Child of the Sword
Book 1 of The Gods Within
When gods and wizards go to war . . . it’s best to just find a good shadow and hide.
Copyright (c) 2012 by J. L. Doty
J. L. Doty
Child of the Sword, Book 1 of The Gods Within by J. L. Doty
Copyright (c) 2012 by J. L. Doty
Revision release date: August 29, 2012
With the exception of brief quotations used in articles and reviews, no portion of this book may be copied, reproduced, duplicated or used, in part or in whole, without the express written consent of the author.
This is a work of fiction, and as such involves speculative content. Any resemblance to persons, places, things, names, characters and incidents are fictitious, and are the product of the author's imagination. Any similarities to real persons, living or dead, and events or incidents regarding them, are wholly coincidental.
All rights reserved.
Copyright (c) 2012 by J. L. Doty
Cover art copyright (c) 2012 by J. L. Doty
All included material copyright (c) 2012 by J. L. Doty
Prologue: Thrice and Thrice of a Benesh’ere Blade
Forge the steel thrice in the fires of hell.
Quench the steel thrice in the waters of heaven.
Blood the steel thrice in the agonies of death.
For thrice and thrice must a blade be born.
Chapter 1: The Thief
Rat stepped out of his shadow and darted quickly into another, scurrying like the animal for which he was named, his one good eye ever on the purse he followed. It looked to be a full purse, bulging and jingling with coins, a fat purse, tied to an even fatter waist, and soon it would be his.
Rat was a thief, a small, decrepit, barely human, sometimes animal, stunted, ugly bundle of filthy rags; he stalked his prey every day in the morning light of the market square. He was small, perhaps six or seven years of age, perhaps more. Badly malnourished, almost everyone in the streets considered him a disgusting excuse for humankind, with festering sores visible wherever rents in his dress of rags exposed diseased skin. His vision was limited to his one good eye, but that eye never strayed from sight of the fat and bulging purse.
“Away with yee, scum,” one of the fruit vendors bellowed, emphasizing his dislike for Rat by throwing a spoiled apple with considerable force.
Rat sidestepped the throw easily, and in the same motion caught the apple, a not infrequent means of acquiring food without resorting to theft. Then he scurried between the market booths and disappeared into a nearby shadow.
He paused there, slurped on the pulpy flesh of the rotten apple, aware that today of all days he must move with great care. Unseasonably heavy rains the night before had turned the dirt streets into a quagmire. The vendors, fearing a disastrous loss of revenue on this, the first market day of spring, had grown nervous and edgy. Anything that might turn customers away—especially filthy, disgusting Rat—was to be feared, driven off with a vengeance. Rat understood these things.
He finished the apple, moldy core and all, then reached into his rags and retrieved a small, featureless object no larger than the tip of his littlest finger: gesh. He placed it on his tongue carefully and began chewing, a hard, woody substance that broke up slowly. As it mixed with saliva it formed a fibrous mass that was both bitter and sweet. He let some of the juice trickle down his throat, knowing that soon the gesh would make life just a little sweeter.
Rat loved gesh. It made the cold nights of winter warmer, and it softened the filthy straw of his bed. Gesh brought the only pleasure to his life; he had learned that gesh was good, and that the lack of it was bad, very bad.
Without warning a rock smashed painfully into his cheek, sent him sprawling into the mud. “It’s Rat,” a young boy screamed. “Get him.”
Rat jumped to his feet instantly, ran a jagged, zigzag pattern to the nearest shadow. He paused there, then instinctively changed shadows as another rock sailed his way. He skipped randomly from shadow to shadow, hoping to confuse any eye that might be tracking him, then froze suddenly into stillness and waited.
There were three of them, boys not much larger than he, searching the shadows for him, seeking a little sport. If there had been more of them he would have feared them, for when they banded together in large numbers it became difficult to elude them, and often he must hide in his lair until they lost interest. But this time there were too few of them, and they were looking in the wrong shadows. They had surprised him only because he was too absorbed in his pursuit of the fat purse. And too, the pleasure of the gesh tended to cloud his mind. Rat understood these things.
With his tormentors searching elsewhere it was safe to move on. He changed shadows again and moved away from them, seeking the fat purse. He had lost sight of it in the immediacy of escape, of survival, but he found it again after only a few seconds, for the fat belly beneath which it hung was easy to spot as it jiggled and swayed through the ever-thickening crowd. Rat eyed the purse hungrily and squatted in a shadow, chewing his gesh and biding his time.
“Not here, Rat,” another vendor snarled. “You’ll not be a scarin’ away me customers with yer stench.”
Rat changed shadows. The fat purse meandered toward the center of the market so Rat followed, skipping from shadow to shadow, hoping the thicker crowds near the center would confuse pursuit at the moment of truth.
The next shadow Rat stopped in was at the edge of Mathal’s fruit stand. She’d seen him approach, but turned her head and pretended not to notice. She frequently looked away like that, allowing him to steal a piece of fresh fruit, and in return he was never greedy, taking only one. Often, in the dark of night, he would leave her a gift in return: a pretty stone polished by the weather, a half-eaten mouse or rat, or perhaps a small pile of grubs. He knew she appreciated the gifts, for in the morning she always took them in without scorn or distaste.
Rat lost the fat purse momentarily, then caught sight of it again where it had stopped to watch a juggling act. The jugglers were good, and a dense crowd had gathered. Rat considered the situation carefully, decided that his moment had come.
He stayed close in among the stalls, picking his shadows with care, choosing each so that it brought him carefully closer to his intended prey. He was in his element, executing a skill he’d learned through a short lifetime of practice, dancing in a world of shadows that he loved dearly.
He paused in the last shadow to withdraw a wicked little knife from his rags, and with his confidence sustained by the gesh he made his move. He broke from his shadow, sprinted the short distance through daylight to the fat purse, gripped it deftly and sliced out with the knife. But the cut was not smooth. Fatpurse felt a slight tug as the blade bit into the purse strings, and as Rat turned to flee, purse in hand, he slipped in the mud, landed in a puddle with a splash.
“Stop,” Fatpurse screamed. “Thief.”
Rat jumped to his feet and ran.
“What?” someone shouted.
“That scum, there,” Fatpurse bellowed, pointing with a fat finger. “He stole my purse. A reward to the man that catches him.”
“It’s Rat,” someone screamed. “Get him.”
Rat had miscalculated. The mud was too thick and the crowd not enough so. Everyone could see him easily and many reached out for him as he shot past. A hand caught hold of his shoulder. He turned on it, bit it hard and it let go.
“Ahhh! I’ll get you, you little shit.”
With fear as his guide, dodging in and out of shadow, Rat barely made it out of the market square. But the crowd quickly coalesced into a mob to give chase, and leading it were the three boys who had hunted him earlier, as knowledgeable as he in the ways of the streets.
“Cut off the thief’s hand,” someone shouted.
Rat ran, heedless of direction, fear his only guide, the mob close on his heels. He ran without stealth or cunning, giving in wholly to the panic that consumed him. He made turns blindly and without thinking; down a street, up an alley, down another street, conscious only of the mud beneath his feet and the mob behind him. He turned into another alley, raced down its length, skidded madly through a hard turn to the right, and there found featureless stone walls on all sides, no windows, no doorways, a blind alley with no escape. He was trapped, and with that realization the fear overwhelmed him, forced him to his knees in the mud, where, without tears, without sound, unable to move, he collapsed in a heap.
The mob rounded the turn in the alley only an instant behind him, a wave of angry people that washed over him and past him, slamming hard into the wall that marked the limit of the alley. Those in the lead found themselves smashed senselessly between the hard stone ahead and their companions following close behind. Many were slow to rise.
“Where is he?” someone screamed.
Rat, still lying in the mud, was trampled some, but basically unhurt, while the mob stood all about him, surrounding him, milling about and paying him not the least bit of attention. Some scratched their heads in confusion and bewilderment, and looked directly at him as if he weren’t there, as if they looked right through him.
Fatpurse came lumbering up the alley, slow and ponderous. He stopped not two paces from Rat, put his fat hands on his hips and said, “Well. Where is he? Where is the little bastard? I can smell his stench, and he has my purse. Fifty coppers—No, a hundred coppers to whoever catches him.”
The mob went wild, overturning anything that might hide a small thief: garbage, refuse, litter that lined the edges of the alley. Rat stood in the center, unhidden and yet ignored by all. He looked at his hands and arms; they were still there, stained with dirt and grime. He looked at his legs and they too remained visible and unchanged. It was all very confusing, but Rat decided not to question his good fortune. This kind of thing had happened before, and if these maniacs wished to let him go when he was there for the taking, then so be it.
Most of the mob was searching the refuse that lined the edges of the alley, so Rat chose a path down the middle. He moved slowly, careful lest he tempt fate by bumping someone, and at first it was simple. But as he neared the end of the alley he noticed a tall man standing there unmoving, legs spread, his fists on his hips, elbows out. His clothes were of a cut far better than the norm: a hip length leather jerkin over a fine linen shirt, loose fitting breaches tucked into knee-high black boots, and for all intents and purposes he blocked Rat’s path.
“Well, well!” the man said, smiling appreciatively and looking directly at Rat. “That’s an impressive trick, young fellow.”
Rat edged experimentally to one side, hoping that, like the others, the man was looking through him and not at him. But the man’s eyes followed him unwaveringly, and Rat knew then that his end had come.
The mob had turned suddenly quiet. Fatpurse approached the tall stranger and bowed uneasily from the waist. “Lord Roland,” Fatpurse said reverently. “You do us honor.”
Lord! Rat thought. This stranger was a clan witch, a witchman come to carry Rat away to the hell pits of Kathbeyanne.
“What goes here?” the witchman demanded.
Fatpurse bowed again. “We seek a cutpurse, your lordship. A disgusting, filthy, little thing.”
The witchman took two steps and towered over Rat, who froze into stillness, his heart pounding uncontrollably. The witchman stuck out his hand, palm up. “Give me the purse, boy.”
Fear flooded through Rat’s soul, growing within him like a cancer, threatening to consume him. He could not move to hand the witchman the purse, though he lost control of his bladder and urine streamed down his leg.
“Stop that,” the witchman snarled.
Rat tried desperately to control his bladder.
“Stop that, I said,” the witchman shouted. He grimaced, put a hand to his temple. “Too much fear!” he groaned, and with his other hand he struck out. Rat didn’t see the blow coming, ended up sitting in the mud with a fiery red welt on his cheek and his head spinning madly.
“Stop that or I’ll slap you again even harder.”
Rat prayed to the gods to help him control his bladder.
“I see him,” someone shouted. “He was invisible.” The crowd came suddenly alive, turned again into a mob.
The witchman leaned over, retrieved the purse from the mud where it had fallen. He handed it to Fatpurse. “Here’s your purse, Raffin. Now clear this mob out of here.”
“But, my lord,” the fat merchant pleaded. “I have no control over these people.”
“Chop off the thief’s hand,” someone shouted.
“Take off his head,” someone else screamed.
The witchman calmly raised both hands above his head and cried, “Silence.”
All became still in an instant.
“There’ll be no chopping of hands or heads this day,” the witchman said. “At least not here and now. Now be gone. Clear this alley, or face my wrath.”
The mob obeyed without question. They shuffled out of the alley passively, subdued, grumbling some, but without a thought of defiance. They left behind Fatpurse, Rat, and the witchman, and their instantaneous compliance with the witchman’s orders bode ill for poor Rat.
“Lord Roland,” Fatpurse squealed, pointing at Rat. “Look. He’s disappearing again.”
The witchman’s head snapped around to look at Rat with those terrible eyes of his. “Just remember you this, boy. I can see you. I can always see you.”
He turned back to Fatpurse. “You’ve got your purse now, Raffin. Your presence is no longer required.”
“But Lord. What about punishment for the thief?”
The witchman smiled evilly. “I’ll see to that personally, Raffin. And you, thief,” he said, turning upon Rat. “You’re coming with me.”
Rat neither replied, nor moved, nor tried to run. He simply fainted.
As the witchman stepped out of the alley, followed by a servant carrying the unconscious, young thief, a rat scurried out of the nearby rubbish, a small finger-length bone in its mouth. It lay the bone down carefully in the mud, and as it returned to the rubbish another rat scurried past it carrying another bone. The second rat lay the second bone down carefully next to the first. More rats appeared one after the other, each carrying a small bone and laying it down next to the others. Slowly, as the rats continued retrieving small bones the pattern they formed in the mud began to take on the shape of a man, though, since few, if any, of the bones were actually human, the man-shape was an undersized, twisted and deformed skeleton of bird, cat, dog and rat bones. The last bones that the rats placed were clearly in the shape of a crown about the little skeleton-man’s head. Then the rats all retreated to the rubbish and disappeared beneath it.
The air about the skeleton-king shimmered, and the bones of one hand moved. Then suddenly the skeleton-king’s chest heaved a sigh and he sat up. He climbed carefully to his feet, stood no taller than the small thief had stood. And while deformed and misshapen, he walked to the mouth of the alley with the bearing of a true king.
He was just in time to catch a last, fleeting glimpse of the wizard, accompanied by a servant carrying the young thief. He stayed hidden in the shadows of the alley and watched as they disappeared among the crowds in the street. He sighed sorrowfully, and with his not-eyes focused on the young thief, he whispered, “Now it begins, my child, and there’s no turning back. I do hope you can forgive me for setting you on this course.”
The skeleton king lowered his head, and without warning all of the bones tumbled to the ground in the alley and lay in a shapeless heap. The rats reappeared and quickly scattered the bones.
Rat awoke in someone’s arms; whose arms, he could not guess. He kept his eyes closed and remained motionless, feigning sleep. And he listened.
“Forgive me for saying so, my lord, but the stench is terrible.” That voice belonged to the one carrying him.
“You’re quite right, Avis,” the witchman laughed. “He does stink, doesn’t he? Place him on the table here.”
“On the table, my lord? Might the Lady Olivia object?”
The witchman hesitated. “Yes. I believe you’re right. Best place him on the floor then.”
The arms laid Rat gently on a stone floor. He took care not to move, and he continued to listen.
“Will that be all, my lord?”
“Yes. Thank you, Avis. You may go. But summon the Lady AnnaRail, please.”
“Certainly, my lord.”
Rat heard feet walk across the floor, then a door closed and all was silent. He waited for several seconds, and when he heard no further sounds he opened his good eye just the slightest bit. The witchman sat across the room at a table looking directly at him. Rat snapped his eye shut instantly.
“Come, child. I know you’re awake. Open your eyes and stand up.”
Rat kept his eye shut, not understanding most of the words. There was a pause, he heard more footsteps, then the toe of a boot nudged him gently in the ribs. “Do as I say, boy. I don’t have the time or the patience to put up with your games. Now stand up.”
The boot nudged him a little less gently. Rat still didn’t understand, but he realized he could no longer play dead. As the boot approached for another nudge, he bit it with all his might, discovering it was made of soft, supple leather, beneath which he could feel the witchman’s toes.
“Owe! Damn you,” the witchman bellowed, twisting his foot free. “That’s a new pair of boots you’ve bitten. You’d better not have marked the leather.” The witchman examined the boot carefully.
Rat squirmed to his feet, hissed and spit at the witchman, put his back to the wall, slid along its length to the nearest corner. The witchman stood near the only door.
The witchman finished examining his boot, apparently satisfied that no damage had been done. He returned to the table calmly, sat down. “I’m not going to hurt you, boy, so calm down.”
Rat’s eyes darted about the room suspiciously, though the witchman seemed to bear him no malice. But at that moment Rat became suddenly conscious of another presence nearby, a presence felt but not seen, sensed but not heard. This presence was not in the room with him and the witchman, but it was conscious of him, and it was coming for him. It was angry at him—he could sense that—angry with an evil, terrible hatred, and it was going to punish him. He began to sob openly, lowered himself slowly to the floor. He crammed several fingers in his mouth to silence the sobs, curled into a fetal position and couldn’t take his eyes from that single closed door through which he knew the evil would come.
The witchman stood from the table, his brows narrowed with concern, and in that moment the door burst open to reveal a wrinkled, old, demon witchwoman in long, flowing, black robes with the fires of magic burning about her. Her face was a mask of wrinkled fury as she pointed at Rat with a shaking finger and demanded, “And what, in the name of the Unnamed King, is that filth?”
In that instant Rat simultaneously fainted, winked into invisibility, and lost control of his bowels.
Still standing in the doorway the old woman’s finger stopped shaking and she paused in amazement. “Well now!” she said. “What do we have here?” She crossed the room to stand over Rat’s motionless form and answered her own question. “A young magician it seems. Now I understand. I sensed his power—raw and uncontrolled, but power nevertheless—and I assumed something had invaded our household. Are you responsible for this, Roland?”
The witchman nodded. “Yes, mother.”
At that moment another woman appeared in the open doorway. She also wore long stately robes, but was younger than the first. “Husband. Mother,” she greeted them formally. “Avis said you wished to see me.”
Roland looked at his wife and frowned. “Don’t you see him, AnnaRail?”
“See whom?” the younger woman asked.
“A boy child,” the old woman answered gruffly, “at my feet. An urchin of the streets, it appears. And it also appears that, unlike us, you cannot see through his invisibility.” The old woman nudged Rat with the tip of a slipper.
“Don’t stand too close, mother,” Roland said, chuckling. “He bites, and your soft slippers won’t protect you at all well.”
The old woman stepped back warily.
“And it’s not invisibility,” Roland added. “Just a shadow. He makes his own shadows and hides within them.”
AnnaRail frowned skeptically. “But the lights in here are too soft for such shadows.” She bent over Rat’s still form.
Roland shook his head. “He needs no light to make the shadows he makes.”
“I’m impressed,” AnnaRail said, running her hands carefully over the still form of the child she could not see.
Standing over her the old woman said, “Not a powerful spell but a subtle one. Who is he, Roland? And where did you find him?”
Roland gave a brief summary of the morning’s incident. “I questioned several of the merchants. No one seems to know who his parents were, or when he was born, or where he came from. They call him Rat, and he seems to have been living on his own somewhere in or around the market. A fruit monger remembers him as far back as two years ago. He appears to be about six or seven years old, though that might be because malnutrition has stunted his growth. She said he steals an occasional piece of fruit, but thinks he lives mostly on garbage and dead animals and worms and the like. Incredible as it seems, he’s apparently survived on his own. But I don’t think it could have lasted much longer. Look at his teeth. They’re so stained by gesh I doubt he’s eaten anything else for some time now.”
“I cannot see his teeth,” AnnaRail said. She frowned and her attention seemed to be elsewhere. She sat down on the floor unceremoniously beside Rat, looked up at the old woman. “Something’s wrong here. Will you ward me?”
“Certainly,” the old woman said. She stood motionless over AnnaRail and began chanting words in a slow, soft voice, words incomprehensible to Roland whose own magic was so limited.
He looked on as AnnaRail bowed her head, cradling the bundle of filthy rags in her arms, ignoring the child’s stench and conscious only of its needs. She was that way with all children, and Roland loved her for it. She was one of the most powerful witches he had ever met, and yet she was happiest with her sons and daughters nearby.
In contrast stood Olivia, Roland’s own mother: never loving, never gentle, content to allow servants to raise her two sons while she plotted their greatness, fiercely loyal, a she-cat who would defend any member of her family to the death, she demanded perfection from herself and those around her, a perfection her sons could never achieve. Yet he knew she would die as readily for him as for his older brother Malka.
Olivia stopped chanting. AnnaRail’s eyes lost that faraway look. “It’s hopeless,” the younger woman said. “He’s gone into some sort of recession. Very severe. So much fear! What could cause such fear in one so small, I wonder. It will kill him, I think. Soon his soul will be beyond our reach.”
Something deep within Roland’s soul told him he could not allow that. “Then we must act quickly.”
“Hold,” Olivia commanded sharply. “You have yet to convince me we must act at all.”
“But we must,” Roland pleaded.
Olivia’s eyes narrowed. “Must we really? He is nothing to us, so let him die.”
“No,” Roland shouted.
“Yes,” the old woman growled in a low voice. “What has come over you? Has this bundle of filth enchanted you? It is definitely a thing of magic; that I can sense, even if you cannot. Have you lost your senses? Are you enspelled?”
Roland made a visible effort to calm himself. “No,” he said. “I am not enspelled. I am answering to my intuition, which cries out to me to save this child. To let it die, I sense . . . would be a grave mistake. To save it . . . to save it will somehow benefit us. It will somehow benefit House Elhiyne, though how I cannot say.”
