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Iya pulled off her straw wayfarer’s hat and fanned herself with it as her horse labored up the rocky trail toward Afra. The sun stood at noon, blazing against the cloudless blue. It was only the first week of Gorathin, far too early for it to be this hot. It seemed the drought was going to last another season.
Snow still glistened on the peaks overhead, however. Now and then a plume of wind-blown white gusted out against the stark blue of the sky, creating the tantalizing illusion of coolness, while down here in the narrow pass no breeze stirred. Anywhere else Iya might have conjured up a bit of wind, but no magic was allowed within a day’s ride of Afra.
Ahead of her, Arkoniel swayed in his saddle like a shabby, long-legged stork. The young wizard’s linen tunic was sweated through down the back and stained drab with a week’s worth of road dust. He never complained; his only concession to the heat was the sacrifice of the patchy black beard he’d cultivating since he turned one and twenty last Erain.
Poor boy, Iya thought fondly; the newly shaven skin was already badly sunburnt.
Their destination, the Oracle at Afra, lay at the very heart of Skala’s mountainous spine and was a grueling ride any time of year. Iya had made the long pilgrimage twice before, but never in summer.
The walls of the pass pressed close to the trail here, and centuries of seekers had left their names and supplications to Illior Lightbearer scratched into the dark stone. Some had simply scratched the god’s thin crescent moon; these lined the trail like countless tilting smiles. Arkoniel had left one of his own earlier that morning to commemorate his first visit.
Iya’s horse stumbled and the reason for their journey bumped hard against her thigh. Inside the worn leather bag slung from her saddle horn, smothered in elaborate wrappings and magic, was a lopsided bowl crudely fashioned of burnt clay. There was nothing remarkable about it, except for the fierce aura of malevolence it gave off when not hidden away. More than once over the years she’d imagined throwing it over a cliff or into a river; in reality, she could no more have done that than cut off her own arm. She was the Guardian; the contents of that bag had been her charge for over a century.
Unless the Oracle can tell me otherwise. Fixing her thin, greying hair into a knot on top of her head, she fanned again at her sweaty neck.
Arkoniel turned in the saddle and regarded her with concern. His unruly black curls dripped sweat beneath the wilted brim of his hat. “You’re red in the face. We should stop and rest again.”
“No, we’re nearly there.”
“Then have some more water, at least. And put your hat back on!”
“You make me feel old. I’m only two hundred and thirty, you know.”
“Two hundred and thirty-two,” he corrected with a wry grin. It was an old game between them.
She pulled a sour face. “Just wait until you’re in your third age, my boy. It gets harder to keep track.”
The truth was, hard riding did tire her more than it had back in her early hundreds, although she wasn’t about to admit it. She took a long pull from her waterskin and flexed her shoulders. “You’ve been quiet today. Do you have a query yet?”
“I think so. I hope the Oracle finds it worthy.”
Such earnestness made Iya smile. This journey was merely another lesson as far as Arkoniel knew. She’d told him nothing of her true quest.
The leather bag bumped against her thigh like a nagging child. Forgive me, Agazhar, she thought, knowing her long-dead teacher, the first Guardian, would not have approved.
The last stretch of trail was the most treacherous. The rock face to their right gave way to a chasm and in places they rode with their left knees brushing the cliff face.
Arkoniel disappeared around a sharp bend, then called back, “I can see Illior’s Keyhole, just as you described!”
Rounding the outcropping, Iya saw the painted archway glowing like a garish apparition where it straddled the trail. Stylized dragons glowed in red, blue, and gold around the narrow opening, which was just wide enough for a singe horseman to pass through. Afra lay less than a mile beyond.
Sweat stung Iya’s eyes, making her blink. It had been snowing the first time Agazhar brought her here.
Iya had come later than most to the wizardly arts. She’d grown up on a tenant farm on the border of Skala’s mainland territory. The closest market town lay across the Keela River in Mycena, and it was here that Iya’s family traded. Like many bordermen, her father had taken a Mycenian wife and made his offerings to Dalna the Maker, rather than Illior or Sakor.
