Authors: Katharine Kerr
Sandyr’s two comrades greeted Nevyn with small smiles and nods of their heads.
“I was cursed glad when I saw you in the train,” Sandyr said. “I’d rather have you along than our lord’s chirurgeon any day.”
“Oh, he’s a good man. He just doesn’t know teeth the way I do.”
“Maybe so.” Sandyr rubbed his jaw at the memory of that long-gone abscess. “But let’s hope that none of us need your cures after a scrap.”
“Or here,” Arcadd said with a twisted grin. “I don’t suppose you have any herbs to protect a man against dweomer.”
All three laughed uneasily.
“Well, now, there aren’t any herbs like that,” Nevyn said. “I take it you all believe the rumors going around.”
“Doesn’t every man in the army?” Sandyr went on. “But it’s not just wild talk. A couple of us have ridden to Corbyn’s dun with messages and suchlike. I’ve talked to men who saw this Loddlaen do things.”
“I saw this myself,” Yvyr broke in, and his broad face was pale. “Back in the spring, it was, when our lord was trying to talk Corbyn out of rebelling. Lord Sligyn sends me to Bruddlyn with messages. And Corbyn treated me well enough, giving me dinner with his men. So there were these big logs laid in fresh on the honor hearth, and Loddlaen comes down with Corbyn. I swear it, good sir, I saw Loddlaen snap his fingers, like, and flames sprang up all over the logs, and they were big logs, no kindling or suchlike.”
“And then one of Lord Oledd’s men went to Bruddlyn, too,” Sandyr took up the tale. “He walks in and Corbyn says, well, Loddlaen told me you were coming. The men in his warband swear he knows everything that goes on for miles and miles.”
“It makes you wonder what else he can do,” Arcadd said. “Here, Nevyn, if you know herbcraft, you must know bones and muscles and suchlike. Do you think a dweomerman could turn someone into a frog?”
“I don’t,” Nevyn said firmly. “That’s naught but a silly bard’s fancy. Now, here, think. All those tales say that the frogs are just ordinary frogs, right? Well, if someone did get turned into a frog, it would have to be a huge one. You can’t just go shrinking a man’s flesh down to nothing, but the tales never say a thing about frogs big enough to ride.”
All three laughed and relaxed at the jest.
“Well and good, then,” Sandyr said. “I pledged I’d die for my lord, and I don’t give the fart of a two-copper pig if it’s dweomer or a sword that kills me, but cursed if I liked the idea of hopping around in a marsh the rest of my days.”
“The lasses you’d have,” Arcadd said mournfully. “All green and warty.”
Nevyn joined in the general laughter. Jests were the best weapon these men had against the fear preying upon them.
Toward midnight, when the camp was asleep except for the night watch, Nevyn sat over the dying coals of his fire to contact Aderyn. After their long years of friendship, all he had to do was think of Aderyn briefly before he saw the image of Aderyn’s face building up and floating just above the red glow.
“There you are,” Nevyn thought to him. “Are you in a position to talk?”
“I am,” Aderyn thought in return. “The camp’s asleep. I was just going to contact you, truly. Corbyn’s army is still camped where, I saw it last.”
“No doubt they’re going to wait till we’re out of the dun, and then make a try at killing Rhodry. Is Loddlaen still with them?”
“He is. Ah, ye gods, my heart’s half torn apart. What a dolt I was to train the lad!”
Nevyn bit back the all-too-human temptation to say, “I told you so.” Aderyn’s image smiled sourly, as if he knew perfectly well that Nevyn was thinking it.
“But I did,” Aderyn went on. “And now his misdoings are my responsibility—you don’t have to tell me that twice. What counts now is ending the matter.”
“Just so. Do you still think he’s merely insane?”
“I do. If he’d truly gone over to the Dark Path and its foul ways, he’d be hiding himself, not flaunting his gifts and meddling with petty lords.”
“Now, that’s true spoken. Here, you know Loddlaen better than I ever will. It seems clear that he’s stirred up this blasted rebellion. Why? Is he trying to escape being brought to justice for that murder he did? If so, his scheme won’t work. It doesn’t matter who Corbyn’s overlord is. Gwerbret Rhys would haul him into the malover as readily as Lovyan would.”
“True spoken, and I’ve been puzzling himself over this very question. At first I thought he had some scheme of killing me or at least the other two witnesses I’m bringing,
but if that were true, why involve Rhodry and half the tierynrhyn? It doesn’t make sense.”
