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Trebenth, broad of shoulder and red of hair and beard, was Guard-serjant to the Mage Guild. Not to put too fine a point on it, he was Guard-serjant at High Ridings, the chief citadel of the Mage Guild, and site of the Academe Arcanum, the institution of Highest Magicks. As such, he was the warrior responsible for the safety and well-being of the Mages he served.
This was hardly the soft post that the uninformed thought it to be. Mages had many enemiesand were terribly vulnerable to physical attack. It only took one knife in the dark to kill a mageTrebenth's concern was to circumvent that vulnerability; by overseeing their collective safety in High Ridings, or their individual safety by means of the bodyguards he picked and trained to stand watchdog over them.
And there were times when his concern for their well-being slid over into areas that had nothing to do with arms and assassinations.
This was lookingto his worried eyes, at leastlike one of those times.
He was standing on the cold granite of the landing at the top of a set of spiraling tower stairs, outside a particular tower apartment in the Guildmembers Hall, the highest apartment in a tower reserved for the Masterclass Mages. Sunlight poured through a skylight above him, reflecting off the pale wooden paneling of the wall he faced. There was no door at the head of this helical staircase; there had been one, but the occupant of the apartment had spelled it away, presumably so that her privacy could not be violated. But although Trebenth could not enter, he could hear something of what was going on beyond that featureless paneled wall.
Masterclass Sorceress Martis Orleva Kiriste of High Ridings, a chief instructress of the Academe, and a woman of an age at least equal to Trebenth's middle years wasgiggling. Giggling like a giddy adolescent.
Mart hasn't been the same since she faced down Kelven, Ben gloomed, shifting his weight restlessly from his left foot to his right. I thought at first it was just because she hadn't recovered yet from that stab-wound. Losing that much bloodgods, it would be enough to fuddle anyone's mind for a while. Then I thought it was emotional backlash from having been forced to kill somebody that was almost a substitute child for her. But thenshe started acting odder instead of saner. First she requisitioned that outlander as her own, and then installed him in her quartersand is making no secret that she's installed him in her bed as well. It's like she's lost whatever sense of proportion she had.
Behind the honey-colored paneling Trebenth heard another muffled giggle, and his spirits slipped another notch. I thought I'd finally found her the perfect bodyguard with that outlander Lyran; one that wouldn't get in her way. He was so quiet, soso humble. Was it all a trick to worm his way into some woman's confidence? What the hell did I really bring in? What did I let latch onto her soul?
He shifted his weight again, sweating with indecision. Finally he couldn't bear it any longer, and tapped with one knuckle, uncharacteristically hesitant, in the area where the door had been. "Go away," Martis called, the acid tone of her low voice clearly evident even through the muffling of the wood. "I am not on call. Go pester Uthedre."
"Mart?" Ben replied unhappily. "It's Ben. It isn't" There was a shimmer of golden light, and the door popped into existence under his knuckles, in the fleeting instant between one tap and the next. Then it swung open so unexpectedly that he was left stupidly tapping empty air.
Beyond the door was Martis' sitting room; a tiny room, mostly taken up by a huge brown couch with overstuffed cushions. Two people were curled close together there, half-disappearing into the soft pillows. One was a middle-aged, square-faced woman, greying blond hair twined into long braids that kept coming undone. Beside her was a slender young man, his shoulder-length hair nearly the color of dark amber, his obliquely slanted eyes black and unfathomable. He lookedto Trebenth's mindfully young enough to be Martis' son. In point of fact, he was her hireling bodyguardand her lover.
"Ben, you old goat!" Martis exclaimed from her seat on the couch, "Why didn't you say it was you in the first place? I'd never lock you out, no matter what, but you know I'm no damn good at aura-reading."
To Trebenth's relief, Martis was fully and decently clothed, as was the young outland fighter Lyran seated beside her. She lowered the hand she'd used to gesture the door back into reality and turned the final flourish into a beckoning crook of her finger. With no little reluctance Trebenth sidled into the sun-flooded outermost room of her suite. She cocked her head to one side, her grey eyes looking suspiciously mischievous and bright, her generous mouth quirked in an expectant half-smile.
"Well?" she asked. "I'm waiting to hear what you came all the way up my tower to ask."
Trebenth flushed. "It'sabout"
"Oh my, you sound embarrassed. Bet I can guess. Myself and my far-too-young lover, hmm?"
"Mart!" Ben exclaimed, blushing even harder. "Ididn't"
"Don't bother, Ben," she replied, lounging back against the cushions, as Lyran watched his superior with a disconcertingly serene and thoughtful expression on his lean face. "I figured it was all over High Ridings by now. Zaila's Toenails! Why is it that when some old goat of a man takes a young wench to his bed everyone chuckles and considers it a credit to his virility, but when an old woman"
"You are not old," Lyran interrupted her softly, in an almost musical tenor.
"Flatterer," she said, shaking her head at him. "I know better. So, why is it when an older woman does the same, everyone figures her mind is going?"
Trebenth was rather at a loss to answer that far-too-direct question.
"Never mind, let it go. I suspect, though, that you're worried about what I've let leech onto me. Let me ask you a countering question. Is Lyran causing trouble? Acting up? Flaunting statusspending my gold like water? Boasting about his connections orhis `conquest'?"
"Well," Ben admitted slowly, "No. He acts just like he did before; so quiet you hardly know he's there. Except"
"Some of the others have been goin' for him. At practice, mostly."
"And?" Beside her, Lyran shifted, and laid his right hand unobtrusivelybut protectivelyover the one of hers resting on the brown couch cushion between them.
"Everything stayed under control until this morning. Harverth turned the dirty side of his tongue on you 'stead of Lyran, seeing as he wasn't gettin' anywhere baiting the boy. Harverth was armed, Lyran wasn't."
Martis raised one eyebrow. "So? What happened?"
"I was gonna mix in, but they finished it before I could get involved. It didn't take long. Harverth's with the Healers. They tell me he might walk without limping in a year or so, but they won't promise. Hard to Heal shattered kneecaps."
Martis turned a reproachful gaze on the young, long-haired man beside her. Lyran flushed. "Pardon," he murmured. "This one was angered for your sake more than this one knew. This one lost both Balance and temper."
"You lost more'n that, boy," Ben growled, "You lost me a trained"
"Blowhard," Martis interrupted him. "You forget that you assigned that dunderhead to me oncehe's damned near useless, and he's a pain in the aura to a mage like me. You know damned well you've been on the verge of kicking that idiot out on his rear a half dozen timesyou've told me so yourself! Well, now you've got an excuse to pension him offit was my hireling and my so-called honor involved; deduct the bloodprice from my account and throw the bastard out of High Ridings. There, are you satisfied?"
Ben wasn't. "Mart," he said pleadingly, "It's not just that"
"What is it? The puppies in your kennel still likely to go for Lyran?"
"No, not after this morning."
"What is it then? Afraid I'm going to become a laughingstock? Got news for you, Ben, I already am, and I don't give a damn. Or are you afraid for me, afraid that I'm making a fool of myself?"
