A silvered streak pierces the boy’s sleep, the stab of an icy blade penetrating deep into his brain.
He is standing on the edge of the reculée, looking down at the roofs of his home village below. His head begins to throb. The pressure rapidly becomes so strong that, even though he presses both hands to his temples, it feels as if his skull will burst open. The skies have darkened, as if a thunderstorm is rolling in across the peaks from the west.
And then he sees the silvered streak again. Lightning. But surely no shaft of lightning ever moved in this way, sinuously snaking through the charred grey of the boiling clouds, coming on toward him. Directly toward him.
He drops to his knees, crying aloud as the pain pierces his mind again, setting his whole brain tingling as if ice crystals were growing and multiplying inside his head.
“N – no. Stop. Please stop – ”
“Wake up, Josse. Wake up!”
Gasping, Josse surfaced from the drowning tide of his nightmare, to find his father bending over him, one hand gripping his shoulder, shaking him awake. Still caught up in the terror of his dream, he clutched at his father’s arm. “It’s coming,” he cried. “We’ve got to warn everyone.”
“What are you babbling about?” His father’s eyes were dully glazed, his breath had a strong taint of eau-de-vie. He must have been at the bottle again. “Nothing’s coming. Except a beating if you don’t settle down and get back to sleep.”
It wasn’t the first time that Josse had experienced these dreams. And each one had become more vivid than the last – and more foreboding.
All summer he had been up in the high pastures, tending the flock of goats that belonged to old Uncle Guion. The solitude soothed him. He liked to sit in the shade of a rowan tree and read one of his father’s precious books, sneaked out of his study: a battered volume of poetry, a human anatomy, or, better still, a treatise on the flora and fauna of the mountains where they lived.
But when he returned to Baume, driving the flock along the winding street to his uncle’s cottage, the villagers’ whispering had started again.
“Did you see his eyes?”
“There’s no mistaking it now.”
“Is it an illness? Is he going blind?”
“Don’t you know anything? Eyes like that – silver eyes – they’re the sign of evil. He’s a cursed child.”
“Maybe it was a blessing his poor mother died in childbirth.”
“Maybe that was what killed her…”
And when he reluctantly returned to his father’s house, his father had emerged from the room where he treated his patients. Without a word of greeting, he had tipped Josse’s face up to his, gazing searchingly into his face.
“So it’s true what the villagers are saying.” He let go of him, turning away so that Josse could not see his expression.
“What does it mean?” Josse didn’t want to ask the question but somehow the words issued from his mouth. “Why am I different? Will I go blind?”
“Those old wives talk a deal of nonsense.” And with that brusque observation, Doctor Vernier had gone into his study and Josse had heard the all-too-familiar sound of the eau-de-vie bottle being uncorked, followed by the glug of liquid being poured into a glass.
“Eat your breakfast,” said Mère Helie, the Verniers’ housekeeper. “It’s going cold.”
Josse stared at his bowl of bread and hot milk as it cooled, a thin skin forming on the top. He didn’t feel like eating.
Was a storm really coming? It might be the end of summer, but the morning was warm and bright. Yet the sick feeling intensified. A disturbance. Why am I the only one who can sense it? A disturbance in the air.
The bell started to clang for school.
He sat on the doorstep, tying his boot laces, as the other children hurried past toward the schoolhouse. Today was the first day of the new school year. He scowled at their backs as they ran along the lane, their clogs clattering over the stones, their bright, careless laughter echoing behind them. Not one stopped to wait for him, although he saw Meraude glance back over her shoulder, until her brother Mathelin grabbed her hand, roughly pulling her onward to keep up with him. Meraude was the only one who didn’t ignore him – or play practical jokes.
As he reached the school gateway he saw a cluster of boys hanging around, hands in pockets, Mathelin among them. In the yard behind, the girls played hopping games, clapped hands together, and sang. Josse hung back. Which was worse: being roughed up by Mathelin and his gang, or earning a taste of Père Apsolon’s cane for being late?
But he had been spotted. He saw Mathelin look around, fixing him with a frowning stare.
“Look what came back to the village with Papy Guion’s goats,” he said, just loud enough for Josse to hear.
“When we’re done with him, he’ll wish he’d stayed up in the summer pastures,” said Fanch, the butcher’s son, punching his palm suggestively.
Josse looked away, pretending not to have heard. There was a dull ache in the pit of his stomach. I should have eaten something. The clang of the school bell stopped and Père Apsolon opened the door, coming out onto the steps.
“Into line!” he ordered sternly. “Girls on the right, boys on the left. New children at the front.”
The boys at the gate slowly, reluctantly slunk into line.
“Hands out of pockets!” Père Apsolon swished his cane, striking it against the door with a loud thwack. One of the new little boys began to cry. Josse saw Meraude run forward to give him a consoling hug.
“Back to your place, Meraude!” The village priest might not be very tall but he made up for his lack of height in fierceness; all the children were terrified of him. “Lead in to the classroom.”
Josse swallowed down his apprehension and stole out of his hiding place to join on the end of the boys’ line. As he reached Père Apsolon, he could feel the priest’s eyes burning into him.
“Josse Vernier, you’re late. Hold out your hand.”
Josse obediently held out his left hand, palm raised, and gritted his teeth, waiting for the downward swish of the cane. But worse than the stinging pain that followed was the sound of the boys’ delighted sniggering from inside the classroom.
“I expect better from a talented student like you.” The anger had gone from Père Apsolon’s voice. “Look at me, Josse.”
Josse slowly raised his head and as he unwillingly met the priest’s piercing stare, he saw him make the sign to avert evil.
“So the village gossip was true. Your eyes – ”
A rowdy burst of chanting broke out in the classroom. Père Apsolon swept past Josse into the classroom, his black gown flapping. “See me after school, Josse.” Next moment, he flung the register down on his desk with a resounding thud that brought immediate silence.
“Answer ‘Yes, mon père’ when I call your name. Say nothing else. My cane has been idle all summer and it’s eager to correct naughty children who don’t know how to behave.”
See me after school. Père Apsolon’s words tolled through Josse’s mind like a funeral bell all day, filling him with a nagging sense of dread.
What was the priest going to do to him? Subject him to some religious ritual to cleanse his soul of the ‘curse’?
He hardly noticed the work he was set, rapidly working his way through the arithmetic and grammar exercises with ease and finishing long before the others who were still chewing their pencils, scratching their ears, or staring out of the window. Nothing stretched him; he found it all too easy and longed for something more challenging to exercise his mind. He was working on a plan to sneak out at the end of lessons before Père Apsolon realized that he had gone. But the ominous turbulence in his head had begun to churn again and, pushing his school book aside, he rested his forehead on his arms.
“No dozing off in class,” came a loud whisper from behind him. Next moment something wet hit the back of his neck; when he raised his hand to feel what it was, his fingers came away black with ink. Another ruined shirt; Mère Helie would tell him off and make him scrub it clean himself.
Père Apsolon rang his hand bell. “School dismissed. Any pupil with mistakes will copy their work out again tomorrow five times.” He leaned over his desk glaring at them. “And that means all of you – with the exception of Josse who seems to have achieved a perfect score.”
This news was greeted with a dull groan and several resentful looks shot in Josse’s direction. And just as he was attempting to slip away in the rush for the open door, he felt a hand grab his collar.
“Give this to your father, Josse.” Père Apsolon placed a sealed letter in his hand. “I want to see you both tonight at the church. I’ve explained it all in the letter. The sooner we deal with this curse afflicting you, the better.”
Josse stuck the letter in his pocket. The slow pulsing in his head had begun again and it was all he could do to see his way out of the dark schoolroom and into the street. He glanced up at the sky, looking for the coming storm he could sense. And tripped up over an outstretched foot.
He looked up dazedly to see that Mathelin and his gang had surrounded him. His grazed knees stung.
“So you think you’re better than us?” Mathelin said, his lips twisted in a mocking grin. “Just because you got all your sums right?”
Josse pushed himself up onto one knee. He had not been paying attention and they had cornered him. There was no escape.
“If you’re so clever, teacher’s pet,” and Mathelin planted his foot on Josse’s chest, “why don’t you go crying back to school and get Père Apsolon out here to beat the shit out of us?” He kicked out suddenly and Josse went down again, winded, retching as Mathelin’s boot caught him in the gut.
A burst of jeering laughter greeted Mathelin’s suggestion.
“Stop, Mathelin.” Meraude tugged at her brother’s arm. “That’s enough!”
“Stay out of this, Meraude.” Mathelin shook her off, sending her sprawling in the mud.
And suddenly Josse knew he had reached his limit. He had put up with this persecution too long.
He was slender, wiry, agile at ducking Mathelin’s blows – but the older boy was bigger than him, and with the others having formed a circle around them, there was nowhere to run.
The sky had darkened as clouds gathered above the village, swirling and churning to form a funnel. The pressure was building in Josse’s skull; he clamped his hands to his pounding temples, certain his brains were about to burst out.
A harsh and unforgiving wind suddenly tore through the village, whipping tiles off roofs and ripping branches from trees.
Somewhere from faraway Josse heard Meraude’s scream, shrill and terrified, like the cry of a rabbit caught in a kite’s talons. But it was too late. The madness had possessed him and he was inextricably trapped in its coils.
It was as if some wild, untameable force of nature had heard his cry and, feeling some kinship with his fury and pain, had come speeding to his defense.
Time ceased. In that frozen instant, he saw it clearly, elongated and lethal as a lightning bolt, staring at him from eyes as silver-chill as his own. Yet how could a bolt of lightning hover suspended in the air above his head?
“Why did you call me?” Its voice was deep, like the rumble of winter thunder rolling around the valley. Its long rippling body was translucent, like liquid ice, shimmering with silver scales.
“Wh – what are you?” Josse stammered. How could he have summoned such a powerful creature? And then he saw the mad glint in its cold eyes. This creature of air and storm was uncontrollable, possessed only by the desire to destroy. With one powerful flick of its great tail, it brought walls tumbling down, sending up a great cloud of dust.
“No!” he yelled until his throat burned. “Stop!”
A look of contempt darkened its wild eyes. “You’re just a child,” it said. “What gives you the right to command me?” And then Josse saw the madness flare up once more, a cold, crazed flame flickering in its piercing gaze.
A shudder convulsed the creature’s translucent body and it gave another roar, so loud that the stones in the valley shuddered in response.
Josse blinked. The creature had gone and with it the madness that had possessed him. But it had left a trail of destruction in its turbulent wake.
The village street was barely recognizable. Tiles lay smashed in the road, walls had collapsed, leaving piles of rubble where familiar cottages had stood. His neighbours, their hair and faces pale with a powdery film of dust, stumbled out of the ruins, coughing and wheezing.
“The children,” gasped Mère Helie. “Where are the children?”
He stood watching helplessly as the villagers tore at the tumbled stones with their bare hands. He wanted to go help them but he couldn’t move.
“Bring spades, shovels!” someone shouted.
He saw them pull out a little body from beneath the ruins of the wall, fair head lolling back against her rescuer’s shoulder, bruised hand dangling limply.
“Meraude,” he whispered.
A choking feeling was rising in his chest, his throat. He couldn’t breathe.
