The great hall of the castle was his favorite room. At first she'd believed it was the grandeur that appealed to him – a weakness he freely admitted. Now she concluded that it was something more. Certainly the pleasure of desecrating with his dark arts the only room of the ae'Magi's castle that had been kept free of magic for over one thousand years was not lost on him. Even now she could see one of the guests glance nervously at the shadows in the corners of the room. People who couldn't use magic tended to get nervous in a room where magic was performed often.
Most of all, she thought, the reason he loved this room was the delight he took in watching the highest aristocracy of a dozen nations dancing gaily where only a few hours before a young child had screamed out his life.
Aralorn shivered and paced behind the ornate black bars of her cage.
The great hall was resplendent, lavishly decorated for the pleasure of the people who tripped lightly across the floor. Soaring ceilings were etched with tear-shaped skylights. Pale pillars dripped down to a polished ivory floor that reflected the jewellike colors of the dancers.
Aralorn's cage sat on a raised platform on the only wall of the room that lacked a doorway. From that perch she could observe the whole room and be observed in return. Or rather, they could see the illusion that the ae'Magi had placed on the cage. Slavery was frowned upon by many of the nearby kingdoms, and so instead of the tall, exotically blonde woman that the ae'Magi had purchased from a traveling slaver, observers saw a rare snowfalcon.
A chime sounded, announcing new visitors. Aralorn hugged herself as the ae'Magi greeted his guests with a warm smile. He'd smiled that same smile last night when he held the boy's pulsing heart in his hands.
Biting her lip, Aralorn gazed at the dancing royalty in an effort to distract herself. She matched names and countries to the dancers' faces with the ease of the professional spy that she was. Gradually she replaced the boy's dead eyes with dates and politics, but she still paced her cage restlessly.
There was a hypnotic quality to the kaleidoscopic, brilliant colors of the dancers: twisting around and around only to stop, rearrange themselves and swirl into motion once again. They surely felt it. Their laughing faces were strangely blank, without a hint of any other emotion than simple enjoyment. She saw the Duchess of Ti and the Envoy of the Anthran Alliance dancing cordially with each other. Four years ago the Envoy had the Duchess's youngest son assassinated, sparking a bloody feud that left bodies littering the Alliance like a plague.
The Envoy said something and patted the Duchess's shoulder. She laughed gaily in return, as if she hadn't had the Envoy's third wife killed in a particularly nasty manner only a month ago.
When the musicians paused for a break, people crowded around the Archmage, Geoffrey ae'Magi, drawn to his twinkling eyes and mischievous grin the way butterflies surround the flowering coralis tree. Like the coralis, he was extraordinarily beautiful, with blue-black hair, high cheekbones and the smile of a child with his hands caught in the cookie jar. But the true attraction lay in his gentle warmth and the uncanny ability to poke fun at himself and others without causing hurt to any. Before she'd come here, Aralorn herself had been more than half enamored of him.
When an insect lands on the sweet-smelling, scarlet flower of the coralis, the petals close and the flower digests its hapless prey over a period of weeks.
She turned away from the ae'Magi and back to the room. Leaning lazily against one of the pillars, a short, square-built young man wearing the colors of the royal house of Reth also observed the throng: Myr, Prince – no, King now, of Reth. His face was unremarkable except for the stubborn tilt to his chin that he'd inherited from his paternal grandfather, a formidable warrior and king. What caught Aralorn's attention was the expression of distaste that briefly crossed his face as he looked at the crowd, remarkably different from the vacuous smiles that everyone else wore.
He shifted unexpectedly and met her gaze. He looked away quickly, but then began to make his way through the crowd toward her cage. When he reached the platform, he tilted his head down so that no one could read his lips and asked in a low tone, "Do you need help, Lady?"
Surprised, she glanced quickly at the mirror that covered the back of the cage. The snowfalcon stared back at her indifferently. An old spy had once told her that the ruling family of Reth occasionally produced offspring who were immune to magic. Looking at Myr, she decided that it was more probable that he was unaware of the illusion that cloaked her than that he commonly asked caged birds if they needed help. Rethians deplored the practice of slave keeping, but it was a bold move to offer to help one of the ae'Magi's slaves to escape.
Intrigued, she responded as herself, rather than the slave she was supposed to be. "No, Your Highness, I am here to observe the ae'Magi."