So it was, when she first showed signs of magic, that she was sent across the river to study with an old Dalnan priest who’d tried to make a drysian healer of her. She earned praise for her herb craft, but as soon as the ignorant old fellow discovered that she could make fire with a thought, he bound a witch charm to her wrist and sent her home in disgrace.
With this taint on her, she’d found little welcome in her village and no prospect of a husband.
She was a spinster of twenty-four when Agazhar happened across her in the market square. He told her later that it was the witch charm that had caught his eye as she stood haggling with a trader over the price of her goats.
She’d taken no notice of him, thinking he was just another old soldier finding his way home from the wars. Agazhar had been as ragged and hollow-cheeked as any of them, and the left sleeve of his tunic hung empty.
Iya was forced to take a second look when he walked up to her, clasped her hand, and broke into a sweet smile of recognition. After a brief conversation, she sold off her goats and followed the old wizard down the south road without a backward glance. All anyone would have found of her, had they bothered to search, was the witch charm lying in the weeds by the market gate.
Agazhar hadn’t scoffed at her fire making. Instead, he explained that it was the first sign that she was one of the god-touched of Illior. Then he taught her to harness the unknown power she possessed into the potent magic of the Oreska wizards.
Agazhar was a free wizard, beholden to no one. Eschewing the comforts of a single patron, he wandered as he liked, finding welcome in noble houses and humble ones alike. Together he and Iya traveled the Three Lands and beyond, sailing west to Aurenen, where even the common folk were as long-lived as wizards and possessed magic. Here she learned that the Aurenfaie were the First Oreska; it was their blood, mingled with that of Iya’s race, that had given magic to the chosen ones of Skala and Plenimar.
This gift came with a price. Human wizards could neither bear nor sire children, but Iya considered herself well repaid, both in magic and, later, with students as gifted and companionable as Arkoniel.
Agazhar had also taught her more about the Great War than any of her father’s ballads or legends, for he’d been among the wizards who’d fought for Skala under Queen Gherilain’s banner.
“There’s never been another such war as that, and pray Sakor there never shall be again,” he’d say, staring into the campfire at night as if he saw his fallen comrades there. “For one shining span of time wizards stood shoulder to shoulder with warriors, battling the black necromancers of Plenimar.”
The tales Agazhar told of those days gave Iya nightmares. A necromancer’s demon — a dyrmagnos, he called it — had torn off his left arm.
But gruesome as these tales were, Iya still clung to them, for only there had Agazhar given her any glimpse of where the strange bowl had come from.
Agazhar had carried it then; never in all the years she’d known him had he ever let it out of his possession. “Spoils of war,” he’d said with a dark laugh, the first time he’d opened the bag to show it to her.
But beyond that, he would tell her nothing except that the bowl could not be destroyed and that its existence could not be revealed to anyone but the next Guardian. Instead, he’d schooled her rigorously in the complex web of spells that protected it, making her weave and unweave them until she could do it in the blink of an eye.
“You’ll be the Guardian after me,” he reminded her when she grew impatient with the secrecy. “Then you’ll understand. Be certain you choose your successor wisely.”
“But how will I know who to choose?”
He’d smiled and taken her hand as he had when they’d first met in the marketplace. “Trust in the Lightbearer. You’ll know.”
And she had.
At first she couldn’t help pressing to know more about it — where he’d found it, who had made it and why, but Agazhar had remained obdurate. “Not until the time comes for you to take on the full care of it. Then I will tell you all there is to know.”
Sadly, that day had taken them both unaware. Agazhar had dropped dead in the streets of Ero one fine spring day soon after her first century. One moment he was holding forth on the beauty of a new transformation spell he’d just created; the next, he slipped to the ground with a hand pressed to his chest and a look of mild surprise in his fixed, dead eyes.
Scarcely into her second age, Iya suddenly found herself Guardian without knowing what she guarded or why. She kept the oath she’d sworn to him and waited for Illior to reveal her successor. She’d waited two lifetimes, as promising students came and went, and said nothing to them of the bag and its secrets.