“It doesn’t, and I think me we’d best find out just what he thinks he’s up to.”
Aderyn laughed, a harsh mutter.
“If we can. That’s the crux, my friend. If we can.”
After he finished talking with Aderyn, Nevyn sat up brooding for a long time, hoping that Aderyn was right about Loddlaen only being mad. Truly, the lad had been unstable from the beginning. Studying dweomer demands a perfect stability of mind, a core of simple common sense, in fact, because the forces that dweomer invokes can tear an unstable mind to pieces, leaving it prey to delusions and fantasies. Loddlaen had never had iron in his soul, only the malleable silver of a raw psychic talent that should have been suppressed, not encouraged. At least, if Aderyn was right, Loddlaen was only misusing his dweomer, not immersing himself in strange and unclean things. Just as every light casts a shadow, so does a dark dweomer exist. The men who study it (and they never open their foul ranks to women) lust after power above all else and hoard it like misers, never helping but only harming other souls. They grub around the dark places of the Innerlands for peculiar magicks and keep themselves alive unnaturally by feeding on the vitality of spirits and living people alike. Nevyn was sworn to destroy such as them wherever he found them, and they knew it, and hid from him.
Scattered over a wild meadow, the army of Lord Corbyn and his allies lay asleep under the starry sky. Surefooted in the dark, Loddlaen picked his way through the camp and out with a muttered word to one of the guards. The stink of so many unwashed humans was making him feel ill, and he walked a good long ways away from camp before he flung himself down in the grass to rest. He was tired—he was always tired these days—yet when night came, he could not sleep. He pressed both hands against his forehead and tried to steady himself. The despised
smell that he’d left behind him seemed to cling to his body and clothes. Suddenly he saw the smell, a thick gray cloud of smoke, swirling around him in some unfelt wind. It was only a vision, an illusion, but he had to fight to banish it. Many visions came to him unbidden these days, just odd little things, voices half heard, things half seen, and always he could understand the cause, but still they were terrifying, because he knew that they should never have come at all. A dweomerman works long years to open his mind to the Innerlands, but at the same time he has to close his mind at will, to draw a veil between himself and unseen things. No matter how hard Loddlaen tried to close that veil, things slipped through.
When he looked up at the stars, they were dancing and leaping, sending long points of light like reflections off a polished blade. Hastily he looked away, but creatures seemed to be crawling through the grass, like little weasels, sniffing him out. He flung up one hand and made the banishing sigils in the air. When he looked the weasel things were gone, and the stars steady. With a sigh that was half a groan, he flung himself face down to lie full length in the grass. The broken light from the stars seemed to dance in his mind, dazzling him. He summoned up an image of darkness, a soft, warm darkness like sleep, and let the image suffuse his mind until at last it seemed to him that he stood inside that warm, comforting dark, safe at last. He’d stumbled upon this trick of summoning a dark some months before; it was the only way he could get any rest. Now, it came to him easily, swiftly, every time he called, as if it came of its own will.
Yet even wrapped in dark, he could not sleep. His hatred was there in the blackness with him, the hatred he bore toward the stinking human beings he was forced to use as allies, and even more, the hatred he bore toward the Elcyion Lacar. It seemed he heard his hatred talking to him in a child’s voice, until that voice became his own. There he’d been, practically an outcast in the elven camps, and all because his father was a wretched human being. Oh, everyone had been kind to him; that was the worst
wound of all, the galling way that everyone had been ever so kind, as if he were a half-wit who needed tender care. They were smug, the Elcyion Lacar, so smug, secure in knowing that they’d live for four, maybe even five hundred years, while as for him, well, how long did a half-breed live, anyway? No one truly knew; at any moment, he might look in the mirror and see the beginnings of that inevitable human corruption into death that men called old age. He hated them all, men and elves alike.
The hatred burned so bright that it threatened to wipe the darkness away. Loddlaen steadied himself and thought only of the dark, let it soothe and blanket him. Voices came out of the darkness, as they usually did, comforting him, agreeing with him that he’d been ill-used, promising him that he would get his revenge on the Elcyion Lacar and Eldidd men both.
“Loddlaen the Mighty,” the voices said. “Master of the Powers of Air, no man can touch you, no man can best you, not you, Loddlaen the Mighty.”
