Masques (Sianim #1)

Chapter 8

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Aralorn was in the habit of waiting until she knew where she was and who she was supposed to be before she opened her eyes – a habit developed from frequently being someone other than herself. For some reason it seemed more difficult than usual. The warm sun on her face seemed as much out of place as the sound of a jay squeaking from its perch somewhere above her.

She moved restlessly and felt a warning twinge from her side that was instantly echoed from various other parts of her body. As a memory aid she found it effective, if crude.

The problem was, she had no idea how she had gotten from the ae'Magi's dungeon to where she was. Deciding that it was unlikely that she would come to any earth-shattering conclusions lying around feigning sleep, she opened her eyes and sat up – an action that she had immediate cause to regret. The abrupt change in position caused her to start coughing – no pleasant thing with cracked ribs. She collapsed slowly back into her prone position and waited for her eyes to quit watering.

Breathing shallowly, she restricted herself to turning her head to examine her current environment. She was alone in a small clearing, surrounded by thick shrubs that quickly gave way to broad-leafed trees. She could hear a brook running somewhere nearby. The sun was high and edging toward afternoon. Mountains rose, not far away, on at least three sides. They were smaller than their Northland counterparts, but impressive enough.

The blankets that Aralorn was more or less cocooned in were of a fine, intricate weave. She whistled softly at the extravagance. Just one of them would cost a mercenary two months' salary, and she was wrapped in two of them with her head pillowed on a third. She should have been too warm, bundled up so heavily – but it felt good.

The bandaging on her hands and wrists was neatly tied and just snug enough to give support without being too tight. Whoever tied them was better at binding wounds than she was – not a great feat. She didn't bother to examine the other bandages that covered her here and there; preferring not to scrutinize her wounds in case too many body parts were missing or nonfunctional.

It occurred to her then that her eyes should belong to the category of missing and nonfunctional items. The method the ae'Magi had used to blind her had been … thorough; enough so that she had not thought that even shapeshifter magic could heal her. The ae'Magi was a master torturer.

She shivered in her blankets. The unwelcome thought occurred to her that it would be possible for a strong magician to create the illusion of this meadow. Much easier than healing her eyes. She looked nervously around, but she was still the only occupant of the clearing.

Somehow, she'd been assuming that Wolf had found a way to get her out of the ae'Magi's dungeon. It was more likely a ploy by the ae'Magi, either to get more information from her, or to toy with her for a while.

Deciding that if it were the ae'Magi who was going to show up, she didn't want to face him lying on her back, so she found a slender tree growing near her head. She pushed herself back until she bumped into it. Gradually, so as not to trigger another coughing spell, she raised herself with its support until she was sitting up with her back against the tree. She waited for a minute, and when she didn't start coughing she slid herself up against the tree until she was standing, more or less.

She didn't hear him until he spoke from behind her. His voice was without its usual sardonic overtones, but it was still blessedly Wolf's. "Welcome back, Lady."

She turned her head with a smile of greeting that left her when she saw his face. Only years of training kept her from giving her fear voice; even that couldn't stop the involuntary step backward that she took. Unfortunately, her feet tangled in the blanket that had covered her and she fell awkwardly.

From her position on the ground she looked up at the ae'Magi's face. He too had stepped back, albeit more gracefully. He raised a hand to his face and then dropped it abruptly. His face emotionless, he waited until she finished coughing and could talk.

Aralorn found herself grateful that she was unable to speak for a minute, because it gave her a chance to think. The ae'Magi's face it might be, but Wolf's yellow eyes glittered at her – as volatile as the face was not. She would not hurt him again by suspicion.

Before she could clear her throat enough to say anything, Wolf spoke softly. "If I thought that you could make it to safety alone, I would leave you in peace. Unfortunately that is not possible. I assure you that I will leave as soon as you are back …"

She ended his speech with a rude word and, assuming as much dignity as she could muster sitting on her rump amidst the tangle of blankets, said hoarsely, "Idiot! Certainly I knew that you were the ae'Magi's son, Cain. Just how many apprentices do you think the ae'Magi has had? I know the name of every one of them, thanks to Ren. How many magicians do you think would have the power to do what you did to Edom? Just how stupid do you think I am?" She paused to catch her breath before continuing. "Why are you always hiding from me? First the wolfshape, then the mask and the scars. Do you distrust me so much?"

