Masques (Sianim #1)

Chapter 4

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When Aralorn awoke it was still dark. She slipped out through the tent opening, moving quietly to avoid disturbing the two women who had shared their quarters with her. She retied the crude flap so the cold early morning air would stay outside.

Most of the tents in the camp were makeshift. Several were little more than a rug stretched over a stick or rope in true field-soldier style. The only tent in the camp worthy of the name belonged to Myr, who shared it uncomplaining with a number of the smaller children.

As she passed Myr's tent, near the firepit, she gave the dragon embroidered on the side a respectful nod, but it glared balefully at her anyway. The flickering light of the lire gave the illusion of life to the green-gold eyes.

Also near the firepit was one of the few wooden structures in the camp. The kitchen was little more than a three-sided shed, but it kept the food dry. The camp cook was already up, chopping something by lantern light, but he stopped long enough to give Aralorn a look no more friendly than the dragon's had been. Aralorn grinned cheerfully at him and kept on her way.

The camp was located in a small dale, no bigger than the largest of the riding arenas in Sianim, and lay half a day's ride north of the Rethian border. It was long and narrow, with a stream in the middle that she suspected would cover a much larger area in the spring when the top layer of snow melted off the mountain peaks. As it was, the ground near the stream was marshy and made soft, slurping sounds when she walked over to take a drink and throw water on her face.

The tents were all in the eastern end of the valley near the only obvious trail down the steep, almost clifflike sides. Those sides, heavily covered with brush on the top, were the strongest defense that the camp could have, rendering it almost invisible to anyone not already in the valley.

By the simple expedient of running a split-rail fence across the valley the narrow way, the western end had been turned into a pasture for most of the livestock – two goats, four donkeys, several horses and a scrawny cow. It was toward this part of the valley that Aralorn headed.

Knowing how well Wolf liked people, she thought that he would be as far from the tents as he could – although she couldn't see him anywhere in the dale. As she neared the pasture she was welcomed with a soft whinny. Sheen, only slightly inconvenienced by the soft leather hobble that bound his front legs, bounced up to her to get his nose rubbed. She'd hobbled him outside the pasture so that the owners of the two mares didn't end up with unwanted foals. He followed her for a while before wandering off to forage.

It took her a little time to find the faint trail running up the steep slope near the fence. The terrain was rough and treacherous with loose stones, and she thought ruefully that a person would have to be part mountain goat to try this very often – or part wolf.

Grabbing a ragged piece of brush, she pulled herself up a particularly steep area and found herself unexpectedly in a hollow that hadn't been visible from below. A small, smokeless fire burned near a bedroll. The rather large, dark wolf turned amber eyes to her and swayed its tail in casual welcome.

Since he wasn't using it, she seated herself on the bedroll and rested her chin on her raised knees. Casually she threw a few more sticks into the fire, leaving it for him to break the silence. Typically he explained nothing, but questioned her instead.

"Tell me about the camp." His voice was mildly curious.

"Why? You've been here much longer than I have."

He shook his head. "I just want to know what you see – how much I need to explain to you."

"Well," she began, "there has been a camp here for several months, probably starting this spring. Originally the person or people who started it didn't know much about camping in the woods, so I'd guess that they weren't locals. It looks like someone is in the process of reorganizing camp. If I were a gamester, I would place gold that Myr is the reorganizer." She looked to the Wolf for confirmation.

Wolf nodded and Aralorn continued to speak.

"From what I can tell, most of these people came with not much more than the clothes on their backs. There are what, maybe fifty people here?"

"Fifty-four with you," Wolf replied.

"Then over a third of them are children. There is no common class amongst them. I've seen peasants, townsfolk, and several aristocrats. The children are, as far as I've seen, without family. They are almost all Rethian." Aralorn lay back and made herself comfortable. "They have all the earmarks of refugees, and I'd lay my last gold that they are running from the ae'Magi."

Wolf grunted an affirmative.

"How did they all get here, though? I could see northerners finding this valley, but I heard southern Reth accents too."

"You, of all people, should know the reputation of the northern mountains," replied Wolf.

