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
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Child of the Sword, Book 1 of The Gods Within
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ISBN: 978-1-938135-88-0 (eBook)
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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.
Rat darted out of his shadow, scurried the short distance to a fruit vendor’s stall to hide behind it, his good eye focused on the purse. It bulged and jingled with coins, a fat purse, tied to a fatter waist, and soon it would be his.
One of his many flea bites demanded his attention. He moved slowly—quick movements drew attention—slipped a hand through a rent in his muddy cloak of rags and scratched at it, his eye following the purse.
Fatpurse wandered through the market square, eyeing the vendors’ goods. Too short to see over the stall, which was only waste-high for big people, Rat leaned out of his shadow and peered around the edge to follow the fat man’s progress
“Away with ye, scum!” the fruit vendor shouted, hurling a spoiled apple at Rat.
Rat sidestepped the throw and caught the apple, pleased he’d acquired a bit of food without resorting to theft. He scurried between the market booths and disappeared into another shadow. With mud and horse manure squishing between his toes, he ate the rotten apple while his eye tracked the purse through the market. His stomach grumbled with satisfaction, then growled a demand for more.
Heavy rains the night before had turned the dirt streets into a quagmire. The crowds in the market were thin, and the vendors looked nervous and edgy. They’d drive off anything that turned customers away—especially someone like Rat. He knew that to survive, he must understand these things.
Something drizzled down his left cheek. He reached up and wiped it away, a smear of puss on his fingertips. The boil next to his left eye had opened; he hoped the swelling would lessen and allow him to see again, though by then new eruptions would form, so he didn’t expect much relief.
He reached into his rags and retrieved an object the size of the tip of his littlest finger: gesh. He placed the hard, woody substance on his tongue and began chewing. It mixed with saliva to form a fibrous mass that tasted both bitter and sweet. He let some of the juice trickle down his throat, and it immediately lessened the throbbing in his eye.
Somehow gesh made the cold nights of winter warmer, and it softened the filthy straw of his bed. Rat had learned that gesh was good, and the lack of it bad. The last of his supply had dwindled to no more than a taste or two hidden away in his den. So he needed that purse, needed it to buy more.
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 and ran a zigzag pattern to the nearest shadow. He paused there, then changed shadows as another rock sailed his way. He skipped randomly from shadow to shadow, hoping to confuse anyone tracking him, then froze into stillness and waited.
There were three of them, boys not much larger than him, searching the shadows and 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’d chosen the wrong shadows to search. They had surprised him only because he was too absorbed in his pursuit of the fat purse. And he’d let the pleasure of the gesh distract him.
With his tormentors searching elsewhere, he changed shadows again and moved away, seeking the fat purse. He’d lost sight of it, but he found it again because 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 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, counting on the thicker crowds there to confuse pursuit at the moment of truth.
Rat stopped in a shadow 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 fruit, and in return he was never greedy, took only one. Often, in the dark of night, he left her a gift in return: a pretty stone polished by the weather, a half-eaten mouse or rat, or 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 sight of Fatpurse, then spotted him again where he’d stopped to watch a juggling act. The jugglers were good, and a dense crowd had gathered. Rat scanned the throng, making sure that no one looked his way—his moment had come.
He stayed close to the stalls, picking his shadows with care, choosing each so it brought him closer to that purse. He loved dancing in the world of shadows.
He paused in the last shadow, reached into his rags and withdrew a wicked little knife. Then he broke from his shadow, sprinted the short distance through daylight to the fat purse, gripped it 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 when Rat turned to flee he slipped in the mud, landed in a puddle with a splash.
“Stop,” Fatpurse yelled. “Thief.”
Rat jumped up and ran.
“What?” someone shouted.
“That scum, there,” Fatpurse shouted. “He stole my purse. A reward to anyone who catches him.”
“It’s Rat. Get him.”
Rat had miscalculated. The mud was too thick and the crowd not enough so. Everyone saw 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 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, his fear pushing him, the mob close on his heels. He had no time for stealth or cunning, no time to find a shadow. He turned down a street, up an alley, down another street, conscious only of the mud splashing beneath his feet and the mob behind him. He turned into another alley, raced down its length, skidded madly through a hard turn, and there found featureless stone walls on all sides, no windows, no doorways, a blind alley with no escape. The mob would catch him; they’d cut off his hand, and with that realization the fear consumed him. It forced him to his knees in the mud, and without tears or sound, unable to move, he awaited his fate.
The mob rounded the turn in the alley only an instant behind him, a wave of angry people that knocked him into the mud, then washed over him and past him, slamming hard into the wall that marked the end of the alley. He heard several of them grunt or cry out in pain when those in the lead found themselves smashed between the hard stone ahead and their companions following close behind. Many were slow to rise.
“Where is he?” someone shouted.
Rat lay in the mud somewhat trampled but basically unhurt, while the mob milled about, surrounding him and paying him not the least bit of attention. Some scratched their heads and looked directly at him, but didn’t seem to see him.
Fatpurse lumbered up the alley, lurching from side-to-side. He stopped 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 him—” He grimaced, “and he has my purse. Fifty coppers—No, a hundred coppers to whoever catches him.”
Garbage and litter lined the edges of the alley. 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 brown by mud and horse shit. He looked at his legs and they too remained visible and unchanged.
Rat knew better than to question his good fortune. If these maniacs wanted to ignore him when he was there for the taking, so be it.
