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TIMOTHY CROUCHED IN THE GRASS, HIS HEART hammering as he crept toward the Wall of Traxx. His attention was fixed on danger, but his heart was intent on Dawnray, the lovely village girl on the other side of the wall--held captive in the royal palace. He was ready with a plan and had almost accumulated what he needed to make it all happen.
One thing stood in Timothy's way, and it wasn't the deadly wall of thorns that surrounded the stronghold. The voice of his camp leader, Brady, who was off somewhere with fellow outrider Niki, nevertheless nagged at him in his head. What most annoyed Timothy was not that the outrider's voice was imaginary, but that it told the truth.
What're you doing, mate? Can't go off on your own like this . Timothy argued in his mind. But Alrod's holding her prisoner, and he intends her for his own use. You know what that use is, Brady. She needs help.
We can't rescue everyone, Tim.
But we save some. That's part of why we're here. You've led countless rescues, and you've taught me how to do it.
Why this girl and not some other? Is it because she's lovelier than the serving lass in Alrod's kitchen?
"It's because I love her," Timothy whispered, more to assure himself than to convince the voice in his head. Easier to sneak through a wall thought impassable than to deal with a leader who wasn't even here.
A patrol of Alrod's strong-arms approached, and Timothy ducked out of sight, though the strong-arms never looked his way. Two of these patrols guarded the wall, riding its perimeter from opposite sides, but Timothy knew they spent more time trading barbs and spiced rum than searching out intruders. They assumed that no intruder would dare try to breach the dreaded Wall of Traxx. But Timothy knew the wall wasn't impassable.
He'd been through it several times just this past week. Twenty paces high and a hundred deep, the Wall of Traxx ringed the stronghold with a vast stretch of flowers and thorns. The flowers bloomed on the outside--tiny but profuse blooms of roses, lilies, sunflowers, daffodils, and flowers even an experienced tracker like Timothy couldn't name, all infused with intoxicating fragrance. But beyond the blooms lay a maze of thorns the size of a strong-arm's lance and briar thickets that a mugged rhinoceros couldn't pass through. Many men--indeed, full armies--had been fooled by the wall's enticing exterior, only to be impaled by the thorns and die tangled in the briars.
Timothy waited until the patrol was out of sight, then ran up to the wall and began to sing.
Can you hear the distant thunder? Can you feel the tremble of the earth?
In response, a bent-over creature shuffled out of the flowers, black eyes staring out of a leathery face. Timothy's heart ached for the little fellow--born as a man, but transmogrified by the sorcerer's potions into a turtlelike slung, destined to spend his life inside this wall. Like his many brothers, he feared open spaces and had only one love--music.
"Bask! Thanks for coming." Timothy sang the words, and the little creature's eyes narrowed with pleasure at the sound. "May I enter?"
The slung's answer was to turn and push into the flowers. Grabbing the back of Bask's rock-hard shell, Timothy followed him, singing the whole time. To stop singing was to be abandoned among the thorns.
To be abandoned here was to die.
Within three paces, the flowers gave way to woody growth. With ease, the slung broke thorns twice his size and flattened tangles of bramble that could kill any invader foolish enough to try to breach this wall. Timothy ducked low and followed closely, feeling new thorns and brambles already growing in behind him, lingering occasionally to fill his bag with globs of sticky resin that dripped from the thorn vines. The slung didn't seem to mind, just pressed on steadily. Timothy followed through malodorous muck that sucked at his boots and offended his sensitive tracker's nose--it was always a challenge to keep singing but not gag at the smell.
All day and all night, the slungs lugged in buckets of manure and moldy vegetables to feed the living wall--and it was said that Baron Alrod fed this wall with the guts of his enemies as well. Sheltering behind the slung and longing for the moment he would break through into the fresh air and sunlight, Timothy sang to survive. But when he finally reached Dawnray's window, Timothy would sing his love . . . and more.
