I’ve got to save the wouivres. Josse ran on up the narrow track, struggling to keep his balance on the loose scree beneath his feet. I have to do it to help Eliane. But how? The paralyzing sense of terror grew with every stumbling step but he determined to ignore it. Must keep moving, must keep –
In his desperate haste, he tripped over a stone and went sprawling. Winded, knees and palms smarting, grazed from where they had hit the rough ground, he pushed himself up again.
A man stood on an outcrop of rock, his tall figure silhouetted starkly against the white disc of the rising moon. High above his head wreathed the wouivres, slender threads of undulating silvered light. His long dark hair was blown like tattered black ribbons about his head by the gusting winds that the wouivres drew in their wake.
“Azhkanizkael.” He pronounced the name slowly, syllable by syllable, as if it were an incantation. His voice rang out in the chill night, harsh with an unfamiliar accent. And Josse saw his wouivre writhe in the air as if he had been bound by an invisible rope. “Acknowledge me, your new master. I am Istvan Tivadar. Say my name in recognition of our contract.”
“No!” The cry tore from Josse’s throat before he had even thought what he was saying. “Don’t do it, Izkael. You’re mine.”
The wouivre turned its head and stared at him. “You’re too late. This magus has already spoken the words of binding.”
“How can I be too late? You haven’t acknowledged him yet,” yelled Josse, not caring in his fury that he was daring to oppose the will of a powerful Drakomancer.
“What in hell’s name do you think you’re doing?” The magus was gazing down at him, eyes simmering with a cold fury. “Get out of my way, boy – or I’ll make you regret you ever dared to get between me and my quarry.” He reached out both hands to the sky as if to draw the wouivre to him. “Azhkanizkael.” His voice throbbed, tainted with naked desire. “Come with me. I have so much to offer you. Just say my name.”
“Don’t listen to him, Izkael!” Josse was almost sobbing in his desperation. He had never cared about anything so passionately in his life – and now it was going to be taken away from him.
“Enough.” The magus made a sudden movement with his right hand, as though snatching something out of the night sky – and hurled it toward Josse. A sudden blast of stormwind hit Josse like the lash of a whip, knocking the breath from his lungs, sending him tumbling over and over down the steep slope toward the precipitous edge of the path.
He heard his own scream of terror echoing around the peaks high and shrill as a mountain hawk’s cry. Hurtling down through the cold, dark air, he knew that this time there was no ledge to break his fall.
I’m going to die.
And in that fleeting instant he knew that, however wretched and guilty he still felt, he no longer wanted to lose his hold on life.
A shimmer of silver flickered before his eyes as he fell, like a phosphorescent water snake swimming sinuously through a dark lake.
Josse grabbed. His wildly clawing hands gripped and hung on as the snaking coils of the wouivre’s body slid swiftly beneath his own, bearing him upward. Straddling the wouivre’s back like a horse, he leaned forward, resting his dizzied head against the sinuous scaly neck.
“Azhkanizkael,” he gasped, still winded, “say my name…”
A spear of lightning crackled past Izkael’s head and the wouivre let out a hiss of fury. Istvan Tivadar was not going to give up so easily.
Josse sensed something like a sigh of resignation ripple through Izkael’s coils.
“I acknowledge you…as my master, Josselin Vernier.”
“No!” Tivadar’s furious cry rolled around the mountains like thunder.
“Thank you.” Josse, terrified as he was, felt a thrill of exultation at the sound of those words. Izkael had accepted him; “Now let’s go save your brother.”
Then they were streaking back up the mountainside toward the magus, the speed of the ascent knocking the breath from Josse’s lungs. Yet as he clung on for dear life, he realized that the feel of the wouivre’s body was not at all as he had imagined; the translucent scales were not crystalline but silkily smooth and fused with a supple, sinuous strength that rippled with every rhythmical undulation.
