Book 2: The Viper’s Fangs (Excerpt)

Cover by Linda Foegen of American Book Design Copyright 2014

Cover by Linda Foegen of American Book Design Copyright 2014

Description: Wintering in Hellsbreath’s Wizards’ School has been good for Angus. He has mastered some new spells, come to accept his situation, and even made a friend. Bus spring is approaching and Hobart has planned a brief excursion for the Banner of the Wounded Hand, one that ends up being much longer than he anticipated….

Here is the beginning of the book (it has not been copy edited yet):

Prologue

1

“Sardach,” Fanzool said as he placed the components of the divination spell on top of his desk. They were the standard components: a live rat, a bowl of purified water, a small pile of fine rock dust, a blossoming plant—a very costly daisy, one of the few still blooming this close to winter—and a small brazier of coals. Lastly, he set Argyle’s coin—the item he would be divining—on a fine silk cloth in the center of them all.

He sighed and said with a tight voice as if he were forcing a command into the form of a polite request, “I will need privacy.” He paused for a long moment and then added, “It is a challenging spell, and distractions will add to the difficulty of the reading.”

Behind him there was a brief rustling like the whisper of a veil caught in the slightest of breezes—at least, that’s what he imagined he heard as he felt the presence of Sardach move ever-so-slightly back. But Sardach didn’t leave; he was still there, still hovering….

“Please, Sardach,” Fanzool begged without looking up, without hiding the strain in his voice. “I must weave together several strands in a very precise manner.” He doubted his words would make a difference, but he needed to say them even if they were only for his own peace of mind. They were comforting and helped him focus on the task before him. But Sardach would stay or leave because Sardach decided to stay or leave, and nothing he could say would change that; only Argyle had sway over Sardach, and he had ordered him to go with Fanzool to Blackhaven Tower. What other orders he had been given, Fanzool did not know—did not want to know. But they hadn’t left yet, and the foul thing wouldn’t leave him alone! How could he find out who had possessed the coin with the stench of Sardach breathing warmly on his neck?

Still the mind. He thought. Still the mind. Still the body. Still the—blah blah blah. He knew the mantra, but it didn’t work for him. He always struggled when he cast spells. That’s why he had chosen divination, where any mistakes were far less likely to be deadly than they were in the other areas of magic. Except where Argyle was concerned. Then the mistakes were deadly. He needed to make a clear reading. If he didn’t….

And Sardach was adding to that burden.

He shook his head. It wouldn’t do to think about it any longer; he needed to focus on the spell. He had cast it before, and there were no real dangers with it, even if he made major errors. But it was a delicate process, and mistakes in casting always led to mistakes in the divination, and he did not want those mistakes. He desperately wanted the spell to work so he could tell Argyle—with certainty, this time—that Typhus had not touched the coin. He sighed and reluctantly turned around.

Sardach was gone! A wave of relief flooded through him, even though it was only a brief respite and nothing more. Still, it was enough—for now—and he set to work on the spell. He took a deep breath and removed the dagger from his belt. He held it before him, studying his reflection in the polished surface. There was no sign of Sardach in the reflection, but he couldn’t escape the nagging feeling of Sardach’s warm breath against his neck. He turned his gaze away from the blade and toward the rat. It was scurrying in its little cage, testing the corners, poking its pinkish nose and paws out of the holes….

He always hated the first step in the casting, but it was unavoidable. He had to kill the rat. Not that he liked rats—he didn’t—but he didn’t like killing, even when it was necessary. And it was necessary. He couldn’t cast the spell without a fresh strand of death magic, one that was still clinging to the life that was ending. The further removed from that life the death strand was, the less successful the divination would be, and he needed success. Desperately. It was the only way he could avoid seeing Voltari again.

Yes, he would have to kill the rat, and it would be messy. It would be a slow death, because he needed time to weave the threads together. It would be a noisy death, too. Dying rats squeal. But there was no help to it; he needed that fresh strand of death—that dying strand. It was the only way to reach into the coin’s past to bring the residue of those who had held it before him to the surface. He needed that residue to rekindle the coin’s past back to some semblance of life, to build the images into the illusion, to see who had once held it. If one of them was Typhus….

He sighed, opened the top of the rat’s cage and caught up the rat in his hand. It wasn’t the first time he had captured a rat, and that made it easy to avoid the teeth, to pin down the claws, to make the deep slit in its throat.

It was messy. But he had prepared for it. The cover for the cage was in place before too much blood had sprayed across his desk, and he had made sure to face the cut away from the other components of the spell. If they were contaminated, he would have to begin again, to kill another rat, to buy another daisy. Still, he would have to clean his desk. Again. Why must I have to be the one to kill it? Why can’t someone else do it? But he knew the answer. The spell would be attuned to him, and only he could kill the rat. Or cat. He had had to do that once when the shop ran out of rats. That was a strange time. Chickens were popular; you could eat them afterward. But they were very messy, and Fanzool didn’t like messiness any more than he liked killing. Rats were small and didn’t have as much blood as chickens. He had tried a mouse, once, but it wasn’t large enough; it died too quickly. It really didn’t matter what was killed, just that something was killed.

He turned away from the still struggling rat and concentrated on the magical energies within him and brought those around him into focus. It was the normal mix of strands: the life-giving shades of green permeated the flower; the liquid blue wove its way through the bowl of purified water; the rich, rustic brown stretched out from the rock dust; the subdued, deep red pulsing within the embers and brazier; and the deep greenish-black of the rat’s dying. It would be all black by the time he finished the spell, and once it was, it would be nearly useless for him. It was the dying that made the past open to the present, and only then for but a brief glimpse.

He reached out for a greenish-black strand and anchored it around his left pinky. Then he turned to the coin. This was the delicate part; he needed to find the tiny tendrils of magic left behind by those who had held it, separate them from the strands embedded in the coin’s nature, and knot them together with the other strands of the spell.

He bent to work, a part of him distantly aware of what hovered behind him, within him, watching what he was doing, seeing what he was seeing. But it was only a small part that noted his companion’s presence; the rest was absorbed in the casting of the spell, the weaving of the knots, the images fluttering to life as he went.

His image came first, since he was the last to touch the coin, and he quickly cast it aside. Then Argyle’s dreadful sneer began to come into focus, and he once again heard the threat Argyle had made and the sadistic laughter that accompanied it. I will kill you if you fail. He banished the image of Argyle—if it were only that easy to banish Argyle, himself!—but not the fear it brought, and he once more wished the mantra worked for him.

He delved deeper, unmasking the history of the coin one hand, one face at a time, looking for the one he sought, looking for Typhus. There was a large man, obese beyond belief and bejeweled like a king. Although he had never met him before, he knew the man by reputation: Dirk. Of all the names that could have been given to the man, Dirk had to be the least likely. A thin knife? Him? No, it wasn’t his appearance that named him; it was his actions. Dirk didn’t mind killing any more than Argyle did. He shuddered and thrust the image aside, allowing room for the next one to coalesce.

It was a young man—the thief Argyle had mentioned? Giorge, was it? He looked like a thief: small and wiry, but surprisingly well-muscled for a boy of his size. He could easily get into—and out of—tight places, and his dark complexion would be a shadow’s lover, so intermingled they could be. He turned to the face and studied it, memorizing the contours of the angular cheeks, the playful dark-brown eyes, the lopsided grin, the thin black moustache that was so sparse that it had no business being there, and the short-cropped black hair, only a little longer than his thumbnail. When he was satisfied he would recognize the boy if he saw him again, he moved on.

