Aphelion Issue 244, Volume 23
October 2019
 
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Magic And The Heart

Part Two of Four

by McCamy Taylor


 

Marc closed his eyes, took a deep breath and recited a prayer to Seadra, goddess of water and patron of his seagoing ancestors. He prayed that the clouds would no longer be able to contain their moisture. He prayed that a river would fall from the sky. He prayed for rain.

 

When the rain came in a narrow column centered over the wagon, he was not surprised, just relieved that enough water had come in time.

 

The fire was extinguished almost as quickly as it started. When the last of the blackened, steaming boards were pulled away, a cube of darkness was revealed. Sammual banished the enchantment, revealing a metal cage packed with five small, frightened but healthy children.   One of them was Marc’s brother, Kelvin.

 

 

Chapter 5

 

The magistrate of Errlie was delighted to have her grandniece home.   While the child was being pampered, her relatives celebrated her return. There were many toasts to the two men who had engineered the rescue. Sammual was required to repeat the story of the spark gnome to every new family member who arrived.  No one seemed to remember the violent confrontation earlier that day, or, if they remembered, they preferred to act as if it never happened.

 

News of the rescue spread.  Late in the evening, the father of a little girl with brown curls appeared to claim his daughter.  He insisted that the earth mage accept a reward.

 

“My Wanda would want you to have this,” the portly, middle aged man said as he pressed a small brooch into the elde-mage’s   hand. “It’s the only valuable thing she owned.”

 

Sammual  pinned the brooch to the girl’s smock.  “Then her daughter should keep it.” He smoothed her curls.  “I take it her mother passed away?”

 

The girl’s father nodded. Tears streamed from his eyes.  “Died in childbirth.  Lara here is all I have left of my wife. I thought I would die when she went missing.”

 

With all the celebrating,  it was after midnight, before they finally got the remaining  children to bed.  The daema princess was still asleep.  They had wrapped her in a blanket and smuggled her into inn, in case any of the villagers still harbored suspicions about the odd looking girl.

 

Once the remaining children were bathed, fed, diapered and put to bed---a task almost as monumental as their rescue--Sammual turned to Marc. “We need to talk. Alone.”  His voice was soft,  but there was a hardness around  his eyes and mouth that Marc had not seen before.   The earth mage took the prince by the arm and lead him  into the hall, where he forced him back against  a wall.  “Why did you lie to me?”

 

“What are you talking about?”  Even to his own ears, Marc sounded guilty, though he had no idea of what crime he was being accused.

 

“You told me you had no magic training.”  The third eye was wide and glowing.

 

“I haven’t!“ The prince locked his knees to stop them from trembling.  His wrist was throbbing where the mage had grabbed it. A little more pressure, and the bones would have snapped. 

 

“I saw you summon rain.” Sammual made it sound like a crime.

 

“Rain? That wasn’t me.  It was Seadra, the water goddess. I prayed to her, and she answered my prayer. Don’t look at me like that. I’m telling you the truth.  The kings of Suunland  pray for rain in times of drought. My father usually does it, but when he’s sick or out of the kingdom, I take over for him. I’m better at it than  Father.” He offered this bit of information as a simple fact rather than a boast. “Uncle Corwyn--that’s Father’s step brother -- can’t do it at all, though he’s good at finding wells.”

 

Sammual stared at him for several minutes.   “As implausible as it sounds, you’re telling the truth. The truth as you understand it.”  

 

Marc did not realize that he had been holding his breath, until he breathed a sigh of relief. “Why would I lie?”

 

“Because the kings of your country are forbidden to study magic.  A prince who is also an adept would be unable to inherit the throne. Tell me, can any citizen of Suunland appeal to the goddess?”

 

“Yes, though she’s more likely to answer if the plea if it comes from a member of the royal family.”

 

“Did Morgany ever make such prayers?”

 

“Mother? She married into the family. Only those who are born into---Oh.”  He felt like a fool not to have thought of it before.  “They told me over and over again that it was Seadra who brought the rain. I  heard it so many times while I was growing up, that I never questioned it.  You think there’s magic in my family’s bloodline?”

 

“What do you think?”

 

Marc frowned.   “Elias was the last mage-king of Suunland.”   The Fire King, as he was known, had conjured a sea of flame to destroy an invading Shirazian army. He won the war, but his people were so horrified by the way he did  it, that they deposed him and made his younger sister queen. “That was almost two hundred years ago. There haven’t been any mages on the throne since then.”

 

Sammual shook his head in exasperation.   “It always amazes me how easily mortals can convince themselves that the lies they wish to believe are true.” 

 

“Mortals aren’t  the only ones guilty of wishful thinking,” the prince replied irritably, rubbing his sore wrist. How dare Sammual try to bully him, using the same tactics he had used with the spark gnome? “You must have been pretty sure that you could win Mama’s love to change from a woman to a man, just to please her.”

 

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he wished he could take them back.  It was a cruel thing to say.  

 

Sammual looked Marc in the eye, not bothering to hide his pain. “True. I was a fool, and I suffered for it. I won’t make that mistake again. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a daema princess to attend.” He returned to their rented room, with Marc following close behind him.

 

“Sam, I----”

 

“Save it!”

 

The sleep spell was easily reversed.  The Darkhall princess yawned once, stretched her skinny arms over her head and sat up, immediately alert.  “Ah!” she sighed as her amber eyes alighted on Marc.  A friendly smile lit up her face.  She was pretty, in a feral way.

 

“My prince!”

 

“Princess,” Marc replied with a courtly bow that made her giggle.

 

“Enough flirting you two.”  Sammual wrinkled his nose. “The princess needs a bath. And so does the prince.”

 

Covering her face with her hands, the feral girl shrieked “No water! Water bad! Water burn!”

 

Sammual stroked her hair. “I’m not going to clean you with water, princess.”  He reached into the fire. When he withdrew his hand, his fingertips were coated with cool, blue flames.

 

She cringed as the fire neared. 

 

“Trust me,” he murmured.

 

His voice soothed her. She closed her eyes and sat still while he ran his burning fingertips across her cheek. The dirt was stripped away, revealing soft, smooth golden skin.

 

“Tickles,” she giggled.

 

When her face and hands were clean and her hair had been brushed,  Sammual started peeling away her rags. 

 

“No.”  She stared pointedly at Marc. “He go.”

 

 “She doesn’t want to undress in front of a man. Step outside for a moment.  I’ll call when we’re done.”

 

“But you’re--”

 

“Out!”

 

When the door closed behind the prince, the girl let her rags fall to the floor. She was a delicate creature with a slender waist, narrow hips and a flat chest. In place of pubic and underarm hair, she had triangular patches of red-gold fur .  A stripe of similar fur ran down her back from her neck to the base of her spine.

 

“Cold.” She shivered, hugging herself.

 

“This will warm you up.”  Sammual began scrubbing the dirt from her body with flames.  “What do they call you?” He asked the question first in the high and then in the low speech of the Darkhall. Both times, the princess stared at him blankly. He repeated the question in the low speech of the Seven Kingdoms.

 

Her face screwed up as if she was going to cry. “Creature. Devil girl. Child stealer.”

 

“Not the stupid people in this village. Your own people. Your family. What do they call you? What did your mother call you when you were nestled in her heart waiting to be born?”

 

She relaxed. A dreamy expression came over her face.  “Darli. Mama called me Darli.”

 

“Short for Darlinjahara, no doubt.  A favorite name among royalty of the Darkhall.”

 

“Cold.” She reached for her clothes.

 

“You can’t put those filthy rags back on.”  He searched his pack and found a shirt made of heavy, embroidered crimson silk. “I don’t know why I brought it.  This shade of red makes my skin look sallow. It should do nicely for you.”

 

Darli stroked the fabric. “Soft.”

 

“Would you like to try it on?”

 

Her eyes widened. She held up her arms.

 

The shirt fell to her ankles.  With the sleeves rolled up and a belt knotted around her waist, she looked like an elegant, miniature lady.  Sammual pulled her wiry, red hair back from her forehead and fixed it in place with two gold combs

 

“Would you like to see how you look?”  He held up a mirror.

 

Darli scowled at her own reflection. She looked from her face to Sammual’s then back to her own.  She touched his silky smooth black hair, then her own coarse red hair.  With a fingertip, she traced the delicate curve of his ear, then she tugged at her  long, pointed ear.  “Darli not beautiful like magic lady.”

 

“Among your own people, you would be considered a great beauty.”

 

Darli continued to frown. “Beautiful magic lady is wife of Prince Marc?”

 

The elde-mage smothered a laugh.  “No, dear. Just a family friend.”

 

“Beautiful magic lady love Prince Marc?”

 

“Certainly not! “

 

Darli smiled.  “Good. Darli think to love prince. Very brave prince is. Very lovely.”

 

“I am sure that the brave and lovely prince will be delighted to hear that he has won your favor,” the earth mage replied smoothly.

 

***

 

The next morning, the travelers resumed their journey south towards the capital. Two of the remaining children rode with Sammual.  Kelvin and Darli rode with Marc, the infant in front of the prince, Darli behind.  The princess kept a tight grip on his waist, as if she was afraid of falling, but it soon became apparent that she had other things on her mind.

 

“Marc save Darli.”  She rubbed her face against his back. “Darli grateful.” One of her hands crept up his thigh towards his groin.

 

The prince blushed and pushed her hand away.

 

“Darli princess.  Marc prince.”   She touched a lock of his hair.  “Pretty. Like gold. Marc almost as beautiful as beautiful magic lady.” She snuggled closer to him.

 

“Did you see what Darli tried to do to me?” Marc demanded, as they sat down to lunch in the Marfour Inn later that day. In a few hours, they had covered half the distance from Errlie to Suunweiss, ordinarily a journey of several days. The elde- mage’s magic appeared to have no ill effects on either the children or the horses.

 

“She’s infatuated with you.”

 

A girl in a tight white blouse and full blue skirt appeared to take their order.

 

“Impossible,” Marc protested when the serving girl was gone.  “She’s just a child.”

 

“She’s older than she looks.  Possibly older than me. And the daema are born full grown.”

 

“She hardly knows me.”  Marc leaned over to scoop up one of the toddlers. The child had tripped over its own feet and fallen to the floor, where she lay sobbing.  “There, there,” he murmured. When the girl stopped crying, he sat her on his left knee. She smelled faintly of sheep. Kelvin already occupied the right knee.

