The wolf stumbled from the cave, knowing that someone was searching for him and he couldn't protect himself this time. Feverish and ill, his head throbbing so hard that it hurt to move, he couldn't pull his thoughts together.
After all this time, after all of his preparations, he was going to be brought down by an illness.
The searcher's tendrils spread out again, brushing across him without recognition or pause. The Northlands were rife with wild magic'which is why other magic couldn't work correctly here. The searcher looked for a wizard and would never notice the wolf who concealed the man in its shape unless the fever betrayed him.
He should lie low, it was the best defense . . . but he was so afraid, and his illness clogged his thoughts.
Death didn't frighten him; he sometimes thought he had come here seeking it. He was more afraid he wouldn't die, afraid of what he would become. Perhaps the one who looked for him was just idly hunting — but when he felt a third sweep, he knew it was unlikely. He must have given himself away somehow. He'd always known that he would be found one day. He'd just never thought it would be when he was so weak.
He fought to blend better with the form he'd taken, to lose himself in the wolf. He succeeded.
The fourth sizzle of magic, the searcher's magic, was too much for the wolf. The wolf was a simpler creature than the mage who hid within him. If he was frightened, he attacked or ran. There was no one here to attack, so he ran.
It wasn't until the wolf was tired that he could gather his humanity — that was a laugh, his humanity — well then, he gathered himself together and stopped running. His ribs ached with the force of his breath and the tough pads of his feet were cut by stones and an occasional crystal of ice from a land where the sun would never completely melt winter's gift. He was shivering though he felt hot, feverish. He was sick.
He couldn't keep running — and it wasn't only the wolf who craved escape — because running wasn't escape, not from what he fled.
He closed his eyes, but that didn't keep his head from throbbing in time with his pounding pulse. If he wasn't going to die out here, he would have to find shelter. Someplace warm, where he could wait and recover. He was lucky he'd come south, and it was high summer. If it had been winter, his only chance would have been to return to the caves he'd run from.
A pile of leaves under a thicket of aspen caught his attention. If they were deep enough to be dry underneath, they would do for shelter. He headed downhill and started for the trees.
There was no warning. The ground simply gave out from under him so fast he was lying ten feet down on a pile of rotted stakes before he realized what had happened.
It was an old pit trap. He started to get up and realized that he hadn't been as lucky as he thought. The stakes had snapped when he hit them, but so had his rear leg.
Perhaps if he hadn't already been so sick, so tired, he could have done something. He'd long ago learned how to set pain aside while he used his magic. But, though he tried, he couldn't distance himself from it this time, not while his body shivered with fever. Without magic, with a broken leg, he was trapped. The rotting stakes meant no one was watching the pit — no one to free him or kill him quickly. So he would die slowly.
That was all right because he didn't want to be free so much as he didn't want to be caught.
This was a trap, but it wasn't His trap.
Perhaps, the wolf thought, as his good legs collapsed again, perhaps it would be good not to run anymore. The ground was cold and wet underneath him, and the fl ush of heat from fever and the frantic journey drained into the chill of his surroundings. He shivered with cold and pain and waited patiently . . . even happily, for death to come and take him.
“If you go to the Northlands in the summer you might avoid snowstorms, but you get mud.” Aralorn, Staff Page, Runner, and Scout for the Sixth Field Hundred, kicked a rock, which arced into the air and landed with an unsatisfactory splut just ahead of her on the mucky trail.
It wasn't a real trail. If it hadn't led from the village directly to the well-used camping spot her unit was currently stopped at, she'd have called it a deer trail and suspected that human feet had never trod it.
“I could have told them that,” she said. “But no one asked me.”
She took another step, and her left boot sank six inches down into a patch that looked just like the bit before it that had held her weight just fine. She pulled her foot out and shook it, trying unsuccessfully to get the thick mud off. When she started walking again, her mud-coated boot weighed twice what her right boot did.
“I suppose,” she said in resigned tones as she squelched along, “training isn't supposed to be fun, and sometimes we have to fight in the mud. But there's mud in warmer places. We could go hunting Uriah in the old Great Swamp. That would be good training and useful, but no one would pay us. Mercenaries can't possibly be useful without someone paying us. So we're stuck — literally in the case of our supply wagons — practicing maneuvers in the cold mud.”
Her sympathetic audience sighed and butted her with his head. She rubbed her horse's gray cheekbone under the leather straps of his bridle. “I know, Sheen. We could get there in an hour if we hurry — but I see no sense in encouraging stupid behavior.”
One of the supply wagons was so bogged down in mud that it had broken an axle when they tried to pull it out. Aralorn had been sent out to the nearest village to have a smith repair the damage because the smith they'd brought with them had broken his arm trying to help get the wagon out.
That there had been a nearby village was something of a surprise out in the Northlands — though they weren't very deep into them. That village had probably been why the mercenary troops had been sent to practice where they were instead of twenty miles east or west.
The mended axle was tied lengthwise onto the left side of Sheen's saddle, with a weighted bag tied to the opposite stirrup to balance the load. It made riding awkward, which was why Aralorn was walking. Part of the reason, anyway.
“If we get to camp too early, our glorious and inexperienced captain will be ordering the wagon repaired right away. He'll send us out from a fairly good campsite to march for another few miles until the sun sets — and we'll be looking for another reasonable place to camp all night.”
The captain was a good sort, and would be a fine leader—eventually. But right now he was pretty set on proving his mettle and so lost to common sense. He needed to be managed properly by someone with a little more experience.
“If I don't arrive with the axle until it's dark, then he'll have to wait to move out until dawn,” she told Sheen. “With daylight, it won't take long to fix the wagon, and we'll all get a good night's sleep. You and I can trot the last half mile or so, just enough to raise a light sweat and claim it was the smith who took so long.”
