Authors: Jr. L. E. Modesitt
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Epic
“He ate it all.” Tasyel gestured for the casserole dish and dumped it back in front of me.
I took a second, smaller serving-and more bread.
“After all, he is a wizard.” Yelena rolled her eyes.
“Where are you going?” Ustrello asked.
In between mouthfuls, I answered, “To do some wizardly things.”
“That is what one would expect from a wizard,” affirmed Tasyel.“Wizards must do those things which the rest of us cannot, and that is why they are wizards.”
It made sense in a way. Ustrello nodded at her wisdom, and I kept a straight face, glad to keep what I was really up to not too obvious.
“What do wizards do when they are not being wizards?” asked Ustrello when I had finished the second, smaller helping.
“Different things. I am a woodworker.”
“Do you carve things?”
“I make furniture, mostly, chairs, tables, desks, wardrobes...”
“Amazing, he is a wizard who does useful things, too.”
I tried not to choke, and nodded, then took a sip of the pungent teekla.
Eventually, I struggled out of the cheerful chaos and wandered through the twilight back to my narrow quarters, wondering how Krystal was doing.
I got a candle from my pack and, yawning, used my striker to bring it into flame. I began to flip through The Basis of Order. As I suspected, there wasn't anything on dust, although there was a passage on itching that wasn't much help, since it pointed out that most itches felt worse with an “unordered” mind. Great! Itching disordered the mind, which made the itching feel worse. But there was nothing on remedying the causes of itches, at least not from what I could see with a quick flipping through the pages.
For lack of quick results, I decided to go back to the introductory sections, the ones that had bored me so often I'd never really grasped them. The first few pages were still boring, but I did find something more interesting partway into the introduction.
“Pure order cannot nourish life, for living requires growth, and the process of growth is the constant struggle to bring order out of chaos.” I wasn't sure what it had to do with Gerlis, but it had to do with boredom. I'd always seen order as boring, but what if I substituted pure order in my equation? I couldn't make the connection, exactly, but I wanted to think about it.
I didn't get too much farther, ending at a paragraph which concluded:
“... order must embody chaos, and chaos order.”
That was too arcane for me, almost a boring truism. After blowing out the candle, I curled up to sleep, ignoring the voices outside.
“... excuse for a horse...”
“... not knock-kneed like yours...”
“... what do wizards do? You know, Sergel?”
Thankfully, it was quiet when I woke, quiet and gray, with the hint of a chill drizzle from flat clouds.
Breakfast was not quite so noisy as dinner, but with enough of a din that I was glad for the quiet of the road.
On the way out of Matisir, Yelena asked, “How is your stomach?”
I considered. “Fine. How about yours?”
“Too much curried goat.”
“You didn't eat that much.”
“You,” she said wryly, “don't have to eat it in dozens of different ways at every outliers' barracks in Kyphros.”
The mist kept the red road dust down. Gairloch only had a red coating for half a cubit up from his hoofs, but it clung to him more because he was hairier than the sleeker troopers' mounts.
That was the way the trip went. Lots of riding on long roads with few travelers. Lots of quiet, with some words between.
Yelena brought us into Dasir late the next night, where we stayed in yet another barracks with talkative outliers. Dasir was a town, unlike Matisir, and like most Kyphran towns I'd traveled through recently, it had the same roads covered with red dust that clung to everything, even in winter, which was hotter than summer in Recluce. The mist hadn't lasted; the dust had begun to rise again. The white-plastered houses roofed in red tile were generally squarish with few outside windows and centered on garden courtyards, and their white plaster was pink also.
After Dasir, the road got straighter, emptier, and the hills more barren, with a few scattered goats, the kind that made for bounties or dinner, assuming anyone could catch them. That night Yelena supervised dinner-dried meat, cheese, and tea that tasted metallic from the pot-at a waystation in the middle of nowhere. I shared my bag of dried peaches.
“Nice to have dried fruit,” mumbled Weldein.
“There are some advantages to traveling with a craftmaster,” suggested Yelena.
I had to orderspell the water twice. That's how brackish it was.
A day later, Weldein pointed to the next kaystone-Jikoya.
“Wait,” was all he said.
A smaller, and poorer, version of Dasir-that was Jikoya. The whitewashed plaster of the houses was graying, and the roof tiles were often cracked and some were missing. Some children were barefoot and ragged. I felt my warm jacket and looked at them. Goats ran free.
“What about the goats?” I asked, recalling that uncontrolled goats were food and/or bounty, according to the autarch's laws.
“People here don't pay that much attention to the laws. They're too poor, and the autarch is far away,” said Freyda, riding almost beside me.
