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By the time Amberglas finished, both of her listeners were thoroughly alarmed. The Matholych was something very old and powerful, which destroyed people and animals wherever it moved. Only sorcery could fight it, though unfortunately no one seemed to know exactly what kind of sorcery. There were a great many different theories, but since the Matholych ate magic, testing them was apt to be rather awkward.
“I thought you said the Matholych ate people,” Crystalorn objected.
“Not at all,” Amberglas replied. “It eats magic, and there is quite a large amount of magical power in killing people and animals. Of course, getting power that way is a bit unpleasant, which may explain why it is generally regarded as Black Sorcery by everyone who doesn’t use it.”
Eltiron shuddered. Somehow, killing animals to get magic from their deaths seemed much worse than killing them for food. “And this thing is coming north?”
WHERE FANTASY TAKES FLIGHT™
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Registered Offices: Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
First published in the United States of America by Ace Fantasy Books,
The Berkley Publishing Group, 1984
Published by Firebird, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2008
Copyright © Patricia C. Wrede, 1984
All rights reserved
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA IS AVAILABLE
eISBN : 978-1-101-01990-0
For Joel and Beth, who listened with great patience to many improbable ideas, and for Nate, Pam, Steve, Kara, Will, and Emma, who wouldn’t let me get away with any of them.
Jermain crouched low on his horse’s neck as he urged the animal to greater speed. Small branches stung his face as they whipped past, but he barely felt them. He could hear the sounds of his pursuers crashing through the brush behind him. Too close, they were much too close; he didn’t know this forest well enough to lose them. He shut the thought out of his mind and concentrated on escape.
The trees were becoming larger; good. He might be able to gain some ground once his horse was clear of this little bushy stuff. He dug his heels into Blackflame’s sides. The horse responded at once. Jermain felt the lengthening stride and knew a moment’s hope. No one in the Border Guard had a horse to match Blackflame. Perhaps he could get away from them before blood loss forced him to stop.
Expertly he guided his mount through the trees. He could feel himself weakening, but he could not spare a hand to staunch the blood. Desperately he spurred the horse once more. His eyes searched the forest for a shelf of rock, a stream, something he could use to hide his trail. He found nothing.
His vision blurred, but he did not dare to stop. He clamped his right arm against his side, clenching his teeth against the pain. The pressure might slow down the bleeding, or it might not, but the pain would keep him conscious a little longer. He could make it yet. The shouts and horns were fainter; he had gained a little ground.
The forest seemed to be thinning ahead; perhaps he could gain a little more time. He guided Blackflame toward the place where the trees grew farthest apart. A moment later, they broke into a large clearing. Jermain had just time to see the slight, startled figure standing in Blackflame’s path; then the horse planted its forefeet and stopped, so abruptly that it was forced back almost on its haunches. Jermain was flung forward out of the saddle and fell heavily to the ground.
Darkness and pain surged over him. Jermain forced them back. He couldn’t pass out now; he would lose too much time. “Dear me,” a voice said somewhere above him. “That was a rough stop. Are you hurt?”
Jermain opened his eyes and blinked in disbelief. A woman stood a few feet away, her back toward him. A heavy mass of steel-colored hair fell to the waist of her pale blue gown. Blackflame stood in front of her, trembling from exertion. The woman had one hand out, stroking Blackflame’s nose. She was talking to the horse.
To the horse? Jermain blinked again. He tried to roll onto his side so he could see more clearly, and a fresh wave of pain made him gasp. Apparently he had broken a rib or two in that fall. The noise attracted the woman’s attention; she turned and looked at Jermain. She was young; not a damsel of sixteen, certainly, but no more than thirty, and obviously a lady.
“It’s quite all right,” she said vaguely. “I will be there in a minute. Of course, you’re here, so it really doesn’t matter, but most people seem to feel better if I explain about these things.” She turned back to the horse, and her head tilted to one side in critical examination.
For a moment, Jermain lay motionless. He would have cursed, but he had no energy for it. He tried again to get to his feet; he made it to his knees. The woman turned around again.
“You really shouldn’t do that, especially if you’re not feeling well, which I can see you aren’t, what with that hole in your side and so on. I assume you realize that, though one can never tell. People can be so very odd. There was a man I used to know, who always wore his boots on the wrong feet for one day out of every month. So I thought I’d mention it, in case you didn’t.”
