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Sixteen: Spring, 997 afe

Sixteen: Spring, 997 afe

For Love Is Strong as Death, Jealousy Is Cruel as the Grave

“I don’t understand,” Varthlokkur muttered. “He just won’t quit.” Behind him, like wind chimes, tiny silver bells tinkled endlessly, much louder now than in their first tentative speech of a week ago. The silver-chased arrow pointed unswervingly westward.

The Old Man, seated before the mirror, leaned forward. He felt totally alive as he studied the man crossing a glacier a hundred miles to their west. Off and on, since the first musical intimation of peril, he and Varthlokkur had come to watch the fool fight his way toward them. A strange, unswerving man, he, frightening in his tenacity. Nothing daunted him. Not foul weather, nor mountains, nor any of the small disasters with which Varthlokkur had tried to induce despair. Snowslides, landslides, fallen trees, washed-out roads, he made his way around or over them all with a patience that bespoke an absolute conviction of final victory. And, though he had traveled fewer than fifty miles this past week, he still rose each dawn and gamely challenged the Dragon’s Teeth till sundown. He might win the match out of sheer stubbornness.

“He’s mad,” said the Old Man. “He’ll keep on coming till he gets what he wants. Or dies. You should understand.”

“How so?”

“How many years to ruin Ilkazar?” And, in the back of his mind, the question still. And at what cost to yourself?

The wizard flinched, turned away. “Too many, all wasted. And it’s been Hell’s own hound on my trail ever since. Yes, I guess I understand. But for a woman?”

For what had he claimed vengeance on Ilkazar? A rhinoceros?

“He loves me!”

Both men turned. Nepanthe glared at them from the doorway, her face a mask of poorly controlled anger. Varthlokkur nodded. “Maybe so, though personally I’d bet on wounded pride.”

Nepanthe’s thoughts were obvious. Of course he was coming for love. Harsh events still hadn’t broken the grip romanticism had on her mind, though its hold had begun slipping. “You suppose? You’ll learn supposition when he gets here!”

But his remark had dampened her fire, Varthlokkur saw. “Nepanthe, Nepanthe, why can’t you be rational? Whether he kills me, or, as is more likely, I…” He let it trail off, saying instead, “Well, we don’t have to shout about it.”

“You’ve kidnapped me, separated me from my husband, and you want me to be grateful? You think I should be reasonable about it? Why don’t you be reasonable? Give me some winter clothes and let me go.” She had tried to escape twice already. Twice she had been intercepted and gently returned to her room. “I promise to keep him from killing you.”

Varthlokkur turned to hide his amusement. That was his due, wasn’t it? The wicked wizards of the romances always ended up spitted on a hero’s sword.

The Old Man, far from amused, assumed the argument. “You just won’t understand, will you? This man, Varthlokkur, has spent four centuries waiting for you. Four centuries! Why? Because the Fates themselves say you should be his. Yet you’d defy them for so insignificant a thing as this… this actor and thief. What is he? What can he do?”

“He can love me.”

“Can he? Does he? How much of that was for Varthlokkur’s pay? And Varthlokkur himself, is he incapable of loving you?”

“Can he love at all?” she demanded, though weakly. Her certainties were being undermined. Wicked doubt had begun to insinuate black tentacles through cracks in her bastions of faith. “The whole world knows what he is. The murderer of an entire city.”

Angry himself, the Old Man smiled cruelly and snapped, “Dvar!”

Nepanthe’s defiance wilted, folding in like a tulip blossom at nightfall. Ilkazar had been a city of antediluvian greed and wickedness. Any sense of justice had to agree that its doom hadn’t been undeserved. That wasn’t the case with Dvar, a little third-rate spear-carrier of a city, a mutual dependency of Iwa Skolovda and Prost Kamenets. Its single fame was a fierce, always-doomed devotion to the cause of its right to be mistress of its own affairs. Nepanthe, who had been so exhilarated the night that tiny state had been crushed, now shut up and dropped into a chair. She turned her back on the men.

