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"You're my bodyguard?"
The swordsman standing in the door to Martis' cluttered quarters blinked in startled surprise. He'd been warned that the sorceress was not easy to work with, but he hadn't expected her to be quite so rude. He tried not to stare at the tall, disheveled mage who stood, hands on hips, amid the wreckage she'd made of her own quarters. The woman's square features, made harsher by nervous tension, reflected her impatience as the mercenary groped for the proper response to make.
Martis was a little embarrassed by her own ill-manners, but really, thischildmust surely be aware that his appearance was hardly likely to invoke any confidence in his fighting ability!
For one thing, he was slim and undersized; he didn't even boast the inches Martis had. For another, the way he dressed was absurd; almost is if he were a dancer got up as a swordsman for some theatrical production. He was too clean, too fastidious; that costume wasn't even the least worn-lookingand silk, for Kevreth's sake! Blue-green silk at that! He carried two swords, and whoever had heard of anyone able to use two swords at once outside of a legend? His light brown hair was worn longer than any other fighter Martis had ever seentoo long, Martis thought with disapproval, and likely to get in the way despite the headband he wore to keep it out of his eyes. He even moved more like a dancer than a fighter.
This was supposed to guard her back? It looked more like she'd be guarding him. It was difficult to imagine anything that looked less like a warrior.
"The Guard-serjant did send this one for that purpose, Mage-lady, but since this one does not please, he shall return that another may be assigned."
Before Martis could say anything to stop him, he had whirled about and vanished from the doorway without a sound. Martis sighed in exasperation and turned back to her packing. At this moment in time she was not about to start worrying about the tender feelings of a hire-sword!
She hadn't gotten much farther along when she was interrupted againthis time by a bestial roar from the bottom of the stair.
"MARTIS!" the walls shook with each step as Trebenth, Guard-serjant to the Mage's Guild, climbed the staircase to Martis' rooms. Most floors and stairs in the Guild-hold shook when Trebenth was about. He was anything but fatbut compared to the lean mages he worked for, he was just somassive. Outside of the Guards' quarters, most of the Guild-hold wasn't designed to cope with his bulk. Martis could hear him rumbling under his breath as he ascended; the far-off mutterings of a volcano soon to erupt. She flinched and steeled herself for the inevitable outburst.
He practically filled the doorframe; as he glared at Martis, she half expected steam to shoot from his nostrils. It didn't help that he looked like a volcano, dressed in Mage-hireling red, from his tunic to his boots; it matched the red of his hair and beard, and the angry flush suffusing his features. "Martis, what in the name of the Seven is your problem?"
"My problem, as you call it, is the fact that I need a bodyguard, not a temple dancer!" Martis matched him, glare for glare, her flat gray eyes mirroring his impatience. "What are you trying to push on me, Ben? Zaila's toenails, if it weren't for the fact that Guild law prevents a mage from carrying weapons, I'd take sword myself rather than trust my safety to that toy!"
"Dammit, Martis, you've complained about every guard I've ever assigned to you! This one was too sullen, that one was too talkative, t'other one snored at night" he snorted contemptuously. "Mother of the Gods, Martis, snored?"
"You ought to know by now that a mage needs undisturbed sleep more than foodbesides, anyone stalking us would have been able to locate our campsite by ear alone!" she replied, pushing a lock of blond hairjust beginning to show signs of grayout of her eyes. The gesture showed both her annoyance and her impatience; and pulling her robe a bit straighter could not conceal the fact that her hands trembled a little.
He lost a portion of his exasperation; after all, he and Martis were old friends, and she did have a point. "Look, when have I ever sent you a guard that couldn't do the job? I think this time I've really found the perfect match for youhe's quiet, half the time you don't even know he's there, in factand Mart, the lad's good."
"Him? Ben, have you lost what little mind you ever had? Who told you he was good?"
"Nobody," he replied, affronted. "I don't take anyone's word on the guards I hire. I tested him myself. The boy moves so fast he doesn't need armor, and as for those two toy swords of his, wellhe's good. He came within a hair of taking me down."
Martis raised an eyebrow in surprise. To her certain knowledge, it had been years since anyone could boast of taking Trebenth downor even coming close.
"Why's he dress himself up like a friggin' faggot, then?"
"I don't know, Mart. Ask him yourself. I don't care if my guards wear battle-plate or paint themselves green, so long as they can do the job. Mart, what's bothering you? You're not usually so damn picky. You generally save your complaining till the job's over."
Martis collapsed tiredly into a chair, shoving aside a box of tagged herbs and a pile of wrinkled clothing. Trebenth saw with sudden concern the lines of worry crossing her forehead and her puffy, bruised-looking eyelids.