“If you think I’ve traveled this far to leave empty-handed, then you’re very much mistaken.” Istvan Tivadar drew a length of glimmering rope from inside his greatcoat. “I didn’t want to use this. But you leave me no choice.”
“What is the magus doing?” Josse leaned low over Izkael’s neck to get a better look and saw, in the uncertain moonlight, that the magus was unraveling not rope but a translucent net that shimmered as if its strands were shot through with starlight.
“No – not that.” A shudder rippled through Izkael’s body.
“What is it, Izkael?” Josse sensed Izkael’s revulsion pulsing through the wouivre’s coils like a strong current and the realization that even so powerful a creature could be cowed by Tivadar’s Drakomancy brought a sour wash of fear into his mouth. We’re outmatched.
“A snare. An Arcadien Angelsnare.”
The name meant nothing to Josse but he felt Izkael’s growing alarm as powerfully as if it were his own. There must be something we can do to save Asamkis.
“Say my name, Asamkis. Acknowledge me as your master.” Tivadar flung the net high into the air; its glistening mesh settled over Asamkis like sticky gossamer
“Help me, Izkael…” The helpless wouivre began to thrash and twist. “Can’t break free – ahh, it burns, it burns… ”
“He’s in pain.” Josse gripped Izkael’s scaly neck tighter, sickened by the sight of Asamkis’s distress.
“Just say my name. And your torment will be at an end.” Like a fisherman reeling in his catch, Tivadar tugged on the Angelsnare and began to haul the struggling wouivre toward him.
“Release my brother.” Josse could feel Izkael’s rage as keenly as he had first felt it that terrible day in the village.
“Very well. I’ll release him – in exchange for you, Azhkanizkael.” Josse heard the triumph in the magus’s voice. “Break your bond with the boy and I’ll let your brother go.”
“It’s too late for that. Our bond can only be broken by death.” The wouivre’s words echoed around the bare mountainside like the rumbling of thunder.
“Then kill him.”
Josse froze. This man was ruthless. He didn’t care if a life – his life – was lost, as long as he got what he desired. And Izkael could dispose of him so easily, could unseat him with one flick of his sinuous body and toss him to his death on the rocks.
“No. Don’t kill the boy.” Asamkis ceased to struggle. “He means too much to our sister. I will do as this man desires.”
Josse heard the words as if from very far away. Asamkis was giving himself to the magus in exchange for his life. He wanted to cry out to him but there was suddenly a tight knot in his throat, choking his words.
“Asamkis,” he managed to whisper. The wouivre turned its head and its gentle eyes rested on him and Izkael a moment, with a look that was warm yet regretful. “Take care of my headstrong brother, Josse.”
“Of course I will.” Josse cried back, voice choked with tears. Although surely Asamkis meant it the other way around? He was only a mortal boy and Izkael was a creature of the elements.
“But now that you’re mine, Asamkis,” said Tivadar quietly, “you will do my bidding. Even if I set brother against brother, you will obey me.”
Another shudder of fury rippled through Izkael’s body.
“You’re too willful a steed, Azhkanizkael. Your brother will make a far better servant; I can break him to do exactly as I wish.” And while Josse looked on, helpless, the magus deftly wound the Angelsnare into a single strand, tugging on the glistening tether until Asamkis was close enough for him to climb up onto his pearl-scaled back. There was something about the forceful way that he pulled on the snare that made Josse flinch, as if the enchanted rope were biting into his own flesh.
“Till we meet again, Josselin Vernier.” Tivadar must have heard his name and remembered it; this was not good. “You’re only a child. If you believe that you’ve mastered Azhkanizkael, then you’re deceiving yourself,” called back the magus as he turned Asamkis’s head toward the east. “You won’t be able to control him for long. And then I shall return and take him from you.”
“Asamkis!” cried Izkael, straining to go after them.
As if in reply, Tivadar raised one arm in a swift, violent gesture as though cracking an invisible whip; a vast surge of wind blasted toward them, tossing the powerful Izkael aside as easily as if he were a feather.
