(By the way, if you’d prefer a non-locked PDF version of this story, please use this link.)
Every Dragon has its lair, every bird its nest;
the Shadow has only our hearts….
But we may as easily evict It as charge rent.
(Darthene Prosectics, 21)
Outside her dream it was winter, and night. But Sirronde wandered beyond the gates of dream, straying a long while among the golden landscapes of long-dead summers, until at last she came to the forges of evening. She stopped by the smithy door and looked into the smoky, dim-lit, lightning-smelling place, where in a pit banked deep with sunset fires a young woman was forging souls.
As Sirronde watched the woman reached into the pit, not with tongs but with her bare hand. She plucked out one soul that burned at white heat and began to beat it out on a cloud-gray anvil with a hammer wrought of thunder. A great shower of blue sparks went up as she worked the soul into the shape she needed. Some minutes passed before the woman glanced up at Sirronde. When she did, breathing hard, she smiled; but the smile was abstracted and brief. “I have a job for you,” she said.
Sirronde looked more carefully at the woman, and the sudden calm realization of dream came over her. This was not just any village smith in worn clothes and a stained leather apron. The braided hair held out of the young woman’s way with a leather band was darker than the ancient night before the stars were made; beneath the smooth, sweaty, heat-reddened brow, eyes blue as the blue Flame of Power gazed at Sirronde with a regard affectionate, and immeasurably powerful, and not quite sane. Sirronde bowed slightly, a careful, awed courtesy, for the Goddess in Her Maiden aspect is as mad as one must be to constantly create in a universe where one’s creations are quickly marred by death. “Lady and Queen,” Sirronde said, “after fifty winters spent in Your service, I thought my questing days were over.”
“You still have the Fire I gave you,” the Maiden said, picking up the soul She had been working on and thrusting it deep into the pit of sunset embers again.
“That’s so. But at my age I’m not as good a channel for it as I used to be….”
“I know,” the Maiden said. She wiped Her brow and gestured at the pit; the sunset fires blazed up burning white. “I need you to take a message for me.”
“Your servant,” said Sirronde, bowing again.
The Maiden was watching the fires of the forge pit with a critical eye. “The day after tomorrow, the Moon is dark,” She said, “and that day, about noontime, it eclipses the Sun as well. And that night of new Moon is Opening Night….”
Sirronde’s dream-calm began to give way to nervous foreboding. On Opening Night, the longest night of the year, the boundaries between worlds grew thin, and unquiet spirits walked abroad. Moondark, the most perilous time of any month, would make matters worse, lending the evil things strength. But an eclipse as well – this would be a day of triple dark, and on such a day all the powers of darkness are given into the hand of the Shadow. The Goddess’s old enemy would have the strength to do what It had tried again and again to do – destroy Her world, and the creations It hated most: humankind….
“Tomorrow morning,” the Maiden said, “go south. On foot.”
“South?” Sirronde was incredulous. “In this weather?”
The Maiden glanced at Sirronde as She took the white-hot soul out of the forge pit and laid it on the anvil again. Her look was mild.
“Sorry, my Lady,” Sirronde said. “Say on.”
The Maiden picked up Her hammer again. “Go south until you see what needs to be done. That’s all.”
“Uh – can’t You tell me a little more? You do know everything –”
“Yes,” the Maiden said wearily, keeping Her eyes on Her work as She started hammering again, “I do.”
Sirronde breathed out, both worried and intrigued, and tried one last time. “Will I be going alone?”
At that the Maiden paused and looked up, that absent, gentle look again, and Sirronde’s heart ached briefly with love for the contrasts of Her – the serene, divine beauty; the stubborn, human determination to create faster than the death She’d accidentally let into Her world could destroy. “Mother,” the Maiden said, “have you ever?”
“Daughter, now that You mention it, no. You’ve always been with me.”
The Maiden nodded. “Go well, then,” She said, and began hammering hard again, so that sparks flew thick as She smote the soul into shape on the anvil –
– and Sirronde woke up to a chill pale light inside her little house. Waking took a few moments; the vividness of dreaming true had always made mere physical reality seem rather thin afterward. She got out of bed with a blanket around her and went quickly across the hard dirt floor to the thick-glazed front window. On the small square of glass a delicate hand had etched fern feathers of frost to go with the new snowfall that lay outside. The roofs of the scattering of houses that made up Marrish village were thatched thick with it, and the fields were carpeted deep; whiteness stretched unbroken southward to the skirts of the mountains. Over everything lay a molten winter dawn, the east streaked with clouds iron gray below and blazing white above, as if in the fields of the morning Someone worked late at the forge.
Sirronde swore at her stiff joints, got dressed, found her haversack and started packing.
Marrish had one street, and even in cold weather most family fights seemed to take place in the middle of it. This one was no exception. “Mother, you’re too old for this!” Sirronde’s daughter Andric was shouting, while her husband Torve muttered agreement behind her. Of course I am, Sirronde thought, but wouldn’t say it. She reflected with rueful humor on how this scene must look to the neighbors peering through their windows; tall fair sharp-faced Andric waving her arms and yelling down at her little silver-haired sharp-faced mother – both of them bundled in furs like bears, one of them a bear on snowshoes with a pack and skis strapped to her back, and her old blackthorn Rod sheathed at her side. “I may be old, dear, hut I’m a Rodmistress,” Sirronde said. “When the Goddess calls, I go, and I do what She tells me with the Power She gave me.”
“But, Mother, at the bottom of the year? In the middle of the Dreadnights, on the eve of Opening Night almost, you’re going out into open country unprotected –”
Sirronde felt about stiffly for her Rod and drew it, then reached down inside her and called the Power up. The Fire came, rippling and flowing around the Rod that conducted it, spilling down onto the dirty ice of the street in a flamefall of brilliant blue. “Tell me I’m unprotected,” Sirronde said dryly, while under the pooling Fire the ice melted and grass began to grow. She did her best not to show that the small wreaking was causing her strain.
“Yes, Mother, but –”
Sirronde sighed. You’re working too hard, can’t some younger Rodmistress do it, you’ve earned a rest, let the Goddess ask someone else…. The argument was years old and would get a couple hours older if she let it. She had never been able to get Andric to understand how difficult it was to say no to the Goddess, Who never asked for help unless She needed it. “Andi,” Sirronde said, “if I’m not back before New Year’s, take an extra drink from the First Cup for me. And milk the cow while I’m gone, will you?” Then off she went, past her daughter and her son-in-love, past the staring neighbors. Where’s that crazy lady going this time! she heard one of them thinking. Sirronde chuckled; probably because of the general annoyance of being rousted out of her comfortable home into the cold, her underhearing was sharp this morning. Lady grant it stays that way – I may need it. She walked off the end of the village’s single street into the fields, heading southward toward the places where no one lived, toward the southern edge of the maps of Darthen, the Highpeaks.
She struck the snowy road leading southeast to Orsvier and Hard Shielings, scuffing along less briskly than she wished – her joints, full of the stiffening-ague of age, were twanging in protest at being made to move so early in the day. These days not even her Fire could do much about the old familiar pain, but she didn’t dwell on that just now. She never did tell me what the message was, Sirronde thought. I wish I knew what I was supposed to do…. In her younger days she had eagerly sought out the Shadow, facing It down in many forms: earthquake and flood, forest fire and plague, monsters, demons, sometimes men – but never before in a situation where It had so many of the advantages. The foreboding feeling of the dream crept over her again as she thought of the lovely face averted from her, the tired voice with so little to say. And why me? Why now, when I’m long past my prime, when it’s all I can do to call up enough Fire to cure dried-up cows and melt ice? Why has She chosen a weapon that will probably break in Her hand? What’s going to be asked of me?
No answers came, and Sirronde kept walking, gazing up at the mountain wall, gray and white and shadow-blue, that reared up before her a third of the way to the zenith. The mountains of the Highpeaks’ Archie range were old friends, innocent, savage, much beloved. They had killed men, but Sirronde still called them by name and thought them beautiful. Erchamë, Dikhála with her two peaks, red-shouldered Sespe, Rodochroun, low-hunched Blackmount, Aglaurë, Wiren – Two days’ walk will bring me to the feet of them easily – the Shadow’s country, on the Shadow’s night. And then what? Do I stand there at the edge of the world and yell insults until It hears me?
She stopped in an aspen dell for nunch, brushing off a boulder to sit on, and ate a cold meal of trailcake and spiced wine among the slim white trunks and branches, listening to the hiss and rattle of the last few yellow shreds of leaf as the south wind worried them off the trees. The dappled cloud cover of the morning was giving way to heavier stuff, a silver-gray overcast pregnant with storm. “You might keep it from snowing, at least,” Sirronde said reproachfully to the sky. The sky, indifferent, grew darker.