Aralorn thought about what she had heard about the Northlands. "You mean the stories about how human magic doesn't work? I thought that was nonsense. I saw you transport the merchant, and my understanding is that teleportation is a mage-level spell."

Wolf shook his head. "I wouldn't have tried it this far north even if we weren't worried about the ae'Magi finding the valley. Small spells seem unhampered, but more delicate spells seem harder to work. Some people it affects more than others – the ae'Magi won't travel into northern Reth. It doesn't seem to have much effect on my magic" – he nodded at the fire, which flared up, dancing wildly with purple and gold flames – "but I wouldn't have bet even the merchant's life on it; so we traveled south. The effect seems to be highly localized, so we didn't have to travel very far."

"The stories about that aspect of the Northlands are common enough, even in southern Reth. I suppose that this area would be a good place to run to if you were trying to hide from a human magician," commented Aralorn.

"I …" He hesitated a minute and Aralorn got the distinct feeling that he changed what he was going to say. "I located this valley as a possible refuge, although I never intended to set up a camp of this size here."

He gazed with an air of bemusement over the camp. "I don't know how these people found this valley in particular. You can ask, but everyone has a different story. It is unreasonable that fifty people, most of whom have never been a mile outside of their own front doors, would wander blithely into a hanging valley that would be hard for a forester or trapper to find."

After a slight pause he continued. "As you speculated, they are all running from the ae'Magi, in a manner of speaking – the way that you would have been fleeing from Sianim if you had made a few more negative comments about the ae'Magi. Most of them were driven from their villages by the townspeople.

"Except for Myr, everyone in camp can work a little magic. The adults didn't have enough ability to be trained as magicians and escaped the ae'Magi's control that way. The children are young enough that they were not yet sent for training."

"The ae'Magi controls the trained magicians?" Aralorn was startled into silting up. "I know that he is the ae'Magi, but I thought that was like a guildmaster. You make it sound like it's more than that."

"It is," replied Wolf, his hoarse voice softened to keep it from carrying. "After the Wizard Wars, it was decided that the magicians could not be allowed to go without controls. I don't know exactly what the means of control are, but I do know that the control is real. The ae'Magi can stop a trained magician from using his magic, rendering them as vulnerable to the ae'Magi's spells as magicless people are."

Aralorn turned until she faced him. "Why aren't you under his control?"

Wolf moved in a lupine version of a shrug. "I either broke the ties of the binding, or I wasn't in training long enough, I am not sure which."

Aralorn and Wolf sat in silence, watching the camp stir in the valley below them. Aralorn stretched her feet out to the fire, which still flared uneasily, as if waiting for another command.

Watching the red play of flame reflected on her feet in the dim light, she ventured a question. "How long have you been helping Myr?" She noticed with self-directed amusement that her tone was disinterested, revealing none of the jealousy she felt. It had surprised her to feel resentful of Myr, but she had gotten used to being the only one to whom Wolf revealed himself. When she found out that not only was there someone else close to him, but that he knew things about Wolf she didn't, it bothered her.

Wolf spoke slowly, like one who was turning his thoughts into words for the first time, "I have been looking for a way to move against the ae'Magi for a long time. It came to my attention that Myr didn't hold the ae'Magi in the same esteem that most people do; apparently Myr is not susceptible to magic. I am still not sure what use he will be against the ae'Magi, but it seemed prudent to watch him. At first I did little more than observe, but after Myr's parents were killed, I introduced myself and offered my help. For the most part all that I did was offer advice and block a few spells laid to cause permanent accidents."

"Accidents like a carriage overturning unexpectedly," offered Aralorn.

Wolf nodded. "Or an archer's arrow going astray; things that immunity to magic does not shield against. I am not sure if I helped much in the end. The last attack that the ae'Magi set against Myr was more subtle. Did you hear what happened?"

Aralorn shook her head. "The first that I heard about it was back at the inn, when some messengers from the capital rode in and spouted nonsense. Myr was supposedly crazed with grief and attacked one of his own men."