The Old Man stared at her. She was near tears. He had touched an emotional canker. And, once again, he saw why both her husband and Varthlokkur found her attractive. She was beautiful, though loneliness and fear were stains on her loveliness. She had been bravely defiant since her arrival, loudly certain of her impending rescue, never admitting a doubt that her husband would come. But now, he suspected, she had begun to realize that her Mocker was challenging Varthlokkur. She had cause to be frightened. Still, he had to admire her. Her fear was for her husband, not for herself. He watched her massage her right temple, caught a glimpse of the crystal tear she wanted hidden.

Varthlokkur left the room. Mocker’s endless fight with the mountains had grown tedious.

The Old Man concentrated on the mirror, ignored the woman. Soon he heard the rustle of fabric. She stepped past him and stared into the mirror from close up. “Why’re you so harsh?” he asked.

“I should be thankful that he wrecked my home and killed my brothers?”

“And dragged you through the mountains like a common slave,” the Old Man interjected. “You made the point earlier. No, I don’t expect you to be happy. But I would like you to keep an open mind about why. And to contradict you on one score. Your brothers are still alive, except Luxos, who more or less committed suicide.”

“What? Why didn’t he tell me?”

“Desperation, maybe. He’s a great believer in destiny.”


“Consider: assume you’ve loved someone for centuries…”


“Love. Let me continue. Suppose you’ve been waiting for someone you love for three or four hundred years. Your husband, for instance. And, when that person, who had been promised you for so long, finally arrives, you get nothing but pain from him. Wouldn’t you try just about anything? Even a little cruelty? I’d bet that he hasn’t mentioned your brothers because he wants you to feel dependent. Like there’s no one else who cares. Why’d you reject him?”

“I’m married. And happy with the husband I have.” It wasn’t a considered answer. In fact, the Old Man had the feeling that her marriage was a miracle in which she still didn’t entirely believe.

“He courted you for twelve years before you ever met this Mocker. I wanted to know why you rejected him then.”

She shrugged. “I have to admit that he was a perfectly behaved suitor. And I liked him. As much as I could any man. He really did do a lot for me. He helped me understand myself. More than he’ll ever know. I was grateful for that. But he was so old. And his name was Varthlokkur. I always thought he wanted to use me, for my Power.”

“If he’d come to you young, with another name—what then? And, as to the Power, if he had wanted it, who was to stop him after his demonstration at Ilkazar? Have you no logic at all?”

“I don’t know… If he’d come young, maybe. But I had other problems…” She shrugged. Then with a forced laugh, “No one ever accused me of being logical.”

“Varthlokkur once had a servant who fell in love with him. For various reasons, he made himself young and married her. The point: he’s old by choice, not by necessity. And, despite whatever you’ve heard, or even have seen, he’s a kind, gentle man who abhors force and violence. Maybe it’s a reaction against the excesses of his youth. Tell me, has he ever treated you with anything less than kindness and respect?”

“He kidnapped me!”

The Old Man sighed. Full circle and back to that again. “Ignore that. That was my idea, and he did it under protest, for want of any better idea. Otherwise, he’d’ve gone on for years, mooning over you and getting nowhere.”



“I guess he treats me all right, but that’s a moot point now. I’m married.” She indicated the man in the mirror.

“Let’s discuss realities. Varthlokkur, for your sake, has held back. He hasn’t done anything but block the road. Sooner or later, though, he’ll have to do something. This creature you call a husband is going to be dead pretty soon—unless he gives up. Either way, that part of your life is over. I’ll take care of it myself, if Varthlokkur doesn’t have the will.”

“If you kill him, I’ll throw myself off the wall,” she replied softly. “If he turns back, I’ll cry a little before I jump. But he won’t give up.”

“Don’t be melodramatic,” the Old Man retorted. But the thing was, he thought her capable of keeping her promise. She was proving to be an incurable romantic.

