Masques (Sianim #1)

Chapter 7



The wolf leapt neatly over the small stream that hadn't been there the week before and landed in the soft mud on the other side. The moon's light revealed other evidence of the recent storm – branches bent and broken from the weight of a heavy snowfall; long grass lying flattened on the ground. The air smelled sweet and clean, washed free of heavy scents.

Knowing that the camp was near, Wolf increased his speed to a swift lope despite his tiredness. He reached the edge of the valley and found it barren of people. He felt no alarm. Even if the storm hadn't driven them to the caves, the meltwater from the heavy snow that turned most of the valley bottom to marsh would have.

With a snort he started down the valley side nearest where he had made his private camp. He decided to stop there and get his things before going on to the caves. Aralorn's bedroll was gone, but his was neatly folded and dry under its oilcloth cover.

He muttered a few words that he wouldn't have employed had there been anyone to see, and took on his human form. Wearily he stretched, more than half inclined to stay where ho was for the night and join the others in the morning.

He'd always been solitary by nature. As a boy and while an apprentice, he'd spent time alone as often as he could manage. He had become adept at finding places where no one would look. When he left his apprenticeship behind him, he'd taken wolfshape and run into the wilds of the Northlands, escaping from himself more than the ae'Magi. He had avoided contact with people because, after he'd been alone in the woods for a while, they'd made him as uncomfortable as he made them. He hadn't seen a human in months when he had been caught by that stupid trap.

He would have eluded it easily (it hadn't been well hidden), but he'd taken sick the day before and was half delirious from fever. Between fever and pain of the metal jaws, he'd been unable to spring the trap by himself. By the time that Aralorn had found him, he'd been more dead than alive.

He left when he was able to do so, but he didn't go very far. Aralorn fascinated him; he'd never met anyone so content. On impulse he'd returned to her – though the attraction he felt for her made him nervous.

Absently Wolf moved his bedroll with the toe of his boot. He made a sound that was not humorous enough to be a laugh. He'd been running away from and to Aralorn for a long time. She had caught him in a spell, and he hadn't even known that she was weaving one.

He'd told himself that he was a disinterested observer at first. It was a woeful attempt. No one, but no one, could be objective around Aralorn. She was always doing something; and somehow she managed it so that everyone else was involved too. She had a way of finding the ridiculous in everything. It had been a long time since laughter had made Wolf feel anything but repulsed – the ae'Magi laughed so easily.

Needing someone made him very uncomfortable. He didn't remember ever needing someone before. It wasn't until he'd found out that Aralorn was spying on the ae'Magi that he knew how much she meant to him. Even the thought of her there made him shake with remembered rage and fear.

He wasn't quite certain when his interest had turned to need. He needed her to let him laugh, to be human and not a flawed creation of the ae'Magi. He needed her trust so that he could trust himself. Most of all he needed her touch. Even more than laughter, he associated touch with the ae'Magi – a warm hand on his shoulder (cut it so, child), an affectionate hug (it won't hurt so much next time …) – Aralorn was a tactile person too, but her touch didn't lie. It made him uncomfortable to feel her hands on him, but he craved it anyway.

He picked up the bedroll and finished his descent into the valley, since it was the shortest way to the caves. When he arrived at the valley floor, even his dulled human nose caught the scent. Uriah.

Alert now, he looked around him and noticed the signs of hasty packing as well as the fact that the tents (including the one that Myr had worked so hard to get finished) were torn into pieces by something other than the wind. He jogged into the main camp to get a closer took. Here the scent was stronger and everywhere were signs of anger vented on inanimate objects.

Human bones were conspicuously absent, and he felt a faint sense of relief. Myr must have had enough warning to get the camp into the caves. As long as the Uriah hadn't been within sight when the people entered the caves, the wards would keep the entrances hidden from the Uriah.

Wolf started once more for the caves when he saw something white in the drying mud. Curious, he investigated and found a horse's skeleton. To his relief, it was too small to be Sheen.

It was picked clean, with only a wisp of mane to distinguish it. The leg bones had been cracked so that all the marrow could be sucked out. It wasn't until he noticed the distinctive patterns on the silver bit that lay nearby that he knew that Aralorn had been riding the horse.

He found another pile of bones, also picked clean, fifteen or twenty paces away. They all had the peculiar twists of the Uriah. He found three skulls – she'd accounted for three of them. He had hoped that if he looked long enough, he would find her among the dead – something inside him laughed mockingly at the thought.