Her warhorse jerked his head up abruptly. He snorted, his nostrils fluttering as he sucked air and flattened his ears at whatever his nose was telling him.
Aralorn thumbed off the thong that kept her sword in its sheath and looked around carefully. It wasn't just a person — he'd have alerted her to that with a twitch of his ear.
The scent of blood might have called her horse's battle training to the fore, she thought, or maybe he sensed some sort of predator. This was the Northlands, after all; there were bear, wolves, and a few other things large enough to cause Sheen's upset.
The gray stallion whinnied a shrill challenge that was likely to be heard for miles around. She could only hope that her captain didn't hear it. Whatever Sheen sensed, it was in the aspen grove just uphill from where they stood. It was also, apparently, in no hurry to attack them since nothing answered Sheen's call: no return challenge, not even a rustle.
She could go on past. Likely, if it hadn't come out yet, it wasn't going to. But what was the fun in that?
She dropped Sheen's reins on the ground. He'd stand until she came back — at least until he got hungry. Aralorn drew her knife and crept into the thicket of aspen.
He heard her talking and smelled the horse without moving. He'd heard them come by earlier, too — or he thought so anyway. The horse put up a fuss this time because the wind that ruffled the leaves of the aspen would have brought him the wolf's scent.
He waited for them to leave. Tonight, he thought hopefully. Tonight would be the third night he'd spent here, maybe it would be the last. But part of him knew better, knew just how long it took for a body to die of thirst or of hunger. He was too strong yet. It would be tomorrow, at the soonest.
He'd distracted himself with the hope of death, and only the sound of the woman's feet told him that she'd approached. He opened his eyes to see a sturdily built woman, plain of face except for her large sea-green eyes, leaning over the edge of the pit. She wore the uniform of the mercenaries, and there were calluses and mud on her hands.
He didn't want to see her eyes, didn't want to feel interest in her at all. He only wanted her to leave him alone so he could die.
“Plague them all,” she said, her voice tight and angry. Then her voice softened to a croon. “How long have you been here, love?”
The wolf recognized the threat of the knife she held as she slid down the far side of the pit to stand, one foot on either side of his hips. He growled, rolling off his side in preparation to get up — because he'd forgotten he wanted to die. Just for a moment. He shook from exertion, sickness, and from the pain of moving his leg. He lay back down again and flattened his ears.
“Shh,” she crooned, inexplicably sheathing her knife in the face of his aggression. “Not so long as all that, apparently. Now what shall I do about you?”
Go away, he thought. He growled at her with as much threat as he could, feeling his lips peel back from his fangs and the hair rise along his spine.
The expression on her face was not the one that he'd expected. Certainly not one any sane person would turn
on a threatening wolf she was standing over. She should fear him.
Instead . . . “Poor thing,” she said in that same crooning tone. “Let's get you out of this, shall we?”
She dropped her gaze away from his and knelt to examine his hips, humming softly as she moved closer.
She didn't stink of fear, was all he could think. Everyone feared him. Everyone. Even Him, even the one who searched. She smelled of horse, sweat, and something sweet. No fear.
He snarled, and she wrapped one hand over his muzzle. Sheer astonishment stopped his growls. Just how stupid was she?
“Shh.” The words blended into the music she was making, and he realized that her humming was pulling magic out of the ground around and beneath them. “Let me look.”
He was as surprised at himself as he was at her when he let her do just that. He could have torn out her throat or broken her neck while she examined every inch of him. But he didn't — and he wasn't quite certain why not.
It wasn't that killing her would bother him. He'd killed a lot of people. But that was before. He didn't want to do that anymore. So perhaps that was part of it.
He knew she was trying to help him — but he didn't want help. He wanted to die.
Her magic swept over and around him, cushioning him. The wolf whined softly and relaxed, leaving the mage in him fully in charge for the first time since the illness had hit. Maybe even longer ago than that.
Her magic didn't work on the mage because he knew what it was — and, he admitted to himself, because it wasn't coercive magic. He was mage enough to read her intent. She didn't want the wolf to become a lapdog but only to relax.
But evidently helpful intent wasn't why he didn't kill her. Not the real reason. He hadn't been interested in anything in longer than he could remember, but she made him curious. He'd only ever met a practitioner of green magic,
wild magic, once before. They hid from the humans in the land'if there were any still left. But here was one wearing the clothes of a mercenary.
She could pick him up — which surprised him because she didn't weigh much more than he did. But she couldn't hoist him high enough to reach the edge of the trap, so she set him down again.
“Going to need some help,” she told him, and clambered to the top. She almost didn't make it out of the pit herself; if it had been round, she wouldn't have.
When she departed and took her magic with her, it left him bereaved — as if someone had covered him with a blanket, then removed it. And only when she left did he realize that her music had deadened his pain and soothed him, despite his being a mage on his guard against it.
He heard the horse move and the sound of leather and something heavy hitting the ground. The horse approached the pit and stopped.
When the mercenary who could do green magic hopped back into his almost grave, she had a rope in her hand.
He waited for the wolf to stir as she tied him in a makeshift harness that somehow managed to brace his bad leg. But the wolf waited as meekly as a lamb while she worked. When he was trussed up to her satisfaction, she climbed back out.
“Come on, Sheen,” she told someone. Possibly, he thought, it was the horse.
The trip out of the hole was not pleasant. He closed his eyes and let the pain take him where it would. When he lay on the ground at last, she untied him.
Freed at last, he lay where he had fallen, too weak to run. Maybe too curious as well.
FOUR YEARS LATER
Aralorn paced, her heart beating with nervous energy.