There was a barracks-of sorts-attached to a house. I slept on the floor, on my bedroll, rather than trust the vermin-infested straw pallet. Even so, and with what wards I could muster, I had a few reddish bites when I rolled to my feet the next morning. I understood-at least somewhat-the autarch's willingness to trade Jikoya to save trained troops.
Breakfast was hot porridge, and it was hot, which was about all it had to offer. I found grain for Gairloch, and he munched happily enough.
From Jikoya, the old, old road south ran toward.Lythga, and that took two days. Camping in the desolate hills with the low wind howling off the not-too-distant mountains was more restful than sleeping in the Jikoya barracks, and not much colder, although I found both Weldein and Jylla shivering and stamping the next morning.
“You wizards never get cold, do you?” asked the young man.
“Sometimes, but it gets colder than this where I'm from, and it certainly gets colder up north, in places like Spidlar and Sligo.”
“They can have it,” said Jylla, huddling close to the small fire.
I shrugged, wishing I could wash up, but there had been no water, outside of a single plains pothole, since Jikoya.
I did have some of my hoarded redberry and shared it with the others.
“See... wizards do have some good surprises!” Weldein stated, munching on cheese and spraying some forth with the words.
“This wizard...” grudged Jylla.
Gairloch wasn't that happy about the lack of water, but he got to drink at another pothole, as Yelena predicted, by midmorning.
Late in the afternoon, an irregular line of trees appeared on the southern horizon.
“That's the Sturbal River. It's just a stream. Circles west and south around the High Desert. Weren't for that, and the old mines, Lythga wouldn't be there,” explained Weldein.
A good kay outside of Lythga, the narrow road joined a wider one that stretched to the east to the town and southwest along the Sturba!.
Yelena gestured to the east. No kaystone marked the approach to Lythga, and the road was rutted with old tracks. Even the shoulders had deep gouges half filled with red dust and sand. I looked at the gouges and then at Yelena.
“It used to be a mining road. They took copper, and silver, and a little gold from the mines, but it's all gone now. Has been for centuries.”
The gouges looked old, and I probed them with my order senses. I couldn't tell much, only that they had been there for a long time.
After climbing a low hill, Gairloch whuffed, thirsty. On the slope down to the Sturbal and the narrow stone bridge were two roofless log squares that had once been houses. A short cedar grew in the doorway of one. Next to the bridge was an even smaller roofless structure.
“The old tollhouse,” explained Yelena. “That's how they paid for the bridge.”
On the other side of the stream, a deep gash in the land with only a narrow ribbon of water, were more roofless houses, with desert scrub and cedars growing in and around them.
The road turned northeast, following a twist in the Sturbal, and I glanced from one ruined building to another for nearly a kay. There was a square, with a pedestal that had once apparently held a statue, and three buildings on the northeast side. One had a sign with a pickax crossed over a sword. The second had crossed candles, and the third was boarded up.
Yelena reined up outside the sagging stables behind the Pick and Sword.
Lythga made poor Jikoya look as prosperous as Kyphrien itself.
“Have you been here?” I asked the others.
The three troopers shook their heads.
“It's been five years,” said Yelena. “I hope it's the last time.”
So did I, especially after a boiled bear dinner that made cold cheese seem wonderful. Weldein and I shared a room whose floor sagged more than a sailor's hammock. But I did sleep- after a lot of work with wards to deal with insects.
Weldein watched my muttering over the wards, shaking his head.
The next morning was gray again, with more drizzle that wasn't rain and that didn't bring much moisture to the ground. I was stiff, but the stiffness left as we rode eastward until almost noon, with brief stops to water the horses. Sometime near noon, Yelena picked a spot on a point that was almost a sandbar in the stream where we could eat and let our mounts graze on the sparse grass and drink. Gairloch preferred the leaves of one type of scrub, but they seemed harmless.
I gave Jylla the last of the white cheese.
“Thank you. You're not bad for a wizard. I can even see why the commander likes you.”
I shrugged. I hoped so.
I was the last, as always, to remount for the ride to the Lower Easthorns, now looming reddish-brown and close enough to touch. It still was mid-afternoon before Yelena reined up-perhaps half a kay from the beginning of the road across the lower pass. The sunlight filtered through thin, hazy clouds above the plains to the west and south behind us, the plains that rose higher to the south until they became the High Desert of southeast Kyphros.
“I hope your task is easier than the last time we parted so.” Yelena inclined her head.
“So do I, Leader Yelena.”
Weldein gave me a salute as they turned away, and I nudged Gairloch toward the entry to the lower pass road. I only looked back once, and they were already dots on the road.