He left his bedroll forgotten among the ruins of the camp and took wolf shape to run toward the caves. On the way there he found the pitiful remains of a small child; a dirty battered dolt lay nearby. Astrid – he remembered the doll. He knew then why Aralorn had confronted the Uriah. Rage sang in his blood. He restrained it with a pale sense of duty and the faint hope that Myr would know something to help his search, and continued rapidly to the caves.

He planned quickly as he ran so that he wouldn't think too much on other things. He was conscious of a numbness that crept over him, covering hot rage with a thin coating of ice.

The furious arguments were audible even before he entered the darkness of the cave.

"Silence!" Myr's voice cracked with tiredness, but its power was still enough that it stopped the bickering. "There is nothing that we can do. Aralorn and Astrid are gone. I will not send out parties to be picked off two at a time by the Uriah. We will wait here until I am satisfied that they are gone. Even if Aralorn and Astrid were still alive, even if our whole party went down to the camp and found them prisoners of the Uriah, it wouldn't matter. We could not take them."

Wolf stopped in the shadows of the entrance to the great cavern. Myr stood in front of him, facing the main room so that Wolf had a clear view of Myr's profile. The light from the torch revealed the tired lines of his face. "It wouldn't matter because four Uriah could destroy all of us, however we were armed. They would kill us and we'd be lucky if we killed one of them. Aralorn knew that when she went out looking for Astrid. She stood a better chance than any of us because she has dealt with them before. Had I known what she was doing, I would have stopped her, but I didn't. I will, however, stop any of you who try to leave now. When the sun comes up I will look."

"Afraid of the dark, princeling?" A swarthy man stepped out of the crowd. His face was unfamiliar, so he must have arrived after Wolf left. He was an aristocrat, from his clothes – less impressed with the boy-king than the peasants were.

Wolf spoke then from the darkness of the entryway. "As you should be. If I were him, I would send you out on your own to find out what happens to fools in the dark." Wolf stepped to the left of Myr, clearly revealed in the light of the torch. When he was sure that all eyes were upon him, he took his human form with all the theatrics that even the ae'Magi could have used. Masked and cloaked, he stood with a hand on his glowing staff that made Myr's torch look like a candle. "As it happens, it is unnecessary for anyone to go out.

"Astrid is dead." Wolf pitched his voice so that it carried to everyone in the room without echoing. "I found her remains us well as those of the horse that Aralorn was riding. I found no trace of Aralorn's body. I suspect that she is a prisoner of the ae'Magi." He could tell from their reaction that most of them hadn't realized that this attack too had been engineered by the ae'Magi. He couldn't work up the effort to care. "He will concentrate on her until he finds out where we are now. To break Aralorn, he will have to do the questioning himself; she is too well trained for conventional methods to work. He will probably not consider this an urgent matter – he is too busy ferreting out the locations of other magic-users in Reth. He may give Aralorn enough time to find a way to kill herself."

He paused and continued in a disinterested voice, this time speaking directly to Myr. "My advice is for you to stay here for now. It is probably quite safe for you to go out for a while yet. The ae'Magi won't expect you to be this close to the original camp. If I am not back in a fortnight it would be best for you to move on." Wolf started to leave but turned back. "I would find a way to block off the paths that I didn't map for you so that no one is hurt or lost. You could follow these caves for a hundred miles if you wanted to." He left then, as quietly as he came in.

HE KNEW ALL THE AE'MAGI'S CASTLES, EVEN THOSE ACQUIRED after he'd left. He had made a point of exploring each of them, partially to see if he could, but also because he might find that he needed the knowledge. Even as he had done so, he'd been amused that Aralorn's passion for information had passed on to him. Now he was grateful for the habit.

First he went, traveling by magic, to the Archmage's Castle since it was the ae'Magi's preferred residence as well as the closest one to the camp – about four days' ride. He took the time to see if the ae'Magi was in residence, not that it would have kept Wolf out if he had been. He searched the dungeon twice, certain that she would be there, but he didn't see her among the pitiful captives of the ae'Magi, He looked through the castle, even the stables, but saw no sign of her anywhere. Then he continued on to the next hold.

He searched through the night and all the next day, even the royal palace of Reth and the small cottage in which the ae'Magi had been born. Finally he had to admit defeat. He thought that she must have been able to kill herself, because he found no trace of her anywhere that the ae'Magi was remotely connected with. For lack of anything better to do, he returned to the caves.

ARALORN TRAVELED OUT OF THE NORTHLANDS ON THE BACK of the Uriah who had captured her – she would not think of it as Talor. The smell of the thing at this close range was debilitating, and she was glad enough for the cold that stuffed up her nose. She had been stripped of her weapons with ruthless efficiency and bound hand and foot. The constant jostling of the thing's shoulder in her midriff was giving her a headache that made it difficult to think clearly.

