Black Gate Online Fiction: “The Find,” Part II of The Tales of Gemen
By Mark Rigney
This is a complete work of fiction presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Mark Rigney and New Epoch Press, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013 by New Epoch Press.
The boy who would later become Gemen the Antiques Dealer was exactly ten-and-a-half years old the day that he and his sister discovered the stone portal. Twenty minutes later, he was seventeen.
Small for his age, Gemen and his sister, Thia, had been among the first settlers to move into the grasslands of Melinol from the densely populated Thelden River Valley. Spine-stooped elders murmured that Melinol had once held marvelous cities, wonders of science and art. Others said the region harbored terrible ghosts, armies of haunts that erupted like grasshopper plagues and scoured its vast, temperate plateau in search of any living prey. But, as the Thelden’s shores grew more crowded and unclaimed cropland became both scarce and expensive, there were those who concluded that stale rumors were a far smaller danger than outright starvation, and so the first trickles of migration began, with Gemen’s parents very nearly leading the way.
Together with a primitive wagon train of farmers and tradesfolk, they pushed deep into the beautiful uplands of northern Melinol, noting the stands of huge trees –– massive things, with stately trunks and widely spread branches, many large enough to support sheds, stables, or even a cottage –– and marveled at how these trees seemed to keep to themselves, forming little clumps and groups, islands of shade and greenery in the otherwise unbroken, supple sea of tall grasses and stiff-stemmed flowers. And when the mule- and oxen-drivers felt they had gone far enough –– far enough from taxes, wars, and crime born of desperation –– they spread out their tools, dug spades into the rich, yielding soil, and began the makings of a brand-new harvest home.
With some thirty families dotting an area so enormous that it could not be circled in less than a day, Gemen and Thia were given chores by morning and time to wander in the afternoons. They preferred their own company to that of the other nearby children, and so they began the habit of reconnoitering, in ever-increasing loops, farther and farther out from the settled rim of their new, adopted homeland. Sometimes they found old walls or the bases of columns all but lost in the grass, and once they discovered the remains of a wagon, its wood a fragile, sun-beaten husk, and under it, a spill of copper coins and odd little carvings: two-inch effigies of seated people and several rings made to look like fish. Other things, too: creatures with tusks jutting from their necks, and one like a cat with six front legs, all of a size to fit in the palm of the hand. Gemen prized these beyond anything he’d ever owned –– more, even, than the perfect glass marble he’d found long ago in a sandbar along the Thelden –– but Thia only sniffed.
“Why bother with old things?” she said. “Let’s catch snakes and throw them in the stream, watch them wriggle.”
She was twelve, with long honey-colored hair and a willful nose; her hips had just begun to flare away from her waist. Annoyed by her body’s insistence on growing, she’d taken to squeezing up the chimney when the hearth wasn’t in use, just to prove she remained stick-skinny. Stunts like this were why Gemen adored her. Where she went, he followed, no matter the distance or difficulty, and if she thought that tossing snakes into running water sounded like fun, then he was at least willing to give it a try.
And then, in early summer, with the crops in the ground for their second full year in this bountiful (and apparently ghost-free) land, Thia’s trailblazing took them south, farther south than they’d ever ventured before. Their parents had agreed to help with a barn-raising, and the children, to keep them out from underfoot, had been given an entire day to explore. Whole days without chores happened once a year, if that, and both were determined to make the most of their unexpected freedom. They set off with provisions tied in a knapsack, their hearts as light as a mousehawk’s down.
Thia led the way, relishing the job of stamping out a trail through the waving grasses and scented thistles, the mustard stalks and purple cloudflowers. Once, they scared up a rabbit, and they gave chase, shrieking with laughter, as the rabbit tried to shake them by going to ground, then sprinting off again –– and again –– until both children were breathless and spent. Onward then, the sun high overhead but never too hot. (Melinol, except in winter’s windy, brittle grip, boasted a climate that adults said was almost too comfortable.) Onward, and up to the summit of a minor ridgeline. Before them stretched a fresh view of the same endless mix of grasslands and clumpy tufts of forest.
“So Gemen,” said Thia, gazing across this entirely tranquil landscape, “why aren’t we in danger?”
Gemen screwed up his face, confused. Thia always asked questions like this, and he never knew the answer. Her queries made him feel stupid, even though she assured him he was not.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t want things to be dangerous.”
“Look around,” she said, and she gestured out across the plains. “Even back at the Thelden, there were bears, wolves, and worse. What’s the worst thing we’ve found out here?”
“Ants,” said Gemen, with pained conviction. Last autumn, he’d managed to sit on a massive hill of sand-yellow ants, and he’d spent the next three weeks in the care of a strict, arthritic herbalist and her equally strict, arthritic remedies.
“Ants, exactly, and scorpions, like the ones Jossa found. But nothing big. And look at us, we’re allowed to just…go. Roaming around under the big bright sun.”
“I don’t see anything wrong with it,” said Gemen. “You act like you want it changed.”
Thia considered. “Not changed, exactly. But it’s just so tame here.”
“I like tame,” Gemen replied. He squinted into the middle distance, then pointed. “What’s that?”
Thia shaded her eyes and took a sloppy swig from their shared waterskin. “Buildings, I think. Come on –– last one down’s a sodbug.”
Fifteen minutes later, wet from sloshing across a marshy, hummocked swamp, they arrived in a vale between two densely canopied forest islands, and here the grasses gave way to a meadow-like carpet of violets, clovers, and clumps of purple cloudflowers. Birds swooped from the nearer branches, picking off gnats before zooming back to their perches, and they could hear water tumbling over logs as it escaped the marsh behind. The place smelled fresh, like a cool northern breeze.
“Starlight,” breathed Thia, as Gemen came up behind, surprised that she hadn’t remembered to call him a sodbug. “Could this be any more beautiful?”
In the center of the meadow stood several roofless, tottering structures, all made of dusky, blue-black stone the color of a front-lit thunderhead. Even moss-topped and tumbled over, they looked cared for, precise, as if their carvers had taken tremendous time in the making. None of the surviving walls rose more than five or six feet above the ground, but still, that was a good five feet higher than anything else either Gemen or Thia (or any of their neighbors) had ever found.
At the far edge of the loose agglomeration of collapsed buildings, a single archway, a lonely portal, stood complete and undamaged –– or almost undamaged. Its left support was shorter than its right, such that the arch seemed to sag, leaning down like a man with a bad leg. In stark contrast to the blackish rock around it, the crooked arch consisted entirely of stone the color of milky porridge, cream-white and rough. Where vines, lichens, and colonies of plants decorated the rest, on this, nothing whatsoever grew. Gemen felt a visceral twinge of apprehension just looking at it. A warmth: a squirming, queasy aversion. “Let’s go back,” he said.
“Back?” said Thia. “Are you crazy?”
“I want to go back.”
“We just got here –– and father will be over the river when we tell him about all these blocks. With oxen and a cart, he can move these.”
Gemen knew she was right. The prairies gave grain and vegetables, some fruit and a limited amount of game, but stone was in short supply. Here lay tons of ready-made building material, a treasure trove to last for years. He said, “So if he’ll be so excited, then let’s go back and tell him.”
“And miss being the first ones to explore? No, thank you.” She was off again, tripping across the meadow, angling to the first of the many walls. “Come on, Gemen! You climb at least as well as I do and you know it.”
She lied, although he appreciated the encouragement. He had good balance and reasonable climbing sense, but he hadn’t hit a growth spurt since the cradle. If scaling walls was the goal, Thia could and would leave him far behind –– but then, just as she was about to clamber up onto the stones, she changed course, heading now for the portal.
“Isn’t that amazing?” she said, walking closer. “No mortar. It’s perfectly balanced.”
Gemen caught up with her as she slowed, admiring the stones. He’d made keystone bridges himself, over a brook near the farm, working with whatever pebbles and rocks came to hand. He had to concede that the arch, made of irregular and even slightly rounded rocks, was a work of unexpected perfection. The closer he got, the better it all seemed to fit, even with its one short leg. Like a puzzle, he thought. A puzzle with only one solution. It still made him feel unexpectedly off-balance, but he couldn’t help but be impressed.
“You know what I think?” his sister said.
“I think other children lived here. Children like us, but long ago. Different clothes, different words. They played here –– for years. Then maybe they grew up, had babies or something, who knows. They worked, ate –– and then they moved away. But they left this for us.”
Gemen shivered. For a moment, he could’ve sworn he heard a child laughing –– somewhere far away, yes, but closing. Closer by the moment. There it was again: mocking, impossible to place. He swallowed, grabbed at his sister’s sleeve.
“Did you hear that?”
Thia shook herself free. “Hear what, sodbug?”
“Thia, I want to go home.”
“No. Today, we play. Isn’t that what you want from your half-birthday? Now come on!”
And with that, she skipped ahead and darted through the portal.
He watched her go. He saw her vanish. One moment, she was there –– foreground angling toward background –– a nimble girl top-lit by sun and headed out across the endless expanse of breeze-blown grasslands, and the next, the vista remained, but Thia was gone.
Then the world tilted upward in a roaring, rushing swirl, reality gave way to nightmare, and Gemen flew skyward like a stone.
