The Outcast [Time Master Trilogy Book 2]
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by Louise Cooper
Category: Fantasy/Science Fiction
Description: Tarod alone knew the nature of the supernatural force locked within his soul--and he knew that it must be thwarted, no matter what the sacrifice. Denounced by his fellow adepts as a demon, betrayed even by those he loved, he had unleashed a power that twisted the fabric of time, to put himself beyond the reach of that monstrous force and avert the pandemonium that threatened the world. He thought that nothing could break through the barrier he had created. He was wrong...
eBook Publisher: Mundania Press LLC/Mundania Press LLC, 2006 2006
eBookwise Release Date: November 2006
28 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [450 KB]
Reading time: 289-405 min.
"Cooper writes with good characterization and suspense, and her plots encourage quick, involved reading."--Kliatt
"An excellent read ... a fast-paced mystery."--The North Spire
"I'm telling you, you won't find better foodstuffs anywhere in Shu, or Prospect or Han for that matter!" The market trader thrust a handful of dark pinkish-purple roots under his customer's nose and brandished them threateningly. "And I've better things to do on a market day than waste my time with an outland slut who probably hasn't even got a coin to her name. So make your mind up now, before I set my dog on you!"
The mangy cross-bred hound that was sprawled inelegantly under the rickety stall glowered jaundicedly at his master, and the girl the trader had addressed stared back coldly, unimpressed. She was too experienced a haggler to pay any attention to threats or insults; she had judged the quality of the fruit and vegetables on offer and made her own decision as to their worth. She thrust a dirty hand into her belt-pouch and pulled out a tarnished brass coin.
"I said a quarter-gravine and I meant a quarter. Take it or leave it."
For a moment the man glared at her, resenting her manner, the fact that she refused to be intimidated, the ignominy of having to barter with such a low class of woman in the first place. But it was obvious she didn't intend to give way, and a sale was a sale. Winter business was slack at the best of times.
He snatched the money ungraciously and dumped the roots into the hemp bag she held out.
"And the fruit," she said.
Resentfully he threw six shriveled pears in after the vegetables, then spat on the ground at her feet. "There! And may cats eat your carcass!"
Quickly, reflexively, the girl made a gesture before her own face intended to ward off curses and negate the evil eye, and for a moment the look in her peculiar amber eyes made the trader feel distinctly uncomfortable. Something about her had raised his hackles. She was a coastal easterner, to judge by her accent, and they weren't noted for feyness. But as she made that sign he had felt as if the venom in his own words was being palpably turned back on him.
Ah, damn the woman. Nothing but a peasant girl in handed-down men's clothes. He had her money in his pocket, and that was what counted. Nonetheless, he watched her surreptitiously as she walked away, and the unease only left him when she had finally merged with the crowd and vanished from sight.
Cyllan Anassan swallowed her anger as she headed back through the market square towards her uncle's pitch on the outskirts of the clusters of stalls. She should be accustomed by now to the attitude of such men, especially here in the more affluent south. They expected a girl of her age and lowly status to be, at best, a simpleton; and when they failed to palm her off with the dregs of their produce at extortionate prices, they resorted to abuse. Admittedly Shu-Nhadek, the province capital of Shu, was an improvement on many towns she had visited, but the cavalier treatment still rankled. When all was said and done, she had come away with substandard foodstuffs that would take twice the cooking to make them palatable.
She would have liked to linger at the better end of the market to choose from the succulent vegetables on sale there--and, she admitted to herself, to have the secret pleasure of mingling with the high-clan folk who graced those stalls with their custom--but the thought of her uncle's rage at such profligacy had deterred her. If he was sober she would feel the buckle of his belt across her back; if he was drunk he would probably kick her from one end of the square to the other.
Unconsciously goaded by that thought, she quickened her steps, muttering an apology as she bumped against a group of well-dressed women who were gossiping beside a stand selling sweetmeats and wine, and tried to make haste through the crowd. But now that she had left the cheaper and less well-patronized section of the market behind, haste was impossible; the press of people had simply become too great. Besides, the temptation to dawdle was irresistible. This was her first visit to Shu-Nhadek, and there was so much to see and take in. All around her the market square was filled with color and movement. In the distance the jumbled roof tops and pastel washed walls of the tall old buildings rose to frame the picture, and further away still, if she craned her neck to look, the masts of ships riding at anchor in the harbor were just visible. Shu-Nhadek was the largest and oldest sea-port in the land; sheltered in the south-facing Bay of Illusions and served by the kindly currents of the Summerisle Straits, it was a perfect year-round haven for traders and travelers alike. Most of the major drove-roads terminated at the town: and its proximity to Summer Isle, home of the High Margrave himself, lent it a status no other province capital could match. People from every walk of life could be found here; wealthy merchants, craftsmen, farmers, drovers like her uncle's band, white-robed Sisters of Aeoris, even men and women from Summer Isle taking a respite from the formalities of court life. On the two days of the monthly market, the town's population increased fivefold. Cyllan could have simply stood by and watched the activity from dawn to dusk without ever growing bored.