They stopped when they were out of the mountains and dumped her ignominiously face-down on the ground. By turning her face to the side she could see them moving restlessly, snarling irritably at each other. For the most part they ignored her, but she received enough hungry looks that she tried to make herself as inconspicuous as possible. She tried shapechanging once when nothing was paying attention to her, but the pain in her head kept distracting her.

She was concentrating for another attempt, but this time the distraction came in the form of a thud originating just out of her field of view. One by one the Uriah dropped to the ground; only the glitter of their eyes gave indication that they were not asleep – or dead.

"Sst. Filthy things. Why he uses them I cannot imagine," The voice was a light tenor, speaking Rethian with a high-court accent. Her position on the ground limited her field of view, but she could see the elegant shoes topped by the embroidered stockings of a true dandy.

"So," the soft voice continued, "you are the prisoner the ae'Magi is so anxious to get." She was pushed over on her side by a magical shove and got her first look at the magician. His face was handsome enough, although overpowered by the purple wig he affected. She didn't, know him by sight, but his ability to immobilize an army of Uriah and his dress let her put a name to him: Lord Kisrah, a minor noble whose abilities had been invaluable to Myr's grandfather in the last war. Her father told her once that he was a competent tactician and diplomat, high praise from a man who despised the courtier type.

"Not very much of you, is there? From all the fuss the ae'Magi is putting up over you, I had expected more – although you would clean up well enough, I suppose. It is too had that you chose to attack the ae'Magi in such treasonous fashion." He shook his head sadly at her, and she noticed with shock that his eyes were kind. "Get set now. I'm going to transport you to the ae'Magi's castle. I don't like transporting humans, it's too hard on them. But the ae'Magi is concerned about Prince Myr. It's not right to take advantage of a man whose mind is turned by grief, and we need to get to him as soon as possible." He rubbed his hands together a minute in preparation. "The ae'Magi is much better at this thing than I am, but he is busy with other matters, so I will have to do."

His magic hit her body with enough force that she almost passed out. She hit a hard stone floor, sweating and coughing. If she wasn't careful she was going to die of lung-fever before the magician could get his hands on her. She laughed at the thought, bringing on another fit of coughing.

Ungentle hands grabbed her upper arms with bruising strength, but the man grunted as he picked her up – she was a lot heavier than she looked. It had been daylight outside, so the gloominess of the torchlit stone walls and her hair, which had come undone from its customary braid and now hung over her face, rendered her effectively blind.

She was stripped with ruthless efficiency. To take her mind off what that meant, she tried to recapture a stray thought she'd had just before Lord Kisrah had sent her over. She had a vague notion that it might be important. Her aching head didn't want to cooperate.

"Look, here, Garogue, she ain't as small as she looks!" Rough laughter and comments she would have felt better not hearing as a second guard neared.

Think, Aralorn, she told herself. I was relieved that … that I had not met Lord Kisrah before. Her face felt hot and tight, in spite of the coolness of the stone under her feet. Lord Kisrah would not recognize me as the Lyon's daughter. She waited a minute before the significance of that thought hit her. I have, however, met the ae'Magi as the Lyon's daughter. He was intrigued with the color of my eyes – my shapeshifter blood.

Gods, she thought bleakly, if he realizes who I am, he can use my father against me.

While the guards were preoccupied she tried again to change. Not a drastic change this time, just an adjustment to her face and eyes. Her features sharpened until they were as common to Rethian peasant stock as her medium brown eyes. With a bit more effort, her skin darkened to add authenticity.

"Too bad we can't do nothin' with her but look." A calloused hand ran over her hip.

"Yup, don' you ever think nothing else. Just you remember what happened to Len. He thought the ae'Magi wouldn't ever know. Besides, we usually get a turn at 'em."

She was dragged forward again, her exhaustion making her more of a dead weight than before. Her head contacted the stone wall when she was swung over a broad shoulder.

"Yawan! They sure grow these Northerners heavy!" More laughter, but by then Aralorn was beyond caring.

IT WAS LATE NIGHT WHEN WOLF RETURNED TO THE CAMP. HE expected everyone to be asleep. Instead he came upon Myr seated on a rock in front of the caves and polishing Aralorn's sword by the light of the moon.

"Where did you find it?" Wolf asked. Startled, Myr leapt to his feet, holding the sword at ready.