Olivia nodded. “Very well. You are not enspelled. And I know the power of your intuition; even if you doubt its magic, I do not. But what you suggest will require powerful and dangerous spells. Besides we here, only Marjinell and MichaelOff are available. And MichaelOff is only just of age, and far too inexperienced. I’ll not endanger him so.”
“We must do something,” Roland begged.
Olivia looked carefully at AnnaRail. “What say you?”
AnnaRail looked at Roland as if she could see into his soul. “I sense strange forces at work here, subtle forces. This child is strongly tied to the arcane in some fashion I cannot fathom, and I trust my husband’s instincts. We can take precautions to protect MichaelOff. I say we at least try.”
Olivia did not reply immediately, but looked at each of them carefully, measuring them. “Are the two of you prepared to accept responsibility for this . . . this guttersnipe?”
Roland nodded instantly. AnnaRail hesitated, then agreed with less enthusiasm.
“Very well,” the old woman said. “AnnaRail. Prepare the child. Roland. Summon Marjinell and MichaelOff to the sanctum. I’ll go there directly and set the Wards.”
Olivia turned her back on them without another word, left the room so quickly they had no time to react. She rather enjoyed such dramatic exits, for it kept her offspring on their toes. And out in the halls the servants were careful to step aside as she strode past them.
The servants were another matter. They feared her, she knew, and they avoided her when they could, which was right and correct, for she was a woman to be feared.
Avis, the chief steward of the household, waited outside the sanctum when she arrived. It was not the first time he had anticipated her with almost clairvoyant accuracy, and it was not the first time she wondered if there wasn’t some small talent hidden within his soul.
She paused before entering the sanctum, though she kept her eyes straight ahead looking at the power within, and not at the servant standing to one side. “You know the procedure, Avis.”
“Yes, madam. I’ll seal the chamber and post guards.”
She nodded, then stepped forth into the sanctum, the servant already gone from her mind. This room, and others like it, always struck her as odd, even after all these years. Twelve walls and twelve corners. Almost round, but not quite. The servants would never enter such a room, not even in fear of their mortal lives, for rightly they feared for their immortal souls.
For a moment she stood without moving, looking at the ceiling and the twelve walls, her eyes narrowing into a look of intense concentration. Then she chose one of the twelve corners, though there was nothing to distinguish it from the rest. She approached it, stood motionless before it, and concentrated with every ounce of her will on the words of power she knew existed within her.
She spoke the words from memory, almost by rote, for as always they carried no meaning at first, as if they were not meant to be understood by a mere mortal such as she. But then slowly the power within them filled her soul with meaning, and the air about her began to shimmer without luminance, a wavering of the senses only there at the edge of vision. Then suddenly, as if her actions were controlled by something beyond her own will, her hand thrust upward high in the air. Her sleeve billowed about a leathery old wrist quivering with tension, and she cried out in a voice that echoed the power at her command: “ Primus,” she called, “I bid you come.”
Pain shot through her arm as a spark of brilliant radiance flared within her upraised hand, and light that was not meant for mortal eyes splashed across the room. She wanted to look away; she wanted to wince at the pain that burned a hole into her soul, but she knew she dare not show such weakness to the life she had called forth from the nether reaches.
She stood for a long, motionless moment. And then, when certain she had achieved control, she lowered her hand slowly to the floor, left behind a pillar of such intensity that now she must look away. To the eyes it was a rod of golden light no wider than a finger, but to her soul it was something far more. It was power, the First Dominant Ward of Power, vibrating with a sound that hurt her ears, blistering her hand with heat, and torturing her soul with a life beyond what she could ever hope to comprehend.
She turned away from it almost arrogantly, walked to the next corner, raised her hand again and cried, “ Secundus . I bid you come,” and there she drew forth another Ward. But where the first had been gold, the second was violet, and it sang a note higher and more shrill. “ Tertius,” she cried at the third corner, and brought forth the white Ward. Quartus answered her summons at the fourth corner, and Quintus at the fifth. When Sextus finally occupied the sixth corner she paused, sweat beading on her brow, lines of strain added to those of age.
She passed the next two corners without filling them, for between them stood the only entrance to the room, a heavy stone door hanging on massive iron hinges. At the ninth corner she called upon Nonus , and at the tenth Decimus , then Undecimus , and Duodecimus . She completed the circuit of the room, and turned to look upon her work: ten Wards in ten corners, each flaring its own color, and sounding a note harsh and demanding.
AnnaRail entered the room cautiously, carrying Rat. She was followed by a woman her own age, and an adolescent boy. She placed Rat, still unconscious, though naked now and washed, on the stone floor at the center of the chamber. And about them all the air shimmered with power.
Olivia turned to the young boy. “I need your strong back, grandson.”
He appeared to know what was required of him without being told; he stepped to the heavy stone door, put a shoulder to it, and pushed. It swung silently on its hinges and closed with a thud to form the twelfth wall. He reached out, threw the bolt, sealed the chamber, and except for the hinges, handle, and locking bolt of the door, the twelve walls were now without feature. The boy joined the two younger women at the center of the room.
Olivia stepped up to the now clear seventh corner, and without hesitating she reached upward and cried, “ Septimus . I bid you come.” And in her lowering hand she brought forth the black Ward, unique in its silence and lack of color.
She stepped to the last corner, the only corner that did not glow with the infinite power of a Ward, and her bearing changed, for now she was in command. Her back straightened; her chin thrust outward, and her sagging, old breasts stood out as if she were a young girl again. There was a sense of strength in her movements; her eyes alight with godfire, an d about her hung the aura of a queen. “ Octavus,” she commanded, “Ward of the power of the eighth tribe, Keeper of the House of Elhiyne, I command you . . . attend me.”
Instantly the eighth Ward appeared, red, angry, and powerful. She admired it for a moment, then turned her back on it arrogantly. “The circle is complete,” she said to the others. “None may enter. None may leave.”
Without speaking further she joined them at the center of the chamber and added her hands to the living circle they now formed about Rat. She looked at each of them closely, judging them. Her eyes—large black pools in the middle of white orbs—shown with an orange red glow, a manifestation of the power at her command. She knew that to the others her eyes gave her the appearance of near madness, and she was oddly proud of that. She stood wrapped within her power, dark, arrogant, dangerous.
She lifted her face to the gods and spoke. “We, of House Elhiyne, of Clan Elhiyne, of the eighth tribe of the Shahot, are here assembled in arcane rite. Let those whose magic is not ours . . . BE GONE.”
Rat awoke suddenly, though cautiously he lay without moving for a time, eyes closed and listening. Only when certain he had heard every sound the room would yield did he open his good eye. He was naked, and alone, lying beneath a blanket on a cot in an otherwise empty room: a bare stone cell with a doorway but no door.
He tossed the cover aside, swung his legs off the cot and crossed the room in an instant. He found no one in the hallway beyond, but to his delight he discovered many shadows. It took much searching to find his way in such strange surroundings, for often he had to hide in a convenient shadow while witches passed. And then there was the stairway, a long winding path of steps down which he had to sneak with no help whatsoever from shadow. But he made it, and once below he found the courtyard easily. From there it was a simple matter to find the front gate, to slip through the iron bars and lose himself in the shadows of the city beyond.
It took all afternoon to cross the city and find his den, but he managed it, and once there he searched frantically for his gesh . To his great relief it was there, undisturbed. But as he placed a pinch of the root on his tongue it seemed to catch fire, his eyes felt suddenly as if they would burst from his head, and the contents of his stomach came boiling forth to splatter all over the filthy straw of his bed. The convulsions continued without mercy until he finally fainted.
Twice more he awoke in the bare stone cell, naked and alone, and twice more he escaped from the witch’s den to the city beyond. Each time he returned to his lair to taste the gesh, and each time he was racked with convulsions and fainted.
A fourth time he awoke, naked and alone. And a fourth time he made his way to the courtyard below, but this time he could not escape. There was an invisible something that filled the gaps between the bars of the gate. He could feel it, but not see it, and it prevented his passing. He tried the wall, but it was too high and he found no purchase for climbing. He spent the entire day working his way around the compound, seeking some means of escape, and found every path blocked in one fashion or another.
Late that afternoon he returned to the front gate, desperate, exhausted, and hungry for gesh. In his frustration he began chewing on the lock and rattling its mechanism.
“You’re a stubborn one, aren’t you?”
At the sound of the voice Rat dove for the nearest shadow, froze, and looked on as one of the witchwomen approached. She stopped some distance from him and smiled pleasantly. “Don’t be afraid, Rat. I won’t hurt you. I am AnnaRail, and I am here to teach you, for you have much to learn, and the first thing you must learn is your new name. From this moment on you will be called ‘Morgin’, and no one will ever again call you ‘Rat.’”
She finished speaking by passing her hand before her as if to emphasize her words, though for an instant Morgin thought he saw a faint red flash dance among her fingertips. But he dismissed that thought quickly, and his eyes darted between her and the gate.
“Now that is the second thing you must learn, Morgin. I have placed a spell upon you. You will not again leave this compound without my permission.”
“ Gesh,” he croaked, his voice guttural and harsh.
“And that, Morgin, is the third thing you must learn.” Her voice surprised Morgin, for there was sadness in it. “You have sampled the pleasures of gesh , and now you must pay a price for that pleasure, and I am afraid you will find that lesson harsh in the extreme.
“Never again will you enjoy gesh , for I have placed another spell upon you, a spell that will remain until you are old enough to remove it yourself. And that will not be for a very long time. You will suffer in the learning of this lesson, but I will be by your side, and I will help you as much as I can.”
She held out her hand. “Come with me now, Morgin. It’s time for you to begin a new life.”
He hissed at her like a snake, “Ssssssssss!”
Her eyes saddened. “Won’t you be my friend? Come now. Take my hand.”
Morgin was tempted—this witch seemed kind. He considered her carefully for a moment, then slowly, cautiously, he emerged from his shadow, and with distrust written in every move, he edged closer, step by step, until he was near enough to lean forward and sniff the outstretched hand.
It was sweet, and soft, and gentle.
Quickly he scanned the courtyard, assuring himself that this was no trap, that there were no other witches waiting in hiding to snare him. Then warily he reached out and placed his hand in hers, and began a journey from which there could be no return.
Chapter 2: In the Witches Den
AnnaRail stood quietly to one side while Malka and Olivia spoke in subdued tones. She cared little about what was said and was wisely silent, forcing herself to remain calm. Olivia’s machinations were a constant source of irritation. The old woman thrived on intimidation, and one of her favorite tactics was to force someone to stand idly by after being summoned urgently to her audience chamber. Sometimes she would even talk about a person as if they weren’t there, when all along they stood nearby waiting patiently to be acknowledged. And the gods help any fool brash enough to speak before being acknowledged.
A crude squeeze on AnnaRail’s left buttock startled her out of her thoughts. Turning, she found Roland and fixed him with an angry stare. He looked back with an evil grin. Quickly she scanned the room, assuring herself that no one had seen his playfulness.
He leaned close to her and whispered, “You looked so intense, my love. I felt drastic measures were called for.”
She smiled pleasantly.
He leaned even closer, stretching his neck to kiss her on the cheek. She continued to smile, laid her hand softly on his arm, and pinched with a determination she hoped would draw blood.
He forgot the kiss, stifled a groan, stepped back suddenly. It was her turn to display an evil grin.
“Is something wrong, Roland?” Olivia demanded, glaring at him.
“Oh! No, mother,” he said. “Just a little itch.”
“Then kindly be still.”
Olivia and Malka returned to their conversation. Roland smiled at AnnaRail with a look that admitted he’d gotten what he deserved. She smiled back, then let her eyes drift lazily about Olivia’s audience chamber.
The room was too small to entertain more than a few selected guests. There were two couches, small tables, large throw-rugs, and a hearth for heat during the winter. It was a warm and comfortable room that contrasted sharply with the old woman’s cold and impersonal nature. Olivia preferred to conduct important business here, reserving the Hall of Wills for ceremonial occasions and large crowds.
Marjinell said something that Olivia didn’t like. The old woman stared her into silence.
Poor Marjinell, thought AnnaRail, always trapped between Olivia and Malka, mother and son, both cold and powerful, though Malka was not nearly so willful. Of course Marjinell deserved most of the scorn they heaped upon her. She was a cow, self-centered and often stupid, but she had borne two strong sons, and she was a good mother, so she was tolerated.
“AnnaRail,” Olivia called. “Attend me.”
AnnaRail stepped forward and bowed lightly.
Olivia patted the spot next to her on the couch. “Sit beside me and tell me of the child Morgin. Roland. Malka. Marjinell. Gather around. I’m sure we’re all interested in AnnaRail’s report.”
Report? AnnaRail thought. Of course. The old woman considered this a report on the piece of property named Morgin so that she and Malka could determine how he might best serve House Elhiyne. AnnaRail hoped it would not be necessary to defy the old woman again. She had done so with her first born DaNoel, and the battle had been hard fought, and hard won, only because she had remained steadfast against the old witch.
“Does this Morgin child still act like an untamed animal?” Olivia asked. “You’ve had almost half a year now to train him.”
“He is learning,” AnnaRail said. “Perhaps slowly, but he is learning.”
“I should hope so,” Marjinell sneered. “After what I went through for him. And I allowed my oldest son to be placed in danger just to save that little ragamuffin’s life.”
The silence that followed was embarrassing for Malka, who tried to end it quickly. “The servants speak of him as if he were a demon from hell. Is he that unruly?”
AnnaRail smiled at that. “Not unruly. Just curious, forever trying to learn the purpose of everything that catches his eye. His problem with the servants is that he gets in their way.”
“Does he satisfy his curiosity with questions?” Malka asked.
“No,” AnnaRail said. “And that is the problem. He rarely speaks without prompting. He watches and listens, and if he’s curious, he waits until he’s alone, then acts.”
“A bad habit, that,” Malka said. “We’ll have to break him of it.”
“The meddling, yes,” AnnaRail said. “But not the curiosity. If anything, that must be encouraged. It’s healthy. It’s good for him.”
“Very well,” Olivia said. “His curiosity will not be discouraged, but the servants will be given permission to punish him if he acts up.”
“Is he housebroken yet?” Marjinell asked. “Or am I going to continue finding dung in the corners?”
AnnaRail suppressed a laugh as she remembered the evening Marjinell had come screaming from her chambers. Morgin was neat, and careful to leave his droppings in an out-of-the-way corner. Unfortunately, he’d chosen a corner in Marjinell’s suite.
“He’s housebroken,” AnnaRail said, “though it took some time. But once we left Anistigh his training progressed in leaps and bounds. It seems the ride to these estates was long enough to impress upon him the futility of escape, and he quickly learned that he must learn. Since then his vocabulary has improved greatly. He can now carry on a literate, if halting, conversation, though, as I said, he rarely speaks without prompting. That’s why I think it’s time he joined the other children at their lessons. He’ll learn much faster, and it’s time he began learning to interact with others.”
“What about his magic?” Malka asked. “How well does he understand the shadows?”
AnnaRail shook her head. “He doesn’t even know he’s using magic. Whenever he’s seriously frightened he seems to use it naturally, much as you and I breathe without conscious thought. And as for the shadows, he thinks he’s just hiding within those that are already there. He has no idea he’s creating them himself.”
“That’s not good,” Roland said. “It’s going to be difficult to make him aware of his power.”
“It’s worse than that,” AnnaRail said. “He uses it to hide from his responsibilities and avoid punishment. And if we allow that to continue, he’ll never learn to face up to a disagreeable situation.”
“I could create a spell that would prevent him from using such magic,” Olivia said offhandedly.
AnnaRail shook her head. “Thank you, mother, but no. He must be taught the proper use of magic. We must forbid its improper use, and punish him when he disobeys. Unfortunately, I seem to be particularly susceptible to his shadows. That is why I must ask the rest of you to take a hand in this. Roland, you in particular seem to be immune. And you also, mother.”
“Very well,” Olivia said. “I see no reason why the family cannot act as one in this. It shall be so.” And that was that. The most powerful witch in the Lesser Clans had spoken. “But I asked you to learn his parentage. Did you conduct a seeking?”
AnnaRail hesitated for a moment, and when she did speak, she was unable to hide a slight tremble in her voice. “I . . . attempted a seeking.”
“You attempted a seeking?” Malka asked warily.
“And?” Olivia prompted.
“I . . . failed.”
The room was suddenly silent. “Explain yourself,” Olivia demanded sharply.
AnnaRail hesitated, but it was no use trying to hide her own fear of the ordeal. “I took a preliminary survey of the child’s contact with the netherworld. Based upon what I perceived there I placed several minor wards and a demon under geas, whose continued existence was dependent upon my safety. I found much pain, much sorrow and unhappiness, and no joy. And fear. I found fear above all else.”
Olivia, Malka, and Roland listened raptly. Marjinell seemed preoccupied with a mirror.
“Between birth,” AnnaRail continued, “and an undefined time several years ago—probably his entry into life in the market in Anistigh—there is a large period of time that is ruled absolutely by fear. I decided to investigate further, but when I tried to enter it I was trapped by the fear that exists there. I was almost consumed, and when I tried to leave, I could not. The demon pulled me from that existence screaming in terror. I freed the demon, released the wards, and have not returned to that place since.” As an afterthought she added, “And I will not, though the gods themselves order me to.”
“Kill it,” Marjinell burst out. “Kill the little monster before it harms someone.”
“No,” Roland shouted.
“No. You’ll have to kill me first.”
“Silence,” Olivia demanded. She looked at Roland sharply. “I don’t believe you really mean that, son.”
Roland calmed himself. “Of course not. But I do think such drastic action is unnecessary.”
“I agree,” AnnaRail said.
“And I,” added Malka.
Olivia’s response came slowly. “I will not rule out killing a being that may someday become a threat to this family. But I do believe that, at this time, such action would be premature.”
Marjinell looked from face, to face, to face. She stood in a huff. “Well, if that’s all you think of my word—”
“Sit down, daughter,” Olivia commanded sharply. “Your opinion is always valued here. But we all are sometimes wrong.”
Marjinell sat down slowly.
Olivia looked at AnnaRail carefully. “Was there anything else?”
AnnaRail frowned. “Well yes, there was. His dreams are rather odd. I encountered several fragments during the seeking, and I asked him about them.”
She hesitated for a moment, but Olivia urged her on impatiently. “Well?”
“Well, to begin with, he doesn’t think of them as dreams, but rather as another life that he leads elsewhere, a life that is of no greater or lesser importance than the one he leads here. And that impression is compounded by the nature of his dreams, which I believe are more coherent than the dreams we experience. Apparently it’s not uncommon for his next dream to take up where the last one left off, to the point where he thinks that when he goes to sleep here, he wakes up in another life, and when he goes to sleep there, he wakes up here.”
“Very curious,” Roland said.
AnnaRail agreed. “Yes. Very curious. And then there’s the skeleton king—at least that’s what he calls this being—a recurrent specter that he meets often in his dreams.”
Malka frowned. “These are nightmares then?”
“No. On the contrary. He considers the skeleton king a friend, or actually a mentor, even looks forward to meeting him in his next dream, and is disappointed if he doesn’t. Sometimes they talk, discuss his problems much like a father and son might. It’s all very curious.”
“And of no real import,” Olivia interjected. “It certainly has no bearing on his heritage. The child is probably the son of a clansman; lost, stolen, or abandoned for some reason shortly after birth, probably the get of some prostitute. The boy obviously possesses much power and may someday be of use. So he will be raised as a clansman.”
She turned to AnnaRail. “You accepted responsibility for him, and now it appears that that responsibility may last his lifetime. Are you prepared to accept that?”
AnnaRail tried not to show her reluctance as she nodded.
“Very well. The boy will be treated as close kin. And as with all close kin, we will all lend a hand in his upbringing. Is that clear?” This time Olivia looked to Marjinell for an answer.
“Yes, mother,” she said meekly.
“Good,” Olivia said. “I have spoken. You may go now, for I wish to be alone.”
Morgin sat in the corner where he’d found a comfortable shadow, sobbing quietly. He hated the witches, all of them. Well . . . perhaps not AnnaRail. She was kind, and when she did punish him, somehow he knew it hurt her too. And NickoLot. Nicki was all smiles and happiness, a tiny bundle of energy, pink skin and big round eyes. Morgin loved to hold her in his arms and make faces at her, and she would laugh and giggle. But he hated all the rest, especially JohnEngine and the other boys his age. They were mean, always taunting him, and when he tried to hide from them Roland would punish him, telling him to stop making magic.