At last, though, she was forced to stop altogether to allow a groom with several southern blood-horses to lead his charges across her path. Waiting, Cyllan stared enviously at the tall, elegant animals--a far cry from the stocky and evil-tempered little pony she herself rode when she traveled with Kand Brialen and his drovers--and abruptly, unbidden, the color and bustle and sheer exuberant life of the market brought back a memory that she had been trying for months to quell. A memory of another place, another festive occasion, one beside which the grand market of Shu-Nhadek shrank to a pale echo. A spectacle that probably wouldn't be repeated in her lifetime: the inaugural celebrations for the new High Initiate, at the Castle of the Star Peninsula on its remote stack far away in the north. It had been late summer then, even the northern climate kindly, and images of the ceremony and panoply, the unimaginably ancient castle decorated with streamers and pennants, the long processions of nobility, the bonfires, the music, the dancing, flashed through her inner vision as clearly as though she were seeing them again with her physical senses. She had even glimpsed the new High Initiate, Keridil Toln, young, assured and resplendent in his ceremonial robes, when his procession emerged through the castle gates to give Aeoris's blessing to the vast crowd.
It had been an unforgettable experience. But the memory that had caused her both joy and pain over the last months stood apart from the glory of the celebrations. A man; tall, black-haired, pale-skinned, with a haunted disquiet in his green eyes, a sorcerer and high adept of the Circle. They had met once before, by chance, and against all likelihood he had remembered her. She had been drinking some vile brew which she had bought with her last coin from a wine stall; he had tipped the cup's contents on to the grass, given the stallholder a tongue-lashing and replaced the wine with a high quality vintage. And Cyllan, overcome by shyness and by an acute sense of her own lowliness, had made a feeble excuse and run away as soon as she prudently could. Since then she had regretted her cowardice a thousand times, yearned for another chance, but the chance had not come her way. And later that same night, her psychic senses had told her that her dreams could have borne no fruit when she had conjured a vision of him in his private rooms, with a graceful, patrician girl, and had known that she was already forgotten.
The horses had cleared the square now and the crowd moved forward again. Passing a stall that sold ornaments of fashioned metal and enamel, Cyllan paused suddenly as something half hidden among the piled wares caught her eye. She moved closer, peering, then looked guiltily towards the stallholder, expecting to be driven away. This trader, however, knew from experience that good customers often appeared in the most unlikely guises, and courteously nodded for her to continue. Encouraged, Cyllan took out the object which had intrigued her and held it up. It was a necklace; a finely wrought chain of copper from which depended three beaten copper discs. On the centermost and largest, a skilled craftsman had worked a filigree design in silver and blue enamel--a lightning-flash bisected by a single eye.
The lightning-flash symbol of an adept ... Cyllan bit her lip as memory surged again, and wondered how much the necklace might cost. She wouldn't dare to haggle at a stall of this nature; besides, she knew nothing of metal values. But she had a little money--a very little; one or two gravines she had managed to scrimp for herself over the months. It would be so gratifying to own just one beautiful thing, one artifact to remind her.
"Derret Morsyth's one of the finest craftsmen in the province," the stallholder said suddenly. Cyllan started, then looked up at the man's face. He had moved to stand opposite her, and there was no hostility in his eyes.
"It's beautiful," she said.
"Certainly. Mind you, he tends only to work with the lesser metals, and there's some who'll dismiss him because he doesn't bedeck his pieces with gold and gems. But to my way of thinking, there can be as much beauty in a piece of copper or pewter as in any number of emeralds. It's the hand and the eye that count, not the materials."
Cyllan nodded emphatically, and the man gestured to the necklace. "Try it on."
"No, I couldn't."
He laughed. "You don't know the price yet, girl! Derret Morsyth doesn't overcharge, and neither do I. Try it--the copper almost matches your pretty eyes!"
Cheeks reddened by the unaccustomed compliment, Cyllan hesitantly held the necklace up to her throat. The metal felt cool and heavy against her skin; it had a substantial feel to it. Half turning, she was about to let the stallholder fasten it for her when she glimpsed her own reflection in a polished bronze mirror, and what she saw destroyed her eagerness instantly.
Pretty eyes, the stallholder had said. Gods, she wasn't pretty! Face plain, too tight and pinched, mouth too wide, and her amber eyes weren't beautiful, merely peculiar. Her hair, so pale that it was almost white, hung in tatty strands round her shoulders. This morning, for practicality's sake, she had made an effort to tie it into a bunch at the nape of her neck, but now half of it had worked free and she looked like a scarecrow. Dirty old shirt, jerkin and trousers, handed on from a man in her uncle's droving crew. And there on her breast hung the necklace she had coveted. It had been fashioned for a lady, not a down-at-heel urchin, and on her it became a grotesque parody.