He awoke in the clover in the exact spot he’d fallen, and he tried immediately to rise, but he made the attempt on feet suddenly too big for him, in a body now sixty pounds heavier, and when he stumbled, the hands that tried to catch him –– his own –– were nearly as large as his father’s.
He fell back, paralyzed by an attack of nausea that produced nothing but shudders, gasps, and overwhelming panic.
What in the name of Rath had happened?
When he finally staggered to his feet, he knew, without anyone telling him, that he was seventeen, and that Thia, like the keystone portal through which she’d run, was completely, utterly gone.
He was not, however, alone. A man sat on one of the tumbled-down blackish stones, not ten feet away. He wore an ankle-length purple robe, lightweight and iridescent like a Thelden River heron. The embroidered hems and borders were plaited with gold thread, and a jet-black sash completed the picture. The stranger, whose dark hair swept behind his ears like wings, leaned toward Gemen with a look of intense concentration, and as he cleared his throat to speak, he withdrew a pipe from his mouth, a pipe whose stem was easily the length of its owner’s lower arm.
Gemen expected words, but instead a puff of smoke emanated from the man’s open lips, and the smoke resolved itself into letters, then words.
“Excuse me,” read the smoke, before reforming itself into an equally silent question. “What was it I was saying?”
Gemen looked left, looked right. Aside from Thia’s absence –– Thia’s and the portal’s –– everything appeared exactly as before. Even the sun, the cloud-cover –– the world was identical. And yet here was this man, a goateed stranger, gaunt and tall, who surely had not been here before, but was behaving as if he had not only been present but had been engaged with Gemen in some sort of ongoing conversation.
Deftly, the man reinserted his pipe and blew out a second round of smoke. “Don’t look so frightened,” it said. “You invited me here.”
“I didn’t,” said Gemen, and he began backing away, tripping as he did so over his gigantic, adult heels. Or not so gigantic, not really; based on the stranger across from him, Gemen doubted that he had grown much past five feet in height.
Instead of relying on his pipe, the man now spoke. “Are you coming with me, or not?”
Coming? Coming where? Gemen’s eyes flicked around, searching, but neither the ruins nor the landscape gave any clue about how to proceed, what to think.
The stranger’s eyes narrowed further. “Gemen,” he said, “at my school, we take many tests. Let’s begin with this one. What’s my name?”
Gemen felt breathless, his pulse hammered at him, and the trees beyond the maze of collapsed walls seemed to rise, growing as he watched.
“I think we’ll call that a failure. The answer is Tetch, boy. Tetch. Now then –– “
But Gemen had put his hands over his face, he fought for balance ––
“Gemen? If you’re sick –– hey now, stand up! I don’t take sicklings, Gemen. Gemen!”
When Gemen woke next, he was slung across Tetch’s shoulders as Tetch retraced the same trail Thia had smashed through the grasses just a few hours before. Gemen blinked, watching the upside-down world pass by, and trying to sort out how Thia’s trail could still be there, the breaks in the thicker stems fresh and oozing pungent sap, when he himself had just aged seven years.
Tetch, staggering along under Gemen’s weight, realized that his load was suddenly stiffer, and he twisted around, setting Gemen hard on his feet.
“Awake!” he said, hands on hips. “Good.”
“Where are we going?”
“Back to your parents, of course. To tell them you’ll be leaving.”
Gemen tried to take the measure of his very tall companion, but something in Tetch’s severe, bony face resisted analysis. Before he could think what to say, Tetch wheeled around and set off north.
“Wait!” Gemen called. “What do you mean, I’m leaving?”
“Show some pluck, boy!” cried Tetch, without turning. “You won’t regret a thing. Once we get to the Wide, we’ll hone your talents into something worth having!”
The Wide: that reference Gemen knew. It was a city far down the Thelden, farther than he’d ever been, and named for a spot where the river spread itself into a vast, shallow lake. But as to why Tetch wanted him there, or why he’d apparently agreed, he had no idea.
In the end, Gemen followed not because he understood, or because he wanted to understand more, but because he was thirsty and Tetch had a waterskin jouncing on his back.
Near sunset, they finally arrived in sight of the farm, and Gemen stopped again. He blinked, confused.
“What now?” demanded Tetch. “Bloodrot, boy, you shy more than my worst horse! I’m hungry, let’s go in.”
“But –– “
Gemen gave in, but he still couldn’t quite accept the sprawling, well-worked fields before him, or the cottage that had tripled in size. And his mother, his father, they stood by a new well, a well capped by a proper stone wall that had certainly not been there when he’d left, and there were children, three of them, all girls, none of whom he recognized. Even his parents looked like strangers: grayer, rougher, aged by a weathering sun that for him hadn’t even had time to set.
“I do believe I’ve convinced him!” Tetch announced, striding over the sheep-cropped lawn. Gemen watched as the children scampered to their parents, startled by the newcomer, but Tetch, still advancing, seemed oblivious. “He’s ready to join!”
Gemen’s father grabbed a pitchfork, shoved his wife behind him, and took a territorial step forward.
“Sir,” he said, “whoever you are, I don’t appreciate your acting like I know you.”
This time, Tetch stopped. “Know me?” he said. “I just spent the night in your house. As your welcomed guest.”
“Not in this lifetime,” said Gemen’s father. “Next you’ll be telling me your friend here’s a relative.”
“But he is. He’s your son!”
In the horribly awkward pause that followed, Gemen raised his hand in a feeble wave, but he saw no recognition in either of his parents’ eyes, just a wall of hostility and fear. He dropped his hand, licked his lip, shrank into himself.
Tetch, equally befuddled, fell back on bluster. “Come now, friends! I’ve walked a long way, been as honest as the day is long, and I bring good news. Why treat me this way? Or Gemen, for that matter?”
Gemen’s father raised the pitchfork. “You come another step, I’ll put this through your chest. Now get away.” With a flicking motion of the tines, he gestured east. “The road’s there. Start walking.”
“This is spellcraft, mark me,” said Tetch. “But if you let me, I can fix it, whatever it is.”
“I said, start walking.”
Tetch glanced back at Gemen, who was still several paces behind. “Gemen? Do you know what’s going on?”
His mouth was cinder-dry but he found his voice. “We came from the Thelden River,” he said, addressing his parents. “We came with my sister, Thia. Don’t you remember Thia?”
Their frightened, belligerent stares said it all. There was no sister named Thia. There was no Gemen. There was only a farm, exactly where it ought to be, but bigger, more established, a farm inhabited by people whose reality would never be his own.
The pitchfork came up again, and his father advanced. Tetch retreated, and Gemen did the same. He was only ten, after all, ten going on seventeen, a stunned and newly born man-child infinitely out of his depth. Even emotion seemed to have escaped him, and so there were no final desperate pleas, no tearful, one-sided good-byes. There was only the road –– the road, and walking.
For the next eight years, Gemen studied under Tetch in a private college attended, at any given time, by some twenty students ranging in age from six to forty. Most of the teachers taught mundane subjects like reading, plant lore, or numerals. Tetch taught spellcraft, and Gemen was, month after agonizing month, his very worst student.
“No fretting, boy! We just need to discover your niche!” said Tetch, clapping Gemen on the back. He still called Gemen “boy” even though Gemen had passed twenty-four summers in age. “Trust me, Gemen. I didn’t walk all that way into Melinol or wherever it was I found you for no reason.”
Tetch’s memories of why he’d set off to find Gemen, or how he’d even reached Melinol, had been fuzzy from the first and disintegrated rapidly with time. Stern with his pupils, he was generally a kind man, voluble and hearty to a fault, but he would grow distant and moody when Gemen pressed him –– as he often did in those first years –– to give more details, the most minute specifics about their meeting, and how he’d come to be sitting on that ruined wall by the portal that only Gemen now remembered. The basic story held water –– that once every four years, Tetch went out into the world and recruited new students for his school, students of curious, latent talent –– and that on a deliberate visit to the Melinol settlers, he’d met Gemen, immediately ascertained that here was precisely the sort of pupil he’d been seeking, and agreed to tour some nearby ruins at Gemen’s behest. The only point Tetch could never explain to his or Gemen’s satisfaction was why Gemen’s version of events was so utterly, vividly different.
It didn’t take long to discover that Gemen had no aptitude whatsoever for the arcane disciplines that came so easily to even the youngest of Tetch’s other recruits. An eight-year-old could shove Gemen into a table with nothing more than the force of her mind. A fifteen-year-old could make his fingertips prickle with sparks and radiant, ghostly light, while a few of the older students could gaze across time and space and return with odd scraps of information, minor visions that armies and kings would have given any ransom to have known. But of Gemen’s origin, and the years (if any) between his tenth and seventeenth summers, Tetch’s various seers could never learn a thing.
“He’s dark,” said one.
“Closed,” said another.
“He has an ancient sort of smell about him, like dust, but then I look again, and it’s like he isn’t even there.”
Gemen tried to drop out repeatedly, telling Tetch he’d make his way as a rice harvester or fisherman –– the Wide had endless need for both –– but Tetch prevailed. “I am never wrong,” he told him. “You have a gift. Help me discover it.”