"A spy." It wasn't a question. "You must be from either Sianim or Jetaine. They are the only ones who would employ female spies in as delicate a position as this." He seemed to be thinking out loud, because when he finished speaking a flush rose to his face as he realized how insulting his last remark sounded.
Aralorn, though, was amused rather than offended. With a half smile she clarified. "I get paid for my work."
"A mercenary of Sianim, then." He eyed her speculatively. "I am surprised that they thought there was a need for a spy here."
"'Struth, so am I," Aralorn allowed, giving him no more information. Having satisfied his curiosity as far as she was ever going to, she asked him a question of her own. "How did you see past the illusion of the snowfalcon that the ae'Magi placed on the cage?"
"Is that what you're disguised as?" His smile made him look even younger than he really was. "I wondered why no one said anything about the woman he had in the cage. Slavery might be legal here, but most people don't condone it."
He might have said more, but something in Aralorn's expression stopped him. He immediately straightened and stared at her as if she fascinated him.
"Ah, I see you admire my falcon. Lord." The resonant voice could only belong to the ae'Magi. "She is beautiful, isn't she? I purchased her several months ago from a traveling merchant – somewhere in the Northlands, I believe … I thought she would go well with this room." He waved a casual hand that managed to indicate the rest of the hall.
Aralorn had grown adept at reading the ae'Magi's voice and it was just a little too casual. He was baiting Myr, and she didn't known why – unless he too had heard rumors about the unusual talent that sometimes cropped up in Reth's royal family.
RETH WAS A SMALL COUNTRY IN SIZE, BUT RICH IN MINERALS and agriculture. It also had a well-trained army, left as legacy by Myr's grandfather. Myr was a very new king and certain conservative political factions would have been happier had he been the same kind of puppet as his father. Myr seemed to have the politicians pacified, but it wouldn't be hard for the ae'Magi to change that. Aralorn's growing apprehension was more than professional; Reth was her homeland.
Myr turned to the magician with a smile and more confidence than a boy his age should have. "Yes, the ivory tinge is the same as the color in the marble here. It's unusual to see a snowfalcon this far south; you must have paid a great deal for her."
Aralorn hoped desperately that the amusement she felt didn't show on her face, as the ae'Magi had little trouble seeing past his own illusion. Myr was quick.
They talked at length about falconry, something that Aralorn happened to know interested neither one of them. When they had exhausted the subject, the ae'Magi abruptly changed topics.
"Myr," said the ae'Magi, "I wish to express my sorrow at the death of your parents. I feel some responsibility for their deaths, since they were returning from one of my parties when their coach overturned. I wish that they had decided to stay overnight – as I asked. The tragedy might have been averted." The sympathy in the magician's blue eyes offered solace. With professional interest, Aralorn heard the edge of guilt in his voice, he'd have made a wonderful spy with his acting ability.
He laid a fine-boned hand on Myr's shoulder, effectively forestalling what the younger man might have said. "Please, hear me out. If you have need of anything, feel free to turn to me. I have connections and substantial power as the ae'Magi, and you may need what aid I can offer. It has never been easy to ascend a throne, especially now with the Uriah restless in the eastern forests. Not to mention that there are always opposing factions or …" – he hesitated, waving his hand expressively – "other enemies."
Myr bowed his head quickly in gratitude; Aralorn hoped she was the only one who recognized his insincerity. "I shall do as you request, my Lord Magician. I know my parents counted you their friend." He paused and then said, "I apologize, Lord, I have enjoyed our conversation, but I must excuse myself early. You see" – he leaned in closer with the air of a young boy confessing a secret™"! just bought a new stallion and I'm not sure I trust him on the trails after dark." His face lost its eagerness for a moment. "After what happened to my parents, sir, I feel the need to be overly cautious."
The magician smiled understandingly. "I'll summon your servants for you."
Myr shook his head. "I left them outside with orders to meet me an hour before dark."
"The gods follow you, then. With your courage and strength, you will do credit to your lineage. I wish that my own son were more like you." To Aralorn's sensitive ears, the magician's voice held just the right amount of pain. She wondered why she hadn't noticed before she'd been assigned here that his emotions were always exactly right. She shouldn't have needed the opportunity, if that were the correct term, to observe his less savory endeavors to notice that there was something beneath the surface.
"Lord Cain could not be termed a coward, sir." Myr's voice held a matching amount of sympathy, as false as the ae'Magi's.
