Monday, March 30, 2009

"Fire and Sleet" by James Enge

James Enge's Blood of Ambrose, is an epic swords and sorcery novel starring his enigmatic creation, Morlock Ambrosius, wandering swordsman and master of all magical makers. Before his novel debut, Morlock already featured in many works of short fiction appearing in the pages of Black Gate and elsewhere.

The following tale, "Fire and Sleet," is an original novelette offered here for the first time anywhere. Although it stands on its own and makes a wonderful introduction to Enge's fascinating character, it is also a sequel of sorts to "A Book of Silences," also appearing on this blog. Read and enjoy!

"Fire and Sleet"
James Enge

Riding through the woods on the road to Aflraun, two days before his violent death, ancient Bleys the Summoner reined in and looked up at the cloud of black branches that obscured the sky.

"Is that you, Morlock?" Bleys asked, speaking to a twisted figure perched among the twisted limbs of an oak.

"Yes." Morlock Ambrosius' cool voice betrayed a trace of impatience. "Ride on, please."

Bleys was possibly the oldest man in the world, and he had once been Morlock's senior colleague, back when Morlock was a member of the Graith of Guardians who protected the Wardlands. That was centuries ago; they were no longer colleagues and were now deep in the unguarded lands. But Bleys saw no reason why he should now take marching orders from Morlock. He pointedly ignored the younger man's request and asked, "What in the world are you doing up there?"

"Bird watching."

A pause, while Bleys digested this unexpected response. "But you're in full armor," the older man observed finally.

This was an exaggeration. Morlock had no helmet or greaves, but his crooked torso was armored
by bands of enameled metal or black leather.

"Unusual bird," Morlock replied.

"Must be," Bleys agreed.

"Are you riding on to Aflraun?" Morlock asked.

"No. I'll be stopping at the next town."

"That would be Semendar. I have a room at the Crowfeather Inn there. Perhaps I'll see you."
Bleys nodded indifferently and rode on.

When he reached the outskirts of Semendar he was immediately hailed by a stranger, a shortish man with a manner both abrupt and insinuating.

"I suppose you are here for the hunt, master," the stranger said to Bleys.

"Suppose I am," Bleys said.

"Then you've come to the right man."

"I didn't come to you. I was going to ride past you."

"And ride past your best chance to achieve your quest? Not if I know you."

"You don't."

"Not if you're half as shrewd as you look," the stranger corrected himself.

"I'm not," said Bleys, thinking it was a poor compliment.

"Look at this, then," the stranger said, as if the matter was settled. He held up an orb woven of steel bars which looked rather like a birdcage. "I call this the Birdcage."

"I can see why."

"But of course it's not for the bird--it's for you. A protective mask, as good as any steel-visored helmet, but still giving you the full range of peripheral vision. I don't have to tell you, that can be the margin of survival in a business like this. Of course, it's practically useless without shoulder-guards and a cuirass. Now I have a set here which--"

"Looks used."

"Well. It has been used. And, in fact, the, er, customer in question--"

"Nearly survived, but not quite."

"He didn't have your magical ability, master. I don't pretend to be able to provide protection against fire and other abilities of the bird. Because this is a return, as it were, I can offer it at a special price--"

"Knock it off," Bleys said wearily. "You stripped that armor off a corpse you found somewhere."

"And buried the meat, and dragged the stuff back to town, and cleaned the blood off it, and now nobody wants it. Just because it has a few… wear-marks on it."

"I don't want it either," Bleys said. "But I'll give you a finger of silver if you tell me how to get to the Crowfeather Inn."

"On the main drag; keep straight on. It'll be on your left. Sure you don't want the stuff?"
For an answer Bleys tossed him a finger of silver and rode off.

Callion the Proud was sitting with Noreê at a table in the crowded tavern of the Crowfeather Inn. There was another man seated with them, but he leapt up and rushed off as Bleys approached.

Callion was tall, dark-haired, marble-faced. He had a gift of stillness and often, as now, he looked to Bleys like a statue carved by some remarkably talented sculptor. But anyone who mistook that slowness for stupidity would soon regret it; Callion could act swiftly and shrewdly when occasion offered.

Noreê looked like a statue, too--perhaps carved by the same sculptor, but in his cynical old age. She, too, was beautiful, but wounded by the world. It showed by the scars on her pale face, but almost as clearly in her pale eyes. Her hair was pale, too--whiter than most winter days.

He slid into a chair beside Callion. They nodded to each other in greeting.

"Morlock has a room at this inn," Bleys observed. "I take it that's why you're here?"

"Yes," Noreê said. "How did you find out?"

"I ran into him, west of town. He was armored, sitting up in a tree--looking for a bird, he said. I thought he might be crazy, but if so this whole town is crazy."

"There's a phoenix somewhere around here," Noreê explained. "The local baron has offered a reward for its capture. And, of course, some sorcerers hope to capture it for their own purposes."

"Ah, of course," Bleys nodded. An immortal being had potentially many magical uses. Of the fifteen longevity spells Bleys knew, seven or eight involved the blood of a phoenix. "Well, that's convenient, in a way. It gives us a reason for being here."

He meant, as they understood, a reason apart from their real reason. For they had come here, not to hunt the phoenix, but to kill Morlock Ambrosius.

