Authors: L.E. Modesitt Jr.
“There were in Heaven in those days rulers of the angels, and the rulers had rulers above them, and, in turn, those rulers had rulers over them.
“More than half of the angels of Heaven were women, yet only some of the lowest of the rulers were women; fewer yet of those rulers of rulers were women; and none of the highest rulers were in fact women, nor even the Cherubim nor the Seraphim.
“The angels of Heaven were each like unto gods, and each could throw thunderbolts from a hammer held in her hand; each could travel vast leagues in chariot drawn by fire, either over the ground or through the skies.
“So when it came to pass that the angels of Heaven girded themselves for the battle with the demons of the light, those who were women asked this thing: For what reason do we fight the demons?
“The rulers of the rulers of the angels replied: We fight the demons of the light because they opposeth us.
“And the angels who were women asked again: For what reason do we fight the demons?
“They revere the light of chaos and they opposeth us, responded the Cherubim; and the rulers were sore affronted at the question.
“Still a lower ruler, an angel, yet a woman, bearing the name of Ryba, called for an answer from the Seraphim: The demons seeketh not our lands nor our lives, yet you would sacrifice our children, and our children’s children, because the demons are not as we are.
“There can be no peace between angels and demons, not in the firmament of Heaven, not in the white depths of Hell, answered the Seraphim, girding up their loins and clasping unto themselves the swords of the stars that are suns and the dark lances of winter that shatter lands with their chill.
“You declare there can be no peace, when there has been peace, and you cannot yet answer why that peace mayest not continue. Thus persisted Ryba of the angels.
“And the Seraphim and the Cherubim were most wroth, and they gathered unto them all the angels that were men, and the white mists that tell of the truths that are within men and within women, be they angels or mortals. And they encircled all of the angels within the white clouds.
“Yet Ryba and lesser of the angels who were women broke from the circle and gathered themselves, their possessions, and their children unto themselves and unto their chariots, and they departed Heaven in their own way.
“The Cherubim and the Seraphim drew unto themselves all the angels that remained and armed all with the swords of the stars and the lances of winter, and carried destruction and night unto the demons of light.
“Across the suns that are stars, and even through the depths of winter between stars, the remaining angels pursued both the demons of light and the angels who had fled.
“But the demons of light drew unto their own ways and resources and builded for themselves the mirror towers of blinding light that dispersed back unto the angels the energies of the swords of the stars and the lances of winter.
“The stars dimmed, and the firmament that contained Heaven and all the stars and even the darkness between stars shook under the powers of the Cherubim and the Seraphim, and the change winds roared across the faces of the waters and blotted out the lights.
“Yet the demons were not dismayed, and mounted into their towers and hurled them against the angels, and again the firmament trembled and tottered, and this time, the stars fell into winter, and Heaven was rent in many places, and smoke that poisoned even the angels rose from that burning, and the Cherubim and the Seraphim, and the host of the angels perished, as did all but the strongest of the demons of light.
“Ryba, the least of the rulers of angels, thus became the last of the rulers, and the angels, having fallen from the stars after the time of the great burning, came unto the Roof of the World, where they gathered the winds for shelter and abided until the winter should lift.
“Yet upon the Roof of the World, as a memory of the fall of the angels, winter yet remains.
“So in that time, Ryba sent forth her people unto the southlands and the western ways, and told them: Remember whence you came, and suffer not any man to lead you, for that is how the angels fell…”
-BOOK of RYBA
Canto 1, Section II
THE INN BARELY distinguishes itself from the trampled ice and heaped snow. It squats in the center of what might be meadows in the summer, its low stone walls not more than eight or nine cubits high, topped with a steep-pitched roof of gray slate tiles.
Creslin, his silver hair concealed by the oiled-leather parka hood he has tied tight as protection against the winds that have swirled around him for the past several kays, stands where the road widens out onto the flat valley holding the inn.