Wolf snorted with disgust. "Myr was in his personal courtyard in the palace when he was attacked by an elemental. They made enough noise that I went out to investigate. I think that Myr would have won even if I hadn't been there." Wolf shrugged and continued. "When it was dead, the demon transformed into a more mundane creature – one of Myr's personal guards. We were still standing over the body when the better part of the castle guard ran into the courtyard. They attacked and we managed to flee. Here is where we've been ever since."

"What now?" asked Aralorn, drawing pictures in the dirt near the blankets.

Wolf let out a sound that passed as a laugh. "Now, Myr is trying desperately to prepare this camp for winter and I am trying to find a way that I can move against the ae'Magi." He paused and then said in a tone that reeked of frustration, "It's not that I don't have the power. It is the training I lack. Most of what little I do know I've learned myself, and it's not enough. If I could find just one of the old magicians not under his spell I could find something to use against him – instead I have to wade through piles of books that may be utterly useless."

"I will help with the books," offered Aralorn, "if they're in a language I know."

"I had intended that you should. If I have to read through the dusty old relics, you might as well suffer too." He was teasing her, knowing that she would devour every time-scarred tome with a zealot's passion. "How many languages do you read? I've heard you speak three or four."

Aralorn thought for a minute. "Including dialects? Ten, maybe twelve. Sometimes I can pick out the essentials in a related language." She grinned at him, "Father was a fanatic on it. He got caught in a battle one time trying to negotiate a surrender – someone else's – and the only person who spoke both languages had been killed. When I started collecting stories I learned a lot of others. Anything very old, though, will be in the ancients' tongue. I can pick my way through that but I'm not fluent."

He gave her a wolfish laugh. "And they always said that collecting folk tales was a useless hobby." He continued more seriously. "I'm short on time, and we can get through more material than I can alone. If I even had the name of a magician with a spell that could stop him, I could save time. I have a library near here, and if you can go through the secular books it would leave me free to work with the grimoires."

Aralorn made a point of looking around at the mountain wilderness that surrounded them. "You have a library nearby?" she questioned in a falsely bright voice.

"Yes," he replied succinctly.

"Yes," she repeated. "You are aware that if it were anyone but you telling me this, I might not believe them."

Gravely he met her eyes. If she hadn't known him as well as she did, she might not have seen the faint humor in the amber depths.

Faintly from the valley rose the sound of a metal spoon hitting a cooking pot – the time-honored call to meal.

Wolf rolled lithely to his paws, changing almost as he moved into the tall, masked figure that was his human form. Courteously, he extended a hand to help her to her feet.

Aralorn accepted the hand a little warily, finding that Wolf in his human form was somewhat more intimidating than the wolf was. As a human he maintained the grace that he had as a wolf. She watched enviously the easy way he negotiated the slope that she scrambled and slid down.

A stray thought caught her as she struggled down the slope. At the bottom she caught his arm to stop him when he would have set out for the camp.

"Wolf, I think that I may have caused a problem for you." Anxiously she bit her lip.

"What's that?" he asked.

"During the ball at the Magician's castle the night I left, Myr saw me in the cage where he should have seen only a bird. The ae'Magi saw him talking to me and questioned me about it. I told him that I'd seen a magician help Myr break the illusion spell, hoping to keep Myr's immunity to magic from the ae'Magi." She kept her eye on the contrast her hand made against the black silk of his sleeve: it was hard to remember that the masked figure was Wolf. "What I didn't know was that Myr did have a magician aiding him. Did I cause you any problems?"

He stood silently for a minute before he said, "I don't think so. That was probably why he went from straying arrows to sending elementals – the timing is about right. But since we survived it, there was no harm done."

MYR WAS UP AND ARRANGING BREAKFAST WITH A DEXTERITY that Aralorn found fascinating to watch. She let herself be organized with a bowl of cooked grain that made up in amount what it lacked in flavor. After the food she'd eaten at the inn, she felt no inclination to complain. Wolf neither ate nor removed the mask, a situation that seemed an established pattern, since no one commented on it.

As she ate, Aralorn took the time to observe the people. The introductions she'd received the night before had been needfully brief, and many of the people had been asleep. She could only place the names to a few of the faces.

The sour-faced cook was a smith from a province in southern Reth. A large snake tattoo wrapped itself around one massive forearm, disappearing into his sleeve. She noticed that for all his gruffness, his voice softened remarkably when he was talking with the children. His name was Haris.

