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Jenny Waynest's son Ian took poison on the night of winter's first snowfall. He was thirteen.
She was dreaming about the demon when it happened. The demon was called Amayon, beautiful as the night and the morning, and she had dreamed of him every night since fall, when his possession of her had ended. While her soul was imprisoned in a pale green crystal, he had inhabited her flesh and done such things as still made her wake weeping, or screaming, or speaking his name out of a longing so desperate she thought she would die of it.
In daylight the grief of his loss, and her shame at that grief, occupied her mind against her will, to the exclusion of all other things. Otherwise she would have seen--she hoped she would have seen--the pain and horror growing in her son's eyes.
This night there was a part of her that knew where Ian was. In her dream she saw him in the small stone house on Frost Fell--the house that had been her master Caerdinn's up to the old man's death. Later Jenny had lived there, until she had gone with Lord John Aversin, Thane of the Winterlands and her lover of ten years, to live at Alyn Hold. Asleep in their bed at the Hold now, she saw their son in the old stone house, saw him descend the stair from the loft and with a glance, as wizards could, kindle the wood on the hearth.
He shouldn't be there, she thought. It was past midnight and the snow had been falling since just before dark. He shouldn't be there.
Rest, Amayon's voice whispered. Sleepy dreams are better than plans and schemes.
Her consciousness drifted away.
Ever since the magics of the Demon Queen Aohila had taken Amayon from her, Jenny had tried to decide whether the pain she
felt was a memory that Amayon had left or whether he spoke to her still. Sometimes she thought that she could hear his voice, gentle and trusting as a child's, though he was Aohila's prisoner behind the Mirror of Isychros. At other times she guessed that the coaxing sweetness, the hurtful mocking, were only a poison he'd left to make her suffer. How like him, she thought, and she did not know if she thought it fondly or with hatred.
People who survived possession weren't the same afterward.
Her mind returned to her son. He sat beside the hearth, his head bowed, thin fingers twisting at his dark hair.
She remembered her own pain when the demon who'd possessed her had been driven out.
At least he still has magic.
The loss of Jenny's magic, as a result of the final battle with the demons, had been the worst of all.
You saved them, the sweet soft voice whispered in her mind: like Amayon's voice, though sometimes it sounded like her own. You fought the demons for your son, and for Lord John, and for the Regent of the Realm. You did just as you ought. Yet you lost everything. How fair is that?
The image came to her of Ian casually brushing aside her spells of ward, running his hands over the terra-cotta pots of her poisons in the brassy dull firelight, but the vision melted with her resentment and her grief. Sleepy dreams, the voice coaxed. Lovely sleepy dreams. Of Amayon. Of magic.
She saw Ian open a pot that she knew contained monkshood. Saw him dip his fingers into the coarse powder.
Perhaps you'll find the magic again within your beautiful heart.
The sweet voice lured her back to her dream, where she lay in the great bed in the Hold with John breathing soft beside her. His beaky face was turned away; he was clerkish and shortsighted and middle-aged, and nothing like the great thanes who had ruled the Winterlands before him, save for his scars.
Dreaming, she broke open her own ribs and tore her chest apart, as the demon had suggested. She saw her heart, which in her dream was wrought of a thousand crystals, scarlet and crimson and pink. Dreaming, she lifted it out. Blood gummed her fingers together as she fumbled for its catch, as if her heart were a box. The catch was a diamond, like a single poisoned tear.
Fascinated, she watched her heart unfurl in all directions, as if in opening the box she had somehow folded herself inside it. Within it she was, curiously, once again in the curtained bed with John, in a warm frowst of worn quilts and moth-holed furs. Like mirrors within mirrors she saw the scarred husk of her own body, burned in the final battle when she had pinned the demon-ridden renegade mage Caradoc with a harpoon beneath the sea: hair burned away, eyelashes burned away--magic burned away.
John lay beside her, twined in the arms of the Demon Queen.
"Don't wake her," the Queen whispered, and giggled like a schoolgirl. She was beautiful, as Jenny had never been beautiful: tall and slim, with breasts like ripe melons and coal-black jeweled hair. She traced on John's bare flesh the silvery marks it had borne when he'd returned from the Hell behind the mirror, marks that could occasionally be seen in the light of the earthly moon. Then she pressed her lips to the pit of his throat, where a small fresh scar lay like a burn.