“Oh, well,” Sirronde said, and got up, stretching. Hard Shielings was five miles down the road; she would make it there by the time darkness fell and have a hot dinner at the Tartaret and Block…. She picked up her staff and turned toward the road, and a motion off to one side caught her attention.
From beside the base of a triple-trunked aspen, a small blot of darkness took a clumsy-delicate step toward her and paused. Sirronde stared. It was a kitten, a bedraggled gray-and-black tabby kitten with wild, wide eyes, and bumps under its fur, visibly ribs. It looked at Sirronde, silent for a second, and then opened its mouth as if to meow or speak, but no sound came out. It made no other move.
Sirronde thought immediately of two things – of the chicken breast in her food wallet, which she had been saving for tomorrow, and of the terrible pride of cats, even the very young ones. She nodded the kitten courtesy, sat carefully back down on the boulder and unslung her wallet. “I hadn’t thought to meet with company so far from town,” she said, getting out the chicken breast. “Doubtless you’ve already eaten, but perhaps you’d consider taking traveler’s hospitality with me, just for the form of things….”
She waited. The kitten stared at Sirronde, blinking, and finally came slowly toward her, floundering through the drifted snow with what dignity it could manage. It jumped up on the boulder, looked hard at her again, then crouched down and began to bolt the pieces of chicken she had already shredded for it, almost choking in its haste. Sirronde nibbled an occasional bit of the meat, just for the form of things, and looked at her guest with concern. Four months old, or maybe more. But so thin! Did he go astray from a wild litter? Or maybe he’s from Hard Shielings, and got lost –
She waited, and the kitten finished his chicken, then sat up and washed himself most carefully before looking up at Sirronde again out of big green-golden eyes. “Thank you,” he said in a small, dry, calm voice.
“You’re welcome. I’m heading for the Tartaret at the Shielings, to stay the night; would you care to come with me?”
“All right,” the kitten said, and climbed up Sirronde’s arm to settle in her hood.
“Off we go, then.” She packed up her wallet again, picked up her staff and made for the road.
The kitten said nothing for the rest of the day, except to grumble a bit when the snow began toward nightfall. It crawled inside Sirronde’s coat while she did on her skis and raced the snowstorm down to the lighted windows of Hard Shielings town in its little vale.
The Tartaret and Block was the largest building in the thirty-house village, being both inn and town hall as well as home of the innkeeper’s great-family – three marriages and various grandparents, children, grandchildren, cousins, aunts, uncles and hangers-on. Sirronde was spotted in the inn yard by several of the children as she was taking off her skis. By the time he got them racked and was heading for the door, Poole the innkeeper was there, talking, hugging her and helping her out of her furs, all at once. He was a tall, angular man, built narrow and strong, balding on top but with a radiant smile that was the envy of people with more hair. “I told my wives,” he was saying, “I told them, you watch, even if we didn’t send, I bet Sirronde’ll show up anyway –”
“You were right as usual,” she said, reaching into her coat for the kitten. “What happened? Your still break down again?”
Poole grimaced. “The last batch of starfire came out tasting like hellfire instead. If you’d have a look at it –”
“I’d better. I have to drink the stuff, don’t I?” She let him draw her into the inn’s common room, full of children shouting at some game, adults talking and laughing, warm fireglow from three hearths. “The still first,” she said, handing Poole the kitten and her coat, “then supper and beer for me. And bring a mouse for my friend.”
“We’re out of mice,” Poole said, looking down bemused at the kitten. “The roast beef is good, though.”
“Fine. Make him milk the cow for you,” Sirronde called to the kitten as Poole carried him away.
Sirronde made her way back to the kitchen and there spent most of an hour using the Fire to clean scale out of the still’s copper tubing while surrounded by an audience of children demanding that she summon up the Goddess, make it snow more, bring Dai’s dead rat back to life, make the stew pot fall on Tathë’s mother, do a real magic! “This is real magic,” Sirronde said sedately, peering up into the still’s innards, “and it is snowing more.” There was an immediate rush for the windows, followed by noisy celebration and praise of Sirronde’s powers. As Sirronde got up and wiped the sweat of exertion off her face, she threw a glance at the ceiling, in the general direction of the creator of snowstorms and frosty artwork on windowpanes. After this bit of work, I doubt I could start it snowing even with the weather the way it is. Thanks for getting me off the spot!
Sirronde went back out to the common room after being handed a plate with more beef and white beans on it than she could have eaten in a week. She found the kitten lolling on the hearth, licking itself luxuriously after a surfeit of the same beef. Sirronde sat down at a nearby table, and Poole came by with a couple of pots of beer and sat down to keep her company. He chatted with aimless amiability about local business and local gossip, and Sirronde listened with half an ear, as she knew he meant her to, while she looked around the room at Poole’s family and the inn’s guests. Not many outsiders here tonight. Well, it’s unlucky to journey during the Dreadnights, and even people safe at home are nervous till the New Year comes. Though they do get noisier, livelier, as if they’re trying to distract themselves from the long darkness, the cold at the bottom of the year…. That one’s certainly being lively enough – She found herself looking across the room at a young man ensconced in an armchair by the furthest hearth. Curly-haired and fair he was, with an animated, graceful manner and oddly vague blue eyes. He was talking with many smiles and gestures to one of the local farmers, telling a story perhaps; this big! he seemed to be saying, as he stretched arms out and bounced in his chair to emphasize a point. He was a pleasant and amusing sight, but in the back of Sirronde’s head a silent jangling had begun, her Rodmistress’s instinct for something slightly off, something slightly odd. “Poole,” she said abruptly, interrupting her friend in the middle of an anecdote about someone’s brood sow, “who’s that blondish fellow in the corner there? The one who can’t stop smiling.”
“Oh, Tav.” Poole chuckled. “He came in from Orsvier a couple nights ago – he’s a traveller, he says. I get the feeling he doesn’t quite know where he’s going next. But he’s certainly been some interesting places, to hear him talk….”
“I’ll be back,” she said, patting Poole’s arm as she got up. There was an empty chair by that far hearth, in the chimney corner, behind Tav’s and just to one side. She slipped into it unnoticed with her beer and sat drinking and listening.
The young man didn’t have much of a traveler’s look about him – he was slim and spare and looked as if he could be broken between two hands like an arrow shaft – but he was a fine storyteller, voluble and clever, with a talent for small details. “Tell about the Holding of the Eorlhowe!” one young girl listening said, and Tav recounted the tale as if he had been with the Dragons that day two thousand years before. One could clearly see the returned Dark creeping like a blight across the Middle Kingdoms, hear the desperate last song of the Dragons clouded about the Howe, the equally desperate cry of M’athwinn of the Worldfinder’s line as she arrowed into the deadly Dark for the sake of her still-shelled hatchlings. “Tell Bluepeak!” someone else said, and Tav told it as if he had fought there himself under Lion or Eagle and seen the Transformation in which men sacrificed their mortality to become gods.
Sirronde barely noticed the wind moaning in the chimney or the kitten’s jump into her lap; she was fascinated, and still troubled by that warning jangle that wouldn’t give her peace. Tav told whatever tale was demanded of him, easily. He remembered Raela and Beorgan and the Five Who Loved as if he had journeyed with them to the Lost Mere or the Morrowfane or Dragons’ Onolí. “But where have you been yourself?” said the young girl, and Tav smiled and told them, no less volubly. Then it was that Sirronde began to understand what had been alarming her undermind, for Tav spoke of hunting Fyrd and other minor demons on the plains of Steldin; of climbing Mount Adínë high enough to see the shattered Skybridge, and Glasscastle at its end; of taking ship from North Arlen and glimpsing the Isles of the North from a moonlit deck, hearing the singing that comes out over the Sea on summer nights. The tales covered a great deal of journeying into unlikely and perilous place — more, perhaps, than so young a man could manage. Again Tav spoke easily and with animation, but the laughs and looks of his listeners were becoming hollow, those of people who would like to believe a story but can’t quite.
Sirronde sat still as the tales grew more and more fantastic, and one by one Tav’s listeners began to slip away, smiling, still hollowly. At last the one remaining farmer excused himself because of the lateness of the hour and went away. Tav sat alone, unmoving. Slowly his face slackened, turned blank and weary, a look Sirronde doubted he meant anyone to see. After a time he reached down and rested one hand against the hilt of a long straightsword that leaned sheathed against his chair – an absent gesture, not affectionate but propitiatory, as if encouraging the sword to lie quiet. He took a long drink of beer.
“That’s a fine sword you have there,” Sirronde said, very quietly. Startled, Tav almost dropped his beer-pot. He glanced around and saw her, and the smile leaped back onto his face as if she had frightened it there.
“Thank you,” he said in a light, pleasant tenor. “Would you like to see it?” Sirronde nodded, and courteously, with care, Tav drew about a span’s worth of steel from the scabbard and handed the whole business to Sirronde.