Izkael let out a great roar of frustration as he was swept away and Josse had to cling on with all his strength to keep from falling off.
“Protect our sister…” Asamkis’s last words came floating back to them and then his glimmering form was swallowed up by the darkness.
“So Asamkis is gone.” Eliane sat opposite him at the table, yet in the flickering shadows cast by the fire Josse couldn’t see her expression clearly enough to judge how she was feeling.
“I tried to stop that magus. But he was too powerful.” He scowled down at the bowl of hot milk she had warmed for him; the scent of cinnamon and honey that she had mixed in was seductively delicious. He didn’t think that he deserved such a treat.
A violent wind gusted outside, rattling the shutters and making the flames in the fire flare wildly. Azhkanizkael was venting his frustration in the valley, darting through the valley and back again. Josse looked up anxiously at Eliane. “He’s so angry. Suppose he loses control again?”
“Let him rage. He’ll quiet down eventually.”
“But I was too weak to stand up to that man Tivadar. And it was because Izkael saved me that we lost Asamkis. I’m not sure he’ll ever forgive me.”
She leaned across the table and took his hand in hers, pressing it. Her fingers were rough with work but the pressure was reassuringly warm and firm. “The truth is, Josse, that none of us was strong enough. The binding spell he put on us was too powerful. If you hadn’t got there when you did, he would have taken both of my brothers.”
Josse wanted to be consoled by her words, but all he felt was disgust at his helplessness. If only he could have challenged Tivadar and broken the binding spell that he put on Asamkis. He knew that Eliane must be hurting at the loss of her younger brother – and worse, still, he feared that Izkael would hate him forever. He took a gulp of the spiced milk and felt it trace a path down his throat, bringing a warming glow to his numb body.
“Asamkis said…” he began slowly, setting the bowl down, taking care not to meet her eyes. “He said that I mean…too much to you. Why?”
She did not answer directly and in the silence he heard another gust of wind howl around the chimney top. “I believe there may be some connection between us.” She stood up abruptly and went over to lay another log on the fire so that he couldn’t see her expression.
“What…kind of connection?” he asked warily.
“Your mother’s maiden name. Before she was married. What was it?” She didn’t turn to him as she spoke, busying herself with raking the glowing embers. And although the question was asked casually enough, Josse sensed that she was eager to hear his reply.
“Joriouz. Clémence-Marie Joriouz. I never knew her. She died giving birth to me. They said – they said – ” and suddenly the words dried in his mouth.
“What did they say, Josse?”
“That it was my fault. I killed her.” He had clenched his fists so tightly that his nails bit into his palms.
“Those villagers speak a lot of nonsense. Of course you didn’t kill her. Ignorant doctors and lazy midwives were to blame, most like.”
He didn’t hear her move but suddenly felt her hands on his shoulders, squeezing comfortingly. “Joriouz is a name well known round here. The lords of Joriouz used to rule the valley below. Your mother came from my valley, Josse.”
“Long ago, when I was other than I am now, I fell in love and left my brothers to marry the lord of Joriouz.” Her voice had taken on a soft, dreaming quality, as if she were sifting through many lifetimes’ memories. “His name was Clément de Joriouz and he was a fine man. Even now that so many years have passed, I still miss him.”
“Am I your grandson then?” Even as he asked, he knew that he hoped with all his heart she would say ‘yes.’ She had given him more love and understanding in these few weeks than he had ever experienced under his father’s roof.
“My grandson’s grandchild, more like,” she said with a self-deprecating little laugh. “I’m a lot older than you might imagine, Josse Vernier.”
Without quite realizing what he was doing, Josse leaned back against her, and closed his eyes as he felt her lightly ruffle his hair. “Your great-great-grandson, then.”
She tapped him sharply on the head. “Did no one ever teach you that it’s impolite to remind a lady of her age?”
“But why does that man – Tivadar – want your brothers? What will he do with Asamkis?”
