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Authors: Mae Ronan

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“What are you doing here?” Vaya demanded of him suddenly, with an expression of extreme displeasure flickering across her face. “Clyde is one thing, but you and your mouth . . . !”

“I am insulted, madam,” announced Greyson.

“I thought he would feel left out,” answered Clyde. “If you were to have
your
very best friend, whom you love so dearly, then it seemed that Anna should have hers.” He peered at Greyson with pale and glittering eyes, and added, “So I asked him.”

“You asked him! But I –”

Anna laid a hand on her arm, and laughed. “What does it matter, Vaya? Let him stay! You’re here with me – that’s all I want.”

Vaya’s face softened. She turned from the piano, where Greyson was sitting now beside Clyde, and fussing with the keys so that Clyde needed repeatedly swat his hands away, much as a mother would pull her child’s fingers from the jam jar. But Greyson would not be deterred from his endeavour; and so the music which came to fill the clearing was composed half of the clear, crystalline notes produced by Clyde, and half of the strangled and discordant sounds which were the result of Greyson’s curious fiddling. Clyde slapped him several times across the back of the head – but he only ever laughed.

“Do you know,” Anna called over Vaya’s shoulder, scrunching her face as she tried to recall Dahro’s words, “Chopin’s Opus Nine, Number Two?”

“But of course, madam!”

The notes came to drift lazily through the silver clearing. Anna pressed her face into Vaya’s neck. Immediately she heard the chiming of Vaya’s voice inside her head.

And why did you want this song, I wonder?

Dahro told me this evening, that he and his mate were wed to it.

For the Endai, it is called a joining ceremony. Two mates joined for life, never to be separated by aught but death. Yet they do not have the right to choose their mates.

That seems too much to ask of anyone.

Perhaps! But it’s not only the Endai, you know. Many humans live that way.
Vaya’s thoughts paused a moment; and though the mind can never be said to be wholly silent, there was a small space wherein Anna could hear only whirring and buzzing, and the faint outlines of thoughts which had not yet taken hold. But finally Vaya told her,
It makes very little sense, when I think of it – but you would not be wrong to say that I did the very same thing. I risked quite everything to do it, while most others consider such a sacrifice as a means to a more comfortable end; but still . . .

Her thoughts became more broken and disjointed, stuttering at odd moments, while they furrowed her brow and darkened her countenance. But still Anna had no trouble following them.

Just before I died – I tried to understand why it was that I had been forced to live out such a terrible fate. I tried and I tried; but the end came, and still I didn’t understand. Yet now I do.

A longer pause, here, in which she tried to move the bulk of her thoughts to a place where Anna could not see. But Anna had grown too used to watching them; and she could not be pushed away. She saw clearly the doubts, the heavy doubts which terrified Vaya. She did not know – never mind the fact that she could see into her very thoughts – whether Anna wished to hear as much as she had to say. But Anna only smiled, touched her face, and kissed her mouth.

You can tell me.

Vaya’s arms tightened round Anna’s waist, and she lowered her head to her shoulder, as they danced slowly round and round the clearing, and the starlight sifted down like fairy dust.

It was my fate, I know – to be born hundreds of years ago, and to love, for a little while, someone forbidden to me. Never mind how I loved him, as a brother when he wished to be my mate – for I loved him just the same. It was my fate to give birth to his child, so that I might see what I saw, and learn what I learnt – and then, one day, to use those things I saw and learnt, to save the one whom it was my fate to love forever – forever, till the end of all things, and more than it seemed that the universe could hold. But I would have called you worse than a liar, had you told me all those years ago, just how you would come to me.