"No," said the ae'Magi, "I think that it would have been better for all of us if he were a coward. He would have done less harm. I have him under control now, but I don't know how long I can keep him quiet."
ARALORN HAD FORGOTTEN ABOUT THE AE'MAGI'S SON. THE ae'Magi kept his dark magics secret, but his son had performed in the broad light of day. For a while he'd been an embarrassment to the ae'Magi, stories of the atrocities that he committed flying rampant. She'd never met Cain; he'd faded out of the light before she'd become involved in her present occupation. She'd heard the rumors, though – they got worse with each telling. The stories put the ae'Magi in the role of the grieving father who was forced to exile his son. Aralorn suspected that Cain's absence might be due to death rather than exile. It would have been inconvenient if someone had questioned where the ae'Magi's son learned so much about forbidden magic.
"Be that as it may" – with apparent effort the Magician dismissed the thought of his son – "'your servants probably will be awaiting you even now."
"Yes, I should go. You may be sure I shall remember your gracious offer of assistance if ever I need help." With that Myr bowed once more and left.
Watching Myr leave, the Magician smiled – the slight imperfection of one eyetooth lending charm to the perfect curve of his lips. "What a clever, clever child you have grown to be, Myr," His voice purred with approval. "It is too bad you are forced to play your games with an adult." Aralorn felt her apprehension turn to real concern for the welfare of the King of Reth.
It was late before the crowd began to thin and later still before everyone had gone, Aralorn fell more nervous as each person left, knowing that the meager protection they offered would soon be gone. Alter seeing the last couple out, the ae'Magi walked slowly over to the cage.
"So," he said, swaying gently back on his heels, "the Rethian doesn't see my pretty Northland bird. When he looked at you, he looked where your eyes are, not where the eyes of the falcon would have been."
Plague it, she thought, the man is too observant. The ae'Magi put one hand through the bars and caressed her neck. She leaned against him and rubbed her cheek on his hand, forcing herself to obey the vague compulsion of the charismatic spell that he maintained.
The ae'Magi tilted her face so that her eyes met his and said in a leading tone, "I wonder how he broke through my illusion."
She'd had some time to think out her actions after Myr left. If he found out for sure that Myr was immune to magic, then it would be the king's death sentence. She heaved an inward sigh and braced herself. "But he didn't break through your spell, Master," she answered without apparent thought.
He looked down at her expressionlessly, and she quit fighting the urge to curl into a ball on the floor of the cage. He made a small motion with a finger and she screamed as her body twisted helplessly.
Each time he did this to her was worse than the time before. She watched as the tendons pulled and stretched, protesting the sensations they endured. When it finally stopped she didn't fight the tremors that shook her, telling herself that she was playing her part – but wondering deep inside whether she could have stopped had she tried. After she lay still he said softly, "I don't like to be contradicted, child. He knew you were not a falcon."
"Yes," she said hoarsely, from her position on the floor of the cage. "He knew. I think that his magician broke the spell for him."
"What magician?" The ae'Magi's voice was sharp, almost worried.
"He was sitting over behind that pillar." She pointed to someplace vaguely on the far side of the room.
"What made you think that he was a magician?"
"He made gestures like you do sometimes. He left with the king." Aralorn kept her voice to a whisper such as a frightened girl might use.
"What did he look like?"
"I don't know; he stayed in the shadows."
"What did the boy say to you?" He held the word boy just a little longer than necessary, apparently liking it better than "king."
"I don't remember …" This time it was worse because she felt her mind begin to lose control of itself. As a mercenary she had learned not to let pain bother her too much; but whatever it was that he did with his spell didn't work only on her body – though her muscles cramped hard enough that she could hear the bones begin to break. The now-familiar feeling of shame crept over her. She should try harder to please the Master; why wasn't she behaving herself? Guilt wormed its way in along with a sensation of unworthiness. As suddenly as it had begun it stopped, leaving her shuddering and crying helplessly.
"When I ask you something, I expect an answer." The ae'Magi's voice was gentle.
"He asked if I wanted to be freed and I told him that I wanted to be here. I live only to serve you, Master. It is my honor to serve the ae'Magi …" She let her voice trail off. That's it, she cheered herself silently, placate him, stay in character; the gasps as she fought against crying and the whimper at the end were a nice touch; artistic, really – it was too bad that she hadn't thought of them herself.
