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by Robin W. Bailey
Description: Paralyzed since birth, a young man named Innowen happens upon a sorceress along the road. She grants him the ability to walk, but there are two conditions--he can only walk between dusk and dawn and, to keep this ability to walk, he must perform a dance in the witch's honor each night. What at first seems harmless comes with a sinister price. Anyone who witnesses Innowen's dance is soon compelled to act out his or her darkest, most horrific desires. Eased of his physical affliction only to be burdened with a moral one, Innowen sets out on a quest to find his nameless "benefactor" in order to lift the curse. What he finds instead are long-protected secrets that threaten to bring down the entire kingdom. Filled with twists and turns, this grim fantasy from author Robin Wayne Bailey will remind readers that the most powerful magic hides in the dark of night.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, 1996
eBookwise Release Date: May 2012
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [634 KB]
Reading time: 420-589 min.
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Innowen dragged his crippled body desperately through the darkness and the mud, ignoring the chill, whipping wind and the rain that pelted him. His hands were sore and bloodied from pine needles and thorns and sharp stones. Still, his fingers dug into the road, seeking purchase as he hauled himself a few more painful inches, stripping more flesh from elbows already raw and oozing. His breath came in ragged gasps; he cried out again and again for help, but through the thunder and relentless deluge, his voice came as a weak and pathetic whimper.
Who's there to hear me, anyway? he thought forlornly. Yet for the sake of his guardian he cried out, hurling his shouts against the tempest as he dragged himself with piteous determination through the miserable night.
A blast of lightning, a cobalt flare bright enough to penetrate the tangled canopy of leaves and branches, tore open the sky. For an instant, Innowen saw the narrow road stretching before him and the trees on either side that loomed like mighty soldiers of an era before the Age of Man. Help me, he begged them. Help Drushen! Don't let him die! If only I had legs to run for help!
Darkness closed in again. Thunder ruptured the heavens, and a wind ripped through the forest. At first, in that rasping rustle, he thought the trees had answered his prayer and torn themselves from their roots, that they would sweep him up from the mud and, awakened from an ancient hibernation, march to Drushen's aid. But that was only fever or a moment's wild dream. Neither spirits nor gods answered men so easily. Save for the deafening crashes and the rain and his useless cries, the forest kept its silence.
He couldn't stop a gush of tears. He didn't know how much time Drushen had, how fast the venom in his veins would work. If only Innowen had legs to run! The village of Shandisti was not too far for a man with legs. Or Lord Minarik's keep; his soldiers might help.
But Innowen's legs were worthless. Filled with despair and self-loathing, he pounded his fist against the road, splashing mud in his face and eyes. Without Drushen, he would be alone in the world. How would he get by? He shouted again with a force that left his throat raw. Help me, help! But not a soul traveled the forest road on such a night as this, and if any gods rode the wind, they offered him no solace.
For Drushen's sake, he swallowed his fear as best he could and struggled on his belly toward the village, eating the mud that filled his mouth, wiping rain from his face, with only the lightning to show him the road.
Half a man, that's all he was. Not even that; barely a man at all. He hated himself for his useless legs and for his tears, all his weakness. Now he hated the world because soon Drushen would die, and he, Innowen, would be left alone.
On the verge of exhaustion, he used that hatred like a whip to lash himself onward. Weeping, he dragged his body another inch, clinging to the barest shred of hope while a small part of him prayed. If Drushen dies, let me die, too, here, exposed in the storm.
In heaven, they would be together again, and Drushen would take care of him forever.
"Look here, my lady." A deep voice said suddenly out of the night. "Quite a worm we've found wriggling in the mud."
Innowen looked up just as a bright flash tore open the night and stung his eyes. For an instant, fear gripped his heart, but that emotion yielded suddenly to wild hope as a pair of riders splashed cautiously out of the darkness.
After-images of the lightning dazzled his vision, and he wiped a hand over his eyes. A huge white horse stopped so close that its hooves splattered him with mud. Raising up on his elbows, he stared in wonder at the leather breast strap so richly studded with gold and silver, at the elegantly worked bridle that tinkled with bells and precious glimmering jewels. With an impatient snort, the horse shook its streaming mane, then lowered its head as if to investigate him.
He saw the horse's rider perched high on a soft, beautifully woven cloth-of-gold riding pad. Just as suddenly, he perceived the eerie glow that surrounded her and lent gleam to the gems and luster to the metals on her tack. A warm, wondrous pool of light spread on the ground around her. Innowen felt it like a gentle wave on his skin.
Her hair shone with the same golden light, and it spilled over her shoulders. Her eyes, though, were black, full of a darkness so deep it shamed the night. There was no color in her cheeks, but her lips were redder than roses. They turned upward in a strange smile. One hand parted the folds of her cloak and fluttered to her throat, while her ivory breasts strained against the white silk of her gown. Upon that tender flesh, a ruby hung on a thin chain. It seemed to Innowen that the jewel burned with an inner fire and throbbed with something not unlike hunger.
Innowen caught his breath, unable to move or speak. He had seen few women in his life, and none at all like this one. The heart sprang out of him; he loved her at once. Yet he feared her, too, for he knew her name. In all of Ispor there could only be one such woman.