 

The third child, a boy of three or so, with black hair and a red birthmark above his lip was playing peek-a-boo with the elde-mage’s  hair.   “She knows enough. You‘re the  prince who risked his life to save her. You’re a man, and she’s a woman.  Your element is water. Hers is fire.  Which reminds me of a question I meant to ask you last night.  You can make it rain. Can you also make the rain stop?”

 

“Oh, that’s easy.”

 

Sammual rescued one of his earrings from the dark haired boy . “The day you came to see me on the mountain, it rained. You were soaked to the bone. You could have caught pneumonia. Why didn’t you make the rain stop then?”

 

Too late, Marc realized that he walked into a trap. He ducked his head and mumbled something unintelligible.

 

“I didn’t catch that.”

 

“I said ‘I was so nervous about meeting you, that it never crossed my mind.’”

 

Before the elde-mage could reply, Darli appeared.  She looked wistfully at Marc’s lap, but since it was already occupied, she settled for the chair which Sammual offered her.

 

While they were eating, a couple of sheep farmers arrived at the inn. “We’ve heard that a mage and a knight have rescued some  stolen children. We wanted to see if our niece is one of them.”

 

The inn keeper pointed to the far table. 

 

The girl’s kinfolk approached nervously. When they saw the girl sitting on Marc’s knee, they were so relieved that both of them began to cry at once.   This made their niece cry, which made the two other children start crying too.

 

“Returning these babies to their families is harder than rescuing them,” Marc remarked, after the young couple and their niece departed. “Speaking of the children, this diaper smells like it needs a change.”

 

“I agree.”

 

“It’s your turn.”

 

“Brat. A sorcerer of my age and experience shouldn’t have to waste his time with such tasks.”  However, Sammual  appeared in good spirits when he gathered up the children and carried them off for changes and a nap. For all his grumbling, the earth mage was very good with the children.

 

“Do you have kids of your own?”  Marc asked later.  The babies were asleep.  Darli was inside trying on Sammual’s jewelry and clothes. The two men were outside, sitting under the shade of an ancient oak, enjoying the pleasant weather. Marc lay sprawled on the grass, his legs crossed at the ankles, his hands folded across his chest. Sammual had adopted a more dignified posture. He sat with his spine straight and his legs crossed, one hand resting lightly on each knee. 

 

“Three of them,”  Sammual replied. “Twins,  who will  oon  celebrate their one hundredth birthday. Another who is just shy of  ninety.  They live in  Shantuun, so I don’t see them as often as I  would like.”

 

“Boys or girls?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Wha--?  Oh, they’re like you.  Are you the mother or father?”

 

“Father to the twins, mother to the younger child.”  He sighed.  “I wish it had been the other way around. The twins’ mother was mortal.  It was too much for her.  She died in childbirth. I swore I would never let myself love a mortal woman again, and I kept my promise.  Until I met your mother.”

 

Marc nodded his head in sympathy.  “Love is supposed to make life worth living. More often than not, people in love end up miserable.”

 

“Wise words from one so young.  Are you speaking from personal experience? Or did you learn this lesson from watching your parents?”

 

“Both.” He had been feeling guilty all night.  This seemed like a good time to make amends.  “I shouldn’t have  said what I did about you and Mama.  I’m sorry.”

 

“Apology accepted.  I’m sorry, too.  I shouldn’t have accused you of lying about your magic abilities.” 

 

Marc took a deep breath.  “Sammual?”

 

“Hmmm?”

 

He stared down at his hands “I did lie. Not about the magic training. You asked me why I didn’t try to stop the rain that day in the mountain.  The thought crossed my mind, but I decided not to. I was hoping you would feel sorry for me and invite me inside.”

 

Sammual’s hand closed over his. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?”

 

Startled, the prince glanced up. “You knew?”

 

“I’m an elde-mage.  I can’t always deduce the truth, but I can spot an out and out lie.”

 

Marc grinned. “So, which part of me are you going to turn to stone?”

 

“I’ll have to think about it.” 

 

The prince rolled over on his stomach. Propping himself up on his elbows, he plucked a blade of grass.  “Sam?”

 

“Yes, child?”

 

Marc had borrowed a razor and a comb. With his smooth face and lustrous hair, he looked like an angel which had fallen to earth. “Did it ever occur to you that maybe Mama was afraid to love someone like you.”

 

 The elde-mage leaned back against the tree. Closing his eyes, he murmured  “The thought  crossed my mind. I would prefer to think it wasn’t so.”

 

“Why not?”

 

“If a woman as brave as your mother was afraid to live with me, what hope do I have of ever finding another wife?”

 

“Why not a husband?”

 

One eyebrow rose.  “Is that a proposal?”

 

Marc blushed. “No, I was just--I mean, you do have more options than most people. And you are going to live a hell of a lot longer than anyone I know. Sooner or later, someone’s bound to come along to mend your broken heart.”

 

“So that it can be trampled again? No thank you.” The earth mage rose.  “We’ve lingered long enough. It’s time we got back on the road.”

 

Sighing, Marc climbed to his feet. He always seemed to say the wrong thing.  He was trying to think of a way to repair this latest rift, when Darli came running from the inn, wearing entirely too many jewels and scarves . She performed a little dance for the prince. He applauded when she was done, but apparently his response left something to be desired, because she burst into tears.  “Marc no love Darli,” she wailed. 

 

Marc recalled the way the bird had fallen dead from the sky.   “We need to talk,” he told her gently. 

 

Sammual nodded knowingly.  “I’ll get the children ready.”

 

Once they were alone, Darli threw her arms around Marc’s neck and tried to kiss him. He arched his neck to keep his head away from hers, so she began rubbing her body against his.  Her scent was intoxicating.  Her smooth, amber colored skin was as warm as sunshine, and its fire seemed to penetrate through to his bones.  Despite himself, he was aroused.

 

A cool, detached part of his head advised him that this was some kind of magic.  In the short run, it might be easier to succumb to her charms, but  in the long run, it would lead to complications.  Not to mention all the dirty looks he would elicit from mortals, who looked at her and saw a child. There were two men on the far side of the square watching them with open disapproval at that very moment.

 

Gently but firmly,  Marc pushed her away. It was like stepping from the sunlight into a dark, cold cellar.

 

Her smile vanished. “You no love Darli for Darli no beautiful.”

 

“No. It isn’t that.”

 

“You love beautiful magic lady.  I see you.  You hold hand under tree.”  She stuck out her lower lip.  The fire behind her pupils began to glow more brightly.

 

“What---?  Darli, I can’t be in love with the ‘beautiful magic lady’ as you call her, because Sammual is a man.”

 

Her eyes widened. “Beautiful lady man? But lady such soft skin. Such long hair. Such pretty clothes.”

 

“Yes, I’ll admit that Sammual’s very pretty, but he’s just as much a man as I am.”

 

Darli held her hand to her mouth. “Now Darli understand. You no love woman. You love man.”

 

Here was an easy way out of his predicament.  “Yes, that’s it. If I could ever love a woman, it would be you, Darli. But--” He sighed dramatically. “Nature didn’t make me that way.”

 

She seemed satisfied with this explanation, though a little saddened.  That evening, she sat at the far end of the table, and that night  she did not “accidentally” roll into Marc in bed.


 

 

Chapter 6

 

 

The next morning, the travelers met a wealthy merchant and his two grown children on the road. The merchant turned out to be the father of the boy with the birthmark. He was clearly delighted to find his young son, though the siblings seemed less than pleased.

 

“They never did like my second wife,” the merchant confided to Marc.  “I was half afraid they  were the ones who stole the babe, so  he couldn’t claim a share of their inheritance.”

 

Marc did not know how to reply to this confidence, so he said “Your wife will be glad to have him home.”

The old man shook his head.  “She’s dead, poor thing. Baby was too big for her.”  He blew his nose. “The next one I marry will be big in the stern, like my first wife.”

 

When the travelers were gone, the prince told the earth mage what he had just learned.  “Three of the children’s mothers died giving birth, and the other two live with relatives, which makes me think they might be orphans, too.  A strange coincidence.” 

 

“Maybe not.  Children whose mother’s die in childbirth have a special link with the Darkhall. “

 

 “The priests say such children are born with one foot in the grave. They said prayers for Kelvin for weeks after Mother died, so that she wouldn’t call him to join her.”

 

Sammual snorted. “As I’ve said before, priests talk a lot of nonsense. However, in this case, there’s a grain of truth to their ramblings.“  He leaned forward in his saddle to stroke the young prince’s downy hair. It was several shades lighter than Marc’s and as fine as silk. “You’re a very lucky young man to have such a devoted brother,” he said to Kelvin in a serious tone.

 

The infant twisted in his brother’s arms, trying to get a better look at the earth mage.  He responded to Sammual’s smile with a broad grin which revealed two, tiny teeth on his lower gum.

 

“I’ve never seen him take to a stranger so quickly.”

 

 Sammual shrugged off the compliment.   ”Children always like me.  Shall we stop in the next town for the night or press on to the capital?”

 

The prince considered the question.  “How fast can you get us there?”

 

“How fast do you want to get there?”

 

“Can we reach the capital by nightfall?”

 

“Consider it done.”

 

“It will be a relief to get out of these dirty clothes.  I do take a bath, from time to time.”   He tousled his brother’s hair.  “I know someone who’s going to be very glad to see you, sprout.” His expression clouded. “Father’s been worried sick. I wish there was some way  to get  a message to him.” He gave the mage a sidelong glance.

 

“Sorry. I could tell a bird and send it south, but I’m afraid there’s no one in Suunweiss who would be able to understand what it was saying.”

 

Marc sighed.  “I guess a few more hours won’t make that much difference.”

 

 

                                                                               ***

 Shortly after dusk,  the travelers reached the northern gate of Suunweiss. The capital of Suunland was perched on a ridge overlooking  the port city of Suunsea.  The outer wall  had been rebuilt several times in the last two hundred years to accommodate the city’s growth.    There were  six gates, only two of which were open after dark. One of these marked the southern terminus of the Nobal Road.

 

The northern portion of the city was dominated by establishments which catered to travelers. Business was brisk.  The restaurants were crowded. The brothels were just beginning to open their doors. Most of the inns had posted signs indicating that they were full. 

