Generations ago, ships full of refugees from a vast war accidentally blew into a narrow, sheltered harbor between the cliffs of two mountain ranges. The people called the vast and fertile valley beyond the harbor the Vale and settled there. The Vale was also home to wild animals, dragons, and magical creatures called elves…and magic.
As the years passed, humans with no actual magical talent came to be born with a Gift–a single ability. Among the Gifted, only healers are widely accepted, but for others fear and distrust has led to prejudice, persecution, and even murder. Although elves, humans and dragons essentially live in peace together, the nearly immortal elves are intent on preserving the Vale’s isolation from the rest of the world. At any cost.
Shak is anything but a simple soldier with a clear-cut mission in life. He’s consumed with the relentless need for revenge against a man who was once his best friend. But that obsession is far from his only. Shak can’t forget he’d abandoned two helpless children during a battle. Though the deed that he can’t forgive himself for happened in the past, far from changing, he can’t get past it…until his grandmother, a witch, offers him the chance to redeem the dishonorable act.
Those same children he’d left to their fate are in dire straits. To rescue them, he must travel to the mysterious and treacherous Crystal Valley and then find a way to get them back where they belong. Further complicating his life, the Crystal Valley holds a secret that threatens two armies, and Shak alone can save them. With an unequivocal mission staring him in the face, he discovers his enemy is close by–actually following him–and vengeance could at last be his.
At a crossroads, he has no choice but to determine which task he’ll undertake… and which to give up forevermore.
Genre: Fantasy ISBN: 978-1-925191-67-7 ASIN: B07HL7W65C Word Count: 155, 908
“Get up. Come on, get up.” The guard reinforced his order with a kick.
The prisoner groaned, rolled over to present a protectively curved back to his tormentor, and sighed. “What now?”
“You’re leaving, Shak, that’s what. Now get up before her ladyship changes her mind.”
“Leaving?” His voice was slurred from months of little use, and he rose to his feet like a man three times his age. But his mind was still functioning. She’s decided to execute me. His stomach went cold, and he realized, to his dull surprise, that even after three months of imprisonment he could still feel fear. He rubbed a hand over his face. “How is it going to be? Axe? Rope?”
“Feet,” growled the guard, and pushed him through the open door.
Shak stumbled, but caught himself against the wall with one splayed hand. This particular guard had a perverse sense of humor, so he guessed, “I’m to be trampled to death?”
“Your brain’s gone to rot. Not that you had much to begin with. No. You’re being let go. Set free. We’re kicking you out. We’re tired of giving you room and board.”
“Oh, I’ll really miss the food.” He had a reputation for flippant sarcasm to maintain, and he accepted the guard’s cuff to the head as the usual consequence. But his brain was desperately leaping to understand what was happening. Why? What happened? What changed Lady Gentain’s mind about holding me here? He had never been told why she had kept him, but he was sure that her alliance with Sefal had something to do with it. Did their alliance break?
He formed the questions in his head but didn’t voice them. Questions might anger someone, like this guard, and a spontaneous demonstration of irritability might see him turned around and being shoved back to his cell, or, more likely, with a knife in his back or a limb severed by the sword hanging from the man’s belt. He kept his thoughts to himself and kept walking.
The narrow corridor was long, leading past other cells. All of them were empty, doors gaping. He couldn’t understand it. There had been at least three other prisoners that he was sure of, probably more, but he had heard no mass exodus. For a moment he was terrified again as the most obvious explanation barged around in his mind. A plague had gone through the cells. Before he could panic, he reminded himself sternly that he did not feel sick, and also that he slept so soundly, the other prisoners could have been marched out in chains right past his cell without waking him.
Sunshine through his cell’s high, tiny window had been a pale thing, so when he was pushed through a door into an open area, the light that struck against his eyes was so intense that he was literally blind for a moment. He shielded his eyes with one hand, and after they adjusted, he dropped the hand and looked around. A quintain and some staked and padded man-sized dummies told him that he was in the training yard, but no one else was there. He had never seen a training yard empty during the day, and he turned to the guard. “Where is everyone? Can’t be a holy day. Her ladyship doesn’t hold with those.”
“Just keep your mouth shut and keep walking.”
They crossed the yard and went through a small postern door in the thick wall, emerging into the bailey. He was oriented now, aware that, despite the premonitions that were twisting his stomach, he was being escorted to the front gate. Servants ran about doing their duties, but the only guard he saw was a sentinel at the other side of the bailey.
Then he noticed that there wasn’t a single horse to be seen. No horses, and few other animals.
His soldier’s mind caught up, and he understood. “Her ladyship’s gone to war, has she?”
The guard snorted. “A little punitive action. None of your business anyway.” His hand flashed out and caught Shak’s shoulder, giving him a hard shake and then a shove. “Be glad she’s treating you better than you honor her name, you piece of shit. If we had our way, you’d be walking out of here missing a leg, or arm, or your eyes, or all of those, just so we’d be sure we never had to see you on a battlefield again. But her ladyship wouldn’t allow that. Said we had to put you on the road sound.”
“I don’t suppose her generosity included a change of clothes and a little food? If so, I’ll praise her name. If she also included a horse, I’ll call her a goddess.”
“You are really pushing your luck,” the guard growled.
Even with the guard’s words reassuring him, Shak crossed under the portcullis with shaking legs. He glanced up, but there were no archers on the battlements waiting to use him for target practice.
I really am free. His unsteady legs carried him a quarter of a mile down the road before they steadied.
Before him stretched the road that led south, through Gentain and eventually to Vosinth. Less than a mile from where he stood, the village of South Gentain straddled the road and spread in neat lines of homes on either side, ringed by an equally neat patchwork of fields. Lady Gentain liked things neat and tidy. Beyond the village the road disappeared into a thick wood. He had come that way when Lord Vos’s forces had last attacked her ladyship, so he knew the wood was defensive, deliberately left wild to prevent the passage of attacking forces. He would have to stay on the road, which meant a long walk to any populated area. He was hungry–a state to which he’d become accustomed–and thinly dressed in the rags of his imprisonment. Spring was still young enough to make a man cold at night, especially if it rained.
