Black Gate Online Fiction: “The Keystone,” Part III 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.
This is Part Three of The Tales of Gemen the Antiques Dealer
Read Part One, “The Trade”, here, or Part Two, “The Find”, here.
Velori shot awake, screaming, her legs a kicking flurry as she tried to free herself from her bedroll. Her alarm cries startled the mules, and they added their ear-splitting brays to the din. At the far side of their smoldering campfire, Gemen blinked himself to wakefulness, tried to sort out the torrent of sound, and began yelling for Velori to stop hollering. Only Dorvic remained silent. He woke, but remained otherwise exactly as he’d been since being dragged from Cleon’s earthen crypt: blank. He blinked, he drew slow, unperturbed breaths. His eyes were unfixed, and he drooled quietly from his slack, open mouth.
It took several minutes for Gemen to calm Velori, and the mules required at least as much attention, but eventually, the camp returned to the same silence as the surrounding Samandwan forests.
“Sorry,” said Velori. She was wiry and short, trim to the point of boniness, and her skin was a fine approximation of the color of polished bronze. Her hair shot from her head like thatching, orange-red, flame arrested mid-dance. Always sharp-eyed, her panicky gaze now darted in all directions, trying to slice the night’s deepest shadows for any motion, any threat.
“Starlight, girl. Whether you’ll kill me or the mules first I don’t know, but either way, I won’t appreciate it.”
“I dreamed again, Gemen. Winches. Pulleys and tackle. Weapons everywhere, armies and blood. And whatever it is, it’s coming. It’s almost here.” She locked eyes with Gemen. “We’ll be there, both of us. It will be very bad.”
“Do you see your own death?”
Velori shook her head rapidly. “No. So much of that blood is mine, but I not only survive, I go on and on and on. Gemen, death I don’t mind. It’s the Order of the Garden, but this… ”
To Gemen’s amazement, Velori began to cry. Subtle spasms rocked her body, and she shrank to a crouch, balancing in the dirt on the balls of her bare feet.
Uncertain what to do –– Velori had never, in all the time he’d known her, shown anything even vaguely akin to fear –– Gemen placed a hand on her shoulder and waited, taking the moment to survey the clearing, the patchy night sky above. He was more than twice Velori’s age, with stringy gray hair and eyes that stared hard from a pruned, travel-worn face. He stood barely five feet high, his bones cracked when he walked, and he understood that strangers, in looking him over, tended to settle on one feeling above all others: pity.
“Velori,” he said. “Let’s break camp. We need a bigger lead anyway.”
With her face still tucked into knees and elbows, she spoke again, her voice child-shaky and muffled. “I have always dreamed, Gemen. Always. My sisters, too. Dreams from the Goddess are normal for a priestess, but for me, at least once a week, since I turned eight, the Goddess has sent pirates, assassins, nightmare creatures. You wonder where I learned to fight? Not in some army. Not on the streets. I grew up in a garden, Gemen! Thornlands raiders came, yes, but I learned warcraft at night, in dreams. And at first I was frightened, so I always fought back, fighting to survive, and somehow I always won. Then later –– fourteen, maybe –– I tried to fight the dreams themselves, to refuse them. One of those creatures bit me, it sank its fangs right through my arm –– and Gemen, I woke up, there were bite-marks, right here! All the way through. My arm was broken, a break that took all my Sisters’ skills to heal.”
Rising, Velori began to pace, gesticulating with her hands. “Three years ago I began dreaming of a garden with an eight-sided wall. I asked a sailor if he’d ever heard of such a thing, and he said yes, in Melony: the Courtyard of Trials. And that night, I dreamed of being inside those walls, of looking up and seeing you. But I saw blood dripping from your eyes, old man –– and all around you, winches and pulleys.”
She paused, circled the fire. “I didn’t want to go to Melony, but the Goddess forced me. As she forces me now. You don’t need that idiotic bonding disc, all those oaths you made me swear. I’m already bound to you. The Goddess wills it so.”
“That’s as may be,” said Gemen at length, “but know this: I work for myself, not for Dominion or any other goddess, god, or fop. And you, at least for now, work for me.”
“You’re a fool, old man. Her schemes are so far beyond yours ––“
“Perhaps,” said Gemen, cutting her off. “But in this moment, in this forest, it’s my orders that count. Let’s harness these mules and go, quickly. Don’t ask me how I know, but we are, at last, pursued.”
It took twelve days of hard riding, of switching the mules with a constancy that Velori, in earlier times, would never have permitted, in order to reach the northern outskirts of Andolin and a lonely forest farmstead inhabited by ––
“Tetch!” cried Gemen, hying the mules into the yard and scattering ducks, chickens, and four fat-bellied trotters. “Tetch, tell me you’re home, and tell me you’re more prepared than I think!”
A wooden window-shutter flew open, and an ancient man, tall and white-haired, leaned out. What hair he had left all seemed to aim backwards, and even a skeleton could hardly have appeared more gaunt, but in his eyes, large and brown, there was still a twinkle, the suggestion that once upon a time, this doddering bag of bones had been a spry and lively boy.
“Or course I’m here,” he said. “And as for prepared, well. It has taken some doing, of course. A tall order, to be sure ––“
“Did you get me wagons, wagons and drivers?”
“I have filled your order to perfection,” said Tetch, as if hurt that Gemen might think otherwise. He reached up to his ear and pulled at a brass earring fastened to the lobe, its surface a maze of geometric etching. “Really quite amazing, this,” he said. “When you woke me the night you left the summer house, you were what? Three weeks away, at a fast ride? But I could hear you just as clearly as if you were nuzzled right up to my ear.”
Velori barked a laugh and slapped her knees. “I’d like to see that! The two of you curled up in bed, spooning like lovers… “
“Velori’s imagination,” said Gemen, “remains unbearably overactive, as you can see.”
“Well,” said Tetch, as he pulled at the earring, “this trinket is astonishing. How exactly did you come by it?”
Now it was Gemen’s turn to smile. “Honestly enough –– although, if its owner had had the least idea what it was he wore, I admit his price would have been a sight higher.”
He paused a moment, took a quick look around the now deserted farmyard. “Tetch, I see no drivers, no wagons, no provisions.”
Tetch waved him down. “Relax! I didn’t want them trampling my vegetable patch, so I had the poor fellows pitch tents along the stream. Wiggle your nostrils, you’ll smell their cookfires.”
Both Gemen and Velori, without really intending to, tested the wind. Gemen shrugged, but Velori immediately giggled. “Soup,” she said. “Fish with wild onions and turnips. Oh, and something else. Tetch, did you give them permission to tap the brandy?”
Tetch’s equable expression turned to outrage. “Recreants!” he cried, and he slammed the window shut. “That brandy is for medicinal purposes! I’ll have their heads!”
Gemen and Velori exchanged a look. From the back of Velori’s wagon, in a padded bier of straw and burlap, Dorvic’s massive form let out a dramatic burp.
“Time to change the diaper,” said Velori. “I believe it’s your turn.”
They spent the afternoon securing provisions and making last minute repairs, hectoring Tetch’s hired wagonmasters about how they would be driving in shifts and sleeping in the wagons once on the move.
“We have pursuers,” said Gemen.
“From Corvaen,” said Tetch.
“A company,” said Gemen, “of about a hundred horse. But,” he went on, as the lead drivers for Tetch’s seven hired wagons balked, mouths open to object, “they will not catch us. I have not scoured these lands the last thirty-some years for nothing, and you are already carrying, in your wagons, the means to buy us time, mask our passage, and, if absolutely necessary, defend us. So be content. Your wages are beyond generous, as you know. Let’s see how fast a wagon train can move!”
In the end, only Velori appeared hesitant, unwilling to start. She sat next to Dorvic in the back of the wagon, her arms over her knees, and she didn’t look up when Gemen approached.
“I still believe his best chance is with us,” he said. “With me. His proximity to my project could be vital.”
Velori’s smile was sad, sagging. “I looked under those sail cloths. I saw what the first two wagons carry.”
“Winches,” said Gemen.
“Pulleys,” said Velori.
“And all the supporting beams and scaffolding for a quick construction job.”
“To build your fabulous arch.”
“These men aren’t merely drivers, child. They are my personal building crew.”
“All this,” Velori said, one arm sweeping round to encompass the gradually departing wagon train, “to somehow find your sister?”
“Oh, yes. This and much more.”
“I hope she’s worth it, old man. If these men die, their deaths will be on your head.”
Now only the wagon in which Dorvic lay remained. Its two gray-black mules were busy gnawing at each other’s harnesses and making whining sounds. From the driver’s seat, Tetch blew smoke from his exaggerated pipe, and the smoke quickly formed words: “Dawdling already?”
Gemen returned his attention to Velori. “Listen carefully. You are here because your goddess had a hand in making my wretched archway in the first place. No, don’t scoff –– I’m certain. Could it be any other way? What she wants –– what any such being wants –– I’m sure I have no idea, but I am long since past caring. I will get Thia back, I swear it, and in the doing, I will make everything right, Dorvic included. And who knows? Perhaps the Garden Goddess has the very same goals.”
Velori stared at him, unblinking. “You’re mad, Gemen. What the Goddess sees in you, I cannot imagine.”
Four days later, along a deserted stretch of wooded road not far north of Tetch’s now-abandoned farm, the Lady Rayna Sharcohr cantered through the line to catch up with Lord Colinbard, who was conferring with his officers as they rode south toward Andolin. Colinbard greeted her with a nod and a smile, but no more; he was in the presence of officers he needed, and he was, besides, in mid-conversation.
“… where we will surely be seen as a war party,” the lieutenant nearest Colinbard was saying. “If our quarry crosses the Andolin border, it would be prudent to halt, send an emissary to gain permission to advance.”
“Sirs, there will be no such need,” said Rayna. “Our way leads west, back into the Samandwan.”