"It's the job. Guild businessinternal problems."
"Somebody need disciplining?"
"Worse. Gone renegadeand he's raising power with blood-magic. He was very good before he started this; I've no doubt he's gotten better. If we can't do something about him now, we'll have another Sable Mage-King on our hands."
Trebenth whistled through his teeth. "A black adept in the making, eh? No wonder they're sending you."
Martis sighed. "Just when I'd begun to think the Guild would never set me to anything but teaching again. But that's not what's troubling me, old friend. I knew hima long and close association. He was one of my best students."
Trebenth winced. To set Martis out after one of her old students was a cruel thing to do. The powers manipulated by mages gifted them with much that lesser folk could envybut those powers took as well as gave. Use of magic for any length of time rendered the user sterile. In many ways Martis' students took the place of the children she'd never have.
They often took the place of friends, too. She'd served the Guild since she'd attained Masterclass, and her barely past what for the unTalented would have been marriageable age. There were few sorcerers among her contemporaries, male or female, that didn't secretly fear and envy the Masterclass mages. There were no mages of her own rank interested in taking a lover whose powers equaled their own. They preferred their women pliant, pretty, and not too bright. Martis's relations with her own kind were cordial, but barren.
Trebenth himself had been one of the few lovers she'd hadand she hadn't taken another since he'd toppled like a felled tree for his little Margwynwy, and she'd severed that side of their relationship herself. It was times like this one, with her loneliness standing bare in her eyes, that he pitied her with all his heart.
Martis caught his glance, and smiled thinly. "The Council did their level best to spare me this, I'll give them that much. The fact is, we don't know for certain how deeply he's gotten himself in yet; we know he's been sacrificing animals, but so far rumors of human deaths are just thatrumors. They want to give him every chance to get himself out of the hole he's digging for himself. Frankly, he's got too much Talent to waste. One of the factors in deciding to send me is that they hope he'll give me a chance to reason with him. If reason doesn't work, well, I'm one of the few sorcerers around with a chance of defeating him. After all, I taught him. I know all his strengths and weaknesses."
"Knew," Trebenth reminded her, "Can I assign Lyran to your service, now that I've vouched for his ability, or are you still wanting someone else?"
"Who? Ohthe boy. All right, Ben, you know what you're doing. You've been hiring guards as long as I've been training mages. Tell him to get the horses ready, I want to make a start before noon."
When Martis had finished ransacking her room for what she wanted, she slung her packed saddlebags over her shoulder and slammed the door on the entire mess. By the time she returnedif she returnedthe Guild servants would have put everything back in order again. That was one of the few benefits of being a Masterclass sorceress. The Guild provided comfortable, safe quarters and reliable servants who never complainedat least not to her. Those benefits were paid for, though; a Masterclass mage lived and died in service to the Guild. No one with that rating was ever permitted to take service independently.
Martis had a liking for heights and a peculiar phobia about having people living above her, so her room was at the top of the staircase that linked all four floors of the Masters' quarters. As she descended the stairs, she found that a certain reluctant curiosity was beginning to emerge concerning this unlikely swordsman, Lyran. The order she'd given Trebenth, to have the lad ready the horses, was in itself a test. Martis' personal saddlebeast was an irascible bay gelding of indeterminant age and vile temper, the possessor of a number of bad habits. He'd been the cause of several grooms ending in the Healer's hands before this. Martis kept him for two reasonsthe first was that his gait was as sweet as his temper was foul; the second that he could be trusted to carry a babe safely through Hell once it was securely in the saddle. To Martis, as to any other mage, these traits far outweighed any other considerations. If this Lyran could handle old Tosspot, there was definitely hope for him.
It was Martis' turn to blink in surprise when she emerged into the dusty, sunlit courtyard. Waiting for her was the swordsman, the reins of his own beast in one hand and those of Tosspot in the other. Tosspot was not trying to bite, kick, or otherwise mutilate either the young man or his horse. His saddle was in place, and Martis could tell by his disgruntled expression that he hadn't managed to get away with his usual trick of "blowing" so that his saddle girth would be loose. More amazing still, the swordsman didn't appear to be damaged in any way, didn't even seem out of breath.
"Did he give you any trouble?" she asked, fastening her saddlebags to Tosspot's harness, and adroitly avoiding his attempt to step on her foot.
"He is troublesome, yes, Mage-lady, but this one has dealt with a troublesome beast before," Lyran replied seriously. At just that moment the swordsman's dust-brown mare lashed out with a wicked hoof, which the young man dodged with reflexive agility. He reached up and seized one of the mare's ears and twisted it once, hard. The mare immediately resumed her good behavior. "Sometimes it would seem that the best animals are also the vilest of temper," he continued as though he hadn't been interrupted. "It then is of regrettable necessity to prove, that though they are stronger, this one has more knowledge."
