The powerful mage Thryfe gropes through the steel-white snows that have covered the huddles of ruins, abandoned villages, and casualties of the White Death. He is searching for the stunning witch Jemhara, but his magic mirror can only see her past, not her present, and the sorcerer fears that a mad force abroad on the ice-locked earth is keeping them apart. At last, he finds Jemhara in the rebuilt town of Kandexa. Their impassioned and bizarre love rekindles, resulting in the birth of a boy with red hair, blue eyes, and golden skin: He is Lionwolf reborn from the land of the dead.
But the vicious dark lord Zzth has been burning under the sea, waiting for the moment of his inevitable return, planning for mutilation, destruction, and frigid ruin.
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No Flame But Mine
By Tanith Lee
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2007 Tanith Lee
All rights reserved.
Gold moon sailed green sky. Beneath the two lay the world.
As she stood at her narrow window, the solid frigid sea to one side, and the wrecked city of Kandexa filling the rest of the view, the magician stared unblinking with her sombre eyes. The evening had a look it must often wear. The limpid and beautiful dusk alone seemed capable of change. The ice-imprisoned earth was stuck.
Of course there was always the chance of a savage fight. A pall of smoke hung on the city. The settlements of West Villagers and Clever Town had come to blows again.
Jemhara turned towards the door of her room. She sensed, as now she usually did, a human approach.
After a moment feet sounded on the attic stair and next the gentle rap of knuckles.
She did not move. The door opened at a twitch of her will.
A young man stood gaping. Yet all of them knew she could do such things. The people here had established for themselves she was one of the Magikoy, those mages that had been the most powerful, supposedly, in the world. Technically she was not Magikoy and she had never claimed the title for herself. But then too many of them said black-haired Jemhara was once a queen.
The young man cleared his throat.
'Someone has come to Paradise, Highness,' he announced.
She nodded gravely.
Inside herself the little involuntary leap of her heart was instantly squashed. Persons did arrive at the barricaded and stupidly named zones inside Kandexa. At first, on being told of any newcomer she had frozen in expectancy. But it was never him.
The boy went on, 'The mageia says can you come and see to it?'
The lesser mageia was a sensible woman.
Following the boy down from the attic, showing the stair for them in the gathering dark with sorcerously lit glims, Jemhara heard the echo of words in her head.
A man is on the road to you. A man like a tower of ice with eagle's eyes.
Only one surely could be defined in that way: Thryfe, Magikoy mage of the Highest Order.
A dead god had given her the news in a kind of vision. But he was a god of wickedness and destruction.
Oh, she had still believed it. For a while. Most do when offered hope. And it sparkled before her like some image in a scrying mirror. Then, just as the dark now fell on the city, dark had fallen over her dream. She had asked herself simply how she could ever have credited a promise so obviously flawed. For though Thryfe was her only love, to him she was a despised and hated thing, causer of his guilt and utter despair.
The girl was seated cross-legged on the floor. She looked about eighteen or so, but within her face much older. A slender purple scar vividly marred her forehead; her skin otherwise was creamy. Ragged brown hair had been dyed green but the dye had now mostly grown out. A witch?
From her natural colouring she seemed to be from the Ruk. But the dye indicated the wild sorceresses of Gech in the far north.
Aglin, the older mageia of Paradise, was tending the fire-basket, lighting a couple of lamps by means of a nod and putting on water to boil.
Jemhara saw that the girl seated on the floor watched this with mild interest, calm but at odds with everything, as if she had given up either resisting or asking real questions.
'Here I am,' said Jemhara.
'Here you are, Jema. And here's this one.'
Jemhara looked again at the girl. 'How are you called?'
'Azulamni. But he called me Beebit. He said I'd have to answer to that or I'd be killed. And now I'm used to it.'
Jemhara raised her brows. She was familiar with strange coercions from her own youthful past.
'Why was that?'
'After the reivers came here, those years back.'
'You mean to Kandexa, in the time of Vashdran?' To speak the name of the dead god who had made war on the Ruk burned Jemhara's mouth, and left a bitter psychic taste. It was he too who had spoken to her in the vision.
'Kandexa surrendered to the reivers, the only city that did,' remarked Aglin to herself. 'Thought it'd save them but the buggers smashed the place anyway. Scum, like all the mixed armies of Vashdran the Lionwolf.' She stared at the water over the fire. 'Watched pot boil!' It boiled at once.
'I was hiding up in the roof,' said the girl now called Beebit. 'My father said go up, you'll be safe, and because I'm limber, I could. But they found him. I heard them murder him. Then I came down, so they caught me.' She was matter-of-fact. 'One of them, he was a Kelp, he stank of fish, he threw me down and raped me. The rest of them got bored and went off. There were other nicer things and women. But then the Kelp saw how I was, what I can do. He didn't hurt me much, he was only small. I'd served bigger.'
Aglin brought Jemhara wine and hot water with a stick of spice. The mageia murmured, 'Daddy had put her into the game. A cunning whore at twelve years.'