And at the age of twenty-five, when he’d despaired of learning anything more than history (which he loved), he did indeed discover his talent. He was dallying in Tetch’s study, poking through a shelf-load of dusty curios, when he felt a surprising warmth, a preternatural wakefulness he could not explain. In his hands, he held a decorative candle in the shape of a dory. Intrigued, he set it back down. The sensation drained away; he felt like a bottle being emptied of fluid. Quickly, he retrieved the emerald-colored candle and the feeling returned at once, stronger than before.
“Tetch,” he said, “did you know that this candle –– it’s been, I don’t know. Augmented.”
Tetch, who had been reading and despised interruption, cast a baleful stare in his direction. “Simple tallow. Now leave an old man to read in peace.”
“No,” said Gemen. “If you light it, it will –– well, I’m not sure exactly. But I think it will summon a boat. A real one. Full size.”
This time, Tetch set down his parchment tome. “How do you feel?” he asked.
“Well, then. Let’s you and I amble down to the shore –– and bring that candle.”
Not long after, they were sculling across one of the Wide’s many marshes in a garish emerald-hued rowboat, startling turtles off their logs and sending ducks flapping wetly skyward. Tetch did the rowing while Gemen cradled the lit candle.
“Tell me something,” said Tetch, puffing a bit. “Am I wearing anything magical?”
“Yes,” said Gemen. He could hardly believe he’d never realized it before. It was so obvious.
“What, where, and which?”
“The chain around your neck. The sash on your robe. And something in your mouth. A false tooth?”
Tetch hauled both oars from the water. “Vindication!” he crowed. “I told you, I’m never wrong! You do have a talent, Gemen –– and it’s going to be much more useful than all that flashy junk the rest of the kids pick up. Oh, I can just see the possibilities. Banking, for example. Antiquities!”
But Gemen had just had a thought, sudden and odd, huge and vital. “I can search out stones,” he said. “The stones from the arch.”
Tetch never heard. Lost in his vicarious planning, he kept right on talking. “Oh, Gemen. I predict –– yes, I can see it already. You are going to be extraordinarily, unbelievably wealthy!”
Gemen smiled and nodded, not because he agreed with Tetch –– he didn’t –– but because his mind had just built a road, a pathway mapping the rest of his life. A goal: something he’d always lacked.
Moments later, a capricious gust of wind snuffed out the candle’s flame, and both men were left standing in chest-deep water and fetid, bubbling mud. Soaked to the skin and a quarter mile from shore, Gemen could not remember ever having laughed so hard in his life.
Twenty-two years later, Gemen stood on the rear deck of the Passing Stranger Hostel in Melony, the desert south’s fabled City of Pillars, while below, a phalanx of the city’s toughest jailers dragged a spitting, kicking woman into the octagonal pit known as the Courtyard of Trials. Bound by her wrists and her neck, the woman had no chance to do more than spend her energy, but this did not in the least deter her. Curiously, Gemen read in her expression more than just the predictable hatred for her captors and the many jeering onlookers. Instead, he saw disappointment.
Intrigued, he turned to the man next to him, a stranger with a shaven head and ears like doorknobs. “Excuse me, friend. What’s this one accused of?”
The man, his elbows on the rail, lifted his hands in a semi-shrug. “They say she’s a Priestess of Dominion.”
Gemen scoffed. “That’s a crime?”
This time, the man looked him in the eye. “Not where you come from, eh?”
“Where I grew up, some would call Dominion the Garden Goddess, and they’d call her servants weavers, not spiders.”
“Then you’re a long way from home, mate.” The man jabbed a finger at the woman, just now being released. “Spiders make webs –– and she shouldn’t have tried that ‘round here.”
Without really intending to, Gemen focused in on the single brass earring in the man’s nearer earlobe, a decoration etched with a clever geometric pattern. “How much for this?” he said, and he flicked out a finger and gave the earring a tap.
“Not for sale.”
“It’s old, yes?”
“I’ll give you silvers. Three Marindak silvers.”
As Gemen withdrew three tarnished coins bearing the Marindak crest, the man’s expression registered greed, surprise, and mistrust all at once.
“Take them,” Gemen encouraged, “before I lay eyes on somebody else’s bauble and change my mind.”
The man scooped the coins from Gemen’s palm and unpinned his earring. “You just overpaid,” he said. “It’s old, yes –– but not three Marindak silvers old.”
Gemen pocketed the earring and gave the man a lonely, humorless smile. “For items I want, I pay handsomely –– and if you think I’ve paid too much, well. That’s my business.”
Below, the guards finished lowering their prisoner into the octagonal pit, open at the top, and nearly fifty feet across. Tiered stands like a theater looked down on all sides, and the many inns and taverns surrounding the courtyard added still further to its seating capacity. Gemen guessed that at least three hundred now looked on as the woman at the bottom, very much alone, paced back and forth with restless, furtive energy while a bored-sounding magistrate, above, read out a host of generic accusations.
Gemen had heard Dominion’s priestesses accused before –– of poisonings, typically, or hypnotisms, possessions, anything malignant and vile. City folk, especially, hated Dominion, but in the country, one could always find an enclave who at least tolerated the spider goddess and her tricky doctrines of patience, harvest, and entrapment. This woman’s main crime, he suspected, was to drop her patron’s name too close to the center of so-called civilization. Melony was astonishing on many levels and cultured in its way, but Gemen had seen a hundred great cities by now, and he knew that every last one harbored at least as much ignorance as any backwater village or distant mining slum.
No, what interested him was the woman herself. Twenties, perhaps, thirty at most. Wiry and short, her shock-cut hair stood straight up, copper red; her skin was so bronzed it resembled beaten metal. Barefoot, she wore a plain tunic –– probably prison garb –– bunched at the waist with a hank of rope. She appeared to be talking to herself, whispering in an angry dialogue with the air, and making occasional grabs with her hands at objects none could see. Why, he wondered, did she not simply rescue herself? If she were a true Priestess of Dominion, she would be protected, probably with lethal force.
The magistrate rolled up his paintbark parchment and pitched his voice for a rousing, by-the-numbers finish. “The accused calls herself Velori, and she will now defend herself! Survival connotes innocence!”
Immediately, four ladders snaked down over the twelve-foot walls, and as Velori planted herself in the center, four warriors slid down these ladders and advanced, their heads encased in bestial masks of iron and leather, inlaid axes at the ready.
Gemen’s companion let out a dry laugh. “You’re about to tell me it isn’t fair, aren’t you? They’ve got weapons. She doesn’t.”
Gemen shook his head. “It looks fair to me.”
As the first of the masked fighters raised his axe, Velori spun, dropped low, and kicked out with her left foot. She caught the man behind the knee, and he buckled, flopped forward, and crashed to the dusty earth. Puffs of arid soil exploded around his frame; as was typical for a Melony summer, it had not rained in months.
Velori was already racing for escape via the nearest ladder, but its handlers above were quick, and as she leaped, they whisked it out of reach. With a snarl, Velori dropped back to the ground, spinning as she did so, and caught the wrist of the next man to try a strike. Using his own weight against him, she flipped him in the direction of his intended blow, ducked a second swing from the next man over, and dodged, laughing, out of the way.
“Slowpokes,” she cooed, as she paced backward around the rim of the arena. “Come and catch me. Catch the poor defenseless priestess.”
This time, all four advanced in synch, and as the crowd roared with blood-lust approval, Velori briefly disappeared beneath a flurry of blows and backs, but in the next instant, she vaulted clear over their shoulders and, with only the lightest scratch on one arm, danced quickly to the far wall.
“Better luck next time, dears. No, not that way! I’m over here!”
Five more times she did this, and while the shaved-headed man looked more and more impressed –– and had even begun to cheer for Velori –– Gemen had ceased to watch. That the woman had combat skill to spare, that was obvious; she was simply toying with the men assigned to kill her. But she was also refusing to steal her assailants’ weapons or break their necks.
Instead of watching the fight further, Gemen scanned the crowd, searching for faces he knew. Not friends precisely –– he had none here, not in any real sense –– but he had business partners aplenty, men and women of wealth and means who might back him up. Yes, there was Edissio, Third Priest of Rath, and not far past him, the salt banker, Clarinda. Farther up, he spotted the Darap brothers, idle and unamused, using blue nosegays to ameliorate the smothering odor of the generally unwashed crowd.
Velori was tiring, and she had a gash along her right shoulder blade. Sensing it was now or never, Gemen raised both arms, standing as tall and straight as his five-foot frame would allow.
“Enough!” he cried. “Give me leave to buy this woman! I will remove her from your territory by nightfall tomorrow! The law is satisfied if this is done, is it not? Name your price and spare her life!”
The combat below ceased, and the magistrate peered up at Gemen with undisguised contempt. “Sadly for her, I know you not, and a stranger’s offer is worth sand on a beach.”
“He’s not a stranger to me,” said the taller of the Darap brothers, and his twin seconded this opinion with a languid motion of the wrist.
“I’ll vouch for him,” called Clarinda. “He is Gemen, a northern trader. I’ve done business with him, and if he says he will take her, then that is what he will do.”
The magistrate looked annoyed, but acquiesced by inclining his head. Very slightly. “As is our custom, justice is served. You,” he said, turning to look over the wall at Velori, “have a new master.”
Velori glared up at Gemen. She bared her teeth and hissed at him, then cocked back her elbow and broke the nose of the man behind her.
“Take me,” she simpered. “I’m yours.”