"Hello hello hello," said an almost oppressively cheery voice in Bleys' ear. "Another friend of Morlock's?" Bleys turned to see the stocky balding man who had been sitting at the table when he had first entered the tavern. The innkeeper, Bleys guessed. "What can I get you to drink?" he asked, confirming Bleys' guess. "Morlock doesn't drink himself, as you know, but he doesn't mind if people at his table do."

"Some red wine, if it's any good, sir."

"It's swill--not the best swill, either. Only the white wine is drinkable hereabouts. Or I might recommend the beer."

"A mug of the white, then, sir; thanks. I'm Bleys, by the way."

"I'm Korax. This is my place. Any friend of Morlock's is a friend of mine--I don't care what anyone says. I'll be back."

"So we are friends of Morlock's are we?" Bleys said wryly, when they were alone.

Callion shrugged, uncomfortably. "It got us a table, which Morlock apparently has reserved from the innkeeper by paying some exorbitant sum. And we'll have to observe him a while before we try anything. We can't just jump him in a dark alley."

"I agree. Quite apart from the morality of it--"

"Morality be damned," Noreê said crisply. "People who try that with Morlock don't prosper."

The room, already crowded, was filling up with people. Through the windows, Bleys saw that the sun was setting; apparently people were giving up phoenix-hunting (or the pretence of phoenix-hunting) for the day. No one offered to sit at their table, although there were several unoccupied chairs. Apparently custom made it sacrosanct.

Korax returned with some white wine in a frigid mug and a tankard of beer for himself.

"This is a fine vintage," Bleys observed, after a cautious sip. "How do you keep it so cold?"
Korax shrugged, sitting. "Some gadget of Morlock's. It does make the stuff taste better. He lined my drinking cups with something like glass, too, but less fragile. It makes the cups easier to wash, and doesn't give a tang to the wine, the way metal does. The joke is, he never drinks wine or beer himself. Says it's like poison to him."

"He's a useful tenant," Bleys observed.

"He's a good friend," Korax replied. "I don't believe all those stories the Southerners tell about him." He speculated for a few moments about the climate which prevailed south of the Whitethorn Mountains and why it had the peculiar effect of making people such damn liars.

A strikingly beautiful woman with brown skin and dark golden hair entered the tavern. She went to speak to the barkeep. Turning to leave, she glanced at Bleys, Callion and Noreê sitting at the table. Her golden eyes were unreadable; she turned away and left the room.

Callion was blushing, an ugly shade of purple. "Awkward," Bleys remarked, to no one in particular, and sipped at his wine.

"Do you know her?" Korax said, with the impolitic interest of an innkeeper. "I wish I did. Never saw her around before today. Doesn't look like your average phoenix-hunter, 'scuse my mentioning it."

"What does your average phoenix-hunter look like?" Bleys wondered.

"Oh, maybe there isn't just one type, but she doesn't seem to fit any of them. There are the tricksters and cut-purses, who are no more hunting phoenixes than I am; there are the would-be sorcerers, who aren't usually so different from the tricksters; there are the would-be heroes, who tend to cycle through pretty quickly. One encounter with the beast and they either take to their heels, or they come back missing something, often something rather useful, if one is going to continue breathing. Then there are the merely desperate, who want to earn the bounty posted by Semendar's Old Men."

Bleys wondered wryly which category, or categories, Korax had assigned to himself and his companions. Noreê was staring off into the tavern room, where a group of gowned men standing by the fireplace were arguing about something.

"Ha!" said one, "but can you do this?" He shook his hand; it turned into a blood-red bird and flew around the room. Landing on his wrist, it became a hand again.

"I can do this," retorted another, weaving his hands through a mystic set of gestures. The bottles and cups on the bar immediately began to hop about, singing a comic song in a language no one in the tavern knew.

"Don't magic my stock!" roared Korax. "It never tastes the same afterward," he explained to Bleys, in a somewhat more civilized tone. "Excuse the nightly pissing match," he added. "They won't be at it long."

"But I can do this," another of the gowned men cried. He did not speak or gesture, but suddenly there was a light outside the windows, and everyone in the room felt almost as if it were yesterday morning.

"Yeccch," said another of the gowned ones, as the light faded. "Mere nostalgia. What of real power? Try this, if you can!" His eyeballs popped out of his head and began hopping about the room.

Unfortunately the sorcerer's control over his roving eyes was less than he had supposed. Once they landed in someone's drink, causing the sorcerer to scream in pain, and once they became tangled in a prostitute's hair, causing her to scream with annoyance. She threw them from her and they were bouncing toward the open tavern door, with the eyeless sorcerer scrambling after them, when a dark man with crooked shoulders appeared in the doorway. He caught the eyeballs in his left hand and tossed them deftly into the groping sorcerer's empty eyesockets.

"Ah, Morlock," Korax said, rising to greet the newcomer. "My guests were just amusing us with some displays of magical power. Surely you have something to show us?"

Morlock, his dark face impassive, reached into his black cloak with his right hand and drew forth a deck of cards. He slipped off their band and cut them twice, using only one hand.

The sorcerers turned away, abashed. Korax applauded loudly saying, "The best trick of the evening! Come, let's have a hand or two, Morlock. Perhaps your friends will sit in."

Morlock's gray eyes, almost luminously pale against his dark weather-beaten face, glanced at the people sitting at his table.

