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The girl sat mesmerized by fear in the big chair. She would have been a good-looking woman of some eighteen summers were it not for the fear that lit her face. Kirion, sorcerer to the duke of Kars, eyed her with mock sadness.
“Silly child. You won’t be able to move until I release you from my spell. Silly twice over to reject the duke of Kars quite so firmly. You annoyed him, you know. He isn’t used to not getting something he wants. But he’ll have you to spend time with. You’ll be besotted, infatuated, and before all the court too.”
The captive gasped defiantly, and Kirion snickered. “No, no. You will, I assure you.” He ignored the girl after that as he gathered his ingredients. Kirion laid out a pentacle and spoke the rolling incantations while watching his victim closely. At some stage in the proceedings the girl lost consciousness. Kirion finished and spoke softly.
“The duke is waiting. Will you sleep all day when your love looks for you?”
The blue eyes seemed blank, but behind them a trapped spirit struggled for freedom. It failed. The girl looked at Kirion for a moment, then her face lit adoringly. “My lord wants me. Where is he? I must go to him at once.”
“You must go to your beloved?” Kirion prompted.
“Yes, of course. I must go to the duke. I love him and he loves me. We shall not be parted.”
Kirion politely opened the door from his tower in the oldest part of the duchy palace. “Do not allow me to keep you then.” He watched as the girl trotted off in search of the man who had demanded her affections.
Shastro should be careful, Kirion thought. The duke had ordered his sorcerer to change the mind of a would-be lover a few too many times of late. The court was beginning to mutter. There’d been no problems when it was young women of the Old Race. Kars city didn’t care what happened to them, not as long as it wasn’t too blatant.
But with Shastro turning his attentions to the girls about the court, the daughters of merchants and lesser nobles, instead of the young women partly or wholly of the Old Race, not all appreciated the honor. The girl who’d just departed had been of a minor noble family. Duke Shastro of the Duchy of Kars had desired her. She’d rejected him in no uncertain fashion, and Shastro had come running to his tame sorcerer to demand that the object of his desires desire him in turn—and at once.
Kirion had obliged, but it took power. Since he’d learned the way of stealing it from others who had it, he could do many things, but all such magical thefts leeched the power. Kirion remembered how his sister, Aisling, had escaped him, and he cursed. If only he’d been able to get his hands on her. Of the three of them, him, his younger brother, Keelan, and his sister, Aisling, it was she who had the widest, deepest powers.
She’d escaped him though. Despite much searching, he had not been able to find her—until now. Last night he’d used blood to spark another mind-search. The result had been interesting. Where she was he did not know, but he knew she was about to return. She was filled with power that could be stolen, drained, and her body cast aside to Kirion’s greater glory. His mouth curved in a hungry smile. He’d wait. It was said that all things came in time to those who waited with patience.
Aisling squealed, catching the ball tossed to her as her eyes lit with laughter. She tossed it back, and the graceful Krogan girl caught it neatly.
Aisling sighed softly. “I’ll miss it here.”
“Then why leave?”
“I’m homesick,” Aisling said simply. “I’ve been here three years. I love this place, but I miss Aiskeep.” The Krogan girl nodded.
“I too have yearned for my home water. I have much yet to learn, so I will stay.” She turned away, the ball held absently in one hand as she slipped into the nearby stream and lay full length. Aisling smiled at her and walked toward a small rise. Atop it she stared down along the landscape lying before her.
She liked Escore. She liked her teachers and those she had met in Estcarp. But Aiskeep called more strongly each season as she remembered what the seasons were like in the great gray keep where she’d been born. She missed her grandparents and her brother. She missed her friends in Karsten. And most of all, she worried about her elder brother, Kirion, and what evil he might now have learned.
