Stars twinkled into sight as the last golden caress of the sun glittered like gemstones in the summer foliage. Between the wooded hills the darkening roads sparked into life as the lamplighters’ wicks tapped the lamp poles one-by-one. A warm wind whispered in the sea of emerald leaves like the rolling of waves. Lenn watched the movement from where she stood on the cliff edge. The gust playfully tossed her hair. Impatiently, she thrust the ginger tresses behind an ear. Unease, as tight as a fist, squeezed her center. The feeling was stronger than yesterday, and the day before. Something had changed. The knowledge danced just out of sight. Danger was coming, summoned by the warning.
She folded her arms as if to contain her apprehension. What was she to do? She couldn’t afford distractions. She let out a breath and closed her eyes, humming a tune her mother once sang at night. Lenn swayed, unaware of the action, while above the stars shone brighter and the sun sunk fully from sight. It was beautiful here. Peaceful. She didn’t want to leave. Leave. That was the feeling. The knowledge she had to leave. Had to stop . . .
His bright, wide face and somber gaze came to her mind. Tymoss.
Lenn opened her eyes and stopped humming. How had she forgotten him? Out of sight didn’t always meant out of mind with Lenn, but now. . . She remembered the last time she’d seen him—angry, fearful. Fleeing. She’d known he’d hold his tongue and so chose not to follow. She’d let him go. He’d slipped through her fingers, left to fend for himself as she went onward her goals clear in her mind. Now something had changed. He was no longer content with silence. That was the warning. The reason she had to leave. His unspoken words betrayed him before he could.
*Tymoss, don’t you dare!* Her thoughts buffeted back without an echo. He was blocking her now!
Lenn stalked to the door hidden. She grabbed the thick metal loops and the dark line parted the moss-speckled stone. The door opened as slow as dust floating in the air. In her agitation, she yanked and the rough, weather-worn metal slipped from her grasp. A swift burn flared along her palm. Bright red speckled her soft flesh. She couldn’t help but think this was an omen, she who didn’t believe in them. He would hurt her.
She couldn’t let him speak to a soul. If he told anyone about the mission, about her—well, she imagined life would not be so easy. As of yet, her path had been unfollowed, her progress steady and successful. To keep it that way, to show Lady Neiss she could fulfill her promises, Tymoss had to be stopped. She would have to leave, leave when for a short season she felt contentment. Everything she’d aimed for had fallen into her hand. Tymoss threatened to unravel it all.
A tranquil mood pervaded the inn that night. Most patrons remained in their bedchambers preparing for sleep while a few locals sat in the dining hall eating a late supper. Their heads remained bent over their drinks and meals. If the guest talked, they spoke in undertones, no boisterous laughing or tongue-wagging about troubles. The fiddler played the soft refrains, no jigs or drinking songs, which might have encouraged the stillness. As the final applause sounded, along with the more welcome clatter of tossed coins, the stranger arrived through the stableyard door. He ignored the pegs where cloaks and caps hung, keeping his cloak wrapped tightly around his thin frame. Strands of white hair peeked from the upright hood.
As the innkeeper settled with the fiddler, he watched the stranger from the corner of this eyes. The man’s hesitant steps took him to the dimmest corner, farthest from the stage. He sank onto a chair beneath a wood-relief carving. An intricate forest had been carved into the panel. Veins furrowed each leaf and craggy bark etched every tree. Even the massive antlers of the stag drinking from the rippling stream jutted forth with perfect form. The scene was so elaborate that one might have missed the crouched hunter drawing his bow in the undergrowth. The innkeeper was proud of the piece—he’d paid good money. The stranger only glanced once at the decoration. His fingers moved across the table as though nervous or impatient.
The innkeeper tucked away his share of the coins as the fiddler wrapped her instrument for departure. At the counter, the innkeeper pulled a mug and pitcher from the ladened shelves. He suspected the old man would want a draft of spirits. Most people did when they realized their journey must end here. With the bridge washed out, the only option was to wait the night for the morning ferry (industriously conceived at such a disastrous event) or head south for the next crossing in Priadagh Ordl. The innkeeper welcomed the patronage. For the first time in years every bedchamber of his inn was filled. He suspected he could fit the stranger in with the other single men and still not need a second chamber pot for the room.
The stranger stopped muttering to himself when the innkeeper banged the mug on the table top. The slim fingers disappeared below the table edge. The innkeeper tipped the pitcher, spilling the now-cold cider into the crockery. The old man did not lift his head, keeping his face hidden, but the hand, not a bit knobby with age, came back up with a coin. The steady hand tossed the coin in the innkeeper’s direction. He caught the payment, waiting. But the stranger said nothing and did not motion him closer. The innkeeper left, a cheerful whistle on his lips. Behind him, the muttering resumed.
With the coming of the stranger and departure of the entertainment, the rest of the guests dispersed, not sitting to talk or participate in late night gambling of which the wives would never approve. Perhaps that should have roused the innkeeper’s suspicion, but as he tidied the floor and tables as usual, a glazed expression settled on his face. He forgot further service to the stranger, as if the man had already left.