She tried to keep her eyes from going too unfocused as she called up the Fire from within her and ran it invisibly up and down the blade. Oh dear …as I thought. This blade has never killed anything. It’s hardly ever been drawn – and it’s been out of the forge for seven or eight years. So about nine-tenths of the stories he’s been telling about himself are – She handed the sword back. “Tav, your name is?”
He nodded. “If I might ask…”
“Sirronde,” she said, and leaned across to touch hands with him. His glance lighted on her sheathed Rod, about which blue tongues of the Flame wound lazily, and his eyes widened.
“You live here, lady?” Tav said.
“Up in Marrish.”
“What brings you out at this time of year, in this weather?”
She was wondering how to begin her answer when the night spoke for her. The wind outside, already gusting uneasily, grew in the space of a few breaths to alarming wildness. Down that wind from high above came blowing a frightening storm of voices – men and women crying out in awful anguish, tortured screams of loss and rage and pain, mixed with agonized yappings and snarlings and a great rush of wingbeats. The blast and the terrible cries stooped from the heights to hurtle over the roofs of Hard Shielings and shake the inn. Shutters clapped, shingles tore away, the front door rattled frantically between its jambs. All the lamps and candles flickered, their flames crouching low, and one fire flattened and drowned in a sudden wash of cold air down its flue. Tav sat frozen-faced, only his eyes alive with fear. Sirronde stared at the kitten, who stared back; they both knew what they heard. This is no simple little task I’ve been sent on, Sirronde thought in horror. The Hunt is up! Even if I were young and in my prime I couldn’t –
The screaming and howling went on and on; the wind buffeted the inn with unseen blows. No one moved. At last a horn snarled somewhere above, and slowly the horrible cries began to fade, tumbling away on the wind. Finally the wind itself gusted down to a last few gasps of exhaustion and died. A deathly silence remained, broken shortly by the sound of crying children, frightened parents hushing them, many people getting up as quietly as they could and going hurriedly to bed.
Sirronde swallowed to get her voice working again. She was afraid, but something else was working in her, too. After one dreams true, there’s rarely such a thing as a chance meeting. There’s some reason this boy-man has come to my attention. “That brings me out,” she said as steadily as she could. “Since you’re a stranger in these parts, you may not know what that outcry was.” She knew he did – the tale was famous – but she wanted to see Tav’s reaction. “The Shadow –”
Tav’s mouth went tight and he drew an aroint-sign with one hand, but Sirronde didn’t echo it. There was no use her trying to avoid the Dark One’s notice.
“– the Shadow takes many forms, but in the mountain country in wintertime. It rides as the Hunter, the Master of the Wild Hunt. In that form He hunts down human souls, and those He catches, those who have let His part of them grow too strong, those souls He keeps. You heard them. They ride with Him forever, in torment, unable to rest – dead, but so bound to Him that they can’t pass the Door into Starlight. I’m on quest for the Lady, Tav. The Shadow will do the world a mischief on Opening Night, if He can – and since He’s riding as Hunter just now, it’s in that form I must seek Him. And confront Him, try to stop Him….”
She swallowed again. It was hard to say so casually something she had just realized herself. Tav, across from her, looked exquisitely uneasy. When he spoke his face worked as if the upcoming words were what he had to say, not what he wanted to. “Must you do this alone?”
Sirronde shrugged. “Company wasn’t forbidden me. But it seems foolish. Anyone who goes up against the Shadow is courting death. Or likely something worse.”
“Well… Perhaps, if it pleased you… I might go with you.” The words came out in a rush. “Two are safer than one, in this weather, and the south country has other dangers than, than just that … I’m sure you could use a swordsman….”
“I certainly could,” said Sirronde. Then, No, no, no! she thought fiercely. Take this poor frightened child with his tall tales into the grasp of the Master of Lies? “But this is life-or-death danger, Tav. I can’t let you –”
“Certainly you can.”
“No, I –” She stopped again. Will I be going alone? her memory said, and Have you ever? came the answer. Is She sending me help? An odd sort – but if She’ll use a flawed weapon like me, who am I to scruple about another? “Very well,” Sirronde said, and Tav’s face went slack with surprise. “If you’re sure…”
“Yes, of course,” Tav said, and No, what have you gotten yourself into! yelled his undermind, loudly enough for Sirronde to hear. She ignored the clamour and her own desire to order him to stay here, and looked down at the kitten. “What about you?” she said.
The kitten glanced at the ceiling. “That was just the One Who kills for sport,” he said, his small voice scornful. “I’ll go with you.”
Reluctant, Sirronde nodded. “First light in the morning, then, we leave. You have skis?” she said to Tav. “Good. You’re sure about this now? You say you’ve handled Fyrd and demons and such, but this game is bigger –”
“I’ll be there,” Tav said, calm with terror.
Sirronde nodded and got up to go to bed, being careful not to start shuddering until she was up the stairs and out of sight. Mad, I’m mad. Of course, so is She. I just hope one of us knows what we’re doing…
They set out into a morning illuminated by that peculiar omnidirectional sheen of dawn over open snowy country. Not much forest remained this close to the great peaks; the dells of the undulating country sheltered occasional stands of fir or white pine, their branches weighed down or breaking under snow. Tav chose to be their pathfinder through this country, and. Sirronde noted gratefully through the morning and afternoon that he was good at it, as well as good on his skis. He was considerate of her need for a pace slower than his best, but sometimes he would shoot ahead, as if looking at Sirronde made him nervous. When she caught up again, his face always wore that smile, bright, defensive, with meaning sheathed in it like a knife. Probably, she thought, he thinks I’m reading his mind… as if I have the strength to do that while skiing all out! Or else he’s having regrets. The kitten, huddled in her hood, was holding its silence almost obstinately. And what’s going to happen to this one, I don’t know. Why a four-month-old kitten would choose to head into the heart of winter on what it must know is a fool’s errand where we’re probably all going to get –
The boulder seemed to jump right up under her skis, and Sirronde couldn’t avoid it in time. She went flying sideways and splatted into the snow. Just before she hit, the kitten jumped ship and came down splayed beside her like a small furry hand. She sat up groggily. The kitten threw a deadly look at her and started washing furiously.
Tav whooshed up beside them, stopping in a shower of snow. “Looks like we found that river we have to cross,” he said. “Are you all right?”
Sirronde reached Tav a hand, and he helped her up. “Nothing broken,” she said, brushing herself off. “But my friend here got a bit ruffled –”
Tav groaned. Or at first Sirronde thought he did, but then realized that he was staring at the river, where the ice had suddenly begun groaning tremendously, cracking thunderously, heaving upward. “Tav, don’t look!” Sirronde shouted, and for safety’s sake hooked one ski out from under him so he sprawled face down in the snow. She drew her Rod and hurriedly shook the Fire through it, down it, out, careless of the pain so sudden an activation was causing her. Blue Flame poured down like water to the snow and pooled there. The kitten, startled, prudently leaped to hide behind Tav. In the river, foot-thick ice slabs cracked and slid ponderously over one another as something pale and shiny started to bulge up from underneath them. Sirronde whipped the Rod once around her head, flinging Fire in a circle around herself and Tav and the kitten. She closed the circle just as the white basilisk’s head broke surface and its eyes fixed full on them.
Sirronde stood straight, holding her Rod at the ready. All around them, where the basilisk’s glance fell, she could hear snow crackling as it instantly crusted over. Where the smoke of her breath drifted outside the circle, it fell suddenly to the snow in a glitter of frost crystals. Muted shattering sounds came from a lone fir behind them, now completely glazed in thick ice and breaking under its weight.
Tav sat up, spitting snow. “Can I look?”
“You’ll throw up,” Sirronde said. Tav looked, then turned his face away and began to cough. The basilisk’s huge lizardish body wasn’t so bad, scaled above and plated below in a dirty, slick, pitted white like new brine-ice. But its pallid face was that of a monstrous child who has died in pain, and its eyes were frozen to milky marbles by the power that blasted through them. The thing’s jaw munched and mumbled horribly, as if in senile anticipation of a meal or memory of the last one. “Die,” the basilisk said in a thick cold voice, drooling icicles that cracked and fell as it spoke.
“No indeed,” Sirronde said, desperately trying to ignore the sound of Tav being ill. If she should succumb to her own nausea and lose control of the Fire, the basilisk’s power could strike them all three to ice. Even now she was having a hard time keeping the circle firm; she hadn’t needed to call up this much Fire for anything in years.
“Die!” the basilisk said again, and stared harder, rearing itself up on the riverbank on crooked front limbs. Where it stepped the snow froze solid on the instant, and all around them Sirronde could feel the air go still with a new cold, one that burned at her controlling mind. Her thinking started to numb. Completing one thought and starting another was an effort like walking into an icy wind. Not even the Flame could –
Alarm shocked through Sirronde and brought her fully aware just a second before her own conviction that the Fire was useless would have pulled it in and left them all unprotected. She poured the Flame out harder, till the Rod in her hand shone like a star and the snow blazed blue all around with Fire that forced the thought-cold back.