Three years back she’d fled to keep Kirion from draining her gift for his own sorcery, and to prevent his crony Ruart from marrying her against her will. Ruart had died in his pursuit of Aisling, struck down by a man whose fiancée he had murdered some years ago. Only Kirion remained as a danger. Unless, she added ruefully to herself, you added half of the Karsten population. Her country was still taking seriously the admonition “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
She gazed down the valley again. It had been so warmly welcoming, so kind and generous to a lonely half-breed from an enemy land. Its residents had not cared that half of her was from the new race that had taken over much of Karsten. The other half was of their ancient blood; that had been enough. Yet kind as they had been, their land was not her home.
A lithe form bounded up the hill and sat smirking at her through slitted eyes. She dropped to sit beside him as the big cat nudged her. She looked down … into understanding eyes. A picture formed in her mind of the high walls of Aiskeep with Shosho, her furred companion’s mother, standing by the door. Behind Shosho stood Aisling’s grandparents and her brother, Keelan. Then through the scene came longing, heart-hunger. The amber eyes that held hers blinked, and the scene was gone, but the question remained. She reached out, and he climbed into her lap. He was overly conscious of feline dignity and rarely did this, but at the moment they were alone.
She held him, his warm massive purring weight. She spoke into one furred ear as homesickness flared within her.
“Yes. I’ve worked so hard these three years since Neevor found us. Now Hilarion says I’ve learned much of what can be taught. The rest is practice. I’ll never be an adept, but I’m a much better healer.” Her hand went up to touch the pendant hidden in her bodice, then slipped down to grasp the hilt of the sheathed dagger at her waist.
“I had these and other gifts, and he has trained me well, I believe. I have added much to my store of knowledge. But it is time, Wind Dancer. Time I returned home.” She hugged her friend. “And you. You are homesick too!” His yowl was emphatic agreement; she laughed. “Then we leave in a week, my brother-in-fur who dances with the breeze. But I’ll have to sew a larger carrysack for you before we go.”
Her hand smoothed soft fur. Wind Dancer had grown in three years. He’d been only eighteen months when they had risked their lives to cross the mountains to freedom here. He’d always given promise of being a big cat. In the years since, that promise had been fulfilled. Now he was knee-high to Aisling, some thirty-five pounds of bone and muscle. His claws and strength could bring down one of the small hill deer without difficulty. Though small was a relative term as they stood three feet at the shoulder.
Through the last years he’d often been away from her, hunting, roaming, enjoying life in a new land, always returning to see that she was well, to renew their ties and stalk about the valley as if he ruled there. Aisling hugged him, asking the question all who knew him asked sooner or later.
“Your mother, who did she find in the hills in Karsten?” Wind Dancer purred, slitting his eyes mysteriously. She laughed again. If he knew, he wasn’t telling.
Together they strolled down the rise. When they reached her dwelling and she’d finished preparing the evening meal, Aisling ate alone save for Wind Dancer, and when she was done and the scraps and dishes cleared, she lay down to sleep. For the past two nights she’d not slept well, the unmade decision to leave or stay keeping her from true sleep. Her choice made, now she could sleep. She did so, feeling the warmth of Wind Dancer, who was cuddled into one hip.
She slid into the dream unawares. There was a tower, a sickly red and black, with the colors flaring and smoking together. She drifted down to enter and saw Kirion. She stepped back in disgust at what he did. She could have left, but instead she felt warning pulse within her. She was here for a purpose; she stayed.
Over the next hour she learned much. Time had not stood still with her brother while she’d been gone. Kirion had found books of sorcery; he’d had gifts from his blood even as she. Males, wholly or partly of the Old Race, could not normally access what powers might lurk in their bloodlines. But Kirion had had a greater desire for power than most. To aid that he’d turned to sorcery and blood magic. That she had known. It was why he’d hunted her through the mountains three years gone.