“I have to get out of here,” Jermain croaked, ignoring her jumbled speech. She had to help him or he was finished for certain.
“No, you’ll be much better off staying here,” the woman said. “Well, not here precisely, at least not for very long. No, certainly not long; you would be very uncomfortable, I am sure, and the damp would get into your wound, which would probably give you a fever, though sometimes it doesn’t.”
Jermain ignored her completely this time. He was having trouble balancing on his knees, and he knew that if he fell over now he wouldn’t be able to get up again. He thought about it for a minute and decided to crawl. That, he could manage. He dropped to his hands and knees, and began working his way slowly toward Blackflame, trying not to think about the pain in his chest. The woman made no move to help or hinder him. “Really, you are being very silly,” she said kindly.
The sound of shouts and hoofbeats came clearly to Jermain, growing quickly louder. With the last of his strength, Jermain lunged for Blackflame’s stirrup. He missed and sprawled painfully on the ground, fighting to remain conscious. The woman walked over and knelt beside him; he felt gentle fingers on his injured side. “If you stop jumping about like that, you probably won’t bleed to death,” the woman said, and six horsemen broke into the clearing.
For a brief, nightmarish moment, Jermain was certain he would be trampled. He did not even have enough strength left to try to roll aside; somehow the horses missed him anyway. The Border Guards pulled their mounts to a halt, forming a circle around Jermain and the woman who knelt at his side. The woman blinked at them.
“Dear me,” she murmured. “Such a lot of people.”
The leader of the group, a burly man with a captain’s braid on the front of his faded jacket, looked at the woman in surprise. Evidently he came to the same conclusion Jermain had, for he bowed respectfully before he said briskly, “Lady, I am Captain Morenar of the King’s Border Guard. This man is a dangerous criminal. You will, of course, oblige us by retiring at once. I would not wish to distress you by executing him in your presence, and we can’t risk letting him escape.”
The woman looked critically down at Jermain, then back at the Captain. “Not at all,” she said firmly. “He does not look in the least dangerous. I’m quite willing to believe he is extremely foolish, but a great many people are, and I have never heard of anyone being executed for it, though I couldn’t say for sure that it’s never happened. Of course, if he continues to run about with that wound bleeding all over everything and making such a mess, you won’t have to.”
Morenar frowned and tried again. “Lady, we have been chasing this man for four hours; I assure you there is no mistake.”
“Well, it is certainly rude of you to contradict me, and I don’t believe you at all,” the woman said flatly. “At least, I believe you have been chasing him, but not for four hours, and certainly he’s not a criminal. Though I can understand why you say so; it would probably be very awkward for you to explain. So many things are; awkward, I mean. Large kettles, for instance, and carrying three brooms at once, and those fat brown birds with the red wings whose name I can’t remember just at present. They waddle.”
“Lady,” Morenar said, “we have not made a mistake.”
“I didn’t say you had. You obviously weren’t paying attention. Why are you chasing him?” the woman said.
“We are under orders direct from Leshiya,” Morenar replied, obviously relieved that the woman seemed to be making sense at last.
“But Leshiya is the capital of Sevairn,” the woman said gently. “And, of course, you’re not in Sevairn just now, and neither am I; but then, there are a great many places that aren’t—in Sevairn, I mean—so perhaps you hadn’t noticed. The border is back that way.” She pointed.
The Captain stared at her for a moment. “We have wasted enough time,” he said abruptly. “Alver, Rusalk, escort the lady elsewhere, at once.”
Two of the soldiers swung down from their horses and started forward. Jermain tensed, wondering whether he was strong enough to get away while they were attending to the woman. He didn’t think so; he seriously doubted whether he could even get himself upright again, much less stay there. Beside him, the woman rose to her feet. She looked at the two soldiers, then at Morenar. “This is not wise of you,” she said softly. “Not wise at all.”
“Take her,” Morenar said, and the men reached out.
“Well, if you won’t listen,” the woman said, and made a swift throwing motion with both hands.