Varthlokkur was tired. Tired of arguing with Nepanthe, tired of striving to maintain a grasp on Power that seemed to be waning, tired of battling the Fates or whatever malign forces were controlling his destiny. Most frustrating was the recent diminution of his control of the Power. Even his best-conceived experiments were sputtering. There were moments when he considered evading events by cocooning himself in the Old Man’s deep sleep. He also considered suicide, but only in that brief and quickly rejected fashion which is a universal experience. Neither death, nor the long sleep, would serve his purpose. Only for Nepanthe had he lived so long; he would have what he wanted.

He often paced the quiet loneliness of the Wind Tower, stretching himself on a rack of thought while searching for ways to reach Nepanthe. And he found ways, but rejected them because they ignored her consent. He wanted her to be aware, understanding, and accepting.

Mocker also troubled him. He could be rid of the pest with a single, smashing magical blow, but, for the sake of peace with Nepanthe, he held back. Still, he had to do something soon. Defend himself he must.

One afternoon he sat before the mirror, chin on fist, watching his enemy climb a mountain. He was sleepy-thoughtful, paying the mirror little heed. He drifted on a cloud of laziness. There was a mood on him, lethargic, and he felt better than he had in a long time. It was as if some off-the-scenes diplomat had arranged a brief truce with the Fates.

A soft sound. The door opened behind him. Still he didn’t turn. He would allow nothing to break his mood.

Light footsteps crossed the room, stopped behind him. Still he didn’t turn. His eyelids, suddenly unbearably heavy, closed. The footsteps moved to the mirror. He knew that Nepanthe was watching her husband. Here was another opportunity to present his case, but he refused it. He had no desire to sacrifice his mood on an altar of fruitless argument.

He heard the rustle of her dress as she settled into the Old Man’s chair, thought he could detect the faint whisper of her breathing. In a moment of euphoric wish-fulfillment, he tried to imagine that breath in his hair, against his shoulder, as he remembered Marya’s. Memories stirred. The face of the imagined lover became that of his wife, and he drifted off on a pleasant daydream. Guilt nibbled at the edge of his mind. He should have allowed her another child. But no. What was that saying the Old Man had? “Children are hostages to Fate.” Or to anyone able to lay hands on them.

Nepanthe’s soft cough brought him back. He cracked an eyelid, looked her way. She stared back nervously. “I don’t feel like arguing,” he said, closing the eye.

“I don’t want to either,” she replied, her voice sending chills down his spine. “I just want to know why you can’t let me go.”

“You see?” Varthlokkur said with a sigh. “Here’s one starting. I’ve told you why a hundred times, but you don’t hear me. If I tell you again, you’ll say it’s not so, and still want a reason. What’s the point? Go away and let me snooze, woman. Let me be a tired old man for a day.”

Nepanthe shifted in her chair, frowned. Briefly, she remembered what the Old Man had said, wondered about Varthlokkur’s looks as a young man. She suspected he would be quite handsome, hawkish, rather like that man bin Yousif. “All right,” she said. “For the sake of argument—oh, what a miserable choice of words!—we’ll say that you’ve told me the truth. What’re you planning to do?”

He opened both eyes, fixed her with his stare. She stared back as defiantly as ever. “What am I going to do? Do you really care?” A little sharp, that. “Nothing. I’ll just react. To you. To him.” Pointing to the mirror, “If he keeps coming, I’ll have to defend myself. Sometime soon now. As for you, time will decide.”

Nepanthe stirred nervously, stared at her husband. Her face paled a little. Varthlokkur assumed she was thinking of his Power.

“I don’t want to hurt anybody,” he continued. “But you two, by defying the Fates, are forcing me to. For you, the Fates and Norns bend. For me they’re inflexible.”

“The Fates! The Norns! That’s all I ever hear around here. Can’t you be honest? Blame things on yourself? You’re the one causing all the trouble.”

“See? There you go, just like I said. I tell you, I’m following a foreordained course. I must do what I do because I’m a pawn of Destiny. The sooner you realize that you’re one, too, the sooner we’ll finish this unpleasantness.”

“There’s no argument that can turn me away from him, she snapped. “He’s my husband. Nothing can change that. I won’t let it—and the Fates, or whatever, be damned.”

“Not even death?” Varthlokkur asked. “He’ll die in a day or two. For your sake I’ve given him time to think and back down. But pretty soon, if he’s still coming, I’ll stop him.”