She laughed huskily when John cupped her breasts in his hands.
"Let him be!"
Jenny's cry waked her. Like falling through a chain of mirrors, she fell from the imagined tower and imagined bed to the real ones and sat bolt upright, the air icy in her lungs. Beside her, John slept still.
He dreams of her. Rage washed from Jenny all thought of that other dream, the dream of Ian hunting among the ensorceled poison pots at Frost Fell. Laughs at me with her while I sleep.
Her cry had not waked him, and that made her angry, too. Hating him, she rolled from the bed and through the heavy curtains. The tower chamber was cramped and fusty: table and chest and large areas of the floor littered with John's books. He had a formidable library, laboriously collected from the ruins of crumbling towns, copied, collated, begged, and borrowed. Since summer's end, when they had returned from the South, John had been reading everything he could get his hands on concerning demons and melancholy and the silent sicknesses of the heart.
As if, Jenny thought angrily, he can cure Ian by reading!
But that was always John's answer.
His armor lay among the books: a battered doublet of black leather, spiked and plated with iron and chain; dented pauldrons and
a close-fitting helm; longsword and shortsword and a couple of fine Southern cavalry blades; spectacles with bent silver-wire frames; and a pair of muddy boots. Rocklys of Galyon, whose machinations to rule the Realm had set in motion last summer's terrible events, had stripped the Winterlands of its garrisons: John was back riding patrol, as he had done most of his adult life.
He had little time these days to give his son.
And less, Jenny thought, to give to her.
Fingers stiff with scars, she shoved up the latch of the heavy shutters and stood gazing into darkness only a degree less heavy than that in the room. Snow covered the bare fields, the bare moor beyond. The smell of the sky calmed her, dispelled the envenomed miasma of her dreams.
Ian. The dream of him stirred at the edge of her thoughts.
Sleepy dreams. The sweet voice whispered and pulled at her heart. Sleepy dreams, not plans and schemes. Somehow it sounded rational, true in its simplicity, like a nursery song.
When she'd left the bed, the burning heat of the change of life had been warming her flesh, but that fled away now and her limbs were cold. Better to return to bed and the comfort of her dreams.
The cold from the window must have waked John. Anger and resentment burned her. She wanted to be alone with her wretchedness and her grief.
"You were dreaming of her, weren't you?" Her voice snapped in her own ears, black ice breaking underfoot and miles of freezing water beneath. She spat the words back at him over her shoulder. She knew that he stood next to the bed, wrapped in one of its shabby furs, long hair hanging to his shoulders as he blinked in her direction, seeing nothing.
And just as well, she thought bitterly. Face and scalp and body scarred by demon fire and poisoned steam, and scarred within by the heats and migraines and malaises of the change of a woman's life. Better he be half blind and in darkness than see me as I am.
"I can't help me dreams, Jen." He sounded tired. They'd fought before going to bed. And yesterday, and the day before.
"Then don't deny me mine."
"I wouldn't," John retorted, "if dreams was all they were. But you had a demon within you ..."
"And you believe them, don't you?" Jenny swung around, trembling. "Believe those people who say that anyone who has been taken by a demon should be killed? That's what all those books of yours say, isn't it?"
"Not all." There was a warrant out in the South for his life for trafficking with the Demon Queen. Had Rocklys of Galyon not taken the King's troops from the North to fuel her demon-inspired rebellion, he might already have been executed.
"Is that what you want?" She struck at him with her words as if it were he, and not the archdemon Folcalor's final outpouring of magic, that had robbed her of her power. "To kill me, as the books say? To kill Ian, for something neither of us wanted, for something that happened against our wills?"
He was a man who had grown up keeping his thoughts to himself, and he said nothing now.
"I was taken trying to save him!" she cried into his silence. She had a sweet small voice: gravel veined with silver. It sounded brittle to her now, and shrill. "For trying to save him, for trying to save you, and all these precious people of yours around here! This is what came of it! I hated the demon!"
"Yet you did every damn thing you could to keep me from sending it away behind the mirror." There was an edge of anger to his quiet words. "And you've been mourning it since."
"You don't understand." Jenny had learned that it was possible to hate and love the same thing at the same time.