From the structure’s two chimneys-one at the right end and one in the middle-white and gray smoke forms a thin line, flattened by the wind and barely visible against the overhead clouds and the snow-covered slopes behind the inn.
The sound of a horse’s neigh echoes across the ice and the packed snow. Why would a horse be in .the stables so soon after midday? Unless the beast was part of the party that had preceded him to the inn. With a shrug, Creslin takes a deep breath and starts toward the long building. Smoke continues to rise, but no figures brave the gusting winds.
A wooden door, braced with timbers, swings wide at the left side of the inn, and a bulky shape lumbers out and stops under the overhang of the eaves, facing Creslin and waiting.
Creslin continues along the stone road until he is less than two rods from the hitching rail that is nearly buried with snow shoveled from the two clear paths at the front of the building. One path, wide and filled with frozen hoofprints, leads leftward to the heavy door behind the solitary man. The other, narrow and covered with boards, leads straight to the inn itself.
Creslin glances to the left of the covered walkway, from where the odors of animals waft, and then to the right, where peeling paint on a battered board above a closed double door bears the imprint of a cup and a bowl.
“Who’s the traveler?” asks a voice from behind the doors.
“Sort of thin to be out in the Westhorns alone. Bet he’s a plant for Frosee’s band.” The heavy man grunts from before the stable door, his voice rumbling, his accent on the first syllables of the Temple tongue, a sure sign of a free trader, according to Creslin’s former tutor. The trader’s hand rests loosely on the hilt of a belt knife.
The inn door opens, then closes as a thin man wearing a sheepskin vest steps out.
Nan. Clothes are his, but they’re loose, like he’s lost weight.” The thin man wears a hand-and-a-half sword across his shoulders, much the way Creslin wears his shorter blade.
Creslin looks from the heavy man to the thin man and back again.
“Doesn’t look all that strong,” rumbles the big man as he steps forward.
Not knowing exactly what to do, Creslin nods politely.
“You’re right. The clothes are mine. But who is Frowsee?”
“Frosee,” corrects the big trader. “He’s a bandit.” Creslin steps onto the boardwalk. The thin man does not move.
“I beg your pardon,” Creslin states quietly.
“Boy has manners, at least,” observes the big man.
The thin man studies Creslin without speaking.
Creslin returns the study, noting the mustached narrow face, the hard gray eyes, the heaviness in chest and gut that may signify a mail or plated leather vest, and the short knife that complements the long sword.
Creslin considers the question, then nods. “It was a little more complicated than that, but I had to leave.” Even the incomplete truth gnaws at his guts, but he fights back the feeling and continues to watch the thin man, for he is the more dangerous of the two.
The thin man looks at Creslin again before turning.
“You just going to let him in, Hylin?” grumbles the trader.
“You stop him if you want. He’s no danger to you, unless you meddle.” The thin man opens the inn door.
“So, boy… why are you here?” The trader waddles toward Creslin.
“Because it’s on the way east. Now, if you will excuse me…” He steps around the trader toward the inn door.
“I was talking to you!” A heavy hand grasps his shoulder.
Creslin finds that he has reacted, that the guard drills have fulfilled their purpose in a way not intended by Aemris or Heldra. He finds himself looking over the prone figure of the trader.
“I’ll have your head…”
“I think not,” interrupts a new voice. A woman, gray-haired and heavyset, stands in the open doorway. “The young fellow was trying to be polite, and you grabbed him. Besides, Derrild, you haven’t got sense enough to come out of the west-blows. Your man told you not to mess with the young fellow. He could see a fighting man, even if you couldn’t. Young doesn’t mean unskilled.” She turned to Creslin. “And you, young fellow, looks and skill are fine, but coins are what buy hospitality.”
“I did not mean trouble, lady.” Creslin inclines his head and upper body. “The tariff?” he asks in the
Temple tongue, knowing that his accent differs from the innkeeper’s.
“The tariff?” The woman looks bewildered.
“The amount for food and lodging.”
“Oh, the charges. Four silvers for a room, another silver for each meal.”