But as Agazhar had promised, she’d recognized Arkoniel the moment she first spied him playing in his father’s orchard fifteen years earlier. He could already keep a pippin spinning in midair and could put out a candle flame with a thought.
Young as he was, she’d taught him what little she knew of the bowl as soon as he was bound over to her. Later, when he was strong enough, she taught him how to weave the protections. Even so, she kept the burden of it on her own shoulders as Agazhar had instructed.
Over the years Iya had come to regard the bowl as little more than a sacred nuisance, but that had all changed a month ago when the wretched thing had taken over her dreams. The ghastly interwoven nightmares, more vivid than any she’d ever known, had finally driven her here, for she saw the bowl in all of them, carried high above a battlefield by a monstrous black figure for which she knew no name.
“Iya? Iya, are you well?” asked Arkoniel.
Iya shook off the reverie that had claimed her and gave him a reassuring smile. “Ah, we’re here at last, I see.”
Pinched in a deep cleft of rock, Afra was scarcely large enough to be called a village and existed solely to serve the Oracle and the pilgrims who journeyed here. A wayfarer’s inn and the chambers of the priests were carved like bank swallow nests into the cliff faces on either side of the small paved square. Their doorways and deep-set windows were framed with carved fretwork and pillars of ancient design. The square was deserted now, but a few people waved to them from the shadowy windows.
At the center of the square stood a red jasper stele as tall as Arkoniel. A spring bubbled up at its base and flowed away into a stone basin and on to a trough beyond.
“By the Light!” Dismounting, Arkoniel turned his horse loose at the trough and went to examine the stele. Running his palm over the inscription carved in four languages, he read the words that had changed the course of Skalan history three centuries earlier. “‘So long as a daughter of Thelatimos’ line defends and rules, Skala shall never be subjugated.’” He shook his head in wonder. “This is the original, isn’t it?”
Iya nodded sadly. “Queen Gherilain placed this here herself as a thank offering right after the war. The Oracle’s Queen, they called her then.”
In the darkest days of the war, when it seemed that Plenimar would devour the lands of Skala and Mycena, the Skalan king, Thelatimos, had left the battlefields and journeyed here to consult the Oracle. When he returned to battle, he brought with him his daughter, Gherilain, then a maiden of sixteen. Obeying the Oracle’s words, he anointed her before his exhausted army and passed his crown and sword to her.
According to Agazhar, the generals had not thought much of the king’s decision. Yet from the start the girl proved god-touched as a warrior and led the allies to victory in a year’s time, killing the Plenimaran Overlord single-handedly at the Battle of Isil. She’d been a fine queen in peace, as well, and ruled for over fifty years. Agazhar had been among her mourners.
“These markers used to stand all over Skala, didn’t they?” asked Arkoniel.
“Yes, at every major crossroads in the land. You were just a babe when King Erius tore them all down.” Iya dismounted and touched the stone reverently. It was hot under her palm, and still as smooth as he day it had left the stonecutter’s shop. “Even Erius didn’t dare touch this one.”
“When he sent word for it to be removed, the priests refused. To force the issue meant invading Afra itself, the most sacred ground in Skala. So Erius graciously relented and contented himself with having all the others dumped into the sea. There was also a golden tablet bearing the inscription in the throne room at the Old Palace. I wonder what happened to that?”
But the younger wizard had more immediate concerns. Shading his eyes, he studied the cliff face. “Where’s the Oracle’s shrine?”
“Further up the valley. Drink deeply here. We must walk the rest of the way.”
Leaving their mounts at the inn, they followed a well-worn path deeper into the cleft. The way became steeper and more difficult as they went. There were no trees to shade them, no moisture to lay the white dust that hung on the hot midday air. Soon the way dwindled to a faint track winding up between boulders and over rock faces worn smooth and treacherous by centuries of pilgrim’s feet.
They met two other groups of seekers coming in the opposite direction. Several young soldiers were laughing and talking bravely, all but one young man who hung back from his fellows with the fear of death clear in his eyes. The second group clustered around an elderly merchant woman who wept silently as the younger members of her party helped her along.