He would need help from someone unless he got extremely lucky. He was not the kind of man who trusted to luck, so his alternative was to keep moving until he found someone who would extend an ex-prisoner some charity. That would be about as easy as catching a star, but he would just have to keep trying.
Even with his current need, however, he skirted the village itself. The last time he had been here was as a soldier in the army that had sacked the place, and the best he could expect from the villagers was to be hurried on his way by being pelted with rotten vegetables or stones. He wouldn’t have blamed them. Having been on the receiving end of an invading army in his youth, he sympathized with them. But he didn’t want to invite trouble.
A few miles past the village, the road forked, and he automatically took the right fork toward Lord Vos’s lands. He had no particular hope of being taken back into his lordship’s service, as Vos was probably still licking his wounds after the failure of his attack on Gentain. Still, he had nowhere else to go, and right was as good as left, as far as he knew.
He came almost at once into another and more extensive forest, the Gentain hunting grounds. Here he left the road and sat to rest, his back against a tree. He was exhausted, not just from his hunger, but also from lack of stamina. His legs shook now from fatigue rather than fear. He was appalled at himself. Before coming to Gentain and ending up in her ladyship’s cellars, he could have walked all day, ten times this distance, before becoming so tired. He lifted his arms and studied them, appalled again at the slack muscles. He had a lot of physical conditioning to do before he was competent to offer himself as a soldier again, and he wasn’t sure how he was going to accomplish that. He wasn’t even sure how he was going to survive the night.
One step at a time. That was how he had always done things, and it worked for him. He needed food, to give him a little more strength. He was a decent hunter, but he had no weapon or rope, so he would have to scavenge. He forced himself to his feet, grunting in disgust at the effort, and stood perfectly still for a moment, listening. When he heard the faint sound of water behind him, he turned in that direction and walked. He eventually came to a fast-running brook, and he foraged the banks on both sides for as long as his will and energy held out. His efforts netted him a full stomach, even if the fare was poor, consisting mostly of roots, a few nuts, and one treasure, a fish that had somehow gotten stranded in some rocks. He found a rock with a sharp, jagged edge to skin the fish, but he ate it raw, mentally cursing Lady Gentain and all her guards for not giving him so much as a knife or a flint when they released him.
By the time he had choked the fish down, it was growing dark, so he headed upstream to where he had earlier noted a large patch of moss. Dug up, it stood him for a blanket. Curled tightly under it, with the chilling air laying its fingers on every exposed part of his skin, he reminded himself that at least the ground was softer than a jail cell, the company of wild animals was better than that of his guards, and that when he woke, he would see the sun in all its glory, not a tiny square three feet above his head.
The farm couple tilling their field were young; the swelling of the woman’s belly was probably that of their first child. They were also friendly, perhaps because the man was tall and strong and armed with a long scythe, and Shak was alone and couldn’t look like much of a threat. He didn’t even have to ask for food. After taking one look at his face, the woman set aside her seed sack, bent to open a woven basket, and handed him bread and cheese. He tried hard not to wolf it down, but it was still gone in seconds. Licking crumbs from his fingers, he looked up to see the woman smiling, sympathetic. He gave her a crooked smile. “Yesterday it was nuts, roots and raw fish,” he explained.
“Then stay for dinner,” she said. Her husband shifted, as if he were going to take a step forward and intervene, reneging on this generous offer, but the woman stopped him with a single glance. “We are enjoined to charity,” she said quietly.
They must be Siskertians, he thought. He knew of no other god who even mentioned charity. For his own part, he wasn’t too proud to accept charity. Quite the contrary.
The husband looked hard at Shak, uncertain. Shak said, “My name is Shak. I’m from the village of Beval, many days south of here. I was a soldier, but I mean you no harm.” To the woman, he said, “If you have chores, I’ll do them for your food, and I’ll be grateful for a place to sleep for tonight.”
The expressions on both faces sharpened with interest, and they glanced at each other. The husband grudgingly pointed to the path between the fields. “Go that way, to the house with yellow flowers. Do whatever you see needs doing. Behind the house is a shed. You can sleep there.”
He thanked them and started up the path. Instinctively, he glanced behind him, and he saw that the two of them were talking, the woman eagerly, the man with a thoughtful frown.
He found the house without problem. Homes here were too scattered to be called a village, and he saw few other people. Most of them would be in the fields, he reasoned, even the children, at this time of year. When he saw the yellow flowers, some kind of lily, he bent to touch them, attracted by their cheerful insouciance. The first chore he tackled was to weed the flower bed. Then he went around to the back of the house and did the same to the kitchen garden. Chickens were scratching in the yard, so he could assume they had been fed in the morning. However, from a small sty, a pig poked its snout up hopefully. Shak found a pail of scraps where he expected to find it, next to the kitchen door, and fed the creature. A straw broom was propped up next to the pail, and he used it to clear the doorway of dirt, then went into the house and swept the floors clean.
As he was pushing the last of the dirt out, he saw a middle-aged woman walk past, carrying an empty bucket. He picked up the pail again and followed her, ending up, as he expected, at their source of water, a quiet little river. He sluiced out the pail, filled it, took water back to the house, filled the woman’s cooking pot, then went back and filled the pail again. Seeing nothing else to do in the couple’s small home, he went to the yard to inspect the shed the husband had mentioned. It was a small lean-to, closed on each side with rough, much-mended canvas. He lifted one of the flaps and saw, as he expected, a floor of dirty straw and a space nearly filled with corded wood and with the few tools the couple owned, including an extra pail. He took that to the river, taking the time on this trip to wash his face and arms. Back at the house, he stacked the items in the shed to make a space big enough for himself, and then could only hope the woman would offer him a blanket.
