Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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Magic and the Heart

by McCamy Taylor

Part Three of Four


Chapter 8

Three days later, the travelers reached the northern border of Suunland. The sun was high overhead when the trio approached the long ribbon of granite known as the Great Northern Wall. Built by Elias the First to protect his kingdom from desert marauders, the wall took twenty years to build and cost a small fortune. It was a dismal failure, as evidenced by the massive invasion that occurred within fifty years of its completion. Fortunately, the builder’s grandson, Elias the Third was able to drive back the Shirazian army by constructing a very different kind of wall, one made of fire that incinerated half of the invading troops and sent the rest fleeing in terror. This same King Elias was later deposed by the nobles of the kingdom, in large part because of what they witnessed on the battlefield that day.

Marc sympathized with his ancestor. He had risked his life to rescue his brother, and what thanks had he gotten? A visit to the dungeon, a beating at the hands of his father, the suspicious stares of his friends and comrades, and now exile.

Sammual was convinced that the spark gnome’s master would be able to clear Marc’s name. Marc wished that he shared the mage’s optimism. No matter how much proof of innocence he was able to accumulate, it would not do him a bit of good if his father did not want to hear it.

History described Elias as a monster. However, Marc had good reason to know that what people said was not always the truth. What did the king feel when he immolated the invading Shirazian army? Elation? Horror? Was his crown a shackle? When he was deposed, did he curse his fate? Or was he relieved to give up the throne?

Over here.” Sammual had located an opening in the wall, a tunnel which was partially blocked by a rusted iron gate. A brief incantation cleared the way. “After me.”

Darli followed him, and Marc brought up the rear.

How easy it had been for his enemies to implicate him in his brother’s abduction. How many other innocent men had been condemned on the basis of false evidence and testimony?

He touched his throat. He had a vivid imagination. He could picture his head flying from his shoulders as the headsman’s axe struck. If not for Sammual, he might be dead now. He owed him so much. They all did, including his father, though King Kel would never admit it.

Marc’s eyes strayed to the earth mage’s back. Sammual’s shoulder’s seemed too slight for the burdens he carried so lightly. If magic gave one the ability to walk through life with such confidence, then Marc could understand the lure of the magic arts. He felt a moment’s regret that Sammual was not his father. Life would be so much simpler that way.

A few miles north of the wall, the ground began to rise steeply. Once the travelers climbed the southern ridge of the Nualian Plateau, they found themselves confronted by stark terrain scored with dry gullies and scrub brush. Scavenger birds, black ullets and white bearded gulgers circled above them. Scattered on the ground were the remains of goats, cattle and a single human, all picked clean and bleached white by the sun.

Darli insisted upon claiming the human skull as a souvenir of their journey. She also found a pet, a small snake with green and yellow bands. Lulled by her natural body heat, the serpent coiled around her neck like a collar and dozed with its eyes half open.

Sammual said nothing about Darli’s new pet, until Marc tried to examine it. Then, he snapped “Don’t touch it. Its venom is deadly.”

But Darli---”

--is immortal.”

At their next stop, the snake slithered away. Though Darli searched, she could not find it. Marc was secretly relieved. She probably would have insisted upon bringing it to bed with her that night.

***

The heat was no worse than it had been in northern Suunland, but the air was powder dry. Marc found himself drinking from his canteen more often than he should. The horses also required more water . Despite the fact that Darli never touched the stuff and Sammual drank only sparingly, their supply quickly dwindled.

Around mid afternoon, Sammual called for a short rest. “Marc, it’s time for you to practice your magic.” He nodded towards their flaccid water sacs.

The prince cast a worried glance up at the cloudless, turquoise sky. “I can’t make rain, when the air’s this dry.”

The mage pointed to the earth. “Down there. Don’t you feel it? “

Marc dropped to the ground. The area in question appeared no different from the rest of the plateau, but there was something about the spot that drew him the way a magnet attracts steel. If he concentrated, he felt a pulling sensation in his belly, just below the navel. “You may be right.”

Sammual gave him a withering look which said Of course I am right. “I can split the earth, but you’ll have to draw out the water. Do you think you can do it?”

Marc rubbed his palms together. “I can try.”

The mage knelt and traced a line in the dirt. A fissure appeared, a foot long and an inch across.

The pulling sensation was stronger now. Marc knelt beside Sammual. Under his breath, he murmured the words of a seldom used prayer for restoring wells. Slowly, the depression filled with clear water. It was just a trickle, but the flow was steady. Even after the horses drank their fill, the water continued to pour.

So this is magic, he thought. He had expected more. A blast of trumpets, a flash of light. What he had just done seemed so---ordinary.

He filled their water sacs. They were about to resume their journey, when Darli spotted a party of travelers approaching from the north. “Two men. White---?” She drew a circle around her head with one finger.

Head scarves?” Sammual suggested.

Head scarves. Two horses.”

Desert nomads. Weapons?”

Don’t see.”

Marc squinted. If he used his imagination, he could convince himself that a tiny speck on the horizon was slowly growing larger, but he could not have said whether it was men or horses or a wagon.

Sammual pressed his ear to the earth. “Two riders carrying light burdens. I hear clanking. Chains would be my guess. Marc, put this around your head. Quickly.” He tossed him a dark blue scarf. “Cover your hair completely and s much of your face as you can. Try to keep your hands out of sight.”

You think it’s someone looking for me?”

Coming from the north? Not likely.” He stripped off his Suunian military jacket and hid it in his travel bag, murmuring “No need to wave a red flag before the bull.” In a crisp white linen shirt and dark trousers, he looked like a gentleman traveler, a young lord on his way to visit the holy shrine in al Shiraz. Darli could pass for a younger sister. Marc assumed he would be playing his usual role of servant.

Time seemed to move at a snail’s pace. Marc began to sweat under the blue scarf. A couple of ulgers, intrigued by the travelers’ inactivity, circled overhead, spoiling any chance that the nomads might pass them by.

There were two men, just as Darli had said, dressed in light colored robes and white headscarves. Their swords were sheathed, but their hands never strayed far from their weapons. Both men had identical scowls fixed upon their swarthy faces.

Their expressions changed when they noted Sammual’s third eye. There were hurried whispers. The younger of the two nomads looked alarmed and made a move towards his weapon. The older slapped his hand with his riding whip.

While his partner nursed his bruised fingers, the elder of the two dismounted and approached the travelers, moving slowly and cautiously. He spared Darli a brief glance. Marc, he did not seem to notice at all. When he finally spoke, it was the elde-mage whom he addressed.

We saw you from a distance, noble one, and thought you might be in distress. It is miles from the nearest ---but you have found water!” He knelt beside the small spring. His dark eyes widened. “This was not here when I last passed through this region.” Shading his eyes, he peered up at Sammual. “Did you summon this water?”

I did.”

Marc started to object. Sammual stepped on his foot.

Praise Ser Shiraz!” the younger man murmured.

We are indeed blessed,” added his older companion.

You and your tribe are welcome to claim this spring as your own,” Sammual told the two men. “Consider it payment for our passage through your land.”

The nomads conducted an animated conversation in a local dialect which Marc could not follow. Apparently water was more valuable in Shiraz than precious jewels, for the elder insisted upon making Sammual a gift of a small sack of uncut diamonds.

Though he could have called riches from the ground with a word, the earth mage accepted the gift graciously. “Ser Shiraz blesses the generous.”

And may the blessings of Ser Shiraz be with you. You will favor our camp with your presence this evening?”

Sorry, no. My companions and I have important business in the holy city, and we must be on our way.” Sammual and the nomads exchanged a few more pleasantries, then the two groups resumed their separate journeys.

They seemed very friendly,” Marc remarked when the nomads were out of earshot. He loosened the scarf to take advantage of the breeze.

Everyone is friendly to the elden,” Sammual replied dryly.

Would they have attacked us for trespassing, if we had been ordinary travelers?” Marc closed his eyes and tilted back his head, exposing his throat to the wind. “I thought the nomads didn’t claim any part of the desert as their own.”

