Authors: David Weber
“Well,” she twinkled up at him, “
“Very good. My supper will doubtless arrive intact, which is a great relief to my mind.”
He pushed her gently towards the stewpot and shifted his gaze once more to the red-haired man.
you know him?” Leeana asked quietly.
“Yes and no.” His raised hand forestalled her indignant retort. “I know a great deal about him, Leeana, but he doesn’t know me.”
“Is he all right?” Her anxious eyes edged meaningfully to Gwynna.
“You, of all people, should know it’s seldom ‘all right’ to be of interest to a wizard, Leeana Hanathafressa,” Wencit said gently. “But I think no harm will come to Gwynna from him.”
Leeana peered into the multi-colored depths of his strange eyes. Something deep and hidden looked back from their whirling depths, and she nodded. He’d answered her as fully as he would. He wasn’t telling everything—he never did—but she trusted him. Especially where Gwynna was concerned. There was some link between the wizard and her daughter, one Leeana had never understood but whose strength she could not doubt. Her hands moved precisely, rewrapping the garrote around her head, and Wencit sighed inwardly at her affirmation of confidence.
“Let me sit and eat with him,” he said softly. “I have to speak with him, and this is the best time. Besides—” he smiled teasingly “—it will convince you of his harmlessness.”
“Japester!” She stabbed his ribs with a stiff index finger and he whuffed. Then she tossed a word at the direcat, and the great beast retreated slowly into his original place. He lay down neatly, chin on massive forepaws, but his eyes remained on the red-haired man.
“I’ll see you’re not disturbed,” she said softly, “but you won’t leave this house until you tell me more than you have!”
“All that I can,” he promised, touching her forehead gently. She gripped his forearm tight.
“Ha! You mean all you want me to know!”
“It’s the same thing, my dear,” he said, smiling faintly.
“Here!” Gwynna dashed up, a full bowl in either hand.
“Am I supposed to stand in the corner and eat with one hand?” Wencit demanded. “The table, you little wretch!”
Gwynna laughed and ran to set the bowls in place. The red-haired man scarcely noticed her, though she stared at him with frank curiosity, certain it was safe to do so now that Wencit had come.
Leeana gathered up her daughter and moved into the scullery, setting the girl to washing trenchers and glasses. She bustled the kitchen staff back to its tasks and took her own turn at the great sinks, but her eyes returned ever and again to the red-haired man and the old wizard by the fire, and a puzzled frown creased her brow.
* * *
“Give you good evening, young sir.”
The red-haired man looked up at the soft voice and saw an old man with a face creased by laughter, tears, and weather. Hair white as snow but thick and healthy was held back by a tooled leather headband, and bushy eyebrows moved expressively above strange eyes—
eyes that seemed all colors yet called no color their own. The old man’s body looked younger than his face, and he had the scarred, powerful hands and wrists of a swordsman. He stood as tall as the red-haired man himself, and under his wet poncho he wore the sheathed weapons of a warrior. His appearance was shabby, yet an indefinable sense of power clung to his deep voice and ancient frame.
“I beg your pardon,” the red-haired man made himself mutter. “I’m afraid I feel…unwell.”
“Hardly surprising.” The old man sat opposite him and spooned up stew, regarding him through the aromatic steam. “It’s…unpleasant to realize one has no past.”
“Yes,” the younger man said softly. “I don’t—” then he broke off.
“How did you know?” he whispered, his right hand searching his belt for something that wasn’t there.
“It’s my job to know things,” the old man said lightly. “I’m a wizard.”
” The word was a hiss, and those searching fingers closed convulsively on a missing hilt. The old man only laughed and pushed the second bowl towards him.
“Indeed. Come now, man! Not all wizards have been evil, though I grant the breed has an evil name these days. But Bahzell Bloody Hand would have no dark wizard in
“Possibly not.” The red-haired man’s voice was harsh as he reached blindly for a spoon, eyes on the wizard’s face. “Only I’ve never even heard of any ‘Bloody Hand,’ and even if I had, it wouldn’t follow that any wizard was worthy of my trust.”