The next image startled him, and his fingers fluttered, almost losing their grip on the myriad strands of magic. Typhus! he screamed in his mind. It can’t be! He’s dead! The image began to fade, and Fanzool hastily reinforced the knots he was making, adjusting the pattern until it worked the spell back into its fullest potency. As the image stabilized and cleared up, he bit his lip and examined it more closely. He knew the appearance of Typhus well; he had seen it many times while searching for him for Argyle, but that search had proven to be fruitless, and he had assumed it was because the assassin was dead. It was a reasonable assumption, since he knew of nothing that could block a divination so completely. Had someone found a way to do it? Had Voltari?

There was no doubt a striking similarity between Typhus and the image he saw before him, but there were differences. Were they merely cosmetic? Disguises intended to conceal what lay beneath them? Typhus was a master of disguise; an assassin of his quality had to be. If his targets saw him, recognized him….

Typhus had no beard, but this image did—a scruffy one that sorely needed tending. And his hair? It was black and long enough to drape over the top of his collar. Typhus never wore his dark-brown hair that way. Had he dyed it? Was he wearing it long to throw off pursuit? And where was the scar? Even if it were hidden from casual observation, it couldn’t hide from his divination; the spell always showed the true image of the target. That scar was too much a part of the truth of Typhus for it to be concealed from him. It ran down his neck, from the left ear to the collarbone, and there was no sign of it! No sign? Fanzool squinted and looked more closely. It is there, but it is smaller, much smaller, barely a crescent snick right below the ear. He frowned, and his frown deepened as he continued his appraisal.

The eyes were wrong, too. Typhus had grey eyes, and these were blue, almost silver in appearance, and there was a kind of naïve kindness in them. Typhus’s eyes held no kindness at all; they were cold, unfeeling, ugly eyes. Every time he had seen them in the images of his divinations, they sent a chill through him. But these eyes? They were almost friendly. Almost. There was a hint of something sinister hanging about their edges, as if something hideous lurked in their depths. Or was there? Was he merely imagining that he saw a touch of Typhus in them? He frowned and took in the broader image of the body.

This man was younger than Typhus. Typhus was over forty, and this man looked in his early thirties and carried himself as if he were somehow younger than that. The skin tone was wrong, too; this man was pale, almost ashen, and Typhus was ruddy of complexion. That nose had been broken, but none of the other images he had seen of Typhus had a broken nose. None. Still, it could have happened recently….

No, he concluded, This is not Typhus.

Typhus always wore a custom-made padded leather tunic reinforced with chain links. It had all the pockets he needed and those pockets were filled with the godforsaken things he used when he assassinated people. And where were his form-fitting, sleek, tight, breeches? He would never part with those; they were wrought from silk spun by enchanted spiders. But this man wore the robes of a wizard—a black silk robe like Voltari’s—and he carried himself the way a wizard would, not an assassin. He was a bit taller than Typhus, a bit heavier…. It must be Angus, the wizard who had given the coin to Giorge. But he could be mistaken for Typhus, so much alike they are! But the differences….

The image hovered before him for some time before he let it dissolve so he could seek the next one. But there was no next one. The residue ended with Angus, and there was no more trail to follow. Fanzool worked the spell to its fullest magnitude, trying to draw into focus the smallest of fragments left behind by those who had possessed the coin before this wizard, this Angus. But there was nothing. Voltari, Fanzool thought with hideous certainty. Somehow he erased the residue! It was the only explanation. The coin was nearly a thousand years old, and it should have had a very long history, one tracing back to the coinsmith who had pressed it for King Urm. At the very least—

Unless Angus had forged the coin himself. His brow furrowed as he considered the idea. Could it be a counterfeit coin? Could Angus have found a way to forge anew the coins of Urm? It would take a great deal of skill and knowledge to do it. He would have to know King Urm’s profile—that could be copied from another coin, couldn’t it? If he had one genuine coin, it would tell him all he needed to know to replicate it—the weight of the gold, the placement of the symbols, King Urm’s profile. Yes, if he had one to use as a model, it could easily be done. But it would take a master craftsman to do it.

Or a master wizard.

Fanzool smiled and let the threads of his spell slip from his fingers, freeing the magical energy to return to its normal state. Perhaps he wouldn’t have to visit Voltari after all? It would be a simple matter to locate this Angus—he had the coin—but he would have to prime for the spell first….

2

Angus frowned as he closed Braden’s The Origins of the Fishmen Invasion. The tome was thick with anecdotes about how the fishmen attacks had begun, but there were few facts in those stories. Most of the accounts were sensationalized narratives with nasty descriptions of the battles and grandiose platitudes of the king’s prowess and generosity. He suspected some of them were lies, especially the ones claiming the fishmen had “six inch claws and rows upon rows of dagger-sharp teeth.” He had seen fishmen, and they didn’t have six inch claws, and their teeth were not much different from a dog’s. Still, they were entertaining stories. But he wasn’t looking for entertainment; he was looking for information. Credible information. A set of facts that he could draw upon to devise a course of action, and those facts were sorely lacking in this tome. But what choice did he have? Embril had said it was widely acknowledged as the authority on the origin of the fishmen incursions, and few of the other tomes on the subject of the fishmen dealt with those origins—and when they did, they simply repeated parts of Braden’s stories. So, what had he learned from those stories? What were the facts to be gleaned from Braden’s outlandish tales?

One thing was certain: the attacks had begun as small, seemingly independent incursions. For nearly two generations, the fishmen attacked a village here, a village there, but never the same village twice—never in the same area twice. The attacks were sporadic, with perhaps a half dozen a year, and most happened near harvest time. The fishmen never went far beyond the border of the Death Swamps, where they lived, and they never stayed long after their attacks. It was as if they were testing the village’s defenses for weakness—and there were plenty of weaknesses! For a generation, King Dib had been slow to respond; he left the villages to their own resources, which were sparse at best. Most of those first attacks were massacres, bloody ones the way Braden told them, with few survivors. The villages might have been forgotten entirely if King Dib hadn’t been concerned with the taxes they owed….

Angus frowned. That wasn’t a fact; that was an impression, one he couldn’t justify. Yes, King Dib sent his tax collectors out with soldiers to guard them, but he did that throughout the kingdom after every harvest. It was just coincidental that they were the ones who found the villages in ruins, since it was the only time King Dib sent anyone up to The Borderlands. If there had been a larger population, a greater need for the grain, or even a bit more foresight, King Dib probably would have sent patrols into The Borderlands instead of accepting the losses of a handful of villages each year. After all, the lost grain was relatively negligible—

Facts. Not conjecture, no matter how well-supported it is. King Dib did not send patrols into The Borderlands for two decades, but when he did, they were largely unsuccessful. The fishmen just attacked villages that weren’t being guarded. Then things changed. The population of the kingdom was growing rapidly, and a new trade agreement had been reached with the Western Kingdoms. He needed as much grain as he could get, and that meant he needed to protect The Borderlands from the fishmen. He built forts along the edge of the swamp and sent out frequent patrols between the villages. But only at harvest time….

The fishmen responded to the increased human presence with fire. It happened during the early summer, long before the grain went to seed. The fishmen made a broad incursion, one that ranged the length of The Borderlands, and burned everything. Villages, fields, even the forts were burned. The forts burned quickly, too; they had been hastily constructed from wood and had thatch roofs. The way Braden described it the forts were firestorms waiting to happen. But King Dib rebuilt them, this time with stone, and manned the length of the border with spotters in tall towers that could send warning of an incursion. It worked for a few years.

