The Ages of Chaos (Stormqueen!/Hawkmistress!)

The Ages of Chaos (Stormqueen!/Hawkmistress!)

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by Marion Zimmer Bradley
     
 

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Set during the lawless Ages of Chaos, when the ruling families of the Seven Domains of Darkover ruthlessly inbred their psychic offspring to gain powerful and fearsome talents, two young women are born with "wild" psychic gifts. These stories—Stormqueen! and Hawkmistress!, one tragic and one triumphant—combine to give the reader

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Overview

Set during the lawless Ages of Chaos, when the ruling families of the Seven Domains of Darkover ruthlessly inbred their psychic offspring to gain powerful and fearsome talents, two young women are born with "wild" psychic gifts. These stories—Stormqueen! and Hawkmistress!, one tragic and one triumphant—combine to give the reader a vivid and poignant picture of a devastating time period in the history of this fantastic world.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780756400729
Publisher:
DAW
Publication date:
05/07/2002
Series:
Darkover Series
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
768
Product dimensions:
4.20(w) x 6.80(h) x 1.80(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

The Critics Hail Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover Novels:

“A rich and highly colored tale of politics and magic, courage and pressure . . .
Topflight adventure in every way!”

—Lester Del Rey for Analog

(for THE HERITAGE OF HASTUR)

“May well be [Bradley’s] masterpiece.”

New York Newsday

(for THE HERITAGE OF HASTUR)

“Literate and exciting.”

New York Times Book Review

(for CITY OF SORCERY)

“Suspenseful, powerfully written, and deeply moving.”

Library Journal (for STORMQUEEN)

“A warm, shrewd portrait of women from different backgrounds working together under adverse conditions.”

Publishers Weekly (for CITY OF SORCERY)

“I don’t think any series novels have succeeded for me the way Marion Zimmer Bradley’s DARKOVER novels did.”

Locus (general)

“Delightful . . . a fascinating world and a great read.”

Locus (for EXILE’S SONG)

“Darkover is the essence, the quintessence, my most personal and best-loved work.”

Marion Zimmer Bradley

A Reader’s Guide to the
Novels of Darkover

THE FOUNDING

A “lost ship” of Terran origin, in the pre-empire colonizing days, lands on a planet with a dim red star, later to be called Darkover.

DARKOVER LANDFALL

THE AGES OF CHAOS

One thousand years after the original landfall settlement, society has returned to the feudal level. The Darkovans, their Terran technology renounced or forgotten, have turned instead to freewheeling, out-of-control matrix technology, psi powers and terrible psi weapons. The populace lives under the domination of the Towers and a tyrannical breeding program to staff the Towers with unnaturally powerful, inbred gifts of laran.

STORMQUEEN!

HAWKMISTRESS!

THE HUNDRED KINGDOMS

An age of war and strife retaining many of the decimating and disastrous effects of the Ages of Chaos. The lands which are later to become the Seven Domains are divided by continuous border conflicts into a multitude of small, belligerent kingdoms, named for convenience “The Hundred Kingdoms.” The close of this era is heralded by the adoption of the Compact, instituted by Varzil the Good. A landmark and turning point in the history of Darkover, the Compact bans all distance weapons, making it a matter of honor that one who seeks to kill must himself face equal risk of death.

TWO TO CONQUER

THE HEIRS OF HAMMERFELL

THE FALL OF NESKAYA

THE RENUNCIATES

During the Ages of Chaos and the time of the Hundred Kingdoms, there were two orders of women who set themselves apart from the patriarchal nature of Darkovan feudal society: the priestesses of Avarra, and the warriors of the Sisterhood of the Sword. Eventually these two independent groups merged to form the powerful and legally chartered Order of Renunciates or Free Amazons, a guild of women bound only by oath as a sisterhood of mutual responsibility. Their primary allegiance is to each other rather than to family, clan, caste or any man save a temporary employer. Alone among Darkovan women, they are exempt from the usual legal restrictions and protections. Their reason for existence is to provide the women of Darkover an alternative to their socially restrictive lives.

THE SHATTERED CHAIN

THENDARA HOUSE

CITY OF SORCERY

AGAINST THE TERRANS
—THE FIRST AGE (Recontact)

After the Hastur Wars, the Hundred Kingdoms are consolidated into the Seven Domains, and ruled by a hereditary aristocracy of seven families, called the Comyn, allegedly descended from the legendary Hastur, Lord of Light. It is during this era that the Terran Empire, really a form of confederacy, rediscovers Darkover, which they know as the fourth planet of the Cottman star system. The fact that Darkover is a lost colony of the Empire is not easily or readily acknowledged by Darkovans and their Comyn overlords.

REDISCOVERY (with Mercedes Lackey)

THE SPELL SWORD

THE FORBIDDEN TOWER

STAR OF DANGER

THE WINDS OF DARKOVER

AGAINST THE TERRANS
—THE SECOND AGE (After the Comyn)

With the initial shock of recontact beginning to wear off, and the Terran spaceport a permanent establishment on the outskirts of the city of Thendara, the younger and less traditional elements of Darkovan society begin the first real exchange of knowledge with the Terrans—learning Terran science and technology and teaching Darkovan matrix technology in turn. Eventually Regis Hastur, the young Comyn lord most active in these exchanges, becomes Regent in a provisional government allied to the Terrans. Darkover is once again reunited with its founding Empire.

THE BLOODY SUN

HERITAGE OF HASTUR

THE PLANET SAVERS

SHARRA’S EXILE

WORLD WRECKERS

EXILE’S SONG

THE SHADOW MATRIX

TRAITOR’S SUN

THE DARKOVER ANTHOLOGIES

These volumes of stories edited by Marion Zimmer Bradley strive to “fill in the blanks” of Darkovan history, and elaborate on the eras, tales and characters which have captured readers’ imaginations.

THE KEEPER’S PRICE

SWORD OF CHAOS

FREE AMAZONS OF DARKOVER

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MIRROR

RED SUN OF DARKOVER

FOUR MOONS OF DARKOVER

DOMAINS OF DARKOVER

RENUNCIATES OF DARKOVER

LERONI OF DARKOVER

TOWERS OF DARKOVER

MARION ZIMMER BRADLEY’S DARKOVER

SNOWS OF DARKOVER

Darkover Novels in Omnibus Editions:

HERITAGE AND EXILE

omnibus:

The Heritage of Hastur | Sharra’s Exile

THE AGES OF CHAOS

omnibus:

Stormqueen! | Hawkmistress!

THE SAGA OF THE RENUNCIATES

omnibus:

The Shattered Chain | Thendara House | City of Sorcery

THE FORBIDDEN CIRCLE

omnibus:

The Spell Sword | The Forbidden Tower

A WORLD DIVIDED

omnibus:

The Bloody Sun | Star of Danger | The Winds of Darkover

DARKOVER: FIRST CONTACT

omnibus:

Darkover Landfall | Two to Conquer

TO SAVE A WORLD

omnibus:

The Planet Savers | The World Wreckers

THE AGES
OF CHAOS

STORMQUEEN!

HAWKMISTRESS!

Marion Zimmer Bradley

To Catherine L. Moore

First Lady of Science Fiction

I have ceased, I hope, the imitation which is said to be the sincerest form of flattery. I shall never outgrow, I hope, the desire to emulate; nor the admiration, the affection, and the inspiration which she has created in every woman who writes science fiction and fantasy—and in most of the men too!

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The soldier’s drinking song in Part III of HAWKMISTRESS! was suggested by the Ballad of Arilinn Tower, a “filk song” written by Bettina Helms and copyright © 1979.

Table of Contents

STORMQUEEN!

A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR

Ever since the third or fourth of the Darkover novels, my surprisingly faithful readers have been writing in to me, asking, in essence, “Why don’t you write a novel about the Ages of Chaos?”

For a long time I demurred, hesitating to do this; to me that essence of the Darkover novels seemed to be just this—the clash of cultures between Darkovan and Terran. If I had acceded to their request to write about a time “before the coming of the Terrans,” it seemed to me, the very essence of the Darkover novels would have been removed, and what remained would be very much like any of a thousand other science-fantasy novels dealing with alien worlds where people have alien powers and alien concerns.

It was my readers who finally persuaded me to attempt this. If every reader who actually writes to an author represents only a hundred who do not (and I am told the figure is higher than this) there must be, by now, several thousand readers out there who are interested and curious about the time known as the Ages of Chaos; the time before the Comyn had firmly established an alliance of their seven Great Houses to rule over the Domains; and also the height of the Towers, and of that curious technology known then as “starstone” and later becoming the science of matrix mechanics.

Readers of The Forbidden Tower will want to know that Stormqueen deals with a time before Varzil, Keeper of Neskaya, known as “the Good,” perfected the techniques allowing women to serve as Keepers in the Towers of the Comyn.

In The Shattered Chain, Lady Rohana says;

“There was a time in the history of the Comyn when we did selective breeding to fix these gifts in our racial heritage; it was a time of great tyranny, and not a time we are very proud to remember.”

This is a story of the men and women who lived under that tyranny, and how it affected their lives, and the lives of those who came after them on Darkover.

—MARION ZIMMER BRADLEY

Chapter 1

The storm was wrong somehow.

That was the only way Donal could think of it . . . wrong somehow. It was high summer in the mountains called the Hellers, and there should have been no storms except for the never-ending snow flurries on the far heights above the timberline, and the rare savage thunderstorms that swooped down across the valleys, bouncing from peak to peak and leaving flattened trees and sometimes fire in the path of their lightning.

Yet, though the sky was blue and cloudless, thunder crackled low in the distance, and the very air seemed filled with the tension of a storm. Donal crouched on the heights of the battlement, stroking with one finger the hawk cradled in the curve of his arm, crooning half-absently to the restless bird. It was the storm in the air, the electric tension, he knew, which was frightening the hawk. He should never have taken it from the mews today—it would serve him right if the old hawkmaster beat him, and a year ago he would probably have done so without much thought. But now things were different. Donal was only ten, but there had been many changes in his short life. And this was one of the most drastic, that within the change of a few moons hawkmaster and tutors and grooms now called him—not that-brat-Donal, with cuffs and pinches and even blows, merited and unmerited, but, with new and fawning respect—young-master-Donal.

Certainly life was easier for Donal now, but the very change made him uneasy; for it had not come about from anything he had done. It had something to do with the fact that his mother, Aliciane of Rockraven, now shared the bed of Dom Mikhail, Lord of Aldaran, and was soon to bear him a child.

Only once, a long time ago (two midsummer festivals had come and gone), had Aliciane spoken of these things to her son.

“Listen carefully to me, Donal, for I shall say this once only and never again. Life is not easy for a woman unprotected.” Donal’s father had died in one of the small wars, which raged among the vassals of the mountain lords, before Donal could remember him; their lives had been spent as unregarded poor relations in the home of one kinsman after another, Donal wearing castoffs of this cousin and that, riding always the worst horse in the stables, hanging around unseen when cousins and kinsmen learned the skills of arms, trying to pick up what he could by listening.

“I could put you to fosterage; your father had kinsmen in these hills, and you could grow up to take service with one of them. Only for me there would be nothing but to be drudge or sewing-woman, or at best minstrel in a stranger’s household, and I am too young to find that endurable. So I have taken service as singing-woman to Lady Deonara; she is frail, and aging, and has borne no living children. Lord Aldaran is said to have an eye for beauty in women. And I am beautiful, Donal.”

Donal had hugged Aliciane fiercely; indeed she was beautiful, a slight girlish woman, with flame-bright hair and gray eyes, who looked too young to be the mother of a boy eight years old.

“What I am about to do, I do it at least partly for you, Donal. My kin have cast me off for it; do not condemn me if I am ill-spoken by those who do not understand.”

Indeed it seemed, at first, that Aliciane had done this more for her son’s good than her own: Lady Deonara was kind but had the irritability of all chronic invalids, and Aliciane had been quenched and quiet, enduring Deonara’s sharpness and the shrewish envy of the other women with good will and cheerfulness. But Donal for the first time in his life had whole clothing made to his measure, horse and hawk of his own, shared the tutor and the arms-master of Lord Aldaran’s fosterlings and pages. That summer Lady Deonara had borne the last of a series of stillborn sons; and Mikhail, Lord of Aldaran, had taken Aliciane of Rockraven as barragana and sworn to her that her child, male or female, should be legitimated, and be heir to his line, unless he might someday father a legitimate son. She was Lord Aldaran’s acknowledged favorite—even Deonara loved her and had chosen her for her lord’s bed—and Donal shared her eminence. Once, even, Lord Mikhail, gray and terrifying, had called Donal to him, saying he had good reports from tutor and arms-master, and had drawn him into a kindly embrace. “I would indeed you were mine by blood, foster-son. If your mother bears me such a son I will be well content, my boy.”

Donal had stammered. “I thank you, kinsman,” without the courage, yet, to call the old man “foster-father.” Young as he was, he knew that if his mother should bear Lord Aldaran his only living child, son or daughter, then he would be half-brother to Aldaran’s heir. Already the change in his status had been extreme and marked.

But the impending storm . . . it seemed to Donal an evil omen for the coming birth. He shivered; this had been a summer of strange storms, lightning bolts from nowhere, ever-present rumblings and crashes. Without knowing why, Donal associated these storms with anger—the anger of his grand-sire, Aliciane’s father, when Lord Rockraven had heard of his daughter’s choice. Donal, cowering forgotten in a corner, had heard Lord Rockraven calling her bitch, and whore, and names Donal had understood even less. The old man’s voice had been nearly drowned, that day, by thunder outside, and there had been a crackle of angry lightnings in his mother’s voice, too, as she had shouted back, “What am I to do, then, Father? Bide here at home, mending my own shifts, feeding myself and my son upon your shabby honor? Shall I see Donal grow up to be a mercenary soldier, a hired sword, or dig in your garden for his porridge? You scorn Lady Aldaran’s offer—”

“It is not Lady Aldaran I scorn,” her father snorted, “but it is not she whom you will serve and you know it as well as I!”

“And have you found a better offer for me? Am I to marry a blacksmith or charcoal-burner? Better barragana to Aldaran than wife to a tinker or ragpicker!”

Donal had known he could expect nothing from his grand-sire. Rockraven had never been a rich or powerful estate; and it was impoverished because Rockraven had four sons to provide for, and three daughters, of whom Aliciane was the youngest. Aliciane had once said, bitterly, that if a man has no sons, that is tragedy; but if he has too many, then worse for him, for he must see them struggle for his estate.

Last of his children, Aliciane had been married to a younger son without a title, and he had died within a year of their marriage, leaving Aliciane and the newborn Donal to be reared in strangers’ houses.

Now, crouching on the battlements of Castle Aldaran and watching the clear sky so inexplicably filled with lightning, Donal extended his consciousness outward, outward—he could almost see the lines of electricity and the curious shimmer of the magnetic fields of the storm in the air. At times he had been able to call the lightning; once he had amused himself when a storm raged by diverting the great bolts where he would. He could not always do it, and he could not do it too often or he would grow sick and weak; once when he had felt through his skin (he did not know how) that the next bolt was about to strike the tree where he had sheltered, he had somehow reached out with something inside him, as if some invisible limb had grasped the chain of exploding force and flung it elsewhere. The lightning bolt had exploded, with a sizzle, into a nearby bush, crisping it into blackened leaves and charring a circle of grass, and Donal had sunk to the ground, his head swimming, his eyes blurred. His head had been splitting in three parts with the pain, and he could not see properly for days, but Aliciane had hugged and praised him.

“My brother Caryl could do that, but he died young,” she told him. “There was a time when the leroni at Hali tried to breed storm-control into our laran, but it was too dangerous. I can see the thunder-forces, a little; I cannot manipulate them. Take care, Donal; use that gift only to save a life. I would not have my son blasted by the lightnings he seeks to control.” Aliciane had hugged him again, with unusual warmth.