“Die!” the basilisk said again, striking in with a third attack, a different cold. You will die alone and unloved, Sirronde’s own mind said to her in chilly certainty. She had never wed, had always lived alone; the dim freezing anguish took root too readily. No arms to hold you, no heart to hold your secrets safe, alone forever –
The burning of her tears and the more terrible burning of the cold breaking through her circle came together. Enraged and terrified, Sirronde lifted her Rod and slashed the air in front of her, striking the basilisk’s power aside with a long whip of Flame that cracked across its face. Wincing and blinking, the basilisk ducked back, cowed now that its best effort had failed. “Go back to your lair,” Sirronde said, gasping, “and tell your Master when you see It that we’ll die when our Lady pleases, no sooner. Meantime I have defeated you here, and by right of Power I bind you in your lair for seven years’ time, not to come out by day or night or twilight, by dusk or dawn. Now go!” She lashed at it again, and the basilisk tried to shy out of range; but the Fire found its mark, coiled like a collar and sank into the frigid flesh, setting the binding deep. Snarling with rage but impotent now, the basilisk turned and lumbered back into the riverbed, burrowed down among the shattered ice cakes and was gone.
Tav sat up weakly, scrubbing at his face with snow. When she saw he was all right, Sirronde put out her circle, staggered away several yards and was sick herself. Too old for this, too old, I told You! she cried out silently, bent double with more than mere nausea. She had done no wreaking this large for years, and her nerves, overloaded by the sudden intense Fireflow, were roasting her with phantom pains. But after a while the agony passed, leaving Sirronde confused and disturbed by the odd exhilaration she felt and wondering whether this was how Poole’s still had felt after she reamed the scale out of it. She got up and went back to her companions, who were both staring at her – the kitten with calm approval, Tav with unease and fear. “Come on,” Sirronde said, “we’ve still got a long way to go, and that was meant to slow us up. I’d rather it didn’t. Are you all right now?”
“Slow us up?”
Sirronde bent with some difficulty to check the binding on one of her skis. “Tav, that was sent from upriver, from the mountains, to meet us here. If there was a basilisk’s lair anywhere around here, I’d know about it. That’s my business. This was a test to see what kind of power we’re bringing to our meeting with its Master –”
Tav gulped. “He – It knows we’re…”
He trailed off into a dry-mouthed silence. “He,” Sirronde said. “It takes male form as the Hunter. Of course He knows. The Shadow’s in you as much as the Goddess is: He’s Her child, He partakes of Her nature. What you know, He knows. We’re fighting gods here, Tav. If you want to turn back…”
He stared at her shakily for a few moments and made no answer except to ski off eastward along the broken watercourse, looking for a place to cross.
Sirronde bent down to pick up the kitten. “How are you?”
“We’ll stop in a while.”
The kitten curled itself up in her hood, unconcerned. All the rest of the day Tav skied hard, seeming to have lost his concern for Sirronde’s old age after seeing what she did to the basilisk. Or maybe something else was on his mind, for he skied like a man running from something that pursues him rather than one hurrying into fear to get it over with.
In late afternoon they ran into wild snow, fluffy unpacked stuff that blew stinging on the gusting wind and slowed them much more effectively than the basilisk had. Finally they stopped for dinner in a narrow coomb between two hills running east and west, taking what cold comfort they could find with their backs to three close-clumped firs. Out of sight over snowy rises to the west, the declining Sun lay wrapped in a bank of cottony silver cirrus. Tav and Sirronde sat on rocks and ate, watching a small colony of bouncemice who had burrowed up through the snow to get seeds from the last pinecones dropped by the trees. The mice were fearless of people, and any number of white-flagged tails were leaping about the copse after their owners. Sirronde glanced at the kitten, who was watching them with interest but no enjoyment. “Hunting looks good around here,” she said. “Why not go fetch some dinner?”
The kitten stared at one mouse as it vanished down a hole. “I don’t hunt,” he said in a tone of voice calculated to make anyone believe he had no desire to do so, ever. But Sirronde’s underhearing was abnormally alive after the brush with the basilisk, so that she clearly heard a great thorny burden of fear and longing under the words. Not that he doesn’t hunt. He doesn’t know how – or doesn’t dare – or both. Curious, she sought briefly behind the fear and caught a few swift murky images, complex and obscure as feline imageries tended to be, but fairly intelligible. First the sight of something twitching, then the image bobbled wildly with the kitten’s playful pounce. But delight fled as the tantalizing something turned abruptly into a great menacing shape that leaped at her; too big! too big! – the dog, its teeth tearing her, anguish, intolerable, no –
Sirronde shuddered, taking some pains to turn the gesture into a shrug. “Well, I’m full for the moment,” she said, putting her dinner of trailcake aside. “Care for an exercise?”
“Exercise…” For the first time the kitten sounded unsure.
Sirronde unsheathed her Rod and closed her eyes for a moment, searching for the memory she needed. “This kind,” she said, and called up the Fire, first running it through the Rod to focus it, then back through her mind to the pattern she had wrought for Andric’s amusement when she was very small. It’s been a long time, I don’t know if I can – but memory proved stronger than her misgivings, and the Fire stronger than both. She fell through its blueness, momentarily blinded, a short fall ending in a frightening crash and the sound of a small heart that raced. Terrible sensations of compactness and dense fur devoured her. Then they weren’t terrible anymore but normal. She looked up at the kitten and Tav from the mouse body, blinking jet-bead eyes, and would have laughed at the look on Tav’s face if she could have remembered how.
“You, uh,” he said.
(I used to be pretty good at shapechange,) she said to him with the speech of the mind, keeping to herself her surprise at how good she still was. (Come on, my friend. Come hunt.)
The kitten stared at her, not moving except for his tail, which twitched. “I don’t want to hurt you –”
(You probably will, the first couple of times, but that’s what practice is for. Soon enough you’ll learn to kill a mouse so fast it won’t know it’s dead till it’s past the last Door.)
The kitten looked skeptical and tucked himself into a small rounded shape on the boulder. “I’m not interested,” he said.
(As you like. But don’t blame me when all the other cats tease you for eating grass like an ox.
She bounced out of her pile of cast-off clothes and began leaping about in the snow, testing the spring built into the body and revelling in it, meanwhile taking care not to look at the kitten at all. The attack she was expecting took about three minutes to occur, and it was clumsy. The kitten went for the white flag at the tail’s end, doubtless what the Goddess had designed the flag for. With her tail still in the kitten’s mouth, Sirronde did something she had once seen a desperate bouncer do to a wolf that was trying to catch it alive – she twisted around and leaped straight at the kitten’s face, Shocked, he dropped her tail, and she jumped away, making the noisy chittering that passes for laughter among bouncers. (I’ve maligned the whole race of oxen! Even a cow could do better than that – )
No cat likes to be laughed at, especially by a mouse. The kitten spent the next half hour learning that mere energetic kittenish rage may be good for catching string and leaves, but for live game, skill is necessary. When his teeth finally met at the back of Sirronde’s neck and he flipped her over to begin kicking her insides out, (Good!) she said. In utter surprise at the praise, he dropped her again. (Bite the throat first, the next time,) she said. (I’m going to get back in my own shape now.)
The kitten, too worked up to just stop, scuttled off through the snow and vanished under the fir trees. (Turn your back, would you, Tav?) she said, taking human form again and dressing very hurriedly.
When she sat down and started gnawing at her trailcake again, Tav looked over at Sirronde with great discomfort. “That basilisk this afternoon –”
“Ugly, wasn’t it. My appetite’s off too.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
She kept quiet and went on eating.
“I… haven’t really had that much experience with this… this kind of thing….” His voice came hard, and Tav squirmed. Sirronde restrained herself from squirming in sympathy and said nothing.
“I didn’t even draw on it; I could’ve done that much –”
“To an ice basilisk? You’d have made a pretty statue with your sword in your hand. Heroic.” She kept eating, refusing to see what he was driving at until he came right out and said it.
There was a long pause. “Dammit, Sirronde,” Tav said at last in a voice rich with self-hatred, “I’ve never drawn on anything!” He gasped after the last word, like someone struggling for air at the end of a race, and turned his face away.
“I know,” Sirronde said.
Incredulous, Tav stared at her. “But you didn’t…”
She went on with her eating.
He looked away again, spending a few moments gazing at the western sky, where the clouds had begun to show golden undersides. “I would’ve told you the truth if you’d asked me,” he said finally, low and shamed.
Sirronde nodded. “But should people have to go around asking each other if they’re telling the truth? Why the lies, Tav?”