The mob had focused on the clutter that lined the alley, so Rat chose a path down the center. He moved slowly, careful lest he bump someone who stepped back from their search. But as he neared the mouth of the alley a tall man stood blocking his path, legs spread, fists on hips, elbows out. He wore a hip length leather jerkin over a fine linen shirt, and the sleeves of the shirt glistened in the sun, an immaculate white unstained by the mud of the streets.
“Well, well!” the man said, smiling 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.
The mob had turned quiet. Fatpurse approached the tall stranger and bowed from the waist. “Lord Roland,” Fatpurse said. “You do us honor.”
Lord! Rat thought. This stranger was a clan 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, his heart pounding uncontrollably. The witchman stuck out his hand. “Give me the purse, boy.”
Fear flooded through Rat’s soul, threatening to consume him. He could not move to hand the witchman the purse, though he lost control of his bladder and he felt warm urine streaming down his leg.
“Stop that,” the witchman said.
Rat tried desperately to control his bladder.
The witchman grimaced and put a hand to his temple. He groaned and said, “Stop that, I said. Too much fear!” He struck out with his hand. Rat ended up sitting in the mud with a fiery red welt on his cheek and his head spinning.
“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 alive, turned again into a mob.
The witchman retrieved the purse from the mud. He handed it to Fatpurse. “Here’s your purse. 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.”
The witchman 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, grumbling some, but no one questioned the witchman’s authority. They left behind Fatpurse, Rat, and the witchman, and their passive compliance with the witchman’s orders meant he must be a truly powerful wizard.
“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. “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 so leave.”
“But Lord. What about punishment for the thief?”
The witchman smiled. “I’ll see to that personally, Raffin. And you, thief,” he said, turning on Rat. “You’re coming with me.”
Rat 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 rubbish, a small finger-length bone in its mouth. It lay the bone down in the mud and nudged it with its nose as if its exact position held some meaning. Another rat scurried past it carrying another bone, laid it down next to the first. More rats appeared, each carrying a small bone and placing it in the mud. The pattern they formed took on the shape of a man, but since none of the bones were human, the man-shape was an undersized, twisted and deformed skeleton of bird, cat, dog and rat bones. The rats placed the last bones in the shape of a crown about the little skeleton-man’s head, then they retreated to the rubbish and disappeared beneath it.
The air about the skeleton-king shimmered, and the bones of one hand moved. Then 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. And while deformed and misshapen, he strode to the mouth of the alley as a king might walk among commoners.
He caught 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, the empty sockets of his skeleton eyes focused on the young thief, and he whispered, “Now it begins, my child, and there’s no turning back. Can you forgive me for setting you on this course?”
The skeleton king lowered his head, the bones tumbled to the ground and lay in a shapeless heap. The rats reappeared and quickly scattered them.
Rat awoke in someone’s arms. He kept his eyes closed and remained motionless, 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 said. “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, one should never anger my mother. 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 the room grew silent. He waited for several seconds, and when he heard nothing more he opened his good eye the tiniest bit. Across the room the witchman sat in a chair, his elbow resting on a table, his legs sprawled out before him, his ankles crossed. And he looked directly at Rat.
Rat snapped his eye shut.
“Come, child. I know you’re awake. Open your eyes and stand up.”
Rat kept his eye shut. After 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 to put up with your games. Now stand up.”
The boot nudged him less gently. Rat still didn’t understand, but he realized he could no longer play dead. When the boot nudged him again, he reached out and grabbed it, pulled it to his mouth and bit it.
“Ahhh! Damn you,” the witchman shouted, twisting his foot free. “That’s a new pair of boots. 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, who stood near the only door. Rat put his back to a wall and slid to the nearest corner.
The witchman ignored Rat, returned to the table and sat down. “I’m not going to hurt you, boy, so calm down.”
Rat scanned the room, looking for hidden traps. But at that moment he sensed another presence, something he could feel but not see or hear. It was not in the room but 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 fought back tears as his legs gave out and he slumped 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.
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 his mother’s fury dissipate and turn into curiosity. Still standing in the doorway, her finger stopped shaking and she paused. “Well now!” she said. “What do we have here?” She crossed the room to stand over Rat 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?”
He nodded. “Yes, mother.”
At that moment his wife appeared in the doorway. “Husband. Mother,” she greeted them formally. “Avis said you wished to see me.”
Roland looked at her and frowned. “Don’t you see him, AnnaRail?”
“See whom?” the younger woman asked.
“A boy child,” the old woman answered, “at my feet. An urchin of the streets, it appears. And, unlike us, apparently 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. “He bites, and your soft slippers won’t protect you.”
The old woman stepped back.
“And it’s not invisibility,” he said. “Just a shadow. He makes his own shadows and hides within them.”
AnnaRail frowned. “But the lights in here are too soft.” She bent over Rat.
Roland shook his head. “He needs no light to make the shadows he makes.”
“I’m impressed,” AnnaRail said, reaching out like a blind man to find the child she could not see.
Standing over her the old woman said, “Not a powerful spell but a subtle one. Who is he? And where did you find him?”
Roland gave a 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 somewhere near 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 due to malnutrition. 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 can’t see his teeth,” AnnaRail said. She frowned and her attention seemed to shift elsewhere. She sat down on the floor unceremoniously and looked up at the old woman. “Something’s wrong here. Will you ward me?”