Fact: That fire was a message; Angus was certain of it. But of what kind? The most likely message was “Go away from here,” and that was what Braden and the other scholars had concluded. But that didn’t sit well with Angus. There was more in that message than an attempt to oust the human settlements from The Borderlands. There was something symbolic about it, something reminiscent of what King Urm had done to the Plains folk. If—

There was a heavy thud on his door, and Angus looked over at it. He didn’t recognize the knock, but something stirred in his mind. Despite the heaviness of the hand on the door, something told him the one wielding that hand was trying to be quiet. But the strength of the arm was too great for a gentle rap, a soft summons. He rose slowly and approached the door with caution, then almost laughed at himself. What—who—was there to be frightened of in the Wizards’ School? He shook his head and opened the door.

There was a large man—a half foot taller than himself, half again his own weight—dressed in a navy blue tunic, dark brown breeches, soft brown boots, and a fur-lined brown cape that nearly reached the floor. “Angus,” the large man said, nodding to him. “I trust the winter has seen you well?”

“Hobart?” Angus said, a bit uncertain. He had never seen Hobart out of his armor, and this man, though towering over him and well-muscled, looked too small to be Hobart. Had the armor distorted his size that much? He lifted his gaze to the blunt edge of the chin and met the walnut-colored eyes of his companion. “It has indeed,” he said. He smiled and stepped aside, wondering at Hobart’s flowing yellow locks. They were draped so precisely over the man’s shoulders and down his back but somehow seemed to be fleeing from his forehead. They had gotten a little closer to escaping than what he remembered. “I almost didn’t recognize you.”

“It has been a while,” Hobart agreed. He paused to look Angus over and made a quick assessment. “You’re paler than I remember.”

Angus laughed and stepped aside. As he ushered Hobart into his room, he said, “I’ve spent the whole winter cloistered inside these walls. It will be good to get some sun again.” He paused and said, “I assume that’s why you’re here? To tell me when we’re leaving?”

Hobart nodded. “It is but a short trip,” he said. “Perhaps a ten-day, two weeks at most. Giorge wants to gather fletching eggs.”

“Fletching eggs?” Angus asked. “Whatever for?”

Hobart laughed and said, “If you ever ate a fresh one, you wouldn’t need to ask. They are a delicacy, and they roost four days’ ride south of here.”

“Isn’t it a bit early for egg-laying?” Angus asked. “There’s still snow on the ground.”

Hobart shrugged. “There may be snow here, but not in the lower elevations. We’ll ride out of it in about two days. But it is a bit early; most of the eggs will be gathered in about two or three weeks. We’re hoping to get an early claim to avoid the squabbles that can happen.”

“Claim?” Angus asked.

Hobart nodded. “There won’t be many egg hunters out yet,” he said. “Once they get there, they’ll lay claim to an area and it’s theirs for the taking—unless someone wrests it from them. We should get there before most of the egg hunters do, and that will give us a lot of area to choose from. It will also mean there will be fewer eggs.”

“There must be a lot of these fletchings,” Angus said, “for there to be so many hunting their eggs.”

“Yes,” Hobart agreed, “and we want to keep it that way. There are strict limits to the number of eggs that can be taken. If there weren’t, the fletchings would die off and there wouldn’t be any young to replace them, and there would be fewer eggs to be had. But enough of this,” Hobart said. “There will be plenty of time for questions on our ride there.”

“All right,” Angus said. “When do we leave?”

“Can you be ready tomorrow morning?” Hobart asked. “I know it’s short notice….”

Tomorrow! Angus frowned. So soon? He had expected more notice than that, but it wasn’t that important. He had already done most of the research he had set out to do, and what remained could be postponed until they returned. “You said it was a short trip,” he said. “What will we do afterward?”

“We’ll return here,” Hobart answered. “Commander Garret is planning to take a large patrol into The Tween to see if there are any other signs of fishmen up on that plateau. He’d like us to go with them as guides. We’re the only ones who can do it, but they can’t leave for at least another month. The snow will still be heavy up there until then.”

Fishmen, Angus thought, wishing he had found out more about them. Why had they been so far from their home? Why had the dwarves helped them? Why did they burn The Borderlands? “Any word from The Borderlands?” he asked.

Hobart slowly nodded. “A strange one,” he said. “The fishmen didn’t attack last harvest, and the patrols that went into the Death Swamps came back without making contact with them. It’s as if the fishmen had retreated deeper into the swamps than the patrols were able to follow. Or,” he frowned savagely and set his jaw, as if the thought were both difficult to form and intolerable to say, “they aren’t there anymore.”

Angus nodded. It was the same as what he had heard from others. The harvest in The Borderlands had been reaped without any sign of the fishmen. If it weren’t for their presence in the Angst Temple….

“I will be ready in the morning,” he said. “When and where would you like to meet?”

“Will you need to prime for spells?” Hobart asked.

Angus thought for a moment and shook his head. “No,” he said, thinking of the new spells he had mastered and how he was looking forward to using them—if the opportunity arose to do so.

“We’ll leave just after dawn, then. Meet us at the south lift area. There should be plenty of traffic at that time, so we shouldn’t have to wait long to descend.”

Angus nodded. “All right,” he said, standing. “I have some things to attend to before I can leave. Would you mind?”

“Of course,” Hobart said, standing. His cape swished over the floor as he moved toward the door. “I’ll leave you to it, then.”

After Hobart had left, Angus closed his eyes and ran through the list of things he had planned to do over the winter. He had done most of them, but there were so many less urgent tasks that remained, tasks like the research he was doing on the fishmen. It was more curiosity than anything else, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more to it than that, that there was something happening that was buried deep beneath the surface that meant far more than what lay above it. He sighed. It didn’t matter, not now. He needed to get ready to go.

He went to the corner and picked up his backpack. It was still much as he had left it when they had arrived back at Hellsbreath just before winter blew in. The scrolls and map were on top, and the rest of the gear was below it. He removed the scrolls, piling them neatly on the table while making sure he didn’t disrupt their order. The black robe, neatly folded, was next, and he took it out and set it on the table. He would have to wear it, instead of the loose-fitting gray robe of an apprentice that he had been wearing while staying at the Wizards’ School. The apprentice’s robe had helped him move about the grounds without drawing too much attention, and it didn’t matter to him that it didn’t reflect his true status. But when he left, it would be in the black robe Voltari had made for him.

The padded leather tunic and strange black breeches were next. Should he wear them? Did he even want to take them with him? The black robe made him itch terribly, but when he wore the tunic and breeches beneath it, that itchiness disappeared. But there was a risk to wearing them. He unfolded the tunic and ran his fingers along the blackened edge of the holes left behind by the fire. It still smelled faintly of smoke and sweat. “I should have fixed this,” he muttered, wondering why he had not taken the time to do so. He had had four months…. But it was still serviceable, if in disrepair, and he set it on the table.

The breeches were next, and he ran his fingers over the silk-smooth surface, wondering again what the cloth was wrought from, why it seemed to mold itself around his legs as he put them on, why they hadn’t ignited like the tunic when the flames had touched them. “I should have asked someone about these,” he muttered, shaking his head and setting them on the table. He didn’t have to make up his mind about wearing them until morning, but he would take them with him. And one of the heavy gray apprentice robes. They were warm.