"Bleys. Callion. Noreê. Good evening," he said, approaching the table and sitting down without ceremony. "You have drinks, I see. Korax, be sure to put those on my bill."

"It's nothing--I was going to put them on my sleeve, as it were. Don't you want to eat?" Korax added, for Morlock was already shuffling the cards.

"I'm not eating tonight," Morlock replied, sending the cards from hand to hand in a continuous stream. "I think the phoenix can smell your wife's fine cooking on me."

Korax guffawed, but said, "But you have to have something. You've been out all day."

"And I'll be out all night. Perhaps you could let my friends--" he nodded toward Bleys, Callion and Noreê "--use my room for the night. You'll find it cramped," he said to Bleys, "but you're not likely to get anything else in town."

"You're most generous," Bleys murmured, hoping he didn't look as uncomfortable as Callion did. It was awkward to accept the hospitality of someone you were planning to kill. Noreê, on the other hand, didn't seem upset. She was staring at Morlock with cool distaste, as if he were something floating in her drink.

"You have to have something," Korax insisted. "Water, at least."

"No," said Morlock, shaking his head. "I just came in to collect my thoughts and perhaps play a game of cards. Won't you join us?" he asked Bleys and the others.

"Don't worry about his deftness with the cards," Korax said. "He doesn't win any more when he's dealing than he does when he's not. And he doesn't win much, as a matter of fact."

"We don't know your game," said Bleys, not liking to say no.

"It's called Pookah," Morlock said. "The rules are simple, but there are a few tricks to it." He dealt the deck out, face up, showing them the four suits (cups, swords, pentacles and wands), the ten numbered cards for each suit (from ace to ten) and the face cards for each suit (knave, knight, queen and king). Then he proceeded to explain the rules for Pookah or (as it later came to be called) Poker.

"Those are the basic rules," he said, in conclusion. "There are a few others, but maybe it's best to explain them in play."

Bleys met the eye of Noreê and then Callion. They both nodded imperceptibly. No doubt they had decided, as Bleys had, that the game would give them a chance to observe Morlock and learn what he was up to, these days. They more they learned about him the more successful their final attack was likely to be.

Morlock shuffled the cards and dealt. They played for small stakes, and Korax won the first hand. Then Korax dealt and Callion won, to his own evident surprise. Bleys took the cards, somewhat reluctantly, and dealt. There was some power in the deck that he didn't quite understand. But play proceeded without anything odd happening. This hand Noreê won, with a flush of cups.

The beautiful dark woman with golden eyes returned. She started toward the bar, gave a golden glance at the table and stopped.

"Who is that woman?" Korax muttered under his breath.

"My ex-wife," Morlock said grudgingly.

Korax looked at him with a mixture of scepticism and respect. "Oh?"

"Stress the ex," Morlock admitted.

The dark woman walked toward the table and seated herself without waiting for an invitation. "I want to speak to you, Morlock," she said.

"Raise you three," said Morlock, tossing five fingers of copper into the Pookah's pot. "Speak freely, then. You're among friends."

"You are not my friend," she said earnestly. "You're my sworn enemy!"

"I took no such oath," Morlock replied evenly. "Korax, this is my ex-wife, Aloê Oaij, Vocate to the Graith of Guardians. Aloê, meet Korax; this is his house."

Korax would have said something courteous but Aloê ignored him. "Now, Morlock!"

"At the moment," Morlock pointed out, "I am playing cards. You may join us, if you like; we can talk privately later on, if you insist."

Aloê's golden eyes glared at her former husband, then she glanced at the cards. "Another one of your little inventions, I suppose," she said.

Morlock explained the basic rules, and Aloê sat in on the next hand. Play continued, with everyone more or less breaking even, until Morlock dealt again.

From the first, Bleys felt there was something odd about that hand. The five cards arranged themselves in his hand: knave, knight, queen, king and ace. They were all from the suit of swords. Slowly Bleys realized this was a very good hand indeed. He strove to keep his face expressionless--to preserve a "Pookah face" as Korax called it.

But then he realized there was no point to that. He could not move his face--he could not move any muscle of his body by an act of will. He went on breathing; his heart went on pumping; but he could not move. He could only stare at the faces, whose eyes no longer seemed to be inked on the pasteboard cards. The eyes were pale gray, almost luminous--just like Morlock's!

"Morlock!" said Korax, sounding as alarmed as Bleys had begun to feel, "what are you doing?"

"I have seized control of my four friends, here," Morlock's voice said.

"That seems unfriendly, at best."

"Well, our friendship is of an odd sort."

"It also seems to violate the rules of the game."

"By no means, Korax. The rules of the game make it possible. Each of my friends has drawn a royal flush. Whenever that happens in Pookah, another player can gain access to the lucky player's mind."

"What?" roared Korax. "You never told me that!"

"No, it's a rule that rarely comes up. But it is, nonetheless, in the original rules I set up for the game. It was, what--five or six years ago that I first stayed here and left a deck of cards behind."


"All right. In that time, have you ever drawn a royal flush?"


"What happened?"

"The other players folded. Instantly. I assume my face gave me away."

"Possibly. But not necessarily. They may have, briefly, read your mind. An adept with certain skills could seize a measure of control at that point."

"Damn it!"

"Well, you can set up house rules that exclude this one."

"I damn well will. But how did all four... Oh."