The three officers and Colinbard all turned to Rayna, who did her best to meet their stern gazes without flinching. They were all older than she, and unused to being interrupted. That she was female had nothing to do with it; fully half the Corvaenish force was made up of women.
“Lady Rayna,” said Colinbard at last, doing his best to address her formally, as he always did in public –– but never in private, where he whispered words in Rayna’s ear unfit for any other. “Lady, if you know something of Gemen’s movements, speak.”
“He went west. On a different road, perhaps five hours back.”
“Not possible,” said the youngest of the officers, a woman ten years Rayna’s senior. “There was no fork, no divide in our way. Wagons don’t pass through walls of trees.”
“These did. I took the liberty of sending a rear guard back to check our way ––“
“You did what?” said Colinbard, raising both his eyebrows and, unintentionally, his voice.
“Coming so far south felt wrong, so I sent riders back early this morning. They returned with this.” Rayna reached to the far side of her saddle and handed up a sack full of grayish lumps not unlike shorn wool. She hefted it over to Colinbard, who caught it; the sack weighed next to nothing and smelled faintly sugary.
“What is it?”
“Spider’s webbing, sliced up with a knife. We did pass a fork in the road, disguised. Old trees and log jams, a few shrubs, all held together and stuck in place with this web-stuff.”
Now she had their full attention. “My friends, we not only chase Gemen, we pursue a Priestess of Dominion. We must be more canny. We must think like a spider. The husk spider, for example, that with twigs and leaves may disguise its web ––“
“Or whole roads,” said Colinbard, finishing her thought. “Well done.”
Rayna beamed. “Thank you.”
“Company, halt!” roared the woman to Colinbard’s left. “Halt and reverse!”
In the confusion of horses that followed, Colinbard and Rayna found time to lean from their saddles and share a kiss. And then they were off, leading a steady stream of horses and soldiers back north –– and then west.
Five more times did Gemen, Tetch, and Velori delay or misdirect their pursuers. They destroyed a bridge over a high gorge, they broke open an upstream beaver dam and flooded the road, they laid caltrops and netting, they set tripwires and, once, right in the heart of the vast Samandwan forests, in a natural amphitheatre of towering duskwood trees, Tetch spent the best part of a day laying an enchantment on the roadway that would, or so he assured Gemen, cause the Corvaenish riders to ride in a tight circle and return by the way they’d come, none the wiser for hours.
“It’s a guarantee!” said Tetch, more than a little defensively.
“When I do a thing,” said Velori, “I simply do it, and leave off the guarantees.”
Tetch, limping from swollen joints, ignored Velori and clambered back up the wagon. “Onward!” he cried. “Before we snare ourselves in our own trap!”
“Not likely,” muttered Velori.
“Come now, girl!” said Tetch. He’d sprawled into the back of the wagon next to Dorvic, and already had his hand in a five-quart barrel of pungent spice-and-molasses oats. “All this time spent with Gemen, and you’ve yet to develop a belief in magicks?”
“What I believe,” said Velori, “is that we’ve set obstacles aplenty, and we’re still being followed. We gain a few hours from this, perhaps –– but these are not the sort of pursuers to turn back.”
Fifteen days after leaving Tetch’s farm, their road rose to a ridgeline where the land fell away before them, allowing a rare good view. The sun was slipping past midday in a nearly cloudless sky, and in the farthest distance stood mountains. Somewhat nearer, a clearing or two could be seen, light green patches cut like quilt squares from the surrounding sea of forest.
“Progress, Gemen,” said Tetch. “If I’m not very much mistaken, the headwaters of the Thelden River rise in those peaks.”
“And in their shadows, Sylnar.”
“A strong nation,” Tetch said, nodding. “I recruited there once. Twice, maybe.”
“Strong it may be,” said Gemen, and he pointed southwest, “but this particular corner of it is currently under attack.”
Several of the wagon drivers had already spotted what Gemen saw: a series of dark, angry plumes, the smoke rising to a height of several hundred feet, then leveling and forming a river of cloud that flowed slowly east with the wind. The nearest and darkest of these lay only an hour’s ride westward.
“Whoever that is,” said Tetch, “they keep to the borders.”
“Mercenaries, then,” said Gemen. “Warhounds and scavengers.”
“And headed, I note, directly toward us.”
Velori joined them. “You’ve spent a week telling me how isolated Sylnar is. Who would bother coming here?”
“I have no idea,” said Gemen, “but if we hurry, we may never have to know. At the bottom of this ridge, our road divides and we go south, away from Sylnar. We would be well served to get there ahead of whoever lit those fires.”
The wagon wheels squealed in protest and the various loads shifted and bucked, but the mules, perhaps because the road led almost entirely downhill for the next hour, were cooperative, and they raced along at a greater speed than they had yet attempted.
“Nearly there!” called Gemen, whose wagon now led the way. “Hie! Hie!”
The trees thinned as they reached the swampy bottoms below the ridge, and stretches of open marsh appeared through the birch trunks. Herons lifted off and turtles splashed for cover as Gemen’s wagons clattered around a final rutted bend, careened over a boardwalk bridge, and nearly ran directly into an advance party of red-armored soldiers, who, like Gemen’s company, were just coming into the three-way intersection on the bridge’s westward side.
“Gemen!” yelled Tetch. “Watch out!”
Pandemonium ensued. Velori somersaulted off the wagon, and in the same instant, a volley of arrows took flight from the little knot of red-clad fighters. As Gemen attempted to slow the mules while simultaneously forcing them left and onto the south fork of the raised roadbed, the mules’ hooves skidded in the soft soil and gravel, and the wagon, like a slowly breaking wave, tipped over, throwing Gemen, Tetch, and Dorvic almost at the feet of their adversaries. Provisions flew in all directions, and one of Gemen’s heavy chests smashed open on hitting a tree; its contents, two of the precious archway stones, slumped sideways into a pool of peat moss and reeds.
The second and third wagons managed to avoid the wreck of Gemen’s wagon and kept right on, their mules sprinting now while their drivers whipped them to even greater efforts. The remainder of the wagons stalled, brought up short of the bridge by the flying arrows and shrieks of the two injured mules ahead, both of which were struggling mightily to rise and free themselves from their harnesses. Tetch, floundering on the ground only yards from his attackers, had an arrow in his thigh and another in his shoulder; Gemen, unhurt, was already darting for cover behind the overturned wagon, while Dorvic lay flopped where he fell.
That left Velori to take on all ten of their opponents. Without allowing herself to think, she let out a piercing battle cry and vaulted into their midst.
But these were unlike any opponents she had ever faced. Their bulbous, enameled armor was colored a deep resinous red, while their helmets and visors came studded with bumps and horns like some outrageous two-legged crab.
Then she caught sight of their eyes.
“Dominion, Goddess! Aid me!”
Just the saying of it gave her confidence, knowing that aid would come, and fast, in the form of the two great weavers, spiders of black and yellow and sickly green, and that as soon as they leaped into the fray, her enemies would die like geese on a feast-day. She kicked and ducked, whirled and stabbed, all but singing with the fury of her own attack. It wasn’t easy. Pain, that was what won fights, and the best place to scar and ruin was the face, but these soldiers’ helmets jutted forward, with mandible-like extensions surrounding the jaws, and she couldn’t get through. Still, there’d been ten men at first, and she’d dropped two –– no, three –– and at least two were running, racing back the way they’d come.
If she could only avoid meeting their eyes! They were black, solid black, as if the pupil had surged and swollen to cover the entire eyeball. Only one race tinted their eyes before battle: Thornlanders. She had fought them once before, though their armor then had been different. She had hoped never to meet them again.
Starlight, where were the weavers?
Something clubbed hard into her back and she fell, rolling as she did so, changing direction instinctively. A spear jabbed into her side, cutting skin but only just. She rolled again, felt her flesh rip where the spear had briefly pinned her, and sprang back to a standing position. She got one knife up to block an incoming thrust, but was too late to deflect the mace that came next. She tried to roll with the blow, but even that went wrong; she flew backwards and tumbled off the road into the wet, weedy scrub beyond.
“Kill her, quick,” said a voice, and three red-armored shapes advanced, weapons sharp as teeth and gleaming in a sudden blaze of sunlight.
Woozy, empty-handed, Velori tried to get her bearings. Something had hit her head. What? And where were the weavers? Hadn’t she called on the Goddess?
“Nice day,” she said to the approaching warriors, flashing her most disarming smile. “Did you happen to see my knives?”
The nearest soldier drew back his arm to drive his sword home, but as he did so, he was lifted off his feet and hurled into his two startled companions, all of whom fell with a clatter of lacquered armor into a tangled roadside heap.
Velori swayed, sat down again, and looked up in disbelief to find Dorvic looming over her. Behind him, in his wake, lay the groaning bodies of the rest of the Thornlands force.
“Dorvic?” she asked. “Is that you?”
He wore only simple underclothes and a knitted shirt; his trousers had a flap in back like a child’s, a convenience ordered specially by Gemen. He carried no weapons, bore no armor. He was simply there, staring blankly at Velori, as massive and hairy and muscled as ever.
“Thanks,” Velori said, and she shook her head to clear it, then located her knives in the duff at her feet. “Are you… can you talk?”
Dorvic blinked –– and then, as the trio of fallen soldiers began to stir, banging against each other like lobsters in a net, he strode over, picked up the first, and snapped his neck.
He plucked the second man from the pile.
“No, Dorvic! He’s down, he’s defenseless!”
And then he turned, his blank stare fixing itself, more or less, on Velori.
She backed up. “Dorvic, did I summon you? Are you what the Goddess sent, instead of the weavers?”
Dorvic walked around her, lifted one of the two surviving Thornlanders from the roadway, and, using the man’s own sword, gutted him from belly to throat.
“Goddess!” Velori cried, looking now to the sky. “Goddess, release him! They are down, they do not offend!”