"No," said Wolf with a brief touch of laughter in his eyes; not many people would have the courage to attack him like that. Trust Aralorn to do it even when she was so weak she couldn't stand up. "I just had forgotten this." He waved a hand in the general direction of his face. "The scars are legitimate; I acquired them as I told you. It wasn't until I left the service of the ae'Magi that I realized that I could get rid of them the same way that I could take wolfshape. All things considered, I preferred the scars. When I got you out of the dungeon, it was necessary to appear to be the ae'Magi in order to get past the guards. I must have forgotten to resume the scars. I'm sorry; I didn't mean to startle you."

With an expression that wasn't quite a smile Aralorn commented, "When I die of heart failure the next time you frighten me like that, you can put that on my gravestone – 'I didn't mean to startle her.'" As she talked, she looked at him carefully, seeing things that hadn't been apparent, at first. His face was without the laugh lines around the eyes and mouth that characterized the ae'Magi's. There was no grey in the black hair, but the expression in his eyes made him look much older than his father. Wolf's eyes, Wolf eyes they were – with a hunter's cold, amoral gaze.

"Does Myr know who you are?" she asked.

He nodded. "I told him before I offered my assistance. It was only fair that he knew what he was getting into."

There was a slight pause and then Aralorn said, "The ae'Magi asked me about you, about Cain." That much she could remember.

Wolf raised an eyebrow. "What did you say?"

Aralorn raised hers in return. "I told him that you were dead."

"Did he believe you?" he asked.

She shrugged, and started to tug discreetly at the heap of blankets that intermingled with her feet. "At the time he did, but since you chose to rescue me, he'll probably come to the conclusion that I lied to him."

He let her struggle with the blankets until she was through talking and then he said, "Let's get you into a more comfortable position" – he indicated her makeshift hobble with a careless hand – "and back under the covers with you before you catch your death, shall we." His voice was a wicked imitation of one of the healers at Sianim.

Even as he untangled her and restored her makeshift bed to its previous order, she could feel an imp of a headache coming on. "Wolf," she said softly, catching his hand and stilling it, "don't use the scars. You are not the ae'Magi – you don't have to prove it."

He tapped her on the nose and shook his head with mock despair. "Did anyone ever tell you that you are overbearing, Lady?" He resumed his efforts and tucked a pillow behind her head.

"Where are we, and how long have we been here?" It was an effort to keep her eyes open any longer, and her voice slurred as she finished the sentence, ending in a racking cough. As she hacked and gasped for breath, he held her upright. She didn't notice that it helped any, but the feel of his arms around her was pleasant. The hazy thought occurred to her that she'd left Reth to go to Sianim to get away from the feeling of being protected; she didn't think that he'd notice that the last few coughs were suppressed sounds of self-amusement.

He listened to her laughter and chose to ignore it outwardly, knowing that it came from weakness as much as amusement. "We're about a day's brisk walk away from the Master Magician's Castle. We've been here for three days. As soon as you wake up we'll start on our way." He couldn't tell how much of it she heard, but it didn't matter. He'd tell her again when she woke up.

THE NEXT TIME ARALORN REGAINED CONSCIOUSNESS, SHE WAS fed and dressed in a tunic and trousers she recognized as her own before she had a chance to do any more than open her eyes. She was propped up with brisk efficiency beside a tree and told to "stay there." Wolf then piled all of the blankets, clothes and utensils together and sent them on their way with a brisk wave of his staff.

"Where did you get my clothes?" Aralorn asked with idle curiosity from where she sat leaning against a tree.

"From Sianim, where you left them." With efficient motions he was cleaning the area they had occupied until only the remains of the fire would give indication that someone had camped there.

She raised an eyebrow at him, crossed her arms in front of her, and said in a deceptively mild tone, "You mean all the time that I was all but bursting out of the innkeeper's son's clothes, you could have gotten mine for me?"

He grunted without looking at her, but she could see a hint of a smile in his flawless profile.

"I asked you a question," she said in a dangerously soft tone.

"I was waiting for the tunic seams to finally give way …" He paused to dodge the handful of grass she threw at him, and then shrugged. "I am sorry, Lady. It just never occurred to me."