"Yes, I stacked the deck."

"Morlock, this is abominable. These people are your guests and mine. You can't treat them this way."

"I don't intend to harm them, Korax. But it was necessary that I make certain things clear to them. You see before you, Korax, four great ones of the world. Bleys here was my father Merlin's first teacher in the magical arts. Callion is one of the greatest swordsmen in the world--perhaps the greatest, since my old master Naevros syr Tol… died. Noreê is the hero who walked with Illion against the Dark Seven of Kaen. I will not sing Aloê's praises here; we would both find it embarrassing. The gist is that they are all Guardians of the Wardlands, where I was born and from which I was exiled long ago. I had occasion to return there lately, breaking their laws. Had they been able to do so, they would have killed me at that time."

"Eh? Why did you go there, then?"

"I had my reasons. Bleys, what of it? Did you come here to kill me? I will not compel you to speak, but I forbid you to lie."

Bleys found himself able to speak, but chose not to.

"Noreê," Morlock continued, "we are old enemies. I won't ask why you're here; I read it in your face as soon as I stepped through the door. Callion, though, you surprise me. I suppose you were drawn here by Noreê; if you ever had a weakness, it was to let your latest sweetheart do your thinking for you. I invite you to think for yourself. I left the Wardlands and returned to exile of my own free will; I don't plan to enter there again. Am I really a threat to the guard you would maintain over the Wardlands? Is your mission here just? Speak if you like; I forbid you to lie."

The rules which gave Morlock mastery over their wills allowed a certain rapport among them all. Bleys felt Callion's shame and confusion; the younger man almost spoke, but in the end did not.

"Aloê, then," Morlock said. "You had something to say to me. Speak now, if you wish, but do not lie."

"I hate your guts, you crook-backed bastard!"

"Enough about you, then," Morlock said calmly. "Let's talk about me. As we sit here I hold your lives in my hand. If I refrain from killing you now, it is simply because I choose not to do so.

"But I warn you: give up this attempt. If you try to harm me, I will strike you without further warning and without any pity. Give this up. Go home to the Wardlands and keep them from danger. It is what you were born to do."

Morlock tossed his cards on the table and said, "This game is over."

The Guardians, their wills suddenly freed, leapt to their feet. Morlock remained sitting, his hands open and still, waiting.

"Morlock," Bleys said at last, "you misjudge us."

Morlock shrugged his crooked shoulders. "I doubt it. But it doesn't matter. If you are my friends, I will be yours. If you try to harm me, I will harm you. Korax, show them to my room, won't you?"

Korax stared at him blankly, then shrugged. "Sure. But you're a weird bastard, Morlock. Maybe there's some truth to those southern legends after all."

"There is some," Morlock admitted, "but not much." He stood and gathered the cards up and, sliding the band on them, pocketed the deck in his cloak. Nodding farewell to them all, he walked away and out into the night, where a cold rain, mixed with sleet, had begun to fall.

Korax led the way up to Morlock's room without a word. There was no lock on the door; none of them was surprised: a maker of Morlock's ability would have surer protection than locks.

"I don't care what Morlock says," Korax said, as he closed the door behind them. "Tomorrow I want you out." The door shut.

"I'll take the bed," Aloê said distantly. "Noreê and Callion can hump on the floor, if they like. Bleys: drop dead."

"Don't be vulgar, my dear."

"Your sensibilities are rather refined for an assassin."

"I never admitted that, my dear."

"You didn't take the chance to deny it."

"Nor did you."

"Morlock knows I'm not here to kill him, just as he knows I wouldn't hesitate to do it if he set foot in the Wardlands again. I just came to give him fair warning that you were coming for him."

"Why should you take the trouble, my dear? Lingering feelings for the crook-backed bastard?"

"Lingering feelings of self-respect. Do I have to map it out for you? How did you find Morlock, in all the length and breadth of the unguarded lands? The best method for finding someone involves an amount of their blood. You couldn't get that. Next best is the blood of their life-mate, because mate changes mate as two become one. You couldn't get that, either, although I remember you tried it a few times. The third method is to use blood from someone who has slept with the person's life-mate; those-who-know tell me there will be a brief kinship of blood, on which a pursuer-spell can be based."

She turned her golden glare on Callion, who did not quite meet it, his face twisting with shame.

"Well, a fat lot of good it did you," she said. "He saw you coming and trapped you like rats. You'd better heed his warning. If you don't, your deaths won't be avenged by the Graith of Guardians. I'll see to that."

She shouldered past them and climbed into bed. "Hump all you want," she said over her shoulder, "but do it quietly. I've had a long day."

Noreê and Callion slept on the floor in the same cloak, but refrained from any noticeable humping. Bleys spent the last full night of his life in an armchair, reading with great interest a workbook from Morlock's pack. Towards dawn, he nodded off. When he awoke, a couple hours later, all of the younger Guardians had left the little room.

Bleys found Morlock wrapping himself around some ham and eggs in the tavern room. They greeted each other with a nod, and Bleys sat down at Morlock's table.

"Any luck?" Bleys asked.

Morlock shook his head and swallowed what he'd been chewing. "It was a long shot," he said. "Phoenixes don't like rain, especially rain mixed with snow."