Another long silence fell. Then Tav stammered one by one through several false starts, veering away from new lies each time, though not by much. Sirronde sighed; only the knowledge that she knew his weakness was keeping him honest. “I’m… oh Dark. I’m alone. And I’m scared. And I found out awhile back that if you seem like more than you are, people let you be.”
“They certainly do…. Rut, Tav, you weren’t always alone. Your family –”
“I might as well have been alone,” Tav said, bitter. For that moment his mind was unveiled, and Sirronde got a glimpse of a hard-faced father who intimidated his son into telling the truth about wrongs done and then beat him for truth told – or so it seemed to the son. No wonder he lies, Sirronde thought. For so long it was the only may to keep the pain from happening. “You ran away, then.”
“I even stole his sword when I left,” Tav said with the weary air of a surrendered criminal confessing everything, not caring any more about penalties. “Not that I have the slightest idea how to use it. But then neither did he…”
Sirronde went back to finishing her dinner. Tav stared at her, anger and loathing and confusion chasing one another across his face as he awaited condemnation, scorn, punishment. Sirronde said nothing.
“I suppose you’ll get rid of me now and go back to the Shielings for a real swordsman,” Tav said at last.
Sirronde looked at him calmly. “I knew what I was getting when you offered to travel with me. And besides, there’s no time to go back. Tomorrow the Sun eclipses, and tomorrow night is Opening Night. We go forward. Oh dear –” This last was for the kitten, which reappeared around the bole of one of the fir trees, proudly carrying in its mouth the torn-off tail of one of the bouncemice. Tav glanced off to one side, ostensibly to admire the reddening sunset, and wisely didn’t laugh. “Not much meat on that,” Sirronde said, “but not bad for a beginner. Eat up; we have to make a few more miles before we stop for the night. And next time, remember, go for the throat.”
By the time they set out again the Sun was almost gone. It set swiftly, as if in a hurry to get out of the sky. The burning clouds went out, their fire quenched in dusk; the stars shone through them only fitfully, and the Moon, so close to its dark, was in hiding. The prospect southward levelled out into a long, rising plateau reaching up to the feet of the mountains. Sirronde and Tav went on over the deep snow without pause, trying to make use of the twilight before the night went completely black. But the wind was in their faces, and they barely made the few miles Sirronde wanted before the uphill course exhausted them.
“The snow’s well packed here,’” Sirronde gasped. “We can make a shelter before we get stiff. Get that sword out and we’ll cut blocks.”
They worked in haste in the dark, like confused burglars bricking up a wall instead of breaking through it, bumping into each other and laughing under their breaths. But Sirronde lost her laughter as the wind began to rise. The wind itself she had expected, but the voices she could faintly hear crying down it were arriving too soon. The worst fate a traveller could face was about to come upon them. Caught out in the middle of nowhere, far from any protecting hearth or threshold, armed only with Fire. And not even the Fire could –
Sirronde swore. “Let that go, Tav,” she said, and he turned to her in confusion from the gap he was sealing up in the snow wall. “We’re about to have company. If you’ve got to speak, speak fair and be polite, but unless you’ve got something really good to say, try to keep quiet….” She drew her Rod and kindled it bright.
“What’s the –” Once again the night answered one of Tav’s questions. Down the wailing wind came a savage and exultant howling, first one voice alone, then many more as the quarry was sighted and the chase begun. Under the voices, the horn that heralds death growled deep, calling the other riders to the hunt. Tav stood motionless, ashen, the sword shaking in his hand.
The Hunt came about them like blown leaves, roaring down from the black sky on the back of the bitter south wind. The riders were many, fifty or a hundred or two hundred shapes made indistinct by darkness, mounted on steeds twisted like the basilisk, but winged and horribly fleet. Most ringed them round above, treading air; many came to ground and surrounded Tav and Sirronde and the kitten there, though not too closely. They seemed reluctant to get too close to her Rod, perhaps because its light found no reflection in their eyes and cast no shadows behind them. Just at the edge of the circle of blue light the riders milled, shouting, laughing terribly, brandishing vague weapons, spurring their steeds till they screamed. The steeds were frightful creatures, parodies of living beasts, but no more terrible than the empty-eyed dead who rode them. men and women whose humanity was forced out of their faces by the darkness to which they had relinquished themselves. Hounds of all sorts and a few hunting cats ran with them, for the beasts of those taken by the Hunt follow their masters faithfully into torment, coursing new game with them and sharing their pain, though not fully understanding it. In the middle of the whirlwind of dark wings and anguish, Sirronde stood erect with Tav and the kitten, the Rod blazing in her hand, and waited. After a short eternity of screaming, the airborne hunters began to beat frantically to one side and the other. Those on the ground ceased their threats and waving of phantom spears to look up, fearful, adoring and hating.
The Hunter came to ground in a rush of wind and darkness, and paced leisurely over to where the three stood. His mount, a huge, winged black tiger reined with iron chains and bitted with the thighbone of a man, fretted at the bit and glared hungrily at Sirronde, but she ignored it. On its back loomed the Shadow in the shape of a great dark man in huntsman’s dress, lean and powerful and menacing but inhumanly handsome, wearing a young face with treacherously gentle eyes in it. He was consciously radiating malice, watching Sirronde with open contempt to see what she would do.
I can be contemptuous too, Sirronde thought. It’ll probably amuse Him. “So, dark Lord,” she said as casually as she might have to a neighbor met on the street in the morning, “what are You hunting tonight?”
There was feverish, unpleasant mirth among the riders. “The usual,” said the Shadow, in a voice that sounded like a shark’s smile, as He leaned on His saddlebow and gazed down at Sirronde. “But the sport is poor. The game won’t run.”
Sirronde allowed a twist of amusement to show on her face. “What a shame.”
“Indeed. I might ask why you’ve taken your aching bones so far from human habitations at this dangerous time of year….”
“I am on errantry,” Sirronde said, “and You know Who for.” The riders muttered among themselves. A faint vertical line of frown indented itself between the Hunter’s eyes, turning that young face less young, more perilous. “Tonight, though,” Sirronde said, as if undaunted, “I’m in no great hurry. I would bid You to dinner, but having neither house nor hold here, nor food to feed so many guests, perhaps You’ll take the intent for the deed….”
He laughed, and all the riders laughed with Him, a fearful sound. “Human creatures rarely offer Me hospitality so readily,” the Shadow said. “I shall return the favor. Come guest with Me tomorrow eve, Sirronde. I have a small feast preparing.”
“Certainly, dark Lord, we shall be honored. Of course we shall demand full guestright from You, and parting gifts suitable to our rank….”
“Demand?” the Hunter said, soft-voiced. His eyes on Sirronde were gentle no Longer; they pierced like black ice. The dead all around smiled anticipatory smiles.
Sirronde swallowed. “In the Name of the First Loved,” she said, “yes, I so demand.”
The Shadow froze silent. “In that Name,” He said at last, slow and reluctant and angry, “in that Name, very well. And well for you that you invoked it. Not that parting gifts should be expensive… for whatever rank an old woman, a young liar and a half-starved mouse might possess….”
The kitten, crouching in Sirronde’s hood and peering nervously over her shoulder, began to bristle, but said nothing. Tav beside her was still as a hare that has stumbled into a hounds’ parliament. “Doubtless the expense will be small,” Sirronde said, straining to sound offhand. “Where are we feasting, Lord?”
“Blackmount,” the Hunter said, “at midnight. I trust you will be prompt.”
“We’ll be there.”
The Shadow hauled back on His reins. The tiger reared back, spreading its wings and fighting the air with its claws, as its rider unsheathed the pale blade that always runs blood and saluted Sirronde with it.
She stood straight and returned the salute with her Rod, a quick insolent up-and-down gesture that left a lingering trail of Fire on the air between them. The light of it caught darkly in the Shadow’s eyes. He looked away as if pained by it and spurred the tiger. Up it went in a cold blast of wind, and the rest of the Hunt whirled after, crying louder than storm, beating away southward toward the desolate Peaks.
Sirronde waited until they were out of sight and hearing, then sat down in the snow and let her teeth begin to chatter. In her hood the kitten was washing frantically. “‘Just the One Who hunts for sport,’ eh?” she said to him. “Are you all right?”
The kitten paused, fixing her with a dark, oblique look. “Being alone again would be worse,” he said, and went back to his washing.
She had no answer for that. Behind her, Tav still had not moved. “He – He,” Tav said, and his voice got stuck in his throat. “He could just have taken us – “
“No, He couldn’t.” Sirronde hid her face in her hands. There was no escaping the terror of the Shadow, though it might be briefly postponed. “He can’t touch those on the Goddess’s errantry unless they give themselves over to Him willingly.”
“And you did! If we’re His guests, then He can –” Tav sat down too, more an involuntary reaction than otherwise. “Oh, dear Mother of Everything –”
“It’s the only way,” Sirronde said, unsure which of them she was reassuring. “There’s no way to win against that one except on His terms. On His ground, a victory will be complete.”