Martis mounted Tosspot, and nodded with satisfaction when his girth proved to be as tight as it looked. "I don't think this old boy will be giving you any more trouble. From the sour look he's wearing, I'd say he learned his lesson quite thoroughly."
The swordsman seemed to glide into his saddle and gracefully inclined his head in thanks for the compliment. "Truly he must have more intelligence than Jesalis," he replied, reining in his mare so that the sorceress could take the lead, "For this one must prove the truth of the lesson to her at least once a day."
"Jesalis?" Martis asked incredulously; for the jesalis was a fragile blossom of rare perfume, and nothing about the ugly little mare could remind anyone of a flower.
"Balance, Mage-lady," Lyran replied, so earnestly that Martis had to hide a smile. "So foul a temper has she, that it is necessary to give her a sweet name to leaven her nature."
They rode out of the Guild hold in single file with Martis riding in the lead, since protocol demanded that the "hireling" ride behind the "mistress" while they were inside the town wall. Once they'd passed the gates, they reversed position. Lyran would lead the way as well as providing a guard, for all of Martis' attention must be taken up by her preparations to meet with her wayward former student. Tosspot would obey his training and follow wherever the rider of Jesalis led.
This was the reason that Tosspot's gait and reliability were worth more than gold pieces. Most of Martis' time in the saddle would be spent in a trance-like state as she gradually gathered power to her. It was this ability to garner and store power that made her a Masterclass sorceressfor after all, the most elaborate spell is useless without the power to set it in motion.
There were many ways to accumulate power. Martis' was to gather the little aimless threads of it given off by living creatures in their daily lives. Normally this went unused, gradually dissipating, like dye poured into a river. Martis could take these little tag-ends of energy, spin them out and weave them into a fabric that was totally unlike what they had been before. This required total concentration, and there was no room in her calculations for mistake.
Martis was grateful that Lyran was neither sullen nor inclined to chatter. She was able to sink into her magic gathering-trance undistracted by babble and undisturbed by a muddy, surly aura riding in front of her. Perhaps Ben had been right after all. The boy was so unobtrusive that she might have been riding alone. She spared one scant moment to regret faintly that she would not be able to enjoy the beauties of the summer woods and meadows they were to ride through. It was so seldom that she came this way . . .
The atmosphere was so peaceful that it wasn't until she sensedmore than feltthe touch of the bodyguard's hand on her leg that she roused up again. The sun was westering, and before her was a small clearing, with Lyran's horse contentedly grazing and a small, neat camp already set up. Martis' tent was to the west of the clearing, a cluster of boulders behind it, and the tent-flap open to the cheerful fire. Lyran's bedroll lay on the opposite side. Jesalis was unsaddled, and her tack laid beside the bedroll. From what Martis could see, all of her own belongings had been placed unopened just inside the tent. And all had been accomplished without Martis being even remotely aware of it.
"Your pardon, Mage-lady," Lyran said apologetically, "But your horse must be unsaddled."
"And you can't do that with me still sitting on him," Martis finished for him, highly amused. "Why didn't you wake me earlier? I'm perfectly capable of helping make camp."
"The Guard-serjant made it plain to this one that you must be allowed to work your magics without distraction. Will you come down?"
"Just one moment" There was something subtly wrong, but Martis couldn't pinpoint what it was. Before she could say anything, however, Lyran suddenly seized her wrist and pulled her down from her saddle, just as an arrow arced through the air where she had been. Lyran gave a shrill whistle, and Jesalis threw up her head, sniffed the breeze, and charged into the trees to their left. Martis quickly sought cover in some nearby bushes, as Lyran hit the ground and rolled up into a wary crouch.
A scream from where the mare had vanished told that the horse had removed the obstacle of the archer, but he had not been alone. From under the cover of the trees stepped not one, but three swordsmen. Lyran regained his feet in one swift motion, drew the swords he wore slung across his back, and faced them in a stance that was not of any fighting style Martis recognized. He placed himself so that they would have to pass him to reach her.
The first of the assassinsMartis was reasonably sure that this was what they werelaughed and swatted at Lyran with the flat of his blade in a careless, backhanded stroke, aiming negligently for his head.
"This little butterfly is minewe will see if he likes to play the woman he apes" he began.
Lyran moved, lithe as a ferret. The speaker stared stupidly at the sword blade impaling his chest. Lyran had ducked and come up inside his guard, taking him out before he'd even begun to realize what the bodyguard was about.