Edom sat a little apart from the rest. He had the dark, straight hair and sallow skin typical of parts of western Reth, the legacy of interbreeding with the dark Darranians. His hands were the soft, well-cared-for hands of an aristocrat. He was an oddity in the camp. Too old to be a child, yet younger than till the adults. He was a recent arrival and still looked as if he felt a little out of place.

All but two of the children had been sleeping when she'd arrived at the valley. Those two were now seated as close to Myr as they could get. Stanis had the red hair and freckles of the Southern Traders and the flamboyant personality to go with it. The second boy, Tobin, was a quiet shadow of his friend. Stanis tugged impatiently at Myr's shin until he had the young king's attention. Then he settled back on his knees and started talking with grand gestures of his arms that looked a little odd on a boy of ten or eleven summers.

Aralorn was just about to look away when she saw Myr's expression sharpen with alert interest. He looked around for Wolf and waved him over. Aralorn followed.

"Stanis, tell Wolf what you just told me."

Stanis hesitated for a moment, but the enjoyment of being the object of attention manifestly won out over any shyness that he felt around the intimidating magician.

"Well, yesterday afternoon when it was time to eat lunch, nobody could find Astrid. Me and Tobin thought that she might have been playing up near the old caves. So we all went up there to see if she still was. Edom was too scairt to go in but I wasn't. We looked for hours and hours. Then when we all got back out together she was waiting with Edom.

"She said that she met a nice man who knew her name and took her out of the caves. Edom says that he didn't see no one with her when she came out. And Haris said that he thinks that she wandered into the month of one of the caves and fell asleep and dreamed about the man. But I think that she met a shapeshifter and Tobin does too, only he thinks that it could have been a ghost too."

Aralorn suppressed a smile at the boy's delivery – he'd gotten most of that out in one breath.

"What do think, Wolf? Astrid doesn't tell stories, for all that she's but a child. Who do you think she saw?" Myr's tone was quiet, but it was evident that the thought of someone living in the caves (wherever they were) bothered him.

Wolf thought for a moment. "It's entirely possible that she did meet someone. Those caves interconnect with cave systems that run throughout the mountain chain. I have seen many strange things in these mountains and heard stories of more. I know for a fact that there are shapeshifters in this area." He didn't even look at Aralorn as he said that. "I've never seen anyone in there, but if a shapeshifter doesn't want to be seen, he usually isn't. I wouldn't worry too much. From his actions it is apparent that he means us no harm."

Myr relaxed a little, relying on the older man's judgement. Stanis looked pleased with himself – Wolf had agreed with him.

AFTER BREAKFAST ARALORN FOUND HERSELF CORNERED BY Myr, and before she knew it she was agreeing to give lessons in swordsmanship. Myr divided the adults into four groups, to be taught by Aralorn, Myr, Wolf and a one-armed ex-guardsman with an evil smile and the unlikely name of Pussywillow. The other three were all much better with a sword than Aralorn was, but luckily none of her students was good enough to realize how badly outclassed she was.

The first part of any low-level lesson was a drill in basic moves. Haris Smith-Turned-Cook handled the sword with the same strength and sureness that a good smith uses in swinging a hammer. He learned rapidly from a word or a touch. Edom had the normal flaws of adolescence – all elbows and awkwardness. The others were in the middle range. Given three or four years of steady sword work, they would be passable, maybe.

She fought her first bout with Haris, deciding to face the best fighter first – when she was fresh. It was a good idea. He might not have had much experience with a sword, but he had been in more than one dirty fight. If she'd had to rely on only her swordsmanship to fight him, she might have lost, but she'd been in a few dirty fights herself.

When she finally pinned him, Haris gave her the first genuine smile she'd seen on his face, "For a little bit of a thing, you fight pretty well."

"For a hulking brute, you are not too bad yourself," she said, letting him up. She turned to the observers. "And that is how you light on a battlefield. But not in a training session on swordsmanship. The sword got in his way more than it helped him. If he were fighting in a battle today, he'd be better off without his sword. That will not be true in a month, for any of you – I hope."

