Maja watched the lizard as Saranja’s lips moved. It did not stir, but again she heard the whisper in her mind, no louder than before, but nearer, somehow, more resonant.
Then silence. Saranja hesitated a moment, sighed resignedly and went on.
“She gave them a ring to take to him, and in exchange he sealed the Valley off for another twenty generations. He summoned the Ice-dragon to block the northern passes with massive snowfalls, and—I’ve always thought this bit sounded particularly stupid—some unicorns into the southern forest who brought a kind of disease with them that made any men who tried to go in among the trees fall sick and die. Women were all right, though. See what I mean, stupid? There was always one woman in my family who could hear what the cedars were saying, and she had to go into the forest each year when the first snows fell and sing to the unicorns and then feed them through the winter. And there was always one man in Ribek’s family who could hear what the streams were saying, and each year he had to climb up to the snow line and sing to the snows to bring the Ice-dragon back for another winter.
“Well, that lasted another twenty generations, and then it broke down again, so four of us—Tilja and her gran from our family and a boy called Tahl and his grandpa from Ribek’s—went off to look for this Faheel person…Bother. No, it seems to be all right to call him that…Anyway, after a lot of tiresome magical adventures…I think I’m leaving out something important, Maja….”
“Oh yes. Everything in the Empire was very tightly controlled. You couldn’t travel anywhere without having a way-leave. You couldn’t even die without a license from the Emperor. And magic—oh, gods! I suppose I’ve got to start believing in all this stuff—that was controlled by a bunch of super-magicians in Talak…am I saying that right?”
“The city is differently pronounced in different parts of the Empire,” said Fodaro. “Up here in the North we mostly call it Talagh. You were about to tell us what you know about the Watchers.”
“Oh yes. They were supposed to be controlling the magic in the Empire, only they were all at daggers drawn with each other but that didn’t stop them cracking down hard on anyone using magic without permission. Faheel had set the Watchers up to stop people doing that, but it went on in secret, and the system got out of hand, so everyone was scared stiff of the Watchers, who were meant to be there to look after them, and meanwhile Faheel had disappeared.
“But Tilja’s gran had—wait for it—a wooden spoon, of all things, carved from the wood of a peach tree that had grown from the stone of a peach out of Faheel’s garden, and the darned thing knew where he was and if you said his name over it would swivel round and point that way. The trouble was that sent out a magical signal which put the Watchers on to them whenever they tried. But they just managed to get away each time and in the end they found Faheel on an island out in the southern ocean, but of course he was incredibly old and tired and longing to give up, but he couldn’t until he’d found someone to pass the famous ring on to.”
“In what way famous?” said Fodaro.
“He could control time with it. I’ll come to that in a minute. Anyway, Tilja told him about a magician called the Ropemaker they’d met on their journey. Faheel decided he was the one he’d been waiting for, but they looked at a sort of magic table he’d got and saw that the Ropemaker was in the palace at Talak and just about to be made into a Watcher. So to stop that Faheel used the ring to hold time still for the whole Empire while he and Tilja were carried up to Talak by this roc and he destroyed the Watchers. But before—”
“One moment,” said Fodaro. “‘He destroyed the Watchers.’ Does your story say anything about how he did that?”
“Yes, but it makes even less sense than anything else. Everything got bent out of shape. There were a lot of towers. They were all straight if you looked at just one of them, but they weren’t straight with each other. Something far off looked bigger than something nearer. Shapes didn’t fit together with themselves. In the end the sky came forward until it was inside out and swallowed the Watchers up. And if you know what any of that means you’re welcome to it.”
Fodaro was staring at her, oblivious to her outrage. Benayu in turn was staring at him with his mouth half open in astonishment.
“As it happens, I do know what it means,” said Fodaro slowly. “It is unbelievable, though not in the way you think. Anything else you can tell me about it…?”
“I don’t think so. Maja? No, we both know the same version, but Ribek’s is a bit different in places. You’ll have to ask him when he wakes up. Shall I go on?”
“Please. So, having destroyed the Watchers Faheel gave the Ropemaker the ring?”
“No, because before he could do that another magician who wanted the ring—he was one of the secret ones—Tilja called him Moonfist—he took Faheel by surprise and nearly killed him, but Tilja managed to use the ring to stop time again and get him back to his island. Then before he died he gave Tilja the ring to take to the Ropemaker.
“They had a lot more stu—I’ve got to stop saying that—they had a lot more adventures before they found him, of course, and he gave them the power to seal the Valley off again and sent them home. Tahl and Alnor couldn’t go through the forest because they were men and the sickness was back, but they had a tiresome old mare with them called Calico, and the Ropemaker put a couple of roc feathers—the ones I just showed you—onto her shoulders and turned them into wings, so that she could fly them home. And I think he actually managed to hide the Valley completely this time. I spent six years out on the other side of the desert among the warlords, and nobody had any idea it was there….”
“One moment,” said Fodaro. “There were magicians there, among these warlords? And magical objects?”
“Yes. Why? Magic didn’t work so well out there, but—”
He interrupted her with a gesture and glanced at Benayu, who nodded.
“Only a minor puzzle,” he said. “Later, perhaps. Please go on. Nobody among these warlords knew of the existence of the Valley….”
“That’s right. I don’t think anyone in the Empire does, either. In the old days, before the Ropemaker, the Emperors kept trying to send armies through the forest to recapture what they called their Lost Province—that’s in the story—so they must have known about it then, but I’ve never heard they’ve tried anything like that since.
“But the magic must have stopped working now because it was only supposed to last for twenty generations and they’re up. My family kept count, and my mother always told me I might be the one who had to go and look for the Ropemaker and ask him to renew the magic. I couldn’t stand it. Why me, for pity’s sake? I never wanted anything to do with any of it in the first place. I thought it had ruined my life. So I ran away, and that turned out even worse, so as soon as I got the chance I ran back. So there I was, looking at the ruins of my old home, when I found the feathers among the ashes, and I realized that all this had been planned somehow, long ago. I’d even picked up an old horse to put the wings on, and there was Ribek limping up the road. And at that point Sheep-faces turned up in their airboat looking for us. Ribek says that no one had ever seen anything like that in the Valley before. Which shows that the Sheep-faces had only just found out the Valley was there, and—”
“Sheep-faces?” said Benayu. “They’ve got to be the same as the Pirates, haven’t they?”
“It sounds like it,” said Fodaro. “I want to know more about this ring, as well as anything you can tell me about the destruction of the Watchers. I’ve heard rumors about that, as a matter of fact, but I’ve never heard about anything like the ring, not even a rumor. But you tell us about your Sheep-faces first. This may be more immediately important. What do these airboats look like?”
“I’ve drawn you one,” said Saranja.
She’d been scratching away at her picture all the time she’d been talking. They studied it while she told them about the Sheep-faces.
“Yes, they’re the Pirates all right,” said Benayu. “That explains a lot. I wonder if even the Watchers know all that.”
“Watchers!” said Maja. “But Faheel…”
“Destroyed the ones he had originally set up, just as Saranja has told us? Indeed he did. But magic is wild, dangerous stuff. All sorts of evils follow its uncontrolled use. The Ropemaker was forced to set up some kind of a system to replace the Watchers. He built in safeguards and for a while it worked well enough, but then he vanished, no one knows where, and over the centuries his system became perverted, just as Faheel’s had done, though in a different manner, and then people started to call them the Watchers again….”
“That’s what you were worried about,” said Saranja, “that they might have seen us arrive on Rocky?”
“Yes, but if they had they would have been here by now, I think. It depends how much of the magical impulse Jex managed to absorb. That’s one of the things he does.
“Where were we? The Pirates. Well, some of our coastal cities have been subjected to raids by a swarm of Pirates using airborne craft, Saranja. That’s all anyone has been officially told. We haven’t been told, for instance, how widespread these attacks have been, nor that as well as the usual destruction and looting that Pirates have historically gone in for, these ones seem also interested in suborning or kidnapping magicians for some purpose of their own. I needed Jex to tell me that. It’s been going on for thirty-odd years now, and emergency measures are in place. These include the central licensing and conscription of first-and second-level magicians, who have hitherto only required local licensing, in order to defend the Empire—in fact a complete crackdown on all unauthorized magic, which is something the Watchers have long been waiting to put in place, and will now have widespread popular backing in a national emergency. That’s why Benayu and I are here—not just to escape the conscription, but to find means to resist it, and in the end, perhaps to overturn the whole system of Watchers.
“Furthermore the Ropemaker has disappeared, just as Faheel did, and now here you come like your ancestor Tilja to find him, and help him to destroy the Watchers and find his successor and restore the world to its natural order for another twenty generations.”
He seemed to have relaxed enough to be amused by the notion, and Saranja’s uncooperative glare.
“Where do the Pirates fit in with all that?” said Benayu.
“I have no idea. Perhaps Jex will tell us when he wakes and is fully back here.”
“Your friend’s just coming round, Saranja,” said Benayu. “I’ll get you some clean bandages. There’s something nasty in that cut still, under a sort of flap near the top on the left.”
Maja looked across to where Ribek lay by the stream. As far as she could see he hadn’t moved but now he yawned and stretched contentedly and sat up.
“I’ll look,” said Saranja as she rose.
By the time Benayu returned with the bandages Ribek was on his back again, his eyes closed, his face gray-white and covered with sweat. Saranja was on her knees beside him gently using her thumbs to press the wound closed. Blood dribbled down his calf.
“Thanks,” she said, without looking up. “Cut me a few small squares for swabs, will you, Maja, then a soft pad, and then the longest strip you can make, about a handsbreadth wide, and slit the end a foot or so down the middle. That was hell for Ribek, but worth it. I think I got all of the muck out, but the bitter-bark will take care of anything I’ve missed. He’d be in a fever without. Now, tip a bit of it onto the squares and squeeze them out and hand them to me one at a time. The same with the pad, and then while you’re waiting roll up the bandage, starting with the slit end.”
She settled to work. Benayu went back to Fodaro and they started talking earnestly together. Maja was holding the pad ready for Saranja to take when everything changed. She cried aloud and was almost knocked sideways as the familiar quiver trembled across the mountainside. Rocky neighed as if facing an enemy, the sheep scattered again, bleating, and the dog raced to bring them back. By the time she recovered Benayu and Fodaro were standing, their faces tense as they stared out toward the southeast. Almost at once they fell into what looked like a furious argument, all the fury on Benayu’s part, Fodaro grim and anxious.
“Any idea what this is about?” said Ribek. “Did they tell you anything while I was asleep, Saranja?”
“Lots, but not about this. But whatever it is, it’s urgent. These Watcher people are coming or something. Let’s get this done with. Bend your knee, if you can. Now put your hands where mine are. Right. Now…”
They had finished, and Ribek was standing shakily, leaning on Saranja’s shoulder, when Benayu came hurrying back. His face was working, and at first he could barely speak for grief and anger.
“You’ve…you’ve got to go,” he said. “Can’t explain. No time. Straight down. See that tall pine at the bottom? Bit to the right of that there’s a track. Down there till you come to the drove road. Right there. Three miles on, there’s a bridge with a village on the other side. Wait in the trees till you’re sure there’s no one about and then hide under the bridge. I’m bringing the sheep. When you hear the sheep bell coming, one of you come out and wait in the trees with Maja. I’ll tell you what to do next. If I don’t come, wait till it’s almost dark, then Maja must hold Jex in her hand and Saranja hold her feathers just in front of him and breathe gently across them into his face. With luck he’ll wake up. If he does, do whatever he says. If he doesn’t, don’t try to help by saying the name. Just do whatever you think best. Here, Maja. Hang him round your neck, and sleep with him under your pillow. He may be able to shield you a bit.”
Before Maja had time to look at what he’d given her he had turned and was whistling to the dog.
It was a small amulet of some pale mottled stone, remarkably heavy for its size, carved to the shape of a squat lizard. There was a ring on its spine with a chain through it, allowing her to hang it round her neck.
“I’ll help Saranja saddle Rocky,” said Ribek. “See what you can find by way of food, Maja.”
She hurried back toward the cedar, where she found Fodaro stooped over Saranja’s drawing of the airboat with a twig in his hand, apparently scratching what looked like magical symbols above it.
“Is it all right if I take the basket?” she said. “Aren’t you coming with us?”
“No. Join you when I can. Tell your friends to look after the boy. He matters, not only to me. Don’t let them hang around. I want you well along the drove road before anything happens.”
“We’re just going. Thanks for the food, and good luck.”
Fodaro grunted, but didn’t look up.
Saranja was helping Ribek up into the saddle by the time she reached them.
“Well done,” she said. “Pack it into that saddlebag…. Right. Up you go, too.”
Maja grabbed hold of Rocky’s mane as Saranja took the bridle and started down the slope at a steady jog-trot.
Half way to the trees they passed Benayu and the dog, herding their flock in front of them. The clank of the bellwether’s bell seemed extraordinarily loud in the oppressive silence. Benayu’s face was expressionless. He gave no sign that he’d seen them go by.
It was cool beneath the bridge. Reflections from the late afternoon sunlight rippled across the masonry of the arch above them. The river was low after a long summer. Rocky stood midstream, swishing his tail at flies. The three humans rested on boulders that winter floods had piled against the buttress, Saranja brooding, Ribek listlessly trailing his fingers in the current, and Maja quietly watching them. There was magic coming from both of them, she realized. Ribek was just listening to the water again, but Saranja was different. It was the same thing she’d noticed earlier on—not something she was doing, something that was being done to her. Perhaps it was the same thing Fodaro had started to ask about, a bit of magic she’d found among the warlords. But she hadn’t told them anything about it. That wasn’t like her.
“There’s a strange hawk over the woods,” said Ribek suddenly. “It wasn’t there this morning.”
“Nor were we,” said Saranja. “How…? Oh, the river told…”
Maja didn’t hear the rest of it. Something was happening to her, a sudden intense unease of the spirit, like nausea in the body, not slowly infecting her but suddenly there, a distortion of her place and balance in the world. She had to clutch at the stonework of the bridge or she’d have toppled sideways.
“Maja! What’s up? That was the sheep-bell. Come along. Are you all right?”
“I think the Watchers have come. Back at the pasture. I didn’t feel them coming. They were just there.”
“Right. Let’s get on with it.”
Maja steadied herself and rose.
The small flock streamed by, bewildered by the speed they were being forced to go, with the dog urging the bellwether along in front and Benayu following at the rear, occasionally whacking a rump with his staff. Saranja stepped out of the trees just as the last rank reached her. Maja followed. Benayu whistled and the dog brought the flock to a halt. He looked no less grim than before, but more in control of himself.
“Maja thinks the Watchers have reached the pasture,” she said.
“I know,” said Benayu tonelessly. “Two of them. If he gets it wrong we’ve got about ten minutes—maybe a bit more.”
“Ribek says there’s a strange hawk over the hillside. The river told him.”
“Wasn’t there before I got under the trees, but from now on…One of them will be looking through its eyes. So you can’t take the horse through the village—stand out like a sore thumb. I should look all right, with the sheep, this time of year. You’re going to have to work your way round under the trees. Up the river till you get to the old ford. Not far. Then…”
His face worked. He waited, eyes closed, until he had mastered himself, and turned to Maja.
“You know when Saranja took the wings off your horse, what you felt then? There’ll be something like that. Stronger, probably. It’ll mean Fodaro’s trying to tackle the Watchers back at our pasturage. The hawk will be looking at that. You should be able to slip across the river then. After that, there’s a track down from the ford to the top of the drove pasture. I’ll know you’re there and come and find you.”
“All right. And good luck, Benayu.”
“Not me who needs it.”
He turned away and whistled to the dog to move on.
The moment came in two waves, the first like a silent thunderclap, electric with horror and power, flinging Maja to the ground. She heard Rocky’s squeal of panic, but it had hardly begun before the second wave drowned it, an immense booming bellow, far louder than any thunder, a shuddering of the physical earth…And then the wind. She was already flat on her face but that was no shelter at all. It tore at her clothing, yanked at her hair, was about to pick her up and blast her away like a blown leaf when Ribek tumbled across her and pinned her down.
And then it was gone. Silence. No, not silence, because even in silence your ears are awake, listening for sound. There was a blankness, a deadness, where that sense of listening should have been.
She hadn’t heard the wind.
By the time she understood what had happened to her Ribek had rolled himself off her and was helping her up. His lips moved. Nothing.
“I’ve gone deaf,” she said, and pointed to her ears. He nodded and tapped his chest.
Saranja was gone, and Rocky, but Saranja’s shoulder pack was lying on the ground. Maya pointed at it.
“Where is she?” she mouthed.
Ribek pointed across the stream.
“Roc-ky bol-ted,” he said, mouthing it the same way, so that she could read his lips.
He picked up the pack but she took it from him and in that awful non-sound helped him across the ford. Beyond that they followed a well-marked track, picking their way past fallen trees. He was leaning heavily on her shoulder by the time Saranja met them, leading Rocky, foam-flecked and heaving, though she herself was barely panting.
She pointed to her ears and Maja and Ribek made the me-too gesture. She nodded and said something, gesturing at Rocky, pointing at a gash in a foreleg, then showing them a ring on his harness, slipping it over her thumb and pointing at the wreckage of branches past which they’d just been scrambling. Rocky had snagged the ring on a broken branch and got stuck till she’d come up. She spoke again, finishing with a nod and a shrug. Could be worse. He’ll be all right. Grimly they moved on together.
Benayu came up the track to meet them with Sponge at his heels. His face was gray and haggard as an old man’s. He had clearly been weeping. Ribek moved to put an arm round his shoulders, but he shrugged himself free and started to say something.
“We can’t hear you,” said Maja, automatically.
No doubt they’d all spoken together, but Benayu held up a hand, wait, then moved along the line, pausing briefly in front of each of them to reach forward, touch both ears and murmur something with scarcely moving lips. Saranja. Rocky. Ribek. Maja. Swiftly but gently hearing returned, the crash of a falling tree, shouts and screams from the village below. Acrid smoke reeked in the wind—something down there must have caught fire.
“Won’t the Watchers have felt that?” said Saranja.
“They’re gone,” said Benayu in a choking voice. “Give me your right hands.”
He placed their three hands together and closed his own round them, above and below. His voice steadied, becoming harsh and slow.
“I will help you to find the Ropemaker,” he said. “I promise you this, because I promised Fodaro, but not for his reasons, not for yours. I will do it so that I can take vengeance on the Watchers. I will destroy them, every man and woman of them, because they destroyed him. That is the only thing that matters. If I have to destroy the whole Empire, or give it over to the Pirates, if magic vanishes from the world, let it happen, so long as the Watchers are destroyed and vanish too.”
“I understand,” said Ribek, not simply humoring or comforting, but instantly accepting the impossible vow as sane and serious. Saranja only grunted sympathetically. She knew what it was like to hate. Maja felt differently again. Until now Benayu had been for her and the other two little more than a chance-met stranger, friendly and helpful, whom she expected to thank and say good-bye to soon, and never to see again. Now she and Ribek and Saranja and Benayu were linked together, and were going to have to learn to live and endure with each other in friendship and trust for as long as their task demanded.
“We’ll help you if we can,” said Saranja.
They stood together for a while in silence, with the smashed woods all around them, as if allowing their oath to root itself steadfastly into the soil of their purpose, until Ribek seemed to grow restless and began to limp to and fro, studying the sky between the remaining branches.
“I think the hawk’s pushed off,” he said. “Or been done for along with the Watchers.”
Benayu hauled himself out of the dream of vengeance.
“That makes things easier,” he said, in a quiet, toneless voice. “Well, we’ve got a choice. The obvious thing is to get as far away from here as we can before the Watchers…No, forget it. They won’t send more Watchers, not at once, in case the same thing happens to them. They’ll try and find out from a distance. Or they’ll send someone they can afford to lose. So we’ve got a bit of time….”
“Ribek’s got to rest his leg,” said Saranja. “He isn’t up to anything more today.”
“All right,” said Benayu. “I left the sheep with Sponge down at the drove pasture. They’ll give us a reason for being there. We’d be more conspicuous sleeping out in the open, anyway, and some of the huts haven’t been smashed up. No one else is using it.
“And we’ve got to have something to eat. The village was pretty smashed up too when I came through, but there’s a farmer just below it who’s a bit further from the blast, so he should be all right. I’ll go straight down and see him and get him to come up and look at the sheep in the morning. If I let him have a couple for himself he’ll look after the rest while I’m away. With luck he’ll sell me something for supper.”
“Any chance of some decent fodder for Rocky?” said Saranja. “He’ll want more than hay. I’ll bring him with you so that he can carry it back.”
“I’ll ask the farmer. I don’t want to do any more magic than I have to. It’s a nuisance screening things and then getting rid of the traces.”
Two of the five drove huts had been blasted flat. The pasture sloped away below them, with the village on their left and its fields spreading on down the hill. Some of the houses had lost roofs and chimneys. Beyond the fields more woods, much less shattered, reached into the distance, and further off still the snow-topped peaks through which Rocky had carried his riders that morning now glistened untroubled under the setting sun. He nosed and snuffled contentedly into the feed that Benayu had bought from the farmer, while the humans sat, or in Ribek’s case lay, round the small fire Saranja had built. She and Maja were roasting gobbets of liver on pointed sticks and Ribek, flat on his back but looking a bit better now, chewed happily on his, but Benayu remained silent and hunched, gazing into the fire while he nibbled abstractedly at a morsel Saranja had bullied him into accepting.
At last he shook himself into the here and now, stuffed what was left of the liver into his mouth, chewed purposefully at it until he could swallow it, drank a mouthful of water and spoke in a low, anxious voice.
“I don’t understand it,” he said. “There’s a colossal explosion of magic, two of the Watchers get wiped out, and they still haven’t sent anyone to find out what happened.”
“Would we know?” said Saranja.
“I would if it was more Watchers,” said Maja. “I didn’t feel them coming. They were suddenly there, just before the explosion. They were horrible.”
“I didn’t either,” said Benayu. “We had a system—it worked back up on the hillside, when we first realized they were coming. They must have picked that up and canceled it somehow. Perhaps that’s what took them so long…. Anyway, it’s going to be dark soon. We’d better get the fire out.”
“I’ll do that,” said Maja, and began carefully to rake it apart.
“What did happen?” said Saranja, but Benayu shook his head.
“I’m afraid I can’t tell you,” he said wearily. “I’m not trying to be all mysterious about it because I’m a magician, but a lot of it’s stuff it’s dangerous to know. Really dangerous. Not just dangerous to you, dangerous to everybody—everybody in the Empire, anyway. If the Watchers get hold of you they won’t just kill you. They’ll take you apart, find out everything about you, all you’ve ever done, all you know. And if they find out some of the stuff Fodaro discovered they’ll become even more powerful than they are now—far more—and there’ll be nothing they can’t do, and nothing to stop them doing it.
“That’s why Fodaro died. He didn’t do it for our sake. He took two of the Watchers with him for our sake, to help us get away. But he died for the whole world’s sake so that they couldn’t find out what he knew.
“But I’ll tell you as much as I can because…well, I suppose because I’ve got to talk to you about Fodaro. He was a very good man—too good to be a good magician, really. He was only an ordinary third-level magician, but he was a pretty good scholar. He knew a lot more than he could do, he used to say. And on top of that he was a genius.
“Mathematics was his thing. And astronomy, I suppose. I built that pool up there for him. He told me what he wanted but he couldn’t do it himself, so I did it. It was his way of looking at the stars.
“But for him the astronomy was only part of the mathematics. He said that if you want to find the how and why of anything you have to measure everything you can about it so that you can put it into numbers, and then you work out how the numbers fit and put that into an equation, and then you can use them to understand the real world and do things in it. You can get an equation that’s almost right, and it’ll work well enough until you run into something that doesn’t fit. Then you either have to change your equation or start all over again.
“Magic is stuff that oughtn’t to fit in the real world….”
“I’ve always said it was nonsense,” said Saranja.
“Yes, but somehow it works,” said Benayu. “Fodaro wanted to find the equations that would tell him why. I’ve gone to bed leaving him sitting by the fire, thinking stuff out, and woken up and seen him still there, with his eyes open and the firelight glinting off them, and he’s still been there in the morning, wide awake but almost too stiff to move.
“In the end he came up with three equations for the how and why of magic. I know them by heart and I can use them, but I don’t really understand them. I can’t make a picture in my head of what they’re doing when they’re working. And I certainly don’t understand how he came up with them. I don’t think anyone else could have done it, not even by magic. That’s why it’s safe to tell you about him.
“But I can’t tell you much more about Jex. If the Watchers ever found out that he and his kind exist it’d be a disaster for them, but you already know that he’s there so it can’t be helped. I suppose you’d better know that he feeds on magic. That’s why he was useful to us. He could help mop up the overflow of whatever we were doing and stop it getting out to the Watchers. And he can protect Maja a bit now by mopping up some of the heavy stuff before it reaches her. But a sudden overdose of magic knocks him sideways, so he’s developed a sort of warning mechanism that can tell him when something like that is coming his way so that he can be ready for it. That’s useful too.”
“You were scared when we came,” said Maja. “Not just you. The whole hillside. Everything.”
“A winged horse is big magic, far bigger than anything we’d been doing. That’s scary in itself. But Jex had sensed you coming and was ready for it and managed to absorb it somehow. What he wasn’t ready for was Saranja suddenly saying the Ropemaker’s name. That took him completely by surprise and knocked him out. I think he might have died if Fodaro hadn’t thought of getting Saranja to do that stuff with the feathers.
“Now he’s in a sort of coma. He’s still absorbing a little of whatever magic is going on around him. He can’t help it, any more than you can help breathing, so he’s giving Maja a bit of protection, but he can’t do anything extra to shield us or warn us.
“That’s why we were worried sick, Fodaro and me. Jex might have absorbed some of the signal before he passed out, but he couldn’t possibly have coped with all of it. And Rocky was still there, completely unshielded, far more than I could possibly screen, let alone in a hurry. But when Saranja took Rocky’s wings off the signal dropped almost to zero, and nothing happened and nothing happened, and we thought we’d got away with it.
“And then, suddenly, the Watchers were coming after all. We’d always known it might happen, so we’d set up a system, nothing to do with Jex, a sort of maze with a separate warning system, to slow them down and give us a bit of time. It wasn’t so we could run or hide—that doesn’t work with them. They’ll find you in the end. The only hope was to use the equations to take them by surprise with something they hadn’t got any defenses against. And that fitted in with something else that mattered even more than we did, something about that particular bit of hillside—can’t tell you what, but it was all to do with Fodaro’s equations too—and it would be a disaster if the Watchers found out about it. So the only thing to do was to destroy it. Of course we didn’t want to, not if we could possibly help it, but it wasn’t something you could arrange at the last minute, so we’d got it all ready to go, just in case.
