Authors: L.E. Modesitt Jr.
“THERE IS STILL no word from either the road posts or our sources at Westwind. The
Marshall refuses to declare mourning, but half the guards are wearing black on their sleeves when they’re not around her.”
“It is as though he vanished. How could she have let that happen? She doesn’t even realize what he is.” Frewya looks perplexed.
“Do you know that for a fact?” asks Ryessa.
“What do you mean?”
“Westwind must always be held by the daughter. That does not mean she does not love her son. Or that she is blind to what he is.” The Tyrant frowns. “There was a rumor that Dylyss also had the talent.”
“That would be horrifying, if true.”
“Why? She’s bound not to use it. Besides, that’s not the issue, although it would explain-”
“Why did she let him ski into the winter storms?”
“Frewya, the boy was allowed to train with the guards, at least until I inquired. He could out-ski most of them. Our sources indicate that when he was refused permission to work out with them, he copied their workouts on his own. He was taught blade-work, or so we were told, in order to protect his honor and to deflect any criticism by the easterners. You saw what he did with a blade here. Yet after that, the
Marshall had him taught more by the guard arms-master. I’m sure that the rationale was that after the episode here, he needed even greater skill. How convenient. He was also taught the traditional skills of numbers and rhetoric, and the old
Temple tongue.” She smiles a smile that is colder than most women’s frowns. “And he does have some mastery of the winds, or so Megaera has assured me.”
“But the guard source insisted he was not up to guard standards with blades. That is what you told me.”
The older woman shrugs. “That may be true. How many men, even easterners, are up to guard standards?” Her face turns colder. “But I suspect he is better than most Westwind guards, given his parenting. Dylyss tends to omit the important details.”
“You’re saying that she had him taught enough to survive on his own?”
“Only if he wishes-she could not teach desire. He is bound to be naive about the ways of the world. Experience cannot be taught. She saw more than she was supposed to here, but even then, she refused to make it easy for him. She makes it easy for no one.” Ryessa pauses. “Still, our turn will come.”
“Insist that she find him!”
“How?” asked the Tyrant dryly. “How would we force the
Marshall? With our might of arms?”
“What if he died on the mountain? Or what if he makes it across the Westhorns? Or even the Easthorns?”
“I don’t think he died. After all, Megaera is still alive. I’m tempted to take her to Bleyans and strike the bracelets. She has to find him, you know, like the Furies. As for the easterners-if he makes it that far, and if Megaera finds him, in time they will regret it.”
“You aren’t planning to take on the magicians?”
“Why should I? Let us see what he can do, especially once Megaera is after him.”
“Would the guards…”
The woman in the high chair shrugs. “Ask them, or find him, if you can. If not-”
“That is a dangerous game.”
“Do we have any choice? Each year the wizards drive their road that much nearer us.” The woman with the cold green fire in her eyes that complements the white-blond flame of her hair watches as her advisor departs.
In another room, a red-haired woman stares into the mirror that brings forth no reflection, only swirling gray.
Just one image, one clear moment-that is all she has glimpsed, the image of a man buried in snow-before the pain had become too great to hold the link.
Each time she reaches out, the bracelets burn, but she only bites her lips when they glow red-hot and when she can no longer bear the heat. Now her eyes flicker toward the iron-bound door, and they burn with a heat deeper than the iron on her wrists.
AS HE SEES the clearing on the hillside, Creslin pushes slightly harder, despite the drudgery of forcing the skis through snow that has become steadily heavier and wetter as he has moved eastward and gradually lower. He has followed the ridge lines as much as possible.
The warm weather of the past two days has made sleeping damp and uncomfortable and the traveling slow. Outside of the several deer, a handful of snow hares, a few scattered birds, he has seen no living creatures. No other travelers, not even a trail. Through the trees, the eastern barrier peaks appear less than another range of hills away.
Now, nearly an eight-day after escaping the Roof of the World, he is almost through his meager supplies, and his jacket and trousers hang noticeably looser on his frame.
“Even Heldra would feel that I’m not carrying extra weight…” Talking to himself helps, at least some of the time.
The massive spruces and firs of the high forest have given way to thinner-trunked pines and firs, interspersed with oaks and other bare-limbed trees he does not recognize.
His skis almost catch on a branch scantly covered by the heavy snow, and he lurches, but regains his balance. He listens. He hears nothing except the whispers of the wind, and those whispers bear no news. He studies the opening in the trees ahead but discerns no tracks, no structures.
Then he wipes his forehead. Even with his parka strapped to his pack, even in the shadows of the hill forests, travel during the day is hot.
Finally he slides the skis between the gaps in the trees and through a scattering of sparse branches poking up through the snow until he stands in unshadowed winter sunlight. The line of blackened trunks marching downhill bears witness to the reason for the clearing.
Creslin smiles. While the fire may have burned unchecked, the path of the devastation is to the northeast, and the snow, while heavy, is mainly open. He squints through the brightness of the mid-morning sun, a glare to which his eyes are unaccustomed. A narrow line of brown winds around the base of a hill and toward the barrier peaks and the east.