Aralorn tried to look stern, but it turned into a laugh.

Wolf brushed the grass from his shoulders and went back to packing. Aralorn leaned back against her tree and watched him as he worked, trying to get used to the face he wore.

In an odd sort of way he looked more like his father than his father did. The ae'Magi's face was touched with innocence and compassion. Wolf's visage had neither. His was the face of a man who could do anything, and had.

"Can you ride?" he asked, calling her back from her thoughts.

She considered the state of her body. Everything functioned – sort of, anyway. Riding was certainly better than any alternative she could think of. She nodded. "If we don't go any faster than a walk. I don't think that I could sit a trot for very long."

He nodded and said three or four brisk words in a language she didn't know. He didn't bother with the theatrics in front of her. The air merely shimmered around him strangely. Not unpleasant – just difficult to look at, much nicer than when she changed shape. The black horse snorted at her and then shook itself as if it were wet.

She stood up stiffly, trying not to start coughing again. When she could, she walked shakily up to him, grateful to reach the support of his neck. Unfortunately, although Wolf's rendition of a horse wasn't as massive as Sheen, he was as tall, and in her weakened condition she couldn't climb her way up. After her third attempt, he knelt in the dust so that she could slip on his back.

They were following an old trail that had fallen into disuse; the only tracks on it were from the local wildlife. The woods around them were too dense to allow easy travel, but Wolf appeared to know them: when the trail disappeared into a lush meadow, he picked it up again on the other side without having to take a step to the left or right. His gaits, she found, were much smoother than Sheen's, but the motion still hurt her ribs.

To distract herself she thought up a question almost at random. "Where did you find a healer so near the ae'Magi's castle? I don't remember everything, but I do remember getting hit on the head and having something done to my eyes that was … unpleasant." The dust of the road set her coughing. When she could talk again she said, "You got rooked if you paid very much; any healer worth his fee would have taken care of the ribs and cough too."

Wolf twitched his ears and said in an odd tone, even for him, "He didn't have enough time to do much. Even if there had been the time, I wouldn't have trusted him to do more than what was absolutely necessary – he … didn't have the training."

Something felt wrong about his answer. Aralorn had an inkling that she should be paying more attention to the way he phrased his explanation, but she was in too much misery between her ribs and her cough to do much more than feel sorry for herself.

Wolf kept to a walk, trying to make the ride as smooth as possible for her. He could discern that she was in a lot of pain by the way her hands shook in his mane when she coughed, but she made light of it when he questioned her. As the day progressed she leaned wearily against his neck and coughed more often.

He continued until he could stand it no more and then he called a halt at a likely camping area, far from the main thoroughfares and out of sight of the trail they'd been following. Aralorn slid carefully off him and kept sliding until her rump hit the ground.

Wolf regained his human form before making a cushion of evergreen bows and covering the result with the blankets. While Aralorn slept on the makeshift bed. Wolf stood watch, feeling the weight of too many sleepless nights on his eyes.

The night was peaceful, marred only by Aralorn's harsh coughing. It got so bad toward the morning that she finally stood up and started breaking camp, despite the pain in her ribs. Wolf sat her firmly down on the ground with a growl that would have done credit to his wolf-form and finished erasing all traces of their presence.

Dawn's light had barely begun to show before they were on their way.

Once she was sitting up rather than lying down, Aralorn's coughing mercifully eased. It helped that today they were cutting directly through the woods, and there was less trail dust to exacerbate the problem. When her modest herb lore identified some beggar's-blessing on the side of the road, she could look at the day's journey with some equanimity.

The narcotic alleviated the pain of her ribs and some of the coughing, although it did make it a little more difficult to stay on Wolf's back as it interfered with her equilibrium. Several times only Wolf's quick footwork kept her from falling off.

Wolf decided that the giggling was something he could do without, but found that on the whole he preferred it to her silent pain.

Thus the second day of travel was better than the first, and it was the last. When they stopped, Wolf took a good look at Aralorn, pale and dark-eyed from the drug she'd been using. She'd refused food, because beggar's-blessing would make her sick if she ate while under its effects.