Not true. The tribes claim the water rights of all desert springs outside al Shiraz. To drink from a tribe’s spring without permission is to invite death.”

Unless you’re an elden mage. You were never in any danger. Why did you make me disguise myself? ”

Use your head, Marc. Two Shirazian nomads, heading south towards Suunland, carrying chains. What do you think they were looking for?”

An escaped prisoner?”

Nomads don’t keep prisoners. They consider it a waste of food and water. They execute them on the spot or sell them in the slave market at Artum.”

Marc’s eyes flew open. “They’re slavers! Heading to Suunland to raid a farm or village.”

Sammual shook his head impatiently. “They were carrying diamonds. Kidnappers don’t bring money. Those two plan to buy children from Suunian peasants.”

The prince shook his head in disbelief. “Slavery is illegal in Suunland!”

Indeed. But until you outlaw hunger and poverty, there will be parents who prefer to see their children live as slaves in Shiraz rather than watch them die of starvation in Suunland.” Sammual’s expression softened. “I had you cover your hair, because I knew it would upset you if they tried to buy you from me. I didn’t want to have to kill them to protect you, if you decided to take offense and start a fight.”

What makes you think I would have needed your protection?” Marc replied indignantly. “There were only two of them.”

Sammual laughed heartily. “Suunland has an excellent army, with the best cannons, weapons, generals and supply lines in all the Seven Kingdoms. However, a single Shirazian nomad armed with a piece of rope could defeat a Sunnian soldier in full battle gear. These people are taught how to fight starting from the moment they can walk.”

Mark was too mortified to reply. He knew that he was as good as useless compared to Sammual, with his elde-mage powers and Darli, with her razor sharp claws and inhuman strength. However, there was no need for the earth mage to rub his face in it.

Are you going to sulk all the way to al Shiraz?” Sammual asked a little while later.

I wasn’t---” Marc’s anger evaporated. “I’m sorry. Without your help, I would never have made it this far.” He managed a smile. “You keep telling me I have untapped magic power. Maybe a few spells would give me an edge in battle. Can you show me the one you use to conjure fire?”

After trying for almost an hour, Marc finally succeeded in catching a dry twig on fire. The flame was small and feeble, but he felt very proud of himself. Proud, that was, until Darli, who had been observing their lesson in silence exclaimed. “Let me! Let me!” She brushed her fingers against a living sage scrub, which immediately burst into flames. Fire rose ten feet into the air, carrying with it a sweet, pungent scent. “Fun,” she giggled.

The men exchanged glances. “It’s a good thing that Darli is traveling with an experienced water mage,” Sammual remarked dryly.

Water mage. Marc liked the sound of that. “Maybe I’ll give up my claim to the throne to study magic,” he said lightly. “That ought to please Father. There’s no doubt about Kelvin’s paternity.”

I think you misjudge your father.”

The way he misjudged me?”

Where magic forces are at work, reason can become clouded.”

Marc did not say what he was thinking, that if his father really trusted him, a thousand wizards could have presented evidence, and he would not have believed their accusations.

***

By nightfall, they had reached sandy desert. The air quickly cooled. Darli began to shiver. Marc, who was used to the cold winters of the south, was not affected by the chill. However, the wind stirred up sand which filled his eyes, nostrils and mouth and worked its way into his clothing. The grit trapped between his groin and thighs was particularly annoying. He resigned himself to a miserable night.

He had not counted on the elde-mage’s ingenuity. Using sand and fire magic, he constructed a sturdy glass shelter large enough to house the travelers and their horses. Marc watched with a mixture of awe and envy. Drawing water from a hole in the ground and summoning fire on a stick seemed like very little things compared to this.

They fed and watered the horses, then they ate. Afterwards, they settled down for the night. As usual, Darli slept between the two men, so that she could share their warmth. Marc rolled over onto his right side, so that he could watch Sammual over the top of her head. The earth mage was lying on his back, two of his eyes closed, the third eye open. What did he see with his magic eye? The stars? Something beyond the stars? The future? With his hair cropped short, the fine bones of his face were revealed. It was hard to believe that Marc had once mistaken him for a woman.

On impulse, he stretched out his arm and let his hand rest lightly on his companion’s shoulder. “Good night,” he whispered.

The elde-mage stiffened, but he did not shake off the prince’s hand. “Sleep well.”

With you here, I’m sure I will.”

***

The travelers reached the city of al Shiraz before sunset the next day.

The holy city was almost a century old. It had been constructed to serve as a shrine to Ser Shiraz, the patron goddess of water in the desert. Al Shiraz was laid out in concentric, walled circles, each circle linked to the next by two gates, the gates staggered to prevent invaders from cutting a path straight to the heart of the city.

The outermost pair of gates lay to the north and south, along the axis of the Nobal Road. The reinforced metal doors were guarded by soldiers who wore red and green, the traditional colors of al Shiraz. The gates were also warded.

Beyond the first gate lay the na-al Shiraz, the City that Was Not the City. Here, merchants, beggars, pick pockets and whores practiced their trades in dirty, crowded streets lined by dilapidated shacks. Unclean animals, such as dogs and pigs, roamed freely.

The next two gates lay to the east and west. These doors were more heavily guarded. The ar-al Shiraz was home to middle class crafts people, bakers, weavers, potters and others who followed the One True Path of Ser Shiraz. The streets were clean and wide, the buildings tidy, with potted flowers on the windowsills and laundry hanging from metal hooks on the rooftops.

Past the ar-al Shiraz lay the ara-al Shiraz, the circle of noble families. These streets were paved with painted brick. The houses were grand structures made of carved sandstone blocks, decorated with towers, spires and walled gardens. A system of canals fed the clear water pools that were the centerpiece of each garden.

Beyond the noble district was the heart of the city, the al-al Shiraz, said to be the site where the goddess, Ser Shiraz gave birth to herself in the form of a man while creating the spring which brought life to the center of a barren desert.

What are we doing in the center of the city?” Marc asked. “I thought foreigners were never allowed here.”

You wouldn’t be allowed in this place if you weren’t with me. They know me here. There are more mages here than anyplace else on the Shavian continent except for Shantuun. The best way to find the spark gnome’s master is to search for his other servants, and the people most likely to have information about sand sprites and other supernatural creatures are mages.”

Compared to the ara-al Shiraz, the al-al Shiraz or holy district was very plain. The brick streets were unpainted. The buildings were constructed of white washed clay. Most of the gardens were little more than arrangements of sand and rocks, with one or two green or flowering plants thrown in for variety. The air smelled faintly of cedar nd sage. The only sounds were the gentle clapping of their horses’ hooves against the pavement and a melancholy tune being played by distant flute.

Sammual was granted an immediate audience with the Serene Voice of Ser Shiraz, a ten year old girl who greeted the elde-mage with a solemn air that seemed at odds with her age. She acknowledged Darli with a brief nod of the head. Marc, she ignored.

As the earth mage and high priestess conversed, a young priest with a smooth face and long black braid pulled Darli and Marc aside .“I will lead you to your rooms, where you can await your master. No doubt, you wish to prepare his quarters for him.”

Their suite consisted of two bedrooms, the outermost large and spacious with a wide bed and a tiled floor covered by an exquisite red and white carpet. The furniture, though simple in design, was carved from the highest quality whitewood imported from the forests of western Suunland. The stucco walls and high ceiling kept the room cool, despite the heat.

The other bedroom was tiny. The bed was narrow, the carpet woven of plain, raw wool and the furniture was made from common yellow pine. The two rooms were linked by a bath.

Darli immediately appropriated the larger of the two rooms. Shrieking with delight, she threw open closets and drawers, where she discovered clothing, most of it in shades of green. A cupboard contained glass jars filled with perfumes and oils. The dressing table was covered with boxes which contained a small fortune in jewels. Sammual was not lying when he said that they knew him in al Shiraz. They even kept rooms ready for him. Was he some kind of Shirazian nobility?

A silver dish of fresh red grapes, sectioned pomegranates and candied kumquats was set on a marble table, next to an arrangement of fresh, fragrant white flowers. As Marc helped himself to a piece of fruit, he wondered if Marcellus, Crown Prince of Suunland would have received such royal treatment if he had appeared, unannounced, at the gate of al Shiraz.

