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TANAROS WALKED DOWN THE HALLWAY, black marble echoing under his bootheels.
It was like an unlit mirror, that floor, polished to a high gleam. The archways were vast, not built to a human scale. All along the walls the marrow-fire burned, delicate veins of blue-white against all that shining blackness. In both, his reflection was blurred and distorted. There was Tanaros; there, and there and there.
A pale brow, furrowed. A lock of dark hair falling, so.
And a stem mouth, its soft words of love long since betrayed.
It had been a long time, a very long time, since Tanaros had thought of such matters, of the sum total the pieced-together fragments of his being made; nor did he think of them now, for his Lord’s summons burned like a beacon in his mind. And beneath his attire, beneath the enameled armor that sheltered him, his branding burned like marrow-fire on his flesh, white-hot and cold as ice, throbbing as his heart beat, and piercing.
So it was, for the Three.
“Guardsman,” he said in greeting.
“General Tanaros, sir.” The Havenguard Fjeltroll on duty grinned, showing his eyetusks. His weapons hung about him like boulders on the verge of avalanche; he hoisted one, a sharp-pointed mace, in salute as he stood aside. Beyond him, the entrance to the tower stair yawned like an open mouth. “His Lordship awaits you in the observatory.”
“Krognar,” Tanaros said, remembering his name. “Thank you.”
“My pleasure, Lord General.” The Fjeltroll saluted again.
It was a long way to the observatory, to the very top of the utmost tower of Darkhaven. Tanaros climbed it step by step, feeling his heartbeat increasing as he labored. A mortal heart, circumscribed by the silvered scar of his branding. When all was said and done, he was a Man, nothing more. It was his Lordship who had made him one of the Three, and deathless. He heard his breath labor, in and out. Mortal lungs, circulating blood. How long had they been at that task? It had been a thousand years and more since Tanaros had answered his Lord’s first summons, his hands red with the lifeblood of one he had once loved, his heart filled with rage and anguish.
It felt longer.
He wondered, briefly, how Vorax made the long climb.
Darkness spiraling on darkness. Broad steps, wrought by Fjeltroll, made to endure their broad, horny feet. Tanaros reached out, touching the spiraling wall of the tower, fingers trailing. It should have burned, the marrow-fire; it did burn, but faintly. Here the veins branched and branched again, growing ever thinner and fainter as the tower thrust upward into the darkness.
It was always dark here.
Tanaros paused in the entrance to the observatory, letting his eyes adjust. Dark. It was always dark. Even the windows opened onto darkness, and the night sky. There, the stars, that never shone in cloud-blotted daylight.
“My Lord.” He bowed, crisp and correct, as he had bowed for centuries on end.
“Tanaros.” The voice rumbled, deep as mountains; it soothed, easing his joints, loosening the stiffness of centuries, of honor betrayed and never forgotten. It always had. In the darkness, the Shaper was silhouetted in the windows of night, vast shoulders occluding the stars. A pair of eyes glinted like crimson embers. “You have come.”
Tanaros took a breath, feeling his lungs loosen. “Always, my Lord Satoris.”
“It is well.”
In a carven chair in the corner sat Vorax, his thick legs akimbo, fanning himself and breathing hard. Long ago he had been a lord of the race of Men, dwelling in the cool clime of Staccia, far to the north. Gluttony, greed and a ruthless pragmatism had moved him to answer the Shaper’s summons, becoming one of the immortal Three. He grinned at Tanaros from where he sprawled, his beard fanning over his massive chest. “Grave doings, cousin! Is it not so?”
“If you say so, cousin.” Tanaros did not sit in his Lord’s presence. Long ago, he had stood vigilant in the presence of his King as he stood now, in the presence of one far greater. Loyalties changed; protocol did not. He inclined his head in deference. “We await the Dreamspinner, my Lord?”
“Yes.” His Lord turned to the westernmost window, gazing out at the night. “Tell me, Tanaros. What do you see, thence?”
He made his way to his Lord’s side. It was like standing beside a stoked forge, the might of the Shaper beating against his skin in waves. In the air a scent, coppery and sweet, like fresh-spilled blood, only stronger. “Where, my Lord?”
“There.” Satoris pointed to the west, the line of his arm unerring.