He gazed upon the Witch of Shanalane.
When she spoke, her voice was a velvet caress: "Vashni, get down and see what this is. If it really is a boy, then it's either mute or afraid of us." The red blossom of her mouth opened in a smile, exposing small, perfect ivory thorns. "We won't harm you, boy," she said, but her words didn't reassure Innowen.
A deeper rumbling answered the Witch. "I still think it's a worm, mistress."
Innowen recoiled as a huge demon rode out of the Witch's shadow on the largest, blackest mare he had ever seen. Lightning glistened on the creature's breastplate and greaves, which were made of black leather and fitted with rings of burnished bronze. As the demon swung down to the ground, Innowen saw the immense sword belted over one hip and the helm bound with a leather strap to his other. Dark braids tumbled over the demon's shoulders as he bent low, grasped Innowen's arm, and tried to jerk him to his feet.
Innowen gave a sharp cry of pain as his shoulder nearly separated from its socket, and another as Vashni, reacting in surprise, dropped him. The muddy road rushed up to meet him as he fell helplessly.
"He's lame," Vashni commented without emotion, looking down upon Innowen, who struggled up onto one bruised elbow. A grim smirk lifted the corners of the demon's mouth. "A poor night for a walk, anyway."
"Enough of your rudeness," his mistress ordered.
The Witch of Shanalane turned her dark-eyed gaze fully upon Innowen, and he froze, unable to look away. A shiver passed through him. Drushen, the storm, the forest, his anguish, all other thoughts suddenly dissolved. Only those eyes, of all else in the world, held any meaning for him.
She's drinking my life, he thought through a strange, blissful haze. His vision blurred, his senses swam, and he felt himself becoming tenuous and thin. Let her. I give it willingly.
But then she let him go--if, indeed, it had not all been his imagination. He shook his head and wiped rain from his eyes.
"We heard your wails even over the storm," she said. Her voice sounded sweeter, richer than the bells that jingled on her bridle. "Are you lost, boy?"
His face burned suddenly with shame: he had forgotten Drushen.
"My guardian is dying," he stammered, wishing with all his soul that he could stand on his feet to speak to this lady. Plainly, she didn't deserve her reputation. The aura that surrounded her was surely the golden light of goodness. Here was no thing of evil. He beheld no witch, but a goddess.
Innowen swallowed hard and continued, the words rushing from him. "He went to gather logs from the woodpile at dinnertime, and a serpent bit his hand. He barely made it back to the cabin before collapsing. I touched his skin--it was so cold! I had to try to get help, but as you see, I can only crawl. Then, this storm came up so fast!" Innowen broke down again and sobbed freely. "He may be dead by now, but please, Lady. Drushen is all I've got in this world!"
Under her steadfast gaze, he felt like a bug pinned in the mud, like the worm for which Vashni had taken him. Again, unwanted tears sprang from his eyes, and he hung his head.
"Mistress," the demon said in a bare whisper, "the soldiers..."
The Witch's words came like shards of ice that froze the air. "The soldiers are my worry."
Vashni dared to say no more. He turned away, but he looked back just long enough to glare at Innowen with eyes of pure menace.
The Witch put a finger to her lips, considering. Her brow furrowed ever so slightly in a way that did not mar her beauty. "Put him over your horse," she said at last to the demon. "We'll see if his Drushen is alive or dead."
Innowen raised up on his hands and lifted his head as high as he could. "Thank you, Lady, thank you! Please, let's hurry!"
Before he could say another word, the breath rushed from him as Vashni seized the rope belt around his waist and jerked him from the mud. Innowen flushed with anger, feeling as if he'd been cut in two, as the demon heaved him roughly over the black mare's withers. What must the Lady think to see him treated like a piece of meek baggage! And the demon used no riding pad, but rode bareback. A sweaty froth coated the mare's hide, unpleasant and creamy warm against his skin.
Innowen bit his tongue to keep from crying out or protesting. He'd found help for Drushen. Only that mattered. For his guardian's sake he kept silent. A wrong word and they might shove him back in the mud. Where would he be then? Where would his guardian be?
The Witch of Shanalane addressed him: "Do you live down this road, boy?"
Innowen started to snap. He was no boy. But then he mastered himself. He could not be angry with such a lady. From his awkward position, he did his best to look up. "Yes, that way. Just off the road you'll see a narrow path. Drushen is a woodcutter, and we live in the deepwoods."
A burst of lightning illuminated the forest, and the wind suddenly bent the trees until timbers cracked and splintered. Innowen stared, wide-eyed, as a strange realization struck him. He held up his hands. "The rain!" he cried. "It's not touching us!"
The Witch smiled as she waited for Vashni to swing onto his horse and guide his mount up beside her. Innowen found himself nose to knee with this strange woman, and her scent swam intoxicatingly in his nostrils. "Of course not," she said. "It's my storm. It's supposed to slow my enemies, not ruin my garments. What's your name, boy?"
He swallowed again and told her.
"Innowen," she repeated with a small laugh. "Like Innocent." She looked toward Vashni, and Innowen heard the demon's low-throated chuckle. "Well, hold tight, my Innocent. We'll waste no time reaching your guardian."