“I’ll jump off the wall!”

“No you won’t. The divinations say you’ll live a long time yet.”

“Divinations! Mummery!”

Though his skills were in question, Varthlokkur was too tired to fight. Quietly, he responded, “Nepanthe, I’ve performed divinations for centuries and I haven’t yet seen one proven wrong. I’ve seen errors in interpretation, human errors, but never false predictions. Those old divinations are becoming reality today. You’re living at the impact point of an arrow of destiny loosed four hundred years ago. Believe it or not, whichever you want, but be warned. Sometime in the next few days you’ll make a decision the Fates have left to you alone. On it will hinge my future, yours, your husband’s, and possibly that of empires. Really. I’ve seen. When you decide, please, and I’ll beg on my knees if I have to to get you to do it, be cool and logical. For once, just this precious once, put emotion aside and think before you start talking.”

Nepanthe shuddered. There was enough strength in his tone to convince her that he believed what he had said. “What decision?”

“On my proposal.”

“How could that effect anybody but you and me and Mocker? Don’t give me any more of your smooth tongue. You already know my answer.”

“Do I? Do you? Maybe. But things change. Moment by moment. You might think it’s decided, but there’re days yet before it becomes irrevocable. I beg you, when the time comes, consider with your mind, not your heart.” That he hadn’t as yet shown her his necromantic arguments didn’t bother him. He had completely overlooked the fact that she didn’t know as much as he.

“I won’t be your woman.”

“Why not?”

“I’m married.”

Varthlokkur sighed. Round full circle and back to that pointless argument yet again. Piqued, he snapped, “You won’t be when I get rid of that cretin…” He groaned. The destroying, hurting madness was threatening to claim him again. He was afraid he wouldn’t be able to stop it.

“Touch him and I’ll kill you!”

He was startled. This was a different Nepanthe. Anger gave way to curiosity. He studied her face, searching for the truth behind her threat. Ah. She didn’t mean it. She was answering his spite with bluster of her own. “I doubt it.” And yet, it wasn’t impossible. Precautions would have to be taken. A sad business, this.

The Old Man, precariously supporting a silver tray on one hand, eased into the chamber. He frowned as sharp-as-sabers words sliced the air. They had started hurting one another again. “Does this have to go on all the time?” he asked. “The vitriol’s beginning to bore me. My father—ah, yes, I did have one, and you needn’t look so surprised—had a saying: ‘If you can’t say something nice, keep your damned mouth shut.’”

“It can stop anytime!” Nepanthe snapped. “Get this bearded lecher to let me go.”

“There must be some invisible barrier between you two. No common concepts, or something. Or maybe you just won’t listen to each other. I’ve got an idea.” The Old Man’s voice became like silk, like honey, like candy-covered daggers. “A way for him to get through to you, Nepanthe. I’ll work a spell on your mind. You’ll have to do what’s necessary.”

Varthlokkur flashed him a hot, angry look. Unperturbed, he smiled back wickedly, and the more so when he saw that Nepanthe had been shocked into silence. Numbly, she took a cup of wine from the tray. She asked Varthlokkur, “Could he do that?”

“Easily. And your opinion of your husband would become lower than mine. His touch would, literally, make you ill.”

She showed every evidence of terror. “What a wicked, horrible thing… Why haven’t you done it, then?”

“I wonder, too,” the Old Man growled. “It’d save a lot of trouble…”

“And I said that I don’t want a slave,” Varthlokkur snarled back. “I want a whole woman.”

“But you haven’t gotten the ghost of that, have you?” the Old Man asked with more false sweetness. “What you’re getting is heartaches from a bitch with a brick head… Damn! Now you’ve got me doing it!”

Varthlokkur and Nepanthe stood open-mouthed, shocked. The Old Man shook his head. He had just shown Nepanthe that their unity was little more than a facade anymore, that there were tensions growing between them. She might make little of that now, but later… Right now his words hurt, he suspected, more than anything Varthlokkur could have said. She gulped her wine, then hurried out. Her shoulders were slumped.