"Who does?" replied the oldest man in the world irritably. He added, in a calmer tone, "I read a workbook I found in your pack last night. It was written by someone who called himself Flegyas. I take it--"

Morlock nodded, "The local phoenix was his. It killed him and got away. Not necessarily in that order."

"And you knew him?"

"Flegyas? Only post mortem."

"Then why are you running about, finishing up his unfinished business?" Bleys demanded. "What do you want a phoenix for?"

Morlock ate a mouthful, met Bleys' eye and shrugged. He ate another mouthful without saying anything.

"I take it you're not going to answer?" Bleys asked.

Morlock nodded.

Annoyed, Bleys got to his feet and walked away.

Outside the signs of last night's rain had almost disappeared. The wind was chillier than the day before and the dark low-hanging clouds promised more rain and snow.

"Delightful," muttered Bleys, who had promised himself he would spend this winter in the islands off the Wardlands' southern coast, where it rarely, if ever, snowed. Well, maybe next year, he thought, without much hope.

He found Callion and Noreê in a heated discussion outside a nearby inn, whose sign was carved into a shape slightly resembling a pig's head.

Noreê turned to Bleys as he approached. "Callion wants to give up," she said, her voice as cold as the wind.

"And you want...?" Bleys said.

"To finish the job. Today. Morlock spent the night in the woods and he's exhausted. One of us should go up to his room and stab him as he lies sleeping."

Bleys raised the skin where his eyebrows would have been, if he'd had any hair left at all. "And you really think that will work?"

"Of course it will. He has you all dazzled, but it's only smoke and mirrors."

"Well, I strongly caution against your plan. I will not engage in any such reckless activity. It seems to me your dislike of the man, which I thoroughly understand and even approve, is leading you astray. He will certainly take steps to prevent any such elementary attack."

"So you want to give up, too?"

"Certainly not. I doubt that Callion does either. Malice makes you stupid, my dear--you want to watch that. I simply say: instead of striking at a time when he expects it and when he has taken precautions to prevent us, we should strike at a time when he is preoccupied and he cannot take precautions to prevent us. We should, in short, hunt him while he is hunting the phoenix."

Noreê shrugged. "It isn't a matter of either/or. I can make the attempt on him today. If it fails, we can still pursue him tonight."

"But if you fall prey to his precautions, my dear, we will be one less tonight."

"Nonsense. I'm no novice. If he has guard-spells set in place, I'll perceive them. If I can't obviate them, I'll refrain."

Bleys shrugged, doubly unhappy because of the chill wind and the conversation. "I wish I could dissuade you. Good luck, of course. Did you have any luck in the Swine's Head, or whatever this place is?"

Two rooms, as it happened, had fallen vacant the night before: their tenants had either met the phoenix, or decided to stop trying. Noreê and Callion had rented both. Bleys was tired and expected a long night, and so went up to one of the rooms to sleep.

Around noon, Noreê set out to kill Morlock.

She had been thinking about this moment for many years. In fact, she had always felt the world would be a better place without any of the Ambrosii. But her mind had only turned to killing Morlock with her own hands when he destroyed Naevros syr Tol. For some of Noreê's peers it was enough to have banished Morlock from the Wardlands, but she longed for a more concrete vengeance. The longing had flowered into obsession when she heard that Morlock had actually dared to re-enter the Wardlands. Death was the penalty for those who returned from exile, and death should have been dealt to him then, but as usual he weaselled out of the danger and fled into the unguarded lands.

The moment she heard of this she knew she would have to dispose of Morlock herself. That was what led her to join with Bleys--not normally one of her allies in the Graith. But her titanic will, having set on a certain course, would yield to nothing but itself. She had done many things that had made her ashamed since then. When her attempts to gain the necessary vial of Aloê's blood had failed she had seduced Callion the Proud and then enlisted him to seduce Aloê. While his blood was still warm from Aloê's, Noreê had drawn it from his veins and worked the magic that would lead them to Morlock. She had been ashamed by it, so deeply shamed that she could hardly look Callion in the eye anymore. But she had done it.

Now she, the hero who had walked openly through the Broken Gate to confront the Dark Seven of Kaen, was creeping up the narrow stairs of a crooked little house in the unguarded lands, planning to stab a man while he slept. She felt the strangeness of it. She no longer had much in common with that younger woman who had sailed across the Narrow Sea to Kaen. Morlock was a poison in her that had to be purged, a tumor that had to be cut out, so that she could have again the clean cold heart of the young hero she had been. This had to be done, so she would do it. If shame was the price of success, she would pay it.

Only success could justify what she was about, though, so she took every precaution. She sat down on the dirty stairs below the door to Morlock's room and summoned the rapture of vision, sending her mind into the tal-realm between spirit and matter. If Morlock were surrounded by a protective web of spells, her visionary self would see them, and she could set about circumventing them.

She found herself almost hoping that there would be spells and that they would prove impenetrable. Then she would have a reason for retreating. Then, when the time came to kill Morlock, there would be others with her, the guilt would be shared...

The moment she detected this thought she snuffed it out. She didn't believe in shared responsibility. If this thing was worth doing, it was hers to do. If she could do it, the burden was hers to bear. That was the code by which she had lived her life, and she saw no reason to abandon it now simply because she was planning a murder.