Lyran pulled his blade free of the new-made corpse while the assassin still stood. He whirled to face the other two before the first fell to the ground.
They moved in on him with far more caution than their companion had, circling him warily to attack him from opposite sides. He fended off their assault easily, his two swords blurring, they moved so fast, his movement dance-like. But despite his skill he could seem to find no opening to make a counter-attack. For the moment all three were deadlocked. Martis chafed angrily at her feeling of helplessnessthe combative magics she'd prepared were all meant to be used against another mage. To use any of the spells she knew that would work against a fighter, she'd have to reach her supplies in her saddlebagsnow rather hopelessly out of reach. She found that she was sharply aware of the incongruous scent of the crushed blossoms that lay beneath the dead man's body.
The deadlock was broken before Martis could do more than curse at her own helplessness.
Within the space of a breath, Lyran feinted at the third of the assassins, drawing the second to attack. He caught his opponent's blade in a bind, and disarmed him with practiced ease. Then the third lunged at him, and he moved aside just enough for his blade to skim past his chest. Lyran's left-hand blade licked out and cut his throat with the recovery of the stroke that had disarmed the second. Before Martis could blink, he continued the flow of movement before the third could fall to cut the second nearly in half with the sword in his right.
And behind him, the first dead man rose, sword in hand, and hacked savagely at the unsuspecting Lyran's blind side. Lyran got one blade up in time to deflect the blow, but the power behind it forced him to one knee. The Undead hammered at the bodyguard, showing sorcerous strength that far exceeded his abilities in life. Lyran was forced down and back, until the Undead managed to penetrate his defenses with an under-and-over strike at his left arm.
The slice cut Lyran's arm and shoulder nearly to the bone. The sword dropped from his fingers and he tried to fend off the liche with the right alone.
The Undead continued to press the attack, its blows coming even faster than before. Lyran was sent sprawling helplessly when it caught him across the temple with the flat of its blade.
Martis could seealmost as if time had slowedthat he would be unable to deflect the liche's next strike.
She, Lyran, and the Undead all made their moves simultaneously.
Martis destroyed the magic that animated the corpse, but not before it had made a two-handed stab at the bodyguard.
But Lyran had managed another of those
ferret-quick squirms. As the liche struck, he threw himself sidewaysa move Martis would have thought impossible, and wound up avoiding impalement by inches. The Undead collapsed then, as the magic supporting it dissolved.
Freed from having to defend himself, Lyran dropped his second blade, groped for the wound, and sagged to his knees in pain.
Martis sprinted from out of hiding, reaching the swordsman's side in five long strides. Given the amount of damage done his arm, it was Lyran's good fortune that his charge was Masterclass! In her mind she was gathering up the strands of power she'd accumulated during the day, and reweaving them into a spell of healing; a spell she knew so well she needed nothing but her memory to create.
Even in that short period of time, Lyran had had the presence of mind to tear off the headband that had kept his long hair out of his eyes and tie it tightly about his upper arm, slowing the bleeding. As Martis reached for the wounded arm, Lyran tried feebly to push her away.
"There isno needMage-lady," he gasped, his eyes pouring tears of pain.
Martis muttered an obscenity and cast the spell. "No guard in my service stays wounded," she growled, "I don't care what or who you've served before; I take care of my own."
Having said her say and worked her magics, she went to look at the bodies while the spell did its work.
What she found was very interesting indeed, so interesting that at first she didn't notice that Lyran had come to stand beside her where she knelt. When she did notice, it was with some surprise that she saw the slightly greenish cast to the guard's face, and realized that Lyran was striving valiantly not to be sick. Lyran must have seen her surprise written clear in her expression, for he said almost defensively, "This one makes his living by the sword, Mage-lady, but it does not follow that he enjoys viewing the consequences of his labor."
Martis made a noncommittal sound and rose. "Well, you needn't think your scoutcraft's at fault, young man. These menthe archer, too, I'd judgewere brought here by magic just a few moments before they attacked us. I wish you could have taken one alive. He could have told us a lot."
"It is this one's humble opinion that one need not look far for the author of the attack," Lyran said, looking askance at Martis.
"Oh, no doubt it's Kelven's work, all right. He knows what my aura looks like well enough to track me from a distance and pinpoint my location with very little trouble, and I'm sure he knows that it's me the Guild would send after him. And he knows the nearest Gate-point, and that I'd be heading there. No, what I wish I knew were the orders he gave this bunch. Were they to killor to disable and capture?" She dusted her hands, aware that the sun was almost gone and the air was cooling. "Well, I'm no necromancer, so the knowledge is gone beyond my retrieval."
"Shall this one remove them?" Lyran still looked a little sick.