He shakes his head in wonder. Somehow, in some way, he has managed to find the trade road to Gallos. At least that is what he thinks it is. After withdrawing his hand from his heavy glove, he finds the melt bottle and takes a drink, careful to kneel on his skis and to replace what he has drunk with some of the cleaner snow.
After straightening up, Creslin brushes his finger across his uneven growth of beard; silver like his hair, he suspects, but he has brought no mirror. With a sigh, he puts the glove back on.
One way or another, he will reach the trade road by evening. Then his problems will really begin. While the road is beyond the control of the
Marshall, he will have to avoid any guards she may send looking for a silver-haired youth. For he knows only too well that he is not a man… not yet.
With a glance behind him at the distant clouds overhanging the Roof of the World, he glides forward and begins the descent toward the valley and the road beyond.
Leaning, shifting his weight, he peers ahead, trying to anticipate the rough patches, seldom even having to turn because the heavy snow is so slow under the wooden skis. With each instant, he is farther from Westwind and from the sub-Tyrant of Sarronnyn. In time, through turns, lurches, and one fall-which leaves a damp stain on his leathers from his left leg to his shoulder-he glides, strides, and puffs his way through the snow and thicker underbrush until he can once again see the lower line of trees that marks the road.
By now the skis are heavy, the snow heavier, and the scraping of the branches, needles, and other debris beneath the snow more frequent. He slows to a halt and wipes his forehead with the back of his glove. His wool undershirt is damp, more from sweat than from snow. The lack of wind in and among the trees makes the day seem unusually warm.
The ground before him slopes gradually uphill toward where he believes the road to be. With a sigh, he starts out again, plodding uphill. Here the trees are farther apart, creating patches of ice and frozen, exposed branches and bushes.
Creslin eases himself along and begins to unthong his skis, wiggling his toes and stretching first one foot, then the other, as the tension from the leather straps is lifted. Deciding to carry the skis until he can see whether the road in fact lies over the hill crest, he marches across snow that barely covers the toes of his boots and plunges through white-crusted surfaces into powder nearly to his knees.
After all his uneven progress, he arrives, breathing hard, on a level stretch. Less than two dozen cubits away is the road he had observed from the hills behind him. Creslin sets down the skis and ponders.
He first strips off the leather thongs, winds them into a ball, and places them in his pack. Then he hides the skis in a deadfall, for they would be a giveaway. The sword he leaves in the scabbard strapped across the pack.
Less than ten cubits from the road, he stands in snow halfway to his knees, snow that would have melted were it not shaded by the pines. Terwhit… terwhit.
The call of a bird he does not know, for there are few birds indeed upon the Roof of the World, whispers through the bare branches of the oaks and the green needles of the pines.
With the gentle echo of the unseen bird still in his ears, he steps toward the road, if he dares to call it a road-more like two clay tracks surrounding a center space of dirty white. The clay lanes represent the sun’s light upon the two wagon wheel tracks, melting them outward until each is nearly a cubit wide. The center snow is marked with irregular holes remaining from earlier footprints.
Creslin studies the road and the prints-just a single wagon and one rider, perhaps a pair of travelers walking, all of them heading to the west several days ago.
At least the day is pleasant, and walking on the cold and packed clay of the road will be a welcome change from slogging through the damp snow of the lesser mountains. He does miss the crisp cold of the Roof of the World and the easier strides across dry power.
“Do you?” he asks himself, recalling the powder-filled pits he had tumbled into. “Maybe not everything…” He glances back along the winding road to the west. Nothing. His footsteps carry him from the snow that is little more than ankle-deep by the roadside onto the dark surface. Underfoot, the clay gives way, as if the mud is neither fully frozen nor completely loose.
He turns to the east, the sun at his back, and stretches out his legs. After so much time on skis, it will be good to walk for a while. The novelty will pale quickly, he knows, especially as the sun stands low in the western sky.
Are there any way stations on this road that should lead to Gallos? He does not know, nor does he know whether it would be wiser to use them or to avoid them. He does know that the coins in his belt pouch will not go far and that the heavy gold chain concealed within the belt itself is too valuable to display. Even a single link would betray his origin and make him a target. More of a target, he corrects himself.
At least the guards have not reached this far east. Not yet.
The impact of hammer and heavy steel chisel on cold iron echoes through the near-deserted smithy.
A red-haired woman kneels on the stone pavement, one wrist extended onto the anvil.
“That’s one, your grace.” The smith holds the heavy hammer and glances from the woman in traveling woolens kneeling before the anvil to the blond woman wearing the white of the Tyrant.
“Go ahead. Strike the other,” orders Ryessa.
The kneeling woman extends her other wrist to the iron, her lips tightly pressed together.
“As you wish, your grace.” But the smith shakes her head. The hammer falls.
“Thank you.” As she rises, the redhead’s words are addressed to the smith. She turns to the Tyrant. “And you also, sister.”
“An escort awaits you, Megaera.”
“To Montgren. I thought it would make your task somewhat easier. I prevailed upon the Duke-”
“What did it cost you?” Megaera’s fingers touch the heavy scars on her wrists, almost as if she cannot believe that the iron bonds are gone.