Without a word, Dorvic drove lethal wounds into the remaining red-armored soldiers until eight corpses lay in the road. That task complete, Dorvic lifted his head and walked purposefully toward the fallen wagon, the bloody sword gripped in his meaty hand. Once there, he jammed the sword into the roadbed and put his shoulder to the wagon’s upper edge.
Gemen, who’d just come out of hiding, took a moment to assess the situation, then nodded enthusiastically.
“That’s it, Dorvic. We’ll tip it right back on its feet, get it moving again.” He turned and called up the road. “Lend a hand! The sooner this one’s mended, the sooner we make our escape!”
The drivers and builders hurried forward, and with Dorvic mutely leading the effort, they soon had the wagon, which had landed on its side, back on its wheels. Amazingly, the axles had held, leaving only one wheel seriously damaged by the crash. Four spokes had shattered, and the rim, reinforced though it was, had splintered inwards, bent like a piece of Othgren flatbread.
“Tetch,” said Gemen, “if we take the weight off it, bend it back, can you hold it together? Even for an hour?”
Tetch gave a barely perceptible nod, his face bone-white and tense. “Move me closer,” he whispered. “I’ll need to touch… ”
Six men plus Dorvic reached under the wagon’s bed and heaved it upward; the wheel spun, and Tetch caught it in his knuckled fingers.
“Starlight,” whispered one of the wagon drivers. “Would you look at that.”
The wood under Tetch’s hands was turning a glossy black and becoming fibrous, as if vines coursed beneath its surface. Tetch grunted and leaned his body closer. Now all of the broken sections of the wheel were laced sticky-black; whatever it was, it looked like tar but smelled distinctly of old meat.
With a sickly groan, Tetch released the wheel and slumped back against Gemen. “It will serve,” he whispered.
“Load her!” cried Gemen. “Put Tetch in back, where Dorvic was. Velori, with Tetch –– fix what you can. Don’t let him die. We ride, my friends! We ride fast, we ride hard, we ride now! And somebody secure those bricks!”
The temporary command post of Raider Marshal Evrin the Bloodhawk was the kitchen of a lately taken tinsmith’s home, and the red stains seeping over the table were fresh, still tacky, the results of the final struggle with the house’s former and recently dispatched owner. Now it was Evrin’s house –– and the table, too, to spread loot and maps on as he pleased, which was just what he was doing, together with several more-or-less trusted subordinates, when a sentry herded two panting scouts through the door.
“Demanding to speak, sir,” said the sentry. “Said they were setting an ambush when they got attacked.”
Evrin stood to his full height and considered the two scouts, both of whom had only just removed their helms. The tint in their eyes was running out, making the whites speckled like a songbird’s eggs. Nervous, Evrin decided, but probably not lying. Too tired for that.
“How far have you run?” he demanded.
“Not sure,” said the first, but the second one broke in. “From the Thelden cut-off. An hour back.”
The kitchen fell silent but for the scouts’ heavy breathing while Evrin the Bloodhawk frowned, considering. He cut an imposing figure, and would have done so even without the bulky layers of indigo velvet that had been stitched over top of his combat armor. Streaks of red enamel still showed at the joints, and he wore an enormously wide blade at his belt, its hilt studded with bone fragments and teeth. His hair was pale like desert grass, and his skin, like all in his company, was dark –– darker, even than Velori’s. When the doomed tinsmith had stared into Evrin’s eyes not forty minutes before and begged for mercy, he had seen no response, not even a flicker of emotion –– but then, such things were difficult to see in Evrin, or his soldiers, given their terrifying eye tints. Evrin, as Marshal, used a copper-colored dye, and his eyes resembled impassive, deadly coins.
“What,” said Evrin softly, “did your opponents look like?”
“They were women, sir,” said the first scout. “Islanders.”
“Islanders?” said Evrin, with near disbelief. “Here?”
The second scout nodded emphatically. “Dominion’s, too. I heard her call for aid.”
Evrin’s eyes narrowed and a quick breath of air shot through his teeth. “You lost men.”
“They had wagons,” said Evrin, striding out from behind the bloody table. “Two old men in the lead, one tall, one short. Am I right?”
The scouts looked at each other, confused.
“Did you see stones? Building stones, cut?”
Again, the blank looks –– and then the second scout snapped his fingers. “Yes! A trunk fell from the wagon, it burst. Inside, blocks of off-white rock.”
Evrin’s mouth stretched wide in a slow and spreading smile, a mirthless expression of triumph. “Well done,” he said, and he clapped the nearest scout on the shoulder. “It has been a long march, but our quarry is in sight.”
He strode to the door. Cheerful sunshine was trying to pierce the smoke of a hundred scorching fires –– crops and buildings both, also bodies –– and as Evrin leaped up on a flour barrel, he pumped his mailed fists in the air.
“My friends!” he called. “Warriors of the south! Today is the prophecy fulfilled! We have sighted the spider priestess and her magician allies! Our chance is come, our way is clear! We have had plunder, we have had riches, but now, two years into our march, we come to the goal. Hard riding today, hard riding tomorrow, and we shall have our moment of glory –– our chance to stamp out the evils of spellcraft from our world forevermore!”
He paused, his lungs swelling with the effort of speaking to so many, and his eyes swept the crowd. Soldiers, yes, both horse and foot, most garbed in identical red lacquered armor, but beyond these, spread out in all directions, were the coattails of his five-hundred-man army: the cooks and whores, the sappers and tinkers, the dregs and support of every great force.
Evrin drank in the scene, reveling in it; for this he had been groomed, for this he had staked his life. “We entrust you with our vision,” the Thornland priests had said. “Go north, go in battle, and we will show you what you seek. When you find it, follow that vision to a great stone portal. Take it, destroy it, and our people will be safe forever more.”
Evrin momentarily bowed his head, murmured a prayer to the sun, then raised his eyes to the scattered hordes before him. The acrid smoke stung his eyes and made sandpaper of his throat. His stomach rumbled. Did other commanders, he wondered, also tend to forget about eating?
He spoke again, as quietly as he dared. “I shall ask but once, my friends.” And then, summoning all his strength, he let loose a blood-lust yell. “Ride you with me?”
The roar he received in response was thunderous. Deafening. Deadly.
No matter what Evrin’s wishes, armies of five hundred never assemble or march quickly, and by nightfall, Gemen’s wagons had put hours of travel between them. For a time, Velori thought she might lose Tetch, that their breakneck pace and the thudding, hammering ride would end the old man’s life. Curing the wounds was out of the question. Even with Dominion’s energies channeling through her and into him, it was all she could to simply keep him stable.
At one of their infrequent stops, just enough to feed and water the mules, Gemen took Tetch’s hand, and Tetch, feverish and sweating, woke long enough to attempt a smile.
“I always wondered if one of my students would finally be the death of me,” he said. “I never thought it would be you.”
Gemen nodded, his expression regretful.
“Do you remember,” Tetch continued, “being young?”
For a moment, Gemen said nothing.
“No,” said Gemen at last. “I’m far too old to remember something as fleeting as that.”
But as he climbed back onto the wagon’s hard front bench, padded only with a blanket, he thought of Thia, and how clearly he remembered her as a girl. Always twelve, his sister, at least in his memory, forever locked in a bower of youth.
“On!” cried Gemen, taking the reins. “Another hour and we’ll reach the Middle Port, and safety!”
Two days later, Lord Colinbard, Lady Rayna, and the riders of Corvaen reached the same Middle Port, a docking point and ferry crossing on the upper Thelden. Very little remained of the port beyond smoke and ashes, and in the collapsed ruin of the larger buildings, embers still smoldered in the wreckage.
“Thornland raiders, m’lord,” announced the advanced scouts, when Colinbard rode up. “The same we spotted from the ridge.”
“Which way?” Colinbard demanded. “By road or by river?”
“The road, m’lord,” answered the scout. “Most of the boats got away. They had warning, from Gemen’s wagon train, apparently. Every boat in harbor weighed anchor.”
“Curious,” said Colinbard. “I had assumed these mercenaries were working for Gemen.”
“I’d doubt that, m’lord. They lost buildings, but no lives.”
“To a force numbering… ?”
“They guess five hundred, maybe more, with camp followers besides.”
The Shieldlord gazed across the wide, flat expanse of the Thelden to where a cluster of barges and ferries huddled along the far bank. To Rayna, he said, “If we knew Gemen’s destination, I would choose the river without hesitation. It’s quicker, we can travel the Thelden by night without cease for rest, and we know Gemen himself chose this way.”
“Gemen’s wagons,” said Rayna, “could disembark at almost any point without our knowing.”
“Exactly my fear.”
Rayna leaned low on the saddle to rub her horse’s neck and stared first at the river, then at the road. “I would still choose the water.”
Colinbard returned his attention to the scout. “Are there enough boats remaining to carry our number?”
The scout made a non-committal gesture. “It’d be a squeeze, sir, at least with horse. But we could send a rower over, find out.”
“Do so –– and discover also if the road cleaves to the river all the way to the falls. It would be nice to know where and when these raiders will reappear.”
The scout dipped his head, said, “Yes, m’lord,” and hurried toward the riverbank.
“Well,” said Lord Colinbard, “now two armies pursue our friend Gemen. I wonder which will be the common enemy.”
Overhead, a chevron of geese honked their way east, toward the setting sun. Rayna pushed a stray lock of hair out of her face and pointed after them. “Do you ever wonder,” she said, “why the sun always rises in the west and sets in the east?”
“Not anymore,” Colinbard replied, trying to sound jovial. “Why? Would you like to change it?”
The geese disappeared over a stand of distant evergreens, and Rayna shook her head. In watching her sober face, Colinbard grew serious.
“I dreamed again,” she said, “of leaves, dried herbs. I was running them through my fingers. There were others with me, in a cave with bubbling pools of water. I looked into the quietest pool, but instead of my reflection, I saw an arch. People were charging toward it. Gemen was there, with ropes and fulcrums, trying to set the last stone in place. I looked through the portal, and there was a little girl. Walnut hair, like mine. She said, ‘Rayna, I’m lost. Can you take me home?’”