"No, the healing-spell I set on you isn't done yet, and I don't want you tearing that wound open again. Go take care of Tosspot and find your mare, wherever she's gotten herself to. I'll get rid of them."
Martis piled the bodies together and burned them to ash with mage-fire. It was a bit of a waste of power, but the energy liberated by the deaths of the assassins would more than make up for the lossthough Martis felt just a little guilty at using that power. Violent death always released a great deal of energyit was a short-cut to gaining vast quantities of itwhich was why blood-magic was proscribed by the Guild. Making use of what was released when you had to kill in self-defense was one thingcold-blooded killing to gain power was something else.
When Martis returned to the campsite, she discovered that not only had Lyran located his mare and unharnessed and tethered Tosspot, but that he'd made dinner as well. Browning over the pocket-sized fire was a brace of rabbits.
"Two?" she asked quizzically. "I can't eat more than half of one. And where did you get them?"
"This one has modest skill with a sling, and there were many opportunities as we rode," Lyran replied, "And the second one is for breakfast in the morning."
Lyran had placed Tosspot's saddle on the opposite side of the fire from his own, just in front of the open tent. Martis settled herself on her saddle to enjoy her dinner. The night air was pleasantly cool, night creatures made sounds around them that were reassuring because it meant that no one was disturbing them. The insects of the daylight hours were gone, those of the night had not yet appeared. And the contradictions in her guard's appearance and behavior made a pleasant puzzle to mull over.
"I give up," she said at last, breaking the silence between them, silence that had been punctuated by the crackle of the fire. "You are the strangest guard I have ever had."
Lyran looked up, and the fire revealed his enigmatic expression. He had eaten his half of the rabbit, but had done so as if it were a duty rather than a pleasure. He still looked a bit sickly.
"Why does this one seem strange to you, Mage-lady?"
"You dress like a dancer playing at being a warrior, you fight like a friggin' guard-troop all by yourselfthen you get sick afterwards because you killed someone. You wear silks that would do a harlot proud, but you ride a mare that's a damn trained killer. What are you, boy? What land spawned something like you?"
"This one comes from fara great distance to the west and south. It is not likely that you have ever heard of the People, Mage-lady. The Guard-serjant had not. As for why this one is the way he isthis one follows a Way."
"No, Mage-lady, A Way. The People believe that there are many such Ways, and ours is of no more merit than any other. Our way is the Way of Balance."
"You said something about `balance' before" Now Martis' curiosity was truly aroused. "Just what does this Way entail?"
"It is simplicity. One must strive to achieve Balance in all things in one's life. This oneis on a kind of pilgrimage to find such Balance, to find a place where this one may fit within the pattern of All. Because this one's nature is such that he does well to live by the sword, he must strive to counter this by using that sword in the service of peaceand to cultivate peace in other aspects of his life. And, in part, it must be admitted that this one fosters a helpless outer aspect," Lyran smiled wryly. "The Mage-lady will agree that appearing ineffectual does much to throw the opponent off his guard. Sothat is the what of this one. As to the whythe People believe that the better one achieves Balance, the better one will be reborn."
"I certainly hope you don't include good and evil in your Balanceeither that, or I'll do the cooking from now on." Lyran laughed.
"No Mage-lady, for how could one weigh `good' and `evil'? Assuredly, it was `good' that this one slew your foes, but was it not `evil' to them? Sometimes things are plainly one or the other, but too often it depends upon where one stands one's own self. A primary tenet of our Way is to do no harm when at all possibleto wound, rather than kill, subdue rather than wound, reason rather than subdue, and recall when reasoning that the other may have the right of it."
"Simple to state, but"
"Ai, difficult to live by. It would seem that most things worth having are wrapped in difficulty. Have you not spent your life in magecraft, and yet still learn? And does this not set you farther apart from otherssacrificing knowledge for the common ties of life?"
Martis scrutinized her companion across the flames. Not so young, after all. Not nearly so young as she had thoughtnor so simple. It was only the slight build, the guileless eyes, the innocence of the heart-shaped face that made you think "child." And attractive too. Damned attractive . . . "Don't be a fool," she scolded herself, "You haven't the time or energy to wastebesides, he's young enough to be your son. Well, maybe not your son. But too damned young for the likes of you! Hellfires! You have more to think about than a sweet-faced hireling! Get your mind back to business."
"Before we sleep, I'm intending to gather power as I was doing on the road," she stretched a little. "I want you to rouse me when the moon rises."
"Mage-ladywould quiet chanting disturb you?" Lyran asked anxiously. "This one would offer words for those slain."
"Whatever for? They wouldn't have mourned you!" Once again, Lyran had surprised her.