Tav exploded. “Are you crazy? You know the stories as well as I do! Béorgan, Earn and Héalhra at Bluepeak, Bron who fought all the way through an army of demons with his bare hands so he’d have virgin steel to use on Him – what good did it do any of them? You either die of meddling with Him, or if you happen by some wild chance to kill Him, He doesn’t stay dead, He just comes back after a while!” Tav snorted. “‘Victory!’ ”
“Of course you can’t kill Him for good. The best we can do is slow Him down. Not even the Goddess can do better until this world dies and She makes a new one. But for now, slowing Him down until the next time is enough. So, yes, ‘victory.’ We have to do what we can, Tav!”
“And what about defeat?”
“I hope you’re a good rider,” Sirronde said more quietly. “Eternity is a long time to be in the saddle.”
“…He was the Goddess’s son, and She gave Him the First Loved to share Himself with, forever …but jealousy came upon Him, and He slew the Loved.” Sirronde paused between strokes of her ski poles to wipe tears out of her eyes; it was a windy morning. “Think past the legend, Tav. He killed His loved, but His love lives on – if there’s a worse torment than that, I can’t think of it. Since then He goes about the worlds venting his rage on everything that still lives and loves, on all the Goddess’s works. He blames Her for everything. Had the Maiden not let death into the world, so He thinks, none of this would have happened….”
Tav, skiing beside her, shook his head. “He really believes that?”
“It’s the lie He tells Himself to make eternity bearable. And so He’s become the Master of Lies, of all the untruths we tell ourselves. Beware what you see and hear at the feasting, Tav. He’ll tell your own lies back to you; they’re the ones you’re most likely to believe….”
They came to the top of another rise and paused for breath. “There you are,” Sirronde said. “Nine miles, maybe ten.” The kitten poked his head up out of her hood to look with them at the southern vista. The eclipse was well along toward totality, and the snowfields slanting up to the skirts of the mountains wore a yellowish taint under the strange, dull, brassy day. Erchamë and the other great peaks reared halfway up the sky like the walls of the world, but right now height was their only splendor; despite new cloaks of snow they looked dull and dingy. Between Erchamë’s great north-reaching spurs crouched Blackmount, low and craggy, a blunted pyramid shape like an ancient burial mound. Its dark stone wore only a sheath of melt-ice, and the dimmed sunlight shone from it harshly, a dark-hearted, hurting brightness.
“Some place for a feast,” Tav said. “I don’t know what we can possibly do that’ll keep Him there till dawn –”
“Exploit our guestright. He has to let us eat undisturbed… tell our tales without being interrupted. Past that –” Sirronde shrugged. “Amuse Him. Provoke Him. Occupy Him with something He can’t ignore. We’ll have to judge the situation, and improvise….”
“Sirronde,” Tav said, quiet and worried. “I told you, I’m no hero.”
Far away, silent, a soft-looking sheet-mass of white bulged away from the west side of the Erchame massif and slid lazily downward. A breath later the faint, ruinous mutter of the avalanche drifted to them through the glassy air. “Afraid of failing?” Sirronde said. “Haven’t learned anything from all those stories you know, have you, Tav? No one will beat you if you mess this up. There may be no one left.”
Tav looked over his shoulder, back the way they had come, and wouldn’t meet Sirronde’s gaze. “What the –” he said.
She looked where he did. Sweeping upslope from the northwest, long parallel bands — shadowy waves of a tide of darkness — were running at them over the dull-lit snowy lowlands. Above them the sky was deepening suddenly into twilight, an abnormal and uncanny violet-blue, threatening as a storm. Tav glanced toward the Sun. “Don’t,” Sirronde said quickly. “When the Shadow has enough power to put out the Lady’s light, the sight can strike you blind. Come on….”
She pushed off the top of the rise, poling hard. Tav came after. One by one the brightest stars of summer came out, still and strange above the snow; and finally, against the cold, black-violet sky, the pearly brilliance of the Sun’s revealed soul flared and struggled from behind the darkness that had eaten the light. Tav and Sirronde raced to the next shallow rise, over it and down, not looking back, and in broad noon the night followed them.
They came under Blackmount shortly before midnight, and saw they were expected. Above the Mount, balefires flickered; murky, reddish lights like strayed auroras, twisting and wrinkling about the scarps and steeples of the mountain.
“Well, Tav?” Sirronde said as they took their skis off. “Last chance to turn back.”
“And leave a kitten and a lady old enough to be my mother alone at the back of nowhere on Opening Night, sitting on the Shadow’s doorstep waiting to get killed? I may be a coward, but I’m not a dastard.”
“You’re no coward, Tav. Watch your lies,” Sirronde said with hidden satisfaction. “If you lie under His roof, you’re His forever.”
“Mmmf. What about you?”
“You mean, how do I feel?” She glanced up at the Mount and shivered. “Tired… scared. And burnt out. I’ve used too much Fire in the past couple days. Still –” She unsheathed her Rod, wondering at the brightness of the Fire wreathing about it. It had been years since she’d seen it burn so fiercely. And I thought I was getting old. Is this all I needed – a large wreaking or two, a dose of fear to fan the Flame back to the old heat? Why didn’t I do this sooner instead of taking the Loss for granted, instead of settling into cleaning stills and curing dried-up cows?
“We’d better get going,” Tav said. “We’re going to be late for dinner.”
Blackmount reached down the slope toward the travellers with two long, craggy arms of stone. Where the arms met at the mountain’s root, they made a rude, dark archway, unillumined by the balefires that seethed and poured like fog elsewhere on the mountain. Toward the blind stone of the archway Sirronde and Tav walked, side by side, the kitten peering out of Sirronde’s hood as usual. As they got closer they began to hear voices – those of the Wild Hunt’s doomed riders, singing in crooked harmonies, talking in bitter accents, all muffled as if sealed in stone. Likewise muffled came the sounds of furious feasting; plates and goblets clattered, and warped musicians played agonized instruments out of tune. Right up to the rough, unbroken mountain face Tav and Sirronde went, and there they waited, but nothing happened. No one came to greet them or show them a way in.
“Doorward!” Sirronde shouted. The noise of feasting only got louder.
No response, and the racket within the Mount grew incredible, as if giants feasted there – or someone who preferred that the dinner guests remain seemingly unnoticed outside, and thus forfeit their souls for breaking a commitment to the Shadow.
“All right,” Sirronde said, “He wants me to use up some Power, fine….” She raised her Rod and called up the Fire, recklessly demanding more even than she had used on the basilisk. Too obedient, it blasted up through her in harrowing intensity, and Sirronde slashed at the wall, her pain coiling with the Fire into a blazing lash that cracked against the stone with a deafening clap like thunder. Black rock exploded inward as if lightning stricken. Sirronde stood gasping a moment, aware of sudden silence and many hate-filled eyes staring from inside the Mount, as Tav moved to hand her across the threshold in courtly fashion.
Within the hollow Mount the Hunt sat feasting and carousing at many stone tables, the feasters and their food and drink lit in ghastly yellow-green or bloody red by balefires writhing from sconces and candlesticks and clinging to the walls. “Good evening,” Sirronde said loudly. “Rude, locking the dinner guests out in the cold like that. Perhaps the host will add to the rudeness by sending some lackey to escort us to our places?”
The unwholesome laughter of the lost went up as a stately figure stepped toward them from a high table at the Mount’s heart. It was the Shadow, not in the rough garb of the Master of the Hunt, but darkly resplendent in sable and midnight velvet and black dragonhide sapphires, wearing a crown of obsidian and jet steel. “Your places are prepared,” He said, and led them to the center table, seating them on either side of Him. No king’s table could have been better laid; it was crowded with rich dishes and bright wines, and the plate was solid diamond. “To you, my guests,” the Shadow said, raising a goblet of glass and iron to pledge them.
Sirronde’s glance crossed with Tav’s as they lifted their cups to return the courtesy. “Libation first,” Sirronde said. “To Our Lady of the Dark Moon, present though unseen…” She poured out first drops on the floor, a quick splash, and then peered down at the abruptly smoking puddle. “Dear me,” she said, “the wine seems to be dissolving the flagstones. Dark Lord, does Your hospitality include serving Your guests venom and man’s-flesh?” For at her invocation the fair seeming had fallen away from the dishes and decanters on the table. Tav and the kitten, who had crept out of Sirronde’s hood to sit by him, were studiously avoiding looking at them. “I had thought better of You. What need to stoop to trickery, Lord? You have us safe enough; we came in willingly.” And inside Sirronde, hope stirred. Can it be He’s afraid?