The stranger sat with his hands clasped on the table. He ignored the mug, leaving it at the table edge, and focused his eyes on the front door. The fire in the dual hearths settled to embers, glowing gently. Flames dimmed on candlewicks, sputtering in the melted wax before dying. When even the eave-birds had settled into their nests in the thatch, the lord of Thessia Ordl crossed the threshold.
The innkeeper bowed low and started to approach, heartened that his inn would be graced with this grand presence. Perhaps his inn, not the most prestigious in town, would finally become wellknown if the lord had good tidings for his friends, but Lord Ryall Thessia waved him away, murmuring to the man about absenting himself. The innkeeper hesitated and gazed into the nearly empty dining hall. The only man left was that cloaked stranger. Strange, he’d thought the man had left after drinking, as if he’d made other arrangements for the night. What had been so peculiar about him again?
“Leave,” Lord Ryall ordered once more. This time the innkeeper did not wait but ducked into the cold kitchen, firmly shutting the wooden door behind him.
Inside the hall, the lord scrutinized the dim corner. The stranger knew the cloak was enough to obscure his feature and he motioned the lord closer, relying on the resemblance to intrigue the lord long enough.
Lord Ryall weaved between the tables in a slow approach. “I was not expecting you. You are not the Rider.”
So the lord had noticed.
The stranger stood, drawing back the green hood. “Lord Ryall of Thessia, welcome. I am Youave of Rindare. Thank you for coming.”
The stranger spoke a short word and waved his hand. Flames sprouted on the candlewicks around him. Once the darkest corner, it was now the brightest. The lord flinched and stopped in his tracks. The stranger knew his appearance had startled the lord. He was not the old man many mistook him for. Although his long hair was whiter than ocean foam, the strands framed a youth’s flawless face. He was a sorcerer.
Wide eyed, the lord glanced over his rounded shoulder at the doorway. Far from being the Horserider the man must have expected to meet this night, a sorcerer, if anything, would be less welcome. Haijka Youave smiled. There was justice in this, to see the man cower before him as he once cowered. This was a sight he didn’t tire of provoking.
“Please, sit.” He stood straighter and his voice firmed. He was not the uncertain intruder he’d felt like before the lord entered. Haijka pulled a chair from a nearby table and slid it before his own.
The lord glanced at the door once more, as if pondering the dignity of a man in his position to run screaming. He must have doubted he’d even reach the threshold, because Lord Ryall turned and finished his approach. The lord settled in the offered seat.
The sorcerer took the opposing chair. “Lord Ryall, Rider Zyhaneve is waiting for your answer. Are you or are you not going to join us?” He reached into his cloak and pulled out the rolled parchment, placing it gently on the table. He watched the lord’s throat bob as the man swallowed.
Hesitantly, the lord spoke. “You’re responsible for the bridge?” This may have been bothering him the moment he realized what Haijka was.
Haijka did not answer. Admitting responsibility for the deed would mean he was in violation of the Old Laws. After avoiding attention from mobs and constables this long, he was not going to risk lingering animosity. So far, avoiding successful accusations had kept him from official banishment to Milart.
“Your decision?” he insisted.
Lord Ryall hesitated yet again. Then his face mottled red. “Join? Join you? I deserve respect. And you, lowest of creatures should have begged for audience. A chance to plead for exile, not execution! You’ve burnt down my stables, sent mice to spoil the food stores, and now the bridge to High Comb is washed out! Why should I allow your kind freedom to ruin more of my ordl? Tell me that, sorcerer.”
“Stalling will not help you,” Haijka said, keeping his face calm and voice level. It wasn’t hard for the man to lay these charges against him. Too many horrible events in such a short time often led non-magi to believe magic the root of their woes, whether justified or not. “We’ve given you time enough. The other lords have ceded.”
The red flush of Lord Ryall’s face paled. For a moment, his breathing stopped.
“When the Old Laws are gone, if the mages knew you withheld the longest. . . .” Haijka let the thought trail, watching the man’s face resemble melted wax.
“My constable—” Lord Ryall choked out the words.
Haijka glanced at the door too quickly. The back of his throat itched and he coughed. He watched the lord’s expression calm, a vicious cheer coloring the pale cheeks.
Was this all a trap? Had he sent the letter too early and was the lord’s delayed arrival because he’d spoken with the lawmen? No, that couldn’t be. Haijka had sent the letter in the Rider’s name. A Horserider was different from a sorcerer. Generally known as messengers, Riders travelled with great news of an important event and portended to coming change. They were typically sent by someone in power. One did not arrest the messenger of a misled lord without dire concequences. However, a sorcerer was fair game for any reason. Had Lord Ryall been aware who would be waiting for him, he might have prepared a resistance. No, the man was simply stalling.
Haijka managed to force a chuckle from his tight throat. “You cannot fool me, your lordship. We have no witness. The stablehand is gone for the night, there are no children peeping into windows. The innkeeper is busy counting his spirits, at your order. You didn’t summon your constable or his lackeys. There is only you and me.”