It had seemed like a good idea at the time. She intended to sneak in as a servant'she was good at being a servant, and people talked in front of servants as if they weren't there at all. But then there had been that slave girl, freshly sold to the very Geoffrey ae'Magi whose court Aralorn was supposed to infiltrate and observe . . .
Maybe if the slave girl hadn't had the gray-green eyes of the old races, eyes Aralorn shared, she wouldn't have given in to impulse. But it had been easy to free the girl and send her off with connections who would see her safely back to her home — proof that though she had lived in Sianim all these years, Aralorn was still Rethian enough to despise slavery. It was even easier to use the magic of her mother's people to rearrange her body and her features to mimic the girl and take her place.
She hadn't realized that slaves could be locked away until they were needed; she'd assumed she'd have work to do. It was well-known that the Archmage's passions were
reserved for magic, and he seldom indulged in more fl eshly pleasures. She'd figured that the girl had been purchased to do something — not sit locked in a room for weeks.
Aralorn had been just about ready to escape and try again using a different identity when she'd been brought up to the great hall of the ae'Magi's castle four days ago and put into the huge silver cage.
“She's to be decoration for the ball,” said the servant who put her in the cage in response to another servant's question. “It won't be for a week yet, but he wanted her here so he could see the decorations and her at the same time.”
Decoration. The ae'Magi had purchased a slave to decorate his great hall.
It had seemed out of character for the Archmage, Aralorn had thought. It took more than power to become the ae'Magi. The man or woman who wore that mantle of authority was, in his peers' eyes, a person of unassailable virtue. Only such a one could be allowed the reins to control all of the mages — at least all those west of the Great Swamp — so there was never again a wizard war. Purchasing a person in order to use her as decoration seemed . . . petty for such a one as the ae'Magi. Or so she'd thought.
Four days ago.
Aralorn shivered. Her shoes made no sound on the marble beneath her feet, not that anyone would have been able to hear them over the music.
Beyond the silver bars of her cage, the great hall of the ae'Magi's castle was resplendent. By reputation, if not fact, the room was nearly a thousand years old, kept beautiful by good maintenance and judicious replacement rather than magic.
Though this room was the heart of the ae'Magi's home, by tradition, no magic was to be done here. This was the place the rulers of men conducted business with the ae'Magi, and the lack of magic proved to one and all that there was no magical coercion taking place. Aralorn now knew that the current ae'Magi didn't particularly care about following tradition, and coercion was something he used . . . on everyone.
That first day, she'd been shocked when the stone beneath her feet vibrated with magic. She looked out at the room. Ten centuries old, or at least ten centuries of care and careful preservation by the finest craftsmen available. And the ae'Magi had saturated the stone with magic. No one would think to check, would they? And if they did, they'd just suspect another ae'Magi, an earlier one, because Geoffrey ae'Magi would never defy tradition.
This evening it was lavishly decorated for the pleasure of the people who danced lightly across the fl oor. Late- afternoon rays of sunlight streamed through the tear-shaped crystal skylights etched on the soaring ceilings. Pale pillars dripped down to the highly polished ivory-colored marble fl oor that reflected the jewel-like colors of the dancers' clothing.
Aralorn's cage sat on a raised platform on the only wall of the room that lacked a doorway. From that perch, she could observe the whole room and be observed in return. Or rather they could see the illusion that the ae'Magi had placed on the cage.
Instead of the tall, white-blond woman that the ae'Magi had purchased to decorate his great hall with her extraordinary beauty, observers would see a snowfalcon as rare and beautiful, the ae'Magi had told her, as his slave, but not so controversial. Some people, he'd told her, licking blood off his hands, disliked slavery, and he disliked controversy.
He'd decorated the room around his slave for his own amusement. Disguising her as a rare predator was simply a joke played upon the people who'd come here for entertainment.
A chime sounded, announcing new visitors. Aralorn hugged herself as the ae'Magi greeted his guests with a warm smile. He'd smiled that same smile last night while he'd killed a young boy and stolen his magic.
The stone floor had been red with blood, but it wiped up cleanly, and only someone able to sense magic might notice the pall that unclean death had left. Or not. The ae'Magi was the lord of mages, after all, and they could only use their powers to the extent he allowed.
She was scaring herself again — that was really not useful at all. Biting her lip, Aralorn gazed at the dancing nobles in an effort to distract herself. She matched names and countries to the dancers' faces with the ease that made her the valuable spy she was.
The ae'Magi had killed an old man, an old man without a spark of magic'human or green — about him and used the power of the death to turn the walls of the great hall a sparkling white. “Not an illusion,” he'd told her. “It takes more power, and I don't like to use my own when I might need it at any time.”
That had been the first night. On the second, he'd brought a man — one of his own guardsmen. With that blood, the ae'Magi had worked some magic so foul that the taste of it lingered on Aralorn's skin still.
The boy had been the worst. Only a child, and . . .
Dozens of the rulers of the kingdoms of the Anthran Alliance were present. Some of them had been members of the Alliance for centuries, others were newer than that. The Empress of the Alliance wasn't here, but she was six, and her guardians kept a sharp eye on her lest any of her subjects decided to make her cousin the new empress instead. Just because they were allied didn't mean they were loyal subjects. The squabbles among the Alliance helped keep the coffers of Sianim full.
Gradually, she managed to replace the boy's dead eyes with dates and politics, but she still paced her cage restlessly. It wasn't just the horror of her discovery of exactly what kind of man held the power of the ae'Magi that kepther from sitting down — it was fear. The ae'Magi scared her to death.
There was a kaleidoscopic quality to the dance: the brilliant colors of the rich fabrics twisting around and around only to stop, rearrange themselves, and swirl into motion once again. More like a clockwork than a dance populated by real people. Perhaps it was a side effect of all the magic. Or maybe it was deliberate, the ae'Magi amusing himself. He liked to make people unwittingly do his bidding.
