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To the Rescue
Everything looked the same as usual. The scattered buildings of the Loremaster community were unchanged, their lichened grey stone blending with their surroundings as though they were a natural part of the landscape. Though the usual bank of low cloud hung over the Upper Lake, the waters of the Lower Lake glittered in the pale, cool sunlight of an early-autumn morning. The great oak forest that cloaked the steep southern slopes of the valley was resplendent in bronze and gold, and fallen leaves lay like hoarded treasure across the paths and down to the shores.
It could have been any normal day in Gendival had it not been for the strange absence of inhabitants. At this hour, both in the Shadowleague settlement and the village beyond, people were usually going about their business, sparing time from their errands to stop a while and engage in talk. Today, however, was not a normal day. Cergorn, the Archimandrite, was grievously wounded and barely clinging to life. Amaurn the renegade had returned, and had proved to have a number of covert supporters in Gendival. There had been a titanic battle between two Senior Loremasters: the fearsome Maskulu, with his long, low-slung body and many legs, and the mantislike Skreevathe former a supporter of the renegade Amaurn, and the latter a Dragon-folk spy.
In the aftermath of these events, an uneasy, unnatural quiet had fallen. The villagers were at home with their families, aware that the future of the Shadowleague hung in the balance, and keeping out of the way while its members settled the differences that had split their ranks. The Senior Loremastersthose few who remained in Gendivalwere convening at the lakeside. It would be up to them to make sense of the last few hours and pull the Shadowleague back into a cohesive team.
It was one meeting that Veldan would be glad to miss. She considered herself, Kaz, and Elion extremely fortunate to be heading out of the settlement. With luck they would be far away before anyone got round to considering the part they had played in Amaurn's sudden bid for power. And hopefully, by the time they returned, all the fighting would be over and the important decisions made. On Amaurn's instructions, they would travel downriver to the coast to find their lost companions Toulac and Zavahl, who had been kidnapped by agents of the Dragonfolk. Zavahl carried in his mind the spirit of their Seer, guardian of the tribal memories, and the Dragons wanted him back. The Shadowleague, however, were desperately in need of the information he carried, and Amaurn wasn't prepared to let him go.
Veldan, Kazairl, and Elion parted from Amaurn on the lakeshore. "Are you sure you don't want us to stay, and explain to the Afanc about Zavahl and the Dragon?" Veldan asked in mind-speech. The lake monster was the only other Senior Loremaster in Gendival at that time. Given his close friendship to Cergorn, she had a feeling that he would object in the strongest possible terms to this interloper from the past, and he would be a good deal less easy to persuade than the other Loremasters. Though Amaurn had managed to snatch the reins of power from Cergorn, whether he could hold on to them remained to be seen.
Amaurn shook his head. "I'll manage Bastiarand any other objectors." His face was set and bleak, as though he had pulled the mantle of Lord Blade around his shoulders once again. Veldan shivered. It was as though the moment of closeness that they had shared in the aftermath of the battle had never existed. "You and your friends get out of here," he continued, "before you become embroiled any further. I'll have Bailen send messages downriver to arrange for your transport. Just get Zavahl back. Everything depends on that. If we can show Bastiar that we were right, and Cergorn was wrong, then even he cannot deny my claim."
He turned away and looked out across the waters of the lake. Veldan and Elion exchanged a glance, she raising her eyebrows and he replying with a shrug. Clearly, they had been dismissed.
The firedrake snorted loudlythere was no need to ask what he thought of Amaurn's attitude. "It's a good thing for him that the Wind-Sprite isn't here," Kaz muttered. "He may be able to get round the Afanc, but Shree wouldn't allow him to take over from her partner."
The three Loremasters set off back up the wooded slope toward their own hillside dwellings. At Veldan's side, the firedrake rumbled softly in his throat. Clearly, there was a lot he didn't like about this businesswhich was no surprise, as she found herself harboring the same doubts. How had it happened so quickly, the transformation from Blade the foe to Amaurn the ally? It felt as though she and Kaz had been swept away in a torrent of circumstances, and had been too busy fighting the conflicting currents and trying to keep their heads above water to know, or care, where they would be washed ashore. She couldn't understand how they had ended up supporting Blade, yet somehow it had happened, and now they would have to live with the consequences. Waiting until Elion had left them at the fork of the path, heading for his own home, she mentioned her misgivings to the firedrake.