He didn't get a chance to answer or to protest the nickname. Boy was bad enough, but Innocent! Vashni's huge mount lurched forward, bouncing him painfully on the demon's knee. Again, the breath rushed out of him with a whoosh; starry lights burst dizzyingly in his vision, and tears burned his eyes.
Still he felt good. Soon, he would be at Drushen's side again. He hadn't failed his dearest and only friend. This time he had won a victory over his crippled, useless body, and his heart swelled with pride.
They raced with bone-jarring speed. Mud splashed up toward his face, never quite touching him. The storm smashed the forest, beat the branches of the trees until they hung thick with water. Yet no drop of rain dampened his skin.
The wind was a different matter. It stung his flesh and pulled his hair. He tried to look ahead, but he couldn't bear its force directly in his eyes. It filled his ears with a terrible rushing roar as it whipped past.
The horse's motion made breathing difficult. Innowen bounced helplessly, held in place only by Vashni's huge right hand, which pressed into the small of his back. Innowen's lungs burned until he feared he would cry out. Instead, he choked and gasped for what little air he could draw and bit his lip against any sound or outcry.
From the corner of his eye he glimpsed the Lady. Far ahead, she glowed like a wild torch in the darkness. Her hair streamed, and her cloak flowed behind her. At a bend in the road, her horse slipped in the treacherous muck, nearly unseating her, but she recovered easily, and her unexpected laughter drifted back to him like cymbals and wild bells on the night air.
Never in his young life had Innowen met anyone like her, and he knew in that instant that he loved her with all his heart. He couldn't explain his passion, and he wondered if it might be some strange magic. But he knew it with certainty.
Caught up in wonder, he almost missed the boulder and the old tree that marked the path to his cottage. The Witch of Shanalane sped past them. Only the strange radiance that surrounded her gave Innowen any warning as, for just an instant, his landmarks stood illuminated against the gloom.
"Wait!" he cried. "To the right! Take the path!"
The Witch seemed not even to slow. She jerked on her jeweled reins and wheeled her steed in an impossible circle. Into the thicket, she briefly disappeared. Then, her light could be seen winking between the trunks and the branches and the leaves. Nothing restrained her speed.
Innowen marveled at her courage. The woods were thick along the path. A low limb would certainly sweep her from the animal's back. Didn't she care?
Vashni's hand pressed him down with greater force as they, too, turned onto the path. The world spun crazily for a moment, and Innowen thought the black mare had slipped. He screamed and dug his fingers into Vashni's leg. The huge demon only chuckled as he crouched low over Innowen, bringing his face close to the horse's neck as they plunged into the woods.
The forest closed around them, but the canopy of leaves seemed less dense than Innowen thought it should be. There were no limbs to menace them, no roots to trip them. He knew the path well; Drushen had often carried him along it to the road where they would meet and chat with travelers. But now the way was clear. The trees seemed to bend away, to part for them.
Just ahead stood the cottage. Firelight trickled through the cracks of worn shutters and through the partially opened door. The Lady had arrived before them. Her mount waited untethered, breathing heavily. Her shadow moved within the cottage.
Vashni jerked his own horse to a halt, flung his leg over Innowen's head, and jumped down. He hauled the boy down and tossed him over one shoulder. At last, Innowen dared to protest--uselessly. The demon kicked the door open wider with the toe of his boot, glanced around disdainfully at the furnishings, and grunted before he deposited his squirming burden on a stool that stood beside a rickety table.
In the darkest corner of the cottage, a figure sprawled on the only bed. The Witch stood over it. Innowen noticed immediately that her strange glow was gone.
"Drushen?" he whispered, afraid his guardian might already be dead. "Drushen?"
"Shut up," the Witch ordered quietly. "He's very weak. We're almost too late."
Drushen struggled up onto one elbow. Ropes of black hair turning gray clung to his sweat-drenched face. His moist eyes gleamed as he looked past the Witch and spied his charge. "Child, my child," he managed thickly. "I feared the storm had claimed you." He clutched suddenly at the Witch's sleeve and pulled her closer. "Take care of my Innowen, please! He needs someone. I beg you!"
The Witch gently pushed Drushen back on the bed. "Hush. You'll care for him yourself." She tore away the sleeve of the old man's tunic and lifted his arm to better see the puncture marks of the serpent's sting, two tiny wounds just above the right wrist. Abruptly, she called to her demonic companion. "Vashni, get a better fire going in that hearth. I need warmth and light, and these few candles aren't enough." She gestured at the two sticks on the mantle with their pathetic flames. "Then bring my smaller riding bag. You know which one."
Vashni obeyed at once. Without a word, he gathered logs from a basket that sat near the door, thrust them into the hearth, and began to prod and stir the coals.
The Witch unlaced her cloak and started to cast it aside. Then, noticing Innowen on his stool, she changed her mind. "You're shivering," she observed, draping the expensive garment over him. "Don't worry, my Innocent," she whispered. "The old man will live. The bite is a bad one, but the venom hasn't yet reached his heart."