The Shadow gazed at Sirronde, unsmiling, a look worse than drawn steel. “I see I’ll have to stand on particulars,” Sirronde said. “In our case guestright must be construed to mean food and drink that are safe for us, and diversions that won’t secretly imperil our souls. I say secretly –” She paused while the Shadow’s face smoothed as He considered the loophole, the potential entertainment she was offering. “And by the way, You must keep time running the same in the Mount as it is outside. No use our walking out at the feast’s end to find that a hundred years have passed and our loved ones are all dead –”
A flicker of anger stirred in the dark eyes. “You are importunate, Sirronde. And too knowledgeable for your own good.”
“I am careful, dark Lord. One who has the Power and ignores legends is usually destined to become one. Now then, our food?”
The Shadow clapped His hands, and some of the Hunt came and went as servitors, clearing the table and bringing new dishes. The new food was good, and hot, and Tav and Sirronde fell to eagerly. The kitten absconded with a breast of pheasant from Tav’s plate and sat crunching it on the damask tablecloth, favouring the Shadow all the time it ate with the contemptuously friendly glare of a cat who knows it’s in front of someone who hates cats. Sirronde’s heart rose at the sight. He is afraid of us. The little one there knows. Maybe – just maybe…
Dinner took awhile; Tav and Sirronde were leisurely about eating. When the dishes were removed at last, the Shadow leaned back in His chair with a cup of the black mead spoken of in old lore, the kind brewed from heart’s-blood and honey. “Perhaps now our guests will entertain us with tales,” He said, courteous and mocking.
“I’ll do that,” Tav said, so suddenly that he seemed to startle himself with his own words.
Sirronde swallowed, nervous for his sake as the room fell silent to hear. Then she swallowed again, nervous for a different reason; for Tav leaned back as calm as if he were sitting in the Tartaret and Block and began telling the old story of Jarrin’s Debt, of the young actor who tricked the Shadow out of overturning the world in fire and storm a thousand years before. He told it well, so that it seemed Jarrin’s voice and not Tav’s that rang out: “I wager I could act a role so well, not even You could make me break character!” – and so he had, acting death the best way, by dying for real and leaving the outraged Shadow oathbound to keep His word. No stirring went through the hall under the Mount when Tav was done, and the Shadow was gazing at him with that drawn-steel look; but Tav went on as if unheeding, even smiling a bit. He told the tale of Béorgan, who opened the Morrowfane Gate and entered the Otherworlds to slay the Shadow in vengeance for her mother’s death; he told of Raela Way-Opener, who met the Shadow at the Door into Starlight when He tried to close it against the souls of the dead, and who cast Him seven worlds away, so that it took Him seven years to find His way back. He told of Ferrigan and her traveling companion the Pooka, who met the Shadow as Torturer; he told of Éarn and Healhra, who met Him as the Gnorn. He told of Enra and Ostig and Bron, and many others, and Tav’s voice grew hoarse, but he told on and on, despite the Shadow’s steadily blackening looks. Every tale he told had their host at the heart of it, and in every tale, He failed. Tav would not stop, even when his voice had worn down to a whisper; but in the middle of the tale about the thief who stole the Shadow’s crown, it gave out completely. No amount of wine drinking would restore it, and Tav looked desperately over at Sirronde. I tried, the look said.
She could do little more than smile sad pride at him, for he had used up a great deal of time. Sirronde turned then to the Shadow, daring those dark and wrathful eyes.
“And what have you to say for yourself?” the Shadow said, His voice tightly controlled.
“I thought perhaps I would inquire what Your plans are for after the feast,” Sirronde said.
A terrible smile crossed His face, showing a mere tithe of the anger to which Tav’s genteel taunting had provoked Him. “Fire and storm were the limit of My agreement with Jarrin,” He said. “I never said anything about water. I think tomorrow morning these mountains will be the shore of the Sea, and the Middle Kingdoms will be its bottom.”
“Not this time,” Sirronde said, and swallowed hard, recognizing in her words the message the Goddess had wished delivered. “We will stop You.”
“Certainly you will try,” the Shadow said, that smile growing more terrible. “You challenge Me?”
“We challenge You.”
“Then as challenged I have the right to determine the style of combat.” He sounded peremptory now, His earlier leisure gone. It must be getting near dawn, Sirronde thought. “I will offer the two of you three combats. Three times you must meet Me, and three times defeat Me, and if you do that, then I will let the world be – for a while. One defeat, of either of you, and you are all Mine. Even the mouse here.” He smiled at the kitten, who sat up straight and stared back, disdaining to bristle this time.
“That’s hardly fair,” Sirronde said.
“The heroes of whom your young friend told didn’t say that sort of thing,” the Shadow said. “Rut they were great powers, and you are not, so I suppose it’s understandable. Do you accept?”
Sirronde looked over at Tav.
“Yes,” he whispered.
“Let it begin, then,” she said.
The Shadow rose. Tables and chairs and all but a few balefires vanished. Sirronde and Tav and the kitten were alone in the midst of a great darkness. Not an empty one: the balefire flickers picked out here a glassy eye, there the hilt of a bloodied weapon, among those of the Hunt who stood circled round to watch.
“You will be first, Sirronde,” said their host’s voice, huge in the darkness.
“Very well,” she said, and almost jumped at the feel of a touch from behind. But it was Tav’s hand on her shoulder, gripping, saying what his voice couldn’t. “Thanks,” she whispered, and drew her Rod, kindling it.
Its light was answered from across the circle of the dead. Another light, blue also, slowly dawned and began to flow about a pair of great hands. The light spread, and Sirronde’s throat constricted, for it was the Fire. But not hot white at its heart, as her Flame was. The vivid blueness shaded to an eye-hurting black, the core of a malign Fire that sucked light instead of giving it. She gave Him the Flame, too, at the beginning of things, Sirronde thought, fighting her panic; life’s Power, the power most like Her own. But this is what He wields now, what His hatred has made of it – The silence became oppressive, dreadful, as the deathly Firelight grew. Her foe stood cloaked. in it, clothed in it, beautiful of form but burning with malice. His blaze of darkness, His sheer scorn of her puny light, smote Sirronde to the heart. She staggered back a step, raising her Rod and kindling it brighter, pushing the Fire through it past the pain the effort caused her, past her terror.
“You are old, Sirronde,” the voice said, the voice of earthquake and avalanche, irresistible. “And you laid the Power aside except for little wreakings a long time ago – for what? To spare yourself, to postpone your burnout and live a little longer?” Mockery rang in the Shadow’s voice. Sirronde went cold inside, for sometimes to suit His own purposes, the Dark One will tell the truth. Did I – is that why –
“Of course it is,” her enemy said, “and now your age is all the weapon I need against you. You are far spent already. If you summon up enough Flame to resist Me now, you will burn out and die of the exertion.”
The figure with its polluted Fire was coming slowly nearer. Terror fed Sirronde’s Flame brighter, her Rod blazed too fiercely for her eyes to bear – but she could not slow the Shadow’s advance or pierce the darkness of the midnight Fire she could feel sucking at both her Flame’s light and her life.
“Don’t waste your time in struggle,” said the approaching enemy. “If you defy Me, Sirronde, My vengeance will follow you far. Don’t think I would not bar your way through the Door into Starlight. I have done it before, and stopping Me took greater power than anything you have.” He drew closer, calm and sure and terrible.
He’s right, He’s right, if I keep this up much longer I’ll – Sirronde’s heart twisted inside her, or was twisted by the enfeebling blackness His dark Fire wove about it. Who was she to pit herself against the force behind blight and plague, against Whom not even the Goddess would prevail until time’s end? “Give this over,” the. reasonable voice said, “and I will grant you a clean death and a quick passage…”
She fell to her knees, and the figure wreathed in blue-black flames paused, turning to Tav. “See, your friend is wise,” He said, as Sirronde desperately fumbled down past her agony and her fear for the life-fire she had been hoarding away from herself and the Goddess, the energy meant to keep her alive for the rest of her years. She freed it all at once. It erupted through her and out of her, burning, lifted the Rod she had no strength to lift, and leapt like a levinbolt across the hall, blasting the dark Flame out as one brushfire burns out another, knocking its source off His feet. The crash of His fall echoed under the Mount like thunder, and the shadow less dead stood aghast. Burning blue in her own Fire, helpless, Sirronde fell over sideways and got ready to die.
Tav was pulling at her, trying to sit her up, as across the hall the Shadow stood up, taller and more terrible yet. “It’s all right, I’m just dying, pay attention to Him!” she said in a thread of voice, all she had left. Her Rod would not stop burning. By its light she saw Tav straighten up with something in his eyes she had never seen yet: rage.
“Well,” he croaked, “is it my turn?”
The black-blue Fire flared up again, writhed and twisted around its master, then died down. “It is,” said another voice, a different voice from the Shadow’s – higher, weaker, but no less daunting. Where the Shadow had been now stood a smallish man with hair the color of iron and pale, narrow eyes, his stance and his hard, blunt face those of someone whose chief delight looked to be punishment. “Tav, what did you do with my sword?’