Since that was exactly what Trebenth had been thinking, he flushed again, and averted his eyes from the pair on the sofa.
"Ben," Martis said softly, "when have you ever seen us acting as anything other than mage and hireling outside of my quarters? Haven't we at least kept the appearance of respectability?"
"I guess," he mumbled, hot with embarrassment.
"People would be talking even if there was nothing between us. They've talked about me ever since I got my Mastery. There were years at the beginning when everybody was certain I'd earned it in bed, not in the circles. And when you and Ithey talked about that, too, didn't they? The only difference now is that I'm about half again older than Lyran. People just don't seem to like that, much. But my position is in no danger. When the push comes, it's my power the Guild cares about, not what damage I do to an already dubious reputation. And I don't care. I'm happy, maybe for the first time in years. Maybe in my life."
He looked up sharply. "Are you? Really? Are you sure?"
"I'm sure," she replied with absolute candor, as Lyran raised his chin slightly, and his eyes silently dared his superior to challenge the statement.
Trebenth sighed, and felt a tiny, irrational twinge of jealousy. After all, he had Margwynwybut he'd never been able to bring that particular shine to Martis' eyesnot even at the height of their love affair. "All right, then," he said, resigned. "As long as you don't care about the gossip"
"Not in the slightest."
"I guess I was out of line."
"No Ben," Martis replied fondly. "You're a friend. Friends worry about friends; I'm glad you care enough to worry. My wits haven't gone south, honestly."
"ThenI guess I'll go see about paying a certain slacker off and pitching him out."
Martis gestured the door closed behind the towering Guard-serjant, then removed the door with another gesture, and turned back to her seatmate with frustration in her eyes. "Why didn't you tell me that you were being harassed?" Lyran shook his head; his light brown hair shimmered in the warm sun pouring through the skylight above his head.
"It didn't matter. Words are only as worthy as the speaker."
"It got beyond words."
"I am better than anyone except the Guild-serjant." It wasn't a boast, Martis knew, but a plain statement of fact. "What did I have to fear from harassment? It was only" It was Lyran's turn to flush, although he continued to hold her gaze with his own eyes. "I could not bear to hear you insulted."
Something rather atavistic deep down inside glowed with pleasure at his words. "So you leapt to my defense, hmm?"
"How could I not? Martisladylove" His eyes warmed to her unspoken approval.
She laughed, and leaned into the soft cushion behind her. "I suppose I'm expected to reward my defender now, hmm? Now that you've fought for my honor?"
He chuckled, and shook his head. "Silly and primitive of us, doubtless, but it does rouse up certain instinctive responses, no?"
She slid a little closer on the couch, and reached up to lace the fingers of both hands behind his neck, under his long hair. Not even the silk of his tunic was as soft as that wonderful hair. . . .
"You know good and well how I feel." The healing-magic of his people that he had used to save her life had bound their souls together; that was the reason why Lyran did not refer to himself in the third person when they were alone together. And it was why each tended to know now a little of what the other felt. It would have been rather futile to deny her feelings even if she'd wanted to . . . which she didn't.
"Are you happy, my Mage-lady?" She felt an unmistakable twinge of anxiety from him. "Do the words of fools hurt you? If they do"
"They don't," she reassured him, coming nearer to him so that she could hold him closer and bury her face in that wonderful, magical hair. She wondered now how she could ever have thought it too long, and untidy, or why she had thought him effeminate. She breathed in the special scent of him; a hint of sunlight and spicy grasses. And she felt the tension of anxiety inside him turn to tension of another kind. His hands, strong, yet gentle, slid around her waist and drew her closer still.
But a few hours later there came a summons she could not ignore; a mage-message from the Council. And the moment the two of them passed her threshold it would have been impossible for anyone to have told that they were lovers from their demeanor. Martis was no mean actressshe was diplomat and teacher as well as sorceress, and both those professions often required the ability to play a part. And Lyran, with his incredible mental discipline, and a degree of training in control that matched and was in fact incorporated in his physical training, could have passed for an ice-sculpture. Only Martis could know for certain that his chill went no deeper than the surface.
He was her bodyguard; he was almost literally her possession until and unless he chose not to serve her. And as such he went with her everywhereeven into the hallows of the Council chamber. Just as the bodyguards of the five Councilors did.
The carved double doors of a wood so ancient as to have turned black swung open without a hand touching them, and she and Lyran entered the windowless Council Chamber. It was lit entirely by mage-lights as ancient as the doors, all still burning with bright yellow incandescence high up on the walls of white marble. The room was perfectly circular and rimmed with a circle of malachite; in the center was a second circle inlaid in porphyry in the white marble of the floor. Behind that circle was the half-circle of the Council table, of black-lacquered wood, and the five matching thronelike chairs behind it. All five of those chairs were occupied by mages in the purple robes of the Mage-Guild Council.
Only one of the Councilors, the cadaverous Masterclass Mage Ronethar Gethry, gave Lyran so much as a glance; and from the way Ronethar's eyes flickered from Lyran to Martis and back, the sorceress rather guessed that it was because of the gossip that he noticed her guard at all.
The rest ignored the swordsman, as they ignored their own hirelings, each standing impassively behind his master's chair, garbed from head to toe, as was Lyran, in Mage-Guild hireling red: red leathers, red lineneven one, like Lyran, in red silk.
The Councilors were worried; even Martis could read that much behind their impassive masks. They wasted no time on petty nonsense about her private life. What brought them all to the Council Chamber was serious business, not accusations about whom she was dallying with.
Not that they'd dare take her to task over it. She was the equal of any of the mages in those five seats; she could sit there behind the Council table any time she chose. She simply had never chosen to do so. They knew it, and she knew it, and they knew she knew. She was not accountable to them, or anything but her conscience, for her behavior. Only for her actions as the representative of the Guild.
The fact was that she didn't want a Council seat; as a Masterclass mage she had little enough freedom as it was. Sitting on the Council would restrict it still further. The Masterclass mage served only the Guild, the powers of the Masterclass being deemed too dangerous to be put at hire.
"Martis." Rotund old Dabrel was serving as Chief this month; he was something less of an old stick than the others.
"Councilor," she responded. "How may I serve my Guild?"
"By solving a mystery," he replied. "The people of Lyosten have been acting in a most peculiar and disturbing fashion"
"He means they've been finding excuses to put off a Guild inspection," sour-faced and acid-voiced Liavel interrupted. "First there was a feverso they saythen a drought, then the road was blocked by a flood. It doesn't ring true; nobody else around Lyosten is having any similar troubles. We believe they're hiding something."
"Lyosten is a Free City, isn't it?" Martis asked."Who's in charge?"
"The Citymastera man called Bolger Freedman."
"Not a Guildsman. A pity. That means we can't put pressure on him through his own Guild," Martis mused. "You're right, obviously; they must be covering up something, so what's the guess?"
"We think," Dabrel said, leaning over the table and steepling his fingertips together, "That their local mage has gone renegade in collusion with the townsfolk; that he's considering violating the Compacts against using magecraft in offensive manner against nonmages. They've been feuding off and on with Portravus for decades; we think they may be deciding to end the feud."