At first Morgin had tried to tell them that he didn’t know any magic. That was for witches, not him. But Malka had told him that he too was a witchman, and Morgin had finally come to realize that was why they’d taken him in. He was a witchman—like them—and he wasn’t supposed to make magic. He wasn’t supposed to make shadows and hide in them either, but he didn’t make shadow, and shadow wasn’t magic. Shadow was just shadow.
AnnaRail had spanked him. Malka had spanked him. Marjinell and Roland and Avis and even MichaelOff had spanked him, all but the old witchwoman Olivia. She he rarely saw, so he wasn’t sure if he really did hate her, but he thought about it carefully and decided to hate her on general principal anyway. And maybe he didn’t hate Annaline and DaNoel, JohnEngine’s older sister and brother, or Brandon, MichaelOff’s younger brother, but he hated all the rest, especially JohnEngine for picking on him, and Roland for spanking him when he did. He tucked his knees up close to his chest, buried his face in his arms, and continued sobbing. He wanted to run away and go back to the city, but that was so far, and he knew he could never find it. The best he could do was find a place to be alone, like now, in the Hall of Wills where it was empty and dark, with many comfortable shadows.
The large wooden door at the end of the Hall opened suddenly, spilling light across the floor. It was the witchman Roland carrying a lamp.
Morgin muttered the words of power AnnaRail had taught him. She said that if he concentrated hard enough, they would help him learn control. So he muttered and concentrated, fearful that, as before, it wouldn’t help, and Roland would spank him.
The footsteps approached from across the room. Morgin squeezed his eyes shut and whispered the words over and over, thinking about each in its turn, knowing that he would fail. The footsteps stopped only inches away. “Very good, Morgin. You’re learning. Now try to relax when you concentrate and you’ll find it easier.”
Morgin squeezed his eyes open. Roland stood over him, smiling. “Avis tells me you weren’t at dinner with the rest of the children. Are you still sulking over that spanking I gave you?”
Morgin dare not answer.
“Are you hungry?”
“Good. So am I.” Roland extended his hand. “Come. Let’s get something to eat. I’m sure we can find some leftovers to munch on. And we can talk, you and me. What do you say?”
Morgin said nothing, though his stomach growled an answer instead. He stood and cautiously accepted Roland’s outstretched hand.
“How is JohnEngine?” Olivia demanded, storming into AnnaRail’s chambers. “I hear Morgin hurt him rather badly. I swear I’ll personally tear that little guttersnipe apart with my bare hands.”
“Calm down, mother,” AnnaRail said. “JohnEngine has some bruises and minor cuts that will heal quickly, and he will hopefully learn something about picking fights. Besides, how much damage can two eight year old boys do to one another?”
Olivia’s eyes narrowed angrily. “You say JohnEngine picked the fight?”
AnnaRail nodded. “And Morgin gave him a sound thrashing. Unfortunately, he used his shadows to do it and he’s been punished for that, as JohnEngine has been punished for picking the fight in the first place.”
Olivia frowned, perplexed. “I don’t understand you. You sound pleased.”
AnnaRail shrugged. “In a way, I am. It seems JohnEngine has been picking on Morgin regularly, has been acting the bully, inciting the other boys against him; a very cowardly thing, but I suppose a very boyish thing.
“Well now, it seems that JohnEngine was up to his usual tricks this afternoon. And Morgin, as he has been known to do before when faced with a difficult situation, vanished into a shadow. But instead of going someplace to hide as usual, he turned on JohnEngine and beat him mercilessly. I’m afraid JohnEngine was utterly helpless against an opponent that was virtually invisible.” AnnaRail smiled and chuckled.
“But I don’t understand you,” Olivia said. “You seem to be happy about that.”
“Oh I am, mother. What better way for JohnEngine to learn the rightful reward for cowardly violence than to be punished by his intended victim? I hope JohnEngine learned something today.
“And look at Morgin. He finally faced up to someone he was afraid of. I’ve been waiting for two years to see that. It’s the first time he hasn’t run, the first time he’s stood up to his fears.”
Olivia nodded. Her frown slowly changed to a look of comprehension. “I begin to understand,” she said. “But this Morgin child is an odd one, what with his shadows. I would like to speak with him. Where is he?”
AnnaRail shrugged. “Actually, I don’t know.”
Olivia’s frown returned. “You don’t know?”
“No,” AnnaRail said. “He seems to have found a hiding place with a certain enchantment to it, for I can detect him neither here nor in the netherworld. ”
“That is serious, daughter.”
AnnaRail shook her head. “Not really,” she said. “He’s used it before, but never for more than an hour or two, and only when he felt badly hurt. We all need a place to be alone at times, and he has his. I’ll only begin to worry if he’s gone over long.”
Olivia considered AnnaRail’s words for a moment, then shrugged. “Very well. We’ll allow the brat his private hole, as long as he doesn’t abuse the privilege.”
And with that, Olivia turned and left, and was gone as quickly as she’d come.
Morgin sat smugly within his alcove and watched the witches pass by. They were looking for him, but they would not find him, not as long as he stayed within the alcove. Even Roland could not find him here.
He had decided that this time he would never leave the alcove. He would stay here forever, and the witches could search for him until they were blue. If only he’d thought to bring along some food.
DaNoel and MichaelOff stopped in the hallway just outside the alcove.
“Any sign of him?” MichaelOff asked.
“No,” said DaNoel. He leaned against what to him was solid stone wall, but to Morgin it was the entrance to the alcove, a space through which he could easily pass. From within he could see the flesh of DaNoel’s hand flatten as it pressed against a wall that Morgin did not perceive as even being there.
“Why do we have to waste our time looking for him?” DaNoel asked angrily.
“Because grandmother wants to find him,” MichaelOff said, “and is angry that she can’t. Your mother says to look for a short while then don’t bother any longer. She said she’ll take care of grandmother.”
DaNoel shook his head, pulled his hand away from the wall, and he and MichaelOff walked away down the hall.
Morgin had been standing with his nose only inches from DaNoel’s hand, marveling at how the older boy could lean against nothing. He had always known the alcove was a magical place, for no one could find him when he hid there. He’d gone looking for it a hundred times and it was never where it should be, nor anywhere else for that matter. But when he desperately needed a place where the wizards and witches could not find him, then it would appear in the oddest of places; an alcove, several feet deep, sometimes set in a wall only inches thick. He’d always known it was enchanted, and now DaNoel’s hand had confirmed that.
His stomach growled. He was hungry, and getting hungrier. Perhaps he could sneak into the kitchen, steal some food, and return before he was caught. With that thought in mind he stepped out into the hall, then suddenly realized the mistake he’d made. He spun about to confront a featureless stone wall. The alcove was gone, and he knew from experience that he would not see it again until it was ready.
Chapter 3: To Glimpse the Wizard
Morgin stood motionless as the other boys closed in upon him. There was no escape, no rescue, so he made a run for it, charging into their midst with all the speed and force he could muster. Badly outnumbered, he ended up face down in the dirt with several of them on top of him, then was lifted back to his feet by their combined strength. He struggled uselessly, then, as both of his arms were twisted painfully behind his back, tried to cry out, but his screams were muffled by an old rag that someone crammed into his mouth. Finally, defeated, he lay still.
JohnEngine swaggered forward. He looked Morgin over carefully, scornfully, then spoke loudly, addressing the other boys. “It seems we have captured some vermin here,” he said, his fists resting arrogantly on his hips. “Now what is to be done with vermin? Any ideas?”
“Throw him in the river,” someone shouted.
JohnEngine shook his head. “No. The river’s too far, too much trouble.”
“The pig wallow,” someone else suggested.
Again JohnEngine shook his head. “No. The pig wallow will only make him homesick.”
They all laughed.
“No,” JohnEngine said. “We have to teach this vermin a lesson.” He thought for a moment, then his eyes lit up with an idea. He reached into his tunic and pulled out a short, stubby candle.
The other boys snickered, seeing in the candle some significance that was not evident to Morgin.
“Let’s go,” JohnEngine hollered, and they dragged him away to some unknown purpose.
He was half carried, half pushed, to a dank, musty, subterranean storage room deep within the bowels of the castle. It was an old room filled with abandoned casks and pots and chests, the contents of which held no interest for Morgin’s captors. While three of them held him, the rest dismantled a considerable pile of refuse that had been stacked in one corner, finally exposing a large and jagged hole in the wall, beyond which resided complete darkness.
“What’s that?” Morgin asked.
JohnEngine smiled. “Elhiyne goes far deeper into the earth than most people know. The old castle was built almost entirely underground, though most of it has since been walled off. But here, we have access, and you, vermin, are going to join us while we do some exploring.”
Morgin resisted, but his efforts were futile against so many. They pulled him through the jagged hole, laughing at him. Inside they paused only to light a candle, then they dragged him off into the darkness.
Morgin realized instantly that these were not crude caves but smooth, stone walls with ceilings and floors. And while he could see little in the flickering shadows of the candle’s light, he found that in the ways of Rat the thief he knew the darkness as his captors never would. A sudden calm descended upon him as he realized that he need only bide his time.
At each intersection of the ancient corridors the boys paused to examine chalk marks on the walls. They had placed some code there during earlier explorations, a code that appeared to inform them of their location, and was obviously the means by which they intended to return. Morgin began to understand that the corridors of the old castle were labyrinthine.
Eventually they pulled him into a narrow side passage, with walls and ceiling so close that they held the flickering shadows of the candle almost at hand. They stopped at a small wooden door, pulled it open and hurled him into the room beyond. He tumbled across the dusty floor of what he guessed to be a rather small cell of unknown purpose. JohnEngine and his followers entered behind him.
“We’re going to leave you now, vermin,” JohnEngine said. “I would advise you not to strike out on your own. Without a candle you stand no chance, and even with one you’d not understand our guide markings. And if you’re foolish enough to become hopelessly lost, not even we can find you then, and you’ll rot here for the rest of your days.”
“Will you come back for me?” Morgin asked.
JohnEngine thought about that for a moment. “I suppose so,” he said, “in a day or two, when we have time.” Then without another word he spun about and left. The rest followed, closing the small door with a loud chunk.
Morgin jumped up immediately and pressed his ear against it. He heard their voices receding slowly into the distance, laughing loudly at his expense. He waited until certain they’d not hear him, then he lifted the latch on the old door and leaned against it. It creaked slowly open, and he sighed with relief that it had no lock. The fools had expected the darkness to hold him.
He stepped through the door, closed it and moved silently in the wake of his captors. There was never a question in his mind about the direction he should choose, for he was in darkness, and darkness was like shadow, and in shadow he always knew his way, even more so than in the blinding light of day.
He caught up with them quickly, then held back, following just beyond the limit of the candle’s light, dancing among the shadows that seemed so much a part of his solitary existence.
“Are you really going to leave him there for two days?” one of the boys asked.
“No,” JohnEngine said, laughing loudly. “If he’s missing through the night mother’ll find out and have my hide. We’ll just let him stew in the dark for a couple of hours. By that time he should be a whimpering mess.”
The other boys laughed at JohnEngine’s clever plan, and Morgin chose that instant to act. He picked a shadow he knew would pass close to JohnEngine and melted into it, and as JohnEngine’s candle came within reach he gave a light puff of breath and blew it out. Darkness descended, utter and complete.
“What happened?” someone gasped.
“Stay calm,” JohnEngine said. “The candle went out. It’ll only take a second or two to light it.”
Morgin, just one more body jostling against the rest in the darkness, stood calmly in the midst of them and watched JohnEngine fumble in his tunic for a striker and flint. He knew he wasn’t really watching him, for the image that filled his mind remained unchanged even when he closed his eyes, but he nevertheless thought of it that way.
He waited until JohnEngine had retrieved his striker, then reached out quickly and snatched the candle from his hand.
“Oh damn!” JohnEngine swore.
“What’s wrong?” someone asked.
“I dropped the candle. Does anyone have a spare?”
“I do,” a boy named Dannasul said, reaching into his own tunic. He fumbled for a moment, then held his candle blindly out in JohnEngine’s direction. “Here,” he said.
Morgin reached out and took the candle, and Dannasul relaxed, assuming JohnEngine had taken it.
JohnEngine groped forward in the darkness, pushing Morgin unknowingly aside to grasp Dannasul by the shoulders. “Where is it?”
“Where is what?” Dannasul asked.
“The damn candle.”
“I just gave it to you.”
“No you didn’t.”
“Yes I did.”
“You must have dropped it.”
“Well it can’t have rolled far. Both candles must be here at our feet.”
“All right,” JohnEngine said angrily. “Everyone down on their hands and knees. Let’s find those candles.”
Morgin stepped back several paces to watch. He was enjoying this thoroughly, watching them grope about blindly, grabbing at one another, pouncing upon the slightest bit of debris in the hope that it was one of the missing candles, both of which he now held in his own hands. Slowly their groping became more frantic; their voices rose in pitch as they realized the candles were nowhere to be found. Their futile efforts raised a cloud of dust from the long undisturbed floor, and several of them began to cough, some to cry.
Morgin chuckled. He considered leaving them there in the darkness. He would have no trouble finding his way back, and they could, as JohnEngine had put it, rot here for the rest of their days. But no, that was unfair. JohnEngine had intended, no matter how cruelly, that Morgin’s capture should last no more than a few hours, though they wanted him to think he was going to rot forever in the dark.
Morgin decided to return same for same, and as JohnEngine had said, he would “. . . let them stew in the dark for a couple of hours.”
“Everyone calm down,” JohnEngine shouted. “We have to stay together. We mustn’t get separated. Let’s grasp hands, and no one let go.”
“But how do we find our way?”
“I think I can remember it,” JohnEngine said. “I’ve been over it often enough. We take a left at the next corridor, then skip three, and right after that it should be a straight walk from there.”
Morgin stifled a laugh as they started out, for JohnEngine’s first mistake was to start in the wrong direction. Their course was taking them deeper into the old castle, not out of it. Morgin followed.
It took them almost an hour to realize they were lost, then another for it to sink into their very bones, and a third for them to finally decide their predicament was all JohnEngine’s fault. They collapsed in the middle of a corridor, berating him, some crying, some swearing, all of them radiating a fear that Morgin could readily sense. He understood fear, and it was that which brought out his compassion.
He sat down next to JohnEngine, who sat strangely quiet, his face buried between his knees, which he had tucked up close to his chest.
“Here,” Morgin said, holding out a candle. But then he realized that unlike him, JohnEngine could not see in the blackness that surrounded them. Morgin pressed the candled into JohnEngine’s hand.
JohnEngine started, groping at the familiar feel of the wax, pressing the candle close to his face as if he could see it in the dark. “I’ve found a candle,” he shouted, leaping to his feet.
Suddenly they were all on their feet, listening anxiously while JohnEngine brought out his striker and flint and a small bit of tinder. He failed through several tries, then the tinder caught, he lit the candle and light flared in the hallway where light had not shown for a thousand years.
They shouted and cheered, hugging each other and slapping JohnEngine on the back. And then slowly their joy died, for they realized they were in a place they had never explored before, with no chalk marks to guide them. They sat down silently, once again lost.
Morgin, standing at the edge of the candle’s light, stepped calmly in among them. They looked up at him uncaringly.
“Where did you come from?” JohnEngine asked.
Morgin drew no satisfaction from the fear in JohnEngine’s eyes. “I followed you.”
“Then you’re lost too.”
“No,” Morgin said. “I know the way.”
JohnEngine was on his feet in an instant. “Have you been marking or back-trail?”
Morgin shook his head. “No. I just know the way.”
JohnEngine sat down. “You’re lying. Or else you’re a fool.”
“Or maybe you’re a fool,” Morgin said angrily. He held out the other candle.
“Where did you get that?” JohnEngine asked.
“I took it from Dannasul, as I took yours from you.”
JohnEngine accepted that without emotion. “Then it was you?”
“Do you really know the way?”
Morgin nodded again.
JohnEngine stood slowly, unexcitedly. “Lead the way,” he said, but his voice held no conviction, no belief.
“I can’t,” Morgin said. “Not until you blow out your candle. I don’t know the way in the light. I know it only in the dark.”
They looked at him oddly, though strangely enough, only in JohnEngine’s eyes could he see no revulsion, merely indecision, and perhaps some understanding. He stared at Morgin for a long, silent moment.
“He’s crazy,” someone said. “He’s always been crazy.”
The indecision disappeared from JohnEngine’s eyes. “Shut up,” he said. “And blow out that candle.”
“Who was Attun?” Morgin asked.
Roland looked thoughtful for a moment, then shrugged. “No one knows for sure. But why do you believe Attun was a ‘who’ and not a ‘what’? Perhaps Attun was a thing, not some person.”
“He must have been a person,” Morgin said. “Or a god. They named a mountain after him: Attunhigh. And the lesser mountains that surround it are called the Worshipers of Attun. Surely no one would worship a thing.”
“But the Worshipers are things,” Roland said. “They’re nothing but mountains. And wouldn’t things worship other things, and not people? And if Attun were a person, or a god , what makes you think he was a he, and not a she?”
Morgin felt badly confused.
Roland smiled out of the corner of his mouth. “There now. Pay no attention to me. I’m just teasing a little.” He turned serious again. “But I was trying to illustrate a point. No one truly knows who or what Attun was. We have no legends to tell us about him; or actually we have too many, all different and none in agreement. He was probably a god, since as you say no one would worship a thing, or even a mere person. But we cannot be sure of that. The Greater Clans believe him to be a joke perpetrated upon us foolish and stupid Lesser Clans. Their legends say that he was an idiot, a moron who became King of the Lesser Clans after the Great Clan Wars. On the other hand, the Benesh’ere believe him to be a great god who will come in the future to absolve them of their sins. So you see, no one truly knows who Attun was.”
Morgin thought on that for a moment, then asked, “Who are the Benesh’ere? MichaelOff says they live in the Great Munjarro Waste. He says the Waste is nothing but sand for as far as the eyes can see. That’s across the Worshipers, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Roland said patiently. “The Waste lies across the mountains. And yes, the Benesh’ere live in the Waste for much of the year. But as to who the Benesh’ere are, you’re nine years old now, so you must’ve studied the Antiquities.”
“Yes,” Morgin said unhappily. “But I don’t understand them.”
Roland laughed. “They are rather cryptic, aren’t they?” He leaned back in his chair to think. They were in his study, a place of books and papers and odds and ends. Morgin liked best the two shiny broadswords hung above the mantle of the fireplace. He wanted to be a great swordsman someday, and the sight of them filled him with thoughts of the glory of battle.
“You know, don’t you,” Roland said, “that the Benesh’ere are the seventh tribe of the Shahot, and that they committed a great crime long ago. What was that crime?”
“Didn’t they start the Great Clan Wars?” Morgin asked eagerly.
Roland nodded. “Yes. But there’s more to it than that. Remember that the Shahotma King rules all of the clans, and stands above a mere clan king. Long ago the Benesh’ere were the greatest of the twelve tribes. A long line of Shahotma Kings were born to them and they grew proud. But then there came a time when the Shahotma was born to another tribe, and the Benesh’ere grew jealous. They reasoned that the children of the seventh tribe showed the greatest power, so they should lead. And so they declared their king a false Shahotma. They brought war to the clans, a war so terrible that four tribes were exterminated in the bloodletting. The false Shahotma was finally overcome in a great battle in which thousands died. But with him fell the true Shahotma, never to rise again. Now, Morgin, do you know the name of that last true Shahotma?”
Morgin dug deep into his memory. “Aethon?” he asked.
Roland nodded with a pleased smile, and asked, “Aethon of what clan?”
Morgin shook his head. “I don’t know, father.”
“He was Aethon et Elhiyne. He was of our tribe, Morgin, the eighth tribe, the tribe of the red Ward. He was an Elhiyne.”
Morgin sat entranced by Roland’s story. “What happened next?”
“For their crimes the Benesh’ere were punished. Do you know what that punishment was?”
“They were exiled to the Waste?”
“Yes. And more. The reign of their king was ended. Their name was stricken from the rolls of clan right. Septimus , the seventh Ward, the guardian of their power, was extinguished, and exists today only as it has since that time: cold, black, and silent.”
Morgin thought of the few times he had been involved in a full-scale ceremony of magic. The other Wards were pillars of blinding light, each a color uniquely its own, and each humming a separate and distinct tone that was painful to the ears. But Septimus was the lone exception. Like the rest it was there, but it was black, quiescent, unlit, un-whole.
