Masques (Sianim #1)

Chapter 9

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From her station on the couch, Aralorn watched Wolf deposit another armload of books and set them on the floor beside the worktable. The table, her chair, and most of the floor space were similarly adorned.

"Did our apprentice write all of these?" Aralorn made a vague gesture toward the stacks before continuing to put a better edge on her knife.

Wolf turned to survey the piles. He let the silence build and then growled briefly, "Yes." With that he stalked back into the forest of bookcases.

Aralorn grinned, sheathed her knife and levered herself to her feet, weak from days of enforced inactivity in the ae'Magi's dungeon as well as being healed of the damages inflicted during her visit there. Scanning the nearby shelves, she found a book on shapeshifters and wobbled with it to the table, careful not to fall. Wolf had already made it clear that he would rather that she stay put on the couch for a couple of days; if she fell, there would be no living with him. She cleared off her chair and space enough to read. Now that the search had been narrowed to books that were likely to be trapped. Wolf had forbidden her to help. Aralorn decided if she couldn't be useful, at least she could enjoy herself.

Wolf balanced the books he carried on another stack and eyed the collection. "I suppose I might as well start on these."

"I didn't think that even human mages were that verbose," commented Aralorn as she handed him her book.

He looked at it carefully and handed it back to her before he replied. "Most mages restrict their writings to the intricacies of magic; Iveress, 'our apprentice,' fancied himself an expert on everything. There are treatises here on every subject from farming to governmental philosophy. He was long-winded, brilliant and had the annoying habit of sliding in obscure magic spells in the middle of whatever he was writing when the spell occurred to him."

"Better you than me," commented Aralorn sympathetically before burying herself in her book.

The author of Aralorn's book had never met a shapeshifter; they were rare and adept at hiding even in his time. Instead the writer collected all the bits of lore and odd tales ever spun to create a powerful, mythic race whose main hobby seemed to be eating innocent young children who lost themselves in the woods.

Aralorn was interested to observe that shapeshifters could only be killed by silver, garlic or wolvesbane. The author was of the opinion that shapeshifters could lake the shape of only one animal, and he devoted a section to horrific tales of shapeshifter wolves, lions and bears (mice, she supposed, were too mundane).

She shared bits and pieces of the better wolf-tales with Wolf, as he waded through a volume on pig-training. He responded by telling her how to train a pig to count, open gates and fetch. Pigs were also useful for predicting earthquakes. Iveress included three spells to start earthquakes.

Aralorn laughed and returned to her reading. At the end of the book, the author included stories "which my research has proven to be merely folk tales" to entertain his readers. Aralorn supposed that it was no mere coincidence that the "mere folk tales" were the only stories in which the villain was not a shapeshifter.

She read the first story, then thoughtfully closed the book and glanced curiously around the room. Nothing was moving that shouldn't be today. Wolf set the pig book aside and was reaching for another one when Aralorn started to speak in a low voice.

"Once upon a time there was a young shapeshifter who spied a young girl alone in the woods." She didn't need to use the book to help her memory, but kept her eyes on Wolf. "Curious, because she was in a place no young girl should be, he followed her to her home. She lived alone in a cottage near enough to the village that she could walk there easily, but far enough that her visitors were few. She was an empath, forced to live away from her family and relatives by her gift.

"The shapeshifter, entranced by her beauty of face and spirit, took to following her around in the guise of a crow or squirrel. Finally, when he could keep his love hidden no more, he revealed himself to her. She loved him too, for not only was he as comely as all werekind are, he was sweet of spirit as well.

"They lived together for several years with no one knowing of their alliance – for the hatred and fear with which humankind looked upon shapeshifters was more than returned. Once a month the shapeshifter returned to his village to assure his people that he was well. Once a week the empath made her way to the human village.

"One day a Southern Trader saw her as she left the village for her home in the woods. He asked about her and found out that she lived alone. Like most of his kind he was no better than he should be, so when he finished his trading with the villagers, he and his fellows took the path that the girl had used. She would bring good prices in the slave market in the south.

"It happened that it was one of the times that the shapeshifter was visiting his family. He returned to find the cottage empty, with the door swinging in the wind.