The end result was that she was weaker now than she'd been when they started this morning. He had not transported them by magic, because he was afraid that it would be too hard on her, but he didn't think that it could be as severe as trying to continue the way they were. Although it was only four days' ride on a fast horse, at the pace they were holding it would take another eight days to make it to camp.

He donned his human form once again, with his scars, and added the silver mask before he bent and lifted her semiconscious form in his arms. Without a word of warning to her, he transported them into the Northlands.

Transporting people wasn't easy, and it was as hard on the passenger as it was on the magician. It was difficult enough that most magicians preferred travel on horseback or coach rather than by magic, even in the spring when the roads were nothing more than a giant mud puddle. Transporting someone into the Northlands, where human magic had a tendency to go awry, was madness, but the cave where he had brought the merchant was far enough outside the effect of the Northlands that it should be possible. That would leave them with only one day's ride to their camp. Concentrating on the shallow cave, he pulled them to it, but something caught them and jerked them on with enough force to stun Wolf momentarily … He landed on his knees on the hard stone floor of his library.

There was no time for wonder. Aralorn was unconscious. He set her down gently on a leather couch that he used occasionally for sleeping and stroked back the sweat-matted hair, loose from its usual braid. He covered her with his cloak to protect her from the normal chill of the cave and set his claw-footed staff beside her so she would have light if she awoke while he was talking to Myr.

IN THE CASTLE OF THE ARCHMAGE, THE AE'MAGI SAT GENTLY drumming his fingers on the burled wood of his desk. He was not in the best of moods, having tracked an intruder from castle to hold trying to discover who would be foolhardy enough to trespass and powerful enough to get away with it.

The room that he occupied was covered in finely woven carpets. Great beveled windows lined the outside wall behind the desk, bathing the room with a warm golden glow. On the opposite wall was a large, ornate fireplace that sat empty in deference to the warmth of late summer. In front of the fireplace, the pretty blonde girl who was the Master's newest pet combed her hair and looked at the floor. She trembled a bit. A month as his leman had made her sensitive to the ae'Magi's mood, which was vile today.

Facing the desk was one of the dungeon guards; he held his cap deferentially in his hand. He spoke in the low tones that were proper when addressing someone in a position so much higher than his own. He was starting to feel nervous, as the ae'Magi had been silent for some time.

Finally the ae'Magi spoke. "You saw Cain take one of the female prisoners?" he asked, gentle-toned.

"Yes, Lord. I remembered him from when he lived here, but I didn't realize who it was until he'd already gone. Last time I saw him he were all scarred up, but I 'membered meself when he were a tyke he looked a lot like you, sire." The old guard fell pleased with himself for bringing the matter to his lord's attention for, as he told his wife this morning, "My Lord is the best of masters, he's not one to punish a man for a common mistake. It always was difficult to tell the father from the son. Most likely I'll get a promotion for noticing something amiss at all." His wife had spent all that night darning his best uniform for his audience with the Lord.

His wife wouldn't have to darn his uniforms again.

"Clean up the dust and leave me."

Shuddering, the twelve-year-old silk merchant's daughter swept the ashes of the guard into the little shovel that was kept near the fireplace. She left quickly, grateful that someone else had taken the brunt of the Magician's wrath this time.

Alone he sat at the table in his study and tapped at the table even more gently than before.

"So it was Cain helping the boy king. The bitch lied. There are few other sorcerers who could have taken Edom and none that could walk into my dungeon and steal from me. What is worse is that I had the bait to call him into my trap and didn't even know it. He must care greatly about her to risk traipsing in and out of my demesne."

Moodily he took the stopper off the crystal decanter which sat on a corner of his desk and poured amber wine in a glass. He held it up to the light and swirled the liquid, admiring the fine gold color – the same shade as Cain's eyes. He tipped the glass and drank it dry.

"There are, however, some compensations, my son. I know that you are actively working against me. You cannot remain invisible if you ready yourself to attack, and I will find you. Maybe you have already made that mistake. I know that you have a weakness for this girl, and I do have a source of information on her. She will make it possible for me to use you for my purposes."

He whispered a minor summoning spell and waited only a short time before he was answered by a knock on the door. At his call, the Uriah who had once been Talor entered the study.

"You told me that you were familiar with the girl you look from Myr's campsite," the ae'Magi said.