Innowen only nodded. He was back in his familiar cottage, the one-room world which made up most of his existence, and he had found help for Drushen. Although rainwater dripped from strands of his hair and ran into his eyes, and mud slicked his clothes and skin, he found comfort in these surroundings and security in the presence of this Lady who had stolen his heart.
He watched her move, dimly aware when flames began to crackle in the fireplace and the room began to warm. The Witch tied back her hair and never glanced his way as she worked. He couldn't see what she did, but she put her mouth to Drushen's arm several times and kissed his wound. She made a poultice of water and hot ash, and she stripped bandages from the sheet beneath Drushen's body. Sometimes her hands seemed to glow, but Innowen was unsure if that was magic or just the firelight on her ivory flesh.
Vashni returned with her riding bag. In the brighter firelight, Innowen saw he was no demon at all, and he sullenly chided himself for his fear. Beyond a doubt, though, Vashni was the largest man he had ever seen. Far bigger even than Drushen, who bulged with muscle from his wood-cutting. His garments, kilt and breastplate, greaves and arm braces, all glimmered with studs and rings of copper and bronze. The short, embroidered sleeves of a black linen tunic showed from under his armor. And that huge bronze sword still hung sheathed at his right hip.
He had seemed a demon in the storm, with lightning glimmering on all that metal. Innowen had never seen such armor before. Nor had he ever encountered a man he would have called beautiful. He dared to study Vashni's face. The features were perfect, though marked by a hardness that bordered on cruelty. His mouth was a thin cut above the chin, and his brows seemed to crag over deep-set dark eyes that glittered like splinters of black ice. But for the pair of braids, his hair was chopped close, and a short-trimmed beard colored his cheeks.
The Witch took the bag from his hand, opened it, and extracted a small wooden figurine. From a sheath at her belt she withdrew a small dagger and began to carve. The firelight rippled on the sharp copper blade as she worked, and Innowen leaned forward on the table to see better. But she turned, blocking his view, and quickly finished. She looked from the doll to Drushen, then touched it to his forehead and heart. With two quick motions, she stabbed the figurine's right arm, kissed its new wounds, and cast it into the fire.
The old man never made a sound. His eyes stayed closed in apparent sleep.
Innowen sagged against the wall, sure at last that his guardian would be all right. The Witch had said so, and he had watched her work some charm.
I love her, he thought again. He didn't understand, but he knew it without a doubt. Everything about her fascinated him. She was new and refreshing, and she made his world seem new as well. The cottage felt warmer, the furniture looked more elegant. The very woodgrain in the old walls seemed sharper and more vivid. He inhaled the air, and it tasted like the rarest essence. The snapping crackle of the flames made a music. The fire shimmered.
Her shadow! It danced upon the walls and the ceiling, going where it would, spinning and leaping whenever she moved, flitting around the cottage like an independent soul. The shadow glided delicately and with a strange quality, a kind of magical dance-for-two that only he seemed to witness. The Lady's every gesture embodied grace as she went about her healings, but her motions were brusque and purposeful.
Her shadow, though, was a piece of enchantment, blackness without darkness. One with the Witch, yet free, it elongated all her movements, drew them out and transformed them into pavanes and arabesques.
Innowen looked for his own shadow. It made barely a stain on the far wall, huddled on a low shadow-stool in a corner, all crouched down and formless. It didn't move, it didn't dance. It just sat there, two useless shadow-legs thrust out at funny angles.
Even his shadow was crippled.
A moan rose from the bed. Innowen glanced apprehensively toward Drushen, but the old man made no other sound. The Witch stood motionless at the bedside. Innowen swallowed. "Is he...?"
"Just sleeping," she answered, turning slowly to face him. She wore an expression of weariness as she drew herself erect. "He should awaken later in the day, and he'll be hungry. Feed him the broth that Vashni has prepared."
Innowen gazed toward the hearth. A kettle hung on an iron hook near the fire, and a rich aroma filled the cabin. He hadn't seen the big warrior prepare it. He'd been too involved in watching the Witch and her shadow, too wrapped up in his own thoughts.
Near Drushen's bed, a bowl of water sat on the floor. The Witch had used it to mix the poultice for his wound. Now she bent to pick it up, but as her fingers brushed the earthen rim, she froze. For a moment, she stood unmoving. Then her brow furrowed. She stooped closer and peered with keen interest at something in the water.
As if struck a blow, she suddenly recoiled. All color drained from her face. Her mouth opened slackly, and her eyes widened. Carefully, she picked up the bowl, cradling it in both hands, and stared into it again.
Innowen knew there was only water in the bowl. He didn't understand. What could she see in a bowl of water?
The vessel slipped through her fingers, and the thin pottery shattered. Water splattered the floor and the hem of her fine gown. The Witch didn't care. She whirled toward Innowen. With an effort, she composed her features into a semblance of calm. Slowly, she drew a long breath and knelt to meet him eye to eye.
"Do you know, my Innocent, why you cannot walk?"
Innowen hung his head, unable to meet her gaze for long. He looked, instead, at her shadow as it stretched across the floor, up the far wall, and back over the ceiling like a tenuous preening creature. He could talk to her shadow, if not to the Witch.