"He tracked them as they headed into the wild Northlands. The girl had told them that her lover was a powerful magician, and so they took to the North, where human magic is hindered. The shapeshifter was a child of the Northlands, and the harsh winds brought him news of his beloved's path, but even so he was too late." A moaning sound echoed through the caves as she finished the last words. Wolf tilted his head slightly so she knew that he heard as well.

"When he reached the slavers' camp," she continued, "he found nothing left of the would-be slavers except mindless bodies. The girl, terrified and alone, had evoked an empath's only defense, projecting her terror and pain onto her tormentors. She was alive when the shapeshifter found her, so he took her to a cave, sacred to his kind, where he tried to heal her. The worst of her wounds were of the spirit that even a shapeshifter's magic may not touch; and though her body was whole, she spoke not a word to him, but stared through him, as if he were not there.

Not entirely sane from his grief, the shapeshifter swore to keep her alive until he could find a way to heal her soul. And so he lives on, with his beloved, from that day until this."

Wolf raised an eyebrow at her and nodded slowly. "The Old Man of the Mountain."

"That's what the book says," replied Aralorn. "And 'Lys' is an old version of the shapeshifter word for 'sweetheart.'"

Wolf nodded slowly. "Our voice from last night. But I have never heard of a shapeshifter with the power that the Old Man is supposed to have."

Aralorn rubbed her cheek thoughtfully, leaving behind a streak of black dust. "The older a shapeshifter is, the more powerful he is. Like human mages, it is not unusual for a shapeshifter to live several hundred years. A really powerful shapeshifter can shift himself younger constantly and never grow old. They are a nonviolent race, and the only reason that you don't see a shapeshifter much older than several hundred years is that they are constantly changing to new and more difficult things. It's difficult to remember that you are supposed to be human when you change into a tree or the wind. An uncle of my mother once told me that sometimes a shapechanger forgets to picture what he is changing himself into and he changes into nothing. There is no reason why our Old Man of the Mountain couldn't be several thousand years old rather than just a few hundred. That would make him incredibly powerful – maybe on par with the old gods."

She stopped as something occurred to her. "Wolf, there was a snowstorm the night before the Uriah came. If it hadn't slowed them down, they would have come upon us at night and slaughtered the camp."

Wolf shrugged. "Snowstorms are unpredictable here, but I suppose that it could have been he who caused the storm. I suspect that we'll never know."

They went back to reading. Aralorn found it more and more difficult to concentrate as the little energy she'd regained dissipated. The words blurred in front of her eyes, and soon she was turning pages from habit.

She dozed off between one sentence and the next while Wolf was in the stacks looking for another pile of books. When he touched her shoulder, she jumped to her feet and had her knife drawn before she opened her eyes.

"Plague it, Wolf! One of these days, you are going to do that and I'll knife you by mistake. Then I'll have to live all my life with the guilt of your death on my hands," she snapped.

Her threat didn't seem to bother him much as he caught her and lowered her to her chair as her legs collapsed under her. "It's time for lunch. You are too thin," he said with disapproval, and then added, "Speaking of knives, Myr recovered your sword and brought it here while you were sleeping. I put it under the couch."

Her face lit with a smile. "Really? I thought that it was gone for good when Talor knocked it out of my hand." She retrieved the sword and returned to her chair, where she could inspect the blade for damage. "I don't know why I'm so attached to the plaguing thing when I'm such an inept idiot with a sword."

She was interrupted by the sound of running feet. Stanis popped into the room at a dead run. Having run the better part of the mile or so of tunnel that connected the library to the living quarters of the rest of the camp, he only had breath to gasp out one word: "Uriah!" But that was enough.

Aralorn tangled with her chair when she tried to push it out of the way too fast, but kept from falling with the aid of a firm hand on her arm. She was again helped back into her seat.

Wolf, who had somehow donned his mask again, looked her straight in the eye and said, "You stay here." His voice left no room for argument. He shifted into the wolf and melted into the tunnel.

Just because she hadn't argued didn't mean that she intended to obey him. She waited until he was safely gone before stumbling for the sofa to grab the sword belt and scabbard.