"And Portravus has no mage" said mousy Herjes, looking as much frightened as worried. "Just a couple of hedge-wizards and some assorted Low Magick practitioners. And not a lot of money to spare to hire one."
Martis snorted. "Just what I wanted to hear. Why me?"
"You're known;" replied Dabrel. "They don't dare cause you any overt magical harm. You're one of the best at offensive and defensive magics. Furthermore, you can activate the Gates to get in fairly close to the town before they can think up another excuse. We'll inform them that you're coming about a day before you're due to arrive."
"And there's another factor," creaked ancient Cetallas. "Your hireling. The boy is good; damned good. Best I've seen incan't remember when. No Free City scum is going to get past him to take you out. He's a healer of sorts, so Ben tells us. That's no bad thing to have about, a healer you can trust just in case some physical accident happens. And you must admit he's got a pretty powerful incentive to keep you alive." The old man wheezed a little, and quirked an amused eyebrow at the two of them. Martis couldn't help but notice the twinkle of laughter in his eyes. She bit her lip to keep from smiling. So the old bird still had some juice in himand wasn't going to grudge her her own pleasures!
"You have a point," she admitted. "And yes, Lyran does have something more at stake with me than just his contract." She was rather surprised to see the rest of the Councilors nod soberly.
Well. Well, well! They may not like itthey may think I'm some kind of fool, or worsebut they've got to admit that what Lyran and I have can be pretty useful to the Guild. "How soon do you want us to leave?"
"Are you completely recovered from"
"Dealing with Kelven? Physically, yes. Mentally, emotionallyto be honest, only time will tell. Betrayal; gods, that's not an easy thing to deal with."
"Admittedand we're setting you up to deal with another traitor." Dabrel had the grace to look guilty.
"At least this one isn't one of my former favorite pupils," she replied, grimacing crookedly, "I don't even think I know him."
"You don't," Herjes said, "I trained him. He also is not anywhere near Kelven's potential, and he isn't dabbling in blood-magic. Speaking of whichhave you recovered arcanely as well as physically?"
"I'm at full power. I can go any time."
"In the morning, then?"
"In the morning." She inclined her head slightly; felt the faintest whisper of magic brush her by.
Show-offs, she thought, as she heard the doors behind her open. Two can play that game.
"We will be on our way at dawn, Councilors," she said, carefully setting up the rolibera spell in her mind, and wrapping it carefully about both herself and Lyran. There weren't too many mages even at Masterclass level that could translate two people at once. She braced herself, formed the energy into a tightly coiled spring with her mind, then spoke one word as she inclined her head again There was a flash of light behind her eyes, and a fluttery feeling in her stomach as if she had suddenly dropped the height of a man.
And she and Lyran stood side-by-side within the circle carved into the floor of her private workroom.
She turned to see the mask of indifference drop from him, and his thin, narrow face come alive with mingled humor and chiding.
"Must you always be challenging them, beloved?"
She set her mouth stubbornly. He shook his head. "Alas," he chuckled, "I fear if you stopped, I would no longer know you. Challenge and avoidance" He held out his arms, and she flowed into them. "Truly, beloved," he murmured into her ear, as she pressed her cheek into the silk of his tunic shoulder, "we Balance each other."
They would not be riding Jesalis and Tosspot, those beasts of foul temper and fiercely protective instincts. This was a mission which would depend as much on the impression they would give as their capabilities, and Tosspot and Jesalis would be unlikely to impress anyone. Instead, when they descended the tower stairs in the pale, pearly light of dawn, Martis found the grooms in the stone-paved courtyard holding the reins of two showy palfreys, a grey and a bay. Tethered behind the bay on a lead rope was a glossy mule loaded with packs. The harness of the grey was dyed a rich purple, and that of the bay was scarlet. Lyran approached the horses with care, for the eyes of the bay rolled with alarm at the sight of the stranger. He ran his hands over their legs once he could get near them, and walked slowly back to Martis' side with his arms folded, shaking his head a little.
"Hmm?" she asked.
"Worthless," he replied. "I hope we will not be needing to entrust our lives to them. No strength, no staminaand worst of all, no sense."
"They're just for show," Martis frowned, feeling a little dubious herself. "We aren't supposed to have to do any hard riding, or long, except for the gallop to take us through the Gates. A day's ride to the first Gate, half a day to the second. In and out of both Gates, then a ride of less than half a day to the city."
"If all goes well. And what if all does not go well?"
"I" Martis fell silent. "Well, that's why you're along."
Lyran looked back over his shoulder at the horses, and grimaced. "This one will do the best one can, Mage-lady," he said formally. "Will the Mage-lady mount?"
Martis had been doing more with Lyran's aid than her colleagues suspected. A few moons ago she would not have been able to mount unaidednow she swung into her saddle with at least some of the grace of her lover. The exercises he had been insisting she practice had improved her strength, her wind, her flexibilityshe was nearly as physically fit as she'd been twenty-odd years ago, when she'd first come to the Academe.
Lyran mounted at nearly the same moment, and his bay tried to shy sideways. It jerked the reins out of the groom's hands, and danced backwards, then reared. Lyran's mouth compressed, but that was the only sign that he was disturbed that Martis could see. The scarlet silk of his breeches rippled as he clamped his legs around the bay gelding's barrel, and the reins seemed to tighten of themselves as he forced the gelding back down to the ground, and fought him to a standstill. As the horse stood, sweating, sides heaving, Lyran looked up at her.
"This one will do what this one can, Mage-lady," he repeated soberly.
The grey palfrey Martis rode was of a more placid disposition, for which she was profoundly grateful. She signed to the groom to release his hold and turned its head to face the open wooden gate set into the stone walls of the court. At Lyran's nod she nudged it with her heels and sent it ambling out beneath the portcullis.
They rode in single file through the city, Lyran trailing the mule at a respectful distance from "his employer." Four times the bay started and shied at inconsequential commonplaces; each time Lyran had to fight the beast back onto all four hooves and into sweating good behavior. The last time seemed to convince it that there was no unseating its rider, for it did not make another attempt. Once outside the city walls, they reversed their positions, with Lyran and the mule going first. Ordinarily Martis would now be spending her time in half-trance, gathering power from the living things around her. But her mount was not her faithful Tosspot, who could be relied upon to keep a falling-down drunk in the saddleand Lyran's beast was all too likely to shy or dance again, and perhaps send her gelding off as well. So instead of gathering always-useful energy, she fumed and fretted, and was too annoyed even to watch the passing landscape.
They reached the Gate at sunset. The ring of standing stones in the center of the meadow stood out black against the flaming glow of the declining sun. The wide, weed-grown fields around them were otherwise empty; not even sheep cared to graze this near a Gate. The evening wind carried a foretaste of autumnal chill as it sighed through the grasses around them. Martis squinted against the bloody light and considered their options.