Laran. Talk of it had filled his childhood, the gifts of extrasensory powers which were so much a preoccupation with the mountain lords—yes, and far away in the lowlands, too. If he had had any truly extraordinary gift, telepathy, the ability to force his will upon hawk or hound or sentry-bird, he would have been recorded in the breeding charts of the leroni, the sorceresses who kept records of parentage among those who carried the blood of Hastur and Cassilda, legendary forebears of the Gifted Families. But he had none. Merely storm-watch, a little; he sensed when thunderstorms or even forest fire struck, and someday, when he was a bit older, he would take his place on the fire-watch, and it would help him, to know, as he already knew a little, where the fire would move next. But this was a minor gift, not worth breeding for. Even at Hali they had abandoned it, four generations before, and Donal knew, not knowing precisely how he knew, that this was one reason why the family of Rockraven had not prospered.

But this storm was far beyond his power to guess. Somehow, without clouds or rain, it seemed to center here, over the castle. Mother, he thought, it has to do with my mother, and wished that he dared run to seek her, to assure himself that all was well with her, through the terrifying, growing awareness of the storm. But a boy of ten could not run like a babe to sit in his mother’s lap. And Aliciane was heavy now and ungainly, in the last days of waiting for Lord Aldaran’s child to be born; Donal could not run to her with his own fears and troubles.

He soberly picked up the hawk again, and carried it down the stairs; in air so heavy with lightning, this strange and unprecedented storm, he could not loose it to fly. The sky was blue (it looked like a good day for flying hawks) but Donal could feel the heavy and oppressive magnetic currents in the air, the heavy crackle of electricity.

Is it my mother’s fear that fills the air with lightning, as sometimes my grandsire’s anger did? Suddenly Donal was overwhelmed with his own fear. He knew, as everyone knew, that women sometimes died in childbirth; he had tried hard not to think about that, but now, overwhelmed with terror for his mother, he could feel the crackle of his own fear in the lightning. Never had he felt so young, so helpless. Fiercely he wished he were back in the shabby poverty of Rockraven, or ragged and unregarded as a poor cousin in some kinman’s stronghold. Shivering, he took the hawk back to the mews, accepting the hawkmaster’s reproof with such meekness that the old man thought the boy must be sick!

*  *  *

Far away in the women’s apartments, Aliciane heard the continuing roll of thunder; more dimly than Donal, she sensed the strangeness of the storm. And she was afraid.

The Rockravens had been dropped from the intensive breeding program for laran gifts; like most of her generation, Aliciane thought that breeding program outrageous, a tyranny no free mountain people would endure in these days, to breed mankind like cattle for desired characteristics.

Yet all her life she had been reared in loose talk of lethal genes and recessives, of bloodlines carrying desired laran. How could any woman bear a child without fear? Yet here she was, awaiting the birth of a child who might well be heir to Aldaran, knowing that his reason for choosing her had been neither her beauty—although she knew, without vanity, that it had been her beauty which first caught his eye—nor the superb voice which had made her Lady Deonara’s favorite ballad-singer, but the knowledge that she had born a strong and living son, gifted with laran; that she was of proven fertility and could survive childbirth.

Rather, I survived it once. What does that prove, but that I was lucky?

As if responding to her fear, the unborn child kicked sharply, and Aliciane drew her hand over the strings of her rryl, the small harp she held in her lap, pressing the sidebars with her other hand and sensing the soothing effect of the vibrations. As she began to play, she sensed the stir among the women who had been sent to attend her, for Lady Deonara genuinely loved her singing-woman, and had sent her own most skillful nurses and midwives and maids to attend her in these last days. Then Mikhail, Lord Aldaran, came into her room, a big man, in the prime of life, his hair prematurely grayed; and indeed he was far older than Aliciane, who had turned twenty-four but last spring. His tread was heavy in the quiet room, sounding more like a mailed stride on a battlefield than a soft-shod indoor step.

“Do you play for your own pleasure, Aliciane? I had thought a musician drew most of her pleasure from applause, yet I find you playing for yourself and your women,” he said, smiling, and hitched a light chair around to sit in it at her side. “How is it with you, my treasure?”

“I am well but weary,” she said, also smiling. “This is a restless child, and I play partly because the music seems to have a calming effect. Perhaps because the music calms me, and so the child is calm, too.”

“It may well be so,” he said, and when she put the harp from her, said, “No, sing, Aliciane, if you are not too tired.”

“As you will, my lord.” She pressed the strings of the harp into chords, and sang, softly, a love song of the far hills:

“Where are you now?

Where does my love wander?

Not on the hills, not upon the shore, not far on the sea,

Love, where are you now?

“Dark the night, and I am weary,

Love, when can I cease this seeking?

Darkness all around, above, beyond me,

Where lingers he, my love?”

Mikhail leaned toward the woman, drew his heavy hand gently across her brilliant hair. “Such a weary song,” he said softly, “and so sad; is love truly such a thing of sadness to you, my Aliciane?”

“No, indeed not,” Aliciane said, assuming a gaiety she did not feel. Fears and self-questioning were for pampered wives, not for a barragana whose position depended on keeping her lord amused and cheery with her charm and beauty, her skills as an entertainer. “But the loveliest love songs are of sorrow in love, my lord. Would it please you more if I choose songs of laughter or valor?”

“Whatever you sing pleases me, my treasure,” Mikhail said kindly. “If you are weary or sorrowful you need not pretend to gaiety with me, carya.” He saw the flicker of distrust in her eyes, and thought, I am too sensitive for my own good; it must be pleasant never to be too aware of the minds of others. Does Aliciane truly love me, or does she only value her position as my acknowledged favorite? Even if she loves me, is it for myself, or only that I am rich and powerful and can make her secure? He gestured to the women, and they withdrew to the far end of the long room, leaving him alone with his mistress; present, to satisfy the decencies of the day that dictated a childbearing woman should never be unattended, but out of earshot.

“I do not trust all these women,” he said.

“Lord, Deonara is truly fond of me. I think. She would not put anyone among my women with ill will to me or my child,” Aliciane said.

“Deonara? No, perhaps not,” Mikhail said, remembering that Deonara had been Lady of Aldaran for twice ten years and shared his hunger for a child to be heir to his estate. She could no longer promise him even the hope of one; she had welcomed the knowledge that he had taken Aliciane, who was one of her own favorites, to his bed and his heart. “But I have enemies who are not of this household, and it is all too easy to plant a spy with laran, who can relay all the doings of my household to someone who wishes me ill. I have kinsmen who would do much to prevent the birth of a living heir to my line. I marvel not that you look pale, my treasure; it is hard to credit wickedness that would harm a little child, yet I have never been sure that Deonara was not victim to someone who killed the children unborn in her womb. It is not hard to do; even a little skill with matrix or laran can break a child’s fragile link to life.”

“Anyone who wished you ill, Mikhail, would know you have promised me that my child will be legitimated, and would turn her evil will to me,” Aliciane soothed. “Yet I have borne this child without illness. You fear needlessly, my dear love.”

“Gods grant you are right! Yet I have enemies who would stop at nothing. Before your child is born, I will call a leronis to probe them; I will have no woman present at your confinement who cannot swear under truthspell that she wishes you well. An evil wish can snap a newborn child’s fight for life.”

“Surely that strength of laran is rare, my dearest lord.”

“Not as rare as I could wish it,” Mikhail, Lord Aldaran, said. “Yet of late I have strange thoughts. I find these gifts a weapon to cut my own hand; I who have used sorcery to hurl fire and chaos upon my enemy, I feel it now that they have strength to hurl them upon me, too. When I was young I felt laran as a gift of the gods; they had appointed me to rule this land, and dowered me with laran to make my rule stronger. But as I grow old I find it a curse, not a gift.”

“You are not so old, my lord, and surely no one now would challenge your rule!”

“No one dares do so openly, Aliciane. But I am alone among those who hover waiting for me to die childless. I have meaty bones to pick . . . all gods grant your child is a son, carya.”

Aliciane was trembling. “And if it is not . . . oh, my dear lord. . . .”

“Why, then, treasure, you must bear me another,” he said gently, “but even if you do not, I shall have a daughter whose dower will be my estate, and who will bring me the strong alliances I need; even a woman-child will make my position that much stronger. And your son shall be foster brother and paxman, shield in trouble and strong arm. I truly love your son, Aliciane.”

“I know.” How could she have been trapped this way . . . finding that she loved the man whom, at first, she had simply thought to ensnare with the wiles of her voice and her beauty? Mikhail was kind and honorable, he had courted her when he might have taken her as lawful prey, he had assured her, unasked, that even if she failed to give him a living son, Donal’s future was secure. She felt safe with him, she had come to love him, and now she feared for him, too.

Caught in my own trap!

She said, almost laughing, “I need no such reassurance, my lord. I have never doubted you.”

He smiled, accepting that, the courtesy of a telepath. “But women are fearful at such times, and it is sure now that Deonara will bear me no child, even if I would ask it of her after so many tragedies. Do you know what it is like, Aliciane, to see children you have longed for, desired, loved even before they were born, to see them die without drawing breath? I did not love Deonara when we were wed; I had never seen her face, for we were given to one another for family alliances; but we have endured much together, and although it may seem strange to you, child, love can come from shared sorrow as well as shared joy.” His face was somber. “I love you well, carya mea, but it was neither for your beauty nor even for the splendor of your voice that I sought you out. Did you know Deonara was not my first wife?”

“No, my lord.”

“I was wed first when I was a young man; Clariza Leynier bore me two sons and a daughter, all healthy and strong. . . . Hard as it is to lose children at birth, it is harder yet to lose sons and daughter grown almost to manhood and womanhood. And yet I lost them—one after another, as they grew to adolescence. I lost them all three, with the descent of laran; they died in crisis and convulsions, all of them, of that scourge of our people. I myself was ready to die of despair.”

“My brother Caryl died so,” Aliciane whispered.

“I know; yet he was the only one of your line, and your father had many sons and daughters. You yourself told me that your laran did not descend at adolescence, playing havoc with mind and body, but that you grew slowly into it from babyhood, as with many of the Rockraven folk. And I can see that this is dominant in your line, for Donal is barely ten years old, and though I do not think his laran is full developed yet, still he has much of it, and he at least is not like to die on the threshold. I knew that for your children, at least, I need not fear. Deonara, too, came from a bloodline with early onset of laran, but none of the children she bore me lived long enough for us to know whether they had laran or no.”

Aliciane’s face twisted in dismay and he laid his arm tenderly about her shoulders, “What is it, my dear one?”

“All my life I have felt revulsion for this—to breed men like cattle!”

“Man is the only animal that thinks not to improve his race,” Mikhail said fiercely. “We control weather, build castles and highways with the strength of our laran, explore greater and greater gifts of the mind—should we not seek to better ourselves as well as our world and our surroundings?” Then his face softened. “But I understand that a woman as young as you thinks not in terms of generations, centuries; while one is yet young, you think only of self and children, but at my age it is natural to think in terms of all those who will come after us when we and our children are many centauries gone. But such things are not for you unless you wish to think of them; think of your child, love, and how soon we will hold her in our arms.”

Aliciane shrank, whispering, “You know, then, that it is a daughter I am to bear you—you are not angry?”

“I told you I would not be angry; if I am distressed it is only that you did not trust me enough to tell me this when first you knew,” Mikhail said, but the words were so gentle they were hardly a reproof. “Come, Aliciane, forget your fears; if you give me no son, at least you have given me a sturdy foster-son, and your daughter will be a powerful strength in bringing me a son-in-law. And our daughter will have laran.”

Aliciane smiled and returned his kiss; but she was still taut with apprehension as she heard the distant crackle of the unprecedented summer thunder, which seemed to come and go in tune with the waves of her fear. Can it be that Donal is afraid of what this child will mean to him? she wondered, and wished passionately that she had the precognitive gift, the laran of the Aldaran clan, so that she might know that all would be well.

Chapter 2

“Here is the traitor!”

Aliciane trembled at the anger in Lord Aldaran’s voice as he strode wrathfully into her chamber, thrusting a woman ahead of him with his two hands. Behind him the leronis, his household sorceress, bearing the matrix or blue starstone which somehow amplified the powers of her laran, tiptoed; a fragile pale-haired woman, her pallid features drawn with terror of the storm she had unleashed.

“Mayra,” Aliciane said in dismay, “I thought you my friend, and friend to Lady Deonara. What has befallen that you are my enemy and my child’s?”

Mayra—she was one of Deonara’s robing-women, a sturdy middle-aged dame—stood frightened but defiant between Lord Aldaran’s hard hands. “No, I know nothing of what that sorceress-bitch has said of me; is she jealous of my place here, having no useful work but to meddle with the minds of her betters?”

“It will not serve you to put ill names on me,” said the leronis Margali. “I asked all these women but one question, and that under the truthspell, so that I would hear in my mind if they lied. Is your loyalty to Mikhail, Lord Aldaran, or to the vai domna, his lady Deonara? And if they said me no, or said yes with a doubt or a denial in their thoughts, I asked only, again under truthspell, if their loyalty were to husband or father or home-lord. From this one alone I got no honest answer, but only the knowledge that she was concealing all. And so I told Lord Aldaran that if there was a traitor among his women it could be only she.”

Mikhail let the woman go and turned her around to face him, not ungently. He said. “It is true that you have been long in my service, Mayra; Deonara treats you with the kindness of a foster-sister. Is it me you wish evil, or my lady?”

“My lady has been kind to me; I am angered to see her set aside for another,” said Mayra, her voice shaking. The leronis behind her said, in passionless tone, “No, Lord Aldaran, there she speaks no truth, either; she holds no love for you nor for your lady.”

“She lies!” Mayra’s voice rose to a half-shriek. “She lies—I wish you no ill save what you have brought on yourself, Lord, by taking the bitch of Rockraven to your bed. It is she who has put a spell on your manhood, that bitch-viper!”

“Silence!” Lord Aldaran quivered as if he would strike the woman, but the word was enough; everyone within range was smitten dumb, and Aliciane trembled. Only once before had she heard Mikhail use what was called, in the language of laran, the command-voice. There were not many who could summon enough control over their laran to use it; it was not an inborn gift, but one that required both talent and skilled training. And when, in that voice, Mikhail, Lord Aldaran, commanded silence, none within earshot could form an audible word.

The silence in the room was so extreme that Aliciane could hear the smallest of sounds: some small insect clicking in the woodwork of the paneling, the frightened breathing of the women, the far-off crackle of thunder. It seems, she thought, that all through this summer we have had thunder, more than I can remember in any year before. . . . What nonsense to have in my thoughts now, when I stand before a woman who might have meant my death, had she attended my childbed. . . .

Mikhail glanced at her, where she stood trembling and propping herself upright by the arm of a chair. Then he said to the leronis, “Attend the lady Aliciane, help her to sit, or to lie down on her bed if she feels better so . . .” and Aliciane felt Margali’s strong hands supporting her, easing her into the chair. She shook with anger, hating the physical weakness she could not control.

This child saps my strength as never Donal did. . . . Why am I so weakened? Is it that woman’s evil will, wicked spells . . . ? Margali laid her hands on Aliciane’s forehead and she felt soothing calm radiating out from them. She tried to relax under them, to breathe evenly, to calm the frantic restlessness she could sense in the movements of her child within her body. Poor little one . . . she is afraid, too, and no wonder. . . .

“You—” Lord Aldaran’s voice commanded, “Mayra, tell me why you bear me ill will, or would seek to harm the lady Aliciane of her child!”

“Tell you?”

“You will, you know,” Mikhail of Aldaran said. “You will tell us more than you ever believed you would say, whether you do so of your free will and painlessly, or whether it is dragged from you shrieking! I have no love for torturing womenfolk, Mayra, but I will not harbor a scorpion-ant within my chamber, either! Save us this struggle.” But Mayra faced him, silent and defiant, and Mikhail shrugged faintly, a tautness Aliciane knew—and would not have dared defy—settling down over his face. He said, “On your own head, Mayra. Margali, bring your starstone—no. Better still, send for kirizani.”

Aliciane trembled, though Mikhail was showing mercy in his own way. Kirizani was one of half a dozen drugs distilled from the plant resins of kireseth flowers, whose pollen brought madness when the Ghost-wind blew in the hills; kirizani was that part of the resin which lowered the barriers against telepathic contact, laying the mind bare to anyone who would probe within it. It was better than torture, and yet . . . She quailed, looking at the raging purpose on Mikhail’s face, at the smiling defiance of the woman Mayra. They all stood silent while the kirizani was brought, a pale liquid in a vial of transparent crystal.