Seeing Wolf, Myr resumed his former position on the rock. "Oh, it's you, Wolf. No luck?" Myr didn't need to see Wolf's nod to know that Aralorn had not been found; the Wolfs posture was evidence enough.

Myr held the blade up to the light. "I found it in a small cave off the entranceway this evening. Someone had made an attempt to clean it but they didn't do a very good job. I suppose that one of the children found it, and left it there when he realized what it was. I couldn't sleep, so I thought I'd clean it – no sense letting a good sword rust."

"No," agreed Wolf, lying down facing Myr with his muzzle on his paws.

After a while Myr asked, "Where did you look?"

So Wolf told him: it took some time. Myr listened, running the soft cloth over the odd-colored blade. When Wolf was done, Myr thought for a minute.

"How did you look for her? I mean, did you just look? Couldn't a shapeshifter change her shape and escape?"

Wolf shook his head. "Once she's in the dungeons, she wouldn't be able to change. The bindings in the dungeons are all cold iron."

"Iron does suppress magic?" Myr said, only half asking.

"Green magic, yes."

The night was still except for the noise the soft cloth made on the sword. Then Myr said, "I'd met her once before, did you know that? It took me a while before I could pin down just where, because I was only, hmm, seven? A more pompous, self-centered, proper little brat than I was you'd be hard pressed to find. At the time I didn't realize exactly who she was, but she had the same mannerisms. Equal with anybody and observing protocol only because it suited her. I was offended, but my grandfather laughed and kissed her hands and said something about counting on her to liven up a dull reception."

There was a brief pause before he continued with his story. "You have to understand that I've been raised reading people's faces all my life. I saw that she really respected the tough old man, and the lack of sincerity in her manners was merely dislike for the untruths that protocol demanded. It was a lesson that I took to heart." Myr paused, absently noting that the blade was almost clean.

Myr set the sword aside and said, "What I'm getting to is this: the ae'Magi was at court a lot in those days. My grandfather thought the world of him. If I met Aralorn at court, wouldn't he have? She's not … pretty, but she is memorable."

Wolf caught his breath sharply during Myr's comment and said a filthy word. "She would be much more conscious of that than we are, so if it occurred to us, then it occurred to her too. Knowing who she is would allow him to use her family as a lever against her. With that in mind, she would do her best to make herself unrecognizable. How long is it since she was taken?"

"Four days."

Finally the Wolf spoke again. "She's in one of the dungeons, obviously – otherwise she would have escaped. I think that it is probably the first place I looked – in the Archmage's Castle. When I searched the last few castles, I was thorough – I had gone too quickly at first. She doesn't have much time; the dungeon masters in his keeps are not renowned for their gentle treatment of the prisoners – to say nothing of the ae'Magi himself. She should be safe from him, though; he's got other concerns that are more important."

Wolf paused to think before he continued. "If she's not there, I'll come back here to check in with you. If she escapes, this is the only sanctuary that she has to come to." On those words, the Wolf melted into the forest shadows, leaving the young king sitting on his rock.

"MYR HAS A MAGICIAN WITH HIM. WHAT DOES HE LOOK like?" The ae'Magi's voice was really extraordinary, thought Aralorn. Soft and warm, it offered sanctuary – but she knew those tones, and terror cat-footed toward her.

But not even that fear, combined with the cuts he was making on her arm, was enough to hold her attention for long. The pain from centuries of magic woven tightly into the stones of the dungeons made what he was doing to her body seem surreal. She wondered if she ought to tell him that if he used iron manacles in the torture chamber as well as in the cell that she would be much more aware of what he was doing; the iron blocked her meager talents from picking up on the twisted magic that a thousand years of magicians had left in the stone of the dungeon.

A bucket of cold water brought her attention back to her body. It felt good against her hot skin at first, but then the chill made her shake helplessly. In a rational moment she smiled; the lung-fever would take her soon, in a few days, if she could just hide it from him so that he wouldn't turn her into one of the dead things that hung restlessly in her cell. She'd been grateful when she'd lost her sight and she didn't have to look at them anymore – if only she could do something about hearing them.

He wasn't using magic on her as he had the first time she'd visited his castle. Maybe the dungeon inhibited his magic as well – or maybe he was using all his magic for something else.

BAFFLED, THE AE'MAGI LOOKED AT THE PATHETIC FIGURE hanging in front of him. He had seen her smile while he was cutting her, and it bothered him. She wasn't one of those who enjoyed pain; she didn't seem to even feel it. Torture wasn't working on her.

She seemed confused sometimes, though. Perhaps stealth could get him what pain could not.