'So old?' said Jemhara.
Hearing this, the girl glanced at them and suddenly she laughed. The mageia and Jemhara were both surprised. Laughter was not what they expected.
'Look,' said Beebit.
Then she lay down on her back, not using her arms to help her, and slowly and evenly put up both her legs until her feet rested flat on the floor either side of her head. Then she stood up once more, weight only on the soles of her feet, bringing her head and torso round and under and out in a sort of leisurely backward somersault. Still grinning she sat on the floor again and crossed her legs, this time with a foot on each of her shoulders.
'See, Highness?' she said to Jemhara.
'Honey bones,' said the mageia.
Jemhara nodded. 'And the Kelp liked that?'
'He loved it. So he hid me and fed me, and he brought me green dye. That sallow Rukar skin, he said, that'll pass for Gech, if you change your hair. He said he had met a Gech witch once. She was like that. Then I travelled with Vashdran's army. I soon learned the other languages, Kelp, Vorm, Jafn. I'm quick to learn.'
'The Gech mageias have magic,' said Jemhara. 'Were you never asked?'
'I said my magic was how I could do the things with my body I can do.'
They paused in silence then, each drinking the hot watered wine.
Outside somewhere in the ruin there was shouting, but far away. Dogs barked but left off.
Aglin sat in one chair and Jemhara in the other, and they gazed at Beebit sitting on the ground with her feet on her own shoulders.
'So then?' said the mageia. It seemed she hadn't heard all yet.
'Don't you want,' said Beebit, 'to know if I saw Vashdran?'
'Did you?' said the mageia.
'Now and then. Never close. He was very beautiful. He was golden, and his hair was red as sun-up and they said his eyes were blue – but in war they went the red of blood. He could do what I can – I mean he could walk straight up the sides of walls and trees, up the hard ice. He'd ridden into a battle standing on the back of a chariot-lion.' Her face was dull again and she said all this impassively. 'But I never liked men, even gods. Only my father. He was always kind.'
'He made you a harlot,' said Aglin flatly.
'Oh, that. He was a harlot too. Since nine years. It's a profession. I'm not ashamed and nor was he.'
'And the Kelp who saved your life?' asked Jemhara.
Without any expression the girl replied, 'I swore to myself I'd kill him first chance Fate gave me. But it didn't find me, that happy day. Never mind it. The Magikoy saw to him and all the rest at Ru Karismi, City of Kings. They unleashed the great magic weapons of power and the White Death came. The whole enemy horde – gone to dust and powder. Even the Lionwolf, I think, for no one saw him since.'
'Someone told you this?' said Jemhara. Her flesh prickled with silver quills under the skin. 'Because you had got away from the Kelp and so avoided the White Death, which none present escaped.'
'No, lady,' said Beebit. A tiny and impertinent smile crinkled her mouth. 'I was there. I saw it happen. It was like noise without noise and a lightning flash that went on and on. And then – just powder and dust, and me standing in the midst, by the baggage carts where the women were. Only no carts left, no women or beasts. Even the chain he'd put on my ankle and the peg in the ground – not even those. My clothes were all lightninged off me too – but not my hair.'
Jemhara spoke very softly.
'And the scar on your face?'
'That? A man threw a knife at me when I was fifteen. The dad killed him. That's all that is.'
A second moon rose, but only a thin crescent. The third did not rise and the first was already down. On the nights of strongest triple moonrise – two moons at least at or nearly full and the third not less than half – Kandexa bleakly resembled a scorched skull smouldering fires, where people came and went with rapid unease, like lizards darting over stones. But tonight was not so violently lighted. A lot could go on in the dark.
Beyond the city, the humped old orchards of frozen fruit had been burned down during the war, along with anything else potentially useful to the enemy. Years' snows had covered these places. Now the approach was a sheet of white. Anything which moved there even on a night of thin moons showed at once.
It must then be a tall man, tall and lean, casting a lean long shadow.
Behind him his footsteps were imprinted in the softer snow. They stretched off for a vast distance, hours off, before different terrain hid them. Apparently he had walked a great way, which for a man alone was not so usual. Sometimes one noted a slight discrepancy to the left side of the prints – an intermittent halting in the left leg.
Kandexa had no gates. That was, she had no external ones. All her fortifications and barriers were inside. They ringed in the rival zones of the city.
The man who walked passed into the city.
Most of the thoroughfares now wound between the settlements, for most of the larger roads had been blocked off two or three years before.
As he moved through a narrow alley then, that once had been part of Kandexa's Royal Road, he was spied from two storeys above.
'His garments are good; look at that cloak.'
'He strides as if proud of himself.'
'Too big for his boots to carry.'
The low voices sizzled like ice-snakes.
Certainly the stranger could not have heard them ...
Nor the sudden twang of a dart-bow.
The dart, of ice-hardened black flint, speared down and caught the stranger between his shoulder blades. The three men rose to their feet on the roof, waiting for the idiot to topple over.
But he did not.
'You mucked your shot.'