Mikhail uncapped it and said quietly. “Will you take it without protest, Mayra, or shall the women hold you and pour it down your throat like a horse being dosed?”

Mayra’s face flushed; she spit at him. “You think you can make me speak with your sorcery and drugs, Lord Mikhail? Ha—I defy you! You need no evil will of mine—enough lurks already in your house and in the womb of your bitch-mistress there! A day will come when you pray you had died childless—and there will be no other! You will take no other to your bed, no more than you have done while the bitch of Rockraven grew heavy with her witch daughter! My work is done, vai dom!” She flung the respectful term at him like a taunt. “I need no more time! From this day you will father neither daughter nor son—your loins will be empty as a winter-killed tree! And you will cry out and pray—”

“Silence that evil banshee!” Mikhail said, and Margali, starting upright from the fainting Aliciane, raised her jeweled matrix, but the woman spit again, laughed hysterically, gasped, and crumpled to the floor. In the stunned silence Margali went to her, laid a perfunctory hand to her breast.

“Lord Aldaran, she is dead! She must have been spelled to die on questioning.”

The man stared in dismay at the lifeless body of the woman, unanswered questions unspoken on his lips. He said, “Now we shall never know what she has done, or how, or who was the enemy who sent her here to us. I would take my oath Deonara knows nothing of it.” But the words held a question, and Margali laid her hand on the blue jewel and said quietly, “On my life, Lord Aldaran, the Lady Deonara has no ill will to Lady Aliciane’s child; this she has told me often, that she is glad for you and for Aliciane, and I know when I am hearing truth.”

Mikhail nodded, but Aliciane saw the lines around his mouth deepen. If Deonara, jealous of Lord Aldaran’s favor, had wished Aliciane some harm, that at least would have been understandable. But who, she wondered, knowing little of the feuds and power struggles of Aldaran, could wish evil to a man so good as Mikhail? Who could hate him so much as to plant a spy among his wife’s waiting-women, to do evil to the child of a barragana, to cast, perhaps, laran-powered curses on his manhood?

“Take her away,” Aldaran said at last, his voice not entirely steady. “Hang her body from the castle heights for kyorebni to pick; she has earned no faithful servant’s burial rites.” He waited, impassive, while tall guardsmen came and bore away Mayra’s dead body, to be stripped and hanged for the great birds of prey to peck asunder. Aliciane heard thunder crackling in the distance, then nearer and nearer, and Aldaran came toward her, his voice now softened to tenderness.

“Have no more fear, my treasure; she is gone and her evil will with her. We will live to laugh at her curses, my darling.” He sank into a chair nearby, taking her hand in gentle fingers, but she sensed, through the touch, that he, too, was distressed and even frightened. And she was not strong enough to reassure him; she felt as if she were fainting again. Mayra’s curses rang in her ears, like the reverberating echoes in the canyons around Rockraven when as a child she had shouted into them for the amusement of hearing her own voice come back to her multiplied a thousandfold from all quarters of the wind.

You will father neither daughter nor son. . . . Your loins will be empty as a winter-killed tree. . . . A day will come when you pray you had died childless. . . . The reverberating remembered sound swelled, overwhelmed her; she lay back in the chair, near to losing consciousness.

“Aliciane, Aliciane—” She felt his strong arms around her, raising her, carrying her to her bed. He laid her down on the pillows, sat beside her, gently stroking her face.

“You must not be frightened of shadows, Aliciane.”

She said, trembling, the first thing that came into her head. “She cursed your manhood, my lord.”

“I feel not much endangered,” he said with a smile.

“Yet—I myself have seen and wondered . . . you have taken no other to your bed in these days when I am so heavy, as would have been your custom.”

A faint shadow passed over his face, and at this moment their minds were so close that Aliciane regretted her words; she should not have touched on his own fear. But he said, firmly putting away fear in cheerfulness, “Why, as for that, Aliciane, I am not so young a man that I cannot live womanless for a few moons. Deonara is not sorry to be free of me, I think; my embraces have never meant more to her than duty, and dying children. And in these days, it seems except for you, women are not so beautiful as they were when I was young. It has been no hardship to me, to forbear asking what is no pleasure to you to give; but when our child is born and you are well again, you shall see if that fool woman’s words have any evil effect on my manhood. You may yet give me a son, Aliciane, or, if not, at least we shall spend many joyous hours together.”

She said, shaking, “May the Lord of Light grant it, indeed.” He bent and kissed her tenderly, but the touch of his lips again brought them close, with shared fear and, abruptly, shared pain, tearing at her.

He straightened as if shocked, calling to her women. “Attend my lady!”

She clung to his hands. “Mikhail, I am frightened,” she whispered, and picked up his thought, Indeed this is no good omen, that she should go into labor with the sound of that witch’s curses still in her ears. . . . She felt, too, the strong discipline with which he curbed and controlled even the thought, that fear might not spiral, heightened by each mind through which it passed. He said, with gentle command, “You must try to think of our child only, Aliciane, and lend her strength; think of our child only—and of my love.”

*  *  *

It was nearing sunset. Clouds massed on the heights beyond Castle Aldaran, tall stormclouds piling higher and higher, but where Donal soared the sky was blue and cloudless. His slight body lay stretched along a wooden framework of light woods, between wide wings of thinnest leather built out on a narrow frame. Borne up by the currents of air, he soared, dipping a hand to either side to balance on the strong gusts to left or to right. The air bore him aloft, and the small matrix-jewel fastened along the crosspiece. He had made the levitation glider himself, with only a little help from the stable-men. Several of the boys in the household had such toys, as soon as their training in the use of the starstones was such as to maintain their levitation skills without undue danger. But most of the lads in the household were at their lessons; Donal had slipped away to the castle heights and soared away alone, even though he knew that the penalty would be to forbid him the use of the glider, perhaps for days. He could feel the stresses, the fear, everywhere in the castle.

A traitor executed, dying before touched, a death-spell on her. She had cursed Lord Aldaran’s manhood. . . .

Gossip had run around Castle Aldaran like wildfire, fueled by the few women who had actually been in Aliciane’s chamber and seen anything; they had seen too much to keep silent, too little to give a true account.

She had flung curses at the little barragana and Aliciane of Rockraven had fallen down in labor. She had cursed Lord Aldaran’s manhood—and it was true that he had taken no other to his bed, he who had always before taken a new woman with every change of the moons in the sky. A new, ominous question in the gossiping made Donal shiver: Was it the Lady of Rockraven who had spelled his manhood so he would desire no other, that she might keep her place in his arms and in his heart?

One of the men, a coarse man-at-arms, had laughed, a deep, suggestive laugh, and said, “That one needs no spells; if Lady Aliciane cast her pretty eyes on me, I would gladly pawn my manhood,” but the arms-master said firmly, “Be still, Radan. Such talk is unseemly among young lads, and look, you—see who stands among them? Go to your work; do not stand here and gossip and tell dirty tales.” When the man had gone, the arms-master said kindly, “Such talk is unseemly, but it is only jesting, Donal; he is distressed because he has no woman of his own, and would speak so of any fair woman. He means no disrespect to your mother, Donal. Indeed, there will be great rejoicing at Aldaran if Aliciane of Rockraven gives him an heir. You must not be angry at unthinking speech; if you listen to every dog that barks, you will have no leisure to learn wisdom. Go to your lessons, Donal, and do not waste time resenting what ignorant men say of their betters.”

Donal had gone, but not to his lessons; he had taken his glider to the castle heights and soared out on the air currents, and now rode them, distressing thoughts left behind, memory in abeyance, wholly caught up in the intoxication of soaring, bird-fashion, now swooping to the north, now turning back west to where the great crimson sun hung low on the peaks.

A hawk must fell like this, hovering. . . . Under his sensitive fingertips, the wood-and-leather wing tilted downward faintly, and he focused on the current, letting it bear him down the draft. His mind sunk into the hyperawareness of the jewel, seeing the sky not as blue emptiness but as a great net of fields and currents which were his to ride, now floating down, down until it seemed he would strike on a great crag and be dashed asunder, then at the last minute letting a sharp updraft snatch him away, hovering down the wind. . . . He floated, mindless, soaring, wrapped in ecstasy.

The green moon, Idriel, hung low, a gibbous semi-shape in the reddening sky; the silver crescent of Mormallor was the palest of shadows; and violent Liriel, the largest of the moons, near to full, was just beginning to float up slowly from the eastern horizon. A low crackle of thunder from the massy clouds hanging behind the castle roused memory and apprehension in Donal. He might not be chastised for slipping away from lessons at a time like this, but if he remained out after sunset he would certainly be punished. Strong winds sprang up at sunset, and about a year ago, one of the pageboys at the castle had smashed his glider and broken an elbow on one of the rocks below. He had been lucky, they knew, not to kill himself. Donal cast a wary eye back at the walls of the castle, seeking for an updraft that would carry him to the heights—otherwise he must drift down to the slopes below the castle and carry his glider, which was light but hugely awkward, all the way up again. Feeling the faintest of air pressures, magnified through the awareness of the matrix, he caught an updraft which, if he rode it carefully, would carry him above and behind the castle, and he could float down to the roofs.

Riding up it, he could see, with a shiver, the swollen naked figure of the woman who hung there, her face already torn by the kyorebni who hovered and swooped there. Already she was unrecognizable, and Donal shuddered. Mayra had been kind to him in her own way. Had she truly cursed his mother? He shuddered with his first real awareness of death.

People die. They really die and are pecked to bits by birds of prey. My mother could die in childbirth, too. . . . His body twitched in sudden terror and he felt the fragile wings of the glider, released from control of his mind and body, flutter and slip downward, falling. . . . Swiftly he mastered it, brought it up, levitating his body until he caught a current again. But now he could feel the faint tension and shock in the air, the building static.

Thunder crackled above him; a bolt of lightning flashed to the heights of Castle Aldaran, leaving a smell of ozone and a faint burned smell in Donal’s nostrils. Behind the deafening roar, Donal saw without hearing the flare and play of lightning in the massed clouds above the castle. In sudden fright, he thought, I must get down, out of here; it is not safe to fly in an oncoming storm. . . . He had been told again and again to scan the sky for lightning in the clouds before letting his glider take off.

A sudden violent downdraft caught him, sent the fragile wood-and-leather apparatus plummeting down; Donal, really frightened, clung hard to the handholds, with sense enough not to try to fight it too soon. It felt as if it would smash him down on the rocks, but he forced himself to lie limp along the struts, his mind searching ahead for the crosscurrent. At just the right moment he tensed his body, focusing into the matrix awareness, felt levitation and the crosscurrent carry him up again.

Now. Quickly, and carefully. I must get up to the level of the castle, catch the first current that glides down. There is no time to waste. . . . But now the air felt heavy and thick and Donal could not read it for currents. In growing dread, he sent his awareness out in all directions, but he sensed only the strong magnetic charges of the growing storm.

This storm is wrong, too! It’s like the one the other day. It’s not a real storm at all, it’s something else. Mother! Oh, my mother! It seemed to the frightened child, clinging to the struts of the glider, that he could hear Aliciane crying out in terror, “Oh, Donal, what will become of my boy,” and he felt his body convulse in terror, the glider slipping from his control, falling . . . falling. . . . If it had been less light, less broad-winged, it would have smashed onto the rocks, but the air currents, even though Donal could not read them, bore him along. After a few moments his fall stopped, and he began to drift sideways again. Now, using laran—the levitational strength given body and mind by the matrix jewel—and his trained awareness searching for the traces of currents through the magnetic storm, Donal began to fight for his life. He forced away the voice he could almost hear, his mother’s voice crying out in terror and pain. He forced away the fear which let him see his own body lying broken into bits on the crags below. He forced himself to submerge wholly into his own heightened laran, making the wood-and-leather wing extensions of his own outstretched arms, feeling the currents that blew and battered at them as if they buffeted his own hands, his own legs.

Now . . . ride it upward . . . just so far . . . try to gain a few lengths toward the west. . . . He forced himself to go limp as another smashing bolt of lightning leaped from a cloud, feeling it burst beyond him. No control . . . it isn’t going anywhere . . . it has no awareness . . . and the maxims of the kindly leronis who had taught him what little he knew: The trained mind can always master any force of nature. . . . Ritually, Donal reminded himself of that.

I need not fear wind or storm or lightning, the trained mind can master. . . . But Donal was only ten years old, and resentfully he wondered if Margali had ever flown a glider in a thunderstorm.

A deafening crash socked him momentarily mindless; he felt the sudden drench of rain along his chilled body, and fought to stop the trembling which sought to wrest control of the fluttering wings from his mind.

Now. Firmly. Down, and down, along this current . . . right to the ground, along the slope . . . no time to play with another updraft. Down here I will be safe from the lightning. . . .

His feet had almost touched the ground when another harsh upcurrent seized the wide wings and flung him upward again, away from the safety of the slopes. Sobbing, fighting the mechanism, he fought to force it down again, throwing himself over the edge and hanging vertically, grasping the struts over his head, letting the wide wings slow his fluttering fall. He sensed, through his skin, the lightning bolt and all his strength went out to divert it, to thrust it elsewhere. His hands clung frantically to the struts above his head as he heard the lightning and the deafening blast, saw with dazed eyes one of the great standing rocks on the slope split asunder with a great crashing roar. His feet touched ground; he fell hard, rolling over and over, feeling the glider’s struts smash and break to splinters. Pain cannoned through his shoulder as he fell, but he had enough strength and awareness left to go limp, as he had been taught to do in arms-practice, to fall without the muscular resistance which could break bones. Alive, bruised, sobbing, he lay stunned on the rocky slope, feeling the currents of lightning darting, aimlessly, around him, thunder rolling from peak to peak.

When he had recovered his breath, he picked himself up. Both wing-struts of the glider were smashed, but it could be repaired; he was lucky that his arms were not smashed like the struts. The sight of the splintered rock turned him sick and dizzy, and his head throbbed; but he realized that with all this, he was lucky to be alive. He picked up the broken toy, letting the splintered wings hang folded, and began slowly to trudge up the slope toward the castle gates.

*  *  *

“She hates me,” Aliciane cried in terror. “She does not want to be born!”

Through the darkness that seemed to hover around her mind she felt Mikhail catch and hold her flailing hands.

“My dearest love, that is folly,” he murmured, holding the woman against him, firmly controlling his own fears. He, too, sensed the strangeness of the lightning which flashed and crackled around the high windows, and Aliciane’s terror reinforced his own dread. It seemed there was another in the room, besides the frightened woman, besides the calm presence of Margali, who sat with her head bent, not looking at either of them, her face blue-lighted with the glimmer of the matrix stone. Mikhail could feel the soothing waves of calm Margali sent out, trying to surround them all with it; he tried to let his own mind and body surrender to the calm, relax to it. He began the deep rhythmic breathing he had been taught for control, and after a little he felt Aliciane, too, relax and float with it.

Where, then, whence the terror, the struggle . . .

It is she, the unborn . . . it is her fear, her reluctance . . .

Birth is an ordeal of terror; there must be someone to reassure her, someone who awaits her with love. . . . Aldaran had done this service at the birth of all his children: sensing the formless fright and rage of the unformed mind, thrust by forces it could not comprehend. Now, searching his memories (had any of Clariza’s children been this strong? Deonara’s babes, none of them had been able even to fight for their lives, poor little weaklings . . . he reached out, searching for the unfocused thoughts of the struggling child, torn by awareness of the mother’s pain and fright. He sought to send out soothing thoughts of love, of tenderness; not in words, for the unborn had no knowledge of language, but he formed them into words for his own sake and Aliciane’s, to focus their emotions, to give a feeling of warmth and welcome.

You must not be afraid, little one; it will soon be over . . . you will breathe free and we will hold you in our arms and love you . . . you are long awaited and dearly loved. . . . He sought to send out love and tenderness, to banish from his mind the frightening thought of the sons and daughter he had lost, when all his love could not follow them into the darkness their developing laran had cast on their minds. He tried to blot out memory of the weak and pitiful struggles of Deonara’s children, who had never lived to draw breath. . . . Did I love them enough? If I had loved Deonara more, would her children have fought harder to live?

“Draw the curtains,” he said after a moment, and one of the women in the chamber tiptoed to the window and closed out the darkening sky. But the thunder roared in the room, and the flare of the lightning could be seen even through the drawn curtains.