"Aren't you going to do what he says?" Stanis asked. He wasn't one for following the rules, but he knew that if Wolf ever told him to do anything in that tone of voice he would do it, fast.

Aralorn glanced up as she sheathed the sword. "It's written on my file in Ren's office at Sianim: 'Does not take orders well, will occasionally listen to suggestions.' Did it sound like he was suggesting anything to you?"

Stanis shook his head; then, noticing that she was adjusting the position of the sheath and not looking at him, said, "No."

Finished, she shrugged. "Then I'm not going to do what he said."

Stanis led her through the tunnels, because the way was not marked. With her hand on his shoulder for support, she kept their speed to a brisk walk.

As she swung over the barricade erected to keep people from wandering the tunnels, Wolf and Myr were talking on the far side of the large cave. As far as she could tell, all the people were gathered in this room, the largest of the occupied caves, From what Stanis had told her, it was furthest from the outside. Even here she could hear the enraged howls of the Uriah.

For the most part the people in the cave were silent, the children huddled in a far corner, except Stanis, who was standing behind her. After taking a quick look around, she stalked leisurely toward the conferring men.

"… why they aren't just coming in, I don't know how long they've been there. A couple of hunters went out an hour ago, and they weren't there then. The first time that we knew anything about them was when they started that howling. That's when I sent Stanis to get you." Myr's hands flexed on the hilt of his sword, and then gripped it white-knuckled. "I've brought all the rest of us to this cave, as it's furthest from the outside. The opening is narrow enough that they can only come in one or two at a time."

Aralorn broke in, ignoring Wolf. "If we stack the bodies back in the opening, we'll buy ourselves some time. If won't take many to block the entrance, and then they'll have to eat their way through before any more can attack." There was a horrified gasp from someone in the huddled masses and she realized belatedly that "force" would have been a better choice than "eat," if less accurate.

Wolf, apparently saving his lecture for later, spoke. "It's interesting that they haven't already come in. By the sound of it, they are standing right outside the entrance and howling. They are not notorious for their patience. The ward on the entrance that I've reinforced would not be enough to keep them out, only make it difficult for them to find."

"Edom couldn't go into the caves," Aralorn commented.

"But that was just fear of closed-in spaces." Myr's tone grew less assured as he talked.

"Perhaps." Wolf's tone was thoughtful. "There are wards that will keep out specific animals – such a spell could be altered to keep out beings who exhibited certain emotions or types of magic. There is another explanation as well. Aralorn said that one of the Uriah talked to her – the Uriah that I have seen were not capable of it. The ae'Magi must have altered them in some way. If he has made them more intelligent, it is possible that they are waiting for something before they attack."

"Wolf, do you know of any exit from the caves that opens to another side of the mountain?" Myr asked.

Wolf nodded. "Yes, I've thought of that. We could send most of the people through and leave a few fighters to slow the pack. Once across the river they would be safe, at least until the Uriah found a place to cross."

"It's better than nothing," agreed Aralorn. She waited until they were engrossed in the planning before she slithered around them. Once in the tunnel she drew her sword and held it in a fighter's grip. Someone had painted signs on the walls of the tunnels to facilitate travel, and it was a simple matter to follow the arrows to the outside by the magelight she held cupped in one hand.

The howls were louder as she turned into a cave marked "Door to Outside" over the top. She smiled at the awkward lettering even as the cold sweat of fear gathered on her forehead. Cautiously she crept forward through the twisted narrow channel.

The Uriah were there, howling with frustrated rage at the wall of flame that covered the entrance. Someone, Aralorn noted with absent approval, had also set up the wood for a bonfire where the tunnel narrowed – it sat unlit, a good ten feet behind the fire that blocked the entrance. Aralorn couldn't feel the heat from the first fire, but toasted bodies of Uriah lay twitching feebly just outside the cave as evidence to its effectiveness.

Shaking with the aftermath of adrenaline, Aralorn leaned against the side of the cave and watched as another Uriah, incited by her presence just inside the barrier, dove into the flames. Nausea touched even her hardened stomach as she watched the hungry flames engulf it.