While Creslin can afford such charges, at least for a time, he knows the numbers are high and tries to let his face show some astonishment. “Five silvers?”
“ Tis high, but we must pay dearly for the food and spirits.”
“Three would be larceny, kind lady, but five is high extortion. And that would be for a room fit for a queen.”
A smile crosses her face, perhaps at his language. “For a fine face such as yours, I would settle for mere larceny, and even throw in a hot tub. With so little trade, you can even sleep alone, though…” Her eyes rake over him.
“Humph,” rumbles the trader, who has lurched to his feet. “Baths. A nuisance designed by women.”
“And a meal?” pursues Creslin, ignoring the innuendo.
“And a meal. Without high spirits, though.” Her voice turns harder as she lifts the broom. “You pay in advance.”
Creslin looks at the clouds overhead, then nods.
“Come on in, before we lose all the heat from the fires.”
Once inside, with both doors firmly shut, the woman waits as Creslin fumbles out three silvers. He is thankful that the larger coins are concealed within the heavy travel belt.
The room she leads him to contains one double-width bed, a table scarcely more than two hands wide, and a candle lamp. The stone floor is uncovered and the window barely more than a slit.
“Even a pillow and a proper coverlet!” exclaims the gray-haired innkeeper.
“You mentioned a bath?”
“Ah, yes. The bath comes with the room.”
“And a good towel, I’d wager,” Creslin adds cheerfully.
“You will break us yet, young sir.”
“Perhaps we should just head for the bath,” Creslin suggests, catching a whiff of himself.
“As you wish.”
Creslin continues to carry both pack and sword, oblivious to the unspoken suggestion that he leave them in the room.
When he sees the bath, Creslin understands the snort from the heavy trader. The small room contains two stone tubs into which hot mineral waters slowly flow from a two-spouted fountain. Despite the faint odor of sulfur, the hot water is more than welcome, and Creslin uses his straight razor to remove his sparse beard, nicking himself only once or twice.
After the innkeeper leaves him by himself, he washes out his underclothes, wringing them as dry as possible before pulling on the spare undergarments from his pack and re-donning his leathers. Then he returns to his room.
The towel and damp clothes he smoothes out across the footboard. After barring the door, he drops on the bed. Within moments, he is asleep.
At the sound of the bell, Creslin jerks upright. How long has he slept? All night? The darkness outside the window could mean either early evening or predawn. He sits up, fumbles the striker from his belt, and coaxes the candle into light. The clothes on the footboard remind him of his garb, and he rises and touches the garments. Too damp for morning, he decides.
Finally he pulls on his boots, slings the pack across one shoulder, and unbars the door, stepping into the dimly lit hall.
Four of the dozen tables in the Common Room are occupied. After taking a small table for two, Creslin eases the pack under the table and ignores the looks from the heavy trader and from a red-bearded man who sits at a circular table with a woman and three male blades.
Another gray-haired woman, even thinner than the innkeeper, wipes her hands on a once-white apron as she eases up to Creslin’s table. “We have a bear stew or a crusty fowl pie, and either ale or red wine. The wine is extra.”
“What would you eat?”
“They’re about the same. For another silver, there’s a pair of lamb cutlets.”
The silver-haired youth smiles faintly, wondering if he could have bought the entire lamb for a silver. “Stew and ale.”
“Will that be all?”
Creslin nods. As she scuttles past the hearth toward the kitchen, he glances toward the red-bearded man, who has returned to the meat before him, presumably the lamb. One of the blades, a grizzled man with a short salt-and-pepper beard and a single ear, glares back at Creslin, who returns the hostile look with a polite smile.
The blade who had studied Creslin earlier at the inn’s entrance begins to talk to the trader. Derrild shakes his head. Once, twice. Finally he nods, and the blade stands up.
He steps over to Creslin’s table. “Mind if I sit for a moment? Name is Hylin. Road guard for Derrild. He’s a trader.”
Still waiting for the stew, Creslin gestures to the battered chair across from him.
