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.
J. L. Doty
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Child of the Sword, Book 1 of The Gods Within
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Copyright © 2012 J. L. Doty. Updated 2013 and 2014. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical without the express written permission of the author. The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials.
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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.
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.
12: 7th Heaven
11: 6th Heaven
10: 5th Heaven
9: 4th Heaven 4th Mortal 1st Hell
8: 3rd Heaven 3rd Mortal 2nd Hell
7: 2nd Heaven 2nd Mortal 3rd Hell
6: 1st Heaven 1st Mortal 4th Hell
5: 5th Hell
4: 6th Hell
3: 7th Hell
2: 8th Hell
1: 9th Hell
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 barely human, stunted, ugly bundle of filthy rags; he stalked his prey every day in the morning light of the market square. Badly malnourished, he was small, perhaps six or seven years of age, perhaps more. Everyone in the streets considered him a repulsive excuse for humankind, with festering sores visible wherever the 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 ye, 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 somewhat frequent 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 first market day of spring, were 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.
Keeping his eye on Fatpurse, he stopped in the shadow of a market stall and finished the apple, moldy core and all. Then he reached into his rags and retrieved a small, featureless object no larger than the tip of his littlest finger: gesh. He carefully placed the hard, woody substance on his tongue and began chewing. 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 it would make life just a little better.
Rat loved gesh. It made the cold nights of winter warmer, and it softened the filthy straw of his bed. It 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 shouted. “Get him.”
Rat jumped to his feet instantly, ran a 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 into stillness and waited.
There were three of them, boys not much larger than him, searching the shadows for him, seeking a little sport. If there had been more 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, 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 said. “You’ll not be a scarin’ away me customers with yer stench.”
Rat changed shadows. Fatpurse 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 did 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 scanned the crowd, checking to ensure that no eyes were on him; 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 must have 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 yelled. “Thief.”
Rat jumped to his feet and ran.
“What?” someone shouted.
“That scum, there,” Fatpurse bellowed, pointing a fat finger. “He stole my purse. A reward to the man that catches him.”
“It’s Rat,” someone else shouted. “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.”
Rat dodged in and out of shadow and 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 to the panic that consumed him. He made turns 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 shouted.
Rat, still lying in the mud, was somewhat trampled 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 didn’t see him.
Fatpurse lumbered 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 edges of the alley were lined with garbage, refuse and litter. The mob focused on that, overturning anything that might hide a small thief, leaving Rat standing alone 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. If these maniacs wished to let him go when he was there for the taking, then so be it.
The mob was searching the clutter that lined the walls of the alley, so Rat chose a path down the open space in the middle. He moved slowly, careful lest he tempt fate by bumping someone who stepped back from their search, 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 breeches tucked into knee-high black boots, and he stood there blocking 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 unerringly, 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 and 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.
The witchman grimaced and put a hand to his temple. “Stop that, I said.” He groaned and said, “Too much fear!” and struck out with his other hand. Rat 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 said. “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 yelled.
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, grumbling some, but no one questioned the witchman’s authority. 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. As the rats continued retrieving small bones the pattern they formed in the mud began to take on the shape of a man, but since none 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 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 weaved their way through 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. 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 reached out and grabbed it, discovered in an instant it was made of soft, supple leather, beneath which he could feel the witchman’s toes. He’d clearly caught the witchman off guard, so he pulled the tip of the boot to his mouth and bit it with all his might
“Ahhh! 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 conscious of another presence nearby, a presence he could feel but not see, sense but not hear. This presence was not in the room with him and the witchman, but it was conscious of him, and coming for him. It was angry at him, with an evil, terrible hatred, and it was going to punish him. He began to sob openly, and 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.
Roland watched the old woman’s fury dissipate and turn into curiosity. Still standing in the doorway, her 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. She was 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, 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 said.
“Yes,” the old woman said 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. 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. She turned about, taking in all 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, 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 had learned as a much younger witch.
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 with 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.
Roland entered the room cautiously, carrying Rat. Still unconscious, the urchin had been stripped naked, and his grime and filth washed away. Roland was followed by AnnaRail and another woman her age, and an adolescent boy. He placed the naked child on the stone floor at the center of the chamber, then turned and left the sanctum without a word. About them all the air shimmered with power.