There were no spells of any kind on the stair, at the doorway or in the room, as far as she dared explore it. If her visionary presence impinged on Morlock, he would become aware of her and this would become a different kind of struggle, one she was likely to lose. She didn't fear death at Morlock's hands or anyone's and, if she were sure her death would entail Morlock's, she would walk straight toward it and embrace it. But her death now would merely mean failing in her self-set task--and that she did fear.

She descended from the visionary state and pondered the situation. If Morlock was shielded by some sort of protective or warning spell, it must be a mere aura, very close to his own person. For certain technical reasons, this was unlikely. She began to think that Morlock really had no protections set up, that he trusted to luck and to the fear his reputation undoubtedly inspired.

Morlock was the master of all makers, and it was possible that he had set a physical trap to catch any potential assailant. Since her visionary sense only perceived tal, the halo of a living consciousness, a mechanical trap would be invisible to the higher Sight. She thought such a trap unlikely, though. They are as likely to be sprung by friends as foes, for instance.

Still, she went cautiously up the stair and through the door, testing each inch of floor, wall-panel and ceiling before she advanced. Finally, though, she entered the dim cold room and stood at Morlock's bedside.

The outline of the dark form on the bed rose and fell in a regular rhythm. Morlock clearly had not been disturbed by her entrance. She drew her dagger and stood poised in thought for a moment. Possibly there was a trap somehow set into the bed itself. If so, she had to strike with care, making sure her first blow was mortal; there might be no chance for a second. The rising and falling, no doubt, marked Morlock's chest. That dark lump of blanket was likely his head. His throat, then, was there. It would be the best place to strike, for a single killing blow.

At that moment, as she lifted the blade, it occurred to her that she need not do this--that this act was not really hers to do. But she shook the thought off as if it were irrelevant and struck as hard as she could at the throat, hoping to sever the great veins of the neck.

The body did not convulse or struggle, as Noreê had expected; it simply stopped breathing. Warm fluid sprayed up from the wound she had struck, strangely pleasant to her cold aching hand. Impulsively, she opened her hand, leaving the knife in the wound, and bathed her hand in the blood of her victim.

Then the sensation ceased to be pleasant, though it could not really be described as pain. She suddenly remembered the legend that the blood of the Ambrosii was poisonous. She drew her hand back and flexed it. It seemed well enough, but there was a sensation to it she could not name. She stepped out the door and looked at her hand in the light.

The dark fluid covering her hand was not blood, whatever it was. She saw this instantly, but she saw little else, for the fluid instantly began to disappear, and her hand with it.

Bleys awoke around sunset with an idea in his mind. Rather than watch the last sunset of his life, he sat cross-legged on the floor of his little room and did some sewing. Presently he became hungry and went down to the common room of the Boar's Head.

Noreê and Callion were there, eating a pale gray stew of land-fish and potatoes.

"What is that muck?" Bleys said companiably, sitting down beside them.

"Not as bad as it looks," Callion said. "Not if you use enough pepper."

"Hm. Perhaps I'll have a look at the menu."

"If there were a menu," Callion observed, "it would have two items: this stuff and beer. Apparently that is all anyone really requires."

Bleys sighed and signaled his interest in "this stuff and beer" to a passing servant. "I take it," he said quietly to Noreê, "your venture this afternoon was unsuccessful."

Her bleak look was answer enough.

"Never mind," Bleys reassured her. "We'll get him tonight. It's not nothing that you escaped unhurt--or did you?" He had belatedly noticed that she was eating with her left hand, and that her right hand was tucked within its sleeve.

For answer, Noreê shook the sleeve loose. Her right hand was transparent, but not quite invisible, like glass. Except that she could move it, to all appearances, as well as she ever had. "He had a trap set up in his room," she explained. "When I stabbed him--what I thought was him--it did this to me."

"Can your hand still feel?" Bleys asked, with unfeigned interest.

"Yes. More than ever."

"They'll be able to do something for her at New Moorhope," Callion said urgently.

Noreê smiled coldly. "Yes, I can tell them, 'Learned masters, I was trying to stab a man while he slept and--'"

"You don't have to tell them that!"

"I have to either tell them or not tell them. One's as bad as the other. I don't expect you to understand, Callion; you've probably never done anything you were ashamed of."

"I've done a few things," Callion said, and looked away.

A whistling tableboy brought Bleys' fish-stew and beer. Every time the boy whistled crooked threads of light passed from Noreê's glass fingertips toward her wrist. The higher pitched the whistle, the longer and brighter the threads of light.

"Does that hurt?" Bleys wondered.

"Yes," said Noreê curtly.

"Shut your gob, boy," Bleys snapped, "or I'll sew your lips shut."

"Hey!" the boy said. "My dad runs this place!"

"My condolences to you both."

The table boy wandered off, muttering rather than whistling.

"Morlock was sleeping on the roof," Noreê continued, in a slightly unsteady voice. "There's a rookery up there, and the crows watch out for him. I asked Korax on the way out, and he told me where Morlock was. Morlock had told him to tell anyone who asked. I hadn't asked on my way in--too careful, you see."


"It's just that he's so damned clever. He's shown me what he thinks of me. The trap wouldn't have worked if I'd brought a light and challenged him openly. It could only work against someone who was afraid, someone who crept up in the dark. And every time I look at the hand I'll remember; and, every time I have to explain about it, I'll remember; and, every time I refuse to explain it, I'll remember; and every time something creaks or whistles or squeaks, my fingers will twinge and I'll remember--"

"So you're giving up," Bleys said flatly.