A breeze came up and blew the strands of hair back into Rayna’s face, and she swatted them angrily.
“It was a battlefield,” she said. “What was this little girl doing there?”
On the water, a rowboat splashed away from shore, sculling toward the opposite bank. Colinbard watched its progress and willed it to hurry.
“Would that you had no dreams at all, m’lady,” he said. “Not of that sort, anyway.”
Rayna nodded, chin down. “I never used to dream this way.”
“You’re not to blame.”
She looked up again, met Colinbard’s eye, and took his mailed hand. “He’s going to Melinol.”
“Melinol? How do you know?”
“I just know.”
Lord Colinbard grimaced, but held tight to her hand. “A dream, then? A guess?”
“No, not a guess.”
“What, then? Something solid would be helpful.”
She laughed, high and sudden, stress and nerves. “You won’t believe me.”
“You can’t know that unless you speak.”
“Very well. I know the things I know because of spiders.”
“Spiders?” He didn’t mean to sound dismissive, but her words were so far from whatever it was he’d expected, he couldn’t help himself. “Rayna, you hate spiders.”
Rayna winced. “Hate, no –– but fear, oh, yes. They speak to me.”
“They give messages. For as long as I can remember. It’s awful.”
“And a spider told you we aim for Melinol?”
She felt herself tearing up and quickly wiped at her eyes with the back of her wrist. “I am not crazy.”
“I’ve neither said nor implied that you are.”
“I didn’t ask for this.”
“Rayna. Just answer me. A spider told you we must ride for Melinol?”
Very slowly, very carefully, Rayna reached for a jeweled box looped to her belt, opened it, and withdrew a green and black spider half the size of her palm. Once on her skin, it spun around like a lodestone, seeking, testing the wind.
“Not a spider,” she said. “This one.”
Colinbard stared, too stunned to utter a sound. The last time he’d felt such pure dread was during his boyhood assault on Cleon’s crypt.
“It’s been with me since Gemen robbed my house, and I have learned to listen when it speaks. It was right about the hidden road. It was right about our riding in circles. And it is right about this. I’m sorry.”
She paused, choked back a sob, and hurriedly dropped the spider back into its box.
“M’lord, there is more. The weaver –– the spider –– it insists that Gemen and those with him are not enemies but allies. I have not been given to know why, but I do know that whatever Gemen means to accomplish, we must do all in our power to help him succeed.”
Feeling very much out of his element, almost ill, Colinbard took refuge in a mental map –– he lacked a real one in any case –– a map of the Thelden River Valley from its source in the Sylnar mountains south to the falls and the giant Thelden River Gorge, then west to the Wide and the sea. Melinol, a land he’d never expected to even come near, lay somewhere south of the river as it bent west, many days’ travel even from the bottom of the gorge.
He thought back to his last audience with his king, how he’d insisted this journey be undertaken, how certain he’d been that Gemen needed to be caught, captured, and returned. That had seemed sensible enough when Gemen and his wagons were only days from Corvaen’s borders but now, ill-supplied and very far from home, the easy conviction of pursuit-and-capture was feeling less firm by the hour. By adding to that the mystical directives of a spider, its sudden suggestion of a change of allegiance, and the world, his sense of purpose and duty, all felt inverted. Even so, was there anywhere to go but forward?
He called to the nearest ordnance officer, who rode closer. “We take to the river,” he said, “and that for many days. Supply us as best you can. It would be best if we made no stops between here and the falls.”
“You’ll see soon enough. Hurry.”
The officer spurred her horse, and Colinbard turned back to Rayna, who faced away. “Rayna,” he said. “Look at me.”
He reached out a hand, pressed it to f Rayna’s face, and turned her towards him.
She blinked and sniffed, then whispered, “I’m scared.”
Colinbard, barely able to breathe, could only nod in reply.
By the time Gemen’s ferry-barges reached the Port of the Upper Falls, the nights had turned chilly with a hint of autumn frost. All talk was of getting quickly below the gorge and into the warmer flatlands beyond, where lasting cold would be several more weeks in arriving.
Velori had already walked with Gemen and the more curious wagon drivers to a lookout point above the main cataract, from which they could see the waterfall’s dizzying drop and the breathtaking canyons opening like eroded teeth from there to the horizon and beyond.
“How far down?” asked Velori, the roar of the plunging water almost drowning her out. “A thousand feet?”
“More,” Gemen replied. “We’ll drop another five thousand before we reach the mouth of the gorge. But after that, we take to the water again.”
“How many days with the wagons?”
“Six to the Lower Port, but we have a good lead. I see no possibility of the raiders catching us.”
Gemen laughed. “Always the pessimist,” he said. “Come, let’s make Tetch as comfortable as possible.”
Velori tore her gaze from the astonishing power of the gigantic waterfall and hurried to catch up with Gemen. Their ferries had docked on the western shore, a precaution specifically ordered by Gemen given that the Thornlander army had trailed them exclusively from the east. “Even if they do reappear,” he’d assured the drivers and building crew, “even if they have somehow managed to keep up with the Thelden’s constant current, riding day and night, never sleeping, they’ll again be on the wrong shore. And yes, there’s an east road down the gorge, but it is longer, undeveloped. We have every advantage, we are perfectly safe.”
By late afternoon, they were on their way, led by experienced wagonmasters from the Thelden River Trading Guild. Their destination: Rockwall Camp, the first of the route’s long-established overnight layovers.
Dorvic walked at the back of the wagons, neither speaking nor giving any sign that he understood the speech of those around him. He merely proceeded, avoided by all except Velori and Gemen. Even Tetch, who was somewhat recovered thanks to Velori’s ministrations, steered clear of Dorvic. “Unnatural,” he declared. “No good will come of this, Gemen. Mark me.”
“Quiet, old man,” said Velori, “or I’ll tell the Goddess you preferred your wounds the way they were.”
Down the gorge they went, on a roadbed sometimes wide enough for wagon trains to pass in either direction, sometimes sufficiently narrow that barely one wagon could inch past without kicking gravel into the sheerest of chasms below. Most of Gemen’s team had never heard such a place existed, but given their Guildsman escort, paid for by Gemen, they soon forgot their initial fear and fell to commenting on the canyons, their height, their depth, the phenomenal colors in the rocks. In certain escarpments, black bands bordered chalk yellow and sunset orange; in other spots, layers of greenish clays gave way to blindingly bright cliffwalls that eroded at the lightest touch. A harsh beauty, the Andolin men decided, but beauty nonetheless.
Over five days, they passed four merchant trains going the other way, but met no resistance and saw no signs of pursuit.
“You see?” said Gemen, from atop a wagon. “We have won the race.”
Velori, walking alongside, favored him with a sour look. “I know something of Thornlanders. They’ve been sacking my islands for centuries, and here we find a large band working a year or maybe two years north of where they ought to be, but as soon as they spot us, they abandon the rich pickings of Sylnar and turn right ‘round and follow us into the middle of nowhere. They’re questing, Gemen. Odds are, they think we’re part of a prophecy.”
“They think everything’s part of some prophecy.”
Velori folded her arms. “They’re not giving up. It’s simply not their way.”
“Perhaps. You realize they do not call themselves Thornlanders.”
“It has never occurred to me to care.”
“They call themselves the Lost People or, in complete form, the Lost People of Ariyca. Do you know where Ariyca is?”
Velori glared at him. “You know I don’t.”
“Just south of Melinol. An adjacent land, just as ancient, just as abandoned. Curious, don’t you think?”
“About matters at which you are an expert, I prefer never to think.”
Gemen sighed. “The Thornlanders’ creation stories are all about bridges. Stone bridges, single spans of keystone rock, each one shattered, fallen. They believe their world will finally be free from war when the bridge is forever destroyed, piece by stony piece. If I were you, I would be wondering if perhaps their bridges and the portal we carry are one and the same.”
Velori kicked a rock off the road and watched it skitter and bounce down a nameless, lethal gully. “One person’s prophecy is just the marker on another person’s grave. Unless it’s yours, what do you care?”
At the Lower Port, where the canyon country abruptly gave way to dry, rolling plains, the guildsmen ushered their wagon train onto a new series of barges and brushed off Gemen’s warnings that not one but two armies followed in their wake.
“Armies are welcome customers,” said one. “They typically pay well. But, if it turns out they’ve got an axe to grind, well –– we know how to engineer a landslide or two. A hostile company in this gorge tends not to reach the other side.”
Three days they spent on the suddenly populous river, a great liquid snake loaded with fishing boats and flanked by hamlets, villages and towns. They floated past cities, castles, and signal-towers, the latter built on pontoons and warning of sandbars.
“My original home,” said Gemen one day, pointing to the southern shore. “I was born just there, behind the dairy.”
“I had no idea you were born,” said Velori, straight-faced. “I thought you just… were.”
Tetch, watching Gemen’s dour expression, burst out laughing. “Have a care, Velori. I’ll wager his sister was born there, too.”
He might have continued, but a sudden cough shook him –– not the first he’d had of late. Despite Dominion’s healing, the rampaging fevers he’d suffered in the wake of the Sylnar skirmish had settled deep in his chest, and in the early mornings and late evenings, he could hardly stop coughing. Velori made poultices and forced him to swallow vinegar teas brewed with riverrim seed pods, but while they assuaged, they did not cure.
“Age,” said Tetch regretfully. “No cure for that.”
They disembarked less than an hour later, at what the boatmen assured them was the main road south into the Melinol settlements.
“Busier all the time,” said the chief boatman as he tied the barge off with a rope as thick as his bicep. “Got a cousin there now, swears it’s the safest place in the world.”