“Fodaro worked out how to do it and I set it up. It was an extremely delicate balance. Two…”
He stopped and stared at his hands. In an unconscious gesture he’d raised them in front of his chest and was holding them, stretched flat and almost touching, palm to palm. Deliberately he folded them together and laid them in his lap.
“No, that’s telling you too much,” he said in the same listless, weary voice. “Anyway, if whoever did it got it dead right, there’d be an explosion, and in the instant before it happened he’d get out. A scrap too little, and it wouldn’t happen at all. A scrap too much, and…well, you felt what happened. But if he got it right, the Watchers, or whoever had come for us, wouldn’t be ready for it. It wouldn’t be any sort of magic they’d ever run up against, and that would be two fewer Watchers in the world, and our traces completely covered.
“I think I could have done it. I was pretty sure he couldn’t. That’s what we were arguing about. Oh, blood, I wish I hadn’t had to leave him like that. He didn’t try to pretend what he was going to do was a certainty, but he said if I stayed to help him they’d get us both, and that would be his whole life wasted, but if I got away in time it wouldn’t. He said that now you’d come it didn’t really matter what happened to him, but I had to get away because this was what I’d been born for. This was the moment they should all have waited for.”
“Who’s they?” said Ribek.
“The Andarit. The Free Great Magicians. When the Watchers decided to take complete control they began by picking off the other fifth-level magicians one by one, sucking them in or just destroying them, until the ones who were left realized what was happening and decided to band together and try to fight them. They called themselves the Andarit.
“My parents were two of them. I never knew them. They didn’t love each other or anything—magicians don’t do that—but they wanted a child to carry on the fight if the Watchers got them. If I was any good, of course. They couldn’t even use magic to make sure. It had to be a clean break, so the Watchers couldn’t trace me. They just had to take the chance.”
“That makes two of us,” muttered Saranja.
Benayu frowned at her, not understanding.
“Not born to be loved,” explained Ribek. “Her mother wanted a daughter who could hear what the cedars were saying.”
“Oh, I don’t blame them for not loving me. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to. They couldn’t have. We all have our own…anima, the books call it. It means soul, spiritual essence, inner self, something like that. It’s the place where we keep our really important feelings, all the stuff that really matters to us. Even hedge magic is bad for it, if you do it all the time, and a lot of serious, powerful magic eats it away until you stop being human.
“There are just a very few, like the ones in your story—Asarta and Faheel and the Ropemaker—whose anima is strong enough to stand it. But almost all serious magicians have to find a safe place to keep their anima, utterly separate from themselves and out of their reach, until the time comes for them to put their magic aside and become human again.
“That’s why my father and my mother couldn’t love me. Magicians can have feelings—spite, anger, envy, pity even—but they’re different, cold, so that the magician can control the feeling and use its power. But there’s no such thing as cold love. It doesn’t make sense.
“My parents weren’t bad people. They knew what was right, and tried to do it, and died for it in the end. But all in a cold way. They died because they knew what the Watchers would do to them if they were caught alive. They booby-trapped every step of the way as they went, in case anyone tried to follow them and bring them back. Yes, they were very powerful magicians, but all the magic in the world couldn’t make them love me.
“Fodaro didn’t want me to be like that. At first he told them he wouldn’t help them unless they could think of a way round it. They said it couldn’t be done, it was a sort-of all-or-nothing thing. How can your anima be a living part of you, right at your center, and at the same time utterly separate? But there are things in mathematics a bit like that—impossible numbers that actually work—so Fodaro decided he’d look after me until I was old enough to choose for myself. And then he found a place in the sheep pasture, and there the answer was, waiting for him in the equations.
“There’s a lot more to the equations than that, and the one great thing we’ve got going for us is that the Watchers don’t know any of it, and it’s going to be too late for them when they find out. Yes, by all the Powers and Levels, they’ll find out!”
“What a load to carry at your age!” said Saranja. “It makes my kicking and screaming about having to take on Woodbourne and the stupid unicorns look pretty petty. Was Fodaro really your uncle? Why wasn’t he in with the others?”
“He wasn’t good enough. He was my father’s brother, but he was just an ordinary third-level magician because he couldn’t make the shift. Partly couldn’t, partly didn’t want to.”
“These levels,” said Ribek, “they’re real? I mean, we do a thing called kick-fighting in the Valley and we have grades for that, but that depends on how many bouts you’ve won and who you’ve beaten and so on.”
“They’re only sort-of real. That’s one of the big things Fodaro found out. It’s in his equations. But even he couldn’t actually imagine what the real thing is like, the way you can imagine, well, levels, for instance—something like stories in a building you can go up and down stairs between. He said his mind wasn’t the right shape. Nobody’s is.
“So magicians have always talked about levels, because that’s what it feels like. You know at once when you make a shift, because you have to change yourself to do it. It’s like learning to breathe a different kind of air. Third to fourth is the hardest. That’s like learning to breathe water, Fodaro said. He never could do it, though he knew what made it so difficult. I haven’t tried—too much of a risk, I don’t know enough—but I don’t think it will be a problem for me.
“That whole old theory of magic is one of those almost-fit things. It’s worked well enough for centuries and everyone thought it was right. But then Fodaro found the place in the pasture, and looked at some very distant stars in the pool I built him, and found things that didn’t fit. So he went back to the beginning and started again.
“That’s all I’m going to tell you about that. I want to talk about Fodaro himself.
“Mostly I don’t even think about my parents. Fodaro was the only person I’ve ever had to love. Him and Sponge”—he nodded toward the dog, half drowsing as he guarded the sheep—“and Jex, I suppose, but you can’t really love him—he’s too different.
“No, Fodaro was the only one, really. He was my father and my mother and everyone else. My parents gave me to him almost as soon as I was born—as soon as they were sure I had the gifts in me. They chose him because the Watchers were only interested in fourth-and fifth-level magicians those days, and he took me away and they never saw me again. They wanted as clean a break as they could make.
“He wanted that too, but not for the same reason. Or at least not mainly. He was as keen as they were to stop the Watchers controlling everything, and as far as he could he wanted to help me do it. But until then he wanted me to grow up with someone who really loved me, someone I could love back. And that’s what he gave me.
“He hired a wet-nurse to feed me when I was tiny, but he did everything else, fed me and dressed me, played with me and carried me around in a pouch on his chest and sang me to sleep and nursed me when I was ill. He never used magic to make me better, only sometimes to find out what medicines to give me, but he never let magic touch me until I began to do it for myself.
“Before I could walk or talk I started making things come to me if they looked interesting. One day, when I’d just learned to crawl, he left me with a neighbor while he went to market. Her bitch had a new litter. He came back to find that my cot was empty, and the neighbor was having hysterics, and there was an extra puppy sucking at the bitch’s teats.
“All that low-level stuff—stuff on the surface of things—it’s never been any problem for me. Some ways it’s been too easy. If you find everything easy—if you never have to puzzle anything out—then you never have to think how anything connects, because it doesn’t, up in the easy levels. That happens way down, at deeper and deeper levels, as the connections on the level above connect with each other. If you wanted to change the whole world you’d have to go right down to the single root of everything, below the fifth and below the sixth to where the Tree of the World grows all alone, that carries the stars on the tips of its branches, and the clouds, and the singing birds, and the tears of humankind.
“It isn’t really like that, of course, it’s just how it feels, like the layers of rock in the cliff or breathing a different kind of air. The last bit, about the World Tree, comes from a poem Fodaro gave me to learn….”
He paused and looked up, tense and watchful.
“There’s someone at the cottage,” he said. “He’s trying to open the locks. So he’s not a Watcher—they’d have no problem. There—he’s done it, he thinks. So he’s a magician—third-level at a guess. There’s no one that good round here…. Wait. Ah, now get out of that, you bastard….”
“You don’t think he just happened along?” said Ribek.
“Didn’t feel like it. He’d come in a hurry. I think the Watchers didn’t want to lose two more of themselves, so they sent somebody they could spare. We should be all right for tonight—I’ll keep an eye on him. I’ll take the sheep down to the farmer first thing, and then we’d better be on our way.”
“Do you know where we’re going?” said Maja.
“Away from here, for a start,” said Benayu. “As far and as fast as possible without using magic. That means south. After that we’re going to start looking for this Ropemaker of yours, though I’ve no idea how or where. Jex might know, but he can’t tell us.”
“He’ll be somewhere in the Empire, won’t he?” said Saranja. “That must mean south too.”
“Are we going to have enough money?” said Ribek. “We haven’t got any. We don’t use Empire money in the Valley, and in the story there were endless bribes to pay wherever you went. Or have things changed?”
“No, of course not. It’s always been like that. Fodaro says…used to say…the Watchers are all for it, because it means people’s lives are one long struggle against corrupt officials and they don’t have time to worry about what the Watchers are up to. I’ve brought what we had in the cottage—I hope that’ll get us to one of the safe places Fodaro told me about, and there’ll be people there who’ll give us money. If not I’ll have to use magic. It’s too dangerous to make or fetch money, because any good magician can smell that at once, and it’s a nasty death if you’re found with any you got that way, but I should be able to fetch one or two things we can sell.”
“I may have something,” said Saranja, beginning to fish in under the coarse, high-necked blouse a farmer’s wife had given her on her way to Woodbourne. “My warlord was in council when his brother attacked. He liked to have me there, sitting on a stool by his knee, wearing a lot of his jewelery and precious little else, because I was the mother of his sons. It was a way of showing how rich and powerful he was. This was one of his prize possessions. It’s a sort of all-purpose amulet. It’s famous. It’s even got a name, Zald-im-Zald. It didn’t really belong to him, or anyone else. He’d looted it from another warlord who’d looted it from somewhere else, and so on.
“Anyway, there I was sitting on that stupid stool and smiling away till my face ached, when all of a sudden the castle was full of his brother’s soldiers. There hadn’t been any warning. Somebody must have betrayed him and opened the gates. Everyone was rushing around screaming. Five years I’d been longing for something like this to happen and worked out exactly what I was going to do if it did. I ran down to one of the laundry rooms and put some clothes on over what I was wearing and ran on to the kitchens. Nobody bothered me—they were all eating and drinking themselves stupid—but I grabbed a sack of scraps and I was out through an unused sewer-pipe I’d found and well into the desert before I remembered I was still wearing Zald-im-Zald. We’ll have to take it apart and sell it stone by stone, of course. We’d never find anyone who could pay for the whole thing. It isn’t as if I’d stolen it, at least no more than my warlord had, and I reckoned he owed me. Three times over he owed me, three times over. Once for myself and once for each of my sons. I was never even allowed to nurse them, you know. They were brought up by eunuchs in another part of the palace. They weren’t even told I was their mother. Oh, it’s mine all right.”
While she was speaking she’d carefully eased out from under her blouse and laid across it a prodigious ornament, far more than a necklace or pendant, a kind of chestpiece the size of a child’s face. At its center was an oval of brown-gold amber, clear as a drop of liquid but filled with inward fire from the refracted and reflected sunset. This was circled by faceted red gems, each the size of a man’s thumbnail, and out from these fanned sprays of smaller jewels, dark gold and then paler and then almost colorless, all set into a lacework of gold, stiff enough to hold its shape but flexing to follow the contours of the flesh beneath.
“Perhaps you’d better have a look at it, Benayu,” she said. “It’s supposed to be full of powers, but everyone’s forgotten what they are.”
He leaned forward, held his hand for a moment above the ornament, and carefully withdrew it and sat staring at it, breathing deeply. To Maja he seemed suddenly more involved, more alive, than at any time since he’d sworn his oath in the woods above the sheep pastures.
“Well,” he said. “It’s pretty near dormant at the moment, apart from one little stone. Just as well—if it was all activated it would send out a signal strong as a beacon. And there’s a curse on anyone who tries to question it or take it apart. I think I can deal with that, but you’d better not be wearing it while I’m at it.”
Saranja slipped the gold chain over her head and handed the ornament to him, but as she let go of the chain the strange vague magical feeling that Maja had all along sensed coming from her suddenly ceased. In the same instant she collapsed forward, almost into the embers of the fire. Maja jumped to her feet and helped Benayu haul her clear and turn her over. She seemed to be fast asleep, her face calm, her breathing slow and heavy. Benayu felt her pulse and nodded.
“Nothing we can do,” he said, and returned to the jewel. “It’ll be that active stone. This one. It makes the wearer tireless. Only you pay for it after. It must have been made to switch itself on when the wearer starts to get exhausted. How long ago was that?”
“Five days in the desert, she told us,” said Ribek, reaching for her wrist from where he lay. “And at least four since. She may have taken it off at night. I didn’t see.”
“And she’s still breathing? It ought to have killed her. How’s her pulse?”
“Not bad. Very slow, but fairly strong.”
“All right. Just leave her there for the moment while I close it down,” said Benayu.
He knelt beside Saranja’s body and laid the jewel across her chest. Maja sensed a blip of power suddenly woken, and Saranja began to stir. Supporting her left hand with his right, with his other hand Benayu moved the tip of its middle finger in gentle circles over one of the jewels, three times one way and then three times the other. Maja could feel a second blip as the power subsided and Saranja returned to sleep.
“That’s the best we can do,” he said, rising. “Nothing’s going to wake her till she’s ready, and that won’t be for a day or two yet, at a guess.”
He took Saranja’s shoulders and Maja her feet and between them they dragged her into the nearest hut, laid her on sheepskins on one of the rough bunks and covered her with a blanket. When they came out Benayu picked up the jewel, walked a couple of paces down the slope and laid it at his feet. Maja watched him stretch out and turn slowly, taut with concentration, pointing in succession at three boulders spread across the slope, then at the forest edge around and behind the huts, and back to the first hut. A barely visible flicker of light followed his movement and she could feel the rich, humming vibrations of magic as it leaped from mark to mark. Satisfied, he settled down and crouched over Zald-im-Zald, but then glanced up at her.
“That’s enough of a screen, I hope,” he said. “Anyway, it’s as much as I can manage. They’re bound to be looking this way. There’s too much hedge magic going on for them to have noticed what I was doing to Zald just now, but dealing with the whole thing’s going to be bigger stuff. Why don’t you go out beyond the screen, Maja, and give me a shout if any of it gets through? Sponge can go with you in case of trouble. Just call him. That’s all right, boy. Go and keep an eye on her.”
Maja couldn’t feel the screen at all until she reached it. Then there was a slight extra tingle as she passed through it. She could feel it stretching from point to point like dew-beaded spiderwebs slung between bushes on an autumn morning. Beyond it nothing.
Without Sponge beside her it would have been scary out there on the edge of the strange, deep-shadowed woods. She tangled her fingers into his fur and waved to Benayu that she was ready. He crouched over the jewel again. Ribek had raised himself onto his elbow to watch him.
For some while he didn’t seem to be doing anything except staring at the jewel. At one point his body tensed, but then he relaxed and continued his inspection. After about five minutes he raised his right hand, extended his forefinger, and with the fingertip held slightly above them started to trace the pattern of jewels, working from the outer edges inward. In the gathering dusk each stone glimmered or twinkled with its natural light as the finger passed above it, and even at this distance she could see the glow of it flicker off Ribek’s face, as though a fiery spark were running from jewel to jewel. Faintly she could feel the web of Benayu’s screen flex and quiver as it responded to the passing shocks of magic. At last he rose and waved to her to return. When she reached him, he was trembling slightly, and there were beads of sweat on his upper lip.
“I think it was all right,” she said. “I could feel something happening, but only just. I wouldn’t have if I’d been further away.”
“Trickier than I thought,” he said. “There was one nasty moment. I knew it was probably booby-trapped, because Fodaro had warned me about that. When we took the sheep to market in Mord he used to look the stalls over for amulets and charms, and buy anything he thought might be useful. Sometimes the dealers had no idea what they were for, and when we got home we’d find out and sell them on or give them to the other shepherds. Anyway, I was just starting to disarm the trap when I realized it was a bit simple for a thing like Zald-im-Zald, and I found the trap itself was booby-trapped. That was a tricky one.
“You know, it’s a really amazing object. I don’t think we should break it up completely—I don’t know if we could, safely. Most of the little stones round the outside are just ornaments, and we could take a few of those, perhaps, and get somebody to replace them later. But look. This is the one that kept Saranja going. These two are healers, for burns and wounds. We can try the wound one on your leg in a moment, Ribek. This one is something very strange, very old. I don’t dare meddle with it in case it’s something I can’t screen. These two are finders—you give one to the person you want to keep track of, or hide it on them if you don’t want them to know, and you can always find them. This one drives out fear. This will stop you getting fever. And so on. I don’t think this one’s got any powers of its own, but kings and heroes have been killed for it again and again, and that cranks up the power of all the others. And these are locks. They’re to guard the amber in the middle and keep the power in it sleeping. I don’t dare touch that either, but it must be something really big, fifth-level, at least—sixth, even. You can do all sorts of things with amber. It comes from the far north, from the top of the world. They do a different kind of magic there.
“Now let’s see what we can do about Ribek’s wound. You want to try, Maja? This one here. Middle finger of your left hand, three turns to the left and three to the right to activate it, and the same to put it to rest. They all open pretty much the same way, these basic charms.”
“You don’t need Saranja’s own hand?” said Ribek.
“You would for most of them. She’s been wearing Zald long enough for it to have attached itself specifically to her, but that wouldn’t make sense with a woundsain. It draws its healing power from the person who’s holding it, so you can’t use it on yourself. Trouble, Maja?”
Maja had reached unsuspecting toward Zald-im-Zald. The stone he’d shown her seemed not much different from any of the others, a clear, pinkish gold about the size of her fingernail. She could sense the sleeping power of the whole great object, but it didn’t trouble her. Then, just before her finger touched the surface, something had seemed to leap across the gap, and instinctively she’d snatched her hand away.
“It’s all right,” she said. “It was just a surprise. It didn’t hurt.”
This time she managed not to flinch, though the buzzy sensation continued as she circled her fingertip over the surface of the jewel, and ceased only when she picked it out of its setting and cradled it in her palm. Now all she could feel was the quiet flow of something passing from her to it.
She waited while Ribek unwound the bloodstained cloths from his leg, carefully cutting them free with his knife-point where they had stuck to the flesh. The wound, when he reached it, looked perhaps marginally better than it had when Saranja had dressed it a few hours back, but was still oozing blood and pus.
“Do I just touch the place with it, and it’s well again?” said Maja. “It feels…oh…gentler than that.”
Benayu didn’t answer, so she looked up and saw that he was no longer watching, but leaning back against the wall of the hut and gazing out over the darkened distances.
“Start with an easy bit and see what happens,” suggested Ribek.
She experimented, and saw the edges of a minor laceration gradually close together as she stroked the stone along it until the exposed flesh was covered with soft, pinkish, new-healed skin.
Behind her Benayu gave a deep and lonely sigh and shuddered himself back into the world.
“We’ll have to go through Mord,” he said. “It’s the only road south. And there’s a woman in the market there who mostly deals in charms and stuff, but she does jewels as a sideline. We can sell something out of Zald to her. I really don’t want to sell any more of the flock than I have to. It depends how long I’m away, and whether I’ve got any money when I come back. If I haven’t, and I’m gone for months and months, he’ll have to keep the lot, and I’ll start again the way Fodaro did, curing the shepherds’ flocks and making amulets and charms that actually work.
“I really love shepherding. They’re a separate tribe, you know, the shepherds all along these mountains, with their own language and their own customs. They won’t let anyone else join them or use their pastures. They’re very proud and fierce, the women as well as the men. When Fodaro first brought me here—I was only two then—they had an infectious gum rot spreading through their flocks along the whole range, and he cured it for them and spent all one summer cleaning the snails that carried it out of their pastures, so they let him stay and gave him some sheep to get started with. They don’t live in one place. They move to and fro in a pattern that allows the grass to recover, so we did that too, some of the time, as a way of not drawing attention to what Fodaro found back at our pasture. The great thing about them is that they know who they are and where they belong and what their purpose is. I really love that. I love the life. It hasn’t been at all like what Saranja was saying. I’ve never felt I was carrying a terrible burden. I don’t now. I know who I am, and what I’m for. I’m going to destroy the Watchers, and then I’m going to go back to shepherding.”
He rambled peacefully on about his far-off, impossible-seeming future until the flesh had closed completely over Ribek’s wound and the skin grown smooth and clean. Maja rose and stretched. She could feel that something had gone out of her, leaving a sort of satisfied tiredness, as if after enjoyable exercise.
Three mornings later they halted and looked down on Mord. So far the road had wound its way south across rolling upland, mostly wooded but mottled with blotches of sheep pasture and here and there a village ringed with smallholdings beside a roaring stream. Now it plummeted, zigzagging down an escarpment at the foot of which lay a neat walled town with beyond it a wide and level farmland plain with a river winding across. Far south, at the limit of vision, rose another range of hills.
All that time Saranja had slept as though she would never wake again, by night wherever the rest of them were sleeping—drover’s hut or farmer’s barn—by day in a cunning horse-litter Ribek had adapted from a broken cot in one of the ruined huts. There was just room for Maja to perch sideways in front of it, but it couldn’t have been very comfortable for Rocky so she’d walked as much as she could. She’d been doing that when they’d reached the crest of the slope.
“Mord,” said Benayu dully, and then stood gazing down at the scene below. He had scarcely spoken an unnecessary word in the last two days, and had marched as though he hated every footstep of the way. They had left him alone, knowing there was no comfort they could offer. Season after season he must have made this journey with Fodaro, cheerful and confident, to sell and buy sheep at the market, and finished standing where they now stood, looking down at their journey’s end. This must have been the bitterest moment of all. At last he gave a deep sigh, squared his shoulders and spoke in a level, toneless voice.
“All right. If the Watchers are going to put an Eye on the road, this is where they’ll be doing it. You three should be all right. I’ve put Zald-im-Zald completely to sleep, and Maja isn’t picking anything up from Jex or the roc feathers. There’s an old ward on the gate, anyway, because the City Fathers like to know what kind of trouble they’re letting in. You should be able to spot that as we go through, Maja. It’s built into the stonework. Then there’ll be all sorts of petty hedge magic going on inside the walls. The Watchers’ Eye will be different. I’ll know as soon as it picks me out, but that will be too late. If you can tell me before…”
There had been a woman in the Valley who had been blind since birth, until one day she tripped on the stairs and hit her head against a newel post and passed out. When she came round she found that she could now see. At first she could just tell light from dark, then colors, then vague shapes which only gradually became clearer. But even then she couldn’t always tell what they were. She had needed to pick up a cup and handle it, as she had done all her life, in order to be sure of what it was.
Maja was just beginning to do this with her newfound ability to sense the presence of magic. First only the awareness of that presence and its strength, then a vague sense of the nature of the magical impulse and its direction, and now, for the first time, its rough form. As they approached the walls of Mord she picked out a heavy, dark vibration, straight ahead. It felt very old and was vaguely arch-shaped, and there was death in it somewhere. She told Benayu.
“That will be the gate ward,” he said. “They’ll have sacrificed a criminal and mixed his blood into the mortar when they built the gate. Strong magic. Nothing else?”
“A lot of little twitterings—I expect that’s the hedge magic.”
“Mord’s full of it.”
That was true. As they made their way through the narrow, jostling streets to the inn where Benayu and Fodaro had usually stayed, it seemed to be beaming out at Maja from all around. She tried to pick out separate pieces of it, but it was like trying to listen to one particular song in a cage full of songbirds. Only once, when they were passing a strange little house, so squashed between its larger neighbors that it was barely wider than its own front door, she felt something different, not a twittering, but a slow, quiet stirring, that seemed to be coming from much further away than the house itself. No, it was reaching her through something—a screen, perhaps, like the one Benayu had put round the drove huts when he was working on Zald-im-Zald. The magic itself was much stronger than it felt this side of the screen.
She told Benayu. He stopped for a moment and looked at the house. There was a faint liveliness in his tone when he answered.
“That’s a ward, not a screen. A pretty good one. It wouldn’t bother the Watchers, mind you, but I’d really need to work at it if I wanted to look at anything beyond it. Nothing to do with us, anyway. There are still a few Free Magicians around. I’m tempted to try and get in touch, but we’d better not risk it.”
“Screens. Wards. What’s the difference?” said Ribek.
“Wards are permanent and all-purpose. They stop anyone seeing what the magician’s up to, and keep out other people’s magic. A good one takes a lot of work to build. But they’ve been around a long time, and the Watchers can use a Seeing Tower in Talagh to look straight through wards as if they weren’t there. Screens are something Jex and Fodaro thought up. I mean they saw that it was theoretically possible, but they needed me to find out how to do it. You have to build into the screen a reverse mirror image of whatever magic you’re trying to hide, so that they cancel each other out when they meet. They won’t keep magic out unless you know roughly what’s coming, but Jex used to be able to do that for us. And they do have the great advantage that you can put a small one around you, so that it stays with you wherever you go. We didn’t think the Watchers had found out about them because they’d need Fodaro’s equations. In fact I’m probably the only person in the Empire who knows how to do them.”
It was strange to hear that astonishing boast in a voice so dull and hopeless.
The inn was in a quiet street near the western gate. Maja stayed with Saranja and Rocky in the inn yard while Ribek and Benayu hired a room for them, and then went with a friendly old ostler to see that Rocky was comfortably stabled while the other two carried Saranja up the narrow, dark stair. It was midafternoon by the time they’d eaten and settled in, and Ribek and Benayu were ready to set out and try to sell some of their jewels.
“You come too, Maja,” said Benayu. “You’ll be useful. We’ll leave Sponge to look after Saranja. He won’t let in anyone he doesn’t know till I come back.”
The trinket sellers occupied only a small section of a busy country market that filled a fair-sized square and spilled into the neighboring streets. For some reason it was not as crowded as the other sections of the market, less rowdy but with subtler and stranger reeks and odors, and lacking the otherwise ubiquitous petty magicians busking their wonders for coppers. But to Maja the area made up for that by the ceaseless murmuration from charms and amulets on many of the stalls.
“The trouble is, I don’t know anything about jewels,” said Ribek. “I can haggle over a bag of grain with the best of them, so I was thinking I could play it by ear, picking up from their tone and gesture and so on how roughly much they were trying to do me for, but now that I’m faced with it…”
“Don’t worry,” said Benayu. “You’ll know all right, because…Stop. Don’t let her see you looking, but that woman at the stall we’ve just passed. She’s trying to sell the stallholder something. Right?”
Maja felt a quick, soft pulse of magic come from him, and then repeat itself like an echo.
“Looks like it,” said Ribek, “but…oh, she thinks it’s a love charm, only it doesn’t work. She’s asking three imps for it, but she’ll be pleased if she gets one and a quarter. He knows that it’s actually a spiteful little cursing-piece—multiply any curse by seven, worth about eight imps in the trade, but he’d expect to get fifteen off a sucker, so he’s prepared to let her have two for it. So they’re both going to be happy with the bargain. You put all that into my head?”
For a moment Maja concentrated on the charm, and realized she could sense its nastiness.