Finally Greyson stopped his fooling with the keys, and sat chattering quietly into Clyde’s ear, while the latter played on heedless of him, and Anna and Vaya continued to dance, with their thoughts pressed as close as their bodies. The world had fallen, if only for that moment in time, into a state of perfection, where there were no lies or dangers, no troubles or tears. In that clearing were present countless ties of friendship, which ran to connect all those four bodies within its bounds; with the memories of Vaya and Clyde who had fought repeatedly for one another, and Anna and Greyson who had done the same. These ties were strong; and in them was much happiness. But even above them, shining brighter than they could ever do, was the burning root which had taken hold in the hearts of the two dancers: in Anna’s which was beating regularly now, and in Vaya’s which was not so dead as she believed. They were one of the other. Both were the same; both were each other. Each was the epiphyte of her partner, with the burning root running in betwixt, and reminding them that the greatest – and the worst – was yet to come. But the knowledge inspired no fear.

XXXI:

Magen’s Pass

 

N
ext day Anna learnt of two things. While the one was unspeakably welcome, still it did not serve to cancel the horror of the other. Ephram had been called away to Black Manor to meet with Josev of Wisthane, for what purpose he did not say; but the notice was so short that he had not the time to inform any of his children of his intentions, and left word instead with a messenger, to be delivered when they were all out of bed. Therefore he had no opportunity to sniff out the secret which had unfolded in Anna’s chamber – and the good fortune of this event seemed too much to be true.

Just after Anna had come to this conclusion, however, she discovered that she was quite right in her thinking. She was safe, for now, from Ephram’s persecution; but it seemed that the time had come to settle her account with Filipovic. He came to her late in the morning, and told her they would go that very night to Magen’s Pass.

First he looked round with wide eyes at the wreckage of the room (the majority of which she had not proved able to mend). “We will leave at eight,” he said, with his gaze still roving all about. “Come then to my chamber; and we will all shift together.”

Anna made him no answer, but merely nodded stiffly.

Now that he had received this acknowledgment, he began to grin. “It’s a lovely place you have here,” he said.

“Go away.”

“And by the by,” he added. “What is that terrible stench? This whole place smells of a dirty den! I wonder – have you had a wolf in your bed?” He peered towards the place between the windows, and exclaimed, “I say – was that pile of wood once a
bed?

“I suggest you leave now,” Anna said through clenched teeth.

“Well! I suppose it’s no business of mine, anyway. So long as you do as you ought tonight – your secrets are your own.”

His smile was saturated with sickening hubris; and it was quite all Anna could do to refrain from knocking him flat. But she managed somehow to maintain her silence, till several moments after he had quit the room; whereupon she fell to her knees beside the bed, and screamed into a pillow.

She went shortly thereafter to Vaya. She had not told her yet of Filipovic’s blackmail (her desire to pretend it was not true served to shield it well enough from her thoughts) – and indeed, had not even alluded to the beating Vaya had given him for her own sake. But she told her everything now, all in a mad rush, during which it seemed to her as if her own head might explode; and afterwards she fell to bury her face in Vaya’s cape, asking her over and over what she would do.

It was a while before Vaya answered. She sat quiet, stroking Anna’s head very tenderly, but staring absently at the wall. Finally Anna raised her face to look at her, wondering what it was that ran presently through her murky thoughts.

“You will go with them to the gate,” Vaya said simply. “I will meet you there – and together we will slay them all. But say nothing, even to Greyson! Neither shall I say anything to Clyde.”

According to this plan, Anna arrived that night as she was bid in Filipovic’s chamber. She did not recognise the majority of his cohorts; but she was greatly surprised to see Evin Osha.

She frowned at him, and asked: “Does Valo know you are here?”

He grinned rudely, and returned: “Does Ephram know
you
are here?”

“Now, now!” said Filipovic. “I have already decided, you know, that we shall all get along! Put your differences aside, and make yourselves friends.”

Evin Osha glared at Anna, till she turned her eyes from him.

The company shifted to the gate, with Anna following the directions of the rest. She found herself huddled in the underbrush of a forest corridor lit up bright with star-shine, lined on either side with tall trees, and well-worn in the middle. There was a little hut on the right-hand side, with a thatched roof, and a single hole cut in the wall for a window. “That is where the second shift sleeps,” Filipovic explained, “while the first keeps watch.”

“When will they come?” Anna asked.