"Aralorn!" If the unexpectedness of his voice hadn't made her jump, the underlying anger in it would have. It was only bad luck that there was a low spot in the ceiling.

"Plague take you, Wolf! I was supposed to hurt you the next time you startled me like that, not myself," she hissed, putting her hand to her head where the rock had cut it.

After evaluating the flaming entrance in one quick glance, he steered her away and set his staff upright on its clawed feet. With a hand on her chin, he used the other to explore the damaged area despite the fact that she squirmed and batted at his hand. In clipped tones he said, "You need a plaguing bodyguard. It seems like every time I've turned my back on you lately, you are getting hurt one way or another."

To her surprise he bent down and pressed his cheek against hers. She hadn't experienced the healing of a green magic-user very often, barring her more recent experience. Generally she hadn't been in any shape to know exactly what it was that they did, but she knew enough to know that this was very different. This was not purely physical, there was an emotional link too; a meeting on a more primal level.

It was over before she could analyze it further. Wolf stepped back as if bitten; she could hear him gasping for breath beneath his mask. She looked at him in wonder, knowing enough about human magic to realize that he shouldn't have been capable of doing what he just had done.

"Wolf," she said quietly, reaching out to touch him. He backed away, keeping his head away from her and his eyes closed.

"Wolf, what's wrong?" When he said nothing, she took a step back to give him room. "Please, talk to me."

He flung his head up then, and blazing yellow eyes met hers. When he spoke, it was in a whisper that his ruined voice made even more effective. "What am I? I should not be able to heal you. The other things – the shapeshifting, the power I wield – they could be explained away. But magic doesn't work this way. It doesn't take over before I can react and do things that I don't ask of it. I swore that I would never .., never let anything control me the way that my father did; but even he left me free will in the end. This … does not."

"It was you who healed my eyes." It was an inane comment at best, stating the obvious. She wanted to give herself time to think. There was something that she should be grasping, a puzzle to be solved if she could just figure out how to look at it.

"Yes," he said.

"Were you trying to?" she asked.

He obviously forced himself to relax, and leaned against the wall as he spoke in closer to normal tones. "If you mean did I try to heal you with a spell, no. I just … wanted you to quit hurting." She could almost see the effort he made to open up to her, this man who was so private.

He continued with his eyes closed again. "I was so tired. I hadn't slept much since I found that you were gone." He opened his eyes to look at her. "You were getting worse and I couldn't do anything about it. I do not recall what I was thinking, precisely. I had done all that I could for you and knew that it would never be enough, and something made me lie beside you and this magic took over." He clenched his hands in what was very near revulsion.

"Who was your mother? Do you know"?"' asked Aralorn quietly. "I've heard a tot of stories about Cain, the son of the ae'Magi, but none of them ever mentioned his mother."

Wolf shrugged, and his voice had regained its cold tone when he answered. "I only saw her once, when I was very young, maybe five years old, I remember asking Father who she was, or rather who she had been, for she was quite dead, killed by some experiment of his, I suppose. I don't remember being particularly worried about her, so I suspect that it was the only time I saw her."

"Describe her for me," requested Aralorn in a firm voice that refused to condemn or sympathize with the boy he had been.

"I was young; I don't remember much. She looked small next to my father, fragile and lovely – like a butterfly. The only time I ever heard him say anything about her was when some noble asked about my mother. He said only that she was 'flawlessly beautiful'."

Aralorn nodded, her suspicions confirmed – "I would have been surprised if she had been anything else." She smiled at him. "Would it help you to know what is wrong?"

"Do you know?"

She nodded. "Your mother must have been a shapeshifter, or some other green magic-user – but the 'flawlessly beautiful' sounds a lot like a shapeshifter. That feeling that the magic is taking control of you is fairly common when dealing with green magic, I suppose because you are dealing with magic shaped by nature first and only then by a magician. You need learn to work with it so that you can modify it. If you fight it, it will prove stronger than you."

He stared at her a bit and then joined her on the floor without speaking, holding his silver mask in lightly clenched fingers.

