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Thirteen: The Years 98I-997 afe

Thirteen: The Years 98I-997 afe

In His Shadow She Shall Live

Gloom hung like heavy cobwebs beneath the rafters of the room where Varthlokkur and the Old Man sat. Chill dominated the air. Dust scented it dryly. All colors were shades of gray. The only light came from the far-seeing mirror. The scene it examined lay deep in another place of shadow. They were watching sixteen-year-old Nepanthe at her daily business. The mirror presented golden voyeuristic opportunities, but both men meticulously refused to accept them. Nepanthe’s routine was a dull one of meals, minor chores, studies, and hours spent over embroideries. When she needed solitude, she withdrew to the castle library and read. Books remained beyond the scope of any brother except Luxos. She learned a lot, and much of it was nonsense.

Varthlokkur and the Old Man watched for hours, the latter patently bored but enduring because something was bothering his friend. Varthlokkur finally articulated it. “Do you think it’s time I went to see her?”

“Yes. You may have waited too long already. There’s nothing to stop her from finding another lover.”

“Not casually. The old dragon, her stepmother, seems determined to turn her into a career virgin.” He rose, stalked across the chamber. Over his shoulder, he continued, “She’s terrified of men. The woman’s been that successful. Watch her when she’s around male servants. Still, Nature can’t be thwarted forever.” He chuckled without feeling.

The Old Man swiveled, watched the wizard pursue some arcane handiwork. Tugging his beard, he asked, “What’re you doing?”

“Picking out some gifts to impress Verloya. Her father.”

“You’re going to go right away?”

“As soon as I can. I’m nervous already, and it’s only a couple seconds since I decided to do it.”

“Should I ready a transfer spell?”

Varthlokkur grew ghastly pale. “No!” To cover his over-response, he added, “I want to look at the world firsthand. Anyway, the whole transfer business disturbs me. As long ago as Shinsan, when I was helping one of my teachers with transfer research, I noticed some odd perturbations in the transfer stream. I think something lives in there. And it might be something we shouldn’t bother. It’s a fact that people have transferred and simply vanished forever.”

The Old Man had never heard Varthlokkur say a word about what he had done in Shinsan. He wanted to respect the wizard’s privacy, yet suffered from curiosity. “You’ve never said much about Shinsan…”

“The less said, the better.”

“What’s it like there? I’ve never been there, at least since Tuan Hoa established the Dread Empire. And the mirror can’t see in.”

“There’s a barrier against far-seeing. Otherwise, it’s a country like most. It has the regular natural furniture: hills, rivers, forests. Leaves are green there. The sky is blue. No matter what you hear, your senses won’t see any difference from the rest of the world. Only with your soul can you sense the all-pervading evil… Really, the less you know, the happier you’ll be.”

Nervously, finding Varthlokkur this expansive, the Old Man hazarded the question that had been bothering him since the beginning. “What did they cost, the skills you used against the Empire?”

Crimson, visible even in that dark chamber, crept into Varthlokkur’s neck. His face became grim. The Old Man feared the only result of his prying would be an angry outburst. He directed the conversation back toward safe waters. “You’re going the way you are?”

“What’s wrong with me?” A tiger with a broken tooth could have snarled no more fiercely.

“I kind of expected you’d make yourself young again, the way you did with Marya.”

“And what would Marya think? No. And Nepanthe would be terrified. No, old’s best for everyone.” The red began draining from his face. “When I’ve gone, don’t tell Marya where. No need to hurt her. She’s been a good wife. I may not be able to give her love, or another son, but I can save her pain.” Always after his anger fell and his conscience returned, he compensated with concern—though sometimes, as with Ilkazar and the piper (the new piper led the most pampered life of anyone in Fangdred), the concern came too late to prevent a terrible wrong.

“I’ll tell her something.”