She did, and to his surprise, he was invited inside to eat with the couple. He was out of the habit of casual conversation, not that he’d ever been much good at it in the first place, and he ate in near silence, but that didn’t trouble the couple. The meal was simple, but there was plenty of it, and his stomach was filled better than it had been in months. He made a point of complimenting the wife on it and thanking them both.
The two glanced at each other again. She told her husband, “You get yourself to bed. You’re exhausted. I’ll speak with him.”
The man nodded and left them. Shak wasn’t sure how he’d gained such trust, but he was grateful for it. He met the woman’s eyes and said, “Speak to me about what?”
She started to clear the table. When she reached for the extra pail to pour water in the wash tub, he took it from her hand and did the job for her. She started sliding the plates into the tub, her eyes on him. “You did good work here. Better than we expected from a soldier.”
“I used to be a farmer. Long ago. But you don’t forget.”
She studied him a moment, gravely, her face a porcelain oval setting for her large dark eyes. She had that quality some women possessed of looking simultaneously innocent and wise, and whatever she saw in him, it satisfied her. “I’m glad to hear it. If you don’t mind my saying so, you look as if you’ve fallen on hard times lately.”
He had to grin at the understatement. “You could say that.”
“Are you going someplace in a hurry, now? Do you have plans?”
“My only immediate plan is to build up my strength again. After that, I have to search for someone, a man I know. But there is no hurry.” Sefal wasn’t going anywhere.
“Could you stay through the harvest?”
He was surprised. She seemed to be offering him work, but there was nothing here to indicate that they were having trouble keeping up their farm.
She read his expression and said, “No, we don’t need any help. I am thinking about my parents. They live not far away, and they are elderly and have become infirm. My husband has been trying to help them, but working two farms is wearing him down. My brother will be bringing his family here to live with them and take over the farm, but that will not be until next year.” Her gaze became quizzical. “Do you think you remember enough about farming to be of help to them?”
He blinked. “Well, yes, I suppose so.”
“They would not be able to pay you. But you would have plenty of food, a comfortable bed to sleep in, and good company. And, if your god rewards good deeds, you will have earned it honestly.”
He thought about the wasted muscles of his arms and legs, and about what he remembered of the work to be done on a farm. There could be no better way to build himself back into condition. He looked down at those clear, trusting eyes and the subdued hope on the smooth cheeks, and he made up his mind easily. “I don’t have any particular god, so I’ll be happy with the food, bed, and company. When can I start?”
The next morning, he got breakfast and directions. He was to follow the river bank east to the ford, then turn left away from the ford and follow the foot path until he saw houses. Anyone there would be able to direct him to Tryn and Welna’s farm after that. He followed the directions, got a guide in the shape of a man so old and wrinkled that he looked like a prune propped up on rags, and found the old couple in their corn field, the man wielding a hoe, weakly but gamely. Shak told them why he had come, and for a moment he was acutely embarrassed by an overflow of joy from the pair. They gladly accepted the terms laid down by their daughter, promising him all that he could eat and a bed in their loft. Welna took him to their home, where she hopped about like a foraging sparrow, settling him in. She gave him her son’s clothes to wear, which more or less fit him, and her husband’s spare boots, Tryn having larger feet than his son.
Shak made a trip to the river for water and returned to find her still hopping, a fire made and a pot simmering above it, the table set with a cup, bowl and spoon for him. As soon as he came in, she set a half loaf of bread beside him, hopped to a shelf and cut him a wedge of cheese from a wrapped wheel, and served him up a pottage which, if not rich, still contained good vegetables and was hot and filling.
As soon as he’d eaten, he went to the field and relieved the old man of the hoeing. He spent the next few days finishing the job. Then he fixed their plow, borrowed a neighbor’s donkey, and tilled the couple’s fields. He was rather proud that he could still keep a straight furrow.
Lord Sefal halted his horse at the edge of a ridge and looked down on the encampment. The ground slurped under his horse, the mud trying to hold the hooves. Below him, his troops were bivouacked as comfortably as they could manage under these conditions, so bundled in rain gear that he couldn’t tell the males from the females. All of them crouched near their fires, or stamped about, or wrestled with each other for warmth against the damp. Sudden mudbaths were met with roars of laughter. Despite the mud, the troops were in good spirits.
That cheerfulness was something Sefal worked hard to support, as he and his troops had been told repeatedly that the fighting was nearly over and they would soon be home, only to be summoned again. He had nearly emptied his war chest to see that they were well fed and well equipped. They all thought Sefal was a generous lord, and Sefal didn’t contradict the opinion. His true motive was that he didn’t want to ever be in the shoes of someone like Lord Narol, whose men were slowly but surely deserting him, his fighting force trickling down toward nothing. To have deserters among his soldiers would be humiliating. Sefal bribed his troops on one hand, and on the other, he determinedly hunted down any deserters, brought them back, and made examples of them.
He was less contented than his troops. He didn’t know who was giving Lord Yarow advice in this particular campaign against Lord Nem, but whoever it was should be hung. Arriving at the chosen battlefield so early protected their position, but they might as well have just sent heralds to announce their plans and numbers. Further, they were deep in mud, first from the thaw, then from the rain, making the infantry slow, the cavalry cautious, and the supply lines vulnerable.
Sefal could not recall any campaign which had taken so long. Twice they had been disbanded, only to be called back when hostilities broke out anew. The second time, they had come so close to his home, Fordis, that he’d ridden ahead of his columns and spent a day with his wife, never a joyful thing but at least useful, allowing him to catch up on estate business. Before his men could have a similar indulgence, however, heralds had arrived from Lord Nenilin, and they’d had to turn about.