“Uh-huh,” said Benayu, more animated again—it was the chance to use his magic that did that, Maja guessed. “Fodaro often brought me down here to practice, after we’d traded our sheep. He wouldn’t let me do it at home, or among the shepherds. He said that was dishonorable. But if somebody’s trying to cheat you…You can see how useful it is, especially with me picking the stuff out of the dealer’s head and passing it on. Mind reading isn’t that easy—anyone else’s mind is a wildly complicated place, and some are a lot more hidden than others—and all the dealers carry amulets against it, which you have to get past and they’ll lynch you if they catch you trying, so they reckon they’re safe. Even so, Fodaro used to keep an eye open while I was doing it, just in case anyone was noticing what we were up to. They’d need their own magic to that. That’s where you come in, Maja.
“The woman we’re going to talk to knows her stuff about jewels, though they’re only a sideline for her. She’s a crook with the customers, but straight with the other dealers. And the great thing about her is that she’s got a very open mind, very close to the surface. We haven’t traded with her much, in case we ever needed to sell something serious. All right?”
“I think I may enjoy this,” said Ribek, as Benayu led the way on.
They followed him to a stall whose holder was having some kind of friendly argument with her neighbor, but as soon as a customer showed up she left him and came smiling over. She was a soft-skinned, bosomy woman, her face heavily made up to enhance her dark and liquid gaze. She lavished this on Ribek with obvious approval. He responded with a touch of manly swagger.
“And what can I do for you, my dear?”
“I’ve a few small gems I’d like a price on, if you’d be so kind. I was told to come to you because you knew about this sort of thing.”
She cleared a patch on her counter and he laid a folded cloth on it and opened it out to display three stones from Zald-im-Zald’s decorative curlicues. She picked them up one by one and studied them through a lens. Maja could sense a softly cooing vibration starting to come from her—no, not from her, from something she was wearing.
“Thank you for choosing me,” she said. “It’s not often I get shown anything as nice as that little garnet. Very rich, unusual color. The small topaz isn’t bad either, but the larger topaz—it’d be a very nice one if it weren’t for the flaw, this white streak running across it here, but as it is…”
“You haven’t seen a snow-stone before?” said Ribek, not mockingly but with kindly concern. He moved closer to her as if that were his main interest, took the stone and turned it to a precise angle.
“See how nicely it’s cut to show the structure of the snowflake,” he said. “I don’t know when I’ve seen a better one. As for the other ‘garnet,’ that’s a perfectly good ruby, first water, interestingly dark in color, four and a sixth tams, and you’re right that you won’t often be offered as good a one in an out-of-the-way place like this. The same with the yellow diamond, four tams or near enough, not my taste as a matter of fact….”
The stallholder looked up, still smiling, but differently.
“That wasn’t fair,” she said.
“My apologies,” he said, with a gallant turn of his hand. “I’ve found it a quick way to establish a relationship in a strange town. I need to make a sale, because there’s something else I want to buy, but not at any price. I gather you’re the only dealer in Mord who knows enough to be sure you’re getting a fair bargain, so if we can agree figures I’ll give you ten percent off for a quick sale.”
“Fifteen,” she said.
“Twelve and a half.”
“Done. Have you any idea where they come from? They were obviously set into some larger piece.”
“That’s right. I was told it was looted from the hoard of some warlord way out beyond the Great Desert.”
“Mind if I just run my crystal over them? There’ll have been power stones in something like that, like as not. They could have picked a bit of magic up, in which case I’d need to think again.”
“Go ahead,” said Ribek easily, Benayu having already dealt with the problem. “And then perhaps you’d care to join me for a glass of wine while we settle a price…”
“Thought so,” whispered Benayu. “She’s not going to let pleasure interfere with business. She’ll take him to an eating house and point him out to a couple of thugs she knows. They’re going to waylay him on his way back to the inn and take the money off him. I’ll let him know, but the way things are going they may be doing a bit more than having a glass of wine together tonight, and we’re going to need to leave early. Idiot! Who can you trust?”
“She’s wearing a love charm, isn’t she?” said Maja defensively. She had no idea how she knew that was what it was. It just had to be.
“He’s still an idiot. I’d better hang around here for a bit and keep an eye on him. I’ll tell him what’s up and hope he comes to his senses.”
“He isn’t going to.”
“In that case I’ll find a quiet place where we can meet in the morning and tell him where it is in case he doesn’t get back to the inn tonight. You’d better go back yourself now and have a bit of a rest. Even with Jex’s help you’re going to find picking up all this stray magic all the time pretty tiring at first. Do you want me to show you the way?”
“I think I can find it.”
He was right about both things. Already half dazed by the ceaseless petty bombardment from every corner of Mord, she got lost almost at once. In the end by pure luck she came to the inn from the wrong direction.
Sponge welcomed her back to their room with a thump of his tail on the floorboards. Saranja still slept unstirring, so she curled up in one of the other beds and almost immediately herself fell into deep and dreamless sleep. At some unknown nowhere in that peaceful oblivion, a voice of stone spoke faintly in her head.
“Jex! Are you all right? I can only just hear you. How can we get you back? Can we help? Do you know what’s been happening?”
“No, you must tell me. Normally I exist simultaneously in two separate worlds. When your companion spoke a certain name, the shock of her utterance was such that I was forced to withdraw from your world, leaving behind only an extension of myself, which is now in the shape of the stone pendant you carry. Being stone, it can neither see nor hear, and exists only to absorb some of the magic around you, without which I cannot live.
“Communication between my separate worlds is difficult when I do not exist fully in one of them. We are now in the nowhere between the worlds. I am speaking to you and not to Benayu because the pendant is under your pillow, and yours is the younger and more flexible mind. Even so, it is accessible to me only with considerable effort and only when you are asleep. So tell me now all that has happened since your companion spoke that name on the mountainside.”
It took some time, only there seemed to be no such thing as time in this dream between the worlds.
“You have done well,” said Jex when she had finished. “I grieve for Fodaro, a good man, and brave, and wise. Yes, you can help me, and, since you cannot succeed in your quest without me, you will need to do so.
“First we must restore me to my true balance. Saranja could do this anywhere and at any time, simply by holding the roc feathers in one hand, bound by the strand of the Ropemaker’s hair, and the pendant that you have under your pillow in the other, and then speaking his name. This will set off a major magical spasm similar in kind to the one which originally created the imbalance, and provided that I am ready for the event I will be able to exploit this to restore myself to my natural condition. But the process would send out an extremely powerful signal, more than Benayu can ward or screen, and I will not be there to absorb any part of it. It is certain to attract the attention of the Watchers. They will be already on the alert after the spasms back at the pasture, and the destruction of two of their number who came to investigate the first of them.
“Our best chance is to attempt to conceal the event among a complex of other equally powerful events, if we can. There are some of my kind who exist in the same mode as me. I cannot communicate with them in my present imbalance, but I can listen to what they tell each other. They have some knowledge of the Watchers’ doings. They say that something of the sort that we are looking for appears likely to happen near the eastern port of Tarshu. The Watchers have somehow learned that the Pirates are preparing for a major raid and are gathering to repel it. I suggest that you take me to Tarshu and we will make the attempt. It is some distance, and you dare not travel by magical means, so you must leave Mord as soon as you can.
“Farewell, Maja. I shall not be able to speak to you for a while, other than in an emergency.”
“Good-bye, Jex. And good luck. And thanks. I’ll tell them.”
She was not surprised by his last sentence. Even in her sleep she had been straining to hear. No, it had not been a dream. That was real.
She was woken by the triple thwack of Sponge’s tail at the sound of his master’s returning footsteps. Saranja must have woken to the sound too, and was starting to sit up as Benayu came into the room, slamming the door brutally behind him.
“Where is this?” she said, dazed with her long sleep. “Why’s it so dark? What’s up? You look—”
“We’re in an inn at Mord,” he said harshly. “You’ve been asleep for three days. You ought to be dead, if you want to know. There’s a stone in Zald-im-Zald that was making you tireless, but you pay for it after. Two days ought to have killed you, and you’d been wearing it for ten. I suppose the roc feathers must have kept you alive somehow.”
“Ribek?” he snarled, and told her.
“He swears he can handle these two thugs,” he added. “The woman told them she’d be keeping him with her till dawn, but I took the money off him to be on the safe side.”
“Men!” growled Saranja. “They’ve got just one idea in their heads!”
“It wasn’t his fault really,” said Maja. “She was wearing a love charm.”
“I still hate men. And what if he isn’t as good as he thinks he is and these fellows are too much for him? Where does that leave us? Is there anywhere I can watch from and not be seen, just in case?”
“There’s an archway a little way down across the street. Room for all three of us, as well as Rocky. Then if we’ve got everything packed up we can be on our way as soon as the gates open.”
“That’ll have to do. Where’s the latrines? I’m bursting.”
“I’ll show you—I’ve got to take Sponge out,” said Benayu.
“I’ve got a message for us from Jex,” said Maja. “He talked to me in a dream, only it wasn’t a dream. He says we can’t find the Ropemaker without him, and he told me how we can get him unstuck in a way the Watchers won’t notice. It’s rather complicated. And it’s really scary.”
“Tell us when I get back,” said Benayu more calmly. “We won’t be more than a couple of minutes. I’ll order some food on the way up. Come on, boy.”
Usually when Maja tried to tell someone about what had seemed a vivid dream, all its sharp certainties seemed to go vague and unreal as she spoke. This wasn’t like that. The single stony voice seemed to be still in her mind, putting the exact words into her mouth as she needed them, though in places she wasn’t sure she really understood them. It didn’t take long. Saranja and Benayu listened without interruption. Their meal arrived as she was finishing. By the time they settled down to it the night outside was fully dark.
Saranja ate with a wolf’s hunger after three days and three nights without food, and her whole body wasted by the magic-driven energy-use of the ten days before. Benayu ate in silence, but more steadily now that he had magical matters to brood about.
“Yes,” he said at last. “That’s the best we can do. I’ll settle up tonight and we’ll start before dawn.”
The stars were barely beginning to fade as they followed Benayu through the warren of darkened streets. Saranja had padded Rocky’s hooves, so that even he made barely a sound. Somewhere near the market they turned into the pitch darkness under an archway and waited. Maja took Rocky’s bridle, leaving the other two free to act, if they needed to.
A little later they saw two men come silently along the street and stop near an ornate porch, further along on the opposite side of the street, and in their turn start to watch as if for something to happen beyond them. Time passed. At last a door opened, sending a glow of soft light out into the night. The two men disappeared into the shadows of the porch. Ribek came out of the lit door and turned. A woman followed him onto the doorstep and bent to kiss him, then retreated. The door closed, and Ribek strolled toward the five watchers, whistling softly.
He was just past the porch when the two men rushed him, their bare feet almost noiseless on the paving. He seemed unaware of their attack until, at the last instant, he skipped to his right, swiveling as he landed, with his left leg swinging out to hook the first man’s feet from under him. His momentum carried him smoothly into a single dance-like step and counter-swivel, with his right foot punching neatly into the hollow at the back of the second man’s knee. The man yelled as he fell. The first man was halfway to his feet when Ribek kicked him in the abdomen and he tumbled forward, his curses replaced by retching gasps.
“It’s called kick-fighting,” said Ribek, informatively. “Your friend warned me you’d be waiting for me.”
He left them, walking fast and no longer whistling. As he passed the archway the others came out and fell in beside him.
Approaching the south gate of Mord, Maja became aware of its gate ward, very like the first one, but less old and without the underlying presence of blood. At the same time, almost concealed by it, she sensed an intense, steady, focused beam of magic. Yet another Eye. Faint, as if coming from far away, but at the same time powerful—the same effect she’d felt emanating from the strange little house they’d passed soon after entering Mord. There was something else about it. Unlike the other Eye and the one at the northern gate, it wasn’t built into the masonry of the gate, but added later. Much later.
She tugged Benayu by the sleeve.
“I think there’s two Eyes on this gate,” she whispered. “One of them’s warded, though. And I think it’s new.”
He stopped and concentrated. The others waited.
“I can’t feel anything except the old gate guard,” he said. “But if you’re sure there’s something there that must mean it’s got a powerful ward, so you’re right. Bother. You three are probably safe to go on, but you’d better split up. Ribek can take Sponge, and Saranja and Maja can wait a few minutes and then ride Rocky through. I’ll come my own way and meet you further down the road. Don’t wait for me. I can travel faster than you, and we want to get on.”
The dawn mists had melted away into a clear still morning when they came to a small stand of lime trees growing close beside the road. As they passed it a pigeon came gliding down onto the roadside turf, strutted for a moment and became Benayu.
“Know I was there, Maja?” he asked.
“I didn’t feel a thing—not even when you changed.”
“Great. Shape-shifting’s small stuff, mind you. You didn’t notice my screen, either? Then we’re getting somewhere. I’ll need to find out a lot more about screens if I’m to operate at all out in the Empire.”
They headed south all morning, stopping for their midday meal at the bridge over the river that they had seen from the escarpment. This meant both river traffic and road traffic, so there was a small market, with stalls selling food for man and beast. There was also a horse dealer, buying from travelers who’d come this far by road and were now journeying on by water, and selling to those going the opposite way. Saranja looked the horses over and Ribek made a show of doing so, while Maja and Benayu watched from the side. Using the same technique that they had with the jewel dealer in Mord, they bought a couple of nags, and saddles and harness from one of the stalls, so that henceforth all four of them could ride.
The new horses’ characters emerged as the days went by. Pogo was a flighty gray gelding, inclined to shy at trifles whenever he was bored. Levanter was an amiable idiot. If a horse could get something wrong, he got it wrong. Rocky was manifestly glad of their company, but at the same time tolerated no nonsense from either of them, and kept them in line quite as much as their riders did. Pogo was immediately besotted by him, while after a few days Levanter seemed to decide that his best hope of doing the right thing was to copy whatever Rocky did. This worked reasonably well once Ribek had learned to allow for it if he wanted him to do something else.
Late that first afternoon the road reached the southern limit of the plain. They had just moved in under the first trees when Maja stiffened, suddenly aware of something large and powerful coming swiftly from the south. It was horrible. She recognized it at once, the same sudden nausea of the spirit that she had felt just before the explosion back at the sheep pasture, while she and Ribek and Saranja had been waiting to cross the old ford.
“Benayu!” she shouted. “Watchers coming! Fast! That way!”
He stared south for a moment, then slithered from the saddle, closed his eyes and stood motionless, pale with concentration. Maja could sense his protective network weaving itself around him. Still concentrating, he reached out and pulled her inside it.
“All right,” he said. “Grab hold of Jex in your other hand, Maja. Hang on to your feathers, Saranja. You should be all right, Ribek. Just take Pogo…Now!”
The wave of change swept down over the woods and broke across them like silent thunder, felt as a sudden electric tension in the air, enveloping Benayu’s screen for one aching moment, and then gone. The jar of it pulsed down Maja’s arm to the hand that held Jex, who seemed for that moment to soften into living flesh and then was granite again. Rocky neighed and kicked. She opened her eyes to see Benayu close beside her, breathing heavily, pale and sweating, and beyond him Saranja and Ribek struggling to control the horses. That wasn’t the only reason why they looked shaken.
“They’re doing a sort of generalized sweep as they go,” muttered Benayu. “Checking out any serious magicians they pick up. How did it feel, Maja?”
“Your screen? All right, I think. Not as if it was anywhere near breaking.”
“Why now, all of a sudden?” said Ribek. “It’s four days, isn’t it?”
“I don’t get it,” said Benayu. “And Maja says that second Eye on the southern gate was new. I don’t think that first fellow I trapped in the cottage would have been up to putting it in. You’d have known, Maja, wouldn’t you, if any more actual Watchers had shown up?”
“Yes, I think so. Only not if they came in secret.”
“They weren’t making much of a secret coming just now,” said Saranja.
“Somebody put the new Eye in,” said Ribek.
“I don’t think it was Watcher stuff,” said Maja. “That’s got a funny yucky feel. I felt it just now when they went over.”
Benayu sighed in anxiety and frustration and shook his head.
“No point in guessing,” he said. “All I know is the further we are from Mord, the better.”
The road wound mainly uphill through wild country, ancient woods, tangled with undergrowth and half-fallen trees, alternating with stony, scrub-covered hillside. They met a few travelers going north, but apart from one or two battered roadside sheds didn’t see a building until they came in the dusk to an official resting camp, with fees and bribes to pay, but food and fodder to be bought, and other travelers for Ribek to question casually about the possibility of crossing the country southeastward to visit a sister he hadn’t seen for sixteen years. She lived at a town called Parangot, down beyond Tarshu, he said. He was told he’d need to make a long twelve days’ journey south before he found a good Imperial road, twice as much making the crossing and then, well, it depended how far south of that his sister lived. They hadn’t heard of Parangot. Not surprising, as he’d made it up, but someone happened to mention that it was a good thirty days on from where they were to Tarshu.
As they slept under the stars Jex spoke in Maja’s dreams. His voice seemed only slightly less faint and strained than before.
“I have important news. Some of my friends are now aware of me, and have spoken directly to me, though I still cannot answer or question them. Our road south is closed to us. The Watchers have been wholly preoccupied with preparations to meet the coming attack on Tarshu, and were not prepared to lose any more of their number until that was finished, so sent only a junior magician to investigate the loss of two of themselves beyond Mord, and then a more experienced one to investigate the first one’s disappearance.
“This work is now finished. My supposition is that meanwhile this second man must have discovered something that they believe to be connected with the coming assault by the Pirates. Hence the urgency with which fresh Watchers have now arrived.
“Once at the pasture, they will speak with the shepherds and look into their minds, and search for magical traces in the cottage where Fodaro lived with Benayu. I think we must assume that they will then know whose brother Fodaro was, and from that perhaps guess whose son Benayu may be.
“Furthermore, they have set up checkpoints on this road at which all travelers are rigorously examined. You must leave it as soon as you can. Other roads south are less strictly watched, apart from random checks at way stations of licenses to practice magic. Tell the others.”
“Yes, of course. You sound stronger.”
“I am, a little. Fortunately I was prepared for the moment when the Watchers passed over us south of Mord, or it might have been a setback.”
“Benayu pulled us inside his screen, but I still felt it. And you changed for a moment, didn’t you?”
“It was useful to me. I will be able to protect you more effectively.”
“Can anyone—one of the Watchers, for instance—tell that you’re there, tell you’re doing that?”
“Not as far as I know. Over the generations we have learned to hide ourselves. It is essential for our survival.”
“And supposing I don’t want to be shielded for a bit…?”
“Tell me so in your head and I will withdraw for a while. Farewell, Maja.”
“Good-bye, Jex. Come again when you can.”
The others heard the bad news without surprise.
“They must have found the picture of the airboat Saranja drew,” said Benayu.
“Fodaro would have destroyed it, surely,” said Saranja.
“When I last saw him he was scratching magical signs round it—at least that’s what they looked like,” said Maja. “Trying to put them off the scent, I suppose.”
“Good idea,” said Ribek. “Just like him to think of it. Not his fault it didn’t work out. You know, Benayu, the more I learn about Fodaro, the better I like him.”
At a lonely place south of that camp Benayu dismounted and climbed a little distance from the road. Maja sensed a steady, prolonged tremor that seemed to move in a circle around him but then none of the expected shock of magic as he became a raven. He rose, circling, and flew south.
They had their midday rest on a grassy bank beside the road. A few travelers passed in either direction. Some of them were wearing the standard dress of the Empire, familiar from the story told in the Valley, the men in little conical caps with upturned brims and a tassel, loose brown jackets and baggy knee breeches; the women in long skirts and long colored scarves with tasseled ends wound twice round over their heads. The tassels on both caps and scarves were decorated with blue beads, by which one could tell the wearer’s grade in the elaborate social system of the Empire.
“I suppose we’re going to have to dress like that,” said Saranja.
“I don’t know,” said Ribek. “Nobody seemed to bother with it much up in the mountains. I expect Benayu can easily fix it if we have to.”
The horses grazed contentedly in the noon stillness. Saranja sat, chin in hand, brooding. Ribek slept, snoring lightly. Maja was happily exploring the new fantasy life that had been gradually growing in her mind over the last few days. It was very different from her usual fantasies, because this time it actually seemed possible. She wasn’t a dashing adventuress with her own wonderful charger and magic sword, nor the poor captive of some evil slave trader, who made a daring escape from his clutches and became a key witness to bring him to justice and free his other slaves. It was far simpler than that. She was only a few years older, and Ribek had asked her to marry him and come and live with him at Northbeck and share the place where he belonged. From time to time as they journeyed she’d been asking him an innocent-seeming question and he’d answered unsuspecting, giving her another detail to flesh the fantasy out.
Now she was busy forming a picture of his older niece, not the one who had lent her the warm coat but the one who looked after the ducks that lived on a platform in the stream to keep them safe from foxes, when she sensed a familiar blip of magic somewhere behind her and knew from the feel of it that Benayu had returned. A few moments later he walked out of the trees.
“I’ve found something,” he said. “I don’t know that it leads anywhere. It keeps seeming to peter out, but then it picks up again. We’d better take it anyway. There’s a checkpoint at the next village. This isn’t an Imperial Highway, so you don’t normally need a way-leave to use it, but that’s what they’re asking for here.”
The path certainly didn’t look very promising when they reached it—a rough logging track, with a stack of felled trunks beside it waiting to be picked up by the timberwain. Sure enough, it seemed to end at the place where the trees had been felled, but they pushed on between the tree stumps and came out onto an open hillside, trackless but easy going, climbed to a ridge and found what seemed to be a footpath winding southward into the hills, though there was not a building in sight or anything to show who might have made it.
The same for mile after mile, their path time and again seeming to stop in the middle of nowhere, only to renew itself. It was well into the afternoon and Maja was deep in her fantasy again when she realized that for some time now she’d been growing increasingly uneasy. The others seemed to feel it too, Benayu with surly silence, Ribek with pointless chat, answered by Saranja with an indifferent shrug or grunt. The horses and Sponge plodded listlessly on. Something was wrong—something missing, Maja eventually decided. It was like total silence. Even in ordinary silence, when there’s no particular noise reaching your ears, there are always very faint background sounds, nothing you’d normally notice, but there. Total silence is a blank, so empty that you can almost hear it by its very absence. So now. All natural objects have magic in them, too faint to notice but still giving out its own slight vibration. Not here. Nothing from the boulders, or the patches of scrawny shrubs and coarse grass.
Emptiness, barrenness, silence. It was like the landscape of some of her dreams. They were behind her, snuffling along her trail. She had to know.
“Can you stop shielding me, Jex?”
She felt the change in her head, but not in the unnatural stillness.
They passed a shallow stream, tumbling down over water-worn rocks.
“Can you hear what it’s saying, Ribek?” she asked.
He cocked his head to listen.
“Nothing,” he said. “That’s odd. I’ve never come across it before. Sometimes they don’t make much sense, but they’re babbling away all the same.”
“I think perhaps there’s some kind of screen—or do I mean ward?—over the whole area,” she said. “I can’t feel it at all, but it’s blanking everything out. I think someone’s watching us and doesn’t want us to know.”
Benayu roused himself, reined Pogo in, closed his eyes, bowed his head and concentrated.
“Not a screen,” he said at last. “I didn’t think it could be. And it isn’t like any kind of ward I’ve ever come across, but there wasn’t much serious magic in the mountains. Anyway, there’s something. I can feel it stopping me getting through, but that’s all. It’s just playing with me. It’s a lot stronger than I am.”
“I don’t think it’s anything to do with the Watchers,” said Maja. “It doesn’t feel…bad. Or good. It’s just there.”
“It doesn’t scare you?” said Ribek.
“No. It’s a bit like being back in the Valley, only more so.”
“I’d better scout ahead again,” said Benayu. “Ready, Maja?”
He bowed his head and she steeled herself for the shock of magic. Nothing happened. After a few moments he straightened and looked around as if half stunned.
“It won’t let me,” he whispered.
They looked at each other in silence.
“Nothing else for it,” said Saranja decisively. “We know we can’t go back to the road. Might as well carry on.”
They did so, Maja hunched in the saddle, eyes closed, shutting out everything except the magical silence, feeling for the slightest variation in it…a faint magical twitch from somewhere ahead…later another…
“It’s choosing where the path goes,” she said.
They halted and looked at each other. Ribek shrugged.
“If Maja’s right, it doesn’t make much difference what we do, does it?” he said. “Suppose we try to turn round, whoever’s doing this can still choose where the path goes, and we’ll finish up where we would have done anyway. So we might as well push on and get it over with. If it’s a trap, it’s a trap.”
“I don’t think it’s a trap, exactly,” said Maja. “It’s just…interested in us.”
“The horses don’t seem to be bothered by it,” said Saranja. “On we go, then.”
The sun was almost on the horizon when they came to a place like any other they’d seen all afternoon, a shallow fold in the ground, the near side scrub and boulders, a dismal little stream dribbling along the bottom, and scree-strewn slope beyond. Sponge trotted ahead, tail high, ears pricked, alert and interested. He splashed through the stream, started up the slope on the other side, halted, crouched a moment, turned and slunk whimpering back. Benayu dismounted and knelt to comfort him. Sponge huddled into his arms like a frightened puppy.
Again the others looked at Maja. She shook her head.
“I didn’t feel anything,” she said. “Only—I don’t know—perhaps the ward or whatever it is is hiding something stronger now.”
“Well, there’s one way to find out,” said Ribek, dismounting.
They watched him cross the stream and start confidently up the other slope, only to stagger suddenly, as if he’d been struck by an invisible fist, duck down, covering his head with his arms, turn and rush back toward the stream. Almost at once he caught his foot on a boulder and fell sprawling but crawled frantically on.
Saranja ran to help him to his feet and bring him shuddering and sweating back to the others. They waited while the shudders died away. At length he straightened and shook himself.
“Pure nightmare,” he said. “Nothing there, no monsters, nothing like that, just—just the thing itself. Anyway, I can’t face it again, and nor can you. Looks like we’re going to have to go back after all.”
“There’s a stone in Zald, isn’t there, Benayu?” said Saranja, starting to pull the jewel out from under her blouse. “Why don’t I give it a try?”
“It’s that one there,” said Benayu. “Ready? Now, touch it with the middle finger of your left hand—no, keep it there, and circle the fingertip over it, three times to the left and then three to the right. You won’t feel anything yourself—you’ll just have to hope. I don’t know if it’s strong enough, mind you. That’s really powerful stuff making this happen, and a really powerful ward stopping us feeling it.”
“No harm in trying,” said Saranja.
They watched her cross the stream and start up the slope. About where Ribek had crumpled she slowed—not, apparently, because there was anything slowing her but out of natural caution. Nothing visible happened, but Maja sensed a surge of complex energies moving with her on up the slope. After a little while she turned and came back.
“Didn’t feel a thing,” she said. “Perhaps it’s stopped, or perhaps it just doesn’t like men. It wouldn’t be the only one.”
“It was trying to get at you,” said Maja, and explained.