The Uriah bowed his head in assent.

"Tell me about her. What is her name? Where do you know her from?" The problem with Uriah, the ae'Magi had found, was that communication was not all that it could be. Information could only be gotten with detailed questions, and even then a vital fact could be left out.

"She is called Aralorn – I knew her in Sianim," it replied.

"What did she do in Sianim?"

The Uriah shrugged carelessly. "She taught quarterstaff. Trained horses. She did some work for Ren, the Spymaster, I don't know how much."

"She worked as a spy?" The ae'Magi pounced on it.

"She never came out and said so. Most of us did some work for Ren the Mouse at one time or another, but I think, from the number of her unexplained comings and goings that she worked for him more often than most."

"What was she like? What were her strengths and weaknesses?"

The Uriah hesitated. "She is extraordinarily good with disguises. She can blend in anywhere. She is deadly with a quarter-staff or knife. The only other weapon I've seen her use is a sword. She is competent enough, but no expert. She may know a little magic, although she never said anything about it."

"Why do you think that?" The ae'Magi was starting to tense in his chair.

"I saw that wolf of hers when she first found him. He was in rough shape. He was almost healed not a week later. She always claimed that she simply had a way with herbs."

The Magician looked a lot like his son when he let the perpetual smile drop from his face. "You say that she was a healer? That she was good with disguises?" There was a thread of panic in the Magician's voice, the Uriah noted with a touch of satisfaction even as it indicated its agreement with a slight bow.

"Describe her to me."

"She is short and pale-skinned, even with a tan. Brown hair, blue-green eyes. Sturdily built. She moves fast."

The ae'Magi compared the description to the girl in the dungeon and came to an interesting conclusion. "Shapeshifter," he murmured, "You said she had a wolf?"

"Yes."

The ae'Magi remembered abruptly that he'd recently had another escape from his castle. That girl had been aided by a wolf that had killed a pack of the ae'Magi's Uriah.

While the ae'Magi was distracted the Uriah stealthily moved closer to him, hand on sword, fierce craving in its eyes.

"Leave me," the ae'Magi ordered abruptly, backing his command with magic. The Uriah skulked out, growling with frustrated hunger.

Alone, Geoffrey ae'Magi, Lord of the Magicians, set his boots on the finely polished surface of the desk and contemplated the empty fireplace.

ARALORN WAS TOO TIRED TO WAKE UP WHEN THE COVERING was pulled back, letting the cool air sweep over her warm body. She moaned when gentle hands probed her ribs, but felt no urgent need to open her eyes. She heard a soft sound of dismay as her hands were unwrapped. A touch on her forehead sent her back into sleep.

IT WAS THE SOUND OF VOICES THAT WOKE HER THE SECOND time, a few minutes later, much more alert. The nausea that was the usual companion to both beggar's-blessing use and magical travel had dissipated.

She noticed that she was in the library, covered with a brightly colored quilt. A familiar cloak, Wolf's, lay carelessly tossed over the back of the sofa. She started to sit up, only to realize that the clothing scattered on the floor was what she had been wearing. Hastily she pulled the blankets up to her neck to protect her dignity just as Myr came around a bookcase.

"So he did manage to find you," commented Myr with a wide smile. "I see that you're more or less intact after your experience with the ae'Magi's hospitality. I must say, though, that it will be a long time before I loan you any of my clothes again. I didn't bring many with me." The pleasure and relief in his voice was real; she was surprised and not a little flattered that he cared so much about someone he'd known such a short time.

Aralorn smiled back at him and started to say something, but noticed that Wolf, who had followed Myr, was focusing intently on her hands. She followed his gaze to where her hands gripped the top of the blanket. Ten healthy nails dug into the cloth. The beggar's-blessing had left her wits begging too; she hadn't even noticed that she didn't hurt at all.

Aralorn nodded and answered Myr. "Yes. Though he wasn't the best of hosts. I only saw him two or three times the whole time I was there."

Myr perched on the end of the sofa near Aralorn's feel and looked, for once, as young as he was. "And he prides himself on his treatment of guests," he said with a mournful shake of his head. "It doesn't even look like he left you any mementoes."

"Well," said Aralorn, looking at her hands again, "actually he did, but I seem to have lost them." She met Myr's interested look and waved her hands at him. "Last time I looked, my hands were missing the fingernails."