 

No one recognized the prince in his civilian clothes.  Sammual’s exotic beauty attracted some attention, until he donned a veil.  With her pointed ears covered by her wiry hair and her hands with their sharp claws folded in her lap,  Darli appeared to be an unusually plain but otherwise ordinary child.

 

Soon, they came within sight of a massive  granite building which stood on the highest ground of the city. Efforts to brighten up the old fortress with flags, trees and paint had not been successful. A stranger viewing the place for the first time, would have been able to guess that Suunland’s history had been a bloody one, and that her ruling family had not always been loved by all her citizens.

 

As they neared the gate, Marc hailed one of the guards, a short, stocky young man clad in regulation marine blue. “Send word to the King. Tell him that his son, Prince Marcellus has arrived. I’ve brought my brother home.”

 

“Prince Marcellus?”  The guard squinted up at him. “Is that really you?”

 

Marc dismounted.   “If you don’t believe me, call your captain. I---” Two spears appeared, both pointed at his throat. “What the hell?”

 

“Call the Captain,” the second guard, a taller, thinner version of the first yelled to someone inside the gate house. “Tell her the prince has returned.”

 

“Now see here---” Marc began.  One of the blades touched his throat. He swallowed his protest.

 

The Captain of the Guard, Sarah Hanly must have been asleep when they summoned her. Her deep blue, uniform jacket was unbuttoned, and the shirt and pants underneath were wrinkled. Her short, brown hair stuck up in all directions.  She hurried towards the gate, buckling her sword belt as she ran.

 

 “Sarah!”  Marc called.   “Tell this soldier who I am.”

 

She halted a few feet away from the prince.  “He knows who you are.”  Her voice was cool, her expression inscrutable.

 

“Then why is he trying to skewer me?”

 

“We have orders to arrest you.”

 

“You’ve got to be kidding.  Who gave the order?”

 

“The King.”

 

“Is this some kind of joke?”

 

Sarah ignored him. “You will need to come with me, too, Miss,” she said to Sammual.

 

“But I know nothing,” he murmured in a convincing falsetto. He softened his consonants in a way that was common to natives of southern Shiraz. His third eye was firmly shut. “I met the man today. He offered to escort me and my niece…” He stroked Darli’s hair.”… to Suunland. I have a digestive condition, and I’ve come to take the waters.”

 

“Tell it to the King,”  the captain replied, a trifle impatiently.

 

One of the guards tried to take Kelvin, but the child screamed and clung to his brother. “What about the baby?”

 

“Leave him with the prince,” Sarah ordered.  “At least until his father arrives. Just be sure to keep your eyes on Marcellus. Let me know if he tries anything funny.”

 

“What do you think I’m going to do?” Marc demanded. No one answered him. He might as well have been talking to himself.

 

“And the girl?” The taller of the two guards pointed to Darli. 

 

“Bring her along. And someone see to the horses.”

 

Marc was stripped of his only weapon, a knife. Apologetically, one of the guards did a cursory search of Sammual, who giggled and pretended to be ticklish.   Then, the travelers were escorted at spear point into the guardhouse and from there down a narrow flight of stairs which lead to the castle dungeon. The prince tried to get Sammual’s attention, but the elde-mage was flirting with  the guards.     What was going on behind that lovely face? Why was the mage doing nothing to free them? All he had to do was reveal his third eye, and the guards would back off.

 

Marc was distracted by the sight of his uncle.  Prince Corwyn stood at the bottom of the stairs, attempting to block the entrance into the dungeon. The king’s half brother was a slender man of medium height with straight black hair and a smooth, pale, clean shaven face.

 

His mother, the Lady Joland, was the previous King’s second wife, a noblewoman from Sarahajuun whose dowry included  an exclusive contract to sell Suunian lumber to the Sarahajuun navy . Though King Kelvin’s father had been dead almost eighteen years, the victim of a broken neck suffered in a riding accident, her wedding contract still brought Suunland a small fortune each year.  She admitted to being fifty, looked thirty and was rumored to  be closer to seventy. 

 

Corwyn shared his mother’s good health and youthful appearance. As a result, he looked young enough to be Marc’s brother rather than his uncle. He was a mild mannered man who liked to spend his time writing poetry, playing the harp and luring attractive young women into his bed.  Attempts to interest him in political discussions always failed. “I have no political opinions,” was his usual response.  Marc had never heard him raise his voice to anyone--until now.

 

“You can’t be serious!” the king’s younger brother exclaimed to Sarah.  “You aren’t really going to arrest Marc? What would your brother say?”

 

It was a low blow, and Sarah flinched, but she quickly regained her composure. “King’s orders.”

 

“For what crime?”

 

“Kidnapping the young prince.”

 

Corwyn shook his head in exasperation.  “How can you accuse him of kidnapping his brother, when it’s as clear as the nose on your face that he’s rescued him?’ 

 

“Please sir, we must secure the prisoner.”

 

“Don’t call him the prisoner. He’s Marc. Your friend, Marc. Your brother’s---”

 

“Corwyn.” The voice which came from the top of the stairs was deceptively sweet.   “This is hardly an appropriate place to discuss such matters.”

 

Corwyn flushed.   “Mother, they’re trying to arrest Marc.”

 

Slowly,   Lady Joland descended the stairs. Like Corwyn, she had dark hair, fair skin and a slender build.  Though she had lived in Suunland for two decades, she continued to wear the elaborate hair styles, wide skirts and dark colors favored in the Court of Sarahajuun

 

“On whose orders, Captain Hanly?”  She addressed the question to Sarah.

 

“By order of the King, ma’am.”

 

Lady Joland turned to her son.  “Then why are you wasting your breath arguing with the guards?  It’s your brother you must convince.”

 

Sarah let out an almost imperceptible sigh of relief.

 

Corwyn bowed his head and stepped aside. “You’re right, as always, Mother. Marc, I’ll talk to Kel.  We’ll get this straightened out, I promise.”

 

The prisoners were escorted down one corridor, then another, until they reached the deepest, most secure cell in the dungeon, a squalid room devoid of any comfort except for a thin layer of rank straw on the floor.  The prince was the first to be shackled.  Both manacles and leg irons were used.   As the cold iron closed about his wrists, he gave Sammual an imploring look. He might as well have appealed to the wall.

 

Prince Kelvin continued to refuse to be parted from his big brother.  He treated the chains as toys, first slipping his own wrist through one of the links, then rattling them.

 

When it was time to chain the Shirazian “lady”, the tall guard was apologetic.  “If your story checks out, ma’am, I’m sure you’ll be released.”  He applied only one light manacle and fastened it to the wall with a long chain.

 

Sammual murmured a polite “Thank you.”

 

Sarah turned to Darli and held out her hand. “You can wait upstairs with us, if you like, little girl. A dungeon is no place for---!”  She howled as Darli sank her teeth into her hand. “You bitch!”

 

With a snarl, Darli dodged the blow which one of the guards aimed at her head. She crouched next to Marc in the straw.

 

“Marc prince,” she hissed. “You not prince. Not prince chain prince to wall, not prince be dead woman.” She drew one finger across her neck.  “Darli cut off head and  shit down neck.”  Her eyes glowed in the shadows like two burning coals. 

 

Sarah backed away. “What is she? Some kind of monster?”

 

“Or a demon. I hear the prince used sorcery to---” At the sound of footsteps, the guards stopped whispering and came to attention.

 

The door of the dungeon flew open.   A tall, broad shouldered man stepped into the room. He had flowing red hair, a thick beard and a nose that had been broken and reset more times than anyone could remember.  His velvet coat strained across his back.   His shirt was open at the collar, revealing  a thick pelt of red fur on his chest.  Hawk like eyes searched the faces, until they found what they sought.  Purposefully, he marched forward. He raised his hand and was about to strike his eldest son with his fist, when he realized that Marc was holding the young prince in his arms.

 

 Seeing the expression of fury on his father’s face,  Kelvin began to cry.

 

Trembling with shock and rage, the King   turned on his guards.  “You brought   Kelvin here? Tothe dungeon?”

 

The Captain of the Guard stepped forward. Head high, shoulders back, she announced stiffly “The child became hysterical when we tried to separate him from his brother, your highness.  I didn’t want to traumatize him unnecessarily. I knew that he would come willingly to you.”

 

The King’s anger subsided. He nodded once.  He had always liked Sarah Hanly.  At one time, he had hoped that Marc would marry her.

 

When he turned back to face his sons, King Kelvin’s expression was benign. He held out his arms. Laughing, Kelvin let go of his brother and reached for his father.

 

“Dah!” he exclaimed.  He tugged at his father’s beard.  

 

For several minutes, King and infant stood together. The big man showed unexpected gentleness, as he kissed the boy  and, under guise of tickling him, checked him for injuries. “He seems well.  Call his nanny.”

 

A short, heavy set woman appeared almost immediately. She must have been waiting in the hall.  Kelvin seemed reluctant to leave his father’s arms, but when his nanny--”Na” he called her---took him, he did not object too loudly.

 

“Take him to the nursery. Get him some food and clean clothes.”

 

The nanny examined the boy. “He looks clean to me. And well fed.”  Her eyes lingered on Marc’s face. She had been his nanny, too.

 

“Just do it! And have the doctor check him.” 

 

Nanna gave the King a dark look, but there was nothing more she could do. With an anxious smile and a nod in Marc’s direction, she left carrying the young prince.

 

The King waited until woman and child were gone, then he turned on his older son.   “Why? Why did you do it?”

 

A dream, Marc told himself.  This had to be a bad dream. If only he could wake up.   “I wanted to find Kelvin.  I knew that only a mage could unravel the mystery of how he was taken, and there is only one---” 

 

His father slapped him. “The truth!”

 

The ringing in his ear added to the sense of unreality. What was the truth? Was it true that he was here in the dungeon? Was his father really staring at him with eyes full of hatred?   “Didn’t you read my note? I left to find Kelvin---”

 

This blow was harder. His father had used his fist this time.  Marc tasted blood.

 

“Why?” The King grabbed him by the throat.

 

Marc was close to tears. “I’m trying to tell you. I wanted  to find my brother---” A blow to his stomach knocked the wind from his body. He doubled up as far as his chains would allow.  “Why are you doing this?”    He did not care that tears were leaking from his eyes.  He just wanted the nightmare to end.  “We brought Kelvin home.”