"Drushen said I was born this way." He swallowed hard again and trembled at her nearness. Yet the shadow on the wall encouraged him to speak, nodding its head as the flames danced in the hearth. "I never knew my parents. They left me on the road, exposed for the animals or the elements. Drushen found me and raised me, and we've been each others' only company ever since." Despite himself, a tiny smile creased his lips. "I can't do much to help around here, but I listen to his complaints and his stories, and we talk a lot."
The Witch of Shanalane touched his knee. It startled him, and he jerked, bumping his head on the wall. He couldn't avoid her gaze any longer. Her eyes burned into him, searing him, illuminating all his secrets. Was it her power, or was it his own fear? He didn't know, but he couldn't look away.
"Are you happy?" she asked, an odd question for one stranger to ask another.
Innowen stammered and blinked back the tears that threatened to come again. "I can't walk," he answered slowly. He tore his gaze away at last and sought her shadow. It flickered in time to the crackling fire, moving over the old rough wood with an eerie grace. "I can't dance."
A torrent of words burst from him, and his eyes flooded with tears. "I want to dance," he said bitterly. "Like your shadow there. Like the fire. Like the trees in the wind and the stars through the sky. Drushen dances sometimes, and the villagers in Shandisti dance when the harvest comes in. The animals, the birds, the grass and flowers--they all dance, they're all alive with motion." He pounded his fists against his unfeeling limbs. "But not me! Not Innowen!"
The outburst drained him. He sagged back against the wall and slipped sideways off his stool to the floor. He beat his legs once more, but weakly, ashamed of his tears and his infirmity, painfully aware of the beautiful woman before him and of his own unworthiness.
The door opened. Vashni peered around its edge. "We should leave now, Lady." He spared a glance toward Drushen's bed. "We've stayed too long already. The soldiers...."
The Witch waved her hand, and Vashni fell silent. Leaning close, she took Innowen's face between her fingers and turned him toward her, forcing him to meet her eyes once more. He couldn't bear them, especially after his unmanly display. Yet she gripped his chin and compelled him to look.
"My poor Innocent," she whispered. "I saw your pain. I saw it in the water where the past and future sometimes reveal themselves to me. I see it now in your aura, which glimmers with misery." She released him, and her hand settled on his chest, just over his heart. "I saw your fate in that bowl of water, my Innocent." Her face came next to his, and the warmth of her hand spread all through him. "You'll walk, yes, and you'll dance. You'll dance the world away."
An arcane glittering like the flashes of tiny lightning bolts filled the dark wells of her eyes. Innowen's tears surged forth once more, humiliating him, the droplets completely beyond his control. He became a child again, a weeping baby in need of succor, muddy and filth-splattered. He slid further down, his back against the wall, until he almost lay on the floor. The Witch watched him; that only made him cry more.
"I--I love you," he confessed through his sobs. With a boldness born of shame, he reached up to touch her face, longing to brush his fingers over the milky paleness of her cheek. She was just beyond his reach, though, and he trembled as he drew his arm back. His tears continued, blurring his vision. "I don't understand, I don't know how, but I love you." He turned his face to the floor and covered it with one hand. "Help me," he muttered.
"I'll help you," the Witch answered, pulling his hand from his face. "I'll help you to walk, and you'll dance as no man has ever danced." She rose and went to the door. Vashni was no longer there. She called his name, and he appeared instantly.
"Carry our Innocent out into the rain," Innowen heard her whisper. "Strip away his rags and let the downpour cleanse him. Make him fit to look upon our god."
Vashni's eyes snapped wide, then he furrowed his brow. "Lady, Minarik's troops know our direction."
Again, the Witch stopped him with a curt gesture. "This is too important," she snapped. "The storm will slow them, and if anyone finds us before I finish, you'll have to deal with them. Now do as I tell you. Then wait by the horses and keep a sharp watch. Go!"
Vashni shook his head, frowning, but he picked up Innowen with his usual disdain. "Stop that blubbering," he grumbled, giving him a shake as he carried him through the door.
The shock of the rain and wind did what Vashni's threat could not. Innowen had become used to the cottage's warmth. The cold stung him. He hugged himself and barely protested when Vashni dropped him on the ground, seized the back of his tunic and ripped it free in one swift motion. He opened his mouth to cry out, but no sound came.
The huge warrior loomed over him, and Innowen realized the giant was as soaked and miserable as he was. Raindrops pearled down his face, streamed from his lashes and chin, causing him to blink and wipe his face endlessly. "You want to shed that breech cloth, or do you need more help?" Vashni snapped.
Tremulously, Innowen unwound the breech cloth from his loins. He folded it self-consciously, watching as the dark warrior went to the Witch's horse, reached into another bag that was somehow hound to her riding pad, and lifted out a bundle of black velvet. Vashni's face seemed frozen in a perpetual grimace as he bore the burden back toward Innowen, slowly unwrapping it.
Innowen caught his breath. The velvet came free, exposing a strange wooden idol. Thick copper nails had been driven into it, perhaps a hundred, at all different angles. Innowen could discern no detailed features for the spikes that pierced its face and head. The gods of Ispor were many, but Innowen, who knew little of gods, had never seen its like. Its countenance sent a shiver up his spine.