Quickly she looked away from the awful revelation, and put up a hand to stop the trader who was about to fasten the necklace's clasp.
'No. I--I'm sorry. I can't. Thank you, but I don't want to buy it."
He was nonplussed. "It's not expensive, girl. And any young woman surely deserves--"
The attempt at kind persuasion was like a knife-thrust to Cyllan, and she shook her head violently. "No, please! I--haven't got any money anyway. Not even a half gravine. I'm sorry to have wasted your time ... thank you." And before he could say another word she all but ran from the stall.
The baffled trader stared after her until a new voice drew his attention back to his business. "Trader Rishak?"
Collecting himself, Rishak looked at his customer and recognized the eldest son of Shu's Provincial Margrave.
"Oh--forgive me, sir, I didn't see you. I had my mind on that young woman there. An odd one if you please."
Drachea Rannak raised his eyebrows enquiringly. "Odd?"
"First she shows great interest in one of Morsyth's pieces--on the verge of buying it, mind you--then suddenly she's changed her mind and bolted before I can say a word."
The young man smiled. "They say it's a woman's privilege to be contrary."
"So they do. Ah well, if I was a married man maybe I'd understand 'em better. Now, sir, what can I show you today?"
'I'm looking for a gift for my mother. It's her birth-anniversary in three days, and I'd like something special, and a little personal."
"For the Lady Margravine? Well, please give her my most respectful congratulations for the day! And I think I have just the thing for her good taste right here..."
* * * *
Only when she was well clear of the trinkets stall did Cyllan finally stop and get her breath. She was furious with herself, both for her initial vanity and for her foolish behavior when she realized her mistake. What use would a necklace have been to her? Something to wear at her next social occasion, perhaps on her next visit to the castle of the Star Peninsula? She almost laughed aloud. Something to get in her way when she was trying to stew her third-rate vegetables into edibility, more like. Or for her uncle to find and sell, and pocket the proceeds.
Her heart was still thumping painfully with the ignominy of the experience, and she had an illogical conviction that everyone around her knew of her humiliation and was secretly laughing at her. She had finally halted near the door of a tavern at the square's edge, and in a desultory attempt to cheer herself she pushed through the crowd and bought a mug of herb beer and a chunk of bread spread with milk cheese. The tavern room was stiflingly overcrowded, so she found a quiet bench outside and watched the market shoppers go by while she slowly ate and drank.
After a little while, a steadily droning voice from a booth next to the tavern caught her attention. The boothman was a fortune-teller, and was regaling his current customer with a long tale of great fortune and fame. Intrigued despite her mood, Cyllan edged closer until she could peer across and observe the proceedings--and her pulse quickened.
The fortune-teller had cast six stones on to his table, and was apparently reading his client's future from the pattern they formed. Geomancy was one of the most ancient techniques known in Cyllan's eastern homeland, and quickly she looked at the clairvoyant's face, searching for the pale skin and distinctive features of a Flatlands native. But whatever else the man might be, he was no easterner. And the stones ... there should have been many of them, not merely six. And sand on which to cast them. And the pattern they formed was nothing but meaningless gibberish.
Inwardly, Cyllan seethed. The fortune-teller was a charlatan, trading on superstition and on a psychic skill that was long dead but for a few secret practitioners. In the Great Eastern Flatlands, anyone with the fey touch was little better than a pariah now; she herself had learned at an early age to keep her innate and developing skills a secret from all but the old woman who had quietly tutored her in reading the stones. Even her uncle knew nothing of the precious collection of pebbles, worn smooth by the sea, which lodged in her belt-pouch. An apprentice drover, lowliest of the low, would never broadcast such a talent if she knew what was good for her. But Cyllan's talent was real, unlike the trumpery lies of this trickster, playing on his client's mixture of fear and gullible fascination.
You should have been in a Sisterhood Cot. Suddenly she heard the words in her head as clearly as if the tall, dark adept had been standing before her and speaking them aloud once more. He had recognized her skill, and he had paid her that compliment. She should have been admitted to that august body of women, servants of the gods, and her talents fostered and nurtured. But the Sisterhood had no time for the likes of a peasant drover. She had no money, no sponsor; so instead of wearing the white robe, she sat on a tavern bench and listened to a charlatan prostituting a seer's skills, and had no authority to intervene.
The fortune-teller's monologue finished and his client rose to leave, flushed and thanking him profusely. Cyllan saw a five-gravine piece change hands, and was disgusted, but if the fake seer felt anything of her fury he didn't show it. He was counting his afternoon's takings when a brown-haired young man paused by his booth. The newcomer's gaze flicked from the fortune-teller to Cyllan and lingered a moment as though in recognition; then, glancing surreptitiously over his shoulder, he slid into the empty chair opposite the boothman.