The girl is Sammual’s daughter?” the young priest asked, frowning.

Marc and Sam had already settled on a story, one that was as close to the truth as possible. “She’s the daughter of a noble house, one to which the elde-mage is distantly related. She was kidnapped. Sammual is escorting her home as a favor to his cousins.“

The priest nodded his head solemnly. “Under ordinary circumstances, the two sexes are not housed together. But....” He left the sentence unfinished. The implication was clear. The ordinary rules did not apply to Sammual.

The priest blessed them then left. While Darli tried on clothes, Marc soaked in a tub of steaming hot water scented with jasmine blossoms. It was probably intended for Sammual’s use, but the prince needed it more than the mage. He tried to recall when he had last bathed. If he did not count the icy sponge bath he had endured before meeting Sam, it had been over a week. He soaped his hair, his body and then his hair again. Then, he closed his eyes and let his head rest on an indentation in the tiles, while the warm water soothed his body and spirit.

***

Wake up. We have a banquet to attend, and I need to bathe, too.” Sammual held out a towel. “I’ve set out clothes for you. There is a razor. Oh, and try to do something about your hair.”

Yes, Mother.”

The mage pretended not to hear.

Laid out neatly on Marc’s bed was a simple, knee length grey coat alongside a pair of the fitted trousers which Shirazian’s favored. He was surprised and a bit relieved, for he had expected Sammual to choose something more gaudy. There was no sign of his boots. He hoped they were being cleaned. They were the only pair he possessed. Shirazians were generally much shorter than Suunians and had smaller feet. It might be difficult to find another pair that would fit.

After he shaved and dressed, he attacked his hair with a brush and comb. By the time Sammual appeared, he had smoothed out most of the tangles, and the rest he camouflaged by tying his hair back with a leather cord.

The elde-mage looked him over. “You’ll do.” His own garments were even more austere than Marc’s. He wore calf length black coat with a high neck and fitted sleeves, over black pants. In his hand, he carried a long, wooden staff. His short, black hair framed his pale face like a cowl.

You look like a real mage!” Marc exclaimed.

That’s the idea. You’re supposed to be my apprentice, but you look entirely too much like a prince. Let your shoulders slump forward a bit and try to look nervous, especially when someone speaks directly to you. When I lift my staff, cringe. When offered food, wolf it down as if you haven’t had a decent meal in days.”

Yes, sir!”

Sammual frowned. “And don’t smirk like that! Darli, are you ready?”

Darli dress like princess!” she exclaimed. With her pointed ears covered by a veil, she looked almost human. Her gold embroidered, green silk smock was as gaudy as Marc’s clothes were simple, and she was wearing most of Sammual’s jewelry.

I think two necklaces will be sufficient,” the elde-mage said gently. “And you’ll have a hard time moving your arms with all those bracelets. Here, let me help you with your hair.”

Like a girl playing with a doll, the prince thought, turning his head to hide his smile.

Sammual stepped back to admire his work. “You truly are a princess,” he murmured to Darli with a bow. He snapped his fingers in the prince’s direction. “Hurry up, boy!”

Marc pointed to his feet. “I don’t have any boots.”

Sammual shrugged. “None of the servants wear shoes in the al-al Shiraz. Bare feet are much quieter on stone floors.”

Servant? I thought I was supposed to be an apprentice.”

Sammual ached a brow. “Did I call you a servant? Forgive me. A servant can leave his master’s employ. An apprentice is bound by a contract, making him more like a slave. Come along, both of you. And Darli, my dear, try not to set anything on fire.”

The dining room was larger than the throne room in Suunweiss. The white stucco walls contained numerous open windows situated on the east and west sides of the room to capture the desert breeze. Brass lanterns provided illumination. A man sitting on a raised dais in the center of the room plucked listlessly at a long, graceful stringed instrument. Numerous small tables were scattered around the dining hall. The elde-mage was seated to the right of the Serene Voice. Darli sat on his other side. After waiting for someone to offer him a chair, Marc realized that he was expected to stand behind “his master”. Just as well, he thought. The Shirazians were a short, slender race, and their chairs looked too small and flimsy to support him.

It was not a bad position. From here, he could see everything that was happening. At the sound of a gong, scores of Shirazian priests, dressed in simple robes of red or green poured into the dining hall. After careful study, he decided that the priests wearing red were men and those wearing green were women, though it was difficult to be certain. The two sexes were equally short and slender. All had smooth, brown faces, and all wore their hair in identical braids. Most had the black hair that was characteristic of the older races of the Seven Kingdoms, though, there were a few priests with dark brown or auburn hair. A number of the slaves, who were marked by blue tattoos on their brows, were Suunians. A few were black haired, blue skinned Pryytans. The rest were as blonde as Marc.

He frowned as he recalled Sam’s story about the slave trade between Suunland and Shiraz. He was not sure which was more deplorable, people who kidnapped other people’s children for profit, or a government which forced its citizens to choose between slavery and death by starvation.

He was distracted by the arrival of the food. The main disadvantage of playing servant was that he had to watch while the priests and their guests dined on delicacies such as herb-roasted goat, desert quail stuffed with terrio mushrooms and other dishes too exotic for him to name. However, from observing the other servants, he discovered that anything left on the master’s plate was fair game for the servant as long as he or she could eat it before the next dish arrived. Fortunately, Sammual was a light eater, and Darli kept slipping him food and wine.

As the guests were finishing their flavored ices, a short, dark, extremely handsome Shirazian nobleman dressed in grey and black silk approached Sammual. “It’s good to see you, my friend.”

The mage nodded his head. “It’s good to see you, Mizar. Let me introduce my cousin, Darli.”

The desert-lord bowed over Darli’s hand, which made her giggle and blush.

The two men chatted about mutual acquaintances. Though Marc was not formally introduced---he was only a servant after all--- he could feel the Shirazian’s gaze upon him. Forgetting for a moment whom he was supposed to be, he looked back.

The handsome desert-lord urned to Sammual. In a voice loud enough for everyone at the table to hear, he asked “How much for the boy?”

Marc choked on a piece of fruit.

Unfortunately, I require his services,” Sammual replied smoothly. “He isn’t much of an apprentice, and I will probably replace him when I reach Shantuun. Until then, I need someone to mix potions and gather herbs.”

Mizar nodded. “The youth of Shantuun are so much better trained than those of Suunland. Perhaps I could borrow him for the night?”

Marc ducked his head and pretended to help Darli with her napkin.

The elde-mage smiled apologetically. “We’ve only just arrived from the desert. I’m looking forward to the comfort of a real bed. I’m sure you understand. “

With a bow, the desert-lord returned to his table.

Marc smothered a laugh, which earned him a rap over the head from his “master’s” stick.

Damn! What was that for?” The prince nursed his injured scalp.

That was for flirting with Mizar.”

I wasn’t. Oh!” The second blow was harder than the first.

And that was for talking back. You look entirely too confident for an apprentice who’s being chastised by his master. Sulk, if you like. Make faces at me behind my back. But when we’re talking, you should act subservient.”

No one’s paying any attention. You’re just having fun hitting me---“ A third blow put an end to the discussion.

The meal was followed by entertainment. Dancers dressed in long, airy robes performed maneuvers which seemed designed to test how long a human being could spin in a circle without falling down. Then, there was music, a toneless chanting that gave Marc a headache. Finally, a pasty faced man with an unusually high pitched voice recited a tale in the ancient high speech of Shiraz. Since Marc did not understand a word of the language, he soon lost interest in the performance. Darli fell asleep during the music.

Boy!” the elde-mage said sharply.

As instructed, Marc slouched and looked guilty. “Sir?”

What are you doing? I told you to prepare a batch of desiccated nightbane. Go on!” He raised his staff threateningly. The prince cringed. The gesture was not entirely for show. His scalp was still tender. “And take the princess with you.”

Thank you,” Marc mouthed silently. He lifted Darli and left the dining hall.