“Morgin, pay attention.” Roland grinned and ruffled Morgin’s hair. “There is one further punishment that the Benesh’ere must endure, and it is by far the most terrible of all. It is simply this: their magic was stricken from them, and to this day they live powerless in their exile. Before their crimes they were the most powerful of all, and now they are the least.” Roland’s brows wrinkled for a moment, as if he pitied the evil Benesh’ere. But then he brightened, looked at Morgin and said, “Now you tell me what happened after that.”
Morgin toyed with a quill pen on the top of Roland’s desk. “I’m sorry, father. I don’t know.”
“That’s all right, son. But since you don’t know, pay close attention while I tell you.”
Morgin nodded eagerly.
“After the Great Clan Wars the seven tribes that remained, not counting the Benesh’ere, were so badly maimed that chaos ruled the land. There followed a time of evil in which no man could trust his brother and no law was inviolate. People actually starved to death, and disease and pestilence were rampant. The land was ruled by bandits and cutthroats who took whatever they wanted, whenever they chose . . .”
“Like the Queen of Thieves?” Morgin asked.
Roland shook his head and smiled. “Not at all. In fact—and don’t you tell my mother I said this—but Aiergain and her people are not really thieves, and they’re certainly not cutthroats. Aiergain is a true queen in her own right. She rules the port city of Aud, and fully accepts the responsibilities that come with such a station in life. She is, however, descended from those bandits of old, and I think she rather enjoys being called the Queen of Thieves, if for no other reason than that it irks my mother.”
Morgin frowned. “But the Lady Olivia calls her a murderous thief all the time.”
Roland chuckled. “Well now, my mother has never gotten along with Aiergain, and she likes to think the worst of her. But that’s beside the point. Let’s get back to my story.
“Now after the Great Clan Wars the three tribes that still had living kings were the least devastated. They formed the Greater Council, and from them order grew out of chaos. But their order was harsh, and the four lesser tribes, whose kings were all dead, were not allowed to crown new kings. And so for more than a thousand years the three kings of the Greater Council have ruled the lesser tribes. Their law has been that of the sword, and their justice that of the mailed fist. They’ve crushed us time and again back into barbarism, but we nevertheless prevail. Slowly, in spite of their kings, we’ve pulled ourselves up out of the muck and cleansed the land. People no longer starve, and while bandits are always a problem, they are much less so with each passing year, and their activities are confined to the hinterlands. We have done well—at least as well as we can—but we Lesser Clans pay tithe to the Greater Council, and should one of us show any promise, we usually end up paying a tithe of blood. But someday . . . oh someday . . . that will end.”
Roland had actually become angry while speaking. It frightened Morgin, for except in Olivia’s presence Roland never became angry. But then the anger vanished suddenly. “Well I’ve answered your questions,” he said. “But no more—not today. I have work to do so you run along.”
Morgin jumped down from Roland’s desk, threw a quick “Thank you,” over his shoulder, and ran out the door.
The moon was full and bright, and it cast a silvery glow upon the steadily ripening wheat that surrounded the castle. Morgin loved to walk in the fields on such a night, for here he could find a solitude that was not available within the castle walls where the clan was everywhere. There seemed to be an endless number of brothers and sisters and cousins and aunts and uncles—somehow all related. And that didn’t count servants and retainers and field hands, and all those others not of the clan.
Morgin was ten years old now, and after four years of living with witches he had finally come to understand the hierarchy of the clan. There was the Lady Olivia at its head—she ruled absolutely and her word was law—and the only people who dare argue with her were her two sons Malka and Roland, and their wives Marjinell and AnnaRail. But the old witch seemed always to have the last word, even, it appeared, when she was conceding a point.
Malka and Marjinell had two sons: MichaelOff, who, at twenty, was the oldest of the boys; and Brandon, who was fourteen. Roland and AnnaRail also had two sons—DaNoel, fourteen; and JohnEngine, ten—and in addition they had two daughters—Annaline, twelve; and NickoLot, four. And that was House Elhiyne.
Except, he had forgotten Tulellcoe, the only son of Olivia’s dead sister Hellis, strange and dangerous Tulellcoe. He didn’t like Tulellcoe, feared him even, though not in the way he feared Olivia, for the old woman was hot fury, while Tulellcoe was a cold madness stalking silently at the edge of one’s senses.
That was House Elhiyne, the family that ruled the clan that ruled the eighth tribe of the Shahot. Morgin wasn’t sure if he understood all of that, but that was the way the old men that taught him put it. They also taught him that he was a clansman by virtue of his magic, an incomprehensible power he pretended to understand only to avoid a thrashing during his lessons. They said that anyone who had the power of magic was a clansman by right, though the distinction was often hard to see. AnnaRail said it was not unusual for common parents to bear a child possessed of power, in which case the child was readily accepted into the clan. There were also men and women of the clan who married outside of the clan, though it was usually a poor or ugly clanswoman who had found herself a rich merchant, a man who desired clan connections, or hoped for clan children, or both. But the merchant, or the child’s parents, were not themselves clan unless they displayed some facility at magic, no matter how slight.
Morgin was also beginning to understand his place within the clan, where rank was determined by relationship to House Elhiyne: the closer the relationship, the higher the rank, and since the majority of the clan could claim some kinship to Elhiyne, they all held some elevated rank or station. Then there were the few like Morgin who were related to no one, and could claim no rank whatsoever. Morgin had a thought that made him chuckle: the clan had Olivia at its head, and Morgin at its tail.
His attention returned to the night that surrounded him so comfortably, and the moonlight, and the wheat fields. He was perched on an outcrop of rock on a small hill overlooking the castle in the distance. The moonlight gave the wheat a soft shimmer, as if it were swaying in a light breeze, but the night was still and calm, with the lights of the castle casting a glow high above the trees that surrounded it. And in the village a single lonely spark of a lamp told of someone working late.
His eye caught a flicker of motion down on the road: someone coming from the castle. He knew in some way that it was AnnaRail, and he watched her walk casually up the road, then stop and look his way. “It’s late, Morgin. Time to come in.”
He climbed off his perch and gained the road. She held out her hand and he took it. “It’s a lovely night,” she said. “You like to walk in the moonlight, don’t you? Aren’t you afraid of the dark?”
Morgin could not understand why anyone should be afraid of the dark, with all its shadows so deep and warm. “No,” he said, shaking his head. “Why would I be afraid of the dark?”
“I don’t understand,” Morgin pleaded. “I’m trying, but I just don’t understand.”
AnnaRail smiled, reached out and touched him on the shoulder. It tore at her heart to see him this way. He cared nothing for magic, but he so wanted to please her, and if that was what she wanted to teach him then he was determined to learn, no matter how frustrated and confused he became.
“Relax,” she said softly. “I know you’re trying, and I’m not surprised that you’re confused, for this is complicated. Now take a deep breath . . .”
He did so.
“. . . and let it out slowly. There. Doesn’t that feel better?”
“Good. Let’s try again, and we’ll start from the beginning. Can you tell me the three Planes of Existence?”
She had purposefully chosen something he could answer. He did so eagerly. “The Celestial Plane, the Mortal Plane, and the Nether Plane.”
“Good,” she said. “And how many levels of existence are there within the three Planes?”
That too he knew. “Twelve.”
“How many levels are there in the Celestial Plane?”
His confidence faltered. “Seven?”
She nodded approvingly. “And what are they?”
“The Seven Heavens of the Celestial Plane. And the Seventh Heaven is the highest level of all existences.”
“Yes,” she said. “Very good. Now what about the Nether Plane?”
His confidence disappeared completely, and his answer came out more as a question. “Nine?”
She nodded again. “Go on.”
His brow wrinkled with confusion. “The Nine Hells of the netherworld. And the Ninth Hell is the lowest level of existence.”
“Excellent,” she said. “Excellent. Now, the Mortal Plane.”
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“There aren’t any levels left,” he pleaded. “Nine and seven are more than twelve, so we can’t even fit both the Celestial Plane and the Nether Plane in the twelve levels. Where is there room for the Mortal Plane?”
“Ah! Now I see the problem. It’s so simple, and yet I’ve made it difficult for you by not explaining properly. What you’re missing is that the Celestial Plane and the Nether Plane overlap. As you said, the Seventh Heaven is the highest of the twelve levels, and the Ninth Hell is the lowest. But in between they overlap. The level that is the Fourth Heaven is also the First Hell. The Third Heaven is also the Second Hell. The Second Heaven is also the Third Hell. And finally, the First Heaven is also the Fourth Hell. There are only twelve levels of existence, but four of them are part of both the Celestial Plane and the Nether Plane.”
Morgin’s eyes opened with wonder. “Now,” she said before he had a chance to think, “The Mortal Plane. How many levels?”
He frowned again. “Four?”
“Exactly. And which four levels do you think they are?” She winked. “I’ll give you one guess.”
Comprehension dawned so visibly on his face she almost laughed, but she was careful not to. “The four that overlap,” he said.
“Yes,” she said. She reached out and hugged him. “Now you see, don’t you? The four levels of the Mortal Plane overlap three ways. Each is at once part of the Celestial Plane, the Mortal Plane, and the Nether Plane. And that is why gods and demons can walk the Mortal Plane, for all levels of the Mortal Plane are also levels of the other two.”
She could see he understood, so she kept at him. “Now think carefully,” she said. “Do you see any special significance to the Mortal Plane?”
He thought for a long moment, and when no answer came she said, “Consider this. The highest three levels of existence, the Fifth through Seventh Heavens, overlap on no other Plane. And since demons can walk only upon the Nether Plane, those three levels are closed to them. Likewise, the lowest five levels, the Fifth through Ninth Hells, overlap on no other plane. And since gods can walk only upon the Celestial Plane, those five levels are forever closed to them. Now do you see the significance of the Mortal Plane?”
She could see in his eyes that he had the answer, but he was unsure of himself. “It’s the only place where gods and demons meet?”
“Yes. But it’s more. It’s the only place where gods, demons, and mortals meet. And too, there is also a special significance to mortal existence, for we mortals are the only beings that have within us the power to walk beyond our own plane of existence. It is possible for us to walk the highest levels of the Celestial Plane, and the lowest levels of the Nether Plane. It takes great power to do so, enormous power, and the further one ventures the more power that is required, so much so that there are few alive today who can venture even one level out of the Mortal Plane. And yet, the ability to walk all levels is inherent within all of us, as it is forever forbidden to gods and demons.”
She looked closely at Morgin, a little boy who wanted desperately to understand, and within her something old and arcane made her speak. “Someday you will walk the netherworld, ” she said to him. “I can sense that within you. I do not know how far you will venture, nor for how long, but beware, for the netherworld is a trap for those who are ignorant. And if you are caught, you will suffer its Hells for all eternity.”
Chapter 4: To Glimpse the Man
“Hurry, Morgin,” JohnEngine shouted. “We mustn’t be late.”
“I’m hurrying,” Morgin shouted back, frantically tying the laces of his jerkin. “Go on without me.”
“I’ll wait,” JohnEngine said. “But hurry.” He returned to his cot, sat down to wait, and but for the two of them the boy’s dormitory was empty.
With his jerkin laced, Morgin sat on his cot to pull on his boots. They were working boots, steel shod, with heavy soles and thick leather about the toes. Roland had paid a high price for such fine craftsmanship, and Morgin was proud of his new boots, presented to him on his twelfth birthday only the month before. Actually it had been JohnEngine’s birthday, and JohnEngine had received a pair of boots of his own. But since no one knew Morgin’s birthday, and the two boys were of an age and were inseparable, they were treated as twins.
Morgin jumped to his feet. “I’m ready. Let’s go.”
They rushed out of the dormitory, down a long flight of stairs and onto the main floor of the castle. They cut through the kitchen, out a side entrance, then through a narrow gap between two buildings. Bursting into the main castle yard, they crossed it at a sprint and joined a small cluster of boys seated on the ground there.
Breathless, and seated among their fellows, JohnEngine leaned toward one and asked, “Are we late, Dannasul?”
“No,” Dannasul said. “What kept you?”
Morgin answered. “Mother kept me at my lessons.”
Dannasul gave a knowing nod. Everyone knew that the Lady AnnaRail gave Morgin special tutoring. It was no secret that Morgin could barely read and write, so they all assumed he was slow. They didn’t know that the tutoring was in the arts of magic, nor would they have guessed, since such training was not normally begun until manhood was attained at the age of twelve. And Morgin, who considered his magic a sickness to be kept quiet, was not going to be the one to enlighten them.
“Hush,” someone said. “Here they come.”
Old Beckett, the weapons master, approached from across the practice yard. He was followed by Brandon, DaNoel, a tall stranger, and many of the older boys. The old man stopped several paces away and said, “Stand. And form a straight line in front of me here.”
The younger boys rushed to comply. Beckett grumbled some then continued, “Now. You boys are here because you have reached, or will soon reach, your manhood. As men . . .” he looked aside with a sly grin, letting it be known that he considered them men only by clan law, “. . . you’ll no longer practice with wooden swords. This year you’ll use steel, dull and pointless steel, but steel nevertheless. Take care when you strike a blow, because a dull steel edge can still cut.
“Now. This man here . . .” Beckett turned, indicating the tall stranger, who stepped forward, “. . . is Lord Hwatok Tulalane, a twoname . He is a clansman, and a guest of Elhiyne. Furthermore, he is an accomplished swordsman and has entered into service with House Elhiyne. If you disobey him, you disobey me.”
Morgin sized up the stranger: a big man, with a hawk face and deep set eyes. Not as old as old Beckett, but older than twenty-two year old MichaelOff, his face was weathered and lined with experience. A scar bisected his left cheek, not a scar like the three pocks on Morgin’s face, the result of the filth that had been his home in the city, but a clean sharp line of a scar, put there by some weapon. It was the stranger’s eyes, though, that were his most distinct feature, and Morgin wondered what lay behind them. But then he realized those eyes were looking at him, probing him as if they could see to the layers beneath the outer skin, and he looked away.
“Pay attention, master Morgin,” Beckett bellowed. The other boys chuckled quietly, for Morgin was always the one to be caught daydreaming. “Watch closely, all of you. Lord Hwatok and Lord MichaelOff will give a demonstration of what you will be striving to achieve. Now clear out of the way and give them room.”
The boys moved to the edge of the practice yard. MichaelOff and the stranger removed their sword belts and other items that might hinder them, then unsheathed their swords and began warming up.
While the two men were preparing for their mock combat, Morgin asked JohnEngine, “What’s a twoname ?”
“A clansman who claims allegiance to no one clan,” JohnEngine said. “They usually wander about, often selling their services to a clan where they have some ties.”
“They’re mercenary wizards then?” Morgin asked.
“Some,” JohnEngine whispered. “But not all. Most are more particular than mercenaries about who they sell their services to. And the services they sell aren’t necessarily the sword and battle. They’re supposed to be good advisers.”
“If he bears no allegiance to the clan,” Morgin asked, “can he be trusted?”
JohnEngine shrugged. “Grandmother must think so. He’s . . .”
“JohnEngine,” Beckett hollered. “Pay attention. And Morgin. Stop bothering your brother.”
There were no chuckles from the other boys this time, for their attention was wholly taken by the two contestants. MichaelOff and the Tulalane bowed, then squared off in the center of the yard, neither of them at all serious about the match. Each used a lightweight rapier with a simple cross-hilt, the preferred weapon among the clans, and without ceremony they began trading blows sword against sword, testing each other’s defenses.
The ring of steel came slowly at first, in an almost dance-like cadence. Morgin could not look away, for both men were quickly well into the fight, beads of sweat forming on their faces as they struck at each other again and again. They were blurs of motion in the swirling dust of the yard, the rhythm of the battle unchanging, each ring of steel deliberate, controlled. But then suddenly the blows came faster—slash, parry, strike, repeat. Magic hung in the air; the shimmer of power was palpable. The two swordsmen moved with inhuman swiftness, almost vanishing from one spot to appear instantly in another. Then, abruptly, the contest ended.
MichaelOff made a slash, which the stranger did not oppose. Instead, he back-stepped, avoiding the blow, sliding his own sword behind MichaelOff’s blade, adding to the momentum of the slash. MichaelOff over swung his stroke, and to maintain balance was forced to expose his side to the stranger. The stranger completed the move by slamming his forearm into the back of MichaelOff’s shoulders, sending him sprawling face down in the dust of the yard.
There was a moment during which both men appeared disoriented as they came out of their magics. But it was over quickly, and the stranger helped MichaelOff to his feet, both of them laughing and brushing dust from the younger man.
“You’ll have to teach me that one, Hwatok,” MichaelOff laughed.
“Gladly, Lord MichaelOff,” the stranger said as they walked off the field.
“All right, boys,” Beckett hollered, “Line up again.”
They rushed to obey.
“Now what you’ve just seen is a combination of skilled swordsmanship and magic. It will be many years before you’ll be skilled in either, and until you are, you’ll never use the two together. Is that clear?”
They all nodded quietly.
“Good. Others will teach you magic, but it is I who will teach you the sword. You must learn to be a good swordsman without magic before you can combine the two to good effect, and that will take some years.”
Old Beckett turned away from them and walked slowly to the edge of the yard, retrieved a large bundle, returned to the line of boys. He unwrapped the bundle, spilling several steel rapiers on the ground, each with a rounded tip and dulled edge.
“Each of you pick a sword, and a partner, and we’ll review the lessons you’ve supposedly learned in the past two years. But remember, you’re using steel now, not wood.”
Morgin and JohnEngine were practice partners, as they were partners in almost everything, including, but not limited to, mischief. Most of the afternoon was spent getting used to the feel of the heavier steel blades, with Beckett moving among them offering advice and correcting errors. Later in the day he had them trade partners quite regularly, even using some of the more advanced students as combined opponents and instructors. The day was almost over when Morgin paired off with DaNoel, JohnEngine’s older brother. And without prelude the older boy began immediately with a rain of blows that Morgin was hard pressed to deflect. But it was not until DaNoel’s steel hissed menacingly past Morgin’s ear that he realized this was no lesson, but a venting of some anger that might leave him maimed or crippled, or perhaps even dead. In desperation he fought back with what little strength and skill he could command, but his arm tired quickly, and DaNoel used that to advantage, stepping suddenly beneath his guard and batting him to the ground with the hilt of his sword. “Defend yourself, peasant,” he snarled viciously.
Morgin climbed reluctantly to his feet, then, as DaNoel’s sword drove for his face, ducked quickly beneath a stroke that could have taken off his head, dull edge or not. “What are you doing?” he pleaded.
DaNoel’s face reddened with uncontrolled anger. He gave no answer, gripped his sword with both hands, and brought it down with all his might.
Morgin threw his own blade clumsily in the way. It met DaNoel’s with a clatter that rang painfully through his arm and shoulder. He knew that he couldn’t defend himself this way for long, not with a heavy steel blade, nor with such intensity. Then DaNoel again slipped beneath his guard, and while Morgin concentrated on DaNoel’s steel, he completely missed DaNoel’s knee until it crashed into his groin.
He fell to the ground, tried to roll over quickly to avoid DaNoel’s sword as it bit into the dirt near his face, but the painful knot in his crotch slowed him and he lay in a sprawl with DaNoel standing over him, his sword clutched in both hands and raised high over his head, his face a mask of hatred. Morgin ignored the pain in his crotch, rolled over quickly as DaNoel’s sword cut a furrow in the earth where only moments ago his head had been. Morgin rolled again, then stumbled to his feet.
DaNoel’s rapier hissed past his nose. He back-stepped blindly until DaNoel’s boot hit him in the ribs and he went down again. DaNoel stepped quickly over him and raised his sword high over his head, but was suddenly swept off his feet as JohnEngine plowed into him with a full body block. The two of them sprawled into the dirt of the yard, raising a cloud of dust that filled Morgin’s nostrils. They separated and jumped to their feet, facing one another.
“What are you trying to do?” JohnEngine screamed.
Beckett interrupted, bellowing, “What’s going on here?” He elbowed his way through the crowd of boys that had gathered about them. “Here, here! What’s this? Are you fighting again, Morgin?”
“No,” JohnEngine screamed. “It wasn’t him. It was DaNoel.”
DaNoel ignored JohnEngine and Beckett, looked hatefully at Morgin and growled, “Don’t you ever call her mother again. She’s not your mother. She’s mine. You have no right, whoreson.” Then he spun about and stormed off the practice field.
“All right, boys,” Beckett yelled. “Break it up. Practice is over today. Go clean up for dinner.”
“Morgin,” Annaline called. “Morgin.”
Morgin, caught unprepared, held his breath, hoping to stay hidden. If he were lucky she’d not climb the stairs to the top of the battlements where he lay idling in the sun. Today was a holiday, and he would do as he pleased.
