Wolf walked by her on the way to the bed and ruffled her hair. “I prefer mercenaries.”
She nodded seriously. “I’ve heard that about you wizards.”
She was drifting contentedly off to sleep snuggled against Wolf’s side when he said, “I’ve been assuming this was a spell, but it could be something the shadow-creature is doing to him.”
She moaned. “Sleep.”
He didn’t say anything more, but she could all but feel him thinking.
“All right, all right,” she groused, and rolled over onto her back with a flop. “Why do you think it is the shadow-thing holding my father?”
“I didn’t say that,” he corrected. “But we know nothing about it, or about the spell holding your father. You’re the story collector. Have you heard any stories about a creature who holds its victims in an imitation of death?”
“Spiders,” she answered promptly. She was very awake now. For some reason she’d assumed that since the Lyon was still alive, he’d stay that way until she and Wolf figured out how to rescue him.
“You know what I mean,” Wolf said. “Is there something that uses magic to bind prey as large as a human?”
“No,” she said, then continued reluctantly, “not explicitly—but there are a lot of strange creatures I don’t know much about. The North Rethian mountains were one of the last places settled. Many of the old things were driven here from other places as humans moved in. Supposedly, the Wizard Wars destroyed most of the really dangerous ones—but if the dragon survived, other things might have made it as well. That leaves a lot of candidates, from monsters to gods.”
“Gods?” he asked.
She tapped his chest in objection to the sneer in his voice. Wolf, she had long ago realized, was a hopeless cynic. “If the Smith built weapons to kill the gods, there must have been gods to kill. I’ll have you know that this very keep was cursed once. Family legend has it that one of the Great Masters who began the Wizard Wars razed a temple dedicated to Ridane, the goddess of death, before erecting his own keep here.” She lowered her voice and continued in a whisper. “It is said that
laughter when he died was so terrible that all who heard it perished.”
“Then how did anyone know that
laughed?” Wolf asked.
She poked him harder. “Don’t ruin the mood.”
His shoulder shook suspiciously, but he was quiet. She settled back against him, slipping her hand under his arm.
“My uncle,” she said, “told me that the shapeshifters lived in these mountains before humans ever came this far north. They were driven into hiding here by a creature they called the
—which translates into something like big, yellow, magic perverter.” She waited for his reaction.
“Big, yellow, magic perverter?” he said, his voice very steady, making the name even more ridiculous.
“Sort of the way your name, in several Anthran dialects, would translate into hairy wild carnivore which howls,” she replied. “Would you prefer the Great Golden Tainter of Magic?”
“No,” he said dryly.
“Anyway,” she said, happy to have her attempt to amuse him succeed, “the shapeshifters were already hiding when humans came. It’s probably why they survived here and nowhere else.”
“So what happened to the . . .
?” asked Wolf, when Aralorn didn’t continue.
“Probably the Wizard Wars,” she said. “But the stories are pretty vague.” She closed her eyes and hugged his arm to still her fears. “I’ll get my uncle to look at the Lyon tomorrow.”
Wolf grunted and began nibbling at the soft place behind her ear, but she was too worried about her father to follow his mood.
“Wolf,” she said, “do you think I should try my sword? It might be able to rid us of that shadowy thing, or even break the spell that holds my father.”
Carrying an enchanted sword wasn’t the most comforting thing to do. It intimidated her to the point where she tried to ignore it most of the time. Since she’d used it on Wolf’s father, she hadn’t even practiced with it—though she carried it with her always so that no one else picked it up.
Wolf nipped her ear sharply and rolled her on top of him, shifting her until he could see her face.
“Ambris, once called the
,” he said thoughtfully.
“Magic eater,” she translated.
“Devourer sounds much more impressive,” he said, “if we’re still debating translations. That name is the only thing we really know about it, right?”
“What do you mean? There are lots of stories, not about the sword, I grant you, but the Smith’s weapons—”
“—cannot be used against humankind,” he broke in.
“They were built to defeat the gods themselves: the black mace, the bronze lance, and the rose sword. ‘Only a human hand dare wield them—’ ”
“ ‘—against the monsters of the night,’ ” she said completing the quotation. “I know that.” Then she thought about what he’d said. “Oh, I see what you mean. You think the stories might be wrong.”
“My father was a monster, but he was a human monster. You, my sweet, are not human.”
“Half,” she corrected absently, “and I’m not so certain about your father. Other than your Geoffrey and a few Uriah, I don’t think I’ve ever actually ever so much as wounded anyone with it. I seldom use it except for training, where the idea is
to cut up your opponent. For real fighting, I use weapons I’m more competent with. Wolf, if your father was human, Ambris shouldn’t have worked against him.”
Wolf tapped his fingers absently on her rump with the rhythms of his thoughts. “Perhaps the Smith’s interpretation of human was broader than ours. He might have included half-breed shapeshifters as human. My father was trying to become immortal like the gods—maybe he succeeded far enough that the sword could be used against him.”
“For the spell holding my father, it doesn’t matter what its capabilities, does it? I’m not going to try and kill anyone with it—just break a spell. It did break through the ae’Magi’s wards—”
“No, it didn’t.”