Gemen went first to his wagon, where he unlocked one of several iron trunks he kept chained to the stout reinforced bars of the undercarriage. From the trunk, he retrieved a hollow glass tube the length of a brick. Far clearer than bubbled window glass and at least as finely crafted as any king’s crystal decanter, the tube contained a single, scurrying object, alive and black: a spider.
When Gemen met Velori in her cell, cramped and stinking of fermented urine, he held up the tube and asked the guards to leave. When he asked a second time, with coin, they did so.
“You know what this is?” he asked Velori, who crouched at the far side of the cell, swaying back and forth, ready to spring.
“Yes,” she said, teeth gritted.
“Prove it,” he said, and he tossed her the tube. “A true Priestess of Dominion would know.”
Velori plucked it from the air with her thumb and forefinger, then held it close, staring at the spider. The spider, which had been running back and forth, stopped and stared back.
“How did you get this?”
“My trade is travel. I buy and sell. Once in a river’s age, I find something useful.”
“I won’t release it here.”
“You could, when we clear town. But make no mistake. If I bring you away with me, you owe me.”
“Never,” said Velori. “You’re old, short as a wart-backed toad, and ugly.”
“All true. But that’s not the sort of debt I had in mind. All I require are your services as a bodyguard, and occasional assistance with my work.”
Velori’s expression turned derisive. “You don’t find me –– how shall we say –– attractive?”
“Well,” Gemen replied, “if I’m short as a toad, you’re shorter, although I suppose you’d do in a pinch. Now tell me, why didn’t you kill those men?”
“They had axes, old man. Or didn’t you notice?”
“Don’t be coy.”
Velori began to rise, then executed a swift tumble-and-roll that left her standing nose-to-nose with Gemen. She held the tube like a dagger above her head, poised to strike, and her left hand hovered near Gemen’s throat.
“This is a fake,” she whispered, “but if it shatters against your neck, what’s left of it might be sharp enough to kill you.”
Gemen smiled, satisfied at last.
“What?” Velori demanded. “What’s funny?”
“Of course it’s a fake,” he said. “If it were real, how many spiders would it contain?”
“And you know this because you are a true Priestess, one who has had access to one of these before. A real one. Given that –– and given that you released both the weavers it contained –– why didn’t you summon aid? Let your spider-friends kill those men? Or better yet, prevent you from being captured in the first place?”
Velori’s face hardened. “They wouldn’t come,” she said, her voice low, angry. “They refused.”
“Maybe they wanted a martyr.”
This time, Gemen shook his head. “I’d say they were waiting for a miracle rescue. Me, as it turns out. And it was your weavers who ordered you not to kill those men, didn’t they? They counseled, ‘Mercy.’”
“You know too much.”
“Educated guesswork,” Gemen replied. “Those men are criminals, I’ll warrant –– but minor offenses. Stealing bread and the like. They didn’t deserve dying at your hand, and your goddess knew that –– even if you didn’t.”
Frustrated, Velori spun away, muttering. For the next several minutes, she paced around the tiny cell, striding within inches of Gemen, but acting for all the world as if he were oceans away. Then she stopped, so abruptly it was as if she’d been jerked by some unseen string.
“Your work’s so dangerous? What is it?”
“I look for a certain kind of stone. Exceptionally old.”
Velori snorted. “For that, you need a bodyguard?”
“Over the years, I’ve employed six. They have an unfortunate tendency to die on the job.”
“For want of a few stones.”
A hint of tolerant amusement brightened Gemen’s level expression. “The stones I seek once formed an arch. A portal. When that portal was used, improperly, the world changed, reality itself, and the stones were scattered.”
“Oh, very nice. Stones that changed reality. Now why didn’t my Sisters ever mention that, maybe teach it to the novices as some handy little rhyme?”
“They weren’t close enough to remember that it ever happened. And apparently neither were you.”
“But you were.” This time, Velori flung up her hands and her snort was louder.
“For better or for worse, yes.”
“So you, you worthless little gnome, are standing here with a straight face telling me that you are the only living being in all of creation that knows we’re living in the ‘wrong’ reality?”
After the briefest of pauses, Gemen nodded. All trace of amusement had faded.
Velori laughed aloud, amazed. “That’s rich. And in the service of this delusion, your heroic attempts to put all to rights, I’m to be your next casualty.”
Gemen sighed. “I sincerely hope not. Now, are you coming? Or would you prefer a second introduction to the locals’ precious octagon?”
Three months later, after a tiresome shipboard passage up the Othgren Coast, Gemen and Velori were fighting for their lives in a driving rainstorm against well-trained, well-armed opponents, two dozen or more. It was not going well.
“Gemen!” yelled Velori, as she dodged a sword’s down-stroke and simultaneously shoved the longer of her two knives into the man’s midriff. “Get under cover!”
Cover there was, a deep overhang, a sort of sideways crevasse in the sandstone cliff behind them. Gemen was already doing his best to wriggle to the back, hurling impotent stones as he went at the two armored men advancing on him, the nearer one prodding at Gemen with an iron-tipped pole arm.
They had not expected an attack. The old Llemyll-to-Marindak road had appeared deserted but for themselves, and when Gemen had suggested searching one of the many snaking side hollows for a lunch of moonplatter mushrooms –– “Delectable roasted!” –– they’d given no particular thought to leaving the wagons and their two mules at the forest’s edge and setting off to forage. Indeed, the only odd thing that had happened for days had been the addition of massive Dorvic to their group –– Dorvic who hailed from Corvaen, who said he was traveling anywhere but there, and whose idea of being long-winded involved six words spoken at one time. He had curly, crow-dark hair that merged with his equally black beard and continued unimpeded over the rest of his body.
“What are you, a bear?” teased Velori, when Dorvic had first asked to journey alongside. “A woodland bear all set to hibernate?”
“If you like,” Dorvic replied.
Gemen squinted at the newcomer. “By your build and your movements, you’re a warrior. Where are your weapons?”
“Lost,” said Dorvic, spreading his arms to better show his empty scabbard.
“Let me see your hands,” said Gemen, and Dorvic raised them, fingers spread –– all eight of them.
“Corvaen-born indeed,” said Gemen, nodding.
“And in Corvaen I shall die,” the huge man responded, dropping his hands back to his sides. And that was the last he spoke for the rest of that day.
So they’d left their wagons at the foot of one particularly narrow rock-hemmed ravine –– perfect, said Gemen, for moonplatters –– a twisting defile made slick by abundant moss and shaded by deep green needlecone trees and sprawling thickets of blindleaf. They’d found what Gemen wanted near a noisy, frisking rapid, the fungi’s pale white caps growing in compact rings atop a ripe and gloriously rotted log, and they had just begun discussing whether it would be worth trying to catch fish in one of the ravine’s steep-walled and all but inaccessible pools when the rain came.
Not just any rain, but sluices of water so dense and insistent that in minutes, the hollow’s delicate waterfalls had swelled to twice their size. Drips and rivulets poured from the tiered layers of sandy, green-tinged cliffs. Gemen, Velori and Dorvic made for the largest available overhang, skidding on leaves and needles and soil-turned-mud, cursing their timing, and trying to keep hold of the mushroom caps in their arms.
Then came the attack, from men with proper hauberks and pot-top helmets. In their fists, military-issue swords. On their bracers, the boss of Corvaen, three snow-capped peaks on a field of cerulean blue.
“Take Dorvic alive!” cried a voice. “Get rid of the others any way you like!”
They’d come from above, rushing down in four organized squares. Velori and Gemen had immediately given ground, but Dorvic, still unarmed, had lumbered sideways, skirted a lethal drop-off and the swirling plunge pool beneath, then hauled himself up onto a fern-topped slump block. He stood atop this now, driving back anyone who tried to climb up with broad sweeps from a handy fallen limb. Unfortunately, as he could well see, several of his assailants had broken off the attack to nock their bows. At any moment, his temporary defense would become a trap.
Velori backed herself to the sandy lip of the overhang under which Gemen had hidden, and even as she clubbed and dropped her nearest attacker –– a knife-hilt to the face –– she cried to the flooded skies, “Dominion, Goddess! Aid me!”
Farther back, where the overhang’s ceiling met the floor, Gemen had squirmed so far under that he’d wedged one leg and couldn’t move. The man with the pole arm drew back his weapon, his dripping face backlit and all but invisible in the dark. Even so, Gemen could feel the man’s detached hatred, his perfect willingness to skewer him for the sake of having nothing better to do.
With a great effort, Gemen got his fingers into a pouch he wore strapped to his leg, hauled out a handful of black and grey flecks, and flung them toward his attacker. The man blinked, balked, and let out a violent, eye-watering sneeze.
Gemen threw a second handful of flakes at the man with the sword. Whether it hit its mark he never knew, because at that moment, one of Velori’s attackers let out a shriek of such animal intensity that everyone in earshot turned as one to look.
Until that dying scream, the fight had been nearly silent, punctuated by grunts and the occasional bell-like ring of metal on metal, but the rain and the echo of the swollen streams pouring between the rocks had made even these combat standards muted, soft. No more. One of the soldiers stood dead on his feet, his throat torn wide open by a huge, quivering spider –– a spider of black and yellow and green, phosphorescent in its intensity –– and a second spider, equally large, just as vivid, suddenly dropped from above onto the man nearest Velori.