Faces turned toward him, ugly with grief and hatred. Familiar faces that now looked on him with loathing.
“You did this, Josse Vernier.” Mathelin, blood trickling from a ragged gash on his dust-caked forehead, shoved him in the chest. Josse stumbled and fell back. “It’s your fault she’s dead.”
“You called that creature here.” Even Mère Helie was accusing him. “Look what you’ve done.”
“I didn’t mean to – ” Josse began to retreat, one wobbling step at a time.
Other villagers began to turn on him “You brought that creature of darkness here.”
“You’ll pay for this.”
“Cursed child. You don’t deserve to live.”
He saw – only he didn’t quite register what was happening – the butcher grabbing a lump of fallen stone. Next moment the man’s powerful arm was raised and the stone was hurtling through the air. Josse, dazed, ducked. The stone missed but another, thrown with greater accuracy, caught him on the shoulder. Another hit him in the small of the back, half-winding him, knocking him to one knee. Others thudded close by.
Josse turned and ran for his life.
On the mountain path, Josse stopped. His lungs burned with the effort of running. He had a stitch in his side. Far below he could see the village – or what remained of it. A dust cloud still hung like a pall of smoke over the broken roofs and from this height he could see the villagers, tiny as scuttling beetles, still labouring desperately to dig beneath the rubble of the collapsed houses.
Cursed child. Freak. Murderer.
The wind blew cold on his face, setting his eyes watering.
Yes, it must be the harsh wind. He couldn’t be crying.
He never cried.
I can never go back. Josse stumbled, lost his footing on the treacherous scree beneath his feet, and felt himself falling.
So this is the end…
Why was he scrabbling to try to grab hold of something – anything – to save himself What stubborn instinct to cling onto life was controlling his hands? His clawing fingers made contact with a trailing briar – and the pain of the thorns seared through his flesh, jolting him back to consciousness.
“I – can’t – hold on – ”
Better to let go and drop into the chill, misty oblivion that lay below.
But it will hurt.
“Only – for a little while…”
What was the point in going on anyway? He had done a terrible thing. He did not deserve to live.
His thorn-lacerated hands began to loosen their grip. He was sliding slowly down the precipitous, crumbling edge, sending a steady trickle of little stones and earth out into the void beneath.
“Can’t – hold on – any longer – ”
He let go.
As he hurtled helplessly downward, he felt a sudden gust of wind buffet him.
Eyes glimmered through the mist, twin stars of silvered crystal. Cold, inhuman eyes, just like his own.
And then there was nothing.
- * -
Still falling, yet never hitting the ground, never reaching that ultimate moment when bone would smash, crunch and crumble with the impact…
Josse woke with a start.
A dull ember-glow lit the darkness. A fire? Josse tried to move his head to see more clearly – and as a jagged bolt of pain shot through his body, he heard a whispering groan issue from his mouth. Something moved in the darkness, looming over him, giving off a faint jingling sound.
“So you’re awake at last.” A face appeared above his, a weather-beaten face, browned by the sun, adorned by earrings of gold and enamelled discs that glittered dully in the firelight. A woman, with dark hair woven through with threads of silver, was bending over him.
“At…last?” He could hardly enunciate the words. “How…long?”
“You’ve been wandering the borders between this world and the next for several days now. I had a hard time calling you back.” She reached out to feel his forehead. He flinched instinctively, then wished he hadn’t as the pain intensified again, from a dull ache to a vivid shimmer. “Seems to me you had little to hold you to this world,” she said softly, her voice dry, like the rustle of dead leaves in autumn. There was something strangely soothing in the light brush of her fingers on his brow, although he usually hated to be touched. “And yet your fever’s broken.” Maybe it was just that he hadn’t the strength to resist. “So, what’s your name?” she asked, gently withdrawing her hand.
He scowled. “Josse. Short for Josselin.”
“An unusual name for a mountain village child.”
And he had suffered enough for his name, let alone his other features. “My father’s the village doctor; he named me after some famous physician or other…” Talking was exhausting. He closed his eyes.
“Sleep then, Josse. And stay well away from the other world.” As the dark waves of sleep rolled up to wash over him again, he heard her whisper, “Whatever you may wish, it’s not yet your time.”
Josse opened his eyes. A cool, grey light seeped in from a half-open door, revealing the interior of a mountain hut, like those used by the village goatherds high in the summer pastures. Josse had spent the last two summers in shelters like these, helping old Uncle Guion. This hut was sturdily constructed from logs of mountain pine, which had darkened with smoke and age.
A figure appeared in the doorway. “Weather’s on the turn,” announced a woman’s voice. Josse heard her grunt – and then the clank of a bucket set down on the hearthstone.
“We’ll get the water heated – and then brew the tea.” Was she talking to herself? He tried to lift his head to see if anyone else were there in the hut– and, dizzy with the effort, flopped back on the straw mattress.
“Good morning, Josse.” She knelt beside him and took his wrist to feel the pulse. “The fever’s down.” She nodded approvingly. “You must be hungry. Some broth will help you heal.” She moved away again toward the hearth.
“Who – are you?” The words came out slowly, awkwardly; his mouth was sticky and dry. “And…why? Why are you looking after me?”
“My name?” she said, stoking the fire with fresh kindling. “You can call me Eliane.”
The name meant nothing to Josse. He supposed that she, not being from his village, knew nothing of his reputation – or of the terrible thing he had done. “But why did you take me in?”
She looked round at this and grinned wryly at him, wiping a cinder smut from her cheek. “It’s a long while since there’s been a man about the place.”
A man? What was she expecting of him? He was only twelve – and so weak that he was hardly able to prop himself up on his sound elbow.
Suddenly she was bending over him again. One hand cupped his chin, raising his face toward her penetrating gaze. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed, Josse. You’re a rare one, and no mistake.”
“I’m cursed.” He tried to look away, but there was something in her expression that compelled him to hold her gaze.
“They told you that?” Then her voice softened. “But then they would; people fear what they don’t understand. Silver eyes are a curse. Your mother must have slept with a daemon to produce such a freak of nature.”
“It’s not true!”
“But your eyes are clear as winter ice, Josse. Or a cloudy sky after snowfall up on the peaks.”
“They’re unnatural,” he said dully. No matter what she said, she could not change the way the villagers thought about him.
“They’re the outward manifestation of your inner powers.” The lid on the kettle suspended over the fire began to rattle and steam hissed out of the spout. She stroked his cheek. “It’s a gift, not a curse,” she said, going to take the kettle off its hook, pouring boiling water into a battered teapot. “You must put the past behind you. I see great potential in you.”
Josse was not used to kind words or caresses. This woman seemed to know too much about him and it made him suspicious. “Are you a witch?”
Eliane burst into laughter. “Dear Josse, whatever made you think that?”
He raised his eyes to the bundles of dried herbs hanging from the beams. There was even a broomstick leaning against the wall beside the fireplace.
“Of course; every old woman living alone must be a witch.” She sat down beside him. “Now let’s take a look at this ankle of yours.” Her fingers moved deftly, unrolling the bandages that bound his right leg to the splint. “Good. That’s begun to knit together nicely.” She still seemed to be talking more to herself than to him.
“Why do you live alone?” He gritted his teeth together, determined not to cry out, although the pain as she touched the mottled yellow and purple bruising made him feel sick to his stomach.
But she had closed her eyes, as though concentrating deeply as she let her fingertips rest on his damaged skin. And through the nagging pain he thought he felt another sensation, a dry heat radiating along the length of his leg. If he closed his eyes, he could almost see the ripple of warmth as a slow, glowing tide infusing his flesh and bone with healing energy.
“Are you a healer?”
The sensation gradually subsided and she raised her head. “I do what I can.” The light had dulled in her eyes, as though the process had drained her of strength.
“Am I healed?” Impulsively Josse tried to raise his right foot – and winced as the pain returned.
“Easy there! I’m not a worker of miracles.” She began to bandage his ankle with clean linen, binding it back to the splint. “But I can hasten the healing process. As long as impatient boys don’t try to undo my good work.” She tousled his hair and went back over to the fire.
The urge to pee after a night’s sleep was becoming ever more insistent. “Where’s the – where’s the latrine?” he whispered, knowing he was blushing.
“Out back. But are you strong enough yet to go outside? I’ll fetch you a jar.”
A jar. His face was burning with embarrassment by now.
“Too late to be shy,” she said, laughing. “I’ve seen it all, Josse. How do you think you’ve managed the last few days?”
The flush spread through his whole body. He hated her for teasing him. He tried to hide it by attempting to kneel up, face averted.
She shrugged. “You were barely conscious. What else was there to do?”
“I don’t want to hear it,” he muttered under his breath. He swung his legs out of bed and forced himself to his feet.
“Look at you,” she said, catching him and holding him steady; she was surprisingly strong for her slender build. “As weak as a newborn colt.”
“I – can make it.”
“A newborn mule, then. You’re surely as stubborn. Use this stick as a crutch.”
He launched himself away from her, making toward the thin glimmer of daylight outlining the door. I can do this. One slow, unsteady step after another across the floor took him nearer to his goal, even though his damaged body protested. He reached the door and rested his forehead against the wood a moment before lifting the latch. The door swung open. Eliane had not moved, sitting back on her haunches to watch his progress.
Josse stood there, staring in amazement. The hut was perched on the mountainside and a dizzying drop lay before him into a valley far below. Crags stretched far into the misty horizon, the lower wooded slopes a shimmer of autumnal bronze, the distant peaks already dusted with the first snows. He had never been this high, even to the summer pastures. And it was so still; apart from the sighing of a chill wind and the faint, keening cry of a wheeling kite overhead, there was no sound but the rushing of a little stream close by, flowing over boulders from the icy crag above.
“How did I get this high?” he murmured. And then the urgency of his physical need reasserted itself and, clutching the rough timber for support, he limped away in search of the latrine.
As the days passed, Josse grew stronger and more confident on his feet. His ankle was on the mend, and he was soon able to hobble around the hut. He guessed that Eliane must have been giving him some sedative herbs to dull the pain for his mind slowly seemed to grow clearer, like the first mists melting away to reveal the valley below in all its details. But with the clarity, the memories came flooding back, reawakening the feelings of self-loathing and hopelessness.
I killed her. I killed Meraude. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t know that creature would come.
And there was nothing he could do to distract himself; he was still too weak to help with the chores. He sat on a chair, kicking one heel against the leg whilst Eliane moved around him, sweeping out the hearth, carrying in fresh kindling to lay a new fire, hefting in a bucket of water from the stream…
“Air’s crisp this morning,” she said, setting the bucket down and rubbing the small of her back. “But once the mist burns off, we’ll have a fine day. What do you want to eat?”
He heard the words but, lost in the darkness of his memories, couldn’t find the will to reply.
“So what’ll it be? Porridge with milk – or salt? Brunette’s given us enough milk…”
He blinked, realizing that she was standing over him, hands on her hips.
“You’re very quiet this morning,” she said. “What’s bothering you?”
“The day before you found me – did you have a storm?” He couldn’t meet her eyes; he could only stare down at the trodden earth floor. “A really bad storm?”
“I remember rain, and strong winds. But it looked to me as if the heart of the storm, the thunder…and the lightning…was concentrated to the west of here, over the valley of the Seille.”