He reached a hand out to her and she cuddled against it, getting as close to him as she could, almost wishing that the spell he used to increase his charisma was more effective on her. As it was she experienced an overwhelming desire to bite the manicured fingers – or throw up. The cold, painted bronze of the cage dug into her side.
"What else did you say to him, Little One?" His voice was at its musical best.
She pulled back from him and gave him a wide-eyed, somewhat confused look even as she felt herself regain some of her sanity. "Did you want me to say something else to him? I didn't because I wasn't sure if you would want me to." She deliberately widened her eyes as if she were pleading with him to be pleased with her, trying to keep herself from tensing in anticipation of the wild, twisting pain.
"No. You did well." He absently patted her cheek. "You are learning more rapidly than I thought you could. I've been working lately and haven't had the time to do more with you. Tomorrow, when I've completed this spell, I'll see what I can do to remedy that." If she were in any doubt about what he was talking about, the hand that ran lightly down her breast would have clarified it for her. The ae'Magi seemed satisfied that the shudder that ran through her at his touch was in response to desire. He smiled warmly at her and, humming a sweet tune, walked lightly through the archway.
Aralorn stared at herself in the mirror, the ae'Magi having dispelled his illusion of the bird. The flickering light from the torches gave a dancing appearance to the fine, blonde hair. The fragile face that stared expressionlessly back at her was extraordinarily beautiful. A thin sheen of sweat glistened on her forehead; the misty, sea-green eyes looked dazed and vulnerable.
Abruptly irritated with that vulnerability, Aralorn stuck her tongue out at her reflection. It didn't make her feel any better. She wrapped both arms tightly around her legs. Head bowed on her knees, she listened to the sounds the servants made as they banked the fireplaces and snuffed the torches, trying to think over the uncontrollable panic that the thought of his intimate touch brought on.
"Logic, Aralorn, logic," she warned herself soundlessly. "If you leave now – granting that you can leave – he is going to doubt what you told him about Myr, which may not matter in the long run anyway."
She tilted her head back and whispered with bleak humor, "But if I don't get out of here I'm going to break and tell him everything from the fact that Audreas the Vain is bald to the name of my first pony." Decision made, she waited while the sounds of the castle diminished and the moon hung high in the sky, revealed by the clear panels in the ceiling.
When she was more or less satisfied that the people who were going to sleep that night were asleep, she knelt in front of the cage door. Grasping each edge she began to mutter quietly, sometimes breaking briefly into song or chant, grateful that the cage was not made out of iron, which her magic couldn't manipulate. The phrases she uttered were almost intelligible, as if a person were just not listening quite closely enough.
First her fingers, then her hands began to glow a phosphorescent green. Gradually the light spread to the metal between her hands. When all the metal of the gate held that soft flickering glow, she stepped through, leaving the spells on the locks intact. When she stopped singing the light faded abruptly – leaving the great hail even darker than before. She stood absolutely still to let her eyes get used to the darkness.
The only light in the room came from the moon through the skylights high above, which made it difficult to find the doorway. She exited the first one that she could find, hoping that it was one of the two which traversed the outer wall of the castle.
Before she entered the hallway she dropped to her hands and knees. Guards generally look at eye level, so that from her lower vantage point she should be able to see them before they saw her – an edge that could turn shaky odds to her favor. Her position also had the secondary benefit of making her a smaller target if she were seen.
The corridor was lighter, although not much. The stone of the floor was dry and cool to the touch as, still crouching, she ran a hand lightly over the walls. It took her longer than expected to find the small opening she was searching for. Panic clawed at her, and the temptation to run blindly down the hallway fought for control of her body. This, she thought with wry self-humor, must be how a pheasant feels just before it jumps out of hiding and into the path of the arrow.
She had almost decided to look for another way to leave when she found what she was looking for. Just above the bottom row of blocks, one end of a hollow copper pipe was cut flush with the wall. Silently, Aralorn blessed her hobby of collecting folk tales and the old man at a shadowy bar near Sianim who had told her the story.
A long time ago an apprentice to one of the ae'Magi discovered a rain spell in a book he was reading while the master was away. Three weeks later when the Magician came back the castle was flooded and the apprentice was camped outside. The Magician drained the castle by the simple technique of placing a drain pipe every sixteen stones in the outer corridors.