Dark thoughts. A place where the master sorcerer of Traxx was quite at ease. But today a void haunted Ghedo's mind--a dream he could not achieve, an accomplishment beyond his grasp. Anyone could wreak death. All it took was a sword, a knife, a rock, even a hard fist or an iron skillet. Slash, jab, slam, whack, and death had its way. Death was simple. But how long would the secrets of life elude him? As he trailed after his warlord employer, Baron Alrod, even this glorious day mocked him. The plains of Traxx were lush with summer grasses and blooming wildflowers. A profusion of life that came in its course whether Ghedo willed it or not.
To speak birds into flight and to call men back from the dead was surely not out of the reach of the greatest sorcerer who had ever lived. But how could he grasp the goal when the baron kept wasting his best efforts? On these plains, for example, Ghedo's greatest achievement now rotted for all to see. He had finally succeeded in transmogrifying cobblers and farmers and fishwives into great, hulking gargants--an unstoppable army of giants. Just a few weeks ago, he'd presented his gargant troops to Alrod, who quickly turned what should have been an amazing triumph into a military debacle. The gargant corpses now lay scattered for leagues, their limbs almost picked clean by buzzards and their bones bleached white by a blinding sun, a ghastly memorial to Ghedo's prowess and Alrod's folly. And Alrod, ever resourceful, now used the massive rib cages as gallows, stringing their ribs with his own failed strong-arms as easily as a woman might adorn her ears with dangling jewels. Rather than hanging them from their necks, the baron had ordered them bound tightly around the chest. They would bake in the hot sun for days until death finally came.
Cloaked and veiled, Ghedo was forced to stand with Alrod and watch the hangings. In his thirst for vicious revenge, the baron had not grasped this irony: by executing what was left of his army, by hanging them inside the remains of a greater army, he was advertising his monumental defeat for all to see.
After the last strong-arm had been strung up, Alrod walked briskly to the command tent, a good league away from the killing fields. Ghedo followed, breathless with the exertion. He preferred his underground lair to the open sky. His gifts were not of a physical nature. The baron was the warrior. His lean frame was muscular, his jaw hard, his eyes hungry. That his hand rested on his sword told Ghedo that the execution had not slaked his thirst for revenge.
Alrod's valet Sado met them with mugs of mulled cider. An holdover from Alrod's grandfather, the ancient retainer was bent and gnarled, with a constant moist wheeze that set Ghedo's nerves on edge. As with a beloved dog, Alrod would not put him out of his misery.
"I need meat, Sado," Alrod said. "Spiced and roasted, but with the juices still running."
The servant shuffled out. Ghedo locked the door behind him. He slipped off his cloak and veil so he could breathe freely. Only Alrod had ever seen him without the cloak--or had even seen his face. Ghedo avoided the entanglements of the flesh that the baron thrived on. Celibacy had its virtues--a clear mind among them. And the cloak was a key to his power--almost as important as his cache of transmogrifying potions. The purple cloak was the most feared--and thus revered--symbol in the stronghold. When Alrod ascended the throne, Ghedo had seized the cloak of the master sorcerer from his father. It was now embroidered with entwined snakes, fangs ready to strike. One symbolized his late grandfather, the other his deceased father.
There would never be a third snake--another memorial to a deposed father by an upstart son. Ghedo had no sons, no need for the kind of immortality men seek by fathering children. He had successfully transmogrified the wall of thorns so that it could regenerate itself immediately, and he had recently achieved similar results with a worm. Surely the regeneration of human life--even his own self--was within reach.
If he could keep his energy up. Ghedo was bitterly tired of cleaning up after a man who could not control his fury. "Alrod."
The baron slumped onto a stool and tugged off his boots. "What?"
"The army is running thin. We need every strong-arm that still breathes just to protect our borders. I'm speaking to you as a friend--perhaps you could cut those men down after a couple of days and restore them to the army. Your anger is understandable, but perhaps you would be wise to vent your frustration on the commoners."
Alrod was on him in a flash, the tip of his dagger against Ghedo's throat.
"Perhaps I could spare the commoners and vent my wrath on the friend who betrayed me."
Ghedo held himself motionless. "How have I betrayed you?"
"By your incompetence."
"I would die for you."
"Perhaps you should."
"After all these years? All I've done for you? After all we've done together?"
"If you continue to disappoint me, what choice will I have?"