It could not be otherwise, of course, for westward lay Torath and the Souma, the Eye in the Brow of Uru-Alat—and Lord Satoris was a Shaper. Though his brethren had cast him out, though their allies reviled him and called him Sunderer, Banewreaker and Prince of Lies, he was a Shaper. Day or night, above the earth or below it, he knew where the Souma lay.
Beyond the Sundering Sea.
Tanaros gripped the edge of the casement and looked west into the night. The low mountains surrounding Darkhaven rose in ridges, silvered by a waning moon. Far, far beyond, he could see the faintest shimmer of surging darkness on the distant horizon where the sea began. Below, it was quiet, only an occasional clatter to be heard in the barracks of the Fjeltroll, a voice raised to break the silence.
Above there was the night sky, thin clouds scudding, scattered with pinpricks of stars and the waning moon. As it was since time had begun, since Arahila the Fair had Shaped them into being that the children of Men might not fear the darkness.
There … there. Low on the horizon, a star.
A red star.
It was faint, but it was there. Its light throbbed, faint and fickle, red.
Leather and steel creaked as Vorax levered his bulk to his feet, his breathing audible in the tower chamber; louder, as he saw the star and sucked his breath between his teeth with a hiss. “Red star,” he said. “That wasn’t there before.”
Tanaros, who had not known fear for many years, knew it now. He let go the edge of the casement and flexed his hands, tasting fear and wishing for his black sword. “What is it, my Lord?”
The Shaper watched the red star flicker low in the distance. “A warning.”
“Of what, my Lord?” The taste of fear in his mouth. “From whom?”
“My elder sister.” The voice was as soft as a Shaper’s could be, touched with ages of sorrow. “Oh, Arahila!”
Tanaros closed his eyes. “How can that be, my Lord? With the Souma shattered and Urulat sundered … how can it be that Arahila would Shape such a thing?”
“Dergail,” said Vorax. “Dergail’s Soumanië.”
A chip of the Souma, long since shattered; a chip, Shaped by Haomane First-Born, Chief of Shapers, into a gem, one of three. It had been lost even before Tanaros was born, when Haomane sent his three Wise Counselors to make war upon his Lordship. The Counselor Dergail, who had borne the Arrow of Fire, had known defeat and flung himself into the sea rather than allow the gem or the weapon to fall into enemy hands. For over a thousand years, both had been lost.
“Yes,” said Satoris, watching. “Dergail’s Soumanië.”
Tanaros’ mouth had gone dry. “What does it mean, my Lord?”
Satoris Third-Born watched the red star, and the faint light of the waning moon silvered his dark visage. Calm, so calm! Unmoving, he stood and watched, while ichor seeped like blood from the unhealing wound he bore, laying a glistening trail down the inside of his thigh, never ceasing.
“War,” he said. “It means war.”
Footsteps sounded on the tower stair, quick and light, announcing Ushahin’s arrival. The half-breed entered the chamber, bowing. “My Lord Satoris.”
“Dreamspinner,” the Shaper acknowledged him. “You have news?”
In the dim light, there was beauty in the ruined face, the mismatched features. The half-breed’s smile was like the edge of a knife, deadly and bitter. “I have passed across the plains of Curonan like the wind, my Lord, and walked in the dreams of Men while they slept. I have news. Cerelinde of the Ellylon, granddaughter of Elterrion, has agreed to wed Aracus Altorus of the children of Men.”
When a daughter of Elterrion weds a son of Altorus …
It was one of the conditions of Haomane’s Prophecy, those deeds by which the Lord-of-Thought vowed Satoris would be overthrown and defeated, and Urulat reclaimed by the Six Shapers who remained.
Vorax cursed with a Staccian’s fluency.
Tanaros was silent, remembering.
There had been another of that House, once; there had been many others, and Altorus Farseer first among them, in the First Age of the Sundered World. For Tanaros, born in the years of dwindling glory, there was only one: Roscus Altorus, whom he had called “King,” and “my lord.” Roscus, dearer to him than any brother. Red-gold hair, a ready smile, a strong hand extended to clasp in friendship.
Or in love, as his hand had clasped that of Tanaros’ wife. Claiming her, possessing her. Leading her to his bed, where he got her with child.
Tanaros trembled with hatred.