"How is your breathing?" asked Wolf.

Aralorn took a deep breath. "Fine. Is this your healer's work?"

Wolf shook his head. "No, I told you that he was not experienced enough to do more than he did." Wolf glanced at Myr. "I saw a few new people here; are any of them healers?"

"No," replied Myr, disgust rich in his voice, "nor are they hunters, tanners, or cooks. We have six more children, two nobles and a bard. The only one who is of any help is the bard, who is passably good with his knives. The two nobles sit around watching everyone else work or decide to wander out in the main cave system so that a search party has to be sent out."

"You might try just letting them wander next time," commented Wolf.

Myr smiled slowly. "Now there's an idea." Then he shook his head with mock sorrow. "No, it wouldn't work. With my luck they'd run into the dragon and lead it back here."

"Dragon?" asked Aralorn in a startled tone, almost dropping her blanket.

"Or something that looks an awful lot like one. It's been seen by two or three of the hunting parties, although it hasn't seen them yet," replied Myr.

"I guess I must have found its tracks the day I ran into the Uriah – or at least I found the tracks of something big. It was about six miles away and traveling fast. Where have you sighted it?" asked Aralorn.

"East and north, never closer than ten miles. Do you know anything about dragons? Something along the lines of whether or not they eat people would be helpful," said Myr in a hopeful tone, sitting down on one arm of the couch.

"'Fraid not. The only ones that I've heard of are in stories where, for some reason, they seem to only eat virgins chained to rocks. Since I haven't heard of anyplace nearby where there is a steady supply of virgins chained to rocks, I would suppose that it is a safe bet that this one has differing dietary requirements," she answered in a dry tone, and then nodded at Wolf. "Why don't you ask the magical expert around here?"

Wolf shrugged. "The closest that I've ever gotten to one was the one asleep in the cave underneath the ae'Magi's castle. Since it had been asleep for several centuries, I didn't learn much. I thought, though, that it was supposed to be the last of its kind – the reason that it was ensorcelled rather than killed."

"Well," said Myr with a lifted eyebrow, "if this creature isn't a dragon, then it is closely related. I'm not too sure that I'm comfortable with it being so close."

"Maybe it'll eat the nobles that are giving you such a bad time," suggested Aralorn. "You might try chaining them to a rock."

She found that she was starting to get tired, so she leaned back against a cushion and closed her eyes. She didn't sleep but drifted quietly, listening to the others talk quietly. She found it comforting. There was something she wanted to ask. She sat up abruptly when she remembered what it was.

"Astrid," she said, interrupting them in the middle of a discussion on the best method of drying meat. "Did someone find her?"

"I did," replied Wolf, "or what was left of her after the Uriah finished."

Aralorn swallowed, and in a hoarse voice not at all like her own she asked, "Will she …"

"Will she what?" asked Myr.

Aralorn watched her hand as il traced patterns in the quilt and asked in a low voice, "Will she become one of them, now?"

Myr started as if to say something, but held back, wanting to hear Wolf's answer first.

"No," answered the ae'Magi's son. "There is a ritual that must be followed to turn men into Uriah. She was simply eaten."

She spoke in a monotone, still not looking up. "I'd always heard that they were the creation of some long-forgotten magician who left them to infest the Eastern Swamp – protecting something hidden there. I assumed that the ae'Magi just found some way of controlling them."

"He found out how to control them, yes. He also found out how to make them – it was in the same book." Wolf reached casually to a shelf near Myr's head and pulled a thin ratty volume out of a shelf. "This book, as a matter of fact."

Myr looked over Aralorn's bent head to meet Wolf's eyes. "That's why you put the stone over the guard's graves."

Wolf nodded, replacing the book in the shelf. "The runes that Aralorn traced over the bodies, and the fact that Edom hadn't completed the ritual – the heart must be eaten – should ensure that they rest quietly. I just didn't want to take chances."

Aralorn spoke almost to herself. "Talor was one of them. I heard Talor's signal – he was always a little off pitch. I thought that he was caught by the Uriah and needed help." Her hands gripped the quilt with white knuckles although her voice was calm. "I guess that was more or less the case, but there was no way that I could help him."