Lyran had finally decided to exhaust his misbehaving mount by trotting it in circles around her as they traveled down the road until it was too tired to fuss. Now it was docile, but plainly only because it was weary. It still rolled its eyes whenever a leaf stirred. The sorceress urged her gelding up beside his.
"Can you get one last run out of him?" Martis asked anxiously.
"Probably," Lyran replied. "Why?"
"I'd like to take this Gate now, if we can, while that misbegotten horse of yours is too tired to bolt."
He looked at her in that silent, blank-faced way he had when he was thinking. "What if he did bolt?"
"The gods only know where you'd end up," she told him frankly. "If he got out of my influenceI can't predict what point beyond the Gate you'd come out at, or even what direction it would be in."
"And if I can't get him to a gallop?"
"Almost the sameif you didn't keep within my aura you'd come out somewhere between here and where I'd land."
He reached out and touched her face with the tips of his fingers. "You seem tired, beloved."
"I am tired," she admitted, confessing to him what she would admit to no other living person. "But I'm not too tired to Gate-spell, and I think it's safer to do it now than it will be later."
"Then I will force this bundle of contrariness disguised as a horse into keeping up with you."
"Hold butter-brains here, would you?" she passed him the reins of her mount, not trusting it to stand firm on its own. She drew entirely into herself, centering all her concentration on the hoarded power within herself, drawing it gradually to the surface with unspoken words and careful mental probes. Her eyes were closed, but she could feel the energy stirring, flowing, coming up fromelsewhereand beginning to trickle along the nerves of her spine. At first it was barely a tingle, but the power built up quickly until she was vibrating to its silent song.
At that point she opened the channels to her hands, raising her arms out in front of her and holding her hands out with the open palms facing the ring of standing stones.
The power surged along her arms and leapt for the ring of the Gate with an eagerness that was almost an emotion. She sang the words of the Gate-spell now, sang it in a barely audible whisper. Her eyes were half open, but she really wasn't paying a great deal of attention to anything but the flow of power from her to the Gate.
The ring of stones began to glow, glowing as if they were stealing the last of the sun's fire and allowing it to run upon their surfaces. The color of the fire began to lighten, turning from deep red to scarlet to a fiery orange. Then the auras surrounding each Gate-stone extended; reaching for, then touching, the auras beside it, until the circle became one pulsating ring of golden-orange light.
Martis felt the proper moment approaching, and signed to Lyran to hand her back her reins. She waited, weighing, judgingthen suddenly spurred her mount into one of the gaps between the stones, with Lyran's gelding practically on top of her horse's tail.
They emerged into a forest clearing beneath a moon already high, exactly five leagues from the next Gate.
"Gods, I wish I had Tosspot under me," Martis muttered, facing the second Gate under a bright noontide sun. This one stood in the heart of the forest, and the stones were dwarfed by the stand of enormous pine trees that towered all about them. The sorceress was feeling depleted, and she had not been able to recuperate the energy she'd spent on the last spell.
"We could wait," Lyran suggested. "We could rest here, and continue on in the morning."
Martis shook her head with regret. "I only wish we could. But it isn't healthy to camp near a Gatelook at the way the magic's twisted those bushes over there, the ones growing up against the stones! And besides, we need to come as close to surprising our hosts as we can."
She coughed; there was a tickle in the back of her throat that threatened to turn into a cold. Lyran noted that cough, too, and tightened his mouth in unvoiced disapproval, but made no further objections. Martis handed him her reins, and began the second spell But they emerged, not into a sunlit clearing as she'd expected, but into the teeth of the worst storm she'd ever seen.
Rain, cold as the rains of winter, lashed at them, soaking them to the skin in moments. It would have been too dark to see, except that lightning struck so often that the road was clearly lit most of the time. Lyran spurred his horse up beside the sorceress as she gasped for breath beneath the onslaught of the icy water. He'd pulled his cloak loose from the lashings that held it to his saddle and was throwing it over her shoulders before she even had recovered the wit to think about the fact that she needed it. The cloak was sodden in seconds, but it was woolwarm enough, even though wet. She stopped shivering a little, but the shock of chill coming on top of the strain of the spells had unbalanced her a little. She fumbled after her reins, but her mind wouldn't quite work; she couldn't seem to think where they should be going.
Lyran put his hand under her chin, and turned her face toward his. She blinked at him, at his searching expression as revealed by the flickers of lightning. Some rational little bit of her that hadn't been stunned hoped idly that he remembered what she'd told him once, about how mages sometimes went into spell-shock when they were low on energy and hit with unexpected physical conditions. This happened most frequently when they were ungrounded and uncenteredand the Gate-spell demanded that she be both when taking them in transit.
Evidently he did, for he took the reins out of her unresisting fingers and nudged his gelding into a nervy, shuddering walk, leaving her to cling to the saddle as best she could while he led her mount.
It was impossible to hear or be heard over the nearly continuous roar of the thunder, so she didn't even try to speak to him. She just closed her eyes and concentrated on getting herself centered and grounded again. So it was that she never noticed when the road approached the brink of a riveronce peaceful, now swollen and angry with flood water. She knew that there was such a road, and such a rivershe knew that they were to cross it before reaching Lyosten. She knew that there was a narrow, aged bridge that was still nonetheless sound, but she was too deeply sunk within herself to see it, as Lyran urged the horses onto its span.
But she felt the lightning-strike, so close it scorched the wood of the bridge not ten paces in front of them.
And as her eyes snapped open, she saw Lyran's horse rearing above her in complete panica darkly writhing shape that reared and thrashedand toppled over onto hers. She had no time to react; she felt herself go numb and open-mouthed in fear, and then pain as all of them, horses, humans, and mule, crashed through the railing of the bridge to plunge into the churning water below. She flailed wildly with unfocused energy trying to form up something to catch themand lost spell and all in the shock of hitting the raging water.
Martis pulled herself up onto the muddy bank, scraping herself across the rocks and tree-roots protruding from it, and dragging Lyran with her by the shoulder-fabric of his tunic. She collapsed, half-in, half-out of the water, too spent to go any farther. The swordsman pulled himself, coughing, up onto the bank beside her. A child of open plains, he couldn't swim.
Fortunately for both of them, Martis could. And equally fortunately, he'd had the wit to go limp when he felt her grabbing his tunic. The stormnow that the damage was donewas slackening.
"Are you all right?" she panted, turning her head and raising herself on her arms enough to be able to see him, while her teeth chattered like temple rattles.
Lyran had dragged himself up into a sitting position, and was clutching a sapling as if it were a lover. His eyes were bruised and swollen, one of them almost shut, and there was a nasty welt along the side of his face. He coughed, swallowed, nodded. "I thinkyes."
"Good." She fell back onto the bank, cheek pressed into the mud, trying to keep from coughing herself. If she didit felt as if she might well cough her aching lungs out. She fought the cough with closed eyes, the rain plastering hair and clothing flat to her skin.