They re-supplied at the town market, double-checked the condition of their wagons—–the one ruined wheel had long since been replaced –– and were riding south, away from the Thelden, by late afternoon. The surrounding farms looked prosperous, full of ready-for-harvest crops and summer-fat sheep. People waved and wished them good travels; several asked if they could deliver packages and letters to Melinol relatives. Gemen tried to refuse, but Tetch, ever social, accepted each request with high good humor and devout promises to hand-deliver each gift and card.
“We have no time, Tetch,” growled Gemen, as they tore free of yet another supplicant. “No time.”
“Have a heart, my friend,” said Tetch. “You’ve been proclaiming for days that we’re perfectly safe –– ‘We’ve won the race!’ –– and now it’s run, hurry, push, push!”
Gemen’s stare betrayed no emotion, but when he spoke, his voice was dangerously measured. “Building the arch is only half the battle. Knowing what to do with it –– Tetch, you understand as well as anyone that I receive impressions, not precise instruction! It could take days, weeks, before I know for certain who, if anyone, is supposed to pass through.”
Tetch rolled his eyes. “All I mean to say is I like you better when you’re not in a hurry.”
On the second day, the farms gave way to a belt of thick, tangled forest, but on the third day, the forest petered out and before them lay the grasslands of Melinol, the gentle undulating hills punctuated by groves of massively tall, thick-trunked trees.
“Temple trees, they call them now,” said Tetch. “What did they call them in your day, Gemen?”
“We had no name,” Gemen replied, dissembling.
Tetch, coughing hard, didn’t notice Gemen’s obvious discomfort with this line of talk. He wiped his lips with a blood-stained sleeve and pressed on, saying, “Come, you must have called them something.”
Gemen shook his head. “We were settlers, trying not to starve in a new land. Naming trees –– it wasn’t something we did.”
Tetch harrumphed with disappointment. “No imagination, Gemen. That’s always been your problem.”
He might have chosen to speak further, but his cough had worsened; more often than not, he hacked up clots of blood and hunks of slug-yellow mucous. As for Velori’s many remedies, he now waved them away. “No more,” he croaked. “Leave an old man to die without such awful tastes in his mouth.”
In any case, Gemen wasn’t listening. Lost in thought, he was remembering back to when he and Thia had first explored the groves nearest their brand-new family farm. “So big,” she’d said, letting her hand disappear completely into the folds of one tree’s armor of bark. “They must be as old as mountains. Let’s call them history trees!” And Gemen, ever in his sister’s thrall, had nodded, eyes shining. “History trees,” he’d said, and they’d solemnly shaken hands. “Our secret,” said Thia. “Just ours.”
At suppertime, they arrived at the settlement once founded by Gemen’s parents, now called Grainwind, a thriving town of nearly a thousand. Before entering, Gemen warned Velori and Tetch not to mention to anyone that he had once lived here, that he knew many families still, at least by name.
“And do we drop a little hint about incoming Thornlands raiders?” Velori asked. “Just a mild warning, maybe?”
“What about your own family?” Tetch asked. “Your parents might still be living.”
Gemen hesitated, wavered, but then he steeled himself, and his expression closed like a lid. “Not to me, they’re not, and I’m sure the feeling remains mutual. As for an army, we’ve seen no sign for how many days? A week, at least. These people are in no danger.”
At this, Tetch raised an eyebrow, but then a fresh bout of coughing overtook him, and neither he nor Velori raised any further objections.
It took only minutes to hand their mail to a corpulent postmaster, and soon they’d passed through Grainwind and out the other side, where the road devolved quickly into a rutted track leading to a mill, a sawyer, and a single, outlying farmhouse. After that, the road became a footpath soon swallowed by a prairie wall of grasses, cloudflowers, thistles, and more. Gemen, balanced high atop the lead wagon, stared across the waving sea of plants, chewing all the while on his lower lip. The settling air smelled spicy, almost warm, but Gemen seemed not to notice.
“Dead end?” said Velori. “We can turn around, go home?”
“I thought they’d have run a road by now,” said Gemen. “There’s good stone out there, too valuable to just leave lying around.”
“Not so valuable as all that,” came a voice from behind him, and Gemen turned to find a middle-aged woman, sturdy and sunburned, standing at the edge of the last farm’s final crop of cabbage. She peered up at Gemen, frowning. “You’ve been to Melinol before.”
“And you’ve been out toward the ruins.”
“Well, no one goes there now. Of an evening, we hear voices. Children, mostly. Weird laughter. And many years back, when we built our first cabin, a man and a near-grown boy came up, strangers both, the young one claiming he belonged to a villager. They sent him packing, but you’ll find no farms to the southwest, and no roads, neither. That trail at your feet goes to the stream, and stops. Frankly, I’d advise you to found your farm elsewhere.”
“Madam,” said Tetch, after clearing his throat, “the last thing we want to do ––“
“Tetch, be quiet,” said Gemen. He turned back to the farmer. “We thank you for your advice. But we will push on.”
“Your wagons’ll have a hard time of it.”
Gemen nodded. “I expect that’s so.”
It took them the rest of the day to cover a few hundred yards, for what children can slip through, mule teams cannot, and the prairie plants were tougher than Gemen had remembered. They used sickles, scythes, and even Dorvic’s recovered Thornlander sword, a great broad blade, slightly curved, that served better than anything else they had. With the exception of Tetch, who napped and, when awake, shivered with chills and fever, they worked ‘til purple dusk and beyond, but when total darkness overtook them, the wagon drivers told Gemen they’d had enough, that they were headed to town for drinks, a bath, and whatever else they pleased.
Gemen made an effort to stop them, but Tetch talked him down. “They’ve done good work, traveled half the world at your behest. They’ll be back in the morning –– if not for your sake, then for the sake of your coin.”
“Of which I have precious little remaining,” said Gemen, staring into the darkness at their half-made track of a road. “What’s that?” he said. “I hear… ”
“It’s Dorvic,” said Velori. “Listen.”
Sure enough, they heard the sound of threshing, of metal clashing with stem and stalk.
“Uncanny,” breathed Tetch, rasping a bit. “Listen to him go.”
Gemen glanced at Velori. “You ordered this?”
“He does what the Goddess wishes. If I knew more, I’d tell you.”
They slept that night to the sound of crickets, windsparrows, and owls –– and also the endless, slowly receding threshing sounds of Dorvic and his stolen blade, hacking and cutting his way deeper and deeper into Melinol’s stubborn, waiting prairie.
By the evening of the next day, with Dorvic always in the lead and seeming never to tire, they reached their goal: the low hill, the vale and marsh below, the meadow and ruins beyond, the slumping stones still blue-black and huge, and the twenty-odd buildings just as collapsed as before, with no sign whatsoever that the Grainwind settlers had ever, not even once, come to plunder them for their own use. Where Gemen claimed the arch had once stood were a few stunted grasses together with patches of dirt turned mud-sticky from a brief afternoon shower.
The wagonmasters, with one exception, showed no fear of the ruins and went immediately to work, with Gemen yapping orders at their heels like some small and frantic dog. The one man who did take an instant dislike to the spot had been among their steadiest drivers, a man of gentle humor and a waiting family. Now, he simply retreated to the farthest wagon and sat facing back toward town. When questioned by Gemen, he said, “Take my pay if you like, but I’m not going closer and that’s final.”
Privately, Velori and Tetch shared his apprehension. “Which is odd,” said Tetch, coughing a little and supporting himself with one hand on a wagon wheel. “Last time I was here, I remember feeling entirely natural. As if my being here were the most reasonable thing on earth.”
“It wasn’t,” said Velori.
“Given the evidence, one suspects not.”
The men set torches and lanterns, and when they finally called it a night, an entire network of beams and rigging was in place. “At first light,” said Gemen, “we will begin.”
Winches. Pulleys. Struts and braces of timber framed for the express purpose of lifting and emplacing stone. Fulcrums for leverage. Rope of various grades. It was, said Velori, her dreams –– her nightmares –– come true. “I feel like that poor driver,” she said to Gemen. “All I want to do is break and run.”
“Then wish him well. I sent him homeward hours ago. With full pay.”
So insistent was Gemen on an early start that he ordered the remaining builders to stay in camp, and that night, they dropped off to the sound of Tetch’s increasingly painful coughs and the whisper of a steady, moaning wind as it tossed the boughs of the mighty temple trees. Once, wild dogs took up howling, and just before dawn, a small herd of antelope crossed the meadow on the far side of the ruin, picking a delicate path around the sleeping encampment, then running all at once for no better reason than sudden, collective panic.
Gemen, who had sat up all night, watched the antelope spring away into the distance and considered, for the umpteenth time, Dorvic’s impassive, silent form. The Corvaen warrior stood with his feet shoulder-width apart, leaning on his sword, guarding the scaffolds. For most of the night, Gemen would have sworn that Dorvic’s gaze had been fastened entirely on him. It felt like being examined, far too closely, by the deepest blank gaps in the roof of nighttime stars.
In the end, Gemen roused everyone (except Tetch, who coughed himself awake not long after) even before the sunrise proper, and after a quick breakfast of cheeses, palmfruit, and oatmeal, the footer blocks –– not so large, considering –– were lifted up and out of the wagons and set firmly in the dirt.
“Two down,” said Gemen to Velori. “Thirty-seven to go. We shall soon test the skills of Tetch’s hirelings.”
As early morning slid inexorably toward midday, Gemen was forced to concede that Tetch had done marvelously well in his choice of workmen. The work proceeded quickly, and the stones, foot by foot, rose into columns some eight feet apart. By noon, the day had turned almost tropically humid –– a layer of lumpy clouds blocked the sun like a blanket –– but the portal’s columns stood higher than any man present, Dorvic excepted.
“Well done!” said Gemen to Tetch, positively giddy with excitement. His feet would not keep still, and he pulled at alternate index fingers, nearly popping them out of joint.
“My pleasure,” said Tetch, in a feeble, husky voice. He lay on his side in the grass, watching the work with a hollow look. Violent coughs racked him with increasing frequency.
“How do you feel?”
“I feel,” mumbled Tetch, “unwell.”