Scenes she had suppressed whipped violently through her mind like a madman's dream. They were without sound, because a violent blow to her head had set up a buzzing clamor that eclipsed any other sound. There were more faces that she knew, viewed from the thing that had been Talor's back. Twisted and rotted almost beyond recognition she saw the faces of friends, comrades-in-arms.

A sharp sting on her cheek brought her back, shaking and gasping. Wolf sat on the couch beside her, and she buried her head against his shoulder and shuddered dry-eyed, grateful for the firm arms wrapped around her back.

"The worst of it was, he knew me," she whispered. "It was still Talor, but he was one of them. He talked to me, but he looked at me like a farmer looks at dinner after a hard day's work. I didn't even know that Uriah could talk." Then, with difficulty, because she didn't have much practice, she cried.

Myr took Wolf's cloak and covered her back where the quilt left her exposed. He touched her hair a little awkwardly and said quietly to Wolf, "She won't appreciate my presence when she recovers. I'll tell the others that she's well. Stanis has been blaming himself for her capture – he won't eat. It will be a weight off his back to find out that she's been rescued and is here unhurt."

Wolf nodded and watched him go. He rocked Aralorn gently and whispered soft reassurances. He was concentrating on her, so that the voice took him by surprise.

"Tell her to stop that."

Wolf brought his head up, alarmed at the strange voice. It was heavily accented and firmly masculine if a bit fussy. It also didn't seem to come from anywhere, or rather there was no one where the voice came from.

"Tell her to stop that, I said. She's driven Lys away, and I simply won't abide that. I have allowed her here because Lys likes her – but now she's made Lys go away by thinking of all of those bad things. Tell her to stop it, or I will have to ask her to leave no matter what Lys says." The voice lost a little of its firmness and became sulky.

The sound of someone else in the room distracted Aralorn, and she pushed herself up away from Wolf's chest, wiping her nose and eyes alike with the sleeve of the tunic she snagged from the cave floor. She too looked at the conspicuously empty space at the end of the sofa near her feet. Magical invisibility consisted of blending into shadows and turning eyes away rather than absolute invisibility; when someone actively looked, the invisible person could be seen. There was nothing at the end of the sofa.

"Can you see him?" she asked Wolf, thinking that it might be another side effect of the beggar's-blessing. She never had liked drugs.

When he shook his head, she directed her questioning to the man who wasn't there. "Who are you?"

"That's better," said the voice, and there was the distinct pop of air that accompanies teleportation.

"He's gone," Wolf confirmed.

"What do you think?" asked Aralorn, settling back onto Wolf, her voice husky from crying. "Was that our friend who gives us a hand with the books?"

"If I were a hazarder, I would lay you odds for yes." Wolf's voice was somewhat distracted, as he was feeling slightly uncomfortable with Aralorn lying relaxed and naked in his arms. It hadn't bothered him before, when she'd been upset.

He started to shift her off him with the end goal of getting as much distance on his side as possible. Before he could do more than move his hand to her shoulders, she turned her face into his neck, terminating his resolve with the simple gesture of affection. He'd found himself craving her affection more and more lately. Although, he thought with a touch of self-derision, in this case "affection" might not be the proper expression.

Self-absorbed, he only caught the tail end of Aralorn's question. "Say that again?" he asked.

With her face tucked safely out of sight, she smiled and repeated herself. "I asked how long you left me alone in the library."

"Not more than fifteen minutes, less probably."

She made a sound of amazement. "I've never heard of anyone who could heal that fast. No wonder I feel like a month-old babe: by all rights I should be comatose now."

"Powerful," Wolf agreed. "But something was funny about him; did you catch it?"

Aralorn nodded. "It was odd in a voice that young, but he sounded a bit querulous, maybe even senile." She closed her eyes, and the companionable silence lulled her toward slumber. More asleep than awake, she murmured with a touch of her unquenchable curiosity, "I wonder who Lys is?"

When Wolf made no attempt to add to or answer her question, she drifted unprotestingly off to sleep.

Golden eyes glittering. Wolf cradled her protectively – against him. He thought about shapeshifters, and the ae'Magi's half-mad son who wandered into these caves to find solace one night, led by a small, grey fox with ageless, sea-green eyes.

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