Marc put Darli to bed in the larger of the two rooms. Gently, he disentangled himself from her arms and rolled onto his back. He planned to wait up for Sammual, to discuss the days events and make plans, however exhaustion got the better of him, and he soon drifted off.

***

When Marc woke the next morning, Sammual was already gone. There was a platter of fruit, cheese and bread along with a pitcher of goat’s milk on the table beside the bed. Marc was filling his plate a second time when a servant ducked into the room. “Your master left this message for you.”

The note was brief. Sammual had gone to consult someone or something called the Oracular Voice. Marc was to take Darli to the market and buy provisions for desert travel. “Purchase more water skins. Get a wide brimmed hat for yourself. The northern sun is harsh on fair skin. Don’t linger in the market, and don’t let Darli out of your sight.”

Marc toyed with the idea of leaving the daema princess in the safety of the al-al Shiraz, but she quickly vetoed this idea. “Darli shop, too. “

Why? Sam let’s you wear his clothes and jewelry.”

She looked offended. “Darli not for buying pretty clothes. Darli need long, sharp knife to protect Prince Marc and Beautiful Mage Sammual.”

Marc could not think of any good reason not to buy her a knife. Since she was equipped with razor sharp claws, superhuman strength and the ability to start fires at will, a weapon would not make her any more dangerous than she already was.

Perhaps because she had read an insult in Marc’s remark about jewelry and clothes, Darli chose a simple linen smock, with a serviceable leather belt and sandals. Marc, who had not bothered undressing the night before, saw no point in changing his clothes, which were still clean and only moderately wrinkled. After a brief search for his boots---he found them, freshly polished, under the bed in the servant’s room---he and Darli left the al-al Shiraz. He took his knife but left his sword, as well as the gold and ruby ring which was a gift from his mother. There was no point in providing unnecessary temptation for pickpockets.

In the market, Marc had little trouble finding the items they needed. However, the merchants insisted upon quoting outrageous prices. Then, they dragged out the haggling process as long as possible. In the end, he paid prices comparable to those charged in Suunweiss, but it took four times as long to complete each transaction. This, combined with the fact that pickpockets twice tried to rob him left him feeling grumpy. The dog shit he stepped in did not help his mood, either.

Then there was Darli. Though they searched for an hour, she could not find a knife that suited her. For some reason, she insisted upon a bone blade with a handle carved in the form of a wolf. Since wolves were rare in Shiraz and had no sacred symbolism, this proved to be next to impossible. However, a trader from southern Suunweiss had a bone knife engraved with the image of a large mastiff, which Darli reluctantly agreed to purchase.

They were still bartering over the price when a bearded man dressed in white approached them. “I know where you can find the knife you seek,” he murmured.

Marc immediately recognized the man for what he was, a thief or some other type of criminal who had pegged them as easy marks. Darli was not so cautious.

A wolf blade! Yes! Yes! Show me!”

To Marc’s horror, the desert man took off at a brisk walk with the princess at his heels. Recalling Sammual’s warning, Marc hurried after them.

The bearded man was half a head taller than most of the Shirazians in the crowd, so Marc managed to keep him in sight. Darli was too short to be seen, but he assumed that she was following the bearded man. Once she set her mind on something, she did not give up.

The route they took was circuitous. Marc soon lost all sense of direction. Was Darli’s would be captor trying to throw him off the trail? Or was he leading the prince on a wild goose chase while confederates spirited the princess away? Either way, he was the only lead Marc had, so he followed him doggedly.

Finally, the Shirazian made a turn into a dark alley. Marc followed cautiously. The bearded man was deep in conversation with someone standing in a shadowy doorway. Marc called Darli’s name.

His shout was cut off by a cord which closed around his throat, strangling him. He clawed at it to no avail. The last thing he saw before he lost consciousness was the bearded man leaning over him, a length of rope in his hand.

Chapter 9

Marc woke to find himself on horseback, bound and helpless. A strip of cloth had been tied across his eyes. His mouth was filled with something that tasted like a rag used to rub down horses. His abductors had propped him up in the saddle. The horse he was riding galloped without encountering any obstruction, which meant that they had left the city.

He was not alone. Someone sat behind him in the saddle. He leaned back and discovered that his captor was big for a Shirazian. His chin rested easily on the top of Marc’s head. His chest completely covered the prince’s back and even spilled over onto Marc’s shoulders. The legs on either side of his were as thick as tree trunks. The horse labored to carry their combined weight.

From the way the giant’s pudgy hand crept up Marc’s thigh, he discovered something more about his captor. Perhaps he could distract him, and when his hands were occupied with something besides the reins, Marc could dislodge him. No, not a good idea. Bound and blindfolded, he would quickly fall from the saddle, too.

Patience, he told himself. Eventually, they would have to remove his blindfold and gag. To attempt escape before that would be suicide, and if he died, he could not rescue Darli.

He recalled the letter the earth mage had left for him that morning. His heart sank. Sam was going to be so disappointed in him.

His captor’s grip tightened, and the back of Marc’s head was enveloped by flesh. The voice that resonated from that monstrous chest cavity was surprisingly high pitched. “Relax, ducky. It ain’t so bad once you get used to it.”

Could his captor be a eunuch? That would explain the voice but not the dough like flesh that threatened to swallow up the back of his head or the way the body behind his cushioned him so comfortably. He sniffed. In addition to horse sweat and dust and dung---the usual smells of the road---he detected patchouli, a scent commonly used by women of Shiraz.

What are you doing to the prisoner?” called a masculine voice from somewhere up ahead.

He’s pretty,” replied Marc’s captor with a laugh. “Maybe I’ll make a baby with him. A pretty, yellow haired baby. ” Her hand moved from his thigh to his groin. “Come on, “ she whispered in his ear. “Show me what you’ve got.”

Marc gritted his teeth. Outrage momentarily washed away his fear. He tested the ropes which bound his hands behind him. How did that fire spell go again?

***

All morning, Sammual had a vague premonition of disaster. First, the Oracular Voice had refused to answer any of his questions, saying things like “He who does not know the question can not understand the answer.” After an hour of this, he left the temple in disgust.

Next, he consulted one of the mage-priests, an ancient man with a crooked back and sun weathered skin.

Ser Shiraz!” the old man exclaimed.

Shhh!” Sammual glanced nervously over his shoulder. The door to the priest’s private library was wide open, and younger acolytes and students could be seen passing back and forth in the hall. “You know I never use that name.”

Don’t worry yourself,” Adreo replied. “The doorway is warded. If certain matters are discussed by those inside, those outside hear something entirely different. Since everyone assumes that an open door means I have nothing to hide, spies have little interest in me.”

Clever.” The mage accepted a tiny ceramic cup of red tea.

Adreo settled back in his chair. “What brings you to al Shiraz? You usually avoid this place like the plague. It thought it brought back unpleasant memories.”

Sammual grimaced. “I caught a spark gnome stealing children in Suunweiss. One of his victim’s was the King’s younger son. I rescued him, but now the King is blaming his older boy for the kidnapping. I’m looking for evidence to clear his name.”

Couldn’t you persuade the spark gnome to talk?”

He spontaneously combusted.”

Sounds nasty.”

It gets worse. Before he died, the spark gnome told me that his master is trying to construct a warded fortress. The master has servants in all Seven Kingdoms rounding up innocents.”

Adreo’s eyes widened comically. “A warded fortress? No one has attempted one of those since---”

Before either of us were born.” The earth mage leaned forward. Despite the spell guarding the doorway, he lowered his voice. “Because they are too unstable. Almost as soon as you construct it, the thing implodes. The souls of the innocent fly to the Darkhall taking the sorcerer with them. Only not this time. The mage who’s planning this one has done his homework. Did you see the Darkhall Princess who is traveling with us?”

The little red haired thing? Very pretty. You don’t often see them on the mortal plane, and I don’t think I have ever met one who wasn’t using a glamour.”

There’s a reason for that. She has been stripped of her soul.”

Sweet goddess! With the soul of a daema princess stabilizing it, a warded fortress could be maintained in this realm almost indefinitely. How can I help?”