“A beautiful woman,” said the Old Man. “Loyal and spirited. I’m sorry. Frustration.”

“I understand. How often have I forced myself not to say the same things?” He visibly controlled his own anger. This as yet unbroached dissension between them had to be held in abeyance. The crisis was so close now… He would need even halfhearted allies.

“It might do her some good. Start her thinking. Who knows? There’s a proverb in my collection. It’s one of the oldest: ‘You can’t make omelets without breaking eggs.’ And speaking of eggs to crack, what’re we going to do about her husband? He’s getting too close.” A change of subject might direct both their frustrations into useful work.

“I don’t know. I don’t want to hurt her anymore… But I don’t have a hope while he’s alive, do I? Any ideas?”

“Ideas, yes. You might not like them. Without your problems, I see him with more detachment. I like to think. I’ve been planning. We’ve got a fellow here who’s magnificent with the crossbow. I talked to him yesterday. He’s willing to go down and pick this Mocker off whenever you give the word.”

“Well, it’s simple and straightforward.” Varthlokkur rubbed his forehead, thought for a long time, seeking alternatives. He seemed sadder, older, and wearier than the Old Man could remember. After a time he waved a hand and said, “All right, go ahead. Might as well get it over with.”

Varthlokkur and the Old Man watched their assassin take his position among boulders fifty miles to the west. “Does Nepanthe know?” Varthlokkur asked.

“The servants do. They’ll carry the tale. There aren’t any secrets around here.”

The wizard nodded tiredly, tried to concentrate on the mirror. The assassin, in camouflage white and gray, had disappeared amidst snow-speckled granite.

“Ah,” said the Old Man. “He’s coming.”

Far, Mocker rounded a corner of mountain a mile from assassin and ambush…

The door slammed against the wall behind them. Eyes red from weeping, distraught (déjà vu for Varthlokkur: he remembered another weeping woman, of long ago), Nepanthe rushed to the mirror. Her delicate hands folded over her mouth, fencing in a scream.

Varthlokkur turned to her, talons of emotion ripping his soul. She would hate him now. Tangled hair, tears in her eyes… How like the woman Smyrena…

“Now!” said the Old Man.

Varthlokkur’s attention jerked back to the mirror. He saw a slight movement where the assassin hid. Mocker staggered, fell. Nepanthe screamed. Then the fat man scuttled for cover. There was more movement in the rocks. A bolt flashed, but Mocker remained unharmed. Nepanthe laughed hysterically.

“I’ll be damned!” said the Old Man. “Well, he’s dead when he comes out, and he’ll have to sometime.”

“I doubt it,” Varthlokkur replied.


“Look up the mountain.”

An avalanche swept toward the arbalester.

Varthlokkur rose, paced. His whole frame slumped in defeat. Nothing was going right anymore. Even the simplest, non-magical projects guttered out as if a dozen pairs of hands were, at cross-purposes, trying to sabotage his every deed. What a hatred the Fates must have for him!

Nepanthe laughed madly, on and on. The Old Man studied her momentarily, then turned to the mirror. He frowned thoughtfully. He grimaced when Mocker scooted out of hiding and resumed walking warily, bow now in hand. The fat man wore a wicked, confident smile.

There was snow that evening, heavy, unseasonal. The road scaling the flank of El Kabar quickly grew too icy for use. Both Nepanthe and Varthlokkur walked Fangdred’s walls in the silence and peace of the snowfall, thinking, but didn’t meet. The Old Man, when first he heard of the snow, frowned and returned to the Wind Tower.

Much later, Varthlokkur also went to the tower. He was tired, so tired, in heart and mind and body. “Vanity of vanities,” he muttered repeatedly. “All is vanity and striving after wind.”

“Here,” said the Old Man as he entered the tower top chamber, offering a steaming mug exuding the foulest of odors. “This’ll perk you up.”

“Phew! Or kill me!” Varthlokkur stared at the mug momentarily, then gulped its contents. After several sincere, horrible faces, and a minute, he did indeed feel better. “What was that?”