One such drainage pipe was under her fingers. It was bigger than she'd hoped for, being about four fingers in diameter. It cut directly through the thick stone wall of the castle to the outside. The air coming through it smelled like a moat.
"Ah, the sweet perfume of freedom," murmured Aralorn with a strained smile.
She took a deep breath and concentrated – The familiar tingle spread through her body until it was all the sensation she could absorb, leaving no room for any of her other senses. Unable to see or feel, Aralorn focused on one part of the mouse at a time; nose first, then whiskers. It took her only the time it takes to breathe deeply three times before a very small mouse crouched where she had been.
She shrank against the wall underneath the pipe for a minute and waited for the Magician to investigate the magic that she'd used – but he didn't come. Human magicians weren't usually sensitive enough to detect that someone else was using magic, but the ae'Magi was a law unto himself. He'd said he was tired, so maybe (she hoped) he was asleep. The mouse shook herself briskly, twitched her whiskers, and scratched an itchy spot where the tingle hadn't quite worn off yet; then she climbed up into the dark tunnel of pipe.
Centuries of sludge had built up in the opening, and if several other bold rodents hadn't foraged through (perhaps to escape a castle feline) she wouldn't have made it – as it was, Aralorn was submerged in slimy stuff of unknown origin up to her belly.
It was dark which didn't bother her much, and smelly which did. As she was busy not thinking about the composition of the muck under her feet she almost fell out of the pipe and into the moat some distance below, only saving herself by some ungraceful but highly athletic scrambling.
She caught her breath and thought, "Okay, now what? I need to be something that can swim" – a whiff of the moat's unsubtle aroma cut through the stench of the pipe – "or better yet, fly. Hmm …"
The little slime-coated mouse leapt. The air blurred and a white, domestic goose flapped awkwardly over the water, one wing dripping goo from the moat. Hampered by the wet wing, Aralorn was unable to gain any altitude and came to a flapping halt in front of the bushes that signaled the beginning of the woodland surrounding the castle several hundred yards beyond the moat. She straightened her feathers and started to waddle into – the woods, carefully leaving the ooze-covered wing stretched away from the rest of her body.
From the shadows, a black form emerged growling, its ivory fangs catching the light of the moon as it landed directly in Aralorn's path. The goose squawked and dodged backward, resuming a human form just in time for Aralorn to fall on her rump rather than her tail. Instead of the tall, slender beauty she had been in the cage, she was a bit shorter than average, brown-haired, and plain-faced – only the sea-storm eyes remained the same. At this moment they glittered with unsuppressed fury.
"Allyn's toadflax! Wolf, what are you trying to do to me?'" Mindful of the proximity of the castle, she lowered her voice to a soft tone that didn't carry, but did not lack for force either. "I could have died of shock." She put her hand theatrically over her pounding heart. "I still might. Why didn't you warn me you were here?"
The Wolf stood over her, fey and feral, with the stillness of a wild thing. The deep, macabre voice was calm and passionless when he spoke without replying to her question. "You should have told me that you intended to spy on the ae'Magi – if I had known that you were contemplating suicide I would have killed you myself. At least it would be a cleaner death than any he would bestow." Fathomless golden eyes gazed at her without emotion.
She looked at him for a moment, giving him the dominant position by remaining on the ground. "Do you know," she said softly, "that you are the only person that I have ever talked to who had anything unpleasant to say about him? As far as I could determine he was the perfect gentleman. I even asked why I was being sent to spy there."
She nodded her head at the dark shape of the castle, its silhouette almost blacking out the sky to the east. "I was told that there were rumors of an assassination plot and I was to investigate it and warn the Master Magician if necessary." Her customary grin restored itself. "If there is such a plot, I can only wish them luck in their endeavors."
"It has always amazed me how well he can blind people, even without the use of magic," replied the Wolf. He looked at the castle with the stillness that was so much a part of him. His yellow eyes glistened, glowing with a light that might not all have been a reflection of the moon. A growl rose low in his lupine throat, and the hair on his neck and back stiffened with rage.
Aralorn cautiously set a hand on his back. In all the time she'd known him he'd always been slow to warm from his customary passionlessness, and although she'd seen him kill several times she'd never seen him quite this upset. "What's wrong?"
The Wolf quieted and lowered his head for a moment. Then he shook himself as dogs will and said softly, "Nothing. It must be the moon. I find that it sometimes has this effect on me."