If you can, send word to the other Kingdoms to be on the look out for spark gnomes. Also a dragon master and a mud waddler. And a sand sprite here in Shiraz. According to the spark gnome, his master employs them to steal children.”

Consider it done. I assume you are going after the master. Do you want me to lend you a helper? I have a very skilled apprentice.”

I already have an apprentice.”

The big, yellow haired fellow?” Adreo looked mildly surprised. “I heard he was the crown prince of Suunland.”

Sammual set down his cup and leaned forward. His third eye was bright and glowing. “Who told you that?”

The old man shrugged. “A little bird. You know how impossible it is to keep secrets in al Shiraz. Why so upset?”

I sent Marc to buy provisions in the market. I assumed that he would be safe. But if his enemies know that he’s here---” He swore under his breath. “Sorry to drink and run.” He leapt to his feet and hurried out the door.

***

His captor called it “sampling the merchandise.” Marc called it rape. He found no reason to alter his opinion, even after the swarthy giantess with the leather eye patch and the long black braids told him “Be nice to me, and I’ll make it good for you, too.”

Marc wished she would leave him alone, so he could concentrate on the fire spell Sammual had taught him. It had been simple enough to perform when he was practicing on a twig which he could see. However, the ropes he wanted to burn were tied to his wrists which were behind his back. He had difficulty visualizing the rope, especially with the giantess’s tongue in his ear.

How long would it take the elde-mage to realize he was gone? Would he find him in time? He did not care about being molested by this overgrown Shirazian woman. That was just a nuisance. Nor did the thought of being tattooed as a slave worry him. He was fairly certain that Sammual could erase a tattoo. He was much more concerned about the way male slaves were sometimes mutilated in Shiraz, to make them “docile.” Was it done before or after sale? How long would it take them to reach the slave market? What if his captors decided to do it now? There were some things even the elden could not fix.

I’ll make it good for you. Someone who had just been gelded could not be expected to enjoy himself. Nor could he service a woman. Therefore, if the one eyed woman meant what she said, she must plan to keep her captive whole, at least until she got tired of him.

What’s this?” The nomad bared the scar on Marc’s chest. “So they brand outlaws in Suunland now. What did you do?”

Her words brought back memories that he had tried to forget, another moment of sinking despair, much worse than this. The tent became a dungeon. The sand was replaced by damp straw. The swarthy bandit woman became his father.

Marc swallowed the lump rising in his throat and forced his vision to clear. He would not show fear in front of this woman. “I was accused of kidnapping.”

Innocent, right?” The nomad nodded her head knowingly. The tiny bells which were braided into her hair jingled. “They’re always innocent. Except for the blue skins. They love to brag about how many barbarian conquerors they killed.” She lost interest in the subject of Pryytans and returned to her study of Marc’s body. She was quite skillful.

In a way, this was worse than the dungeon. There, the prince had been able to maintain his dignity. Here, he was stripped of everything, even the control of his own flesh. His only consolation was the knowledge that Darli was still safe in al Shiraz. When he asked about her, his captor laughed. “The ugly little girl? Who would pay good money for her? It was you we were after. The old witch promised us thirty gold pieces, if we bring you to her alive. She only gives us three apiece for the children.”

***

As Sammual expected, their suite was empty. He knew how the merchants of the City that Was Not the City liked to haggle. It would be a miracle if the prince completed his errands by lunch time, though that did not stop him from hoping that he would find Marc and Darli safe.

He picked up one of Darli’s cast off shoes and cupped it in his hands. As always, there was a curious blankness at the center of her energy, as if something essential had been extracted. This lack of center made it difficult for him to read her location. She seemed to be in many places at once. Her emotions were more clear. He read anger, but no fear, no pain. The princess was safe. He hoped she was not causing any trouble.

In the bathroom, he found the shirt which Marc had worn on their journey north. As his fingertips touched the fabric, he experienced a shock.

The door opened. A servant appeared, holding a note in his hand. “Sir. There’s an invi---”

Clutching the shirt, Sammual rushed past him. “My horse! Now!”

Y-yes, sir.”

The grooms could not saddle the elde-mage’s horse quickly enough, so he took a black stallion that had been readied for another guest. “Tell him I’ll bring it back!” Sammual shouted over his shoulder.

There was no time to navigate the maze of streets and gates that separated the al-al Shiraz from the desert, so Sammual created his own doors. Citizens scattered as he moved from circle to circle passing straight through walls. The holes sealed shut behind him, leaving no evidence of his passage except for the startled spectators.

The wind had obliterated all tracks in the sand, but the energies which emanated from the fabric that he clutched in his hand told him that Marc was somewhere to the west. It had to be slavers. Suunian agents would have headed south. Unless they did not intend to take their captive home alive. However, assassins would not have bothered abducting him. Easier to strike him down in the street.

With a little coaxing and an infusion of magic, the stallion flew like the wind, but it was not fast enough to suit the elde-mage. How could he be so foolish as to send a child like Marc out into the na-al Shiraz? If anything happened to him----

The thought made the earth beneath the horse’s hooves tremble, so he banished it.

***

The one eyed giantess was in no hurry. A half hour had passed, and she had only just finished removing the last of her captive’s garments, when she and Marc were knocked backwards by an explosion which shook the earth. Someone screamed. The smell of burning flesh and hair filled the air. A second scream followed the first, followed by a second explosion.

Marc strained against his ropes. “Sam!” he shouted. “In here---”

The nomad pressed a knife against his throat. “Shut your mouth!” she hissed. “Who’s your friend?”

An elden mage. If you don’t want to be turned to stone, you’d better---”

The tent flap opened. A short, slender figure stood silhouetted against the light. Marc squinted. Too small to be Sammual. Could it be...?

Darli stepped into the tent. The heat of her body had burned away her clothes, revealing her slender, lithe form with its odd patches of fur. Where her feet touched the ground, the sand glowed red hot then cooled to form footprints of glass. Her eyes were full of fire.

Her single eye as round as a saucer, the nomad woman released Marc and backed away from the demon girl.

Darli ran to Marc’s side. “Are ou hurt, Prince?”

Marc blew a lock of hair away from his eyes. “Nothing that won’t mend.” He was acutely aware of his nakedness and his involuntary arousal. With his hands tied behind his back, he had no way to cover himself. “Is Sammual with you?”

No time,” she replied. “Darli follow quick. Run like wolf across the sand.” She freed Marc from his bonds with a single swipe of her claws, then began to probe him gently, searching for wounds. She sniffed his skin. Detecting the aroma of patchouli and another’s sweat, she frowned. “One eyed woman love you?”

Love?” Marc’s laughter bordered on hysteria. “I guess you could call it that. Watch out!”

The nomad had drawn a knife and was creeping up behind the demon girl.

Without taking her eyes off Marc’s face, the tiny princess swatted the tall Shirazian aside as easily as a fly. The bandit fell to the ground, where she lay on her back, gasping for breath.

A sudden gust of wind blew open the tent flap. Through the gap, the one-eyed woman caught a glimpse of one of her partners lying in the sand. The flames had burned away his clothing and blackened his skin, but he was still alive. Just barely. A charred hand reached out in supplication.

Help me!” he wheezed. “Water!”

Ser Shiraz preserve me,” the bandit woman whispered. She turned away from the gruesome sight. “Did you do that?” she asked the Darkhall princess.

Darli’s upper lip curled in a snarl. The fire within her eyes was too bright to be a mere reflection of the flames burning outside the tent. Her pupils were like two red hot coals.

Don’t burn me!” The nomad woman crawled to her knees and raised her hands in supplication. “Please, don’t burn me!”

Darli stood above the giantess, hands at her sides, head thrown back. Their heads were level, but the larger woman seemed dwarfed. “Burn you? Darli will not burn you. Darli like her meat fresh.” One clawed hand plunged forward, under the big woman’s left breast, then up into her chest cavity. The nomad screamed as Darli plucked out her heart. Her exposed lungs made a single attempt to suck air then collapsed, at which point a fountain of blood gushed from her chest. She remained on her knees, swaying but conscious for a few seconds, then she slumped forward.