This is witched weather; the power is everywhere, wild, undisciplined. How could that Lyosten mage have let himself get so out of control? But that was just a passing thought, unimportant. The important thing was the cold, the aching weariness. She was so cold now that she had gone beyond feeling it
She was drifting, drifting away, being carried off to somewhere where there was sun and warmth. In fact, she was actually beginning to feel warm, not cold. She felt Lyran shake her shoulder, and didn't care. All she wanted to do was sleep. She'd never realized how soft mud could be.
"Martis!" It was the sharp-edged fear in his voice as much as the stinging slap he gave her that woke her. She got her eyes open with difficulty.
"What?" she asked stupidly, unable to think.
"Beloved, thena, you are afire with fever," he said, pulling her into his arms and chafing her limbs to get the blood flowing. "I cannot heal disease, only wounds. Fight thisyou must fight this, or you will surely die!"
"Ah" she groaned, and tried to pummel the fog that clouded her mind away. But it was a battle doomed to be lost; she felt the fog take her, and drifted away again.
Lyran half-carried, half-dragged the mage up the last few feet of the road to the gates of Lyosten. The horses were gone, and the mule, and with them everything except what they had carried on their persons that had not been ripped away by the flood-waters. His two swords were gone; he had only his knife, his clothing, and the money belt beneath his tunic. Martis had only her robes; no implements of magic or healing, no cloak to keep her warm
At least she had not succumbed to shock or the cold-death; she was intermittently conscious, if not coherent. But she was illvery ill, and like to become worse.
The last few furlongs of road had been a waking nightmare; the rain stopped as if it had been shut off, but the breeze that had sprung up had chilled them even as it had dried their clothing. Once past the thin screen of trees lining the river, there had been nothing to buffer it. It hadn't helped that Lyran could see the bulk of Lyosten looming in the distance, dark grey against a lighter grey sky. He'd forced himself and Martis into motion, but more often than not he was supporting her; sheer exhaustion made them stagger along the muddy road like a pair of drunks, getting mired to the knees in the process. It was nearly sunset when they reached the gates of the city.
He left Martis leaning against the wood of the wall and went to pound on the closed gates themselves, while she slid slowly down to crouch in a miserable huddle, fruitlessly seeking shelter from the wind.
A man-sized door opened in the greater gate, and a surly, bearded fighter blocked it.
"What's the ruckus?" he growled.
Lyran drew himself up and tried not to shiver. "This one is guard to Martis, Master Sorceress and envoy of the Mages' Guild," he replied, his voice hoarse, his throat rasping. "There has been an accident"
"Sure, tell me another one," the guard jeered, looking from Lyran, to the bedraggled huddle that was Martis, and back again. He started to close the portal. "You think I've never heard that one before? Go around to th' Beggar's Gate."
"Wait!" Lyran blocked the door with his foot, but before he could get another word out, the guard unexpectedly lashed out with the butt of his pike, catching him with a painful blow to the stomach. It knocked the wind out of him and caused him to land on his rump in the mud of the road. The door in the gate slammed shut.
Lyran lowered Martis down onto the pallet, and knelt beside her. He covered her with every scrap of ragged blanket or quilt that he could find. She was half out of her mind with fever now, and coughing almost constantly. The cheap lamp of rock-oil gave off almost as much smoke as light, which probably didn't help the coughing any.
"Martis?" he whispered, hoping against hope for a sane response.
This time he finally got one. Her eyes opened, and there was sense in them. "Lyr" she went into a coughing fit. He helped her to sit up, and held a mug of water to her mouth. She drank, her hand pressed against his, and the hand was so hot it frightened him. "Thena," he said urgently, "You are ill, very ill. I cannot heal sickness, only hurts. Tell me what I must do."
"Take meto the Citymaster" He shook his head. "I tried; they will not let me near. I cannot prove that I am what I say"
"Gods. And I can'tmagic to prove it."
"You haven't even been answering me." He put the cup on the floor and wedged himself in behind her, supporting her. She closed her eyes as if even the dim light of the lamp hurt them. Her skin was hot and dry, and tight-feeling, as he stroked her forehead. "The stormwitched."
"You said as much in raving, so I guessed it better to avoid looking for the city wizard. Tell me what I must do!"
"A little. A very little."
"Gettrevaine-root. Make tea."
He started. "And poison you? Gods and demons!"
"Not poison." She coughed again."It'll put mewhere I can trance. Heal myself. Only way."
"Only way I know," she repeated, and closed her eyes. Within moments the slackness of her muscles told him she'd drifted off into delirium again.
He lowered her back down to the pallet, and levered himself to his feet. The bed and the lamp were all the furnishings this hole of a room had; Martis had bigger closets back at High Ridings. And he'd been lucky to find the room in the first place. The old woman who rented it to him had been the first person he'd accosted that had "felt" honest.
He blew out the lamp and made his way down to the street. Getting directions from his hostess, he headed for the marketplace. The ragged and threadbare folk who jostled him roused his anxiety to a fever-pitch. He sensed that many of them would willingly knife him from behind for little or no reason. He withdrew into himself, shivering mentally, and put on an icy shell of outward calm.
The streets were crowded; Lyran moved carefully within the flow of traffic, being cautious to draw no attention to himself. He was wearing a threadbare tunic and breeches nearly identical to a dozen others around him; his own mage-hireling silk was currently adorning Martis' limbs beneath her mage-robes. The silk was one more layer of covering against the chilland he didn't like the notion of appearing in even stained mage-hireling red in public; not around here. He closed his mind to the babble and his nose to the stench of unwashed bodies, uncleaned privies, and garbage that thickened the air about him. But these people worried him; he had only his knife for defense. What if some of this street-scum should learn about Martis, and decide she was worth killing and robbing? If he had his swords, or even just a single sword of the right reach and weight, he could hold off an armybut he didn't, nor could he afford one. The only blades he'd seen yet within his scanty resources were not much better than cheap metal clubs.
Finally he reached the marketplace. Trevaine-root was easy enough to find, being a common rat-poison. He chose a stall whose owner "felt" reasonably honest and whose wares looked properly preserved, and began haggling.
A few moments later he slid his hand inside his tunic to extract the single coin he required from the heart-breakingly light money-belt, separating it from the others by feel. The herbalist handed over the scrap of root bound up in a bit of old paper without a second glance; Lyran hadn't bought enough to seem suspicious. But then, it didn't take much to make a single cup of strong tea.
Lyran turned, and narrowly avoided colliding with a scarred man, a man who walked with the air of a tiger, and whose eyes were more than a little mad. Lyran ducked his head, and willed himself invisible with all his strength. If only he had a sword! The need was beginning to be more than an itchit was becoming an ache.
Lyran was heading out of the market and back to the boarding-house when he felt an unmistakable mental "pull," not unlike the calling he had felt when he first was moved to take up the Way of the sword, the pull he had felt when he had chosen his Teacher. It did not "feel" wrong, or unbalanced. Rather, it was as if Something was sensing the need in him for a means to protect Martis, and was answering that need.