He nodded, still unable to meet her eyes.
“Were you in the mountains when the storm struck, Josse?” The question was asked in an even tone of voice. There was no way she could know what really happened. “That must have been frightening. But aren’t there people waiting for you back in your village? Family? They must be worried. We should send word that you’re all right.”
He shook his head. “No need,” he said in small, tight voice.
Eliane knelt down beside him. “And if they come looking?”
“They won’t. They’d rather I disappeared. ’Specially after what I…” His voice trailed away. He wasn’t ready to talk about it. He wasn’t used to being listened to sympathetically. He was, after all, a cursed child.
“Porridge, then.” She pushed herself up and went over to the hearth. “It’s a good lining for the stomach on autumn mornings.”
As she measured out a cup of oats into a cooking pot, he watched her and began to wonder where the provisions came from. She kept a couple of goats and a clutch of chickens behind the hut. Did she pay for her groceries in eggs and milk? Or did she use her healing skills to earn enough to live on? But surely she didn’t spend the winters up here? It was so high, so remote. If she fell ill, who would care for her?
“When the snows come,” he began awkwardly, “where do you go?”
“Me?” She had her back to him, concentrating on using the bellows to strengthen the flames.
“Where’s the nearest village?”
“My, my, what a lot of questions. When you’re fit enough you can help me on market day. Now, come and stir this porridge for me while I go see what the hens have laid for us.” She stood up and held out the spoon to him. “And don’t let it burn.”
A silvered streak pierced Josse’s sleep. He woke, shivering, certain that he must have cried out and disturbed Eliane.
He gazed around the darkened hut, seeing only the emberglow in the fireplace.
“Eliane?” he called out uncertainly.
No one answered. Where could she have gone in the middle of the night? He checked to see if her broomstick was still in its usual place.
What am I doing? She isn’t a witch…is she?
The stab of silver radiated through his brain once more. He clutched his head.
“You’re back.” He went to the door and, unlatching it, gazed out. The black sky was bright with stars and a full moon illuminated the mountainside with a cold, pure light. The cold air smelled sharp, yet strangely sweet, as if infused with some unfamiliar element wafting from another world.
And then he saw it, that undulating streak of silvery radiance. It threaded its way across the night sky – before dipping down, just out of sight, beyond the ridge above the hut.
Josse didn’t even stop to think. He grabbed his blanket, wrapped it around himself like a cloak, and, oblivious to the pain, forced his feet into Eliane’s sturdy spare leathern clogs. He latched the door behind him and set out, drawn to the pale radiance that illuminated the mountain night.
“We have unfinished business,” he muttered as he limped stubbornly onward up the rough track, “you and I.”
Josse recognized Eliane’s voice, calling out into the night. But what strange language was she speaking? It sounded like some dark, arcane incantation.
He crept a little closer, trying not to dislodge any of the treacherous loose scree underfoot. So she was a witch.
As the rags of cloud drifted aside and the moonlight shone out once more, illuminating the little lake below the ridge, he saw a sight that made him rub his eyes in disbelief. Eliane stood on an outcrop of rock overlooking the black waters and around her wreathed two translucent sky-dragons, one giving off a soft, pale sheen, like white gold against the night sky.
But Josse knew the other only too well; it was the silver storm-bringer that had torn through his village, wreaking destruction.
“Come back to us.” The silver sky-dragon’s voice sent fever-chills through Josse’s body.
“You know that’s impossible. I can never return to the skies.” There was a weary sadness in Eliane’s words that Josse had never heard before. “I’ve lived among mortals too long. I’ve lost the ability to shift my shape.”
“Then why are you here?” It coiled its snake-like body around hers. At first he feared it was about to crush her – but then he sensed an overpowering aura of affection exuding from its translucent coils.
“I heard about the storm on the mountain. The destruction. What have they done to you, Izkael, to make you lash out so viciously at the mortals?” She lifted her hand and stroked the silver-scaled head.
Josse stared, transfixed. A yearning washed over him, so strong that it made his whole body ache.
“Someone called to me. A wind magus.”
A wind magus? What did the sky-dragon mean? Forgetting his fear, Josse crept closer.
“Ah,” he heard Eliane say. “So it was him. I had my suspicions, but now…”
“He’s here, isn’t he? I can sense him. But he’s only a child. He’s too weak to master me. ”
Eliane glanced around. Josse froze.
What would they do to him? Would they punish him for spying on them? “Come out, Josse.”
He heard Eliane’s command but his body refused to move.
“There’s no point in hiding any longer.”
Josse hesitated – then emerged from behind the boulder.
The silver sky-dragon swiveled its head to stare at him with storm-riven eyes. The other gazed at him with a milder expression, almost curious. They were so weirdly beautiful – and yet so terrifying – that Josse could hardly breathe. He longed to go closer – yet the aura that they gave off was so fierce, so intimidating, that he felt his legs trembling beneath him. He forced himself forward, one step at a time.
“So you followed me,” Eliane said. “Why?” Her voice had none of its customary warmth and in the cold moonlight; her face had taken on a different aspect, her eyes glinting with an inhuman light.
“I – I couldn’t help it.”
“So now you know my secret. And what happens to those who learn the wouivre’s secret?”
He knew the old story told in the village well enough. “Th – they die?”
She reached out and put her hand on his cheek. Was she going to kill him? He didn’t flinch. The villagers had died because of his uncontrollable storm fury. He deserved to die too. He stared at her, unblinking, waiting for his punishment.
The hand dropped away. “How could I kill you, Josse? You’re kin. You didn’t ask to be born with the silver eyes. With mage blood running through your veins.”
“Mage blood?” He didn’t understand.
“Your curse, as you call it. Somewhere, back in your mother’s bloodline, there must have been another with mage blood. You have to learn how to control your powers. Or many more people will die. You cried out for help – and Izkael heard you.”
That wasn’t quite how Josse remembered it. He dared to glance at the silver wouivre and saw that a glint of madness still flickered in its eyes.
“But – he cried out too. He was hurt. Angry. Confused.” Josse put his hands to his head, remembering the torrent of emotions that had overwhelmed him that disastrous afternoon.
“Like calling to like.” Eliane turned to Izkael who was hovering over the lake, the luminescence given off by his serpentine coils reflected in the glassy black of the still waters.
“I will never take another human master.” The wouivre let out a snort through its curled nostrils that sent a wave rippling across the lake to splash against the rocks on the far shore. “Especially not one as weak as this boy.”
Josse looked up. The taunt stung his pride. “I’m not weak!”
Another snort. The wouivre rose in the air, staring down at him. “Then prove it to me, Josse. Hunt me down. Bend me to your will – if you dare!” And it darted away across the lake, stirring a silvered furrow of ripples, before disappearing beyond the far peak into the night. The other wouivre followed like the breath of a summer breeze, casting its softer golden light on the waters.
It was a direct challenge.
Josse stared after the wouivres as the dark waves subsided, his fists clenched at his sides. It was a challenge he could not refuse. It wasn’t just a matter of pride – and he was prideful, he knew it, his father had often beaten him for it – but it was also an overwhelming feeling of desire. The wouivre’s powerful aura had set the blood singing in his veins. All he wanted was to be master of such a wild, elemental creature – no, not master, but equal partner. The very thought of riding through the air, borne on the back of a sky dragon, made him dizzy with excitement.
He heard Eliane let out a harsh sigh behind him and turned to see, in the moon’s cold gleam that, although her expression was still stern, even forbidding, there was a glimmer of tears in her eyes.
“Well, there’s no point standing here any longer, catching cold in the night air.” She turned away from Josse, winding her shawl around her head, and began to make her way down the stony track. Josse followed, his mind still filled with the rolling thunder of the wouivre’s voice.
Eliane said nothing until they reached her hut. But once they were inside, all was cold, damp and dark; Josse wrinkled his nose at the smoky, sooty smell. He had let the fire go out and the autumnal chill had seeped in.
“What did I tell you to do while I was gone?” she said in the darkness.
“Keep the fire alight.” Her hand shot out and struck him a single, stinging blow to the cheek. “That’s for disobeying me. How can you ever have any hope of tracking down my wild, wayward brother, if you can’t even obey a simple instruction?”
“He – he’s your brother?”
She lit the oil lamp on the table. “Answer me this, Josse. Now that you know my secret, what do you think I should do with you?”
He rubbed his sore cheek. He had endured many unfair blows in his life, but this one had been justified, so he did not resent her for hitting him. “I’ll do whatever you want,” he said at length, “but please teach me. Make me your apprentice. I’ll work really hard, I promise. And I’ll never, ever betray your secret. Because… if I do, it’ll be like…” he struggled to find the right words, “like betraying myself.”
She did not reply, only staring at him with an unreadable expression. Had he said the wrong thing? Had he offended her by likening himself to her? The thought that he might have thrown away his only chance was unbearable. But all she said was, “It’s late and you’re still recovering from your injuries. We’ll talk again in the morning.”
Josse rolled himself up in his blanket and closed his eyes. But sleep eluded him. He felt as if the wouivre’s piercing gaze was still trained on him.
Was it truly possible for a wouivre to take on mortal form? The old legends said so – and he had heard her cry out to him, “I’ve lived among mortals too long. I’ve lost the ability to shift my shape.” But in the mountain legends still told around village firesides, La Wouivre was always described as a woman, young and bewitchingly beautiful. With her lined, weather-browned face and white-sprinkled hair, Eliane could hardly be described as young, even though her strongly-sculpted cheekbones and deep-set eyes hinted that she had once been a beauty. Could her brother – and their kin – shift his shape and walk unnoticed among mortal men?
He turned on his side, curling up to try to keep warm.
And then there was her talk of mage blood. What was this term ‘mage?’ He’d never heard the word before, but it sounded very like ‘magic.’
“Stop thinking so hard and get to sleep,” came a weary voice from Eliane’s curtained bed on the far side of the hut.
“I want answers,” he murmured. “I want to know…”
Josse opened his eyes to see pale autumnal morning light filling the hut and Eliane, her hair neatly confined in a linen coif, slowly stirring a pot of porridge over the flames of a newly laid fire. The delicious oaty smell made his empty stomach growl. Embarrassed, he clamped his hand over it.
“Hungry?” she said, looking round with a little smile.
There hadn’t been a single morning when Josse didn’t wake up, filled with excitement at the start of a new day – only to have that excitement destroyed as the memory of what he had done returned to darken his mood. And yet today felt different. He spooned down Eliane’s hot porridge, relishing the taste and the warmth. As he scraped the bowl for the last remaining traces, he glanced up to see her watching him, that little half-smile still on her lips.
He nodded, holding out his bowl for a second helping.
“Tramping the mountains all night can give you an appetite.”
She could have pretended that it was all a dream. But as she ladled steaming porridge into his bowl, he gazed at her, wondering. He finished the second bowl and laid down his spoon. His physical hunger was satisfied…but not his burning desire for information.
“Are you really La Wouivre?”
“Last night you said you would do anything I asked,” she said, still with that enigmatic little smile. “So how about cleaning the porridge pot and bowls?”