Once the spring sowing had begun, his wife had joined him, at his request. He didn’t want Arla with him particularly, but he knew that, alone in the castle for so many long nights, her penchant for melancholy might grow dangerous. She was an excellent chatelaine, but she had to be kept occupied. Being on campaign was a new experience for her, but she had adapted, and seeing to the comfort of himself and his troops suited her well. He was rarely able to visit her due to his military obligations, so the arrangement was acceptable to both of them.
The nobles were quartered in the walled city of Arveni, unwillingly but without trouble. Yarow had brought in supplies, commandeered from all his vassals, so that the armies wouldn’t scrape the surrounding countryside to rubble, which had soothed down no feathers but at least averted rebellion. This war was going to break the man, if it didn’t kill him.
Sefal guided his horse through the city’s massive gates and up the main street, turning left and then right to reach the house where he had been given lodging. The house’s owners lived in the cellars, in considerable and surly discomfort, while Sefal and two other lords, with their retinues and servants, had taken over the rest of the place. One of his housemates was Lady Gentain, and when he surrendered his horse to his aide and went straight to the war room, he found her there waiting for him.
Lady Arla was there as well, serving her ladyship with wine and unwanted conversation. They made a contrast in womanhood. Lady Gentain was dressed as befit a soldier, in leather jerkin and breeches, her heraldic badge on her chest and a sword at her hip. Her expression was bold, her posture sprawled and relaxed, and her curling red hair confined only in a loose braid. Arla was stiffly erect, coiffed and dressed in the latest fashion, with a pearl and silver cap over her dark head, and with well-tailored bodice and skirts of dove grey. She kept her eyes lowered, observing all the proprieties and showing nothing of what she thought.
Lady Gentain did not trouble to hide her scorn for Sefal’s wife. She believed, and had not hesitated to tell him, that Arla’s devotion to him and courtesy toward her, Gentain, was due to jealousy as much as duty. Sefal knew it was duty, not anything so passionate, but he didn’t correct Lady Gentain. Her attentions to him in military matters were valuable, but on a personal basis they were a complication he didn’t want. He kept all such talk to a minimum.
Lady Gentain raised her glass to him as he entered. “There you are. Where have you been all day?”
“Have there been developments? Messengers, perhaps?”
“No, nothing of the kind. You can relax. And in the name of decency, go wash up and change. You look as if you just stepped off your horse.”
“I have.” He accepted wine from Arla’s hands, thanking her politely. She inclined her head, then slipped away, into the shadows, almost invisible and soon to be forgotten.
Despite Lady Gentain’s suggestion, he did not change his clothes. He discussed troop arrangements with her and listened to reports she had gleaned from her scouts. When she felt she had said enough, Gentain changed the subject. “I have word about that other matter. The personal one.” She had not forgotten the presence of Lady Arla.
But Sefal wasn’t concerned about what his wife knew. “Did you release him?”
“I ordered his release, yes.”
“How long ago?”
“A week. I’m not sure when my steward acted on the order. And I still question the wisdom of letting him go free. Everyone knows he is out to kill you.”
“I know what I’m doing. I thank you, however, for holding him.”
Gentain smiled at him. “You owe me a favor, not thanks.”
Knowing that Shak was free again was everything Sefal needed from the woman. Without giving her any hint that she was dismissed, he managed to usher her out of the room with all the courtesy required from an ally.
When she was gone, he sent for Garv, Yarow’s pet magician. As his aide strode away to find the little man, Arla rose to face him, hands folded and hidden in her skirts in a way that unnerved most soldiers. “If you pull Garv from his official duties too often, you will create suspicion.”
Magicians were employed by many armies, mostly to spy and to avert enemy spying. He didn’t need the reminder, but she was in the right. “Very true. I have been careful. But I have a feeling something important is happening.”
“I wish these feelings of yours occurred for other things than that wretched man Shak. And you know how much I dislike magic.”
“I have no magical powers. Shak and I are simply connected. Strongly connected.”
In a sudden, viperous spit of words, she said, “I wish you would end it. Kill the man. Get it over with. Forget him, and her, and all of it.”
“When I am ready, I shall do so.”
Her lips pressed together in a thin line, but she withdrew again to the shadows, saying nothing more.
The door opened, and his aide ushered Garv through, shutting it behind him. Garv was a man of middle age, shorter by several inches even than Sefal, who was not a tall man. He had a bony, thin-featured face that gave the impression of a man permanently hungry. When overworked, he tottered about as if he were ready to topple over any moment, but he never did. This day was a good one for him, and he gave Sefal a bright-eyed smile. He was eager to help Sefal. Sefal was generous. “My lord. I was expecting a summons today. Something is happening. The dragonflies are active.” His voice was a deep, gravelly bass, startling in such a sparely built man. He drew a wooden case from under his arm and set it on the table. “Who is it that you wish to find? Shak, again?”
“Yes.” In the stillness of the room, he could hear the buzzing of the dragonflies inside the case. He never heard that sound without recalling visits to that old witch, Shak’s grandmother, when he was a boy. He and Shak had watched her talk to the dragonflies, Shak with simple wonder mixed with distrust, but Sefal with fascination, wishing that he, too, had been born with such strong magical powers. Unlike most magicians, who chose patronage over poverty, Hishya never confined her dragonflies and rarely summoned them, preferring to let them come to her. In return, they not only spoke to her of the present, but of the past and the possible future as well. She had power that Garv could only dream of.
But Sefal had not seen her since his youth, and even if he had, he doubted she would far-see for him. He was stuck with this skinny magician and his limits. But that was better than nothing.
Garv cast his binding spell over the dragonflies, then opened the case. They flew out, bright blue and silver, and hovered just within the confines of the binding. Garv turned to Sefal. “My lord? You are prepared?”