Vashni set the idol on the ground and shot a glance toward the cottage. The door stood open, but all he could see was the Witch's shadow bent over that of the small table. It seemed to be writing something. He looked again at the weird god-figure and the copper spikes that impaled it, and dragged himself back a pace. The stern eyes of Vashni stopped him, and he sat up, trembling. The rain chilled his bare flesh; he hugged himself as much against his fear as for warmth.
The Witch appeared in the doorway, the glow from the fireplace lending her a soft aura as she hesitated on the threshold. Silhouetted in such light, it proved impossible to see her face, but Innowen felt her gaze fix on him.
She slammed her hand angrily on the door jamb. "Vashni," she shouted. "You fool! Not in the mud!" She disappeared inside again, only to return with the stool on which Innowen had sat. "Use this."
Vashni retrieved the idol from the mud with a muttered apology as the Witch placed the stool near Innowen's feet. Snatching up the scrap of Innowen's tunic, he wiped the idol clean of any filth before he positioned it carefully on the stool. That done, he went back to the bag on his mistress' horse to extract from it a mallet and a new copper nail. Under the Witch's watchful eye, he set these down on the stool with the same care and backed away.
The Witch opened her arms wide as if to embrace the storm. No longer did she hold the rain at bay with her magic. It drenched her, and her hair hung in thick ropes, and water rilled down her face and breasts and into her gown. She had not even donned her cloak. Her sodden garments clung to every rich curve of her body.
As she approached the idol, her lips moved in a soundless prayer or incantation. Giving no thought to her fine gown, she knelt in the mud. One hand reached out to grasp the mallet, and her voice rose a bit until Innowen could hear her words. They made no sense to him. She lifted her other hand in the air, and he saw that she clutched something.
A sudden flash of lightning revealed the piece of white cloth she gripped, perhaps a strip torn from Drushen's bedding. He remembered her shadow writing over his table. What had she scrawled on that scrap?
A powerful bolt ripped a jagged blue tear in the sky. Thunder boomed and echoed. A terrible shriek followed, chilling Innowen to the marrow of his bones, and he gave a little cry, too, out of startled fright. The Witch had made that sound. She threw back her head and howled again. The sky answered with more lightning and more thunder.
Suddenly, setting the mallet down and turning away from the idol, she glared at Innowen. Her eyes were two small heavens filled with their own wild tempests. They reflected the lightning flash as she came toward him.
Innowen stared, fascinated and terrified, and he began to shake with an uncontrollable trembling.
"You will walk," she said fiercely. "And you'll dance." The wind set her soaked garments to snapping, and the wet, tangled ropes of her hair blew back from her head and writhed like snakes in the gale. "How you'll dance!" she cried.
Terrified, Innowen looked from her to the idol, to the lightning crackling overhead, and back to the Witch. For an instant she was a monster, a horrible creature crouched over him, ready to devour. She was evil--a witch. All the villagers, all the people in the countryside, knew and feared her. She summoned storms.
Lightning exploded again, shattering the night. For a brief moment, a thousand shadows of the Witch stretched across the world, shadows that danced ephemerally before the returning waves of darkness washed them away.
Even so, he loved her. He did, with all his young heart. She had saved his guardian, and now she was saying that he would walk. She could make him walk! Witch or not, evil or not, he had to love her!
He swallowed his fear and met her potent gaze. "I want to!" he shouted over the thunder. "Make me walk! Do you have that much power?"
Her eyes burned. She leaned forward on all fours, her hands sinking into the mud on either side of him. "My god does," she answered darkly. She pointed back to the idol with a long, ivory finger that dripped with muck and slime. "He has all power."
The heavens fractured. Fiery lightning raced in all directions, turning the night into a cobalt lacework. Thunder rolled until the earth itself shook, and the trees bowed to the ground under a fearsome wind.
The Witch brought her face close to his, and in the flashes of lightning, Innowen saw nothing human. He screamed inwardly, but he refused to admit his fear. He loved her! Still, he recoiled from her until he lay flat on his back in the mud.
"He demands nothing of you," she said. Her warm breath caressed his lips, and the strange wild smell of her filled his senses as she stretched practically on top of him. "Only of me does he ask anything. The price is mine to pay." Her lips brushed ever so subtly against his. "At least for this moment."
Innowen could retreat no further. His breath came in short gasps. His senses roiled in confusion. For all his fear--and he could no longer deny he feared her--he desired her deeply! Her body pressed down upon him, hot and wonderful and frightening. He bit his lip and clenched his fingers in the soft mud.
"You will walk," she repeated, the words hissing between her perfect teeth, "and you will dance, and in time you, too, will pay a price." She pulled one hand from the mud and smeared it over his chest like a fine ointment. Her cold fingers drew small, teasing circles around his nipples and moved upward toward his throat. "But what is the value of a whole body, my Innocent?" she asked. "What would it be worth to be a complete man?" She hesitated as if expecting a response, but before he could speak she set a finger to his lips. "Shhhhh, no need, when we both know the answer."
Whatever she was, whatever the villagers thought her, she knew his dearest dream. "Make me walk!" he uttered breathlessly, doubting her even as he wished fervently to believe. "I want to dance!"