"I suspect," continued Aralorn, "if you hadn't been taught how magic should work, you would have discovered your half-blooded capabilities long since. You were told that you couldn't heal, so you didn't try."

"It fits," said Wolf finally.

"I should have thought about it sooner," apologized Aralorn. "I mean, I am a half-breed. It's just that I've never met another half-breed. I could tell that you weren't a shapeshifter, so I just assumed that you were simply an extraordinarily powerful human magician."

Wolf gave a half laugh with little humor in it. "It sounds just like an experiment the ae'Magi would try. To a Darranian, it would be the ultimate form of bestiality. Just the thing to spark his interest," Wolf observed sourly.

Aralorn leaned over, pushed aside, his mask and bussed him on the unscarred mouth with a kiss that was anything but romantic. "You beast, you," she said.

He got to his feet and pulled her to hers, his eyes warmed with relief, humor and something else. Gripping her shoulders, he kissed her with a passion that left her breathless and shaken. He stepped back and returned the mask to its usual position.

"We'd better get back and tell Myr he can relax. It doesn't appear that the Old Man is going to welcome the Uriah into his cave anytime in the near future," he said, offering her his arm to lean on.

She caught her breath, smiled and tucked her arm through his. "Do we tell the whole camp that we are being protected by the Old Man?"

"It might be the best thing. I have the feeling that we shouldn't push his hospitality by wandering around too much. The best way to see that it doesn't happen is to tell them the whole truth – if they'll believe it." Wolf slid through a narrow passage with his usual grace, towing Aralorn beside him.

"We are dealing with people who have some minor magic capabilities; are following a dethroned king who just barely received his coming-of-age spurs; who number among their acquaintances not just one half-breed shapeshifter, but two half-breed shapeshifters – one of whom, incidentally, wears a silly mask. We could tell them that we were in the den of the old gods and that Paris, empress of the dead, conceived a sudden passion for Myr and it probably wouldn't faze them," was Aralorn's reply.

Wolf laughed and Aralorn pulled him to a halt. "Wait. Did you say that the ae'Magi is Darranian?"

He nodded. "Peasant stock. Apparently his Master was very surprised to find a magician who was Darranian – used to tell jokes about his Darranian apprentice. My father smiled when he talked about how he killed his teacher."

Aralorn let her hand drop and followed thoughtfully.

Wolf was first in the tunnel that opened into the main chamber. He hissed and jumped back, narrowly avoiding Myr's sword.

"Sorry," said Myr. "I thought that you were one of the Uriah. You should have said something before you came in. Did you find out why the Uriah aren't coming in?"

"Our guardian of the cave doesn't want them in," replied Aralorn, coming up beside Wolf. She was in her element now, with a captive audience and a story to tell. She projected her voice and told them the story about the origin of the Old Man of the Mountain and finished with the barrier that was keeping the Uriah out.

Wolf observed that she made the tale sound as if it were part of shapeshifter history rather than a forgotten story in the book. Usually she did it the other way around – turning an unexciting bit of history into high adventure. He hadn't realized that she could do it backward.

As she had predicted, the refugees accepted her story. For some reason most people seemed reassured to have a guardian, even if he were guarding the cave and not them. People believe what they want to believe; right now they wanted a miracle, and Aralorn was giving it to them.

Responding to Wolf's look, Myr joined him just outside the cave, leaving Aralorn to her work.

"We may be locked in here for some time," Wolf informed Myr. "The Uriah are being kept out of the caves with some sort of fire show, but they can smell food in here, and there is no way to determine how long they are going to howl at our door. Do we have enough food to last us a week or so?" Wolf asked.

Myr shrugged. "We have enough grain stored to last us into next summer, feeding animals and people. We're short on meat, which is why I sent out the hunters this morning, but for a week we can do without. If it turns into a month we can always slaughter a goat or a sheep to feed ourselves. Our real problems are going to be morale and sanitation."

Wolf nodded. "We'll have to deal with morale as it comes. I might be able to do something about the sanitation, though. The blocked-off tunnel where you're storing grain leads to a cave with a pit deep enough that you can throw a rock into it and not hear it hit bottom. It's fairly narrow, so you should be able to put some sort of structure over it to keep people from falling into it."