 

“True,” his father said.  He stepped back.  “If not for that, your head would be on a pike on Traitor’s Wall.”

 

Marc fought the urge to vomit.  “Do you hate him so much?” he gasped. By “him”, he meant Sammual.

 

The King misunderstood.  “I don’t hate you.  I  hate what you did. ”  He sounded very  tired.  “Captain, bring in the other prisoner.”

 

Marc had several minutes to compose himself. No matter how much his father hated Sammual, what he was doing made no sense. A man would turn to his worst enemy for help if it meant saving the life of his child, would not he?

 

It was clear that the king had no idea that the earth mage was his “prisoner.”  Sammual was sitting with his back against the wall. His legs were crossed, and his eyes were modestly lowered.  He looked exactly like a proper  Shirazian lady who had unexpectedly found herself forced to sit on the floor of a dirty dungeon.   What was he waiting for?  With a single word and a wave of his hand, he could end  this now.  

 

A guard returned, leading a prisoner, a short, skinny man, dressed in the tattered remnants of the tricolor coat which was awarded to the graduates of the Three Goddesses School of Wizardry.  Two white robed mages flanked him,  one a  tall man with snow white hair and sun bronzed skin, the other a short, slender woman with brown hair and hazel eyes.

 

“That’s him.” The wizard lifted his manacled hand to point at Marc. “He paid me to cast a spell of invisibility over the young prince and then kidnap him.  I took him outside the city and gave him to a slave trader from Shiraz, just as Prince Marcellus ordered---”

 

“Liar!”  This earned Marc another blow from the king.

 

“Keep your mouth shut, until I ask you a question. He confirmed his story under torture.  Two mages have also sworn that he’s telling the truth.  He had this---” He dug in his pocket and pulled out a pearl earring, one of a pair which had belonged to Morgany, “--in his possession. You gave it to him along with gold. He was caught when he tried to pawn the pearl. The jeweler recognized it.  The wizard confessed voluntarily to kidnapping and sorcery,   when he could have kept his mouth shut and spent a few years in the mines for theft.  Why should I doubt him?”

The world was spinning out of control.  Marc closed his eyes and took several slow deep breaths.  “Because I didn’t do what he said.”  He was proud of how calm he managed to sound. Inside, he was anything but calm. “Think, Father. If I arranged to have Kelvin kidnapped, why would I bring him back?”

 

The King frowned.  “That’s what I can’t understand.”  With his hands behind his back, he paced. “Is this part of some more sinister plan? Are you trying to prove your loyalty so that I won’t suspect you if something happens to Kelvin, later?  Do you want the throne so badly that you can’t tolerate a rival, even your own brother? Is that it?”  He turned to Sarah.  “Captain, take the wizard back to his cell. Then escort Prince Marcellus to the interrogation room and prepare the rack.  Call me when he is ready. One way or another, we’ll have the truth tonight.”

 

Sarah’s face turned pale. “Sir?”

 

“You heard me.”  He dropped his voice. “I realize that you’re close to Marc. If you can’t bring yourself to supervise his interrogation, you have my permission to find someone else who can.”   Without waiting for an answer, he moved towards the door, only to be stopped short by Darli, who had stepped into his path.

 

“You not king,” she said haughtily, her head high, her eyes full of naked fury. “You fool. You worse than fool, because fool know he fool, but you think you king. If you want be king ask self who want  king be fool. Who grow strong when king be fool?”

 

The King raised his hand.

 

“Darli!”  Marc called out a warning.

 

Defiantly, she lifted her chin. She received a blow that would have knocked most grown men off their feet.   Darli’s head moved only a fraction of an inch. A slight red mark appeared on her jaw, no more than one would expect from a light slap.

 

It was the King who cried out in pain. He clutched his hand, which was scorched across the palm.  The burn began to blister almost immediately. “What kind of creature are you?”

 

“I  princess. Princess of Darkhall. One day you die, and you be in my kingdom. One day I chain you to wall and put you on rack and make you cry, and no one hear or care.”

 

With a shudder, the King turned and hurried from the cell. He was followed by the guards, who gave the daema princess wide berth.

 

Sarah lingered for a moment. “ Marc,” she whispered.  “What’s happening?”

 

“You’ve got to believe me, Sarah. I would never do anything to harm Kelvin. Or Suunland.”

 

“ I wish---”   Abruptly, she turned away and left.

 

 

***

 

In the castle, King Kel averted his eyes as he passed his wife’s portrait.  He knew what she would say if she was here. However, it was his duty to protect his younger, weaker son, even if doing so meant hurting the older.

 

He went to the nursery first. He met the physician as he was leaving.  “How is he?”

 

“All things considered, he’s doing very well. A few bruises, but no more than you’d expect in a toddler. When I left a few moments ago, he was asleep.”

 

The King nodded. He crept softly into the room. For several minutes, he watched the small boy sleep. The child’s hair was the same pale gold as Morgany’s. He tried not to think of the other fair haired child who had once slept in this bed.

 

“Seadra, please help,” he whispered aloud. “Help us all.”

 

Straightening his back and shoulders, he turned and headed back towards the dungeon.

 

 

***

 

“It looks like Darli is regaining more of her daema  powers,”  Sammual  commented lightly, once the last of the guards were gone, leaving the prisoners alone in the cell.  With a simple twist of his hand, he freed himself from his manacle.  Marc’s irons were as easily dealt with--the elde-mage  used a spell which turned the metal to rust.  “Anything broken?” he asked. He ran one hand over the prince’s ribs while the other probed his bruised cheek.

 

Marc turned his head and spit out a mouthful of blood. 

 

The earth mage examined  the prince’s mouth. The inside of his left cheek was deeply lacerated.  “You were lucky,” he murmured, as he healed the wound.

 

“Lucky?”

 

“I wasn’t forced to kill your father or any of the guards. Where there’s life, there’s still hope of reconciliation.”  Seeing the  despair in Marc’s eyes,  he added “Yes, I know it hurts. But you have to be strong for a little while.”

 

Blinking back tears, Marc nodded. He did not trust his voice.

 

“Good boy.” Sammual turned to Darli. “Did he hurt you, princess?”

 

She looked offended. “Mortal no can hurt Darli.”  She made a fist. “Darli rip out fool king heart  and eat it.”

 

“That won’t be necessary. Marc, cover your ears.”

 

Marc was too stunned to obey, so Sammual covered his ears for him.  The door to the dungeon blew open with a bang and a crash.  Moments later, footsteps could be heard, running towards the cell.

 

“No one move or speak,” the elde-mage ordered.

 

When the guards entered the cell, it appeared to be deserted. They saw the empty  manacle dangling from the wall and a pile of red rust where the other prisoner had been standing. They did not see Sammual creep up behind them and lift each man’s sword from its scabbard. He tossed one to Marc and kept the other for himself.

 

“You can move now.”

 

The prince appeared in front of them, seemingly out of thin air, holding a sword at one guard’s throat. The other guard felt something press against his left kidney. He looked over his shoulder and saw the black haired beauty. The veil was gone.   It took a moment for him to register the fact that she had three eyes.  “An elden !”  he whispered.  He was more distressed by this than by the blade aimed at his vital organs.

 

“That’s right,” said Sammual with a nasty smile. “I can turn you to stone like that.” He snapped his fingers. “So don’t do anything to annoy me. I need weapons.  Fresh horses.  Food and water. The prince will need a uniform. Make that two uniforms. The ones you’re wearing will do.”   He paused.  Turning to Marc, he said in a low, urgent whisper, “This is important, so don’t lie. Who gave you the scar on your chest? Was it your father?”

 

“My father?  For love of Seadra, no! He would  never do something like that.”

 

“Forgive me for doubting him, but a few moments ago, I heard him tell the Captain of the Guards to prepare you for torture. If your father didn’t do it, how did you get the scar?”

 

Marc looked away.  “I did it myself,” he said softly.

 

The elde-mage’s  third eye widened, but he made no reply. Turning to the guards, he said “I will also need pen, ink and paper. I’m going to leave a message for the King.”

 

 

***

 

 King Kel  was halfway to the dungeon, when he was stopped by the Captain of the Guards.  “Sir, can I speak with you a moment?”

 

“What is it, Captain?”

 

Sarah hesitated.

 

“It’s about Marcellus, isn’t it?”  King Kel looked very tired.

 

“Yes, sir.  Do you seriously intend to put your own son on the rack?”

 

The king rubbed his eyes.  “Pardon me, I don’t think I’ve slept more than eight hours in the last week.”

 

“Sir?”

 

Before he could say more, one of the cadets appeared. “Your Highness! “ she called, her voice shrill with alarm.  “ Please, you must go back to the castle. It isn’t safe for you here!”

 

“Not safe? In my own city? In my own castle? Are we under attack?” 

 

“It’s the prisoners, sir. They’ve escaped.”

 

The King’s face flushed deep red.  “Escaped!” he roared.  “How do a woman, a child and a man in irons escape from a guarded dungeon?”

 

“She--the woman wasn’t an ordinary woman.  She was an elden mage.   She broke the irons, then opened the door. When two guards went to investigate, she made herself invisible and stole their swords.  Just before the prisoners left, she cast a spell on them, so that they couldn’t sound the alarm. If I hadn’t gone to check on them,  we still wouldn’t know that the prisoners were missing. ”

 

“Did they leave on foot?” Sarah demanded.  “ Which direction were they heading?”

 

“Three horses are missing. No one saw them leave. “

 

“Describe the mage.”  This from the king.

 

 “Black hair, green eyes.  One of the guards says he heard a name. Sam. “

 

The King swore under his breath. 

 

“One more thing, sir. The elden left a note.  She gave it to one of the guards before putting him to sleep.  She said we were to deliver it to you and only to you…”

 

“A note? Give it to me?”

 

The young guard swallowed.  “Your mages have it. They wanted to examine it first to make sure there was no poison or spell contained within the paper.”

 

The King nodded.  “A wise precaution. Tell them to bring it to me, when they are done.

 I’ll be in the nursery  with my son.”

 

An hour later, the tall, white haired mage, Felixx tiptoed into the nursery.   “We’ve examined the note.  It’s fairly straightforward. No poison. No hidden spells. Would you like to see it?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Felixx offered him a sheet of paper.  King Kel glanced at the first few lines. “For your sake and the sake of your two sons,  read the rest of this  letter when you are alone. If asked what you have read, say you saw the words ‘I will have my revenge.’ That is all anyone besides you will see if they examine this paper...” 