“You won’t believe it, but I’ll tell you anyway. Nepanthe. The drink. You know, I wonder just how much foresight her father had, naming her that. She surely is a bitter draught, isn’t she?”

Varthlokkur smiled weakly. “What now? We can’t send another man out because of this snow. It’ll have to be sorcery. But I hate to try anything. My grasp of the Power has gotten so unreliable…”

“Another halfway measure? How about the thing called the Devil’s Hawk then? There’s a risk, though. The bird’s mortal. He could kill it. Want to try something a little more potent?”

“No, no demons. No djinn, no spirits. Once I could manage the nastiest of them, but now I don’t think I could handle an ordinary air or fire elemental. Don’t ever let Nepanthe know, but the concealment spell I used to get us away from Ravenkrak almost killed us. I don’t understand it. I’ve never had any trouble before. It’s just been the past couple of months. Yes, I guess it’s going to have to be something like the Devil’s Hawk.”

Dawn had brightened the eastern horizon before Varthlokkur gained a firm control of that monster (the Power had grown so elusive that he now had trouble managing magicks even as simple as this) and had brought it flapping darkly to roost atop the Wind Tower. Its twenty-foot black wings spread like pinions of night. Its bright golden eyes burned like doors into Hell. Legend said that the creature was the bastard of a hawk and a black ifrit, and thus it had attributes of both the mortal and Outer worlds.

Later, after he had studied the bird, manipulated it, had decided that it would serve his purpose, and he was about to send it off, Nepanthe came to the tower and silently seated herself before the mirror. She was unusually quiet. Perhaps she feared a sharp comment would cause another of the Old Man’s crushing outbursts. Varthlokkur took a moment to say, “I’d rather you weren’t here when…”

“You won’t stop him. I can feel it. I’ll see him cut your heart out.” Her voice was flinty. She seemed more self-certain, though no less frightened.

Varthlokkur frowned. “We’ll see, then.” He uttered the word that sent the Hawk along. The tower shuddered as great wings beat the air overhead. The wizard dropped into his usual chair, watched Mocker walk a ridgetop thirty miles from Fangdred.

The bird quickly arrived and began circling. Mocker saw its shadow, sped a futile shaft upward. The Old Man chuckled, then fell silent at a glance from Varthlokkur. The bird dove. Mocker cast his bow aside, readied his sword, stood his ground. Varthlokkur found himself forced to admire the man’s courage… The monster broke its plunge just short of the sword, glided away.

The bird dropped into a canyon, caught an updraft, climbed. Varthlokkur and the Old Man cursed softly. Nepanthe laughed like a delighted child.

Again the monster dove, this time from the sun. Mocker was momentarily blinded. Nepanthe’s laugh became a whisper when her husband threw forearm across his eyes. But, when the hawk was almost upon him, he crouched, dove aside, hurled his sword.

The huge bird hit the ridgetop, bounced, rolled, flopped fantastically as it went. Mocker was after it in an instant. At first opportunity he darted in and severed the huge head from the neck with his dagger, then jerked his rapier from the dark-as-midnight breast. He cleaned it on wing feathers and grinned.

So it was over almost as soon as it began, and that easily for the man. The Devil’s Hawk, with a reputation for murderous cunning almost equaling that of its namesake, had shown no resourcefulness at all. Indeed, it had acted with incredible stupidity, almost as if drugged… “Impossible!” Varthlokkur cried. His fears rose in a sudden flood. He jumped up, paced, muttered.

“Nepanthe, go somewhere else,” the Old Man snapped.

She left, silently except for a chuckle as she passed out the door.

The moment she was gone Varthlokkur wheeled, said, “He’s going to make it! I won’t be able to stop him!” Panic painted his features. He leaned forward, bent with the weight of his cares.

“You’re right!” the Old Man growled. “He will make it, if you keep on like that. Come on. We haven’t got time for defeatism. Let me show you why.” He muttered a simple incantation and shifted the attention of the mirror. “Last night, while you walked the wall, I did some snooping. I thought it was just a little bit strange that Mocker had such fantastic luck with our ambush. That first shot was right on the mark, but he wasn’t hurt. And that avalanche stretched my credulity for coincidence to the breaking point. And then there was the storm that sealed the gates. Just too damned convenient for him if we were going to send out somebody else.”