“See how she does, the little one,” the midwife said, and Margali rose quietly, came to lay gentle hands around Aliciane’s body, sinking her awareness into the woman, to monitor her breathing, the progress of the birth. A woman with laran, bearing a child, could not be physically examined or touched, for fear of hurting or frightening the unborn with a careless pressure or touch. The leronis must do this, using the perception of her own telepathic and psychokinetic powers. Aliciane felt the soothing touch, and her troubled face relaxed, but as Margali withdrew she cried out in sudden terror.

“Oh, Donal, Donal—what will become of my boy?”

Lady Deonara Ardais-Aldaran, a slight aging woman, tiptoed to Aliciane’s side and took the slender fingers in hers. She said soothingly, “Do not fear for Donal, Aliciane. Avarra forbid it should be needful, but I swear to you that I will, from this day forth, be foster-mother to him, as tenderly as if he were one of my own sons.”

“You have been kind to me, Deonara,” Aliciane said, “and I sought to take Mikhail from you.”

“Child, child—this is no time to think of this; if you can give Mikhail what I could not, then you are my sister and I will love you as Cassilda loved Camilla, I swear it.” Deonara bent and kissed Aliciane’s pale cheek. “Set your mind at rest, breda; think only of this little one who comes to our arms. I will love her too.”

Held tenderly in the arms of her child’s father, holding the wand of the woman who had sworn to welcome her child as her own, Aliciane knew that she should be comforted. Yet, as lightning flared on the heights and rumbled around the walls of the castle, she felt terror all though and pervading her. Is it the child’s terror or mine? Her mind swam into darkness under the soothing of the leronis, under the flooding reassurances of Mikhail, pouring out love and tenderness. Is it for me or only for the child? It no longer seemed to matter; she could see no further. Always before, she had had some faint sense of what would come after, but now it seemed there was nothing in the world but her own fear, the child’s fear, in the formless, wordless rage. It seemed to her that the rage focused with the thunder, that the birth pains tearing her were brightening and darkening as the lightning came and went . . . thunder crashing not on the heights outside but in and around her own violated body . . . terror, rage, fury expending itself within her . . . the lightning bringing fury and pain. She struggled for breath and cried out and her mind sank, almost with relief, into dark, and silence, and nothingness. . . .

*  *  *

“Ali! She is a little fury,” the midwife said, gingerly holding the struggling child. “You must calm her, domna, before I cut her life from her mother’s, or she will struggle and bleed overmuch—but she is strong, a hearty little woman!”

Margali bent over the shrieking infant. The face was dark red, contorted into a furious scream of rage; the eyes, squinted almost shut, were a blazing blue. The round little head was covered with thick red fuzz. Margali laid her slender hands along the naked body of the child, crooning softly to her. Under the touch the baby calmed a little and stopped fighting; and the midwife was able to sever the umbilical cord and tie it. But when the woman took the infant and wrapped her in a warmed blanket, she began to shriek again and struggle and the woman laid her down, drawing back a shocked hand.

“Ai! Evanda have mercy, she is one of those! Well, when she is grown, the little maiden need not fear rape, if she can stroke already with laran. I have never heard of this in a babe so young!”

“You frightened her,” Margali said, smiling; but as she took the child, her smile slid off. Like all of Deonara’a women, she had loved the gentle Aliciane. “Poor child, to lose so loving a mother, so soon!”

Mikhail of Aldaran knelt, his face drawn with anguish, beside the body of the woman he had loved. “Aliciane! Aliciane, my beloved,” he mourned. Then he raised his face, in bitterness. Deonara had taken the wrapped infant from Margali and was holding it, with the fierce hunger of thwarted motherhood, to her meager breast.

“You are not ill content, are you, Deonara—that none will vie with you to mother this child?”

“That is not worthy of you, Mikhail,” Deonara said, holding Aliciane’s child close. “I loved Aliciane well, my lord; would you have me cast aside her child, or can I best show my love by rearing her as tenderly as if she were my own? Take her, then, my husband, until you find another love.” Try as she would, Lady Aldaran could not keep the bitterness from her voice. “She is your only living child. And if already she has laran, she will need much care to rear her. My poor babes never lived even this long.” She put the child into Dom Mikhail’s arms, and he stood looking down, with infinite tenderness and grief, at his only child.

Mayra’s curse rang in his mind: You will take no other to your bed . . . your loins will be empty as a winter-killed tree. As if his own dismay communicated itself to the infant in his arms she began to struggle again and shriek in the blanket. Beyond the window the storm raged.

Dom Mikhail looked into the face of his daughter. Infinitely precious she seemed to the childless man; the more so if the curse should be true. She was rigid in his arms, squalling, her small face contorted as if she were trying to outshout the rage of the storm outside, her tiny pink fists clenched with rage. Yet already he could see in her face a miniature blurred copy of Aliciane’s—the arched brows and high cheekbones, the eyes blazing blue, the fuzz of red hair.

“Aliciane died to give me this great gift. Shall we give her her mother’s name, in memory?”

Deonara shuddered and flinched. “Would you bestow on your only daughter the name of the dead, my lord? Seek a name of better omen!”

“As you will. Give her what name pleases you, domna.”

Deonara said, faltering, “I would have named our first daughter Dorilys, had she lived long enough to be named. Let her bear that name, in token that I will be a mother to her.” She touched the rose-petal cheek with a finger. “How do you like that name, little woman? Look—she sleeps. She is weary with so much crying. . . .”

Beyond the windows of the birth-chamber the storm muttered into silence and died away, and there was no sound but the slow dripping of the last raindrops outside.

Chapter 3

*
• * Eleven Years Later
• * *

It was the dark hour before dawn. Snow fell silently over the monastery of Nevarsin, already buried under deep snow.

There was no bell, or if there was, it rang silently, unheard, in Father Master’s quarters. Yet in every cell and dormitory, brothers and novices and students moved silently, as if on that single noiseless signal, out of sleep.

Allart Hastur of Elhalyn came awake sharply, something in his mind tuned and receptive to the call. In the first years he had often slept through it, but no one in the monastery might waken another; part of the training here was that the novices should hear the inaudible and see what was not there to be seen.

Nor did he feel cold, though he was covered, by rule, only with the outer cowl of his long robe; he had by now disciplined his body so that it would generate heat to warm him as he slept. With no need of light, he rose, drew the cowl over the simple inner garment he wore night and day, and thrust his feet into rude sandals woven of straw. Into his pockets he thrust the small bound prayer book, the pen case and sealed ink-horn, his own bowl and spoon; now in the pockets of the robe were all the items which a monk might own or use. Dom Allart Hastur was not yet a fully sworn brother of Saint-Valentine-of-the-Snows at Nevarsin. It would be a year before he could achieve that final detachment from the world which lay below him—a troubling world, and one which he remembered every time he fastened the leather strap of his sandals; for in the world of the Domains below him, sandal-wearer was the ultimate insult for a male, implying effeminate behavior, or worse. Even now, as he fastened the sandal-strap, he was forced to calm his mind from that memory by the three slow breaths, pause, three more breaths paced to a murmured prayer for the cause of the offense; but Allart was painfully aware of the irony in this.

To pray for peace for my brother, who put this insult on me, when it was he who drove me here, for my very sanity’s sake? Aware that he still felt anger and resentment, he did the breathing ritual again, firmly dismissing his brother from his mind, remembering the words of the Father Master.

“You have no power over the world or the things of the world, my son; you have renounced all desire for that power. The power you have come here to attain is the power over the things within. Peace will come only when you become fully aware that your thoughts are not from outside yourself; they come from within, and thus are wholly yours, the only things in this universe over which it is legitimate to have total power. You, not your thoughts and memories, rule your mind, and it is you, no other, who bid them to come and go. The man who allows his own thoughts to torment him is like the man who clasps a scorpion-ant to his breast, bidding it bite him further.”

Allart repeated the exercise, and at the end of it, the memory of his brother had vanished from his mind. He has no place here, not even in my mind and memory. Calm now, his breathing coming and going in a small white cloud about his mouth, he left the cell and moved silently down the long corridor.

The chapel, reached by a brief passage through the falling snow, was the oldest part of the monastery. Four hundred years ago, the first band of brothers had come here to be above the world they wished to renounce, digging their monastery from the living rock of the mountain, hollowing out the small cave in which, it was said. Saint-Valentine-of-the-Snows had lived out his life. Around the hermit’s remains, a city had grown: Nevarsin, the City of Snows. Now several buildings clustered here, each one built with the labor of monkish hands, in defiance of the ease of these days; it was the brothers’ boast that not a single stone had been moved with the aid of any matrix, or with anything other than the toil of hands and mind.

The chapel was dark, a single small light glowing in the shrine where the statue of the Holy Bearer of Burdens stood, above the last resting-place of the saint. Allart, moving quietly, eyes closed as the rule demanded, turned into his assigned place on the benches; as one, the brotherhood knelt. Allart, eyes still closed by rule, heard the shuffle of feet, an occasional stumble of some novice who must still rely on the outer instead of the inner sight to move his clumsy body about the darkness of the monastery. The students, unsworn, with minimal teaching, stumbled in the darkness, ignorant of why the monks neither allowed nor required light. Whispering, pushing one another, they stumbled and sometimes fell, but eventually they were all in their assigned places. Again there was no discernible sound, but the monks rose with a single disciplined movement, following again some invisible signal from Father Master, and their voices rose in the morning hymn:

“One Power created

Heaven and Earth

Mountains and valleys

Darkness and light;

Male and female

Human and nonhuman.

This Power cannot be seen

Cannot be heard

Cannot be measured

By anything except the mind

Which partakes of this Power;

I name it Divine. . . .”

This was the moment of every day when Allart’s inward questions, searchings, and dismay wholly vanished. Hearing the voices of his brothers singing, old and young, treble with childhood or rusty with age, loosing his own voice in the great affirmation, he lost all sense of himself as a separate, searching, questing entity. He rested, floating, in the knowledge that he was a part of something greater than himself, a part of the great Power which maintained the motion of moons, stars, sun, and the unknown Universe beyond; that here he had a true place in the harmony; that if he vanished, he would leave an Allart-sized hole in the Universal Mind, something never to be replaced or altered. Hearing the singing, he was wholly at peace. The sound of his own voice, a finely trained tenor, gave him pleasure, but no more than the sounds of each voice in the choir, even the rusty and untuneful quavering of old Brother Fenelon next to him. Whenever he sang with his brothers, he recalled the first words he had ever read of Saint-Valentine-of-the-Snows, words which had come to him during the years of his greatest torment, and which had given him the first peace he had known since he left his childhood behind.

“Each one of us is like a single voice within a great choir, a voice like no other; each of us sings for a few years within that great choir and then that voice is forever silenced, and other voices take its place; but every voice is unique and none is more beautiful than another, or can sing another’s song. I call nothing evil but the attempt to sing to another’s tune or in another’s voice.”

And Allart, reading those words, had known that from childhood he had been attempting, at the command of his father and brothers, tutors, arms-masters and grooms, servants and superiors, to sing to a tune, and in a voice, which could never be his own. He had become a cristoforo, which was believed unseemly for a Hastur; a descendant of Hastur and Cassilda, a descendant of gods, one who bore laran; a Hastur of Elhalyn, near to the holy places at Hali where the gods once had walked. All the Hasturs, from time immemorial, had worshiped the Lord of Light. Yet Allart had become a cristoforo, and a time had come when he had left his brethren and renounced his inheritance and come here to be Brother Allart, his lineage half forgotten even by the brethren of Nevarsin.

Forgetful of self, and yet all-mindful of his own individual and unique place in the choir, in the monastery, in the Universe, Allart sang the long hymns; later he went, his fast still unbroken, to his assigned work of the morning, bringing breakfast to the novices and students in the outer refectory. He carried the steaming jugs of tea and hot bean-porridge to the boys, pouring the food into stoneware bowls and mugs, noticing how the cold young hands curved around the heat to try to warm themselves. Most of the boys were too young to have mastered the techniques of internal heat, and he knew that some of them wore their blankets wrapped under their cowls. He felt a detached sympathy for them, remembering his own early sufferings with the cold before his untrained mind could learn how to warm his body; but they had hot food and slept under extra blankets and the more they felt the cold, the sooner they would apply themselves to conquering it.

He kept silence (though he knew he should have reproved them) when they grumbled about the coarseness of the food; here in the quarters of the children, food rich and luxurious, by contrast to that of the monks, was served. He himself had tasted hot food only twice since entering the full monastic regimen; both times when he had done extraordinary work in the deep passes, rescuing snowbound travelers. Father Master had judged the chilling of his body had gone to a point where it endangered his health, and had ordered him to eat hot food and sleep under extra blankets for a few days. Under ordinary conditions, Allart had so mastered his body that summer and winter were indifferent to him, and his body made full use of whatever food came his way, hot or cold.

One disconsolate little fellow, a pampered son of the Lowland Domains with carefully cut hair curled around his face, was shivering so hard, wrapped in cowl and blanket, that Allart while spooning him out a second portion of porridge—for the children were allowed to eat as much as they wished, being growing boys—said gently, “You will not feel the cold so much in a little while. The food will warm you. And you are warmly clad.”

“Warmly?” the child said, disbelieving. “I haven’t my fur cloak, and I think I am going to die of the cold!” He was near to tears, and Allart laid a hand compassionately on his shoulder.

“You won’t die, little brother. You will learn that you can be warm without clothes. Do you know that the novices here sleep with neither blanket nor cowl, naked on the stone? And no one here has died of the cold yet. No animal wears clothing, their bodies being adapted to the weather where they live.”

“Animals have fur,” protested the child, sulkily. “I’ve only got my skin!”

Allart laughed and said, “And that is proof you do not need fur; for if you needed fur to keep warm, you would have been born furred, little brother. You are cold because since childhood you have been told to be cold in the snow and your mind has believed this lie; but a time will come, even before summer, when you too will run about barefoot in the snow and feel no discomfort. You do not believe me now, but remember my words, child. Now eat up your porridge, and feel it going to work in the furnace of your body, to bring heat to all your limbs.” He patted the tear-stained cheek, and went on with his work.

He, too, had rebelled against the harsh discipline of the monks; but he had trusted them, and their promises had been truthful. He was at peace, his mind disciplined to control, living only one day at a time with none of the tormenting pressure of foresight, his body now a willing servant, doing what it was told without demanding more than it needed for well-being and health.

In his years here he had seen four batches of these children arrive, crying with cold, complaining about harsh food and cold beds, spoiled, demanding—and they would go away in a year, or two, or three, disciplined to survival, knowing much of their past history and competent to judge their own future. These, too, including the pampered little boy who was afraid he would die of cold without his fur cloak, would go away hardened and disciplined. Without deliberation, his mind moved into the future, trying to see what would become of the child, to reassure himself. He knew it—his sternness with the child was justified. . . .

Allart tensed, his muscles stiffening as they had not done since his first year here. Automatically, he breathed to relax them, but the sudden dread remained.

I am not here. I cannot see myself at Nevarsin in another year. . . . Is it my death I see: or am I to go forth? Holy Bearer of Burdens, strengthen me. . . .

It had been this that brought him here. He was not, as some Hasturs were, emmasca, neither male nor female, long-lived but mostly sterile; though there were monks in this monastery who had indeed been born so, and only here had they found ways to live with this, which in these days was an affliction. No; he had known from childhood that he was a man, and had been so trained, as was fitting to the son of a royal line, fifth from the throne of the Domains. But even as a child, he had had another trouble.

He had begun to see the future almost before he was able to talk; once, when his foster-father had come to bring him a horse, he had frightened the man by telling him that he was glad he had brought the black instead of the gray he had started out with.

“How did you know I started to bring you the gray?” the man had asked.

“I saw you giving me the gray,” Allart had said, “and then I saw you giving me the black, and I saw that your pack fell and you turned back and did not come at all.”

“Mercy of Aldones,” the man had whispered. “It is true that I came near to losing my pack in the pass, and if I had lost it I would have had to turn back, having little food for the journey.”