Without answering him, Sefal stepped forward. He focused all his mind on Shak, draining all other thoughts and concerns away. Then he extended his hand, palm forward, until he felt the pressure of the invisible barrier. “Where is he, Garv?”
“I see him, yes. Clearly. He is on the bank of a slow river, drawing water. I doubt he has gone far from Gentain.”
Then the river was probably the Senni. “Is he well?”
“He seems in good health, my lord.”
Good. Stay well, Shak, until I can come to you and play our game. He pulled his hand back. The dragonflies returned, one by one, to the wooden case. Sefal saw the lid shut with some regret. He had never liked seeing a creature caged. Except Shak, of course, but then, that was just for fun.
Each morning Shak fetched water for Welna and Tryn, and each evening he fetched and chopped wood to lay up for the winter. The rest of the days he spent in hard, satisfying labor. He planted, watered, weeded, and watched as what he had sown came up in tiny green sprigs. He made himself a slingshot against the scavengers that invaded the fields, then used it to hunt, to help fill the larder. He spent days patching and repairing the roof of the old house. He did other carpentry and mended leather and furniture. He tended the small flock of sheep that grazed in a communal pasture, and he milked the single, priceless cow. When the time came, he helped to slaughter the pig, then carried it to the nearest butcher to be rendered into ham and bacon, bringing back the scraps for Welna for her sausages and the bones for her soups.
He carved a heavy staff from one of the branches he found while hunting firewood, and in his free time he used this as a makeshift sword, practicing basic swings until his arms ached. Welna and Tryn would sometimes come out to watch him, and from their comments, most of them ribald, he gauged his progress as his skills returned.
He remained with Tryn and Welna through the late summer harvest. He was in no hurry. He had been trying to hunt Sefal down for years, so a few more months didn’t matter. He had no concern about being able to find Sefal later. Lords didn’t move around much, and Sefal was an ally of Lady Gentain. A favored ally, apparently, which was the only reason that made sense for her to keep him a prisoner for so long. So where she was, he would be, and lords were generally easy to find.
He brought in the crops with the help of a boy from the village, leaving Tryn free to help Welna with the preservation of the food–fruit from the communal orchard, herbs from the forest, vegetables from their kitchen garden, meat from the pig and from Shak’s hunting, and, at the last, grain from their fields. He had grown strong again and was pleased that not only had he lost none of his farming skills, he had gained back his ability to work hard and long.
He was contented with the old couple, and he made friends from among the neighbors. His quest to find and kill Sefal didn’t trouble him yet. The only thing that did was memory. The last time he had brought in a harvest, Linnea had been putting up their food for the winter, turning her head to smile at him when he stomped into the house at the end of the day, the setting sun brightening the curves of her cheeks and forehead, her hands eager to help him set down whatever burden he carried and guide him to relax in his favorite chair, her voice lilting merrily as she set his dinner before him and shared the gossip of the village.
Whenever those memories crept out of his mind–how could they possibly be so clear, even now, after so much time?–he applied himself to the task at hand with vigor, exhausting himself to smother them in his fatigue.
One day, just as the approaching winter was beginning to put a bite in the wind, he was building up the compost heap with the leavings of the fields when Welna came out to him, an anxious expression on her face. “We have a guest,” she whispered.
“Someone important? I can stay away, if that’s so.”
“No, he’s come for you.”
His gut clenched, and his fingers unconsciously curled into fists. One hand dropped to where his sword would have been, if he’d had one. “A soldier?” he managed to say.
“Oh, no. He’s a dwarf,” she said, innocently unaware that dwarfs made good fighting men and women. “He’s a common fellow, but stubborn. He insists he will wait for you, no matter how long it takes, even if he must do it sitting in our doorway.”
Shak’s hands dropped, fingers uncurling, and his shoulders relaxed. His stomach shifted back to its assigned place in his gut. “Is his name Darny?”
Welna’s expression lightened. “It is. Do you know him?”
“He works for my grandmother. I have no idea how he found me here, though.” He actually had a pretty good idea, since his grandmother was a witch of many powers, one of which was far-seeing. He just wasn’t going to admit that to superstitious villagers. “Send him out here, so we can talk without disturbing you.”
“Should I invite him to dinner, and to stay the night?”
“No. He can seek shelter in the temple, like any other traveler.”
She did her best to conceal her relief. She had nothing against dwarfs, he was sure, so she must be concerned about the food she had stored. It’s time for me to leave, he decided. There would be little work for him to do once the winter set in, and Welna’s meager stock of food would last longer and serve better with only two mouths to be fed.
The back door opened and Darny stalked out, impressive despite his waddling gait and his height, which was no more than a child’s. He had plump, amiable, even vacuous, features, or so a man would think until looking into his eyes. Darny’s eyes were half-hidden by heavy lids and long lashes, but they glinted with shrewd intelligence, without a trace of humor.
Naturally, Shak found that latter quality a challenge. “Hello, Darny. The years and my grandmother have been treating you well. You’re getting fat.”
Darny rose at once to the bait, twitching his sleeves and the hem of his coat fussily. “I am not. I have filled out a little, true, but I still wear the same belt as I ever did, with the buckle in the same hole.” Before Shak could retort, he went on, “What are you doing here, anyway? I recall that you said you’d given up farming for good.”
“The alternative was starving.”
“You could have come home. Hishya would have fed you.”
“That was too far to walk for a meal.”
Darny snorted. “You and Hish are so much alike. Neither of you can admit you’re wrong.”
“I admit it when it’s true.”
“I didn’t come here to share stupid, ancient arguments with you. Delude yourself if you wish. I don’t care. But Hish wants you to come home.”
“I don’t want to go home. Greenly was never my home anyway.”
“You don’t understand. She insists that you come. She’s been watching the dragonflies.”