“What’re you getting at?”

“Just this: look!” the Old Man snapped, pointing.

Varthlokkur looked. There were five men, one a dwarf, centered in the mirror. Somewhere, in a tumbledown farmhouse, they huddled over a gleaming ball. They seemed terribly excited. Varthlokkur’s interest was instantly engaged. “Turran! Jerrad! And Valther and Brock. What?…”

“At a guess, I’d say they’re watching Mocker. They’re your answer to our remarkable weather.”

“I see!”

“While you’re at it, notice the little fellow.”

“Who? Oh. Who is he?”

The Old Man muttered another minor incantation. The scene vanished, was instantly replaced by another. “His name is Marco. He’s the apprentice of this man.” A thin, frightened person occupied the mirror. He bent over another crystal ball. Behind him stood a giant of a man. Varthlokkur recognized the latter immediately.


“Yes. I told you to keep an eye on him. The game couldn’t be played out with the fat man by himself. Picture their thoughts: point, you owe them money, in their opinions; point, they knew that you know they work with Mocker, and might assume this’s a team effort on their part—so, in self-defense, they’ve made it that. The thin man is Visigodred, a wizard of the Brotherhood’s Prime Circle. He caused the avalanche. And he provided the shield that kept the first quarrel from killing Mocker.

“A long time ago I enchanted this room to keep his likes from peeking in, but I couldn’t protect myself from eavesdroppers. I expect he’s listening right now, and he’s scared to death because we’ve found him out. Right, Visigodred?”

Visigodred nodded. The Old Man laughed, muttered another incantation. “Trapped him that time.” The mirror’s eye shifted to a dark, gloomy place.

“The other one,” said Varthlokkur. “Bin Yousif.”

“Uhm. And a sorcerer who lives in a cave beside the Seydar Sea, several hundred miles south of here. Name’s Zindahjira.”

Varthlokkur shuddered as he thought of the fury of a wizards’ war. “How powerful are they?”

“The Register lists both as Prime Circle. As good as they come in the west, excepting yourself. I hate to say I told you so…”

“Be my guest. I’ve earned it. Are they still listening?”

“I expect so. If not, they can when they want. Those crystals…”

“Have a definite weakness. Hand me the Yu Chan book, please.” He busied himself with his tools (with a sudden something definite to do, how much better, how much more real he felt), which included an instrument like a large, two-tined fork. He accepted the required book, asked, “Will you get a crystal from the stone cabinet? The amethyst I think.” He checked the book. “Yes, the amethyst. I thought I remembered this from my session with Lord Chin. There. All ready.” He sang a long, complex incantation from the book, struck the fork, touched a vibrating tine to the gem, said, “That should take care of their eavesdropping. To their devices Fangdred has become a black hole. Now what?”

“Hit back!”

“No. If they’re Prime Circle, they’ll have powerful defenses.”

“Not able to withstand you, though.”

“Perhaps not. But for long enough, what with my grip on the Power being so unreliable. While I was crushing them, Mocker would arrive. He’d do his work and save them. Though they might not realize that yet.”

“What do you plan?”

“Let me think, let me think. Oh, yes. First thing, we’ll ready our own defenses. Those two are scared. They’ll try hitting first and fast in hopes of catching us off guard. Once we have a solid shield, I’ll set up the Winterstorm. The uncertainty version. It’s still experimental, but I have a hunch I’ll soon find a new source of Power useful.”

“What do you want me to do?”

The two men, working in concert where the Old Man had the requisite knowledge, rapidly erected powerful shields around Fangdred. Just in time, too. The first attack came only moments after they finished.

The Old Man listened to the howl and groan and wondered just where he, and all this, fit into the Director’s current scheme. He had been awake for centuries now, and had only begun to discern the ragged edges, to sense the master’s butterfly touch in such probable preliminaries as the El Murid Wars.

Whatever, it would be bloody. They always were.

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