"Sweetheart, sweetheart, listen to me," said Myr's voice, his tones as gentle as a young man could make them.

Aralorn jerked in reflex at the voice.

"Sweetheart, I know that you hurt. I've come to get you out of here, but you need to tell me where Cain is. We need him to get you out."

She frowned and said in a puzzled voice, "Cain?"

"Yes," said Myr; she heard a touch of anger in the voice now. "Where is Cain?"

Myr wouldn't be angry with her. The certainty came from somewhere. She should know who Cain was, though, and it bothered her that she didn't. That didn't mean that she wanted the person who had stolen Myr's voice to know that.

"Dead," she said then, with utter certainty. Somewhere a part of her applauded the edge of melancholy she gave to her voice. "He is dead and gone."

That hadn't occurred to him, it simply hadn't occurred to him. The ae'Magi paced the length of the chamber. It wasn't possible. Angrily he stripped off the gloves he'd fastidiously donned to separate him from her filthy flesh.

It would ruin everything if his son were dead. All his efforts would be for nothing. He raised the knife to her throat and then thought better of it. Turning on his heel, he stalked out of the chamber. As he passed through the guardroom he left orders to have her moved back into her cell and, as an afterthought, told the dungeon master that if he could find out where the rebels were hiding now, he would give him a silver piece.

THE MASTER MAGICIAN'S CASTLE WAS OVER A THOUSAND years old, and the result of those years on the dungeon was not lovely. The smell made Wolf choke as he slunk into it from the hidden entrance. Magic had taken him to the castle, but he'd been forced to use mundane methods to enter.

No one saw him as he emerged. The night guards were in the room that was the only passageway from the main dungeon, other than the hidden ones, of course. There was no need for their presence in the actual dungeon, unless they were escorting a captive to or from the cells.

He stood on a wide stone walkway, in human shape. On one side were seven cells, sunken the depth of a grave, in the old style. On the other side was the torture chamber, also so sunken. It was unoccupied at the moment. The only hint of life came from the smoldering coals in the raised hearth in the center of the cells.

There was no light in the dungeon other than Wolf's staff, but it was sufficient. The ring of keys was still kept on its holder near the guardroom door for convenience's sake.

He slid the nearest door open and stepped in. The prisoners watched him with fear, hatred, or indifference. He took wolfshape because of the wolf's sharper senses and immediately regretted the necessity. The smells of a dungeon were bad enough to a human nose, but the Wolf's eyes were watering as he backed out of the eel!. She wasn't in there. He found the same at the second and third cells.

In the last cell, chained corpses littered the floor and hung on the wall like broken dolls, but they moaned and breathed with the pseudo-life that animated Uriah, They watched him with glittering eyes as he shifted again to wolfshape to sample the air. She was here. Back in human form again, he waded through the corpses, indifferently pulling free when one caught at his foot.

He found her at last. Her skin was darker and her face was different, but she was muttering to herself, and it was her voice; her scent under the filth. Her breathing was hoarse and difficult, breaking into heavy coughing when he shifted her against him to take off the irons. He swore softly at the wounds they left on her ankles and wrists.

Gently he picked her up, ignoring the smell of dungeon that clung to her. He stepped over the huddled bodies of her fellow inmates with no more attention than if they had been bundles of straw. Although he had no hands free to carry it, the staff followed him like an obedient dog.

As he closed the cell door and locked it again, he heard voices in the main guardroom. Swearing softly under his breath, he moved back into the shadows. The secret door he'd entered through was a crawl space, too narrow to get through quickly with Aralorn unable to move on her own.

He touched the mask with his staff and it disappeared. A brief moment of concentration, and the scars followed.

Trying to avoid causing her any further hurt, he positioned Aralorn on his shoulder, holding her in place with one hand and letting the other hang carelessly free. The staff disappeared, leaving only its light behind.

The sound of the inner door opening left the guards scrambling for their weapons, until they saw who it was that stood there.

Wolf carelessly tossed the keys on the rough-hewn table, where they left a track in the greasy build-up as they slid. When he spoke, it was with the ae'Magi's hated voice, soft and warm with music.

"I think that it would be wiser from now on for the guard in charge to keep the keys on his person. It is too easy for someone to enter the dungeon by other paths. There is no reason that we should make it any easier to get into the cells than it already is."

Without looking at the men again he walked to the far door, which obediently opened to let him through and closed after him. The wide staircase that led to the upper floors stretched in front of him, leaving but a narrow space against the wall, supposedly to allow access to the area under the stairs that was sometimes used for storage. It was this path that he took, ducking as he moved under the stairway.