“Steady, cousin.” Vorax’s hand was heavy on his shoulder, and there was sympathy in the Staccian’s voice. They knew each other well, the Three, after so long. “This concerns us all.”
Ushahin Dreamspinner said nothing, but his eyes gleamed in the dark chamber. Near black, the one, its pupil fixed wide; the other waxed and waned like the moon, set in a pale, crazed iris. So it had been, since the day he was beaten and left for dead, and Men said it was madness to meet his eyes. What the Ellylon thought, no one knew.
“My Lord Satoris.” Tanaros found his voice. “What would you have of us?”
“Readiness.” Calm, still calm, though it seemed the ichor bled faster from his wound, the broad trail glistening wider. “Tanaros, command of the armies is yours. Those who are on leave must be recalled, and each squadron rendered a full complement. There must be new recruits. Vorax, see to our lines of supply, and those allies who might be bribed or bought. Ushahin …” The Shaper smiled. “Do as you do.”
They bowed, each of the Three, pressing clenched fists to their hearts.
“We will not fail you, my Lord,” Tanaros said for them all.
“My brave lieutenants.” Satoris’ words hung in the air, gentle. “My brother Haomane seeks my life, to end the long quarrel between us. This you know. But all the weapons and all the prophecies in the Sundered World avail him not, so long as the dagger Godslayer remains safe in our charge, and where it lies, no hands but mine may touch it. This I promise you: for so long as the marrow-fire bums, I shall reign in Darkhaven, and you Three with me. It is the pact of your branding, and I shall not fail it. Now go, and see that we are in readiness.”
On the horizon, the red star of war flickered.
“SO IT’S WAR, THEN.”
For all his mass, the Fjeltroll’s hands were quick and deft, working independent of their owner’s thoughts.
“So it seems.” Tanaros watched Hyrgolf’s vast hands shape the rhios, using talons and brute force to carve the lump of granite. It was in its final stages, needing only the smoothing of the rounded surfaces and the delineation of the expressive face. “You’ll order the recall? And a thousand new recruits drafted?”
“Aye, General.” His field marshal blew on the stone, clearing granite dust from the miniature crevices. He held the rhios in the palm of his horny hand and regarded it at eye level. A river sprite, rounded like an egg, an incongruous delicacy against the yellowed, leathery palm. “What think you?”
“It is lovely.”
Hyrgolf squinted. His eyes were like a boar’s, small and fierce, and he was of the Tungskulder Fjel, broad and strong and steady. “There’s some will be glad of the news.”
“There always are,” Tanaros said. “Those are the ones bear watching.”
The Fjeltroll nodded, making minute adjustments to the figurine’s delicate features, shearing away infinitesimal flakes of granite. “They always are.”
Brutes, Men called them; delvers, sheep-slaughterers, little better than animals. Tanaros had believed it himself, once. Once, when the sons of Altorus ruled a powerful kingdom in the southwest, and he had been Commander of the Guard, and held the borders of Altoria against the forces of Satoris; the deadly Were, the horrid Fjeltroll. Once, when he had been a married man deep in love, a husband and faithful servant, who had called a bold, laughing man with red-gold hair his lord and king.
Roscus. Roscus Altorus.
Oh, love, love! Tanaros remembered, wondering. How could you do that to us?
Somewhere, an infant drew breath into its lungs and bawled.
So much time elapsed, and the wound still unhealed. His heart ached with it still, beat and ached beneath the silvery scar that seared it, that made the pain bearable. It had cracked at her betrayal; cracked, like the Souma itself. And in that darkness, Satoris had called to him, and he had answered, for it was the only voice to pierce his void.
Now … now.
Now it was different, and he was one of the Three. Tanaros, General Tanaros, Tanaros Blacksword, and this creature, Hyrgolf of the Fjeltroll, was his second-in-command, and a trusted companion. For all that he massed more than any two Men combined, for all that his eyetusks showed when he smiled, he was loyal, and true.
“You think of her,” Hyrgolf said.
“Is it so obvious, my friend?”
“No.” Hyrgolf blew dust from the rhios and studied it again, turning it this way and that. “But I know you, General. And I know the stories. It is best not to think of it. The dead are the dead, and gone.”