"That is their Way, not this one's. If one does not mourn that one has slain, the heart soon dies. Under other circumstances, might they not have been comrades?"
"I suppose you're right," Martis replied thoughtfully. "No, chanting isn't going to disturb me any. Just make sure you also keep a good watch out for any more surprises."
"Of a certainty, Mage-lady." Lyran didn't even seem annoyed at the needless admonition, a fact that made Martis even more thoughtful. Professional mercenaries she'd known in the past tended to get a bit touchy about mages giving them "orders" like she'd just given him. Nothing much seemed to ruffle that serene exterior. How long, she wondered, had it taken him to achieve that kind of mind-set? And what kind of discipline had produced it? A puzzle; truly a puzzle.
The next day brought them to a ring of standing stonesthe Gate-site. The inherent magic residing in this place made it possible to use it as a kind of bridge to almost any other place on the earth's surface. Martis had been to Kelven's tower once, and with mage-habit had memorized the lay of the land surrounding it. They would be able to ride straight from here to there once the proper spell was set into motion. This would have another benefit, besides saving them a long and tiring journey; Kelven would `lose' them if he had been tracking them, and without knowing exactly where to look for them, would not know how many of them had survived his attack. They rested undisturbed that evening, with Martis quickly regaining from the place the energy she spent in shielding their presence there.
The Gate spell took the better part of the next morning to set up. Martis had no intentions of bringing them in very near, for she had other notions as to how she wanted this confrontation to be played out. After a light noon meal, she activated the Gate.
The standing stones began to glow, not from within, but as if an unquenchable fire burned along their surfaces. The fire from each reached out to join with the fires of the stones on either side. Before an hour had passed, the ring was a near-solid thing of pulsating orange light.
Martis waited until the power-flux built to an internal drawing that was well-nigh unendurablethen led them at a gallop between two of the stones. They rode in through one sidebut not out the other.
They emerged in the vicinity of Kelven's towerand the confrontation Martis had been dreading was at hand.
She wasn't sure whether the fact that there had been no attempt to block them at the Gate was good or bad. It could be that Kelven was having second thoughts about the situation, and would be ready to be persuaded to amend his ways. It also could be that he was taking no further chances on the skills of underlings or working at a distance, and was planning to eliminate her himself in a sorcerers' duel.
They rode through country that was fairly wild and heavily wooded, but Kelven's tower lay beyond where the woods ended, at the edge of a grass-plain. Martis described the situation to Lyran, who listened attentively, then fell silent. Martis was not inclined to break that silence, lost in her own contemplations.
"Mage-lady" Lyran broke into Martis' thoughts not long before they were to reach Kelven's stronghold. "is it possible that the Mage-lord may not know about the continued survival of this one?"
"It's more than possible, it's likely," Martis told him. "I've been shielding our movements ever since the attack."
"But would you have gone on if this one had fallen? Would it not have been more likely that you would return to the Guild Hall to seek other guards?"
They had stopped on the crest of a ridge. Below them lay grasslands and scrub forest that stretched for furlongs in all directions but the one they had come.
Kelven's tower was easily seen from here, and about an hour's distance away. The sun beat down on their heads, and insects droned lazily. The scene seemed ridiculously incongruous as a site of imminent conflict.
Martis laugheda sound that held no trace of humor. "Anybody else but me would do just that. But I'm stubborn, and I've got a rotten temper. Kelven knows that. He watched me drag myself and two pupilshe was one of themthrough a stinking, bug-infested bog once, with no guides and no bodyguards. The guides had been killed and the guards were in no shape to follow us, y'see; we'd been attacked by a Nightmare. I was by-Zaila not going to let it get away back to its Lair! By the time we found it I was so mad that I fried the entire herd at the Lair by myself. If you'd been killed back there, I'd be out for bloodor at least a damn convincing show of repentance. And I wouldn't let a little thing like having no other guard stand in my way."
"Then let this one propose a plan, Mage-lady. The land below is much like this one's homeland. It would be possible to slip away from you and make one's way hidden in the tall grassand this one has another weapon than a sling." From his saddlebag Lyran took a small, but obviously strong bow, unstrung, and a quiverful of short arrows. "The weapon is too powerful to use for hunting, Mage-lady, unless one were hunting larger creatures than rabbits and birds. This one could remain within bow-shot, but unknown to the Mage-lord, if you wished."
"I'm glad you thought of that, and I think it's more than a good idea," Martis said, gazing at the tower. Several new thoughts had occurred to her, none of them pleasant. It was entirely possible that Kelven wanted her here, had allowed them to walk into a trap. "If nothing elsethis is an order. If Kelven takes me captiveshoot me. Shoot to kill. Get him too, if you can, but make sure you kill me. There's too many ways he could use me, and anyone can be broken, if the mage has time enough. I can bind my own death-energy before he can use itI think."