Mmmm,” Darli murmured, as she took a bite. Mouth smeared with fresh blood, she turned to Marc. “Eat heart of the one who hurt you, the hurt will be gone.”

The sight of the slaver’s still quivering heart was too much for him. The prince fainted.

***

Sammual sensed Marc’s horror and the loss of consciousness which followed. Fearing the worse, he spurred his borrowed horse, but the poor beast could run no faster, even with an earth mage’s assistance. If only he had wings. Or the Stepping Stone of Yesterday. He would have prayed, if he thought that it would do any good. He would have offered years from his own life, if it would spare the prince from harm.

Was this his fate? Was he doomed to lose every mortal he loved? The desert of Shiraz had meant nothing but death for him for over a hundred years. He never should have come here, never should have brought the Suunian prince to this accursed place.

He pressed the shirt to his face. He could smell Marc, his sweat and his musk. Emotion overwhelmed him. Goddess, he prayed silently. Return him to me unharmed, and I will not resist you. Give him to me, and I will surrender myself to the fate which you have written for me. This time, I won’t resist.

The swirling sand warned him of the encampment before his eyes detected it. He sensed that blood had been spilled recently. Human blood. Had Marc put up a struggle? Even slavers could be pushed too far.

A tent came into view. There were two fires. One he could understand, but why two? With a shudder, he realized that the flames were consuming the hair, flesh and fat of humans. One of the men was not dead yet, though he was close to death. His magic told him that neither victim was Marc, but slavers who would burn living men for sport were capable of doing anything. For all he knew, the torture they had designed for the young prince was far worse.

Nothing living moved outside the tent except a couple of nervous horses. Sam’s borrowed horse sensed their fear and would have bolted if not for the elde-mage’s reassurance. Calm yourself, my friend. I am sister-brother to the sand. All who walk this desert are under my protection.

If only it were true. He was close enough now to make out the energies of three separate beings within the tent. One was Marc, who seemed to have regained consciousness. Another was....Darli? For the first time, Sam felt real hope. The daema princess would not let any harm come to her prince.

The third presence was a puzzle. Like Darli, it had no center. It seemed to be in four places at once, within Darli, within Marc, in the sand and in the ether, the spiritual plane where the spirits of the dead coalesce prior to their journey to the Darkhall. Where had he seen such an unusual constellation of life energy before?

The answer occurred to him just as he reached the tent. The tribes to the north, beyond the Elden Mountains practiced ceremonial cannibalism of their dead. Armed with this knowledge, he was not entirely unprepared for what he saw when he opened the tent flap.

Marc was kneeling in the sand. He was naked. Except for an angry red welt around his neck and rope burns on his wrists and ankles, he appeared to be physically unharmed. His psyche was a different matter. His eyes were closed tight. His mouth was open as if to scream, but no sound came from his throat. His lips were stained scarlet with blood.

Marc.”

The prince opened eyes that were as dark as the sky over a stormy sea. When he saw who had spoken, his expression of horror gave way to relief. “You came!”

The elde-mage took Marc’s face between his hands. “Did they hurt you?”

As the prince tried to answer, he was seized by a fit of coughing. He doubled over and spit a small piece of uncooked, dark red meat onto the sand. Sammual took little notice of it, but the effect on Marc was profound. He threw back his head and moaned “What have I done?”

A few feet away, the corpse of a tall, deeply tanned, one eyed woman was slowly oozing blood onto the sand. Sammual kicked the body over onto its back. The cause of death was obvious. There was a gaping hole in the woman’s chest. Nearby, Darli sat naked in the sand, munching on a human heart. Her eyes caught his. She grinned, revealing blood stained teeth.

Darli save the prince. She follow quick like wolf. She burn the men who stole his body, and she take the heart of the woman who stole love from him. Then she feed heart to prince while he sleep. Now his fear is gone. He can no have fear when two hearts...” She held up two fingers which she brought together. “...become one.”

The prince began to shiver. “I thought she was bluffing. When she said she could rip out a man’s heart and eat it, I thought she was just trying to be brave. Father struck her. What if she had done it to him?”

Hush.” Sammual placed his fingertips over Marc’s lips.

Darli’s smile vanished. “Why is prince sad?” Tossing the half eaten organ to the ground, she rose and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “Darli never kill Marc’s father. Never eat his heart, for prince give him his love. Only eat heart of one who steals love. Darli love Marc...” Her voice faded. She crouched in the corner of the tent and covered her face with her hands.

Because Marc would not or could not speak, Sammual spoke for him. “You did well, princess. It was very brave of you to follow and to kill these bandits. I will always be grateful to you for saving Marc.”

Darli disgust Marc,” she whimpered. “Gentle, sweet prince can never love beast like Darli. Darli sorry. Darli so sorry.”

***

Back in the al-al Shiraz, Sammual bathed Marc then put him to bed. The prince refused to eat. “I’ll only throw it up. I wouldn’t mind something to make me forget, even if it’s just for a little while. What’s that stuff you drink?”

Muriseal? I don’t drink it anymore. And it gave you a hangover the last time you tried it.”

Damn the hangover. Just give me the bottle.” He took a long drink, then another.

Sammual sat on the edge of the bed. “You should talk to Darli.”

I know.”

Even the daema have feelings---”

I know that! It’s just---” His voice broke.

Gently, the elde-mage pushed him back against the pillow. He smoothed the damp, curls away from his forehead.

Marc grasped the elde-mage’s hand. “Promise you’ll stay with me.” His speech was very slightly slurred.

I’ll stay.”

Even after I’m asleep. If I have nightmares, wake me up. “

I will.”

Marc closed his eyes, but he opened them again a few minutes later. He was drowsy now, and his voice was calm. “Please, bring Darli. I need to talk to her.”

The daema princess had cleaned the blood from her hands and face. Dressed in a plain white shift that exposed her skinny arms and legs, she looked very young and frightened. “Darli sorry,” she whispered.

Marc laid his hand on her head. Her red-gold curls were warm with the magic fire that burned within her. “I’m the one who should be apologizing, not you. You were very brave to come after me like that. If you hadn’t.....”

Darli brushed his cheek with one finger. His tears must have scalded her, but she did not flinch. “You are so good. When Darli think of anyone hurting you, it make her blood burn like fire. You are so good, you love even ones who hurt you. If Darli promise to love the ones who hurt you, will you love Darli, too?”

Marc drew her close. She curled up beside him on the bed in the circle of his arm, her head resting on his shoulder. “I love you just the way you are.” He closed his eyes. Without the aid of any spell, he was soon fast asleep.

***

As he had promised, Sammual watched over Marc as he slept. He left the muriseal flask at the bedside, in case Marc woke and needed another dose. He was tempted to take a drink himself, but he did not want to weaken his self control. For the same reason, he resisted the urge to lie down beside Marc. It was not rest he craved, and to ask for more now would be an unpardonable crime.

He passed the hours studying little details, like the way Marc’s hair lightened from bronze to pale gold as it dried. His hands were wide across the palms with big knuckles and dirt under the nails---the hands of a farmer rather than an aristocrat. Soft golden down covered his arms, legs, chest. The fading scar above his left eye twitched, especially when he was dreaming, as he was now.

So often, people saw the cause and called it a result. For instance, a stranger might have said to Sammual “You love the mortal for his beauty,” when the truth was that Marc was beautiful, because Sam loved him.

His hands clenched into fists. He did not want this, but the Goddess had sent it. Was this her way of taking the elde-mage down a notch? You may live forever, but you will still know the sorrow of death, when it takes your mortal lover. Twice, he had watched someone he loved die, first the twin’s mother, later the father of his third child. If he counted his apprentice, Perrin, whom he loved like a son, that made three deaths. Then, there were the friends who had aged and passed away while he remained young. A thousand years from now, how many ghosts would he carry with him? Ten thousand years from now, would he still remember the name and face of the young man whose life, at this moment, was more precious to him than all the magic in all the realms?

Love and loss. Why did the two always go hand in hand? To love was to make oneself vulnerable. A lover entrusted his heart to the care of another, who might cherish it or toss it aside or trample it in the dust.

