Magic and the Heart
by McCamy Taylor
Part Three of Four
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
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.
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.
was convinced that the spark gnome’s master would be able to
Marc’s name. Marc wished that he shared the mage’s
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.
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?
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.”
followed him, and Marc brought up the rear.
easy it had been for his enemies to implicate him in his
abduction. How many other innocent men had been condemned on the
basis of false evidence and testimony?
touched his throat. He had a vivid imagination. He could picture his
head flying from his shoulders as the headsman’s axe struck.
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.
eyes strayed to the earth mage’s back. Sammual’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
regret that Sammual was not his father. Life would be so much
simpler that way.
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.
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.
said nothing about Darli’s new pet, until Marc tried to
Then, he snapped “Don’t touch it. Its venom is
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.
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.
mid afternoon, Sammual called for a short rest. “Marc,
for you to practice your magic.” He nodded towards their
prince cast a worried glance up at the cloudless, turquoise sky.
can’t make rain, when the air’s this dry.”
mage pointed to the earth. “Down there. Don’t you
feel it? “
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.”
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.
think you can do it?”
rubbed his palms together. “I can try.”
mage knelt and traced a line in the dirt. A fissure appeared, a foot
long and an inch across.
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.
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.
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.
scarves?” Sammual suggested.
scarves. Two horses.”
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.
pressed his ear to the earth. “Two riders carrying light
burdens. I hear clanking. Chains would be my guess. Marc, put this
your head. Quickly.” He tossed him a dark blue scarf.
your hair completely and s much of your face as you can. Try to keep
your hands out of sight.”
think it’s someone looking for me?”
from the north? Not likely.” He stripped off his Suunian
military jacket and hid it in his travel bag, murmuring “No
to wave a red flag before the bull.” In a crisp white linen
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.
seemed to move at a snail’s pace. Marc began to sweat under
blue scarf. A couple of ulgers, intrigued by the travelers’
inactivity, circled overhead, spoiling any chance that the nomads
might pass them by.
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.
expressions changed when they noted Sammual’s third eye.
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.
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
saw you from a distance, noble one, and thought you might be in
distress. It is miles from the nearest ---but you have found
He knelt beside the small spring. His dark eyes widened.
not here when I last passed through this region.” Shading his
he peered up at Sammual. “Did you summon this
started to object. Sammual stepped on his foot.
Ser Shiraz!” the younger man murmured.
are indeed blessed,” added his older companion.
and your tribe are welcome to claim this spring as your own,”
Sammual told the two men. “Consider it payment for our
through your land.”
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.
he could have called riches from the ground with a word, the earth
mage accepted the gift graciously. “Ser Shiraz blesses the
may the blessings of Ser Shiraz be with you. You will favor our camp
with your presence this evening?”
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
more pleasantries, then the two groups resumed their separate
seemed very friendly,” Marc remarked when the nomads were out
earshot. He loosened the scarf to take advantage of the breeze.
is friendly to the elden,”
Sammual replied dryly.
they have attacked us for trespassing, if we had been ordinary
travelers?” Marc closed his eyes and tilted back his head,
his throat to the wind. “I thought the nomads
didn’t claim any
part of the desert as their own.”
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.”
you’re an elden mage.
You were never in any danger.
Why did you make me disguise myself? ”
your head, Marc. Two Shirazian nomads, heading south towards
Suunland, carrying chains. What do you think they were looking
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
eyes flew open. “They’re slavers! Heading to
Suunland to raid a
farm or village.”
shook his head impatiently. “They were carrying diamonds.
Kidnappers don’t bring money. Those two plan to buy children
prince shook his head in disbelief. “Slavery is illegal in
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.”
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
to kill them to protect you, if you decided to take offense and start
makes you think I would have needed your protection?” Marc
indignantly. “There were only two of them.”
laughed heartily. “Suunland has an excellent army, with the
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
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.
you going to sulk all the way to al Shiraz?” Sammual asked a
little while later.
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.
few spells would give me an edge in battle. Can you show me the one
you use to conjure fire?”
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.
men exchanged glances. “It’s a good thing that
Darli is traveling
with an experienced water mage,” Sammual remarked dryly.
mage. Marc liked the sound of that. “Maybe I’ll
give up my
claim to the throne to study magic,” he said lightly.
ought to please Father. There’s no doubt about
think you misjudge your father.”
way he misjudged me?”
magic forces are at work, reason can become clouded.”
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.
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.
had not counted on the elde-mage’s
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.