Hardly thinking, he followed that pull, trusting to it as he had trusted to the pull that led him to the doorstep of the woman destined to be his Teacher, and as he had followed the pull that had led him ultimately to the Mage Guild at High Ridings and to Martis. This time it led him down the twisting, crooked path of a strangely silent street, a street hemmed by tall buildings so that it scarcely saw the sun; a narrow street that was wide enough only for two people to pass abreast. And at the end of itfor it proved to be a dead-end street, which accounted in part for the silencewas an odd little junk shop.
There were the expected bins of rags, cracked pottery pieces, the scavenged flotsam of a thousand lives. Nothing ever went to waste in this quarter. Rags could be patched together into clothing or quilts like those now covering Martis; bits of crockery were destined to be fitted and cemented into a crazy-paving that would pass as a tiled floor. Old papers went to wrap parcels, or to eke out a thinning shoe-sole. No, nothing was ever thrown away here; but there was more to this shop than junk, Lyran could sense it. People could find what they needed here.
"You require something, lad," said a soft voice at his elbow.
Lyran jumpedhe hadn't sensed any presence at his sideyet there was a strange little man, scarcely half Lyran's height; a dwarf, with short legs, and blunt, clever hands, and bright, birdlike eyes. And a kindness like that of the widow who had rented them her extra room, then brought every bit of covering she had to spare to keep Martis warm. "A sword," Lyran said hesitantly. "This one needs a sword."
"I should think you do," replied the little man, after a long moment of sizing Lyran up. "A swordsman generally does need a sword. And it can't be an ill-balanced bludgeon, eitherthat would be worse than nothing, eh, lad?"
Lyran nodded, slowly. "But this onehas but little" The man barked rather than laughed, but his good humor sounded far more genuine than anything coming from the main street and marketplace. "Lad, if you had money, you wouldn't be here, now, would you? Let me see what I can do for you."
He waddled into the shop door, past the bins of rags and whatnot; Lyran's eyes followed him into the darkness of the doorway, but couldn't penetrate the gloom. In a moment, the shopkeeper was back, a long, slim shape wrapped in oily rags in both his hands. He handed the burden to Lyran with a kind of courtly flourish.
"Here you be, lad," he said, "I think that may have been what was calling you."
The rags fell away, and the little man caught them before they hit the paving stones
At first Lyran was conscious only of disappointment. The hilt of this weapon had once been ornamented, wrapped in gold wire, perhapsbut there were empty sockets where the gems had been, and all traces of gold had been stripped away.
"Left in pawn to me, but the owner never came back, poor man," the shopkeeper said, shaking his head. "A good man fallen on hard timesunsheath it, lad."
The blade was awkward in his hand for a moment, the hilt hard to hold with the rough metal bare in his palmbut as he pulled it from its sheath, it seemed to come almost alive; he suddenly found the balancing of it, and as the point cleared the sheath it had turned from a piece of dead metal to an extension of his arm.
He had feared that it was another of the useless dress-swords, the ones he had seen too many times, worthless mild steel done up in long-gone jewels and plating. This swordthis blade had belonged to a fighter, had been made for a swordsman. The balance, the temper were almost too good to be true. It more than equaled his lost twin blades, it surpassed them. With this one blade in hand he could easily have bested a twin-Lyran armed with his old sword-pair; that was the extent of the "edge" this blade could give him.
"Howhow much?" he asked, mouth dry.
"First you must answer me true," the little man said softly. "You be the lad with the sick lady, no? The one that claimed the lady to be from the Mage Guild?"
Lyran whirled, stance proclaiming that he was on his guard. The dwarf simply held out empty hands. "No harm to you, lad. No harm meant. Tell me true, and the blade's yours for three copper bits. Tell me not, or tell me lieI won't sell it. Flat."
"What if this one is not that person?" Lyran hedged.
"So long as the answer be true, the bargain be true."
Lyran swallowed hard, and followed the promptings of his inner guides. "This oneis," he admitted with reluctance. "This one and the lady are what this one claimsbut none will heed."
The dwarf held out his hand, "Three copper bits," he said mildly. "And some advice for free."
Lyran fumbled out the coins, hardly able to believe his luck. The worst pieces of pot-metal pounded into the shape of a sword were selling for a silveryet this strange little man had sold him a blade worth a hundred times that for the price of a round of cheese! "This one never rejects advice."
"But you may or may not heed it, eh?" The man smiled, showing a fine set of startlingly white teeth. "Right enough; you get your lady to tell you the story of the dragon's teeth. Then tell her that Bolger Freedman has sown them, but can't harvest them."
Lyran nodded, though without understanding. "There's some of us that never agreed with him. There's some of us would pay dearly to get shut of what we've managed to get into. Tell your lady thatand watch your backs. I'm not the only one who's guessed."
Lyran learned the truth of the little man's words long before he reached the widow's boarding-house.
The gang of street-toughs lying in ambush for him were probably considered canny, crafty and subtle by the standards of the area. But Lyran knew that they were there as he entered the side-street; and he knew where they were moments before they attacked him.
The new sword was in his hands and moving as the first of them struck him from behind. It sliced across the thug's midsection as easily as if Lyran had been cutting bread, not flesh, and with just about as much resistance. While the bully was still falling, Lyran took out the one dropping on him from the wall beside him with a graceful continuation of that cut, and kicked a third rushing him from out of an alley, delivering a blow to his knee that shattered the kneecap, and then forced the knee to bend in the direction opposite to that which nature had intended for a human.
He couldn't get the blade around in time to deal with the fourth, so he ducked under the blow and brought the pommel up into the man's nose, shattering the bone and driving the splinters into the brain.
And while the fifth man stared in openmouthed stupefication, Lyran separated his body from his head.
Before anyone could poke a curious nose into the street to see what all the noise was about, Lyran vaulted to the top of the wall to his left, and from there to the roof of the building it surrounded. He scampered quickly over the roof and down again on the other side, taking the time to clean and sheath the sword and put it away before dropping down into the next street.
After all, he hadn't spent his childhood as a thief without learning something about finding unconventional escape routes.
About the time he had taken a half a dozen paces, alarm was raised in the next street. Rather than running away, Lyran joined the crowd that gathered about the five bodies, craning his neck like any of the people around him, wandering off when he "couldn't get a look."
A childhood of thieving had taught him the truth of what his people often said: "If you would be taken for a crow, join the flock and caw."
Lyran took the cracked mug of hot water from his hostess, then shooed her gently out. He didn't want her to seeand perhaps recognizewhat he was going to drop into it. She probably wouldn't understand. For that matter, he didn't understand; he just trusted Martis.
His lover tossed her head on the bundle of rags that passed for a pillow and muttered, her face sweat-streaked, her hair lank and sodden. He soothed her as best he could, feeling oddly helpless.
When the water was lukewarm and nearly black, he went into a half trance and soul-called her until she woke. Againto his reliefwhen he finally brought her to consciousness, there was foggy sense in her gray eyes.
"I have the tea, thena," he said, helping her into a sitting position. She nodded, stifling a coughing fit, and made a weak motion with her hand. Interpreting it correctly, he held the mug to her lips. She clutched at it with both hands, but her hands shook so that he did not release the mug, only let her guide it.
He lowered her again to the pallet when she had finished the foul stuff, sitting beside her and holding her hands in his afterwards.