Only slowly had Allart begun to realize the nature of his laran; he saw, not the one future, the true future alone, but all possible futures, fanning out ahead of him, every move he made spawning a dozen new choices. At fifteen, when he was declared a man and went before the Council of Seven to be tattooed with the mark of his Royal House, he found his days and nights torture, for he could see a dozen roads before him at every step, and a hundred choices each spurting new choices, till he was paralyzed, never daring to move for terror of the known and the new unknown. He did not know how to shut it out, and he could not live with it. In arms-training he was paralyzed, seeing at every stroke a dozen ways a movement of his own could disable or kill another, three ways every stroke aimed at him could land or fail to land. The arms-training sessions became such a nightmare that eventually he would stand still before the arms-master, cowering like a frightened girl, unable even to lift his sword. The leronis of his household tried to reach his mind and show him the way out of this labyrinth, but Allart was paralyzed with the different roads he could see for her training, and with his own growing sensitivity to women, could see himself seizing her mindlessly, and in the end he hid himself in his room, letting them call him coward and idiot, refusing to move or take a single step for fear of what would happen, knowing himself a freak, a madman. . . .

When Allart had finally stirred himself to make his long, terrifying journey—at every step seeing the false step which could plunge him into the abyss, to be killed or lie broken for days on the crags below the path, seeing himself fleeing, turning back—Father Master had welcomed him and heard his story, saying, “Not a freak or a madman, Allart, but much afflicted. I cannot promise you will find your true road here, or be cured, but perhaps we can teach you to live with it.”

“The leronis thought I could learn to control it with a matrix, but I was afraid,” Allart had confessed, and it was the first time he had felt free to speak of fear; fear was the forbidden thing, cowardice a vice too unspeakable to mention for a Hastur.

Father Master nodded and said, “You did well to fear the matrix; it might have controlled you through your fear. Perhaps we can show you a way to live without fear; failing that, perhaps you can learn a way to live with your fears. First you will learn that they are yours.”

“I have always known this. I have felt guilty enough about them—” Allart protested, but the old monk had smiled.

“No. If you truly believed they were yours, you would not feel guilt, or resentment, or anger. What you see is from outside yourself, and may come, or not, but is beyond your control. But your fear is yours, and yours alone, like your voice, or your fingers, or your memory, and therefore yours to control. If you feel powerless over your fear, you have not yet admitted that it is yours, to do with as you will. Can you play the rryl?”

Startled at this mental jump, Allart admitted that he had been taught to play the small, handheld harp after a fashion.

“When your strings would not at first make the sounds you wished, did you curse the instrument, or your unskilled hands? Yet a time came, I suppose, when your fingers were responsive to your will. Do not curse your laran because your mind has not yet been trained to control it.” He let Allart think that over for a moment, then said, “The futures you see are from outside, generated by neither memory nor fear; but the fear arises within you, paralyzing your choice to move among those futures. It is you, Allart, who create the fear; when you learn to control your fear, then you can look unafraid at the many paths you may tread and choose which you will take. Your fear is like your unskilled hand on the harp, blurring the sound.”

“But how can I help being afraid? I do not want to fear.”

“Tell me,” Father Master said mildly, “which of the gods put the fear into you, like a curse?” Allart was silent, shamed, and the monk said quietly, “You speak of being afraid. Yet fear is something you generate in yourself, from your mind’s lack of control; and you will learn to look at it and discover for yourself when you choose to be afraid. The first thing you must do is to acknowledge that the fear is yours, and you can bid it come and go at will. Begin with this; whenever you feel fear that prevents choice, say to yourself: ‘What has made me feel fear? Why have I chosen to feel this fear preventing my choice, instead of feeling the freedom to choose?’ Fear is a way of not allowing yourself to choose freely what you will do next; a way of letting your body’s reflexes, not the needs of your mind, choose for you. And as you have told me, mostly, of late, you have chosen to do nothing, so that none of the things you fear will come upon you; so your choices are not made by you but by your fear. Begin here, Allart. I cannot promise to free you of your fear, only that a time will come when you are the master, and fear will not paralyze you.” Then he had smiled and said, “You came here, did you not?”

“I was more afraid to stay than to come,” Allart said, shaking.

Father Master had said, encouragingly, “At least you could still select between a greater and a lesser fear. Now you must learn to control the fear and look beyond it; and then a day will come when you will know that it is yours, your servant, to command as you will.”

“All the Gods grant it,” Allart had said, shivering.

So his life here had begun . . . and had endured for six years now. Slowly, one by one, he had mastered his fears, his body’s demands, learning to seek out among the bewildering fan-shaped futures the one least harmful. Then his future had narrowed, until he saw himself only here, living one day at a time, doing what he must . . . no more and no less.

Now, after six years, suddenly what he saw ahead was a bewildering flow of images: travel, rocks and snow, a strange castle, his home, the face of a woman. . . . Allart covered his face with his hands, again in the grip of the old paralyzing fear.

No! No! I will not! I want to stay here, to live my own destiny, to sing to no other man’s tune and in no other man’s voice. . . .

For six years he had been left to his own destiny, subject only to the futures determined by his own choices. Now the outside was breaking in on him again; was someone outside the monastery making choices in which he must be involved, one way or another? All the fear he had subdued in the last six years crowded in on him again; then, slowly, breathing as he had been taught, he mastered it.

My fear is my own; I am in command of it, and I alone can choose. . . . Again he sought to see, among the thronging images, one path in which he might remain Brother Allart, at peace in his cell, working for the future of his world in his own way. . . .

But there was no such future path, and this told him something; whatever outside choice was breaking in on him, it would be something which he could not choose to deny. A long time he struggled, kneeling on the cold stone of his cell, trying to force his reluctant body and mind to accept this knowledge. But in the end, as he now knew he had power to do, he mastered his fear. When the summons came he would meet it unafraid.

*  *  *

By midday, Allart had faced enough of the bewildering futures which spread out, diverging endlessly, before him, to know at least a part of what he faced. He had seen his father’s face—angry, cajoling, complaisant—often enough in these visions to know, at least in part, what was the first trial facing him.

When Father Master summoned him, he could face the ancient monk with calm and an impassive control.

“Your father has come to speak with you, my son. You may see him in the north guest chamber.”

Allart lowered his eyes; when at last he raised them, he said, “Father, must I speak with him?” His voice was calm, but the Father Master knew him too well to take this calm at face value.

“I have no reason to refuse him, Allart.”

Allart felt like flinging back an angry reply, “I have!” but he had been trained too well to cling to unreason. He said quietly, at last, “I have spent much of this day schooling myself to face this; I do not want to leave Nevarsin. I have found peace here, and useful work. Help me to find a way, Father Master.”

The old man sighed. His eyes were closed—as they were most of the time, since he saw more clearly with the inner sight—but Allart knew they beheld him more clearly than ever.

“I would indeed, for your sake, son, that I could see such a way. You have found content here, and such happiness as a man bearing your curse can find. But I fear your time of content is ended. You must bear in mind, lad, that many men never have such a time of rest to learn self-knowledge and discipline; be grateful for what you have been given.”

Oh. I am sick of this pious talk of acceptance of those burdens laid upon us—Allart caught back the rebellious thought, but Father Master raised his head and his eyes, colorless as some strange metal, met Allart’s rebellious ones.

“You see, my boy, you have not really the makings of a monk. We have given you some control over your natural inclinations, but you are by nature rebellious and eager to change what you can, and changes can be made only down there.” His gesture took in a whole wide world outside the monastery. “You will never be content to accept your world complacently, son, and now you have the strength to fight rationally, not to lash out in blind rebellion born of your own pain. You must go, Allart, and make such changes in your world as you may.”

Allart covered his face with his hands. Until this moment he had still believed—like a child, like a credulous child!—that the old monk held some power to help him avoid what must be. He knew that six years in the monastery had not helped him grow past this; now he felt the last of his childhood drop away, and he wanted to weep.

Father Master said with a tender smile. “Are you grieving that you cannot remain a child, in your twenty-third year, Allart? Rather, be grateful that after all these years of learning, you have been made ready to be a man.”

“You sound like my father!” Allart flung at him angrily. “I had that served up to me morning and night with my porridge—that I was not yet manly enough to fill my place in the world. Do not you begin to speak so, Father, or I shall feel my years here were all a lie!”

“But I do not mean what your father means, when I say you are ready to meet what comes as a man,” Father Master said. “I think you know already what I mean by manhood, and it is not what my lord Hastur means; or was I mistaken when I heard you comfort and encourage a crying child this morning? Don’t pretend you do not know the difference, Allart.” The stern voice softened. “Are you too angry to kneel for my blessing, child?”

Allart fell to his knees; he felt the touch of the old man on his mind.

“The Holy Bearer of Burdens will strengthen you for what must come. I love you well, but it would be selfish to keep you here; I think you are too much needed in that world you tried to renounce.” As he rose. Father Master drew Allart into a brief embrace, kissed him, and let him go.

“You have my leave to go and clothe yourself in secular garments, if you will, before you present yourself to your father.” Again, for the last time, he touched Allart’s face. “My blessing on you always. We may not meet again, Allart, but you will be often in my prayers in the days to come. Send your sons to me, one day, if you will. Now go.” He seated himself, letting his cowl drop over his face, and Allart knew he had been dismissed from the old man’s thoughts as firmly as from his presence.

Allart did not avail himself of Father Master’s permission to change his garments. He thought angrily that he was a monk, and if his father liked it not, that was his father’s trouble and none of his own. Yet part of this rebellion came from the knowledge that when he turned his thoughts ahead he could not see himself again in the robes of a monk, nor here in Nevarsin. Would he never come again to the City of Snows?

As he walked toward the guest chamber, he tried to discipline his breathing to calm. Whatever his father had come to say to him, it would not be bettered by quarreling with the old man as soon as they met. He swung open the door and went into the stone-floored chamber.

Beside the fire burning there, in a carven chair, an old man sat, erect and grim, his fingers clenched on the chair-arms. His face had the arrogant stamp of the lowland Hasturs. As he heard the measured sweep of Allart’s robe brushing on the stone, he said irritably, “Another of you robed spooks? Send me my son!”

“Your son is here to serve you, vai dom.”

The old man stared at him. “Gods above, is it you, Allart? How dare you present yourself before me in this guise!”

“I present myself as I am, sir. Have you been received with comfort? Let me bring you food or wine, if you wish.”

“I have already been served so,” the old man said, jerking his head at the tray and decanter on the table. “I need nothing more, except to speak with you, for which purpose I undertook this wretched journey!”

“And I repeat, I am here and at your service, sir. Had you a hard journey? What prompted you to make such a journey in winter, sir?”

“You!” growled the old man. “When are you going to be ready to come back where you belong, and do your duty to clan and family?”

Allart lowered his eyes, clenching his fists till his nails cut deep in his palm and drew blood; what he saw in this room, a few minutes from now, terrified him. In at least one of the futures diverging now from his every word, Stephen Hastur, Lord Elhalyn, younger brother of Regis II, who sat on the throne of Thendara, lay here on the stone floor, his neck broken. Allart knew that the anger surging in him, the rage he had felt for his father since he could remember, could all too easily erupt in such a murderous attack. His father was speaking again, but Allart did not hear, fighting to force mind and body to composure.

I do not want to fall upon my father and kill him with my two hands! I do not, I—do—not! And I will not! Only when he could speak calmly, without resentment, he said, “I am sorry, sir, to displease you. I thought you knew that I wished to spend my life within these walls, as a monk and a healer. I would be allowed to pronounce my final vows this year at midsummer, to renounce my name and inheritance and dwell here for the rest of my life.”

“I knew you had once said so, in the sickness of your adolescence,” Dom Stephen Hastur said, “but I thought it would pass when you were restored to health of body and mind. How is it with you, Allart? You look well and strong. It seems that these cristoforo madmen have not starved you nor driven you quite mad with deprivations—not yet.”

Allart said amiably, “Indeed they have not, sir. My body, as you can see, is strong and well, and my mind at peace.”

“Is it so, son? Then I shall not begrudge the years you have spent here; and by whatever methods they achieved this miracle, I shall forever be grateful to them.”

“Then compound your gratitude, vai dom, by giving me leave to remain here where I am happy and at peace, for the rest of my life.”

“Impossible! Madness!”

“May I ask why, sir?”

“I had forgotten that you did not know,” Lord Elhalyn said. “Your brother Lauren died, three years ago; he had your laran, only in worse form still, for he could not manage to distinguish between past and future; and when it came upon him in all strength, he withdrew inside himself and never spoke again, or responded to anything outside, and so died.”

Allart felt grieved. Lauren had been the merest child, a stranger, when he left home; but the thought of the boy’s sufferings dismayed him. How narrowly he himself had escaped that fate! “Father, I am sorry. What pity you could not have sent him here; they might have been able to reach him.”

“One was enough,” Dom Stephen said. “We need no weakling sons; better die young than pass on such a weakness in the blood. His Grace, my brother Regis, has but a single heir; his elder son died in battle against those invaders at Serrais, and his only remaining son, Felix, who will inherit his throne, is frail in health. I am next, and then your brother Damon-Rafael. You stand within four places of the throne, and the king is in his eightieth year. You have no son, Allart.”

Allart said, with a violent surge of revulsion, “With such a curse as I bear, would you have me pass it to another? You have told me how it cost Lauren his life!”

“Yet we need that foresight,” Stephen Hastur said, “And you have mastered it. The leroni of Hali have a plan for fixing it in our line without the instability which endangered your sanity and killed Lauren. I tried to speak of this to you before you left us, but you were in no shape to think of the needs of the clan. We have made compact with the Aillard clan for a daughter of their line, whose genes have been so modified that they will be dominant, so that your children will have the sight, and the control to use it without danger. You will marry this girl. Also she has two nedestro sisters, and the leroni of the Tower have discovered a technique which will assure that you will father only sons on all of these. If the experiment succeeds, your sons will have the foresight and the control, too.” He saw the disgust in Allart’s face and said, enraged, “Are you no more than a squeamish boy?”

“I am a cristoforo. The first precept of the Creed of Chastity is to take no woman unwilling.”

“Good enough for a monk, not a man! Yet none of these will be unwilling when you take her, I assure you. If you wish, the two who are not your wives need not even know your name; we have drugs now which will mean that they carry away only the memory of a pleasant interlude. And every woman wishes to bear a child of the lineage of Hastur and Cassilda.”

Allart grimaced in revulsion. “I want no woman who must be delivered to me drugged and unconscious. Unwilling does not only mean fighting in terror of rape; it would also mean a woman whose ability to give, or refuse, free consent had been destroyed by drugs!”

“I would not suggest it,” said the old man angrily, “but you have made it clear that you are not ready to do your duty by caste and clan of your own free will! At your age, Damon-Rafael had a dozen nedestro sons by as many willing women! But you, you sandal-wearer—”

Allart bent his head, fighting the reflex of anger which prompted him to take that frail old neck between his hands and squeeze the life out of it. “Damon-Rafael spoke his mind often enough on the subject of my manhood, Father. Must I hear it from you as well?”

“What have you done to give me a better opinion of you? Where are your sons?”

“I do not agree with you that manhood must be measured by sons alone, sir; but I will not argue the point with you now. I do not wish to pass on this curse in my blood. I know something of laran. I feel you are wrong in trying to breed for greater strength in these gifts. You can see in me—and in Lauren, even more—that the human mind was never intended to bear such weight. Do you know what I mean if I speak of recessives and lethal genes?”

“Are you going to teach me my business, youngster?”

“No, but in all respect, Father, I will have no part in it. If I were ever to have sons—”

“There is no if about it. You must have sons.”

The old man’s voice was positive, and Allart sighed. His father simply did not hear him. Oh, he heard the words with his ears. But he did not listen; the words went through and past him, because what Allart was saying did not agree with the fixed belief of Lord Elhalyn—that a son’s prime duty was to breed the sons who would carry on the fabled gifts of Hastur and Cassilda, the laran of the Domains.

Laran, sorcery, psi power, which enabled these families to excel in the manipulation of the matrix stones, the starstones amplifying the hidden powers of the mind; to know the future, to force the minds of lesser men to their own will, to manipulate inanimate objects, to compel the minds of animal and bird—laran was the key to power beyond imagining, and for generations the Domains had been breeding for it.