“Enough.” The Tyrant’s tone is sardonic. “I hope you and your lover are worth it.”
“He’s not my lover, and he never will be.” The Tyrant shakes her head. “Who else could there be?”
“You think that I intend to let you and Dylyss dictate my life? I may have to keep Creslin alive to save myself, but that doesn’t mean I have to turn my body over to a mere man as if I were… a bond slave.”
“That’s not what I meant. Besides, you’ll repay me, in oh-so-many ways.”
Megaera raises her hands, and the Tyrant steps back involuntarily.
“Yes, my sister dear,” the redhead responds, “you are right to fear me, but I pay my debts, and I’ll pay this one.”
“Don’t try to repay me until you have left the western lands. There are three watches upon you.”
“I scarcely expected less.” Megaera has dropped her hands. “And in a strange way, I do owe you.” She pauses. “Unlike you, I have never forgotten that we are sisters.” She walks toward the stone stairs that lead to the stables. Unseen bands of fire still encircle her wrists, and her breath rasps in her throat. She swallows, but her head is held high.
The echo of the unknown bird vibrates through the near dark as Creslin peers into the gloom before him, seeing only empty road and bare-limbed trees between the thin evergreens.
The sun has dropped behind the still-looming shadows of the mid-ranges of the Westhorns far earlier, not long after Creslin had set foot upon the scarce-traveled trade road to Gallos. In the lingering light, he has walked perhaps another four kays along the gently turning road.
Real evening descends, and no inn appears out of the gloom. Despite his sturdy boots, his feet feel the hardness of the frozen road clay with each step. For all his tiredness, Creslin keeps his tracks well within the hard clay patches upon the road rather than in the snow, determined not to leave a betraying trace for the guards should they have . pushed this far eastward.
Has it been that far? How many kays has he covered in the more than eight days since he threw himself off the Roof of the World?
His thoughts drift back to his lessons, back to the Legend. Why did the angels come to the Roof of the World? Were men really so blind? How could anyone believe that either men or women had the right to rule by their sex?
He continues to put one foot before the other, looking all the while for a sheltered place in which to spend the night. Somehow, beyond his flickering vision, he can sense a structure. Not an inn, for there is no warmth to surround it, but… something.
Through three long turns of the road he trudges, feeling the strength of the mental image increase, until his eyes confirm his senses. The way station, half-buried in snow, has a solid roof and a squared arrangement of timbers and planks that can be tugged to cover the entrance.
Creslin approaches and steps over the drift in the stone-framed opening and peers inside. A small stack of dust-covered logs rests by the narrow hearth under the blackened chimney stones.
Setting his pack on the cold stones, he begins to peel slivers of wood from the thinnest log until he has a pile at the back of the hearth. He steps back outside, breaks off several green fir branches and carries them within. His efforts with the striker are successful, and soon a small fire warms the hut. Later, he enjoys hot tea and nearly the last of his field rations. In time, he sleeps, his body relaxing in the comparative warmth.
Before dawn, he awakes with a shudder. Has something been searching for him: a white bird flying in a blue sky? Or a mirror filled with swirling white? For those are what he remembers, and the memories are stronger than a mere dream.
“A white bird…” Still within the winter quilt, he shakes his head. First a shadowy woman, and now a white , bird? Guilt? Is that what he feels? For leaving his sister? For thwarting his mother the
Marshall? Or is he suffering from exposure and hunger so that his mind is creating such illusions? And the mirror? What does the mirror mean?
Creslin takes a deep breath. The image of the woman he saw, long before exposure or hunger could have affected him. But the bird, the white bird, and the mirror-they could only have been a dream.
Is his whole life based upon dreams? Is everyone’s? Dreams of a Legend? Dreams of a better time, and of a better place named Heaven? What really is he… besides a youth not yet a man who seems to fit nowhere?
His stomach growls. He draws himself from the quilt and into his boots and parka.
Outside the rough door barrier, in the gray darkness just before dawn, the wind moans. Creslin reaches into that grayness and touches the wind, samples the chill, and nods slowly. A dark day will dawn, leaden and windy but without snow, at least not until later.
After refolding and packing his cloak, he eats the remaining honey grain bar and a small lump of rock-hard yellow cheese, washing down the cheese with water from his melt bottle.
After sealing his pack, he brushes the ashes of the fire into a pile at the back of the hearth with an evergreen branch. He uses the same branch to obscure his steps through the snow from the road. With a few gusts of wind and a day or so, no one will know when the hut was last employed.
A hint of pink tinges one corner of the heavens, then fades into the dull gray of a cloudy day. Creslin’s legs stretch out toward the eastern barrier peaks of the West-horns, whose less-angled slopes rise not more than a handful of kays from where he walks.
A twinge in his shoulders reminds him of how far he has already carried his pack, although it is lighter now. With a deep breath that billows white fog before his face, he continues, even step upon even step, toward the east, his boots following the wagon tracks that have melted and refrozen, melted and refrozen.