Olivia’s eyes were drawn to three puckered scars on the child’s face, previously hidden by the filth and grime. They were ugly pocks, probably caused by some sort of infectious eruption, and poorly healed. It struck her that the child could have grown up to be a rather handsome young man, but not with such unpleasant disfigurement.
Olivia turned to the young boy. “Come, grandson, I need your strong back.”
MichaelOff 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 glowed with godfire, and 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 as if she regarded it with contempt. “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, and 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. The gesh pulled at him and he hungered for it, knew that soon the lack of it would grow into a painful need. And there were witches all about him. He could sense them, especially the wrinkled, old, evil one. He had to get out, get away from her and get some gesh.
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.
“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.
Morgin spent three days in bed, his hunger for gesh a constant ache in his soul. With his hands shaking, his knees trembling, it was not until the morning of the fourth day that he could stand on his own, and then only for short periods.
On the morning of the fifth day an old man shook him awake at dawn. “Come, boy,” the old fellow said, bundling him into a blanket and lifting him carefully. He carried Morgin down to a courtyard filled with people, horses, wagons and a carriage, placed him on a seat in the carriage, and they left the city.
Morgin drifted in and out of sleep for most of that day, and finally awoke at dusk as the witches stopped to set up camp for the night. His stomach no longer cramped and spasmed, and as a warm and comfortable darkness settled over the land, he felt strong enough to escape. He waited until no one was looking, then slipped into the shadows surrounding the camp. But he encountered that invisible wall of something, the same thing that had blocked the gate in the city. And little by little, as he circled the entire camp, he found no gap or breach through which to escape. He’d have to bide his time.
After three days and two nights on the road they arrived at a large stone structure they called Castle Elhiyne. He looked about carefully as the carriage rolled through the main entrance, and realized he could never find his way back to the city.
The next six months were hard. They forced him to learn numbers and letters, and the pretty witch AnnaRail tried to teach him the magic of witches. She insisted it had something to do with the shadows he loved so much, but he knew better; shadows were just shadows. At least he managed to avoid crossing paths with the evil, old witch they called Olivia. And he did find a special place to hide, a little den that no one else knew about, though, oddly enough, it moved around, and was never in the same place when he went looking for it.
The first six months were very hard.
AnnaRail stood quietly to one side and pondered Morgin’s progress over the last six months. She had been summoned to Olivia’s audience chamber to discuss the child, and while Olivia spoke in subdued tones with her oldest son Malka, Marjinell, his wife, sat beside them, a look of absolute boredom on her face. She had openly expressed her opinion that it had been a mistake to adopt the child into the clan, and AnnaRail hoped she would not interfere when the topic of discussion turned to Morgin.
A crude squeeze on her 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.
He forgot the kiss and 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’s audience chamber 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, 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.
“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. Pay attention. 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.
“Does this Morgin child still act like an untamed animal?” Olivia asked.
“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.”
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.
But the silence that followed Marjinell’s outburst was clearly 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 said. “Not unruly. Just curious, forever trying to learn the purpose of this and that. His problem with the servants is that he doesn’t ask questions. He waits until he’s alone then pokes and prods about, sometimes creating more work for them. I want to encourage the curiosity, but he must be taught to ask before touching, and I need your help with that.”
“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?”
“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 grew unpleasantly 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 summoned a demon under geas, whose continued existence was dependent upon my safety. I entered the child’s soul and 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 felt it important to investigate the fear further, but I found myself ensnared by it, almost consumed, and when I tried to leave, I could not; the fear trapped me as if it were a living thing. 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 command me to.”
“Kill it,” Marjinell burst out. “Kill the little monster before it harms someone.”
“Silence,” Olivia demanded. “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. “Is there anything else?”
AnnaRail frowned. “Well yes, there is. 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’s first two years with the witches and witchmen were lonely, more so even than living alone on the crowded streets of Anistigh. In the city no one punished him for not knowing his letters or numbers or magic, and Mathal had always had a gentle smile for him. But among the witches no one looked upon him kindly. Well . . . there was AnnaRail. She was kind, and when she did punish him, somehow he knew she took no joy in it. And her youngest daughter little NickoLot; Nicki was all smiles and happiness, a tiny bundle of energy, pink skin and big round eyes.