“Father, hear me, I beg you.” Allart was not angry or argumentative now, but desperately in earnest. “I tell you, nothing but evil can come of this breeding program, which makes of women only instruments to breed monsters of the mind, without humanity! I have a conscience; I cannot do it.”

His father sneered, “Are you a lover of men, that you will not give sons to our caste?”

“I am not,” Allart said, “but I have known no woman. If I have been cursed with this evil gift of laran—”

“Silence! You blaspheme our forefathers and the Lord of Light who gave us laran!”

Now Allart was angry again. “It is you who blaspheme, sir, if you think the gods can be bent to human purposes this way!”

“You insolent—” His father sprang up, then, with an enormous effort, controlled his rage. “My son, you are young, and warped by these monkish notions. Come back to the heritage to which you were born, and you will learn better. What I ask of you is both right and needful if the Hasturs are to prosper. No”—he gestured for silence when Allart would have spoken—“on these matters you are still ignorant, and your education must be completed. A male virgin”—try as he might, Lord Elhalyn could not keep the contempt from his voice—“is not competent to judge.”

“Believe me,” Allart said, “I am not indifferent to the charms of women. But I do not wish to pass on the curse of my blood. And I will not.”

“That is not open to discussion,” Dom Stephen said, menace in his voice. “You will not disobey me, Allart. I would think it disgrace if a son of mine must father his sons drugged like some reluctant bride, but there are drugs which will do that to you, too, if you leave us no choice.”

Holy Bearer of Burdens, help me! How shall I keep from killing him as he stands here before me?

Dom Stephen said more quietly, “This is no time for argument, my son. You must give us a chance to convince you that your scruples are unfounded. I beg of you, go now and clothe yourself as befits a man and a Hastur, and make ready to ride with me. You are so needed, my dear son, and—do you not know how much I have missed you?”

The genuine love in his voice thrust pain through Allart’s heart. A thousand childhood memories crowded in on him, blurring past and future with their tenderness. He was a pawn to his father’s pride and heritage, yes, but with all this, Lord Elhalyn sincerely loved all his sons, had been genuinely afraid for Allart’s health and sanity—or he would never have sent him to a cristoforo monastery, of all places on the face of this world! Allart thought, I cannot even hate him; it would be so much easier if I could!

“I will come, Father. Believe me, I have no wish to anger you.”

“Nor I to threaten you, lad.” Dom Stephen held out his arms. “Do you know, we have not yet greeted one another as kinsmen? Do these cristoforos bid you renounce kin-ties, son?”

Allart embraced his father, feeling with dismay the bony fragility of the old man’s body, knowing that the appearance of domineering anger masked advancing weakness and age. “All the gods forbid I should do so while you live, my father. Let me go and make ready to ride.”

“Go, then, my son. For it displeases me more than I can say, to see you in this garb so unfitting for a man.”

Allart did not answer, but bowed and went to change his clothes. He would go with his father, yes, and present the appearance of a dutiful son. With certain limits, he would be so. But now he knew what Father Master had meant. Changes were needful in his world, and he could not make them behind monastery walls.

He could see himself riding forth, could see a great hawk hovering, the face of a woman . . . a woman. He knew so little of women. And now they meant to deliver up to him not one but three, drugged and complaisant . . . that he would fight to the end of his will and conscience; he would be no part of this monstrous breeding program of the Domains. Never. The monkish garb discarded, he knelt briefly, for the last time, on the cold stones of his cell.

“Holy Bearer of Burdens, strengthen me to bear my share of the world’s weight . . .” he murmured, then rose and began to clothe himself in the ordinary dress of a nobleman of the Domains, strapping a sword at his side for the first time in over six years.

“Blessed Saint-Valentine-of-the-Snows, grant I may bear it justly in the world . . .” he whispered, then sighed, and looked for the last time on his cell. He knew, with a sorrowful inner knowledge, that he would never set eyes on it again.

Chapter 4

The chervine, the little Darkovan stag-pony, picked its way fastidiously along the trail, tossing its antlers in protest at the new fall of snow. They were free of the mountains now, Hali no more than three days’ ride away. It had been a long journey for Allart, longer than the seven days it had taken to ride the actual distance; he felt as if he had traveled years, endless leagues, great chasms of change; and he was exhausted.

It took all the discipline of his years at Nevarsin to move securely through the bewilderment of what he now saw, legions of possible futures branching off ahead of him at every step, like different roads he might have taken, new possibilities generated by every word and action. As they traveled the dangerous mountain passes. Allart could see every possible false step which might lead him over a precipice, to be smashed, as well as the safe step he actually took. He had learned at Nevarsin to thread his way through his fear, but the effort left him weak and weary.

And another possibility was always with him. Again and again, as they traveled, he had seen his father lying dead at his feet, in an unfamiliar room.

I do not want to begin my life outside the monastery as a patricide! Holy bearer of Burdens, strengthen me . . . ! He knew he could not deny his anger; that way lay the same paralysis as in fear, to take no step for fear it would lead to disaster.

The anger is mine, he reminded himself with firm discipline. I can choose what I will do with my anger, and I can choose not to kill. But it troubled him to see again and again, in that unfamiliar scene which grew familiar as he traveled with the vision, the corpse of his father, lying in a room of green hangings bordered with gold, at the foot of a great chair whose very carvings he could have drawn, so often had he seen it with the sight of his laran.

It was hard, as he looked upon the face of his living father, not to look upon him with the pity and horror he would feel for the newly and shockingly dead; and it was a strain on him to show nothing of this to Lord Elhalyn.

For his father, as they traveled, had put aside his words of contempt for Allart’s monkish resolution, and ceased entirely to quarrel with him about it. He spoke only kindly to his son, mostly of his childhood at Hali before the curse had descended on Allart, of their kinfolk, the chances of the journey. He spoke of Hali, and the mining done in the Tower there, by the powers of the matrix circle, to bring copper and iron and silver ore to the surface of the ground; of hawks and chervines, and the experiments which his brother had made breeding, with cell-deep changes, rainbow-colored hawks, or chervines with fantastic jewel-colored antlers like the fabled beasts of legend.

Day by day Allart recaptured some of his childhood love for his father, from the days before his laran and the cristoforo faith had separated them, and again he felt the agony of mourning, seeing that accursed room with the green hangings and gold, the great carven chair, and his father’s face, white and stark and looking very surprised to be dead.

Again and again on this road other faces had begun to come out of the dimness of the unknown into the possible future. Most of them Allart ignored as he had learned in the monastery, but two or three returned repeatedly, so that he knew they were not the faces of people he might meet, but people who would come into his life; one, which he dimly recognized, was the face of his brother Damon-Rafael, who had called him sandal-wearer and coward, who had been glad to be rid of his rivalry, that he alone might be Elhalyn’s heir.

I wish that my brother and I might be friends and love one another as brothers should. Yet I see it nowhere among all the possible futures. . . .

And there was the face of a woman, returning continually to the eyes of his mind, though he had never seen her before. A small woman, delicately made, with eyes dark-lashed in her colorless face and hair like masses of spun black glass; he saw her in his visions, a grave face of sorrow, the dark eyes turned to him in anguished pleading. Who are you? he wondered. Dark girl of my visions, why do you haunt me this way?

Strange for Allart after the years in the monastery, he had begun to see erotic visions, too, of this woman, see her laughing, amorous, her face lifted to his own for a caress, closed under the rapture of his kiss. No! he thought. No matter how his father should tempt him with the beauty of this woman, he would hold firm to his purpose; he would father no child to bear this curse of his blood! Yet the woman’s face and presence persisted, in dreams and waking, and he knew she was one of those his father would seek as a bride for him. Allart thought it would indeed be possible that he would be unable to resist her beauty.

Already I am half in love with her, he thought, and I do not even know her name!

One evening, as they rode down toward a broad green valley, his father began to speak again of the future.

“Below us lies Syrtis. The folk of Syrtis have been Hastur vassals for centuries; we will break our journey there. You will be glad to sleep in a bed again, I suppose?”

Allart laughed. “It is all one, Father. During this journey I have slept softer than ever I did at Nevarsin.”

“Perhaps I should have had such monkish discipline, if old bones are to make such journeys! I will be glad of a mattress, if you will not! And now we are but two days’ ride from home, and we can plan for your wedding. You were handfasted at ten years old to your kinswoman Cassandra Aillard, do you not remember?”

Try as he might, Allart could remember nothing but a festival where he had had a suit of new clothes and had been made to stand for hours and listen to long speeches by the grown-ups. He told his father so, and Dom Stephen said, genial once more, “I am not surprised. Perhaps the girl was not even there; I think she was only three or four years old then. I confess I, too, had doubts about this marriage. Those Aillards have chieri blood, and they have an evil habit of bearing, now and then, daughters who are emmasca—they look like beautiful women, but they never become ripe for mating, nor do they bear children. Their laran is strong, though, so I risked the handfasting, and when the girl had become a woman, I had our own household leronis examine her in the presence of a midwife, who gave it as her opinion that the girl was a functioning female and could bear children. I have not seen her since she was a tiny girl, but I am told she has grown up to be a fine-looking maiden; and she is Aillard, and that family is a strong alliance to our clan, one we need greatly. You have nothing to say, Allart?”

Allart forced himself to speak calmly.

“You know my will on that matter, Father. I will not quarrel with you about it, but I have not changed my mind. I have no wish to marry, and I will father no sons to carry on this curse in our blood. I will say no more.”

Again, shockingly, the room with the green and gold hangings, and his father’s dead face, swam before his mind, so strongly that he had to blink hard to see his father riding at his side.

“Allart,” his father said, and his voice was kind, “during these days when we have journeyed together, I have come to know you too well to believe that. You are my own son, after all, and when you are back in the world where you belong, you will not long keep these monkish notions. Let us not speak of it, kihu caryu, until the time is upon us. The gods know I have no will to quarrel with the last son they have left me.”

Allart felt his throat tighten with grief.

I cannot help it. I have come to love my father. Is this how he will break my will at last, not with force but with kindness? And again he looked on his father’s dead face in the room hung with gold and green, and the face of the dark maiden of his visions swam before his blurring eyes.

*  *  *

Syrtis Great House was an ancient stone keep, fortified with moat and drawbridge, and there were great outbuildings of wood and stone, and an elaborate courtyard, under shelter of a glasslike canopy of many colors; underfoot were colored stones, laid together with a precision no workman could have accomplished, so that Allart knew the Syrtis folk were of the new-rich, who could make full use of the ornamental and difficult matrix technology to have such beautiful things constructed. How can he find so many of the laran-gifted to do his will?

The old lord Syrtis was a plump soft man, who came into the courtyard himself to welcome his overlord, falling to his knees in fawning politeness, rising with a smile that was almost a smirk when Dom Stephen drew him into a kinsman’s embrace. He embraced Allart, too, and Allart flinched from the man’s kiss on his cheek.

Ugh, he is like a fawning house cat!

Dom Marius led them into his Great Hall, filled with sybaritic luxury, seated them on cushioned divans, called for wine. “This is a new form of cordial, made from our apples and pears; you must try it. . . . I have a new amusement; I will talk of it when we have dined,” Dom Marius of Syrtis said, leaning back into the billowy cushions. “And this is your younger son, Stephen? I had heard some rumor that he had forsaken Hali and become a monk among the cristoforos, or some such nonsense. I am glad it is only a vicious lie; some people will say anything.”

“I give you my word, kinsman, Allart is no monk,” Dom Stephen said. “I gave him leave to dwell at Nevarsin to recover his health; he suffered greatly in adolescence from threshold sickness. But he is well and strong, and came home to be married.”

“Oh, is it so?” Dom Marius said, regarding Allart with his wide, blinking eyes, encased in wide pillows of fat. “And is the fortunate maiden known to me, dear boy?”

“No more than to me,” Allart said in grudging politeness. “I am told she is my kinswoman Cassandra Aillard; I saw her but once, when she was a baby girl.”

“Ah, the domna Cassandra! I have seen her in Thendara; she was present at the Festival Ball in Comyn Castle,” Dom Marius said with a leer.

Allart, thought, disgusted, He only wants us to know he is important enough to be invited there!

Dom Marius called servants to bring their supper. He followed the recent fad for nonhuman servants, cralmacs, artificially bred from the harmless trailmen of the Hellers, with matrix-modified genes by human insemination. To Allart the creatures seemed ugly, neither human nor trailman. The trailmen, strange and monkeylike though they were, had their own alien beauty. But the cralmacs, handsome though some of them undeniably were, had for Allart the loathsomeness of something unnatural.

“Yes, I have seen your promised bride; she is fair enough to make even a true monk break his vows,” Dom Marius sniggered. “You will have no regrets for the monastery when you lie down with her, kinsman. Though all those Aillard girls are unlucky wives, some being sterile as riyachiyas and others so fragile they cannot carry a child to birth.”

He is one of those who like to foretell catastrophe, too, Allart thought. “I am in no great hurry for an heir; my elder brother is alive and well and has fathered nedestro sons. I will take what the gods send.” Eager to change the subject, he asked, “Did you breed the cralmacs on your own estate? Father told me as we rode of my brother’s experiments in breeding ornamental chervines through matrix-modification; and your cralmacs are smaller and more graceful than those bred at Hali. They are good, I remember, only for mucking out stables and such heavy work, things it would be unsuitable to ask one’s human vassals to do.”

He said this with a sudden pang—How quickly I forget!—remembering that in Nevarsin he had been taught that no honest work was beneath the dignity of a man’s own hands. But the words had diverted Dom Marius again into boasting.

“I have a leronis from the Ridenow, captured in battle, who is skillful with such things. She thought I was kind to her, when I assured her she would never be used against her own people—but how could I trust her in such a battle?—and she made no trouble about doing other work for me. She bred me thee cralmacs, more graceful and shapely indeed than any I had before. I will give you breeding stock, male and female, if you will, for a wedding gift, Dom Allart; no doubt your lady would welcome handsome servants. Also the leronis bred for me a new strain of riyachiyas; will you see them, cousin?”

Lord Elhalyn nodded, and when they finished the meal the promised riyachiyas were brought in. Allart looked on them with an inner spasm of revulsion: exotic toys for jaded tastes. In form they were women, fair of face, slender, with shapely breasts lifting the translucent folds of their draperies, but too narrow of hip and slender of waist and long of leg to be genuine women. There were four of them, two fair-haired, two dark; otherwise identical. They knelt at Dom Marius’s feet, moving sinuously, the curve of their slender necks, as they bowed, swanlike and exquisite, and Allart, through his revulsion, felt an unaccustomed stirring of desire.

Zandru’s hells, but they are beautiful, as beautiful and unnatural as demon hags!

“Would you believe, cousin, that they were borne in cralmac wombs? They are of my seed, and that of the leronis,” he said, “so that a fastidious man, if they were human, might say they were my daughters, and indeed, the thought adds a little—a little something,” he said, sniggering. “Two at a birth—” He pointed to the fair-haired pair and said, “Lella and Rella; the dark ones are Ria and Tia. They will not disturb you with much speech, though they can talk and sing, and I had them taught to dance and to play the rryl and to serve food and drink. But, of course, their major talents are for pleasure. They are matrix-spelled, of course, to draw and bind—I see you cannot take your eyes from them, nor”—Dom Marius chuckled—“can your son.”

Allart started and angrily turned away from the horribly enticing faces and bodies of the inhumanly beautiful, lust-inspiring creatures.

“Oh, I am not greedy; you shall have them tonight, cousin,” Dom Marius said, with a lewd chuckle. “One or two, as you will. And if you, young Allart, have spent six years of frustration in Nevarsin, you must be in need of their services. I will send you Lella; she is my own favorite. Oh, the things that riyachiya can do, even a sworn monk would yield to her touch.” He grew grossly specific, and Allart turned away.

“I beg you, kinsman,” he said, trying to conceal his loathing, “do not deprive yourself of your favorite.”

“No?” DomMarius’s cushiony eyes rolled back, in feigned sympathy. “Is it so? After so many years in a monastery, do you prefer the pleasures to be found among the brethren? I myself seldom desire a ri’chiyu, but I keep a few for hospitality, and some guests desire a change now and then. Shall I send you Loyu? He is a beautiful boy indeed, and I have had all of them modified to be almost without response to pain, so that you can use him any way you choose, if you desire.”