“Certainly,” Olivia said. She stood over AnnaRail and began chanting words in a hushed voice, words incomprehensible to Roland whose own magic was so limited.
After several heartbeats Olivia stopped chanting, and 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 told him he could not allow that. “Then we must act quickly.”
“Hold,” Olivia said. “Why should we act at all?”
“But we must.”
Olivia’s eyes narrowed. “Really? He is nothing to us; let him die.”
“No,” Roland said.
The old woman stared at him and Roland felt naked under that gaze. “What has come over you? Has this bundle of filth enchanted you? It is definitely a thing of magic; that I sense, even if you cannot. Have you lost your senses? Are you enspelled?”
Roland tried to calm himself. “No,” he said. “I’m not enspelled. I’m answering to my instincts. To let this child die, I think . . . would be a grave mistake. To save it . . . to save 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. 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 said.
Olivia looked down 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, measuring them. “Are the two of you prepared to accept responsibility for this . . . this guttersnipe?”
Roland nodded instantly. AnnaRail hesitated, then said, “Yes, I suppose we must.”
“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, left the room so quickly they had no time to react. She enjoyed such dramatic exits; it kept her offspring on their toes. And out in the halls the servants rushed aside as she strode past them. They feared her, she knew, and they avoided her when they could, which was right, for she was a woman to be feared.
Avis, the chief steward of the household, stood outside the sanctum waiting for her. 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. “You know the procedure.”
“Yes, madam. I’ll seal the chamber and post guards.”
She nodded, then stepped forth into the sanctum, the servant 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 a moment she stood without moving, looking at the ceiling, concentrating and focusing her power. Then she chose the corner designated for the first Ward, 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 younger witch.
She spoke the words from memory, 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, as if something beyond her own will controlled her actions, her hand thrust upward. Her sleeve billowed about a leathery old wrist quivering with tension, and she cried out in a voice strengthened by the power at her command: “Primus,” she called, “I bid you come.”
Pain shot through her arm as a spark of radiance flared within her upraised hand, and light that was not meant for mortal eyes splashed across the room. She wanted to look away, wanted to wince at the pain that burned a hole into her soul, but 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 when certain she had achieved control, she lowered her hand slowly to the floor, left behind a pillar of such intensity that it forced her to look away. To her eyes it was a rod of golden light no wider than a finger, but to her soul 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, could not resist the urge to glance at her hand. There were no burns to mark the skin.
She 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 flared 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, and Quintus at the fifth. When Sextus finally occupied the sixth corner she paused and wiped sweat from her brow with her sleeve.
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 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, sounding a note harsh and demanding.
Roland entered the room, carrying Rat and glancing her way nervously. Still unconscious, the urchin had been stripped naked, his grime and filth washed away. AnnaRail walked into the room, followed by Marjinell, her other daughter-in-law, and young MichaelOff, Marjinell’s oldest son. Roland 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 the child’s face where one eye had swollen shut with some malady. Next to that were three puckered scars, 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 a handsome young man, but not with such unpleasant disfigurement.
Olivia turned to MichaelOff. “Come, grandson, I need your strong back.”
She’d trained him herself, so he knew what was required; he stepped to the heavy stone door and put a shoulder to it. It swung silently on its hinges and closed with a thud to form the twelfth wall. He threw the bolt, sealed the chamber, and except for the hinges, handle, and locking bolt of the door, the twelve walls were now featureless stone. The boy joined the two younger women at the center of the room.
Olivia stepped up to the empty seventh corner, and without hesitating she reached upward and cried, “Septimus. I bid you come.” And in her lowering hand she brought forth the Ward of the Benesh’ere, the seventh tribe of the Shahot, exiled to the Great Munjarro Waste for their ancient crimes. It stood black and silent, unique in its lack of color or sound.
She stepped to the last corner, the only one not filled with the infinite power of a Ward. The eighth Ward was hers to command, and calling it forth always made her feel as if the vitality of youth flowed through her veins once more. She straightened her back, thrust her chin out, and could almost believe that her sagging old breasts stood out pertly like those of a young schoolgirl. She felt strength in her movements, and knew that her eyes glowed with godfire, for the room appeared as if viewed through blood-tinted water. “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 flared, red, angry, and powerful. She admired it for a moment, then turned her back on it, showing it her contempt. “The circle is complete,” she said. “None may enter. None may leave.”
She joined the others 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, judging them. She stood wrapped within her power and knew that to the others, the godfire in her eyes gave her the appearance of near madness. They would see her as 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 snapped awake, careful not to move, eyes closed and listening. Only when certain he had heard every sound the room would yield did he open his good eye. He lay naked and alone, beneath a blanket on a cot in an otherwise empty room: a bare stone cell with an open doorway. 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 find his gesh.
He tossed the cover aside, swung his legs off the cot and crossed the room. 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 crept with no help from shadow. But once below he easily found the courtyard. 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.
It took all afternoon to cross the city to his den, where he scrabbled among the straw of his bed to find his gesh. To his great relief it remained undisturbed. But as he placed a pinch of the root on his tongue it seemed to catch fire, his eyes felt 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 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. Each time he returned to his lair to taste the gesh, and each time convulsions twisted his body until he fainted.
A fourth time he awoke, naked and alone. And a fourth time he made his way to the courtyard, but this time an invisible something filled the gaps between the bars of the gate. He could feel it, but not see it, and it prevented him from slipping through. 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.