“But you’ve met Bahzell,” the old man said. “Come. Eat! His lady’s made you free of her kitchen, and that’s not a privilege that’s easily come by.”
“No, I imagine it isn’t.” The red-haired man smiled unwillingly. It was a thin smile, edged with bitter uncertainty, yet a smile for all of that, and he dipped his spoon into his own bowl. “A daunting lady indeed.”
“The Sothōii war maids have their little ways,” the old man said dryly.
“Sothōii war maids?” The red-haired man looked back up sharply. “They’re pledged never to wed!”
“So they are. Or were, at any rate.” The old man shrugged. “Their charter was…revised slightly in that respect some years ago. In fact, Leeana had a bit to do with that. Or her example did, anyway.” He smiled. “She does rather tend to set the entire world on its ear just when the people around her think it’s safe to take their eye off her. Of course, she comes by it naturally, I suppose.” He shook his head. “Surely you’ve realized our Leeana is special in every way? This whole household’s special, my friend, and Leeana carries the rank of a commander of one thousand.”
The red-haired man’s eyes went back to the tall, slender woman with something like awe. War maids were seldom seen beyond the borders of the Wind Plain, but their reputation as fighters was second to none. The Sothōii’s splendid cavalry was the terror of their enemies, yet the war maids—for all that they’d never been considered truly “respectable” by most Sothōii—were equally skilled in their chosen role as light infantry, scouts, and mistresses of irregular warfare. If Leeana had led a thousand of them in battle, she was a force to be reckoned with. No wonder men stepped aside when she crossed a room! But what was she doing wed to a hradani, one of the Sothōii’s hereditary enemies? And why did the two of them manage a tavern in the Empire of the Axe, of all places?
He turned eyes filled with questions to the wizard across the table, but the other man shook his head ever so slightly.
“Your curiosity’s apparent,” he said softly, “but it isn’t my right to enlighten you. Not that it isn’t a tale well worth the telling—or that half the bards in Norfressa haven’t already tried their hand at telling it, for that matter—but none of the ballads get it quite right. Except for Brandark’s, perhaps.” The old man’s lips twitched on the edge of what looked like a smile. “Just understand that all the questions you’ve already imagined about them fall well short of the reality. If there’s time later, I’m sure they’ll be willing to tell you more, although it’s unlikely there
be time for it tonight. The evening’s schedule is likely to be a bit too much on the…full side for long stories, however good they may be. One word of caution I will give, however: offer no harm to anyone under this roof. Especially not to Gwynna Bahzelldaughter! If you do, no power on earth will save you.”
The red-haired man shivered as the wizard’s expression offered the second part of his warning—that Bahzell and his redoubtable wife might be the least of his dangers if he posed a threat to the child. He couldn’t understand why that might be, but the cold certainty of it burned his nerves. Then the wizard’s expression relented and he smiled crookedly.
“But we should speak of you, shouldn’t we?” he said more lightly.
“What about me?” the red-haired man asked warily.
“Don’t be foolish. A blind man could see you’re troubled, and I’m far from blind. Besides, I’m a wizard. I may know more about you than
“You know who I am?”
The younger man’s spoon dropped and his hand locked on the wizard’s wrist with bruising strength. The rumble of Blanchrach’s displeasure rose, and the direcat’s head lifted from his paws.
“Softly, my friend. Softly!”
Wencit’s eyes compelled the red-haired man back onto his bench.
“You know who I am!” he insisted desperately.
“Who you are?” The old man toyed with the words, not tauntingly, but is if tasting their meaning. “Who can say
a man is? Not I! I can’t even tell you who I am myself—not accurately. Tomorrow I’ll no longer be the man I am today, and the me of yesterday has already died. No, I can’t tell you who you are, but perhaps I can tell you
you are, and that’s almost as good.” He paused and eyed the other levelly. “Almost.”
“I see.” The red-haired man smiled, and it was not a pleasant expression. “Isn’t there a proverb about asking wizards questions?”
“A great many of them, actually. But I think the one you want says ‘Ask a wizard a question only if you know the answer—and even then,
answer will confuse you.’”
“You’re right. That’s the one I was trying to recall.”