Dom Stephen said quickly, seeing that Allart was about to explode, “Indeed, the girls will do well enough for us. I compliment you on the skill of your leronis at breeding them.”

When they had been taken to the suite of rooms allotted to them, Dom Stephen said, enraged, “You will not disgrace us by refusing this courtesy! I will not have it gossiped here that my son is less than a man!”

“He is like a great fat toad! Father, is it a reflection on my manhood that the thought of such filth overwhelms me with loathing? I would like to fling his foul gifts in his sniggering face!”

“You weary me with your monkish scruples, Allart. The leroni never did better than when they bred us the riyachiyas; nor will your wife-to-be thank you if you refuse to have one in your household. Can you be so ignorant as not to know that if you lie with a breeding woman, she may miscarry? It is part of the price we pay for our laran, which we have bred with such difficulty into our line, that our women are fragile and given to miscarry, so that we must spare them when they are with child. If you turn your desires on a riyachiya only she need not be jealous, as if you had given your affections to a real girl who would have some claim on your thoughts.”

Allart turned his face away; in the Lowlands this kind of speech between the generations was the height of indecency, had been from the days when group marriage was commonplace and any man of your father’s age could be your father, any woman of an age to be your mother could have been your mother indeed; so that the sexual taboo was absolute between generations.

Dom Stephen said defensively, “I would never so far forget myself, Allart, except that you have not been willing to do your duty by our caste. But I am sure you are enough my son that you will come to life with a woman in your arms!” He added, crudely, “You need not be scrupulous; the creatures are sterile.”

Allart thought, sick with disgust, I may not wait for the room with the green and gold hangings, I may kill him here and now, but his father had turned away and gone into his own chamber.

He thought, enraged, as he made ready for bed, of how corrupt they had become. We, the sacred descendants of the Lord of Light, bearing the blood of Hastur and Cassilda—or was that only a pretty fairy tale? Were the laran gifts of the families descended from Hastur no more than the work of some presumptuous mortal, meddling with gene-matter and brain-cells, some sorceress with a matrix jewel modifying germ plasm as Dom Marius’s leronis did with those riyachiyas, making exotic toys for corrupt men?

The gods themselves—if indeed there are any gods—must turn sick at the sight of us!

The warm, luxurious room sickened him; he wished himself back at Nevarsin, in the solemn night silence. He had turned out the light when he heard an almost noiseless foot-step and the girl Lella, in her flimsy draperies, stole softly across the floor to his side.

“I am here for your contentment, vai dom.”

Her voice was a husky murmur; her eyes alone betrayed that she was not human, for they were dark brown animal eyes, great, soft, strangely unreadable eyes.

Allart shook his head.

“You can go away again, Lella. I will sleep alone tonight.”

Sexual images tormented him, all the things he might do, all the possible futures, an infinitely diverging set of probabilities hinging on this moment. Lella sat on the edge of the bed; her soft slender fingers, so delicate that they seemed almost boneless, stole into his. She murmured, pleading, “If I do not please you, vai dom, I will be punished. What would you have me do? I know many, many ways to give delight.”

He knew his father had maneuvered this situation. The riyachiyas were bred and taught and spelled to be irresistible; had Dom Stephen hoped she would break down Allart’s inhibitions?

“Indeed, my master will be very angry if I fail to give you pleasure. Shall I send for my sister, who is as dark as I am fair? And she is even more skilled. Or would it give you pleasure to beat me, Lord? I like to be beaten, truly I do.”

“Hush, hush!” Allart felt sick. “No one would want anyone more beautiful than you.” And indeed, the shapely young body, the enchanting little face, the loose scented hair falling across him, were enticing. She had a sweet, faintly musky scent; somehow before he touched her he had believed that the riyachiyas would smell animal, not human.

Her spell is on me, he thought. How then could he resist? With a sense of deathly weariness, as he felt her slender fingertips trace a line of awareness down his bare neck from earlobe to shoulder, he thought. What does it matter? I had indeed resolved to live womanless, never to pass on this curse I bear. But this poor creature is sterile, I cannot father a child on her if I would. Perhaps when he knows I have done his will in this, he will be less ready to put insults on me and call me less than a man. Bearer of Burdens, strengthen me! I but make excuses for what I want to do. Why should I not? Why must I alone resist what is given by right to every man of my caste? His mind was spinning. A thousand alternate futures spun out before him: in one he seized the girl in his hands and wrung her neck like the animal he knew her to be; in another he saw himself and the girl entwined in tenderness, and the image swelled, driving the awareness of lust into his body; in another he saw the dark maiden lying dead before him. . . . So many futures, so much death and despair. . . . Spasmodically, desperately, trying to blot out the multiple futures, he took the girl in his arms and drew her down on the bed. Even as his lips came down on hers, he thought of despair, futility. What does it matter, when there is all this ruin before me . . . ?

He heard, as if from nowhere, her small cries of pleasure, and in his wretchedness, thought, At least she is not unwilling, and then he did not think again at all, which was an enormous relief.

Chapter 5

When he woke, the girl was gone, and Allart lay without moving for a moment, overcome with sickness and self-contempt. How shall I keep from killing that man, that he brought this upon me . . . ? But as his father’s dead face swam before his eyes in the familiar room with green and gold hangings, he reminded himself sternly, The choice was mine; he provided only the opportunity.

Nevertheless, he felt overwhelming self-contempt as he moved around the room, making ready to ride. In the night past he had learned something about himself that he would rather not have known.

In his six years in Nevarsin it had been no trouble to him to keep to the womanless precincts of the monastery, to live without thought of women; he had never been tempted, even at midsummer festival when even the monks were free to join in the revelry, to seek love or its counterfeit in the lower town. So it had never occurred to him that he would find it difficult to keep his resolve—not to marry, not to father children bearing the monstrous curse of laran. Yet, even through his loathing and revulsion for the thing Lella was, not even human, six years of self-imposed celibacy had been cast aside in minutes, at the touch of a riyachiya’s obscenely soft fingertips.

Now what is to become of me? If I cannot keep my resolve for a single night. . . . In the crowding, diverging futures he saw before his every step, there was a new one, and it displeased him: that he might become some such creature as old Dom Marius, refusing marriage indeed, sating his lust with these unnaturally bred pleasure girls, or worse.

He was grateful that their host did not appear at breakfast; he found it hard enough to face his father, and the vision of his father’s dead face came near to blotting out the real, live presence of the old man, good-natured over his buttered bread and porridge. Sensing his son’s unspoken anger (Allart wondered if his father had had reports from servants, or even if he had stooped low enough to question the girl Lella, to verify that Allart had proved his masculinity), Dom Stephen kept silence until they were donning their riding-cloaks, then said, “We will leave the riding-animals here, son; Dom Marius has offered us an air-car which will take us directly to Hali, and the servants can bring the riding-animals on in a few days. You have not ridden in an air-car since you were very small, have you?”

“I do not remember that I rode in one even then,” said Allart, interested against his will. “Surely they were not common in such times.”

“No, very uncommon, and of course they are toys for the wealthy, demanding a skilled laran operator as they do,” Lord Elhalyn said. “They are useless in the mountains; the crossdrafts and winds would dash any heavier-than-air vehicle against the crags. But here in the Lowlands it is safe enough, and I thought such a flight would divert you.”

“I confess I am curious,” Allart said, thinking that Dom Marius of Syrtis certainly spared no pains to ingratiate himself with his overlord. First he put his favorite pleasure girls at their disposal, and now this! “But I heard at Nevarsin that these contrivances were not safe in the Lowlands either. While war rages between Elhalyn and Ridenow, they are all too easily attacked.”

Dom Stephen shrugged, saying, “We all have laran; we can make short work of any attackers. After six years in a monastery, no doubt your fighting skills are rusty when it comes to sword and shield, but I have no doubt you could strike anyone who attacked us out of the sky. I have fire-talismans.” He looked shrewdly at his son, then said, “Or are you going to tell me that the monks have made you such a man of peace that you will not defend your life or the life of your kinsmen, Allart? I seem to remember that as a boy you had no stomach for fighting.”

No, for at every stroke I saw death or disaster for myself or another, and it is cruel of you to taunt me with childish weakness which was no fault of mine, but of your own accursed hereditary Blood-Gift. . . . But aloud Allart said, forcing himself to ignore the shocking dead face of his father which persisted in appearing before his eyes, blurring his father’s living face, “While I live, I will defend my father and my Lord to the death, and the gods do so to me and more also if I fail or falter.”

Startled, warmed by something in Allart’s voice, Lord Elhalyn put out his arms and embraced his son. For the first time Allart could remember, to him or anyone, the old man said. “Forgive me, dear son, that was not worthy of me. I should not so accuse you unmerited,” and Allart felt tears stinging his eyes.

Gods forgive me. He is not cruel, or if he is, it is only out of fear for me, too. . . . He truly wills to be kind. . . .

The air-car was long and sleek, made of some gleaming glassy material, with ornamental stripes of silver down the length of it, a long cockpit with four seats, open to the sky. Cralmacs rolled it out from its shed, onto the ornamented paving of the inner courtyard, and the operator, a slender young man with the red hair which proclaimed the minor nobility of the Kilghard Hills, approached them with a curt bow, a mere perfunctory reverence; a highly trained expert, a laranzu of this kind, needed to be deferential to no man, not even to the brother of the king at Thendara.

“I am Karinn, vai dom. I have orders to take you to Hali. Please take your seats.”

He left it to the cralmacs to lift Dom Stephen into his seat, and to fasten the straps around him, but as Allart took a place, Karinn lingered a moment before going to his own seat. He said, “Have you ever ridden in one of these, Dom Allart?”

“Not since I can remember. Is it powered by such a matrix as you alone can handle? That would seem beyond belief!”

“Not entirely; in there”—Karinn pointed—“is a battery charged with energy to run the turbines; it would indeed demand more power than one man has at his command, to levitate and move such an apparatus, but the batteries are charged by the matrix circles, and my laran, at this moment, is needed only to guide and steer—and to be aware of attackers and evade them.” His face was somber. “I would not defy my overlord, and it is no part of my duty to refuse to do as I am bid, but—have you laran?”

As Karinn spoke, the unease in Allart clarified, with a sudden sharp vision of this air-car bursting asunder, exploding, falling out of the sky like a stone. Was this only a distant probability or did it truly lie before them? He had no way of knowing.

“I have laran enough to be uneasy at trusting myself to this contraption. Father, we will be attacked. You know that?”

“Dom Allart,” Karinn said, “this contraption, as you call it, is the safest means of transport ever devised by starstone technology. You are vulnerable to attack between here and Hali, should you go a-horse, for three days; in an air-car you will be there before midday and they must place their attackers very precisely. Furthermore, it is easier to defend yourself with laran than against such weapons as they may send against you with armed men. I can see a day coming on Darkover when all the Great Houses will have such weapons and devices to protect themselves against envious rivals or rebellious vassals; and then there will be no more wars, either for no sane men will risk this kind of death and destruction. Such contraptions as this, vai dom, may be only expensive toys for rich men now, but they will bring us such an age of peace as Darkover has never known!”

He spoke with such conviction and enthusiasm that Allart doubted his own rising vision of dreadful warfare with weapons ever more dreadful. Karinn must be right Such weapons would surely restrain sane men from making war at all, and so he who invented the most terrible weapons worked the harder for peace.

Taking his seat, Allart said, “Aldones, Lord of Light, grant you speak with true vision, Karinn. And now let us see this miracle.”

I have seen many possible futures which never came to pass. I have found this morning that I love my father well, and I will cling to the belief that I will never lay hands upon him, no more than I would wring the neck of that poor harmless little riyachiya in the night past. I will not fear attack, either, but I will guard against it, while I take pleasure in this new means of travel. He let Karin show him how to fasten the straps that would hold him in his seat if the air became turbulent, and the device that swiveled his seat behind a magnified pane of glass, giving him instant view of any attackers or menace.

He listened closely as the laranzu, taking his own seat and fastening himself into place, bent his head in alert concentration and the battery-powered turbine began to roar. He had practiced enough in boyhood, in the tiny gliders levitated by small matrixes and soaring on the air currents around the Lake of Hali, to be aware of the elementary principles of heavier-than-air flight, but it was incredible to him that a matrix circle, a group of close-linked telepath minds, could charge a battery strongly enough to power such enormous turbines. Yet laran could be powerful, and a matrix could amplify the electric currents of the brain and body enormously, a hundredfold, a thousandfold. He wondered how many minds with laran it took, operating for how long, to charge such batteries with the tremendous humming power of those roaring turbines. He would have liked to ask Karinn—but would not disturb the laranzu’s concentration—why such a vehicle could not be adapted to ground transit, but quickly realized that for any ground vehicle roads and highways were needed. Someday, perhaps, roads would be practical, but on the rough terrain from the Kilghard Hills north, ground transit would probably always be limited to the feet of men and animals.

Quickly, with the humming power, they skimmed along a level runway surfaced with glassy material which must have been poured there by matrix-power, too; then they were airborne, rising swiftly over treetop sand forests, moving into the very clouds with an exhilarating speed that took Allart’s breath away. It was as far beyond the soaring he had done on gliders, as the gliders were above the slow plodding of a chervine! Karinn motioned, and the air-car turned its vast wings southward and flew over the forests to the south.

They had flown for a considerable time. Allart was beginning to feel the straps constricting his body, and wished he might loosen them for a little, when he felt within himself, with a spurt of sudden excitement, alertness and fear.

We are seen, pursued—we will be attacked!

Look to the west, Allart

Allart squinted his yes into the light. Small shapes appeared there, one, two, three—were they gliders? If they were, such an air-car could outrun them swiftly. And, indeed, Karinn, with swift motions of his hands, was turning the air-car to evade the pursuers. For a moment it seemed they would not be followed; one of the gliding forms—These are not gliders! Are they hawks?—soared up, up, above them, higher and higher. It was indeed a hawk, but Allart could feel human intelligence, human awareness, watching them with malevolent will. No natural hawk had ever had eyes which glittered so, like great jewels! No, this is no normal bird! Restless with unease, he watched the soaring flight of the bird as it went higher and higher, winging with long, swift flapping strokes into the sky above them. . . .

Suddenly a narrow, gleaming shape detached itself from the bird and fell down, plummeting, arrowlike, toward the car. Allart’s vision, even before thought, provided him with the knowledge of what would happen if that long, deadly shape, gleaming like glass, should strike the air-car: they would explode into fragments, each fragment coated with the terrible clingfire, which clung to what it touched and went on burning and burning, through metal and glass and flesh and bone.

Allart grasped the matrix he wore about his neck, jerked it with shaking fingers from the protecting silks. There is so little time. . . . Focusing into the depths of the jewel, he altered his awareness of time so that now the glassy shape fell ever more slowly, and he could focus on it, as if taking it between invisible fingers of force. . . . Slowly, slowly, carefully. . . . he must not risk having it break while it could fall into the air-car and fragments of clingfire destroy flesh and car. His slowed awareness spun accelerated futures through his mind—he saw the air-car exploding in fragments, his father slumping over and blazing up with clingfire in his hair, Karinn going up like a torch, and the air-car falling out of control, heavier than a stone . . . but none of those things would be allowed to happen!

With infinite delicacy, his mind focused into the pulsing lights of his matrix, and his eyes closed, Allart manipulated the glassy shape away from the air-car. He sensed resistance, knew the one guiding the device was fighting him for control of it. He struggled silently, feeling as if his physical hands were trying to keep hold of a greased and wriggling live thing while other hands fought to wrest it away, to fling it at him.

Karinn, quickly, get us higher if you can so that it will break below us. . . .

He felt his body slump against the straps as the air-car angled sharply upward; saw, with a fragment of his mind, his father collapse in his seat, thinking with swift contrition, He is old, frail, his heart cannot take much of this . . . but the main part of his mind was still in those fingers of force that struggled with the now-writhing device, which seemed to squirm under the control of his mind. They were nearly free of it now—

It exploded with a wild crash that seemed to rock all space and time, and Allart felt sharp burning pain in his hands; swiftly he withdrew his consciousness from the vicinity of the exploded device, but the burning still resonated in his physical hands. Now he opened his eyes and saw that the device had indeed exploded well below them, and fragments of clingfire were falling in a molten shower to set ablaze the forests below. But one fragment of the glassy shell had been flung upward, over the rim of the air-car, and the thin fire was spreading along the edge of the cockpit, reaching fingers of flame toward where his father lay slumped and unconscious.