The charlatan made a great show of welcoming his visitor; so much so that Cyllan realized he must be the favored son of an out-of-the-ordinary local clan. Whatever his status, though, the young man was clearly no less gullible or superstitious than any peasant. His manner, the way he sat attentively forward, his whispered questions, all betrayed a naïve eagerness which the fortune-teller was quick to exploit. Cyllan watched as the six stones were produced and meaningless signs and passes made over them, before the fake seer began his monologue.
'I see great good fortune for you, young sir. Good fortune indeed; for within the year you will wed. A love match, if I may venture to say so, a lady whose beauty will be unequalled among her peers, and many fine children. And I see, too..." Here he paused dramatically, as though waiting for divine inspiration to touch his tongue, while the young man stared fixedly at the stones, "...yes! High office, young sir; great power and renown. I see you standing in a great hall, a resplendent hall, dispensing justice and judgment. A long life, sir; a good life and a happy one."
The young man's eyes were alight. Breathless, and completely enamored of the charlatan's pronouncement, he murmured a question which Cyllan didn't catch. Suddenly, watching him, she found herself unconsciously adjusting her vision so that the two figures at the cloth-covered table faded out of focus. On rare occasions, she had discovered, she could make predictions in a small way, or divine a stranger's character or background, without the need for her stones. It was a sporadic talent, unpredictable at the best of times; but now she felt that her psychic touch was sure. Closing her eyes she concentrated harder and a vague mental impression began to form, growing clearer until at last, satisfied, she opened her eyes again.
The fortune-teller had done, and the young man was getting up to leave. Coins changed hands, thanks were given and obsequious bows received in exchange; then the boothman dodged behind his curtain and out of sight. The young man was about to pass by Cyllan's bench, and on the spur of the moment she decided that she could not keep silent. Little good it might do her, but her sense of justice rebelled at the thought of letting such chicanery go unremarked.
As the young man reached her she stood up. "Excuse me, sir."
He started, turned, then frowned, clearly unused to being so directly addressed by a low-class stranger. Anxious that he shouldn't think she was importuning him, Cyllan spoke quickly and softly,
'The fortune-teller is a charlatan, sir. I thought you should know."
He was surprised. A fresh, smooth face, she thought; he had never known hardship, never wanted for anything, and probably that explained his credulity in the face of the seer's blandishments. Now, collecting himself, he strolled closer to where she sat.
'A charlatan?" His smile was faintly patronizing. "What makes you so sure?"
Obviously he suspected her of having some personal motive for attempting to discredit the man. Cyllan met his gaze steadily. "I was born and brought up in the Great Eastern Flatlands. Reading the stones is an ancient skill there, and I know a faker when I see one."
The young man clasped his hands together and stared thoughtfully at an expensive ring on one finger. "He is a stranger to Shu-Nhadek--as, it seems, are you--yet he divined a good deal about my position. Doesn't that speak in his favor?"
Cyllan decided to gamble that her flash of clairvoyance had been accurate, and smiled. "It takes small seer's skills, sir, to recognize and acknowledge the son and heir to the Margrave of Shu Province."
She had been right. He raised his eyebrows and stared at her with a newly dawning interest. "You are a seer?"
"A stone-reader, and of small talent," Cyllan said, ignoring the insult--no doubt unintentional--that his surprise implied. "I don't ply my skill or seek to profit from it; I'm not trying to steal the boothman's trade. But it offends me to see tricksters preying on innocent victims."
The idea that he was an innocent victim clearly didn't appeal to the Margrave's son and for a moment she wondered if she had been too blunt and affronted him. But after a brief hesitation he nodded curtly.
'Then I'm indebted to you. I'll have the charlatan run out of the province before the day's over." His eyes narrowed and he studied her face more closely. "And if you are what you say you are, I shall be interested to see if you can succeed where the charlatan failed."
He wanted her to read the stones for him, and Cyllan was alarmed. Her uncle, who like most of his peers was deeply superstitious and regarded psychic talents as the rightful province only of the privileged--and officially sanctioned--few, would kill her if he ever found out that she had been using her skills. And to read for the son of the Province Margrave ... she couldn't do it. She didn't dare.
"I'm sorry," she said indistinctly, "I can't."
"Can't?" He was suddenly angry. "What do you mean, can't? You say you're a seer; I ask you to prove it!"
"I mean, sir, that I dare not." She could do nothing other than be honest. "I'm apprenticed to my uncle, and he disapproves strongly of such things. If he were ever to find out--"
"What is your uncle's name?"
"He is--" She looked at the young man's face, swallowed. "Kand Brialen. A drover."
"A drover who doesn't exploit a profitable enterprise right under his nose? I find that hard to believe!"
"Please!" Cyllan entreated him anxiously. "If he were ever to know--".