He reached into his backpack and gently lifted out the clay pot. Why do I keep this? he wondered. It had been half full of healing balm when he left Nargeth’s Inn, but now it was empty. There was no point to keeping it, but he couldn’t bring himself to throw it out. Perhaps it was a reminder? A memento of the burns he had endured? But why would he want to remember them? To keep from forgetting the mistakes that had caused the burns? So he would remember to focus, to not let his concentration lapse again? To remind him of the arrogance that led him to cast that spell in the first place? He set it on the floor next to the table. It would be staying. Perhaps one day he would try to convince Ulrich to sell—or give—him more of that wondrous cure, but not now. There was no time.

He smiled as he brought out his old inkwell. It was a clumsy thing, wrought badly from a single casting of iron, but it didn’t leak, and that was important. He glanced at his desk, at the silver inkwell from the Angst temple, one of several they had brought back with them. It was delicate, finely wrought, but it leaked through the stopper when it was turned on its side. He would have to leave it behind and take the old one. Perhaps he should give it to Embril? A token of thanks?

He set the dagger, stilettos, and pouch of gems on top of the robe, and then brought out the small pouch. He frowned; he had forgotten about them. They should have been burned months ago. No matter; he could take them with him and burn them when they make camp. He smiled. It would give him a chance to test his new spell.

He turned the backpack over and a few crumbs and some lint fell onto the stone floor. “I’ll need to get some food,” he said. “What else?” he asked as he surveyed the items on his table. “Teffles’ book. The wand.” He would have to tell them he was leaving so he could get them back. It was all he could do to convince them to let him keep his scrolls in his room.

Angus looked at the scrolls and frowned. Why hadn’t he copied his scrolls into Teffles’ book? Half the pages were empty, and it would make it easier to carry his spells around with him if they were in the book. Scrolls took up so much more space. Because I was busy? he thought. It was true; he had been busy. Because it isn’t really my book? Because these are my scrolls?

He had learned much from Teffles’ spells, and had even mastered a few of them. He had practiced flying until he could soar alongside Ollis, the Master of Air Magic. He had even been tutored by Festus, the Master of Fire Magic, and now understood nearly all of the scrolls Voltari had given him when he left. But there was so much more to learn, to remember, to understand, to master.

Then there was Embril. He sighed and half-smiled as he thought of the kindness in her blue eye and the depths of her brown one, and how they seemed to blur together when she smiled. She was such a delightful woman, so knowledgeable and generous with her time. They had grown close over the winter, and he was sure she hoped for more. But there was nothing more he could give to her, not while the gaping hole in his mind was still there. How could he truly be with her when he didn’t even know who he was? If only he could remember what he was like before the spell in Voltari’s tower had gone so wrong! If only he could remember who he was! It would be different if he didn’t know the memories were still there, lurking in the shadows just beyond his grasp. But the Truthseer had found those memories, had touched them—had touched him. And her probing had left behind those tantalizing little snippets of memory that hovered just out of reach. But only snippets, crystal clear bursts of memory seconds long and completely disconnected from each other. Fragments of an alien identity, fragments of him.

He sighed. It would be easier without those memories. At least then he could accept who he is and let who he was remain forgotten. But there they were, and he couldn’t ignore them. He wouldn’t ignore them. Magic had cost him his past, and magic would restore it. If he could find the right spell. But his search thus far had been fruitless—at least in that direction. His visits to the library had led him to Embril. He smiled, a deep, sad smile. He would have to tell her he was leaving. He sighed again. It was such a simple thing, leaving: put a few things in a pack, strap it to your back, and start walking. But parting was such a heavy burden.

He turned to his desk and looked at the pile of books stacked on it. He would have to return them to the library before he left, and Embril was sure to be there. He would tell her what he needed to then, there was no point in putting it off any longer. He had hoped for more time, but he didn’t have it. He walked over to his desk, picked up the books and carefully set them on the floor beside it. Then he opened the drawer and took out the vellum scroll he had bought but a few days earlier. It was still blank, but it wouldn’t be for long….

Fletchings

1

By the time they made camp at the end of the third day, Angus was tired of talking. What was there left to say, anyway? “I studied my spells and learned a few new ones.” He could describe each spell in excessive detail—tie this knot that way, draw upon those threads, remember to turn your finger such and so, be mindful of the power—but there was no point in doing so. He was the only wizard among The Banner of the Wounded Hand, and the others wouldn’t understand the nuances of magic that he loved so much. But they could understand the effects of the spells when they saw them, and he prepared them for the effects of most of the spells, even though he had not cast them. There had been no need to waste a good priming.

“I practiced flying every morning for two months,” he had told them. “I won’t be banging into walls anymore.” That had elicited the expected chuckle, but it was also true. He could now soar with the eagles or dart about like a giant sparrow. But he hadn’t primed for the Flying spell in some time; his focus had shifted to learning new spells, and he had mastered three of them. Two others were almost perfected, but he needed more practice.

“I found a buyer for the Angst tomes,” he told them not long after leaving Hellsbreath. When they asked if he got a fair price, he reached into a pocket and brought out the pouch of gems. He tossed them to Hobart, who grinned as he distributed the proceeds among their appreciative hands. “Too bad there wasn’t time for me to decipher the Angst language; I would have liked to know what they contained.” Hopefully there wasn’t any dangerous knowledge, he silently added. His companions were more than satisfied with the gems, but Angus felt as if the exchange had been somehow incomplete. He had wanted very much to know what was in the two texts, and when he returned to Hellsbreath, he planned to find out what the buyer had learned from them. But translation of old, dead languages is a slow, methodical process that often fails. It couldn’t be rushed.

“I read a lot,” he had said, and when pressed, added, “about history.” He shrugged when they asked what part of history, and then told them a half-truth. “The time of the Angst,” he had said. It wasn’t quite a lie, since he was reading about events of that time—the Dwarf Wars, the founding of the Kingdom, the plains folk—but it wasn’t quite true, either, since he had found nothing of consequence about the Angst. The strange religious sect seemed to have been completely forgotten even in its own time. Then there were the fishmen incursions. He hadn’t mentioned those, either. He didn’t need to; they already knew about them. The fishmen had been attacking The Borderlands at harvest time for centuries, and then last year they hadn’t shown up. But there had been fishmen at the Angst Temple, a long way from the Death Swamps and much too close to Hellsbreath. It seemed prudent to become more acquainted with the conflict, but he was certain Hobart knew more about it than he did. And Ortis.

Mostly, though, he had turned the conversation toward his companions. Four months is a long time to be idle, and he was curious about what they had been doing. He wasn’t really interested in their answers—he still didn’t know them very well—but it was a good way to deflect their attention away from him. Besides, their answers were disappointing and predictable. There wasn’t that much a man could do during winter, not even in Hellsbreath. Hobart, now clad in his familiar metal skin, had spent much of the time training with the soldiers and drinking with Bandor. He had new stories aplenty, most of them about this or that battle, but they really didn’t interest Angus. He was a wizard, not a warrior, and his battles were wrought with a weapon more dangerous than a sword. He had listened, responded when and how it was appropriate, and even made a small effort to retain their content, but they were too much like the sensationalized stories Braden had recorded to be of much use.

Ortis had been quiet most of the time. He did a lot of listening, a lot of thinking, but when the subject of his own activities was brought up, he did very little talking. It suited him well—even before winter, he had spoken infrequently and generally only to the benefit of their survival—but it also made it seem like Ortis had spent the whole winter practicing with his bow and resting. But Angus was certain Ortis had been much busier than he let on, and he wondered what it was he had been up to. He frowned; Ortis wasn’t saying any more than Angus had been saying, and that made Angus suspicious. Angus was keeping quite a bit from his companions, and that made him wonder how much Ortis was hiding. More? Less? Something sinister? Or was he just keeping to himself? Whenever he looked at the Triad, he couldn’t help but wonder what the man was hiding, but if Ortis noticed his apprehension, he ignored it. Angus was glad of that; Ortis had done nothing to warrant such suspicion. He didn’t deserve it. And yet, there it was, and Angus couldn’t quite shake off the feeling that it was somehow deserved.