“It’s true,” he answered them in his mind. “I shall have vengeance.”
“Splendid vengeance for all that these dogs made you suffer.” One familiar voice was as soft and smooth as perfumed oil. “Remember, slay Rhodry Maelwaedd, and all the vengeance you have ever sought will be yours. Rhodry must die—remember, remember.”
“I remember, and I swear to you I will.”
He heard a ripple of satisfied laughter, and then the darkness turned thick and warm. At last, he could sleep.
At dawn on the morrow, the camp came awake fast. Lord Sligyn walked through, yelling orders and keeping the men busy until the horses had grazed their fill and everyone was ready to march. All morning they pushed on fast upriver. Nevyn felt his excitement at seeing Brangwen turn to a curious sort of dread. What was her personality in this life like? What would she think of him? For all his vast age and true dweomer, Nevyn was man enough to
want her to like him. Finally, about an hour before noon, they came to the ruined dun.
Rhodry and his men were at the gates to greet them with cheers. Since there wasn’t enough room in the ward for the army to ride in, the men dismounted outside and sat with their horses while the noble-born went in. Looking for Aderyn, Nevyn slipped in, too, and found him and the two elves waiting for him by the dun wall. Jennantar and Calonderiel bowed low.
“Hail, Wise One of the East,” Jennantar said. “I’d hoped to meet you again in better circumstances than these.”
“I’d been hoping the same thing, truly. It aches my heart that your friend died for the sake of an Eldidd feud.”
“We’ll have vengeance for him,” Calondereil broke in. “Just like we will for all the others.”
In his cat-slit eyes burned a wild rage. Even though the war to which he referred had been over for three hundred and fifty years, doubtless he still remembered the name of every elf slain in it. Foe or insult, the Elcyion Lacar never forgot and only rarely forgave. Although Aderyn liked to talk of what he called the essential goodness of the folk, they made Nevyn profoundly nervous.
“I know you must be eager to meet Jill,” Aderyn said. “I saw her not a moment ago, but now she’s off some-where. Shall we go look for her?”
Yet Nevyn had to postpone the meeting for a little while, because Sligyn came striding up to them. He looked like a baffled bear when the hunting dogs first surround it.
“Now, here, Nevyn,” Sligyn bellowed. “I’m gravely worried. Young Rhodry’s gone daft. Stark out of his mind.”
“Indeed, my lord? Let me guess the kind of delusions the lad’s suffering from. He swears that Aderyn and I are both dweomer, and that Aderyn can turn himself into an owl.”
“Just that. I—” Sligyn’s mouth slackened as he finally realized that Nevyn was being sarcastic. “Oh, now, here! You’re not telling me it’s the truth, are you?”
Sligyn swung his head back and forth, looking at both of them in turn, just as the bear swings his when the dogs close in.
“By the black hairy ass of the Lord of Hell, what have I done? Ridden all this blasted way to rescue a pack of madmen? Even that silver dagger swears it’s true.”
“That’s because it is true,” Nevyn said. “I suppose I have to do some stupid trick to convince you.” He glanced around and saw a stick of firewood in the grass. “Here, watch.”
When Nevyn invoked the Wildfolk of Fire, they rushed to do his bidding and set the stick on fire. Sligyn swore, and he swore again when Nevyn had them douse it.
“You can touch it, my lord. It’s hot.”
Sligyn turned and ran back to the broch without so much as a backward glance. When the two elves burst out laughing, Aderyn snapped at them in their own language. Reluctantly they held their tongues.
“Go get ready to ride,” Aderyn said. “Get my horse for me, too, will you?”
Still grinning, Calonderiel and Jennantar hurried off. It was then that Nevyn saw Jill, standing at a little distance and watching him as warily as a stag in a forest. Without waiting for Aderyn to call to her, she walked over, studying him all the while. In spite of her dirty men’s clothing, in spite of her face that was different than Brangwen’s for all its beauty, Nevyn recognized her immediately. His first muddled thought was a surprise that she would be so tall.
“Good morrow, Jill. Our Aderyn’s told me somewhat about you.”
“Has he, now? Good things, I hope.”
Nevyn wished that he could simply tell her the truth, use his dweomer to make her remember and pour out his heart to say how glad he was he’d found her again—all forbidden by his dweomer-vows. Jill was studying him coolly and curiously.
“But you know,” she said, “haven’t we met before? On the road or suchlike when I was a child?”