"I understand that neither you nor my son has eaten nor slept well for months, and that as far as I've been able to see you haven't done a hand's turn to help him."
You don't understand, she wanted to say again. To scream the words at him until he knew what she felt. But instead she lashed at him, "Your son?" How dare he?
And at the same time she thought, Ian, and her mind snatched at shredded images of a boy sitting in despair beside a hearth. She remembered stick-thin white hands tracing away wards from jars on a shelf.
"Well, you never did want him, did you?" The resentment, the buried rage, of all those years of her uncertainty spurted up in his voice. "And if you'd been here in the first place when Caradoc showed up--"
"If you wanted a woman here during the years I was seeking my own magic, John," Jenny said with harsh and deadly sarcasm, "I can only say you should have convinced one of your regiment of village lightskirts to bear you a child. Any one of them would have."
"Papa?" The door hinge creaked. A yellow thread of candlelight fluttered, illumined the sturdy eight-year-old in the doorway: face, hands, rufous hair, and bright sharp brown eyes all the mimic of John's burly father. He'd girded his small sword over his nightshirt: A man must go armed, he liked to say. "Ian's gone."
Jenny led them to Frost Fell. The moment her second son, her little ruffian Adric, had spoken, her dream rushed back to her and she knew where Ian was and what he sought. Snow fell steadily as they saddled the horses, Jenny's scarred fingers fumbling half frozen with buckles and reins until she wanted to scream and strike everyone around her for being so slow. The air was filled with drifting white as they crossed over Toadback Hill, and the horses skidded on the ice of the cranberry bog.
They found Ian outside the little house, unconscious. By the tracks, he'd crawled there in delirium, but the snow already lay over him like a shroud. John and Sergeant Muffle, John's bailiff and blacksmith and bastard older brother, fed the dying fire in the hearth and dragged the bed over beside it while Jenny worked desperately to mix an antidote, to force saline water down her son's throat, to induce vomiting and keep him warm. All the while she cursed, for the one thing that would surely drag him back from the shadowlands where he now walked--the magic of her healing--was gone.
Looking up, she saw this, too, in John's eyes.
"You knew he was here." He sounded numb, like he couldn't believe any of this was taking place.
"I saw him in a dream." Between them the boy's white face was slack, shut eyes sunk in bistered hollows of pain.
And you didn't think to mention it to me. She could all but hear his thought. But he only looked away and brought more water to bathe his son's face. Frantic, Jenny traced the marks of healing, the runes of life, on her son's forehead and chest and hands. In her mind she drew first the limitations and the power lines, then the summoning of power, the calling of the magic from her bones and her heart, from the stars above the sullen cloud and the water beneath the earth, as she had done all her life.
But it was only words. The sparkly slips of fire that she'd felt in her days of small power and small learning, the great golden river of fire that had been hers when the dragon whose life she had saved had given her the gift of dragon magic, the gorgeous envenomed rainbow of demon power--all these were gone. She was just a middle-aged woman repeating nonsense words in her mind, hoping that her son would not die.
And thinking, in spite of all she could do, of the demon she
In the black cold before dawn, when John went out to fetch more wood and Sergeant Muffle dozed by the blood-colored pulse of the hearth, Jenny stretched across the furs and wept, whispering a prayer to the God of Women: Do not let him die. Do not let him die.
The hollow within her yawned to a chasm that would swallow the world, her soul, and John, Ian, and Jenny together, leaving nothing. Do not let him die.
Like the touch of an insect's feelers on her scarred scalp, she felt the brush of her son's finger. Ian whispered--or perhaps only thought--"Folcalor." And then, "I will not go."
Even in her extremity, before she passed over into sleep, Jenny thought it curious. Folcalor was not the demon who had possessed Ian's body and imprisoned Ian's soul.
Folcalor was the archdemon who had whispered to the mage Caradoc in dreams. Once in possession of Caradoc's flesh, he'd had the magic to open the doors to Hell, to bring through the other
Sea-wights--wights who in turn had enslaved dragons and wizards alike.
When Jenny dreamed of that time, she dreamed of Amayon. She assumed Ian dreamed of his own jailer, lover, rapist, master: a minor gyre called Gothpys.