The first soldier collapsed like felled timber, the second crumpled beneath the weight of the plunging spider, and Velori sprang backward beneath the overhang and drove her twin knives into both of Gemen’s attackers simultaneously. They fell before they could so much as scream.
Velori turned to Gemen, panting. “I think we’re winning!”
“Is that why we’re both jammed in this cave?” Gemen demanded.
“Critic,” Velori snapped. “Don’t move. I’m off to save your miserable life.”
But before she could withdraw, she was convulsed by a massive trio of sneezes.
“Gemen!” she gasped, and sneezed again. “What is that? Pepper?”
“The half you can smell, yes! And for pity’s sake, girl, stop breathing in!”
Still sneezing, Velori staggered out to rejoin what was left of the fight. Dorvic had used his tree limb to vault clear over the row of men scrambling up the slump block, and he’d landed directly in the nest of would-be archers, knocking one so far downhill that he somersaulted over a ledge and disappeared from view. The other two made the mistake of trying to get their bows up rather than putting distance between themselves and Dorvic. Dorvic simply reached out, grasped each of their heads in his tremendous hands, and rammed them together with bone-crushing force. Both the archers slumped back into the leaves, one with blood trickling from his ears.
As Velori and her two yellow-and-green allies bounded through the carnage, men fled in all directions, some up, some down, and some right over the lip of the nearest waterfall. It wasn’t a lethal drop, perhaps twice the height of a man, but the water below was deep and churning, with only one exit: a narrow cleft in the sandstone, rounded like the bottom of a goblet, from which poured a much higher waterfall, one that flew fifty feet before smashing into spray on jagged, shattered rocks.
In a matter of moments, the three soldiers who’d leaped into the falls were the only opponents remaining, and Dorvic, Velori, and Gemen found them half in and half out of the pool, hugging the lip of rock and staring –– out of breath, soaked, and haggard –– at the dizzying precipice below.
Gemen’s trio was hardly any drier; the rain, though somewhat lessened, continued to pound from the skies. Of the spiders, no trace remained beyond a harvest of crimson corpses.
Gemen reached down, picked up a stick, and threw it at the three swimmers to get their attention. “Thinking of leaving?” he asked. “I’d consider it a kindness if you were to offer some explanation.”
Of the three, a sandy-haired man with a wisp of a beard seemed the least bewildered. “We have orders,” he said. “That one’s wanted by Lady Rayna Sharcohr. For treason.”
Gemen glanced at Dorvic, but even with raindrops slithering down his face, the bigger man remained absolutely impassive.
“I may have heard the name,” Gemen replied. “A royal from Corvaen, yes?”
The man with the sandy hair nodded, but his eyes had tracked back to the drop beneath. The pool itself had turned brown and turgid with mud, and it was clearly rising. The soldier nearest the lower waterfall had to claw his way higher to avoid being swept over.
“Your target was unarmed,” Gemen called. “And as for us, well –– is this how you typically greet strangers?”
“He betrayed his lady and his king,” muttered the soldier. “He doesn’t get a greeting.”
“You’re a long way from home. Corvaen is forty days’ travel, at least.”
Again the water surged.
Velori pointed upstream. “Flash flood –– and look how it narrows here.”
The waterfall at the top of the plunge pool suddenly leaped outward, doubling in size in an instant and spraying foam, mud, and debris like a geyser. Two of the soldiers floundered back into the pool where they flailed in the furiously spinning current, shouting and swallowing water. The sandy-haired soldier grabbed at a higher protrusion of rock, but centuries of erosion had scoured and smoothed the walls.
“For Rath’s sake!” the man called. “Throw a rope!”
“I left it at the wagon,” said Gemen. “You have my humble apologies.”
Another dramatic wave of rising water shoved its way in from above, driving one of the soldiers under as he passed beneath the now-roaring falls.
“Please!” cried the sandy-haired soldier. His fingers had turned white with the effort, and as he spoke, the first of his two companions slid, shrieking, out of the pool and over the cliff.
“Answer one question and I might get Dorvic here to lower down a tree.”
“Are you under orders from your king? Corvaen the Ninth, is it? Or are you acting only on orders from your beloved Lady Rayna?”
“Rayna,” murmured Dorvic, very quietly.
“The king!” the soldier yelled.
“It seems,” said Gemen, “that I place a higher value on honesty than do you. Enjoy the ride.”
The water surged again, the second soldier was swept over the edge, and the sandy-haired soldier lost his grip.
“Dorvic!” he yelled. “For pity’s sake!”
Gemen looked to Dorvic. “You know him?”
Dorvic inclined his great head. “We served together.”
“We can save him, if you like.”
Dorvic watched as the current hauled the soldier around the edges of the pool; his fingertips scrabbled uselessly at the vertical, pebbly rock.
“He’s a coward,” said Dorvic, at last. “In a man like that, what is there to save?”
He turned and marched back up the muddy hillside, gathering a scatter of fallen mushroom caps as he went.
That night, with oilcloths strung from overhead tree branches to give shelter from what was now a drippy, pattering rain, Dorvic, in his deliberate, steady voice, explained. Freshly skinned coneys sizzled in a pan of Andolin butter sauce, and Gemen hovered over the fire, poking at their catch with wiry tongs and stirring far more often than the dish required. At the edge of the firelight, Velori picked apart the next in a long series of unlucky needlecones, pausing only to study Dorvic as he spoke.
“I was Lady Rayna’s personal guard-arm. In your words, ‘bodyguard.’ I was her great defense against any danger from the time she passed her tenth season of snows. She is nineteen now. At seventeen, she met Colinbard, Shieldlord to the King. He was married. Still is. And Rayna has been betrothed to a Marindak noble since birth. By custom, the marriage would take place on her twentieth birthday. She gave me to understand I should turn my back on her new liaisons with the Shieldlord. I objected. She said, ‘Your first duty is to me.’ I told her my first duty was to my kingdom –– as was hers. She disliked my answer. I set off for the capital to inform the king. She sent her personal guard in pursuit.”
Velori shook her head. “And you,” she sniffed, “you ran away.”
Dorvic shot her a look, over in an instant, but cold as a glacier’s soul.
“Does King Corvaen know?” asked Gemen.
“I sent a message. I doubt he received it.”
As he pulled the pan from the fire, Gemen chuckled. “So you have likely been banished.”
“I, too, am an exile. In my way. Although mine is a displacement of time as well as space. But, who knows? Perhaps we may be of some help to each other.”
“He’ll ask for five years,” Velori said. “And then you have to hold this funny little bowl he’s got. Look, that’s the one. The one he’s putting your rabbit in.”
“A disc of bonding,” Gemen said evenly, as if it were an everyday sort of object and of no particular consequence. It certainly did not look remarkable, a simple convex circle of unadorned clay, lightly glazed, muddy red. “Not properly a bowl at all, although I don’t mind having something that serves multiple purposes on long journeys. Good for eating out of, yes, clearly, but also a device for ensuring a certain loyalty. Now Dorvic. You’ll agree that Velori and I helped you out of a tight spot today, yes? Good. I admit I wasn’t much help –– not directly –– but then, if it weren’t for me, Velori would have been dead months ago. So I think we can agree I had a hand in your ongoing status as a living, breathing mortal. Now, here. Take the disc. Hold it by its edges. No, don’t take it away. I hold the opposite side. And now, all you have to do is say the following words. ‘I, Dorvic, swear to never harm the owner of this disc: Gemen of Melinol.’”
“Which is silly,” Velori said. “Melinol doesn’t exist.”
“Oh, for pity’s sake, girl. Next you’ll be telling me that Thornlanders don’t make prophecies.”
“Don’t talk to me about Thornlanders, old man. They’ve butchered enough of my people –– and until you’ve fought them off yourself, they’re not yours to discuss.”
Dorvic eyed Gemen with wary, calculating eyes. Without removing his gaze from Gemen, he addressed Velori.
“Did you speak these bonding words?”
“I did. Idiot that I am.”
Dorvic pursed his lips, then seemed to deflate. “I, Dorvic, swear to never harm the owner of this disc: Gemen of Melinol.”
Gemen grinned. “Well, friends! What are we waiting for? Eat! Dig in!”
With finger and thumb, Dorvic reached into the disc, pulled out a leg of coney, and placed it slowly into his mouth. He sucked off the meat and chewed, his gaze tracking from Gemen to Velori.
“Does it work?” he asked.
“The oath? Oh, yes. I dream nightly of slitting his throat. But look! He’s still here.”
Dorvic shrugged. “Why would you want to kill him?”
Velori burst out laughing. “Because he’s boring! Here, give me some coney. Food, that’s the best reason to keep him alive. Gemen may be a selfish, single-minded old snakeskin, but he does know his way around a cook-pot.”
Before they slept that night, Gemen opened one of his many tightly locked chests, an operation that took several minutes and a smattering of clear liquid that turned the iron lock briefly blue. Then, with the final key turned in the final lock, Gemen threw back the lid.
“Go on,” he said to Dorvic. “Look.”
Dorvic peered in. “Blocks,” he said, after a moment. “Two stone blocks.”
“See?” Velori jeered, pacing circles around the fire. “Big heavy stones! And he’s got more, enough to kill a team of mules! And the funniest part? He thinks that if you put them together, get them in the right order, they’ll make time run backward!”