“Morgin. Are you up there?”
He held his silence. Maybe she would think he had gone down to the festival in the village market. There was always something going on down there on the monthly holiday.
“You come down here, Morgin. I know you’re up there somewhere.”
He sighed and scanned the horizon. It was a beautifully clear day with Attunhigh dominating the skyline, a monolith of rock and snow standing guard over the valley of Elhiyne, and the world of man.
“If you don’t come down I’ll send the ShadowLord after you.”
Didn’t she realize he was too old to believe in demon netherlords? H e swung his legs off the battlement and dropped to the parapet. If he’d been smart he would have made himself absent from the castle long ago. “I’m coming,” he hollered as he started down the stairs.
He met Annaline on her way up. She looked him over quickly and said, “Good. You’re not dirty. We won’t have to waste time cleaning you up.”
“What for?” he asked.
“For grandmother. She wants to see you.”
Morgin froze in his tracks. “You didn’t tell me that.”
Annaline grabbed a fold of his sleeve and pulled him along. “Well I’m telling you now. And you’d better hurry or you’ll make grandmother angry.”
Morgin shut his mouth and followed her sullenly. The old woman wanted to see him! He shivered.
In the years he’d been at the castle he’d never personally faced the old witch. Of course he’d seen her many times, but always from a distance, and he could count the number of times she’d actually spoken to him on the six fingers of one hand. There was something powerful and frightening about her that he didn’t like, a dark presence that hovered at the edge of his senses whenever she was near, a presence that was not fully gone from his mind until she was completely out of the valley.
Annaline took Morgin to a part of the castle he’d always avoided, and outside of the old woman’s haunt they met AnnaRail waiting for them. “The Lady Olivia wants to examine you to determine the extent of your power,” she said. “So be on your best behavior.” She fussed at his tunic for a moment, then swept his hair back out of his eyes. “There. You look like a fine young man,” she said, then turned and stepped through the door that led to the old witch.
Annaline seemed to sense Morgin’s unease as he hesitated. She quickly whispered, “Don’t worry, Morgin. Grandmother just likes to make you think she’s mean and nasty. Inside she’s really just a sweet old lady.”
Annaline’s words did little to reassure him as he stepped into the audience chamber. He halted just inside, surveying the room with care. Beside the old woman, Roland and AnnaRail were the only others present. But it was Olivia, seated in cushioned elegance near a large hearth, who commanded the room entirely.
“Come, child,” she said. “Stand before me.”
Morgin found he could not have disobeyed even had he wanted to. He walked slowly across the small room with both his mouth and his eyes wide open. It was impossible not to stare at the old witch’s face: a miasma of wrinkles, though not as wrinkled as he’d always imagined. Her hair was black, with flashing streaks of gray that radiated outward from her face. It was pulled back to the top of her head where it lay knotted and fastened with combs and braids, and studded with tiny jewels.
“Am I that fascinating, child?”
Morgin suddenly remembered his manners and diverted his eyes. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize, boy. If you wish to look at me, then do so.”
Morgin chose to look at the floor.
“Come, child. Raise your head. Look at me when I speak.”
He looked again at that wrinkled face and those cold black eyes. “Yes, milady.”
“That’s better. Now you sound like a proper clansman. I am Olivia, but of course you know that. I am a witch, but of course you know that too. Did you know that you are also a witch?”
“Yes,” he answered. “Mother . . . Anna . . . the Lady AnnaRail told me.”
“Good. Do you know why you’re here today?”
“You’re here because I wish to test your power. I want to know how much of a witch you are. Do you understand that?”
“Good. Now listen to me carefully. I am going to caste certain spells, and while I am doing so you must relax and remain absolutely still. You may experience certain sensations, some of them not altogether pleasant. If so, do not resist, for if you do you will be the one that is harmed, not I. Is that clear?”
“Excellent. Now, I must have absolute silence.”
The room itself seemed to obey the old woman’s command, returning a silence that was eerie. The walls in that part of the castle were thick, and not even the noises of the busy yard could penetrate to disturb them. Morgin had a sudden desire to be away from there, for he could sense something building within the close confines of that small room. It was akin to what AnnaRail did when she performed a seeking, but where that something was kind and soft, this was cold, hard, and powerful.
Olivia’s lips began to move almost imperceptibly, and Morgin caught the hiss of a faint whisper at the edge of his hearing. The words she spoke sent a shiver up his spine, words of power, and he concentrated on them carefully as AnnaRail had taught him to do. He could hear each syllable clearly, and yet when he tried to put them together into a word, the final product eluded him as if he was meant never to understand such words, or the power they called forth. But nevertheless he concentrated on each as the old woman uttered it, and in so doing he felt fearful power rising within his soul.
Morgin watched the old witch build something indefinable within her, and then she built something similar within him. He felt violated, but he remembered her words and fought the desire to resist her, until he felt he was being strangled from without by her power, and from within by his own.
Without warning Olivia’s power merged painfully with his. He staggered under the suffocating weight of it, struggled for air, and did something, though he didn’t really understand what he did, or how he’d done it. But Olivia gasped, stood, slapped him, and screamed, “Monster!”
Morgin had been oblivious to the world around him, but the slap snatched him back to the moment, staggering, his face stinging with the force of the blow. He watched helplessly as the old woman raised her arm to strike again, but now her hand was glowing, with streaks of power dancing up and down her wrist. The room was electrified with a sense of unreality, and all Morgin could see was the old woman’s eyes: black and angry.
“Mother, no,” Roland screamed. “You’ll kill him.”
The old witch hesitated, though her magic swirled about her and demanded to be used.
AnnaRail quickly filled the silence. “He didn’t know what he was doing. It wasn’t his fault. I warned you to move carefully. His power is extensive, and he has too little training for its control.”
Olivia lowered her hand and the room became still, though she looked upon Morgin like a bug she might squash, and her eyes glowed with malevolence. But strangely enough there was a hint of gladness there too, and a faint smile of greedy smugness. She looked at AnnaRail and spoke through clenched teeth. “You are right, daughter. You did warn me, and I should have heeded you.”
Then she looked again at Morgin and he cringed. “You are forgiven this time, peasant, because of your ignorance. But never, ever, strike me again.”
Morgin, staring at the floor and thinking that he’d touched no one, decided it was best to keep his mouth shut.
Olivia’s mood suddenly changed, and she smiled openly. She turned back to AnnaRail. “You were also right about his power. It is extensive. Certainly more than anyone else his age has exhibited.”
Her eyes narrowed with concentration, and for a long silent moment she thought carefully. Morgin had no doubt that whatever she might be considering bode ill for him. “I have come to a decision,” she announced suddenly. “Such power should reside within House Elhiyne. And so the child’s twelfth birthday will be officially recorded as the eighth day of the next month of this year. And on that day he will be adopted into House Elhiyne as your son, and we will have a Naming. Between now and that time you will give him as much training in the arcane as he can absorb, and if need be, he will be excused from his other lessons. You will teach him control, for he will never again be allowed to do what he has done this day. And someday, he will prove useful to us.”
She looked at each of them separately for a moment, and especially at Morgin. “I have spoken. It shall be so. Now leave me. I wish to be alone.”
Without a word Roland and AnnaRail bowed and backed out of the room. Morgin did not need to be told to do the same.
Chapter 5: A Wizard’s Name
Morgin sat on the floor in the center of the Hall of Wills, a vast, cavernous room, the place the villagers called The Wizard’s Hall. With the exception of a simple loin cloth he was naked, and by that fact ill at ease, for clanfolk high and low filled the Hall, almost everyone who lived in the near vicinity of Elhiyne. He sat stiffly upright, his legs tucked beneath him, his hands at his sides. Before him a circle of fine black sand had been sprinkled in a thin layer on the gray stone of the bare floor, and all about him the ceremony of the Naming was in progress, witches chanting words of power, casting spells of incomprehensible nature to mere Morgin.
Twelve days before they had executed the formal adoption ceremony and he had become a member of House Elhiyne: the family that ruled the clan that ruled the eighth tribe of the Shahot. He still hoped to someday understand what all that meant, though for now he was content with his ignorance.
After the adoption they’d begun preparations for the Naming: twelve days of fasting and intense ritual. Morgin had had little to do, for he was the “new born infant,” and as such was the passive object of the preparations, and not actively involved in any way.
On the day of the Naming he’d been allowed no food. The women of the house had bathed him carefully, then with charcoal from a fire twelve days cold, they had written runes on his naked body. He was then directed to sit on the cold stone floor before the circle of fine black sand, and the Naming was begun.
He’d been sitting there for hours now, his joints stiff and sore, his stomach growling for food. He longed for the ceremony to end, even while he knew it was only just beginning.
A sudden gasp ran through the assembled throng as something began to materialize in the air before him, a demon from the netherhells of his own nightmares. Fangs and claws appeared first, then a tail with a barbed point dripping venom. There came the body of an ogre and the head of a goat, and it looked at him hungrily with eyes of fiery hate. Then it advanced, saliva spilling from its muzzle in anticipation of a meal.
Malka intervened, stepping in its way. It struck him with its claws. He staggered, but withstood the blow. Then, wielding his own power like a sword, he cried out in the godtongue and struck back. The demon whimpered sorrowfully. Malka struck again, lashing his power like a whip until the demon screamed in agony, a balefully inhuman whine. Malka raised his power to strike again, but the demon vanished before he could do so, gone, dematerialized. A distant cry of anger and pain echoed back from the netherworld, then all was silent.
Morgin shivered. He wondered how many more demons, curious about all the sorcery here, would come to investigate.
A witch, young and pretty, stepped forward to stand on the other side of the circle of black sand. She cast spells, tracing runes in the air with her fingertip as she chanted more of the words that always eluded him. He’d asked AnnaRail about that, and she’d explained that when he was older and had learned his lessons well, the words would begin to take on meaning.
The young witch finished her incantation. But as she turned and melted into the shadows of the darkened hall, the runes she’d traced in the air before him remained, softly visible by some magic of their own. They faded slowly, and when they were gone Morgin was tense with the new power he could sense in the room.
He cast a spell AnnaRail had taught him for protection, then another to banish fear. He wished now that he could have mastered more of her teachings, for the young and pretty witch was obviously the first of the truly powerful. He tried the spell of confidence, but as usual he failed there.
AnnaRail had explained that there was another hierarchy within the clan, a ranking that had nothing to do with one’s relationship to Elhiyne. It was the hierarchy of power. At its bottom were those like Roland; Morgin was embarrassed for him since he ranked below some of the children. And at its top were Malka and Olivia, masters of the arcane and the powers of magic and sorcery. They would all stand before the circle of black sand this night, one by one, in ascending order of power, with Olivia the last and greatest of them all.
AnnaRail had warned him that a gap existed between those of little power and those of great. She had cautioned him not to be frightened when the first of the truly powerful stood before him, but the warning of another day held little weight in the here and now, with power dancing up and down his spine. He tried to think of other things, of other times, but his thoughts would not leave the present and the magic that surrounded him.
There followed a train of wizards and witches, including Annaline and many of his newly adopted brothers and sisters and cousins, with MichaelOff the last and most powerful. And then the next to stand before him was Tulellcoe, a strange man with eyes like a caged animal, darting about as if to see all at once. Morgin didn’t like Tulellcoe. He was a quietly angry man, with a kind of seething hatred hidden just beneath the surface of his emotions.
JohnEngine said that Tulellcoe’s mother, Hellis, who was Olivia’s sister, had been raped by Clan Decouix during the last of the clan wars; that Hellis hated the child that had been conceived within her, and shortly after Tulellcoe’s birth, had taken her own life. She’d tried to take the child Tulellcoe with her into death, but had been prevented from doing so by Olivia who raised him as one of her own sons. JohnEngine said that the man Tulellcoe had inherited his mother’s madness, and most feared him for that.
Tulellcoe finished his magic and AnnaRail stepped forth to begin hers. But where Tulellcoe’s magic was an angry thing, and Olivia’s was fearful, AnnaRail’s was warm and soft and loving. Morgin felt it wash over him, calming him, even as it added to the power that was building. He thought back to an earlier time when he’d asked her about the Naming.
“The Naming,” she had said, “is a ceremony by which a proper name will be chosen for you.”
“But I already have a name.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “And it is a good name. But I chose it for its sound, not for its power or for its relation to you. It is an arbitrary name, no more than a label, a peasant’s name. Many live their entire lives with such a name, and there is no shame in doing so. But you have been chosen for a Naming, and that is a high honor.”
“But Morgin is good enough for me.”
She had smiled then, and laid a hand gently on his shoulder. “Then you may use it always, if that is your desire. Come. Don’t be so fearful. The Naming won’t be difficult, and from it you will receive a name that is yours; a name that, without our magic, would be hidden to us; a name that will give you power and tell us much about you; a name that is yours through all worlds and times. With such a name you may know and understand yourself as you could never do without it. And knowing yourself, others may not hold nor bind you without the use of much power. Your strengths will be the greater, and your weaknesses the lesser, for a name, a true name, is a very important thing, a very powerful thing.”
“The Naming will do all that?”
She shook her head. “No. The name will. The Naming is merely a ceremony to help us find that name so it may be known to you, and to us. It is not an easy ceremony, for much magic and power is required, and so it is reserved only for those of high caste. And you, my son, have much to learn in preparation.” And with that, she had returned to his lessons.
Now, though, she stood opposite him, the circle of black sand between them undisturbed, and like the rest, she spoke words that Morgin could not understand. But unlike the rest, her power was a warm, soft blanket in which he found comfort.
Malka stood next before him, Malka in his glory and his strength. He shouted words of power that echoed off the walls of the Hall. The air of the room answered back with a rumble that could be felt in the bones of Morgin’s spine. Malka the powerful warrior, whom all knew would inherit the clan at Olivia’s death. Malka the strong, whom none dare anger.
Malka finished and the room fell silent, with Morgin alone at its center. The air was charged with power, all directed at him, waves of it crawling up his skin. The small, blond hairs on his arms and legs stood on end. Here and there a strand of his hair, freshly washed, clean and dry, could be seen standing up and waving in whatever motion the air possessed.
Olivia stepped forth slowly to stand before him, motionless and unspeaking. She uttered no spells; she cast no incantations; she just stood there, arms folded within her billowing sleeves. But Morgin knew that however motionless she might seem, her power was building, and his power could do nothing but follow, pulled along by a command stronger than his will. Terrified, he tried to retreat, to cease the rise of a strange force that threatened to consume him. Quickly he concentrated on the spell of confidence, for Olivia’s power would allow no faltering, no withdrawal. For a single moment he felt as if he stood on the brink of an abyss of fear, then he calmed, feeling AnnaRail nearby, casting a spell to aid him. Again he concentrated on the spell of confidence, felt it wash over him, comfortably warm and refreshingly cool all at once. He opened his eyes and looked up to meet Olivia’s gaze. She nodded reluctant approval, then continued exercising her power.
Suddenly Morgin felt a presence at hand, a being both foreign and unknown, having no place in this world of mortals. It hovered at eye level over the black sand, neither visible nor touchable, but there nonetheless, and angry at being summoned so.
“Demon ElkenSkul,” Olivia cried. “You have come at my bidding, soul taker. Giver of names, yield unto the newborn his power.”
There came no answer. Morgin stared at Olivia, holding his breath. If ElkenSkul gave him no name, he would live his life in disgrace, bearing no more than his earthly name and always relegated to the most menial and servile of tasks. His newfound status would be gone, erased by an instant of silence. It would have been better had he never been given the honor of a Naming.
The silence was broken by the sound of scratching, as if a single claw were drawn across the floor. The demon’s claw slowly scratched a small circle in the sand. Then it hesitated for several seconds before scratching a small line; just that, a simple line pointing outward from the circle, then another and another and another, a grouping of lines around the circle all radiating outward, like a child’s drawing of the sun in the sky. It finished with one, long line slanting through the middle of the circle.
Morgin had no idea what it meant, but Olivia leaned forward and hissed, sucking air between her teeth as if the symbol held some special meaning. “The sunset king? Aethon? Aethon what?” she demanded. “Complete the name, demon. Complete it now. I command you.”
There came a pause, then the invisible claw began to scratch again, slowly adding two more lines beneath the symbol, two lines crossed.
“Aethon’s Law!” the old witch cried to the heavens. She looked down at Morgin with purest greed in her eyes. “You are the Law of Aethon, my grandson. Rise AethonLaw.” Olivia crowed to the crowd about them, “He is AethonLaw.”
Morgin started to climb to his feet, his eyes still on the symbol scratched in the sand. Olivia didn’t see it, but suddenly the claw scratched two more small lines, bisecting each of the two crossed lines beneath the sun symbol. The two new lines were like cross-guards on swords, making the lines beneath the sunset symbol appear like two crossed swords. “But . . .” Morgin said, pointing at the sand.
Without warning Olivia sliced her hand through the air where the demon had been. “Be gone, demon. Leave us, ElkenSkul,” and a magical wind scattered the sand across the floor. Morgin was certain she hadn’t seen the last two lines scratched in the sand.
The demon paused before obeying Olivia’s command, as if reluctant to do so. But finally, resigned to Olivia’s power, it winked out of existence, and with it went the power that had accumulated within the Hall.
Olivia took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. She looked down at Morgin, proud and willful, her eyes alight with godmagic. Morgin felt like a mouse that was prey to Olivia the cat.
“Arise,” she said to him. “Stand, AethonLaw et Elhiyne. Embrace the clan, for you are named.”
In the days that followed the Naming Morgin was unsettled by his change in status. No longer was he boy, or child , or merely Morgin , he was now Lord Morgin, or Lord AethonLaw, however he chose to be called. In the small village near the castle people nodded their heads as he passed. Even other clansmen took note of him, greeting him warmly in passing or inviting him to join them.
It had all begun with the celebration following the Naming. There was food aplenty, and wine, much wine. Morgin had become quite giddy with drink, though AnnaRail was careful to see that his consumption was limited. But even with a light head he became aware of an enormous change in his status.
Marjinell was, as usual, openly hostile. Malka seemed indifferent. Roland and AnnaRail were boldly proud, and Olivia boasted endlessly of how the AethonLaw would someday be a great wizard. Needless to say, to a twelve year old boy who had begun as the lowliest of the low, the attention was quite unnerving.
But what bothered him most, and yet was the least noticeable, was the attitude of the other boys. He was now treated differently. It was a difference so subtle that at times he wasn’t sure it even existed, then at other times it stood out like the blunt edge on a poorly kept sword. The only one who didn’t treat him differently was JohnEngine, for as always, when not fighting and beating each other up, they were inseparable comrades. One day Morgin asked him about it.
“You’re crazy,” JohnEngine said. “Nobody treats you any different than me.”
That gave Morgin something to think about, for while JohnEngine didn’t realize it, he had answered Morgin’s question in a very direct way. It was true. He was now treated like JohnEngine. But DaNoel and JohnEngine and MichaelOff and Brandon were always treated differently by the other boys. They were of House Elhiyne, and while you might pick a fight and bloody one of their noses, they were still paid a certain deference because of their status. And now, Morgin realized, he too was of House Elhiyne, and that fact made him uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable indeed!
But while that explained the boys his age, it didn’t explain the adults, especially the old witch Olivia. She now demanded that he see her regularly, during which time she would quiz him on his lessons, paying particular attention to the magic he had learned, or, as was most often the case, failed to learn. Some of those sessions were quite grueling.
One day, after a particularly difficult audience with the old woman, who, as usual, found him wanting, he sought out AnnaRail to ask her why the Naming had changed so many things.
“Things?” she asked patiently. “But it’s not things in which you’re interested. It’s your grandmother, is it not, and her increased attention?”
Morgin nodded silently.
AnnaRail smiled as if she found something amusing. “Clan law recognizes no difference between adoption and birth, and so by that law you are now a son of the House of Elhiyne. Your grandmother, therefore, is concerned that you represent us well. Overly concerned, perhaps. But nevertheless concerned.”
Morgin couldn’t conceal a frown. “There’s more to it than that.”
“That’s very perceptive of you. Yes, there is more to it. Do you remember when we spoke of names, you and I, and I told you that the clansman reflects the name and the name reflects the clansman?”
“Well, AethonLaw,” she said, placing emphasis on his new name. “You bear a name of power, a king’s name, which tells us that you may someday control much of the arcane.”
“A king’s name?” Morgin asked wonderingly.