 

Felixx attempted to peer over his shoulder. “Your Highness, what do you see?”

 

The King crumpled the sheet into a ball which he tossed to the floor. “The same thing you saw. ‘I will have my revenge.’ The bastard. Leave me now. I want to be alone.”

 

When the mage was gone, the King locked the door, retrieved the note and sat down beside the fire. He smoothed the wrinkles from the letter and began to read.  “The Darkhall princess is right. Someone is playing you for a fool. The wizard who ‘confessed’ to helping kidnap your son is under a spell.   He is compelled to tell the story Marc’s enemies want him to tell. If you do not believe me, ask to see the wizard alone. He will suffer an unfortunate, fatal accident, before you have a chance to question him.

 

“Many will say that our sudden departure from Suunweiss is a sign of guilt.  Pretend to agree with them, if you wish.  You will probably be safer, if those who plot against you and your sons believe that you have fallen for their lies.

 

“The white haired mage who accompanied the prisoner in the dungeons is not to be trusted, but do not tell him that you suspect him. His partner seemed innocent enough, though I suspect she is being manipulated. Both of them are pawns in this game. Eliminate them, and your enemy and will find others to take their place.

 

“I am going north to Shiraz  to look for the sorcerer who stole your son and to rescue the other children he plans to sacrifice. That is what fate had in store for your youngest son, had your oldest not intervened. You should be proud of Marc. He put himself in great danger to save his brother’s life.

 

“I don’t know if those who plot against Marc arranged the kidnapping, or if they merely took advantage of it. I do not know if their goal is to hurt Marc or to drive a wedge between him and you.  I hope to be able to tell you more the next time we meet.

 

“If you want to send troops after us, go ahead. They won’t catch up with us.  I can travel faster than the fastest cavalry. I suggest that you send troops to look for us in Gold Mountain instead. If you do so,   I will tell Marc that you have come to your senses, and no longer believe him capable of  the crimes of which he is accused.  It’s your decision.  If you would prefer to have only one son, I will take Marc into my care. He is a good boy and deserves better than he has received at your hands.”

 

The King read the letter three times.  Then he folded it, placed it in his pocket and stepped out into the hall where two guards had been posted to protect the young prince from the escaped prisoners.

 

“I want to see the wizard who kidnapped Prince Kelvin.”

 

“Now, sir?”

 

“Now.”

 

Arms behind his back, the King paced back and forth in front of the nursery door. He was still waiting for the prisoner when his half-brother, Corwyn found him.  The slender, dark haired man approached him cautiously.   “Kel--” he began.

 

The King waved him away. “Not now.”

 

“We have to talk. The wizard’s lying. I don’t know why, but it has to be a lie. Marc wouldn’t--”

 

“Not now!”   King Kel roared. 

 

Corwyn blanched, but he stood his ground.  “I hear you plan to question Marc on the rack. How could you? Your own son!”

 

“Is he?” the King demanded softly.

 

Corwyn was shorter and much slighter of build than the king.  His older brother could knock him down with one blow--something Kel had demonstrated many times when they were growing up.  However, Corwyn refused to be cowed.  “You know he is.”

 

The King’s shoulders slumped. He shook his head. “I don’t know anything anymore. Please, leave me.”

 

“You’re a fool, Kel.”  Corwyn braced himself for an angry response.  When none came, he added,  “If you want to torture Marc, you’ll have to get through me first.”

 

 “Save the heroics. No one is going to be interrogated tonight.  Marc has escaped.”

 

“He’s what? How----”

 

He was interrupted by Sarah.  “Your highness!”  She sounded breathless, as if she had been running. “There’s been an accident. The prisoner was being brought here as you ordered when he slipped on the stairs and broke his neck. He died instantly.”

 

The King nodded.   Just as the mage had predicted.

 

Corwyn looked from the captain’s face to his brother’s. “What’s going on?”

 

“Not now,” the king said impatiently. “I need to consult with the captain.”

 

“But what about---?”

 

“Go!”

 

Corwyn fled.

 

“Do you have any orders, sir?”  Sarah asked. She knew the king too well to be alarmed by his show of temper.

 

Her cool, level headedness had a calming effect on him. “Yes. Send a regiment to follow the prisoners.”

 

“Which direction shall I send them, your highness?”

 

He considered his answer carefully. “Send them to Gold Mountain. The fugitives are heading for the mage’s mountain lair.  I feel it in my bones.”

 

 “Yes, sir.”

 

“And Sarah. Once that’s done, come back here.”

 

“Sir?”

 

“There have been --unexpected developments. I need to talk to someone I can trust.”

 

 

 

Chapter 7

 

After riding for half the night, the fugitives  set up camp in a gully out of sight of the road.  Sammual checked their food and water  for poison before allowing his companions to eat.  No one said much during the meal, except for Darli, who kept coming up with new, creative ways to punish the people who had imprisoned them in the dungeon,

 

Marc wished she would stop.   The ache in his jaw was reminder enough of his ordeal. By tomorrow, his face would be swollen beyond recognition, and his gut hurt every time he took a breath. What if he had internal injuries? What if he died? Would his father feel sorry? Would he even care?

 

He felt a hand upon his shoulder.    “You should get some sleep. ”  

 

 Marc’s defenses crumbled. He covered his face with his hands. “What am I going to do, Sam? Where will I go?  If even Father thinks I’m guilty, how can I expect anyone else to believe in me?”

 

“I know you’re innocent.  Together, we’ll discover who’s behind  this.”

 

“How? How can I clear my name, if I can’t show my face in Suunweiss without being arrested?”

 

“You’re enemy is in Shiraz, not Suunweiss.”

 

“I don’t know anyone in Shiraz.”

 

“Perhaps the attack isn’t aimed at you personally.   By getting rid of one heir to the throne and placing the blame on the other, someone in Shiraz may hope to destabilize Suunland’s government.”

 

“You think it could be political?”

 

“I think  we’ll know more when we reach Shiraz. I  know  that it’s time for you to rest.”  . 

 

At Sammual’s urging, Marc stretched out on his makeshift bed.   Though he closed his eyes and counted sheep, sleep eluded him.  “Is there a spell  that can make me forget what happened tonight?”

 

“Sorry, no.  Amnesia spells aren’t selective. You could wind up like poor Darli.”

 

“How about this?” He rubbed his jaw.  “It’s starting to swell.”

 

Sammual knelt beside him. He placed his fingertips on either side of the prince’s face.   For a second,   Marc’s jaw burned, then the pain vanished. He rubbed his chin. The swelling was gone, and the flesh was no longer tender.

 

“Thanks. And about my stomach---”

 

The mage slipped his hand down the front of the prince’s shirt. His fingertips barely grazed the bruised flesh.

 

Marc sighed.  “Much better. “ 

 

Sammual  pulled a blanket over him, tucking it under his chin.  As he murmured the words of a sleep spell, he brushed Marc’s hair back from his face.  “Remind me to do something about those tangles when we have a spare moment.”

 

“Yes, mother,” Marc murmured drowsily.

 

“What was that?”

 

He giggled.  His own quiet laughter soon lulled him to sleep.

 

 

***

 

When Marc opened his eyes the next morning, he found himself staring into the emerald green eyes of a Suunian cavalryman. Automatically, he reached for his sword.

 

“Are you looking for this?” The dark haired young man tossed him his weapon.

 

Marc blinked.  “Sam? Is that you?”  He stared.  The elde-mage had traded his elegant clothes for a pair of serviceable military issue trousers,  a  jacket and sturdy boots.  They fit him perfectly, as if they had been tailored especially for him.  “What did you do to your hair?”

 

Sammual ran his fingers through his hair, which had been cropped to within a few inches of his scalp.  “I was getting tired of brushing it twice a day.  Do you think I can pass for a soldier?” 

 

“You fooled me.”  The transformation was impressive, and it was not just the clothes.  Sammual walked, talked  and  moved in a way that was entirely masculine. Even his beauty seemed to have a harder edge.  Before, he had been as smooth as silk. Now, he was as smooth as a finely polished steel blade.  It was easy to see why Marc’s mother had been attracted to him.

 

From Morgany, Marc’s thoughts strayed to his father and brother.  As he chewed on a sandwich of stale bread and cold sausage, he recalled the disturbing events of the day before.  His wounds--emotional as well as physical--- were less raw, which allowed him to think more clearly. 

 

Last night, he had thought himself the only victim of the conspiracy, but after talking to Sammual, he was convinced that his father was a target, too.   A chill ran up his spine, and he choked on his sandwich. The  memory of his father’s angry, accusing face was replaced by an even more disturbing image, his father lying in a pool of  blood, eyes open but blinded by death, mouth forever fixed in a  shout of alarm.  And Kelvin--how easy it would be to dispose of a helpless child and blame the fugitive prince, clearing the way for someone else to take the throne. Who?  The King’s half brother? Corwyn had never given any indication that he envied Kel his crown. Maybe the plot was hatched by Pryytan rebels, the native inhabitants of the land who still considered the Suunian’s barbarian invaders.   Or, perhaps the Shirazians were planning another holy war against their neighbors to the south.

 

There were  many possibilities and very little concrete information. However, one thing was very clear. The king and his youngest son were in more danger than anyone realized.

 

Marc threw down his food and scrambled to his feet. “I must go back.”

 

“To Suunweiss? Are you mad?”

 

 “Father’s in danger. I have to warn him.”

 

The mage laid a hand on the prince’s forearm.  “Calm yourself. I warned him of the danger in the letter I left for him.”

 

“What if he doesn’t get the letter? He has enemies within the castle.” Marc began saddling his horse.  “Take Darli and head north.  If I’m able to convince Father of my innocence, I’ll send you a message. If  I can’t---”

 

“You’ll send me your head in a box?  Marc, my child, I understand your worry, but I can’t let you return to Suunweiss. It’s too dangerous.”

 

“Then come with me.”