The two soldiers went stumbling backward into a brownish gray fog that Jermain was certain had not been there a moment ago. One of them screamed; then the brown cloud billowed upward, hiding them, and the rest of the Border Guards, from Jermain. Only a small area around Jermain was free of the fog; Blackflame and the woman and a little grass were the only things he could see. Even they were whirling; Jermain felt a stab of fear. A face bent over him, framed in steel-colored hair.
“Don’t worry,” the woman said as he slipped into unconsciousness. “I will see to things.”
That, thought Jermain with the last of his awareness, is what I am afraid of.
Eltiron leaned outward. The stone of the tower battlements was cool and smooth beneath his hands; nearly all of Leshiya was visible below him in living miniature. This must be the way birds see us when they fly, he thought. I wish I were a bird. He leaned farther, as if the motion would bring him closer to the sky. Somewhere below him a bell chimed.
Startled, Eltiron straightened. A brief wind ruffled his brown hair as he stood concentrating. Three, no, four chimes; he was late again. His shoulders slumped. No matter how much he hurried now, Terrel would still be certain to point out his irresponsibility to everyone when he finally arrived at the King’s Council. There was no point in rushing. Eltiron took a last look upward, then turned and started back into the castle.
Inside the tower Eltiron paused. It wasn’t as if anything important was ever discussed at the Councils anymore; Eltiron’s father and Terrel made most of the decisions in advance. Reluctantly, Eltiron started down the stairs. No, he couldn’t justify missing the meeting completely, even if it only gave Terrel another chance to sneer at him. Eltiron reached the bottom of the stairs and turned down the corridor that led to the Council chambers. His steps slowed as he neared the door. With a sigh he straightened his shoulders and went in.
The two men at the far end of the Council table looked up as Eltiron entered. “It’s about time,” said the large man wearing the gold crown.
Eltiron bowed with deep respect. “Father.” He nodded briefly to the second figure, a handsome blond man in red. “My Lord Terrel.”
“Your Highness.” Terrel’s bow was a hair too shallow and a fraction too brief; no one but Eltiron would have noticed. He looks more like a prince than I do, Eltiron thought resentfully as Terrel resumed his seat. Though Eltiron was tall, Terrel was nearly two fingers’ width taller, and, in addition to his striking good looks, he moved with a practiced grace Eltiron could not seem to imitate, however hard he tried.
“Sit down, sit down,” the King said, waving at an empty chair. “There’s no reason for you to stand around keeping us waiting.”
Eltiron looked around and realized suddenly that there was no one else in the chamber. “I was not told of any change in the time of the Council,” he said as he took a chair. Inwardly, he winced. Practically the first thing he said, and already he sounded apologetic.
“Of course you weren’t,” his father said. “Half the time no one can find you, and the other half you aren’t interested anyway. What I’ve done to deserve a son like you I don’t know.”
Eltiron felt his face grow hot. The King glared at him for a moment, then went on in a milder tone. “The truth is, this time it wasn’t your fault. I’d forgotten until Terrel mentioned it, but you couldn’t very well be present while we discussed your marriage. So I changed the time of the meeting.”
Another one of Terrel’s bright ideas for undermining me, Eltiron thought. Then the rest of the sentence penetrated. “Marriage?”
“Of course, marriage,” his father said irritably. “Didn’t I just say that? We settled it all this morning. You’re going to marry the King of Barinash’s daughter—what’s her name again, Terrel?”
“The Princess Crystalorn,” Terrel said. He smiled. “The marriage will cement the alliance between Sevairn and Barinash; it’s an excellent move.”
“But I don’t want to get married yet, sir,” Eltiron said, finding his voice at last.
“Yet? What do you mean, yet?” the King demanded. “You’re nearly twenty; how long do you expect to wait? Or did you think I was going to leave things to chance?”
“No, sir,” Eltiron said hastily. “But this is very sudden.”
“Oh, you’ll have at least a month to get used to the idea, his father said, waving away the objection. “It’ll take that long to make the rest of the arrangements.”
“The rest of the arrangements?” Eltiron said bitterly. “I see. I am to have no say in the matter. How long has this been under consideration?”
“I think Terrel mentioned it about six months ago,” the King said. “Not that it makes any difference.”
“Six months? For six months you’ve been planning to marry me to this princess I’ve never met, and you never thought to ask me about it?” Humiliation and anger together left Eltiron speechless.