Now, somehow, he’d learned of her decision to return. He would seek her again. In her sleep she frowned. She could avoid him by staying here. But why should she allow her brother to dictate her life? She’d seen what he did. How he pandered to the appetites of a man not fit to rule Kars. Besides, the need to return, to see her home once more, flared up like a physical ache. There was a tugging, a demand that she obey. She would go home. Let Kirion beware if he stood in her way. She was not the small sister he’d once frightened.
With bright morning she remembered the dream and all she had seen. Remembered too her decision to do something about Kirion’s evil, as if it thrust its way to the forefront of her mind, commanding her attention. But was it simply that she hated Kirion for his cruelty and her mind played tricks? Or had she true-dreamed? She went to Hilarion.
“Adept,” her voice was formal, warning that she asked advice of the power, not the man alone. “I have dreamed.”
His voice was equally formal, though warm to this favorite student. “Tell me your dream.” She told. When she was silent again, he considered. He’d heard about Kirion when Aisling first arrived. Later, certain others who visited the city of Kars had talked as well. Kirion was evil. Not born but made that way by his own will. In evil he saw power not obtainable from other paths. His influence over the weak and lecherous ruler of Karsten was powerful. Kirion had raised the man to be duke, but his continued assistance and encouragement of the duke’s appetites and fears were dangerous both to Karsten and to all of the Old Blood still there as well as to those who had fled elsewhere.
He nodded to Aisling. “Go. I will think on this and seek further knowledge. Return at sun high.” She left in silence as Hilarion turned to his books. He was ready when Aisling returned. He placed a chair for her, offered wine, and waited until she was comfortable. Then he began.
“It was a true-dreaming, my pupil. A warning that you would do well to heed. Kirion grows in power; and as he does so, he turns his eyes toward Estcarp. He plans raids on the borders to net himself captives from whom he may wring more power. But that is not what he will say to Shastro. He plans to enrage the duke against the witches there once more. Shastro knows that his people have begun to complain about his ways with the sons and daughters of the court. Kirion will see that Shastro is ‘paid’ in girls and youths taken in the raids. Thus both ruler and ruled will be pleased with events.”
“Estcarp won’t,” Aisling said dryly.
“No, nor will the Valley of the Green Silences here in Escore. I see the dream as a warning to you. Kirion is your brother. The power sets a sister against him. A geas is laid upon you. The choice is always yours, but that is my reading.”
She bowed her head as she thought. Then her gaze rose to meet gentle eyes. “It is my choice and I choose. I will go back to Karsten as I planned. I’ll see my family, find out all I can on the way and from them. But what should I do after that? How do I stop Kirion?”
Hilarion spread his hands. “I do not know. I can see little. Only that this task is for you and that you will not return to us I think.” She flinched. “No, I do not foresee your death, more likely another choice. What I do see is that this task is important to us all. In time to come it may be a foundation stone.”
Aisling sat silently for several minutes. It sounded like a heavy burden, but then Kirion was adept at imposing burdens on others. She nodded at last. “Yes. Well, if I’m going I’d better pack.” She stood, and Hilarion touched her arm affectionately.
“Renthans will take you to the pass. Someone will meet you on the other side with mounts.” Aisling gasped. So, Escore did have spies in Karsten. She’d suspected it.
Hilarion eyed her with mild amusement. It did no harm to confirm the girl would not be quite alone if she went up against that brother of hers. The knowledge that one’s back was shielded often strengthened the sword arm. He looked after her as she trotted down the valley toward her home of the past three years.
No, he had not seen her death, but then he had not seen she would live either. He’d seen nothing beyond the choice she would make: she would return and face the man she had once fled. But her choice had been no choice, in a way; a geas now bound her. True-dream had called her, and Aisling would answer. Either way she would be gone from the valley. He’d hear of her, but she’d not return. He sighed, then shrugged. In a war one accepted such things. And a hawk trained must always in the end be freed to fly.
At her shelter Aisling was packing with the dubious assistance of Wind Dancer. He was enjoying driving her to exasperation by removing objects almost as fast as she placed them in saddlebags. When she rounded on him at last in genuine annoyance he padded backward to stand looking up at her. Wind Dancer gave a long thoughtful stare, first at the bags, then at Aisling. The emotion sent then might best be described as a large question mark.