The others were easier, so she lectured as she fought. By the time she was facing the last student, Edom, she was short on breath. Cleaning the inn had been good for keeping in shape, but a two-hour workout with a sword was enough to test her powers of endurance.

She opened with the same move that she'd used in all the other fights – a simple sidesweep that all the others had been able to meet. Edom fell, which should have shown him to be an utter idiot with a sword. She heard a few suppressed sniggers from the audience. But something about the fall struck her as a little off; if he had fallen from the force of the blow he shouldn't have fallen quite as far as he had. She wasn't big enough to push him that distance without more leverage than a sidesweep allowed for.

She helped him up and handed him his sword. Grasping his wrist, she showed him the proper block and swung again. He met it that time, clumsily. She worked slowly with him at first, gradually speeding up. He progressed slowly, with nothing more odd than ineptness showing in his fighting.

She worked with him on three blocks, aiming different attacks at him and showing how each block could be used. She was getting tired, and made a mistake that a better swordsman would never have made. She used a complex swing, difficult to execute as well as counter, and misjudged it. Horrified, she waited for her sword to cut into his leg.

He blocked it.

He shouldn't have been able to, not at his level. She wasn't sure that she could have blocked it. She certainly couldn't have executed the combination that he used. She stepped back and met his eyes. Softly, so that no one but she could hear, he said, "Can I explain in private?"

She considered a minute and nodded. Turning back to the others she dismissed them, sending them to watch Myr, still fighting nearby.

Alone, Edom met her gaze. He shuffled a foot in the dirt. "You …" His voice cracked and he cleared his throat and tried again. "You know that I'm not quite what I appear to be. I'm not even Rethian, I'm from Darran. I don't know if you know it, but Darran is under the ae'Magi's influence too, I didn't know what to do. I played along with it as long as I could and then I left." He shrugged. "I don't know why I came here; something … drew me here, I guess. It seemed as good a place to go as any. I found the valley full of people like me, hiding from the ae'Magi, but they were all Rethians. Given current feelings between Darran and Reth, I could hardly tell them that I was a nobleborn Darranian.

"So I told them that I was the son of a Rethian merchant. I thought that it was a good idea. I speak Rethian with a faint enough accent that I could pass for any number of western provinces, and it explained the richness of my clothes.

"Then Myr came and started this swordsmanship training. Where would a merchant's son get trained in Darranian-style swordsmanship? So I faked it."

Aralorn found herself grinning despite herself. "Quite a problem, I agree. What I would do is tell the truth to Myr; he's not as prejudiced as most Rethians are. Let him figure out a way to let you explain your sudden ability." She waved a hand in the vague direction of the rest of the camp, "With the lack of trained fighters here, Myr can't afford to waste your abilities."

Edom smiled then, looking slightly relieved. "I'll do that now. It would be nice to be useful, instead of sitting on the sidelines all the time." He gave her a brief bow and then ran off to where Myr was fighting.

Aralorn smiled and stretched wearily. Tired as she was, it had felt good to work out with a sword rather than a mop – if was almost as good as playing at staff.

The exercise had made her hot and itchy, so she wandered over to the creek. It took her a while, but she found a place deep enough to wash in with a large, flat rock that she could kneel on and avoid the worst of the mud. She ducked her head under the water, its icy temperature welcome on her overheated skin.

As she was coming up for air she heard a newly familiar voice say, "See, I told'ya she had a funny-looking sword. Look, the handle's made out of metal."

Aralorn took her time wiping her face on her sleeve and smoothing her dripping hair away from her face. Stan is and his silent but grinning companion, Tobin, stood observing her. She hid a smile when she recognized Stanis's solemn-faced, feet-apart, hands-behind-his-back pose. Myr did that when he was thinking.

"Have you killed anyone'?" Stanis's voice was filled with gruesome interest.

She nodded, rolling up the long sleeves of the innkeeper's son's tunic.

"You're not supposed to fight with swords that don't have wooden handles." The silent Tobin at last had spoken.

"Yeah," said Stanis. "If you kill a magician, his magic will kill you."

She nodded again. "I only wound magicians with my sword. When I kill magicians, I always use my knife."