The two men ignored her, and Gemen leaned in, studying Dorvic’s face, his focused, thoughtful expression. “Dorvic,” he said, “what is it?”
“You believe these stones have power.”
“I know it.”
“You would rebuild them. Put them in their original form.”
“It is my life’s work.”
“Then I know where you can find two more exactly the same.”
Gemen’s gaze fastened on Dorvic like a clamp. “Where?”
“In my lady’s summer house. Just below the Dimon Arka, the Mountains of the Sun.” He paused, sighed. “She will not want you to take them.”
“Why? Does she know what they are?” Gemen’s sudden nervousness was palpable, like sweat, a pulse of unease.
For his part, Dorvic appeared unconcerned. Indeed, for the first time since they’d known him, the huge man smiled. “Probably not. When last I saw them, she was using them as doorstops.”
They wintered in the vast lake country of Marindak, mostly in Quellder, that land’s greatest city, where Gemen traded A’anfalan spices for silver coin and whatever trinkets or hand-me-downs struck his fancy.
“Never can tell,” he’d say, when asked why he paid so dearly for what any sober person would have called junk. “In a trade like mine, almost everything has its moment.”
The endless snows drove Velori to distraction. She picked fights, drank the local mead to the point where Dorvic, more often than not, had to carry her back to her rented room, and she spent more time than ever pursuing long, energetic harangues with the surrounding (frigid) air. On occasion, she spat out volleys of words loud enough for others to hear. “Winches!” she’d cry. “Winches and pulleys! Why, Goddess? Why can you not send me different dreams?”
Gemen offered his best guess by way of explanation. “Our priestess,” he said to Dorvic, “is used to endless spring, a garden paradise.”
“Such places are myths.”
“Not all. There are islands, past where the Gwynii River empties into the sea. South of the Thelden, south of Yennehall and the City of the Clouds. She had everything she could want there, and a goddess whose influence she could sense in every dewdrop, every flower. Here, well. I have taken her far from her element.”
“Why,” asked Dorvic, “was she anywhere near Melony?”
“A fine question! And one to which I don’t know the answer, because she won’t tell me.”
Dorvic weathered the cold with no effort whatsoever. Corvaen, he said, might be farther south –– though not by much –– but it was most definitely set higher and lodged more firmly into the surrounding mountains. “Velori would hate it,” he said. “Our spiders are the color of ice.”
As the snows melted under the beat of persistent spring rains, news drifted northward of a civil war in Andolin, only just resolved. “A disaster,” said the traders and merchants who brought the news. “Six months of fighting, and for what? A worse season for trade I’ve never seen.”
Gemen listened intently to every scrap of news and then, when even the northward roads out of Quellder had fully cleared, he announced it was time to go.
“To Corvaen?” asked Dorvic.
“Andolin,” said Gemen. “I sense ready pickings at a very low price.”
Velori kicked at the newly unfrozen turf. “The roads are too soft. Your precious rocks will sink the wagons.”
“Perhaps. But we’ll gather supplies for a week before we go. Whatever you need for personal use, within the sane bounds of reason, purchase it. And Dorvic –– get some decent weaponry. Armor, too, as you see fit. My purse-strings are temporarily open.”
As Gemen promised, they turned back to the south one week later, trundling slowly through meadows newly bright with flowers, then under canopies of trees laced with spring-green buds. They had three wagons, empty but for stores of food and basic supplies, along with Gemen’s locked chests and three cantankerous mules.
On the third day, during a stop for a midday meal, Gemen paused over a brilliant clump of yellow flowers, their petals just opening to the steady, warming sun.
“Look,” he said. “Yellow cloudflowers. You never see these so far east.”
Dorvic shrugged and went back to chewing, but Velori, eyes wide, examined the flowers closely, each sepal and stamen, the stubborn, inflexible stem. “Something like them grows at home,” she said. “Shorter, there.”
“And where I come from, taller. Did you know, they used to be purple?”
She shook her head, frowning like a child. “No. Not on the islands.”
“On that count, my child, I’m sorry to say you’re wrong,” said Gemen, as the sun edged behind the day’s first cloud, tall and rising, a hint of storms to come. “When I was young, all cloudflowers were purple. And so far as I know, they’d been that way since time began.”
“Sometimes, Gemen, you say the most ridiculous things.”
The rampart of cloud rose and boiled, and both Velori and Dorvic were shocked to see that Gemen was openly crying.
Weeks later, with winter a distant, chilly memory, they reached the northeastern border of Andolin. “Palaethere,” Gemen announced, gesturing at the jagged black lava flows that carpeted the land between the road and the rising, horizon-like peaks. “Beautiful mountains to see, but very rugged. Hardly any settlers, no mining. For us, terrain worth avoiding.”
“Then why did we come this way?” demanded Velori, who was busy catching gnats and eating them. “We passed a dozen roads leading south, each one a quicker way to Andolin.”
“True. But just a little ways on lives a friend of mine. A friend who can lighten our load.”
“Oh, so he’ll take our rocks?”
Gemen nodded. “Precisely.”
“You’d give them up?”
“To this man –– for a time –– yes.”
Velori poked him in the shoulder. “You’ve got a friend!” she teased. “I didn’t think you had it in you.”
From his perch on the buckboard of the lead wagon, Dorvic rolled his eyes. “I hope he keeps an inn. Warm ale. No bugs.”
“There’ll be no inn,” said Gemen, “but I’m sure there’ll be room for all.”
Velori’s smirking laugh vanished. “By that, you mean a stable –– and Gemen, if there’s one thing I hate, it’s waking up and smelling like a horse.”
“Tsk, my girl. I thought you liked animals.”
Before the sun could begin its downward slide into afternoon, they came upon a cottage tucked to the side of the road, a paddock and stable on one side, and on the other, a garden newly turned and planted. Lazing in a hammock was a lanky man, very old and bald on top, with thick white hair above his ears that seemed ready to fly backwards off his scalp. He started to rise as they approached, lost his balance, and toppled face-first out of the hammock.
“This is your friend?” asked Velori, as she and Gemen guided the lead wagon off the road and up to the cottage’s dilapidated fence. “The clumsy one, both feet in the grave?”
“The very same,” said Gemen. “Now watch.”
The old man regained his feet and limped forward, his purple robes trailing in the grass. Eyes shining, he inserted a skinny bone pipe into his mouth, sucked in with greedy good humor, and breathed out. The resultant cloud of glowing violet smoke hovered, thickened, and resolved into words.
“I am Tetch,” read the smoke. “Welcome to Andolin –– and whatever is left of your future!”
They stayed only one night, and added Gemen’s most recently recovered archway stones to Tetch’s burgeoning collection; thanks to Gemen’s many years of travel and effort, Tetch already had quite a number hidden beneath the hay of his largest barn. Next day, the trio went south, and spent the better part of a season working through war-torn Andolin.
“Just three stones to go,” said Gemen, “and thanks to Dorvic, I know precisely where to find two.”
“And the third?” Velori asked. “The next oast house, perhaps?”
“For the keystone, I need directions. And to obtain those directions, I’ll need incentive, bargaining power. A priceless gift. Finding that gift, my friends –– that’s why we troll our way through Andolin.”
The priceless gift Gemen settled on turned out to be a mirror, and six weeks later, upon presenting it to the king of Corvaen, Corvaen the Ninth, Gemen did indeed receive the directions he sought, directions to an earthen crypt belonging to a being that, in life, had been called Cleon. Stealing what turned out to be the portal’s keystone from Cleon cost them dearly; by that adventure’s end, Dorvic, though still fully grown, had been reduced in all other capacities to a wide-eyed, drooling infant: docile, helpless, and effectively mindless.
Back into Corvaen the trio went, in secret this time, with Dorvic lying loose-limbed and blank in a horse-drawn litter. Velori insisted on finding help, but Gemen waved her aside time and again.
“His only hope lies in my work,” said Gemen. “If we can complete the portal, Dorvic may yet recover.”
Gemen’s immediate destination was the summer home of Dorvic’s former employer, the royal called Lady Rayna Sharcohr, and so with Dorvic temporarily stowed with a sympathetic midwife, Gemen and Velori began work on how to steal the Lady Rayna’s precious doorstops.
But then Gemen fell suddenly and seriously ill. He gave specific directions to Velori on what to do, where to take him, and then he slipped into a fever dream of restless, helpless sleep.
Many hours later, Gemen awoke, sweating and mumbling, in a scented healer’s hut stuffed with black sheepskin rugs and down-filled pillows, most embroidered with blue, white, and gold (the crown colors of Corvaen). He moaned, rolled over, and looked with disgust at his own prostrate body. Not entirely to his surprise, he found he was dressed in a feathered night-shirt that made him look remarkably like a pinned, squirming pheasant.
“Honestly, Gemen,” said Velori, who lounged in a nearby doorway and was busily picking her teeth with a chicken bone. “How many times now have I saved your life?”
“I admit,” Gemen wheezed, “to four only.”
“And each with the blessing of the Goddess, so in case you hadn’t noticed, she clearly wants you alive. But now, when I really could be of service, you won’t have it.”
Gemen rolled away to face the wall. “The last thing I need is help from Dominion.”
“At least take off that stupid bird-shirt.”