Aisling collapsed on her bed. “I don’t know why I’m so upset,” she told the big cat. Well, in a way she did, she thought as he bounced into her lap and settled down, purring. Her hands slid over the thick plush fur, the motion and feeling calming her as always. Of course she wanted to go home again. Aiskeep called to her. Aiskeep, grandmother, grandfather, Keelan, her brother, old Hannion, the retired master-at-arms, his nephew Harron, who now held the job. Her friends on the Aiskeep garths.
She’d left them all for fear of Kirion and his plots when her elder brother had turned to black sorcery. Three years ago she’d been a bone fought over by two snarling dogs: Kirion, who wanted to leech her power and leave her dead or mindless, and his comrade Ruart, who wanted her for other reasons but whose destruction of her would have been as sure, if slower.
She’d made an almost lethal trip through the mountains to find sanctuary. Here in Escore she’d found training for her powers. Here she’d found peace, and the learning she’d begun to crave. Wind Dancer, kit to her brother’s cat, Shosho, had accompanied her. And in the end only his determination had brought them alive from the mountains.
A ripple of emotion seared through her. She smiled down and understood. Of course she was torn. She was going back to the place and people she loved most in all the world. But she returned too, to the man she hated and feared most, to face him in sorcerous combat if need be. Joy and fear battled. Most annoying, she had to go, and she resented the geas laid on her. She fought against the order that she must leave her peaceful life to return to strife.
Her fingers riffled automatically through Wind Dancer’s fur as she thought. There was always a choice. She could fight to stay. But if she stayed would not Kirion’s evil go unchecked? But then if she fought him, what said he could not win? Then the lands would be poorer by other things she could have done had she not died. She sat among half-packed saddlebags as the day slowly waned to dusk.
In those hours she reviewed her life: her training here and all the paths she could see of possible choices made. When she rose at first dark she was so stiff she could barely stand. She stretched, her brain exhausted but calm. Wind Dancer leaped lightly from her lap and patted her with a large paw. His mind sent a desire for food to eat, sweet milk to drink.
Laughing, Aisling ran to the kitchen and fed him, returned with food and drink for herself, lit the single globe with a flick of her mind, and resumed her packing. With the stuffed saddlebags lying ready she ate, drank, then moved to lie full length on the bed. Hilarion had told the truth. Sister was set against brother on the gaming board.
She smiled as she relaxed. Yet in few games was only one piece against another. There were many. She would have Aiskeep, and old Geavon and his kin at Gerith Keep. Kirion had injured many as had his puppet duke. The victims who’d survived and those who loved them would aid her if given the opportunity. Against her she had Kirion and Shastro: black sorcery and the lord duke of Kars—powerful opponents.
But something fierce within her rose to fight that. They were powerful, yes. But with the teaching she’d been given here, she would be no easy morsel. She damped the emotion swiftly. She must be cunning, cautious. She must undermine slowly and with care. If her brother and the duke were seen to fail once or twice, more would rise against them. Kirion would spend strength watching those, and that use of strength would weaken him further. Beside her, Wind Dancer purred approval.
Aisling snuggled into her blankets. In the morning they would ride. She would have left the cat behind; it could be dangerous for him, but he’d have none of it. He was returning too, and that was his decision to make. She put out an arm and cuddled him closer, hearing and feeling the soft rumbling purr. It wouldn’t be home without him.
Many days’ travel away Kirion sat watching his newest puppet dance for the duke. Shastro had been delighted. Kirion was only tired, and irritated at the loss of so much power merely to provide another toy. He wouldn’t mind so much if Shastro didn’t use up his playthings so quickly, but this one would last a week, maybe a month, two at most. Then she’d be discarded, and the duke’s eyes would light on another to be coaxed—or coerced—to the ducal bed.