Lyran nodded, and slipped off his mare. He rearranged saddle-pad and pack to make it appear that Martis was using the ill-tempered beast as a pack animal. In the time it took for Martis to gather up the mare's reins, he had vanished into the grassland without a trace.
Martis rode towards the tower as slowly as she could, giving Lyran plenty of time to keep up with the horses and still remain hidden.
She could see as she came closer to the tower that there was at least one uncertainty that was out of the way. She'd not have to call challenge to bring Kelven out of his towerhe was already waiting for her. Perhaps, she thought with a brightening of hope, this meant he was willing to cooperate.
When Lyran saw, after taking cover in a stand of scrub, that the mage Kelven had come out of his tower to wait for Martis, he lost no time in getting himself positioned within bowshot. He actually beat the sorceress's arrival by several moments. The spot he'd chosen, beneath a bush just at the edge of the mowed area that surrounded the tower, was ideal in all respects but onesince it was upwind of where the mage stood, he would be unable to hear them speak. He only hoped he'd be able to read the mage's intentions from his actions.
There were small things to alert a watcher to the intent of a mage to attackprovided the onlooker knew exactly what to look for. Before leaving, Trebenth had briefed him carefully on the signs to watch for warning of an attack by magic without proper challenge being issued. Lyran only hoped that his own eyes and instincts would be quick enough.
"Greetings, Martis," Kelven said evenly, his voice giving no clue as to his mindset.
Martis was a little uneasy to see that he'd taken to dressing in stark, unrelieved black. The Kelven she remembered had taken an innocent pleasure in dressing like a peacock. For the rest, he didn't look much different from when he'd been her studenthe'd grown a beard and moustache, whose black hue did not quite match his dark brown hair. His narrow face still reminded her of a hawk's, with sharp eyes that missed nothing. She looked closer at him, and was alarmed to see that his pupils were dilated such that there was very little to be seen of the brown irises. Drugs sometimes produced that effectparticularly the drugs associated with blood-magic.
"Greetings, Kelven. The tales we hear of you are not good these days," she said carefully, dismounting and approaching him, trying to look stern and angry.
"Tales. Yes, those old women on the Council are fond of tales. I gather they've sent you to bring the erring sheep back into the fold?" he said. She couldn't tell if he was sneering.
"Kelven, the course you're set on can do no one any good," she faltered a little, a recollection of Kelven seated contentedly at her feet suddenly springing to mind. He'd been so like a sonthis new Kelven must be some kind of aberration! "Pleaseyou were a good student; one of my best. There must be a lot of good in you still, and you have the potential to reach Masterclass if you put your mind to it." She was uncomfortably aware that she was pleading, and an odd corner of her mind noted the buzzing drone of the insects in the grass behind her. "I was very fond of you, you know I wasI'll speak for you, if you want. You can `come back to the fold,' as you put it, with no one to hold the past against you. But you must also know that no matter how far you go, there's only one end for a practitioner of blood-magic. And you must know that if I can't persuade you, I have to stop you."
There was a coldness about him that made her recoil a little from himthe ice of one who had divorced himself from humankind. She found herself longing to see just a hint of the old Kelven; one tiny glimpse to prove he wasn't as far gone as she feared he must be. But it seemed no such remnant existed.
"Really?" he smiled. "I never would have guessed."
Any weapon of magic she would have been prepared for. The last thing she ever would have expected was the dagger in his hand. She stared at the flash of light off the steel as he lifted it, too dumbfounded to do more than raise her hands against it in an ineffectual attempt at defense.
His attack was completed before she'd done more than register the fact that he was making it.
"First you have to beat me, teacher," he said viciously, as he took the single step between them and plunged it into her breast.
She staggered back from the shock and pain, all breath and thought driven from her.
"I'm no match for you in a sorcerer's duel" he said, a cruel smile curving his lips as his hands moved in the spell to steal her dying power from her. "not yetbut I'll be the match of any of you with all I shall gain from your death!"
Incredibly, he had moved like a striking snake, his every movement preplannedall this had taken place in the space of a few eyeblinks. She crumpled to the ground with a gasp of agony, both hands clutching ineffectually at the hilt. The pain and shock ripped away her ability to think, even to set into motion the spell she'd set to lock her dying energy away from his use. Blood trickled hotly between her fingers, as her throat closed against the words she had meant to speak to set a death-binding against him. She could only endure the hot agony, and the knowledge that she had failedand then looked up in time to see three arrows strike him almost simultaneously, two in the chest, the third in the throat. Her hands clenched on the dagger hilt as he collapsed on top of her with a strangling gurgle. Agony drove her down into darkness.