"Oh," said Tobin, apparently satisfied with her answer.

They were silent for a moment; then Stanis said, "Tobin wanted to know if you would tell us about killing someone."

Aralorn nodded and sat cross-legged on the grass, far enough away from the stream so that the ground was relatively dry. Far be it from her to give up the chance to tell stories.

That was where Wolf found her. Her audience had grown to include most of the camp. He walked quietly closer until he could hear what she was saying.

"… so we snuck past the dragon's nose a second time. We had to be careful to avoid the puddles of poison that dripped from the old beast's fangs as it slept.

"Dragons' ears are very acute – so acute that we all were holding our breath when we neared it. We would have made it if Wikker hadn't dropped one of the bejeweled, golden goblets. He dropped it right on the fiend's glistening muzzle …."

"What happened'?" asked a hushed voice from the crowd.

Aralorn smiled mysteriously and said, "It ate us, of course."

There was a short silence, then a sheepish laugh as they realized that she'd been telling them a tall tale from the beginning. Wolf was close enough to hear Stanis's disgruntled, "That's not how it should have ended. You're supposed to kill the dragon."

Aralorn laughed and ruffled the boy's hair. "There is another ending to the story. I'll tell you it later. Now, though, I think that I hear someone calling us for lunch."

AFTER LUNCH THE WOLF TOUCHED ARALORN ON THE SHOULDER and motioned for her to follow him. They slipped quietly out of camp and scaled one side of the valley. Once on the top they followed a faint trail through the trees that led to a cliff honeycombed with caves.

Wolf chose one of the dark entrances and lit the way through the tunnels with his staff. Aralorn hadn't noticed that he was carrying the staff while they were walking, but she supposed that it was just part of being a mysterious mage.

"Wolf, these caves would make a much better winter shelter than the tents. Why aren't you using them?"

Wolf motioned her to a small branch and halted her with one hand on her arm. He tilted the staff slightly, until she realized that directly in front of them was a dark hole. "I don't know how far down that one goes, but there are some holes that seem almost bottomless. If there were no children, you might risk it, but it's too difficult to keep them from wandering. We are storing a lot of the supplies in a few caves near the surface, and I drew up a map for Myr of a section that is pretty isolated from the main cave system. If it becomes necessary to move the camp into the caves, we can. But it is safer in the valley."

Aralorn looked at the blackness in front of them and nodded. She also stayed close to Wolf the rest of the way through the caves.

They came to a large chamber that he illuminated with a flick of a hand. The chamber was easily as spacious as the great hall in the ae'Magi's castle. Carved into all the walls were shelves covered with hooks. Wooden bookcases were packed tightly with more books and stacked in rows with only a narrow walkway between them. Here and there were careful slacks of volumes waiting to find a place on the crowded shelves.

Aralorn whistled softly. "I thought that Ren's library was impressive. We're going to read all of these?"

Wolf shrugged. "Unless we find something before we have to read them all." As he spoke he led her through one of the narrow pathways between bookcases to an open area occupied by a flat table that held an assortment of quills, ink and paper, On either side of the table were small padded benches.

Aralorn looked around and asked, "Where do you want me to start?"

"Anywhere. Normally, I know, you can tell if something is magic, but for your safety let me look at the books before you open them. There are spells to disguise the presence of magic, and some of the grimoires are set – with traps for the unwary. I'd prefer not to spend valuable time trying to resurrect you," he said.

"Can you resurrect people?" She kept her voice mildly curious, though she'd never heard of such a thing actually happening.

"Let's not find out," was his reply.

"So, what do I look for, I mean other than a book titled. Twenty-five Foolproof Ways to Destroy a Powerful Evil Magician'?"

He gave a short laugh before he answered. "Look for a name of a mage who fought another magician. If I have a name I might be able to find his grimoire. You also might note down any object that could be of use. Although magical items are notoriously hard to find – even if they're not the creation of some bard's overactive imagination – and we don't have the leisure time to go on a quest."