Gemen, for a moment, stilled. “I should have left you to your teaching. This was too much, too much to ask.”
Tetch stretched his mouth into a semblance of a smile. “Now, now. I needed an excuse to retire, and your Andolin farmhouse was just the thing. And now, if I live to see sunset, I will witness a miracle. Not so shabby, eh?”
Gemen waited for Tetch’s next burst of coughing to subside before replying. “You’ll see something,” he said. “But I doubt you’ll remember it.”
“Maybe not,” said Tetch, agreeably. “But you did.”
“Proximity, perhaps,” Gemen said. “Proximity at the moment some other passes through. Or perhaps it’s just my particular fate, some unhappy talent for recalling worlds erased. Or then again, I could well imagine it’s a gift, the unwanted will of Dominion.”
Tetch’s eyes focused momentarily. “Why her? What does the Spider Goddess want with stones?”
“Who can say? But I can tell you for a fact that she is involved. She sent me Velori, of that I am certain, and I suspect it is she who now animates Dorvic. There are great forces at work here, old friend. A single theme with perhaps an infinite number of variations. I play my part as best I may.”
Tetch sniffed. “As you wish. At my age, I have but one part left.”
The work slowed briefly while the builders debated with Gemen about how to handle the arch’s shorter left side, its apparent missing block, but he assured them its lopsidedness was part of the design, and the work proceeded. The pace again dropped to a crawl as they placed the first stones that formed the rounded top of the portal’s arch, but after revising the deadman posts that lent support from beneath, the job proceeded, if anything, even faster than before.
“Do you see?” Gemen cried, trying to force Velori to face the rising portal. “One more brick plus the keystone! They’ll be done in half an hour, thrash me if they won’t!”
Velori shook free and faced away, northwest. “Gemen. Look.”
A thick column of pulsing black smoke was rising up from somewhere beyond the horizon, from a point almost exactly above the location of Grainwind.
“No,” breathed Gemen. “Not now.”
“Of course now,” said Velori. “Did you really think the Goddess sends dreams that lie?”
Gemen stared at her, pop-eyed. “How in a baker’s oven do you know that?”
“Dorvic told me.”
“Dorvic? He’s right over ––“
But he wasn’t. When Gemen whirled to spot Dorvic, whom he’d assumed he’d find leaning on his sword at the edge of the meadow, he was gone.
“Don’t bother,” said Velori. “He hiked to a hilltop overlooking Grainwind an hour ago, and he has a very good view. Not any more, though –– now he’s running back. Fast.”
“You are seeing –– right now –– through Dorvic’s eyes?”
Grim, Velori nodded. “The Corvaenish force reached the town first, and they’re still doing their best to defend it, but they’re outnumbered five to one. The main force of Thornlanders went around the town, bound straight for us. Colinbard and a small detachment from Corvaen, including Lady Rayna, are riding in pursuit.”
“Rayna! You recognize her?”
“No, but Dorvic does. Too well, as I recall.” As she spoke, she turned and grabbed Gemen by the collar, her eyes fierce. “Get those Andolin men to finish, then tell them to run for it. I’ll call what aid I can.”
She let him go as quickly as she’d grabbed him, but Gemen, swallowing, didn’t move.
“What are you doing? Move!”
“Velori,” said Gemen, his mouth suddenly dry, “I release you.”
Too surprised to answer, Velori simply stared.
“I mean it. Run. I release you from my service.”
“Gemen,” said Velori, as if to a very tiresome child, “go finish your arch.”
She spun him around and shoved him toward the portal. Gemen needed no further urging. He dashed away, shouting for speed as he went.
Velori turned to the ocean of grasses around her and fought, on unsteady legs, for a calm she did not feel. Fists clenched, she let her mind travel into the maze of plants, feeling out the tiny lives hiding within, the slugs and gnats and beetles, the moles and mice, the birds and even bats. All these she bypassed, letting her thoughts touch instead on Melinol’s eight-legged denizens, the spiders.
Come to me, she called. Aid me and aid your mistress.
And come they did, rustling and pattering from all directions, converging on the sward of meadow, encircling it in a living arachnid flood many thousands strong.
“Wait,” Velori said, and she held up a hand. “Wait for my signal.”
At that moment, Dorvic, red-faced and sweating with the effort of a full-bore sprint, topped the rise leading into the portal’s sheltered vale. As he came on, puffing hard, Velori began backing toward the hive of activity surrounding the portal, cutting free the few still-hitched mules as she went, then slapping them sharply on their rumps and sending them cantering off in all directions. Meanwhile, Dorvic swung himself up and into the supplies wagon and tore into a hitherto untouched satchel. Out came his helm, his shield, and a sword as long as Velori was tall.
Behind him, the builders were scrambling down off their wooden scaffolds and running for their lives toward the nearer of the two temple groves. The keystone remained out of place, swaying from a tentacled nest of ropes, two feet too high and three feet too far to the front; Gemen, in a state of positive panic, was hauling at a ballast line, trying in vain to shift the stone back toward the arch. Tetch, wobbling toward Gemen, did not look as if he would be any help.
“Dorvic!” called Velori, and she was surprised to hear a tremor in her voice. “How long do we have?”
Dorvic’s huge head swung around to face the wagon track, and as he did so, there came the sound of stampeding hooves, the ring of clashing steel, the shouts of warriors in panic and pain.
She couldn’t help a rueful grin. “That long, hmm?”
First came a trio of armored Thornlands riders, all three with bows. The first two nocked arrows and released with enviable speed. Both arrows struck Dorvic squarely in the chest. He staggered momentarily, but then he jumped lightly to the ground and lifted his old sword to a strike position as naturally as if nothing had happened.
Wide-eyed, Velori ran for the portal and Gemen. “Tetch!” she screamed. “Gemen, run! Get behind a wall!”
But Gemen had stopped dead. He was staring at the wagons. “The hand,” he said. “I need the wax hand.”
“Too late,” Velori said, but Gemen made a break for the wagons and, as another flight of arrows thudded into the ground around them, she had to catch him around the waist.
“Velori! Let go!”
Behind them, a river of red-armored horsemen was streaming down the wagon track, and while Dorvic had toppled two, he was in full retreat, dodging the mounted charge of the next. Five well-armed opponents now milled between Gemen and his storage chests, but still he struggled, kicking and clawing, demanding she let him go. Instead, she picked him up and flung him over the nearest tumbledown wall.
“Stay there,” she ordered. “Don’t move.”
Knives drawn, she spun to face the five Thornlanders.
“Come on, then,” she called, taunting. “So eager to die? Take another step!”
The first did, and as he moved, she dodged to the side, brought her right arm in high and drove her knife through the man’s teeth and into the back of his throat. As his neighbor aimed a strike, she deflected the blade with her first victim’s body, then danced to the left, cut the legs out from a third, and sprang back to meet the fourth.
“Goddess!” she cried. “Aid me!”
Before her remaining two opponents could even parry, they were felled from behind, their spines bitten through by a pair of weavers the size of hounds. Black they were, but more vivid than any bird, gilded with splashes of flame-yellow and fierce green. As the next wave of raiders rushed in, the two spiders leaped to flank Velori, ready to defend their mistress.
At the same moment, the meadow’s edges turned black with hurrying, scuttling movement as the army of waiting grassland spiders poured in toward the clearing’s center. Dorvic they ignored, but they swarmed up and over every other figure present, squirming under clothing and armor, biting and nipping, racing into ears and nostrils, blinding where they could. More riders were sweeping over the crest of the low hill and funneling their way down the rough-cut track –– to Velori, they looked like hogs racing down a slaughterhouse chute –– but those in the meadow –– thirty at least, maybe more –– were dropping to their knees, tearing at their armor, and screaming in pain.
The four nearest Velori had yet to be caught by the wave of scrambling arachnids, but they saw it coming, and they registered the wild glee in Velori’s eye. Whether they sensed she was the source, or whether they merely saw her as the lone impediment between death and escape hardly mattered. They charged.
Fifteen seconds later, all four lay dead at Velori’s feet, and her blades ran to the hilt with blood. Their armor had again caused her trouble –– in her estimation, it had taken twice the time it should have to cut them down –– but she was practiced now at finding weak points.
“More,” she murmured to the weavers, who had done their share. “Today Dominion hunts.”
She set off into the center of the crazed melee, with horses rearing and whinnying, men roaring in panic, and Dorvic laying about him with his sword, ending the lives of all who came in range. Of the spider army, half at least had been trampled and crushed, and more Thornlanders were flowing into the meadow, most still mounted, lethal opponents one and all.
And then, just at the top of the rise, Velori spotted a new force, riding just as hard and fighting saddle-to-saddle with the raiders beside them: warriors of Corvaen, led by Lord Colinbard.
From behind her, Velori heard a cry. “Fall back! Velori, Dorvic! Get out of the way!”
She ducked a spear thrust, kicked out to drop another man, and watched as Dorvic heeded Gemen’s warning cry. She, too, began a slow retreat, almost back-to-back now with Dorvic and aiming for the portal and its skin of heavy wooden scaffolding. She felt a bolt graze her scalp. Blood was dripping from her leg; when, she wondered, had that happened? It was a deep wound and bleeding freely; how long would she be able to stand?
From behind the wall, Gemen had pulled Tetch to a standing position and was even now bracing him to keep him on his feet. “You worked spells once!” he hissed. “Prove it again, if you value your life!”
“Spellworkers tire,” said Tetch, in a feeble voice. “Let me go.”
“I need that hand! Do something!”
For a moment, master and pupil locked eyes. Tetch’s entire being radiated sadness, exhaustion; Gemen burned like a bonfire, eyes alight and desperate.
Very slowly, even as the clamor of battle raged higher with the arrival of the Corvaenish force, Tetch set his jaw and nodded. “I will try.”
He clenched his fists, closed his eyes, muttered a streak of words under his breath. Gemen felt a breeze, then a wind. “It will not last,” breathed Tetch. “Be ready.”