AnnaRail nodded. “Aethon was the last of the Shahotma kings to rule the Sword. There were kings who followed, and were called Shahotma, but they were false kings who bowed to the Sword, and they brought much sorrow to the land. You bear the name of Aethon. To bear such a name is a great honor—for you, for our clan, and for House Elhiyne—for Aethon was also of the eighth tribe. To my knowledge ElkenSkul has not granted such a name in millennia. The only question that remains is: Will you reflect the name, or will the name reflect you?”
“But I can’t be all that,” Morgin said.
“Ah, but you can,” she said. She took his hands gently in hers. “Someday you may be a great wizard, perhaps even greater than Malka or Olivia. Then again, you may not. You may never be more than you are now, and there is no shame in that. Grow strong and healthy, and be just and kind to others, and serve Elhiyne faithfully, and you will bring us honor. We can ask for no more than that.”
“Grandmother wants more.”
“Indeed! Sometimes she does expect too much, especially from a young boy who’d rather be out getting in trouble with his brother JohnEngine, eh?” AnnaRail winked. “Your grandmother is excited for you, Morgin, and proud that you should receive such a name. So be patient with her, and I’ll speak to her about her demands.”
Morgin resolved then never to mention the extra slashes that ElkenSkul had added at the last moment, the extra slashes that no one but he had seen.
AnnaRail was good to her word. Morgin noticed the difference immediately the next time he saw Olivia, and the next, and the next, and each time he saw her. He always noticed the difference because the difference was always there. The effort to no longer scold him with such vigor when she found him lacking clearly grated on the old woman’s nerves. But she still quizzed him thoroughly. Occasionally, something else was on her mind, and the session would be short, but most often she’d ask him endless questions, withholding permission to leave until AnnaRail came to rescue him.
At first Morgin felt persecuted by such treatment. Being a member of the family should mean less trouble, not more. Then one day, after a particularly short session, he was leaving and met JohnEngine waiting outside the old witch’s audience chamber.
“How was she?” JohnEngine whispered quickly.
“Short,” Morgin said.
“Oh no!” JohnEngine moaned. “All the worse for me.”
“What do you mean?” Morgin asked.
“I’ve been on the plains with father so she hasn’t seen me for a month. She was short with you so she’d have all the more time with me.” The look on JohnEngine’s face combined both fear and disgust. “She has to make up for lost time, you know.”
“JohnEngine,” Olivia called sharply from the other room. “You’d better not keep me waiting.”
JohnEngine spun on his heel and disappeared instantly through the door. Morgin shrugged and walked casually away. Somehow, though he’d wish her on no one, it felt just a little better to know that he wasn’t the only one required to endure grandmother’s interviews.
“Damn women!” Malka cursed as he stepped off the stairs at the top of the parapets. It was well past sunset, and Morgin, who’d been seated in the lee of the battlements, jumped to his feet, startled out of his thoughts by the warrior’s unheralded arrival.
“Sorry, boy. Didn’t mean to scare ya. But that grandmother of yours can be damnable at times.”
Morgin wanted to step into a convenient shadow, but to do so now would be an open insult no matter how much he feared Malka. The warrior was a big man, powerful in every way. Few men would face him squarely, especially when, as now, anger clouded his features.
“Give me a battle to fight, an enemy to kill, but the gods save me from the sharp tongues of those damn women. Blast and be damned! By the name of the Unnamed King I wish they’d give me peace. I’d rather face the Queen of Thieves herself.”
Malka spit and cursed as he stormed the length of the dark parapet. He could be heard more than seen, for the night was moonless and gray. He reached the end of the walkway, turned and came thundering back. Morgin stood directly in his path, trembling, wondering if the great warrior might choose to vent his anger on a helpless boy. But before reaching Morgin the big man stopped, threw his arms up in disgust, then sat down on the walk with his back to the wall. He pulled his knees to his chest and sat almost exactly where Morgin had been a moment before. “Damn!” he whispered softly. “Damn!”
For some odd reason Morgin felt pity for the big man. “What’s wrong, uncle?” he asked.
“Ahhh!” Malka growled. “Women! They’re what’s wrong. Your grandmother wants a king to unite the Lesser Clans, and all I can give her is a warrior. Granted, few men can best me in a fair fight, but she wants more. I’d give it to her if I could, but I don’t even know what it is she wants. And when I ask, she gives me that superior look of hers and tells me I should know without being told. And Marjinell, that mindless cow, stands beside her nodding as if she knows what in netherhell the old witch is talking about. It’s enough to make a grown man cry.”
“But you’re the most powerful wizard in the Lesser Clans,” Morgin said.
Malka laughed bitterly. “Powerful? Aye, that I am.” As if to demonstrate he reached out, and without a word the red fire of Elhiyne magic danced among the five fingers and thumb of his hand. It was done so casually that anyone would be impressed. “Aye, lad, I have power more than most, and I have control, and I can lead men to war, and they will follow me, but I can’t lead them in peace. That’s not in me. I’ll never be able to play their games, their politics, their intrigues. Oh, what I would give if I could. But I cannot. I recognize that, even if your grandmother won’t. Bah! Women!”
Malka stopped his growling and looked about suddenly, as if realizing for the first time where his feet had taken him in his blind anger. “What are you doing up here at this time of night, boy?”
“I uh . . .” Morgin shrugged noncommittally and shuffled his feet. “Just thinking.”
“Come up here for a little peace, did you boy?”
“I came up here for the same reason. Looks like instead of finding my own peace I disturbed yours. Sorry about that.”
Morgin shuffled his feet again. “That’s all right.”
“Spend much time up here, do ya?”
Morgin shrugged unhappily. “Sometimes, after seeing grandmother.”
Malka laughed quietly, knowingly. “Well, Morgin, she’s my mother, and I’ve been coming up here for a little peace for more’n thirty years. It’s a good place for thinking, isn’t it?”
“Yes, uncle, it is.”
“Well you watch out, boy. She’s got her eyes on you. You’ve got power, lad, more’n yer share. She’s got a nose for power, that one. I expect you’ll be spending many a night up here. And when you do come, and you’re all alone, peaceful as you be, think a thought for your old uncle Malka, eh? Because I’ll likely be with your grandmother wishing I was up here enjoying the quiet.”
Chapter 6: The Man
“Why has he not progressed?” Olivia demanded.
“Because he fears his own magic,” Roland said patiently.
“Or is it because . . .” Marjinell inserted smugly, “. . . that other than a few simple spells, he has no magic?” Marjinell smiled sweetly, glad that Olivia chose to direct her scorn elsewhere for a change.
“No,” Malka said, shaking his head thoughtfully. “The boy has magic aplenty. I can sense it within him.”
“Exactly,” Olivia fumed. “His power is as plain as the six fingers on my hand.” She looked at AnnaRail. “So why has he not begun to live up to his name?”
AnnaRail paused as if to think, but actually she paused to allow Olivia’s temper to subside. It was difficult enough to handle the old woman without her temper getting in the way. “Roland said it a moment ago. Morgin fears his own magic. And we unknowingly reinforced that fear by punishing him when he used it to hide in shadow. We have made him aware of his power, and he is progressing steadily toward purposeful control, though for a sixteen-year-old he is a bit backward. But that progress is gained at the cost of his natural defense mechanisms, and he may lose his early ability at spontaneous magic. It may appear that he is digressing, but you’ll realize that is not the case when you understand he is progressing in control.”
“That’s not good enough,” Olivia said. Her eyes narrowed as if she considered the situation carefully, but AnnaRail knew that look well. The old woman was up to something. “Perhaps the boy should be pushed.”
“No,” AnnaRail snapped. “That would only worsen the situation.” AnnaRail shut her mouth quickly, realizing that her reaction had been anticipated, that she’d been maneuvered into yielding a bargaining point.
“Very well,” Olivia said happily. “His training will remain in your hands. But I demand progress, regular progress, or that situation will change.”
AnnaRail nodded, knowing better than to speak further.
“Good,” Olivia continued. “Now what’s this I hear about the other boys? I’m told Morgin associates only with JohnEngine, that the others consider him moody and aloof.”
AnnaRail shrugged. “He’s a loner. He always has been. What else can we expect after the kind of childhood he had? And too, all of the boys, including Morgin, have recently discovered girls. But while the rest are in hot pursuit, Morgin is in retreat, I think because he is overly self-conscious of the scars on his face. If we could do something about that, it would be one less thing that separates him from the rest.”
“But even then,” Marjinell said, “the others think him stupid and slow witted. Is he?”
“That’s enough, Marjinell,” AnnaRail said. “You always seek to malign him. I’ll not stand for—”
“Be still.” Olivia commanded. “You’re bickering like maidens. AnnaRail is right, Marjinell. You’re much too harsh with Morgin. We know he’s not stupid, so I’ll hear no more of that. And you—” she said, turning upon AnnaRail, “—are much too quick to defend him. As for his scars, I see no reason why we shouldn’t treat them.”
“It will take much magic,” Marjinell said.
“For a member of this family, we have much magic to give. But he must recognize that he is part of this clan, this family. He will not be allowed to remain separate and aloof. He will participate in all activities of this family, and that is final.”
AnnaRail nodded. “We are in total agreement there.” That took them all by surprise, even Roland. “But your actions must match you words.”
Olivia frowned. “What do you mean?”
AnnaRail had gained a point, but the old woman did not yet realize it. “Correct me if I am wrong, but had you not planned that the entire family, with the one exception of Morgin, would accompany us next month to Anistigh for Annaline’s wedding?”
Olivia nodded warily; her eyes narrowed.
“Then we cannot blame the boy . . .” AnnaRail continued, “. . . if he interprets that to mean that he is separate, and not equal.”
Her words had the desired effect. Olivia’s brow remained wrinkled, but with indecision, not anger. “But the boy cannot be trusted in the city.”
“I think he can. And in any case he’ll have to be trusted, unless you wish him to withdraw even further into himself.”
Olivia had trapped herself by her own demands, which gave AnnaRail a certain satisfaction. But the old witch recovered quickly. “Very well. He’ll go to Anistigh. But he’ll attend each and every function before, during, and after the wedding. With no time to himself, there’ll be no time for temptation.”
She looked at each of them in turn. “It shall be so. I command it. Malka. Please remain. I wish to speak with you privately.”
Anistigh was a leisurely three day journey from Elhiyne. Morgin and his brothers and cousins could have ridden it easily in two, but no one felt the need to hurry. Besides, there were women along, and carriages were slow, and even those like Annaline—who had chosen to ride horseback, and proven often enough that she was as capable in the saddle as any man—were hindered by the petticoats and skirts that Olivia demanded they wear. “My granddaughter . . .” she had proclaimed, “. . . will not ride to her own wedding dressed in the breeches of a man.”
Annaline didn’t seem to mind, though. They were on holiday, and the trip was made in comfort, if not elegance, though little eight-year-old NickoLot was not at all happy about the situation. She wanted to ride with her brothers, but AnnaRail would have none of that.
They followed the river Bohl, for it passed close to Elhiyne and through the middle of Anistigh. It was also a convenient source of water, and late in the evenings Morgin and his brothers fished its banks, hoping to catch something tasty for breakfast.
They came to Anistigh late on a warm sunny day. It was not at all what Morgin had expected. What few memories he could still recall were of muddy streets, cold, stone walls, gray alleys, and dark hovels. But his first sight of the city was a stretch of outlying farms, with Anistigh itself a jagged edge on the horizon. The farms were neat and well kept, and the people that greeted them as they passed were strong and healthy.
The city grew slowly out of the landscape, a maze of buildings without a clear-cut boundary. Morgin had expected something more sharply defined; a line perhaps, with city on one side and country on the other, and he chided himself for being so naive.
The heart of the city was formed of a grouping of large estates where the rich and powerful lived. Many were not clan, for just as a clansman could be poor, so too could a commoner be rich. It was just easier for clansmen to acquire wealth.
At the center of everything lay the Elhiyne compound. It was not the largest of the estates, but it was walled, and the most heavily fortified and guarded, for the clan was Elhiyne, and Elhiyne was the clan.
They arrived in a flurry of servants and retainers, and spent some time moving in. Once settled Morgin was anxious to do a little sightseeing. There were a few hours left before dinner so he hunted down JohnEngine and the two prepared to leave, but Olivia refused to allow them to go without supervision. “Two teenage boys,” she said, “alone, in the city? Never. You’d find trouble where none existed.”
The logical choice for a chaperone was MichaelOff, who was at first reluctant but allowed himself to be persuaded. Accompanied by an adult ten years their senior, Olivia had no choice but to give them leave. So the two boys set off with their older cousin in tow, talking incessantly of the discoveries they would make.
They headed straight for the market square, for with the clan in town there would be jugglers and acrobats, mimes, puppet shows, acting companies, and all forms of diversion. There were vendors with sweets and delicious foods, wine and ale. But as JohnEngine put it, the most important treats were the girls. Girls, girls, and more girls.
All of this had been described by JohnEngine, who had been to the city before. But as they approached the sector of the city from which Morgin’s memories had sprung, JohnEngine’s excitement grew while Morgin felt subdued, suppressed. It had been ten years since he’d seen these streets, and much had changed, yet he recognized them easily. And while his memories were not clear, they were sufficiently distinct to rekindle long forgotten emotions. They were memories best left unrecalled.
The market square itself remained almost totally unchanged. Ramshackle stalls filled it completely, each separated by narrow dirt pathways and operated by vendors loudly crying their wares. Those with the greatest seniority were near the outskirts where they could accost potential customers as soon as they arrived and still had money in their purses. And of course, the most valuable properties were the permanent shops that formed the outer perimeter of the square. The noise and excitement were overwhelming.
MichaelOff decided they should first tour the perimeter, strolling down the aisle between the permanent shops and the outermost stalls. And as they walked Morgin became progressively uncomfortable, for everyone bowed deeply to the three of them. The stall owners held samples high for easy viewing, but they were uncharacteristically passive, never shouting prices at the three young men as they passed. And by that Morgin slowly came to realize that it was he and his kinsmen who were the center of attention here. With that, and the familiarity of the market square, he found himself looking for a convenient shadow.
A hand touched his shoulder. He jumped with a start. It was MichaelOff.
“Morgin. Why so jumpy? What’s wrong?”
Morgin tried to look in all directions at once. “They’re all staring at us,” he hissed.
MichaelOff scanned the crowd casually. “Yes they are, aren’t they?” He smiled, looked back at Morgin and shook his head sadly, took a deep, considered breath. “You’re going to have to get used to that, you know. Anistigh is the capitol city of the Lesser Council, which is made up of the four Lesser Tribes. Of those four tribes, ours is the foremost, and our clan is held in high regard for that. You are an Elhiyne. You are of the ruling house of the foremost clan of this city, and wherever you go people will stare. So get used to it and learn to ignore it.” MichaelOff turned to a nearby stall. “Come. Let’s spoil our appetites a little. I’m buying.”
Morgin found he couldn’t ignore the staring eyes. No one was rude enough to stare directly into his face, but if he turned quickly, he always caught several of them watching him from behind. At one point a young boy of eight or nine ran across his path, stumbled, and fell into the dirt. And without giving it a thought Morgin reached down to help the lad to his feet. Once up the boy turned to see who had helped him and froze suddenly. His eyes grew wide and he hissed “Witchman!” then said no more.
An old woman, as filthy as the boy, stepped out of the crowd and grabbed him by an ear. She gave the ear a twist. “I’ve told ya not to bother the gentlemen,” she bellowed.
She gave the ear another twist and turned to Morgin. “Fergive me boy, yer worshipfulness. He’s a brute, he is. I’ll punish him rightly.”
“Oh no!” Morgin said. “No. Don’t. He did nothing wrong. He just stumbled in front of me.”
“Well,” she said. “If ya say so, yer wizardness. I’ll let him go this time.” She turned back to the boy and gave the ear one final twist. “And you be more careful.” Then she released him, and in an instant he disappeared into the crowd.
Most of that afternoon was a strange kaleidoscope of images and events that faded into a single overall impression of a lot of poor people, surviving through this day and into the next, though there was one incident that Morgin would remember well.
He was browsing through the stalls at the center of the square, thinking he might find some little trinket for Annaline with the few pennies he had. He stopped at one stall to look close at some small amulets. He could sense the stall’s owner hovering nearby in anticipation of a sale. He looked into the man’s face to ask his prices, and was suddenly struck by terror, for he was looking at a face that would always make Rat’s heart jump, a man whom he remembered as the cruelest of the vendors, with a sharp throwing rock always at hand.
Rat back-stepped quickly, eyes wide, looking for the safety of a nearby shadow.
“Is something wrong, your lordship?” the man asked.
Rat, still back-stepping, stumbled over someone. They both fell to the ground in a tangled heap. Rat stood, ready to run, but found instead poor Mathal sprawled at his feet.
She looked up fearfully. “Forgive me, you worship. I didn’t see you coming. Stupid me! Stupid me!” Then she began picking up the fruit he’d knocked from her hands.
“Out of his lordship’s way, old hag,” the man shouted. “You made him stumble. Be gone.”
The vendor lifted a hand to strike her, and in that instant something crawled up the back of Morgin’s spine, something alive and deadly. “Hold,” Morgin shouted angrily, feeling the power of magic sparking among his fingertips as he raised his own hand high.
The vendor froze into a fearful stillness. “It was I who made her stumble,” Morgin said. He looked into the man’s eyes. “And if you strike her—” He borrowed an expression from the first time he’d ever seen Roland in these same streets. “—then you’ll face my wrath.”
The man bowed meekly. “Yes, your lordship,” he said, then disappeared into the crowd.
Morgin was stunned by how quickly he’d been obeyed, without argument, and how, at the sound of a clansman speaking in anger, all nearby activity had ceased. He and Mathal were at the center of a sphere of silence and fear, with everyone waiting for him to make the next move. Mathal stood like a statue, half way through the motion of picking up a piece of fruit.
With an effort he suppressed his magic, crouched down beside her to help her. “Forgive me for knocking you down, Mathal. Is any of the fruit damaged?”
The incident was over. The crowd returned to its business and Mathal returned to picking up fruit. “No, your worship. It’s just fine, sir. It wasn’t that good to begin with.”
And it wasn’t. What Mathal had been hawking was, at best, the day-old stuff from another vendor. Clearly, her fortunes had declined. Not knowing what else to do, Morgin bought all her fruit. She seemed thankful for the few pennies he had. To her it was probably a small fortune.
On their way back to the Elhiyne compound he gave the fruit away to some beggars they passed. JohnEngine teased him unmercifully for wasting his money on groceries, and rather poor quality groceries at that. MichaelOff said nothing. He just looked at Morgin queerly, as if he understood there was something more to Morgin’s actions than he and JohnEngine knew.
“She was kind to you, was she?” AnnaRail asked.
“Oh yes,” Morgin said. “She always let me steal fruit. She pretended not to see but I know she did.”
“And now you say she has fallen on hard times?”
“It must be that,” Morgin said. “She’s a walking vendor with no stall, selling in the center of the square. That’s the worst that can happen to a vendor. The others look down on the walkers and treat them badly. Can’t we do something for her?”
AnnaRail, busy with some preparation for Annaline’s wedding, looked up from her work thoughtfully. “She was kind to one of my sons when he was in need. Therefore, I must be the same with her. Let this be a lesson to you. The obligations of a single clansman are the obligations of the entire clan. If she is willing to enter into our service, I’m sure we can find something for her to do. And if she works hard, and proves herself trustworthy, she will prosper.”
“Oh thank you, mother,” Morgin said. “But she must never know that I was once Rat. Never.”
“Very well, son. Now run along. I have work to do.”
The next morning Morgin found a pouch containing a considerable sum of money attached to one of the posts of his bed. There was also a note that read:
Your mother says you gave your money in a kindness. Here is some to replace it. It may seem a great deal, but it must last you while we are in Anistigh. I’m proud of you. But remember, there is such a thing as too much kindness.
Morgin found far more money in the pouch than he’d spent on Mathal’s fruit. He tucked it away and felt proud, but he quickly learned he wouldn’t have an opportunity to spend any of it. Avis appeared with a message from Olivia. He was to dress in his best and attend her immediately.
It was a group interview with Brandon, DaNoel, JohnEngine, NickoLot, and himself. MichaelOff was too old for such, and Annaline was too busy preparing for her wedding, but the rest had to endure a morning-long quizzing in the details of inter-clan relationships.