“Perhaps I’d better lend you Zald,” said Saranja. “Then you could go and see if you can tell where it’s coming from.”
Inwardly Maja cringed. Even protected by Zald-im-Zald, to face what Ribek had faced! And alone!
“Wouldn’t work,” said Benayu. “Zald is yours, Saranja. Apart from the woundsain, it imprinted on you, since you almost sacrificed your life to it. I’ll see if I can get it to release the stone, and then you can go together, holding it between you. Do you think you can cope with that, Maja?”
“I’ll be all right, with Saranja there,” she muttered.
But what about Jex? “Better not start shielding me again, Jex, or perhaps the stone won’t work. It may be too much for you anyway.”
Hand in hand, the two of them crossed the stream and started up the slope. The little stone lay comfortingly against Maja’s palm. She could sense the quiet flow of magic streaming up her arm, spreading through her body and radiating out a little way beyond. There was an almost musical chiming, a complex pattern of interwoven threads of power, as they passed through some kind of magical barrier, and then the wave of terror surged round them. Innumerable talons of power clawed at their protecting aura. Answering power flowed from the stone and stood firm. With an effort Maja ignored the storm around her and concentrated on the source of the attack. There seemed to be nothing hiding it from her now.
“There,” she said, and led Saranja up and to the left.
They reached a shallow basin a few paces across, lined with almost identical round smooth stones, each about the size of a man’s head. All but one of them, halfway up the further side of the basin, seemed inert, but the whole attack flowed from that one.
Amazed at its power, Maja led Saranja toward it and pointed. Saranja gazed at it, shrugged, stooped and touched it tentatively with the fingertips of her free hand. The surface of the stone trembled, seemed to melt and flow, and became a face, both childish and ageless, soft, smooth, the color halfway between flesh and stone. The full lips parted and a narrow, tubular, dark purple tongue slid out and extended until its tip could probe into nostrils and ears, and delicately pick the sleepy-dust out of the corners of the golden eyes, and then withdrew. Without the fear-defying stone against her palm, Maja would have found the whole process too horrifying to watch.
“Yes?” whispered the sweet lips.
“Will you let us through, please?” said Saranja.
“Who are you and what is your purpose?”
“We’re Saranja and Maja Urlasdaughter. The others are Ribek Ortahlson and Benayu. I don’t know his parents’ names, but his uncle was called Fodaro. We’re on our way to Tarshu.”
“Fodaro we know of. You say ‘was.’ He is dead?”
“The Watchers killed him. They’re looking for us. We don’t want them to find us. That’s why we came this way. Will you let us through?”
“Go back a little. Watch.”
They climbed to the rim of the basin and turned. Maja clung to Saranja’s hand to steady herself against the whirlwind of magic that formed as the rocks that lined it began to flow and change shape. They became mason-hewn stone that piled itself rapidly into a building. The basin widened and filled with water, and now she was looking at a squat gray tower rising from the middle of a circular lake. The keystone of its arch was the face that had spoken to them from the boulder, carved in stone.
The doors opened and a woman stood under the arch. She was dressed in a plain brown cloak, and apart from the blue jewel suspended from her neck she looked like some farmwife who has just brought a load of produce to a country market, middle-aged, short, plump, round-faced but small-featured, smiling. She would not, Maja thought, have looked out of place in the Valley, where no magic had ever been known.
A bridge appeared at her feet and she stretched out both arms in greeting but made no move to cross it.
“Welcome, cousins,” she said. “There was a woman once called Tilja Urlasdaughter. I am her remote descendant. My name is Chanad. I will call your friends.”
Her voice was soft and level, the words very precisely spoken, as if every syllable was precious. They turned and saw Ribek and Benayu look suddenly toward them, and then start to lead the horses confidently up the slope.
They ate in a comfortable room with a steady fire glowing in the grate. Chanad carried in plates, mugs and cutlery on a tray. Maja was puzzled. Even with Saranja holding her steady she had barely withstood the swirling blasts of magic that had accompanied the appearance of Chanad’s tower and continued with increasing force as they had crossed the bridge toward it. But once in under the arch all that was gone. All she could feel was the faint background buzz that told her that outside the tower it was still there. The answer, when it came to her, was so unexpected that she blurted it out.
“It’s got a ward on the inside too!”
Chanad looked at her, eyebrows raised.
“Indeed it has,” she said. “But I’m surprised you’re aware of it. A ward that betrays its existence is as useless as no ward at all.”
“I’m not,” said Maja. “I mean I can’t feel the ward itself. But I can just feel all that stuff going on outside it, so I guessed it was there. It was like that coming. Everything’s got a bit of magic in it, rocks, trees, animals, streams—it’s so gentle you don’t notice it, but I noticed when it wasn’t there, so I knew there had to be something.”
Chanad stared at her.
“I have heard of such people,” she said. “Magicians, of course, can sense the presence of magic, but they need to create the means by which they do it, and then to learn how to use it. A few people are born with your ability, as a natural gift, but they very seldom survive infancy. The magic around them—the magic in everyday things, and simple hedge magic—is too strong for them to endure at that age.”
“There wasn’t any magic where I was born,” said Maja. “I never felt it till just a few days ago, when I watched Saranja putting Rocky’s wings on. That really shook me. I’m getting used to it, I think, but just coming across your bridge—I couldn’t have done it without Saranja.”
“You will meet far stronger than that where you are going, if you are who I think you may be. If I am right, I will provide you with what help I can. I am the last of the group that called ourselves the Andarit, the Free Great Magicians. I knew Fodaro, and grieve for him. A good man to the last—a very good man. Too good to be a good magician. Benayu’s mother and father were my colleagues. When we made our move against the Watchers we knew that we might not succeed, and I was chosen to survive until another chance should come. Ancient tradition told us that if it came at all it would be from the north.
“So between us we devised this tower, where I am able to ward myself from the corroding power of my own magic, which, with nothing else to practice upon, would otherwise have eaten me away over the years. I have an unwarded workroom at the top of the tower, but I perform no magic anywhere else within these walls, and do not even step onto my bridge if I can help it. We made all the area around into a magical blank space, as seen from elsewhere in the Empire, large enough to absorb and dissipate any magic I might perform from this center. If the Watchers in Talak were to concentrate their attention on the area they would find me, but they rely on their Seeing Tower, which is not designed to respond to an absence of magic.
“From here I watch the roads leading east and south out of Mord, and bring toward my tower any travelers who interest me. Almost all I return to their road fairly soon, taking from them any memory of where they have been.
“You were unusual, in that one of you—Benayu, I now know—became a bird and began to explore in this direction, so I laid a path for him to find, and you followed it. Later, to my surprise, you seemed to become aware of what was happening. When Benayu tried to take bird form again I stopped him, but nevertheless you came on. Finally I put a barrier of terror in your path, to see how you would react before I let you through. You not only overcame the barrier but came directly to my place of hiding. Only when Saranja told me your names did I understand who you are and why you are here, and know that my time of waiting is at an end. So welcome again.
“First, you can tell me your story while we’re eating. Easiest, perhaps, if we all fetch our own food and carry it through. Since I knew you were coming I’ve had time to prepare something. I like to cook, and I seldom get the chance to do it for anyone more than myself.”
They helped themselves to a pungent-smelling stew, hunks of coarse fresh bread, and green beans. There was sharp pale cider or water to drink, and a creamy mix of honey and brandy and soured goat’s milk and spices for dessert.
“I think you take more pride in your cooking than you do in your magic,” said Ribek.
“I suppose I do,” she said. “It is one of my ways of staying human. Now, tell me what brought you here. Perhaps you’d better start with what you know about our ancestor Tilja Urlasdaughter. Everything begins with her.”
They took it in turn, first the story from the Valley, then what had happened since they had all met, and then their own plans. She stopped them only once, to ask them, just as Fodaro had done, about Faheel’s time-controlling ring, of which she too had never heard.
“Yes,” she said when they had finished. “All that fits in with what I already know. It is astonishing how remembered truth comes down through time. As I said, the only major exception is Faheel’s ring, on which your story hinges. You tell me it stopped the movement of the sun across the sky, the march of the waves across the sea, the breath in the mouths of all the living creatures in the world, for the length of time it took for the roc to fly Tilja and himself from his island in the southern ocean all the way to Talagh. And yet when Tilja, with her gift of annulling magic, closed her hand around it, in that instant the sun and the waves moved on and the creatures of the world went about their business, unaware that there had been any interval between one breath and the next.
“That must be an object of prodigious power. I have never heard of anything remotely like it. I wonder if the Ropemaker ever used it again, after that first time. It sounds as if he may have been a bit afraid of it.”
“That’s what Fodaro thought,” said Benayu. “He’d never heard of it either. And he was a scholar of magic, he used to say. He knew it all, but he couldn’t do it all. Do you think the Watchers know about it?”
“If they do, and if they can find it, then there is no hope,” said Chanad. “That brings me to the chief thing that I have to tell you, which is that the nature of the Watchers has changed from that in your story. Those had been set up by Faheel to police the use of magic throughout the Empire, but they failed in their task because as time went by they became savagely competing powers. Such is the corrosive effect of strong magic. Even among the Andarit I could see this beginning to happen. I could feel it in myself.
“Very few of us are free from it. Faheel had known it in his youth, but had put it aside, and in the end was forced to destroy his own creation because he could not control it in others.
“The Ropemaker was different. He was never interested in power. His passion was knowledge. He would far rather have remained a free agent, wandering the Empire at his own will, seeing and hearing. Until you told me your story I had not known how he was forced to take control, and begin to sort out the chaos that followed the fall of those earlier Watchers—other magicians warring for power, in their ignorance and frenzy releasing forces they could not control, demons roving the land unchecked, sand dunes threatening to engulf whole cities for ransom, and so on. He could not do this without helpers, so he chose those who came to hand and whom he thought he could trust.
“To begin with they worked as an informal group, but when the first urgent tasks were done some decided to leave, while most agreed to stay and help to maintain the order they had achieved, each with their own responsibilities in a more formal structure, though they did not then call themselves the Watchers.
“Knowing how the original Watchers had become corrupted, he persuaded them to bind themselves into a magical covenant to cooperate for the general good of all the peoples of the Empire. This worked well enough, thanks—I now realize—to his mitigating presence in the covenant, since they did not feel him to be in competition with any of them. Then, some two hundred years ago, he told them that he would be away for a while. He gave them no explanation other than that there was something he must do, and do alone. Months went by, and seasons, and years, but still there was no word from him. They searched by all the means at their disposal, but he seemed deliberately to have left no trace.
“So the covenant remained in being, and their natural urge for power was constrained into a joint urge of ever-increasing force, until the time came when they put their individual selves aside and became what they are now, a single entity, a single shared nature and thought system. What one knows, they all know. What one desires, all desire. Their joint mind creates a single purpose. They cannot be destroyed one by one. They replace a missing member with a fresh recruit who cannot help but join them and then becomes identical with all the others. And thus conjoined they are far more powerful than the Ropemaker, or even Faheel, or any of the other master magicians in their prime. The Emperor and his officials function as they have always done, only where Watchers allow them to do so.
“Elsewhere they ruthlessly adapt the system to their own needs. It is still the case, as it was in the time of your story, that nobody can die within the Empire without a license to do so, in order that the Empire should not be flooded with the natural magic released into the world at every human death. Those who could not afford the license and the cost of the rituals to control that magic had to travel to Goloroth, the City of Death, in the far south, where they boarded rafts which were floated out on the Great River and were carried out into the ocean. There they died and their magic was harmlessly released. The first part of this system remains as it was, but now when they pass through the inner gate of Goloroth their lives are simply taken from them, and their personal magic is funneled back to feed the power of the Watchers in Talagh while their lifeless bodies walk on into the Great River and are carried away.”
“That’s the nastiest thing I’ve ever heard,” said Saranja. “I’ve always thought the system in our story was bad enough, but that’s obscene!”
“I suppose they say they haven’t broken the covenant,” said Ribek, “because they exist for the good of the peoples of the Empire, so the greater their power the greater the good?”
“Exactly,” said Chanad. “But it is the general good, remember. They will ruthlessly sacrifice any number of individual citizens of the Empire, just as an individual Watcher will sacrifice himself or herself, in order to achieve it.
“They are like the demons of old. Demons are, as it were, embodied lusts, rage, greed, cruelty, spite, brains without minds, terrible. The Watchers are an embodied lust for domination. Limitless domination, first of the Empire, then of the other nations of this world, then of worlds elsewhere in this universe and universes beyond it, if any there be. Somewhere along that course they will meet their match and destroy themselves, and the Empire, and perhaps the whole world with them. They must be stopped. You set out to find the Ropemaker, three of you for the sake of your Valley, and Benayu to take his revenge for the death of Fodaro, but you are here for greater purposes than that. Even the Ropemaker cannot stop the Watchers on his own, but somehow, between us, we will achieve it.”
Maja looked at her friends, appalled. She had simply not thought about it like that. At the start she had just been running away, as she had done all her life in her dreams. Only by accident had she found that she was now looking for the Ropemaker, and then by further accident that she was going to help Benayu destroy the Watchers. Even at their most frightening their adventures hadn’t mattered much to anyone except themselves. Who else cared all that much about what happened to a miller and a farmer’s daughter and two children?
But now there was a world to save. Finding the Ropemaker would be only the start.
Ribek must have had the same thought. For several moments he looked unusually serious, then shook his head in disbelief.
“It’s a bit more than we bargained for,” he said, smiling slightly, as if at the absurdity of the enterprise.
Saranja flushed and tilted her head defiantly.
“Well, if it’s what we’re here for we might as well get on with it,” she said.
“I’m going to destroy the Watchers,” said Benayu firmly. “When I’ve done that I’m going to go back to shepherding, and a bit of hedge magic. Anything that happens after that—someone else can deal with it.”
“I wish you well, Benayu,” said Chanad. “But you will find that you are unable to do as you wish. Your own powers will either compel you or destroy you. But first, as I say, you must find the Ropemaker. Where do you propose to start? You have some kind of plan, or clue?”
They looked at each other, uncertain.
“We have a plan of a kind and a clue of a kind, but I’m afraid we’ve been told not to tell anyone what they are,” said Ribek. “Not even someone like you. All I can say is that we need to get to Tarshu.”
Chanad actually laughed.
“Let me guess,” she said. “Benayu has some major magic to perform, connected with your search, and instead of attempting to hide it from the Watchers in some remote province you are taking the risk of disguising it as part of the explosion of magic that will erupt when the Watchers try to repel the coming Pirate invasion. I agree with you. It is much your best chance. But you will need to hurry. Tarshu is almost a month’s journey from here.
“It is no use my coming with you. My presence would betray you almost at once. I dare not even watch your progress for fear of leaving a trace. The best I can do for you is to open a road for you to leave here, and to give the two horses you bought greater speed and strength, and fetch you way-leaves to allow you to use the Imperial Highway to Tarshu. You will need a story to account for your journey. Suppose you older two are brother and sister, taking your half-sister and her brother to her betrothal in Tarshu. This is a common practice among the great trading clans. It is a way of keeping the bloodlines pure when the clan is scattered throughout the Empire.
“I’ll also prepare an amulet to shield Maja from the effects of magic. What she has faced so far is already wearing her out, and she certainly won’t survive the storm of battle magic you’re going to find around Tarshu, not to mention whatever Benayu will be up to. Even my amulet may not be proof against such shocks, but it will be a lot better than nothing.
“Now, out of curiosity, I would like to know how Saranja and Maja came so easily through my barrier of fear. You were holding hands, and I think you were carrying some kind of magical object between you. Is that right?”
Saranja took the fear stone out of her pouch and laid it on the table.
“I’ve got a sort of all-purpose amulet,” she said. “It’s called Zald-im-Zald—”
“Zald-im-Zald!” whispered Chanad, shaken for the moment out of her composure. “How on earth…? That I have heard of. It is said that Asarta made it when she first came into her powers, but it has been lost for centuries. May I please see it?”
Saranja drew Zald out and laid it in front of her. Like Benayu, Chanad didn’t immediately pick it up, but sat in silence, simply studying it as if it had been a book, while Saranja told her how she had come by it.
“Benayu must put the fear stone back,” she said at last. “There is an intricate balance of the constituent parts, which it is dangerous to disturb. It is an extremely useful object, and you should know as much about it as possible. Benayu can tell me what he has found out and I will see if there’s anything I can add. While we are doing that perhaps you others will take the used dishes back into the kitchen.”
They did as she asked, and Maja was amused to see that Ribek was very pernickety about getting things clean, while Saranja was the slapdash one. They came back to find half a dozen books piled on the table. Chanad had two open before her and kept referring back and forth, reading from one and then leafing to and fro through the other. Benayu was looking listlessly at a third one, obviously passing the time while he waited for her. They settled down and waited too, until Chanad sighed and looked up.
“It must be over two hundred years since I last tried to read Solipsi,” she said. “And it was never an easy language at the best of times. But let’s start with the big piece of amber at the center, because it’s so different from the rest. At a guess it’s a summoning stone of some kind, but it would take more time and effort than I can spare to overcome the locks and find out what it summons. Something hugely powerful, but it would be extremely dangerous to try to use it without knowing its purposes.
“This one that puzzled Benayu is rather amusing. It’s an old demon-binder. You wake it in the ordinary way, and then it will tell the wearer how to use it.”
“I wouldn’t worry,” said Benayu. “It isn’t going to happen to us. There aren’t any demons to bind these days.”
“In my recent experience anything can happen to us,” he said.
“There were demons in the story, weren’t there?” said Saranja. “When Tilja and the others were on their way home, all sorts of horrible monsters appeared, and even on the Imperial Highways people had to travel in convoys with a good magician to guard them.”
“Those were just petty demons,” said Chanad. “Mostly they were raised by inexpert magicians, ignorant of what they were dealing with, and their first act was to destroy those who had raised them. But there were worse than that. A few really powerful hidden magicians, like the one Tilja called Moonfist, refused to accept control and wanted all the power for themselves. But the Ropemaker and his helpers were too much for them, so as a last throw they deliberately summoned some of the great demons from deep under the earth and tried to use them against him. But demons are not like that. They cannot be used or controlled. They too destroyed their summoners and stalked the Empire, until the Ropemaker and his friends bound them one by one, and split the earth apart and cast them into its innermost fires and sealed them there.”
“That’s one of the reasons the Watchers gave for destroying my mother and father,” said Benayu. “They said they were planning to loose the demons again.”
“And if they catch me they will destroy me and say the same thing,” said Chanad calmly. “You too, Benayu. You are in revolt against their rule. They are clearly too powerful for you. When you see your cause is hopeless, why should you not attempt to loose the demons? That is their argument.
“But now I have work to do. I must make Maja’s amulet, and fetch your way-leaves and so on. It is better for me to do these things from the safety of my tower than for Benayu to continue to risk them on the open road. And you must rest, and in the morning I will set you on your way to Tarshu.”
Gradually the nightmare of pursuit faded as the road flowed backward beneath the horses’ hooves, at first as a strange smooth path snaking through the wilderness that they had been crossing since they left the road, never visible for more than a few hundred paces ahead of them and behind them as the folds in the ground hid and revealed it. It was as if it existed only in the stretch they could see. Indeed, after a while, Maja began to realize that this was indeed the case.
Chanad had told her how to use the amulet she had given her as she left. She realized at once that it was going to be a wonderful help. She was growing erratically into the use of her extra sense as it increased. The amulet was a way of controlling that. It looked like a simple bracelet of colored glass beads and was mildly elastic, so that it would stay wherever she put it on her arm. The higher she wore it the less protection it gave, so that when she pushed it a little above her right wrist she became faintly aware of the presence of magic, while worn just above her elbow, which was as far as the thickness of her arm allowed it to go, the magical signal became almost as strong as it would have been if she had been wearing it on her left arm, where it had no effect at all.
Now as they traveled eastward through the deserted landscape she was able to adjust it until she could sense two steadily moving waves of magic laying and then removing the path before and behind them, leaving nothing to show that anyone might have passed that way. There was even a clean, dry cave with a stream beside it as the sun sank that first evening, which looked and felt as if it had been there for centuries, but for all they could tell hadn’t existed an hour ago and would vanish next day as soon as they had rolled up their bedding and gone. Inside, it felt disturbingly magical, but she moved the amulet down her arm and slept there untroubled.
Early the following afternoon they came out onto a public road and turned south. Then several days of farming country, increasingly rich and fertile, with quiet villages and busy little towns, and once the estate of some great lord. Here almost everyone wore the standard dress of the Empire that they had first seen on the road south of Mord and which Chanad had now supplied for her and the others. Soon she could tell from the various arrangements of patterns and beads where she stood in relation to the other travelers on the road.
It was as though nothing at all had changed in the twenty generations since Tilja’s time. Coming from the Valley, where nothing had changed either until the dreadful irruption of the wild horsemen from beyond the mountains, Maja didn’t find this strange.
They slept in farmers’ barns or inns. Night after night Maja waited for Jex to speak to her again in her dreams, though he had told her he was unlikely to. She woke each morning to find that her hand had crept under the pillow while she slept and was clasped around a little granite lizard, warm only with the warmth of her own bloodstream. And so it remained during each day, dangling from her neck beneath her blouse.
Everything seemed utterly peaceful and ordinary. Ribek relished every trivial happening or encounter along the way, and when nothing else took his attention was happy to talk about his mill, and didn’t think it at all strange that Maja should be so interested. Despite the urgency of their mission, it would have been easy to let their pace slacken, but for Saranja’s determination to drive them on. She seemed unafraid of what they were going to attempt at Tarshu. If anything, eager for it.
“You’ve been given a purpose, haven’t you?” Ribek told her one evening.
She shook her head.
“Not given,” she said. “It was there all along. I’ve found it.”
They heard no news from there, or any of the doings of the Watchers. Only twice, when they asked their way through the network of little roads that covered that whole tract, their informants hesitated and looked at them oddly before they answered.
“Is there a problem?” Ribek asked the second time.
The man shrugged and shook his head, as much in warning, Maja thought, as refusing to reply.
“It’s like that in the Empire,” said Benayu bitterly, as soon as they were out of earshot. “Fodaro had lived in it, remember. He used to say that however peaceful things seem, fear is never far below the surface. They’re content because they have to be, but that isn’t the same thing as being happy. These people have picked up somehow that the Watchers are active. They’ll whisper about it among themselves, but not to strangers.”
On the fifth day their road joined one of the great Imperial Highways that linked the major cities of the Empire together. It took them on in the same direction, a little east of south, but was very different from anything they’d used so far, two broad highways running in opposite directions, with way stations spaced along it where all travelers must stop for the night and pay the fees and bribes to have their way-leaves inspected and stamped.
Now, and more and more as they journeyed, they became aware of the immense and complex thing that surrounded them and called itself the Empire. To Maja it seemed half creature, half machine. Every one of the travelers Ribek talked to at the way stations—and he talked to scores of them because he was like that—was a separate cell in that creature, a tiny piece of that immense mechanism. Every one of them had the Emperor’s permission to be there, coming from one specified place, going to another, their passes stamped, their movements recorded, their regulated bribes taken by the way station clerks, who were themselves also just cells or cogs in the creature-machine’s labyrinthine intestines.
From their long acquaintance with the old story the three from the Valley were more familiar with all this than Benayu was, though he had lived all his life in the Empire. This was just as well, for now that he had no magic to perform or deal with he became an even more difficult companion, sitting listless and silent for hours on end, surly at any attempt to comfort or distract him, barely muttering his thanks when Saranja groomed Pogo for him, or Maja brought him the meal that Ribek had bought and prepared. His only relationship seemed to be with Sponge, who would lie with his head in his master’s lap when he brooded by the fire in the evenings, mourning with and for him.
Day followed day, and the journey became a routine. The clerks tried to cheat them in various ways, which Ribek dealt with wearily, as if he’d been traveling Imperial Highways for half his life. Levanter and Pogo seemed to be thriving on the journey, happy to canter mile after mile, and flagging no more than Rocky did in the heat of noon.
They regularly covered the distances between three and even four way stations in a single day. The air became warmer, the orchards grew peaches and pomegranates rather than apples and cherries. The individual farms gave way to vast estates, with gangs of serfs working fields that reached as far as the eye could see, where the sluggish rivers were lined with water hoists worked by patient oxen to feed the irrigation channels. The road doubled its width and still was busy, wagons or mule trains laden with merchandise, slave masters marching their men to some fresh task, a whole circus on the move, nobles and their trains cantering through along the special lanes kept clear for them, all the fizz and buzz of a contented and prosperous people. It was difficult to remember the bedrock of fear lurking below the surface.
Each evening, as they settled down in their plot at the way station, Maja would practice using her amulet to check around among their neighbors for any possible magical activity. There was almost always some minor hedge magic going on somewhere near by, causing one of the beads on her amulet to glow faintly, and then more strongly as she rotated it on her wrist, until the glowing bead was pointing toward the source of the signal. Different beads would glow according to the type of magic in use, and perhaps glimmer or pulse to some rhythm inherent in it. No doubt Benayu, if he had chosen, could have picked up the same signals, but with a conscious effort. He needed, so to speak, to open the door of his attention. For Maja, they were simply there, like birdsong.
Ten days or so into their journey they reached a small town where two Imperial Highways joined and continued south together, and here there was a larger than usual way station. All way stations had the same layout, a courtyard, roughly square, with a colonnaded arcade running round all four sides. Richer travelers could rent one of the spaces beneath the arches; the poorer or meaner ones slept in the open. A row of food stalls ran either side of the entrance. Unless it was raining, which it had done only once so far, Maja and the others slept in the open with the horses tethered beside them.
This evening they were close to the back wall of the way station, almost opposite the entrance. As the dusk thickened and Saranja nursed the fire she had just lit, Maja felt, like a sudden rap on the door of her mind, a quick pulse of magic from somewhere close to the entrance. A pause, and then another. And another. Each time a bead blinked brightly on her wrist, showing the source was moving steadily along parallel to the front wall. It reached the side wall and started back. She told Benayu and he roused himself from his torpor. Together they rose and looked.
Lamps were being lit under the arcade, and silhouetted against these she could see a single man working his way steadily across the courtyard, pausing before each group of travelers, emitting his pulse, and moving on. Halfway back he paused longer. One of the travelers rose and handed him what looked like a document. He glanced at it briefly, handed it back and moved on.
“Random check on magic-users at way stations,” said Benayu. “Jex told you they were doing it, remember?”
“Will you be all right?” said Saranja.
“Should be. If the Watchers didn’t spot me up at Mord…It doesn’t look the kind of job they’d waste anyone above second level on. There’ll be someone more powerful he can call on if he runs into trouble.”
Now he sounded completely confident, like Saranja, almost eager. This was his first real test against his enemy, and he was going to pass it. There was even a hint of the cocky young know-it-all he had seemed when they had first met him back at the sheep pasture.