He tilted his head in a draconic shrug. "Me too. Well, we won't be the only ones."
Veldan glanced back over her shoulder, toward the settlement. "True. And I don't think Blade, or Amaurn, or whatever he wants to call himself, is home and dry yet. Now that all the excitement has died down, there are a lot of doubts flying around."
"Doubts?" The firedrake snorted. "You mean they're scared out of their tiny wits." He stopped for a moment, turning his great, glowing eyes on his partner's face. "What do you think, Boss? Honestly?"
Veldan shook her head. "I don't know. I can scarcely believe I could support a man who has been capable of such ruthlessness, but I do. I don't trust him entirely, but I think Gendival needs new blood and new vision right now. What worries me, though, is that he seems so familiar, somehow. Even though I never met him before, I feel as if he's always been there, somewhere in the back of my mind, just waiting to emerge. Does that make any sense to you at all?"
"Are you crazy? Of course it doesn't!" snorted the firedrake.
"You're probably right." Veldan sighed. "All my life I've had the tale of Amaurn the renegade held up before me as an example and a warning. In a sense, I grew up with Amaurn, and that's probably why he seems so familiar now."
"It's as good an explanation as any," the firedrake agreed. "And you're tired, Boss; no wonder you're not thinking straight. There's enough to worry about in this Amaurn business as it is, without clouding the issue with fancies." He turned his head to look at her. "Just think about it. Firstly, the world's in a state of crisis, and we need to take some kind of positive action. Secondly, Cergorn wouldn't listen when we tried to tell him that the Dragon Seer was trapped inside Zavahl. Thirdly, it turns out that Amaurn was a friend of your mother's, so it's natural that you'd want to trust him. Fourthly, he offered to help us save Toulac and Aethon, not to mention that Hierarch, when Cergorn wouldn't. We have enough reasons to make us change sides without worrying about mysterious feelings."
"I suppose you're right. Anyway, it won't make much difference what we think. We'd better leave the problem of Amaurn to the Senior Loremasters right now, and attend to our own affairs."
Veldan's mind leapt ahead to their journey. By this time, Bailen would be sending messages down the river, and a boat would be waiting for them at the nearest settlement of the Navigators. These river traders were an essential part of life in Gendival. The realm consisted mainly of mountains and lakes, and the land was so wild and broken that the easiest way to get from place to place was by river. The Navigators were nomads of the waterways; they built locks, they dredged the shallows, and in truly inaccessible places, they constructed portage ways and transferred their goods to smaller boats that could be hauled on rollers by sturdy horses. All up and down the rivers they carried news and goods, and sometimes passengers. Their great sailing barges even went to sea, trading along the coastlines as far as the Curtain Walls would permit, and like all the natives of the Gendival realm, the Navigators worked to support the Shadowleague whenever necessary.
"It'll make a nice change," Kaz remarked, "to float down the river at our ease and let somebody else do the work for a change. My poor old legs have been practically worn down to stumps, these last months."
"Make the most of it," Veldan warned him. "With the Curtain Walls still failing, our work is far from done. Somehow I get the feeling that Amaurn will have plans for us when we get back."
"If he's still in charge when we get back," the firedrake snorted. "He hasn't convinced Bastiar yet."
There was a harsh edge to Veldan's laughter. "Want to bet on it? Let's not forget that Amaurn is still Lord Blade, and a man doesn't change overnight. If it comes to a contest, I'll back him against the Afanc anytime."
When Kaz and Veldan reached their home, they found the indefatigable Ailie already there. While they had been down by the lakeside, the innkeeper had clearly been busy. She was in the middle of making breakfast, and the glorious smell of frying bacon filled Veldan's kitchen. The innkeeper looked up as they entered. "Just in time," she said cheerfully. "But where's Elion got to?"