Alrod's voice cracked as he lowered the dagger. "I need a sorcerer with the skill to match my ambition."
"I am that sorcerer, as I always have been. You know that."
"Do I, Ghedo? Do I really?"
The bell clanged. Ghedo shrugged on his cloak and pulled his veil into place before he freed the latches to let Sado in. A sudden burst of light exploded behind the servant, followed by a blast of frigid air that sucked the door shut. Before Alrod could grab his sword, Ghedo had flung his knife into the intruder's heart. The man didn't even flinch.
Ghedo grappled for his sword, but Alrod stayed his hand. "Were our visitor a threat, we'd both be dead by now."
The intruder bowed, a strangely formal gesture given the knife in his chest. Cloaked in a shimmer of gray and gold, he too hid his face behind a veil. Beside him, Sado stood as a statue, tray in hand and mouth open. The valet's chest did not rise, and yet he did not fall over dead. Had he been struck with a fastacting potion that turned him to stone?
"I am honored to be counted worthy as an adversary. But I come as a friend." The intruder's voice was deep but not harsh, with an odd accent that lowered in tone at the end of each phrase.
"Friends do not come masked," Alrod said. "Show yourself."
The intruder unlatched his veil and dropped his hood. Ghedo swallowed back shock at seeing his own face on the intruder. "A trick," he muttered. "Some sort of mog."
"Baron Alrod has suffered a very costly defeat," the intruder said. "To emphasize this point, I wear the face of the genius who engineered the debacle."
Cold snaked through Ghedo's ribs. "Very clever. You must be very popular in many courts. The baron, however, has plenty of jokers at his."
"Are you sure you know your master's mind, sorcerer?"
"That is my privilege and my joy."
"Then surely you must know what is uppermost in Alrod's mind?"
"To raise another army," Ghedo said.
The intruder leaned close, his breath so sweet as to be nauseating. "To find another master sorcerer."
Ghedo spun to face Alrod. "Is that true?"
"I . . ." Uncharacteristically, the baron was at a loss for words.
"Would you replace me? The genius behind your hoornars, the master who gave you gargants, who created the wall of thorns that protects your stronghold? No sorcerer in the world has a craft superior to mine."
The intruder laughed. "Your superior craft results in stupendous failures, Ghedo."
Alrod's brow creased. "It's true. You haven't advanced my stronghold one league. In fact, Traxx is in mortal danger--"
"--from your diminished army and loss of the hoornars," the intruder said. "Not to mention the humiliation wreaked by those peasants with plain swords and sparkling armor."
Alrod would normally have killed any man or woman who dared interrupt him as he spoke. But now he simply turned back to the intruder. "Who are you?"
"I would invite you to know me as Simon."
"And where do you come from?"
As Simon smiled, his chin squared and his eyes darkened to violet, dissolving any imitation of Ghedo. "Here and there."
"A sorcerer without a kingdom?" Ghedo sniffed back the derision in his tone. He wouldn't be able to break headfirst through whatever spell the stranger had cast on Alrod. Best to step back and evaluate the threat.
"I roam at will, practicing my craft the same way."
"Cunning words but empty," Ghedo said. "What can you do that I can't?"
Simon looked to Alrod. "May I demonstrate, high and mighty?"
Alrod shrugged. "Why not? We could use a little bit of amusement."
Simon grabbed Sado's jaw. Breath returned to the old man, and he struggled to get away. "Don't fight it," Simon said. "I can do nothing without your permission."
"Sado, relax," Alrod said.
"What if I could make it so that your back was strong and your eyes sharp, your hands quick and your feet swift? What would you give for the privilege of being young again so you could serve Alrod as heartily as you served his father and grandfather?"
"Anything," Sado croaked.
Simon jerked Sado's jaw, breaking it with a loud crack. Sado's short scream was cut off by a loss of consciousness.
"I will have your head if you don't restore him," Alrod said.
Simon shoved his hand down the servant's throat, suddenly tall enough to straighten his arm from above. Sado's neck popped like a swift blast of thunder. More pops followed as the hump in Sado's back straightened. Simon would leave the old man as a bag of bones, fit only for the dogs in the street.
"Stop this, Alrod," Ghedo said.