The nape of Shak’s neck prickled. “For how long?”
“A few weeks. I couldn’t believe she found some. They should be long gone. But you know Hish, she always gets what she wants. Right now, she wants you. Immediately. She says there is no time to waste.”
“Tell me she’s not having visions about me. Please.”
“You think she told me? ‘Go fetch him,’ she said. ‘Don’t take no for an answer,’ she said. ‘Bring him at once,’ she said. Never a reason, and I didn’t waste my breath with asking for one.”
Watching the dragonflies, Shak thought with a shiver. He wasn’t so far from being a superstitious villager himself, and he had little knowledge of magic and no desire to gain any more. He knew from his mother that his grandmother used the dragonflies to do her far-seeing, although the old woman had once told him, when he was still a child, that the dragonflies used her, not the other way around. That had made no sense to him then and it didn’t now. All he knew was that he wanted nothing to do with his grandmother or her magic. If she had seen something about him, he didn’t want to know.
Unless… “Is this about Sefal?”
“You know she disapproves of that whole thing. If she saw Sefal in the dragonflies, you’re the last person she’d tell. She sure wouldn’t have sent me to fetch you.”
“You can’t force me to come with you.”
“Don’t be childish. Of course I can.”
He sighed. “Did you at least bring a horse for me?”
Darny grinned. “A mule.”
Shak was moved by Tryn and Welna’s farewell. Despite the probable shortage of food through the winter months, and the fact that there was little to do around the place during the cold season, the old couple had expected him to stay and had been prepared to care for him. They were disappointed at his news that he was leaving immediately and tried to talk him into staying, but when he explained that his grandmother needed him (not exactly a lie), they understood and accepted with a touching disappointment. Then Welna turned away and busied herself packing food for his journey. When she seemed to have recovered her usual cheerfulness, he offered to return her son’s clothing. Welna chuckled. “Do you plan to go naked, and in this weather? We used those clothes you arrived in to make rags for cleaning, remember?”
“I’ll send the clothes back to you later, then.”
“Don’t trouble yourself. If my son needed them, he would have taken them with him. They are yours.”
Tryn said, “We have gifts for you as well.”
“Gifts? But that isn’t necessary,” he said, embarrassed by all the attention.
Darny had been watching the leave-taking with curled lip but interested eyes, and he now said, “Don’t be a clod. The definition of the word gift does not include the word necessary.”
Welna gave the dwarf an approving look. “That is quite right. Tryn, go fetch the things.”
Tryn went outside, returning in a moment with a sack which he set on the table. He reached into it and pulled out a long scarf, knitted in shades of lavender, beige, and grey. It was a beautiful thing, soft and warm in Shak’s hands. Welna said, “I knitted that myself, when you were in the fields. I didn’t want you to catch cold in the winter winds.”
He stammered a thanks, but she waved that aside. “Tryn, give him the coat,” she said.
Tryn folded back the edges of the sack and pulled out a coat made of sheepskin, the tanned skin on the outside and the thick fleece on the inside, knee length, with several pockets and a deep collar that could be turned up.
Shak was staggered and had to swallow before he could speak. “So, did you knit this, Tryn?”
Tryn chuckled. “Try it on.”
“This is too much,” Shak protested. “This must be the fleece from your entire flock.” He spoke literally, as their flock had been a small one. “And you must need such a coat.”
“I already have one. I don’t need two. Take it.”
Welna, as always, had the last word. “Take it, so that you will never forget us. That will comfort me if we never see you again, and I will also be comforted knowing that you won’t be cold on your travels.”
He ended up accepting both gifts, and he departed in a flurry of thanks, good wishes, and Welna’s tears.
He didn’t speak to Darny as they went to the village temple and collected the two mules, nor did he talk as they rode away, or for the first two hours of their journey. Darny finally broke the silence by remarking, “You were going to leave anyway.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Sefal’s still alive, isn’t he? And you know where to find him. You were going after him.”
“Maybe. But not today. And not with a detour to see my grandmother.”
“Hish will probably tell you that it’s Sefal who is the detour, not her.”
She probably will, he thought, abruptly irritated out of his silence. “What makes my doings any of her business, anyway?”
“Don’t slay the messenger. What makes it her business is the dragonflies.”
“They’re just big bugs.”
“And you are sulking.”
“Yes. So what?”
“So it’s not very attractive. Or mature.”
Shak lapsed back into silence. He never had won a verbal war with the dwarf.
A path lined with white stones and shells led from the narrow forest trail, through a copse of birch trees, then directly to his grandmother’s door. Her house was exactly as he remembered it, round, as if half of a huge ball had been stuck in the ground and topped with thick thatch, the whole shaded by an enormous, ancient oak. She hadn’t even changed the house’s color, for it was still a faded light brown with shutters painted bright red and blue. For some reason, her house always made him think of candy, and although he and Darny had consumed a large breakfast at the inn a few hours before, he was automatically hungry again, with an appetite for something sweet. There would be candy within, or cookies, or both, unless his grandmother had changed a great deal since when he was a boy, but as he was an adult now, he wasn’t sure she would offer him any.
Darny led the way inside without knocking. The house was one large room, so they saw at once that she was not at home. The lack of corners in the house made most people uneasy, including Shak and even Darny, but it suited his grandmother completely. Shak remained at the door, which was a natural rectangular shape, and said, “I guess we’ve missed her. I’ll be leaving now.”
“I’d like to see you leave now. That would be fun.”
Shak’s skin prickled, but he said, “She’s an old woman. What’s she going to do to me?”
“That, I can’t tell you. I’m not a magician. But I can guarantee you won’t like it.”
“I hope this won’t take long.”
“You just spent a season in prison and two more on a remote farm. What do you have planned that can’t wait?”
“The rest of my life.”
Darny grinned. “Good one. She’s probably at the riverside. Let’s go.”