"How long will this take?"
She shook her head. "A bit of time before the drug takes; after that, I don't know." She coughed, doubling over; he supported her.
"Have you ever known any story about `dragon's teeth,' my lady?" he asked, reluctantly. "Iwas advised to tell you that Bolger has sown the dragon's teeth, but cannot harvest them."
She shook her head slightly, a puzzled frown creasing her foreheadthen her eyes widened. "Harvest! Gods! I"
The drug chose that moment to take her; between one word and the next her eyes glazed, then closed. Lyran swore, in three languages, fluently and creatively. It was some time before he ran out of invective.
"I know 'bout dragon's teeth," said a high, young voice from the half-open door behind him. Lyran jumped in startlement for the second time that day. Truly, anxiety for Martis was dulling his edge!
He turned slowly, to see the widow's youngest son peeking around the doorframe.
"And would you tell this one of dragon's teeth?" he asked the dirty-faced urchin as politely as he could manage.
Encouraged, the youngster pushed the door open a little more. "You ain't never seen a dragon?" he asked.
Lyran shook his head, and crooked his finger. The boy sidled into the room, clasping his hands behind his back. To the widow's credit, only the child's face was dirtythe cut-down tunic he wore was threadbare, but reasonably clean. "There are no dragons in this one's homeland."
"Be there mages?" the boy asked, and at Lyran's negative headshake, the child nodded. "That be why. Dragons ain't natural beasts, they be mage-made. Don't breed, neither. You want 'nother dragon, you take tooth from a live dragon an' plant it. Only thing is, baby dragons come up hungry an' mean. Takes a tamed dragon to harvest 'em, else they go out killin' an feedin' an' get the taste fer fear. Then their brains go bad, an' they gotta be killed thesselves."
"This one thanks you," Lyran replied formally. The child grinned, and vanished.
Well, now he knew about dragon's teeth. The only problem was that the information made no senseat least not to him! It had evidently meant something to Martis, though. She must have some bit of information that he didn't have.
He stroked the mage's damp forehead and sighed. At least the stuff hadn't killed her outrighthe'd been half afraid that it would. And she did seem to be going into a proper trance; her breathing had become more regular, her pulse had slowed Suddenly it was far too quiet in the street outside. Lyran was on his feet with his new sword in his hands at nearly the same moment that he noted the absence of sound. He slipped out the door, closing it carefully behind him once he knew that the musty hallway was "safe." The stairs that led downwards were at the end of that hallbut he had no intention of taking them.
Instead he glided soundlessly to the window at the other end of the hall; the one that overlooked the scrap of back yard. The shutters were open, and a careful glance around showed that the yard itself was empty. He sheathed the sword and adjusted the makeshift baldric so that it hung at his back, then climbed out onto the ledge, balancing there while he assessed his best path.
There was a cornice with a crossbeam just within reach; he got a good grip on it, and pulled himself up, chinning himself on the wood of the beamhis arms screamed at him, but he dared not make a sound. Bracing himself, he let go with his right hand and swung himself up until he caught the edge of the roof. Holding onto it with a death-grip he let go of the cornice entirely, got his other hand on the roof-edge, and half-pulled, half-scrambled up onto the roof itself. He lay there for one long moment, biting his lip to keep from moaning, and willing his arms back into their sockets.
When he thought he could move again, he slid over the roof across the splintery, sunwarmed shingles to the street-side, and peered over the edge.
Below him, as he had suspected, were a half-dozen armed men, all facing the door. Except for them, the street below was deserted.
There was one waiting at the blind side of the door. Lyran pulled his knife from the sheath in his boot and dropped on him.
The crack as the man's skull hit the pavementhe hadn't been wearing a helmtold Lyran that he wouldn't have to worry about slitting the fighter's throat.
Lyran tumbled and rolled as he landed, throwing the knife as he came up at the man he judged to be the leader. His aim was offinstead of hitting the throat it glanced off the fighter's chest-armor. But the move distracted all of them enough to give Lyran the chance to get his sword out and into his hands.
There was something wrong with these men; he knew that as soon as he faced them. They moved oddly; their eyes were not quite focused. And even in the heat of the day, when they must have been standing out in the sun for a good long time setting up their ambush, with one exception they weren't sweating.
Then Lyran noticed that, except for the man he'd thrown the dagger atthe man who was sweatingthey weren't casting any shadows. Which meant that they were illusions. They could only harm him if he believed in them.
So he ignored them, and concentrated his attention on the leader. He went into a purely defensive stance and waited for the man to act.
The fighter, a rugged, stocky man with a wary look to his eyes, sized him up carefullyand looked as if he wasn't happy with what he saw. Neither of them moved for a long, silent moment. Finally Lyran cleared his throat, and spoke.
"This one has no quarrel with any here, nor does this one's lady. You have done your best; this one has sprung the trap. There is no dishonor in retreat. Hireling to hireling, there is no contract violation."
The man straightened, looked relieved. "You"
The voice was high, cracking a little, and came from Lyran's left, a little distance up the street. It was a young voice; a breath later the owner emerged from the shadow of a doorway, and the speaker matched the voice. It was a white-blond boy, barely adolescent, dressed in gaudy silks; from behind him stepped two more children, then another pair. All of them were under the age of fifteen, all were dressed in rainbow huesand all of them had wild, wide eyes that looked more than a little mad.
The man facing Lyran swallowed hard; now he was sweating even harder. Lyran looked at him curiously. It almost seemed as if he were afraid of these children! Lyran decided to act.
He stepped out into the street and placed himself between the man and the group of youngsters. "There has been no contract violation," he said levelly, meeting their crazed eyes, blue and green and brown, with his own. "The man has fulfilled what was asked." Behind him, he heard the fighter take to his heels once the attention of the children had switched from himself to Lyran. Lyran sighed with relief; that was one death, at least, that he would not have to Balance. "This one has no quarrel with you," he continued. "Why seek you this one?"
The children stared at him, a kind of insane affrontery in their faces, as if they could not believe that he would defy them. Lyran stood easily, blade held loosely in both hands, waiting for their response.
The blond, nearest and tallest, raised his hands; a dagger of light darted from his outstretched palms and headed straight for Lyran's throat
But this was something a Mage Guild fighter was trained to defend against; fire daggers could not survive the touch of cold steel
Lyran's blade licked out, and intercepted the dagger before it reached its target. It vanished when the steel touched it.
The child snarled, his mouth twisted into a grimace of rage ill-suited to the young face. Another dagger flew from his hands, and another; his companions sent darts of light of their own. Within moments Lyran was moving as he'd never moved in his life, dancing along the street, his swordblade blurring as he deflected dagger after dagger.
And still the fire-daggers kept coming, faster and fasteryet
The air was growing chill, the sunlight thinning, and the faces of the children losing what little color they had possessed. Lyran realized then that they were draining themselves and everything about them for the energy to create the daggers. Even as the realization occurred to him, one of them made a choking sound and collapsed to the pavement, to lie there white and still.