It never came to the trial. Maja continued to watch, readying herself for the quick pulse of magic every time the man paused. He was only a couple of rows from them and was checking a license when there was a sudden, intense flare of power from immediately behind him. A bead on the amulet blazed bright enough to cast shadows. Ribek caught Maja as she fell sprawling. By the time she recovered the man had disappeared and there was a clamor of panic from where he had been, fading to a mutter of rumor that spread through the courtyard and died away. The silence was as dense as a marsh mist, dense with shock and fear.
“What on earth…?” whispered Saranja.
They looked at Benayu. He shook his head, perhaps in warning, perhaps in disbelief. He didn’t answer, but instead turned to Maja and muttered to her to protect herself. She slid her amulet down her arm. Even in those few words she had heard the strain in his voice. His lips began to move steadily, and his fingers danced through a pattern of small, precise gestures.
They waited, it seemed, for ever. On the other side of the courtyard somebody began to scream and couldn’t be stilled, but only one or two stars had pricked through the darkening sky when the Watcher came, and the nightmare was real.
Maja found herself locked into place. She couldn’t have moved a finger if she’d chosen. But she’d been looking directly toward where the magical explosion had occurred, so she saw him appear out of nowhere—a tall figure wearing a pale unornamented cloak and an ivory mask with only two round eyeholes and a dark slot for a mouth. Shuddering now with the nauseous impact of a Watcher, she slid the amulet up her arm as far as she could bear. It was important to know, to understand.
The space around him shimmered and became a sphere of light. He raised both hands head high with fingers spread and spoke five ringing syllables. The sphere rose and grew until it was large enough for everyone in the courtyard to see the scene it held, an upland pasture with a brown hare loping across it.
The viewpoint withdrew, enlarging the scene to show a stretch of sky from which a lion-headed thing, winged and taloned, came hurtling down. A bolt of lightning lanced up at it from where the hare had been. The winged creature absorbed it, plunged and struck, apparently at nothing, and then rose with the naked body of a man writhing in its clutch.
A voice spoke coldly in Maja’s head.
“This man chose to use unlicensed powers to take vengeance on a servant of the Emperor, and then to attempt to hide from the Emperor’s justice. He will now die slowly over very many days. Continue your journeys in peace, and let one of each party tell all you meet what you have seen. It will not go unnoticed if you fail to do so. Farewell.”
As he spoke the Watcher turned slowly on his heel. His empty eyes raked the courtyard. When he had completed the full circle he vanished.
There was a long, soft sigh as the air was released from several hundred lungs. Mutters and whispers followed. The screaming began again on the far side of the courtyard.
“Never thought I’d be seeing one of them,” said a voice nearby.
“Don’t mind if I never do again,” said another.
“You all right, young Ben?” said Ribek.
Benayu gave a shuddering sigh.
“They’re looking for me too, remember,” he muttered. “I never imagined power like that…and the horror…I never imagined it.”
Maja dragged herself out of her own nightmare, instinctively trying to join him in his, to tell him he was not alone. She reached to grasp his hand, clay-cold and clammy with sweat. He didn’t respond to her touch, nor come with her when she slowly surfaced into the here and now. He ate not a mouthful of his supper and seemed not to hear their voices, but sat all evening shivering and staring into the fire. In the end Ribek went to one of the food stalls and bought a phial of sleeping draft and forced it between his lips. Then he took off Benayu’s boots and with Saranja’s help straightened his body out—he seemed powerless to do even that for himself—and slid him into his bedroll. Sponge settled beside him and quietly licked his hand.
He was little better next morning. Ribek needed to support him to the latrines, and as soon as he returned he curled up again in his bedding and lay motionless until it was time to move. Pogo, aware through some weird horse sense that something was amiss with his usual rider, was in a skittish mood, so they heaved Benayu into Levanter’s saddle, where he sat hunched and listless all morning. Saranja led him, with Maja on the pillion, while Pogo took it out on Ribek by shying at trifles by the wayside.
Benayu sat with them silent at their midday rest, ate a few mouthfuls and slept in the shade, but when they moved on began to show signs of life, mutters and sighs and shakings of the head. But he ate steadily that evening, emptied his plate and set it aside, then spoke in a quiet, deliberate voice.
“It’s got to be done. It’s got to be done.”
He couldn’t hide the fear underlying the words.
It remained with them as the days went by, an unseen companion on their journey, as if the ghost of the Watcher walked beside them, invisible to all of them but Benayu. Mysteriously this made Maja’s own private nightmare easier for her to deal with. Compared to the almost solid reality of Benayu’s fear, hers seemed little more than a childish terror of the dark. He was the Watcher’s enemy, the one they were pursuing. Their prey. They probably didn’t even know of her existence. Without noticing, she found that she had started being afraid for him, not herself.
“Can’t we do anything to help?” she said one morning while Benayu was at the latrines.
“It’s hard on you,” said Ribek.
“It’s hard on all of us. It’s like being back at Woodbourne.”
Saranja glanced at her and nodded. She knew what Woodbourne had been like.
“We’ve got to bear with it, I’m afraid,” she said. “For one thing, we gave him our word, and for another we aren’t going to get anywhere without him. But we don’t all have to put up with it. Pogo will behave himself best alongside Rocky, so I’ll go ahead with Benayu and we’ll fix a seat for Maja behind Ribek.”
“We could take turns,” said Ribek.
“Let’s see how I get on,” said Saranja.
She got on very well, it turned out, simply by being herself. She didn’t try to cheer Benayu up, as Ribek might have done, or sympathize with him, as Maja would, but snapped at him if she felt like it, made his decisions for him, ordered him about. This seemed to suit him. Not that he became any less withdrawn, but less morose, more settled.
“Just what he needed,” Ribek told Maja. “He was pretty well on the edge of madness, I was beginning to think. His world had fallen to bits, and she’s put a little bit of it together again for him, a hut in a storm.
“Her too, I suppose,” he added after a pause. “She needs somebody outside herself. Not just a purpose, a person.”
Maja knew what he was talking about. It was one of the reasons the change suited her too. Maja wasn’t exactly afraid of her cousin, but she always felt on her best behavior with her. Saranja was so strong and direct and unafraid. She couldn’t imagine what it was like to be timid and unsure, as Maja felt herself to be. Or perhaps that was just a mask. No, more than a mask, armor. An armored knight with a fiery sword, the sword of her anger. How could you know what she was like inside?
Ribek was different, not timid either, but open and easy. And he liked to talk. He was, simply, more companionable. So Maja perched happily on a folded bedroll behind him, with her arms around his waist to steady herself, and listened to his account of life at Northbeck. He still didn’t seem to find it at all strange that she was so interested.
Looking back much later on their adventure, she decided that it was because of this closeness that the nature of her fantasy life began to change. So far it had all been about building up a picture of a place where she could belong in the same way he did, Northbeck mill, imagining the people who lived there, and her dealings with them, and the animals and neighbors and customers who brought their grain to be ground. Being married to Ribek had so far simply been a way of making this happen. He was there, of course. He set the broken wing of the owlet she found in the woods (it never learned to fly and rode around on Maja’s shoulder instead). He helped her rescue a child from the millstream. (Whose child? Theirs, of course, but she didn’t think about how they’d come by it. Like Ribek, it was simply there for the fantasy, but less real than him, or the millstream, or the yellow cat.)
Now though, the balance started to shift as the picture solidified. She found herself more and more reluctant to fiddle around with details once she’d decided on them. In real life, once something’s happened it doesn’t unhappen. There was no magic in her imagined world, apart from Ribek’s ability to hear what the millstream was saying, so no absurdities. Following this logic she found herself in a double bind. She couldn’t go on being the in-between sort of Maja-now/Maja-grown-up she had hitherto been. Maja-now had no place in her imagined Northbeck, where Maja-grown-up belonged. How grown-up? She decided she’d married Ribek when she was sixteen—he wouldn’t want her before that. She remembered the jewel seller at Mord, but he also liked farmers to send their prettiest daughters with the grain, though of course he only flirted with them. Or did he?…Anyway, they now had two children, the toddler who’d fallen in the millstream and the older boy she’d already arranged for because he could hear what the millstream was saying, so she’d be about twenty-two and Ribek a bit over fifty, but just as lively as he was now—having a much younger wife was really good for him—and they were still deeply…
Her imagination refused to make it happen. It wasn’t interested. No, more than that. She really didn’t want to think about falling in love, and kissing and cuddling and lying together naked and their children growing inside her body and so on. All that must have happened for her picture of living at Northbeck to become as real as she’d made it, but she couldn’t make it happen. It was as though some magician had deliberately put a ward round it, to prevent her seeing inside. In the end she gave up. Ribek was a lovely man, so of course Maja-grown-up loved him. That would have to do.
She didn’t notice when Maja-now started loving him too.
Steadily the climate changed again as they journeyed on south. They were already resting out the heat of each noon. Soon there were different crops in the fields, with different trees by the roadside, different shrubs and weeds in the patches of wilderness. For a while a huge river ran beside the road, with crocodiles basking on its mud banks and buffalo wallowing in its shallows. Long-tailed monkeys begged or thieved for scraps in the coppices by the highway. Trained dogs kept them clear of the way stations.
And still Jex did not speak.
The moon had waxed to full, dwindled to a sliver and waxed almost to full again when the clerk at a way station glanced up from their way-leaves and said, “Journey’s end, friends. Tarshu road’s closed. Another half day to Samdan, and then you’re stuck.”
“How long for, do you know?” said Ribek.
“They’ve been evacuating folk out of Tarshu this last month,” the man said. “And there’s still a few dribbling through. But nothing’s happened yet, far as I’ve heard. When it does, mind, it’s going to be big. Good idea to be some place else.”
“We’ve got to get to Tarshu somehow or other,” said Saranja impatiently.
“Well, madam, you’re just going to have to enjoy the bright lights of Samdan for a while. Though it’ll be packed solid with Tarshu folk waiting to get back in.”
“How much further on to Tarshu after that?”
“Two days when the road’s clear, but it’s going to be jammed solid a good while after they start letting folk back, so you’d best allow three.”
Across country they took six. Strange hawks quartered the sky by day, so between dawn and dusk they lay up in evacuated farms, then traveled on by moonlight. Benayu pulled himself together now that they were so near, and the danger so real. He dared use very little magic. All he could risk was puttting a screen round himself each sunset and transforming himself into a pigeon, so as to scout out a route for that night’s journey.
At first he kept them as far as possible in or near shadow, but on the second night, as they were making their way along a shallow, part-wooded valley, Maja sensed a faint magical force approaching rapidly from some distance ahead. From the feel of it she recognized it as having something in common with the hawks that she had tracked all day. It seemed to be coming not directly toward them but as if to cross their path a little way ahead. She whispered her news to the others and they turned aside into the shade of a coppice to let it pass.
Soon Benayu could pick it up too, and they felt it cross the further ridge in a broad line and, still invisible despite the moonlight, sweep down into the valley. On it came in absolute silence until it was near enough for the others to make out, first as a few moving blobs of darkness, then as a whole line which in a few heartbeats more became about forty wild dogs of some kind, spaced several paces apart so as to cover a broad swath of grassland as they raced along, noses down, whimpering faintly with the excitement of the chase.
The near end of the line passed about a hundred paces from the coppice. One of them checked, raised its muzzle and sniffed the air. A couple of others joined it. Saranja seized Maja, ready to heave her into the saddle. It was no use, they both knew. Once they were spotted this near Tarshu the Watchers would be on them in an instant. And then, as suddenly as they’d halted, the dogs gave up and moved on. They began to breathe again.
“Not good,” said Ribek. “They could still cross our scent anywhere and be after us.”
“Either we’ve got to find somehow to hide our scent, or we’ve got to choose ways where they won’t be looking for us,” said Saranja.
“As well as keeping out of the open?” said Benayu. “It can’t be done. It’s difficult enough as it is.”
“I don’t think we need worry so much about that,” said Ribek. “Night hunters like owls fly low. However good your eyesight is, you can’t see far at night, even in bright moonlight, but if you want to watch any kind of area you’ve got to fly high. That’s why the Watchers are using dogs. Best they can do.”
“I’ll think,” said Benayu.
They moved on in silence, expecting any minute to hear the sound of baying coming from somewhere back on their trail, but the night stayed silent until the stars began to pale.
Next night Benayu led them on a slow and twisting course over broken foothills, though there was far better going on the plain below. At one point they waded for a while up a stream, until they came out on a wide upland dotted with abandoned sheep. Here he used Sponge to round up a dozen sleepy and bewildered beasts and for a couple of hours drive them behind the travelers, blotting out the human scent trail. Then it was broken ground again for a weary while. Once they heard distant baying and guessed that somewhere the dogs had found quarry. Almost at once Maja sensed something magical joining the pursuit. The feeling ended abruptly and the dogs fell silent. At last they reached an empty farmstead with food for the humans in the larder, mostly mildewed or stale, and fodder in the storage bins. And sleep.
The farmstead was on high ground looking east. Maja was standing in the doorway next evening, watching the movement of hawks as she waited for Benayu’s return. She’d seen only one, briefly, in an hour or more, where there’d been at least one constantly visible on the day they’d started. She was distracted by a sense of something unfamiliar ahead and to her left. Far off, she decided after a while, and therefore powerful for her to feel it at all. And muddled, as if there were several kinds of magic going on at the same time.
Moving into the greater darkness inside the door she found that several beads on her bracelet were glimmering erratically, to no pattern that she could make out. She showed Benayu when he returned. He in his turn stood in the doorway and concentrated.
“Yes,” he said after a while. “I can feel it, just. I wonder. Perhaps something’s started to happen at Tarshu. It can’t last forever. We’d better get on.”
“And there’ve been almost no hawks in the sky, either,” she said.
“Perhaps they can’t spare the magicians to control them and use their eyes,” said Ribek. “Now things have started they need them all at Tarshu. Let’s hope it’s the same with the dogs. It’s going to take for ever at the rate we’ve been going.”
So that night they started to take risks for the sake of speed, traveling on easier ground for a while until the chance came to lose their trail for a bit, and, weary as they were, carrying on into daylight until the first hawk appeared. Both they and the horses needed rest and food before that happened, and by then the storm of magic round Tarshu had so intensified that, even with Jex’s steady mild protection, it would have been more than Maja could have endured without her amulet. They continued on this pattern for three more nights and by the third morning they could smell the sea.
They were all now tired beyond belief, even the horses weary, but that evening they drove themselves on as before, until they crossed one of a series of low, long hills, like gigantic ocean waves, and around midnight looked down into a valley and saw that from over the hill beyond rose astonishing bursts of light accompanied by thunderous explosions that ran as violent tremors through the ground beneath their feet.
Desperately frightened, and with the horses on the verge of bolting, but at the same time buoyed up by the knowledge that they were almost there, they hurried down into the valley. Maja was wearing her amulet adjusted to the point where the main magical turmoil around Tarshu was as much as she could endure, with her sleeve pulled down over it because the almost continual brilliance of its beads might have drawn the attention of any there to see it.
There was a belt of trees at the bottom of the valley, with a river running through it, too wide to ford. As they waited while Ribek listened to the rustle of its flow, Maja became aware of something sweeping toward them, high in the air along the further slope.
They moved back into the shadow of the trees.
“Stand close,” said Benayu, and muttered and gestured. Maja felt his screen build itself round them.
“It’s coming,” whispered Maja.
They stared up at the patch of sky visible between the branches. Against another brilliant flare from beyond the hill they saw the thing go by, the reptile head held low, scanning the hillside as it passed, the taloned forelegs, the vast webbed wings, the stubby hind legs, the trailing serpent tail, all enormously too large for any bird. Dragon.
Ribek returned to the stream, listened again and came back.
“There’s only one of them,” he said. “I suppose that’s something. It just flies to and fro all night. There’s another one all day. And there’s a mill a mile and a half downstream. We should be able to cross there, if they haven’t got it watched.”
They worked their way along beneath the trees, halted to let Benayu build his screen again while the dragon swept south, and again while it returned. By this time they had reached the trees immediately above the mill.
They watched it pass, and pass again, noting that its return from the north took only half the time of its longer southern beat. Meanwhile with sinking hearts they studied the slope that faced them. Time and again the flare of the explosions from Tarshu lit the whole valley, making every rock and thornbush on the almost bare hillside stand stark, with its ink-black shadow beside it. They could all see that it would take far longer than the time of the dragon’s going and return for them to scurry between the scant scraps of cover.
“Looks as if the mill’s near as we can get,” said Benayu. “Should be enough. There’s magic and to spare, even down here.”
“Wait a moment,” said Ribek, pointing. “See there? That kind of a fold in the ground, running slantwise up the hill? This is a mill, remember—an old one by the look of it. There’ll have been carts coming and going hundreds of years. It was the same at home, and the lane there was feet into the solid rock in places. These hills are chalk—we used a sunk lane a couple of nights back, remember? I’ll lay you that one’d hide a loaded hay cart, and it’ll be shadow all along that far side. We can at least look.”
As soon as the dragon had gone by they crept down toward the shadowy pile of buildings. The mill-race thundered over the weir, glittering in the light of the explosions, which all but drowned the water’s deeper thunder. The windows of the mill were black slots. Someone or something could have been watching just inside any of them. Ribek headed for the upstream side of the building, where a railed walkway close against the mill wall spanned the current. They led Rocky and Levanter across, and Saranja coaxed and bullied Pogo to follow. The water raced beneath their feet, drawn taut like stretched silk toward the rush of the weir. In the yard beyond a scrawny hound scurried out to challenge them, but Sponge saw it off. They crossed the worn cobbles, went through the gate and almost at once entered the sunk lane.
It was just as Ribek had promised, a deep cleft running sidelong up the hill, wide enough for a heavy cart, its walls almost sheer, its chalk floor rutted by year after year of passing wheels into two great trenches, wide as a man’s body and knee deep or over. The glare from explosions at Tarshu, joined now by the steadier, more orange glow from the burning city, cast a narrow strip of dense shadow all along the right-hand wall.
Maja saw little of this, riding with her eyes half closed as she concentrated on reaching out through the chaos of magical impulses from beyond the hill so that she shouldn’t miss the far fainter signal of the dragon’s return from the north.
There! Was it? Yes.
“It’s coming,” she said.
They reined the horses in and lined them up to huddle along the chalk wall. The shadow here was barely wide enough to hide them. They held their breath as the dragon passed almost directly overhead. A fresh burst of light illuminated it so brilliantly as it passed that Maja felt she could see every separate scale on the sinuous body—beautiful, monstrous, deadly. The powerful, steady wingbeat did not falter, and it was gone. They relaxed and climbed on.
Twice more they paused and hid while the dragon went by, and then they were at the top.
They stood and stared.
Where the lane actually crossed the ridge it bit less deeply into the chalk, but a stand of warped trees grew beside it, blown almost horizontal by the sea winds, roofing them over from above but leaving a good, wide view out to sea. After the enclosed, shadowy hiddenness of the lane there was so much going on, so strange in such a blaze of light, and at such distances, that it was difficult to take in. The reek of burning floated up the hill, carried by a tangy, salty, fishy-smelling breeze.
Almost immediately at their feet, it seemed, lay Tarshu.
Maja had expected to find the whole city ablaze, but it was not. In two large patches the fires raged, golden and orange, with swirling masses of smoke pouring upward and then spreading into a dark, sagging layer tinged purple and orange with the light of the fires below. The columns of smoke rose through two great rents in an intricate network of glimmering violet lines that roofed the whole of the rest of the city. The edges of these rents writhed and reached inward, as if trying to reweave themselves over the holes. Even through the protection of her amulet, now worn only just above the wrist so that it almost totally screened her from the immediate effect, Maja still felt dazed by the huge outpouring of magical energy from a dozen separate sources as the Watchers in the city struggled to repair the damage. Above this extraordinary scene hovered an airboat.
It was enormous, unbelievable. The airboat they had encountered in the Valley would have seemed a toy beside it. A dozen arms on either side of the great bag bore the propellers that were moving the vast craft slowly over the city. Other projecting structures interrupted the smooth curves of the bag. Slung beneath it was the sleek gleaming gondola that carried the Sheep-face crew.
The airboat slowed, swung, and halted above the edge of the larger of the two rents. From the top of a mast above the bag shot a dozen gleaming metallic streamers which arced out and dangled down through the rent below and into the flames. Hatches opened below the gondola, releasing a stream of dark missiles which tumbled end over end a couple of times and then, as they gathered speed, were steadied by the fins at the rear end and plunged on down, some through the gap in the web and on into Tarshu, others onto the web itself. Wherever they struck a colossal explosion followed. The ones that landed on the city below sent shards of flaming debris hundreds of feet into the air, only to rain back down and start new fires where there was anything left to burn.
But that, Maja realized, was not their purpose. It was the ones that landed on the web that struck home. Somehow the web absorbed the shock. The violet network blazed around each explosion. For a moment the brightness spread like ripples in a pool, and then it was gone. But the patch of web through which the brightness had dissipated was in ruins. As patch joined to patch the rent extended while the shattered lines strove to rejoin and reroof the city.
Meanwhile the airboat itself was under attack. Around it, seeming tiny against its bulk, though in themselves monstrously larger than any normal bird or beast, circled a dozen dragons, flying in V-formation like migrating geese. Suddenly, as if at a word of command, they swung from their course, spread apart and hurtled toward the prow of the airboat. They were met by streaks of dotted brightness emerging from two slits in the front of the gondola, and two more from projections on the bag itself. The dragons wove from side to side, and ducked and climbed, trying to make themselves harder targets. They moved all at the same moment, as if joined by a single will. Sometimes a turn came at exactly the wrong moment for one of them, bringing it straight into one of the lines of light. The bright dots passed harmlessly through it and it raced on toward its target unperturbed.
They had almost reached it, and the first jets of flame were beginning to blast out of their mouths when it happened again. This time the dragon died almost instantly. Maja felt the jolt as its magical being blinked out of existence. Its wings crumpled and it plummeted down, tumbling over and over into the fires below. The other dragons had already vanished.
“There was only one of them,” said Benayu, in an awe-hushed voice. “The others were simulacra, decoys, to give it more chance of reaching the airboat. Fantastic power it must take to do that with a dragon.”
Fantastic power, yes, Maja thought. And still it churned up out of the city. But in all the swirling chaos of magic Maja could detect no impulse of any answering magic from the Sheep-faces’ side. All their weapons—the astounding airboat, the missiles they poured down on the city, the stream of fiery projectiles with which they had destroyed the dragon—were devised out of the materials of the natural world, like Ribek’s mill, back in the Valley.
“Well, this is what we’ve come for, isn’t it?” said Ribek. “Let’s get on with it. And then we clear out, quick as we can. Back down the lane, through the mill and up into the woods. Right, Benayu?”
“I suppose so,” Benayu answered.
He sounded listless, dazed, suddenly overwhelmed now that he was confronted by the sheer unmasterable power of the thing that he had vowed to destroy. Maja could sense the upward surge of the returning terror that he had been struggling to suppress ever since the episode in the way station. She put her arm round his shoulders and tried to steady him as a fresh outpouring of magic gathered itself overhead
The cloud layer split. A shaft of lightning, wider and more intense than any natural bolt, lanced down. But it never reached the airboat. Somehow the mast above the bag attracted it and then passed it on down the glittering filaments to the ground below. They blazed for a moment, blinding bright, and then, though the thunder roll had barely begun, the lightning was gone and the airboat floated on undamaged. Again, Maja could sense no magical impulse in the Sheep-faces’ response. It was simply a device that they had invented, like the engines that drove the propellers.
She felt the lightning-magic gather anew, but there was something odd about it this time, almost as if its heart wasn’t in it, as if whoever was doing it wasn’t really concentrating, was thinking about something else. But the bolt flashed down undiminished, and the mast caught it and sped it on its way to earth.
And yet again.
But now Maja picked up something different, something really huge, gathering itself not in the cloud layer above, but ahead of her, out to sea. She sensed a mighty stirring, a vast whirling mass drawing steadily nearer, growing in power as it came.
“Get ready,” she said. “Something’s happening. It’s bigger than the lightning or the dragons. I think the Watchers are just keeping the Sheep-faces too busy to notice till it’s too late. What do you want us to do, Benayu?”
“Do?” he muttered in a dazed voice. “Anything…anything.”
They looked at each other. Saranja took charge.
“All right,” she said. “Ribek, you manage the horses. Better take them a bit back down the lane. Maja, hold Jex and when the time comes—you’ll have to tell me when—put your hand in mine, with him between us, like we did with the fear stone…. I think I’m beginning to hear it—sounds like the father and mother of storms…Cedars and snows! Look at that!”
For an instant another bolt from the clouds lit the whole scene, far out to sea. By its momentary glare they saw the coming monster, a dark, whirling, tubular cloud-shape reaching up from sea to sky and rushing toward the shore, shrieking and roaring as it came, and sucking the water around its base into a foaming tumble of mountainous waves. The sky overhead was black as pitch. Huge drops of salt-tasting rain poured suddenly down. The Sheep-faces on the airboat must have seen the danger, but too late, for even as the great bag, now dwarfed by the onrushing tower of storm, swung itself round and began to rise, the whirling giant engulfed it and tore it apart.
“Now!” cried Maja.
She waited a moment for Saranja to unwind the Ropemaker’s hair from the quills of the roc feathers, then grasped her hand, with the stone lizard nestling in between their two palms.
With her free hand Saranja raised the feathers high above her head.
“Ramdatta!” she cried above the clamor of the storm.
Before the world went black Maja felt the granite pendant she held stir and become live flesh.
A stone voice spoke in the darkness.
“We must go at once. The dragon guarding the valley is aware of us.”
Still she couldn’t stir, but someone else must have heard that voice, for now as she swam up into consciousness Maja felt herself to be lying face down and half bent over something that jolted unsteadily into her stomach, and with something that held her fast when she tried to stir…. Yes, lashed onto a saddle—they were already hurrying away….
“Awake?” said Ribek’s voice. “Hold it a moment—we’re in a hurry. Jex…”
“I heard him too.”
The lashings eased. Ribek steadied her as she sat up. They were already well into the sunk lane. The others were a little way ahead.
“Great you’ve come to,” said Ribek, panting as they hurried to catch up. “We’re going to need you to tell us where the brute’s got to. Something’s happened to Benayu. He’s pretty well passed out on his feet.”
Maja managed to pull herself together. The magic-storm over Tarshu seemed to have lessened with the destruction of the airboat. She felt for her amulet.
It had changed. The cord was there, but strung through only four or five beads, and those chipped and sharp-cornered. Dimly she remembered a series of snaps and crackles close above her wrist as the amulet had fought to withstand the immense impulse of Jex’s return. She pushed what was left up her arm. Nothing happened. It wasn’t working. But, but…
“I am shielding you. Is it enough?”
Laid open now to more and more of the tangled magical flow around, reaching out through it with all her soul-energy, she picked out the single strand that came from the guardian dragon.