Darny was right, of course. As soon as they emerged from the trees between Hishya’s house and the river, Shak saw her on the bank. She was sitting on the grass, cross-legged, arms resting on her knees, staring across the water. At the dragonflies. This late in the year, there should have been no dragonflies, but nevertheless dozens of them soared and flitted before her, flying over and around her head and then back over the water, mostly blue or silver, but with other brilliant colors mixed in, red and green and orange, so that she seemed to be in the middle of a treasure trove run mad. The river flowed wide and slowly through these woods, and the dragonflies touched the surface occasionally, as if taking short rests or sips of water. Shak knew better than to accept that delusion, however. Every color, every movement was part of the communication between the insects and the old woman. Or so she claimed. He still wasn’t sure he believed her.
He hated the whole thing. He’d never been comfortable with magic or with people who wielded it, and every time he’d been involved with his grandmother’s far-seeing, he ended up learning something he didn’t want to know or being forced to do something he didn’t want to do.
Darny left him. Shak sighed, accepted the inevitable, and sat down with his back against a tree to wait for her to acknowledge his presence. A few of the dragonflies winged over to him, dipping and swooping around him as if inspecting him with insectile enthusiasm. He wanted to swat them away, but didn’t. His grandmother was merciless when it came to her dragonflies, and the one time he’d swatted at them, when he was about seven or eight, his hand had felt burned for a week afterward.
Apparently satisfied with him, the inquisitive dragonflies returned to the others, and the whole flock of them disappeared at once, as if they had blinked out of existence. Hishya straightened, drew and released a deep breath, then turned to him. “I have a task for you.”
Not so much as a Hello, nice to see you again or You’re looking well or, the gods forbid, Thank you for coming. “Why me? Isn’t that why you keep Darny, to run your errands?”
She rose, moving each stiff joint separately. He went to help her. On her feet, she brushed at her tunic absently, speaking to him. “No one else can do this. I said it is your task. Not mine, not something I want you to do. You must be the one to do it. It is your destiny.”
“I don’t believe in destiny. So I can just walk away and forget all about it.”
“Remlin has sent you a gift in this message. If you turn your back on it, he will curse you.”
Most of the time he wasn’t sure he believed in Remlin or any other gods, any more than he believed in destiny, but he retained enough of his childhood training not to say that aloud. Just in case. “I will listen, at least,” he said.
“Yes, you will. Come, let us return to the house. I need a cup of tea before we speak of this.”
Back at the house, Darny had already put the kettle on the fire, and the water was heating. The dwarf served them, laying out mugs, spoons, a honey pot, and the kettle, setting the last on a towel scrap to protect the oaken table. Then he left them alone. Hishya sipped at the tea in her mug, unhurried, contemplating something, which could have been anything from his destiny to whether or not she should add more honey to her tea.
Finally she looked up at him. “What do you recall about a village called Helm?”
Blood heated his face and made his head feel swollen. He would rather not think about Helm. He wished he couldn’t recall anything about it. The shame of that day was a stain across his memory. After seven years, he rarely thought of it, but that did not lessen the feelings which sprang up when he was reminded of it, nor did it lessen the clarity of the images.
He had entered the service of Lord Tran, because Tran had a quarrel with the late Lord Gentain, so he knew that sooner or later he would have a chance to face Sefal on a battlefield. The chance had come early, in the village called Helm, a normally peaceful little place with the misfortune that day to be positioned between two battling armies. Resistance had been unusually well organized, which had led him to believe Sefal must be close by. Lord Gentain had been a good fighting man, but no tactician, whereas Sefal was both. Shak had his orders and carried them out, but as the battle disintegrated, as such things often did, he found himself on his own and free of officers and orders. He set out like a hunting hound, with the single purpose of finding and killing Sefal.
The battle had been a hard one, and the destruction of the village was devastating, the streets littered with corpses and choked with fallen walls and other debris. Fires burned in many of the buildings, casting an unsteady orange light over the scene. But none of this deterred him. He hunted.
At last he spotted one of Gentain’s soldiers, a live one, not a corpse, and alone. The man was herding a small group of prisoners, four adults and two children. He was making a great deal out of it, waving his sword and shouting, and he never saw Shak’s approach. Shak attacked from behind, slicing a hamstring and sending the man crashing to the ground. He then kicked the soldier onto his back and placed his sword against the man’s throat. “Lame is better than dead. Tell me where Lord Sefal is.”
The man told him, but as Shak turned to go, he drew the knife from his belt and struck out. Shak turned the blow with his sword and followed the move through to pierce the man’s throat.
Shak had spared no thought for the prisoners, who, quite sensibly, had scattered and run away. All except the two children. They stood side by side but not touching, faces bloodless, eyes wide and blank staring at him. Their clothing and some of their flesh was spattered with droplets of blood, but none it seemed to be their own.
Just shock, he thought. “Hey! Go on, you two. Go to your parents.”
They stared and didn’t move.
He caught himself trying to shoo them like he might shoo away a dog, and stopped. Their parents might be dead, he reasoned. Both sets, for the two did not look to be related. They were about the same age, six or so, but the boy was dark and lean, whereas the girl was redheaded and plump. He tried another tack. “What are your names?”
He had to shout to be heard above the nearest burning building, but they both flinched as if his raised voice meant he intended to beat them. I have no time for this! Sefal could even now be riding away from the location the dead man had given him. He turned to leave the two, but he couldn’t make himself walk away. Cursing, he turned back. He wasn’t going to be responsible for a couple of children, even a pair caught in a battle, but he couldn’t just leave them standing there. Hence, at least he didn’t have that particular shame to bear now. But what he had done wasn’t much better. He looked around and saw the bell-shaped roof of a temple, apparently still whole. “Come with me,” he barked at the two. They continued to stare, worse than a pair of sheep. Sheathing his sword, he gripped a shoulder in each hand and half-guided, half-dragged the two up the street.