"Oh, by the gods I've better things to do with my time than run tattling tales to peasants!" the young man retorted petulantly. "And if you won't read for me, you won't. But I'll remember the name. Kand Brialen--I'll remember it!"
Before Cyllan could say anything more, he turned on his heel and walked away.
Slowly she sat down again. Her heart was thumping and she wished that she had not been so foolhardy as to interfere. Now, if the whim took him, the Margrave's son might find some excuse to seek out her uncle and, if he was sufficiently offended by her refusal, let slip enough about their encounter to ensure that she would suffer for it. He wasn't used to having his wishes thwarted; he was obviously spoilt and might choose to be spiteful. If he did, then her uncle--
She checked the train of thought suddenly, and sighed. Whatever the Margrave's son did or did not do, she couldn't change matters. She had survived Kand Brialen's fury before now, and could survive it again. Best to finish her beer, return, and face whatever had to be faced.
The tavern potboy emerged to take her mug and ask if she would like more. Cyllan shook her head and reluctantly rose from the bench, heading away towards the side of the market place where the crowds began to thin out. Here, stalls and booths gave way to the thatch-roofed livestock pens, where herds of dull-eyed animals milled and complained and awaited their fate. Kand Brialen and his drovers had pitched their tents to one side of the largest pen, and throughout the day, trade had been brisk. They had a hundred cattle to sell, driven in from Han, together with four good work-horses that Kand had bought for a disgracefully low sum after a good deal of barter in Prospect. With spring and the breeding season almost in sight they were fetching good prices.
Cyllan had long ago learned not to think too often about her own future with Kand Brialen and his drovers. Four years ago, when her mother--Kand's sister--and father had been lost with their fishing boat in the treacherous Whiteshoals Sound, her uncle had taken on responsibility for her, but from the beginning he had made no effort to disguise his resentment of the duty. As far as he was concerned Cyllan was an unwanted liability; he had no use for women other than the occasional whore when the mood took him, and had made it clear that if his orphaned niece expected him to provide for her, she must repay him by working as hard as any of the men in his band. So for four years Cyllan had dressed like a drover, worked like a drover and coped, too, with all the "women's tasks" demanded of her. Admittedly, she had also traveled widely and seen a good deal of the world, something unheard of for any girl in the Eastern Flatlands. But it was a life that gave her little to look forward to. Back at home, (although it was becoming harder every season to think of anywhere as home), she would doubtless by now have been matched with the second or third son of another local fishing family in a pragmatic alliance. Hardly a great achievement, but it would have been better, surely, than this harsh, nomadic existence. As it was, her future stretched endlessly ahead; work, travel, sleep when she could snatch it, until the northern winds and southern sun withered her before her time.
She shook the unhappy thought off as she glimpsed her uncle's burly figure moving among the lines of horses tethered near the pens. He was accompanied by a tall, slightly stooping middle-aged man who, to judge from his fur-trimmed coat and Kand's obsequiousness, was a wealthy potential customer. Cyllan tried to make herself as inconspicuous as possible as she headed towards their pitch, anxious not to disturb her uncle while he was trading. She had almost reached the tents when a voice spoke softly but with satisfaction behind her.
"Ah, so there you are."
Startled, she turned to find herself facing the Margrave's son. He was grinning conspiratorially, and gestured in the direction of the two men.
"Kand Brialen--I remembered. And when I saw that he had good livestock for sale, I insisted that my father should see for himself."
So that was the Margrave of Shu. Cyllan realized suddenly that she was staring like a moonstruck yokel, and hastily looked away.
"You and I," the Margrave's son said, "have some unfinished business. And I think my father and your uncle will be quite a time in making their bargain, so your secret's safe enough. Come with me."
He was obviously not about to be argued with. Cyllan made no attempt to protest as he took her arm and hurried her away from the pens. They entered a narrow street which led off the market square to the harbor, and the young man indicated an ill-kept building with a sign over the door depicting a crudely painted white ship on an unnaturally blue sea.
"The White Barque Tavern," he said as he led the way through into the dark interior. "It's used by sailors and traders, mostly, so we're unlikely to be seen by anyone who might know me."
Cyllan wryly shrugged aside the implied slight--after all, by his terms he was lowering himself by appearing publicly in her company--and tried to assess her first impressions of her companion. She had noted a feverish light in his eyes when he demanded that she should read her stones for him, and his determination to get his own way said far more about his personality than any words. She had met such people before; preoccupied with the occult and defying the conventions which barred the subject to all but the Circle and the Sisterhood of Aeoris. All too often their fascination bordered on obsession. Cyllan had recognized the trait immediately in the Margrave's son, and was wary of it; it was a tendency that could lead her into trouble if she wasn't careful.