We do not love in spite of death, he thought. We love because of it. We love so that ten thousand years from now something of that love will linger, even if it is only a single memory of a single moment like this one.

Goddess, I surrender myself to your will

His breath caught in his throat, as Marc’s eyes opened. They were curiously light against his sun darkened skin. A week ago, he had been pale. How quickly, these mortals changed. One moment, full of fear and anger, the next moment, so full of love.

Sam?” Marc smiled sleepily. His breath smelled of muriseal.

The elde-mage held one finger to his lips and inclined his head in the direction of Darli, who was fast asleep.

Marc nodded. Gathering a blanket, he climbed carefully out of bed. Come, he mouthed. With one hand, he held the blanket around his shoulders. The other, he offered to Sammual, who hesitated only a moment before taking it.

The smaller bedroom was dark. The mage reached for the candle and lit the flame with his fingertips. Marc was already sitting on the bed, his back propped against the wall, the blanket wrapped around his shoulders like a cape. He patted the mattress beside him. “Sit down.” Sammual was careful to keep some space between them. It was wasted effort. Marc immediately moved closer. “There’s something I couldn’t tell you with Darli listening.”

If you don’t allow yourself to hope, you can not be disappointed, the earth mage told himself. “Is it something about the nomads who kidnapped you? Something that was done to you?”

Marc shook his head impatiently. “They didn’t do anything but scare me half to death. And bruise my pride.” He snorted. “What a switch! The prince gets saved by the princess. That’s one story I’m not going to be telling my grandkids.” He opened the muriseal flask and took a drink.

Sammual was startled. He had not seen the prince pick up the bottle. When offered the flask, he refused. One of them had to keep a clear head.

Marc closed the flask. He slipped his hand into Sam’s, threading their fingers together. “No, I need to tell you something about me. And you.”

Sammual’s heart jumped. He hardly dared to breathe for fear of disturbing this moment.

First, I want you to know that even though I look like Mama, she and I are as different as night and day.”

I realize that.” His voice was hoarse. He turned his head away to avoid Marc’s piercing gaze. Muriseal had an odd effect on the boy. Most mortals became thick headed when they drank the stuff, but Marc seemed to think more clearly. Or maybe he always saw the truth, and the liquor merely loosened his tongue.

I just wanted to make sure that you were clear on that point. People used to say Mama and I were like brother and sister, and that was why we got along so well, but it wasn’t that. She did whatever she wanted, and I did whatever she wanted. Father used to tell me to show some backbone. ‘Don’t let her walk all over you,’ those were his words. So, when he was around, I made sure to stand firm, and that seemed to make him happy. Until Simon, I never asked myself what I wanted.” He smiled wryly. “My poor parents. Father was horrified, and yet, secretly he wanted me to cut the apron strings. Mama loved the fact that Father disapproved of me and Simon, but she hated having to share me with someone else. And I---I said to hell with them both. And guess what? They became friends. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think I came between them. I think they put me there, like a kind of fence. Does any of this make sense?”

It makes perfect sense.”

I’m glad it makes sense to one of us. Today--no, I guess it was yesterday---when I was being abducted, there were only two things I was sure of. One was that you would come after me to rescue me. The other was that I had to stay alive long enough for you to find me, so that I could tell you how much I care about you. Careful with my fingers.”

Sammual relaxed his grip on Marc’s hand. “Sorry.”

I’m not usually this talkative--unless I’m being plied with elde-mage liquor.” He smiled briefly. “Under ordinary circumstances, I would be too embarrassed to breathe a word of my feelings to you. But after some of the things that happened to me today--or was it yesterday? No matter. I don’t think anything will ever embarrass me again. And almost losing you taught me an important lesson.”

The earth mage swallowed. “I know.” Something seemed to be stuck in his throat. The best he could managed was a whisper. “The same thing happened to me. But I couldn’t say anything. Not after what you had been through.”

That!” Marc waved his hand. “Being pawed by a one eyed woman isn’t going to turn me celibate, if that’s what you’re worried about. I’ve been treated worse by drunken strangers in taverns. One of the sergeants used to corner me behind the stables, whenever he got a chance and---am I rambling?” He stared at Sammual curiously. “You’re very quiet, tonight. Tell me what you’re thinking.”

I can’t,” he whispered hoarsely. “It wouldn’t be right.”

Marc considered this for a moment. “What does right and wrong have to do with anything? Come here.” He tossed aside the blanket and the flask. Pulling the elde-mage close, he began fumbling at his buttons. “What’s this thing sealed with? Some kind of magic spell to protect your virtue?”

Let me.” Sammual stood up and pulled the black robe over his head. His skin was milk white in the darkness. His slender, hairless body and wide eyes made him seem much younger than Marc.

The prince took him into his arms again. “You look so fragile. As if the slightest touch would break you in two. But we know that isn’t true.” He grabbed a handful of black hair and tipped Sam’s head back, so that he could kiss him, first on the mouth, then on the hollow at the base of his throat.

The only coherent word the elde-mage produced after that was Marc’s name. It was so easy to lose himself. All he had to do was not resist. Had he not told the Goddess that he would surrender himself to her will?

Chapter 10

Marc did not have a hangover when he woke that morning. He almost wished that he did. It would have given him an excuse to stay in bed.

Gathering his courage, he picked up the discarded blanket and wrapped it around his waist. He noted the liquor flask on the floor. He could always claim that he was drunk when he grabbed the elde-mage and--

No, better not think about it. He composed his face, then he opened the door which separated the two bedrooms. “Good morning. Is there any breakfast left?”

Darli sprang upon him, throwing her arms around his neck, squeezing the breath from him. Her elfin face was beaming. “Marc well!”

He ruffled her curly hair. “Thanks to you.”

She nodded her head vigorously. “Yes. Darli most brave.” She stepped back. Once again, she had opted for sensible garments. Her linen tunic and trousers were small enough for a child. Her suede boots were so tiny that both of them would have fit inside one of Marc’s.

Sammual was sitting at the dressing table, brushing his hair. He wore a pale green silk robe loosely belted at the waist. Emeralds dangled from his earlobes, and platinum chains encircled milk white wrists and ankles. No one would mistake him for a soldier today. If not for the short hair, he would have looked like a woman.

Marc sat down on the window sill and picked up a roll.

Still looking at his own reflection in the mirror, the earth mage murmured. “Darli.”

Yes, Sammual?”

Will you go to the stable and see if our horses are ready? I’d like to leave as soon as possible. ”

The daema princess nodded happily.

Once they were alone, the silence became oppressive. Marc pretended to be absorbed in his breakfast, though, if asked, he could not have said what he was eating. His attention was fixed on the earth mage. Why was Sammual ignoring him? Had he gone too far? Perhaps two hundred year old mages of immense power expected to be treated with more respect---

Marc stiffened as he heard the soft tap of the brush being set on the dressing table, followed by the padding of bare feet on the floor and the whisper of silk. He did not dare look up for fear of what he would see in the earth mage’s eyes.

Sammual took the roll from his hand. “Swallow.”

There was a knot in Marc’s throat. The glass of water which the elde-mage offered helped. “Sam---”

He had forgotten how strong the arth mage was . The arm around his waist was as inflexible as an iron manacle. The hand which lifted his chin could not be resisted. He had no choice but to look into Sammual’s eyes.

I’m not a spider,” the mage murmured, with a slight smile. “I don’t eat after mating.”

You aren’t angry with me?”

Why would I be angry with you?”

Because I...” Marc flushed.

Had your way with me? Compromised my honor? Took advantage of me? I am two hundred years old. I have had more lovers than you can imagine. Of both sexes. Sit.” The earth mage picked up a brush and began working at Marc’s hair. “Just as I thought. There’s a nest of rats living in here. Hold still!”

You’re pulling it!”

Sammual picked up a pair of scissors. “I’m going to have to cut out a few of these knots. Don’t worry. You’ll have plenty left when I’m done.”

Being fussed over made Marc feel strangely happy and safe. Not like a child, exactly. More like a husband with a bossy but affectionate wife.