The other boys his age were his biggest problem, especially JohnEngine, AnnaRail’s second son. If none of the older boys like MichaelOff or Brandon or DaNoel were about, JohnEngine and his followers could be quite cruel.
In the beginning of his third year with the witches, the situation came to a boil. Morgin had just finished a lesson with AnnaRail, and was taking a shortcut through the cook’s garden, when he found his path blocked by several boys. He turned to flee, but they’d encircled him completely.
JohnEngine swaggered out from among them to face him. “It’s Rat,” he said, “the thief. I bet we’ll find anything that’s gone missing underneath your cot.”
Morgin was too terrified to even speak.
JohnEngine shoved him hard, forcing him to stumble backwards. Morgin cringed as JohnEngine stepped forward and raised his fist to deliver what would be a painful blow to the face. And at that moment the shadow of a hawk, coasting on a thermal, drifted lazily between them.
Morgin had had enough of JohnEngine’s bullying, and instinctively he stepped into the shadow, danced within it for a pace or two, then stepped out of it and into a dark shadow in the lee of a stone wall.
JohnEngine shouted, “Where’d he go.”
Watching for an opportunity to slip away, Morgin remained absolutely still in his shadow as the boys began searching about. He would have gone and left it at that, but he noticed that JohnEngine’s efforts to find him were slowly bringing him closer. So he waited until JohnEngine was within arm’s reach, and he struck out from his shadow, hitting him squarely in the nose.
JohnEngine staggered backward, blood pouring over his upper lip, so Morgin stepped forward, bringing his shadow with him, and kicked him in the shin.
Morgin was surprised at how easy it was to find a shadow just where he needed one. So he danced among them and gave JohnEngine a rather sound beating.
AnnaRail stifled a sigh as Olivia stormed through the door into her chambers and demanded, “How is JohnEngine? I hear Morgin hurt him rather badly. I swear I’ll personally tear that little guttersnipe apart with my bare hands.”
After two years it would not be a good thing if the old woman suddenly took a keen interest in Morgin. “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, and 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 doubt I’ve actually seen him more than a few times since he came to us, though I can sense him; there’s no mistaking that raw and untamed power. He hides from me, you know. I’ll round a corner in a hall, or step out of a room, and catch a fleeting glimpse of him as he slips away.”
“He’s afraid of you.”
Olivia paused and looked at AnnaRail carefully. “He should be. But my curiosity is aroused. 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 was on his way to AnnaRail’s chambers when he sensed the wrinkled, old witch behind him coming his way, her anger roiling like the thunderheads of a violent storm. He stopped in the middle of the corridor, glancing about desperately for a place to hide, but the hall was long and straight, with no doors conveniently at hand. But then the wall beside him shimmered, and the opening to his special alcove appeared where no room should be. He stepped into it and pressed his back against a wall. He knew that where he saw an entrance to a recessed alcove, everyone else saw featureless stone blocks. But he still cringed as Olivia thundered past him, her robes billowing out behind her.
He heard her throw open the door to AnnaRail’s chambers and demand, “How is JohnEngine? I hear Morgin hurt him rather badly.” Then the door closed and he could hear no more.
Trembling, he sat down on the floor with his back to the wall and tucked his knees up tightly to his chest. He was sitting like that when the old witch left AnnaRail and marched back down the hall. Eventually the trembling ceased and he drifted off into a shallow and restless sleep.
DaNoel and MichaelOff’s voices woke him with a start. They’d stopped in the hall 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 saw 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 paces deep, sometimes set in a wall only a hand-span 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 his mistake. 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.
Morgin stood motionless as the other boys closed in upon him. JohnEngine wanted revenge for the beating, and there was no escape, no shadows, 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 words were muffled by an old rag that someone crammed into his mouth. Finally, defeated, he remained 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 Rat? Any ideas?”
“Throw him in the river,” someone said.
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. And it might insult the pigs.”
They all laughed.
“No,” JohnEngine said. “We have to teach this pest 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 not evident to Morgin.