"Right. Uh-huh. The moon." She nodded solemnly, then she caught his gaze and raised one eyebrow, the Wolf staring silently back at her. She gave up the contest immediately, knowing that he was perfectly capable of continuing the stare-down all night. "Shall we go, or do you want to wait for the Magician so we can destroy him and win the world back for goodness and light?"
The Wolf grinned ferally and snorted. "If we killed the Magician, the world would be more likely to draw and quarter us than praise us as saviors. So by all means, let us make haste so as not to be forced to destroy the ae'Magi." He turned and made his way back through the brush with Aralorn following.
Several hundred yards from the edge of the woods a grey war stallion was tied to the trees, and at their approach he whickered a greeting. Aralorn laughed as the animal lipped the plain tunic she wore and then drew back in obvious disgust at the taste.
"Where did you come from, Sheen?" She slanted a look at the Wolf and said to him, "Thanks. I wasn't looking forward to walking back."
Over the years she'd learned not to question him too closely. If he wanted to be a Wolf, who was she of all people to question it? But the knot that attached the colorful cloth reins to the tree would have been difficult to tie for someone with no fingers.
Aralorn untied the reins and mounted, only to dismount and shorten the stirrups. She sighed loudly as she untied the leather strings. Someone with much longer legs than hers had ridden the horse last. She'd known for a long time that Wolf wasn't really a wolf, or at least not an ordinary one. The first time he spoke to her removed the last of the doubts that she had. She might not question him out loud, but she liked to make it obvious that it was cooperation and not stupidity.
"Sheen, how many times have I told you not to give strangers a ride? You never know where they might take you."
The Wolf tilted his head to one side, and there was a hint of amusement in his eyes. He woofed softly in acknowledgement of her restraint. She laughed and continued to unweave the strings.
WOLF WAS AN ENIGMA. EVEN THOUGH HE'D BEEN DRIFTING IN and out of her life for nearly four years, she wasn't sure if she actually knew anything about him at all. Every time she decided that she had him figured out, he baffled her again. She had been relieved when she'd decided that he wasn't really a wolf. Her feelings for him, although still confusing, had been plaguing worrisome when she felt them toward an animal.
Sometimes she thought that he might be a renegade shape-shifter, one of her mother's people – though he lacked the grey-green eyes that were characteristic of the race. But he could do too many things that were not possible for a wielder of green magic. Also, although she was not well trained in green magic, having been brought up by her human father, she knew enough to tell whether a spell was done by green magic or human. When Wolf cast a spell, it had a human feel to it, as well as a touch of something else that she couldn't quite pin down.
That he was a human magician was more likely, but human magic – the kind the ae'Magi used – didn't lend itself well to shapeshifting because instead of blending in with the forces of nature it sought to control them, and that required immense concentration which was impossible to maintain for extended periods of time. Most magicians had to sit still in isolation to perform any magic. To turn oneself into an animal for a prolonged period would require the strength of the ae'Magi …. Her normally deft hands faltered at their familiar task, so she stopped and gazed almost impersonally at her hands, which trembled without her consent. The mindless, babbling fear threatened her as she worked her way through her suspicion. He couldn't possibly be the ae'Magi. Could he?
The Wolf watched her and saw the wear that three weeks with the ae'Magi had caused. He saw the tremor of her hands and smelled the sweat of her fear. He saw that the cheerful demeanor-that was her habit had been used like a mask and he lost the hope that she had by some miracle escaped unscathed. The desire to kill the Archmage rose in his throat and was set aside for future use. He saw the terror in her eyes, but until he stepped closer to comfort her he didn't realize that she was afraid of him.
Instantly he halted. This was the one thing that he hadn't expected. Four years, and never had he seen the fear that he inspired in everyone else. Not even when she had reason to fear.
The old ache of bitter loneliness, almost forgotten over the years he'd known her, was back with a vengeance, and with it came a strong desire to flee. If they had been somewhere else he would have left without a backward glance, but here near the castle she was still in desperate danger. Already he could smell the excitement of the Magician's "pets." She wouldn't be able to lose them on her own: and, despite her formidable combat skills, even at her best she couldn't handle more than two or three of them. After three weeks in confinement she was hardly at her best, so he stood and waited.