Her neck beneath his hands, white and slender; her eyes, bulging, believing at the last. A crushing force. And somewhere, an infant crying, wisps of red-gold hair plastered on its soft skull. An infant he had allowed to live.
Tanaros remembered and flexed his hands, his capable hands, hunching his shoulders under the weight of memory. “I have lived too long to forget, my friend.”
“Here.” Broad hands covered his, pressing something into them. Dirt-blackened talons brushed his wrists. An object, egg-sized and warm. Tanaros cradled the rhios in his palms. A sprite, a river sprite. Her delicate face laughed at him from between his thumbs. A rounded shape, comforting, bearing streaks of salmon-pink. It made him think of backwater currents, gentle eddies, of spawning-pools rife with eggs.
“Keep it, General.” The Fjeltroll gave him a gentle smile, a hideous sight. “We carry them to remember, we who were once Neheris’ Children. One day, if the Sundered World is made whole, perhaps we will be again.”
Neheris Fourth-Born, Neheris-of-the-Leaping-Waters, who had Shaped the high mountains of the north and the bright waters that tumbled down them, and Shaped the Fjeltroll also. Tanaros rubbed the rhios, the curving stone polished smooth as satin and warm from Hyrgolf’s touch. It felt good in his hand.
“That’s it.” His field marshal nodded. “Keep it in your pocket, General, and it will always be with you.”
He stowed the figurine. “Thank you, Hyrgolf.”
“Welcome you are, General.” Picking up a battle-axe, the Fjel rummaged for a whetstone and began honing the edge of his weapon with the same attentive patience. The whetstone made a rhythmic rasping sound in the snug cavern, familiar and soothing. “Regular weapons inspections from here out, you reckon?”
“Yes.” Tanaros rubbed his temples. “We’ll double up on drills as soon as the recalled units arrive. And I want scouting patrols in the tunnels, reporting daily. Establish a post at every egress between here and the Unknown, with runners between them. I want daily reports.”
“Aye, sir.” Hyrgolf tested the edge of the blade with a thick-calloused thumb and resumed his efforts. “Pity for the lads due leave.”
“I know.” Restless, Tanaros stood to stretch his legs, pacing around the confines of the field marshal’s chamber. Like all the barracks, this one was built into a stony ridge. The Fjeltroll had constructed Darkhaven to their own scale, but Lord Satoris was its genius and its architect, and the convoluted magnificence of it echoed its creator. For themselves, the Fjeltroll had eschewed walls and towers, delving into the bones of the earth and carving out the simple caverns they preferred, laid out to flank and protect the mighty edifice. Most dwelled in common chambers; Hyrgolf, due to his rank, had his own. It held a sleeping pallet covered in sheepskin, his weapons and gear, a few simple things from home. Tanaros stopped before a niche hollowed into the wall, containing the stump of a tallow candle and a crudely carved rhios.
“My boy’s first effort,” Hyrgolf said behind him. There was pride in his voice. “Not bad for a mere pup, eh General?”
Tanaros touched the cavern wall, bowing his head. “You were due leave.”
“In two months’ time.” The sound of the whetstone never slowed. “That’s the luck, isn’t it? We always knew this day might come.”
“Yes.” He looked back at the Fjeltroll. “How do your people tell it?”
“The Prophecy?” Hyrgolf shook his massive head. “We don’t, General.”
No, of course not. In the First Age of the Sundered World, when Satoris was sore wounded and at his weakest, when Haomane First-Born, the Lord-of-Thought, had called upon the Souma and brought the sun so near to earth it scorched the land and brought into being the Unknown Desert, the Fjeltroll had sheltered Satoris and pledged their loyalty to him. After his Counselors had been defeated, Haomane First-Born uttered his Prophecy into the ears of his allies. The Prophecy was not shared with the Fjel.
Instead, it doomed them.
“And yet you still honor Neheris,” Tanaros said, fingering the rhios in his pocket. “Who sided with Haomane, with the Six, against his Lordship. Why, Hyrgolf?”
“It’s Shapers’ business,” Hyrgolf said simply, setting down his axe. “I don’t pretend to understand it. We made a pact with his Lordship and he has honored it, generation after generation. He never asked us to stop loving Neheris who Shaped us.”
“No,” Tanaros said, remembering his Lord’s cry. Oh, Arahila! “He wouldn’t.”