“Let’s go,” JohnEngine said, 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, 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 said, “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. Apparently they had placed some code there during earlier explorations, probably markers to help them find their way back. 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, Rat,” 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 thud.
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.
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, Morgin 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 among them and watched JohnEngine fumble in his tunic for a striker and flint. Before coming to the witches he’d thought everyone could see in the dark this clearly, but had learned slowly, through little hints and clues, that his ability was quite unique. He didn’t know if he actually saw JohnEngine with his eyes, or if he just sensed him and pictured it in his mind’s eye. In any case, it was just one more thing that would make him different from the other boys—make him not normal—so he’d always kept the fact of his night-vision a secret.
Once JohnEngine had retrieved his striker and flint, he knelt and placed the candle on the floor next to some tinder. Morgin reached out, picked up the candle and stepped back a pace. When JohnEngine struck the first spark, the flash of light briefly illuminated the floor. “Where’s the candle?” he demanded.
“I don’t know,” someone said. “You’re the one who had it.”
“I must have knocked it aside with my boot. 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 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’d be lost in the dark forever.
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 said. “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 candle 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. “Where did you find it?”
Morgin didn’t answer him.
“I’ve got a candle,” JohnEngine said, 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 before explored, 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 our 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.”
The other boys looked at him oddly, though strangely enough, Morgin saw no revulsion in JohnEngine’s eyes, merely indecision and perhaps some understanding. JohnEngine stared at him for a long, silent moment. Then he said, “Blow out that candle.”
After the incident in the ruins of the old castle, JohnEngine stopped tormenting Morgin. An easy peace settled between them and they grew to be friends. During the year that followed Morgin slowly came to accept his place among the wizards and witches of the clan.
His schooling continued, though the only lessons he found of interest were the stories of the Benesh’ere: fierce desert tribesmen who lived in the Great Munjarro Waste. They were reputed to have pale, bone-white skin and coal-black hair. The shortest of them stood a head taller than the tallest clansman and they were ferocious warriors. The Waste was their exile, for in the far distant past they had betrayed the last of the Shahotma Kings. Their traitorous acts had started the Great Clan Wars that resulted in the extermination of five of the twelve tribes, and for that sin their magic had been stricken from them. 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 painful to the ears. But Septimus, the Ward of the seventh tribe, remained silent and black, unlit, un-whole.
The lessons in inter-clan relationships were quite dry and academic. But near the end of his fourth year with the witches, as winter receded and spring began to blossom, an emissary from the Greater Council arrived with a considerable retinue. And Morgin had the opportunity to observe first-hand the anger that smoldered just beneath the surface of every Lesser Clansman’s pride.
Dannasul, a boy Morgin’s age, hissed conspiratorially, “Come. Let’s go watch the action.”
Dannasul led him to the Hall of Wills, a cavernous room with a dais and high throne at the far end. As the crowd grew Morgin realized every clansman present in the castle was gathering to watch the emissary face House Elhiyne. Standing with the other lesser clansmen, he and Dannasul were politely nudged toward the back of the throng, and Morgin feared that with so many tall strangers in the way, he would see nothing of the proceedings. But Dannasul showed him a narrow staircase that opened onto a high gallery where a dozen other boys his own age were huddled behind a rail, peering between its balusters at the main floor below.
Nothing happened for the longest time, but then a sudden hush descended on the crowd, and moments later Roland and AnnaRail appeared below, walking toward the dais at the far end of the hall. They were followed by their children: Annaline, DaNoel and JohnEngine; NickoLot was obviously too young to attend such an event. Once they had taken their positions on the left-hand side of the dais, Malka and Marjinell followed with their sons MichaelOff and Brandon, and they stood to the right. Morgin realized they were arriving in order of rank within the clan. Malka, as Olivia’s heir, had come after Roland, and the old witch, as head of the clan, would come last. Morgin had a thought that made him chuckle: the clan had Olivia at its head, and Morgin at its tail.
But where was Tulellcoe, the only son of Olivia’s dead sister Hellis? Morgin 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.
JohnEngine said that Tulellcoe’s mother, Hellis, who was Olivia’s sister, had been raped by Clan Decouix during the last clan war; 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.