Tav went rigid as his father approached. Sirronde lay in terror, as much of it as it’s possible to feel when one already has one’s own death to worry about. For Tav put his hand to his side and found the sword tangible, but suddenly invisible, an invitation to the lie. His father was walking closer, with the old purposeful walk that had a beating at the end of it. The enemy’s malevolent power wound through the air, making it seem as though one might more successfully stand up to a tidal wave than to this man.
“Where is it!” yelled the harsh, hateful voice, promising awful pain if Tav didn’t satisfy its owner somehow. This was not a mount in the Highpeaks, this was the house in Orsvier, late at night, with no help anywhere, why bother trying to explain, you know what’ll happen., don’t make it worse, tell him you don’t know, tell him the neighbor borrowed it, tell him – Tav stood trembling. His father walked up to him and shouted right in his face. “Where is it?!”
“Ruh, ruh, right here,” Tav whispered, putting his hands to his side and lifting away something he could feel but couldn’t see. His father looked clown at his offering hands, seeing nothing. “I – I stole it,” Tav whispered, choking with the effort of the admission. “Here.”
His father stared. “What are you trying to pull!” he said, low and enraged, and struck Tav a vicious backhanded blow in the face. Tav barely started to duck aside, to run – but the slight motion turned him toward where Sirronde lay in her fading Fire. In midmotion he did the impossible, the sacrilegious, the offense that meant death. He hit his father back, spearing him hard in the gut with the hilt of the sheathed and invisible sword.
The cry of wild fury that followed sent Tav reeling back as if from another blow. He sprawled beside Sirronde as the Hunt fled the Mount in terror, as the Shadow crashed to the floor and fell out of shape. Sirronde’s Rod still burned, but its light would not illumine the terrifying blaze of darkness about their foe as He drew a last shape about Himself and rose again.
Slowly He paced toward them, and they watched in exhausted fear, powerless to prevent Him, Sirronde bracing herself up on her forearms and holding on to life by main force, Tav half-blinded by running blood, his face broken by the blow he’d been struck, the kitten crouching as small as it could between them. The form the Shadow wore now was twice the size of the tiger He had ridden as Master of the Hunt, and blacker, burning with a frightening unlight that forced the eyes away like the Sun. The Palug Cat stalked them, the merciless Shadow of the feline kind – a slow, leisurely, sharp-fanged darkness moving inexorably through gloom that grew as Sirronde’s Fire flickered low.
“Third time will pay for all,” the silken, wicked cat’s voice said. “I hope you three dined well, for be assured, I shall. And after I’m through with you, there’s still time to do My business.” The Cat laughed. “Sooner or later I knew She would miscalculate, I knew She would send Me a fool or a weakling or a failure on My night….”
Sirronde tried to lever herself up straighter. It didn’t work.
Tav stared at the sword he was clutching, visible now. “It’s never been used. I guess this is its last chance,” he whispered, and drew it.
The Cat laughed again at the sight of it faintly gleaming. “Don’t bother, child,” He said, ten feet away now, five feet away, “I’m much faster than you in this form,” and He crouched for the last spring, hindquarters twitching slightly, and with no warning whatsoever the kitten sprang straight for the Cat’s face, and “Tav! Virgin steel!” Sirronde cried. The Shadow pulled His head back, startled, the kitten fell down and leaped again, this time for the huge barrel of a throat; the Cat reared up yowling and clawed the kitten away, flinging it halfway across the hollow Mount, and as He came down on all fours again, Tav was waiting for Him, bracing the stolen sword point up against the floor. The Shadow crashed onto the point of the sword and stabbed Himself to the heart.
His horrible scream of shock and thwarted rage left them all deaf for many moments. When it faded, Tav and Sirronde found themselves alone in the darkening hall, and ominous rumblings were coming from the roof. “Come on,” Tav gasped, picking up the blackened sword that lay beside him and sheathing it, then grabbing Sirronde and half-carrying, half-dragging her to the door.
“The kitten!” she whispered, but even as she spoke, Tav scooped it up off the floor, and the three of them made for the entrance. Outside, the first dawn of the new year was toying with the horizon – a faint light that seemed like full day after the smothering darkness of the Mount. Tav and Sirronde staggered down to the snowfield at Blackmount’s feet and fell there, covering their heads as the roof of the Mount fell crashing in.
When the last stones stopped rolling, Tav tried to get Sirronde to sit up. “Come on, come on!” he said, weeping, and Sirronde squinted up at him with affectionate annoyance. “For pity’s sake, Tav, I’m dying, may I please do it lying down?!”
He laid her down again with her head in his lap, and was a long time finding words. Finally, through his tears, he said, “We never did get our parting gifts,”
“No?” Sirronde said, blinking, having trouble focusing or speaking. (This is better,) she said with the voice of the mind, but the thought still came feebly. (I seem to have gotten back something I lost a long time ago – or gave up. Whichever. What about you?)
Tav shook his head. “I don’t know –” He gulped, and reluctantly, over the space of a few breaths, began to accept the gift. “Maybe – maybe the truth – a little of it. At least, a story of my own to tell… But Sirronde – no one will believe me!”
(Since it really happened, does it matter?)
“No.” He wiped at his eyes. “We’ve killed Him,” he said wonderingly to the kitten, who was lying on his knee, dazed and bruised but otherwise unhurt. “We killed Him! Fools and weaklings and failures –” He shook his head again, and Sirronde found the breath for a last laugh. (None of those,) she said. (But we didn’t know what we had… and so neither did He….)
“But what does it matter?’ Tav said, the tears running clown. “He won’t stay dead!”
(Neither will we,) Sirronde said silently, (and there’ll be a world for us to come back to, full of the children of those who didn’t die tonight. That’s worth something…. Where will you go now, Tav?)
He stared at the sword lying in the snow beside him. “Home, I think.” The words came halting and fearful, but they had resolve at their roots. “I have someone to… to tell a few truths to, maybe . and a sword to give back. After that – I’m tired of this running around, running away. I think I’ll settle down somewhere and farm, and let other people be the stories. I’d sooner just tell them….”
(Go up to Marrish,) Sirronde said, closing her eyes, (and find my daughter Andric, and tell her I told you to milk my cow and mind my house till I get back.)
She fell silent. The kitten got up stiffly, stretched and reached out with a black-padded paw to gently touch Sirronde’s cheek. She smiled. (The throat,) she said. (Right for the throat. Not bad for a beginner….)
She did not speak again. Tav and the kitten, listening for her failing thought, saw ever so briefly what she saw – darkness and a Door without lintels or posts; beginnings and endings on this side, on the other the unnumbered stars. Sirronde let go her hold, remotely feeling the last of her Fire burst forth, shattering the unneeded Rod as her soul broke the bonds that held it. She stepped forward, taking the gift with her into the new life.
In the forges of evening, the Maiden struck away a tear, set aside for a while the new-tempered soul She had been working, and laid a fresh one in the fire….
The company in the anthology was exhilarating: C.J. Cherryh, Tanith Lee, Roger Zelazny, Craig Shaw Gardner. I got even more excited to learn that the cover of the anthology was going to be based on my story. But I became just slightly less excited when I found out that Richard Corben, of “Den” fame, was going to be the artist.
Don’t get me wrong: I liked Den. But Corben was well known for, to be blunt, hanging mammaries — and ample ones — on anything that could possibly be made to take them. When I found out about the cover assignment, I remember thinking, Okay, buster. Here are the characters: a grandmother, a young guy, and a kitten. Let’s see you hang bazongas on those. And what the heck: he did. (Click on the image for a larger version. At least the kitten and the guy are bazonga-free.)
The story was written between The Door into Fire and So You Want to Be a Wizard. Some tropes which were later transplanted to the YW universe can be found in here: the Shadow is plainly being played very much as the Middle Kingdoms’ version of the Lone Power (though the backstories of these two embodiments of Entropy are far different). The word “errantry” is even mentioned once. Otherwise, though, the tale is one of an “average” Rodmistress — if there is such a thing — in her sunset years. In Middle Kingdoms time, Sirronde is apparently working in a period well after the Door Into… novels: the doings of the Five are mentioned, briefly, as events of a past time, if not quite the remote past.
It seemed a nice thought to turn this story loose right now because I’ve been thinking about republishing it with its two prequel stories: “The Span”, which came out in Wizard Magazine a couple/few years ago, and a third untitled Sirronde story, presently in the works for a UK publisher. I may also add to that collection the only other Middle Kingdoms short work, “Lior and the Sea”, which appeared in the tribute anthology for Andre Norton, Moonsinger’s Friends. Those who’re interested in seeing such a compilation volume should keep an eye on one or another of my weblogs during late spring / early summer of ’07.
Meanwhile, hope you’ve enjoyed this! And vivat technopeasantry.