She saw the Duchess of Ti and the Envoy of the Anthran Alliance dancing cordially with each other. Ten years ago, the Envoy had had the Duchess's youngest son assassinated, sparking a bloody feud that left bodies littering the Alliance like a plague.
The Envoy said something and patted the Duchess's shoulder. She laughed gaily in return as if she hadn't had the Envoy's third wife killed in a particularly nasty manner only a month ago. She might have thought it a clever ruse designed to put the other off guard, but the Envoy was not particularly politic or clever. Aralorn wondered if the effect of whatever spell the ae'Magi had apparently cast upon his guests was specific to them and whether it would last beyond this evening. Just how powerful was he?
When the musicians paused for a break, people crowded around the Archmage, Geoffrey ae'Magi, drawn to his twinkling eyes and mischievous grin the way butterfl ies surround the flowering coralis tree. When a butterfl y landed on the sweet-smelling, scarlet flower of the coralis, the petals closed, and the flower digested its hapless prey over a period of weeks.
There were some times when her penchant for collecting trivia wasn't an asset.
Like the coralis, Geoffrey ae'Magi was extraordinarily beautiful, with blue-back hair, high cheekbones, and the smile of a child with his hands caught in the cookie jar.
Aralorn had been in his presence before. The Spymaster liked to use her in the rarefied society of which the ae'Magi was a part because she knew how to negotiate it without betraying herself. She'd attributed the wave of magic that surrounded him to his being the most powerful mage in the world. His beauty had stunned her at first, but it hadn't taken her long to decide that the attraction lay in his gentle warmth and his self-deprecating humor. Four days ago, Aralorn, like every other woman who'd ever laid eyes upon him, had been more than half-enamored of him.
Aralorn turned her gaze away from the ae'Magi and back to the room. While she'd been watching the Archmage, someone had stopped next to the pillar nearest her cage.
Leaning lazily against the polished pillar, a short, square- built young man wearing the colors of the royal house of Reth also observed the throng: Myr, Prince—no—King now, of Reth. His face was strong-featured, even handsome in other company. There was a stubborn tilt to his chin that he'd inherited from his paternal grandfather, a formidable warrior and king.
It wasn't his appearance that caught her attention; she'd expected that he was the person from whom the ae'Magi had been hiding his slave. It was the expression of distaste that briefly crossed his face as he looked at the crowd, remarkably different from the vacuous smiles that everyone else wore.
He shifted unexpectedly and met her gaze. He looked quickly down, but then began to make his way through the edges of the crowd toward her cage. When he reached the platform, he tilted his head down so that no one could read his lips, and asked in a low tone, “Do you need help, Lady?”
Shocked, she glanced quickly at the mirror that covered the back of the cage. The ae'Magi's illusion of a snowfalcon stared back at her indifferently.
She knew that Myr was no mage'he wouldn't have been able to conceal that from her, not with her mother's blood in her veins. Green magic could usually hide from the tamed stuff that the more human mages used, but the reverse was not true. Still, there was no doubt that he saw a woman and not the rare bird the ae'Magi showed his guests.
Rethians believed they were the descendants of an enslaved people who had risen up to kill their masters. They were taught at their mother's knee that to take another human and own him was evil beyond comprehension.
Even so, even for the King of Reth, it was a bold move to offer to help one of the ae'Magi's slaves to escape. There were a lot of mages in Reth who owed obedience first to the ae'Magi and second to the king'obedience enforced by their own magic. To move against the ae'Magi could spark a civil war in Myr's kingdom. His offer was heartfelt and showed just how young this new king was.
Perhaps it was his rash offer that appealed to her or that she had been born Rethian and part of her still thought of Myr as her king. In any case, she answered him as herself, and not the slave that she played for the ae'Magi.
“No,” she answered. “I'm here as an observer.”
There were rumors that the ruling family of Reth had occasionally produced offspring who were immune to magic. There were stories, and Aralorn was a collector of stories.
“A spy?” It wasn't a question. “You must be from either Sianim or Jetaine. They are the only ones who would employ women to spy in as delicate a position as this.” Women were important in Reth, and they were far from powerless politically. But they didn't go to battle, didn't put themselves in danger.
With a half smile, Aralorn clarified, “I get paid for my work.”
She nodded. “Pardon me for asking, but how did you see past the illusion of the snowfalcon that the ae'Magi placed on the cage?”
“Is that what you're disguised as?” His smile made him look even younger than he really was. “I wondered why no one said anything about the beautiful woman he had in the cage.”
Interesting. He saw through the ae'Magi's illusion but not her altered shape. No one had ever called Aralorn beautiful. Not in those tones. Maybe it wasn't only altruism on his part that had him offering to free her. That made sense, though; when she'd taken the likeness of the slave girl, magic had altered her — not just other people's perceptions of her as the ae'Magi's illusion did.
She felt eyes on her and glanced up under her lashes to see the ae'Magi not ten paces away, staring at Myr in fascination.
Myr might have been young and impetuous, but he wasn't dumb. He caught the subtle tension of her body.
“Aren't you a pretty thing,” he murmured softly, though a little louder than he'd been speaking before. “I wonder if you are trained to glove and jess?”
“Ah, I see you admire my falcon, Lord.” The deep, resonant voice of the ae'Magi could have belonged to a musician. Not only was the Archmage physically beautiful; he even sounded beautiful.
Myr straightened abruptly, as if taken by surprise, and turned to look at the ae'Magi, who strolled up to stand next to him in front of the ornate cage.