And he fingered the rhios in his pocket again, and longed for the simplicity of a Fjeltroll’s faith. It was not granted to Men, who had been given too many gifts to bear with ease. Oh, Arahila! Second-Born among Shapers, Arahila the Fair, Born-of-the-Heart. Would that you had made us less.
“How do your people tell it?” Hyrgolf asked. “The Prophecy, that is.”
Tanaros relinquished the rhios, his hands fisted in his pockets as he turned to face his field marshal. “In Altoria,” he said, and his voice was harsh, “when I was a boy, it was told thus. ‘When the unknown is made known, when the lost weapon is found, when the marrow-fire is quenched and Godslayer is freed, when a daughter of Elterrion weds a son of Altorus, when the Spear of Light is brought forth and the Helm of Shadows is broken, the Fjeltroll shall fall, the Were shall be defeated ere they rise, and the Sunderer shall be no more, the Souma shall be restored and the Sundered World made whole and Haomane’s Children shall endure.’”
It grieved him to say it, as if the Fjeltroll might hold him in some way responsible. After all, if he had killed the babe … if he had killed the babe. The House of Altorus would have ended, then, and there would have been no Prophecy.
Blue eyes, milky and wondering. Red-gold hair plastered to a damp skull.
He hadn’t been able to do it. The babe, the child of his cuckolded marriage bed, had succeeded Roscus in the House of Altorus.
“Aye,” Hyrgolf said, nodding. “That’s as I heard it. The Sundered World made whole, but the cost of it our lives. Well, then, that’s only a piece of it, this wedding. There’s a good deal more needs happen before the Prophecy is fulfilled, and who knows what the half of it means?”
“His Lordship knows,” Tanaros said. “And Malthus.”
Their eyes met, then; Man and Fjel, hearing a common enemy named.
“Malthus,” Hyrgolf rumbled, deep in his chest. The Wise Counselor, Wielder of the Soumanië, last of three, last and greatest of Haomane’s Shapings. “Well, there is Malthus, General, I don’t deny you that. But he is only one, now, and we have among us the Three.”
Tanaros, Vorax, Ushahin.
“Pray that we are enough,” Tanaros said.
“That I do, General,” said the Fjeltroll. “That I do.”
Tanaros Blacksword, Commander General of the Army of Darkhaven, walked alone to his quarters, a stone the size of an egg in his pocket.
From time to time, he touched it for reassurance.
ELSEWHERE IN THE LAND OF Urulat, flames burnt low and dwindled in their lamps in the archives of Meronil, housed in the Hall of Ingolin, where an elderly figure in scholar’s robes bent over a hide-bound tome, muttering. The lamplight caught in his grey, tangled beard, cast shadows in the deep lines of his face, marking them in contrast to the splendid treasures that gleamed about him, housed in the archives for safekeeping.
Footsteps, slow and measured, quiet on the elegant carpets.
“Old friend,” said Ingolin, the last Lord of the Ellylon. “You should rest.”
The head lifted, sharp nose pointing, eyes fierce under heavy brows. “You know why I do not.”
“It is a day for rejoicing, old friend,” the Ellyl reminded him.
Malthus the Counselor laughed without mirth. “Can you tell me how to quench the marrow-fire, Ingolin the Wise? Can you render the unknown known?”
“You know I cannot.” There was calm acceptance in the Ellyl’s reply. In the manner of his people he had lived a long time, and knew the limits of his own knowledge. “Still, Cerelinde has unbent at long last, and Aracus Altorus has bowed his House’s ancient pride. Love, it seems, has found them. A piece of the Prophecy shall be fulfilled, and the Rivenlost endure. May we not rejoice in it?”
“It is not enough.”
“No.” Ingolin glanced unthinking to the west, where Dergail’s Soumanië had arisen. “Old friend,” he asked, and his voice trembled for the first time in centuries. “Do you hold the answers to these questions you ask?”
“I might,” Malthus the Counselor said slowly, and pinched the bridge of his nose, fixing the Lord of the Ellylon with a hawk’s stare. “I might. But the way will be long and difficult, and there are many things of which I am unsure.”
Ingolin spread his hands. “The aid of the Rivenlost is yours, Malthus. Only tell us how we might serve.”