It was becoming a nuisance. He could use potions to lesson Shastro’s lusts, but without a blurring of the duke’s mind as well it would be obvious to his victim what had been done. Shastro would rise in the kind of fury only a weak man can produce. Kirion had seen that once. He had no wish to have it turned on himself. Not that he could be harmed, of course, but he’d have to defend himself. That would drive Shastro to use everything at his command.
Kirion bit back a snarl. He’d survive if that happened and the duke wouldn’t, but then he’d have lost his figurehead. Lost too his tower at the palace, and his position. To take power openly was to risk too much—his own skin for a start. As long as Shastro ruled, the people blamed any excesses on the duke. Kirion was careful to counsel moderation now and again, always within earshot of others of the court. He had a name as a powerful sorcerer but one who obeyed the duke and tried to temper some of the ruler’s ways.
No one liked the duke’s sorcerer much. But they didn’t really notice him either. And that was how Kirion wanted it. He could recall his grandmother’s tales of the Horning, how her family had been slaughtered. The then duke had been set against those of the Old Race and Blood. Kirion did not desire too many to talk about his abilities, just in case. He stood and unobtrusively strolled to the door.
Back in his tower he found his scrying bowl, filled it with water, summoned stolen power, and scried again to receive the same answer: Aisling was returning. From where or when he could not discover, but she was coming home. He called, and a man cringed as he made his way through the door.
Kirion eyed the man’s humble posture. The man was a competent enough steward, a satisfactory and most amusing servant although the fool knew it not. Kirion kept the man befogged in a series of dreams, paid him nothing, allowed him barely enough to eat, and permitted him to live. It was a useful system for one who was a sorcerer.
“Varnar, you will send out spies. They will watch Gerith Keep and Aiskeep, three men to each place. Each keep must be watched at all times. They are to look for a young woman, or a boy who could be the woman in disguise. If they miss her I’ll have them for my tower.”
Varnar shivered. “Yes, my Lord.”
“They are to watch continually. If the quarry appears one of them must ride to tell me. The other two are to remain on watch. If she leaves, one man is to follow her while the other returns to tell me. Is that understood? Repeat the instructions.” Varnar did so. “Good. Also you will post three men by a small abandoned garth in the hills. I’ll give you a map for them. They’re to make camp there. If the woman comes they are to seize her if possible and bring her to me. But only if they are sure they can take her uninjured.”
His face twisted into a terrifying scowl. “Make certain they understand. If she is injured, if they dare to lay hands on her for anything but to restrain her, I shall visit torments unspeakable upon them. I must have her … undamaged.” He invested the last word with a ferocious significance that his servant completely understood.
“They shall be told, Lord.” Varnar bowed his way out and ran to find Kirion’s spies. Gods help the poor young lady whoever she might be. Varnar knew only too well what such a command meant. He saw the men ride out and reported that to his lord before being dismissed. He crept from the sorcerer’s presence to be alone in his own quarters. He hated his master with every fiber of his being, but something held him here. Perhaps the dreams he dreamed. Apart from which it was unsafe to cross Kirion; those who did so died in ways it was not good to recall.
He ate and slept then, wrapped in two threadbare blankets on a bare chill stone floor. He dreamed of the past. He had once slept on finest wool between linen sheets. In that time so long behind other events that the memories grew dim, he’d once given orders, shared his hall with one whose eyes smiled love. There’d been scampering footsteps, a small girl’s voice. But he must forget all of that. If he remembered, Kirion would read it, and that was dangerous.
In his study Kirion did read and smiled, a slow vicious smirk that lit his face with a look that would have disturbed even Shastro. Kirion’s little experiment was starting to work. Dreams, memories, life were illusions, and he was a master illusionist. Let Varnar learn that. After all, one must amuse oneself, or what was power for?
Copyright © 2005 by Andre Norton and Lyn McConchie