Late that afternoon he returned to the front gate, desperate, exhausted, the cramps in his stomach demanding more gesh. In his frustration he chewed on the lock and rattled its mechanism.
“You’re a stubborn one, aren’t you?”
At the sound of the voice Rat dove for the nearest shadow and froze. One of the witchwomen approached, stopped a short distance from him and smiled. “Don’t be afraid, Rat. I won’t hurt you. I’m AnnaRail, and I’m 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 along 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.
“And that is the third thing you must learn.” Her voice surprised Morgin, for he heard sadness in it. “You have sampled the pleasures of gesh, and now you must pay a price for that, and I’m 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’ll be by your side, and I’ll 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. Take my hand.”
Morgin was tempted—this witch seemed kind. He considered her for a moment, then slowly he emerged from his shadow, and wondering all the while if some trap awaited him, he edged closer, step by step, until he could lean forward and sniff the outstretched hand.
It was sweet, and soft, and gentle.
He scanned the courtyard, ensuring that no other witches lurked nearby. Then 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. 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.”
He bundled Morgin into a blanket and lifted him carefully, then carried him 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 when the witches stopped to set up camp for the night. His stomach no longer cramped, 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 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 building they called Castle Elhiyne. He looked about 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 witch magic. She insisted it had something to do with the shadows he loved, but he knew better; shadows were just shadows. At least he managed to avoid crossing paths with the evil, old witch 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 hard.
AnnaRail had been summoned to Olivia’s audience chamber to discuss the child Morgin, and while Olivia spoke in subdued tones with her oldest son Malka, Marjinell, his wife, sat beside them, obviously bored. She had openly expressed her opinion that it had been a mistake to adopt Morgin into the clan, and AnnaRail hoped she would not interfere when the topic turned to the child.
Olivia’s audience chamber could accommodate only a few selected guests. There were two couches, a small table, and a hearth for heat during winter, a warm and comfortable room that contrasted sharply with the old woman’s cold nature. Olivia preferred to conduct important business here, reserving the Hall of Wills for ceremonial occasions and large crowds.
“AnnaRail,” Olivia said. “Attend me.”
AnnaRail stepped forward and bowed.
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. Time for a report on the piece of property named Morgin.
“Does he still act like an untamed animal?” Marjinell asked.
The silence that followed her outburst clearly embarrassed Malka. The big warrior tried to end it quickly. “You were to conduct a seeking. What did you find?”
AnnaRail hesitated for a moment, and when she did speak, she couldn’t hide a slight tremble in her voice. “I . . . attempted one.”
“You attempted a seeking?” Malka asked.
“And?” Olivia prompted.
“I . . . failed.”
The room grew silent. “Explain yourself,” Olivia said.
AnnaRail hesitated, but it was no use trying to hide her own fear of the ordeal. “Based upon a survey of the child’s contact with the netherworld, 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, sorrow and unhappiness, and no joy. And fear. I found fear above all else.”
While Olivia, Malka, and Roland listened, 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 that is ruled absolutely by fear. When I investigated it I found myself ensnared, 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.”
“Kill it,” Marjinell said. “Kill the little monster before it harms someone.”
“Silence,” Olivia said. “I will not rule out killing a being if it becomes a threat to this family. But at this time, that would be premature.”
Marjinell scanned their faces then stood in a huff. “Well, if that’s all you think of my word—”
“Sit down, daughter,” Olivia said. “Your opinion is always valued here. But we all are sometimes wrong.”
Marjinell sat down slowly.
Olivia turned to AnnaRail. “How long did this period of fear last?”
Now was not the time to be timid, so AnnaRail looked the old women in the eyes. “My sense of the time scale confused me; I got the impression he’d lived with such fear for centuries, but we know that cannot be, so I failed to learn anything of value.”
Olivia’s eyes bored into her, and she could not have looked away had she tried. The old woman said, “You may go now—all of you. I wish to be alone to ponder this Morgin child.”
Morgin’s first two years with the witches were lonely, more so than living alone on the 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. When she punished him, he sensed she took no joy in it. And her youngest daughter little NickoLot; Nicki was all smiles and happiness, a tiny bundle of energy with big, round eyes.
The other boys his age were his biggest problem, especially JohnEngine, AnnaRail’s second son. When the older boys weren’t about, JohnEngine and his followers could be quite cruel.
In his third year with the witches the situation came to a head. 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 encircled him completely.
JohnEngine swaggered out from among them to face him. “It’s Rat,” he said, “the thief. I bet we’ll find everything that’s gone missing hidden beneath your cot.”
Morgin was too terrified to speak.
JohnEngine shoved him hard, forcing him to stumble backwards. Morgin cringed as JohnEngine stepped forward and raised his fist to deliver a painful blow. But at that moment the shadow of a hawk, coasting on a thermal, drifted lazily between them.
Morgin had had enough, and instinctively he stepped into the shadow, danced within it for a pace or two, then stopped in 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 motionless in his shadow as the boys searched about. He would have left it at that, but JohnEngine’s efforts to find him slowly brought 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.
Surprisingly, Morgin found shadows just where he needed them. So he danced among them and gave JohnEngine a sound beating.
AnnaRail stifled a sigh as Olivia stormed through the door into her chambers, demanding, “How is JohnEngine? I hear Morgin beat him rather badly. I swear I’ll personally tear that little guttersnipe apart with my bare hands.”