Then there was Giorge. He at least had been quite busy over the winter and wasn’t at all hesitant to talk about it. At first, his stories were amusing and his grin was infectious, but after awhile, they became quite repetitive. After all, how many different ways could he say he had wooed a young woman into his bedchamber? How many ways were there to “appropriate”—his word—items from “careless”—his word again—bystanders? He had chattered incessantly for two solid days before he finally ran dry. Then he started in on the other winters he had spent in Hellsbreath.

“We’ll get there tomorrow afternoon,” Hobart said as he sat down and leaned in toward the fire to warm his hands. “Midafternoon by the look of things.”

“Where, exactly, is this ‘there’?” Angus asked.

Giorge grinned. “You’ll see soon enough,” he said. “Be patient.”

Angus frowned. He had asked the question before, and they hadn’t answered it then, either. “It’s a surprise,” Giorge had said. “You’re going to love it!” But Angus didn’t much care for surprises; they tended to turn deadly. He wanted an answer.

“So,” he said, “you’re still not going to tell me?”

Giorge, his grin never wavering, shook his head and said, “No. That would spoil it for you.”

Spoil what? Angus wondered as he said in a harsher tone than he intended, “Fine. If you’re so fond of surprises, perhaps I’ll give you one.”

Giorge’s grin faded to a mere smile as he said, “Now, Angus, don’t be like that. Trust me. You won’t be disappointed.”

Angus shook his head but said nothing more.

“Besides,” Hobart said. “It isn’t something you want to dwell on. It will be better to find out when we get there.”

Angus frowned and glared at him. Of all the things he could have said, that was probably the only thing that would have made him dwell on it more than he already was. But there was also truth in it; there was nothing he could do about it until they got there. If nothing else, he could refuse to do whatever it was they had in mind, and that would be the end of it. Still, it would be nice to be prepared. “All right, Giorge,” he said, his voice soft and steady. “Just remember what happened the last time you tried to surprise me.”

Giorge’s smile disappeared and he shifted his weight from one side to the other, as if he were sitting on a wobbly rock. Then he shook his head and said, “That was different.” His voice was firm, low, and steady. “You know this surprise is coming. It won’t catch you off guard. I promise.”

“He’s right, you know,” Ortis said as he sat down between his other two constituents. Angus looked at them, his eyes narrowing, focusing on the identical appearance of the three constituents. One of them leaned forward to stir the fire, giving him a sepulchral glow. When the flames settled, his orange-tinted gaze caught and held Angus while another constituent spoke, “I don’t think you have to worry about him sneaking up on you again.”

“I had hoped to be past that,” Hobart grumbled. “It’s been months, Angus. Surely you can let it go?”

Angus frowned and stared into the fire for a few moments. Hobart was right; he should have moved past it by now. He had thought he had, but seeing Giorge again had stoked the deep, festering wound back to life. He sighed and stood up. “I’ll be back,” he said, putting his hands in the pockets of his robe and walking well out of the range of the firelight.

It was a crisp evening, not far from freezing, but spring was already underway. The little snow that remained rested in the cold shadows of trees and boulders. Patches of green grass were sprouting up through the layers of decaying leaves and last year’s soggy brown stalks. The night was filled with dozens of small sounds, as if the whole world was waking from a deep slumber. The road was clear, and the sun hinted of the coming warmth. Hinted, only; the nights were a brisk reminder that a blizzard could still blow in with little warning. It wasn’t warm enough for flooding, yet, either; much of the snow pack in the higher elevations was still frozen. But there was mud, and he had to walk with care as he neared the edge of the campsite. He didn’t want to leave tracks when he returned.

When he had gone far enough into the shadowy fringe, he turned to see if anyone had followed him. They hadn’t, and he half-smiled and tilted his head. So, he thought, Giorge likes surprises. Why not give him one? After he relieved himself, he brought the magic into focus and selected the strands he would use. He had not yet mastered the spell, and this would be a good time to find out how close he was to doing so. He reached for the first sky blue strand and hooked it around his fingertip. The icy white one was next, and then another from air. The last strand was difficult to locate; it had to be an umber one of earth. He didn’t know why it had to be umber and not one of the other shades of brown, but the spell called for it. Few spells were that specific about shading, and it was wise not to ignore them when they were. But it made the spell more difficult to cast; the strands of earth magic were commonplace when one was near the ground, but specific shades were another matter. Once he had all the threads anchored to his fingertips, he began the process of weaving the spell, knotting together the magic within him with the strands about him until he was surrounded by a translucent sky blue sheen. He knew from having seen others cast the spell that he would appear to be a ghostly apparition if he stopped at this point—and he could stop the spell if he wished—but he kept going.

He played the umber strand through each of the knots he had formed, feeling it tingle as it merged with them. Once he finished interlacing it with the last knot, he released all of the threads but the umber one. They fought to get free, but the umber strand held the knots together, binding them into one, and he made the final loop to lock them in place—for a time. No spells were ever permanent, not even the most long-lasting of them. The magic wouldn’t allow itself to be confined for long. With the spell finished, he took a breath, turned, and strode back to the fire, doing his best to make as little sound as possible. As he neared, their whispered conversation came to him.

“—ing you, he’s changed,” Hobart said, his voice low.

“Yes,” Ortis softly agreed. “He was never that rigid before. Guarded, certainly, but it’s as if he’s retreated deeper into himself.”

“No,” Giorge said, shaking his head. “Not retreated. Before, it was like he was puzzled about something all the time. Now he’s sure of himself, more confident.”

Angus stepped up behind Hobart as quietly as he could.

“Yes,” Hobart said. “He isn’t as lost as he was when we found him.”

Angus frowned. Found him? What did he mean by that? He reached into his pocket with his right hand and brought out a pinch of dried mushrooms; with his left, he grabbed for another strand of air magic and quickly tied the knot for Puffer.

“He was lost, wasn’t he,” Ortis agreed, one of him glancing in the direction Angus had gone. “But he isn’t any longer.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” Giorge said. “It’s more like he’s come to terms with being lost than him having been found.”

Angus reached over the fire and ground the bits of dried mushroom between his finger and thumb. The flakes fluttered down into the fire, which flared briefly and belched forth a burst of smoke. As it did so, Angus used the soft breeze created by Puffer to direct the smoke toward Giorge.

“What’s that smell?” Giorge asked, waving his hand in front of his eyes and squinting.

“It’s just the smoke,” Hobart said.

“No,” Giorge said, shaking his head and blinking rapidly. “It’s something else. I know smoke, and this was different. It was like—” he frowned and looked around. “Where’s Angus?” he asked suddenly.

“He should have been back by now,” Hobart agreed. Then he turned and called, “Angus? Is there a problem?”

Angus smiled, leaned over his shoulder, and said “No.” Then he leapt backward to avoid Hobart’s sudden jerk and upward thrust of his elbow. A moment later, Hobart was on his feet with his broadsword in hand, the tip pointed in Angus’s general direction.

“Who said that?”

Angus chuckled and moved quickly out of reach of the long, flat, wide blade. Hobart’s probing had become a bit too close, and he didn’t want to get stabbed accidentally. “I did, of course,” he said.

“Angus?” Giorge asked, looking almost directly at him. “Where are you?”