“She is beautiful, isn't she?” the ae'Magi continued. “I purchased her a month or more ago from a traveling merchant — she was captured somewhere in the Northlands, I believe . . . I thought she would go well with this room.” He waved a casual hand that managed to indicate the rest of the hall.
Aralorn had grown adept at reading the ae'Magi's voice, and his tone was just a little too casual. She wondered if he'd also heard the stories of the odd talent said to crop up in the Rethian royal family.
Reth was a small country in size but rich in minerals and agriculture. It also had a well-trained army, left as the legacy of Myr's grandfather. Its army had served to keep Reth independent every time the Anthran Alliance had periodically tried to swallow it over the past few centuries. Myr was a very new king, and certain conservative political factions would have been happier had he been the same kind of puppet as his father. But there were enough houses who would support him against all comers that Myr should be safe even from the Archmage. She didn't know why she thought the ae'Magi might harm Myr. Maybe it was because part of her still believed she owed fealty to the royal house of Reth, and it made her overprotective. Maybe it was the way the ae'Magi reminded her of a cat watching a mouse hole.
The sweet interest in the ae'Magi's face gave Aralorn cold chills. Be careful, she silently urged Myr.
Myr turned to the magician with a smile and more confidence than a boy his age should have had. “Yes, the ivory tinge is the same as the color in the marble here. It's unusual to see a snowfalcon this far south; you must have paid a great deal for her.”
The two men talked at length about falconry, something that Aralorn happened to know interested neither of them. When they had exhausted the subject, the ae'Magi abruptly changed topics.
“My dear Myr,” said the ae'Magi, “please accept my condolences upon the untimely death of your parents. I had no opportunity to talk to you at the funeral. I sent a note, of course, but I wanted to speak to you face-to-face.”
Myr started to speak, but the ae'Magi laid a long-fingered hand on Myr's shoulder, effectively forestalling what the younger man might have said.
“If you have need of anything, feel free to turn to me. I have connections and substantial power as the ae'Magi, and you may need what aid I can offer. It has never been
easy to ascend the throne, especially now with the Uriah restless in the eastern forests. Not to mention that there are always opposing factions or” — he hesitated, waving his hand expressively — “other enemies.”
With professional interest, Aralorn heard the slight edge of guilt in his voice. It was masterfully done and reminded her that the former rulers of Reth had been killed after leaving one of the ae'Magi's elaborate parties. No one had ever implied that the accident might have had more sinister causes. She wouldn't have thought about it on her own — but, given what she now knew, Aralorn would have been astonished to discover the Archmage didn't have something to do with the king's death.
She wondered if Myr knew why the ae'Magi apparently had such interest in him. She could all but smell the wizard's intent. She just couldn't tell why he was so intent. Myr suspected something; his distrust was obvious from his little charade.
Myr bowed his head quickly to acknowledge the offer without accepting it. “I know my parents counted you their friend. I appreciate your offer.” He smiled apologetically. “I have enjoyed our conversation, but I must excuse myself. You see” — he leaned in closer, as if confessing an embarrassing secret — “I just bought a new stallion, and I'm not sure I trust him on the trails after dark.” His face lost its eagerness for a moment. “After what happened to my parents, sir, I feel a need to be overly cautious.”
Had that been a dig? Don't bait him, she thought urgently. Don't bait him.
The magician smiled understandingly. “I'll summon your servants for you.”
Myr shook his head. “I left them outside with orders to meet me an hour before dark.”
“The gods follow you, then.” The Archmage paused. “I hope you know that your father was so proud of your courage and strength — you do credit to your lineage. I wish that my own son had been more like you.”
To Aralorn's sensitive ears, the magician's voice held just the right amount of pain. She wondered why she hadn't noticed before she'd been assigned here that his emotions were always perfectly calculated.
“Lord Cain could not be termed a coward or weak, sir.” Myr's voice held a matching amount of sympathy, as false as the ae'Magi's. He should have just thanked him and left, gotten out of his sight and hoped the ae'Magi forgot all about Reth and its young king.
“No,” the ae'Magi agreed, “I think that it would have been better for all of us if he were a coward. He would have done less harm.”
The ae'Magi kept his dark magics secret, but his son had performed them in the broad light of day.
Aralorn had never met Cain: He'd disappeared before she'd become involved in her present occupation. She'd heard the rumors, though'they got worse with each telling. But Myr would have known him; the ae'Magi and his son had been frequent visitors to his grandfather's court.
The stories put the ae'Magi in the role of a grieving father, forced to strip his son of magic and exile him. Aralorn suspected that the boy had died rather than been exiled. It would have been inconvenient if someone had questioned where the ae'Magi's son had learned so much about forbidden magic. As he'd told her himself, the ae'Magi preferred to avoid controversy.
“Be that as it may” — with apparent effort the ae'Magi dismissed the thought of his son — “your servants will probably be awaiting you even now.”
“Yes, I should go. You may be sure I shall remember your gracious offer of assistance if ever I need help.” With that, Myr bowed once more and left.
Watching Myr's broad back as he strode through theroom, the ae'Magi smiled'the slight imperfection of one crooked eyetooth lending charm to the more perfect curve of his lips. “What a clever, clever child you have grown to be, Myr.” His voice purred with approval. “More like your grandfather every day.”
It was late before the crowd began to thin and later still before everyone had gone. Aralorn couldn't control her apprehension as each person left, knowing that the meager protection their presence offered would soon be gone. After seeing the last couple out, the ae'Magi walked slowly over to the cage.
“So,” he said, swaying gently back on his heels, “the Rethian doesn't see my lovely Northland bird.”
“My lord?” she said neutrally. Having had most of the night to refl ect upon the incident, she'd been pretty sure that the ae'Magi had figured that much out. She'd also had time to come to the conclusion that if he thought Myr was immune to magic, the ae'Magi's primary power, Myr would die.