He pulled a face but collected up the dirty dishes and went out the back to scrub off the glutinous residue. The valley was filled with drifting mist, soft and white as willow herb fluff, obscuring the huts of the village far below. The air tasted of frost and he shivered.
Carrying back the clean pots, he came around the side of the hut to see Eliane standing outside, gazing across the misty valley.
“Izkael and Asamkis are my younger brothers.” Her expression was grave, fixed on some far-distant point. “These mountains are our home; we were here long before the mortals came.”
“But why – how – did you become a mortal woman?” He had blurted out the question before he could help himself and felt himself blush at his crassness. “S – sorry.”
“I fell in love, Josse.” She turned to gaze at him with a mild, sad look in her eyes. “And I lived with the man I loved in the valley below for many years, until he grew old…and died. So then I tried to return to my original form. But my body had forgotten how to shift shape. But I wouldn’t have done it any differently, even if I had known that I could never fly again. That’s how love can change you.”
She was entrusting him with her innermost secret. He set down the pots on the dew-soaked grass, unsure of what to say. He knew nothing of love…but far too much about prejudice and hatred.
“Aren’t you lonely up here, all by yourself?”
“I keep watch over my grandchildren’s children down in the valley, as best I can. But they don’t know my true identity. They believe that I died many years ago. After all, what normal mortal lives to see their great-great-children growing up?” Josse could not understand why she sounded so sad. The prospect of living long beyond the normal mortal span filled him with amazement and envy. He began to think how much he could achieve in all those extra years. What would he care if those nearest to him grew old and died while he was still in his prime? He was better off without ties of family and friendship. When he looked at Eliane’s eyes and saw her blinking away tears, his determination grew even stronger. It was far better to live for himself alone. Developing feelings for other people only ended up bringing disappointment and heartbreak.
He realized that she was observing him with a keen, penetrating gaze. Had she read his thoughts? But she merely reached out and tousled his hair. “The fire’s burning low – bring us in some more firewood.”
Josse’s ankle had begun to ache. His limp became more pronounced as he carried the wood back into the hut and put it in the bucket beside the stove.
He heard Eliane click her tongue in disapproval. “Have you undone all my good work? Tramping over the mountains before those sinews are properly healed? Come inside and let me take a look at it.”
Biting his lip against the pain, he sat down on a bench and let her unwind the tight bandage she had wrapped around his ankle and foot for support. “A cold mallow compress should soothe the swelling.” She brought over a fresh dressing and ointment, talking almost to herself as she worked. “There are not so many of my kin these days, and those that still haunt the hidden places in the mountains keep themselves to themselves. So it was here, in the valley of the Seille. Then he came – and tracked Izkael down. First he lured him, with all manner of soft words – and then he broke him, as a rider breaks in a horse. My proud, willful brother became that magus’s prisoner.” Her voice had become very quiet. “And I could do nothing to prevent it.”
“He? Who do you mean, Eliane?” Josse had been listening with such attention that he had forgotten the pain in his ankle.
“He’s called Louarn.” It was as if a cloud had passed across the sun as she pronounced the name and Josse shivered. “He’s a Drakomancer who betrays his kind by working for the Church of Arcadie.”
“Working for the Church?” Josse had no idea what she was talking about.
“Hadn’t you heard?” Eliane said. “I suppose such news travels slowly. The Empress Gizela has declared a holy war against my kin; under her orders, all wouivres must be caught and sealed away in labyrinths in the cathedrals.”
“Sealed away?” Josse shivered. For an elemental creature imprisonment within the stones of a great cathedral must be an unendurable torture. No wonder Izkael had been in such a crazed fury. “But that’s so cruel.”
Eliane gave him an odd look. “Don’t go getting ideas above your station, boy.” She leaned across and he flinched, expecting a cuff. But instead, she ruffled his hair. “I’ve finished. Stand up. Let me see how you walk now.”
The binding was tight but as he tested his weight and tried a few steps, he realized that, with extra support, he could move more naturally again. “It’s…better,” he allowed, grudgingly. He was still not used the being treated with kindness; he kept wondering what she would expect of him in return.
Josse could not sleep again for thinking of Izkael. Since that moonlit encounter he had been haunted by the wouivre’s mocking challenge.
“Hunt me down. Bend me to your will – if you dare.”
Weak. Izkael had called him weak. He turned restlessly on the straw mattress, wishing he could forget the taunt. I’m not weak. And I’ll prove it to you, Izkael.
He stared out into the darkness of the hut, lit only by the dying glow of the cinders in the fireplace. A night breeze stirred the shutters on their hinges, an eerie creaking sound.
But how do I hunt down a wouivre? Wouivres could fly – and he was still hampered by his ankle; tramping over the mountains was not going to make it heal any faster. Was there some secret way of calling a wouivre? A spell, perhaps? Some ancient words that would bind the air dragon to obey him? That rogue magus must have found a way to subdue Izkael – for how else could he have captured such a wild creature?
That night…I just knew. In my bones. I sensed that Izkael was nearby. There’s a connection between us already. I’m sure of it. And that certainty filled Josse with a fizzing sense of excitement. People always let you down. You put your trust in them – and then they betray you. But wouivres… He sat up in bed and closed his eyes, concentrating his mind on the vivid image of the silver sky-dragon.
Like calling out to like…
Preparing alchymical substances in a rented room was tricky at the best of times.
Garin frowned down at the delicate glass alembic which he held in tongs over a candle flame, gently warming the alchymical crystals whilst he glanced again at his notebook. I must be crazy to be experimenting in here – what if the landlord came in and saw my alchymical equipment? He’d have us thrown out into the street. Then he pushed the thought from his mind, engrossed in the challenge he had set himself. What else to do with his time? His master had disappeared. Probably drinking himself into a stupor again in the local tavern… And here am I, missing out on my studies at the college. The stained pages were covered in his own handwriting, sheet after sheet of carefully scribed alchymical recipes and spells, painstakingly researched in the college library and copied from ancient treatises. He had even been obliged to translate some himself from obscure languages no longer spoken abroad.
Of course, if my master was not so obsessed with his own affairs, he might have taught me these skills himself. He carefully tipped a paper of mercury into the mixture he was heating. Instead of obliging me to do my own research.
Garin was an apprentice earth magus, born with a natural talent for transmuting earth, rock and ore. At fifteen he was rapidly becoming one of the most promising students at the secret College of Thaumaturgy and he was proud of what he had achieved so far. He had been working on this particular experiment for some months, determined that it would prove to Magister Hoel, the principal of the college, his suitability to become a fully-fledged magus…and the youngest ever to be awarded that honor…
A strange scent drifted past his nostrils born on a waft of pale pearlescent smoke. He hastily drew the glass tube away from the flame, silently berating himself for being so careless.
What am I doing? Daydreaming while my experiment spoils?
Such inattention could result in an explosion, singed eyebrows…or worse. These were, after all, volatile alchymical compounds that he was working with. And he was about to make them even more volatile by infusing them with his own powers. Yet he could not resist glancing at the powdered crystals in the tube: they were glowing faintly and not just from the reflected gleam of the candle flame.
To create a fine dust which, when sprinkled over the subject will instantly cause him to fall into a deep sleep. Or so Garin’s translation had rendered the words of Kelemen, a learned alchymist who had been burned at the stake by the Holy Arcadien Church of Allegonde over a hundred years ago.
The bells of the parish church of Saint Sigismund began to ring for vespers, their sonorous peal setting the shutters rattling on their hinges.
Distracted, Garin looked up, realizing that it must be six in the evening and Magister Louarn had still not returned. Why am I worrying? The man’s old enough to look out for himself.
And yet he could not help but feel a pang of concern. Louarn was in such an unpredictable state of mind these days. His moods could change from dull and listless to roaring crazy in an instant, ready to pick a fight with anyone who dared to look at him. If only he could be persuaded to return to the college…
A faintly aromatic scent wafted through the air making Garin’s nostrils twitch, hot yet strangely, dustily sweet, like hedgerow flowers baked by the summer sun.
He looked down at the tube and forgot all about Louarn in his excitement. The crystals had begun to change color and their clear glow was dulling to a darker shade.
Now came the trickiest part of the process. It was not enough to combine the alchymical compounds to achieve exactly the right balance, or to effect their transmutation through heat; only a true magus could imbue the volatile substance with the powers derived from his unique life essence. Garin closed his eyes and willed some of the essence from the core of his being, visualizing it as a slender pulse of light traveling out through his body and into the crystals. The effort of concentration was so intense that he felt as if the veins in his forehead would burst.
Am I trying too hard? It’s still so difficult to gain full control over my powers.
A flicker lit the contents of his test tube. The crystals flared up, crackling, as the transmutation occurred before his astonished eyes – and, just as swiftly, died down again.
“Yes!” Garin let out a shout of triumph. “I’ve done it!” He raised the glass tube and examined it anxiously. The crystals were cooling rapidly and all their radiance faded, leaving nothing but a dull, dusty powder behind, touched here and there with a spangled glitter. “But will it work?”
I could experiment on myself… He slowly brought the tube toward his nostrils. Why is my hand shaking? What’s the worst that could happen?
“You’ve got the wrong man, I swear! I never touched you.”
Furious shouts and cries shattered the calm of early evening. Garin hurried to open the window and looked down into the narrow street. The door to the tavern opposite burst open and a man fell out, landing on his back in the gutter with a muddy splash. A second man followed, then a third.
“Thought I was too drunk to notice, did you?” demanded a familiar voice. “’Let’s pick his pockets; he won’t feel a thing.’”
Oh no. Garin caught the fierce glint of fox-bright eyes in the gloom of the tavern doorway as Louarn came out, arms folded, to stand over his assailants. One had already staggered to his feet, dripping in mud.
“You cocksure bastard!” He swung a punch at Louarn. “Just try and prove it.”
Louarn dodged the punch – although only just, Garin noticed, his sidestep was more a stagger than a neatly judged move. “He is too drunk,” he muttered. “He just hides it well.”
The lurching punch ended up hitting the timbered doorway and the man let out a howl. “Damn you, Louarn the Fox!” He retreated, nursing bruised fingers.
It looked as if the pickpockets knew they were beaten; the second hauled the third out of the gutter and both began to limp away, the third following, still wringing the stinking muddy water from his sodden breeches. Garin turned back to his experiment, relieved that the situation had been resolved without any need for him to intervene.
“So it is the Fox.”
Garin paused, hearing an unfamiliar voice, dry, yet with an underlying chill hint of menace.
“We’ve got an old score to settle, haven’t we, my friend?”
In the gathering twilight, a man had appeared out of the shadows. He was dressed all in black and as he walked toward Louarn, he seemed to be busy adjusting his leather gloves. Louarn had slumped back against the tavern doorpost and as he slowly raised his head to peer at the newcomer, Garin saw the faintest flicker in his amber eyes.
“I don’t remember ever calling you ‘friend’,” he said.
“There was something about the stranger’s quiet, yet confident bearing that set Garin’s instincts on edge. He had the air of a professional. A debt collector?
What is it this time? Unpaid gambling debts? Garin let out a sigh. Why had Louarn still not cut his ties to the shady world of the Court of Miracles? Why was he always drawn back to his criminal roots? It must be a constant embarrassment to the College of Thaumaturgy that one of their alumnae had risen from such insalubrious beginnings, starting life as a pickpocket in the city slums.