“I thought it might be. Do you want an answer?”
“Will it confuse me?”
“Undoubtedly,” the wizard said calmly, spooning up more stew.
The red-haired man regarded him across the table, filled with a queer calm, like ice over a fire. He hadn’t known he was a stranger to himself before Gwynna reacted to his scars, and the aftershock of finding that he had no past still echoed in his soul. He had no idea of who or what he was, no idea of what he might have done. Was he a criminal? An outlawed man with a price on his head? He remembered no crimes—and wouldn’t
be a poor defense? Did he have a wife of his own? A family who’d become less than ghosts as they vanished from his memory? Was someone desperately searching for him, or did no one in all the world care what might have become of him? All those questions, and a thousand more besides, poured through him, yet the old man seemed unconcerned by his anguished confusion. He sat playing word games and swallowing stew as if things like this happened every day! Perhaps they did happen to wizards, but the red-haired man was ill prepared to cope with disaster on such a scale. If the wizard had the smallest clue to this…this
, this negation of his past, of course he wanted to hear it. However confusing or frightening it might be.
“Tell me, then, Wizard.” He made his voice mocking, though it took more courage than he’d thought he had. “What am I?”
“An important piece of a very large puzzle,” the old man replied.
“You’re right,” the red-haired man snorted, green eyes dark with disappointment. “I’m confused.”
“It’s generally confusing to be a puzzle piece,” the other man agreed. “Especially when the puzzle is vaster than you can possibly imagine.”
“Really? Just how does this piece fit in? What makes me so important that a wizard chooses to play riddle games with me? Or is that question permitted? the red-haired man asked bitterly.
“The question’ permitted,” the old man said, suddenly serious, “but I can’t answer it now. Not in full, though I can tell you some things.”
“Such as?” The red-haired man bent across the table, unable to hide the eagerness in his eyes.
“I will tell you this much. You’re a fighting man, as your scars proclaim, but you’re also much more than that, my friend. You’re a man people will find it easy to like—perhaps even to follow—and such men are always dangerous, not least to themselves. You have strengths of which you’re not aware, strengths which are hidden deep within you, and they make you a sharp edged tool for a knowing hand.”
“Wonderful,” the red-haired man said bitterly. “Are you
to confuse me? Isn’t simple ignorance enough for you? Why can’t you give me something
“I have.” The old man swallowed and waved his spoon. “Put it together. I’m a wizard, and wizards’ answers are limited because we know too much. An injudicious word, a hint too much, and the damage is done. An entire series of plans, of strategies—years of effort—can slide down into ruin because we said one word to many.”
His spoon cut the air to strike the table with a crack, and the red-haired man snorted angrily.
“I don’t recall asking to be included in any strategies!”
“But then, you don’t remember everything, do you?” The question was asked gently, and the younger man stiffened. “Perhaps you
ask…once. And consider this—your memory loss is selective, my friend. You know what hradani are, and direcats. You’ve heard of war maids.
amnesia’s probably no accident.”
“You mean…You’re saying someone
“Precisely. And that means you’re already part of
“But…why?” The younger man shook his head, eyes dark.
“For any number of reasons. I can’t tell you much, but this much I will say: all wizards are puzzle solvers at heart, and most of us cheat. We may not like the way a puzzle fits together, so we change the pieces or rearrange their patterns. For every wizard who seeks one solution another wants a different answer, or simply for it to remain unsolved. It wasn’t always so, but the past is the past. We have to deal with what
, not what we’d like to be.”
The old man paused to stare into the fire. When he spoke again, his voice was softer.
“Some of us try to believe our solutions are in the best interest of all, or at least of the greatest possible number, but we’re all quite ruthless. As for you, it would seem someone wants you ignorant of the part you might play if you still had a past.”
“But what makes me important? Who
this to me? You say you’re a wizard—how do I know it wasn’t you?”
“It could have been,” the old man agreed, his spoon chasing the last stew around his bowl, “but if I wanted you removed, it would’ve been easy enough to simply kill you.”
He looked up and met the younger man’s eyes levelly. The red-haired man swallowed, and nodded with a jerk.