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.
impulse, he stretched out his arm and let his hand rest lightly on
his companion’s shoulder. “Good night,”
but he did not shake off the prince’s hand. “Sleep
you here, I’m sure I will.”
travelers reached the city of al Shiraz before sunset the next day.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
are we doing in the center of the city?” Marc asked.
foreigners were never allowed here.”
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,
the people most likely to have information about sand sprites and
other supernatural creatures are mages.”
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
played by distant flute.
was granted an immediate audience with the Serene Voice of Ser
Shiraz, a ten year old girl who greeted the elde-mage
a solemn air
that seemed at odds with her age. She acknowledged Darli with a
brief nod of the head. Marc, she ignored.
the earth mage and high priestess conversed, a young priest with a
smooth face and long black braid pulled Darli and Marc aside
will lead you to your rooms, where you can await your master. No
doubt, you wish to prepare his quarters for him.”
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.
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.
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
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.
girl is Sammual’s daughter?” the young priest
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.“
priest nodded his head solemnly. “Under ordinary
two sexes are not housed together. But....” He left the
unfinished. The implication was clear. The ordinary rules did not
apply to Sammual.
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
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
up. We have a banquet to attend, and I need to bathe, too.”
Sammual held out a towel. “I’ve set out clothes for
is a razor. Oh, and try to do something about your hair.”
mage pretended not to hear.
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
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.
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
looked him over.
“You’ll do.” His own
garments were even
more austere than Marc’s. He wore calf length black coat with
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.
look like a real mage!” Marc exclaimed.
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.”
frowned. “And don’t smirk like that! Darli, are you
dress like princess!” she exclaimed. With her pointed ears
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.
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.”
a girl playing with a doll, the
prince thought, turning his head to hide his smile.
stepped back to admire his work. “You truly are a
murmured to Darli with a bow. He snapped his fingers in the
direction. “Hurry up, boy!”
pointed to his feet. “I don’t have any
shrugged. “None of the servants wear shoes in the al-al
Bare feet are much quieter on stone floors.”
I thought I was supposed to be an apprentice.”
ached a brow. “Did I call you a servant? Forgive me. A
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.”
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.
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.
frowned as he recalled Sam’s story about the slave trade
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.
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
or she could eat it before the next dish arrived. Fortunately,
Sammual was a light eater, and Darli kept slipping him food and wine.
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
mage nodded his head. “It’s good to see you, Mizar.
introduce my cousin, Darli.”
desert-lord bowed over Darli’s hand, which made her giggle
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
he was supposed to be, he looked back.
handsome desert-lord urned to Sammual. In a voice loud enough for
everyone at the table to hear, he asked “How much for the
choked on a piece of fruit.
I require his services,” Sammual replied smoothly.
much of an apprentice, and I will probably replace him when I reach
Shantuun. Until then, I need someone to mix potions and gather
nodded. “The youth of Shantuun are so much better trained
those of Suunland. Perhaps I could borrow him for the night?”
ducked his head and pretended to help Darli with her napkin.
apologetically. “We’ve only just arrived from the
looking forward to the comfort of a real bed. I’m sure you
a bow, the desert-lord returned to his table.
smothered a laugh, which earned him a rap over the head from his
What was that for?” The prince nursed his injured scalp.
was for flirting with Mizar.”
wasn’t. Oh!” The second blow was harder than the
that was for talking back. You look entirely too confident for an
apprentice who’s being chastised by his master. Sulk, if you
Make faces at me behind my back. But when we’re talking, you
one’s paying any attention. You’re just having fun
A third blow put an end to the discussion.
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.
instructed, Marc slouched and looked guilty. “Sir?”
are you doing? I told you to prepare a batch of desiccated nightbane.
Go on!” He raised his staff threateningly. The prince
The gesture was not entirely for show. His scalp was still tender.
“And take the princess with you.”
you,” Marc mouthed silently. He lifted Darli and left the
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
Marc woke the next morning, Sammual was already gone. There was a
platter of fruit, cheese and bread along with a pitcher of
milk on the table beside the bed. Marc was filling his plate a
second time when a servant ducked into the room. “Your master
this message for you.”
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.
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
toyed with the idea of leaving the daema
in the safety
of the al-al Shiraz, but she quickly vetoed this idea. “Darli
Sam let’s you
wear his clothes and jewelry.”
looked offended. “Darli not for buying pretty clothes. Darli
long, sharp knife to protect Prince Marc and Beautiful Mage
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.
because she had read an insult in Marc’s remark about jewelry
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
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.
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,
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.
were still bartering over the price when a bearded man dressed in
white approached them. “I know where you can find the knife
seek,” he murmured.
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.
wolf blade! Yes! Yes! Show me!”