Varthlokkur’s journey lasted more than a month. He had to cross some of the most primeval mountains, the Dragon’s Teeth and, after Shara and the plains of East Heatherland, the Kratchnodians. The weather was often miserable, with fogs, rains, snows, and winds that were never warm. The dangers of the forest seemed to have a special affinity for him, and bandits more than once dogged his trail. Farmers sometimes met him, a stranger, with weapons bare. The world had gone ragged since his youth. Anarchy had reigned after the fall of the stabilizing Empire of Ilkazar, but then local stability had set in—till the onset of the growing chaos of the present. Mighty forces were in contention, and complete chaos seemed destined to become the ruling order. He despaired, knowing the future only promised worse.

One day, wearily, he passed the end of a long, narrow defile in gray rock and saw Ravenkrak for the first time. As he emerged, the howling mountain gale ripped the clouds from a peak ahead. The mirror did the stronghold no justice. There were twelve tall towers, and decaying walls patched with silver stains of ice. Cold, lonely, and dark it was, like an anciently weathered skull. He also pictured it as a battered pewter crown for the rugged Candareen. He shivered with the loneliness the place inspired. What great madness had inspired the Imperial engineers to build a fortress here?

A man passed the open gate as Varthlokkur approached. He stopped, stared, hurriedly disappeared. He returned before the wizard arrived. “The Master awaits in the Great Hall,” he said, and, “Quiet, Demon,” to the falcon on his shoulder. “I’ll lead the way.”

Varthlokkur followed the gateman through starkly empty corridors. Experienced, the fortress was even more forlorn than Fangdred. There were people in Fangdred now, creating illusions of hominess. Ravenkrak lacked the illusions.

The Great Hall proved vast, empty, awaiting events that would fill it. Just a corner of an end was in use. There, before a huge, roaring fireplace, sat Verloya, the Master of Ravenkrak. His children were with him. All seven seemed variations on a common theme. Thin or heavy, short or tall, all were distorted reflections of their father.

“Sit down. Make yourself comfortable,” said Verloya. “I imagine it’s been a rough trip, there to here.” His eyebrows rose questioningly. Varthlokkur ignored the hint. Verloya continued, “I could hardly believe it when Birdman told me there was a stranger on the mountain. Ah!” A servant delivered mulled wine. Despite his determination to be a gentleman, Varthlokkur almost snatched his.

“Pardon me,” he said after gulping it. “It was a rough trip.”

“No apology necessary. I’ve been to Iwa Skolovda and back again several times. It’s a harrowing journey at its easiest. Ah. The mutton.”

Freshly baked trenchers arrived, too. Verloya carved a huge roast while servants brought additional bowls and platters, vegetables and sweetmeats, pitchers of hot wine, and ale. Then they seated themselves, too. All of Ravenkrak’s inhabitants fit at that one table before the fire, and left plenty of elbow room for a visiting sorcerer.

During the meal Varthlokkur asked after the Lady of the castle. He was referred to Nepanthe. who stared into her plate at the far end of the table. Later he learned that the second wife had disappeared, while he was traveling, carrying off a fortune, and had become a taboo subject. She had gone chasing impossible dreams of the sort that would one day complicate Nepanthe’s life.

Full, Varthlokkur pushed himself away from the table. Now he was ready to answer questions.

Verloya understood. He belched grandly, said, “Now, let’s talk—if you don’t mind. You’ll pardon me if I seem inquisitive. We get visitors so seldomly.” Without saying it, he gave the impression that visitors were seldom friendly. Reckless Iwa Skolovdans with a lust for making reputations considered Ravenkrak a prime challenge.

Tamil al Rahman, of the Inner Circle, Proconsul and Viceroy to Cis-Kratchnodia, the province that had included Iwa Skolovda when the Empire had held sway, had fled to Ravenkrak after the Fall. For generations his descendants had striven to give the Empire new life by bringing forth the embryonic life-spark enwombed in Ravenkrak. They had succeeded only in creating an enduring hatred between the stronghold and Iwa Skolovda. That city bore the shock of every mad attempt to revive a body so far gone it no longer had bones.

That barren, bitter castle, Ravenkrak, was all that remained of a dream. Ravenkrak, a handful of people, and an abiding hatred of Iwa Skolovda.

“I understand. Ask away.”

“Where are you from?”

Strange, his having asked that before a name. Varthlokkur shrugged. He had decided on complete honesty already. He replied, “Fangdred, in the Dragon’s Teeth.” His listeners shifted nervously. They knew the name.