Allart fought against his first impulse—to lean over and beat out the fire with his hands. Clingfire could not be extinguished that way; any fragment that touched his hands would burn through his clothing and his flesh and through to the bone, as long as there was anything left to be consumed. He focused again into the matrix—there was no time to take out the fire-talisman Karinn had given him, he should have had it ready!—calling his own fire and flaring it out toward the clingfire. Briefly it flamed high, then with a last gutter of light, the clingfire died and was gone.

“Father—” he cried, “are you hurt?”

His father held out shaking hands. The outer edge and the littlest finger were seared, blackened, but there was, as far as Allart could see, no greater hurt. Dom Stephen said in a weak voice, “The gods forgive me that I called your courage into question, Allart. You saved us all. I fear I am too old for such a struggle. But you mastered the fire at once.”

“Is the vai dom wounded?” Karinn called from the controls. “Look! They have fled.” Indeed, low on the horizon, Allart could see the small retreating shapes. Did they put real birds under spell by matrix to carry their vicious weapons? Or were they some monstrous, mutant-bred things, no more birds than the cralmacs were human; or some dreadful matrix-powered mechanical device that had been brought to deliver their deadly weapon? Allart could not guess, and his father’s plight was such that he did not feel free to pursue their attackers even in thought.

“He is shocked and a little burned,” he called anxiously to Karinn. “How long will it be before we are there?”

“But a moment or two, Dom Allart. I can see the gleam of the lake. There, below—”

The air-car circled, and Allart could see the shoreline and the glimmering sands, like jewels, along the shores of Hali. . . . Legend says that the sands where Hastur, son of Light, walked, were jeweled from that day. . . . And there the curious lighter-than-water waves that broke incessantly along the shore. To the north were shining towers, the Great House of Elhalyn, and at the far end of the lake, the Tower of Hali, gleaming faintly blue. As Karinn glided downward, Allart unfastened his retraining straps and clambered to his father’s side, taking the burned hands in his own, focusing into the matrix to look with the eyes of his mind and assess the damage. The wound was minor indeed; his father was only shocked, his heart racing, more frightened than hurt.

Below them, Allart could see servants in the Hastur colors running out on the landing field as the air-car descended, but he held his father’s hands in his own, trying to blot out all that he could foresee. Visions, none of them true . . . the air-car did not explode inflame . . . what I see need not come—it is only what may come, borne of my fears. . . .

The air-car touched the ground. Allart called, “Bring my lord’s body-servants! He is hurt; you must carry him within!” He lifted his father in his arms, and lowered him into the waiting arms of the servants, then followed as they carried the frail figure within.

From somewhere a familiar voice, hateful from years ago, said, “What has come to him, Allart? Were you attacked in the air?” and he recognized the voice of his elder brother, Damon-Rafael.

Briefly he described the encounter, and Damon-Rafael said, nodding, “That is the only way to handle such weapons. They used the hawk-things, then? They have sent them upon us only once or twice before, but once they burned an orchard of trees, and nuts were scarce that year.”

“In the name of all the gods, brother, who are these Ridenow? Are they of the blood of Hastur and Cassilda, that they can send such laran weapons upon us?”

“They are upstarts,” Damon-Rafael said. “They were Dry-towns bandits in the beginning, and they moved into Serrais and forced or bullied the old families of Serrais to give them their women as wives. The Serrais had strong laran, some of them, and now you can see the result—they grow stronger. They talk truce, and I think we must make truce with them, for this fighting cannot go on much longer. But their terms will not compromise. They want unquestioned ownership of the Domain of Serrais, and they claim that with their laran they have a right to it. . . . But this is no time to speak of war and politics, brother. How does our father? He seemed not much hurt, but we must get a healer-woman to him at once, come—”

In the Great Hall, Dom Stephen had been laid on a padded bench and a healer-woman was kneeling at his side, smearing ointments on the seared fingers, bandaging them in soft cloths. Another woman held a wine cup to the old lord’s lips. He stretched a hand to his sons as they hurried toward him, and Damon-Rafael knelt at his side. Looking at his brother, Allart thought it was a little like looking into a blurred mirror; seven years his senior, Damon-Rafael was a little taller, a little heavier, like himself fair-haired and gray-eyed as were all the Hasturs of Elhalyn, his face beginning to show signs of the passing years.

“The gods be praised that you are spared to us now, Father!”

“For that you must thank your brother, Damon; it was he who saved us.”

“If only for that, I give him welcome home,” Damon-Rafael said, turning and drawing his brother into a kinsman’s embrace. “Welcome, Allart. I hope you have come back to us in health, and without the sick fancies you had as a boy.”

“Are you hurt, my son?” Dom Stephen asked, looking up at Allart with concern. “I saw you were in pain.”

Allart spread out his hands before him. He had not been touched physically by the fire at all, but with the touch of his mind he had handled the fire-device, and the resonances had vibrated to his physical hands. There were red seared marks all along his palms, spreading up to his wrists, but the pain, though fierce, was dreamlike, nightmarish, of the mind and not of damaged flesh. He focused his awareness on it and the pain receded as the reddish marks began slowly to fade.

Damon-Rafael said, “Let me help you, brother,” and took Allart’s fingers in his own hands, focusing closely on them. Under his touch the red marks paled to white. Lord Elhalyn smiled.

“I am well pleased,” he said. “My younger son has come back to me strong and a warrior, and my sons stand together as brothers. This day’s work has been well done, if it has shown you—”

“Father!” Allart leaped toward him as the voice broke off with shocking suddenness. The healer-woman moved swiftly to his side as the old man fought for breath, his face darkening and congesting; then he slumped again, slid to the floor, and lay without moving.

Damon-Rafael’s face was drawn with horror and grief. “Oh, my father—” he whispered, and Allart, standing in shock and dread at his side, looked up for the first time around the Great Hall, seeing for the first time what he had not seen in the confusion: the green and gold hangings, the great carved chair at the far end of the room.

So it was my father’s Great Hall where he lay dead, and I did not even see till it was too late. . . . My foresight was true, but I mistook its cause. . . . Even knowing the many futures does nothing to avoid them. . . .

Damon-Rafael bent his head, weeping. He said to Allart, holding out his arms, “He is dead; our father has gone into the Light,” and the brothers embraced, Allart trembling with shock at the sudden and unexpected descent of the future he had foreseen.

All around them, one by one, the servants knelt, turning to the brothers; and Damon-Rafael, his face drawn with grief, his breath coming ragged, forced himself to composure as the servants spoke the formula.

“Our Lord is dead. Live long, our Lord,” and kneeling, held out their hands in homage to Damon-Rafael.

Allart knelt and, as was fitting and right under the law, was the first to pledge to the new overlord of Elhalyn, Damon-Rafael.

Chapter 6

Stephen, Lord Elhalyn, was laid to rest in the ancient burying ground by the shores of Hali; and all the Hastur kin of the Lowland Domains, from the Aillards on the plains of Valeron, to the Hasturs of Carcosa, had come to do him honor. King Regis, stooped and old, looking almost too frail to ride, had stood beside the grave of his half-brother, leaning heavily on the arm of his only son.

Prince Felix, heir to the throne of Thendara and the crown of the Domains, had come to embrace Allart and Damon-Rafael, calling them “dear cousins.” Felix was a slight, effeminate young man with gilt hair and colorless eyes, and he had the long, narrow pale face and hands of chieri blood. When the funeral rites were ended there was a great ceremony. Then the old king, pleading age and ill health, was taken home by his courtiers, but Felix remained to do honor to the new Lord of Elhalyn, Damon-Rafael.

Even the Ridenow lord had sent an envoy from far Serrais, proffering an unasked truce for twice forty days.

Allart, welcoming guests in the hall, came suddenly upon a face he knew—though he had never set eyes upon her before. Dark hair, like a cloud of darkness under a blue veil; gray eyes, but so darkly lashed that for a moment the eyes themselves seemed as dark as the eyes of some animal. Allart felt a strange tightening in his chest as he looked upon the face of the dark woman whose face had haunted him for so many days.

“Kinsman,” she said courteously, but he could not lower his eyes as custom demanded before an unmarried woman who was a stranger to him.

I know you well. You have haunted me, dreams and waking, and already I am more than half in love with you. . . . Erotic images attacked him, unfitting for this company, and he struggled with them.

“Kinsman,” she said again, “why do you stare at me in such unseemly fashion?”

Allart felt the blood rising in his face; indeed it was discourtesy, almost indecency, to stare so at a woman who was a stranger to him, and he colored at the thought that she might possess laran, might be aware of the images that tormented him. He finally found a scrap of his voice.

“But I am no stranger to you, damisela. Nor is it discourtesy that a man shall look his handfasted bride directly in the face; I am Allart Hastur, and soon to be your husband.”

She raised her eyes and returned his gaze fairly. But there was tension in her voice. “Why, is it so? Still, I can hardly believe that you have borne my image in your mind since you last looked on my face, when I was an infant girl of four years. And I had heard, Dom Allart, that you had withdrawn yourself to Nevarsin, that you were ill or mad, that you wished to be a monk and renounce your heritage. Was it only idle gossip, then?”

“It is true that I had such thoughts for a time. I dwelt for six years among the brethren of Saint-Valentine-of-the-Snows, and would gladly have remained there.”

If I love this woman, I will destroy her . . . I will father children who will be monsters . . . she will die in bearing them. . . . Blessed Cassilda, foremother of the Domains, let me not see so much, now, of my destiny, since I can do so little to avert it. . . .

“I am neither ill nor mad, damisela; you need not fear me.”

“Indeed,” said the young woman, meeting his eyes again. “You do not seem demented, only very troubled. Is it the thought of our marriage which troubles you, then, cousin?”

Allart said, with a nervous smile, “Should I not be well-content, to see what beauty and grace the gods have given me in a handfasted bride?”

“Oh!” She moved her head, impatient. “This is no time for pretty speeches and flatteries, kinsman! Or are you one of those who think a woman is a silly child, to be turned away with a courtly compliment or two?”

“Believe me, I meant you no discourtesy, Lady Cassandra,” he said, “but I have been taught that it is unseemly to share my own troubles and fears when they are still formless.”

Again the quick, direct look from the dark-lashed eyes.

“Fears, cousin? But I am harmless and a girl! Surely a lord of the Hasturs is afraid of nothing, and surely not of his pledged bride!”

Before the sarcasm he flinched. “Would you have the truth, Lady? I have a strange form of laran; it is not foresight alone. I do not see only the future which will be, but the futures which might come to pass, those things which may happen with ill luck or failure; and there are time when I cannot tell which of them are generated by causes now in option, and which are born of my own fear. It was to master this that I went to Nevarsin.”

He heard her sharp indrawn breath.

“Avarra’s mercy, what a curse to carry! And have you mastered it, then, kinsman?”

“Somewhat, Cassandra. But when I am troubled or uncertain, it rushes in upon me again, so that I do not see only the joy which marriage to one such as you might bring me.” Like a physical pain in his heart, Allart felt the bitter awareness of his love, the years ahead which might turn to brightness. . . . Fiercely he slammed the inner door, closing his mind against it. Here was no riyachiya, to be taken without thought, for a moment’s pleasure!

He said harshly, and did not know how his own pain brought a rasp to his voice and coldness to his speech, “But I see, as well, all the griefs and catastrophe which may come; and till I can see my way through the false futures born of my own fears, I can take no joy in the thought of marriage. It is intended as no discourtesy to you, my lady and my bride.”

She said, “I am glad you told me this. You know, do you not, that my kinsmen are angry because our marriage did not take place two years ago, when I was legally of age. They felt you had insulted me by remaining in Nevarsin. Now they wish to be sure you will claim me without further delay.” Her dark glance glinted with humor. “Not that they care a sekal for my wedded bliss, but they are never done reminding me how near you stand to the throne, and how fortunate I am, and how I must captivate you with my charm so you will not escape me. They have dressed me like a fashion puppet, and dressed my hair with nets of copper and silver, and loaded me with jewels, as if you were going to buy me in the market. I half expected you to open my mouth and look at my teeth to be sure my loins and withers were strong!”

Allart could not help laughing. “On that score your kinfolk need have no fear, Lady; surely no man living could find any flaw in you.”

“Oh, but there is,” she said ingenuously. “They were hoping you would not notice, but I will not try to hide it from you.” She spread her narrow, ringed hands before him. The slender fingers were laden with jewels, but there were six of them, and as his eyes fell on the sixth, Cassandra colored deeply and tried to draw them under her veil. “Indeed, Dom Allart, I beg you not to stare at my deformity.”

“It seems to me no deformity,” he said. “Do you play the rryl? It seems to me that you could strike chords with more ease.”

“Why, so it does—”

“Then let us never again think of it as defect or deformity, Cassandra,” he said, taking the slight six-fingered hands in his own and pressing his lips to them. “In Nevarsin, I saw children with six or seven fingers where the extra fingers were boneless or without tendons, so that they could not be moved or flexed; but you have full control of them, I see. I, too, am something of a musician.”

“Truly? Is it because you were a monk? Most men have no patience for such things, or little time to learn them with the arts of war.”

“I would rather be musician than warrior,” Allart said, pressing the narrow fingers again to his lips. “The gods grant us enough peace in our days that we may make songs instead of war.” But as she smiled into his eyes, her hand still against his lips, he noted that Ysabet, Lady Aillard, was watching them, and so was his brother Damon-Rafael, and they looked so self-satisfied that he turned sick. They were manipulating him into doing their will, despite his resolve! He let her hand go as if it had burned him.

“May I conduct you to your kinswoman, damisela?”

*  *  *

As the evening progressed, the festivities decorous but not somber—the old lord had been decently laid to rest, and he had a proper heir, so there was no doubt the Domain would prosper—Damon-Rafael sought out his brother. Despite the feasting, Allart noticed he was still quite sober.

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Meet the Author

Marion Zimmer was born in Albany, NY, on June 3, 1930, and married Robert Alden Bradley in 1949. Mrs. Bradley received her B.A. in 1964 from Hardin Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, then did graduate work at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1965-67.

She was a science fiction/fantasy fan from her middle teens, and made her first sale as an adjunct to an amateur fiction contest in Fantastic/Amazing Stories in 1949. She had written as long as she could remember, but wrote only for school magazines and fanzines until 1952, when she sold her first professional short story to Vortex Science Fiction. She wrote everything from science fiction to Gothics, but is probably best known for her Darkover novels.

In addition to her novels, Mrs. Bradley edited many magazines, amateur and professional, including Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine, which she started in 1988. She also edited an annual anthology called Sword and Sorceress for DAW Books.

Over the years she turned more to fantasy; The House Between the Worlds, although a selection of the Science Fiction Book Club, was "fantasy undiluted". She wrote a novel of the women in the Arthurian legends — Morgan Le Fay, the Lady of the Lake, and others — entitled Mists of Avalon, which made the NY Times best seller list both in hardcover and trade paperback, and she also wrote The Firebrand, a novel about the women of the Trojan War. Her historical fantasy novels, The Forest House, Lady of Avalon, Mists of Avalon are prequels to Priestess of Avalon

She died in Berkeley, California on September 25, 1999, four days after suffering a major heart attack. She was survived by her brother, Leslie Zimmer; her sons, David Bradley and Patrick Breen; her daughter, Moira Stern; and her grandchildren.

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Brief Biography

Date of Birth:
June 30, 1930
Date of Death:
September 25, 1999
Place of Birth:
Albany, New York
Place of Death:
Berkeley, California
Education:
B.A., Hardin-Simmons College, 1964; additional study at University of California, Berkeley, 1965-1967

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The Ages of Chaos (Stormqueen!/Hawkmistress!) 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This was the first Bradley Darkover book I read, and I loved it. If you want to get lost in another world for a while, then I'd suggest this book!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I think the readers could have been warned that the book is comprised of two previous releases; Hawk Mistress and Storm Queen, rather than implying that this was a new release. I was excited about the potential release that dated back to the Age of Chaos, but when I received this book, I was very disappointed. Seeing that I already read both books.