'Never – never! You saw – it hit him square —'
'Well, he's seen us now – Hey!' one of them shouted over into the alley. 'Fancy us, do you? Then we'll come down and join you.'
They swarmed along a rope kept ready and landed in the compressed space. The stranger had not moved. He stood there, and the dart lay on the street. It had struck him – yet missed?
The biggest man, first to reach the ground, slung his knife with all his weight behind it. It too struck the tall man, this time in the heart. Then like the flint it shivered and let go, dropping back to earth with a thunk. Bloodless.
Yes, it seemed he must be. There had been the faintest gilded quiver over the air as the blade touched him. Except, sensibly, they had put that down to a trick of the limited moonlight.
'What do you want?' he said. The voice was compact, and primed with power.
They faltered. Only the big one said, 'Don't try to lord it over us. No lords here. They died when the scum-horde came.'
'Then know this: whatever you are, we can take you.'
The stranger turned and walked away from them.
That was all.
Each of the three men stood dumbfounded. Then the big one threw the paralysis off. He charged after the tall stranger and, from a few feet behind him, lion-like leapt up on his back.
It was as if he had jumped on to a disc of cold fire that spun him and whirled him down, and as he met the hard ice of the street it seemed softer and far sweeter than the wide shoulders of the one he had attacked. Through a pair of just-broken teeth the big man mourned, 'He is a mage.'
The other two faltered – then ran away.
The mage, if so he was, walked on. No limp was obvious now. He turned out of the alley that had been part of Royal Road, and moved between crushed buildings. Here and there a stray cat, by now adapted to the outdoor cold, its fur long and abrasive as wire, glared with glacial eyes. They had been beloved, silk-coated pets only three years before. But the walking man knew very well how quickly all things were by now educated to adapt. Five centuries of Winter had seen to it.
Beyond a kind of tunnel of collapsed masonry he found himself at the gate of one of the several zones of Kandexa. Inside the ill-formed walls, lamps showed in darkness much as the eyes of the cats had done.
Five men now came out from a house and frowned at him. They wore the mail of Ru Karismi, the deceased capital of the Ruk. And over the gate drooped a stained banner once the crimson and silver of Ru Karismi's colours.
'This is Wise-Home,' said one of the men. 'We don't welcome aliens.'
They had been drinking, something never brewed in a still. The walker looked at them, and through the muffle of his hooded garment they glimpsed a pair of eyes.
'Shush,' said one of the five to the other four. 'Can't you see?'
'What's to see?'
'Highness,' said the fifth man, 'my father was from the capital. I believe —' The stranger did not speak. The fifth man asked in crumbled tones, 'You are Magikoy?'
'But sir – sir – I've heard of you – my father, he sent me away just before the Vashdran horde besieged Ru Karismi, before the White Death brought down plague into the city — But I'd heard him talk of you, though never myself had I seen you — He would say, If Thryfe had been here none of this —'
'I am not Thryfe,' said the stranger at the gate of Wise-Home to the refugee from Ru Karismi.
'Forgive me, sir.'
'My forgiveness is only a question.'
The men muttered. The fifth man said, 'Ask it.'
'You mistook me for one of the Magikoy. Perhaps others of the order are here in Kandexa?'
All five stared at him.
Another of them said, 'Here? Do you think we'd live like this, like frozen rats, if we had Magikoy to help us? They're dead. They died too in the White Death. Serve them right. It was their fault, their filthy weapons — Curse them.'
The stranger appeared unimpressed. He said, 'You know of none, then.'
The fifth man, he who had been tender almost with admiring love, spat on the snow. 'Get on your way, whoever – whatever – in Hell you are.'
Shadows moved, refolded.
The stranger was gone.
Jemhara had been for a moment distracted. She had felt something like a bird's great wing brush coldly over her hair, the shoulders of her cloak.
She did not turn to see. The sensation might indicate several events, perhaps ominous, but none of them occurred inside the room. Instead the scene there had turned to stone, the contortionist girl seated on the floor, Aglin sitting forward, eyes wide.
To Beebit Jemhara said, 'Do you know then how it was you survived at Ru Karismi?'
'Had you had some dealings with the Magikoy beforehand?'
'No. How would I? I was the Kelp's slave and trech, and chained up otherwise. Even when I had to walk behind the army – their precious Gullahammer – I was on a chain with one or two others. Not every woman wanted to keep the army company.'
'A mystery then,' said Jemhara silkenly. 'Or else you're lying.'
Beebit did not react.
'Or else,' said Aglin, 'something proofed her against death. I heard a story that some of the men survived too – a handful compared to the whole huge horde of them – thirty, fifty, sixty men. Some witch had done it. That's all I ever heard.'
Beebit finished her drink and put the cup down. She swung her feet careless from her shoulders, stood up on her hands and walked round the fire-basket. From this position she said, 'I came back to Kandexa to find my father's bones, if I can. Bury them nicely. Then I'll work at my trade.'
Excerpted from No Flame But Mine by Tanith Lee. Copyright © 2007 Tanith Lee. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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