Marc’s horror, the desert man took off at a brisk walk with
princess at his heels. Recalling Sammual’s warning, Marc
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.
route they took was circuitous. Marc soon lost all sense of
direction. Was Darli’s would be captor trying to throw him
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
shoulders. The legs on either side of his were as thick as tree
trunks. The horse labored to carry their combined weight.
the way the giant’s pudgy hand crept up Marc’s
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.
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.
recalled the letter the earth mage had left for him that morning. His
heart sank. Sam was going to be so disappointed in him.
captor’s grip tightened, and the back of Marc’s
enveloped by flesh. The voice that resonated from that monstrous
chest cavity was surprisingly high pitched. “Relax, ducky. It
so bad once you get used to it.”
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.
are you doing to the prisoner?” called a masculine voice from
somewhere up ahead.
pretty,” replied Marc’s captor with a laugh.
“Maybe I’ll make
a baby with him. A pretty, yellow haired baby. ” Her hand
from his thigh to his groin. “Come on, “ she
whispered in his
ear. “Show me what you’ve got.”
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?
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
the answer.” After an hour of this, he left the temple in
he consulted one of the mage-priests, an ancient man with a crooked
back and sun weathered skin.
Shiraz!” the old man exclaimed.
Sammual glanced nervously over his shoulder. The door to the
private library was wide open, and younger acolytes and students
could be seen passing back and forth in the hall. “You know I
use that name.”
worry yourself,” Adreo replied. “The doorway is
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
The mage accepted a tiny ceramic cup of red tea.
settled back in his chair. “What brings you to al Shiraz? You
usually avoid this place like the plague. It thought it brought back
grimaced. “I caught a spark gnome stealing children in
One of his victim’s was the King’s younger son. I
but now the King is blaming his older boy for the kidnapping.
looking for evidence to clear his name.”
you persuade the spark gnome to talk?”
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.”
eyes widened comically. “A warded fortress? No one has
one of those since---”
either of us were born.” The earth mage leaned forward.
spell guarding the doorway, he lowered his voice. “Because
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
done his homework. Did you see the Darkhall Princess who is traveling
little red haired thing? Very pretty. You don’t often see
the mortal plane, and I don’t think I have ever met one who
using a glamour.”
a reason for that. She has been stripped of her soul.”
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?”
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.”
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.”
already have an apprentice.”
big, yellow haired fellow?” Adreo looked mildly surprised.
heard he was the crown prince of Suunland.”
set down his cup and leaned forward. His third eye was bright and
glowing. “Who told you that?”
old man shrugged. “A little bird. You know how impossible it
keep secrets in al Shiraz. Why so upset?”
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
his breath. “Sorry to drink and run.” He leapt to
his feet and hurried out the door.
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,
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.
long would it take the elde-mage
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.
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.
this?” The nomad bared the scar on Marc’s chest.
brand outlaws in Suunland now. What did you do?”
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.
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.”
right?” The nomad nodded her head knowingly. The tiny bells
were braided into her hair jingled. “They’re always
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.
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
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.”
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
picked up one of Darli’s cast off shoes and cupped it in his
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.
the bathroom, he found the shirt which Marc had worn on their journey
north. As his fingertips touched the fabric, he experienced a shock.
door opened. A servant appeared, holding a note in his hand.
There’s an invi---”
the shirt, Sammual rushed past him. “My horse! Now!”
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.
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.
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.
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----
thought made the earth beneath the horse’s hooves tremble, so
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
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
strained against his ropes. “Sam!” he shouted.
nomad pressed a knife against his throat. “Shut your
hissed. “Who’s your friend?”
you don’t want to be turned to stone, you’d
tent flap opened. A short, slender figure stood silhouetted against
the light. Marc squinted. Too small to be Sammual. Could it be...?
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.
single eye as round as a saucer, the nomad woman released Marc and
backed away from the demon girl.
ran to Marc’s side. “Are ou hurt, Prince?”
blew a lock of hair away from his eyes. “Nothing that
mend.” He was acutely aware of his nakedness and his
arousal. With his hands tied behind his back, he had no way to cover
himself. “Is Sammual with you?”
time,” she replied. “Darli follow quick. Run like
wolf across the
sand.” She freed Marc from his bonds with a single swipe of
claws, then began to probe him gently, searching for wounds. She
sniffed his skin. Detecting the aroma of patchouli and
sweat, she frowned. “One eyed woman love you?”
Marc’s laughter bordered on hysteria. “I guess you
could call it
that. Watch out!”
nomad had drawn a knife and was creeping up behind the demon girl.
taking her eyes off Marc’s face, the tiny princess swatted
tall Shirazian aside as easily as a fly. The bandit fell to the
ground, where she lay on her back, gasping for breath.