The stranger was still smoothing down the finger of each glove as he casually strolled toward Louarn. Garin suddenly caught the glint of steel.
“Look out!” he yelled as half a dozen scalpel-fine daggers spun from the man’s hands and embedded themselves in the timbers close to Louarn’s head.
Louarn swore, lurching forward. Garin, his heart thudding, saw that a thin line of crimson was trickling down his cheek. One blade had marked him.
Louarn wiped the blood away with one finger. “Is that all you’ve got?” he said, erupting into laughter. “You’ll need more than those little needles to eliminate a magus. Or didn’t they warn you? We’re hard to defeat.” But the laughter had a desperate edge to it and Garin saw him stagger. Had the blades been dipped in some lethal substance? Or was his master so drunk that he was on the verge of passing out?
“Who said I wanted to eliminate you?” said the man calmly. “I was just instructed to bring you in…for questioning.” He raised one gloved hand and Louarn flinched. The next moment Garin spotted others moving stealthily toward his master. So it had been a signal to his henchmen. The daylight was fast fading, filling the street with violet shadows. Louarn’s hand went to his rapier hilt – but then he staggered, slipping to one knee.
Garin didn’t hesitate. As the spadassins made a rush on Louarn, he leaned far out and emptied the contents of his phial on them. The glittering dust fell like sparkling motes of starlight on the unsuspecting men below.
“What in hell’s name is this?”
Garin, fingers crossed, praying that it would work, waited for them to fall into an instant and deep sleep. But instead of collapsing, as he had expected, they began to sneeze. The sneezing became explosive and uncontrollable. Wheezing, wiping their streaming eyes, the men stumbled blindly about, colliding with one another. If he hadn’t been so frustrated that the desired effect had not happened, Garin would have burst out laughing.
But then he noticed that Louarn must have inhaled some of the dust as well; for his master had also begun to sneeze.
Cursing under his breath, Garin sped down the narrow stair and shot out into the street. Heedless of the fact that he was surrounded by thugs, he darted around his sneezing, cursing victims and grabbed Louarn by one arm.
“What – in the name of – ?” Louarn began but the tirade was mercifully cut off by another sneeze.
Hauling him to his feet – no easy feat, as Louarn was tall and muscularly-built – Garin half-steered, half-dragged him back toward their lodgings house. A final glance back behind him into the gloom as he pushed his master over the doorstep showed him that the black-clad stranger had already vanished.
“Now the stairs, master.” Garin clamped Louarn’s hand on the banister rail and pushed him up, one step at a time. Once in their rooms, he locked the door behind them, closed the shutters and lit a couple of candles on the table.
“That bastard,” Louarn was muttering under his breath. He slumped down onto the nearest bed. He put one hand to his cheek and looked at the smear of blood that came away on his fingers.
“Who was he?” Garin brought him a clean handkerchief. “What have you got yourself mixed up in this time?”
Louarn grimaced as he dabbed at the cut. “Better you don’t know.”
Garin could not help letting out a grunt of frustration. Must Louarn still treat him like a child? “Suppose he comes after us?”
“I’ll put an extra ward…on the door…” Louarn’s voice was fading. “And…the windows…in case…”
“In case?” Garin stood over him, looking down in exasperation. His master had fallen asleep in mid-sentence. So he would have to ensure the wards were secure; from the reek of wine fumes on Louarn’s slow, steady breathing, he knew there’d be no hope of any help from him.
He let out a resigned sigh and began to whisper the words of the secret wards Louarn had taught him to keep the rooms secure from unwelcome intruders, marking the door and shutters with occult signs with one finger dipped in alchymical water as an extra precaution. As he traced the mystical signs, weaving an invisible barrier, he wondered how effective it would be against a single-minded opponent – or worse, still, a rival magus. Yet he had sensed no aura of magic about the stranger so unpaid gambling debts were much more likely to be the cause.
He glanced back at his master. Louarn had contrived to fall asleep sprawled half-on, half-off the bed. If he left him like that, he was sure to wake up with a stiff neck and shoulder – as well as a hangover and a foul mood. Or that was what Garin told himself as he gripped hold of his master’s leather boots, peeling one off, then the other.
“What am I to do with you?” he muttered, heaving Louarn’s long legs up onto the bed. Louarn murmured something unintelligible and turned on his side.
Garin’s first instinct was to pull the blanket over him and leave him, fully-clothed, to sleep off the wine. He had to record the details of his experiment as soon as possible – and try to pinpoint at what stage his preparations had gone wrong to make the outcome so different from the one he had intended.
Maybe it was to do with the temperature. “Did I overheat the crystals?” He chewed on the end of his pen before he dipped it in the ink to write in the leather-bound notebook on pages stained with lurid blotches of spilled chymical solutions. “Or was it me? Is my life essence not potent enough yet to effect the transmutation?”
That thought alone was enough to make him press too hard and bend the delicate pen nib. The elder magi were always reminding him that he needed more maturity, more knowledge of the world. He hated to acknowledge that they might be right. “Keen intelligence and scholarship are all very well,” High Magister Hoel had told him, “but unless they are matched with the wisdom of experience, you’ll never make a useful magus.” And his words haunted Garin as if they were a prediction of his future. “What’s the rush? Take your time. Soak up all that life has to offer you. They say that youth is wasted on the young.”
“No, Izkael, no…” Louarn muttered again and turned over onto his back, causing the blanket to slide off onto the floorboards. Garin glanced up from his half-completed account. Louarn might hide his wounds beneath a mask of wry indifference during the day but only Garin heard him mutter and cry out in his sleep as he relived in broken dreams the disastrous events at the cathedral.
He laid down his pen and rose to replace the blanket. As he looked down at Louarn, he halted. Asleep, Louarn looked younger, more vulnerable now that his habitual mocking expression had relaxed. And Garin could not help noticing how his shirt gaped open, the fine lace collar all crumpled, the sheen of his sun-browned body dark against the cream of the creased linen.
“You’ll catch cold, master,” he whispered as he drew the blanket up. His fingertips accidentally grazed the skin – and a faint ache of forbidden desire shivered through him. There was something about the sculpted contours of Louarn’s collarbone that fascinated him. He leaned closer, wanting to touch, to trace it and feel the contrast of smooth skin stretched so tautly over the bone…
Louarn opened one eye. “You’re still only a child. I don’t seduce children. Boys don’t interest me.”
Louarn had guessed. Garin felt a blush of shame flood through his whole body. “N – no, master, you’ve got it all wrong – ” he stammered, mortified. How could he have been so stupid? Was his desire so obvious?
“It’s natural to get confused at your age. It’s just a phase…you’ll grow out of it. Besides…” Louarn said, turning his head away, “I’m bad luck. You’d do best not to get too close to me.”
“It’s a little late for that.” But Garin said it under his breath. Not that Louarn could have heard for the lucid moment seemed to have passed and his breathing came heavy and slow as he slipped back into drunken sleep.
Crushed, Garin turned and slunk back toward his own bed, the servant’s truckle bed, barely more than a couple of boards nailed together with a thin straw pallet on top.
Only a child?
“I’m fifteen. My voice broke last year, or maybe you hadn’t noticed?” He shrugged off his jacket and folded it neatly, hoping that by the time he had finished carefully smoothing out the creases, the wildfire burning inside him might have cooled down a little.
From the moment he was admitted to the College, Garin had been dazzled by the infamous Drakomancer, Louarn. He had been honored to be chosen to be his apprentice, yet utterly overawed by his glamour. He also knew that High Magister Hoel had heartily disapproved of the whole venture but had merely shrugged and said, “When the king commands, we must obey…” Royal patronage was vital to the survival of the College of Thaumaturgy; without the king’s protection, the fanatical officers of the Inquisition would be all too eager to arrest the magi and try them for sorcery.
Garin was up early next morning, woken by the sounds of the city stirring to life: farmers’ carts trundling to the covered market; church bells ringing for matins.
With any luck, Louarn would have forgotten their conversation last night – or put it down to a drunken dream.
He bustled about the rented room, trying to distract himself with frantic activity, tidying up. Opening the window wide to let in the morning air, he caught the delicious yeasty scent of baking bread from the bakery three doors along. He checked his purse and hurried out to buy fresh rolls, hot and crustily crisp. It would do his master good to line his stomach with proper food; all that wine must be upsetting his constitution and ruining his digestion.
Clattering back up the stairs and into the room, he called out cheerfully, “I’ve brought breakfast!”
Louarn was sitting up. He groaned and turned his head away. He looked rough. “Why,” he said in a self-pitying voice, “can’t we magi, with all our skills, devise an effective cure for drinking too much wine?”
“Well, serve you right, master,” The retort came out before Garin could prevent it.
“That was harsh, coming from you.”
“Involving yourself with shady characters like that man with the knives. Why won’t you tell me what that was about? Then at least I’d know better how to protect you!” Garin stopped, breathing hard, shocked that he had spoken out so boldly.
“You?” Louarn said in astonishment. “Protect me?” He began to laugh, a laugh that ended in a wince.
Garin’s feelings were hurt. His master obviously didn’t believe him capable of such a thing. “Last night. Who saved you last night? Who distracted all those men? With my own alchymical preparation?”
“Ah.” A flicker lit Louarn’s bloodshot eyes. “The sneezing powder.”
“It was meant to put them to sleep.” Garin glanced away, unable to sustain his master’s penetrating gaze. “But it didn’t quite turn out as I’d planned. I’ll get it right next time.”
“I’ve warned you before. Messing with alchymical preparations can be risky. What if your powder had poisoned everyone? Mages have been burned at the stake for far less.” Louarn lurched to his feet. As he came past, Garin sensed his master’s hand descending. Was he going to give him a cuff for disobeying orders? It was no more than he deserved. He braced himself – but then, to his surprise, felt only the brief brush of his fingers tousling his hair. “But your quick thinking saved me. Thanks. And now I need to go take a piss.”
He touched me. Blushing to the roots, Garin stayed where he was, overcome with pride. But why does he have to be so crude?
Someone rapped loudly at the front door.
“Is this the abode of Magister Louarn?” called out an officious voice.
Abode? Who even uses that word these days? Garin threw open the window and leaned out. “Who wants to know?” he called back and then as the man looked upward, Garin saw that he wore the king’s livery. “I – I’ll be down right away.”
He sped down the stairs and flung open the door. The king’s messenger, immaculately turned out in white and blue, looked at him with a disdainful eye. “I have a message from His Majesty the king for Magister Louarn.”
“I’m his apprentice,” Garin said, holding out his hand with the brightest, most obliging smile he could manage.
The messenger handed over the folded paper with one white-gloved hand. “And remind your master that the king does not like to be kept waiting.”
He turned on his heel and untied the elegant grey horse he had tethered to the mounting post, shooing away the curious crowd of street children who had gathered to watch.
“What was all that racket?” demanded Louarn, returning from the outside privy.
Garin handed over the letter. “A royal summons.”
“What mad project has his majesty dreamed up this time?” Louarn ripped open the seal.
“Ssh, master. Someone might hear.”