“You can’t, old friend,” said Malthus the Counselor. “That’s the problem.”
IN ANOTHER WING OF THE Hall of Ingolin, a fire burned low in the great hearth. Cerelinde, the granddaughter of Elterrion, gazed at it with unseeing eyes and thought about the deed to which she had committed herself this day.
She was the Lady of the Ellylon, the last scion of the House of Elterrion. By the reckoning of her people, she was young, born after the Sundering of the world, after the grieving Ellylon had taken the name Rivenlost unto themselves. Her mother had been Erilonde, daughter of Elterrion the Bold, Lord of the Ellylon, and she had died in childbirth. Her father had been Celendril of the House of Numireth the Fleet, and he had fallen in battle against Satoris Banewreaker in the Fourth Age of the Sundered World.
If the courage of Men had not faltered that day, her father might have lived. Haomane’s Allies might have triumphed that day, and the world been made whole.
She had never known the glory of the Souma and Haomane’s presence, only the deep, enduring ache of their absence.
That bitter knowledge had dwelled in her while generations were born and died, for, by the reckoning of Men, she was timeless. She had watched, century upon century, the proud Kings of Altoria; Altorus’ sons, as they grew to manhood and took their thrones, made love and war and boasts, withered and died. She had watched as they disdained their ancient friendship with the Ellylon, watched as Satoris Banewreaker calculated his vengeance and shattered their kingdom. She had stopped watching, then, as the remnants of a once-mighty dynasty dwindled into the Borderguard of Curonan.
Then Aracus had come; Aracus Altorus, who had been tutored by Malthus the Counselor since he was a lad. Like her, he was the last of his line.
And he was different from those who had come before him.
She had known it the moment she laid eyes upon him. Unlike the others, the Kings of Altoria in all their glory, Aracus was aware of the brevity of his allotted time; had measured it against the scope of the Sunderer’s plan and determined to spend it to the greatest effect. She had seen it in his face, in the wide-set, demanding gaze.
He understood the price both of them would have to pay.
And something in her had … quickened.
In the hall outside the hearth chamber she heard the sound of his bootheels striking the white marble floors, echoing louder than any Ellyl’s tread. She heard the quiet murmur of words exchanged with Lord Ingolin’s guards. And then he was there, standing before the hearth, the scent of horses and leather and night air clinging to his dun-grey cloak. He had ridden hard to return to her side. His voice, when he spoke, was hoarse with weariness.
She stood to greet him. He was tall for a Man and their eyes were on a level. She searched his face. In the dim firelight, it was strange to see the glint of red-gold stubble on his chin. He was Arahila’s Child, and not of her kind.
“Is it done?” she asked.
“Aye,” he said. “The Borderguard carry word of our betrothal.”
Cerelinde looked away. “How long before it reaches the Sunderer’s ears?”
“It has done so.” He took her hand. “Cerelinde,” he said. “The Sunderer flaunts his defiance. The red star of war has risen. I saw it as I rode.”
Her fingers trembled in his grasp. “So quickly!”
His voice grew softer. “You know what is said, my lady. One of the Three stalks the dreams of mortal Men.”
“The Misbegotten.” Cerelinde shuddered.
Aracus nodded. “Aye.”
Cerelinde gazed at their joined hands. His fingers were warm and calloused, rough against her soft skin. It seemed she could feel his lifeblood pulse through them, urgent and mortal, calling to her. She tried not to think of Ushahin the Misbegotten, and failed.
“Our children …” she murmured.
“No!” Aracus breathed the word, quick and fierce. His grip tightened, almost painful. Lifting her head, she met his eyes. “They will not be like that one,” he said. “Wrenched forth from violence and hatred, cast out and warped. We honor the Prophecy. Our children will be conceived in love, in accordance with Haomane’s will, and Arahila’s.”
She laid her free hand upon his chest. “Love.”
“Aye, lady.” He covered her hand with his own, gazing at her. “Never less. I swear it to you. Though my heart beats to a swift and mortal tune, it beats true. And until I die, it lies in your keeping.”
“Ah, Aracus!” His name caught in her throat. “We have so little time!”
“I know,” he murmured. “All too well, I know.”
ELSEWHERE ON URULAT, NIGHT CREPT westward.