The temple had been damaged in the fighting, but was still relatively whole. The damage was accidental, for most soldiers were a superstitious lot and would not invade a temple without good reason. He hoped a priest or priestess was still around, but even if the place was empty, it would be a good place for the children to hide. He threw open the doors and led the two across the threshold.
A woman was there, not a priestess, but an important official or officer by her clothes. He later discovered she was Lady Gentain, but at the time, she was a stranger to him. She turned her head with a snap, angry at the intrusion. Before his interruption she had been talking to, of all things, an elf.
Shak had never seen an elf close up, and like most people, he was made uneasy by the thing. It (no human ever managed to tell the sex of an elf) was at least seven feet tall, looking like an enormous, semi-transparent wedge of ice capped by a head chiseled from the same material. It turned away with an unlikely grace for so awkward a body and went smoothly and swiftly through a door behind the altar. The woman gave Shak a dirty look and followed the elf.
Shak was left alone in the worship hall, a child gripped in each hand, his heart already coursing eagerly away, toward Sefal, and his thoughts scattered by the elf and by the lack of any official temple-keeper. He let go of the children and looked down, to find them staring up at him. The shocked blankness was nearly gone, but now their eyes were filled with a trust that he would not desert them. That was a trust he didn’t want.
So he did desert them. “Stay here,” he said. “No one will hurt you here. The priest or priestess of this place will be back shortly. They’ll take care of you, don’t worry.”
Their expressions changed, became stricken, then changed again to defeated acceptance. The boy backed away. The girl gripped his sleeve, but almost immediately released it. Shak said again, “Just stay here. You’ll be all right.”
They only stared. He turned and left the temple, plunging back into the street, forgetting about them, his mind instantly intent on his goal.
He never found Sefal that day, and he left with Lord Tran’s army that evening. He never went back to the village, never saw it again, and never found out what had happened to the children. All these years, he had assumed that the priest had done his duty and found their parents or placed them in foster homes in the village or on one of the surrounding farms, but he had a sick feeling that his grandmother was about to correct that hope.
He did his best to shove all of this from his mind. He answered his grandmother, “Not much. I fought a battle there.”
“And you abandoned two children there,” she snapped.
He never won verbal battles with his grandmother, any more than with Darny. “I didn’t abandon them. I left them in the temple.”
“I saw it. You abandoned them. You know what I mean.”
He thought of those eyes, one pair brown, the other green, sunken in their sockets from shock and grief, looking up into his with expressions of fear, resignation, fading horror, and a hope that died stillborn. He shook away the memory and snarled, “That depends on how you look at it. You weren’t there.”
“Very true. Let me ask you, what would you have done with those children if Sefal had been elsewhere than in that village?”
Sometimes he hated this old woman. “I don’t know.”
With a sympathy that took him totally off-guard, she reached over, took his hand, and said, “I understand about Sefal. I loved Linnea, too. But now we must speak of the children. Have you ever thought about making amends?”
He hadn’t. He’d often wished he could turn back time and re-do his actions differently, but that was as far as he’d gone. Now the idea of it passed through his mind with the soothing quality of a cool cloth pressed against the heat of a wound. Damned if he would let Hishya know that, however. “No, not really.”
“Would you, if you could?”
“How? That was years ago. They’re probably both settled with some village family now, anyway.”
“They are not. I have seen it. Neither of them is where they are supposed to be, and they are both in grave danger.”
Anger flared in him, irrational but intense, now that he saw her scheme. He rose, knocking over his chair behind him. “How can you know that?” he demanded. “You may have seen children in danger, but how can you know it’s those two? And why must I be the one to help them? Because that’s what you’re getting at. I’m not the one who harmed them. I just did my best in the conditions of battle to help them. Their future–”
She interrupted him. “Their futures are now entwined with yours.”
He spat a rude word of denial.
“They are.” She tapped a finger on the table for emphasis with each of her next statements. “I did not ask for this vision. I did not even try to summon dragonflies. They came, and they showed me what I saw. The knowledge was given to me. Your life is connected to the fates of those two children.”
“I am not going on some errand for you because of the buzzing of a bunch of bugs.”
“Not an errand for me. For yourself.”
“Oh yeah? What’s in it for me?”
“We have already spoken of that. A chance to make amends. And more, I believe. I told you, Remlin has given you a gift.”
“Some gift. A magic sword would have been better.”
She glared at him. “I am not going to bandy words with a fool. Either you take this gift, or you do not. It matters not to me, except that you are my kin and your dishonor affects all the family.”
“Most of the family thinks I have no honor anyway.”
She said quietly, “I always believed that you did.”
This soft declaration disarmed him as nothing else could have. He groaned and sat down again, dropping his head in his hands. “All right. I will at least listen. What am I supposed to do?”
“Fetch the children from where they are now, and once you have both of them, take them to where they belong.”
“You mean to Helm.”
She folded her hands, content that she had him now. “Neither of them belong there anymore. They must both be taken to the Crystal Valley. Once in that place, your next course will be revealed to you through them. Find the boy first. His danger is more immediate. Then get the girl, travel north, get your instructions, and leave them once more, only this time with people who will care for them. Get them to where they belong. That is all you need do.”
“I don’t know where they are.”
Of course she did. “I don’t know anything about children. I don’t even like them.”
His grandmother sighed. “You are a stubborn man, Shak, and never moreso than when you are being foolish.”
“Compliments will get you everything.”
“Then it is a pity that I don’t hand them out more often. Will you do this or not?”
“Where are they now?”
“I will not tell you until you promise me to do this thing.”
“Not for a big, strong, brave warrior.”
“Oh, this really is going to be bad, isn’t it?”
She told him. And it was.