Aralorn inspected one shelf, pulled out a book at random and took it to the table. She ran her fingers lightly over the metallic binding of the book. Originally it had been silver but it had tarnished to a dull black. She could read the title only because she once coaxed Ren into teaching her the words inscribed on the old wall mosaics in some of the older places in Sianim. Reluctantly she put it away without opening it, knowing that it wouldn't have anything of use. The people who used that language had disliked magic to such an extent that they burned the practitioners of it. They had been a trading people, and merchants in general were not overly fond of magicians. She thought about the chubby merchant she'd seen in another cave and smiled; maybe merchants had reason to dislike magicians.

It took several more tries before she found a book that suited her and passed Wolf's inspection. This one was about three hundred years old and told the history of a tribe of tinkers that used to roam the lands in great numbers. They were scarcer now and tended to keep to themselves. Whoever wrote the book she was reading still believed in the powers of the old gods, and he intermixed history and myth with a cynicism that she thoroughly enjoyed. Taking a piece of blank paper, she kept careful note of anything that might be potentially useful.

Her favorite was the story of the jealous chieftain whose wife was unfaithful. Frustrated, he visited the local magician, who gave him a large bronze statue of the demigod Kinez, the faithful. When his wife kissed a man in its presence it would come to life and kill the unlucky suitor. The chieftain had the statue placed in his wife's wagon, and after several of her favorites died she sinned no more, or at least found another place to sin.

She got her revenge, though. At last satisfied that his wife would be faithful, he entered her wagon and started making love with her. Unfortunately he forgot to remove the statue first. She became chieftain and ruled for many prosperous years.

WOLF OFTEN WONDERED WHY IT WAS THAT MAGICIANS HAD such wretched handwriting. The fine motor skills prerequisite to spellcasting should be reflected in decent writing: his own was very nearly flawless. He painstakingly cross-checked the word he was trying to decipher with several others to compare the letters. As he was writing the actual word neatly in the space above the original, he heard Aralorn laugh softly.

Safe behind the mask, he smiled at the picture she made with her quill scratching frantically along the paper. Her handwriting wasn't any better than what he'd just been attempting to read. The hand moving the quill was calloused and ink-spattered. Ink also resided in blotchy patterns across her face where she'd pushed back her hair. Reluctantly he returned to his reading.

ARALORN FINISHED HER BOOK AND REPLACED THE SLENDER volume on its shelf. When she found another likely-looking candidate. Wolf was deeply engrossed in his grimoire, so she sat to wait.

"Wolf," she said suddenly, startled by a strange thought.

He held up a hand to ask her to wait while he finished, which she did with some impatience. Finally he looked up.

"What is the difference between human and green magic? I have always thought that it was that human mages draw the magic from themselves, while green magic users draw power from the outside world, but didn't you say that the ae'Magi had found a way to link to outside power?"

In typical Wolf fashion he started his answer with a question. "How much training have you had in magic?"

She grinned at him. "Not much. You human mages are not especially open to sharing knowledge even amongst yourselves, and the shapeshifters are not exactly fascinated by intellectual pursuits. The only thing I know about magic is how to use it, and in that I'm by no means an expert. I spent enough time with my mother's people to learn how to shapeshift and a few minor magics."

He grunted in acknowledgement and then paused to choose his words. "The difference between human and green magic is generally explained the way you explained it to me, but as Ren would say, generalizations have a habit of ignoring much of the truth.

"The ancients said that magic existed in a secret pool in the castle of the goddess of nature, and she used this magic to make the seasons change and the grass grow. One day a clever man found a way to steal some water out of the pond without the goddess knowing about it. He was the first human magician.

"Based on that story, you might picture magic as a pool of raw, unshaped power that gradually seeps into the natural world to act as nature would have it – making the trees grow and the sun rise. My understanding of green magic is that it is the magic already harnessed by nature that the green magician can use. He alters, rather than creates; the magic makes the grass grow faster or slower, makes a wind blow stronger or not at all. The magic that he uses is nature's magic already shaped. It is safer and perhaps easier to use, but it is not as flexible as the raw stuff.

"Human magic works in this manner, at least for most magicians. First, the human magician must tap into our magical pool. It is like drinking through a straw – when one runs out of breath, the liquid stops flowing. The magician then takes this raw power he has gathered and uses it to form a spell or pattern that he shapes himself. The more magic the magician can pull, the stronger he is, but he needs to know the patterns to shape the magic into.