It was still some distance to the south, but racing toward them. There was a change in it. When they’d watched it from the woods above the mill its power had seemed somehow diffuse, because its attention had been spread over the whole valley. Now it was concentrated, aimed at a single target…
“Hurry!” she yelled. “It’s coming! It knows where we are!”
They stumbled on down the track. It was dangerous going, trenched as it was by the axle-deep ruts. Saranja was dragging Benayu by the elbow. The only hope Maja could see was the shelter of the thick stone walls of the mill, but they weren’t going to make it, nothing like. Pogo had vanished. Rocky was on the verge of bolting, just as he’d been at Woodbourne when he’d seen the airboat. Maja slid herself down just in time, and he was away, with Levanter behind.
“Get against the wall!” she yelled. “It’s almost here!”
They huddled against the chalk wall and stared up. The pelting rain had stopped as suddenly as it had begun. The fringes of the whirling storm that had destroyed the airboat were screaming overhead, shredding the cloud-layer into racing tatters, suddenly hidden behind a glare of blazing orange, lighting the whole lane. Desperately Maja flung herself down into the great rut at her feet and huddled there as the dragon’s blazing breath blasted against the far chalk wall. She felt her hair beginning to frizzle in the roasting air, and then it was over.
Shakily she climbed to her feet. Everything was pitch dark after the glare, but the others must have hidden in the rut, as she had, because now she heard Ribek’s voice asking if she was all right, and a moment later Saranja’s furious yell.
“Benayu! Benayu! Wake up! Pull yourself together! Do something! You’re our only hope!”
And then the double crack of flesh on flesh as she slapped him twice on the cheek, and Benayu’s dazed voice.
“The dragon! It’ll get us next time! Do something! You’re our only hope, you and your stupid magic!”
“Where’s the dragon, Maja?”
That was Ribek. She tried to concentrate.
“It’s starting to turn…It’s not coming back! Yes, it is, only it’s circling so it can come down the lane next time.”
And it would be no use hiding in the rut again when it did. The flaming breath would scour the floor of the lane and they’d all four of them be ashes where they lay.
“Right,” said Benayu’s voice, firmer now. “I think…yes…Tell me what it’s up to, Maja.”
She felt his magic beginning to gather itself, and further off the dragon nearing and nearing, fighting all the while to hold its course through the screaming wind. Steady-voiced, she called out the news of its approach. It was at the top of the lane, plunging down the slope…any moment now…
She reeled as Benayu’s magic intensified, but Jex’s shield caught her, steadied her. The magic built to a single intense, directed pressure, not against the dragon, but…
The wind fell suddenly still, as if the whole world held its breath for the encounter…
And now they could all four see the monster against the glare from Tarshu, hear the booming bell-beat of its wing strokes, watch as it lowered its head for the blast that would roast them alive…
Benayu withdrew his powers and at once the tempest they had been holding back for those short moments screamed in again, its fury doubled, tripled in intensity by being so pent. It snatched the dragon from its course and whirled it away like a blown leaf. Maja felt its powers flare up and vanish as it was smashed into something unseen.
Jex’s shield enveloped her in a bubble of calm.
Dazed by the sudden come-and-go of those immense forces, she needed a moment to gather her wits. Benayu lay in a huddle on the floor of the lane, with Ribek stooping over him. Now he knelt, expertly hoisted Benayu across his shoulders as if his inert form had been one of the heavy grain sacks in his mill, and rose.
Shakily they hurried on down the lane while the tempest roared inland. When they reached the mill they found that half its roof had been ripped clean off, and beams had fallen across the walkway by which they had come. As they worked to clear them, the horses came nervously into the mill yard, their panic-flight halted by the river. Levanter must have stayed with Rocky, as usual, and Pogo then found and joined them. Now, stumbling upon their human friends, and being offered a feed of grain from the store bins, they seemed to decide that sanity had been restored to the world. While they ate, Ribek and Maja rifled the larder for still-edible food. Ribek heaved Benayu across Levanter’s back, and then, weary beyond belief, they crossed the river, worked their way back along beside the splintered woods until they came to a stretch which the tempest had left comparatively undamaged, and there slept dreamless under the trees.
The voice in Maja’s head seemed as level and toneless as ever, but somehow different, as though the rock from which it came was no longer granite, but something lighter and less enduring
“Oh, Jex, thank you! We’d all four be dead without you.”
“No thanks are due. I in my turn would be dead without you. In human terms I am now convalescent. Until I regain the true balance between my two modes of existence I will return to the form of a pendant that you can wear around your neck.”
“But it will be you now, not just an, um, extension of yourself?”
“Yes, I will be fully there, but protected from excessive magical input. Unfortunately that will also mean that I am unable to protect you from it. However, I will automatically be shielding you from everyday magic more effectively than I have recently been able to do.”
“I’m getting stronger, I think. I like being able to feel what’s going on, most of the time.”
“Wear me against your skin and I will give you all the protection I can. With clothing in between I will give you less. If you do not wish for my help at all, put me in your pouch. One more thing. I still cannot act with confidence in the material world of either of my existences, so except in an emergency I will continue to speak to you in dreams.”
“This isn’t a dream. You make dreams up, though you don’t realize that’s what you’re doing. This is happening while I’m asleep, but it’s real.”
“Yes it is real, just as the danger we are in is real. Two dangers. First, since I was unable to prevent it, the Watchers must surely have been aware of what Benayu did last night. They still have to recover from the major effort of summoning their storm, and then for a day or two they will be fully occupied in repairing their protective web over Tarshu. We must be far from here before they start to look for us, leaving no magical trail. Benayu would leave such a trail, faint but not too faint for a good magician to detect if one was to come looking, as one surely will. So would Zald-im-Zald and Rocky….”
“What about the other two? Chanad did things to Levanter and Pogo….”
“A magician we met on the way. She was all right. She said she was the last of the Andarit. She—”
“Tell me later. I cannot keep contact with you very long. The horses. Yes, probably they will now leave a faint trail. But if you and I follow last of all I will absorb all such traces. That is the best we can do.
“Secondly, I myself am a source of danger. Another creature of my kind may by an error of judgment have betrayed our presence in this universe to the Watchers, so…”
He paused for two or three seconds, and went on as if there’d been no interruption.
“…if that is the case, they would be hunting us by every means at their disposal, but for their preoccupation with repelling the Pirates. If they were to find me, they would find you. As it is, all of my kind are in hiding for the time being and dare not communicate with each other as we are used to doing, so I can no longer bring news of the Watchers’ activities. We will henceforth have to guess. Do you understand?”
“Yes. But I still want to say thank you. And I’m glad it’s me you can talk to.”
“I reciprocate your gladness.”
“Wait. Now we’ve got to look for the Ropemaker. How do we do it? Where do we start?”
“I had intended to ask among my friends. I cannot now do that. I will consider the matter.”
She slid back into dreamlessness until something began to snag at her sleeping mind. She woke, and knew it was something Jex had said. Just one word. She had a vague feeling it was something she wasn’t supposed to know. He’d made a mistake, hesitated, and then gone on. Perhaps she’d remember in the morning, when she was telling the others. She lay for a while looking up at a few stars shining through a gap in the branches overhead, and wasn’t aware of falling asleep again, but she must have done, because now the trees were gone and the sky was full of stars, far, far too many of them.
In her dream she pushed herself up and looked around. She’d been lying alone on an empty hillside. Close beside her in the turf glimmered a little circular pool. She put her hand on the rim and leaned over the pool, propping her weight on her arm. The reflected sky seemed to rush toward her. Pool and hillside were gone and she was falling into the reflected sky. Moons and stars streamed past. Great cloudy masses, dark or glowing, floated by. Now all were gone and she was falling toward the last star of all, the very end of everything.
And now she was standing on a hillside much like the one she had left. Directly in front of her rose the doorway to Chanad’s tower. There was no tower, though, no moat, only the wooden door itself, the arch that held it, and the carved face above.
She watched the door open of its own accord. Immediately beyond was another door, so close that they must have been almost touching. It was made of…she didn’t know what. A sort of solid mist, it looked like, twinkling all over its surface with innumerable flickers of light, no sooner glimpsed than gone. She became aware of the magic of all the worlds rushing past her and on through the closed door as if it weren’t there, like the tumbling flurry of a mill race through a sluice. That was what caused the door to flicker as it did.
But it wasn’t a door in any case, she realized. It was only as far as she could see. It wasn’t dark beyond that point. There was light there, but it wasn’t her kind of light. There was stuff beyond, and movement, and happenings, but…
“Your eyes were not made for such seeing,” said a sweetly soft voice overhead. “Nor your mind for such imagining.”
She looked up expecting to see that the stone face at the top of the arch was flesh now, but the arch was gone, and the door, and she was awake under the trees, looking up at some different stars shining through a gap in the branches.
The word that had snagged on her mind had been “this.”
“Another creature of my kind may by an error of judgment have betrayed our presence in this universe to the Watchers.”
So there was another universe where Jex might have been present.
With that knowledge safe in her mind she fell asleep, dreamless once more, and when she next woke it was broad daylight.
She was still blinking in its brightness when she realized that something important had changed. Though she was being gently shielded from all the magic around her, that must be Jex, because her amulet wasn’t doing anything. She forced her eyes open and peered mistily at it. Last night she had felt its beads splintering under the magical stress they were trying to shield her from. Now they were all but one gone. That remaining one was a dull black sphere that had never shown any sign of life at all. She had sometimes wondered what it was for. Perhaps a different form of magic, one they hadn’t met yet, so she’d better go on wearing the amulet, just in case. Anyway, it would do as a sort of luck charm.
The others were talking in low voices. She groaned and sat creakily up. Saranja had a fire going and Ribek was gutting a fish to grill over it. Benayu was staring at the thin smoke, pale-faced and troubled-looking, but apparently fully aware and listening to what Ribek was saying.
“…but if they’ve got it right—rivers don’t always, this far from the source, and they’d only picked it up from some gulls who’d flown in to escape the fighting—three of the Watchers and several other magicians who were helping them died in the battle and the rest are too busy repairing the damage to do anything else, so with a bit of luck there won’t be any dragons for a while, or hawks or wild dogs, and we can take the easiest route out, though I’ve no idea where we are going now.
“Hello, Maja. Ready for breakfast? I hope you slept well. You needed it.”
“I still do—I could sleep for ever. But I’ve got something important to tell you. It’s from Jex.”
She explained, again somehow remembering every word.
“He’s right, of course,” said Benayu. “It’s not just the dragon. I messed around with their tempest. They’ll have felt that…. Oh, yes, they’ll have felt that.”
Something about him had changed in the night. Two things. He now looked openly scared and wasn’t trying to hide it, but under the creakiness of his voice there was a note of satisfaction. Last night, up on the naked hillside, he had fought the first skirmish in his war against the Watchers, and won. If he could do it once, he could do it again.
“You’re not going to be tackling the Watchers all by yourself,” said Saranja briskly. “We’re going to find the Ropemaker before that.”
“It’ll take more than him.”
“Then we’ll find more than him,” said Ribek.
“Perhaps the Sheep-faces have been sent to help too,” said Ribek.
“Look,” said Benayu impatiently. “The one thing we do know is what Jex said—we’ve got to get away from here before the Watchers pull themselves together enough to start looking for us. We can think about what happens next when we’ve done that. Till then it doesn’t matter which way we go, provided it’s as far from Tarshu as possible and as quickly as possible. And we’d better keep well clear of the way we came, because there’ll still be a bit of a trail there.”
“That’s a thought,” said Ribek. “Jex is going to wipe out our new trail, so suppose we follow the old one for a bit and then branch off, with luck they’ll think we’re still going back the way we came.”
“Right,” said Saranja, rising fluidly to her feet. “Come along, horses—finished your breakfast? Lazy times are over…. We’re going to have to let them take it a bit easy to start with—they’ll be stiff as timber after last night, and it looks like Levanter’s a bit lame in his off fore.”
Twenty minutes later they were on their way.
The horses were in better shape than Saranja had feared, apart from Levanter’s mild lameness, so to spare him and at the same time put as much ground as possible between themselves and Tarshu, Ribek and Maja rode Rocky while Saranja activated the jewel in Zald and loped unwearying beside them. Still half shattered by yesterday’s efforts Maja dozed most of the way, with shreds of her dream sifting again and again into her sleep and the same thoughts and questions recurring and recurring when she woke. She kept in particular remembering Benayu raising his two hands in front of him, palm to palm and almost touching, and then, when he noticed what he was doing, snatching them apart and laying them in his lap.
Two hands, two doors, two universes.
He’d been about to explain how Fodaro had caused the explosion, and then decided it was too dangerous for them to know. Something had to be got just right. Too little, and nothing would happen. Too much, and you got what Fodaro had got. The two things—not hands, not doors; they were just ways of picturing it—the two universes must barely touch for the briefest possible instant. But Fodaro had overdone it—overdone it on purpose, perhaps—just to make sure.
And the reason why it was impossible, even for Fodaro, to imagine the reality behind his equations was that what the equations described was the reality of an unimaginable universe. This was part of the hidden knowledge, the truth that was too dangerous for her to know. She was guessing, of course, but at the same time she was certain. And certain too that she needed to know it.
The storm must have traveled far inland. They slept that night in the still-standing half of an isolated barn. A falling beam had broken the back of one of the sheep that must have taken shelter there when the storm struck, so they ate fresh roast meat for the first time in many days, and Maja snuggled down into the straw dozily content despite her weariness and anxiety, and fell asleep to the sound of Sponge gnawing the chop bones.
“I’ve been trying to think about the old story,” said Saranja as they breakfasted off liver and kidneys. “I’ve never done that before—it was just a stupid story, as far as I was concerned, but until Jex tells us what to do, it’s pretty well the only clue we’ve got. What I was thinking was that Tilja and the others were in exactly the same fix as we were, looking for Faheel when he could have been anywhere in the Empire. I always thought that one of the stupidest bits was the way they did it—with a wooden spoon, for heaven’s sake! The point was it had been carved from a tree which had grown from the stone of a peach from Faheel’s garden. That was enough of a connection for the thing to know where he was and point that way. We can do better than that. We’ve got an actual hair from the Ropemaker’s head.”
“Of course!” said Ribek. “And right at the beginning he’d hidden it in the Valley, where there aren’t any other magicians. A clue we were the only ones could find. Just in case it was needed. What about it, Benayu?”
“Well,” he said slowly, “it would be worth a try…. Yes…If Maja…No, doing it isn’t a problem, apart from two things. Hiding what we’re doing from the Watchers is something else. For a start we wait till we’re a lot further away from Tarshu. Even then it’s going to be tricky. Saranja will have to take the hair off the feathers, and that will make both of them strongly magical, but I think I can screen that. Jex and Maja—it’s got to be her, and that’s one problem—will have to wait outside the screen and when everything’s ready Saranja will bring the hair to her and whisper the name. That’s going to send out another colossal signal, and Jex is going to have to try to stop it getting through to the Watchers while Maja follows what happens. But you can’t do that if you’re screened or shielded, that’s the other problem. It will probably lay you out for a bit, like it did at Tarshu, but maybe when you come to…I don’t know.”
“It’s a lot to ask her,” said Saranja.
“I could hear Jex then, even when I was unconscious,” said Maja. “Perhaps it will be like that. Anyway, we’ve got to try. I’ll talk to Jex, if he’ll come.”
She called to him as she lay down to sleep.
“Please come, Jex. I need to talk to you.”
He answered, again in the pit of the night.
“Maja? What is it?”
“Yes,” he said, after a pause. “It would be possible, but very dangerous. And Benayu is right, it will be too great an output for me to absorb completely. Nor do we want to confine the magic only to the area around us because we need it to reach as far as where the Ropemaker is hidden. I can perhaps conceal what you are doing from the Watchers in Tarshu, but not from anywhere else. But I cannot at the same time give you, personally, any more protection than I am now doing.”
“I don’t want to be shielded. I’ve got to feel what the hair does when Saranja says the name. I think I can stand it, if I’m ready for it.”
“We have a little time, since we need to be further from Tarshu before we make the attempt, and I hope to be stronger by then.”
“So do I. Don’t go, please. I’ve worked something out. It’s stuff you and Benayu said was too dangerous for us to know. I’m sorry. I couldn’t help it.”
“What is the nature of this knowledge?”
She told him. He paused again before answering.
“It is not your fault but mine, for using the word. I was tired, and did it inadvertently. If the Watchers discover what you know, they will eventually seek both to use it in this universe and to dominate others. You observed the effect of Fodaro’s causing a minor contact between two universes. Imagine the possible effect of the Watchers’ meddling. They could destroy the world by one mistake, or they could deliberately destroy other worlds that refused to accept their domination.”
“What shall I say to Ribek and Saranja?”
“I suggest you wait until we have seen the result of your experiment with the Ropemaker’s hair.”
Four days later they crested a line of hills and looked down on an Imperial Highway running along the bottom of the next valley. It was a warm, still afternoon, with a few slow cloud islands floating toward the unseen ocean.
“Left or right when we get there?” said Ribek, and pointed eastward. “Tarshu’s back that way. Right, Maja?”
The flare of continued magical energies around the besieged city was fainter now with distance, but still vivid to her extra sense the moment Jex relaxed his protection. She nodded. The road below ran roughly north and south, so either way would be equally likely to take them further from it. Benayu sighed heavily.
“Better get it over, I suppose,” he muttered. “We don’t want a lot of people milling around us when we give it a go. There was a place a little way back.”
“You’re sure you’re up to this, Maja?” said Saranja.
“I’ve got to be. It’s what I’m here for.”
The place was a long-abandoned sheep-fold. On Benayu’s instructions, he and Saranja and Ribek settled with the horses in a corner formed by two of the rough stone walls, and he constructed a screen around them. Maja stayed close outside the fold, where a slab of fallen masonry made a level surface. She checked the position of Tarshu, walked a dozen paces toward it and settled the little stone pendant that was Jex onto a boulder. He seemed to quiver for a moment, and became the blue and yellow lizard she’d last seen on the mountainside.
Much encouraged, she returned to the slab, spread her spare blouse across it, and sat cross-legged on the ground.
“Ready,” she called, and waited unshielded. She could feel the blank space that Benayu’s screen made in the busy shimmer of general background, but because the screen was there she felt nothing of the moment when the hair was unwound from the quills, only the appalling jolt of power when Saranja hurried out through the screen with it.
She reeled, but somehow held on, sensing rather than seeing Saranja’s movements as she crouched, laid the gold thread out across the coarse green cloth of the blouse, and hunkered down to put her arm around Maja’s shoulders.
The hair blazed in Maja’s mind, a single narrow streak, without light, without heat, but still with the ferocity of the blast from a roaring stove when the door is opened a crack. She flinched from it, and would have reeled away, but Saranja’s strong arm held her steady. Slowly she schooled herself to endure the blast, as a smith learns to endure the white heat of the metal he draws from his furnace so that he can hammer and shape it to his purposes.
Now, knowing what she could stand, she drew a deep breath and squared her shoulders.
“Ready,” she said.
Saranja breathed the name.
As the world went black Maja felt her shudder with the jolt of power. Then sight, smell, hearing, touch, taste, all were lost. But something remained, something beyond the reach of any normal sense. The single thread of the Ropemaker’s hair still blazed in her mind with its strange, dark fire. And since it was all there was in her universe she clung to it, studied it, reaching out along it to wherever it led. It was a streak of pure power, power with life, a single living purpose. It yearned for one small spot in all the enormous Empire. There.
The power blanked out as suddenly as it had struck. There was a salty, fishy, weedy smell in her nostrils, far stronger than the salt sea breeze that had been blowing up the slope from the Bay of Tarshu.
“Well done,” said the stone voice, slow and grating. “I too am very shaken. That was more than I was prepared for. I could not absorb it all. We must leave. Tell them.”
Then silence and darkness for a while. She became aware that she was standing rigid as a stone pillar, with her left arm stretched in front of her pointing. There was someone either side of her, holding her upright. Saranja’s voice spoke urgently in her ear.
“Maja! Maja! Are you there? Oh, gods! Maja!”
“That way,” she mumbled. “On the coast. I could smell the sea.”
Her body went limp and Ribek eased her down, then stayed crouching beside her, his arm round her shoulders. She opened her eyes and saw Benayu and Saranja looking down at her.
“Jex says we must go,” she said. “He couldn’t absorb it all. I’ll get him.”
“You stay there,” said Ribek. “Saranja…”
“No. I want to.”
He helped her rise and she stumbled off. Jex had returned to being the stone pendant, which was lying on its side next to the boulder. She picked it up, dismayed, and cradled it between her two palms. At once a little of his day-long protection closed itself around her, weaker than it had been even immediately after Tarshu. And something else. Normally she could feel none of his alien magic at all, but nursing him like that she imagined she could sense the strange life, electric inside the granite, but only fitfully there.
“…judging by the sun,” Ribek was saying when, moving more steadily now, she carried Jex back to the others, “and Maja was pointing a bit east of that, so it could very easily be on the coast. Any idea how far, Maja?”
“Oh, a long way. It’ll take days and days. And Jex said it was more power than he’d expected. He couldn’t absorb it all.”
“You mean some of the signal could have got through to Tarshu?” said Benayu.
“I don’t know,” said Maja. “He seemed tired. I think he’s only just hanging on.”
“What about you?” said Ribek. “You took a beating too. Can you stand any more?”
“If it’s just ordinary stuff. Jex is still doing something. I don’t need my amulet. I’ll be all right, provided we don’t run into anything heavy.”
“I’ll do what I can if we do,” said Benayu with a sigh. “But…”
“If we do, you’re going to be busy,” said Saranja. “All the more reason to get away from here. Looks as if the Highway runs pretty well due north. I don’t like Highways, but you get along a lot faster.”
“And there’ll be more hedge magic for Jex to absorb,” said Maja. “That’s what he needs.”
“Like feeding an invalid?” said Ribek. “Little and often, no mighty blow-outs.”
“We need him well,” said Benayu earnestly. “Even if he can’t talk to his friends and tell us what’s happening, he’s much more useful than having me keep screening anything I do. I can, but it wears you out after a while. Anyway, let’s go.”
It was one of the smaller Highways, with only two lanes of traffic in either direction, one for noblemen and senior officials, and one for everyone else. In places it was so busy that they could only shuffle along, but then the crush would thin and they could make good speed. Most of the people going north were trying to get away from the fighting, while company after company of soldiers marched by on the southbound road.
The way station where they stopped that night was a small and homely one, used to catering to no more than a few dozen travelers, but tonight it was as crowded as a city market. The news was all gossip. According to the official announcements the attack on Tarshu was only another Pirate raid, which the Watchers had well in hand, but the travelers agreed that whole regiments were swarming ashore, armed with weapons just as strange and just as formidable as the airboat. Without their magicians the Imperial armies would have been mown down like grass in a hayfield. One man claimed—he’d heard it from another man whose sister was married to the mayor of a town further south—that the troops they had seen marching by would be paraded in front of three of the Watchers before they went into battle. The Watchers would combine their powers to enspell them, company by company, and send them on to fight, fearless, tireless and invulnerable.
“Yes, it could be done,” said Benayu. “You’d need to borrow all of each man’s future life and pack it into a single day of fighting, so that when the day was over he would be as old as his destiny decreed. He’d not live long after sunset.”
“Well, that’s more Watchers too busy to look for us,” said Ribek cheerfully.
“I don’t know,” said Saranja. “If I were a man, I’d be…Look.”
She waved an arm toward the crowded way station.
“Notice something? A lot of men on their own, don’t you think? If they were just trying to get clear of the fighting they’d be bringing their families. What they’re running away from is being rounded up and enspelled and sent to fight. So the next thing that’s going to happen is that the Watchers will start raiding the way stations and rounding them up that way. They’d pick you up, and Benayu too. Unless Benayu can screen us.”
Benayu shook his head.
“Not from a Watcher,” he said. “All right, I’ve done it once, but they were in a hurry. I’m not ready to try again.”
“Back to the byways, then?” said Ribek. “Ah, well. I like the road life. Bustle. Gossip. We get a surprising amount of that at the mill, with all the comings and goings. A right old scandal exchange, we are. I miss it. There’s several good juicy stories I left halfway through.”
“Nothing like at my warlord’s fortress, I’ll bet you,” said Saranja. “Most of the time there wasn’t anything else for the women to do, and I don’t miss it at all.”
Lying in the way station that night, Maja dreamed her dream again. It began in the same way, waking on an empty hillside, looking up at the stars, turning to look at them again in the little pool, falling into the pool, plunging down between the stars to the very end of the universe to where the magical doorway rose on another naked hillside. This time something began to stir in the unreachable elsewhere beyond the door. A shadowy shape. Monstrous. Human-shaped, but all wrong. Tall as a tall man as far as the shoulders, but the head above that reaching almost to the top of the arch, and twice as wide at the top than it was at the bottom. “Help me. Trapped,” it said in Maja’s head and at that moment it stopped being frightening. The head wasn’t monstrous, it was just huge. In fact it was vaguely familiar. In her dream she searched for the memory.
Then, as happens in dreams, she was no longer looking at the door but sideways, across the slope. A Watcher stood there. He could have been the one who had come to the way station, and like him he was turning slowly round, studying the whole scene. At the moment he was sideways on to Maja and turning away from her, which meant that he would see the doorway before he saw her. It was for some reason desperately important that he shouldn’t do that. That was why she was here. She did the only thing she could think of.
“Here!” she called. “I’m here!”
He stopped turning away and swung just as slowly back toward her.
Terror woke her.
That part was only the old nightmare, she thought as the shudders died away. It didn’t mean anything. But the part before…Awake now, she searched again for the memory, uselessly, of course, until she gave up, turned on her side and drifted back toward sleep. In the shadowy borderland on the edge of oblivion it came to her.
The story. Tilja, bound and helpless in the robbers’ cave. The shape of another prisoner, black against the moonlit opening of the cave. Horrifying until he had by his magic set them all free and Tilja saw him again outside the cave and realized that he was only a tall thin man wearing an outsized turban. That had been Tilja’s first meeting with the Ropemaker. Satisfied, she slid back into dream and spoke to Jex in her head.
“I don’t know if you can hear me, but I need to talk to you. I think the Ropemaker’s trapped in the other universe somehow, but when we used the hair it told us to go to somewhere in the Empire. It doesn’t make sense.”
“Tell Benayu,” came the faint reply.
Waking again in broad daylight, she lay for a little while assembling her thoughts. She didn’t see how she could tell Benayu about her dreams without telling the others, which was what she wanted to do anyway. By the time she was up they were already halfway through breakfast.
“You still look all in,” said Ribek. “We left you because we thought you needed the sleep.”
“I’m all right,” she said. “There’s something I’ve got to tell you. Jex told me to wait till after we’d seen what the Ropemaker’s hair told us. He can’t help at the moment. He still isn’t strong enough.”
She told them about her dreams, and what she thought they had meant. They waited for Benayu.