The Archmage smiled and flicked a silver bar of her cage with his forefinger chidingly. “When he looked at you, he looked where your eyes are, not where the eyes of the falcon would have been.”
Plague it, Aralorn thought. The ae'Magi put one hand through the bars and caressed her neck. She leaned against him and rubbed her cheek on his hand, forcing herself to obey the vague compulsion of the charismatic spell that had kept his guests happy instead of throwing herself backward and huddling in the far corner of the cage.
The ae'Magi tilted her face so that her eyes met his, and said in a leading tone, “I wonder how he broke through my illusion.”
He couldn't expect a slave to understand what had happened, he was talking to himself. But he'd given her an opening — this was going to hurt.
“But he didn't break through your spell, Master,” she answered in bewildered tones.
He looked down at her expressionlessly, and she quit fighting the urge to curl into a ball on the floor of the cage. He made a small motion with a finger, and she screamed as her body twisted helplessly under the fire of his magic.
Each time he did this to her was worse than the time before. Aralorn watched as the tendons pulled and stretched, protesting the sensations they endured. When it finally stopped, she didn't fight the tremors that shook her, telling herself that she was playing her part — but wondering deep inside whether she could have stopped had she tried.
After she lay still, the ae'Magi said softly, “I don't like to be contradicted, child. He knew you were not a falcon.”
It was over. Over. He probably wouldn't do that again tonight. Or if he did, he'd at least give her some time to recover. She could tell herself that anyway.
“Yes, my lord,” she said hoarsely, from her position on the floor of the cage. “Of course he knew, I didn't mean to contradict you — how could I? I misunderstood what you meant. You knew his magician broke the spell for him, how else would he have known?”
“What magician?” The ae'Magi's voice was sharp, almost worried.
“He was standing over behind that pillar.” She pointed to someplace vaguely on the far side of the room, and the mage turned swiftly as if to look for someone still there.
“What made you think that he was a magician?”
“He made gestures like you do sometimes. He left with the young king.” Aralorn kept her voice to a whisper such as a frightened girl might use. No anger. No protest. People in his thrall felt pain all right, but they adored him even while they shuddered in fear of what he could do. She'd seen them.
“What did he look like?”
“I don't know, he stayed in the shadows. He was dressed all in blue, my lord.” Blue was the ae'Magi's favorite color — a good third of the people in the room had been wearing some shade of blue.
“What did the boy say to you?” He held the word “boy” just a little longer than necessary, apparently liking it better than “king.”
“I don't remember . . .”
Whatever he did with his spell didn't work only on her body — though her muscles cramped hard enough that she thought she could hear the bones begin to break. The pain weakened Aralorn's natural resistance to his other spells and gradually the newly familiar feeling of shame crept over her. She should try harder to please him. Why wasn't she more obedient? Look at what she made him do to her. As suddenly as it had begun, it stopped, leaving her shuddering and crying helplessly.
“When I ask you something, I expect an answer.” The ae'Magi's voice was gentle.
“He asked if I wanted to be freed. I told him I wanted to be here. I live only to serve you, my lord. It is my honor to serve the ae'Magi . . .” She let her voice trail off. That's it, she cheered herself silently, placate him, stay in character; the gasps as she fought against crying and the whimper at the end were a nice touch; artistic really — it was too bad that she hadn't thought to do them on purpose.
He reached a hand out to her, and she pressed against it, getting as close to him as she could though the pain had gone and, with it, the full effect of his magic. She almost wished that the magic he used to increase his charisma stayed as effective on her as it was when he hurt her. Instead, she experienced an overwhelming desire to bite the manicured fingers — or throw up. The cold, metal edge of the cage dug into her side.
“What else did you say to him, little one?”
Aralorn pulled back from him and gave him a wide- eyed, somewhat confused look, even as she felt herself regain some clarity of thought. “Did you want me to say something else to him? I didn't because I wasn't sure if you would want me to.” She deliberately widened her eyes as if she were pleading with him to be pleased with her, trying to keep herself from tensing in anticipation of the wild, twisting pain.
“No. You did well.” He absently patted her cheek. “I've been working on other things lately and haven't had the time to do more with you. Tomorrow, when I've completed this spell, I've got a use for you.”
If she were in any doubt about what he was talking about, the hand that ran lightly down her breast would have clarified it for her. The ae'Magi seemed satisfied that the shudder that ran through her at his touch was in response to desire. He smiled warmly at her and, humming a sweet tune, walked lightly through an archway.
Aralorn stared at herself in the mirror at the back of her cage. The ae'Magi must have dispelled his illusion, because she didn't see a bird anymore. The fl ickering light from the torches gave a dancing appearance to the fine, blond hair. The fragile face that stared expressionlessly back at her was extraordinarily beautiful. A thin sheen of sweat glistened on her forehead, and the misty, sea-green eyes looked dazed and vulnerable.
Abruptly irritated with that vulnerability, Aralorn stuck her tongue out at her reflection. It didn't make her feel any better.
She wrapped both arms tightly around her legs. Head bowed on her knees, she listened to the sounds the servants made as they banked the fireplaces and snuffed the torches, trying to think over the uncontrollable panic that the thought of his intimate touch brought on.
“Patience, Aralorn, patience,” she warned herself, speaking almost soundlessly. “If you leave now — granting that you can leave — he is going to doubt what you told him about Myr, which may not matter in the long run anyway.” She tilted her head back and addressed her words to the reflection, summoning up a tone of bleak humor. “But if I don't get out of here, I'm going to break and tell him everything I know, from the name of my first pony to the bald spot on the top of Audreas the Vain's head.”