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
me!” he wheezed. “Water!”
Shiraz preserve me,” the bandit woman whispered. She turned
from the gruesome sight. “Did you do that?” she
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.
burn me!” The nomad woman crawled to her knees and raised her
hands in supplication. “Please, don’t burn
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
hand plunged forward, under the big woman’s left breast, then
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.
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
will be gone.”
sight of the slaver’s still quivering heart was too much for
The prince fainted.
sensed Marc’s horror and the loss of consciousness which
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
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.
pressed the shirt to his face. He could smell Marc, his sweat and his
musk. Emotion overwhelmed him. Goddess,
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.
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.
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.
living moved outside the tent except a couple of nervous horses.
Sam’s borrowed horse sensed their fear and would have bolted
for the elde-mage’s
yourself, my friend. I am sister-brother to the sand. All who walk
this desert are under my protection.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!”
took Marc’s face between his hands. “Did they hurt
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
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
munching on a human heart. Her eyes caught his. She grinned,
revealing blood stained teeth.
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
two fingers which she brought together. “...become
prince began to shiver. “I thought she was bluffing. When she
she could rip out a man’s heart and eat it, I thought she was
trying to be brave. Father struck her. What if she had done it to
placed his fingertips over Marc’s lips.
smile vanished. “Why is prince sad?” Tossing the
organ to the ground, she rose and wiped her mouth with the back of
her hand. “Darli never kill Marc’s father. Never
heart, for prince give him his love. Only eat heart of one who
steals love. Darli love Marc...” Her voice faded. She
the corner of the tent and covered her face with her hands.
Marc would not or could not speak, Sammual spoke for him.
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
disgust Marc,” she whimpered. “Gentle, sweet prince
love beast like Darli. Darli sorry. Darli so sorry.”
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
something to make me forget, even if it’s just for a little
What’s that stuff you drink?”
don’t drink it
anymore. And it gave you a hangover the last time you tried
the hangover. Just give me the bottle.” He took a long drink,
sat on the edge of the bed. “You should talk to
know that! It’s just---” His voice broke.
pushed him back against the pillow. He smoothed the damp, curls away
from his forehead.
grasped the elde-mage’s
you’ll stay with me.” His speech was very slightly
after I’m asleep. If I have nightmares, wake me up.
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
talk to her.”
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
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
apologizing, not you. You were very brave to come after me like
that. If you hadn’t.....”
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?”
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
way you are.” He closed his eyes. Without the aid of any
was soon fast asleep.
he had promised, Sammual watched over Marc as he slept. He left the
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.
passed the hours studying little details, like the way Marc’s
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.
often, people saw the cause and called it a result. For instance, a
stranger might have said to Sammual “You love the mortal for
beauty,” when the truth was that Marc was beautiful, because
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?
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
do not love in spite of death,
he thought. We
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.
I surrender myself to your will
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.
sleepily. His breath smelled of muriseal.
one finger to his lips and inclined his head in the direction of Darli,
who was fast asleep.
nodded. Gathering a blanket, he climbed carefully out of bed. Come,
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.
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.
down.” Sammual was careful to keep some space between them.
wasted effort. Marc immediately moved closer.
I couldn’t tell you with Darli listening.”
you don’t allow yourself to hope, you can not be
earth mage told himself. “Is it something about the nomads
kidnapped you? Something that was done to you?”
shook his head impatiently. “They didn’t do
anything but scare
me half to death. And bruise my pride.” He snorted.
switch! The prince gets saved by the princess. That’s one
not going to be telling my grandkids.” He opened the muriseal
and took a
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
closed the flask. He slipped his hand into Sam’s, threading
fingers together. “No, I need to tell you something about me.
heart jumped. He hardly dared to breathe for fear of disturbing this
I want you to know that even though I look like Mama, she and I are
as different as night and day.”
realize that.” His voice was hoarse. He turned his head away
avoid Marc’s piercing gaze. Muriseal
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.
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
wanted, and I did whatever she wanted. Father used to tell me to
show some backbone. ‘Don’t let her walk all over
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.
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
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?”
makes perfect sense.”
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
relaxed his grip on Marc’s hand. “Sorry.”
not usually this talkative--unless I’m being plied with elde-mage
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.
almost losing you taught me an important lesson.”
earth mage swallowed. “I know.” Something seemed to
be stuck in
his throat. The best he could managed was a whisper. “The
thing happened to me. But I couldn’t say anything. Not after
you had been through.”