Her last conscious thought was of gratitude to Lyran.
There were frogs and insects singing, which seemed odd to Martis. No one mentioned frogs or insects in any version of the afterlife that she'd ever heard. As her hearing improved, she could hear nightbirds in the distance, and close at hand, the sound of a fire and the stirring of nearby horses. That definitely did not fit in with the afterlifeunless one counted Hellfires, and this certainly didn't sound big enough to be one of those. Her eyes opened slowly, gritty and sore, and not focusing well.
Lyran sat by her side, anxiety lining his brow and exhaustion graying his face.
"Either I'm alive," Martis coughed, "or you're deadand I don't remember you being dead."
"You live, Mage-ladybut it was a very near thing. Almost, I did not reach you in time. You are fortunate that sorcerers are not weapons-trainedno swordsman would have missed your heart as he did."
"Martis. My name is Martisyou've earned the right to use it." Martis coughed again, amazed that there was so little painthat the worst she felt was a vague ache in her lungs, a dreamy lassitude and profound weakness. "Why am I still alive? Even if he missed the heart, that blow was enough to kill. You're no Healer" she paused, all that Lyran had told her about his "Way" running through her mind. "are you?"
"As my hands deal death, so they must also preserve life," Lyran replied. "Yes, among my people, all who live by weapons are also trained as Healers, even as Healers must learn to use weapons, if only to defend themselves and the wounded upon the field of battle."
He rubbed eyes that looked as red and sore as her own felt. "Since I am not Healer-born, it was hard, very hard. I am nearly as weak as you as a consequence. It will be many days before I regain my former competence, my energy, or my strength. It is well you have no more enemies that I must face, for I would do so, I fear, on my hands and knees!"
Martis frowned. "You aren't talking the way you used to."
Lyran chuckled. "It is said that even when at the point of death the Mage will observe and recordand question. Yes, I use familiar speech with you, my Mage-lady. The Healing for one not born to the Gift is not like yoursI sent my soul into your body to heal it; for a time we were one. That is why I am so wearied. You are part of myself as a consequenceand I now speak to you as one of my People."
"Thank the gods. I was getting very tired of your everlasting `this one's.' " They laughed weakly together, before Martis broke off with another fit of coughing.
"What happens to you when we get back to the Guild-hold?" Martis asked presently.
"My continued employment by the Guild was dependent on your satisfaction with my performance," Lyran replied. "Since I assume that you are satisfied"
"I'm alive, aren't I? The mission succeeded. I'm a good bit more than merely `satisfied' with the outcome."
"Then I believe I am to become part of the regular staff, to be assigned to whatever mage happens to need a guard. AndI think here I have found what I sought; the place where my sword may serve peace, the place the Way has designed for me." Despite his contented words, his eyes looked wistful.
Martis was feeling unwontedly sensitive to the nuances in his expression. There was something behind those words she had not expectedhopelonging? Anddirected at her?
Andunder the weariness, was there actually desire?
"Would that I could continue in your service, MageMartis. I think perhaps we deal well together."
"Hmm," Martis began tentatively, not sure she was reading him correctly; not daring to believe what she thought she saw. "I'm entitled to a permanent hireling as a Master, I just never exercised the privilege. Would you be interested?"
"As a hirelingalone? Or, could I hope you would have more of me than bought-service?"
Dear gods, was he asking what she thought he was asking? "Lyran, you surely can't be seriously propositioning me?"
"We have been one," he sighed, touching her cheek lightly. "As you have felt a tie to me, so have I felt drawn to you. There is that in each of us that satisfies a need in the other, I think. Icare for you. I would gladly be a friend; more than friend, if you choose."
"But I'm old enough to be your mother!"
"Ah, lady," he smiled, his eyes old in his young face, "What are years? Illusion. Do each of us not know the folly of illusion?" And he cupped one hand gently beneath her cheek to touch his lips to hers. As her mouth opened beneath his, she was amazed at the stirring of passionit was impossible, but it was plainly there, despite years, wounds, and weariness. Maybemaybe there was something to this after all.
"I" she began, then chuckled.
"So?" he cocked his head to one side, and waited for enlightenment.
"Wellmy friends will think I'm insane, but this certainly fits your Way of Balancemy grey hairs against your youth."
"So" the smile warmed his eyes in a way Martis found fascinating, and totally delightful, "then we shall confound your friends, who lack your clear sight. We shall seek Balance together. Yes?"
She stretched out her hand a little to touch his, already feeling some of her years dissolving before that smile. "Oh, yes."
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