Gemen’s only response was a whispery shiver. From what Velori could see of him beneath the healer’s chosen feather-dress, Gemen resembled plucked poultry, over-boiled. His stringy hair, graying fast, lay plastered to his head, and Velori, despite her annoyance, had the definite sensation that his already decrepit body was aging a month for every minute she watched.
With a not especially discreet cough, a scrawny teen in a healer’s gown stepped up behind Velori. His cheeks, inflamed with fierce acne, became positively scarlet as he paused, clearly waiting for Velori to move out of his way.
“Excuse me,” the boy said. His voice, nervously high, had yet to break.
“Must I?” Velori replied. Placing her back against the doorframe, she slid down it to a sitting position, knees up, leaving her already short skirt to bunch indecently around her hips.
The youth licked his lips quickly. His eyes darted to Gemen, then back to Velori, her sleek legs, her just-visible cleavage. “I have,” he said, “a patient.”
“Yes,” Velori agreed, “but you keep it so hot in here, I just –– I’m not distracting you, am I?”
“I’m sorry,” the boy said, “but my patient requires privacy.”
Velori cocked her head, pouting. “And what do you need? Free time, perhaps?”
From his mound of pillows, Gemen waved the boy inside. “Starlight, Velori, let him pass.”
“Absolutely, but only so I can see what madness he’s about to practice on you.”
The boy stepped over Velori, although not without trying for a glimpse into the shadows of her skirts. “I don’t ‘practice’ anything,” he said. “I am a healer. Trained in arts both subtle and ancient.”
Velori made a nasty face behind the boy’s back, and sprang –– a coil released –– back to a standing position. With a little jump, she caught hold of ceiling joist and began doing easy chin-ups. “What’s next, then? Cat’s tongues stitched together like a daisy chain and worn as a necklace?”
“No,” said the youth. “Nothing feline today.”
He reached into a dusky brass urn –– his hand made a gloppy slurping sound –– and withdrew a dripping, darkly red mass the size of a dinner plate.
Gemen stared. “What is it?”
“The heart of a warhorse stallion. Now Gemen, take it –– that’s it –– and rub it all over your body, starting with the face. I shall recite an incantation. Listen, and be still.”
Dropping to the floor, Velori crowed with laughter. “You idiot! He can’t ‘be still’ and rub himself with your stupid horse heart, not both at the same time!”
Gemen’s eyes shot daggers. “Velori, get out.”
“Oh, please, Gemen! This isn’t medicine, it’s just leftovers from the local butcher!”
“Go! I am in good hands.”
“You have a fever, a high one. I can help you!“
Gemen slapped the horse heart, so slippery that it nearly escaped his fingers, onto the side of his face. Blood oozed from temple to jaw-line. “You,” he said, “have preparations to make, and three days left to attend to them.”
“Gemen! The plan is off! The target is home in five nights and it’ll be weeks before you’re better!“
“The plan is on!”
“In three days? You’ll be better in three days?”
“If you don’t exhaust my healer by seducing him, yes. As you value your goddess, get out and make ready. I will be there. I swear it.”
And he fell back onto the pillows, the horse’s heart bunched over his eyes like a crumpled wash-cloth, red-brown and dripping. Velori stomped away, seething, then yelled back over her shoulder, “Kill him if you can, charlatan! You’d be doing me a favor!”
Three days later and more or less on schedule, Gemen and Velori were nearly done unloading some three hundred fire-throated slopeflowers from one of six large delivery wagons when Ferem Vollegar, House Steward for the Lady Rayna Sharcohr’s summer estate, approached. With him came two stoic House Guards, their decorative uniforms gleaming with pretty gold thread. Vollegar held his hands ahead of him, the fingers intertwined, and his lips were pinched thin with professional annoyance.
“Sir and madam,” he began, his voice officious, “what in the name of a summer snowfall are you doing?”
Above and behind them, the sun gleamed off the massive peaks of the icy Dimon Arka, and all around lay the fabulous topiary and evergreen hedgerows of the summer house grounds. Gemen, looking pale and peaky, stood in the last of the wagons, all set to hand yet another potted fire-throat down to Velori. Both wore laborer’s clothes, jerkins and breeks, filthy leggings dropping into deerskin boots. It was a gorgeous day, midsummer but cool, and the mountains’ chilly breeze hinted of glacier caves and the sweet burble of ice-melt.
“I say again,” said Vollegar, squinting up at Gemen, “who are you and what are you doing?”
“Ah,” said Gemen, “well, as to who we are, I’m sure your eminence doesn’t care for names, but as for what we’re doing, well –– all the plants are very much in order. I’m sure the Lady Rayna will be most pleased.”
Ferem Vollegar eyed the shrubby plants and their many fluted orange-pink flowers with evident distaste. “I have no record of any plant deliveries, and certainly not for these. They attract flies.”
“But sir, bear in mind: flies bring spiders –– and surely the world can never have too many spiders?”
“Who signed off on this?”
“Lady Rayna herself, sir.”
Other groundskeepers, who had been helping set out the pots in neat rows along the walkways, were now whispering amongst themselves and eyeing Gemen and Velori with increasingly cool looks.
“The Lady Rayna,” said Ferem Vollegar, “does not stoop to ordering plants. You will kindly remove your wares at once.”
“Impossible, sir! And I insist, given your insulting tone, on seeing the Lady personally!”
As he spoke, Gemen jumped down from the wagon, but his legs failed on landing and had Velori not caught him, he would have toppled bodily into both a fire-throat and Ferem Vollegar. Even so, he fell hard, one knee smacking painfully on stone.
“Gemen! Are you all right?”
Gemen pushed himself onto all fours, wincing in pain. “I was,” he said, “until you elected to use my name.”
Velori clapped a hand over her mouth. Next to her, Ferem Vollegar looked momentarily puzzled.
“Gemen,” he repeated. “I know that name…”
Velori nodded vigorously. “Of course you do. Gemen of Anhurst, landscaper to royalty ––”
“–– Wait, I have it –– there’s a warrant out for you, the crier sings it every day ––”
“My dear,” said Gemen to Velori, “silence him before this outing goes any further awry.”
It took a single kick to the jaw to drop Ferem Vollegar into the grass, and with a clever flip and a sideways strike with her palm, she similarly flattened the nearer House Guard. The second guard reached for his sword, but in his frenzy to draw the blade it stuck in his scabbard. Velori took the opportunity to smash a potted fire-throat over his head. He fell in a heap, the plant next to him, and from its leaves crawled a dozen ice-blue spiders, each trailing gossamer threads.
The gardeners were in full flight, shrieking as they went, disappearing to every compass point.
“Marvelous,” said Gemen. “This is going very well.”
Velori smoothed down her jerkin. “If you’d let me heal you, so you weren’t so apt to fall off wagons…”
“Oh, hush. Quick, now –– the summer house.”
As Gemen raised himself to a standing position, Velori knelt and allowed one of the tiny spiders to scuttle atop her palm.
“Weave,” she whispered. “Bind them –– bind the paths. You have my thanks.”
Dropping the spider, she ran with Gemen down the sloping garden boulevard and up the short steps to the slightly rounded, whitewashed walls of the sprawling summer house. The doorway stood open before them, a curtained entry, dark beyond. Velori glanced at it, then at the garden, her lips working noiselessly, inaudible phrases spilling in a torrent from her tongue.
“Leave your goddess alone,” Gemen said. “We’re going in.”
“No, wait –– I hear movement. Guards coming.”
“I don’t hear –– ”
“ –– Quick, this way.”
They ducked out of the recess in which the door was set and around the corner. Sure enough, hurrying feet approached. Raised and panicky voices cried that they’d heard something, seen something, a combat in the garden!
Five men burst out of the doorway, one still struggling to secure his sword belt. At the sight of their fallen comrades and the prostrate form of Ferem Vollegar, they dashed down the steps, directly past Velori and Gemen, who quickly rose and made for the entrance. The shouting and confusion behind them grew suddenly worse as the first of the guards tripped on a strand of all but invisible thread stretching right across the garden walk. It caught him at ankle level and sent him sprawling. When he tried to rise, and when a second man tried to help, they found themselves tangled in finely spun filaments as tough as tiny wires.
Velori looked to Gemen. “You see? Fire-throats. The perfect choice for any garden.”
“Inside,” said Gemen. His skin had turned pale and clammy. “While I can still stand.”
They dashed in, bulling past surprised servants and sending tea trays and biscuits flying. The rooms they passed were airy and bright, the walls creamy, and the ceiling beams and floors a polished, golden brown. Wine-dark curtains fluttered from courtyard windows, and the air smelled strongly of vanilla. Hallways, all empty, opened at every turn.
“This isn’t a house, it’s a warren!” Velori griped. “Which way?”
Gemen glanced down at his feet. “Right here. Look.”
Sure enough, at their feet was a large squarish stone the color of oatmeal. It braced a door that lead into a courtyard positively babbling with cheerful sculpted fountains.
Velori stooped, hefted the stone. She grunted.
“Can you carry it?”
“Just don’t expect me to fight.”
With Gemen already hurrying into the courtyard, Velori waddled along behind, the fat stone clutched to her stomach. Sure enough, the opposite door was also propped by a porridge-colored, over-sized brick.