 

“I have to find the sorcerer  who had your brother kidnapped. You heard the spark gnome.  His master is sacrificing children to build his bloody warded fortress. Innocent lives are at stake. Not to mention the chaos he could cause with magic of that magnitude. With the blood of innocents from the Seven Kingdoms a mage could do almost anything, grant himself invulnerability and eternal life, bring an army of the dead from the grave to wage battle, open a door between this world and the Darkhall---”

 

Marc had been so preoccupied with his own problems that he had forgotten about the children.   “You’re right.  The sorcerer has to be stopped. But you don’t need my help to do that. Take Darli. She’ll be safer with you than with me.   I’ll go home and look after my father and brother.” Noting the stubborn set of Sammual’s jaw, he added “I promise not to take any unnecessary  chances---”

 

“Says the man who is about to throw himself into the lion’s den. Correction, the foolish boy who is about to throw himself into the lion’s den.”  Somehow, without appearing to move, Sammual had managed to position himself between Marc and his horse. “Fortunately,  I have sense enough for both of us.”

 

One look at the elde-mage’s cool, implacable face convinced Marc that  arguing would be a waste of time.  Fighting was out of the question.  He would have to wait until Sammual’s back was turned, then he would make his escape. 

 

He composed himself.  “You’re right.  I won’t do my family any good if I end up getting myself killed.”

 

The elde-mage  watched his warily.  “Are you planning to sneak off once my back is turned?“

 

Marc feigned surprise. “Don’t be silly.”

 

“Yes or no.”

 

“No.”

 

Shaking his head,  Sammual  said  “I told you that I can always spot a  lie.  Promise me that you won’t go back.”

 

“I promise.”  Promises did not count when made under duress, he told himself, half believing it.

 

“Another lie. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to do this.”

 

The sleep spell took Marc by surprise. He wondered why the earth was rising towards him, then realized that it was he who was falling...

 

 

***

 

When he woke, Marc was lying face down in the dirt.  He spit out a mouthful of dust and blinked to clear the grit from his eyes. He glanced to the left and right. There was no sign of the elde-mage.  Now was his chance.

 

He tried to leap for the closest horse, but when he made his move, all he did was flop on his belly like a beached fish. “What the hell!” he exclaimed.  His arms and legs were securely bound.

 

He looked around the camp site. Where was his sword?  If he could find it, maybe he could cut his bonds before Sammual came back. 

 

By rocking back and forth, he managed to roll over onto his back. From here, he was able to sit up. He spotted Darli. Relief flooded through him.  “Darli. Help get me out of these ropes.”

 

The princess smiled.  “Beautiful magic lord say no cut rope.”

 

“Darli, please!”

 

Darli shook her head.  “Darli know. This game.  Marc say cut rope, but Marc no mean it.  This silly game Marc play with beautiful magic lord.”

 

“What?!”

 

She sighed. “Darli no understand game, but Darli understand love.  It...” She searched for a word. “...grab here.”  She laid her hand over her chest. “It make want do silly, strange thing.”

 

Was she trying to tell him that Sammual was doing this for his own good?  “Sam’s wrong. I can’t  run away and let---”  Abruptly, his head tipped back .  The world turned, then turned again. When things stopped swimming, he realized that he had been slung over the back of his horse.

 

“Get me down, now!”

 

“Stop squirming. You’re going to fall on your head.”  Sammual secured the ropes.  “One day you’ll thank me.”

 

“Like Hell I will ! Sam, if you don’t let me down, I swear I’ll kill you!”

 

“I’m immortal.”

 

“Then I’ll make you wish you could die.”

 

The earth mage shook his head.  “If you keep moving around like that, you’re going to get hurt.  I’ll have to put you to sleep again.”

 

“Don’t you dare---”

 

 

***

 

When he woke,  he was lying on the ground .    He did not recognize any of the nearby landmarks,  and there was no sign of the Nobal Road.  His stomach muscles ached, his clothes reeked of horse sweat and there was a crick in his neck. He could not feel his hands or feet.

 

Sammual crouched over him.  “Water?” He held out a flask.

 

“Where am I?”

 

“Several hundred miles farther away from your  death than you were this morning.”

 

Several hundred miles?  This morning? It all came back to him, then. The argument, the ropes, the humiliation of being slung over the back of a horse like a sack of grain.

 

He tried to flex his arms and legs.

 

“Don’t bother. They’re still bound. Water.” It was not a question this time.

 

He drank and ate what was offered to him. Or rather, what was forced upon him.  Anger seethed just below the surface.  He fought to control it.   “I have to piss.”

 

He was lifted onto his feet.

 

“I can’t do it with my hands behind my back.”

 

“I’ll help you.”

 

Marc could not remember the last time he had felt so humiliated. The dungeon was better than this.  At least in the dungeon, he was treated like an adult.

 

“Sam, please, I won’t run away.”

 

“No,” the elde-mage  agreed. “You won’t. “  He lowered the prince back onto the ground. “Comfortable?”

 

“No.”  He spotted Darli on the other side of the camp fire. She was watching them with  open curiosity.  “What did you tell her?”

 

Sammual sat down beside him.  “I told her not to untie the ropes.”

 

“No. It was something more. She kept going on about games.  Damn it! There’s a rock the size of a melon pressing into my skull.”

 

Sammual lifted Marc’s head onto his lap. “Better?’ 

 

“No, it’s not better. What did you tell her?”

 

“Take my word for it. You don’t want to know.”  Idly, he pushed  sweat soaked strands of hair back from the prince’s forehead. 

 

 “What did you tell Darli?”

 

“What did you tell Darli?  When she found me binding you  this morning, she asked if you enjoyed being tied. She seems to think we were lovers.”

 

Marc closed his eyes and groaned.  “Sam, please. If I promise not to go back to the capital, will you untie me?”

 

“Will you  promise on your mother’s grave?”

 

The prince pressed his lips together.

 

“I thought not.  In the letter I wrote your father, I promised to take care of you. If your father were here, and he knew you were planning an idiotic rescue that would do no good  and might cost you your life,  he would do exactly what I did.”

 

“I can take care of myself!”

 

“If that was true, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

 

“What conversation? You aren’t listening to a word I’m saying.  Sam?”

 

“Hmmm?”

 

“My nose itches.”

 

“There?”

 

“A little to the left.”  He sighed. “You can’t keep me like this all the way to Shiraz. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to untie me.”

 

Sammual stared at the distance, pretending not to hear.

 

“Sam! Listen to me.”

 

Silence.

 

This was the last straw.  Bitterly, he said “You treat people like---like children. No, like things. Yes, I know you’re older than me and smarter than me, and you can make the ground shake and turn people to stone. But you don’t understand people at all. You can’t tie someone up and throw him on a horse, because he won’t do what you want him to do.” 

 

Sammual closed his eyes.

 

The knife was in. Might as well give it a turn.  “Now I know why Mama left you.”  Marc enunciated each word carefully.  “She never could stand a bully.”

 

With his eyes still closed, Sammual murmured. “Have you ever seen an elde-mage get angry? It isn’t a pretty sight.  Go to sleep.”

 

Marc had anticipated these last words, and he fought the spell.  He had time to mutter the word “coward,” before he lost consciousness.

 

 

***

 

Marc woke up in the early hours of the morning.  The sky was dusted with stars. A thin wisp of cloud sailed slowly by. As the wind touched the earth, he shivered. He tugged at his blanket, slightly surprised that he could move his arms so easily. That was when it all came back to him, the ropes, the argument with Sam. He moved his feet.  The ropes around his ankles were gone, too.

 

 “Sam?  I know you’re out there somewhere, watching me. “

 

A  ark shape which he had assumed to be a  rock stood up.

 

Marc struggled to a sitting position.  His arms and legs were stiff.  He flexed them to restore the circulation.

 

Sammual sat down beside him. 

 

The horizon was a blur of gray against the black of the sky.  The prince could hear the soft breathing of the horses and smell Darli’s enticing scent, but they were out of sight. It was as if he and Sammual were completely alone, just the two of them and the stars. “Thanks for untying me.”

 

“You’re welcome.”

 

“I’m sorry about what I said.”

 

 “Everything you said was true.”

 

“No, I was angry.” He paused. “Tell me, what kind of traps have you laid to prevent me from going back to Suunweiss?”

 

He felt the mage stiffen.  “What makes you think I laid traps?”

 

“I know you.”

 

“Too well, it seems.  I had a talk with the horses. I told them not take you south unless I’m with you. If you try to head south by foot,  drowsy-caps will release their spores.”

 

“You can talk to mushrooms and horses?  Funny that you can’t talk to me. What are you drinking?”

 

The mage offered Marc a flask containing some sort of pungent liquor.  It made his throat burn, but it also warmed him.

 

 “Thanks. What did you write in the letter to my father?”

 

“I told him the same thing I told you. That he was acting like a fool. Since he’s a slightly older, more experienced fool, I assumed he would see reason sooner than you would, so I told him we’re going to Shiraz and advised him to watch out for traitors at home.”

 

 “You told him where we’re going?  Now who is acting like a fool?”

“Not so loud. You’ll wake Darli.  It was a test. He passed it when he decided not to send troops after us.”

 

“How do you know he didn’t send troops?”

“I’m an earth mage.  If we were being followed, I would know it.  We can trust him. Speaking of trust, will you tell me  why you decided to brand yourself with  your family crest?”

 

Marc groaned.  “You’re not going to stop asking until I tell you, are you?”

 

“Probably not.”

 

“And if I say ‘It’s none of your fucking business’, you’ll say ‘That’s fine,’ and tomorrow you’ll ask me again.”  He took another drink.  He had never tasted liquor so strong. After only a few sips, his head began to spin.  “It’s a long story.”

 

“I have plenty of time.”

 

Marc took another drink from the flask, then another. “It happened when I was fourteen. Mama and Father were having one of their arguments.  The ones that always ended up with Mama taunting Father with the fact that he would never know whose son I really was and Father----”

 

“Morgany said that?”

 

“Many times. Only to Father.  And only when she was very, very angry at him. Anyway, Mama threw that in his face, so he  called her a whore and  said a woman who would declare her own son a bastard wasn’t fit to be a mother.  Then Mama reminded him of the time when I was seven. I fell from my horse and broke my collarbone. Father didn’t believe me, and he made me keep  riding. Then Father brought up the fact that Mama let me sleep with her until I was six and accused her of trying to corrupt me or coddle me.  There were two versions of that story. I don’t remember which one he told that day---”

 

Sammual took the flask.  “I’m beginning to get the picture.  How did you survive growing up in a house like that?”