“I’m right here,” Angus said. “Can’t you see me?”

“No,” Giorge said.

“Good,” Angus said, thrilled that the spell had worked perfectly.

“Show yourself!” Hobart growled, stepping toward him and jabbing at the air with his sword tip.

“Careful, Hobart,” Angus said. “You don’t really want to stab me, do you?”

Hobart turned toward Angus, dropped his sword to the ground, and rushed forward with his arms spread wide.

Angus ducked, sidestepped, and laughed heartily. “What’s wrong, Hobart?” he asked. “Don’t you like surprises?”

Hobart turned toward him again, but this time he didn’t rush in. Instead, he said, “Surprises?”

“Yes,” Angus answered, stepping up close to the fire and sitting down across from Giorge, well out of range of the smoke. Once seated, he gave the umber thread a light tug and the knot holding the spell in place quivered, loosened, and released its magic. There was but a brief moment of translucence, and then Hobart glowered at him and said, “That was a foul trick, wizard. It would be wise not to do it again.”

Angus shrugged. “It’s one of my new spells,” Angus said. “It bends the air around me to make it appear as if I’m not there.” Angus watched Giorge, tweaking Puffer to keep the smoke blowing his way. “I wasn’t sure if it would work, though; I haven’t quite mastered it yet.”

“It worked,” Hobart said, picking up his sword and sheathing it. “I couldn’t see you at all,” he added, sitting back down.

“You’ll have to work on making less noise, though,” Giorge said, sniffing and shaking his head.

Angus nodded, keeping his eyes on Giorge as the young thief waved his hand in front of his face again. Then, quite abruptly, Giorge’s eyes narrowed and his nostrils flared. He looked straight at Angus and demanded, “Why?”

“Why what?” Angus replied, pretending to reach out to warm his hands to conceal tweaking Puffer to increase the strength of the breeze.

“Why did you do that?”

“You like surprises, don’t you?” Angus answered. “Did you like that one?”

Giorge pursed his lips and shook his head. “That’s not the reason,” he accused. He straightened his back and his fingers began to twitch.

“I didn’t,” Hobart said.

“I thought you told us about your new spells,” Ortis said.

“Most of them,” Angus admitted, half-smiling as he studied Giorge. He was fidgeting now, rolling his shoulders and making furtive, jerky glances into the darkness about the camp.

“You should have warned us,” Ortis said. “Hobart might have killed you.”

“It needed to be a true test,” Angus said, studying Giorge as he almost turned completely around to see what was behind him. He smiled and asked, “Is something wrong, Giorge?”

Giorge snapped his attention back and hissed, “Quiet! There’s something out there.”

“Here?” Angus said, not bothering to look. “I thought the caravan stops were fairly secure.”

“They are,” Hobart quietly said as he set his broadsword across his lap. He held his hand on the hilt as he asked, “What is it Giorge?”

“I don’t know,” Giorge hissed. “Something’s watching us. Can’t you feel it?”

Hobart frowned as he scanned the darkness at the edge of the clearing. Eventually, he shook his head.

“Ortis?” Giorge asked, his whisper intense, almost frantic.

Ortis had been studying the edge of their camp for some time, his hands on his bows with an arrow held close by. He shook his head.

Angus half-smiled and said, “I don’t feel anything. Are you sure you’re not imagining it?”

“I’m not!” Giorge snapped, glaring at him for a moment before quickly turning his attention back to the darkness. He drew his short sword and held it at his side as he crouched close to the ground.

Angus’s smile faded into a slight frown as he watched his companion becoming more erratic. Had he used too much? It had seemed to be such a slight amount; it shouldn’t have caused such a strong, rapid, violent reaction.

Giorge was twisting and turning at strange angles, as if he were desperately trying to see in all directions at once. He had a throwing knife in his other hand now, and he seemed to be on the verge of throwing it. “Have you felt this way before?” Angus asked, a bit of concern creeping into his voice. He hadn’t intended this to happen. He adjusted Puffer to blow the smoke away from Giorge, away from the others.

Giorge grew suddenly still and turned abruptly toward Angus. His mouth was open, but he said nothing for a few seconds. His eyes widened as he nodded slowly. “Yes,” he said. “In The Tween.” He was breathing heavily and his hands were twitching. “It’s like The Tween, but a lot worse. Don’t you feel it?”

“No,” Angus said. “Ortis?”

“I have sensed nothing,” Ortis replied. “Nor have I seen anything.”

“Nor I,” Hobart said. “But we’re not in The Tween, so we shouldn’t be experience its effect.”

“I am!” Giorge almost shouted, his eyes darting about, testing the darkness. “It’s horrid!”

“It’s in your mind,” Angus said, his emotions torn between concern for Giorge, the excitement of having one of his questions answered, and a vindictive satisfaction. “It will pass soon enough.” I hope, he added to himself.

“How do you know?!” Giorge half-screeched.

“Because,” Angus said, his voice calm. He concentrated, bringing the magic around him into sharper focus. If Giorge attacked him, he wanted to be prepared. “I caused it,” he finished.

“What!” Hobart said, turning toward him, his sword sliding half out of the scabbard.

Ortis stared for a long moment, and then asked, “The mushrooms?”

Angus nodded slightly, his eyes held steady on Giorge. He was breathing heavily, his eyes were wide and dilated, and he looked as if he needed to pounce on something and drive his knife into its heart. And Angus was the something in question. Would he attack? Had he been driven so close to the point of madness by that small, intense burst of smoke? How powerful were these mushrooms? Could they kill him? He shrugged and said, his voice lame, almost apologetic, “Surprise!”

Giorge’s breathing almost stopped completely, and then he snorted and started laughing. But his white-knuckled grip on his sword and knife never wavered, never faltered. When he recovered somewhat, he said, “I’ll take first watch,” and scampered to the edge of their camp and quickly pranced around the perimeter. His eyes were cast outward into the darkness, and his short sword and knife held at the ready. Periodically, he rushed into the darkness, thrusting one or the other out in front of him. Then, after a few seconds, he would return and resume his hectic patrol.

“I’ll keep watch on him,” Ortis said. Then another of his constituents turned and asked, “Why did you do it, Angus?”

Angus shrugged. “When I put my robe on the morning we left Hellsbreath,” he said, “I found the mushrooms were still in my pocket. I had forgotten all about them. There wasn’t time to test them before we left, but I still wanted to know what would happen. So I tossed them into the fire and used Puffer to blow the smoke toward Giorge to find out.”

Giorge darted into the darkness again, and one of Ortis stood up and moved in his direction.

“It better wear off soon,” Hobart said, his voice low and threatening. “We do not do such things to each other.”

“It will,” Angus said. Or will it become permanent? he asked himself. One or the other.

“If it doesn’t….” Hobart muttered, his glare fixed and unwavering. After a few seconds, he said, “This had best be the end of it, Angus. I won’t tolerate much more of this feud of yours.”

Angus shrugged. He hadn’t intended such a powerful reaction, but he should have expected it. The effect in The Tween was rather mild, but the smoke was far more diffuse, so much so that it was nearly undetectable. There, it only caused mild paranoia, a sense of being watched by something just out of sight. It wasn’t an intense feeling; it was more of a vague impression that preyed upon one’s fears and created a desire to flee—and the longer you stayed in The Tween, the stronger that urge to flee became. But Giorge had gotten a sudden, intense, concentrated dose.