It was the truth. Four days — she didn't count the time she'd spent locked up alone. A fifth day here would break her. And someone needed to let the Spymaster know what dwelled in the ae'Magi's castle.
Decision made, she waited while the sounds of the castle diminished and the moon hung high in the sky, revealed by the clear panels in the ceiling.
When she was more or less satisfied that the people who were going to sleep were asleep, she knelt in front of the cage door. Grasping each edge, she began to mutter quietly, sometimes breaking briefly into song or chant to help focus her magic. She pushed aside the doubt that kept trying to sneak in: Doubt would cripple the small gift that she had. She was grateful to the ae'Magi's vanity that her cage was made of precious silver rather than the iron that would have kept her prisoner until her bones crumbled to dust.
First her fingers, then her hands, began to glow a phosphorescent green. Gradually, the light spread to the metal between her hands. When all the metal of the gate held the soft, flickering glow, she stepped through, leaving the spells on the locks intact. Her body ached from the ae'Magi's magic, but nothing that wouldn't fade in a day or two. It wouldn't slow her down much, and that was all she was worried about.
The light of her magic died, leaving the great hall black as pitch. She stood still and waited for her eyes to start adjusting before venturing out into the room.
The only light in the room came from the skylights high above, only a faint reflection of the moon, which made it difficult to find the doorways. She took the first doorway that she could find, hoping that it was one of the two that traversed the outer wall of the castle.
She bent low, occasionally putting a hand on the ground to help keep her balance. It was awkward, but people generally look at eye level, so from her lower vantage point she should be able to see any guards before they saw her. Her position also had the secondary benefi t of making her a smaller target if she was seen.
The corridor was lighter than the great hall had been, although not by much. The stone of the floor was dry and cool, and she ran a hand lightly over the walls. It took her longer than she thought that it should to find the small opening she was searching for.
Panic clawed at her, and the temptation to run blindly down the hallway was almost overwhelming. This, she thought with wry humor, must be how a pheasant feels just before it jumps out of hiding and into the path of the arrow. She bottled up the panic and stored it away where it wouldn't get out until this was all over.
She had almost decided to look for another way to leave when she found what she was looking for. Just above the bottom row of blocks, her fi ngers scraped over one end of a pipe cut flush with the wall. Silently, Aralorn blessed the old man she'd met at a bar one night who told her the story.
Centuries ago, an apprentice to one of the ae'Magis discovered an old rain spell in a book he was reading while the master was away. Three weeks later, when the Archmage came back, the castle was flooded, and the apprentice was camped outside. The Archmage drained the castle expediently by placing a drainpipe every sixteen stones in the outer corridors.
One such drainage pipe was under her fingers. It was bigger than she'd hoped for; being about four fi ngers in diameter. It cut directly through the thick stone wall of the castle to the outside. The air coming through it smelled like a moat. Like freedom.
She took a deep breath and concentrated. The familiar tingle spread though her body until it was all the sensation she could absorb, leaving no room for any of her other senses. Unable to see or feel, Aralorn focused on each part of her body shifting into one part of the mouse at a time; nose first, then whiskers. It took her only as long as it took to breathe deeply three times before a very small mouse crouched where she had stood.
The mouse who was Aralorn shrank against the wall underneath the pipe for a minute and waited for the ae'Magi to investigate the magic she'd used — but he didn't come. Human magicians weren't usually sensitive enough to detect someone else using magic, but the ae'Magi was a law unto himself.
The mouse shook herself briskly, twitched her whiskers, and scratched an itchy spot where the tingle hadn't quite worn off yet; then she climbed up into the pipe.
It was dark, which didn't bother her much, and smelly, which did. Centuries of sludge had built up in the opening, and if several other bold rodents hadn't foraged through (perhaps to escape a castle cat), she wouldn't have made it. As it was, she was belly deep in slimy stuff. Busy not thinking about the composition of the muck, she almost fell out of the pipe and into the moat some distance below' only saving herself by some ungraceful but highly athletic scrambling.
Poised on the edge of the old copper pipe, Aralorn shivered with nervous energy. Almost. Almost out. Just this one hurdle, and she would be away.
The little slime-coated mouse leapt. The air blurred, and a white goose fl apped awkwardly over the water, one wing dripping goo from the moat. There were plenty of birds who could fly better than a domestic goose'most birds, actually, since the goose could manage little better than a rough glide. But the goose was the only bird Aralorn knew how to become.
Hampered by the wet wing, Aralorn was unable to gain any altitude and came to a flapping halt in front of the bushes several hundred yards beyond the moat that signaled the beginning of the woodland surrounding the castle. She straightened her feathers and waddled toward the woods, carefully leaving the ooze-covered wing stretched away from the rest of her body.
A black form erupted from the shadows, its ivory fangs catching the light of the moon as it halted directly in Aralorn's path. The goose squawked and dodged backward, resuming a human form just in time for Aralorn to fall on her rump rather than her tail.
Her own rump, too, she was back in her own skin: short, brown-haired, and plain-faced. Her anger fueled the speed of her transformation.
“Allyn's blessed toadflax!” she sputtered, using her father's favorite oath. There had been no need for drama, and she'd been scared enough for ten lifetimes in the past few days. “Wolf, what are you trying to do to me?” Mindful of the proximity of the castle, she lowered her voice to a soft tone that didn't carry but did not lack for force either. But anger faded into sheer relief, and the abrupt transition left her giddy.
“I could have died of shock” — she put her hand theatrically over her heart — “then what would you done? Why didn't you warn me you were here?”
The wolf stood over her, fey and feral, with the stillness of a wild thing. The snarl had disappeared at her furious whispers, and he waited for a moment after she fi nished, as if he wanted to make certain she was done.