“My guess would be that he’s in the Empress Gizela’s pay. That name – Istvan Tivadar – has an Allegondan taint.”
“So she’s employed him to seal Asamkis away? To imprison him?” Josse was so outraged that he felt a flicker of that lethal incandescence flare again in his mind. “That’s just condemning him to a living death.”
Eliane must have sensed the flicker too, for she placed one hand on his forehead, as if to seal and contain the anger before it erupted. But Josse had begun to relive Tivadar’s terrifying assault; he sat hunched on the worn wooden chair, shuddering until his teeth chattered.
“He used an Angelsnare. Asamkis said – ” and he stumbled over the words, remembering the gentle wouivre’s agonized reaction – “that it burned him. He was in such pain. What’s an Angelsnare, Eliane – and why did it hurt him so badly?”
He felt her draw in a slow, deep breath. “An Angelsnare? That’s ancient magic from long ago,” she said eventually. “Woven from angel’s hair, soaked in holy water, it acts like acid on a wouivre’s sensitive scales. Not only does it burn, it also saps the natural energy that flows through our bodies, making us weak.”
“It was so horrible to have to watch – and not be able to do anything to help him.” Another silvered flicker of anger seared his mind and, as if in response, a fierce gust of wind lashed the hut, making the timbers creak and groan. “Why couldn’t I save him?”
Eliane dropped to her knees beside Josse and wrapped her arms around him. “Hush, Josse.”
In the grip of the fit, Josse could feel his everyday self slipping further away as little stars of silver fizzed and burst in his mind.
“Calm yourself.” Eliane’s soothing voice began to calm the fury possessing him.”You must learn to control your gift, not let it rage unconstrained.” She rested her head against his. “And if you can, perhaps you’ll be the one who sets Asamkis free – and the other wouivres her servants have imprisoned.”
“Me?” Josse leaned against her, the madness spent. Suddenly he was bone-achingly tired – yet not so exhausted that he hadn’t heard the challenge in her last words. “How, Eliane? Can you teach me?”
She shook her head. “You need to find a real magus who’s learned to master his own gift. One like Tivadar.”
Even the sound of the hated name made Josse shiver.“Not Tivadar.”
“Were you even listening?” She tweaked his nose.
“Ow! Why did you do that?”
“There are others, Josse, though very few…and they keep their gifts hidden to avoid trouble.”
“You know of one. You do!” He turned around to her, excited in spite of his misgivings. “Who is he? Where do I find him?”
“I don’t know. I don’t much care. He’s bad luck, that one, you’d do best to stay away from him.” She stood up, smoothing out the folds of her crumpled skirt. Just like an offended cat, fur bristling. What can this magus have done to upset her so badly?
“But if he’s the only one who can help me set Asamkis free – ”
“We’ll find another way.”
“What’s his name?”
Eliane pulled a sour face. “He calls himself Louarn these days. Not his true name, of course.”
“Louarn,” echoed Josse, vowing not to forget it. In one night he had realized that there were at least two others who had suffered – and learned to master – the same cursed gift as his own.
“Forget I said anything. I don’t want any child of mine getting mixed up with him.”
“I told you; he’s bad luck. His last apprentice was killed because of his negligence. Or so they say… Just because you’re my great-great-grandson doesn’t make you immortal, Josse. Now we must get some sleep; the dawn will come all too soon and the hens and goats will need feeding, no matter what went on in the night. ”
Josse lay down in the emberlight of the dying fire and closed his eyes. Little stars of silver still floated like falling snowflakes across his closed lids.
My gift is growing stronger and harder to control. Even though Eliane had warned him to stay away – sooner or later he would have to go seek out this magus Louarn. What manner of man could he be? Unlucky, she had said. Negligent enough to fail to protect his own apprentice. Not the kind of master I’d want to work for, but…
Another silvered star burst into a myriad fragments.
How long before I lose control altogether?
- * -