He peered at his watch, which hung from a chain upon his waistcoat; and answered, “They used to come in small groups, sometimes even in pairs. Since we’ve begun our games, however –” (he smiled horribly round at his comrades) “– they come all together, in a single band. Eight stand guard while eight sleep. They should be here in a quarter of an hour.”

Anna, Filipovic and his dozen companions settled themselves down upon the ground, to await the arrival of the Narken. Meanwhile Anna was awaiting the arrival of Vaya.

“When they come,” Filipovic said to her, “we wait till half of them have gone into the hut, and lain down to sleep. Most times that’s no longer than ten minutes. Then, when the first eight take up their guard, we make for them. They are usually felled before the sleepers hear the trouble.”

Anna listened distractedly. Vaya was so long in coming, she was beginning to fear that the distance was too great to follow her thoughts. They had made trials during the day, shifting farther and farther apart through the forest, till they lost all contact with each other. That point had been a great distance enough, but Anna could not help thinking –

These doubts, however, all vanished in an instant; for the sound of Vaya’s voice rang suddenly through her head, and a moment later she appeared directly in their midst, taking heads as she came. Anna leapt to her feet, put her back to Vaya’s, and spun round with her in rapid circles, wrenching the heads of the surrounding Lumaria one by one. Anna looked grimly into Evin Osha’s face as she decapitated him.

Filipovic was fastest, and hardest to catch. They shifted over and over in pursuit of him; but the distance closed each time, and finally he began to understand that he would lose. He determined, though, to wreak the utmost havoc as he did so. He shifted back to the gate, and stopped just in the middle of the forest road. He smiled as Vaya took his head; for he had seen the wolves coming.

Anna and Vaya stood in plain sight as they approached. Vaya would not flee till she had Filipovic’s head; and Anna would not leave her. But the Narken moved with astounding speed. As Filipovic’s head rolled to the ground, and Vaya turned to grab hold of Anna’s hand, one of the wolves shot forward, and toppled Anna. He lowered a gargantuan paw to her chest, and stood with bristling fur, looking unblinkingly into her eyes. He sniffed the air above her, and seemed puzzled.

Anna was pinioned so tightly to the ground, she found she could not shift from the spot. Most times, of course, the phenomenon of Lumarian “teleportation” is unfazed by physical obstacles, barriers and such. Exceptions include the otherwise yielding element of water; and also very near death. A Lumarian with its head halfway severed, or its heart halfway pierced, would in most instances be rendered helpless in its search for magical motion. Now, admittedly Anna was nowhere near death; but so heavy was the Narkul’s paw – and so confused was Anna’s identity, while staring up into his face, that she could scarcely recall whether she were ever able to accomplish the feat at all – her body remained pressed halfway into the mud of the road, and even when she attempted to wriggle this way and that, her strength served her nothing.

Vaya was surrounded by the remaining wolves, and was warning them that she would fight (it seemed that only some of them recognised her from the Weld; and apparently none of them trusted her) if Anna was not released. Much to the surprise of all, however, a lone Narkul came flying up the path to meet them, and called to the other Narken. He bade them, in a harsh and angry voice, to step away from Anna.

Anna was let up off the ground. She stood watching the newcomer, perplexed. She moved closer, and looked carefully into his large face; into the eyes above his long snout.

“Hyro!” she exclaimed. “How did you get free of the castle?”

“There are ways,” he answered. “There are secret ways you do not know. And there are ways to remove the Turin!”

“Then why – why stay at all?” Anna demanded impatiently.

“My brothers and sisters require the knowledge I gain, by way of the miserable life I lead.”

He shook his head sadly.

“But why,” Anna persisted, “why did you lie to Ephram, when he asked you what passed that night outside the kitchens?”

“Because I know what you are, Anna von Wessen. I knew long before you did. All of us knew! And I know now that you will be the one to save us.”

“What is all this talk, Hyro?” roared one of the Narken, the largest of the group. It was he who had held Anna to the ground; and even now he watched her carefully, unsure what she would do. He rose up on his two hind legs, and stood facing Hyro. “What goes here?”