AnnaRail did not want the old woman to take a keen interest in Morgin. “Calm down, mother,” she 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 hesitated. “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, and JohnEngine has been punished for starting the fight.”
“I don’t understand. You sound pleased.”
“In a way, I am. I hear JohnEngine has been picking on Morgin regularly, acting the bully and inciting the other boys against him; a cowardly thing, but a very boyish thing.
“Apparently, JohnEngine was up to his usual tricks, and Morgin vanished into a shadow. Instead of going someplace to hide, he turned on JohnEngine and beat him mercilessly. I’m afraid JohnEngine was utterly helpless against an opponent that was virtually invisible.” AnnaRail chuckled.
“What better way can JohnEngine learn the 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’s afraid of. I’ve been waiting to see this for two years. He didn’t run, he stood up to his fears.”
Olivia nodded, and her frown disappeared. “I begin to understand,” she said. “But this Morgin child is an odd one, what with these shadows. I doubt I’ve actually seen him more than a few times since he came to us, though I can sense him. He hides from me, you know. I’ll round a corner, or step out of a room, and catch a fleeting glimpse of him as he slips away.”
“He’s afraid of you.”
Olivia shrugged. “He should be. But my curiosity is aroused. I would like to speak with him. Where is he?”
“Actually, I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“No. 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. 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 begin to worry only if he’s gone over long.”
AnnaRail felt relieved when Olivia said, “Very well. We’ll allow the brat his private hole, as long as he doesn’t abuse the privilege.”
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 at hand. 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. Still, he 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 beat 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 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 was the entrance to the alcove. From within he saw the flesh of DaNoel’s hand flatten as it pressed against a wall that wasn’t there.
“Why do we have to waste our time looking for him?” DaNoel asked.
“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.
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, it would appear in the oddest of places; an alcove several paces deep often set in a wall only a hand-span thick.
His stomach growled. Perhaps he could sneak into the kitchen, steal some food, and return before they caught him. He stepped out into the hall, then realized his mistake. He spun about to confront a featureless stone wall. The alcove had disappeared, 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; JohnEngine wanted revenge for the beating. With no escape at hand Morgin 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; they pinned his arms behind his back then lifted him back to his feet with their combined strength. He struggled as they twisted his arms painfully. He tried to cry out, but they crammed an old rag into his mouth.
JohnEngine swaggered forward. He looked Morgin over, then spoke. “It seems we have captured some vermin here,” he said, his fists resting 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?”
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. He reached into his tunic and pulled out a short, stubby candle.
The other boys snickered.
“Let’s go,” JohnEngine said, and they dragged him away.
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. While three of them held him, the rest dismantled a pile of refuse that had been stacked in one corner, exposing a large and jagged hole in the wall, with complete darkness beyond.
“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 been walled off. And you, vermin, are going to join us while we do some exploring.”
They pulled him through the jagged hole, laughing at him. Inside they paused only to light a candle, then dragged him off into the darkness.
Morgin saw 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 he knew the darkness as his captors never would. A 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. Morgin began to understand that the corridors of the old castle were a labyrinth.
Eventually they pulled him into a narrow side passage, with walls and ceiling so close the flickering shadows of the candle hovered just overhead. They stopped at a small wooden door, pulled it open and hurled him into the room beyond. He tumbled across the dusty floor of a 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 markings. And if you’re foolish enough to become hopelessly lost, 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.” 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, laughing 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 their wake. There was never a question 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.
“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, 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.
“Stay calm,” JohnEngine said. “It’ll only take a second or two to relight the candle.”
Morgin 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, but slowly, through hints and clues, he’d learned 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 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 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 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. “Everyone down on their hands and knees. Let’s find those candles.”
Morgin stepped back several paces to watch. He enjoyed watching them grope about, grabbing at one another, pouncing upon the slightest bit of debris, hoping it was one of the missing candles. They grew more frantic; their voices rising in pitch as they realized the candles were nowhere to be found. Their efforts raised a cloud of dust from the floor, and several of them began to cough and panic.
Morgin considered leaving them there in the darkness. He would have no trouble finding his way back, though he realized how unfair that would be. JohnEngine had intended, no matter how cruelly, that Morgin’s capture should last no more than a few hours.
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. As their course took them deeper into the old castle, Morgin followed.
It took them almost an hour to realize they were lost, another to see that it was hopeless, and a third for them to 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 the fear that Morgin knew so well.
He sat down next to JohnEngine, who sat with his knees tucked up close to his chest.
“Here,” Morgin said, holding out a candle. But then he realized that 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.
They all jumped to their feet, listening while JohnEngine brought out his striker and flint and a small bit of tinder. After several tries the tinder caught, and light flared in the hallway.
They shouted and cheered, hugging each other and slapping JohnEngine on the back. But when they realized they stood in a hall they had never explored, their joy died. They sat down silently, once again lost.
Morgin, standing at the edge of the candle’s light, stepped calmly in among them.
“Where did you come from?” JohnEngine asked.
Morgin saw the fear in JohnEngine’s eyes. “I followed you.”
“Then you’re lost too.”
“No,” Morgin said. “I know the way.”
JohnEngine jumped to his feet in an instant. “Have you been marking our back-trail?”
“No. I just know the way.”
JohnEngine sat down. “You’re a lying fool.”
“Or maybe you’re a fool,” Morgin said. He held out the other candle.
“Where did you get that?”
“I took it from Dannasul, as I took yours from you.”