Next time you let your hair get into such a state, I won’t be so gentle.”

Yes, sir.”

“‘Yes, Sammual,’ will do”

Darli burst into the room. “All is ready.”

Where are we going?” Marc asked.

To look for kidnapped children. I found these---” Sammual unwrapped a silk scarf, revealing a pair of embroidered baby shoes and a silver infant’s rattle. “---in the bandits’saddlebags. The craftsmanship is Shantuunian. The child to whom they belong is northwest of here, about a week’s journey by horse. Unfortunately, there is a mountain range midway between here and there. It’s going to slow us down a bit. No matter. It will slow the sorcerer’s servants even more. An infant from Shantuun in the middle of Shiraz---it’s too good a lead to pass up.”

You think there is a connection between the bandits and the abduction of my brother?”

You said yourself that someone was paying them three gold pieces per child. Think about it. Shirazians pay for slaves in gem stones. Gold comes from Suunland. Why is someone with Suunian gold gathering children in the middle of the Shirazian desert?”

Marc shook his head. “I don’t know. You tell me.”

The spark gnome that kidnapped your brother told me that his master was collecting children to build a warded fortress in Shiraz. “

What exactly is a warded fortress?”

Sammual sighed dramatically. “Give me twenty years, and I can teach you.”

It’s a deal!” Marc replied brightly.

Excuse me?”

You can have twenty years to teach me.”

***

The day began pleasantly enough. There was still a hint of night coolness in the air, and the sun was a distant, red orb that cast as much shadow as light. Except for the monotony of the sandy desert terrain, Marc found nothing to complain about. His only worry was that he would doze off and fall from his saddle.

All that changed as the sun rose in the sky. After a couple of hours beneath the blazing midday desert sun, Marc wondered if he would survive the journey. He had never known heat this intense or felt such scorching sunlight. Within an hour, the backs of his hands were sunburned red. Thank the Goddess that Sammual had the foresight to purchase a hat for his fair skinned, mortal companion as they were leaving the city.

To make matters worse, he was the only member of his party who seemed to be suffering. They had exchanged their Suunian mounts for smaller, sleeker Shirazian horses. The later were not actually horses, but rather were a type of pack animal, similar to a goat, desert bred and used to the hot, dry climate. When they stopped for water, the beasts drank sparingly. According to Sammual, they could go a week without water if necessary.

The elde-mage seemed impervious to the heat. His ivory skin neither darkened nor reddened. He did not sweat, either. After hours of travel, his white silk Shirazian riding clothes were as immaculate as they were when he put them on that morning.

The daema princess openly reveled in the heat and sun. When they stopped for rest, she avoided the shade. “Darli drink sunlight,” she sighed, throwing back her head. The heat intensified her body’s intoxicating perfume. Marc was not sure he would have had the strength of will to say “no” if she were to proposition him again. On the other hand, as the day grew hotter, and he grew increasingly parched and tired, he was not sure he had the physical stamina to follow through on a “yes.”

He was so light headed from the heat and sun, he assumed that he was hallucinating when he first detected the change in the air. He had heard stories of desert travelers driven mad by thirst who imagined lakes where there were none. However, this illusion did not wane. Instead, it grew stronger, until he could contain his suspicions no longer. “Water” he said, sniffing the air. “There is water somewhere nearby.” He cast Sammual a hopeful glance.

Yes, that’s our goal. We should be there before dark.”

Marc assumed that “there” was a well or perhaps a small trickle of water like the one he and the earth mage had unearthed in the desert south of al Shiraz. However, as they traveled westward, his senses began to tingle the way they did when he neared a river. So, he was not entirely surprised when late afternoon arrived and they reached the crest of a dune to find themselves before a vast desert oasis.

The lake was wide and deep with a healthy fringe of green marshland. The water shimmered like an opal, reflecting the blues, oranges and reds of the later afternoon sky. Marc dropped from his mount and ran to the lakeside where he through off he hat and fell to his knees, scooping up water in his hands. He splashed his face and neck.

The earth mage frowned. “You should treat the water with more respect.”

Marc flashed his first smile of the afternoon. Water droplets beaded his hair, like tiny jewels. “I’m on my knees, worshipping it. How much more respect can I show?”

Sammual’s upper lip twitched. He suppressed a smile. “Use the cup.” He indicated a hollowed gourd tied to a wooden post . “You won’t waste as much.”

Since every body of water in the desert was considered a gift from Ser Shiraz, there was a small white washed stucco temple nearby. The shrine was maintained by three male priests and two servants, one a middle aged man, the other an ancient, white haired woman with cloudy blue eyes and skin the color and texture of tree bark. The blue tattoo on her forehead had faded until it was almost invisible. Marc wondered how many decades she had been a slave and what color her skin was before she was brought to the desert kingdom.

As in al-Shiraz, Sammual and his companions were welcomed graciously .While their desert horses were fed and watered, Marc washed away the crust of sand and sweat which had accumulated on his face and hands. Darli, who hated water, used fire to cleanse herself . Their hosts watched with open amazement, as she captured flames in her hands and rubbed them over her face, arms and feet, taking care to keep the fire away from her garments.

The girl is your daughter?” an elderly priest asked the elde-mage.

She’s the daughter of a friend.”

And the Suunian?”

My apprentice. A water mage.”

It seemed to Marc that the priests treated him with more respect after that.

***

The main course that night was the ubiquitous roast goat. Marc was so hungry that he would have eaten horse or even dog, which was rumored to be a prized delicacy in Shantuun. The goat was accompanied by a dish consisting of fermented goat’s milk poured over desert apples. Marc had always imagined that desert apples would taste sweeter than the ordinary kind, just as wild fruit was more flavorful than cultivated. To his surprise, desert apples turned out to be a colorless, pulpy fruit, which tasted like a cross between stale bread and a dirty sock.

The priests laughed at his expression. “You do not like?”

It’s delicious,” Marc insisted. He rinsed the bitter taste from his mouth with spiced red tea.

It’s foul, but nutritious.” The oldest priest sighed. “The desert soil is poison. The desert apple is the only tree that will grow here, beside the susqua. That thorny little shrub is not even good for burning.” He scooped some more dung onto the fire.

Marc thought about the green, fertile fields of Suunland, the mountains rich with gold and hardwood trees, the coast with its fishing and trading. Despite its diamond mines and its busy trade in textiles—and slaves---Shiraz was a very poor land compared to its southern neighbor.

Isn’t there something you could do for them?” he whispered to Sammual. “Some kind of magic to make the ground fertile?”

The mage gave him a sharp look. “Whose land would become barren to make this land grow?”

Marc shrugged. “It was just a suggestion.”

A poor one,” Sammual replied coolly. “Magic isn’t the solution to every problem. Sometimes, it’s the source of problems.” His expression darkened. Abruptly, he rose and marched into the desert.

Where go Sammual?” Darli asked.

Marc shrugged. “Something’s bugging him.”

Her eyebrows rose. “You quarrel?”

No, I don’t think so.” He frowned. “I think the desert holds bad memories for him.”

Why? This place---” She waved her arm. “---feels more right than any other. Like home.”

Home? Are you starting to remember your home in the Darkhall?”

She shook her head. “I do not know this Darkhall. I only know now. This land speaks to me here.” She touched her left breast.

Funny. It has just the opposite effect on me. I guess I’m not used to a place with so little water. My people were sailors before we settled in Suunland. Pirates, some people called us. Since we took the land from people who were already living there, I guess ‘pirate’ isn’t far off.” He glanced towards the west, the direction Sammual had taken. Should he follow? Better not. If Sam had wanted company, he would have said so.

***

When Sammual returned to the oasis, he found the prince sitting beside the dying

fire, waiting for him. The others had already gone to bed.

Do you want to talk about it?” Marc had the muriseal bottle ready.

Sammual sat down beside him. It would have been easy to take a drink or two, but he owed it to Perrin to tell this story sober. Haltingly, he began.

To Be Continued…

Copyright ©2007 by McCamyTaylor.

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..."

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