“You handled Derrild pretty easy there.”
“Rather stupidly,” admits Creslin, still not comfortable with the
Temple tongue. “I did not think.”
“You’re from the far west, I take it?”
Creslin raises his eyebrows, not wishing to admit anything.
Hylin shrugs. “You talk
Temple like some fellows I knew from Suthya, but you’re fair, and I never saw anyone with real silver hair before.”
“Nor I, either,” laughs Creslin, though he has to quell his turning stomach as it reminds him of Llyse and a silver-haired man.
“We’re headed to Fenard, and then to Jellico. Derrild wouldn’t be adverse to having another blade. He’s tight. Probably wouldn’t pay more than a copper a day, but he’s got a spare mount. Berlis stayed in Cerlyn.” The thin man looked at the floor. “Could be better than walking. Faster anyway.”
“You are worried?” Creslin senses the uneasiness in the other man, like a dark fog hovering behind his eyes.
“Me? Devils be damned, I’m worried. A cart, two pack mules, and a fat trader, with just one blade?”
Creslin nods. “Two would be the right number?”
“Right. Three says Derrild’s carrying jewelry and perfumes, and one and an empty saddle says that we’re hurting.”
While he does not follow the logic, Creslin understands the feelings. “I am interested.”
“Show up at the second bell in the morning.” Creslin raises his eyebrows again.
“You are from a long ways away. Second bell is right after the early breakfast for the hard travelers. Same in all the road inns, leastwise from the Westhorns east. Cerlyn’s as far west as I’ve been.”
“Second bell, then,” Creslin affirms.
The thin man starts to rise, then pauses. “You can ride?”
“Better than I walk,” Creslin responds with a chuckle.
Hylin nods and walks back to Derrild’s table, where he resumes his seat and begins talking in a low voice to the trader.
Creslin shifts his attention to the tall man seated alone at another table for two in the far corner, dark-haired and with a mustache, but wearing no beard. After a glance, the silver-haired youth looks away from the white mist that looms unseen around the single figure.
He almost laughs as he wonders what he would see were he to look at himself. Would the naivete be as obvious to others as it is to himself?
“The white bird and the shadow woman… trouble for someone tonight…”
Creslin’s ears burn at the low words, but he cannot distinguish from whose lips they issued, save that a man spoke them.
With a thud, a chipped gray mug filled with a soapy-looking liquid lands on the table. The thin serving woman is already two tables past him, unloading the rest of the meal from her wooden tray onto the table of the largest group: the man and woman with the three male blades, clearly an eastern party, beyond the impact of the Legend.
As he surveys the public room through the smoky haze from the fire and the kitchen, Creslin realizes that he is the only totally clean-shaven male in the inn. Most are bearded. Only Hylin and the dark man in the corner have no beards-only mustaches, and both seem clearly hired blades.
Is that coincidence? And what does being clean-shaven mean?
He takes a sip of the warm ale, carefully. His caution is rewarded as he is able to swallow that bitter sip rather than choke it down. As he waits for the stew, he listens, picking up fragments that those who spoke would not have believed could be overheard.
“… swear those are leathers of the Westwind guard… woman playing at being a man?”
“… heard him speak… doesn’t sound like a woman.”
“… weather witch says a cold blow coming out of the north…”
The smoke from the fire and haze from the kitchen thicken until Creslin’s eyes begin to burn. A pair of men in scuffed herdsmen’s jackets shuffle their worn boots across the stone floor and drop themselves at the table next to Creslin. Sheepherders or goatherders, by the smell, Creslin decides.
He gestures absently, his ears on the conversations surrounding him, and the smoke gently sifts away from his eyes.
“… look,” hisses a low voice. “The smoke…”
Creslin abruptly releases his hold on the air and the smoke, letting them swirl where they will.
“What about the smoke?”
“I could have sworn…”
The silver-haired youth takes a slow, deep breath, not quite cursing himself for stupidity, and continues to listen.
“… took the big trader without even touching his blade.”