Slowly, it progressed, a gilt edge fading to the blue of twilight, drawing a cloak of darkness behind it. Where it passed—over the fields and orchards of Vedasia, over the dank marshes of the Delta, over Harrington Inlet, across the Unknown Desert and Staccia and Seahold and Curonan—the stars emerged in its wake.
It came to the high mountains of Pelmar, where a woman stood on the steep edge of a cavern, and a gem bound in a circlet at her brow shone like the red star that flickered low, low on the far western horizon.
Her name was Lilias, though Men and Ellylon called her the Sorceress of the East. She had been a mortal woman, once; the daughter of a wealthy Pelmaran earl. The east was the land of Oronin Last-Born, in whose train death rode, and his lingering touch lay on those Men, Arahila’s Children, who settled in Pelmar as their ever-increasing numbers covered the earth. It was said those of noble birth could hear Oronin’s Horn summon them to their deaths.
Lilias feared death. She had seen it, once, in the eyes of a young man to whom her father would have betrothed her. He was a duke’s son, well made and gently spoken, but she had seen in his eyes the inevitability of her fate, old age and generations of children yet unborn, and she had heard the echo of Oronin’s Horn. Such was the lot of Arahila’s Children, and the mighty Chain of Being held her fast in its inescapable grip.
And so she had fled into the mountains. Up, she went, higher than any of her brothers had ever dared climb, scaling the height of Beshtanag Mountain and hiding herself in its caverns. It was there that she had encountered the dragon.
His name was Calandor, and he was immortal after his kind. If he had hungered, he might have swallowed her whole, but since he did not, he asked her instead why she wept.
Weeping, she told him.
Twin jets of smoke had risen from his nostrils, for such was the laughter of dragons. And it was there that he gave a great treasure into her keeping: One of the lost Soumanië, Ardrath’s gem that had been missing for many centuries. It had been plucked from the battlefield by a simple soldier who thought it a mere ruby. From thence its trail was lost until it ended in the hoard of a dragon, who made it a gift to a mortal woman who did not wish to die.
Such was the caprice of dragons, whose knowledge was vast and unfathomable. Calandor taught her many things, the first of which was how to use the Soumanië to stretch the Chain of Being, keeping mortality at bay.
She was no longer afraid.
It had been a long time ago. Lilias’ family was long dead, her lineage forgotten. She was the Sorceress of the East and possessed great power, which she used with neither great wisdom nor folly. She allowed Oronin’s Children, the Were, to hunt freely in the forests of Beshtanag, though elsewhere they were reviled for aiding Satoris the Sunderer in the last great war. The regents of Pelmar feared her and left her in peace, which was her sole desire.
And, until now, the Six Shapers had done the same.
Lilias regarded the red star on the horizon and felt uneasiness stir in her soul for the first time in many centuries. Dergail’s Soumanië had risen, and change was afoot. Behind her in the mammoth darkness a vast shadow loomed.
“What does it mean, Calandor?” she asked in a low voice.
“Trouble.” The word emerged in a sulfurous breath, half lost in the heights of the vaulted cavern. Unafraid, she laid one hand on the taloned foot nearest her. The rough scales were warm to the touch; massive claws gleaming like hematite, gouging the stone floor. On either side, forelegs as vast and sturdy as columns. Somewhere above and behind her head, she could hear the dragon’s heart beating, slow and steady like the pulse of the earth.
“Usssss.” High above, Calandor bent his sinuous neck to answer, the heat of his exhalation brushing her check. “Uss, Liliasss.” And there was sorrow, and regret, in the dragon’s voice.
I will not be afraid, Lilias told herself. I will not be afraid!
She touched the Soumanië, the red gem bound at her brow, and gazed westward, where its twin flickered on the horizon. “What shall we do, Calandor?”
“Wait,” the dragon said, laying his thoughts open to her. “We wait, Liliasss.”
And in that moment, she knew, knowledge a daughter of Men was never meant to bear. The sorceress Lilias shook with knowledge. “Oh, Calandor!” she cried, turning and hiding her face against the plate-armor of the dragon’s breast, warm as burnished bronze. “Calandor!”
“All things must be as they are, little sister,” said the dragon. “All thingsss.”
And the red star flickered in the west.
Copyright © 2004 by Jacqueline Carey