He needed no light; most wizards see well in the dark and he better than most. Unerringly he touched the exact spot that triggered the hidden door. As he stepped through he whispered a soft spell, and the dust under the stairs rearranged itself until it looked as it had before he had walked there.

With the stone door shut behind him, the passage was as dark as pitch, and there was little light for even his eyes to pick out. Tiny flecks of illumination that found their way through openings in the mortar made the towering walls glitter like the night sky. Their presence gave ample warning against lighting the way – lest someone in a dark room on the other side of the wall witness the same phenomenon.

Wolf kept one hand against a wall and the other securely around Aralorn and felt the ground ahead with his feet. He slowed his progress when a pile of refuse he kicked with his foot bounced down an unseen stairway. With a grim smile that no one could see, he started blindly down the stairs.

There were shuffling noises as rats and other less savory creatures scrambled anonymously out of his way. Once he almost lost his footing as he stepped on something not long dead. A growling hiss protested his encroachment on dinner.

Only when they reached the last of the long flight of steps did he decide they were far enough down that he dared a light. The floor was thick with dust; only faint outlines showed where he had disturbed the dust the last time he'd been here several years before, raiding one of the hidden libraries.

Content that the passage had remained undiscovered, Wolf walked to a blank wall and sketched symbols in the air before it. The symbols hung glowing orange in the shadows until he was finished; then they shimmered and moved until they were touching the wall. The wall glittered in its turn before abruptly disappearing – opening the way to still another obscure passage, deep in the rock under the castle. He continued for some time, twisting his way this way and that through passages once discovered by a lonely boy seeking sanctuary.

Twice he had to change his route because the way he remembered was too small for him to take carrying Aralorn. Once the passage was blocked by a recent cave-in. Several of the corridors showed signs of recent use, and he avoided them as well. They surfaced finally from the labyrinth, several miles east and well out of easy view of the castle.

He shifted her from his shoulder then, cradling her in his arms though she was harder to carry that way. There was nothing that he could do until they reached safer ground, so he trod swift of foot through the night-dark forest, listening intently for sounds that shouldn't he there.

He wished that he hadn't had to show himself, because now, after all of his caution, it was going to be obvious that he was mixed up with Myr's group. The ae'Magi had been seeking him for a long time. Now the attacks on Myr's camp were going to intensify. There was no way that they could withstand the ae'Magi's direct attention.

It was possible that the guards wouldn't mention the incident to the ae'Magi – but it was always better to be prepared for the worst. He was going to have to stage his confrontation with the Archmage soon. He hoped now that he had the name of the apprentice, he could find the way to dispel the magic.

He wasn't looking forward to the coming battle. Old stories of the Wizard Wars, Aralorn could tell them by the hour, spoke of battles of pure power between one magician and another – the great glass desert, over a hundred square miles of blackened glass, gave mute evidence of the costs of such battles. If he, with his strange mutations of magic, ever got involved in a battle on those terms, the results could be far worse.

It might be far better to let the magician extend his power. Even the best magicians live only three to four hundred years, and the ae'Magi was well into his second century. Expending his power the way that he was now, even taking into account the energy he stole, would take years off his life. A hundred years of tyranny was better than the destruction of the earth.

The glass desert had been fertile soil once.

He walked until well after the sun rose, following no visible trail – losing them in the wilds as best he might. He stopped when they reached the cache he'd set up on his way here, far enough off the trails that they should be safe for a while.

He opened the bedroll awkwardly, unwilling to set her on the hard ground, and gently placed her on the soft blankets. His arms were cramping and sore from carrying her, so he had to stretch a bit before he did anything else.

Her darker skin hid the flush of fever, but it was hot and dry to his touch. Her breathing was hoarse and he could hear the fluid in her lungs. He rolled the second blanket up and stuffed it under her head to help her breathe. Efficiently, gently, he cleaned her with spell-warmed water.

On the dark skin it should have been more difficult to see the bruises, but her skin was grey from illness – revealing the darker patches. Some were obviously old, probably from her initial capture. But fresh bruises overlaid the old ones.

Three ribs were either broken or cracked; he wasn't well enough trained in healing to tell the difference. The ribs and a large lump on the back of her head seemed the worst of her wounds – both were more likely the result of her initial capture than any torture.

Her fingernails had been removed, swollen knuckles revealing the violence of the method used to pull them. The toes on her right foot were broken, the smallest torn off completely. She had been whipped with efficiency from the top of her shoulders to the backs of her knees. But these would heal in a few weeks, except of course for the misplaced toe.