"No," Alrod said. "Too late now to do anything but stay this course."
Simon was up to his armpit in Sado's mouth now, eyes intent as if searching for something. The old man's heart, Ghedo realized.
And sure enough, Sado's eyes filled with blood. Simon slowly pulled his arm out of Sado's throat, his free hand caressing the old man's face as a mother might her child's. The wrinkles relaxed into smoothness. Simon threaded his fingers over Sado's speckled scalp and brown hair sprouted, lustrous and thick. The valet blinked as consciousness returned, then blinked again as he became aware of his transformation.
In only mere minutes, the servant's youth had been restored. Sado stood tall and straight, his shoulders broad and his muscles taut. The only evidence of Simon's violent ministrations was the red surrounding Sado's eyeballs. What of his heart? Had Simon crushed and restored it? Or had he replaced it with something hidden, something surging with new life?
Ghedo's mind roiled with questions he would never ask. To ask was to be beholden. In his own time and his own way, he would discover the secret of Simon's power and seize it from him.
Alrod circled his valet, his eyes sparkling with delight. "What have you to say, Sado?"
The servant bowed deeply. "I am thrilled to serve you more ably."
"As am I, high and mighty," Simon said. "In any capacity you'll have me."
Alrod looked meaningfully at Ghedo, his intentions clear. "No," the sorcerer whispered.
"Give Simon your cloak."
"Alrod, be reasonable. This is some trick. You don't know this man."
Alrod curled his lip at Simon. "My sorcerer says this is a trick. What do you say?"
Simon stared at Ghedo. "I say that Ghedo of Traxx will neither discover such power on his own nor seize it from me." He turned, smiling at Alrod. "I will not beg, nor will I impose. My offer stands: I will serve you in any capacity you wish."
Alrod snapped his fingers, a gesture meant for drudges and not for friends. "Now, Ghedo. I won't ask again."
Ghedo's mind spun. Surely there must be some way to oppose--Go quietly, Ghedo. Or become the third snake in your cloak. Simon's voice had bypassed his ears, gone straight for the inside of his eyes. How--It's a shame to waste your admirable longing, but with nothrone, you are of little use to me. Still, you have served me well, so I will let you live. I've never served you, Ghedo answered in his mind. I don't even know you. But oh, how I know you. You have served me and will continue to do so, for this is my will for you. I will oppose you with everything in my power. Should you do that, I will reveal your deepest secret. No. And under that secret, your deepest longing. Would Alrod be delighted by such a longing? Shall I ask him now?
Ghedo clutched his head. "Stop it. Stop it!"
"Give Simon your cloak, or I'll cut it off you," Alrod said.
"That won't be necessary." With a sweep of his hand, Simon's own cloak deepened to purple, an exact replica of Ghedo's, even down to the detail of the entwined snakes. But these snakes were truly alive, continually twisting around each other and snapping their jaws.
Panicked, Ghedo wanted to flee, but his feet were fixed to the ground. His cloak began to fade, and he feared he would fade with it.
I have use for you, Ghedo. Don't fight me. Honor me, and your secrets are safe.
Ghedo's cloak shimmered, no longer the glorious hue of a master sorcerer, but a radiant, fine-spun gold.
"Ghedo has worked hard for you, high and mighty. He's due some time off to relax and restore. Time in his lair, to work his potions," Simon said. "You'd like that, wouldn't you, Ghedo?"
Ghedo nodded, his bitter frustration warring with a soaring awe. Hadn't it always been like this for him? Mountains and rivers and plains, hawks and horses and men, wind and rain and snow. All objects of his lust, yet so far beyond his own making that he hated whatever power flung the mountains into the sky and drove horses to thunder the plains.
Simon put his hands possessively on Alrod's shoulders. Men had been killed for such familiarity, but the baron smiled. "Shall we get to raising your army, high and mighty?" Simon continued.
"Since you've exhausted the near lying villages, we shall need to make a trip south to find some fresh material."
"Indeed. But first I have something to do," Alrod said. "Something I've put off far too long."
"Indeed," Simon echoed. "Go plant your heir in that lolly of yours. And then we'll be off."