His macabre voice, dry and hoarse, was passionless when he spoke — he didn't answer her question. “You should have told me that you intended to spy on the ae'Magi — if I had known that you were contemplating suicide, I would have killed you myself. At least it would be a cleaner death than any he would bestow.” Fathomless golden eyes gazed at her coolly.
A green mage could speak in animal form — though it required practice and a great deal of uncomfortable effort. Wolf wasn't a green mage, though, not as far as she could figure him out. And those few human mages who could transform themselves to animals were lucky if they remembered to transform themselves back again. Wolf was an endlessly fascinating puzzle who didn't fit into any category she could find for him.
A reassuring puzzle, though.
She watched him for a moment.
“Do you know,” she said, after weighing his words, “that is the first time I have ever heard anyone say anything against him? I even asked why I was being sent to spy there — and none of it struck me as strange at all.”
She nodded at the dark shape of the castle where it stood on the top of the mountain, its silhouette almost blacking out the sky to the east. “The Mouse said that there were rumors of an assassination plot, and I was to investigate it and warn the ae'Magi if necessary.” Her customary grin restored itself, and if it felt a little stiff, that was all right.
Safe. She was out, Wolf was with her, and she was safe. “If there is such a plot, I can only wish them luck in their endeavors.”
“It has always amazed me how well he can blind people, even when he is not using magic to do it,” replied the wolf. He glanced at the castle, then away. His yellow eyes glistened, glowing with a light that might not all have been a reflection of the moon. He looked back again, as if he could not resist the impulse. A growl rose low in his throat, and the hair on his neck and back stiffened.
Aralorn cautiously set a hand on his fur, smoothing it down. In all the time she'd known him, he'd always been slow to warm from his customary reserve, and though she'd seen him kill several times, she'd never seen him quite this upset. “What's wrong?”
The wolf quieted and lowered his head for a moment.
Then he shook himself, and said softly, “Nothing. Perhaps it is the moon. I find that it sometimes has this effect on me.”
“The moon.” She nodded solemnly. “That must be it.” She caught his gaze and raised one eyebrow. The wolf stared back at her. Aralorn gave up the contest without a fight, knowing that he was perfectly capable of continuing the stare-down all night. “Shall we go, or do you want to wait for the ae'Magi so we can destroy him and win the world back for goodness and light?”
The wolf grinned ferally. “If we killed him, the world would be more likely to draw and quarter us than praise us as saviors. So by all means, let us make haste so as not to be forced to destroy the ae'Magi.” The sarcasm in his voice clearly dismissed any chance he thought they'd have of destroying the Archmage.
He turned and made his way back through the brush, leaving Aralorn to follow.
Several hundred yards from the edge of the woods, her gray stallion was tied to the trees. At their approach, he whickered a greeting. Aralorn laughed as the animal lipped the plain tunic she wore, then drew back in obvious disgust at the taste.
“Why how did you find your way here, Sheen?” She slanted a look at the wolf, and said to him, “Thanks, I wasn't looking forward to walking back.”
Over the years, she'd learned not to question him too closely — mostly because he wouldn't answer her. If he wanted to be a wolf, who was she of all people to question it? Still, the knot that attached the colorful cloth reins to the tree would have been difficult for someone with no fingers to tie.
Aralorn untied the reins and mounted, only to dismount and shorten the stirrups. She sighed loudly as she untied the leather strings that were woven into the saddle to keep the stirrups at one length. Someone with much longer legs than hers had ridden the horse last.
“Sheen, how many times have I told you not to give strangers a ride? You never know where they might take you.”
She might not question him out loud, but she liked to make it obvious that it was cooperation and not stupidity.
The wolf tilted his head to one side, and there was a hint of amusement in his eyes. She laughed and continued to unweave the strings. He'd even remembered to bring her sword and knives.
Sometimes, she thought that he might be a renegade shapeshifter, one of her mother's people — though he lacked the gray-green eyes that were characteristic of the race. Someone more skilled than she and able to hide what he was from her. It shouldn't be possible, but nothing he was should have been possible.
That he was a human magician was very unlikely because human magic didn't lend itself well to shapeshifting. Instead of blending in with the forces of nature, it sought to control them and required immense concentration that was impossible to maintain for extended periods of time. To turn oneself into an animal for a prolonged period would require the strength of the ae'Magi . . . or his son.
Her normally deft hands faltered at their familiar task, so she stopped and gazed almost impersonally at her hands, which trembled without her consent. The mindless babbling fear threatened her as she worked her way through her suspicion. It was very unlikely that Wolf was a human mage, she reminded herself again. She glanced at the wolf and then back to her saddle. The ae'Magi's son had disappeared six years ago. There were other green- magic users than her own people, and she'd never heard of a human mage who could take and keep an animal's shape so long, not in all the stories she'd ever collected, ae'Magi or not. Still, her body would not release the panic it insisted on; terror was a difficult emotion to reason with. She'd noticed that before.
She looked at him again, and he caught her gaze and held it, his gold eyes no more readable than a pair of amber gemstones. She remembered the fever-bright agony that had been in them when she first met the wolf.
It had taken only a week for her to heal his leg, but he'd fought the fever for almost a month. He'd left as soon as he could stand up, at least for a while. One day she'd looked up to find him watching her with his uncomfortably canny eyes. After that, he came and went, sometimes staying away for months at a time, then appearing as suddenly as he had left.
She remembered how long she'd worked to gain his trust. It had taken time to get him to let her touch him, more time before he would eat food she gave him, and almost a year before he trusted her enough to reveal for certain that he was more than just a wild animal. She compared his remoteness to the ae'Magi's easy smile and beautiful voice. If she ever met a corpse that talked, she imagined that its voice would be similar to her wolf's.