JohnEngine stood slowly, unexcitedly. “Then lead the way,” he said, his voice lacking conviction.
“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. Morgin saw no revulsion in JohnEngine’s eyes, just 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. And during the year that followed Morgin 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 said 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. They’d done something evil in the far past and were exiled to the Waste.
The lessons in inter-clan relationships were 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 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 had gathered to watch the emissary face House Elhiyne. Standing with the other lesser clansmen, he and Dannasul were politely nudged toward the back, their view blocked by the adults. 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 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 too young to attend such an event. Once they had taken their positions on the left-hand side of the dais, Malka, Roland’s older brother, and Marjinell, his wife, followed with their sons MichaelOff and Brandon, and they stood to the right. They were making their appearance in inverse order of clan rank. Malka, as Olivia’s heir, had come after Roland, and the old witch, as head of the clan, would come last. Morgin had to laugh: 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 disliked and feared Tulellcoe, 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, 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, but Olivia had stopped her and raised him as one of her own. 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 made her entrance, something seemed to tickle Morgin’s spine, and he realized she had come cloaked in 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 and scanned the crowd. Morgin thought her gaze paused on him, and he had trouble breathing for an instant.
Standing at the top of the dais, Olivia sat down on the 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. The herald carried a long staff, and thumped it loudly on the stone of the floor. “His Grace, Thandin et Decouix, advisor to and voice of His Majesty, Illalla, High King of the twelve tribes of the Shahot.”
The tickle at the back of Morgin’s spine turned chill, and he shivered.
Dannasul whispered, “Cold, are you?” 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 clothing covered with embroidery the like of which Morgin had never seen. The man 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 now he sensed the enmity that radiated from every clansman in the room, he saw the anger in their eyes and now understood 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.
Finally, after trading barbs with the man, Olivia stood and said, “I have arranged rooms for you, Thandin. You may go.”
Thandin bowed with a flourish, turned and departed, striding proudly 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.
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 backsides the edge of this switch.” Morgin knew that threat well.
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, and would be allowed to practice with real, steel swords. 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 better than to try a lie. “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, disappointed he could be right.
“Well enough. And what is most significant 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 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 stood over Morgin waiting.
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 gave Morgin special tutoring. It was no secret Morgin could barely read and write, so they all assumed he was slow. They didn’t know the training had included lessons in magic; training that didn’t 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 a bit 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, 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. A scar bisected his left cheek, not a scar like the three pocks on Morgin’s face, 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; Morgin was always the one to be caught daydreaming. “Watch closely, all of you. Lord Hwatok and Lord MichaelOff are going to give a demonstration. 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 prepared 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. “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, can he be trusted?”
JohnEngine shrugged. “Grandmother must think so. He’s . . .”
“JohnEngine,” Beckett hollered. “Pay attention. And Morgin. Stop bothering your brother.”
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; the men struck at each other again and again, beads of sweat forming on their faces. They were blurs of motion in the swirling dust of the yard, the rhythm of the battle unchanging, each ring of steel deliberate, controlled. Then 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, 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 slammed his forearm into the back of MichaelOff’s shoulders, sending him sprawling face down in the dust of the yard.
There was a moment when both men appeared disoriented as they came out of their magics. And then 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 said.
“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 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 I 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 opened the bundle, spilling several steel rapiers on the ground.
“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, even using some of the older boys 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 with a rain of blows that Morgin was hard pressed to deflect. When DaNoel’s steel hissed menacingly past Morgin’s ear he realized this was no lesson, but a venting of some anger that might leave him maimed or crippled, or 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 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 struck at 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 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 clash 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 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 doing?” JohnEngine demanded.
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 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 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 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. 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. The old woman wanted to see him! He shivered.
In the years he’d been at the castle he hadn’t 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 Olivia’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.”
Annaline seemed to sense his unease. She leaned down and whispered, “Don’t worry. 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, carefully surveyed the room. AnnaRail joined Roland and they both stood beside the old woman. Olivia was seated in cushioned elegance near a large hearth; she commanded the room entirely.
“Come, child,” she said. “Stand before me.”
Morgin could not have disobeyed even had he wanted to. He walked across the small room unable to take his eyes off her. He’d seen her from afar many times, marching through the castle corridors. This close, it was impossible not to stare at the old witch’s face: a field of wrinkles surrounding black-pupiled eyes. 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 remembered his manners, closed his mouth 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 want to test your power, though I must admit I feel remiss at not doing 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 castle walls were thick, and not even the bustle of the busy yard could penetrate. 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; 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. 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, though he felt he was being squeezed between her power and his own. He staggered under the suffocating weight. As he struggled to breathe he instinctively pushed back, though he didn’t really understand what he did, or how he did it. But Olivia gasped, stood, slapped him, and shouted, “Monster!”
The slap snatched him back to the moment, staggering, his face stinging. He watched helplessly as the old woman raised her arm to strike again, but now her hand glowed 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 to control it properly.”
Olivia lowered her hand and the room became still. She looked at Morgin like a bug she might squash, and her eyes glowed with malevolence. He saw a hint of pleasure in her face, and a faint, greedy smile. 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.”
Her eyes narrowed, and for a long silent moment she appeared to think 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 for a moment, 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 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 said, “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 as a 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 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, and from it you will receive a name that will give you power and tell us much about you.”
“The Naming will do all that?”