“The Old Man of the Mountain?”

“No. A friend of his. You might say a partner.”

Another stir. They seemed well aware of the other dark name associated with Fangdred. Nepanthe shook. Varthlokkur was disappointed. He would have a grim struggle winning this one. She was as timid as a unicorn. However, right now, she was just one amongst the frightened. None of her family could conceal their fear.

“Varthlokkur?” Verloya whispered.

Varthlokkur nodded. Nepanthe shook even more. A scratchiness entered Verloya’s voice when he said, “You honor us.” Varthlokkur involuntarily turned to Nepanthe. He had to tear his eyes away. He had waited so long.

His glance was too much. She uttered a frightened cry, fled with the grace of a gazelle.

“The honor is something best discussed privately… Your daughter… What’s the matter?”

Verloya shook his head sadly. “Too much exposure to her stepmother. Excuse her, if you will.”

“Of course, of course. I am Varthlokkur. There’re legends about me. But there’s not much fact in them. Consider: What do they say about Storm Kings in Iwa Skolovda? Please, if I’ve offended the young lady, send my apologies.”

Verloya indicated one of his sons. “Tell Nepanthe to come beg pardon.”

“No. Please don’t. I’m sure it was my fault.”

“As you will. Boys, leave us talk.” Sons and servants alike moved to a distant table. “Now, sir, what can I do for you?”

“It’s ticklish, being whom I am. Are you familiar with the Thelelazar Functional Form of Boroba Thring’s Major Term Divination?”

“No. I’m almost totally ignorant of the Eastern systems. A Clinger Trans-Temporal Survey is the best I can manage. We’re rather minor wizards here, now, except for our ability with the Werewind.”

“Yes, a Clinger would do. What I want you to see is close enough, time-wise.”

“A divination brought you here?”

“In a sense. I’d rather demonstrate than explain. Do you mind?” He treated Verloya with all the politeness he could muster. The man was due for a shock.

“The best place would be the Lower Armories, then. Bring your things.”

An hour later, having taken it better than Varthlokkur had anticipated, Verloya said, “I can’t quite grasp this business of Fates and Norns. The whole mess looked like a chess game where the rules change after every move. It was crazy.”

“Quite.” Varthlokkur explained his theories once they had resumed seats before the fire in the Great Hall.

The wizard was uneasy and annoyed. There had been some new information this time. The divination had hinted that his old sins would catch him up.

Verloya, too, was troubled. He wasn’t pleased by his children’s role in the game.

Varthlokkur now suspected whither the thrust of his second great destruction would go. It hurt. And he knew it would change him again, perhaps as radically as had the destruction of Ilkazar.

They sat silently for ten minutes, each nursing his special disappointment. Finally, Varthlokkur remarked, “The divination hasn’t changed in two centuries.”

“I saw. I understood why you’re here. I can’t lie. I don’t like it. Yet I couldn’t change it if I wanted.

“You’ll have difficulties with her,” he continued. “Today’s behavior wasn’t untypical. In fact, I guess she must’ve been damned curious to stick around as long as she did. My fault, I guess. Should’ve put a lid on my wife’s nonsense back when. But I was too busy trying to make men of my sons. I didn’t take time to worry about Nepanthe… I’ll give you a reluctant blessing for whatever good you might do her. But that’s my limit. I just don’t like the bigger picture. I’d hoped I could teach the boys better. The Empire is dead.”

“Maybe if you used the Power…”

“I won’t use magic. I swore never to force anybody to do anything again. This’s no exception. It’ll be done without, or not at all.”

Having come to terms with the girl’s father, Varthlokkur began his long and seldom-rewarding effort to light a love-spark in the heart of a unicorn-girl. Occasionally it looked like he was about to break through. More often he appeared destined to inevitable failure. But he had learned patience in his centuries. He had time. Like the eroding waters of a river, he gradually wore the rock of Nepanthe’s fear. By the time she was nineteen she looked forward to his increasingly frequent visits, though she saw him more as a kindly philosophy teacher than as a potential lover. There would be no lovers for her, she believed.