The King frowned. “It’s a fine marriage; it will tie Barinash firmly to Sevairn. You have nothing to complain about.”
“Nothing to complain about!” Eltiron was shocked out of his normal reserve. “Six months ago you never would have considered such an alliance! Before Jermain left, you—”
“Jermain!” The King’s hand slammed down on the arm of his chair. “I told you I never wanted to hear that traitor’s name again! Yet every time I see you, it’s Jermain this and Jermain that, until I wonder whether you know any other name in the world. Enough of Jermain!”
“Prince Eltiron was close to Jermain,” Terrel said. “It is natural that he would wish to defend his friend.”
“It should not be natural for my son to defend a traitor!” the King roared.
Eltiron winced. “Father, I—”
“Silence! You will marry whom I tell you to, and you will make alliances where I say you will, and if you mention Jermain to me again, I will have you imprisoned for treason yourself! Is that clear?”
“No more arguments! You may go. Go watch the birds, or write a poem for your bride, or whatever it is you do with your time! Go!”
“Yes, Father.” Eltiron’s shoulders slumped. As he turned to leave, he saw the gleam of satisfaction in Terrel’s eyes; it was almost more than he could stand. He bit back a half-formed comment and left the room. The door closed silently behind him, but he could still feel Terrel’s eyes on his back, as if the man could see through wood and stone. He shivered and walked rapidly away.
As soon as he realized that he was awake, Jermain opened his eyes. He was lying in a narrow bed near one wall of a large, rather cluttered, circular room that smelled of cloves and honey. Directly across from him was a solid wooden door; beside it a flight of stone stairs led upward, curving partway around the wall of the room to vanish into an opening in the ceiling, just above the foot of the bed. A rough-hewn table occupied the center of the floor. Three mismatched chairs stood around it, and a large black bird was perched on the back of the tallest, preening. A squirrel sat on a window ledge nearby, scolding noisily.
Someone had bandaged Jermain’s side while he’d slept; he could feel the tautness of the linen as he breathed. His side still ached, but the pain was no longer insistent. Perhaps he had only bruised his ribs after all, not broken them. Jermain sat up carefully. He was considering what to do next when the door swung open.
“Be quiet, Garren,” said a female voice, and the squirrel stopped chattering at once. An instant later, the woman who had rescued Jermain from the guards appeared in the doorway. She went straight to the table without bothering to shut the door behind her. She set down the armload of plants she was carrying, then turned to observe the air in Jermain’s general vicinity.
“I’m so glad you’re feeling better,” she said. “That is, if you are. You haven’t said anything about it, so perhaps you aren’t, which wouldn’t be at all surprising, what with losing all that blood and breaking a rib and so on, though possibly you’d rather I didn’t go into detail. Still, I do think it’s a mistake not to talk about unpleasant things, even if people are sensitive; after all, if one worried all the time about offending people, one would never say anything, which in some cases would be a very good thing.”
“I am glad of the chance to thank you for your timely rescue, lady,” Jermain said. He rose and bowed, wincing. “My name is Jermain Trevannon.”
“How nice for you,” the woman said. “Mine is Amberglas. Do sit down again; you really aren’t recovered yet, and it would be inconvenient for me to have to put you back together again.”
The bed creaked as Jermain sat down. The squirrel made a disapproving noise. Amberglas pulled out one of the chairs and seated herself at the table. She picked up one of the plants she had brought in and blinked at it, then set it aside and took another.
“Lemon verbena is quite out of season,” she said. “Still, it ought to be good for something, if I can only think what; nearly everything is. Except skunk weed. If you can think of a use for a skunk weed plant, you may have the one growing at the edge of my garden. I can’t imagine why I leave it there, but if you take it, then of course I’ll know. Why ever were all those unpleasant people chasing you?”
Jermain hesitated. “I’m an outlaw,” he said at last. He was surprised by the bitterness in his voice; he’d thought he was used to it by now.
“That has nothing to do with it,” Amberglas said firmly. “There are a great many outlaws in the mountains, and the Sevairn Border Guards never bother with any of them, which is extremely shortsighted but quite understandable since most of the outlaws are far better at fighting than the guardsmen. It really reflects rather poorly on King Marreth’s training program, but perhaps he doesn’t care about outlaws.”