"Gone back to his own house to change and get a few things together." Veldan had to swallow hard before she could get the words out. It had been a long, eventful time since last night's supper, and her mouth was watering at the smell of the food.
The firedrake was stretching his neck out as far as it would go to sniff at the bacon in the pan, oblivious to the spits of hot fat that stung his nose. "What about me?" he demanded. "Veldan, ask her if she brought anything for me."
"Shut up, Kaz." Veldan cast a despairing look at the frying pan. "Ailie, this is tremendously good of you, but we have to leave as soon as possible. The Navigators will have a boat going downriver this morning, but they won't delay too long, because of catching the right tides at the estuary. We just haven't got time for breakfast."
"That's all right," Ailie said tranquilly. She began to fish crisp, brown rashers out of the pan, slipping them between the halves of round, flat loaves, split lengthways. "We can take these with us and eat them on the way."
"We?" Veldan's eyebrows shot up almost to her hairline. For the first time, she noticed several bags and bundles that had been stacked neatly in the corner. "And just what are those?"
"Oh, that stuff isn't for me," Ailie told her. "Well most of it isn't. I brought that disreputable sheepskin coat Toulac is so attached to, and one of my dad's old coats for Zavahl, plus a change of warm, dry clothes for the pair of them. Then I thought we should take some food, and blankets, and"
"Now just hold on there, Ailie. I really appreciate all your help, but I can't possibly take you."
"Whyever not?" Ailie interrupted. "If this had been one of your normal missions, I would agree with you. I'm no Loremaster, and I don't want to be. But this time you're only going to pick up Zavahl and Toulac. We'll be traveling by boat most of the way, and we aren't even going outside the Gendival Curtain Walls."
"But Cergorn doesn't let villagers"
"Oh, stuff Cergorn," Kaz interrupted with a snort. "He's not in charge anymore. For goodness sake, Veldan, the woman has food! Bring her along. And you forgot to ask her if she had any breakfast for me."
With a laugh, Veldan surrendered. "All right," she said aloud to Ailie as well as the firedrake. "It'll be a joy and a revelation to have someone with us who can cook, for a change."
The innkeeper grinned. "I knew you'd see sense."
Leaving Ailie to finish packing up the food, Veldan went to throw together a few things of her own. Although a quick wash and a change of clothes made her feel better, she couldn't keep her thoughts from dwelling wistfully on a steaming bath followed by her soft, warm bed. Stifling a yawn, she splashed cold water on her face. You can sleep on the boat, she told herself. Once we get going, there'll be plenty of time.
At that moment, she heard the sound of voices. "Slime-bag's here," Kaz informed her, but she noticed that the usual venom had vanished from the epithet. Wisely, Veldan said nothing, but hurried back to the kitchen, where Ailie was using Elion as a packhorse, and loading him up with her collection of bundles.
"What did you bring?" Elion was grumbling. "The entire contents of the inn?" Turning away from the innkeeper, he glanced across at Veldan, and she saw the faint line of a frown between his brows. "Is this wise?" he asked her in the silent mind-to-mind communication of the Loremasters.
She replied in mind-speech with an almost imperceptible shrug. "What harm will it do? As Ailie was quick to point out, this isn't like one of our normal missions." She grinned slyly. "And since she gets along so well with Zavahl, it should be greatly to our benefit to have her along."
"I hadn't thought of that, but you're right." Aloud, for Ailie's benefit, he added, "Let's go then, before I collapse under the weight of all this baggage."
They walked down through the trees to the bottom of the hill and turned right to follow the river as it flowed out of the valley, which began to widen as the settlement was left behind. Stubbled harvest fields and green meadows had replaced the shining lakes. Farther down the valley, cows and sheep were browsing peacefully in the cool autumn sunlight, but first, not far from the outskirts of the village, there was a cluster of neatly kept stables and barns, and horses grazed in the surrounding fields. Elegant heads were raised as the Loremasters and Ailie approached. Unlike the beasts in the realms outside, the horses of the Shadowleague were far too accustomed to the presence of the firedrake to be afraid. They all seemed to sense that he was not permitted to eat them, but Kaz always seemed to fascinate them, nonetheless.