He was sure she secretly wanted one. Sadly, she awaited a knight-charming from a jongleur’s tale, and in such men her world was painfully lacking.

Which was a pity. A world ought to have a few genuine good guys, and not just a spectrum of people running from bad to worse. Varthlokkur conceived of his world as being populated only by friends and enemies, without absolutes, with good and evil being strictly relative to his own position.

On Nepanthe’s twentieth birthday Varthlokkur proposed. At first she thought he was joking. When he declared he was serious, she fled. He hadn’t sown his seeds deeply enough. She refused to see him for a year. She hurt him terribly, but he refused to be daunted.

Though she eventually resumed speaking, she remained defensive and flighty, and tried to keep Valther nearby to protect the virtue she fancied threatened.

Verloya’s death caused her to relent. It was Varthlokkur who best comforted her at her father’s funeral. But the break in her defenses was in appearance only. She wasn’t going to let him get too near.

Then Varthlokkur suffered a loss of his own. Marya passed away during one of his increasingly short stays at Fangdred. He began to suspect that she had known what he was doing and had kept her peace. He honestly grieved at her passing. A better wife a man couldn’t have asked. Sometimes he wondered why he couldn’t be satisfied with the good things that did touch his life. There was no absolute, compelling force, outside himself, making him pursue the destinies he foresaw in his divinations. If he wished, and wanted to employ the will, he could become a simple farmer or sailmaker… He didn’t have the will. He believed that it was his duty to fulfill the destinies he had foreseen.

Nepanthe’s resistance remained like steel or adamant, wearing but never breaking. Six years later, when her brothers’ through-the-halls war games matured into plans for genuine conquests, she still hadn’t surrendered. She accepted him as part of her life. Maybe she even expected an eventual pairing. She had learned to be at ease with him again. But she refused to help the relationship to develop an affectionate scope.

Impatience undid Varthlokkur. One evening he proposed. As usual, Nepanthe put him off. The first of their great angry arguments ensued. Afterward, frustrated, he returned to Fangdred determined to pursue a course the Old Man had championed for years.

The Old Man. He might have been a mystery to himself. No man could keep in memory all the ages and events he had seen and heard and experienced. He barely felt he belonged to the realm of humankind. Lusts, loves, hatreds, agonies and joys, passions, what were those in the mill of time? Grist. Just grist for the grinding wheel. What remained of parents dead ten thousand years? Not even a memory, other than unspeakably archaic, alien names. Youth? He had never been young. Or so it seemed now. He had few memories of running joy, of a girl, and wildflowers and clover scents in spring (her name sometimes haunted his lonely dreams, and her face frequently came to him in his odd, brief, happy moments). His past was a corridor infinitely long, passing a million doors with memories shut up inside, all in old man’s shades of gray. The color had faded from present and future. The past dwindled back to the dark point where he had first encountered the Director. He missed that most, the brights, the scarlets, the greens, the blues, of mighty loves and aches and passions. He was the oldest man in the world.

Except one, though he thought his friend, the Star Rider, the Director, might well be dead. He had heard nothing from the man since the Nawami Crusades, a thousand years ago, though his handiwork appeared, in hints, in the background of the epic tale of the Fall.

Once the Old Man had wanted to live forever. But then he and the world had been young and he had loathed the thought of missing its future ages. Once when magic had been equally young and unbound, and he still had had the capacity for innovation, he had risked his soul and humanity to seize the immortality he owned. It was an irreversible Star Rider gift that exacted its cruel price in alienation and boredom and a debt he might never completely discharge.

There were times when he thought Death might be his own sweet angel of the morning (with a face like that of his love forgotten), a woman he would gladly embrace when She came. She would give him surcease from this world, where his days were undistinguished marchers in endless columns of sameness. Freedom She would be. Mother Night with a soft black womb wherein he could lie forever at peace…

But Her arms could be achieved easily. Why didn’t he jump off Fangdred’s wall? Because he also feared the Lady he desired. Nor could he yet tolerate the thought of a world without himself in it. That urge, that overwhelming compulsion, that had driven him to immortality, still burned undampened among the fires of his soul. He might miss something. But what, if he had lived all those ages and had become achingly bored by their historic march? If catastrophes and conquests and the finest artistic products of the human mind weren’t enough, what would suffice? To what did he look forward?