“Reckless and intelligent,” the lord muttered. “Dangerous without a doubt.” He cleared his throat. “If I refuse, what will you do?”
Haijka narrowed his eyes. Still refusing? A stubborn man. Adamant as a mountain that it could not be moved. Haijka leaned in closer and lowered his voice, “You and I both know there is much worse than delayed wagons or upset stomachs. Don’t we?”
Midnight was far gone by the time Haijka reached the cavern stronghold. Once a fortress of a mage, it was abandoned now—had been for decades. Maybe even from the Great Exile. Certainly it seemed forgotten. The entrance had been sealed tightly and moss grown into the cracks. Days had passed before Haijka had deciphered the sigils he’d uncovered. It was a pleasant distraction, one that the Rider let him indulge.
Haijka and the Rider took residence when they discovered the cavern habitable and private. They traveled around the country to various ordls, always returning to their ‘temporary’ domicile at the end of the journey. Once the scroll had been signed and wax-marked they could concentrate on the next lord. The pair had been content with this routine, until today. Until the Rider felt the urge to move on.
Few torches flickered along the walls, illuminating the curve of the stairs leading into the main residence. Having finished brushing down his horse, Haijka’s mind was on his bed. When he was halfway up the steps, a dark shadow without a face stalked into the light at the top of the stairs. Mind muddled by walking-dreams, Haijka flinched backward. His foot slipped from the step edge. He grasped for the banister. Managing not to tumble down into the stables, he stared upward, his mouth open like a half-wit. Though his heart pounded, the fog around his thoughts parted enough to realize there was no threat.
“I thought you were asleep.” Like any sensible person.
“We leave in the morning.”
Uncanny as the command was from the faceless figure, the soulless echo of the Rider’s voice was downright eerie. The voice contained an odd quality; once a person heard it, he couldn’t quite remember what it sounded like. The voice could have been low like a cattle moan or as piercing as an eagle cry. Haijka should have grown used to it, but he still couldn’t look directly into the blackness of the hood and grow comfortable with not seeing who he spoke with; A magical shadow blotted out the Rider’s face better than a veil. A useful spell. Haijka hated it.
“All right. Will I need a bag?” He finished his ascent to join Zyhaneve. Haijka hoped they weren’t going far this time. His horse needed the rest.
“The journey will not be short. Take everything we brought with us. Everything sensible,” the Rider clarified. “We are leaving Inmarth.”
“Does Neiss think we’ve been here too long?”
“Lady Neiss gave no instructions. She trusts us to fulfill her mission. She has no need to remind us of our duties like a taskmaster. I cannot forget there is more than living comfortably.”
Haijka could almost hear the chide. As if the sparse furnishings Haijka had insisted on adding to make the cavern habitable was frivolous. The things left from the previous occupancy weren’t usable—eaten by mice, and worn by time and dust. Haijka had only meant to make their time comfortable.
“Tell, was tonight profitable?” asked Zyhaneve, still standing. “Will the Lord of Thessia join our cause? Or does he continue to embrace resistance?”
Haijka rubbed his aching eyes as if to rub out the tiredness and wearily sank down onto the top step. Cold seeped through his cloak, the cloth not thick enough to keep it from his skin. When he spoke, he selected his words with care. “Lord Ryall signed the scroll. Reluctantly. He’s more impressed by how many others’ve signed since we first contacted him. I believe he’s only joining to stop the curses.” He did not mention his threat. He was afraid Zyhaneve might approve.
“Wise of him,” Zyhaneve sounded smug.
For a fortnight, Haijka had been sent to cast bad luck on the Thessian people. Although not fond of the duty, Haijka had done as the Rider asked. The duty was difficult at first, but his spells didn’t do dangerous things, didn’t harm anyone directly. Haijka’s enchantments patterned toward simple and inconvenient. That was best. People tended to expect worse later. It was sometimes easier to manipulate the mind rather than exercise magic. Still, an odd feeling surfaced every time he performed curses. Once, he’d helped plants and livestock to thrive. Now he withered crops and frightened animal. Were magi doomed only to curses and terror?
Haijka stared at his hand where it rested against his knee. The same as always: unmarked and smooth as if he hadn’t experienced a hard day in his life. He tightened his hand to a fist. Scars and marks didn’t always tell the truth.
“We will visit him within a month.” Zyhaneve was saying. “That should be enough time to win Ulartte for Lady Neiss. Then we’ll see how reluctant Ryall will be to the mages.” Confident in every decision, as always.
Zyhaneve turned away as if ending the conversation. “Remember, we leave in the morning. Rest well.”
Haijka watched the shadows swallow the dark figure. He listened as the steady footsteps faded. As slow as an old man, fingers wrapped tightly about the gray banister, Haijka got to his feet. It was hard not to remember a time before: a small town with humid air, the three of them together, before they’d ever become involved in this plot.“I can’t dwell on the past,” Haijka told himself, brushing a hand over one of his aching eyes and through his white hair. “It’s never coming back.” He walked off in the opposite direction, heading to his own bedchamber.