Otherwise, though, the young man seemed unremarkable enough. He had the typical good looks of a Shu Province native; abundant warm brown hair which curled about his head in the short style currently fashionable in the south, fine skin with an olive tinge that disguised a tendency to floridity, and expressive dark eyes with unusually long lashes. He was quite tall for a southerner, and although in later years he would probably run to fat, there was no sign of it as yet.
He pulled out a stool at an empty table in the corner of the tavern, and snapped his fingers to attract a potboy. Cyllan slid silently into the seat opposite and waited while he ordered wine for them both, and a slice of beef on black bread for himself. He did not ask if Cyllan was hungry. The wine and food were brought and unceremoniously dumped on the table; the potboy gave the well-to-do customer a withering look as he stalked away.
"Now," said the Margrave's son, "first things first. Tell me your name."
"Cyllan Anassan. Apprentice drover, from Kennet Head on the Great Eastern Flatlands." She introduced herself in the customary formal way by placing her hand palm down on the table.
He laid his over it, but very briefly. "Drachea Rannak. Heir Margrave of Shu Province, from Shu-Nhadek." And leaning back, he added. "So tell me, Cyllan Anassan, what brings you to be a drover, of all the unlikely occupations for a female?"
Her story was brief and dreary; she told it in as few words as possible, and he regarded her with curious interest. "Yet you're a seer? I would have thought the Sisterhood would have been of more interest to you than droving."
She smiled thinly. In his world, a girl who wanted to join the Sisterhood of Aeoris merely said so and the thing was done. She doubted if he could envisage matters any other way.
"Let's just say that the--opportunity--didn't come my way," she replied. "Besides, I doubt if I'm what the Sisters would call a seer."
Drachea pushed the slab of black bread around his plate with distaste. "Maybe so. But you should have pursued it." He looked up. "As a matter of fact, were it not for my position here in Shu I might well have thought along similar lines and presented myself as a candidate for the Circle."
"The Circle?" Her response was immediate and her eyes narrowed.
Drachea shrugged carelessly. "As it is, of course, such a thing isn't possible unless I were to stand down in favor of my younger brother, and there'd be all manner of complications." He paused, then: "You've obviously traveled a great deal. Have you ever seen the Star Peninsula?"
Cyllan was beginning to understand what lay behind his fascination with arcane matters. "Yes," she told him. "We were there last summer, when the new High Initiate was inaugurated."
"You were?" Drachea leaned forward, condescension abruptly forgotten. "Did you see Keridil Toln in person?"
"From a distance only. He came out of the castle to speak and give Aeoris's blessing to the crowd."
"Gods!" Drachea took a mouthful of wine, hardly noticing what he was doing. "To think that I missed such an event! My parents made the journey, of course, but I was ill with a fever and had to remain at home." He wiped his mouth. "So you saw it all ... Did you cross the causeway to the castle?"
"Yes. For a short while."
"Aeoris!" Drachea made a sign before his heart to show that he meant no disrespect to the highest of the gods. "It must have been the experience of a lifetime! What of the initiates? Doubtless you saw some of them; but I don't imagine you actually met anyone of their number, did you?"
Cyllan's suspicions crystallized. Drachea's one burning ambition was to join the ranks of the Circle, so that he could satisfy his craving and learn the truth behind the secrets which obsessed him. Now, she saw why he was so determined that she should read his future. He wanted to believe that his ambition would be fulfilled, and her word as a seer would fuel the fire inside him.
"Cyllan!" She was startled as he grasped her arm and shook it. "Listen to me! I said, did you meet any of the initiates?"
A discomforting juxtaposition of images flickered through Cyllan's mind as she stared back. Drachea's face, young, untrammeled, filled with a sense of his own importance. And another face, gaunt, self-contained, eyes betraying knowledge and emotions far beyond physical years...
She said huskily, "I met one man. A high adept."
"Then they don't keep to themselves? I'd heard--ah, but rumors grow like weeds! I must go there and see for myself. I would have done long since, but it takes so much time!" He clenched his fists together in frustration, then abruptly his expression changed. "Have you been back to the Peninsula since the celebrations?"
"No. We spent a month in Empty Province and since then we've been making our way south."
"Then you won't know the truth or otherwise of these newest rumors that are being whispered."
"New rumors?" Cyllan was suddenly alert. "I've heard nothing."
"No, I doubt you would have. They began in West High Land and Chaun, and now they're spreading here as well. No one seems to know the facts, but they say," Drachea paused for emphasis, "that there's something wrong at the castle. No word has been received from anyone there for some while now, and no one knows anyone who has visited the castle from outside since the last conjunction of the moons."
A peculiar sensation clutched at the pit of Cyllan's stomach. She couldn't explain the feeling or put a name to it; it was as if deep down within her some dormant, animal sense was stirring. Keeping a tight rein on herself she said again, "I've heard nothing. What do people say might be amiss?"