“This,” said Hyro, “is Anna von Wessen. Have you not heard of her?”

“Of course I have! She is naught but the beloved child of King Ephram! Tell me – why in the world would I want to know
more
of her?”

“But she is not who you think! She is our very own sister, Griel. Look more closely!”

Griel stepped nearer to Anna, and circled round her several times, smelling her. Finally he came again to stand before her, and looked wonderingly into her face.

“What are you?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Anna replied honestly.

“She is our salvation,” Hyro told him.

“Our salvation!” exclaimed a wolf at the outside of the pack.

Now, the Narken, in addition to the hundreds of other ways in which they are different from the Endai, are nearly all of a black shade of fur, with only few exceptions;
for example King Krestyin, who had been of a very fair colour, nearly white; and then there was this Narkul named Griel, who was of a very deep red. The newest wolf to speak, however, appeared more as an oily shadow than anything else. He was coloured darker than coal, so that he could scarcely be made out from the darkness around him. He stood watching Anna with a pair of strange eyes, whose glowing silver was combined with a fierce red. “A Lumarian is our salvation!” he added with a savage laugh.

“I don’t expect you to believe me,” answered Hyro moodily, looking upon the dark wolf with obvious unease. It seemed he disliked him.

“Well, your expectations would be fairly accurate!” exclaimed the dark wolf. “How senseless you are, Hyro! I suppose this Lumarian has tricked you somehow – has told you she is your friend? Has told you, perhaps, that she cares for you? But it is only to kill you in the end! You will see!”

“She has told me nothing!” returned Hyro loudly. “All I know, I learnt for myself.”

“Peace!” cried Griel. “There will be peace – this instant! I care not at all, Hyro, for the enmity you cherish towards Esa.” He looked to the dark wolf; and though he spoke very diplomatically, it was clear that his sentiments varied not far from Hyro’s own. “The fact of the matter,” he continued, speaking still to Hyro, “is that Esa is now one of the Weld. Once a Weldon wolf, it is always so! You have been one for scarcely as long; and you are Esa’s brother.”

He moved away from Anna, and approached Vaya. He gestured for all his companions to make way.

“Vaya Eleria,” he said. “I myself know very little of you – but I do know that King Xeros, and many who say that you fought bravely beside their forefathers and mothers, place their complete trust in you. I know not where your loyalties lie this day, but I feel that your past allegiance has earned you the right to speak. Now, tell us – what is this Anna von Wessen?”

Vaya’s voice came to Anna, before she answered the wolf.
I will tell him,
she said.

Do what you think best,
rejoined Anna.

“Anna von Wessen,” Vaya said aloud, “was born a Narkul – no different from any of you. My father, believing her to be human, bestowed upon her the mazhin of the Lumaria. Today she is something of both.”

“That is impossible,” said Griel.

“It’s not!” said Hyro.

Griel turned to him, and bade him be silent. It was clear that his patience wore thin.

“If Vaya Eleria speaks true,” he said to Anna, “then I doubt you will contest the necessity of your meeting with Xeros.”

“I spoke with Xeros very recently,” said Vaya. “I spent a day at the Weld, and told him everything of Anna. He gave me a Turin for her to wear.”

“He told me nothing of it. I am his First Captain.”

“I requested that he exercise the utmost discretion.”
“Then let me see the Turin!”

“I’m not wearing it,” Anna said quietly.

“Well! Then change your shape for us.”

“I don’t know how.”

“Isn’t this all very likely!” he cried. “Xeros tells me nothing of your existence – but that’s all very usual, you say? You are not wearing the Turin, and you cannot change your shape! I think you’re a fraud. See how simple it is!”

He changed his own shape, and became instantly nearly three times smaller. His red fur disappeared, and was replaced with thick-looking, swarthy skin. “See how simple!” he repeated.

“I can’t do it,” Anna murmured, with her ire rising quickly.

“Then you are no Narkul!”

He stepped forward, and shoved her in both shoulders. She fell back against a tree.

BOOK: Anna von Wessen
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