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
can’t,” he whispered hoarsely. “It
wouldn’t be right.”
considered this for a moment. “What does right and wrong have
with anything? Come here.” He tossed aside the blanket and
flask. Pulling the elde-mage
close, he began
fumbling at his buttons. “What’s this thing sealed
kind of magic spell to protect your virtue?”
me.” Sammual stood up and pulled the black robe over his
head. His skin was milk white in the darkness. His slender, hairless
and wide eyes made him seem much younger than Marc.
prince took him into his arms again. “You look so fragile. As
the slightest touch would break you in two. But we know that
true.” He grabbed a handful of black hair and tipped
back, so that he could kiss him, first on the mouth, then on the
hollow at the base of his throat.
only coherent word the elde-mage
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?
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.
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
better not think about it. He composed his face, then he opened the
door which separated the two bedrooms. “Good morning. Is
sprang upon him, throwing her arms around his neck, squeezing the
breath from him. Her elfin face was beaming. “Marc
ruffled her curly hair. “Thanks to you.”
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
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.
sat down on the window sill and picked up a roll.
looking at his own reflection in the mirror, the earth mage murmured.
you go to the stable and see if our horses are ready? I’d
leave as soon as possible. ”
princess nodded happily.
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
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.
the roll from his
was a knot in Marc’s throat. The glass of water which the elde-mage
had forgotten how strong the arth mage
. 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
not a spider,” the mage murmured, with a slight smile.
eat after mating.”
aren’t angry with me?”
would I be angry with you?”
I...” Marc flushed.
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
working at Marc’s hair. “Just as I thought.
There’s a nest of
rats living in here. Hold still!”
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
fussed over made Marc feel strangely happy and safe. Not like a
child, exactly. More like a husband with a bossy but affectionate
time you let your hair get into such a state, I won’t be so
Sammual,’ will do”
burst into the room. “All is ready.”
are we going?” Marc asked.
look for kidnapped children. I found these---” Sammual
silk scarf, revealing a pair of embroidered baby shoes and a silver
infant’s rattle. “---in the
craftsmanship is Shantuunian. The child to whom they belong is
northwest of here, about a week’s journey by horse.
there is a mountain range midway between here and there. It’s
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.”
think there is a connection between the bandits and the abduction of
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?”
shook his head. “I don’t know. You tell
spark gnome that kidnapped your brother told me that his master was
collecting children to build a warded fortress in Shiraz. “
exactly is a warded fortress?”
sighed dramatically. “Give me twenty years, and I can teach
a deal!” Marc replied brightly.
can have twenty years to teach me.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
openly reveled in the heat and sun. When they stopped for rest, she
avoided the shade. “Darli drink sunlight,” she
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
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.”
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.
that’s our goal. We should be there before dark.”
assumed that “there” was a well or perhaps a small
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.
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.
earth mage frowned. “You should treat the water with more
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?”
upper lip twitched. He suppressed a smile. “Use the
indicated a hollowed gourd tied to a wooden post . “You
waste as much.”
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.
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.
girl is your daughter?” an elderly priest asked the elde-mage.
the daughter of a friend.”
apprentice. A water mage.”
seemed to Marc that the priests treated him with more respect after
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
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.
priests laughed at his expression. “You do not
delicious,” Marc insisted. He rinsed the bitter taste from
mouth with spiced red tea.
foul, but nutritious.” The oldest priest sighed.
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
onto the fire.
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
slaves---Shiraz was a very poor land compared to its southern
there something you could do for them?” he whispered to
“Some kind of magic to make the ground fertile?”
mage gave him a sharp look. “Whose land would become barren
this land grow?”
shrugged. “It was just a suggestion.”
poor one,” Sammual replied coolly. “Magic
isn’t the solution
to every problem. Sometimes, it’s the source of
expression darkened. Abruptly, he rose and marched into the desert.
go Sammual?” Darli asked.
shrugged. “Something’s bugging him.”
eyebrows rose. “You quarrel?”
I don’t think so.” He frowned. “I think
the desert holds bad
memories for him.”
She waved her arm. “---feels more right than any
other. Like home.”
Are you starting to remember your home in the Darkhall?”
shook her head. “I do not know this Darkhall. I only know
This land speaks to me here.” She touched her left breast.
It has just the opposite effect on me. I guess I’m not used
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
far off.” He glanced towards the west, the direction Sammual
taken. Should he follow? Better not. If Sam had wanted company, he
would have said so.
Sammual returned to the oasis, he found the prince sitting beside
waiting for him. The others had already gone to bed.
you want to talk about it?” Marc had the muriseal
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
Copyright ©2007 by McCamyTaylor.
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
Only two chapters are done so far..."
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