She shook her head. “No. The name will. The Naming is merely a ceremony to help us determine that name. 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 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.
“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 hastened to make the arrangements. Morgin had little to do to prepare for the ceremony, for he was the “new born infant,” 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.
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—known to the villagers as 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 until 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 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 girl paused, then began a long incantation. He heard other witches in the crowd join in. 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 for food. He longed for the ceremony to end, but knew it was only just beginning.
A 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, the body of an ogre and the head of a goat, and it looked at him hungrily with fiery eyes. Then it advanced, saliva spilling from its muzzle in anticipation of a meal.
Morgin had never seen a demon before, 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 an agonized, inhuman cry. Malka raised his power to strike again, but the demon vanished, gone, dematerialized. A cry of anger and pain echoed back from the netherworld, then all was silent.
Morgin shivered, and wondered how many more demons might 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 this, was told the words would take on meaning when he was older.
The young witch finished her incantation. But as she turned and melted into the shadows, the runes she’d traced in the air remained, visible by some magic of their own, then slowly faded. Morgin grew tense with the new power he sensed 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.
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 her warning meant nothing as he sat there 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.
A train of wizards and witches followed, including Annaline and many of his newly adopted brothers and sisters and cousins, with MichaelOff the last and most powerful. The next to stand before him was Tulellcoe, whose strange eyes darted about like a caged animal. He was a silent, angry man, with seething hatred hidden just beneath his demeanor.
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, as it added to the power building in the Hall.
Malka stepped forth next in his glory and 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 Morgin felt in his 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, 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, fluttered before his eyes waving in whatever motion the air possessed.
Olivia stepped forth slowly to stand before him, motionless and unspeaking. She stood with her arms folded within her billowing sleeves, uttered no spells, cast no incantations. Morgin knew that however motionless she might seem, her power was building, and his power could do nothing but follow. Terrified, he tried to retreat, to cease the rise of a strange force that threatened to consume him. He concentrated on the spell of confidence, for Olivia’s power would allow no faltering or withdrawal. For a moment he felt as if he stood on the brink of a fearful abyss, then he calmed as nearby AnnaRail cast a spell to aid him. He concentrated on the spell of confidence, felt it wash over him, comfortable and refreshingly cool. He opened his eyes and looked up to meet Olivia’s gaze. She nodded reluctant approval, then continued exercising her power.
Morgin felt a presence at hand, something having no place in this world of mortals. It hovered at eye level over the black sand, and though he saw nothing there, he sensed it was angry at being summoned.
“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 only his earthly name and relegated to the most menial, servile 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.
An invisible claw broke the silence as it scratched a small circle in the sand. 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.”
Pausing momentarily, the invisible claw scratched again, slowly adding two crossed lines beneath the symbol.
“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, “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 the claw quickly 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.
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 said, “But the marks in the sand—”
Olivia glared down at him angrily, a clear message he was not to speak.
The demon paused before obeying Olivia’s command, as if reluctant to do so. Then apparently resigned to Olivia’s power, it winked out of existence, and with it went the power that had accumulated in the Hall.
Olivia took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. She looked down at Morgin, proud, willful, her eyes alight with the fires of magic. Morgin felt like a mouse, prey to the cat Olivia.
“Arise,” she said. “Stand, AethonLaw et Elhiyne. Embrace the clan, for you are named.”
In the days that followed the Naming Morgin’s change in status unsettled him. No longer was he boy, or child, or merely Morgin, he was now Lord Morgin, or Lord AethonLaw. 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.
What bothered him most was a barely noticeable change in the attitude of the other boys, a subtle difference that he wasn’t sure even existed. Only JohnEngine treated him the same, and one day Morgin asked him about it.
“You’re crazy,” JohnEngine said. “Nobody treats you any different than me.”
Something to think about: treated no different than JohnEngine.
That explained the boys his age, it did not explain the old witch Olivia. She now demanded that he see her regularly, and she quizzed him on his lessons, paying particular attention to the magic he had learned, or 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. “I think you’re really concerned about your grandmother, and her increased attention. Correct?”
Morgin nodded silently.
AnnaRail smiled. “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 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. Do you remember when we spoke of names, 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 Benesh’ere betrayed him centuries ago in the Great Clan Wars, but he was the last to rule the Sword. 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.”
“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, 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 that doing so might bring more attention from Olivia, so he resolved then to never mention them again.
“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 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 would be an open insult. The warrior was a big and powerful man. 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 up to his chest and sat almost exactly where Morgin had been a moment before. “Damn!” he whispered. “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, 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?”
“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. “Sometimes, after seeing grandmother.”
Malka laughed quietly. “Well, Morgin, she’s my mother, and I’ve been coming up here for more’n thirty years. It’s a good place for thinking, isn’t it?”
“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, 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 he’s still far behind. He’s sixteen years of age and should have advanced much farther.”
“He fears his own magic,” Roland said.
“Or perhaps . . .” Marjinell inserted smugly, “. . . other than a few simple spells, he has no magic?”
“No,” Malka said, shaking his head thoughtfully. “The boy has magic aplenty, no doubt of that.”
“Exactly,” Olivia said. She looked at AnnaRail. “So why has he not begun to live up to his name?”
AnnaRail paused to allow Olivia’s irritation 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 by punishing him when he used it to hide in shadow. He is progressing steadily toward control, though for a sixteen-year-old he is a bit backward. But control is less dramatic than his early spontaneous use of magic, and that’s all that’s happening.”