"That should relieve Aralorn," commented Myr, a smile lighting his tired face for the first time since he'd heard the Uriah.

Wolf nodded seriously. "She was really worried that before this was all over she'd he pressed into digging latrines."

Myr laughed wearily and pushed his hair out of his face. "I should have asked this before. Is it possible that the Uriah can find their way in here through another entrance?"

"Maybe," answered Wolf, starting to head toward Aralorn, who was swaying wearily as she finished her story, "but there are only two other entrances that I have found, and they were all heavily carved with runes. If this entrance is protected, I suspect that all of them are."

OUTSIDE, THE URIAH QUIETED AND SANK TO THEIR KNEES AS a rider came into view. His horse was lathered and sweating, showing the whites of its eyes in fear of the Uriah. But it had learned to trust its rider, and Lord Kisrah was careful to keep the Uriah motionless with the spells of control that the ae'Magi had taught him.

He dismounted near the entrance to the cave. The wall of flame had subsided somewhat when the Uriah backed away, but it was still higher than Lord Kisrah's head. He could see the runes just inside the entrance, but he couldn't touch them to alter their power.

He sketched a symbol in the air that glowed faintly yellow and passed easily through the flames. It touched a rune and the flames started to die down, low enough that he could see a man walk into the cave opening.

"You are not welcome. Leave this place." The man was almost inhumanly beautiful, and Lord Kisrah caught his breath in admiration. Abruptly the flames returned; for the first time Lord Kisrah could feel the heat on his face.

He hacked up and tried to push the flames down again with no effect. The third time he tried it, the Uriah began stirring as his hold on them weakened. With a curse, he desisted. He led the horse back through the Uriah until he had some space.

"You will stay here until the ae'Magi releases you," he ordered briskly. "If someone comes out of the cave, you will not harm them. Take them prisoner – you know how to contact me if that happens." He mounted the horse and let it choose its own speed away from the Uriah.

"THANK YOU, LORD KISRAH. I AM SURE THAT YOU DID YOUR best with the warding – but the old runes are tricky at best, and in the North they could easily be the work of one of the races that use green magic." The ae'Magi smiled graciously.

Lord Kisrah looked only a little less miserable in his seat in the ae'Magi's study. "I got a look at some of the runes there, and I'll look them up and see what can be done about them. The magician had no trouble with my spell, though. He's more worrisome than the runes."

"I agree, sir," purred the ae'Magi. "I intend to find out just who he is. Can you describe him for me again?"

Lord Kisrah nodded and set aside the warmed ale he'd been drinking. "He was no more than medium height. His hair was blond, I think, although it could have been light brown. His eyes were either blue or green – again, the light made it difficult to tell. He couldn't have been more than twenty-four or twenty-five and could have been younger except that he was so powerful. His voice was oddly accented, but he didn't say enough that I could tell much about the accent, other than the Rethian he spoke was not his native tongue."

"There was no way that his hair could have been darker? His eyes golden?" queried the ae'Magi softly.

Lord Kisrah shook his head. "No. His eyes, maybe. They were some light color. But his hair was light." He yawned abruptly.

The ae'Magi stood and offered his arm for support to the young nobleman. "I am sorry; I have kept you up talking and you are almost dropping from exhaustion." He led him to the door and opened it, clapping his hands lightly. Before he clapped a second time, a pretty young serving girl appeared.

"Take Lord Kisrah to the blue room, Rhidan, and see to his comfort." The ae'Magi turned to his guest. "Pray follow the girl – she will attend to your every need. If you want anything, just ask."

Lord Kisrah brightened visibly and wished him a good night.

Alone in his study, the ae'Magi brooded, disliking the thought of yet another magician in his way. Abruptly he got to his feet; all this worry could do no good. It was too late at night to try to think and he was too frustrated to sleep. He motioned abruptly to the pale young girl who had sat in her corner, unnoticed by Lord Kisrah. Obedient to his gesture, she dropped the clothes she wore and stood naked and submissive before him.

He cupped her chin in one hand and stroked her body gently with the other. "Tonight," he said, "I have something special in mind for you."

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