Morgin finally spotted Tulellcoe standing among the lesser clansmen.
When Olivia eventually made her entrance, something seemed to tickle Morgin’s spine, and he realized she had come cloaked within her power. Dressed in black robes, a veil of black lace draped over her gray-black hair, she walked the length of the hall unhurriedly, then climbed the steps of the dais, turned carefully and scanned the crowd. As she did so her head turned slowly, taking them all in, and for just an instant Morgin thought her gaze paused on him, and he had trouble breathing. But the instant ended quickly.
Standing at the top of the dais, Olivia sat down on the massive throne. The enormous chair reminded Morgin that the Greater Clans forbade the Lesser Clans from crowning kings or queens, so it was a throne only in appearance. Olivia paused, then spoke very softly, but her voice carried to them all, “Bring him forth.”
Movement near the entrance to the hall drew Morgin’s attention. The crowd parted and a herald stepped forward wearing foreign livery Morgin did not recognize. The herald carried a long staff, and he thumped it loudly on the stone of the floor. “His Grace, Thandin et Decouix, advisor to, and in this venue, voice of, His Majesty, Illalla, High King of the twelve tribes of the Shahot.”
The tickle at the back of Morgin’s spine turned suddenly chill and cold, and he shivered.
Dannasul whispered, “Cold, are you?” and with those words Morgin realized the other boys did not sense Olivia’s power as he did.
The herald stepped aside. Nothing happened for a few heartbeats, then a man dressed in incredible finery stepped forward. He wore a hat with a giant feather plume, and his clothing was of a cut far better than anything Morgin had ever seen. He marched forward confidently, and with each step the icy depths of Olivia’s power chilled further. He paused about ten paces from the dais, doffed his hat and bowed with a flourish. “Olivia,” he said. “My king sends his regards. And I have come for the yearly tithe.”
Morgin had known that some animosity existed between the Greater and Lesser Clans. But not until he sensed for himself the enmity that radiated from every clansman in the room, not until he saw the anger in their eyes, not until then did he understand the depth of hatred that colored Olivia’s power. He tried to listen to the words that Olivia traded with this Decouix lord, but he found it difficult to breath and he understood very little of what was said.
Finally, after trading barbs with the man for some time, Olivia stood and said, “I have arranged rooms for you, Thandin. You may go.”
Thandin bowed with a flourish, turned and departed, striding proudly and arrogantly out of the hall.
In his absence Olivia, Malka, Roland, AnnaRail and Tulellcoe huddled in a small group at the base of the dais. Morgin waited patiently as the other boys funneled into the staircase that led down to the main floor. But that itch at the base of his spine wouldn’t ease up, and when he glanced toward Olivia, he noticed that while she spoke in hushed tones with the others, her eyes were lifted toward him, and they followed him as he left the balcony.
Two more years passed and the friendship between Morgin and JohnEngine grew. Morgin was daydreaming through a lesson on the planes of existence when Marjinell shouted, “JohnEngine, Dannasul, pay attention.”
Morgin flinched at Marjinell’s words, even though they were not directed at him. When she grew displeased, and Morgin was present, she usually found some way to take it out on him, though he noticed the other boys in the room looked as fearful as him.
He felt the draw of power just as a switch materialized in her hand. She pointed it at the two boys. “If you don’t behave, I’ll show your backside the edge of this switch.”
JohnEngine and Dannasul straightened, though when Marjinell turned her back on them JohnEngine winked at Morgin.
“As I was saying,” she continued. “There are three planes of existence—Celestial, Mortal and Nether—divided into twelve levels. The nine hells of the Nether Plane occupy the lowest nine levels, and the seven heavens of the Celestial Plane occupy the highest seven. They overlap on levels six through nine, and that is the Mortal Plane . . .”
Morgin drifted off, thinking about the crossed broadswords above the mantle in Roland’s study. He and JohnEngine were about to reach their twelfth birthday, which meant they would start practicing with real, steel swords, and they were both quite excited about it. They wanted . . .
The crack of the switch slapping the table in front of Morgin startled him and he jumped. The other boys chortled as Marjinell waved the switch in front of Morgin’s nose. “I just asked a question,” she demanded, “so you can answer it.”