"That's just it; no one knows. There was a tale from West High Land recently about some dangerous wrongdoer apprehended at the Sisterhood Cot there, and there's talk of a connection with events at the castle, but beyond that everything's speculation. It seems that the Circle have shut themselves off altogether from the rest of the world, but no one knows why." He clasped his hands together and frowned at them. "I've been looking for clues and omens, but can see nothing that makes any sense. The only strange thing to have happened here is an unusual number of Warps."
Cyllan shivered involuntarily at his mention of the word Warp. Every man, woman and child in the world was justly terrified of the weird supernatural storms that came wailing out of the north at unpredictable intervals. When a Warp struck, the only sane course was to take shelter; the brave, or crazed few who dared to face the pulsating skies and demonic, shrieking winds out in the open, vanished without trace. Not even the wisest scholars knew where the Warps came from or what drove them, though legend had it they were the last legacy of the forces of Chaos, left behind when the followers of Aeoris swept the Old Ones to destruction and restored the rule of Order.
But whatever the power behind the Warps might be--and it was something that sensible folk preferred not to dwell on--Drachea was right when he said that their incidence had been increasing lately. Only five days ago, crossing the fertile plains that divided Shu Province from Prospect, Kand Brialen's band had heard the dreaded thin, high wailing far away northward that heralded the approach of the storm. Cyllan had had nightmares ever since of the full-pelt ride to the nearest storm-haven, one of the long, narrow sheds built for the safety of travelers along all the main drove roads, and of the seemingly endless torment inside that precarious shelter, lying with her face buried in her coat, blocking her ears against the howling chaos outside while the terrified livestock milled and bawled around her. It had been the third such experience since they left Empty Province.
Even Drachea's easy composure had been shaken by the topic, and, aware that the atmosphere was growing uncomfortable, he gestured to the flagon that stood between them on the table.
"You haven't touched your wine."
"Oh ... oh, yes; thank you." Cyllan wasn't concentrating; she had shaken off the ugly recollection, but a disturbance still remained. The animal instinct was nagging at her again...
"As for this mystery at the castle," Drachea continued, "it's my belief that the Circle have their own reasons which others might do well not to question. Although if, when you read your stones, you should see an omen there that might tell us something...?"
He looked at her hopefully, and she shook her head with some vehemence. "No. I wouldn't dare--I wouldn't presume to try to see into such things. I'll read for you, Drachea, but I'll go no further."
He shrugged his careless shrug. "Very well, then. My time is valuable, so let's not waste it. Show me what the charlatan could not."
Cyllan felt in her belt pouch and pulled out a handful of small, smooth stones of varying shapes. Ideally, she needed sand as a base on which to cast the pebbles, but she had worked without it before and doubtless could do so again.
Drachea leaned forward, staring intently at the stones as though trying to divine something from them without her help. Suddenly, as she gathered them in her palm ready for the first cast, Cyllan stopped. Something was tugging insistently at her mind. A warning, as clear as if it had been spoken aloud in her ear.
She must not read the stones for Drachea Rannak.
"What is it?" Drachea's voice broke querulously in on her. She started violently, staring at him as though she had never seen him before.
"Come now, Cyllan either you're a fortune-reader, or you're not! If you've been wasting my time--"
"I haven't!" She rose unsteadily to her feet. "But I can't read for you, Drachea--I can't!"
He rose too, suddenly angry. "Why not, in the name of the seven hells?"
"Because I dare not! Oh, gods, I can't explain; it's a feeling, a fear--" Then suddenly the words were out before she could stop them. "Because I know in my bones that something terrible is about to happen to you!"
He was stunned. Very slowly he sat down again, his face ashen. "You know ... ?"
She nodded. "Please, don't ask me anything more. I shouldn't have spoken. Doubtless I'm wrong; I have no real talent--"
"No." She had been moving away from the table and his hand shot out and gripped her arm painfully. "Sit down! If there's something afoot then by all the gods you're going to tell me what it is!"
One or two of the tavern's other customers were watching them by now, grinning with amusement and no doubt putting their own interpretation on the argument. Anxious not to draw further attention to herself, Cyllan reluctantly sat.
"Now, tell me!" Drachea commanded.
The stones felt like hot coals in her hand. Reflexively she let them fall, and they scattered on the table in a disturbingly explicit pattern. Drachea stared at them and frowned.
"What does it mean?"
Cyllan's heart was thumping as she, too, looked at the stones. She didn't know this pattern, yet it seemed to speak to her, call to her. A faint tingling sensation crawled on the nape of her neck and she shivered.
"I--don't know--" she began to say, then gasped as an image flashed across her mental vision, so quickly that she could barely grasp it. A star with seven points, radiating dark, intense colors--
"I can't do it," she heard herself hiss vehemently. "I won't!"