The road at the beginning of the pass was narrow, not much more than a dozen cubits wide before it dropped down into the narrow stream that had so little water that I could have stepped across it. The streambed was a good four cubits below the road surface, and the smoothed and curved surfaces of the boulders and stones around which the stream flowed showed that it often was wild and deep. The road itself bore hoof prints, even an oxen track, and recent droppings.
Gairloch stutter-stepped through the natural rock gates, but the steep rock walls curved away from the road and stream within a dozen rods, and the road began to climb.
“I know. It's no fun carrying all those tools, and you don't have any company, either.” I patted him on the neck.
On the way, when we got to a straight section of the road, with no one around, I practiced setting up my shields, the kind that shuttled light around me. While no one could see Gairloch or me, I couldn't see anyone else either, and had to use my very rudimentary order senses to feel my way along.
Gairloch couldn't see anything, and he shortened his steps. I patted him again, offering him a little sense of order, but I wanted him to get used to it again before we had to use it for real. The shields only worked for light, and that meant if he whinnied, anyone could hear us. They could also see hoof prints. Magic doesn't solve all problems. It would be nice if it did, but it doesn't.
After a while, Gairloch's stride lengthened a little, and he stopped being quite so skittish. I released my hold on the shields and took a deep breath. We'd covered less than a kay. It was a slow way to travel.
As we climbed and as the sun dropped, the road got colder. Both my breath and Gairloch's began to steam in the late afternoon. Higher in the low mountains, I could see patches of snow. I stopped and pulled on my heavy jacket, although I didn't close it.
After about another ten kays, the road stopped climbing quite so steeply in a long flat valley filled with a mixture of brown grass, short cedars, boulders, and heaps of snow on the north side of the boulders and cedars. The road was dampened clay, and most tracks had faded with the melting of the earlier snowfall. Some of the grass had been cropped short, but in the dimness, I could see no sign of sheep or goats.
Yelena had said there was a waystation, and there was, although the ancient door had rotted off the heavy old iron hinges, and the sod-grass roof clearly leaked when it snowed or rained-at least I assumed the damp spots and depressions in the dirt floor were from natural moisture.
Door or no door, I wasn't that cold. Even a little order-mastery solved that, but cold food was another thing. Cheese was all right cold, and so was the bread, but after nearly an eight-day, I was missing Rissa's cooking. I even missed my own cooking.
I let Gairloch graze for a while, then fed him some grain and led him to the spring behind the waystation. I looked at the road to the east, which continued to climb into the Lower Easthorns, then dragged him back to near the waystation where I unrolled my bedroll in a sheltered corner. I slept, without dreaming.
West of Arastia, Hydlen [Candar]
GERLIS TAKES OUT the small polished glass and sets it in the center of the cream-colored linen that covers the portable table, centering it carefully. Then he walks to the tent entrance and peers out through the canvas flap.
“Orort, I don't wish to be disturbed-except by His Extraordinarily Supreme and Willful Mightiness, the Duke.”
“Yes, ser.” The guard inclines his head, and by the time he lifts it, the tent flap is back down. He swallows.
Inside, Gerlis sits on the polished white oak stool and stares at the screeing glass, ignoring the sweat that beads on his forehead and the heat that slowly builds in the tent.
First, white mists appear in the glass, then a wavering image, which Gerlis studies. Five dusty riders plod down a narrow road. The lead rider is a Kyphran officer, accompanying a figure on a smaller horse.
As the image wavers and fades, Gerlis frowns. “Danger from a few Kyphrans?” He wipes his forehead. After a time, he stands and walks to the corner of the pavilion tent, where he lifts a bottle of wine and takes a single long drink.
“Turning already... curses of the power...” He takes another drink before he sets the open bottle back on the top of the closed single trunk that doubles as a second table beside the narrow cot. Then he walks back to the table and sits down.
Again, he concentrates, and is rewarded with the mists, and a second image-that of a slender balding man in a tan uniform with a sunburst pin upon his collar.
Gerlis frowns. “The sundevils... spells trouble... but not for a time.” He gestures, and the glass blanks. “Not until after Berfir holds Hydlen firmly.”
For the third time, his eyes fix on the glass and call for an image-that of a thin man in the colors of Hydlen who sharpens a long knife and looks over his shoulder toward the setting sun.
Gerlis nods at last.
“... friend Cennon... assassins yet...” His words to himself are barely a whisper.
He lifts his left hand and gazes at it. “The left hand of the Duke, and many will rue it.” Whitish-red fire flickers from his fingertips, and he smiles. Far beneath the meadow, the earth rumbles, and shortly the grasses beyond the tents ripple in the windless afternoon.