"I will," she promised. She held up the strip of cloth in her hand. It was wet and muddy, but as she unrolled it, he could see strange writing. "This is my prayer," she said. "You will be healed and made whole." Her hand clamped on his right leg. Innowen could not feel her strength, but when she let go, his flesh showed livid white marks. "Have faith in my god, Innocent! Believe in Him!"
"I will!" Innowen shouted fervently.
She scrambled on her knees to her idol and picked up the mallet. Crumpling her prayer in one hand, she pressed it to the wooden body of her god. Next, she picked up the sharp copper spike, set it in place against the cloth, and drew back to drive it home.
The mallet struck, and the sky erupted. Thunder drowned out the sound of the impact as the nail ripped through the cloth and deep into the idol. Again, the Witch struck, and again the heavens cried with thunder. A third time she struck, and Innowen covered his ears.
Vashni appeared beside her suddenly with a small bit of burning wood from the fireplace. He cupped one hand around the flame to protect it from the storm as he knelt and passed it to his mistress. She looked over her shoulder at Innowen, then touched the brand to the edge of the cloth. Though it was soaked, it began to burn. The smoke rose even through the thick rain. Then it flared with blinding intensity, and all the nails in the idol's body began to gleam in the red heat.
The cloth quickly seared away. Not even an ash remained to fall on the stool. Still, the nails shone with heat-glow, and the air smelled of burning.
The Witch cast her small brand aside, and the flame died before it hit the ground. She rose, drawing her dagger from her belt. Standing over her idol, the image of her holy god, she set the razor edge to her wrist. The blade rippled with wild color as lightning lit the darkness. The thunder that followed covered any sound she made as she drew it through the flesh.
Blood splashed on the idol's head and streamed down among the nails, mingling with the ceaseless rain, staining the wood. Innowen cried out for his Lady, not knowing how deeply she had cut. The free flow of her life-fluid made him cry out again. She said nothing, though, just stared at the heavens and held her arm rigid while the blood pumped.
Suddenly, Innowen felt the power of her god upon him. The idol's eyeless face regarded him with a cold passion. He stared back, looking for a gaze he could meet, then clapped a hand to his mouth in disbelieving horror. Its chest began to heave as if it drew breath; wooden limbs stirred ever so slightly and seemed to pulse with tension.
He was only imagining it, he tried to tell himself. The lightning and the thunder, the fire, and the Witch's blood-letting all contrived to play this trick on his mind.
But no, he knew the truth. The thing exuded a fearsome, unimaginable life, and he was the object of its unnatural attention. He sat up slowly, supporting himself on his hands, unable to look away from the idol.
With a screeching wail, a new wind ripped through the forest. From deep in the woods came the crashing of huge old trunks as their branches snapped and shattered and they struck the earth. Over it all, Innowen heard a groaning and a wrenching that made him look up. A corner of the cottage roof reared against the night, bucked and writhed like a tortured animal, then blew away with the gale. A section of the west wall sprang outward, and another piece of the roof collapsed.
Innowen threw himself sideways on his elbows, twisting his body as he screamed. "Drushen!"
The Witch stood over him. Her hair lashed wildly behind her, and her ruined gown whipped and beat in the wind. Her voice stung. "Rise, Innocent!" she shouted, shaking her fists. "Save your Drushen. Get up and run to him!"
Innowen dragged himself through the mud, tears streaming, mingling with the rain that rilled down his face. "I can't!" he cried despondently. "Drushen!"
"Drushen!" she mocked him. Then she kicked him repeatedly until he rolled away from her and found himself again at the wooden feet of her cruel god. She positioned herself between him and the cottage, and Vashni took a position at her back. "Get up, Innocent!" she demanded. "My god has placed his hand upon you. Save your guardian, but I won't let you crawl to him. Get up! Walk!"
The wind swelled to greater fury. Even the Witch leaned into it to stand at all. Innowen stared at his home as yet another portion of the wall caved outward and another piece of roof tumbled down. He opened his mouth, but no sound came, so great was his horror.
He stared at the Witch. He loved her! How could she do this, save his Drushen only to let him die? She had been beautiful before when she worked her bedside mercies. But now, muddied and soaking and angry, she seemed hellish, and he knew that the villagers were right in their fears, and that he was a fool to love her.
"Get up!" It was the very voice of the storm coming from her. She shook her fist at him, and lightning crackled across the sky.
He looked at the idol with its many copper spikes, sure that it breathed now. It pulsed with horrid vitality, swelled and contracted. The nails stirred like quills. The thing watched him and bent its will upon him with a dreadful force.
"I can't! I can't!" he answered both the Witch and her god. "Help me!" He rose as high as he could on his hands, but she refused to let him crawl. Her sandaled foot pushed him back. Yet Drushen was still inside, and their home was crashing down. He had to save Drushen!
He screamed in fear and anger, and as he did, he pulled one knee under himself, the first movement his legs had ever known.
"Help yourself, Innocent!" the Witch cried with fierce urging. "Help yourself, and help your Drushen. But hurry! How long will the rest of the roof hold? How much time? Get up! Run!"