He pulled out the bag of simples that he had brought with him. He wasn't a healer by any means, but he'd picked up enough to bind her wounds.

When he was through cleaning her back, he covered it with a mold paste and wrapped the bandage around tight enough to help her ribs. He splinted the toes and cleaned and bandaged her ankles, hands and wrists.

It was while he was working on her wrists that he noticed the large sore where the inner side of her arm had been skinned. He stilled, then very gently covered the sore with ointment and wrapped it.

It was one of the ae'Magi's favorite games. The inner arm was tender, and a man who was skilled with a skinning knife could cause significant pain without incapacitating his victim. The ae'Magi usually did something extremely nasty first to "soften" the victim.

Carefully Wolf opened Aralorn's mouth and examined the inside of her cheek, the roof of her mouth, under her tongue, and her teeth. Nothing. He looked inside her ear and said a few soft words of magic. Nothing. As he turned her head to look at her other ear, something sparkled in the sun. Her eyes.

Carefully Wolf held her face in the sunlight and examined her eyelids. They were both, on careful examination, slightly swollen, but it was the seepage that told the real story.

He held his open hand several inches over her eye and murmured another spell. When he look his hand away, he held four long, slender, steel needles, barbed like a fisherman's hook. The needles were sharp enough that they slid in with little pain, but every time the eye moved the sharpened edges of the needle cut a little more. They were not the expensive silver needles, but the cheaper iron-based steel – made primarily for coarser work.

He looked at them for a minute and they melted, leaving his hand undamaged. As he removed them from her other eye, he wished passionately, and not for the first time in his life, that he knew more.

True healing was one of the first things taught to a shapeshifter, but for a human magic-user it was one of the last arts learned. Increasing the efficacy of herbs was the best he knew. He doubted that in this case even a shapeshifter could heal her eyes – he seemed to remember something about wounds made with cold iron being more difficult than others. He put her in a soft cotton shirt that reached to her thighs. For lack of a better idea, he put a cold compress over her eyes and bound it tightly in place.

He had reached the end of his expertise. Tiredly, he covered her with another blanket and lay down next to her, not quite touching. He slept.

HER WORLD CONSISTED OF VAGUE IMPRESSIONS OF VISION AND sound. She saw people she knew, strangely altered. Sometimes they filled her with horror, other times they drew no emotion from her at all. There was Talor as he'd been the last time she'd seen him in Sianim – then something happened to him and he was dead, only he was talking to her and telling her things that she didn't want to hear.

Sometimes she floated in a great nothingness that scared her, but not as much as the pain. Her body was a great distance away, and she would pull back as far as she could because she was afraid of what she would find when she returned. Then, like the stretchy lubris rope that children played with, something would snap and she would find herself back in the midst of the pain and heat and terror. Someone screamed; it hurt her ears and she wished they would stop.

THIS TIME HER RETURN WAS DIFFERENT. BESIDES BEING HOT, she was also wet and sticky. The pain was dimmed to bearable levels; even the ache in her side was less. There was something that attracted her attention and she concentrated, trying to figure out what it was. It had called her back from her nothingness into somewhere she'd much rather not be. She decided in a moment of pseudo-rationality that she needed to find it and kill it so she could be free to go away.

She looked for it in her dreams, and fragments of memory touched her. There was something terribly wrong with her eyes. Cold iron whose wounds were permanent. It had bitten and chewed and …

She shied away and found another piece of memory. Magic horribly distorted and twisted, making dead men breathe. It frightened her. There was no safety in death here, and she wanted the sanctuary that death should offer. Then the cold iron cut off her awareness of the dead things that shared her space. She had never felt so helpless; it gave her a dispirited claustrophobia that made her strain repeatedly against the bonds, until she exhausted herself. Bonds that most well-trained, full-blooded shapeshifters could have gotten out of, but she had all the weaknesses and too little power.

There … while she was fighting … she almost had it. The thing that had pulled her back and made her hurt again, it was sound, a familiar sound. Why should that bother her?

She was so tired. She was losing her concentration, and pictures came more rapidly until she was lost in her nightmare memories again.

THEY'D BEEN CAMPED IN THE SAME PLACE FOR THREE DAYS. IT worried him because they were much too close to the ae'Magi's castle, but the thought of moving her worried him more. Instead of getting better since being out of the cell, she seemed worse. Her eyes were seeping with the pus of infection. Her fever was no higher, but it was no lower either. Her breathing was more difficult, and when she coughed he could tell that it hurt her ribs.