Morgin knew his best bet was to own up to his daydreaming. “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear the question.”
“Daydreaming again, were you?”
“I asked what is most significant about the Mortal Plane?”
AnnaRail had coached Morgin carefully on this subject, so he spoke confidently. “Gods cannot walk beyond the Celestial Plane, and nether beings cannot walk beyond the Nether Plane, so it is only on the Mortal Plane where gods, mortals and nether beings can all meet.”
He waited for her to find something wrong with his answer, but she frowned, as if disappointed that he could be right.
She eyed him with distrust. “Well enough. And what is of most significance about we mortals?” She wanted him to be wrong.
He spoke carefully. “We are the only beings that can walk all twelve levels, though it takes great power to go beyond the Mortal Plane.”
She stood there, staring at him, slapping the switch into the palm of her hand with enough force that it had to have hurt a bit. She was about to say something, when the door to the room opened and MichaelOff leaned in. “Mother, the boys are late.”
She smiled at MichaelOff warmly. “I’m sorry son. I lost track of the time.”
“Hurry, Morgin,” JohnEngine called. “We mustn’t be late.”
“I’m hurrying,” Morgin said, 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 boys’ dormitory was empty.
With his jerkin laced, Morgin sat on his cot to pull on his new boots. He was proud of them: working boots, steel shod, with heavy soles and thick leather about the toes. Roland had paid a high price for such craftsmanship, and presented them to Morgin on his twelfth birthday only the month before. Actually, it had been JohnEngine’s birthday, but since no one knew Morgin’s birthday, and the two boys were of an age and inseparable, they were treated as twins. JohnEngine had received an identical pair of boots.
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 had given Morgin special tutoring since he’d first come to Elhiyne. It was no secret that Morgin could barely read and write, so they all assumed he was slow, and that the instructions were meant to improve his literacy. They didn’t know the training had included lessons in the arts of magic; such training did not normally begin until a boy attained manhood at the age of twelve. To Morgin, the earlier lessons were just one more thing that made him different from the other boys, like an illness or deformity, so he 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 MichaelOff, Brandon, DaNoel, a tall stranger, and many of the older boys. The weapons master 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 put there by some weapon. It was the stranger’s eyes, though, that were his most distinct feature; piercing and hard, they left Morgin with the impression the man knew nothing of compassion or kindness. 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?”
“He’s a clansman by right of his magic,” JohnEngine said, “but a twoname claims allegiance to no one clan. 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. 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 twoname 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 Tulalane. The twoname 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 that ended quickly, and the Tulalane 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 twoname 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. To use the two together, you must be skilled in each individually, and it will be many years before you’ll be proficient in either. So 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.”
Old Beckett turned away from them and walked slowly to the edge of the yard, retrieved a large bundle and 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 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 only when DaNoel’s steel hissed menacingly past Morgin’s ear did he realize 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 said, then attacked.
Morgin scrambled to his feet as DaNoel’s sword drove for his face, then 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 fell to the ground, tried to roll over quickly to avoid DaNoel’s sword as it bit into the dirt near his face. DaNoel stood over him, his sword clutched in both hands and raised high over his head, his face a mask of hatred. Morgin 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 Morgin’s nose as he back-stepped blindly. The older boy raised his sword for another lethal strike, but 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. They separated and jumped to their feet, facing one another.
“What are you trying to do?” JohnEngine demanded angrily.
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 said. “It wasn’t him. It was DaNoel.”
DaNoel ignored JohnEngine and Beckett, looked hatefully at Morgin and said, “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. The mountain range called the Worshippers of Attun extended the length of the horizon.
“If you don’t come down I’ll send the ShadowLord after you.”
Didn’t she realize he was too old to believe in mythical demon netherlords? That was as stupid as believing in fairies and angels. He 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.”
“Grandmother wants to see you. Better hurry or you’ll make her 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.
Annaline took Morgin to the old witch’s suite of rooms—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. AnnaRail joined Roland and they both stood beside the old woman. Olivia was seated in cushioned elegance near a large hearth, and she 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. He’d seen her from afar many times, had watched her marching through the castle corridors. But this close, 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. You’re here because I wish to test your power, though I must admit I feel remiss in not having done so earlier. 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 cast 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 sensed something building within the close confines of the room, and he had a sudden desire to be away from there. 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. Power! This was no subtle spell or incantation; the old women was calling forth raw power.