"Of course not. I hate him more than ever. I just don't see how we can succeed."

"Well, my dear, I do see. I have come upon a method which can and will work. I cast a mantia, and the prophecy confirmed my guess. We can and will capture Morlock tonight."

He had their attention. They listened eagerly as he told them, in between bites of gray land-fish, how they would at last capture their enemy.

Some phoenix-hunters used horses, arguing that this helped them keep up with, or escape from, the bird. Morlock disagreed. The bravest horse he had ever known was terrified by the mere mention of a phoenix, so their utility in actually hunting the bird promised to be slight. Then there was the matter of riding through forest paths on horseback: never a smart thing to do at night, even if you know the paths. Then, the woods were largely pathless: Morlock could make his way among them faster than any horse, if not as fast as a phoenix.

Morlock liked his method. It had yielded no more than glimpses of the phoenix, so far, but neither had it gotten him a broken skull. And tonight he was sure he would succeed; there was a persistent tingling in his fingers and toes that augured success. He hadn't cast a mantia, considering them unreliable, even when they were most accurate, but he was sure that tonight was the night he would catch up with the phoenix.

The night was dark; no moon or star could pierce the dark layer of clouds. Soon after he left town, it began to snow, further reducing visibility. But he merely paused, effected the Night Hunter instrumentality, and endowed his eyes with it. Until dawn came, he would see better than any owl or cat. Then he passed on into the trackless woods.

The phoenix had killed an elk south of town last night; a farmer had mentioned it to Morlock in the marketplace that morning. Morlock had been marking a map with reports like these, and had made a tentative guess as to the location of the phoenix's nest. He planned to run back and forth along a short arc south of town but north of the nest. With any luck (and he felt that luck was with him) he would run into the phoenix coming to or going from its nest.

The dark branches above were thickly lined with white when he caught a glimpse of something bright and red between the black tree trunks, through the white haze of falling snow. He changed his course to follow it.

As he followed, he became surer it was what he sought. He might be following a torch in somebody's hand, but if so the torch-carrier was running a swift and erratic course through the deep woods. Morlock could hardly keep pace with the light. Then he did not: it began to pull away. Morlock, putting on more speed, strove to catch up. He was running so hard he could hardly see: the trees of the wood seemed to rush toward him; he kept his eyes on the intermittent red light shining in the haze ahead. And it seemed as if he was getting closer for a while. But finally the light began to pull away again. He strove desperately to keep up but, the faster he ran, the faster it fled.

Then, abruptly, he wasn't running anymore. His legs were caught in something. Momentum bent him forward from the waist and his head struck his left knee, suspended in midair.

A haziness, not unlike the snow, but inside his head, passed over his awareness. When he came to himself he was conscious of three intensely unpleasant sensations: a pulled muscle in his back, a stabbing pain between his eyes, and Bleys' voice, abrasive with triumph, in his ears.

"--hear me, Morlock?" the ancient wizard was saying. "Surely your kneecap hasn't saved us the trouble of knocking out your brains."

"Almost," Morlock said thickly. "Wait. Moment."

The world grew clearer. He was standing, if you could call it that, still in midstride. His legs were caught in some sort of stasis spell. Bleys was off to his right. Turning his head, he saw that Noreê was behind to his left. Her hands were uncovered, and he saw the glass one. "So it was you--sprang my trap," he said dully.

"You knew I would!" she hissed.

"I hoped no one would. I warned you."

"And now we'll kill you."

"That won't change your hand back."

"Is that what you're offering?" she spat. "Your life for the remedy?"

"There's no remedy. Just making an observation."

"We'll do the observing, young Ambrosius," Bleys cut in. "After all, we have something in front of us worth making observations about. Morlock the Maker, trapped like a rat!" He frowned, briefly, as if the phrase brought back an unpleasant memory, but continued without pausing, "Not so very difficult to arrange, as a matter of fact. All we had to do was offer the right kind of cheese."

A phoenix came into the clearing where they stood. It was a sort of phoenix, anyway: a large reddish-purple canary with fire leaking out of its beak.

"My dear, if you don't mind?" Bleys said.

Noreê walked over to the bird and, blocking Morlock's view with her body, made several curt hand-gestures and muttered some words of power.

The bird ceased to look very much like a bird. It was more like a wind-sock with a torch inside it. The torch was on a staff in the hands of Callion the Proud, who appeared when Noreê loosed the illusion-spell on the "phoenix." Noreê turned back to Morlock, sneering in triumph, and walked across the clearing. Morlock was now at the center of a triangle, with a Guardian standing at each point. Even if he managed to kill two with a distance weapon, the third would probably be able to dispatch him. It was just as well, Morlock reflected wryly, that he carried no distance weapons.

"Wish I'd thought of that," Morlock said aloud, gesturing at the mock-phoenix.

"No doubt you do," Bleys replied smugly.

"Could have caught the phoenix days ago with something like that. It must be lonely for its own kind."

Bleys shook his head incredulously. "Your obsession with this bird perplexes me. Explain it."

"Or you'll kill me?" Morlock shrugged. "You'll do that anyway. I'll trade you, though. I'll explain why I'm hunting the phoenix if you explain why you're hunting me."

"All of us? Or just me?"

"Whoever's leading this death-squad."