As he watched her, he tormented himself with guilt. Had he been quicker to find her, she would have stood a better chance. The needles had been used on her eyes only recently.

As it did when he was angered, the magic in him flickered fey; nudging him, tempting him. Usually he controlled it, twisting it toward his own ends, but this time he was tired with worry, guilt and sleeplessness. The magic whispered, seducing him with visions of healing.

His eyes closed, without conscious thought he stretched out carefully beside Aralorn. Gently he touched her face, seeing the wrongness there – the slight fracture in the skull that he hadn't been aware of. As he gave control away to the seductive whispers of his magic, he found that he could feel her pulse, almost her thoughts. Sex notwithstanding, this was closer than he'd ever been to another human being. With anyone else he would have lashed out, done anything just to get away – to be safe alone.

But this was Aralorn and he had to heal her, or … he caught a flicker of the desperation of that thought, but was soon lost in the peace of his magic. He floated with it for what could have been a hundred years or a single instant. Gradually the fear of the loss of control, so well learned when his searing magic had leapt out burning, searing, hurting, crept upon him – breaking the trance he'd fallen into.

He opened his eyes and gasped for air. His heart was pounding, and sweat poured off his body. Great shudders racked him. He turned his head enough to look at Aralorn.

The first thing that hit him was that he was looking at Aralorn. The guise she'd donned was gone. The bruises on her legs looked much worse on her own relatively pale skin. Fever brought unnatural color to her pale cheeks.

When he could, he bent over and removed the bandage from her eyes. The swelling had almost completely gone, and her eyes appeared normal when he carefully lifted her eyelids. He felt carefully where he'd seen the break in her skull, but could locate nothing.

Almost too tired to move, he pulled her head on his shoulder and drew blankets neatly around them. He knew he should stay up and keep watch – there was no warhorse to share guard duty with – but he hadn't been this tired since his early apprentice days.

IT WAS MORNING WHEN ARALORN AWOKE, STILL SLIGHTLY delirious. She'd had dreams of the quiet sounds of the forest before, and she let herself take that comfort now. She knew that all too soon she would have to face reality again. The nice thing was that the times reality crept in were getting farther and farther apart.

She thought about that for a minute before she realized that there was a man beside her. Delirium took over then, and she was drowning slowly. It was very hard to breathe, and she lost track of the forest while she strangled.

The soft sounds of a familiar voice lent her comfort and strength, but there was something wrong with the voice. It was too soft; it should be cold and rough, harsher. She associated unpleasant things with the warmer tones. The voice she wanted to hear should be dead like the Uriah, like Talor. She could hear someone whimpering and wondered who it was.

She ate and it tasted very good, salty and warm on her sore throat. She drank something else, and a part of her tasted the bitter herb with approval, knowing that it would help her breathe. Wasn't there some reason that she didn't want to get better – but she couldn't decide why she wouldn't want to get well, and while she thought about it, she drifted back to sleep.

Wolf watched her and waited. Without the unquenchable energy that characterized her she looked fragile, breakable. Awake, she had a tendency to make him forget how small she was.

He raged when she cried out in terror. She was not a mindspeaker, but he had some talent in that direction. Her mind called out to him, out to her father, to no one, almost ceaselessly at times. Although she babbled out loud, she said nothing that would have been any use to the ae'Magi were he listening.

She was quiet finally, and Wolf sat propped up against a tree, near enough to keep an eye on her, but far enough away that he wouldn't disturb her slumbers.

He should never have been able to heal her. Indisputably he had. Even if he did nothing more than eliminate the paths the needles had cut into her eyes, it was more than human magic allowed for. Less dramatic but even further outside the bounds of magic, as he understood it, was the fact that she now wore the appearance that was hers by birth.

He'd always had the ability to do things beyond the generally accepted bounds of human magic – taking wolfshape for extended periods of time was one of those. Before now he could attribute this to the enormous power he wielded. Human magic could heal, but it required a more detailed knowledge of the human body than he had acquired; killing required much less precision. Human magic could not recognize a shapeshifter's natural shape and restore her to it … as he had done.

His magic had blithely crashed though the laws of magic established for thousands of years. What was he that he could do such things?

He found no answers. He'd seen the woman who bore him only once that he could remember. She'd seemed ordinary enough – for a woman who had spent a decade in the ae'Magi's dungeon. But the ae'Magi had got a son on her and kept her alive afterwards. She must have been more than she seemed.

Wolf had been the result of an … experiment, perhaps: one that had gotten out of hand.

Aralorn stirred, catching his attention. He got to his feet with relief at being drawn from his thoughts, and went to her.


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