At least he had his answer. The mushrooms caused the paranoia that was felt by anyone who entered The Tween, and that meant there was a purpose behind it. Something on that plateau was burning the mushrooms, something that didn’t want others in The Tween. And the dwarves seemed to have had a hand in it. Why? What did they hope to gain from it?

Giorge returned from the darkness, crouching and looking over one shoulder and then the other as he continued his patrol of the perimeter. He was still intense, but his breathing didn’t seem to be as labored as before. Were the mushrooms wearing off? If so, what would it mean? How would they be able to cope with it? If only they had had time to investigate it further! No, that would come later, when they went back to the plateau with the soldiers. He turned to Hobart and said, “Commander Garret will need to know about this. If they go near the fires and the things tending to them throw mushrooms on them, his men will act just like Giorge—or worse.”

Hobart frowned and clenched his teeth as if he were trying to hold onto his anger as he fought against the urge to acknowledge the truth of what Angus said. But the truth won out, and he nodded sharply. Then he turned away from Angus and began studying Giorge’s behavior more closely. “He will want details,” he said, standing and walking over to Giorge. When he reached him, he grabbed Giorge’s shoulders and they began a low, intense conversation.

“Will you need time to prime in the morning?” Ortis asked.

“About half an hour,” Angus said without turning. “I’ll take last watch if you’d like.”

Ortis nodded and two of him prepared for sleep. “I’ll wake you,” he said as he closed his eyes.

Angus continued to watch Giorge until he finally showed signs of calming down, and then he, too, prepared for sleep. Another piece of the puzzle, he thought as he closed his eyes. But what will the image be? he wondered. He had no idea what it would be, but as each new clue fell into place, it added to his disquiet. Then he set aside his unease and embraced the delight of the new discovery and the success of his new spell. Soon, sleep settled on him like a warm blanket of snow.

2

“Why do they call them fletchings?” Angus asked as they left the road and followed a narrow, mud-packed trail heading west into a grove of loosely-packed maple trees. “It’s not a very appealing name.”

“Their wing feathers make the best fletching material for arrows,” Ortis said, taking out one of his arrows and nudging his horse a little closer to Angus. “Hear this?” he asked, taking his finger and rubbing it along the mottled brown fletching of the arrow. It made a soft humming sound, like the vibration of a harp string that had been barely nudged to life. “They hold their shape, like all feathers do, but the webbing between the barbs isn’t as brittle as most. A lot of feathers peel apart when you rub them that way, but not a fletching feather. They hold their structure for a long time before they become unstable. If you’re careful storing your arrows, they last even longer. The feathers near the wing tip are best.”

“I guess it makes sense,” Angus said. “But I would have called it something else, something that gave an idea of what it looked like. Bluebird, redbird—something like that.”

“Oh,” Giorge said as he joined them. He slouched a bit in his saddle, but other than being tired from a lack of sleep, he didn’t seem to be suffering much from the mushroom’s effects. Still, every now and then, there would be a noise in the trees and he would twitch, gasp, and crouch down even further in his saddle. Sometimes he muttered in Millie’s ear and patted the horse’s neck, but whatever he said was always too low for Angus to hear. “They have another name for them,” he said, a hint of his resurgent grin curving his lips upward and tickling his dark brown eyes. “It’s ‘big ugly brown thing’.”

Ortis shook his head and said, “No it isn’t. The locals call it ‘fishmonger’s bane’.”

Giorge nodded, “Yes. It eats a lot of fish. It has to; otherwise it wouldn’t be able to stay big and ugly.”

“Fish?” Angus asked as they twisted around a very large, very old maple. He looked up, trying to see one of the fletchings’ nests among the budding maple branches. Aside from a few very large squirrel nests, there were no signs of nests at all, and he began to wonder why. “Where do they catch them?”

“The Lake of Scales,” Giorge said. “You’ll be able to see it pretty soon. It’s an impressive sight. See that volcano?” he asked, pointing through the branches at a volcano near the north end of the western horizon. It was a nearly dormant volcano some distance just south of Hellsbreath Pass; it had been belching out a bit of smoke for years but no ash or lava. “The lake runs from the south edge of that volcano to,” he moved his hands south, past two mountains before stopping, “that mountain. It’s less than a mile wide, but it’s long and runs fairly deep along the western edge of the valley floor at the base of the mountains.”

“There are several villages on its shores,” Ortis added. “They form a loose alliance of traders, mostly; no one has been able to unify them into a kingdom. A few have tried, of course, but they are an independent lot and will have none of it.”

The maple trees were thinning, now, and Angus frowned. “Where are their nests?” he asked. “I don’t see any in these trees, and from what you’ve said, there should be lots of them.”

Giorge grinned. “They don’t have nests in the trees,” he said. “They have aeries.”

“Aeries?” Angus asked, frowning at the unfamiliar word. “What are those?”

“You’ll find out pretty soon,” Giorge said, urging Millie to a faster gait and pulling ahead to join Hobart and another Ortis.

“An aerie is a nest,” Ortis explained. “But it’s not in a tree.” Then he, too, urged his steed forward.

Angus kneed Gretchen into line with the last Ortis following a short distance behind him. A few minutes later, they emerged from the trees, and spread out, side by side, near the edge of a deep canyon. There was about twenty feet between the tree line and cliff edge, and Hobart and Giorge had stopped in the middle of it. When Angus joined them, Giorge pointed at a long, thin, blue expanse that spanned the base of the three mountains and said, “That is the Lake of Scales. It kind of looks like a skinny blue snake from up here, doesn’t it?”

The view was spectacular. The mountains, snowcapped and haloed in puffy white clouds, topped the horizon, and their slopes were heavy walls of mottled patches of granite, mostly gray and black but with a few brownish-red outcroppings. Here and there, there was a small sprinkling of pine trees, but it was mostly steep, bare rock. The sun was beginning to creep past their peaks, and long shadows were forming between them. At the foot of the mountains were a few low hills and fallen rocks, and in front of them was the long, thick, squiggly blue line of the Lake of Scales. He couldn’t see any details for the villages on its shores; they were little more than blobs of color and wafting little bits of smoke. He frowned. “How far are we from those mountains?” he asked.

“A lot further than it looks,” Hobart said. “Remember how long it took us to get over that plateau? This is at least twice that. And,” he gestured with his gauntleted hand at the blackish-brown valley floor, “all of that will be grain for the Western Kingdoms. Tyr would love to have it, of course, but it’s too far out of his reach. Hellsbreath is about as far as he can go right now. If he tried to extend his reach any further than that, it would weaken his forces too much.”

But he wants to go further, Angus thought. Like his forebears.

Giorge dismounted and handed his reins to Hobart. Then he came up to Angus and asked, “Do you want to see the aeries?”

“Are there any near here?”

Giorge grinned and nodded. “If there’s a winch, there are aeries.”

“They must be fairly large to see them from up here,” Angus mused.

Giorge nodded. “They build their aeries in the fall, and it takes a week or two to get it done. They use mud from the lake and straw from the grain harvest to build them. In the spring after they finish their breeding season and have molted, they’ll shove the aerie out of the crack. That’s how the villagers gather the feathers for their arrows. They wait at the bottom of the cliff and gather up the nesting material. They have to be quick about it; the freshly molted feathers blow away pretty easily, and they’re the ones they use for fletching. But the rest of the aerie doesn’t go to waste; it makes good fertilizer and they spread it around over the grain.”