Olivia’s interest centered primarily on the four tribes of the Lesser Council: the first, fourth, eighth, and ninth tribes of the Shahot, ruled respectively by the Houses Tosk, Penda, Elhiyne, and Inetka. Each tribe was autonomous in internal matters, but turned to the council to arbitrate intertribal disputes. Historically, House Elhiyne had led the Lesser Council and continued to do so by consent of the Lesser Clans, as well as by virtue of Olivia’s power.
Annaline’s future husband, SandoFall, was an Inetka, as had been Marjinell. There were strong bonds between Elhiyne and Inetka, and both tribes would use the wedding as an opportunity for celebration, so attendance would be heavy. But since it was not a wedding of great importance, Houses Tosk and Penda would only be lightly represented.
Of the Greater Council only a single representative would be present: Valso, a prince of House Decouix, heir to the throne of King Illalla of the third tribe. Valso, of course, traveled with a retinue of twelve twelves, and for protection had brought along as many Kullish armsmen. The Kulls were known for their loyalty to House Decouix, their fighting ability, and their cruelty.
The Greater Council was composed of three tribes: the third, eleventh, and twelfth tribes of the Shahot, ruled by Houses Decouix, Rastanna, and Vodah. Unlike the autonomous tribes of the Lesser Council, those of the Greater were under the singular rule of House Decouix, which was, in turn, ruled by Illalla. Some said it was this unity that had made theirs the Greater Council.
It was well known that the Greater Council would like nothing more than to see the Lesser abolished. But by virtue of the distances involved the Lesser was able to maintain a partial independence in its rule. However, tithe was paid yearly to the Greater Council, a tithe of gold in lieu of blood.
The capital city of the Greater Council was Durin. Unlike Anistigh, Durin was a walled city, with castle Decouix at its heart, and capable of withstanding a long siege. The Greater Council liked to believe that Durin had not the slums nor poor of Anistigh, but those who had seen both said they were quite similar. Unlike the Lesser Council, the Greater had been known to rule its territories with a mailed fist, crushing any opposition that might arise. And it was often a Lesser Clan, bold enough to stand forward openly, upon whom the mailed fist fell.
All of this Morgin had learned long ago, then forgotten as quickly as possible. Olivia’s morning-long grilling had served its purpose, reminding the children of the facts of inter-clan relationships, and emphasizing that now they would need to put that knowledge to use.
At the end of the interview Olivia dismissed everyone but Morgin. She demanded he attend her at luncheon, where he met several guests from Clan Inetka, among them SandoFall and the clan’s leader Wylow, a large, boisterous, bearded man whom Morgin rather liked. Olivia chose to call Morgin by his family name, AethonLaw, and used every opportunity to brag of its possible import. The whole affair bored Morgin terribly, and he had trouble staying awake.
When it was over he learned he was not yet free to enjoy the sights of the city. There was a banquet that evening at the Inetka compound, and all family members were required to attend. And after he met the Pendas and Tosks he had to be content with JohnEngine’s account of his afternoon adventures.
The next morning he awoke early, hoping to be gone before Olivia found something to detain him. But alas, Avis met him with a message to attend Malka, and once the message had been delivered he could not deny receiving it. They spent the morning with BlakeDown, High Lord of Clan Penda, and between BlakeDown and Olivia, Morgin sensed a subtle but constant sparring, as if they were ever at odds in some way. Morgin was dismissed from their conference quickly though, and had to spend the morning entertaining BlakeDown’s youngest daughter, a girl about his own age who was quite pretty, but had a tendency to giggle and twitter. And then one of Olivia’s interviews filled the rest of the afternoon, and another banquet filled the evening. Again Morgin had to be content with JohnEngine’s stories.
The third day saw another morning-long quizzing by Olivia, and the afternoon filled by a meeting with Valso et Decouix. The Decouix prince was a young man, only a few years older than MichaelOff. He was handsome, with dark, almost delicate features, though Morgin noted that his tunic did not lack muscle to fill it, and his eyes were as hard as the edge of a sword. But oddly, for the first time, Olivia chose to call Morgin “Morgin,” with no mention or bragging of the name AethonLaw. And once introduced, he was almost wholly ignored.
He returned to the family compound that evening and learned there was another banquet scheduled. After further inquiry he found it would be attended exclusively by the elders and him, with none of his brothers or cousins present. He spoke with Avis and learned that his time for the next two days was fully occupied, with all arrangements made by Olivia, and he began to suspect a conspiracy.
He sought out Olivia. He was feeling the first touches of anger, though he was determined that it would not show. Expecting to gain nothing, but curious to hear her response, he asked if he might be excused from the banquet that evening.
“I’m sorry, child,” she said. “But that’s impossible. PaulStaff, leader of the Tosks, wishes to meet you.”
“PaulStaff met me two days ago,” Morgin said flatly.
She wasn’t ready for that. “So he did. So he did. But I wish you to be there. The younger generation of House Elhiyne must be properly represented.”
It sounded hollow and Morgin recognized it for the lie it was. “But it’s someone else’s turn tonight.”
She put on a show of tolerant displeasure. “But I require you, and not someone else.”
“But you’ve required me day and night for three days now. It’s not fair.”
“Of course it’s not fair. What does fairness have to do with this? I require your presence. You will be there.”
“But I want some time of my own. I want to see the city.”
She leaned forward menacingly, staring at him without blinking. “And why would you wish to see the city? It is a city, nothing more.”
“But you’re wrong,” he pleaded. “There are a hundred things to see and do, a thousand. Everyone else gets to. And you’re not being honest with me.”
She rose angrily from her seat, and he realized then that he’d gone too far. “How dare you?” she cried. “You accuse me of lying when you no doubt have nothing on your mind but gesh .”
Morgin started. “ Gesh?” he asked, trying to understand what that had to do with their argument. “ Gesh?” he asked again, and then comprehension struck him like a fist. He wanted no gesh. He needed no gesh. He screamed the word at her. “ Gesh !”
Suddenly he understood it all. Suddenly he realized that there could never be any trust for Rat the bastard whoreson , and with that realization came a flood of hot anger. “You think I want gesh ? You think I’ll head straight for the gesh? You have so little faith in me? Why . . . I haven’t thought about gesh in . . . in I don’t know how many years. And you think I’ll lie and deceive to get it now?”
For the first time in his memory her face showed indecision, and in the instant of silence that followed his words he turned his back on her, turned without another word and stormed out of the room.
“Come back here,” she shouted after him. “You haven’t been dismissed.”
He continued walking, refusing to be cowered, though he could hear her calling after him, “Come back here. I command it.” But the twists and turns of the hallways in the Elhiyne compound quickly muffled her anger.
Chapter 7: In the Company of Rogues
Morgin marched straight for the room he shared with JohnEngine, grabbed his pouch of money and turned to leave. But as he did so he caught sight of himself in a mirror, dressed in the finery of a highborn clansman. Quickly he changed into something more suitable for the streets: loose fitting breeches tucked into knee-high boots, a course, gray, linen shirt beneath a sleeveless leather jerkin. He tied the pouch to his belt, then headed for the street, allowing his anger to guide him, and caring nothing for the direction it chose.
It was early evening when he left the compound, but by the time he stopped to think what he was doing it was well after dark. He’d spent the time storming through the streets surrounding the market square, seeing nothing because of his blind rage, and remembering anew those memories long forgotten.
There was no desire for gesh , just anger at the damn witches. His rage was gone, burned off by hours of walking, but the anger was still there, and would remain for a long time to come, fueled by the realization that he would always be Rat the whoreson, one not to be trusted.
As the rage dissipated he took stock of his situation. He was on an unpaved street, with a continuous line of low stone buildings on either side. The only illumination was a quarter moon and an occasional crack of light from beneath a closed door, but that was sufficient to see small objects in the street, and to make visible each alley as a dark, dim entrance to nothingness.
From a past life he could vaguely remember this street, or at least he remembered the direction to the market square, and it was not the one he was now walking. He stopped in the middle of the street, turned about to return to the compound. But his eye caught a shadow disappearing into the darkened recess of a closed doorway. He looked carefully, and in the moonlight he saw several dark shapes freeze into stillness. One of them was no more than a few paces from him.
He began backing slowly up the street, watching the shadows to see which were more than just shadows. His heart pounded in his throat, and in the space of ten heart beats ten shadows stepped purposefully into the street. They were all about him.
There was a noise, the sound of steel sliding clear of a sheath, and for the first time he realized he was unarmed. He hadn’t thought to take a sword when he’d left the compound in the light of day, and now, because of his thoughtlessness, he would be found tomorrow laying in some alley with his throat cut.
Two more blades slid clear of their sheaths, the links of a chain rattled and the shadows advanced.
Morgin back-stepped. His mind raced as he muttered a spell of confidence, then followed it quickly with one to banish fear, but then an eleventh shadow stepped out unexpectedly behind the others. The eleventh shadow drew a blade. There came a hiss as steel sliced through the air, and a painful cry as one of the ten shadows collapsed in the street. And then the street erupted in pandemonium as the eleventh shadow danced death among the ten. Four of the ten were down and sprawled on the street when the newcomer broke from the pack and ran past Morgin. “Follow me, boy,” the stranger shouted, “fer yer life.”
Morgin followed the man without hesitation as they both ran haphazardly through the streets and alleys of the city. Morgin knew the game well: cut through an alley and out into the street beyond, down the street a ways, then through another alley. It was Rat’s game the stranger played, and Morgin followed obediently, but as they cut into the next alley Morgin realized suddenly with Rat’s memories that it was a mistake. “No,” he cried too late. “It’s a blind alley.”
They both dug in their heels desperately and spun about. But they were too late, for their pursuers had already blocked the entrance to the alley and were advancing toward them. They were trapped.
“Damn!” the stranger swore. “We’ll have to fight. You got a blade, boy?”
But when Morgin gave no answer the stranger looked about suddenly and discovered that Morgin was gone. “Damn coward,” he muttered, then turned to face the oncoming enemy alone.
But he wasn’t alone. Morgin had reached for his greatest weapon: the nearest shadow, melting into it with ease. Suddenly he was at home, floating from shadow to shadow as it seemed the gods had intended for him.
The stranger backed down the alley as the six dark shapes advanced. Morgin waited while they moved past him, then stepped out behind them, waving his arms silently so the stranger would know he was there.
The stranger moved first, cutting high with his sword at their faces. Morgin launched himself at the backs of their knees in a full body block, sprawled in a tumble of angry men. In the press of bodies he found the hilt of a blade that someone had dropped, curled his fingers about it then rolled out of the chaos just as a chain hissed past his face. He disappeared again into shadow.
It was not a good blade, not for Morgin. Its balance was wrong. It was too short to be a sword, too long to be a knife, but it was a weapon, and any weapon was better than none.
Two more shadows went down. Not dead, because he could hear one groaning and see the other trying to crawl away. There were four remaining and the stranger fought among them with the grace of a dancer.
Another went down with a cry, clutching his crotch where a moment earlier the stranger’s boot had found a target. The three remaining tried to surround the fellow, but as one moved past Morgin’s shadow he stepped out and his training took over. He knocked the man’s weapon aside and drove home the blade with all the force he could muster.
For a single instant Morgin saw the moon reflected in the man’s startled eyes as he looked upon his own death. Morgin had buried the blade to the hilt just under his rib cage, slanting upward toward the heart. Then the man toppled forward, carrying Morgin down and falling on top of him. Face to face, Morgin lay trapped under the man’s bulk. He could feel the man’s life pouring from the wound. He had taken his first life, and was sickened by it.
“Come, boy,” the stranger hissed. “We must be away. And quickly.”
The stranger’s words did not at first register in Morgin’s stunned mind. All he could do was lay there, staring into the glassy eyes of the dead man that lay on top of him.
The stranger kicked the body aside, pulled Morgin to his feet and slapped him hard in the face. “Snap out of it, boy,” the stranger growled. “We don’t want armsmen finding us here.” Then he turned and ran.
Morgin hesitated for only an instant, then followed.
As they approached the market square the streets were lit by an occasional torch or the open door of a saloon. The stranger peered into several inns before stopping at one and muttering, “Good. This’ll do.”
He examined Morgin carefully in the light of the inn’s open door, then pulled off his own cloak and threw it over Morgin’s shoulders. “Until we get that blood washed off, keep yer tunic covered with this.” The stranger held out his hand. “Now give me yer purse.”
For the first time Morgin looked at the man carefully. Tall, golden, blond hair hanging to his shoulders, a large mustache resting on the upper lip of a handsome face, a felt cap tilted rakishly on his head. He had no reason to trust this tall, blond stranger, but if the man chose to steal his money, it was a small price to pay in return for his life. Morgin gave him the purse reluctantly.
“Good. Now follow me, laddie-boy, and keep yer mouth shut.”
A few minutes later they were in a private room on the second floor of the inn. The stranger had returned the purse after paying for the room, and while Morgin cleaned the blood from the front of his jerkin, the stranger cleaned his sword, and his long moustache wagged as he filled the air with talk. “Well, laddie-me-boy. Looks like we’ll get away with this one. Those bodies’ll be stripped by morning. And if the clan armsmen come asking questions . . . Well, even if anyone saw the blood on ya, these people don’t talk much.”
“But I killed him in self-defense,” Morgin said.
“Ya, boy,” the stranger said. “I know. And I killed two meself for the same reason. But sometimes them clan witches don’t see it the same way as you an’ me. So it’s best to keep yer mouth shut and stay clean.”
But Morgin didn’t feel clean. “Who are you?” he demanded. “And why did you help me? And why are you helping me now?”
“Who am I?” the stranger asked. He grinned and sighted down the length of his sword. “Why! I’m France, the swordsman.” He hefted the blade as if to test its balance. “In fact, boy, I am the best swordsman I’ve ever met. Better than any clansman, I’ll wager.”
“But you’re a brawler,” Morgin said. “Swordsmen fight by rules.”
“Rules!” France mocked. He took a swipe with his sword and laughed loudly. “Ha! I court a fine lady by rules, boy. Otherwise she’d scorn me favors. I kill only men who need killin’, and steal that which ain’t mine hardly never. So I live much of me life by rules, boy. When I fight fer pleasure or practice, I usually fight by rules. But when I fight fer me life, boy . . .” His expression hardened. “Well . . . any man who fights fer his life by rules is a fool. And soon to be a dead fool at that.”
Morgin considered that for a moment. “I guess that’s fair. But why did you help me?”
“Well, laddie boy. I comes out of a particular drinking place near here and sees you stomping down the middle of the street like you owned the place. And behind you is gathering a pack of wolves to steal yer money. So I followed to see what would happen.”
“But how did they know I have money?”
“Boy, when you walk down these streets at night, you make sure yer money don’t chink in yer purse, especially loud enough fer others to hear.”
“Oh!” Morgin said, suddenly feeling quite foolish. “I guess that’s just common sense.”
“Yup. And you seem to be a little short of that. What’s yer name, boy?”
“Morgin,” he said. “But you haven’t told me why you helped me.”
“That’s simple enough, Morgin. I hate to see a young lad like yerself get hurt.”
Morgin shook his head. “I’m not that stupid.”
France shrugged. “And I expects to be rewarded properly fer me trouble by yer parents.”
Morgin became suddenly suspicious. “How do you know my parents?”
The swordsman smiled. “I don’t,” he said. With the tip of his sword he touched a newly acquired tear in Morgin’s sleeve. “But look at yer clothes. Till an hour ago there wasn’t a tear in them. And you, a young lad with money jingling in yer purse.”
Morgin became acutely aware of the worn and tattered condition of France’s own clothing.
“Tell me, boy. Why you walking these streets at night?”
“I had an argument with my grandmother,” Morgin said, and that was all he cared to tell this vagabond.
“So you stomped out of the house and went to the Thieves’ Quarter.” The swordsman shook his head sadly. “Didn’t you know you’d get in trouble?”
“But I’ve been here before.”
“Ya. Sure. During the day, no doubt. Damn it, boy. They don’t call this the good-fellows quarter. It’s thieves and murderers here, and don’t you forget it.”
Morgin didn’t tell him he’d come here because this was where his life had begun. He just sat silently, trying to understand why he’d done what he’d done. He also thought of the man he’d killed.
“Well, boy. You fought bravely, if not skillfully, and that’s good enough for anyone.”
“Not for my grandmother,” Morgin said.
France laughed. “She’s a mean old witch, eh?”
“How did you know?”
“That she’s a witch.”
France’s face, worn with experience, suddenly took on a dangerous look. He peered intently at Morgin. “Are you a clansman, boy?”
Morgin answered hesitantly. “Yes.”
“Which clan?” France demanded.
“And the name of this grandmother of yers?”
“Olivia,” Morgin said.
Without warning the swordsman grabbed Morgin by his tunic, nearly lifted him off his feet. “The Lady Olivia has no grandson named Morgin. And I don’t like liars.”
“My given name is AethonLaw, but I go by Morgin.”
The swordsman whistled and dropped into a chair. “I got a prince on me hands.”
“I’m no prince,” Morgin snapped.
“Maybe not,” France said. “But yer close enough.” He shook his head. “I’ll be damned! Come on, lad. Sit down. Yer making me nervous standing there like that.”
There were only two pieces of furniture in the room, a simple chair and a musty, old bed. France sat in the chair, so Morgin sat on the edge of the bed. “What are you going to do with me?”
The swordsman leaned forward and became suddenly serious. “You listen to me, boy. I’ll not be doin’ nothin’ with you. You’re yer own man, boy. If I forced you to do anything, I’d have yer grandmother after me. And there ain’t a man alive who wants her on his trail.”
“Then what should I do?” Morgin asked.
“Well now,” France said. “If its advice yer asking for, I got plenty of that. The bad advice is free. The good advice’ll cost ya. But let me ask you. What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know,” Morgin said. “I just don’t want to go back to the compound. At least not yet.”
“Well then why don’t you stay here, lad? I’m sure it’s not as good as yer used to . . .” France drew a finger through the dust on a bed post, “. . . but the owner takes pride in the fact that none of his customers gets robbed or murdered in their sleep. And there ain’t no bedbugs, and the food ain’t bad neither.”
Morgin considered it. If he went back to the compound Olivia would just tie him down again with endless meetings and such.
“And,” the swordsman said slyly, “for some wine, a little food, and a wee small fee, I’d be happy to be yer guide and show you a bit of the city.”
It was a good bargain. They shared the room’s only bed, sleeping in their clothes on top of the covers, for the sheets were too musty to suit either of them.
Morgin fell quickly to sleep. But it was a restless sleep, filled with dreams of strange people walking some unknown street, and all of them had eyes that reflected death in the moonlight. At one point he dreamed he was making love to a beautiful, young girl, but while lying face to face on top of her she suddenly turned into the man he’d killed. He awoke shivering in a cold sweat.
As he lay there, trying to sleep again but afraid he would dream the same dream, France spoke very softly in the dark. “Morgin, me lad. Whenever you think back to the first man you killed, just remember that it was him or you, and that that was one man that deserved killin’.”
The following day they toured the Thieves’ Quarter. They visited people and places that Morgin could never have seen in the company of clansmen. They stopped frequently in dark, forbidding saloons where France spoke with men whose eyes seemed never to rest, and who looked at Morgin with open distrust. France had warned him earlier, “Keep yer mouth shut and tell no one yer a clansman, boy.”
There were other places more festive, where pinching a barmaid was clearly part of the fare, and the drink flowed freely, though never for free. Morgin paid for it all gladly, and had the time of his life doing so. He was also surprised to find how little it cost him, or rather how exceedingly much he had. Evidently, what was to Roland some spending money for one of his sons, was a small fortune to most of these people.
They also browsed through several weapons-makers shops. France explained that he was always on the lookout for a good blade, and never passed up an opportunity to seek one out. They were in one such shop when France turned suddenly to Morgin and said, “There’s some good steel here, lad. Pick one out fer yerself.”
“A sword?” Morgin asked. “For me?”
“Sure. Yer of a proper age, and sword trained, you say.”
“A sword of my very own? But I don’t have enough money for a sword.”
The swordsman winked and whispered, “You have to know how to talk prices down, boy. Just pick one out and leave the rest to me.”
Morgin looked about while France spoke to the shop’s owner. He’d been in weapon’s shops before, but the kind the clan frequented offered a better cut of merchandise than this place. He searched carefully, and finally found one of the few nice looking blades. He hefted it to try its balance.
“Not that one,” France said. “It’s too pretty. Killin’ steel shouldn’t be pretty. And it’s too expensive. And it ain’t that good a blade.”
Morgin began again, looking this time for steel, and weight, and balance. As he picked up each blade he closed his eyes and tried to judge each on its own merits, and not its looks, but the blade he chose, the one that felt most natural in his hand, was a crude, ugly thing that had seen many a battle in its day. He returned it to the rack and walked away.