“All right,” he said with a sigh. “I suppose it makes life easier. It’s a bit of a strain, always having to remember whenever you say anything there’s stuff you mustn’t let on about. According to Fodaro there are lots of universes, but as far as we’re concerned there are only two that matter, ours and Jex’s. They’re completely different because ours has four dimensions—length, breadth, height and time—and Jex’s has seven. They aren’t just our four with three we haven’t got, because however many you’ve got they have to add up to a whole. Our four already do that, so in Jex’s universe they have to be different, to make room for the other three. There’s something like our length, but it isn’t the same, and so on. They have two dimensions of time.
“This is what Fodaro’s equations are all about. They are true in both universes.
“It’s no use trying to imagine what a seven-dimensional universe is like, because you’ve got a four-dimensional mind, four-dimensional eyes and so on. You can’t make sense of it. And you can’t go there and find out. If you could somehow get into a seven-dimensional universe the stuff you are made of wouldn’t make sense. It wouldn’t just cease to exist. It would be destroyed, and all the seven-dimensional stuff it was in contact with would also be destroyed, and there’d be a colossal explosion in both universes. The explosion Fodaro set off was caused by a contact lighter than this….”
He raised his two forefingers and lightly touched their tips together for a moment.
“So the Ropemaker can’t be actually in Jex’s universe, and Maja’s dream is only a dream,” said Saranja.
“Yes, he can. He can do it by magic. Magic is a sort of leakage between the universes. It isn’t actual material stuff. Fodaro used to say it’s a bit like light. Light isn’t stuff, but it’s there. It does things to stuff. Plants feed on it. If you try to grow plants in the dark they’ll grow for a bit but they won’t make green leaves and however well you treat them in other ways, they’ll die.
“Magic is leakage from the other universe that doesn’t make sense in ours, but it isn’t destroyed because it isn’t material stuff. So if you know how you can use it to change the stuff of our universe in ways that don’t make sense….”
He picked up a pebble, gazed at it for a moment and then put it back on the ground, where it turned itself into a beetle, raised its wing sheaths and buzzed angrily away, as if far from pleased at being roused from its peaceful sleep as a pebble.
“Like that,” he said. “Where was I? Yes, well, there are places where the two universes, ours and Jex’s, almost touch. Mostly it’s only one or two in each world. Or none. But there are quite a few in our world, and they’re almost all in the Empire. Fodaro said that there were mathematical reasons for this—something to do with a thing called a nexus in Jex’s universe—but it’s why there’s a lot of magic in the Empire and almost none anywhere else. He called these places touching points. He found one in the pasture.
“Anyway I think there are two possible ways of getting into Jex’s universe, but one of them you’d need Fodaro’s equations for, so the Ropemaker must have used the other one. You’d have to be a pretty good magician to do it, but he was.”
“Is, if Maja’s dream’s right,” said Saranja.
“Yes, is. Your anima, your inmost self, is a bit like light. It isn’t stuff, but it’s there. It can’t do anything, though—can’t act in the material world, like Jex told Maja—except inside a living creature. So what the Ropemaker would have to do is find a safe form and a safe place in which he could leave his material self—it’d have to be somewhere near a touching point—and put his anima into something like a bird, and then fly to the touching point and project his anima into a living creature on the other side, and then use that as his body to do what he wanted there. He wouldn’t be able to take anything material with him, mind you, the time ring for instance, though it’d be a hideous risk to leave that behind.”
“He’s a bit of a risk taker, by all accounts,” said Ribek.
“It’s always a risk, whenever you try anything new. But maybe. So if Maja’s dream is right, what we’re going to have to do is find where he’s left his material self—that’ll be where the hair was trying to reach to—and then take it to the Ropemaker’s anima in the other universe….”
“You said you couldn’t take stuff—bits of this universe,” said Saranja.
“I’ve got to take you, haven’t I? This is all going to be really big magic, at least as big as anything we’ve done so far. Bigger than getting Jex back. It’ll take all I’ve got. There’s no way I can do it and screen it at the same time, so the Watchers are going to be on to us in an instant. I’m not going to leave you three and Sponge and my material self behind for the Watchers to mess around with while I’m gone.
“I tell you, I ought to be able to do it. It’s in the equations. But I’m scared. I’ve been scared ever since the Watcher came to the way station. Saranja had to hit me to make me deal with the dragon back at Tarshu. Sometimes I wish Fodaro had never found the touching point, never worked out his equations. Sometimes I wish I’d never been born the way I was.”
“We don’t,” said Saranja. “We like you the way you are.”
“Nothing wrong with being scared,” said Ribek. “When things are scary I’d much rather trust myself to someone who knew they were than someone who didn’t.”
Maja didn’t say anything. She was scared too.
Maja was strongly on Saranja’s side about not traveling by the Imperial Highways. For all its life and interest she had soon wearied of the great one they had used on their way south, and even after so short a time on this smaller one she was strangely glad to get away from it. Since, for Benayu, changing his shape to a bird’s was little more than hedge magic, which the Watchers weren’t likely to notice, he was able to scout out tracks and byways again, and as they wound their way peacefully north along them, she discovered why she liked them so much better.
Tarshu had changed her. The effect was partly hidden at first as they passed through bare, sheep-cropped downland, completely emptied of people, all evacuated by the Watchers during the siege of the city. Then, as they moved further from the battle, the landscape changed, with the hills less steep and the valleys wide. There were farmhands working in the interlocking stone-walled fields, driving cattle out from milking to the lush pastures, or hoeing amid healthy half-grown crops.
She was wearing Jex with the cord looped round her neck and the pendant tucked into the pocket of her blouse, and enjoying whatever he let pass of the gentle, almost unnoticeable, magical essences in everything around her—an effect like birdsong in woodland, she thought; after a while you don’t notice it, unless a pigeon coos right overhead, but it’s there, all the time. They were walking along a deep-cut lane, steep banks with walls atop, and approaching a bend. Beyond it, still out of sight, were three people, two men and a boy. She could sense and distinguish their separate essences, even their mood. The men were laughing and the boy wasn’t happy.
She rounded the bend with the others and there they were, in a gateway a little distance further on. The boy, about nine years old, must have fallen in a cowpat or something, because one of the men was crouching beside him trying to clean him up with handfuls of grass from the roadside. Both men obviously thought it a good joke. The boy did not.
Ribek, typically, stopped to chat, offering them his water flask to help with the clean-up. He caught up at a trot a couple of bends further on.
“Nothing new,” he said, panting slightly. “They keep pretty well up to date. The Highway’s only a couple of valleys away over there. They hadn’t heard about the Watchers taking men away and enspelling them to fight the Sheep-faces. Perhaps it’s only a rumor that fellow we met had picked up. You probably get a lot of that sort of thing in wartime. You should have heard some of the stories that came up to the mill when the horsemen first attacked.”
“If it’s only a rumor we’d be better off on the Highway,” said Benayu. “We’d get on twice as fast. Three times. Saranja?”
“Maja, would you be able to tell from here if a Watcher came to the Highway?” said Saranja.
The moment she concentrated, the Highway was there, laid out in her mind as if she’d been standing on a hillside looking down on it. Over to the left a way station, almost empty at this time of day. There was some kind of minor hedge magic being practiced there. On either side of that a ribbon of slowly drifting pulses, travelers on the Highway unconsciously beaming out their individual signals, the natural magic that they had brought into the world with them when they were born and that would leave them only when they died. That was what she had picked up a little while ago when they had been approaching the bend and, before she saw them, she’d known about the three people they’d meet as soon as they were round it. She couldn’t have done that before Tarshu.
Yes, Tarshu had changed her.
“I’d know,” she said confidently.
“Let’s go on as we are, then, for the moment,” said Saranja, “and Maja can tell us if anything like that starts happening. We haven’t been doing too badly. These valleys all seem to run roughly north-south, so the lanes do too, mostly. If we get to a point where Benayu can’t find a good way ahead for us we can go back on the Highway for a bit.”
All the rest of that day Maja walked or rode in silence, thinking. Her companions seemed to recognize her need and let her be. No, it hadn’t been only Tarshu that had changed her. Perhaps the overwhelming blast of the moment when the speaking of the Ropemaker’s name had summoned Jex back across the universes had begun the change, but the real work had been done three days further north, by the old sheep-fold, when she had laid one strand of his hair out on the rock beside her and let the whisper of his name blast her into a kind of elsewhere. The journey had finished somewhere in the Empire—she was sure of that—but it hadn’t gone through the Empire to reach it. It had gone through some other kind of space. Unimaginable. For a moment she stood on the hillside of her dream staring through the magical doorway at—at but not into—the unimaginable universe beyond.
Whatever else had happened, that was the moment that had finally changed her. She had come into her own, an inheritance that had been waiting, perhaps through many generations, for her to discover and use.
A troublesome gift. In a way she had known that all along, ever since, hiding under the barn at Woodbourne, she had first been overwhelmed by the shock-wave of magic when Saranja had given Rocky his wings. Even before they had reached Tarshu, without her amulet to protect her she would have been lost. The same now, if they ran into any more serious magic, without Jex.
Without Jex? She looked around.
For some time they had been climbing in single file up a narrow path, little more than a sheep track, that slanted up the side of a hill with the valley beneath them on their right, seeming to stretch further and further into the distance as they climbed. Maja was riding Levanter, with Ribek striding just ahead of her. If they continued on this line they would reach the crest and look down on the Imperial Highway. There was a small town there, not unlike Mord. If she concentrated her whole attention on it she could feel the buzz of its comings and goings, with bits and pieces of hedge magic, and a sort of numb spot, perhaps where something more serious was being warded. She could even feel the endless small fidgetings of the magical trinkets in its market. Deliberately she unlooped the stone pendant from her neck and put it in her pouch.
She reeled. Automatically she flung up her right arm to shield her face. All the world’s magic seemed to be battering against her. She was crammed into a tiny cell with Ribek and Saranja, Benayu and Sponge and the horses, all bellowing their separate magics into her ears. She was stripped naked on the hillside with the hailstorm of minor magics of grass and shrub, gravel and boulder and soil, ant and grasshopper and fly, lizard and snail, streaming against her too-tender skin, while her whole body vibrated to the deep, slow pulse of the centuries-enduring hills.
Her hand was already reaching into her pouch. Not yet, she thought. I must learn about this. It is part of my gift. I can use it.
Slowly she mastered herself, forced herself to ignore the immediate intense assault. To reach out into it, through it and see what she could find. It was like a winter morning once at Woodbourne when she had woken early to look for a hen. It had been missing the night before though she had searched and searched until it was time for her to come in and set the table for supper. It would have meant a word as bitter as a blow from her aunt if she’d been late for that. The hen would have been no excuse—less than no excuse, as it would have been her carelessness to lose it—so she hadn’t dared tell anyone.
But it had come to her in the night where the bird might be. So, in the faintest of faint hopes, she had risen and dressed and slipped down the stair in the dark and lit a lantern and opened the door, into a blizzard.
She had heard the wind in the dark and expected storm weather. But not this. These sudden buffeting gusts from every which-where, almost solid in their strength and from the thick, swirling white flakes they bore, hurling into the tiny globe of light from the fluttering lantern flame and on into the dark. Again and again she had to force her eyelids up as they tried to close themselves against the slashing icy particles that whipped into her face, so that she could peer one pace ahead. Almost she had turned back, but she had battled on, mastering her fear, mastering her weakness, mastering the storm, finding the stupid hen cowering in its nook, carrying it back, and releasing it clucking into the coop. She had told no one. So now.
Except that there was no hen to look for, no purpose in her struggle against that blizzard of magic except to learn how to survive it. First simply that, and then to have something to spare from the struggle, so that she could actually use this dangerous, terrifying aspect of her gift. She hunched into herself, trying to choose what and what not to feel, to ignore the bellowing voices in the cramped cell, the myriad hurtling fragments in the naked hillside, the deep engrossing vibrations of the underlying hills, to feel through them, and beyond them…
“Maja? What’s up? Are you all right?”
Somewhere outside the struggle her hand made an impatient gesture. But her concentration held. There! Far, far away, and faint at this distance, but still vibrant with the immense energies of its beginning. She had felt that particular queasy resonance three times before—waiting to ford a mountain river, then on the road south of Mord, then at a way station. A Watcher—no, more than one this time—Watchers going about their sinister business. She unfocused slightly and sensed what lay around that center, the unmistakable tremor of human life, but chilled almost into stillness, a press of people, several hundred of them perhaps, all locked into the terror of the moment.
She reached into her pouch and closed her hand round the pendant. Instantly the shield renewed itself. Ribek had to hold her from falling from the saddle.
“Are you all right, Maja?” he said again.
“In a minute,” she muttered.
She hunched down, breathing slowly and heavily and clutching the pommel of the saddle to steady herself while her spirit found its way back into her body and limbs where it belonged. After a while she shuddered, straightened and opened her eyes.
They had halted on the hillside, Saranja and Benayu, also on horseback, looking back at her over their shoulders, Ribek standing beside her with his hand on her thigh.
“Are you all right?” he said again.
She was too tired to explain. The world began to go dark. She felt herself swaying.
For several hours Maja slept, only half-waking once or twice to wonder where she was and why she was sitting sideways in the saddle being comfortably held in place by someone’s arm—Ribek’s—round her waist, with her head on his chest. She snuggled herself against him and drifted back into darkness.
They must have stopped for the night, but she was only vaguely aware of it, of having a cup held to her lips so that she could drink a little water before sliding down again into the abyss of sleep. Her bladder roused her sometime in the moonlit night, and she rose and relieved it and slept again and woke at last, ravenously hungry, to a dew-scented morning and the crackle of a small fire, and mutton chops grilling on its embers. Just as she could smell and hear these things before she opened her eyes, so she could feel the presence of her companions, Benayu’s inner turmoil veiled behind the vague buzz of his sleeping power, Saranja’s banked furies, Ribek’s lovely ordinariness…
While they ate she tried to explain to the others more of what had happened to her.
“I asked Jex to stop shielding me. I wanted to see how far I could reach. I could feel everything. It was like…like…”
She struggled to find the words, to help them feel something of the worldwide blizzard of magic that had swept round and through her.
“Anyway,” she finished, “I think there’s one of the big Imperial Highways way over there, a long way off, and some Watchers, two or three, I think, were doing something to a lot of frightened people at a way station.”
“Enspelling them to fight?” said Ribek.
“I don’t know.”
“You look all in,” said Saranja. “You still do.”
“I’m all right now. Just tired.”
“You’ve got to be careful,” said Benayu earnestly. “There’s always a price. Fodaro told you that. The stronger the magic the higher the price. There’ve been beginners who’ve stumbled into something big and come out raving. I don’t think you’re actually doing the magic, but you’re channeling it somehow. And you’re doing it more and more. It’s bound to have an effect.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Well, you’d better not try that again,” said Ribek.
“I think I’ve got to,” she said. “I’ve got to learn about it. I think it’s important. Perhaps it’s why I’m here at all, so that I could do this. I’ve just got to practice, and get used to it, like—like learning to kick-fight, I suppose. You must have had to practice and practice.”
“Still do,” he said. “Start of each season. I’d be stiff as a plank, else. Same with your magic, I expect, Benayu.”
“Same stupid little exercises day after day after day,” said Benayu. “Fodaro kept me at it, no matter how much I bucked. He was right, though. I think Maja’s right now. She’s got to learn. But only a bit at a time, or you’ll wear yourself out. Jex will look after her if she gets into trouble, but he’s going to need to be a lot stronger before he can cope with anything really big.”
“And she’d better have one of us with her, always, when she’s trying anything like this,” said Ribek. “All right, Maja?”
Twelve uneventful days passed. Morning and evening Maja reached back the way they had come, but sensed no tremor of pursuit. The blaze of magic around Tarshu faded into the distance. Or perhaps the ferocity of the battle had dwindled into a kind of stalemate. It seemed barely to matter. Almost, as the miles flowed steadily away beneath the horses’ hooves or their own feet, Maja came to forget the frightening purpose of their journey. The journey became all there was. They would never have to reach its nightmare ending.
She used the long quiet hours to think. Her fantasy life with Ribek at Northbeck mill seemed to recede into the remote, unreachable future and became unsatisfying, so she thought about things more near at hand. At first she was preoccupied with coming to terms with her sense of the magical. When its power and reach had first burst on her it had been almost overwhelming, and, except when she steeled herself to face it, she had needed much of Jex’s full protection to shield her from it. It had been like the first sudden strong spring sunlight that, carelessly faced, peels and blisters the winter-tender skin to an agonizing scarlet rawness. Now she was slowly becoming hardened to it.
Not merely that. Just as the right level of sunlight, sunlight that greets you when you step outside before breakfast with the dew still on the grass and the night chill lingering in the air, makes your skin crawl gently and you sigh with sensual delight, so, she gradually came to find, she relished the magic and mystery of the everyday world streaming round her and through her, the continual half-noticed sense that everything in that world, every pebble, every leaf, every midge, had its own individual purpose and meaning. She did too. She was part of the inward wisdom of the universe.
“You’re living in a dream, aren’t you?” Ribek said, teasing.
“I suppose so. Anyway, you’re part of it.”
“Glad to hear it.”
But how could he not be, when his own Ribek-magic, so confident, brisk, easygoing, tingled continually against her consciousness? She rode pillion with him on Levanter most of the day, and when they walked, both for the exercise and to give the horses a rest, he stayed behind with her for company.
This, of course, suited her very well. One morning several days later she started thinking about him again, not fantasizing about her future with him but soberly considering the nature of her love for him. She knew it wasn’t a childish crush, because she’d already discovered what that was like.
Last summer, her aunt had finally decided that Saranja wasn’t coming back. Or perhaps, Maja now realized, it had been because the unicorn magic was beginning to fail, and it had become urgent that somebody was found who could renew it.
At any rate, a family of second cousins had been invited to stay at Woodbourne—parents, three girls and a boy. Nothing like this had ever happened before, and even Maja had understood that her aunt was hoping that one of the girls might have the gift of hearing what the cedars were saying. The boy had been a friendly, easygoing lad who Maja instantly had decided was the most wonderful person in the world, and had dumbly hung around him at every spare moment she had. Her aunt had noticed, of course, and had told her in front of everyone it was a silly, childish crush, and then shut her in her room without food to cure her of it. Later her Woodbourne cousins had taken the boy behind the barn and beaten him up. The story had got around, and no more families had come visiting. Her aunt had been right about the boy, but Maja’s love for Ribek was not like that.
Nor was it like what she might have felt for the father she had never known. She could only guess, but she knew that it must be different. It was strange for her to be even thinking about her father. Almost before any time that she could remember she had learned not to ask about him. Her mother would only weep when she did, and her aunt would punish her if she found out, or asked anyone else. It was safer never even to wonder about him, to bury all thoughts of him beneath the stories she used to tell herself of wonderful, impossible adventures among monsters and warriors and mighty sorcerers.
But now everything had changed. Her aunt was gone, along with the fears and miseries of her childhood, and the adventure was real and wonderful, and though there was plenty to be afraid of in it she felt she could face those fears, and wonder about her father if she chose. But it wasn’t very satisfying. She knew, or guessed, that the reason she hadn’t been allowed to ask about him was that he had done something too horrible for her to be told, so she found it hard to form a picture of him as the kind of father anyone would want to have. In the end she gave up and simply decided that, whatever he was like, any love she might have felt for him would have been different from what she felt about Ribek. The great thing about Ribek was that from the first he had treated her as an equal. Nobody had ever done that before, and her father would always have been her father, never her equal. She needed somebody to love, not as a fantasy, not as a game, but for real, and Ribek was well worth loving.
And even if she hadn’t had those feelings, Maja would have chosen Ribek to walk or ride with anyway. She admired Saranja enormously. It wasn’t just that she was beautiful. Anybody could have seen she was a heroine—such fire and challenge in her glance, such unconscious pride in stance and movement, even in sleep. Maja was simply in awe of her, and would still have been if these qualities hadn’t resonated from her in the world of magic and vibrated through Maja like continuous trumpet music. But that very fire and fineness made it difficult to be fully comfortable with her all day long, in the way she was with Ribek.
The same was even more true of Benayu. Again, how could it not be? He was a magician. To Maja he crackled all the time, like a fresh-lit bonfire, with his own magical power. The reason they mostly traveled pair and pair, with some distance between them, was to spare Maja the continual mild abrasion of his powers. ( Jex could have absorbed these, but told Maja he preferred a more varied diet. There’d been something about the way he’d said it that made her think that was only an excuse, and actually he was squeamish about feeding off the emanations from a personal friend.) His magic set him apart from ordinary people, and always would do. Poor Benayu.
Late on the twelfth afternoon the landscape changed. For the past two days the lane they had been following had grown in size as other lanes had joined it, all apparently aiming for some point beyond the line of hills to the north. By the time they had finished climbing that final long slope it was a well-traveled road, and when they at last wearily crossed the ridge they discovered in front of them an utterly different world from the placid farming country they’d been traveling through.
“Now that’s something!” said Ribek, reining Levanter to a halt. “Should be quite a bit going on down there, Maja. Nothing by way of Watchers, I hope.”
Maja peered over his shoulder and saw a level plain stretching north, almost a desert from the look of it, burnt brown by the sun even at this lush season of the year. As a sort of boundary between the two worlds, green hills and brown plain, a big river flowed from the west with an Imperial Highway running beside its further bank. The road they were on descended the hill to meet it at a large town. Part of the river had been diverted to form a moat round the gated walls, but the main channel ran through the middle of the town, with docks on either bank, and then became the outer harbor, and beyond that flowed into the sea between a rocky headland on its southern shore and a vast stretch of marsh to the north, through which another Highway dwindled into the distance.
This must be a major port. In the center of the city masts of seagoing craft showed above red-tiled roofs. A faint haze, the dust and smoke of human bustle, lay over it all. And yes, there should be a lot going on down there in the invisible world of magic.
She sensed nothing.
Even at this distance it should be like Mord, twenty times over. Except that at Mord she’d only just come into her newfound sense, hadn’t really been aware that that was what it was. She hadn’t understood what the sense revealed to her, any more than a newborn baby understands the blur of shapes and sounds and smells that reach it lying in its cradle.
Now, though, she had learned to look at a town from a distance and read it with her extra sense in much the same way that she could read its larger buildings with her eyes, its turreted walls, its public monuments, its marketplaces and warehouses and so on. Above the buzz of petty magics—made magics, the work of hedge magicians, but still quite different from the natural magics that flowed from tree and stream, companion and stranger—she would be able to sense stronger emanations, or at least the sudden patches of emptiness that showed where some serious magician had put a ward round whatever he or she was doing.
Surely, at least, there should have been an Eye on each of the main gates. All large towns had them, often dating from long before the time of Watchers, but no. From all this city, nothing came back. She took Jex out of the pocket of her blouse and put him in her pouch. Now the natural magics of everything around and behind her came crowding in on her, but she still sensed nothing from down the hill. Nothing at all.
Saranja and Benayu hadn’t stopped when Ribek had and were already a little distance down the slope. Maja felt a brief jolt of magic as, without warning, Rocky skittered sideways and back, something so unexpected from him that Saranja lost a stirrup and was almost thrown. Of course Pogo, a couple of paces behind, shied because Rocky had. He would have had Benayu off if Saranja hadn’t managed to grab his bridle, and then dismount. She waited for Benayu to do the same, handed him Pogo’s reins, and started to lead Rocky on down the road.
Maja felt another, more violent, jolt. Rocky shied, and in the same instant Saranja was flung back up the slope, yelling with the shock of the blow and landing flat on her back. Ribek leaped down and ran to help her. By the time Maja had slid herself to the ground and led Levanter down to join them Saranja was getting shakily to her feet and feeling herself for bruises.
“It wasn’t me,” she muttered. “It was Zald it didn’t like. And Rocky. It didn’t like him at all.”
“And me,” said Benayu in a low, puzzled voice.
He was standing with his back to the rest of them, as he’d been doing since he’d dismounted, turning his head slowly from left to right and back, apparently oblivious to what had been happening to Saranja.
“I can’t feel it. I don’t know what it is. You don’t get wards that big, far as I know, and if it’s some kind of screen it’s nothing like mine and way beyond anything I could manage. It’s telling me if I go any further I’ll die. It isn’t lying.”
“Let’s see what it thinks about me, then,” said Ribek. “You too, old fellow.”
He led Levanter on down the road. At exactly the point where Rocky had shied, Levanter started to do the same, until Ribek halted and turned him.
“Easy, boy, easy,” he said. “You weren’t just copying Rocky again, were you? It’s what Chanad did to you. Come and take him, Maja, and I’ll try on my own.”
He turned, walked twenty paces down the road and came back.
“Didn’t feel a thing,” he said. “Your turn, Maja.”
She had just enough warning—the light fizz of something utterly new to her waking into life, a burning sensation in her arm—to snatch herself back from the invisible barrier. It didn’t mind Saranja, she thought. It was Zald it didn’t like.
The amulet? But it wasn’t magical at all now. Unless the black bead…
There was a large, branched cactus by the road, with a gold ring hanging on one of its vicious thorns and an elaborately decorated head-scarf spread across a flat leaf. Both looked far too good to be left by the roadside. The black bead must do something, only she didn’t know what yet. She hung the amulet on the cactus and tried again.
There was the same fizz, but no pain in her arm, only a feeling that a hand had been placed against her thigh and was pushing her back. Jex? But his magic (if it was magic) was utterly different. She herself couldn’t feel it at all. Nevertheless she took him out of her pouch and hung him on the cactus too. The whole hillside to left and right of her was alive with natural magic, and she could feel the made-magic impulses from Zald behind her, and the permanent light hum that surrounded Benayu, and the rather different ones from the horses, but still nothing at all of that kind from the city below. And nothing from the invisible barrier itself, until she’d passed through it.
Then, instantly, it all was there. And yes indeed, there were Eyes on all the gates, including one set to guard the whole width of the river where it flowed between two massive bastions toward the sea. The Eyes were as old as the walls themselves, and that was very old. But apart from them, nothing man-made. All the natural magics were still there, speaking to her as clearly as those around her on the hillside, the stones of the walls, the majestic, calm flow of the river, the buzz of the citizens’ lives, and much more generally, coming from the whole city below, a sense of ease and freedom that she hadn’t felt anywhere else in the Empire. But still no made magic at all apart, perhaps, from one strange, dead patch close to the nearer bank of the river. A ward inside the immensely powerful ward, or whatever it was that closed the city round? What was the use of that?
“Watchers, Maja?” called Ribek’s voice from behind her.
She heaved herself back to the hillside and returned to the others. As she crossed the invisible line the small sendings from the city below vanished in the blink of an eye. She picked up Jex and the amulet as she passed the cactus.
“No,” she said. “They aren’t here. They’ve not been, not for a long while. A very long while. They don’t do magic here. It’s like the Valley.”