Ever so shakily, Innowen rose, barely aware of his miracle. Drushen filled his thoughts. He took his first lurching step, then his second. The Witch stood before him, and he pushed her aside, all his attention on the cottage door and the firelight beyond it. Vashni moved out of his way.
"That's it!" the Witch shouted gleefully. "Walk! Run! Dance! All you've wanted is yours now. Save Drushen. That's your task tonight!" She laughed, and the sound of it rolled even over the thunder. "But there's another task to come. I've seen your fate!" She laughed again. "Hurry, Innocent! Hurry to your task!"
He reached the door. One hand grabbed the edge of it, and he jerked away in pain, a gasp on his lips. A huge splinter protruded from his right palm. He wrenched it out, grimacing at the tiny well of blood as he cast the splinter down.
The foot of Drushen's bed was all he could see from the door, so he focused on that. Every step was a torturous effort. He balanced precariously on one leg, then the other. He had never learned to walk. How he managed it now, he didn't know. Maybe it was the god. But then, the god could have made it easier! Innowen had to think through every movement, and there was little time.
The wind raged around him, pushing him back, as it blew through the shattered sections. He glanced upward. The remains of the roof hung dangerously over his head.
Innowen fell suddenly, tripping in the debris that had been his home. Agony shot up his left arm. He raised it before his eyes, terrified at the sight of more of his blood.
The roof made a menacing noise. A thick beam dipped toward Drushen. Innowen forgot his wound and dragged himself quickly across the ruined floor, using his elbows as he always had. The Witch wasn't there to stop him. But when he reached the bedside, he clutched the rough wooden frame with all his strength and hauled himself once more to his feet.
He couldn't deny that the Witch had kept her promise--or that her god had kept it for her. He could stand. He could walk. But there was no time to ponder why or how. He pulled his unconscious guardian up and slipped his arms around the old man's chest. He took his first step backward.
And fell again. He kept his grip on Drushen, though, and they tumbled from the bed to the floor. Once more, Innowen struggled to his feet, bent over uncertainly, and seized his guardian by the wrists.
The room swam in circles as he straightened and began to drag Drushen through the rubble. Twice more he fell, the simple skill of moving backward eluding him. Each time, though, he rose faster and more surely. Through the door and into the storm he hauled the old man, falling yet again in the slippery mud.
He screamed in frustration. With a grinding noise, the remains of the roof collapsed. The walls followed, crashing down in a thick cloud of dust that the rain swiftly smothered. The only home he had ever known lay in ruins. A numbness filled him. He stared at the broken pile of timbers that had been a cottage, and at Drushen, who slept the undisturbed sleep of a child.
He looked for the Witch, but she was gone. So was her servant, Vashni, as was the idol. The little stool stood crookedly, alone in the cold rain, one of its three legs sunk deeper in the mud than the others.
He looked slowly down at his own legs, so straight and perfect, so strong, and his heart leaped. He could walk! He was whole! Suddenly, the cottage seemed a small price to pay for such a gift.
The Witch had said there would be a price. He drew a deep breath, unable to resist the grin that turned up the corners of his mouth. What would you give? she had asked him. What would you give? he asked himself.
He took a few hesitant steps, then flung up his arms and rejoiced. The cottage was, indeed, a small price. Drushen could build a better home, and they could both have beds. This time, Innowen could help!
The storm grew weaker, and the rain almost stopped. But the wind rose again, strong as ever, and the night wailed with its power. Innowen, still new to the subtleties of balance, turned into it and was blown over into the muck. He rose on his elbows at his guardian's side.
The wind blew through the forest, and the sound of its rush through the leaves, through the grass, took form in his ears and spoke to him in the Witch's voice. He shot a wild look around, searching for her, but she was not there. Only her words remained on the wind.
Dance, my Innocent, the wind said to him. To walk, you must dance. Every night you must dance, or never walk again. Dance, dance as no one has ever danced. Dance the world away. Dance, dance, dance....
The wind laughed and laughed, then fell suddenly and "dissipated. The leaves rustled weakly as it faded away. For a moment, silence ruled. The rain ended. The barest hint of lightning flickered far away in the heavens. In the distance, the thunder gave a last rattle and died.
Innowen rolled over, his face close to Drushen's. The old man looked serene, his eyes gently closed. No trouble or worry creased his brow. He slept as if still in his bed, oblivious to the mud beneath him and to the destruction of his home.
Innowen planted a small kiss on his guardian's cheek and got to his feet. He had to think about shelter. Drushen couldn't be left in the chill all night. He looked around, wondering what to do.
Then, the words of the wind echoed in his head. Dance, it said.
He didn't know how.
Experimentally, he lifted one foot, pointed the toe, and tapped it on the ground. There should be music, he thought. But there was none. The leaves rasped suddenly as a fresh wind stirred with new gentleness through the branches. That was music of a sort, Innowen reasoned.
He drew back his foot, threw out his arms, and began a tentative turn, following it with another.
I can dance, he whispered softly to himself. I can dance!
The trees swayed with him, keeping time like great metronomes, and the wind rose again, but subtly, and it sounded ever so much like laughter.