He tried several more, again closing his eyes as he tested each, until he found another blade that felt right. He opened his eyes and discovered it was the same blade he’d earlier rejected.
“What you got there, lad?”
Morgin handed the blade to France. “It’s probably not a very good blade,” he said, “but it seems to feel right.”
France looked at the blade casually. Then his eyes lit up and he looked again. He handed the blade back to Morgin and whispered, “Buy it. Don’t argue. Just but it.”
France argued with the shop’s owner and managed to bring the price down by a few coins, but Morgin could see that his heart wasn’t in it, though he did get the owner to throw in a proper sheath. He was in a hurry to be away.
Once out of the shop he scouted several alleys until he found one that was roomy and well lit by the sun. He pulled Morgin into it then asked to see the sword again. Morgin handed it to him.
France eyed the blade closely, examining it in minute detail, and as he did so, his eyes gleamed with delight. “This is a rare find, lad. It’s a Benesh’ere blade, an old one, and them crazy desert men make the best blades in all the tribes. It’s got a few nicks, and the hilt needs to be remounted properly, but it’s damn good steel. Damn good. Ah, lad! I’ll bet there’s some stories in this blade.”
“If it’s such a good sword,” Morgin said, “then you should have it.”
France shook his head. “It was your hand that found it, lad. It’s your blade. It would be unlucky for me to take it now.”
France’s eye’s stayed on the blade for a long moment. Then he returned it with visible reluctance.
“I’m such a poor swordsman,” Morgin blurted out suddenly. “Sometimes they even make me practice with the younger boys. Could you teach me how to fight? Please.”
France shook his head and smiled. “You fought just fine in that alley last night.”
“I was scared.”
“That’s the best way to fight, lad. Good and scared. But it ain’t fighting you’re talking about. It’s dueling. The fancy stuff. And that ain’t fer you, boy. You’re a fighter, not a duelist.”
Morgin shook his head. “Grandmother says clansmen only duel. That it isn’t gentlemanly to fight.”
“The old witch ain’t never had to swing a sword fer her life, has she? Well you remember something, boy. When yer in the thick of it, and yer life’s on the line, use the point to stab, the flat of yer blade to slap, the edge to cut, the guard as a steel fist, the hilt as a club. Use yer elbows, yer knees, yer claws, yer teeth. You just remember that, boy, and you’ll live a lot longer. But I ain’t got time to teach you to duel. And besides, it ain’t in you.”
They spent the rest of the afternoon sightseeing. But as the day drew to a close France led them back to one of the dark, forbidding saloons they had visited earlier that morning, and an unfriendly man that Morgin remembered well. France and the man spoke for a time privately while Morgin waited nearby. Then France left with the man, saying he had urgent business and would meet Morgin back at the inn after dinner.
Morgin returned to the inn, had a quiet dinner of simple fare, and was happy to see France arrive shortly thereafter. The swordsman wasted no time but said quickly, “Morgin, me lad. I’ve got to be leaving you. I’ve got business elsewhere that’ll take some days so I’ll be saying me good-byes.”
“Won’t I ever see you again?” Morgin asked.
“Maybe,” the swordsman said. “Then again, maybe not.”
“But what about a reward for saving my life?”
“Ah, lad! There ain’t time. I’ve got to be moving on. And I learned long ago not to ask fer things from witches. It’s too dangerous. Just put in a good word for me.”
Moments later the swordsman was gone. Morgin envied him, leaving on a moment’s notice, travelling to far lands on some strange adventure. But Morgin was alone now, so he chose a place at an empty table in a corner of the common room of the inn. He sipped his wine, tried to imagine where France might have gone, and for the most part he was ignored by the rest of the inn’s patrons. The bar maid, as a matter of course, had propositioned him, though she’d seemed relieved when he’d turned her down. Perhaps it was the shadows that hovered about him. He felt safe in those shadows.
The evening progressed and the room began to fill with more patrons. Some were noisy and loud, laughing, drinking. Some sat quietly and spoke in soft tones. They were of all shapes and sizes, both male and female. The only thing they had in common was the obvious condition of their financial status: poor. They were not the city’s poorest, for this inn was only on the fringe of the Thieves’ Quarter, but they could never be called well-to-do.
Morgin ignored them, lost in his own thoughts, until the room became suddenly, ominously silent. The laughing died, the clinking of glasses and the clank of mugs was gone, and all eyes turned to the entrance and the clansmen that stood there. But being on the fringe this inn was accustomed to the occasional highborn who wanted to do a little slumming. The crowd looked quickly away. The din of their pleasure returned.
But Morgin didn’t look away because these clansmen were his cousins and brothers. He watched closely as they removed their cloaks and scanned the room. His first thought was that somehow they’d discovered his whereabouts and come to fetch him, but that thought quickly vanished as they located an empty table and sat down to enjoy themselves.
He watched them closely, hidden within his shadows, curious as to why they’d come to this inn. They ordered ale and wine, laughing and joking among themselves. JohnEngine was there, with DaNoel, Brandon, and MichaelOff. Morgin recognized SandoFall, soon to be Annaline’s husband, and several more Inetkas whose names he could not remember. They made a few toasts, loud and raucous, some quite crude, and it slowly became obvious they were celebrating the end of SandoFall’s bachelor days. Morgin looked on with envy, wishing he and DaNoel had gotten along better so that he too could join in the fun.
Then suddenly, too soon to be coincidence, the room again fell silent. But this time the silence lasted, for standing within the doorway were two Kullish guardsmen.
Morgin had heard much of the Kulls. They were men who had no magic of their own, but desirous of power, had pledged their service, and their souls, to House Decouix. In return, the Decouixs located minor demons who wished for contact with this world. Then, with the consent of both parties, the demon and the man were melded into one. The result was irreversible: a man to all outward appearances, a cruel, demon, fighting machine within, forever obedient to Decouix command.
The two Kulls looked the room over. Satisfied, they signaled to others outside. Moments later Valso and three of his kinsmen entered, surrounded by a dozen Kulls. They walked to a table that was occupied, one not far from Morgin’s kinsmen, and stood there waiting. The table’s occupants did not at first realize what was required of them, but when they did, they stood quickly and left. The room remained silent.
Once seated Valso nodded, and the captain of the Kulls announced loudly, “Innkeeper. Drinks for all. The prince of House Decouix wishes all to enjoy his generosity.”
The barmaid began hurriedly filling mugs, though the room held to its silence, yielding only to the clatter of the maid’s activities.
One of Valso’s kinsmen, a fop by all standards, turned to the prince and spoke just loud enough for all to hear. “Your Highness, I smell a stench in here.”
JohnEngine’s tankard of ale spilled. A stifled curse could be heard. Again the room was still.
Another of Valso’s kinsmen spoke, again just loud enough for all to hear. “You’re right, Degla. There is a stench here, and I’ve smelled it before.” He sniffed the air experimentally. “I believe it’s the stench of swine.” Again the room was still.
None of Morgin’s kinsmen spoke, though all could see the anger building. The third of Valso’s kinsmen spoke. “No, GeorgeAll. That’s not the stench of swine. What you’re smelling is the stench of a swineherd, I believe, though the two are quite the same.”
JohnEngine swore and started to rise. MichaelOff quickly put a hand on his shoulder and forced him back down. “No, cousin,” he said. The silence of the room was heavy now with fear.
Valso leaned backward so that the two forelegs of his chair rose from the floor. Preparing to speak, he took a slow, deep breath, then exhaled loudly. “I do believe you’re right, Andra. Definitely the smell of a swineherd.”
He paused, nodding his head. Then peering about the room as if seeking someone, he asked, “I wonder. Are there any Elhiynes about?”
JohnEngine jumped to his feet and screamed, “Decouix scum!”
Everyone moved, and Morgin moved with them. The room filled with the deadly sound of steel escaping sheaths. Lines were drawn, positions taken. Then all movement ceased, though Morgin continued to work his way along the shadows that lined the edge of the room.
JohnEngine stood in the center of the room, his hand on the dagger at his side. His kinsmen were behind him, ready to back him. In front of him Valso stood at sword’s length, also backed by his kinsmen. About them all stood the Kulls.
Morgin’s kinsmen were lightly armed and outnumbered by the more heavily armed Kulls. If a fight began it would be a slaughter, for Kulls gave no quarter.
Morgin moved among his shadows, stepping lightly from one to the next. He had no idea what he could do. There was no time to make a plan, only to react. Then one of the Kulls looked his way and he froze into stillness, pressed his back tightly against the wall, held his breath. The Kull looked away.
MichaelOff spoke, and as always he was calm. “Valso. We’ve already walked away from your taunts once this evening. If you continue you’ll leave us no choice. Please stop this deadly game, cousin, before there is no return.”
While MichaelOff spoke, Morgin moved again, using the noise of MichaelOff’s words to mask any noise he might make. He took a position to the side of JohnEngine and Valso. He was still against the wall, about three long paces from them, but with a direct line of sight between two Kulls, their backs toward him. There were no chairs or tables to block his path, and so he froze and held his breath, for the room was again silent.
Valso spoke. “You call me cousin?” he asked, and laughed in the asking of it.
Morgin prepared to move. “Well now,” Valso said. “I claim no kinship with one whose mother sleeps with pigs.”
Everyone moved at once; Morgin charged, and as he did so his magic came upon him without bidding. He surprised the two Kulls, knocked them aside as he burst between them, felt as if he were dragging his body at lightning speed through a sea of honey. In one motion he crossed the distance to JohnEngine and Valso, drawing his sword and swinging it up in an arc toward Valso’s throat. His intention was to stop the tip just short of the skin there, but with his limited skill as a swordsman he overshot. The tip of his sword barely touched Valso’s neck, and everyone froze into statues as all motion ceased.
JohnEngine had drawn his short dagger and was held at bay by Valso’s sword. The tip of Morgin’s sword hovered just under Valso’s chin, and while Valso’s arm was fully extended, Morgin’s was cocked and ready to thrust, to drive the blade up through the neck and into the prince’s brain. If blood were spilled, none there questioned that Valso would be the first to die.
Slowly the prince’s face turned red, then blue. His lower lip began to quiver and his breath came in a stuttered gasp. Then the fit of rage passed, receding slowly like the ocean’s tide. Valso glared malevolently at Morgin. His eyes held a hate that was frightening. And again the room was still.
Morgin waited for someone to move, to say or do something. But then he realized they were waiting on him. The next move was his, but there hadn’t been time to think his moves through, only to act. He forced himself to pause, to think.
No one had yet been killed, or even seriously wounded. There was a small drop of blood where his sword had touched Valso’s throat, but that was all, more like the nick of a razor than that of a sword. Morgin held that in mind as he spoke, though he was unable to hide the tremble in his voice. “Your Highness,” he said carefully. “My kinsmen and I wish to go . . . May we have your leave?”
Valso’s eyes were black, hard stones of hatred. “You’ll pay for this, Elhiyne. You’ll pay.”
Morgin tried to think of some witty remark, but none came to mind. “I asked for you leave, Your Highness,” he said, and for emphasis he touched the flat of his blade to Valso’s throat, smearing the drop of blood there.
Valso’s face twisted into a mask of rage. “Go,” he snarled.
Morgin nodded to MichaelOff. The Inetkas and Elhiynes backed slowly out of the room, ever conscious of the Kulls with their drawn blades. But JohnEngine stopped beside Morgin and whispered, “We don’t leave without you, brother.”
Again the action had caught up with Morgin’s plans. Again he didn’t know what to do, and during his moment of indecision Valso smiled sweetly. “Well, Elhiyne. What will you do now? The instant you take you blade from my throat, you’ll die.” The Kulls muttered expectantly, like a pack of dogs given the scent of their prey.
“Then I won’t take my blade from you throat,” Morgin said. “As a common courtesy, you’ll accompany us to the door, won’t you, Your Highness?”
The rage and the hatred returned to Valso’s face.
Morgin used the tip of his blade to force Valso’s chin toward the ceiling, until his back arched uncomfortably. “Let us walk carefully,” Morgin said.
They moved slowly, JohnEngine leading the way, Morgin back-stepping behind him, the prince following with his chin forced high in the air. The Kulls closed in behind Valso, ready to take advantage of any chance misstep.
When they reached the door Morgin paused, his back to the street. He had to think of some way to exit quickly, and so without warning he raised his boot and kicked Valso in the chest, using the momentum of the kick to push himself out into the street. JohnEngine slammed the door in front of him, and the last thing Morgin saw was Valso sprawling into the waiting arms of his Kulls.
They ran, he and JohnEngine and the others. They ran following MichaelOff, dodging through alleys and back streets. At first they could hear Valso screaming at his Kulls to catch them, but soon Valso’s cries were lost in the distance and the night.
Morgin rounded a corner at full speed and plowed headlong into someone. He went sprawling into the street, rolled quickly to one side and came up sword drawn. At his feet lay SandoFall. About them both stood their kinsmen, breathing heavily and listening silently. And but for the sounds of a nearby inn, the night was still. No Valso. No Kulls.
“We’ve lost them,” MichaelOff said.
SandoFall stood, brushing dust from his clothes. “I’m not sure which is more dangerous, Valso and his Kulls, or this charging bull of a cousin of yours.” He nodded to Morgin.
MichaelOff laughed. “But you owe him your skin. The least you can do is let him knock you down a few times.”
JohnEngine laughed uncontrollably. “We all owe him our skins.”
“Right you are,” someone bellowed and slapped Morgin on the back. Suddenly they were all laughing, shaking his hand and congratulating him for so deftly humiliating the Decouix. Even DaNoel was for once friendly.
“Hah!” JohnEngine shouted. “The evening is still young. Morgin can join us.”
“Aye,” SandoFall yelled. “And he’ll not buy his own drinks.”
They swept Morgin along as they moved to another inn. He had suddenly become one of them, he realized, a witchman. Perhaps he would always be something of an outsider, but he understood now that he was a clansman. He could not have abandoned them in that inn any more than they could have abandoned him. They were his kin, even if not by blood; his family, even if not by birth. He would have to trust them, whether Olivia trusted him or not.
Olivia! Morgin had a horrible thought. He grabbed MichaelOff’s sleeve and pulled him close. “What’s grandmother going to say?”
MichaelOff looked as if his drink had just gone sour in his mouth. “Oh Morgin! Let’s not think of unpleasant things tonight. We’ll face grandmother when the time comes.”
“You put steel to the Decouix?” Olivia demanded angrily, her voice rising to a shout.
Morgin, kneeling with his brothers and cousins at her feet, decided to assume that she meant the collective you. She hadn’t specifically addressed him, and MichaelOff had done all of the talking so far, so why not let him answer?
“Morgin. I’m speaking to you. Answer me.”
“Do you mean, ‘Yes you put steel to the Decouix’?”
“Yes, grandmother. But I—”
“You drew his blood, and then you asked his permission to leave?”
Morgin cringed. “Yes, grandmother.” He knew the symptoms well. The old witch was building to a monumental explosion.
“Ah ha!” Olivia cawed, throwing her head back and laughing like a young girl at a dance. “How exquisite! How utterly exquisite! Such irony I had never hoped to see. The Decouix, publicly humbled, and by his own foolishness.”
Morgin glanced up to sneak a quick look at the old woman. She literally shook with mirth, but it died as quickly as it was born, and her gaze returned to him. Her eyes narrowed. Morgin snapped his head back down.
“How came you to be in that inn?”
“I was staying there, grandmother.”
“So! You find their accommodations better than ours?”
“No, grandmother. I just needed a place to be alone and think.”
“And what made you choose that particular inn?”
“I didn’t choose it. France did.”
“And who is this France?”
“A swordsman, grandmother. He saved my life.”
“He saved your life, eh?”
She pondered that for a moment. “It seems you have a story to tell. But first I think you owe me an apology.”
“I’m sorry, grandmother.”
“That’s better,” she said, softening a little. “You are forgiven this time. Especially since you redeemed yourself by humbling the Decouix. But don’t ever walk out on me like that again.”
“Good.” Suddenly she was all smiles. She sat down on her couch. “Come, grandson. Sit beside me and tell me of this adventure of yours. Leave nothing out. I must hear it all.”
She was positively merry as Morgin told his story, laughing at times like a young girl. He told her of France and the fight in the street. When he told her of the man he had killed she bragged that he was now a blooded warrior. JohnEngine and DaNoel both looked envious, and AnnaRail looked sad. He left out France’s comments about witches, and there was no need to mention things like the barmaid who propositioned him. When he told of buying the sword she asked to see it. She looked it over mechanically, commenting only that it appeared rather crude. But when Malka examined it he pronounced it “. . . functional, well balanced; a good weapon. This France fellow knows his steel.” Morgin didn’t tell them it was a Benesh’ere blade.
The story ended almost festively, with all of the young men contributing bits and pieces to the final scene in the inn with Valso. Olivia hung on every word, asking for embellishments on this and that, especially concerning Valso’s red and angry face. When she dismissed them it was with smiles and compliments for all concerned.
Morgin wasted no time cornering MichaelOff who was relaxing in his room. When Morgin asked him why Olivia was so happy about the confrontation with Valso, MichaelOff ran his fingers through his hair and showed little enthusiasm for the telling of a long tale. But Morgin pestered him until he agreed to its telling.
“Long ago,” MichaelOff said, “Olivia’s father, Bertak, led Elhiyne with his wife Hillell. Since they had no sons Olivia, as the oldest daughter, was heir to Elhiyne. When she married Karlane he became consort and Elhiyne, instead of following the usual custom whereby the bride is adopted into the groom’s clan. Olivia bore three sons and a daughter, the youngest of which was Malka.”
Morgin was wide-eyed with disbelief. “Three sons? And a daughter? But why have I never heard this before?”
“Because your grandmother does not like it spoken of. And you will be wise not repeat it lightly.”
Morgin nodded. “Whatever you say.”
“Good,” MichaelOff said. “Now back to my story. At that time Elhiyne was located across the mountains and far to the north in Yestmark. With Bertak’s leadership Clan Elhiyne grew strong, and the other Lesser Clans looked more and more to us for leadership. But House Decouix became fearful of our growing strength, and decided to crush us before we might challenge them. They attacked Elhiyne without warning. They butchered our retainers and servants and killed many clansmen. They murdered Bertak, Hillell, Karlane, and Malka’s older brothers and sister. Illalla, Valso’s father, was then a young prince of House Decouix. He raped Hellis, Olivia’s younger sister, and Tulellcoe was conceived. Malka was no more than a babe, and Roland was as yet growing in Olivia’s belly, so your grandmother used her considerable magic to escape with Malka and Hellis, and together the two women, both with child, went into hiding. They hid for months with the other Lesser Clans and never returned to Yestmark. Eglahan rules there now, but he is sworn to Olivia and Clan Elhiyne. He is our first defense against Decouix attack.”
“But what about Olivia and Hellis?” Morgin asked.
“Be patient,” MichaelOff said. “They hid. And while they hid Roland and Tulellcoe were born. But by that time Hellis had gone mad. She took her own life, and only Olivia managed to prevent her from killing Tulellcoe as well. After that it was many years before Olivia came out of hiding, but when she did she rebuilt Elhiyne where it now stands: in the southern shadow of Attunhigh, on top of the ancient ruins of Elhiyne, ruins that date back to before the Great Clan Wars. You know them well, I’m sure, since you play in them regularly.”
Morgin started to protest, to feign ignorance of the walled-off old castle.
“Don’t bother to deny it,” MichaelOff said. “I know where you and JohnEngine play. I played in those same ruins myself. And before me I’m quite sure that Malka, Roland, and Tulellcoe explored them well.”
MichaelOff continued. “So our grandmother survived the Decouix attack. And since then she has lived for two things: to rebuild House Elhiyne, and to hate Decouix. She dare not defy them openly, but every move she makes is calculated to strengthen us against them.”
“Will there someday be war?” Morgin asked.
Now MichaelOff shrugged. “Probably. But all there is now is hate. And you, cousin, have stepped unknowingly into the middle of that hate. You’ve made a mortal enemy this night. Valso is known for his vindictiveness, and I fear that someday he will strike back at you.”
Morgin was skeptical. “It can’t be all that bad. He’ll forget all about it, with enough time.”
MichaelOff frowned. “Beware of him, Morgin. It is said he murdered his own brothers to be sure he’d have no rivals in his quest for the Decouix throne. He his ruthless. He will not forget that you made him look foolish in a public inn.”
Chapter 8: Hero’s Walk
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