Morgin watched Olivia build something indefinable within her, and then she built something similar within him, and he realized she was not merely calling forth her own power, but his as well. 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, and as he struggled to breathe he instinctively pushed back at it, though he didn’t really understand what he did, or how he’d done it. But Olivia gasped, stood, slapped him, and shouted, “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 said. “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 because of your ignorance. But never, ever, strike me again.”
Morgin, staring at the floor and thinking he’d struck no one, decided he’d best keep his mouth shut.
“And stop staring at the floor”
Morgin looked up, and Olivia surprised him by smiling openly as she said 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. “Such power should reside within House Elhiyne.”
She looked pointedly at AnnaRail and Roland. “So the child will be legally 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.
The morning after Olivia tested Morgin he learned he was not to have any food that day; a Naming required fasting by all directly involved. Early that morning they executed the formal adoption papers and he became a member of House Elhiyne. After the brief ceremony AnnaRail told him, “You are no longer a simple clansman; you are now part of the family that rules the clan that rules the eighth tribe of the Shahot. As a mere clansman, you would have been expected to grow up and serve House Elhiyne. But now that you are member of this family, you will be expected to lead those who serve us.”
“But what is the Naming for?” he asked.
“The Naming,” she said, “is a ceremony by which a proper name will be chosen for you.”
“But I already have a name.”
“Yes, 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 smiled then, and laid a hand gently on his shoulder. “Then you may use it always, if you wish. Come. Don’t be so fearful. The Naming won’t be difficult for you, 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.”
“What’s going to happen during the Naming?”
“You will see firsthand the ranking of power within the clan.”
Morgin had long ago learned that a hierarchy of power existed within the clan having nothing to do with one’s lineage. 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.
“All those present will stand before you, one at a time, in ascending order of power, beginning with lesser witches and finishing with Malka, then Olivia. We are trying to call forth ElkenSkul, a very special demon, and each wizard and witch will take their turn adding to the power needed to bring it forth.”
“A demon?” Morgin asked, unable to hide his fear.
“Don’t worry. Malka will remain close at hand, and should something untoward happen with one of the lesser witches, he’ll intervene to ensure no one is harmed. And I’ll be close by to help you if you need it.”
Olivia scheduled the Naming for midnight, and everyone in the castle moved about hurriedly to make the arrangements. Morgin had little to do to prepare for the ceremony, for he was the “new born infant,” and as such was the passive object of the preparations. The women of the house bathed him carefully—he was thoroughly embarrassed to have to sit naked in a tub while AnnaRail and Annaline scrubbed him down. Then, with charcoal from a fire twelve days cold, they wrote runes on his body. He wondered how they came up with such charcoal on short notice.
Morgin feared he’d have to appear naked in front of half the clan, but AnnaRail gave him a simple loin cloth. Late that evening they led him to the Hall of Wills—the villagers called it The Wizard’s Hall—and sat him on the cold stone floor in the middle of the Hall. He sat stiffly upright, his legs tucked beneath him, his hands at his sides. Before him a young witch sprinkled a circle of fine black sand in a thin layer on the gray stone of the floor.
Slowly, clanfolk high and low filled the Hall, almost everyone who lived in the near vicinity of Elhiyne. The members of House Elhiyne were the last to arrive, though Olivia was notably absent for several heartbeats. Then she made a grand entrance, walking slowly and carefully. Oddly enough, her black robes billowed out behind her, even though the air in the Hall remained quite still.
She stopped opposite Morgin, standing on the other side of the circle of black sand and towering over him. She raised her arms, looked to the heavens and declared, “Let the Naming begin.”
Olivia stepped aside, was replaced by the young witch who’d sprinkled the circle of sand. The young woman paused, then began a long and difficult incantation. He heard other witches in the crowd about them joining in, supporting her. When she finished she stepped aside and a young man took her place.
Hours passed as one witch after another stepped forth. Morgin was not supposed to move so his joints grew stiff and sore, and his stomach growled constantly 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 a demon from the netherhells of his own nightmares materialized in front of him. 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.