If he could just hold out long enough, he might be able to outlast them! But the eldest of the group snarled when his confederate collapsed, and redoubled his efforts. Lyran found himself being pressed back, the light-daggers coming closer and closer before he was able to intercept them, his arms becoming leaden and weary
He knew then that he would fail before they did.
And he saw, as he deflected a blade heading for his heart, another heading for his throatand he knew he would not be able to intercept this one.
He had an instant to wonder if it would hurt very much. Then there was a blinding flash of light.
He wasn't deadonly half-blind for a long and heart-stopping moment. And when his eyes cleared
Martis stood in the doorway of the house that had sheltered them, bracing herself against the frame, her left palm facing him, her right, the children. Both he and the youngsters were surrounded by a haze of light; his was silver, theirs was golden.
Martis gestured, and the haze around him vanished. He dropped to the pavement, so weak with weariness that his legs could no longer hold him. She staggered over to his side, weaving a little.
"Are you going to be all right?" she asked. He nodded, panting. Her hair was out of its braids, and stringy with sweat, her robes limp with it. She knelt beside him for a moment; placed both her hands on his shoulders and looked long and deeply into his eyes. "Gods, lovethat was close. Too close. Did they hurt you?"
He shook his head, and she stared at him as he'd sometimes seen her examine something for magic taint. Evidently satisfied by what she saw, she kissed him briefly and levered herself back up onto her feet.
His eyes blurred for a moment; when they refocused, he saw that the haze around the remaining four children had vanished, and that they had collapsed in a heap, crying, eyes no longer crazed. Martis stood, shoulders sagging just a little, a few paces away from them.
She cleared her throat. The eldest looked up, face full of fear
But she held out her arms to them. "It wasn't your fault," she said, in a voice so soft only the children and Lyran could have heard the words, and so full of compassion Lyran scarcely recognized it. "I know it wasn't your faultand I'll help you, if you let me."
The children frozethen stumbled to their feet and surrounded her, clinging to her sweat-sodden robes, and crying as if their hearts had been broken, then miraculously remended.
"so Bolger decided that he had had enough of the Mage Guild dictating what mages could and could not do. He waited until the Lyosten wizard had tagged the year's crop of mage-Talented younglings, then had the old man poisoned."
The speaker was the dwarfwho Lyran now knew was one of the local earth-witches, a cheerful man called Kasten Ythres. They were enjoying the hospitality of his home while the Mage Guild dealt with the former Citymaster and the clutch of half-trained children he'd suborned.
Martis was lying back against Lyran's chest, wearily at ease within the protective circle of his arms. They were both sitting on the floor, in one corner by the fireplace in the earth-witch's common room; there were no furnishings here, just piles of flat pillows. Martis had found it odd, but it had reminded Lyran strongly of home.
It was an oddly charming house, like its owner: brown and warm and sunny; utterly unpretentious. Kasten had insisted that they relax and put off their mage-hireling act. "It's my damned house," he'd said, "And you're my guests. To the nether hells with so-called propriety!"
"How on earth did he think he was going to get them trained?" Martis asked.
Kasten snorted. "He thought he could do it out of booksand if that didn't work, he'd get one of us half-mages to do it for him. Fool."
"He sowed the dragon's teeth," Martis replied acidly, "he shouldn't have been surprised to get dragons."
"Ladydragon's teeth?" Lyran said plaintively, still at a loss to understand.
Martis chuckled, and settled a little more comfortably against Lyran's shoulder. "I was puzzled for a moment, too, until I remembered that the storm that met us had been witchedand that the power that created it was out of control. Magic power has some odd effects on the mind, loveif you aren't being watched over and guided properly, it can possess you. That's why the tales about demonic possession; you get a Talented youngling or one who blooms late, who comes to power with no trainingthey go mad. Worst of all, they know they're going mad. It's badand you only hope you can save them before any real damage is done."
"Aye," Kasten agreed. "I suspect that's where the dragon's teeth tale comes from toowhich is why I told your man there to remind you of it. The analogy being that the younglings are the teeth, the trained mage is the dragon. What I'd like to know is what's to do about this? You can't take the younglings to the Academeand I surely couldn't handle them!"
"No, they're too powerful," Martis agreed. "They need someone around to train them and keep them drained, until they've gotten control over their powers instead of having the powers control them. We have a possible solution, though. The Guild has given me a proposition, but I haven't had a chance to discuss it with Lyran yet." She craned her head around to look at him. "How would you like to be a father for the next half-year or so?"
"Me?" he replied, too startled to refer to himself in third person.
She nodded. "The Council wants them to have training, but feels that they would be best handled in a stable, home-like setting. But their blood-parents are frightened witless of them. But youyou stood up to them, you aren't afraid of themand you're kind, love. You have a wonderful warm heart. And you know how I feel about youngsters. The Council feels that we would be the best parental surrogates they're ever likely to find. If you're willing, that is."
Lyran could only nod speechlessly.
"And they said," Martis continued with great satisfaction in her voice, "that if you'd agree, they'd give you anything you wanted."
"They didn't put any kind of limitation on it. They're worried; these are very Talented children. All five of the Councilors are convinced you and I are their only possible salvation."
Lyran tightened his arms around her. "Would theywould they give this one rank to equal a Masterclass mage?"
"Undoubtedly. You certainly qualify for Swordmasteronly Ben could better you, and he's a full Weaponsmaster. If you weren't an outlander, you'd have that rank already."
"Would they then allow this one to wed as he pleased?"
He felt Martis tense, and knew without asking why she had done so. She feared losing him so muchand feared that this was just exactly what was about to happen. But they were interrupted before he could say anything. "That and more!" said a voice from the door. It was the Chief Councilor, Dabrel, purple robes straining over his stomach. "Swordmaster Lyran, do you wish to be the young fool that I think you do?"
"If by that, the Mastermage asks if this one would wed the Master Sorceress Martis, then the Mastermage is undoubtedly correct," Lyran replied demurely, a smile straining at the corners of his mouth as he heard Martis gasp.
"Take her with our blessings, Swordmaster," the portly mage chuckled. "Maybe you'll be able to mellow that tongue of hers with your sweet temper!"
"Don't I get any say in this?" Martis spluttered.
"Assuredly." Lyran let her go, and putting both hands on her shoulders, turned so that she could face him. "Martis, thena, lady of my heart and Balance of my soul, would you deign to share your life with me?"
She looked deeply and soberly into his eyes. "Do you mean that?" she whispered. "Do you really mean that?"
He nodded, slowly.
"Then" she swallowed, and her eyes misted briefly. Then the sparkle of mischief that he loved came back to them, and she grinned. "Will you bloody well stop calling yourself `this one' if I say yes?"
He sighed, and nodded again.
"Then that is an offer I will definitely not refuse!"
This story was written for the Grail anthology that was to be presented at the World Fantasy convention in Atlanta. Richard Gilliam, approached me and asked me if I would contribute. We discussed this idea, which I had almost immediately, and he loved it, so I wrote it. The book was later broken into two volumes and published as Grails of Light and Grails of Darkness.
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