“That’s not good enough,” Olivia said. Her eyes narrowed as if considering the situation carefully, but AnnaRail sensed that 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.” She shut her mouth quickly, realizing she’d yielded a 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 about his scars? You want them removed?”
“He’s quite self-conscious about the scars on his face. If we could do something about that, it would be one less thing that separates him from the rest of the boys.”
Marjinell said, “I’ve heard what separates him is he’s aloof, or maybe he’s just stupid and slow witted.”
“That’s enough, Marjinell,” AnnaRail said. “You always seek to malign him. I’ll not stand for—”
“Be still.” Olivia snapped. “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 will not be allowed to remain separate. 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. “But your actions must match your words.”
Olivia frowned. “What do you mean?”
AnnaRail had gained a point. “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 and her eyes narrowed.
“Then we cannot blame the boy . . .” AnnaRail continued, “. . . if he interprets that to mean that he is separate, and not equal.”
Olivia’s brow remained wrinkled, but with indecision, not anger. “But the boy cannot be trusted in the city, not with gesh 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 become even more of a loner.”
Olivia had trapped herself, but 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—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. They were on holiday and they made the trip in comfort, 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; 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, though it was not 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 stone wall perhaps, with city on one side and country on the other. He chided himself for being so naive.
A grouping of large estates formed the heart of the city, with the Elhiyne compound at its center. It was walled, heavily fortified and guarded, for the clan was Elhiyne, and Elhiyne was the clan.
They arrived with a flurry of servants and retainers, and spent some time moving in. Once settled Morgin wanted to do a little sightseeing. There were a few hours left before dinner so he found JohnEngine, and as the two prepared to leave Olivia intercepted them and intervened. “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 reluctant but allowed himself to be persuaded. Accompanied by an adult ten years their senior, Olivia had no choice but to give them leave. 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, hoping to see jugglers and acrobats, mimes, puppet shows, acting companies, and all forms of diversion. There were vendors with sweets and delicious foods, wine and ale, though, as JohnEngine put it, the most important treats were the girls. But as they approached the market Morgin had a set of memories far different from his brother’s. It had been ten years since he’d seen these streets, and though much had changed, he recognized them easily. While his memories were not clear, they rekindled long forgotten, unhappy 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 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 never shouted prices at the three young men as they passed. 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. “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 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. 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. His eyes grew wide and he hissed “Witchman!”
Morgin looked at the boy carefully, and thought that maybe he saw a bit of Rat in the child. He almost envied the boy; 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 shouted.
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; in an instant he disappeared into the crowd.
Most of that afternoon was a strange kaleidoscope of images and events that faded into an 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 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 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. “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. “—you’ll face my wrath.”
The man bowed meekly. “Yes, Your Lordship,” he said, then disappeared into the crowd.
Morgin was stunned by how quickly he’d been obeyed, and how all nearby activity had ceased. He and Mathal were at the center of a circle of silence and fear, 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. JohnEngine teased him unmercifully for wasting his money on groceries. MichaelOff said nothing. He just looked at Morgin queerly, as if he understood there was something more to the incident than he and JohnEngine knew.
“She was kind to you?” 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. 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 tied to one of the posts of his bed. Attached to it was 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 told him he was to dress in his best and attend Olivia immediately.
It was a group interview with Brandon, DaNoel, JohnEngine, NickoLot, and himself. MichaelOff was too old, and Annaline too busy preparing for her wedding, but the rest had to endure a morning-long quiz in the details of inter-clan relationships.
Olivia focused on the representatives of the other clans that would be attending the wedding. Since Annaline’s future husband was an Inetka, they were heavily represented. The other Lesser Clans—Houses Tosk and Penda—had sent only a half dozen emissaries as a courtesy.
The Greater Council had sent only Valso, prince of House Decouix and heir to the throne of King Illalla. Valso 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 surpassed them all in these qualities.
All of this Morgin had learned long ago, then forgotten as quickly as possible. Olivia’s grilling served its purpose, reminding them of the 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 join 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 gained some edge by doing so, though Morgin wasn’t exactly sure what. The whole affair bored him terribly, and he had trouble staying awake. Following that he attended a banquet that evening at the Inetka compound, where he met the Penda and Tosk contingents. Later that evening 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 Avis met him with a message to attend Malka. They met with BlakeDown, High Lord of Clan Penda, and between BlakeDown and Olivia, Morgin sensed subtle, constant sparring, as if they were at odds in some way. He spent 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, 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. Oddly, for the first time, Olivia chose to call Morgin “Morgin,” with no mention of the name AethonLaw. And once introduced, she ignored him completely.
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 would be fully occupied, with all arrangements made by Olivia, and he began to realize she had some ulterior motive.
He sought out Olivia. He was feeling the first touches of anger, though he was determined that it would not show. Expecting 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.
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. “I require you, and not someone else.”
“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 it? 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 said. “You accuse me of lying when you no doubt have nothing on your mind but gesh.”
Morgin started, and thought he hadn’t heard her properly. But then he played her words back in his thoughts and he understood. He realized that there could never be any trust for Rat the bastard whoreson, and felt 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. “You think I want gesh? You think I’ll head straight for the gesh? Why . . . I haven’t thought about gesh 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 him. The twists and turns of the hallways in the Elhiyne compound quickly muffled the sounds of her anger, but not his humiliation.
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