“The last two,” murmured Gemen, his head shaking in wonderment. “Provided, of course, that Tetch hasn’t lost the rest.”
“Can’t –– carry –– both,” huffed Velori. “You did say –– you had a plan?”
“Only if this,” and he withdrew a crooked metal stick from beneath his jerkin, “still works.”
At the thickest end of the stick, a small wax hand had been affixed, its chubby fingers extended outward as if seeking purchase. Velori actually shuffled backward on sighting it.
Gemen raised an eyebrow. “Bad memories?”
“You should know.”
“Oh, I share them. Now. Hold still.”
He took a deep, very shaky, breath, and closed his eyes. With the little stick extended, the lifeless fingers twitched. Velori hissed at it –– but the stone in her grasp lightened.
“Yes, I know. It’s working. Let me do the second stone.”
“No, it’s not that, it’s ––“
She had no time to finish her sentence. Two House Guards barreled pell-mell around the corner, swords out.
“There!” yelled the first. “Take them!”
Velori slid under the first sword-stroke and felled her attacker by slamming the brick into his chest, but in her effort to keep the stone from flying out of her hands, she skidded into a decorative end table and only just avoided a further sword-thrust from her remaining opponent.
Velori made for the downed man’s lost sword and got it. Her sword came up as the guard’s came down. Metal rang on metal and the blades slid along each other, momentarily leaving the two hilt to hilt. Pulling free, Velori began drawing the guardsman down the hall, away from the courtyard. Gemen, watching, realized that here at last was an opponent nearly as skilled as Velori herself –– that to defeat him, especially while lugging the stone in her off hand, she would surely have to kill him.
Nearly exhausted, the sweat pouring off his face, Gemen raised the metal stick a third time and concentrated on the ceiling above the guard’s head. Teeth clenched, he flipped the stick so the thumb now turned skyward, and as he did so, the ceiling beams suddenly cracked and splintered, raining newly heavy chunks of plasterwork down on the guard’s unprotected head.
He raised his arms to shield himself, and Velori clubbed him hard with the flat of her blade, finishing the job with a whirling kick that drove the man’s face into the wall.
“Better,” she panted. “Now. Can we go?”
Lugging a stone apiece, they raced back the way they’d come, barging once more through the pack of gossiping servants. Outside, they met no resistance. Four of the guards were still picking their way free from a gray-white mass of spider-webs, and Ferem Vollegar was awake but so enmeshed that it was all he could to do struggle. Gemen and Velori hurried around the webbed path, running directly through the gardens while all around them, eager spiders scrambled toward the summer house, ready to do Velori’s bidding and bury the place in sticky, interlaced strands.
At the top of the garden, they found their tethered horses, and in another moment they were gone, cantering down a mossy cobbled lane and headed fast toward Dorvic –– and from there, out of town.
One week later, in a tidy audience chamber in the distant martial palace of King Corvaen the Ninth, the king sat in private with his two most trusted advisors. The first was Lord Colinbard, Shieldlord to the monarchy and a commander of deserved renown. The second was Lady Jévah Alsifir, silver-haired, serene and unflappable, a voice the king valued for predictable but honest caution. A fourth person was also present: a woman, much younger, smooth-skinned, long-haired, her expression keen and bright, almost fox-like. Lady Rayna Sharcohr.
The king himself was feeling stiff, stiff-muscled and stiff of mind. He’d been woken early, and he’d had far too much wine for no good reason the night before, leaving his breath fruit-ripe. His beard, peppered white but still trying to be black as a raven’s underbelly, contained scraps of last night’s dinner, and he wore neither crown nor the armor he traditionally donned for receiving. There was, said Colinbard, no time.
It was Colinbard who was in the midst of speaking. “He is dangerous, m’lord. Possibly a threat to the whole kingdom.”
The king, remembering how not so long ago, a massive stone monolith had nearly torn his castle apart –– apparently at Gemen’s behest –– nodded gravely. “Was Dorvic with him?”
“No. But the priestess called Velori, yes.”
The idea that a priestess of Dominion had once again stolen into his realm made the king distinctly uncomfortable. He sucked in an annoyed breath and said, “What do you propose?”
“I want a company of men. Arms and provisions.”
Lady Alsifir tugged gently at one of her sky-blue sleeves. “He has a good lead. Seven days.”
“Less,” said Colinbard. “He passed this way, south, on the Andolin road.”
Lady Rayna spoke for the first time. “He has a three-day lead at most.”
Unimpressed, King Corvaen spat into a sidebowl kept expressly for that purpose. “What,” he growled at Rayna, “are you doing here, exactly?”
She didn’t flinch. “M’lord, I shall accompany Colinbard in the chase.”
The king’s frowned deepened. She had not, he noted, said either “I intend” or “by your leave.”
“Colinbard,” he said, “I seem to recall your being married.”
The shieldlord looked his monarch in the eye. “I remain so, m’lord.”
“Well,” said the king. “Lady Alsifir, do you approve of this plan?”
Lady Alsifir seemed surprised by the question. “How can I? M’lord withholds so much.”
“I withhold nothing.”
“Runtpiss. Why do you even know Gemen? Why does he lately haunt this kingdom?”
The king and Lord Colinbard exchanged measured, sober glances.
“As you wish, m’lord,” said Colinbard, and he looked away.
Somewhere outside, a mountain bluebird let loose a pre-dawn warble. The king kicked back in his chair and clasped his hands together. “Very well. Jévah, you remember Colban Rayl?”
“Banished to some outlying farm. By your order,” said Lady Alsifir. “You never said why.”
“He and Colinbard and I, and some others, when we first grew our beards, we took to the eastern borderlands. My father forbade us, of course; he knew where we were bound.”
“Trouble in general, but specifically to the tomb of Cleon Cryptlord. And somewhat to our own surprise, we found it.”
The king’s forehead wrinkled with the memory. Colinbard stared at the floor. When Rayna moved to put her hand over his, he shifted, drew himself out of reach.
“It was a fool’s errand,” continued the king. “A region none should go, ever. I did not, then, believe such places existed except in the minds of overbearing parents. Parents like Corvaen the Eighth. But I learned. We all did, although most learned it by dying. Only Colinbard and Rayl and I made it out –– and of the Rayl I knew, there was nothing left but a wreck. Shards of memory locked in a mumbling madman. I did what I could. I ordered a good farm family to take him, to keep him and feed him. To do their best. I had no idea that Gemen would meet him, that Gemen would find meaning in Rayl’s ravings. Or that he would act on them.”
“Ah,” said Lady Alsifir. “So Gemen came calling next on you, asking for directions.”
“Years ago,” said Colinbard, nodding. “We both refused.”
“But he came back,” Lady Alsifir continued, “and in a trade for that useless mirror, you gave him what he wanted.”
“The mirror,” rumbled Colinbard, “wasn’t useless. It simply came with… strings.”
“As would anything of Gemen’s, one should think. Even this theft. He must know you’ll come after him.”
Lady Rayna slapped a palm on the table. “He cannot simply break into my home, injure my people, and cover my property with –– with spiders!”
The other three all stared at Rayna, their expressions critical.
Colinbard spoke. “He wanted something specific from the Cryptlord. That he survived suggests he found it. And he clearly knew what he was after at Rayna’s summer house.”
“Which was?” demanded the king.
“He took two stones. Bricks, really.”
Now King Corvaen was fully awake. “Gemen risked coming back here, as a wanted man, for two bricks?”
“And that,” said Colinbard, “is why he must be caught. This was no petty burglary. He is assembling something. Something that might be dangerous to your kingdom, m’lord. And if not dangerous, then potentially useful.”
Corvaen nodded. “All right. Arm and outfit your company. Pick your force. But Rayna –– I should prefer it if you would stay.”
“M’lord, you believe me helpless, a burden perhaps on hard-riding soldiers. I shall be no such thing.”
The king shot her a quizzical look. His fingers, in playing with his beard, found the food scraps, and he flung them away. “Oh?” he said. “You have some secret training of which I’m unaware?”
Only Lady Alsifir looked unsurprised. “And this training, my dear –– what was its purpose?”
“Defense,” Lady Rayna answered. “Defense, war, and warfare.”
“And who accomplished this miracle, child?”
“Former Shieldlord Dorvic,” Lady Rayna replied. “The man we now call Dorvic the Traitor, whom I believe we will capture if first we catch Gemen.”
“Very well, then,” said the king, and he flexed his fingers –– four on each hand, like all those from Corvaen –– his pulse quickening at the prospect of battle, however distant. “Ride, Rayna. Test your mettle with the finest. And may the fury of the blizzard ride at your heels.”
To be continued in “The Keystone,” the third and final part of the Tales of Gemen the Antiques Dealer.
Mark Rigney is the author of the plays Acts of God (Playscripts, Inc.) and Bears, winner of the 2012 Panowski Playwriting Competition, as well as the non-fiction book Deaf Side Story: Deaf Sharks, Hearing Jets and a Classic American Musical (Gallaudet University Press).
His short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appears in Black Static, The Best of the Bellevue Literary Review, Realms of Fantasy, Talebones, Not One Of Us, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and many more. A novella, “The Skates,” will appear from Samhain Publishing in 2013, and his contemporary fantasy novel, A Most Unruly Gnome, won the 2009 First Coast Novel Contest.
Author photo by Heather Shumaker.