“Well, he cares about this one,” Jermain said shortly.
“Yes, I know. Or at least, I’d know if you would tell me, which isn’t the same thing at all, but is actually quite close, if you think about it.” Amberglas was still sorting plants, seemingly at random. “Why?”
Jermain studied the woman. Her questions seemed innocent enough, but experience made him reluctant to be too trusting. On the other hand, he had no reason to believe that Amberglas would suddenly hand him over to the very people she had helped him escape. Furthermore, he owed her some explanation; however much he would prefer not to answer, the woman had a right to know whom she had rescued. “King Marreth fears I may return to Leshiya,” Jermain said at last.
“Yes, of course,” Amberglas said to the black bird. “If he didn’t, he wouldn’t send guards after you. Although it does seem a little unusual for a king to be afraid of an outlaw, but then, I haven’t known very many outlaws, so perhaps it’s more common than I’d thought.”
“Most outlaws don’t come from the King’s court in Leshiya.”
“No, that’s quite true. At least, I think it is. I knew a thief once who was from the capital of Tar-Alem, and there are quite a few murderers who come from good families, but that isn’t exactly the same thing. Still, a great many things turn up precisely where one doesn’t want them—rats in bakeries, for instance, and those large green worms on cabbages—so I suppose it’s quite possible for a king’s court to have outlaws. What were you before you were an outlaw?”
“I served King Marreth,” Jermain said. “I was his Chief Adviser for six years.”
“You must be very good at giving advice.” Amberglas dropped a small blue-flowered plant on a pile of middle-sized red flowers and looked up. “Why did you become an outlaw?”
“I had very little choice,” Jermain said. “Between Terrel and Eltiron, I never had a chance. You talk of outlaws at the King’s court; well, Terrel Lassond fits the description. He’s the sort who would sacrifice the whole country if it would help him get what he wanted. I wish Marreth joy of his new adviser.”
“He doesn’t sound pleasant,” Amberglas agreed. “I don’t suppose there’s any chance of Marreth’s discovering this for himself?”
“Oh, he’ll find out, all right,” Jermain said with renewed bitterness. “When it’s too late. Marreth deserves what he’s going to get. He’s made his stew; now he can eat it. For all I care, he can boil in it.” Jermain stopped. For six months he had schooled himself not to think of Leshiya, Marreth, Terrel, or Eltiron; the violence of his reaction to Amberglas’s questions shocked him.
“I see.” Amberglas studied one of the plants she was holding. “I don’t suppose you would be inclined to explain just what it was that all these people did? Because you haven’t, yet. You may not have realized it, so I thought I would point it out to you.”
Jermain snorted. “Terrel and His Royal Highness Prince Eltiron convinced Marreth that I was guilty of treason. As a result, Marreth stripped me of my lands and position and awarded them to Terrel. Isn’t that enough?”
“I do see that you might think so,” Amberglas said. “Were you?”
“Was I what?”
“Were you guilty? Of treason, I mean; there are a great many other things you could be guilty of, but since you weren’t accused of any of them, they don’t really matter. Well, no, they do matter, certainly, but I’m not particularly interested in them at the moment, though if you happen to think of anything else you want to mention, it’s quite all right with me.”
“I am no traitor,” Jermain said stiffly.
“I didn’t think so. But of course, you could still be guilty of treason. That’s why I asked about it,” Amberglas said.
“No, I was not guilty,” Jermain said after a moment. “Unless it’s treason to believe an old friend’s warning, and counsel that preparation be made.” Absently, he fingered the place where the short scar on his left arm was hidden by his sleeve.
“That doesn’t sound much like treason,” Amberglas said. “Of course, it would depend on the friend. And the warning. Telling someone that his dinner is burning isn’t treason, at least, not in most places, though I couldn’t say for certain about Navren. The King there has made such extremely peculiar laws that one never knows what is treason in Navren. Or what isn’t,” she added thoughtfully, and looked at Jermain.
For a moment Jermain hesitated, then he nodded. He had no reason to remain silent. If safety was his main concern, he had already told Amberglas more than was wise; finishing the tale would make no difference. Besides, there was always the chance, however slim, that she might be willing to help him.