As Tetch succumbed to a fit of wracking coughs, Gemen scrambled over the wall, and ran for the wagons. To his amazement, the Thornlands riders scattered before him, bowled over by a hurricane of wind that flung men from their saddles and shattered arrows in mid-flight. The nearest wagon flipped completely, crushing two men beneath it, but in the wind’s wake, Gemen had no difficulty in reaching the correct wagon. He dove into it, scrambling for the necessary trunk and fumbling a fat key into the latch. He yanked up the top, grabbed the stick with its chubby wax hand, and turned to run back.
But as he bounded down from the wagon, he found his way blocked: two Thornlanders, swords at the ready, stalking only him.
“Ah!” said Gemen, arms flung wide. “It’s good you’re here! Your marshal wants these wagons burned, and quickly. You have flint? Oil?”
As the battle surged behind them, with Colinbard’s force cutting a fearsome path toward the portal, and Velori and Dorvic smashing into the first wave of attackers to recover from the windstorm, the two raiders glanced at each other.
“The wagons?” said the first.
“Yes, and quick! I’d stay to help, but the marshal’s requested this for himself!” As proof, Gemen held up the stick and its mounted hand. “Good luck!”
Breath held, certain that he was about to feel a sword-stroke sunder his neck, Gemen bolted past. He only needed a moment, and he got it. The two soldiers realized they’d been tricked, but too late to strike, and instead they came pelting after Gemen, who made for the safety of Dorvic’s whirling blade with more speed than he’d ever thought himself capable.
Tetch had crept out from behind the wall and was also making for Velori and Dorvic. The combined forces of Corvaen, which had entered the meadow twenty-five strong, were down to seven. Dorvic was a pincushion of wounds, but amazingly, none of them bled. Velori had a hatchet buried in her left shoulder, and as she fended off her latest opponent, she was doing her best to tug the blade out. Of the prairie spiders, nothing remained, but Velori’s weavers sprang through the thick of the fight, always seeking the gaps in the Thornland armor: the backs of necks and knees, and anywhere else that presented itself.
Just as Gemen careened back to safety, a war horn’s blast sounded from the mouth of the road, and into the meadow swept Evrin the Bloodhawk, surrounded by a bodyguard of men nearly as massive as Dorvic himself.
“In the name of the prophecy!” roared Evrin. “Death to all who oppose us!”
With an agonized yell, Velori pulled the hatchet free, and flung it at Gemen’s closest pursuer. The axe missed the gap of his face but caught the mandibular jawpiece, whipping his head around so hard that he slammed into his companion, knocking them both to the ground.
Gemen, free at last to concentrate, aimed the stick and its wax hand up at the still-dangling keystone, willing it –– in Thia’s name, for Thia’s sake –– to shift.
And it did. An inch at first, swaying, then another, then a lurching foot. Without any aid from the tackle blocks and pulleys, it moved all on its own and Tetch, watching from where he’d sprawled, actually laughed.
“You’re doing it, Gemen! You’re doing it!”
“You could help! Or can you only make winds that lack control?”
“No,” Tetch murmured, “I can help.” And he extended his right hand, his fingertips poised in imitation of Gemen’s tool. Together they pushed at the air, pushed at the keystone, pushed it towards its final resting place.
Behind them, fighting in a semi-circle, Colinbard and Rayna joined shoulder to shoulder with Dorvic and Velori. Only two other Corvaeners remained, and still the raiders poured down the road, horse after horse, rider after rider.
“Well met, traitor!” yelled Colinbard to Dorvic, as he blocked a huge blow from yet another ink-eyed opponent. “Is this arch for what we fight?”
“He can’t hear you,” Velori said, feinting away from a sword thrust that caught Dorvic instead, slicing away both cloth and flesh –– but still bloodless, clean.
“I’ve got a better one for you,” Velori shot back. “Why in starlight aren’t you trying to kill me?”
“Ask our Goddess,” Rayna replied, parrying rapidly. “Or does Dominion leave even you in the dark?”
Evrin surged closer, riding over his own men in his haste. Tetch and Gemen were yelling at each other behind the battle line, arguing over position, and Velori glanced their way just as the keystone slipped into place with a grate of stone on stone. She turned back to find a spear tip jabbing directly at her chest, but in the instant it would have hit, Rayna clubbed it away, grabbed the haft and pulled its owner forward onto her blade.
“Thanks,” breathed Velori.
Rayna stared at her. “I know you.”
“And I you. How?”
Velori’s response was cut short as she parried a hail of blows from two attackers at once, and Rayna, too, was immediately re-engaged. Back to back they fought, their blades shimmering, each one thinking that the other was the finest combatant she’d ever seen.
With a deafening crunch, Colinbard and Evrin met shield to shield, but Evrin had the weight of his horse on his side, and he drove Colinbard so far back that Colinbard tripped over Gemen and fell, stunned. Gemen all but disappeared under Colinbard’s shield-arm.
“Tetch!” Gemen yelled. “Get him off me! I have to go through!”
But Tetch, who had shoved himself to his feet, stood gazing in rapture at the archway, the portal complete, and he slowly shook his head.
“Gemen, why didn’t you tell me? That’s me in there. Look how young!”
Evrin leaped from his saddle and landed next to Colinbard, who was struggling to rise. Colinbard blocked his first blow and rolled. On seeing Gemen beneath, Evrin roared with delight.
“He’s here!” he bawled. “I have him!”
A dozen things happened at once. Tetch lunged for the portal. Colinbard raised his sword for a mighty swing at Evrin. Evrin reached for Gemen, and Gemen, realizing he’d never gain the portal first, made a running leap at Tetch’s legs.
Behind them, swords caught both of Velori’s weavers, and umber blood spattered like rain. Dorvic fell, overpowered by four of Evrin’s bodyguards. Rayna took a blow to the eye, staggered, and caught a sword under her ribs. Velori, attempting to aid her, gasped as a blade pierced her belly.
“Goddess!” she cried, watching both Rayna and Dorvic topple, and realizing in the same moment that she’d lost control of her legs –– that she, too, was falling. “Goddess! Dominion! Why?”
Evrin missed Gemen.
Gemen nearly missed Tetch, then caught one bony ankle.
Colinbard connected with Evrin’s shoulder, driving him sideways, and Evrin, as he spun to face Colinbard, bellowed, “No! Don’t you see? None must use the portal!”
“Tetch!” shrieked Gemen. “Don’t!”
Too late. Tetch, coughing as if he would burst and dragging Gemen behind him, disappeared through the arch.
And there amidst the clatter of arms and the screams of the dying, lay Gemen, sprawled in defeat, half-in and half-out of the arch. Tetch had melted away, there was nothing there to grip, but as Gemen raised his head, he could just make him out as he waded into a gaggle of children in a riverside village bedecked with gardens of red cloudflowers. He was being welcomed as if people there knew him.
But then the view changed, preceded by a sort of muddy squelching sound. Gemen glanced up, and above him, he could see the portal breaking apart, but this time, unlike the last, it seemed to be happening in slow motion, and behind him, the battle, too, had crept to a torpid, gruesome crawl.
I’m neither in nor out, Gemen thought. I am… where?
Ahead, Gemen saw himself as if through shifting, gummy liquid. He saw himself watching Thia as she disappeared through the arch, and then she, too, mingled with a crowd of children, all clad in sandals and shimmery multi-hued tunics. For an instant, Thia turned as if about to wave, but then the image shattered, blowing apart like a massive popping bubble, and Gemen saw a man with a crown, his expression imperious and haughty. Cleon, Gemen realized; he had once seen a portrait. There could be no doubt: this was Cleon the Cryptlord, the same Cleon who in undying death had stolen Dorvic’s mind not half a year ago, but this was Cleon as he’d been in life, and he was striding forward to enter the portal –– but then the view exploded again, only to be replaced in quick succession by men he recognized, each rebuilding and then passing through the arch: Dorvic, but with different armor; Colinbard, dressed as if from the south; the raider whose name Gemen didn’t know, the one who’d bellowed at him when he’d fallen beneath Colinbard, and it seemed that he, too, had once repaired the lopsided arch, and then passed through it –– and he, like the rest, had immediately changed the world.
And then the liquid image settled, quieted. Gemen heard voices, two women talking.
“A hiding place,” said the first.
“Until the danger passes,” said the second.
“For everyone, for all our people.”
“The children first.”
“It must be just so,” said the first. “A bubble in time ––“
“ –– a gap in space, invisible once complete ––“
“ –– a refuge neither here nor there.”
“So delicate,” said the second. “Each piece precise, the order inviolate ––“
“ –– Goddess be praised, if it is disturbed before it is ready, before it has a chance to hide both us and itself… ”
The shifting forms in the liquid murk resolved themselves into a virtual double of Velori and another who looked for all the world like Rayna Sharcohr, but both were different, with longer hair, simple dresses, and their hands were up and spread as if pushing at the very air. Gemen turned to follow their gaze and saw stones, the archway stones, floating and tumbling slowly in space, assembling themselves with grace and precision under the calm, quiet direction of Velori and Rayna.
“Keystone last,” said Velori.
“Goddess, we thank you,” said Rayna –– and farther back, deep in the shadows behind the vision, something huge and multi-armed shifted in recognition. Hurry, it seemed to say. Send the children through.
The scene widened, lifting and expanding until Gemen was looking down on the Melinol plains. A battle raged between two armies, with one driving a wedge through the other, racing closer by the second to where Velori and Rayna worked to finish their arch, an arch that wasn’t leaning, an arch complete and symmetrical and perfect.
“The children,” said Rayna.
“But what of the rest?”
“No time now. Quick!”
A flight of arrows leaped through the air, and Gemen’s viewpoint swooped down to follow them as Velori and Rayna ushered scores of children in through the arch, pushing them through as fast as they could go. One turned to ask a question, and Velori kissed him on the top of his head.