Morgin had never seen a demon before, and he wanted to bolt and run from the Hall, but Malka intervened, stepping in its way. It struck Malka 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 cry. 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, would come to investigate.
A young and pretty witch 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 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, whose strange eyes darted about like a caged animal as if he needed to see all at once. He was a quietly angry man, with a kind of seething hatred hidden just beneath the surface of his emotions.
Tulellcoe finished his magic and AnnaRail stepped forth to begin hers. Like the others, she stood opposite him, the circle of black sand between them undisturbed, and she spoke words that Morgin could not understand. 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 building in the Hall.
Malka stepped forth next, 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. He felt the small, blond hairs on his arms and legs stand on end. Here and there a strand of his hair, freshly washed, clean and dry, fluttered before his eyes waving in whatever motion the air possessed.
Olivia stepped forth slowly to stand before him, motionless and unspeaking. She uttered no spells, cast no incantations; she just stood with her 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 he sensed it was 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 granted 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.”
The demon cried out, and the circle of sand scattered across the floor, obliterating the marks in it. Morgin was certain Olivia hadn’t seen the last two lines it had scratched. He said, “But the marks in the sand—”
Olivia glared down at him angrily, a very clear message he was not to speak.
The demon paused before obeying Olivia’s command, as if reluctant to do so. But finally, apparently 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 the fires of magic. 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.
But what bothered him most, and yet was the least noticeable, was the attitude of the other boys. He was now treated differently, 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: treated no different than JohnEngine.
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 true Shahotma kings, the last 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 had intended to tell AnnaRail about the extra slashes ElkenSkul had added at the last moment, the extra slashes that no one but he had seen. But he realized then that doing so might bring more attention from Olivia, so he resolved then never to mention them to anyone.
“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 said. “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. I’d be happy to—”
Malka stopped his rant 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 your 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.”
As the years passed and Morgin grew, Olivia’s scrutiny never slackened. Even as he became a young man on the threshold of adulthood, he always remembered that night on the parapets with Malka, and he never forgot the big warrior’s words, She’s got her eyes on you. You’ve got power, lad, more’n your share.
AnnaRail cringed as Olivia demanded, “Why has he not progressed? He showed so much promise, yet after ten years with us he’s still far behind the other young wizards and witches. He’s sixteen years of age and should have advanced much farther.”
“He fears his own magic,” Roland said patiently.
“Or perhaps . . .” Marjinell inserted smugly, “. . . other than a few simple spells, he has no magic?” Marjinell smiled sweetly, clearly 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 was right when he said 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. “I want visible progress. 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 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 your 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, not with gesh so easily available there.”
“I think he can; he left that addiction behind ten years ago. 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.”
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. 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 he and his kinsmen 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.”
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 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. 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.
Morgin looked at the boy carefully, and thought that maybe he saw a bit of Rat in the child. He almost envied the boy, for life in the streets had to be far simpler than his own newfound status.
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 snarled. “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 bowed deeply and 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.
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.
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.
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, led by the infamous Captain Salula. The Kulls were known for their loyalty to House Decouix, their fighting ability, and their cruelty. And Salula was known to surpass them all in such qualities.
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 formal, family name, AethonLaw. Clearly, she must gain some edge by doing so, though Morgin wasn’t exactly sure what. The whole affair bored him 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 said. “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, and 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. “Gesh?” he asked. He barely remembered the gesh, couldn’t recall any great pleasure, only the need and the pain that came without it. But the want and the desire had long ago vanished, and all that remained now was shame.
“Gesh?” he asked again. He wanted no gesh. He needed no gesh. “You think I want gesh? You think I’ll head straight for the gesh? 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? You have so little faith in me?”
For the first time in memory her face showed indecision and she hesitated. In that instant he silently turned his back on her, and moving at a carefully measured pace, he walked out of the room.
“Come back here,” she demanded. “You haven’t been dismissed.”
His shame did not allow him to turn back, though he could hear her calling after him. The twists and turns of the hallways in the Elhiyne compound quickly muffled the sounds of her anger, but they did nothing to muffle his humiliation.
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