“‘Clovis, King of Sapaudie’” read Louarn aloud, “‘requests your immediate attendance on a matter of the utmost urgency at the palace.’ Immediate?” He picked up his jacket and began to pull it on. “Then I suppose I’d better be on my way.”
“You can’t go before King Clovis like that!” Garin was horrified. “You haven’t even shaved.”
“The letter says ‘immediate.’” Louarn said with a shrug.
“At least take a shave. And put on a clean shirt.”
“I have a clean shirt?” Louarn ran his fingers down one side of his face, testing for stubble. “You take such good care of me, Garin.”
Garin scurried away to fetch the laundry, not wanting Louarn would see how red his face was at the compliment. When he returned, Louarn had stripped off and was tugging a comb through his unruly snarls of long, fox-red hair. Garin stopped in the doorway, staring at his master’s lean body.
“Toss it over here.” Louarn casually held up one hand and Garin automatically obeyed, still staring helplessly as his master put on the shirt and deftly fastened the buttons, before picking up his jacket again.
“So you’re not going to shave?”
“No time.” Louarn flashed him a swift grin and, grabbing his purse, slipped it and the king’s letter into his inner pocket. “Don’t let anyone in. No matter whom they may claim to be.” He was halfway out the door when he called back, “And no more alchymical experimentation. I don’t want to return to find a smoking ruin.”
The front door slammed and Garin saw him running away down the street in the direction of the palace. The freshly baked rolls still lay on the table, untouched. Garin’s stomach growled. Well, if Louarn was too busy to eat breakfast, it was a shame to let fresh bread go to waste. He fetched the half-finished pot of clover honey, a knife, and the remains of the cheese he had saved from yesterday.
Don’t let anyone in. No matter whom they may claim to be. As he sat munching and watching the comings and goings in the busy street below, he couldn’t help wondering exactly who – or what – Louarn had meant. If Louarn had made a powerful enemy, perhaps the time had come to change lodgings.
Josse woke to see Eliane packing pots and dried herbs into her wicker baskets. “We go down to the village today,” she said as he sat up. “I’ve simples to sell and provisions to buy. Now that you’re healed, an extra pair of hands will be a great help.”
Josse shook his head. Go out amongst people? The thought terrified him. Suppose someone recognized him? Or, worse still, suppose he couldn’t control his anger again?
“There’s porridge in the pot. And bramble jam; help yourself.”
“I’m not going.”
She paused, looking up from her packing. “Why ever not? It’ll be good for you to exercise your ankle.”
He turned away, not wanting to meet her penetrating gaze.
“You’ll be all right, Josse, you’ll be with me.” Had she read his thoughts? “I won’t let you lose control. And if you’re worried about being recognized, wear this. Here – catch!” She tossed him a battered straw hat, just like the one Uncle Guion wore in summer.
“I don’t want to come.” He turned the hat round and round by its roughly woven brim.
“It’s a long walk back up,” she said, trying a piece of sacking over the top of her basket with twine, “but we can talk to pass the time. I can tell you secret things you might find useful to know about my kin…”
He scowled at her. She knew that he couldn’t resist such a temptation.
“We need to be on our way; the market opens soon and I want a well-placed pitch; the best ones always get taken first.”
They took a narrow track down the mountain, buffeted by a sharp breeze, Eliane leading the way. Josse was so caught up in his own concerns that it was only when he heard the distant ringing of church bells that he began to wonder how she felt about going back to her old home. “What if someone recognizes you?”
She laughed softly, but to his ears, there was no joy in the laughter, merely a hint of wistfulness. “Heavens, there’s no one left alive to recognize me, Josse.”
The idea of living long beyond your friends and family obsessed him. “But aren’t the villagers suspicious? This strange old woman who lives up in the mountains and only comes down to market every now and then?”
“‘Old’? Who are you calling old? But then I suppose to a boy your age, anyone over twenty must seem unimaginably ancient.” She was teasing him and he glared at her. “Don’t worry about it; there’ll be no awkward questions asked. To the village, I’m just a distant cousin of my husband’s family – and if anyone needs to know who you are, I’ll tell them that you’re my apprentice, a relative’s child from Vesontion, who’s been sent to help me out and learn about herb-craft.”
He walked on a while, mulling over what she had said, concentrating on placing his feet securely on the stony track. One false step on a loose stone and he could slip and undo all her healing.
“How does that sound to you?” she asked when he didn’t reply.
He nodded. “It’ll have to do.”
In spite of Eliane’s reassurances, Josse could not relax. He kept eyeing the crowd of shoppers suspiciously, fearing that someone from his village might go past and recognize him, even though he knew that it was extremely unlikely. And he had not been amongst other people for so long that the loud babble of voices made him long to run away and hide. Everything reminded him painfully of his own village: the laughter of the little children chasing after errant ducks, the sonorous clang of church bells, the grannies inspecting the produce on sale with disapproving expressions, the piercing squealing of pigs as they were herded into their pens…
Whereas Eliane seemed quite at home, chatting about the weather as she dispensed her simples and cures: a jar of liniment to a grizzled shepherd with rheumatism, a salve for toothache for a small freckle-faced boy.
“All the signs on the mountains point to a hard winter,” he heard her saying. “I haven’t seen so many berries for many years.”
Eliane had allotted him the task of selling the little pots of berry and bramble jam she had made. He had objected, of course, sulking because he didn’t want to have to talk to anyone. She had ignored his protest, turning away to concentrate on her own customers and forcing him to serve the waiting villagers. It seemed that Eliane was famous for making delicious conserves and a little queue was forming. Grudgingly, he counted out their change and handed over the jam, trying not to look anyone directly in the eye.
All of a sudden, he felt a shiver go through him, as if the sky had clouded over, warning of a sudden storm. Instinctively, he turned to Eliane and saw that she had paused in her conversation. So she had sensed it too. But the sun still shone and the only clouds above the sloping rooftops were insignificant tufts of fluffy white, like wisps of sheep’s wool caught on briars.
Just then he noticed a tall man moving swiftly through the crowd. He was plainly dressed, his wide-brimmed hat pulled down over his face. It wasn’t the man’s clothes that drew his attention; they were no different to the sober, practical garb of a lawyer or a merchant. But when Josse caught the merest glimpse of his face, that one glance was enough to make him realize that he had identified the source of the singularly chilling sensation. For the stranger’s eyes were as clear as the mountain morning sky – and as searingly cold.
“Who is that?” he whispered to Eliane. But the man had already vanished amongst the shifting crowd of people and the sensation was fading.
“I don’t know,” she said, slowly shaking her head. “I’ve never seen him before.”
“Shall I go after him?” He was already moving out from behind the trestle table, drawn, against his better instincts, to keep track of the stranger. Eliane’s hand shot out and grabbed him. Her grip was surprisingly strong.
“But I just – ”
“Have you got anything for my gout or not?” demanded Eliane’s elderly customer, testily rapping the cobbles with his walking stick.
“This liniment, as I was saying…” With a pleasant smile, Eliane turned back to the stall… “is made from the leaves of Goutwort which grows near my hut. Although for it to bring you some genuine relief, you’ll have to give up drinking strong spirits; no more gentian liqueur.”
Now Josse could not settle to the tasks Eliane had set him. He kept scanning the market place for another glimpse of the stranger. But when the midday bell rang, signaling that it was time for the stallholders to pack away their unsold goods and close their stalls.
Just passing through…
“That stranger. Why did you tell me to stay away from him?”
They were on the long tramp back up the steep mountain track. The sun had begun to sink toward the west, filling the sky with a wash of scarlet and Josse’s ankle had started to ache again. Eliane’s baskets were laden with provisions and, in spite of the rapidly chilling air, he felt sweat dampening his brow. Eliane had treated him to a filling meal at the village tavern: steaming hot potée, filled with chunks of the local spicy mountain sausage and root vegetables, mopped up with plenty of crusty bread. But the long day had taken its toll and each step he took sent a jarring stab of pain from the ankle up to his knee.
The intense green of the grassy pastures was fading as the sun dipped and a thick haze of mist rose from the valley to obscure the shingled roofs of the village below. Even the mellow ringing of the church bell sounded muffled and faraway; only the percussive cries of mountain choughs pierced the air as they flew down to roost for the night.
“Don’t dawdle,” Eliane called back over her shoulder, “the light’s going fast – and soon it’ll be too dark to see the path clearly.”
“I’m tired.” But it wasn’t just weariness that caused Josse to drag his feet; it was the growing sensation that something was not right.
“What, a strapping young lad like you complaining of being tired? Do you hear me complaining?”
It was a fine night, the violet sky clear as glass, with just the first pinpricks of stars beginning to appear. Surely Eliane would have noticed if danger lay ahead? But then it came again, that unbearable sensation of foreboding, like an immense pressure building within his skull, throbbing a warning that made him drop the basket and press his hand to his temples.
“What – is – that?”
Eliane turned around. Her eyes were dark and blank, and she stared at him, through him, as if in shock. “My brothers,” she said in a hoarse voice. “Someone has summoned my brothers. Someone who means them harm.”
“You mean Izkael’s in danger?” Josse felt a surge of anger flow through him. “No one can have Izkael. He’s mine.” The words came out before he realized what he was saying and he clapped a hand over his mouth too late.
But if Eliane had heard, she gave no sign of it. She turned and began to hurry up the path. “Who is he?” he heard her mutter.
“That stranger?” Josse stumbled after her, his head still ringing with the ominous pulsating sensation.
She seemed to be talking more to herself than him as she strode on ahead. “What can he possibly want with my kin?”
“Is he a Drakomancer?” No sooner than he had asked than the darkening sky lit up with a crackle of lightning. Eliane let out a cry and dropped her basket. She was trembling.
“What’s wrong?” Josse was shocked to see the change in her. They were alone on the darkening mountainside and he didn’t know what to do to protect her.
“He’s so strong.” Her voice had dwindled to a dry whisper.
“What’s happening?” Josse heard the tremble of fear in his own voice. He was ashamed of his own uselessness. “What is he doing to them?”
“It’s – a – spell of binding.” She spat out each word as if with great effort.
Josse understood. The spell was taking effect on her too, even in her mortal form. And he could do nothing to protect her.
“Go, Josse. Help them.”
- * -
Song for a Naming Day
This story takes place a little while after the end of ‘Children of the Serpent Gate.’
Steamy waters bubble and fizz. Clouds of mist, tinged with the acrid scent of minerals, rise to blot out the stars. And through the rising steam, eyes gleam, green as jade. A soft, sibilant voice whispers, “I can see you, Kiukirilya. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, I shall be watching you, watching and waiting.”
Kiukiu sat bolt upright, staring into the darkened bedchamber.
“Do not forget your promise.”
“What’s wrong?” a sleepy voice asked from beneath the rumpled blankets beside her.
“How can she be here?” Kiukiu whispered, trying to steady her fast-thudding heart.
“Who’s here?” The bedclothes heaved as her husband turned over, surfacing from deep slumber.
His question jolted her fully awake. “I – I must have been dreaming again.”
“It’s all right.” Gavril reached out in the darkness and pulled her to him. “I still dream of the Serpent Gate too.”