She sat up then so she could look at him. “What do you mean?”
“Ah,” he said. “You wouldn’t know. My father’s wards protected him by preventing any weapon from doing physical damage. Magical damage is more difficult to guard against by warding, and he believed that he was more than capable of protecting himself from magical attack. Your sword never did draw blood. The wards stayed there until his magic died.”
He threw back the covers, set her off him, and arose. “There’s an easy way to see if it can break spells as well.”
He pulled a small bench to a clear spot in the room and made a few signs in the air over it. Stepping back, he shook his head. “We might as well test it against a more powerful spell, since that is what we will be facing.” He made a few more gestures. “Now nothing should be able to touch this bench.”
Still tucked warmly under the covers, Aralorn snickered. “The Bench No Axe Could Touch Nor Rump Rest Upon,” she intoned, as if it were the title of some minstrel’s song.
“At least not until the magic wears off in a week or two,” said Wolf. “I’ve worked a series of spells on this bench. Do you want to try your sword on it?”
Aralorn left the warmth of her bed and found Ambris where she’d tucked it under the mattress before attending the gathering. Unsheathing it, she watched the reflected glow from the fire shine on the rose-colored blade.
It was small for a sword, made for a young boy or woman rather than a full-grown man. Except for the metal hilt, it could have been newly forged—but no one made swords with metal grips anymore. After the Wizard Wars, when most of the mages were dead, metal hilts hadn’t been much of a problem. Being connected to a dying magician by metal was a
bad idea. Now hilts were made of wood or bone, and had been for the past few centuries as the mageborn slowly became more numerous again.
The metal hilt hadn’t worried Aralorn when she’d chosen it from the armory before she’d left Lambshold. She’d always been able to tell mageborn from mundane. The sword had been the right size and well balanced, so she’d taken it. For years, she’d carried it, never realizing that she held anything other than an odd-colored, undersized sword fit for an undersized fighter.
She approached the bench and examined it thoughtfully.
“It won’t attack back,” said Wolf, apparently amused at her caution. “You can just hit it.”
She gave him a nasty look. She always felt awkward with the blasted weapon even though years of practice had made her almost competent. The recent change in their relationship had made her, to her surprise, a bit shy around him. She wanted to impress him, not remind him just how poor a swordswoman she was.
Experimentally, she swung the sword at the bench. It bounced off as if propelled, the force of it almost making Aralorn lose her grip. Shifting her stance, Aralorn tried simply setting the sword against the warding. The repelling force was still there, but by locking her forearms and leaning into the sword, she managed to keep it touching the spell. She held it there for a while, before she gave up and let the sword fall away.
“You need to follow through better,” said Wolf with such earnestness that she knew he was teasing.
Aralorn turned and braced both hands on her hips and glared at him, but not seriously. “If I required your opinion, I’d give you over to my father’s Questioner and be done with it.”
He raised his eyebrows innocently. “I was only trying to help.”
She snorted and spun, delivering a blow to the bench that should have reduced it to kindling, but it did no damage at all.
“I don’t think it works this way,” she said. “It’s not heating up at all, and when I used it on the ae’Magi, it was so hot I couldn’t hold it.”
“All right,” said Wolf. “Let’s try this. I’ll try to work a spell on you while you hold the sword up between us.”
Aralorn frowned. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t you being a little rash? If that’s why it killed your father, then it could do the same to you.”
He didn’t say anything.
She had a sudden remembrance of the look on his face as he’d called lightning down upon himself in her dream.
It was only a dream,
she told herself fiercely.
“Plague take you, Wolf,” she said as mildly as she could. “It’s not important enough to risk your life over. If it won’t work on the spells, it can’t help us here.”
“It might work against the shadow-thing we both saw,” he said. “Then perhaps you and I could examine the spells holding your father more closely.”
“Fine,” she said. “Then we’ll try it on that. Do you want to go down now?
Wolf shook his head. “Wait until morning. There are a lot of creatures who are weakened by the rising of the sun—and I’m tired.”
Aralorn nodded and slid Ambris back into the sheath before storing her in the wardrobe. She watched Wolf release the spells he’d laid on the bench, creating quite a light show in the process. Reaching out with the sixth sense that allowed her to find and work magic, she could feel the shifting forces but not touch them—what he was using was wholly human in origin.
Later, when the banked fire was the only light in the room, Aralorn snuggled deeper into Wolf’s arms.
It will be all right,
she thought fiercely.
Late in the night, long after the inhabitants of the castle had gone to sleep, a man emerged from the shadows of the mourning room and stepped to the curtained alcove that contained the slumbering Lyon, his path lit by a few torches left burning in their wall sconces. He pulled back the curtains and started to step into the room but found himself unable to do so.
He placed a hand on the barrier of air and earth that Wolf had erected.
“Yes,” he said softly, “he is here.”
The warding would keep out human visitors, but he was something more. The tall, robed figure dissolved into the darkness and reappeared inside the room. Before he materialized completely, a shadow slipped from the side of the man on the bier.