 

Marc shrugged.   “It was a very big house. And they didn’t talk to each other much. The argument that day was worse than usual. They started throwing things.  Mama said I was her son, and she was going to take me home with her. Father said good riddance. And I...I lost my head. I went down to the cattle yard where they were branding calves. It was early summer, so the brand had  seen a lot of use.  It was still red hot.  All I had to do was unbutton my shirt and press it to my chest, over my heart. It didn’t hurt for the first second or so. By the time I dropped the branding iron, the heat had done its job.

 

“The guards just stared. I don’t think they believed what they were seeing. Very calmly,   I buttoned my shirt again. I went back into the castle, up the stairs to the room where my parents were still arguing.  I walked inside and said ‘There’s something I want to show you.’ By this time, the burn was starting to hurt. My fingers fumbled when I tried to unfasten the buttons. This made me angry, so I tore the front of my shirt.

 

“Mama and Father both stopped talking at the same time. They were staring at my chest. In this strange voice that seemed to come from some place outside of me, I said ‘You can stop fighting about where I belong. I’ve made up my mind. I belong here.’     Then, I became hot and dizzy.   I threw up all over the rug and fainted. “

 

Sammual handed him the flask.

 

“Thanks.”  Marc’s head was swimming, and the stars overhead were dancing. However, the strangely potent liquor made it easier to talk . “Is this some kind of elde-mage  brew? What’s in it?”

 

 “Herbs, honey, dragon blood wine.  Did they stop arguing after that?”

 

“Hell no! After that, they argued about whose fault it was that I branded myself.  They didn’t really start getting along until the last two years. Then Mama got pregnant and had Kelvin and died.”

 

“That’s a bloody awful story.”

 

“It is, isn’t it?  The funny thing is out of the handful of people who’ve heard it, only two have said that.  You and Simon. Everybody else tries to get me to look on the bright side.”

 

“Who’s Simon?”

 

“Remember the Captain of the Guards? Sarah?  Simon was her brother.”

 

“Ah. I thought you and the young woman seemed close. Is she your lover?”

 

Marc laughed until his sides hurt.

 

“Should I be flattered that you find my conversation so amusing, or angry that you find me such a fool?”

 

“It isn’t that. Sarah isn’t my lover. Father wants me to marry her, but she and I are just friends. Simon was my lover.” For a moment, he was silent, remembering the night Simon died. His face was so pale. His dark hair was plastered to his forehead with sweat.  Near the end, he regained consciousness for a few minutes--

 

Marc pushed away the memory.  Lightly, he said “Did I mention that one of my parents’ favorite things to argue about was whose fault it was that I prefer men to women?”

 

There was a brief pause, then Sammual murmured, “That explains it.”  His voice was so soft that Marc almost missed his words.

 

“Explains what?”

 

“Nothing. Forget I said it.”

 

“No.  Here you are plying me with drink and prying into my personal life, uncovering all my dark little secrets as if I’m some kind of interesting new bug that you’ve just discovered. I want to hear some of your secrets.   I hope they’re really awful. As bad as being trussed up like a chicken and thrown on the back of a horse.”   His speech was slurred now.

 

“You’re drunk.”

 

“Of course, I’m drunk. I wouldn’t have told you about Mama and Father otherwise. Spit it out. ”

 

Sammual sighed.  “Yesterday morning when I woke up, I was seized by this strange impulse to cut my hair.”

 

It took Marc several minutes to realize that this would make no sense even to a sober man.  “I think you’re drunk, too.”

 

Elde-mages  don’t get drunk.  I haven’t cut my hair in decades. Not since I met your mother.  For the first few years after she left, I continued to dress like a man. I even had a lover for a while.  A woman.  However, as time passed, I returned to my old habits.   I’ve spent more years of my life as a woman than a man.”

 

Marc giggled. “I  figured that out already. The ankle bracelets and violet perfume tipped me off.”

 

Sammual took the flask from his hand. “No more for you, my child. We have to ride tomorrow, whether you have a hangover or not.”

 

“I’m not too drunk to notice that you just changed the subject. What does my weakness for men have to do with your hair?”

 

“I’ve changed my mind, I don’t want to talk about it.”

 

“No fair. I spilled my guts. Now it’s your turn.”

 

Quietly, “It’s too embarrassing.”

 

“ Embarrassing?  You’re talking to someone who had to ask for help to piss. Not to mention the fact that Darli now thinks I’m some kind of pervert who likes to be tied up. Nothing you can say is going to be more embarrassing than that. You’d better hurry up. The sun will be rising soon, and if it’s this hard to say it in the dark, think about how much worse it will be in the----”  He yawned. “Oh, hell. I’m too tired to talk anymore.” He lay down, but within moments he sat back up again. “You’re wrong. You said Father would have done just what you did, but you’re wrong. Father would have told me how much he loves me and how much he wants to protect me. He would have made me feel so guilty, that I would have promised him anything. And then, when his back was turned, I would have done what I intended to do in the first place. That’s how parents and children really act. 

 

“Now, Simon might have tied me to a horse to keep me from leaving.” He thought about this for a moment, before adding “I should say he might have tried  to do it. I outweighed him by thirty pounds, and he didn’t have any special magic powers, but he....Oh.” He covered his mouth with his hand.  “ I think I understand now. “  He began to laugh.  “This is too funny!”

 

“I don’t see anything funny about it,”   Sammual snapped.

 

“Yes, it is.  You said you weren’t ever going to change for anyone again, and now you’ve changed your hair for me.  Your just my type, too. I love a man in uniform.” Chuckling,   Marc leaned forward. He was aiming for the mouth,  but  he was so drunk that he ended up kissing Sammual on the ear.  He patted him on the cheek. “You’re sweet. I think I’ll forgive you for tying me up.”  With these words, he lay back down and began to snore.

 

 

***

 

Shortly before dawn, Darli woke. The elde-mage  was sitting by himself, some distance from the camp.   The slump of his shoulders and the expression of sadness on his face touched her heart. She went to him. “Beautiful magic lord sad?”

 

Sammual shook his head. “Not sad. Just confused.”

 

She peered into the metal flask which he held in his hand.  “What that smell? Smell bad.” She held her nose with two fingertips.  “Marc smell like bad. You give Marc?”

 

He sighed. “Yes, I gave it to Marc.”  He knew at the time that he should not do it.  Muriseal, a potent liquor made from fermented dragon’s blood and the crushed seeds of the tendrial weed, also know as Tell-No-Lies, was too strong for  mortals.  However, the prince’s words---Now I know why Mama left you-- were still ringing in his ears.  This mortal child understood him too well.  It seemed only fair that Sammual be allowed to understand him.  So he dosed him with muriseal, and he  was rewarded with a stream of confidences which Marc never would have shared if sober. And then, like the king’s wife in the old tale about the locked cupboard, Sammual was punished for his curiosity.

 

His one consolation was that ordinary mortals who drank muriseal seldom remembered much afterwards. If only the beverage had the same effects on elde-mages.

 

When Marc staggered to his feet, several hours after sunrise, his face had a sickly, greenish tinge.  Darli offered him some breakfast. At the sight of food, he turned his head and vomited. 

 

“Sweet goddess!” he groaned. “What happened to me last night?”

 

Darli opened her mouth, then closed it again when she saw Sammual’s face.

 

“You got drunk,” the earth mage told him.

 

Marc seemed to  realize for the first time that his bonds were gone.  As he rubbed his wrists, his eyes met Sammual’s. “Thank you.” 

 

The elde-mage looked away  “ You shouldn’t be thanking me.  What I did was inexcusable.”

 

“I excuse you anyway,” he said with a lopsided grin. “You were only trying to do what you thought was best.  If not for you, I’d still be in the dungeon. You saved Kelvin, you saved me.   I’d be a fool not to follow your advice.”  He glanced at Sammual out of the corner of his eye. “You’d better tell me what kind of magic traps you’ve laid for me, so I don’t stumble into them accidentally.”

 

So he did not remember their late night conversation.   Sammual relaxed.  “There’s nothing to keep you from going back to Suunweiss, if that’s what you want to do.” It was true. He had canceled the trap spells.

 

“Nothing except common sense.  I wish I could warn Father that he and Kelvin are in danger.”

 

“I warned him in the letter.” 

 

“What if he didn’t get the letter?”

 

“He got it. The letter was read, and I wrote it in such a way that only he could read it.”  He pretended to be busy adjusting a stirrup.  The memory of last night’s kiss kept popping up at the most inopportune times. Like now. Marc looked like a lion, his thick mane of blonde hair touched with gold by the morning sun.  His scent was intoxicating.   It had been years since Sammual felt so attracted to anyone.  Twenty years.   He willed his voice to remain cool.   “Do you feel up to traveling today?”

 

“No,” Marc replied. He clutched his head between his hands. “But  we can’t delay our journey for something as minor as a hangover. Funny, alcohol  oesn’t  usually effect me like this.”  He turned his head to look at Sam. “Do you have a magic cure for hangover?”

 

The elde-mage  placed  his fingertips on Marc’s temples.  Sitting this close to the prince made him tremble.  He was acutely aware of the cool flesh beneath his fingertips.  Marc’s hair smelled like sweat and some other subtle scent that was entirely his own. 

 

The prince caught the elde-mage’s  eye.  “You’re thinking how much I look like my mother, aren’t you?”

 

“Yes,” Sammual agreed. It was a lie. This morning, when he looked at Marc’s face, he saw only Marc.  “Is the headache getting better?”

 

“Much. You could make a fortune in the barracks, curing soldiers before they go on duty.”

 

Reluctantly, Sammual took his hands away.

 

Marc stared down at his own feet. “I’m sorry about what I said yesterday. About Mama hating bullies, I mean.”

 

“You shouldn’t be. It’s the truth.”

 

“No. I was just angry. I don’t usually snap at people like that.  I was scared for Father and Kelvin. And for myself, too. Sam, what am I going to do?”

 

The elde-mage put his arm around the prince’s shoulders. Immediately, he knew that he had made a mistake. His heartbeat quickened. It was difficult for him to control his breathing.

 

Marc did not seem to notice his agitation.  As he relaxed into the curve of the mage’s arm, he murmured  “You left your home and put yourself in danger to help me. Well, maybe not danger.  Inconvenience. In any case, if not for you, I’d be in the dungeon, nursing my wounds. I wish there was some way I could thank you properly.”