When he was in a dark mood, snappish, such were the thoughts he thought. He had no idea what he wanted anymore, nor did he search. He was content to wait till it came to him. Meanwhile, the habits of ages swept him onward. He wished for oblivion, and bent every effort to escape it. Ten thousand years had he lived; perhaps he would see ten thousand more.

And he did have his debts and obligations. There was interest to pay on the long life he had been loaned.

A vast map lay on the table in the gloomy room atop the Wind Tower. On its eastern borders were fangy marks representing the Dragon’s Teeth. At the top, more fangs: the Kratchnodians, and among them, the name Ravenkrak. Speckled across the middle, and tending south, were the names of cities and kingdoms: Iwa Skolovda, Dvar, Prost Kamenets, Itaskia, Greyfells, Mendalayas, Portsmouth, and a hundred more. Varthlokkur and the Old Man bent over them, considering the possibilities.

“Here,” said the Old Man, finger stabbing the Kratchnodians just above Iwa Skolovda. “The ideal base. The people, bandits all, have a grudge against the city. An able man, unswayed by tribal jealousies, could unite them into an army strong enough to take Iwa Skolovda by surprise, yet not strong enough to hold it. I think that’s essentially what you’ve got in mind. And what you need if they do put Nepanthe on the throne there. We’ll get her then, when they lose interest and turn to other conquests.”

“Fine, if we can catch her. She’s not stupid.” Though she tried to hide it, Varthlokkur had discovered in Nepanthe a brilliant intuitive mind. Where she was dullest she had, generally, intentionally blinded herself.

“Settled, then? We hire this bin Yousif and his people, and use them to isolate her at Iwa Skolovda?”

“I guess.” A premonition weighed heavily on him. It wouldn’t be as simple as the Old Man made it sound.

He ached with the approaching cruelty of his second great destruction. “Somehow, I don’t think it’ll work. I’ll end up fighting her brothers.”

The Old Man shrugged. “Blank shields are going begging. You could stomp up an army overnight.”

Varthlokkur had no taste for the trend of the Old Man’s thoughts. He had had his fill of armies and wars centuries ago.

“Well, they’ve got the Horn of the Star Rider now,” said the Old Man, his amazement barely under control.

Varthlokkur turned to the mirror, drawn more by his companion’s tone than the event itself. Somehow, Nepanthe’s brothers had managed to locate that elusive ancient, whose origins were more mystery-bound than those of the Old Man. Recently they had been stalking him through the westernmost reaches of the Kratchnodians. Now they had caught him unawares. It was an incredible coup. The Star Rider was far too old to be taken easily.

“They’re fools. All fools.” Bitterness. “One magical talisman won’t make them invincible. Not even the Windmjirnerhorn.”

The Horn in question had cornucopian attributes, though it didn’t much resemble the mythical horn of plenty. Properly manipulated, the Windmjirnerhorn would provide almost anything asked of it. For ages power-hungry men had tried, and sometimes managed, to steal it. But the Star Rider always stole it back—after greed had destroyed the original thieves.

Turran wanted the Horn as a source of wealth and stores for raising and supplying armies—armies that would never materialize because Turran would never learn to manipulate the Horn correctly. None of the thieves ever had. They always brought their dooms upon them before they did. “They’ll find out. Sticking their noses out in the world is just asking to get them bloodied. Ilkazar is still a bogeyman. Like me. And some Iwa Skolovdans still nurse bitter feelings about the Vice-Royalty.”

“Which’ll be useful to us.”

“True. Well, I’d better get on with it. Make my arrangements with bin Yousif. You’ll keep an eye on things?”

The Old Man followed events faithfully. He saw bin Yousif enter the foothills in the guise of a witch-doctor and begin his work. He saw Ragnarson enlist with and assume command of Turran’s mercenaries. He saw Mocker begin his slow trek toward Iwa Skolovda in the Saltimbanco avatar. He watched Haroun, insufficiently informed of the aims of his employer, send an agent to make sure Iwa Skolovda’s King was aware of Storm King intentions. Varthlokkur’s plot survived only because Turran was moving already. Then came the changes of fortune, the worst of which was Haroun’s failure to capture Nepanthe at Iwa Skolovda. But Varthlokkur had expected that. He already had an army gathering to move against Ravenkrak.