Angus nodded and handed his reins to Ortis. He dismounted and followed the scrawny thief to the edge of the cliff. Giorge kept walking until it looked like he was going to walk off the cliff, but at the last moment, he stopped with his toes jutting out over the edge. Then he bent over at the waist and looked down. When Angus joined him, he surprised himself by stepping just as close to the edge and leaning over in much the same way. He half-smiled as he realized that a stiff breeze would easily upset his precarious center of balance, and an even lighter one would do the same to the gangly little thief.

“There’s one,” Giorge said after a moment, flinging his hand to the left. “You can’t see much of it from here, though; the bulk of it is in the crack. That’s how to find them. Look for the cracks and outcroppings. They use the same ones every spring, and the locals know where they are. It makes it easier for them to find the eggs. Most of the aeries will be lower down than that one.” He paused and pointed again, this time further down and to the right. “Like that one. It looks like a big aerie. We’ll have to work our way down to it later this afternoon. It might even be a shared roost; the fletchings do that sometimes when the crack is big enough. We’ll have a better chance of finding eggs in it if it is a shared roost. It’s still early in the breeding season, and a lot of the fletchings haven’t laid any yet.”

“We?” Angus asked.

Giorge nodded. “You and I. We’re going to collect the eggs.” He grinned. “But not right away. You’ll need to get some lessons on climbing first, and that big nest is a good starting point. It will be fairly easy to reach; the crack comes almost all the way up to the top, and there will be a lot of handholds and toeholds. We’ll have to get started pretty soon, though; the fletchings return just before dusk.”

Angus frowned. “How do you find the aeries if you can’t see where they are?” If I could fly, it would be simple, he added to himself.

Giorge shrugged. “Trial and error, mostly. We’ll go down about fifty feet and then move horizontally. I’ll go one way and you’ll go the other. We should be able to see the cracks above and below us for a good portion of the cliff, and then we’ll drop down another fifty feet and come back together again.”

“We’ll what?” Angus asked, standing up straight again. He frowned but didn’t move away from the edge.

Giorge straightened up and grinned at him. “Surprise!” he said as he laughed and abruptly turned toward the others. “Let’s get set up!” he shouted. “If Angus is a quick learner, we’ll be eating fletching eggs this evening!”

Angus watched him scurry back to the others, and then turned back to the cliff. He stared down its near-vertical face for a long moment before walking back to the group. Ortis handed him the reins to Gretchen, but he didn’t climb into the saddle. Instead, he turned to Giorge and said, “That’s the surprise? You want me to climb down that cliff with you to get some of those eggs?”

“Yes,” Giorge grinned. “Isn’t it exciting?”

“I’m not sure I would say that,” Angus said, shaking his head.

“If you don’t want to do it,” Hobart said, “we won’t force you to. Giorge is an old hand at climbing, and he can gather the eggs on his own. It will just take longer.”

Angus closed his eyes, sighed, and slowly opened them again. When he did, he looked at Giorge and said, “You know, if you had told me about this, I would have primed for my Flying spell and we would already eggs to eat.”

Giorge’s grin never wavered. “I know,” he said, “but what fun would that be?”

“More fun than falling to my death,” Angus said.

“That’s not going to happen,” Hobart said. “We’ll be using ropes and harnesses. There is a winch by the trees, and if you slip, you won’t fall far.”

“You’ll do it then?” Giorge asked, his voice hopeful, almost childlike with anticipation.

Angus rolled his eyes, mounted his horse, and looked at Giorge again. Then he tilted his head to the side and half-smiled. “Yes,” he said, “I think I will.” As soon as he said it, though, he began to wonder why he had agreed to do it. He wasn’t a mountain-climbing egg-thief; he was a wizard. He had never climbed a cliff before, so what would ever possess him to think he could climb a cliff? Or had he climbed cliffs before? Was it part of his past creeping into the present? He had had that kind of feeling before, that deep sense of déjà vu that couldn’t be explained away. Would it happen again, when he nestled up against the cliff face? Would he instinctively know how to climb a cliff? If he did, it wouldn’t be an instinct; it would be a memory he couldn’t quite capture. Or his nightmares come to life. In them, he often climbed walls and slid into bedrooms to slit throats. But he hadn’t had any of those nightmares in months, not since the Truthseer had read him.

He shook his head and scowled at Giorge. He should have told him about the cliff. It would have been so much easier, so much simpler to just fly down and gather up the eggs. Then again, even if he had primed for the Flying spell he still might have climbed down the cliff face. But if he had, he would have had the security of knowing he could cast the Flying spell if he slipped. What would he do now if he slipped? It was a question he couldn’t answer, and one he hoped he wouldn’t have to answer.

Ever.

3

Fanzool shivered and leaned heavily against his staff to brace himself against the howling wind, the driving sleet, the bitter cold. It was a horrid blizzard, one of the worst he had ever seen, and there was nowhere for him to take shelter. Even if there was shelter nearby, he would never have seen it in this storm. If it weren’t for the clacking of his staff on the cobblestones—a muted, barely audible muffled click quickly swallowed up by the storm—he wouldn’t even know he was still on the road to Wyrmwood.

He stumbled, fell to one knee. He was spent, and he knew it. But he couldn’t stop. He was too close to Wyrmwood to succumb to sleep, the cold sleep that would smother him. He should have stayed in Tyrag until spring, but Argyle….

No recriminations. He had done what was necessary—was doing what was necessary—and there was no help for it. If he had not left Tyrag at winter’s outset, he would have died by winter’s end. Argyle would have seen to it. It was better to die in the snow alongside the road, just one more foolish traveler for the scavengers to feast upon.

He struggled to his feet and stumbled forward a dozen paces before his knee gave out again. This time, the wind caught the hood of his robe and wrenched it away from his face. He took a breath and almost gagged on the brittle cold, the sharp pain in his lungs. He huddled down upon himself and reached back for the hood. It billowed out and flapped wildly about, and his fingers were cold, clumsy, almost useless. It took too long to catch it, and by the time he did, his ears were already numb.

Winter in the plains was supposed to be mild. A little snow, a little wind, a bit of rain, chill but not cold. But he was too close to the foothills, and the cold wind from the mountains merged with the moist air from the swamps to form horrid snowstorms. He knew how it happened, but that knowledge didn’t help him cope with it.

Still the mind. Still the body. Still the body.

The body’s too cold to move anyway. Why do I need to still it?

He crumpled forward, idly wondering how close he was to Wyrmwood, to warmth, to safety. Perhaps he should climb to his feet again? But he didn’t have the strength, the energy. The raging storm had drained him completely.

He began to crawl and made it a few more feet. What’s the point? I’m dead anyway. He sighed, reluctantly took in another painfully cold breath. Another. It was difficult now and he closed his eyes, let the air ease out of his lungs. One more? He struggled against the urge to let it go, to stop….

No. It was not his voice, not his thought.

A warmth descended upon him, enveloped him. It was a strange kind of warmth, almost like a fire without flame, without pain. But it wasn’t gentle; it wasn’t kind; it wasn’t friendly.

His lungs expanded, and the cold air entered into him again. Why was he breathing? How was he breathing? Another breath. It was not as sharp, not as demanding. Another….

His hands moved, pulling his arms behind them. They pressed upward, pushing him up to his knees. Then his legs moved, levering him clumsily to his feet, as if they were unaccustomed to supporting his weight. He stumbled forward, the staff forgotten behind him.

But Fanzool wasn’t thinking about the staff. He wasn’t even thinking about walking, about how to put one foot closer to Wyrmwood, then the other. He wasn’t thinking about anything. He had already fallen into a deep, unrelenting sleep, one he should never have woken up from.

But he would wake up.

Sardach would make sure of it. It was what Argyle wanted….

© 2014, all rights reserved.

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