 

Sammual closed his eyes and tried to calculate the exponentials of seven in his head. However, his concentration snapped, and his eyes flew open, as he felt fingers ruffling his short hair.

 

“I like it this way,” Marc said, smiling.

 

That’s why I did it, the  elde-mage  thought.   But you are not supposed to know that.  He stood up. “We should go.”

 

 

***

 

Despite their late start, they made good time that morning. In mid afternoon, they stopped to eat and water the horses at a stream. There had been plenty of rain in the last month, and the surrounding countryside was green and lush.   The first planting of corn was almost ready to harvest.  Children armed with sticks and stones kept watch in the fields, ready to drive away crows. They eyed the travelers with open curiosity but kept their distance. 

 

After Marc finished his meal, he stretched out in the grass and lost himself in the expanse of blue sky. 

 

“What are you thinking?” Sammual asked.

 

“About this and that. Darli rides as if she was raised in a saddle.  Do they have horses in the Darkhall?”

 

“No, but they ride fierwolves, winged, fire breathing beasts twice the size of ordinary wolves.”

 

 “Like dragon’s, except with fur instead of scales?”

 

“Not exactly,” Sammual replied, smiling.   He had regained his self control. The passion he had felt this morning was just the after effect of muriseal,  he told himself.  That, combined with Marc’s resemblance to his mother and the perfectly natural paternal urge  to comfort  a young person in distress. “”Fierwolves are kin to ordinary wolves.  Dragon’s are more closely related to men than they are to any other animal. Or rather, they are related to elde-mages.   Did you know that one in a thousand elden births results in a dragonling? No one knows how many dragons give birth to eldens,  since those infants are quickly devoured by their nest siblings.”

 

“How awful!”

 

“It isn’t as bad as all that.  Dragon nestlings generally eat the last born. It helps keep down the dragon population, and it gives the newborns a ready first meal.” He gave the prince an appraising look.  “You’re full of questions, today.”

 

“I’ve been full of questions since we started this journey, but   I was too nervous to ask  them.”

 

“You aren’t nervous anymore?”

 

“Not after last night. I guess getting drunk with you made you seem less like an all powerful sorcerer and more like an ordinary person.  You said that you could teach me some magic. Were you serious?”

 

“I was. However, a little magic training is worse than none at all.  Like knowing how to hold a sword but not how to use it.  You can get drawn into dangerous situations that  you don’t have the skill to handle. Except for a few harmless spells like conjuring fire or opening locks, its best to leave magic to those who have made a careful study of the science.”

 

Marc considered this. “What do you mean by ‘a careful study’? Six months? A year?”

 

Sammual snorted.  “Try twenty years. That’s the average apprenticeship for a human mage.  We eldens live longer, so we can study at a more leisurely pace.”

 

“Twenty years!”   He rolled over and propped his chin up in his hands. “But that means a mage spends half of his life just studying.”

 

Absent mindedly, Sammual plucked a blade of grass from the prince’s hair. “Human mages generally live longer than other mortals, unless they use up their life energy casting spells that are beyond their control.  The oldest mortal mage lived to be over a thousand years old. It isn’t uncommon for talented mages to live for two or three centuries. Mind you, I’m not talking about the graduates of those universities that claim to produce magicians.  To become a true mage, one must study with a true mage.”

 

Marc considered this.  “You’d make a good teacher.  Have you ever had an apprentice?”

 

“Two of them. One was my third child, Catria.  She turned out quite well, though she spends too much time dabbling in alchemy.  It’s much easier to call gold from the ground than to make it.”

 

“What about the other student?”

 

The elde-mage sighed. “That was a mistake.  He was my first  pupil, a mortal. I was little more than a child myself, barely ninety.  Perrin came to me to learn magic. He was a frail boy, with weak lungs.  Living on the verge of death made him dream of eternal life.   After he had learned the old High Elden tongue, he secretly obtained a copy of a certain book, one that is usually given only to mature  elde-mages  of a thousand years or so. A book that mortals are never supposed to see, because it contains a spell for closing the door to death.”

 

Marc’s eyes were almost as wide and blue as the sky. “Does the spell work?”

 

“Oh, it works.”

 

“What’s the price?”

 

 “You mean how is it performed?”

 

“No, I mean what are the consequences?   You said the spell closes a door.  I assume another door must open somewhere. And there has to be a price. If it was simple, everyone would do it.”

 

“Where did you read that?”

 

Marc flushed.  “I didn’t.  It’s common sense. At least, it seems like common sense.   If I’m talking bullshit, just tell me.”

 

“You’re correct.  In order to seal one death portal, another must be opened.  Human sacrifice is one way.  Perrin opted for a technique which seemed more humane, at least initially.  He  opened a  crack  between this world and the Darkhall, one that allows  demons to enter the world of the living.  The portal is called a world rift. It’s the same principle as human sacrifice but in reverse. As long as demons are pouring into this world, the mage does not have to leave it.”

 

Marc frowned. “Please explain.”

 

“The balance between life and death isn’t a ledger. It’s more like a waterfall that feeds two rivers.  If each river has its own mill, it doesn’t matter which direction the water flows. Either way, grain will be ground into flour which feeds those who maintain the mills.  Now apply the analogy to life and death. It isn’t the number of souls on either side of the gate that matters. What counts is movement of spirits through the gate.    If  more demons are allowed to escape from the Darkhall, then fewer living spirits have to go into the Darkhall. ”

 

The prince frowned. “If the water flows into only one river, eventually that mill will break under the strain, and the other will rust from disuse.”

 

“Exactly.”

 

 Marc’s brow cleared. “I get it.  If the flow is too one sided, the balance between the worlds shifts.  The Darkhall becomes empty, and  the world of the living begins to bulge at its seams.  Why are you looking at me like that? Did I say something stupid?”

 

 “No,” Sammual replied slowly.  “You didn’t say anything stupid. Are you absolutely certain that you have never studied with a mage?”

 

“Not in this life.” Marc chuckled. “Maybe I was a mage in another life. Maybe I was Perrin.”

 

“You’re nothing like Perrin. In any case, reincarnation is very rare. Most souls which enter the Darkhall after death stay there forever, unless they are summoned back to this world with sorcery.”

 

Marc’s expression became solemn.  “Don’t tell that to the priests in Suunweiss.  They use the promise of another life to persuade peasants and manual laborers to rejoice in their poverty. If they knew that this life was the only one they would get, they might start demanding the luxuries that other citizens have--like food, clothing, someplace warm to live.”

 

“An odd philosophy for a king-to-be.”

 

Marc surveyed the nearby farmhouses.   Those who traveled the Nobal Road received a false impression of Suunland. Since leaving the main highway, they had seen a much darker side of his father’s kingdom.  Most of the peasants they had passed today wore homespun garments. Few had shoes.  Children often went naked. Their houses were not fit for animals much less people.  “Sometimes I think that I don’t want to be king.   Can you imagine me sentencing someone to death? Or, worse yet, telling a mother it’s in the best interest of the kingdom that her husband be conscripted, even though it means he could die, and she and the children will be left to starve?”   He gave the  elde-mage  an appraising look.  “Have you considered  taking a new student?”

 

Sammual’s heart skipped a beat.  Ruthlessly, he suppressed his emotions. “No,” he replied firmly.

 

Marc was not deterred. “You should.”  He smiled.  His eyes caught the light of the sun and reflected it.  “It would give you someone to bully. Pardon me. Someone to instruct. You know how much you like doing that.” 

 

Sammual’s eyes narrowed, except for the third eye which was still wide. “You’re a bit of a bully yourself, aren’t you?”

 

Marc smiled amiably. “Bossy is the term Nanna used. “

 

 “I don’t suppose there would be any harm in teaching you a few magic spells. They might come in handy. That trick you do with the rain could be very useful, if we run across any more fire creatures.”

 

“The creature who kidnapped Kelvin said five of the seven were spark gnomes.”

 

“True. I’m surprised you remembered that. Do you remember everything you hear?” 

 

Marc ducked his head to hide a smile. “Oh, I sometimes forget a few things.  I’m still having a hard time recalling everything we talked about last night,  when I was drunk.”

 

The elde-mage froze. “You said you couldn’t remember what happened last night.”

 

“I couldn’t. Not when I woke up with hammers pounding inside my skull and eels churning around in my belly. I feel much better since you did that trick with my head.”

 

“What do you remember?” 

 

“I remember drinking something a lot more potent than grain alcohol. Normally, liquor doesn’t have much effect on me.  I remember telling you entirely too much about my family.  I remember thinking how much you look like Simon with your hair cut short.  I remember feeling very sad, and then, suddenly, very---” He bit his lip and looked away but not quickly enough to hide  his sudden grin.

 

“Very what?”

 

“Very lucky that I met you.”

 

Their eyes met.  Before either of them could say more, Darli appeared, leading a full grown, massively pregnant fox.  With its red hair, sharp chin, pointed ears and bright eyes, it bore an uncanny resemblance to the  princess. “Look what Darli find.   Fox Lady be having cubs, soon.  She want Sammual bless the babies.”

 

As  Sammual fell into conversation with the fox,  Marc could not help wondering why his life, which had seemed so ordinary for twenty years, had taken such a bizarre turn in recent weeks. It had begun  with the arrow that should have killed him. Then, Kelvin disappeared before his eyes. Then, he met Sam. Then Darli, then the Spark Gnome,  then  the events in the dungeon---

 

Better not think about that.   He tried to focus on the moment.  The day was warm, he was rested and well fed. He had two companions of whom he was fond--perhaps more than fond, he thought, as he watched Sammual.   Could there be a plan behind all the madness?  Was he destined to---?

 

The thought was too silly. He stood up and began readying the horses for travel.

 

 

To Be Continued…

 

Copyright © 2007 McCamy Taylor

After a number of years as Assistant Short Story Editor for Aphelion and occasional contributor of remarkable short fiction of her own, McCamy was sidelined by illnesses that made prolonged sessions at the keyboard impossible. But now, at last, she's ba-a-ack. She also tells us "I have been doing political cartoons for almost two years and then I started working on my first comic book, Drug Puppies. Only two chapters are done so far..."

And, beginning with the September 2007 issue of Aphelion, McCamy will take over as the new Serials Editor.

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