“Go,” she said. “When the Ariyca are gone, we will come for you.”
Even as she spoke, a stone hurtled through the sky, a missile sent by a catapult and flung with devastating force. Before the last knot of children could race through, the rock ricocheted off the side of the arch, and one of the arch’s smallest, least impressive stones tore away. For an awful moment, it appeared the entire arch would fall, but Velori and Rayna turned to face it, hands up, the force of their combined wills shoving it back to stability.
“Goddess!” cried Velori. “Aid us!”
The shadow in the background scuttled forward as if to help, but in the same instant, warriors swept in, driving all before them with blood-red, sopping swords. Rayna and Velori turned and drew weapons –– long, thin knives –– and the arch swayed again, held in check by gravity and luck.
“Run!” Rayna screamed to the last milling children. “Go through!”
There were six of them, four facing his way, and Gemen realized he knew each: Tetch, Colinbard, Dorvic, and the Thornlands marshal. They were children, yes, but unmistakable. They grabbed hands and started to run, and as they did, they were joined by the final pair, and Gemen gasped as he saw himself, himself and Thia as young children, five and seven years old.
All six ran, all six broke the archway’s plane simultaneously, and in the same moment, more catapulted rock darkened the air. Two chunks struck the arch. The arch leaned, it tilted, it buckled at the mid-point, and the keystone slipped. The children seemed to hover in mid-air, their forms caught beneath the arch as if pinned, moving neither forwards nor backwards, caught in the arms of the portal’s potent, hungry tides.
“So delicate,” murmured Rayna.
“The damage,” whispered Velori.
Then Rayna took a blow to the eye, staggered, and caught a sword under her ribs. Velori, attempting to aid her, gasped as a blade pierced her belly.
Both women collapsed directly underneath the portal as it quietly, soundlessly, tumbled around them.
The picture vanished, sucked backward into time and space, and Gemen, looking up, remembered where he was. He looked back toward the battle he’d just left, the carnage and clamor, but it, too, was taking on the look of something seen through bad glass or a liquid veil, and above him, he knew this latest incarnation of the archway was about to collapse.
And then he saw, lying just beyond his fingertips on the far side of the portal, a single, smallish stone brick. He recognized it at once: the brick slammed free by that first catapult-shot stone, all those years and realities ago, and here it had been all that time, just inside the portal, just out of reach, waiting. The missing piece he hadn’t even known was missing. The puzzle piece that could put all to rights forever.
Gemen summoned the last of his energy, dragged the unassuming stone closer, and cradled it to his chest.
Remember, he told himself. This time, for the love of Thia, hold tight! And let me remember everything!
Then, knowing full well that the world he arrived in would be altered, perhaps beyond recognition, and that the people in it might be saved or destroyed, who knew which, he threw himself headlong back toward the battlefield meadow.
The ropes flew from the portal, the brace-work and timbers exploded outward, and gravity, with a terrifying musical crash, failed. Gemen cried out once for his sister, once more for remembrance, and reality gave way beneath him.
Spring, in a new world.
Outside the city of Tellsdrim, in a field kept shorn by an unruly flock of tenant sheep, a great throng of people gathered to attend what had become, over the years, the State’s largest antiques fair. Dealers came from many provinces, with all manner of wares to sell: trinkets and curios, baubles and rust. They spread their wares on blankets or sold from the backs of wagons and carts, and they haggled and joked from dawn until long into the ale-filled night.
Among the most notorious vendors was a short, aggressive little man named Gemen, whose age was impossible to peg except to say that he was far from young. By his accent, most held that he came from the Thelden River Valley, although weird rumors persisted that he’d grown up in Melinol. This, of course, was impossible. Melinol, as the State was always quick to point out, had been abandoned for millennia.
Gemen’s fame rested on the astounding variety of his wares, which ranged from the kingly –– jeweled crowns, satin shoes –– to tidbits not fit for a pauper. Most said he was a cheat, at the very least a steel-willed bargainer. All, however, fell in love with the twiggy, bright-eyed girl who traveled with him, a nearly thirteen-year-old named Thia, whom Gemen insisted on introducing as his sister.
“We have such a history, she and I,” he’d say, one hand tousling her dark, generally dirty hair. “And so much left to do.”
By day, Thia wandered the fair, playing with whatever other children she could find and leading them in all sorts of imaginary games: Kings and Queens, long explores, fabulous battles against merciless Thornlands raiders. By nights, she kept close to Gemen’s side, and over a small cookfire –– Gemen was very handy with even the most limited ingredients –– they’d talk and plot and plan.
“Tell me again, big brother,” Thia would say. “Tell me about our parents.”
The other vendors gossiped, of course, but learned nothing. Gemen’s lips were tight when it came to any discussion of himself or his sister, and Thia, when pressed, produced only a coquettish smile and a stock, disquieting answer. “We’re waiting for something. When it gets here, everything will change.”
Week after week, nothing happened. Customers came and went. Vendors rotated in and out. Gemen and Thia came and went, too, but always –– always –– they returned.
And then, in the last week of the fair, Tetch the herbalist arrived, and in his purple-robed wake trailed his apprentice, a young, walnut-haired woman named Rayna. Tetch loved to poke through the fair’s many curiosities, and nearly always came away with something unexpected –– some impulsive purchase sure to arch Rayna’s eyebrows. He plowed through the fairground, clucking over this, dismissing that, his salty hair seeming to fly backwards off his head, until at last he marched up to Gemen’s heavy wagon and beamed a ruddy, round-faced smile. “Gemen, my friend! What do we have today?”
“The usual,” said Gemen, rubbing his hands in sudden anticipation of something more than coin. “I take it we’ve met?”
But Tetch seemed not to have heard. His attention had come to rest on a brick-like rock, sloped on two sides: a keystone.
“Curious,” said Tetch, his jolly tone softening. He gestured for Rayna to step forward. “Look, my dear. What do you make of this block?”
Rayna stared, eyes locked on the stone. She tilted her head, bird-like, then seemed to wince. “I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all.”
“I don’t like to look at it, Mentor.”
“Nor do I, now you mention it. Isn’t that strange?” He turned to Gemen, all business. “The story, Gemen.”
Tetch harrumphed like a bull snorting. “In my experience,” he said, “people only forget two sorts of things: that which is deservedly forgettable, and that which ought never be lost, knowledge so important that it simply slips away, mist in a winter forest. Which, I wonder, do we have here?”
Gemen surrendered. “It’s a bore, this one. Found it in a shed. The man owed me money. With junk like this for payment, he still does.”
“He was using it?”
“It used to be part of the shed’s door, with timbers and stones for the brace work.”
Tetch frowned. “Were there other matching pieces? Stones of the same type and texture?”
“Not a one.”
Tetch’s frown deepened. “So once you took this one out, the rest fell down –– and the whole shed with it.”
“He owed me money,” Gemen hissed, “and if you want the cursed thing, then you do, too.”
“What town, what village?”
“Upriver. Knob’s Landing, since you care so much.” Gemen waved one hand in the direction of his other potential buyers. “Coin, Tetch. I’m a busy man. Two shiners and the rock is yours.”
Tetch dug two coins from his voluminous maroon topcoat, the back of it liberally spotted with droplets of mud. With the coins safely transferred to Gemen’s clutching fingers, Tetch hefted the keystone into his arms and turned away. To Rayna he said, “Time to go.”
“Now?” Rayna had already started toward the next dealer, the next wagon-held hoard of junk and treasure. “But Mentor, we’ve hardly seen half the Fair!”
Tetch jerked his head back toward the Eastroad and home. “Another time. Quick, now.”
As Tetch and Rayna strode off, Thia appeared at Gemen’s elbow. “Is he really the one?” she asked. “The one who’ll know where to find the rest of the stones?”
Gemen nodded. “I’m sure of it.”
“And we’ll follow them, right? Wait for the right moment, make sure everything’s built just so, and then we’ll go through. Together.”
Gemen gave her hand a squeeze and sighed. “All that and more, I hope,” he said. “But you know that what matters most is that I have you. That we’ve found each other.”
“I want to see mother and father.”
“So do I. Our parents, and the world as it was meant to be. Believe me, my girl, this time, we are so very close.”
He reached into his pocket and handed her Tetch’s coins. “Run find our supper,” he said. “We pack and leave tonight.”
As they readied for departure, the bustle of the fair swirled around them, the daily crush of browsing customers and strolling musicians. This night, there was even a stilt-walker blowing enormous rainbow-red soap bubbles.
Later still, come nightfall, the evening colors were every possible hue of scarlet, rose, and pink. But Gemen turned away, as he always did; sunsets made him edgy, queasy. No matter, he told himself. The world is once more in play, and with Thia to help, I’ll soon have that cursed sunset back in its proper home: the east.
Smiling, Gemen reached down to pick, for Thia, a bright pink cloudflower, and then he went on with his work.
Mark Rigney has published three stories in the Black Gate Online Fiction library: ”The Trade,” “The Find,” and “The Keystone.” Tangent called the tales “Reminiscent of the old sword & sorcery classics… once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. I highly recommend the complete trilogy.”
Also available at Black Gate is his serialized novel, In the Wake Of Sister Blue. The first installment is posted HERE.
Away from Black Gate, he is the author of the supernatural quartet, The Skates, Sleeping Bear, Check-Out Time, and Bonesy, all published by Samhain and featuring his semi-dynamic duo of Renner & Quist. His short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Unlikely Story, Betwixt, Black Static, The Best of the Bellevue Literary Review, Realms of Fantasy, Witness, The Beloit Fiction Journal, Talebones, Not One Of Us, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and many more. In other work, Rigney is the author of the plays Ten Red Kings, Acts of God 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). Two collections of his stories (all previously published by various mags and ‘zines) are available through Amazon, Flights of Fantasy, and Reality Checks. His author’s page at Goodreads can be found HERE, and his website is markrigney.net.
Author photo by Heather Shumaker.
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