They stood and gazed out over the mysterious city. Behind them, where the road crested the hill, a hoof rattled against loose gravel. They turned. A stout, elderly man was leading two laden mules down the hill.
“Trouble?” he said. “Something stopping you, right? Must be carrying stuff with powers in it—charms and such. Provosts won’t allow that. Best leave it here, pick it up when you come back. He’d be a bloody fool as touched it if it didn’t belong to him. Cactus would rip him to bits. I’ll show you.”
While he’d been talking he’d rolled up his sleeve and removed an intricately plaited armband and settled it into a crook of the cactus.
“Missus has me wear that to keep me faithful,” he explained. “Works a treat, too. Never want to look at another woman while I’ve got it on. Not my fault, I tell her, if I’ve got to leave it behind while I take the wool down to the market, is it? Either that or starve, I say, and you wouldn’t fancy starving.”
“Trouble is we’re not coming back,” said Ribek. “We’re going on through.”
“That case, one of you’d better go down to the city, hire yourself a pass-box at the gate—costs a bit, mind you—bring it back and put your stuff in it. It’ll seal itself shut minute you’re through the barrier, and won’t open again till you’re out the far side. You’ll need to get a move on. Gate closes, hour after sunset.”
“There’s no way round then?”
“Not worth thinking about. Easy enough this side far as the river. Back up the hill, right, and right again at the third real road, then down—take you a bit over half a day to reach the river. Then you’ve got to find a boat, take you over to the West Highway.”
“Surely there’s a ferry,” said Ribek.
“Provosts won’t have it. They want everything going through Larg. But suppose you’re lucky, beyond the river it’s still three, four times further before you reach the North Highway beyond the marshes, and that’s all desert. Spots may look green enough from here after the rains, but that’s all gone into the ground. No surface water. No way you can carry water enough for the horses. And there’s vicious snakes, and little black scorpions—one sting and you’re dead. You’d have to get some of the desert folk for guides. They’re weird—not like us, but they can find water anywhere, only they won’t do it for chance-come strangers. Worse yet going east. You’ll never get your horses down the cliff, you’ve got to find a boat again, and then it’s all marsh and bog crocodiles, and then desert again to the north. Can’t be done.”
“Well, thanks,” said Ribek. “We’re going to have to think. Don’t wait for us. Best of luck at the market, and tell your wife she married a good man.”
“Long as I’m wearing my armband she did,” said the man, and led his mules on down the hill.
“Brute,” muttered Saranja. “You too, Ribek, encouraging him. I hate men.”
“Just backchat,” said Ribek, unabashed. “Bet you he’s as fond of his wife as the next man, and doesn’t do anything more than glance at the city wenches.”
“Wenches,” snarled Saranja. “Oh, forget it. We’re not going to make it down to the city and back up with this pass-box thing and down again before the gate closes. Let’s think a bit. They don’t want magic stuff brought in. We can put Zald and Maja’s amulet and Jex, I suppose, in the pass-box—sounds as if she won’t need them again till we’re through. But that’s no help with Benayu and the horses. And you’d never get three horses across a desert—they need a lot of water. Unless Benayu can do something about that.”
“I might be able to,” said Benayu. “Water’s tricky stuff—it’s a bit different—but if the desert people can find it I should be able to work it out. And I daresay I can undo whatever’s been done to Pogo and Levanter, so you could take them through the city. Then it’d be only me and Rocky to find our way round. That’s a lot of complicated stuff to screen, and I don’t know how much of it Jex is up to absorbing. Maja?”
“I think he’ll say yes. He’s getting a lot stronger. But we’re going to have to spend the night out here anyway, aren’t we? Why don’t we wait and see if he says anything?”
“Sounds like the best we can do,” said Ribek. “And I could go down and see if the river’s got anything to tell me, supposing it can, and get a bit of fresh food, and maybe I can hire a mule and bring out some fodder for the horses, and then we’ll all sleep on it and see what Jex says.”
“Can I come too?” said Maja. “I like it the other side.”
It was wonderfully enjoyable to walk down the long slope with the naked hillside on either side and the town below. The steady, quiet, unconscious sending from rock and plant and creature blended with more pungent and complex human magics to form a balanced and harmonious whole, like the glorious rich dumpling stews Maja’s aunt used to make for special occasions at Woodbourne, which even the permanent rancor and tension of those who ate the food could do nothing to spoil.
The lower slopes were cultivated, with ripening crops. A few sheds and barns were the only buildings outside the walls. Otherwise the fields ran right up to the edge of the moat. The sun was already low before they reached it. Though they were going to need to hurry to buy what they wanted and make it back out of the city before the gate closed, Ribek halted on the bridge and leaned on the rail to listen to what the waters had to say. He had done this so regularly on their journey that Maja had learned, though not to hear and understand their speech the way he could, at least to sense the tone and seriousness of what they were saying. It was like hearing somebody call from another room. Though one can’t make out the individual words, one can hear the emotion that underlies them, anger or amusement or whatever. The moat was only a branch of the main current, but it seemed to be a deeply serious river. Maja leaned on the rail and waited. She was aware of the Eye on the gate. It had registered their presence but not reacted to them.
“They’re still fighting round Tarshu, but it looks like they’re at a stalemate,” said Ribek.
“How does it know? This water can’t ever have been near Tarshu.”
“Clouds have come in over Tarshu and picked up what’s happening, in a vague, cloudy kind of way. They condense into rain over the mountains. You won’t get much sense out of an individual raindrop, but put a lot of them together into a stream and they begin to gather and shape themselves into patterns which they can put into words. It’s mostly just chatter and gossip, like in my millstream, but as the streams join up and become rivers they make more and more sense of the world, until they reach the sea. Coming from the Valley, we don’t hear much about the sea, but I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a sort of deep, general wisdom in it, too large for our small brains to…What’s up?”
Maja gripped the rail, gasping and trembling. Two or three women were crossing the bridge behind her, laughing over some scandal. Their tone hadn’t changed, their step hadn’t faltered. No new ripple crossed the easy flow of the stream, though if it had felt what Maja had felt the foam would have been sluicing to the battlements of the walls. Something had struck the surrounding barrier a violent blow, close to where Saranja, Benayu and the horses were waiting. Her heart stopped. No, it can’t have been aimed at them. It had come from somewhere far to the south, a single, colossal convulsion, as if a root of the Tree of the World had been wrenched away.
“Tarshu,” she muttered through her daze. “The Watchers have done something new. Huge. Bigger than that tempest.”
Ribek was watching her, concerned. He looked up over her shoulder.
“Stalemate over?” he said. “Watchers will…Hold it—this may be trouble.”
She turned. Three men had emerged from a doorway under the arch of the gate and were coming toward them. They wore red hats like inverted flower-pots, and dark blue belted surcoats. Their leader carried a knobbed cane under his arm. Something else…
“The Eye’s started watching us,” she whispered. “It knew we were there, before, but it didn’t pay any attention.”
The men marched, rather than walked, straight up to Ribek. He faced them, apparently relaxed and untroubled.
“What do you think you’re doing, then?” said the leader.
“Resting, looking at the water. I like rivers and streams.”
“More than looking. Doing something to it.”
“Not unless you count listening. The river was doing something, mind you, but rivers do. They talk, only most people can’t hear what they say. I can. Fact, I can’t help it—it’s something I was born with. Runs in the family. I’m not a magician if that’s what you’re after. Nothing like that where I come from. We’ve picked up a few trinkets since we’ve been in the Empire, and we’re on our way to hire a pass-box so we can take them through the city.”
“All that’s as may be, friend,” said the man. “Not up to me.”
His voice became solemn and official.
“By virtue of my office as Gate Sergeant,” he said, “I am taking you before the Court of Provosts under Standing Order Number Three-a.”
“If you must,” said Ribek with a sigh. “You’d better go back and tell the others, Maja. I’ll join you when I can. With the pass-box, I hope.”
“Kid’s coming too,” said the guard, back in his normal voice. “Maybe she’ll tell a bit more about you than you want to tell yourself. Come along then.”
The two other men moved to take Ribek by the arms. He actually laughed, as if this were just the sort of ridiculous minor nuisance travelers have to get used to. Maja guessed he was weighing up whether he could take all three guards on with his kick-fighting. They were large men, but they didn’t look particularly tough. Two perhaps, but not three, she thought. She hoped he wasn’t going to try it. Anyway, even if he got away with it, it wouldn’t help much in getting them all through the city.
He made one more attempt.
“How much to let my sister go back to the rest of our party?”
It was the Gate Sergeant’s turn to laugh.
“More than you could pay, my friend,” he said, gripping Maja by the shoulder. “Come along, then.”
The street beyond the gate was cheerfully busy, with the working day beginning to ease toward the pleasures of the evening. Still half dazed from the shock that had struck her on the bridge, Maja barely noticed the way people stopped what they were doing to stare questioningly at them as they were led past, as if this was something they weren’t used to seeing.
They reached a large cobbled square, with a fountain in the middle and statues dotted here and there. Part of it was used as a market, its stalls still busy. Three sides were occupied by tall but narrow buildings that seemed to have been built in competition with each other over which could carry the most elaborate ornamentation crammed into its restricted façade. Along the fourth side ran the river, as wide as two market squares and busy with boats and barges.
The building at the center of the side opposite the river was taller and wider than the others, and even more richly curlicued. They climbed the steps. The double doors stood open, but the Gate Sergeant rapped his knob loudly on the right-hand leaf as he went through. The large entrance hall was fully as ornate as the façade, and lavishly gilded. Everything about it spoke of the self-contented wealth accumulated through long, untroubled years. Officials and citizens bustled across it. A functionary moved to confront them, his uniform magnificently swagged and braided. He carried a gold-knobbed staff of office. The Gate Sergeant drew himself up, matching him in self-importance.
“One for the Provosts’ Court,” he said. “Standing Order Number Three-a.”
The functionary’s eyebrows rose.
“Three-a?” he said.
The Gate Sergeant relaxed, clearly having won the contest. He let go of Maja’s shoulder, drew a small leather-bound book from his breast pocket, found a page, and pointed, forcing the functionary to move round and crane to read, reciting the words as he did so.
“‘Apparent magical practices on bridge relating to movement of moat-water. Perpetrator or perpetrators to be taken before the Provosts’ Court. If not sitting, court to be immediately summoned.’ Twelve years, morning after morning, I’ve been reading out Orders soon as I come on duty. Given up wondering what that one’s about. Never been invoked before, far as I know.”
The speech had given the functionary time to recover his self-esteem. He swung away, marched to a side apse, raised his staff and struck it against the bell that hung from the archway. The bell clanged and the bustle in the hall fell to a hush so deep that Maja could hear the last whimper of the vibrations as they died away.
“Standing Order Number Three-a,” intoned the functionary. “The Provosts’ Court is summoned into immediate session.”
The bustle restarted, but was changed. Several lesser functionaries spilled from a doorway and raced off, while many of those who a moment before had been hurrying somewhere now waited in muttering groups to see what happened. A rather more plainly clad official, obviously senior enough not to need a fancy uniform, came up and spoke briefly to the first functionary, who raised his staff in salute and went back to the main door.
The official spoke in a low voice to the Gate Sergeant, who showed him the passage in the leather-bound book but this time allowed him to read it for himself. The official stared at Ribek for several seconds, glanced at Maja, nodded and gestured that they were all five to follow him. He led them across the crowded hall to a wicket set into a large double door.
“Thank you, Sergeant,” he said. “Your men can go, but you will be needed as a witness.”
He led the way through the door into a much smaller, but no less ornate chamber, with a double row of portraits of severe-looking men running round the walls.
“You two sit there,” he said, gesturing toward a carved bench between two windows in the right-hand wall. “Keep an eye on them, Sergeant. We don’t want any trouble.”
“There won’t be any,” said Ribek, amiably. “We are guests in your city, so of course we’ll behave ourselves.”
The official stared at him icily.
“Let me advise you, sir,” he said, “that you have caused the Provosts of the City of Larg to be summoned from their evening leisure and convene in emergency session. They will not take kindly to any display of frivolity. Ah…”
Before Ribek could answer he turned away to greet a plump, bald man who had come hurrying in, panting slightly, and with sweat streaming down his flushed cheeks. The first official beckoned to the Gate Sergeant, and the three of them talked together in low voices.
A younger man came in, placed a ledger on the reading desk by the door and handed a large book bound in black leather to the plump man, who opened it on a table at the center of the room and started to leaf through it. The pages were thick and yellow, and creaked faintly as he turned them. He found what he wanted and started to read.
A gong sounded in the entrance hall and the big double doors were thrown open by two more uniformed men, who then crossed the room and opened another pair of doors in the wall opposite where Ribek and Maja were sitting. Two older men, wearing golden velvet gowns, despite the heat, and strange, floppy black velvet caps with a jeweled brooch at the center, walked through. The man at the desk entered their names in his ledger. The plump man bowed to them as they passed. They nodded to him, and he picked up the book and followed them.
“Proctors,” muttered Ribek, and gestured toward the double line of portraits. “Same outfit all the way along, apart from those fellows in armor over in the corner. Look at the dates on ’em, too. Bottom row’s three-hundred–odd years later than the top row. Fat fellow will be Clerk of the Court—something like that.”
More Proctors followed, in twos and threes. Maja picked up their feelings as they passed—irritation or anxiety or excitement, but from all of them a sort of bewildered surprise. The last one hurried in and through, followed by the man with the ledger. Two men with short pikes came in from the entrance hall and stood guard, the outer doors closed, then the inner ones.
More waiting. The Gate Sergeant now was too nervous to stand still, and paced to and fro until one of the inner doors opened and an arm beckoned to him from beyond. He made an effort, squared both jaw and shoulders and marched through, every inch the steadfast man-at-arms. The doors were too thick for voices to carry, but his inner nerves and fright were signals strong enough for Maja to follow as he marched to the center of the room and halted smartly in front of a long, weighty table—ancient oak, she could tell—and saluted. Someone asked a question. He answered stolidly, telling his story.
More talk, some argument, a decision, and an order. The inner doors opened, and a guard gestured to Ribek to come through. Maja followed him.
The room was much as she had pictured it, in the same grand style as the anteroom but six times the size. Tall windows overlooked the square, and yet more portraits of past Proctors lined the remaining walls. Yes, the Proctors sat in a row of throne-like chairs behind the table, with the Clerk of the Court at one end with his assistant beside him. The black book and the ledger lay open in front of them.
The guard who had brought them led Ribek and Maja to face the Proctors at the center of the table and withdrew. The Proctor at the center of the line tinkled a little bell and turned to the Clerk.
“Please proceed, Master Tongal,” he said.
“Very good, Master President,” said the Clerk. He looked at Ribek.
“Your name, please?”
“Ribek Ortahlson, and this is my half-sister Maja.”
“And the purpose of your journey?”
“I and my sister had been traveling south with our half-sister and brother to negotiate future marriages for them among a branch of our people who live beyond Tarshu. We were halted by the fighting there and decided to return north. But we learned that men and boys using the Imperial Highways were being rounded up at way stations and being impressed into the army. To avoid this we chose to use byroads, and so came to your city. We wanted no more than to pass through it, but we were stopped by the barrier because we were carrying a few magical objects.
“We were advised by a passing merchant that our best course was to hire a pass-box at the gate, to enable us to carry them through the city. We were resting on the bridge—we’ve come a long way, and were tired—when the Gate Sergeant arrested me for carrying out magical procedures and brought me here. May I explain what I was doing?”
With the same quiet reasonableness Ribek told the court what he had told the Gate Sergeant.
“It’s a bit like hearing a bat squeak,” he added. “Most people can’t, because the pitch is too high for them, but I know two or three people who can. There’s nothing magical about that. The same about hearing moving water—it just runs in my family. A big river like yours can be really interesting.”
A Proctor near the other end of the line rapped his knuckles on the table twice. The rest turned to look at him.
“This is a crucial point,” he said. “If the procedures were not after all magical, then there is no need to wake the Sleeper. The Clerk of the Court tells us that he can find no precedent for the use of this clause in the Standing Orders, so we have no guidance. All we can be sure of is that to wake the Sleeper may have the most momentous results, affecting the whole city, our whole way of life. Perhaps the barrier will be removed. Do we really want the dangerous magics of the Empire to come flooding into our pleasant city? Do we want to be drawn into the so-called Watchers’ war against the Pirates?”
A second double rap broke into the mutters of agreement. Heads turned toward the sound.
“A further point,” said the rapper. “If we believe the witness that he can hear the speech of the river—and there is nothing to show that he is not one of the common enough type of lunatic who fancies that he can hear voices—why should we not also believe him that the practice is not magical, or at least not magical in the sense of pertaining to the type of magic against which our city is so fortunately guarded?”
“I wholly agree,” said the new speaker. “Furthermore, if it were magical in that kind of way, surely it would have been stopped at the barrier.”
Rap after rap, with the Clerk’s assistant desperately trying to get it all written down.
“Now look. This won’t do. The instructions are absolutely clear. You’re just trying—”
“Nonsense. We’ve got to do what’s in the best interests of Larg. Are we going to upset everything for the sake of one madman?”
Maja stopped listening. Something was happening. Not here, but soon. Coming. Distracted by the surface events, Maja had paid no attention to what was happening outside the Council Chamber. It was all there, of course, at the back of her consciousness—behind her the almost empty anteroom, to her left the bustling entrance hall with the river flowing majestically beyond it, opposite and to her right smaller rooms, offices and such, perhaps, but over in the far right corner, though the walls there seemed to be no different from the rest of the room, just paneling and portraits, a small blank patch where everything seemed to stop at the surface of the wall.
By now she’d come across enough wards to be able to tell from the very density of its blankness how powerful this one was, and so guess the immense power of the magic it was warding, here in the very heart of unmagical Larg. And what she had felt, what had drawn her attention, was the first faint beginnings of a change, a weakening of the ward, a faint seeping through of the power beyond it. It was unlike anything she had felt before. She started to shudder.
“Hold me,” she gasped.
Ribek put his arm round her and hugged her firmly to his side, but the shuddering wouldn’t stop. Through it she heard snatches of what was going on. The tinkle of the bell, “…motion is that…as either a product of the witness’s lunacy, or not truly magical activity of the sort referred to…and those against…carried with Proctors Benter and Gald dissenting—”
“Hold it! Hold it!”
The Gate Sergeant’s bellow overwhelmed the shuddering. He was standing by her side with pike gripped in both hands as if he intended to use it.
“Orders is orders!” he yelled above the growing hubbub. “Twelve years, morning after morning, I’ve been reading out that clause Three-a there. Made no sense to me, but when it happened I did what it said, ’cause I know an order when I hear one. Same with what the gentleman there read out of his black book. That’s an order, and you don’t argue it to and fro, you do what it says. So now where’s this Sleeper, and how…?”
Maja raised a juddering arm and pointed at the far corner.
“Right,” cried the Gate Sergeant. “Out of the way there…”
Clamor filled the room, only to be stilled in an instant. A thin whisper came out of the air, faint and dry as the scuttle of a mouse in a hayloft.
“I have woken. Bring the strangers to me.”
“Maja—she can’t stand strong magic. It will kill her,” said Ribek in a low, strained voice. He’d spoken to empty air, but the whisper answered.
“I will protect her.”
The shuddering died away. Ribek lifted her into his arms.
“This way then,” said the Gate Sergeant. “It’s where the lassie was pointing, over in this corner. Stand aside, please.”
Maja could have walked, but she needed to cling to Ribek, to his beautiful ordinariness, although something else, something invisible, was now also holding and protecting her. A door had appeared now in the corner, its carving and gilding matching the other doors in the council chamber. It hadn’t been there when she had looked before, but she sensed nothing from it as the Gate Sergeant tried its handle, found it unlocked, opened it and held it for Ribek to carry her through.
“Do I come too, ma’am?” the Gate Sergeant croaked.
“No need,” said the whisper. “You have done well, Sergeant. My blessing is on you and yours, and on this whole, loved city. Farewell.”
The Gate Sergeant hesitated, turned, stopped, turned back, and forced his voice to function.
“You’re going then, ma’am?”
“Yes. The covenant is broken, and when all is settled I may go.”
The Gate Sergeant saluted and closed the door.
“Phew!” said Ribek.
“You can put me down now,” said Maja. “I’m all right. Someone’s shielding me. Like Jex. Only…” Only so much more powerfully than Jex could have done. He would have been utterly overwhelmed by what now surrounded them.
She looked around. They were in a plain, stone corridor dimly lit by ordinary-looking lanterns with unmagical flames in them. No doors opened off it. They went along it, Ribek moving with short, effortful steps as if he were walking through something much denser than air, and then down a flight of stone steps.
“We’ll be well underground now,” Ribek muttered. “Land slopes up from the river. Ah, this looks like it.”
In front of them the passage ended, with an open door on the right. Maja had never heard him sound so nervous. Like a shy schoolboy, she thought. She herself felt utterly unafraid. There was a kindliness in the shield around her, like the mother’s love she had never really known. Hoping to share some of that with him, she took his hand as they reached the doorway.
This time the whisper came through human lips, a voice full of human weariness. They crept into the room.
It was a very ordinary space, stone-walled, windowless, unadorned. But for the vaulted roof it might have been a storeroom in a well-built farmhouse. At the same time, Maja recognized that it was extremely old, far older than the Council Chamber they had just left, older even than the ancient walls of Larg, almost as old as the hills. And despite the shielding that wrapped her round, she knew it for a place of power.
There was no furniture in it apart from an iron bedstead. On it a dark green bedspread stitched with what Maja guessed were magical symbols, though she was unable to sense them through her shield. White sheets and pillowcase, looking as if they had been laundered yesterday. On the pillow a skull.
No, not quite. A head next thing to a skull, hairless, the almost transparent skin drawn tight over the fleshless bone, the mouth a slit, invisible lips drawn in between toothless jaws, the eyes clouded over with a gray, bloodshot film.
The slit of a mouth opened, revealing the two thin lines of the lips, so dark a purple they were almost black. They barely moved to release their whisper.
“Welcome. I am the Sleeper, Guardian of Larg. Two hundred years and more I have waited here for you, though under the covenant between myself and the Watchers I could not stir to help you. And now, though they have broken the covenant, there is little I can do. All but the last shreds of my power are gone.
“You, child. What is your name?”
“I’m Maja Urlasdaughter,” whispering too, as if in the presence of the dead. “My friend is Ribek Ortahlson. We come from the Valley.”
“Of course. I knew your ancestors, Meena and Tilja, Alnor and Tahl. With Lananeth I was the earliest of the Ropemaker’s helpers.”
“You’re Zara! You’re in the story we tell in the Valley! You were Lord Kzuva’s magician!”
The corpse-face woke with the ghost of a smile.
“I used that name. When our first tasks were done, and the major demons bound beneath the earth, Lananeth chose to return to natural life and die in human time. I stayed by the Ropemaker’s side.
“By then he had other helpers. His is a restless soul. He fretted to be away from his task, back in the life he knew, exploring and learning. With our agreement he bound us into a covenant that during his absences we should cooperate for the general good of the Empire. Time passed, and all seemed well. Before he last left he told me, and no one else, that he had discovered the gateway into another universe, and there was one extremely difficult task that he could at last accomplish there, and there alone. He could not tell when he would return. I was already old and weary, and asked to be released from my binding and my tasks, and he agreed.
“I chose another course from Lananeth. To preserve what was left of my inward self I came to Larg. Over three years I built a barrier of wards around the city almost as strong as those around the walls of Talagh. That done, I laid my powers aside and surrounded myself with ordinariness, as devoid of magic as I could make it. I healed, and taught others to heal, by ordinary natural means. My old colleagues remained in Talagh, increasing their powers. We waited for the Ropemaker’s return.”
The whisper had slowed, become syllable after dragging syllable. It paused, gathered strength and went on.
“He did not return. The Watchers’ power grew. Before they could complete the change and become the Watchers, as they are now, they had a need that only I could fulfill, so we bound ourselves under the covenant, in terms that neither they nor I could afford to break, that I should fulfill that need and that they should have no power or jurisdiction over my city of Larg.
“Again we waited. I grew older. I could have renewed my powers and prolonged my life, but at great cost to my true self. In the end I could do no more than cast myself into sleep and await the next event. It has now come, twice over. You have appeared at the gates of Larg, and in the very day and hour of your coming to Larg the covenant was broken with a force that battered against my wards around the city, and woke me from my sleep. The Watchers will say that what they have done is still within the terms of the covenant, and for that reason I dare not break the pact between us. I know who you are, and what you are trying to do. But still for the sake of this city I dare not help your search. I can give you my blessing, and that is all.”
She paused again. At length, Ribek broke the silence, whispering too in that presence.
“You…you can’t tell us where this gateway is, the one to the other universe?”
“I dare not meddle. I must recall what is left of my powers, and I do not know if they are enough, and I am old and tired. What the Watchers have done is to wake a great sea demon to use him against the fleets of their enemies. In so doing they have woken others, including the storm demon Azarod, whom long ago I bound and cast into the pit. Before anything else he will come to Larg to take vengeance on me and mine. My barrier is weaker over the sea and it will not hold him of its own. Now you must go, while I prepare to do what I can to protect my city. The Proctors will decide whether to give you passage. My blessing is on you. You may tell them that.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” said Ribek, low-voiced, and moved toward the door. Maja tugged at his sleeve.
“Perhaps Benayu could help her,” she whispered. “Tell her about the dragon. And there’s a demon-binder on Zald.”
He hesitated, then turned back to the bed.
“I…I don’t know if it’s any use, ma’am,” he said. “One of our friends outside the barrier—she isn’t a magician, but she’s got a demon-binder on a jewel called Zald-im-Zald, if that’s any use. And we’ve got someone with us. He had to stay up on the hill outside your wards, because he’s a magician. He knows about storms. We were at Tarshu, on a hill above the town, when the Watchers summoned a tremendous tempest from out at sea to attack an enemy airboat.”
“I saw that tempest in my dream. Someone had spoken the Ropemaker’s true name, and the shock of it almost woke me. I saw the airboat’s fall. I saw a hunting dragon tossed aside like a leaf on the lashing tail of the wind.”
“Benayu did that. The dragon was hunting us, and it was just going to get us when he used a bit of the storm to blow it clean away and kill it. It took a lot out of him, but he did it. If it’s storms you’re planning to deal with…”
“Perhaps. Zald-im-Zald will work only for its owner, and I cannot work with her if she is not a magician. But your other friend…Hold your left hand over my face so that I can breathe into your palm…. Now close it, and keep it closed till you see your friend. Tell him what has happened, and if he agrees let him breathe the breath that I have given you. He will then know my need and purpose and be free to refuse.
“Now go. Tell the Proctors to prepare for a mighty storm. Say that with your friend’s help I will try to protect the city. In that way, if all goes well, they will have cause to assist you as I cannot myself do. Farewell.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” said Ribek, and turned to the door once more. Before they reached it, the whisper came again.
“The man you are looking for…he was born in Barda.”