"Damn you, you will!" Drachea countered furiously. "I'm not about to be made a fool of by some outland peasant! Tell me what you see in those stones, or I'll have you summonsed before my father for trying to hex me!"
The threat was real enough. Cyllan looked at the stones once more, and suddenly knew with unerring instinct what they meant. Her resolve hardened. Drachea's arguments had no power to sway her.
Abruptly, she swept up the stones and deposited them back in her pouch, rising to her feet again. "You must do as you think fit," she said quietly, and turned to leave.
"Cyllan!" Drachea shouted after her. When she didn't hesitate she heard the scrape of wood on stone and his footsteps coming after her. He caught up with her just before she reached the door. "Cyllan, what do you think you're doing? I won't have this! You promised read for me, and--"
"Let me go!" She twisted free as he tried to catch her and pull her back, but as she made for the tavern entrance she collided with a tall, burly merchant sailor who was hastening in with his three companions.
"Look what you're doing!" the man snapped, pushing her aside. She mumbled an apology and hurried on, Drachea following, but the sailor called out again.
"Hey you two! Where in the name of all the devils of darkness do you think you're going?"
They stared uncomprehendingly at him, and he jerked a thumb towards the door, where more people were hurrying in. "Haven't you got a quarter-gravine of sense between you? There's a Warp coming! Whole place is in an uproar--market day, and a whore-spawned Warp decides to descend on us! As if storms in Summerisle Straits weren't enough--" He stamped irritably towards the counter, shouting for a drink.
Cyllan's face had taken on a gray pallor at the sailor's mention of the Warp, and her stomach churned. Blind fear had hold of her and was growing with every moment: she was safe in the tavern, but she didn't feel safe. And if she had interpreted the stones' portent rightly...
Drachea, meanwhile, had moved to the door and was looking out. Everywhere people were running for shelter; somewhere a child wailed in fright. Beyond the crowding roofs of the houses in this narrow street the sky was no more than a thin band of brilliance, but already the brilliance was clouding, tarnished with sickly shadows that marched across the blue. Over the noise of rushing feet and shouting voices came an eerie, thin wailing, like a chorus of hellbound souls in torment.
"Gods!" Drachea stared at the fast-changing sky with morbid fascination. "Cyllan, look! Look at it!"
Their quarrel was forgotten, and Cyllan was afraid for his safety. "Drachea, don't! she pleaded. "Come in; it's dangerous!"
"Not yet, it isn't. We've a few minutes more before it'll be on us. Look!" Then his expression changed and his voice with it, rising in incredulous horror. "Oh, by Aeoris, look at that!"
He had caught hold of Cyllan, and dragged her forward so that she faced the door. Outside the street was now deserted and shutters were being slammed at all the windows. Drachea pointed down the length of the alley to where it ran out into Shu-Nhadek harbor, and his hand shook violently.
"Look!" he repeated again.
Cyllan looked, and terror overcame all reason. At the end of the street a solitary figure stood like a statue. A shroud-like garment hid its frame, but the cruel, fine-boned face was clear enough, and the halo of gold hair, shot through with coruscating light. A dark, misty aura shimmered around it, and even as she watched, it raised one long-fingered hand and beckoned.
She had seen that nightmare image before! Cyllan tried to step back, away from the figure and its hypnotically commanding hand, but she couldn't move. Her will was collapsing before an insane desire to step through the tavern door, out into the street, to obey the summons. Beside her she heard Drachea whisper, "What is it?" in the voice of a terrified child. She shook her head, unable even to grope for an answer.
The figure beckoned again, and invisible strings pulled at Cyllan's limbs. She fought the compulsion with all her strength, but her left foot slid, propelling her forward.
"Cyllan, what are you doing?" Drachea cried out. "Come back!"
She couldn't. The call was too strong, swamping fear and the instinct for self-preservation. From the apparition's heart a ghastly light flickered to life and grew, flowering into a harshly brilliant star that blotted out all but the relentlessly beckoning hand.
"Cyllan!" Drachea's voice was a scream of protest as Cyllan broke free and plunged forward, out of the tavern. Not stopping to think, he raced after her.
The shimmering apparition vanished.
Cyllan uttered an animal shriek that echoed the length of the alley, and skidded to a halt so that Drachea cannoned into her. He shook her as though she were a rag doll, yelling to make her understand.
"Cyllan, the Warp! It's coming! In the name of all that's holy, move!"
As he shouted the final words he spun round, meaning to drag her, if necessary, back to the safety of the tavern before it was too late. He turned--and the wall of darkness hit them full on as it swept the length of the street with the speed and ferocity of a tidal wave. Drachea heard the voice of the Warp rise to a howling, triumphant crescendo, and glimpsed a maelstrom of twisted forms and shapes that hurtled at him out of the distorting sky. For an instant he felt Cyllan's hand gripping his; then a hammer-blow of agony smashed through his body, and with it came searing oblivion.