Then Ravenkrak didn’t fall. Ragnarson wouldn’t fulfill his contract. And bin Yousif refused to waste lives storming the place. Varthlokkur, impatiently directing the siege himself, angrily responded by taking a battalion around the Candareen to spend a month hacking a stairway up two thousand feet of cliff to attack the castle from behind…

Only to arrive and find that Haroun, by cunning, was getting his job done after all.

But the goal of it all, Nepanthe, was missing when the smoke cleared from the ruins of Varthlokkur’s second great destruction. On a snowy morning, after frantically casting spells among the countless dead, the wizard found her halfway down the mountain. He caught her and concealed her, and when the way was clear he set out for Fangdred. A month later, with a still furious Nepanthe in tow, he returned home.

The affair had been a fiasco. Nothing had been gained but death. Varthlokkur’s abandoned employees were in an uproar both over not having been paid, and over the abduction of Mocker’s wife. Several of Nepanthe’s brothers, with the Windmjirnerhorn and their storm-sending equipment, had evaded destruction and were loose, and driven by a bitter thirst for revenge. The wizard had captured his prize, but the matter was far from closed.

And Varthlokkur knew it. He had hardly returned, gotten Nepanthe installed in her new apartment, and had made his presence known when he summoned the Old Man to the Wind Tower. “The goal has been reached,” he mumbled. “She’s here. But I’ve left enough loose ends to tie into a rope to hang me.”

“‘A patch in a shroud to bury me,’” said the Old Man. Varthlokkur didn’t recognize the line immediately. It came from The Wizards of Ilkazar, from King Vilis’s final lament, spoken while he watched the very heart of the Empire dying around him. He had complained of his ruined estate and of how things were hemming him in. Especially Varthlokkur, the patch.

“I have to prepare. Silver and ebony, moonlight and night, these were ever mine. Do we have a craftsman who can make me silver bells? Here, here,” he said, digging a small, aged casket from clutter piled in a corner. Bits of dry earth fell to the floor when he opened it. Perhaps two dozen ancient silver coins lay within. “These. Make me bells of these, each marked with my thirteen signs.”

The Old Man did not, for a time, respond. He hadn’t ever seen Varthlokkur this way. His friend was overflowing with deeds and moods.

“And I’ll make the arrow myself.” He quickly scrounged a billet of ebony and a kit of small tools from the corner pile. He kept two silver coins from the old casket. “Go! Go! The bells. Get me the bells.” Mystified, the Old Man went.

Days later, he returned with the casket of bells. Varthlokkur was fletching an arrow at the time. It had a shaft of ebony. Its head was a coin hammered to a point. Silver from another coin had been inlaid into the shaft finely, in runes and cabalistic signs. “Here. Help me rig this.” The wizard had collected a strange pile of odds and ends on the table.

Following Varthlokkur’s instructions, the Old Man assembled a mobile of tiny, clapperless bells. They would ring off one another. The arrow turned lazily beneath them.

“My warning device,” Varthlokkur told him. “The bells will ring if someone comes after me, starting while he’s still fifty leagues away. They’ll ring louder when he gets closer. The arrow will point at him. And so it should be easy to find him and stop him.” He smiled, proud of his little creation.

It was a pity, the Old Man thought, that Varthlokkur was so single-minded about Nepanthe. Marriage had radicalized her. From a rabbit she had grown into a tigress. She was having no man but the one who had liberated her. That actor. That thief. That professional traitor.

Varthlokkur’s face, those days, often expressed his silent agony, over what he had done, over what he seemed to have lost. The Old Man tried to make Nepanthe understand when he wasn’t around.

She did, a little, but she was a strong-minded woman. As it had taken her ages to accept a man, so might it cost another decade to swing her affections around.

He shook his head sadly. The Director played a cruel game.

The Old Man abhorred pity in all its forms, yet he was forced to pity his friend Varthlokkur.

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