She snuggled closer, absorbing the warmth of his body, the comforting strength of his arms. She wanted to lose herself in that human warmth and forget the insistent, sibilant voice that had penetrated her dreams every night since she discovered that she was bearing his child. But the nightmare was never about Serpent Gate, it was one of her own making. She could not tell him. Not until she had figured out a way to undo the secret bond she had entered into with Anagini, the Guardian of the Jade Springs, a bond sealed by the touch of a snake tongue on her ankle.
‘Give me your firstborn child, be it boy or girl, to tend my shrine… And you must never tell anyone what passed between us here today or you will find yourself an old woman again.’
“What will the clansmen say?” Kiukiu felt the tears pricking at the corners of her eyelids. “She’s just a girl. They were expecting a boy. An heir to Kastel Drakhaon.”
“She’s perfect.” Gavril gazed at his newborn child. He was holding her so carefully, almost as if afraid she might break. But the look in his eyes had softened to one of such tenderness that it made her heart melt. “Let the druzhina say what they will. She’s my daughter – and they’ll learn to love and respect her. They’ll get their heir next time.”
“Next time! Who said there was going to be a next time?” Exhausted, Kiukiu flopped back on the pillows and closed her eyes.
“Look at her hair; it’s coppery in the candlelight,” she heard him say. “What there is of it, that is…”
These moments were so precious that she wanted to remember every second so she could treasure them when the time came to give up her precious firstborn…
No. She stopped herself. There must be a way to annul her contract with the Guardian.
“What’s wrong?” Gavril leaned across, still cradling the baby in one arm, and stroked her face. “Are you in pain? Should I send for Sosia?” The gentleness of his touch only made the tears well up and spill down her cheeks.
“I’m all right,” she said, forcing a smile as she wiped them away with the back of her hand. She was annoyed at herself for being so weak. “Just a little… overwhelmed.” She reached out to tousle the baby’s soft wisps of hair. “Auburn, just like your mother. Should we call her Elysia?”
“What about Malusha, for your grandmother?”
She shook her head vehemently. “An Arkhel name for a Nagarian child? The druzhina would never allow it.”
“The druzhina will do as I tell them.” For a moment, the sea-blue eyes darkened and she glimpsed again the stern, ruthless man who had undergone so many ordeals to win back his kingdom. Then he said, less harshly, “But you’re right, love; there’s no point creating bad feeling when this little one is the first of a new generation of Nagarians, and our hope for a better future.”
His words made her laugh – and then stop as her aching muscles protested.
“I’ve always liked the name Larisa,” he said after a while. “It comes from an old song my nanny Palmyre used to sing…”
“Larisa? I like it too,” she said. “And I don’t think there’s ever been anyone of that name in either clan, Arkhel or Nagarian.”
The Great Hall of Kastel Drakhaon was bustling with servants and druzhina, busily hanging garlands of ivy and rowan berries from the beams, kindling a fire of pine logs in the cavernous fireplace, and setting out the tables for Larisa’s Naming Day feast. Sosia was marshalling her forces in the kitchen with the ferocity of a general in mid-campaign. Kiukiu retreated to the quiet of the bedchamber and stood at the oriel window with Larisa in her arms, looking down at the torchlit courtyard as the guests began to arrive.
“All these grand visitors coming to celebrate your Naming Day.” Larisa did not seem much interested, nuzzling her little nose against her mother’s shoulder, on which Kiukiu had placed a piece of linen to protect her best gown. “Aren’t we lucky that the first snows are late this year?”
A group of grey-robed monks had entered the courtyard; Gavril appeared below, hurrying across the cobbles to greet them.
“There’s your daddy!” Kiukiu cried delightedly. “Doesn’t he look handsome? And that’s Abbot Yephimy; you’ve got to promise me you won’t cry when he marks you with the holy water from Saint Sergius’s shrine.”
A horse-drawn coach turned in under the archway; the footman leapt down to open the door and help the occupants out.
“My lady, are you ready to receive your guests?” Sosia was calling her from downstairs.
Larisa gave a little burp as Kiukiu turned away from the window. “Larisa, don’t you dare be sick on your lovely lace dress. Auntie Sosia spent a long time sewing it for you.” Kiukiu hastily checked her shoulder to make sure that there was no stain of regurgitated milk on the blue sheen of the silk. Trying to quell a sudden unwelcome flutter of nerves, she set out for the Great Hall.
It was not so long since Kiukiu had been one of the kastel serving maids, and she felt awkward, more used to waiting on the guests than greeting them as their hostess. She hoped that her welcoming smile was not beginning to look strained.
“All you have to do is be the proud mother,” Gavril had reassured her when she admitted her anxieties the night before. “That’s all that anyone will expect. They’ll be too busy cooing over Larisa – and enjoying the feast.”
“You have a lovely daughter, my lady.”
Kiukiu started and found herself gazing at a slender woman, modestly veiled. “Thank you,” she began. “I don’t think we’ve – ”
“I come from Khitari,” said the stranger, letting her veils drop away, revealing a face of exquisite beauty: almond eyes of a liquid, honey brown, fringed by long, black lashes, set in a heart-shaped face. “My name is Khulan. I bring gifts from your friend, Chinua. He sends his deepest apologies that he cannot be here with you for this special occasion.”
“You’re a friend of Chinua’s?” Forgetting all decorum, Kiukiu reached out and shook Khulan’s hand warmly. “Is he well? How is he faring?”
“This is for you, my lady: a special blend of tea that your grandmother was fond of.” She handed Kiukiu a little caddy of black and scarlet lacquer. “And I am the other half of his gift.”
“You are – ?” Kiukiu began, puzzled.
“I am one of Khan Vachir’s court singers; if it pleases you and Lord Gavril, I will entertain your guests after the feast.”
“Oh, that would be wonderful!” Kiukiu turned to Gavril. “Songs from such an illustrious Khitari singer? We’d be honoured, wouldn’t we?” When she had been travelling across the steppes of Khitari with Chinua, she had been entranced by the wild, throbbing lilt of the ballads sung around the fireside at night.
“Of course.” Gavril, distracted, nodded his agreement; Lord Stoyan, the governor of Azhgorod, had already engaged him in a discussion of some weighty matter of state.
Kiukiu stole a quick glance at the cradle. Larisa was sound asleep, one little hand clutching the crumpled sheet tightly to her cheek. She had yelled loudly enough when Abbot Yephimy had performed the Naming Ceremony, much to the approval of the druzhina, and her mother’s acute embarrassment.
And look at you now, sleeping so peacefully in the middle of your feast.
A sudden lull in the babble of voices made Kiukiu glance up. Khulan, smiling, had settled herself, cross-legged, on the floor in the centre of the hall, her slender-necked dombra balanced on her lap. The guests fell silent.
After a few moments’ tuning, Khulan announced, “A song in praise of Gavril, Lord of Azhkendir, and his wife, Lady Kiukirilya, who is much honoured in Khitari for her service to the khan.”
A roar of approval erupted from the druzhina, raising their glasses in a toast to their lord and lady.
Blushing, Kiukiu sat back in her chair, as Khulan struck the first notes on the sonorous strings of the dombra. Yet soon her embarrassment melted into a feeling of warm contentment as she surveyed the firelit hall.
“Praise to the Dragon of Azhkendir and praise to his brave warriors…”
The druzhina began to sing along with the stirring refrain, stamping their feet enthusiastically in time to the music until the hall was filled with their lusty voices.
“She’s no fool, this Khulan,” Gavril murmured in Kiukiu’s ear. “She’s won the druzhina over – and that’s no mean feat.”
Disturbed by the rowdy singing, Larisa stirred restlessly in her cradle and let out a wail of protest. Kiukiu put her foot on the rocker of the cradle and began to press vigorously. “Hush, Larisa, not now.”
“Idiots!” cried Semyon, clambering up on his bench to try to quiet his fellow druzhina and sloshing ale on his friend Dunai beside him. “You’ve woken the baby!”
Khulan’s agile fingers instantly switched to a gentle rocking motive on the dombra. As soon as she began to sing, in a voice as sweet and cooing as a forest dove, Kiukiu realized that she had chosen a Khitari lullaby. And to her amazement, Larisa’s protests subsided and one tiny thumb found its way into her mouth as the soothing melody cast its spell over the hall.
“That was magical,” Kiukiu whispered to Khulan. “You must teach me that song before you leave.”
Khulan nodded, then turned back to the audience. “And now, a ballad from my homeland, the touching tale of a water witch and a young girl.”
This time there was a dark, ominous quality to the notes she drew from the dombra’s deepest strings.
“She can grant your wish, the jade-haired witch of the springs. But take care. For nothing comes without a price. She never gives without taking something in return. Something you value more than life itself…”
Kiukiu shivered. Shadows like mountain mist were seeping into the hall, blotting out the rapt faces of the guests until all she could see was the singer, head bent intently over the strings of her instrument. The sacred snake-mark on Kiukiu’s ankle began to throb.
“‘If I grant your wish, you must give me your firstborn child,’” sang Khulan in a low, foreboding tone. “But the foolish girl didn’t heed the witch’s warning…”
The singer slowly raised her head. To Kiukiu’s horror, she saw that Khulan’s eyes were no longer brown but the piercing green of Anagini, Guardian of the Jade Springs. And the shadowy mists swirling around them both had taken on the viridian tinge of the steam that rose from the hidden healing waters.
“Have you forgotten, Kiukirilya? One year has passed since you made me that promise.” Her words, softly sibilant, made Kiukiu’s heart stop with fear.
“S – seven years,” Kiukiu stammered. “You said seven years. She’s only three months old.”
“And if you tell a single soul of our bargain, the cure wrought by my Jade Springs will be undone, and you will become an old woman again.”
“Won’t you take me instead?” Kiukiu burst out. “At least let Larisa stay with her father. Let me come serve you in her place.”
“The child of a Spirit Singer and a Lord Drakhaon is a unique and special being. She was conceived when your lord was still possessed by the Drakhaoul Khezef, wasn’t she? There will be others who come to seek her out, Kiukirilya, others who will seek to use her for their own ends. Others who are not so kind as I.”
“To use her?” Kiukiu had never thought of such a possibility. “Are you saying that she has powers? How can that be? The Drakhaouls are gone from the world – and the Serpent Gate is sealed.”
“I can protect her. I can train her to use her powers. But left unprotected, untrained, she may never live beyond her seventh birthday.”
“Is her life in danger? Tell me!”
“The bargain was broken,” floated the singer’s voice through the mists, “and the beloved child disappeared, never to be seen again. So beware the jade-haired witch of the springs…she never gives without taking something in return.”
“No!” Kiukiu cried, snatching Larisa out of her cradle and clutching her close. The song halted abruptly. To Kiukiu’s surprise she saw that everyone was staring at her. There was no trace of green mist swirling around the hall.
“Kiukiu?” Gavril said as Larisa began to wail. He stood up and put his arms around them both. “Khulan; could you sing us something more cheerful?”
“I apologize, my lord.” Khulan bowed, and instantly began to play a lively dance melody. Semyon leapt to his feet and began clapping in time to the beat. “Come on, lads!” he shouted. “Let’s show the girls our best moves!” He made a somersaulting leap from his bench into the centre of the hall and launched into one of the traditional Azhkendi warriors’ dances, arms crossed, stamping and kicking with muscular agility.