But it was Folcalor she saw now in dreams.
The wizard Caradoc's body was gone. She had slain him beneath the sea, and fish had devoured his flesh. Dreaming, she saw Folcalor as she'd always known he looked: a bloated soft thing of quicksilver and green fire in which the half-digested glowing remains of other Hellspawn fitfully moved. His eyes were like fire seen through colored glass: cold and intelligent, as a pig's are intelligent, or a rat's: uncaring. Her flesh crept, as it had during the days of her imprisonment, seeing him for what he was.
Intelligence and patience and power. Power beyond any demon she'd encountered or heard of, even in John's ancient lore; power not only to shove aside the spells and exorcisms of a trained mage, but to devour that mage through the magic itself. Not in a thousand years, according to the lore, had demons of such power existed.
A thousand years ago they had been vanquished, but no one knew how.
Now they had returned. No one knew why.
In his hands--hands of human flesh, she saw, small and stubby and crusted thick with rings--he held the sapphire in which Ian's soul had been imprisoned, the sapphire Jenny had herself cast into the River Wildspae when she'd returned her son's soul to his flesh.
The demon looked at her and smiled.
In the morning John's aunts arrived. His father's bossy brood of
sisters--Jane and Rowan and Umetty--and Rowan's daughters Dilly and Rowanberry, and Muffle's mother Holly, who had been old Lord Aver's mistress for years, lived at the Hold in their assorted states
of spinsterhood and widowhood, running the Winterlands as they had run it in John's father's time. Aunt Jane brought eggs and a milk pudding, and brandy to bathe her great-nephew's hands and feet; Rowan and Dilly brought clean sheets and pillows. They wrapped the boy and put hot bricks about him to warm him, pushing Jenny aside as if she were a scullery maid. Though it was quite clear that he heard nothing, Aunt Umetty told the boy endless stories that she generally told to her dogs, and she sang him the little songs she sang to them.
Jenny retreated to a corner of the hearth, willing herself not to be seen. She understood why Ian had taken the poison, and she thought about taking it herself. They all seemed very distant from her. Certainly they seemed less real than her memories of what it had been like to be beautiful and powerful and able to do exactly as she pleased. She knew that this was not right, yet she could not do anything about this part of her thoughts.
Snow fell again in the afternoon and drifted high against the stone walls. The grooms who'd come with the aunts brought shovels from the stable and labored to keep the yard clear. Jenny wondered once or twice, Why Folcalor? Then the darkness that pressed her heart overcame her again, and she retreated to sleepy dreams.
The following day Ian opened his eyes. He said, "Yes," and, "No," in a blistered whisper when John spoke to him, no more inflection in his voice than it had had since the demon had been driven out of him. Then the wind came up in the afternoon, flaying the land and driving the snow into drifts. It was best, John said, propping his spectacles more firmly on his long nose, that they go soon, for he knew bandits were abroad even in the bitter world of winter.
While the grooms brought out the other horses, with the wind tearing manes and plaids and blankets, Jenny took her mare Moon Horse from the stable and saddled her. There was a great boiling of people in the yard just then, and John was entirely occupied with making sure Ian was wrapped warm. Jenny had no magic anymore, but long years of living in the Winterlands with only slight powers had taught her to see when people turned their heads. As aunts and grooms and John and Muffle rode out of the yard, she led Moon Horse back into the stable and unsaddled her, and from the little attic window she watched them ride away across the moor. Snow filled their tracks before they were even out of sight.
In the ballads of the great heroes, she thought, watching them go--Alkmar the Godborn or Selkythar Dragonsbane or Öontes of the Golden Harp--the heroes frequently sustained injuries in slaying the dragon or overcoming the cave monsters or outwitting the evil mage. So they must, for there is no sacrifice unless blood is shed. But they survived and came home, and everything was as it was before, only happier.
No desolation. No regret. No wounds that cannot heal.
Part of her thought, Oh, John.
And another whispered Amayon's name.
She went down the ladder and built up the fire in the hearth again and found food the aunts had left. She made herself a little soup but didn't eat it. She only sat, wrapped in a quilt, watching the fire and seeing nothing in it but flame and memory.
Sleepy dreams, not plans and schemes.
She slept and dreamed of the demon still.
From the Hardcover edition.