As she looked at him the gold eyes were no more readable than ever. She remembered the fever-bright agony that had been in them when first they met. He'd been caught in the harsh jaws of an old trap and had been there for some time, unable to free himself because the pain was great enough to block any attempt at concentration. His eyes had glittered their defiance at her with an eerie intelligence. For that reason, instead of killing him in mercy as had been her first thought, she sang to him in her mother's tongue and freed the mangled hind leg.
It had taken only a week for her to heal the leg, but he'd fought the fever for almost a month. He'd left as soon as he could stand up, at least for a while. One day she'd looked up to find him watching her with his uncomfortably canny eyes. After that he came and went, sometimes staying away for months at a time, then appearing without a word of explanation.
She remembered how long she'd worked to gain his trust. It had taken time to get him to let her touch him, more time before he would eat the food she gave him, and almost a year before he trusted her enough to reveal that he talked. She compared his remoteness to the Magician's easy smile and beautiful voice. If she ever met a corpse that talked, she imagined that its voice would be similar to the Wolf's. Wolf was not the ae'Magi.
She crouched down to look him in the eye, although she didn't have to lower herself far – he was a big animal "I'm sorry. I'm .. just a little shaky" – she gave a half laugh and held up an unsteady hand – "as you can see. He's got me doubting everything I know." She moved the hand to touch him and he quietly moved just out of reach.
She knew that she had hurt him, but before she could speak the stallion snorted softly. She turned back to him and saw that he was twitching his ears back and forth and shifting his weight uneasily.
"Uriah," commented the Wolf. "If they are getting close enough that even Sheen can smell them, we'd best be on our way. There are riding clothes in the saddlebags. Put them on; we may have a long ride ahead."
She wiped herself off as best she could on the simple cotton tunic. Ten years of being a mercenary had destroyed any vestige of ladylike modesty she might once have felt, but she hurried into the clean clothes anyway, as they could use every second to avoid a confrontation with the Uriah.
She swung into the saddle and let the Wolf lead the way at the careful trot dictated by the rough country and the dark. Had the Uriah been closer, she would have chanced a fall with a faster gait, but for now there was no need for panic. When she had rummaged for her clothes, Aralorn found that the saddlebags also contained oatcakes. She pulled a couple out and ate one as she rode, feeding the other to the horse. When she offered one to the Wolf, he refused. She let him pick the way, trusting him to do his best to rid themselves of the Uriah.
The Uriah were vaguely human-looking creatures that appeared more dead than alive, though they were almost impossible to kill. The insatiable hunger that drove them gave them a berserker's ferocity. They were normally found only in the far eastern regions that bordered the impassable Marshlands, but in the last decade or so they'd begun to turn up in unexpected places further west. But to find them this far west was almost unheard of.
"Runyons!" She swore at her own stupidity. "They're his, aren't they?" The warhorse, slightly spooked by the nasty smell behind them and miffed by the slow pace they were taking, took exception to the sudden sound and bucked hard. She didn't fall off, but it was a near thing, and it took a while to stop the curveting completely.
The Wolf waited until the show stopped and then said, "Yes, they belong to him," Without waiting to comment further he continued on, leaving Aralorn to follow as she could.
The sun began to rise on the silent travelers. Aralorn was quiet, first because she didn't know what to say to Wolf and later because fatigue kept her silent. Three weeks with no exercise left her feeling as if she was recovering from a prolonged illness. Despite her tiredness, when the Wolf halted and told her they were stopping for the afternoon she protested.
"If we don't stop and let the horse graze and get some rest, you'll be walking tomorrow." He spoke slowly and clearly, and his voice managed to pierce through her exhaustion.
She nodded, knowing he was right, but the urge to run away from the castle was stronger than her common sense, so she didn't dismount. The horse arched his neck and blew, dancing suddenly on his hind legs as if preparing for battle, responding to the invisible signals of his rider.
Wolf was silent until he saw her sway in the saddle from sheer exhaustion. "I will stay on watch tonight, Lady. I know when the ae'Magi or his playthings are near and I won't let them take you back." His voice was softer, not quite as harsh as it had been that day.
Again she nodded but this time she dismounted and, with more instinct than willpower, began to untack the horse. The light saddle seemed to weigh more than she remembered and it was an effort to reach high enough to get the bridle off, but she managed. Sheen was well trained and needed no restraint to keep him close. She untied the sleeping roil and climbed in it without even dusting off her clothes. The Wolf stretched out beside her and the last thing she noticed was the comforting sound of the stallion munching grass.READ MORE >>