Thank you, Sem, Kiukiu thought gratefully as the youngest druzhina’s prowess drew others to join him and the guests’ enthusiastic clapping urged them to try wilder leaps and turns.
Gavril eased Kiukiu back down into her chair. “What was that about, love?” he murmured into her ear.
So he had sensed nothing of Anagini’s presence?
“Forgive me,” she said. “That song just made me sad…”
Even here, in Azhkendir, Anagini is watching me. Kiukiu sat in front of the mirror, listlessly removing the pins from her hair. Her shadowy reflection, gilded by the trembling candle flames, stared back as one golden lock after another was released. Would it be so terrible to see my youth fade away again if it meant little Risa could stay here with us? She began to pull a comb through her hair, remembering that time a year ago when it had turned grey. But what use would I be to her as a mother? The time I spent wandering in the Realm of Shadows drained so much of my lifeforce. It wasn’t vanity that drove me to beg for Anagini’s help. I was dying.
Chinua’s lacquer caddy caught her eye; Khulan had said it contained her grandmother’s favourite blend. Kiukiu removed the lid and sniffed, hoping that the aromatic fragrance would bring back happier memories. Then she noticed a little piece of paper tucked inside. Unfolding it, she read:
‘I will come if you ever have need of me. Leave a message at the tea merchant’s shop in Azhgorod.’
“Thank you, Chinua,” she whispered.
The bedchamber door opened. She stuffed the note back into the caddy and turned round to see Gavril on the threshold.
“I thought Lord Stoyan would never stop talking.” He threw himself onto the bed, stretching his arms above his head. “He wants me to preside over the boyars’ council in the spring. Azhkendi politics. I agreed, just to make him turn in for the night…” He patted the mattress beside him. “Come here, Kiukiu.”
She snuffed out the candles and went to lie beside him in the darkness.
“And yet a year ago, it seemed as if there might be no future for us at all,” he said, putting his arms around her.
“Is it exactly a year ago?” She nestled closer to him.
“To the day. I found you by the shores of Lake Taigal…and Khezef took us to the ruined temple on the island, remember?”
“How could I forget?” she said. She had cherished the memory of their passionate love-making, made all the more poignant by the fear that they might never see each other again. But now Anagini’s warning had tarnished even that precious memory. Her heart heavy with guilt, she turned away from Gavril, feigning sleep.
The snow had been falling on Kastel Drakhaon for three days and nights, covering the russet bracken on the moors with its chill, white purity.
Kiukiu stood at the bedroom window, gazing out at the falling flakes.
If only you were still alive, Grandma, you’d tell me what to do…
“What’s the matter, Kiukiu?”
She started, turning around to see Gavril standing watching her. She’d been so wrapped up in her own thoughts that she hadn’t even heard him come in.
“Ever since that singer came, you’ve been so…quiet.” He placed his hands on her shoulders, gazing searchingly into her eyes. “Did something happen in Khitari last year that you haven’t told me about? Does Khulan have some hold over you?”
She had never hidden anything from him before. It made her heart ache to know that she could never share this burden. She must lie and go on lying until she could fathom out a way to save Larisa from Anagini. And she hated to deceive the one she loved so dearly.
“No hold,” she said, forcing herself to smile.
“Or was it the song? You never did tell me exactly what happened at the Jade Springs.”
“The Guardian healed me. She restored my lost youth.” Kiukiu couldn’t look at him directly. She would have to dissemble better than this if she were to allay his suspicions.
“Yet in Khulan’s song, the refrain said that the witch never gives without taking something in return. What did you have to give her, Kiukiu?” His grip tightened.
“It’s just an old song, a fanciful superstition.” She tried to make light of it. What do I say if he guesses correctly? I daren’t tell him the truth. “I think she had a grudge of her own against Prince Nagazdiel. She wanted us to make sure he was never set free from the Realm of Shadows. She knew that if my powers as a Spirit Singer were restored, that I could help…” There was a grain of truth in the explanation.
His grip loosened but he did not let go of her. “So that was the bargain?”
“Why? What did you think?”
“Oh, all kind of crazed jealous stuff. The product of an overheated imagination.”
Now he was the one to look away. “You’re the last of the Spirit Singers. I thought maybe that Khan Vachir had slept with you to infuse his bloodline with your powers. Or – ”
Kiukiu let out a snort of derision. “Do you remember how old and hideous I was then? The Khan was surrounded by women, each one as beautiful as Khulan. He hardly even noticed me.” Then, as the full impact of his words sank in, she cried, “Now wait a moment! Were you suggesting that Larisa isn’t your child, my lord? That I deceived you?”
He retreated, hands raised appeasingly. “I should never have said it. I – ”
Larisa, woken by the angry voices, let out a wail of distress from her crib. Kiukiu shot Gavril a resentful look and went to pick the baby up. When she turned around, Gavril had left the room.
The last snows of the bitter Azhkendi winter had thawed and there was a sweet tang of whitethorn on the fresh breeze. The Nagarian coach trundled across the moors toward Azhgorod; Kiukiu and Larisa sat inside, well wrapped in furs, whilst Gavril and his bodyguard rode alongside in escort. State business brought them to the capital; the first meeting of the boyars’ council necessitated the High Steward of Azhkendir’s presence.
No sooner had they arrived in the city, than Lord Stoyan insisted that Gavril meet with him to discuss an urgent matter concerning the Rossiyan Empire, so Kiukiu was left with the servants to supervise the lighting of fires to warm the cold mansion.
With Larisa mercifully asleep after the long journey, Kiukiu busied herself with the unpacking.
Fragments of melody whispered at the back of her mind. She began to hum aloud as she opened the trunk and took out the neatly folded linen.
Words began to attach themselves to the notes.
She can grant your wish, the jade-haired witch of the springs.
Khulan’s ballad. Kiukiu shuddered at the memory – and yet still the song refrain insisted on replaying itself until she was desperate for a means of exorcising it.
Why now, of all times? She lifted her gusly from the bottom of the trunk. A swift test of the strings confirmed that they needed tightening to correct the pitches. She took out the tuning key and set to work, plucking softly so as not to disturb the sleeping baby, until she was satisfied.
The gusly was a Spirit Singer’s pathway to the Ways Beyond. As Kiukiu began to play the notes of Khulan’s ballad, she began to shiver uncontrollably. Each sonorous pitch of the melody was creating a portal into that shadowy aethyrial dimension where even the most skilled shamans trod the paths of the dead at considerable risk.
The way that was opening up before her was mountainous, hazed in ever-shifting mists.
Suppose I get trapped again?
Kiukiu’s fingers slowed and instantly the pathway began to disintegrate.
But this isn’t the Realm of Shadows. And now that I’ve come this far, I have to see it through.
She picked up the broken thread of the melody and continued to play, sending her spirit out along the mist-wreathed path. And the further she went, the more familiar the mountainous landscape became. Passing beneath a rocky archway, she saw the bubbling waters of the Jade Springs.
“Lady Anagini!” she called into the mists. “Why have you brought me back here?”
“Look,” breathed a woman’s voice behind her. “Look into the waters. But don’t stop playing. The instant you stop, the image will disappear and you’ll never be able to recapture it.”
Kiukiu nodded. The bubbles stilled as she gazed down into the pool and the waters became glassy clear. A distant murmur of voices superimposed themselves over the notes of the melody. It was hard to listen to what was being said without losing the sense of the tune but she forced herself to concentrate.
Two radiant figures appeared, their faces so bright that she could hardly distinguish their features. She had glimpsed such radiance once before when she and Malusha had travelled deep into the Forbidden Ways in search of Saint Serzhei – and the same light had emanated from the gilded wings of the Heavenly Warriors despatched to drive them from the saint’s garden.
“Angels?” she whispered.
“So it’s happened again. The forbidden union. Just as it did with Nagazdiel.” The speaker was a tall, powerfully built warrior with a long mane of golden hair. “The Drakhaoul Khezef has sired a mortal child.”
“But can you be sure that the child has inherited any of Khezef’s powers?” asked his companion in gentler tones.
“This child is a girl, Sehibiel.”
Kiukiu struck a wrong note. Was he referring to Larisa?
“Even if she’s inherited a fraction of her father’s abilities, she’ll prove a threat to the balance between the worlds. So I’m sending Taliahad to take care of it.”
Take care of it? Kiukiu’s fingers began to shake tremble. She forced herself to keep playing, even though Galizur’s words had shaken her to the core.
The air trembled as a third winged warrior alighted and went down on one knee before the other two; his eyes and hair shimmered with the wintry blue of the icy waters off Azhkendir’s shores.
“You summoned me, Prince Galizur.” His voice sounded young and fervent. “What is your will?”
“I’m sending you to the mortal world. I want you to find a child with Drakhaoul blood in her veins – and destroy her.”
Kiukiu’s hands flew up to her face in shock. Too late she realized that she had broken the thread of melody – and the dazzling image shattered into a thousand ripples.
“What shall I do?” She turned to Anagini. “They want to kill Larisa. How can I save her? Tell me what to do. I’ll do anything. Anything!”
“You already know what you must do.” The Guardian’s voice soothed her. “Bring her to me. I will protect her.”
“But what do I tell Gavril?”
“Nothing. No one must know where she is.”
“It’ll break his heart.” Kiukiu could hardly speak. “He adores her. How can I take her away from her father?” Only then did the full import of Galizur’s words hit her. The forbidden union. Khezef was as much Larisa’s true father as Gavril; the Drakhaoul had used them both as his mortal surrogates to ensure the continuation of his line.
Kiukiu pushed open the door to the tea shop, hearing the little bell tinkle overhead. Inside, the dusty, aromatic smell tickled her nostrils.
“Is anyone there?” she called. Larisa, snugly wrapped in her shawl, let out a little sneeze. The Khitari rug at the back of the shop was raised and a man appeared, smiling and nodding as he beckoned her into the back room.
“Chinua!” Kiukiu cried, hurrying toward him. “I need to go to the Jade Springs. Can you take us there?”
“The Guardian warned me that you would need my help. Hullo there, little one – aren’t you pretty?”
Larisa beamed and stretched out her chubby hands to him, gurgling a greeting in return.
“When can we leave?”
“As soon as you like. But did anyone see you come in here?”
Kiukiu shook her head. “I made sure the coast was clear.”
“Then I’ll just shutter up the shop and we’ll be on our way.”
Gavril would not return home till late from the boyars’ council. By then the gates of Azhgorod would be shut till morning and the tea merchant’s little cart would be trundling towards the border with Khitari. No guard would think to question Chinua, the tea merchant, about his passengers; he often gave lifts to villagers on his way back through the mountains. But as Kiukiu huddled under a hooded cloak in the back of Chinua’s cart, she felt an aching void in her heart as she imagined her husband running from room to room, searching the empty mansion for her, interrogating the servants, the druzhina, all in vain…
Why had she been forced to choose between the two she loved most dearly in the whole world? And the notes of Khulan’s ballad returned to torment her, echoing through her mind as each jolt of the tea merchant’s cart took them further away from Azhkendir.
Beware the jade-haired witch of the springs…she never gives without taking something in return. Something you value more than life itself.
* * *