"If he cannot shape the magic, he must release it as raw power. Raw magic let loose in the world will take the form of fire and burn itself out: fortunately few magicians can call enough power that uncontrolled magic could do much more than start a campfire.

"For most magicians it is the gathering of magic that is the most difficult. Containing it and making it follow one's will is generally a matter of memorizing a spell or two, although a large amount of raw magic is more difficult to shape then a smaller amount.

"The ae'Magi has developed a way to leach energy so that he can use it to hold open the magical channels longer than he otherwise could have. He has greatly increased the amount of power that he can capture at any one time, making him stronger than any wizard living."

"You said that it works this way for most magicians, not for you?" asked Aralorn.

"Quick, Lady, very quick." His yellow eyes caught hers like a bird of prey. He seemed a stranger to her, hostile almost.

Aralorn set her chin and stubbornly refused to let herself feel threatened. "How does it work for you?" She rephrased her question.

Suddenly he relaxed and she had the feeling that if she could see behind his mask he would be smiling. "I forget sometimes how difficult it is to intimidate you. Very well then, yes, it is different for me.

"When I started working magic, it wasn't obvious at first that I was different. It wasn't until I started working the more powerful spells that the difference made itself felt. Most magicians are limited by the magic that they can draw into themselves; I am limited more by the amount of magic I can shape into a spell.

"I suspect that the ae'Magi, who was my teacher, knew long before I did, as I lacked anyone with whom to compare myself. The ae'Magi doesn't take on many apprentices. When I was ten or eleven, the ae'Magi decided to try to use me to gather more power. He had me gather all the magic that I could so that he could use it."

Wolf fell silent. Aralorn waited for a minute and then asked, "Something happened?"

Wolf made a sound that could have been a laugh. "Yes, something happened. Either the method that he was trying to use wasn't successful or he wasn't ready for the amount of power I drew, but before he could do anything I destroyed most of the tower that we were in. The stones were melted. I don't know how he managed to keep us alive, but he did.

"It was three months before I could bring myself to collect enough magic to light a candle." He paused for a minute, collecting his thoughts.

Aralorn waited patiently for him to continue or not, as it suited him. He had told her more about himself in the last five minutes than he'd told her in the four years she'd known him. If he chose to stop, she wasn't going to push him.

In time he began again. "He began to experiment with drawing power from others. Not with me, because that first experiment had proved such a disaster. It was during these experiments that he found that with the aid of certain rituals – rituals forbidden even before the Wizard Wars – he could use the power of untrained magic-users, especially children. They don't have the defenses that others do." He stopped again, his golden eyes bleak.

"For a long time I helped him," he continued finally, his sepulchral, emotionless voice making it sound as if he were telling the story about someone else, "even though I knew what he was. I used dark magic. I worked his will and gloried in the power and the madness of it. I knew what he was and hated him and myself, but it didn't matter. He has a magnetism that binds as solidly as iron."

His hands gripped the table until they were white-knuckled, giving the lie to his passionless voice. "I don't know exactly when it was that I began questioning what we were doing."

He released his grip on the table abruptly, and when he spoke again Aralorn thought he was changing the subject. "When I was young, the passages of the Magician's castle fascinated me. I wandered through them for hours, sometimes. There are places in the passages that haven't seen human hands for generations.

"About a year before I left the castle, I found an abandoned library; it fascinated me. Almost everything that I had read before I found the library were grimoires and the like. The books in the little room were of another ilk entirely. Someone had collected books about people – histories, biographies, myths and legends. I learned from what I read." He hesitated. "What I learned made my current occupation … distasteful. So I left. Departing the castle was easy enough; but changing what I am has proven to be much more difficult."

She could tell by the stiffness of his body that he was hurting and decided to lighten the mood. "If you change into one of those zealots who give everything they have to the poor and go around all the time telling everyone else to do the same, I will feed you to the Uriah myself."

She startled a reluctant laugh out of him and he shook his head in mock reproof. "You ought to watch what you say around me. I might forget that I have repented of my evil ways and turn you into something really nasty."

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