"That would be me," Bleys said modestly. "I suppose I don't have to explain why I hate you?"

"No, I think I remember the occasion."

"I have planned to kill you since then. There were times I thought someone else would save me the trouble, but you always managed some sort of escape. For a while I thought you would drink yourself to death--"

"That might happen yet."

"I don't have the time to wait for it. People talk of your father as ancient, but I was old before he was born. I still have the remnants of my vigor, but I feel them passing from me. I realized that I would have to do the job myself, and do it soon, when you did me the favor of trespassing on the Wardlands. That gave me the opportunity to recruit Noreê for the venture, and she brought along Callion, with his many talents."

"That's not how I remember it," Noreê said thoughtfully. "It was I that approached you."

Bleys smiled and looked inscrutable.

"In fact," said Callion, "it was I who put together the 'death-squad,' as you call it, Morlock."

The other two Guardians stared at Callion as he thrust the shaft of the torch into the ground and brushed sleet off his hands.

"So everyone was in charge," Morlock said, smiling a crooked smile. "That brings back the old days in the Graith!"

"I don't claim to be in charge. But I was the one who realized your death was imperative and set this plot in motion."

"Then you were in charge. But I still don't understand your motives."

"To remove a danger to the Wardlands."

"I'm not a threat."

"Indirectly, you are. I was seeing a good deal of Noreê when the news came that you had briefly entered the Northhold; I saw the effect on her, how she became distracted, almost incapable of thinking about anything else. I had noticed the same thing about Bleys. There were others, too--your partisans, I suppose."

"I have no partisans in the Wardlands."

"There are some who say your exile was unjust, that it should be reversed. I have wasted more time than you would believe bickering about the matter with Jordel, with Illion, with--"

"I'm a danger to the Wardlands because I reduce the efficiency of the Graith?" Morlock said wryly. "Why not shed your distracted Guardians and recruit new ones?"

"Makers as powerful as Bleys, Seers as powerful and learned as Noreê are not plentiful. Your death is a cheap price to pay to regain their full services to defend the Wardlands."

"Then you bear no malice."

"I think," said Morlock slowly, "I can show you that you're mistaken."

"That's not on the menu, Morlock," Bleys interrupted. "We've explained ourselves to you. Explain yourself to us. Why are you hunting the phoenix?"

"Why not?"

"That's no answer. If you choose to die with a broken word in your mouth, that's your business."

"It's the beginning of an answer," said Morlock slowly. "I'm not like you in the Graith. I've no overriding purpose to guide the actions of my life. I make things; I learn things; I travel from place to place. When I read the workbook of Flegyas the magician, it described his journey to the southern continent, Qajqapca. What I read interested me, but there wasn't much there. You read the thing yourself, Bleys."

"Yes. So?"

"I wanted to know more about Qajqapca. But no one I knew, except Flegyas, had ever been there, and he was dead. I decided to find the phoenix and bring it back to the deserts where it belongs. I would protect it; it could guide me."

"Why are you talking like that?" Bleys said irritably, for Morlock's speech had become very slow and clear.

"The phoenix is wise with many lifetimes," Morlock answered, as slowly and clearly as before, staring past Bleys. "But I'm not sure how much it understands of this language. And I want it to understand. I will take it home. I will take it home."

Bleys was becoming increasingly annoyed with Morlock. He was prepared to kill him then and there. This "there's someone standing behind you" gag was a pretty tired trick, even in that lost age of the world when Bleys was young.

Two things kept Bleys from ignoring it. One, Bleys could smell fire, and he didn't think it was coming from the dying torch in the mock-phoenix. Two, Callion and Noreê were staring in the same direction as Morlock.

Bleys turned to see the phoenix standing behind him, shouded in a mist of melting snow.

The bird was perhaps half as tall as he was, with a proud red head and crest, golden eyes, and wings of reddish purple. Fire trailed from between its wing-feathers, like golden letters drifting in the air and then dissipating. It stood on two feet, clawed with sharp purple talons.

As Bleys stood gaping, the bird leapt forward and seized him below the eyes with one clawed foot.

Bleys had time to think that, if he had purchased the Birdcage helmet, he might actually have lived through this.

Then the bird clenched its purple talons and Bleys died.

Callion gaped as Bleys' head came apart in the purple grip of the fiery bird, then he drew his sword. The sound drew the phoenix's attention, and it moved toward him, tracking blood through the carpet of snow.

Callion came to guard, hoping he could strike a mortal blow before the bird wounded him with claw or beak or fire...

Mortal blow? It suddenly occurred to him that phoenixes were immortal.

Then he was choking in the midst of a blinding red cloud. He couldn't see the phoenix, but he heard it screaming. He slashed out with his sword, desperate to strike the phoenix before it killed him.

Morlock tumbled in the snow. The stasis spell holding him had died along with Bleys, who had cast it. He jumped to his feet and saw that the phoenix was moving toward Callion. He seized a small sack from one of his sleeve pockets and ran to Callion, emptying the contents of the bag into the snow-thick air around him.

Then, suddenly, the world went dark.

Noreê watched in horror as Bleys died. When she saw the bird turning toward Callion she shook off her feelings and moved to defend him. Then she saw Morlock running in the same direction with something in his hand.

Noreê was about to shout a warning to Callion, but she realized he could not afford to turn away from the phoenix. She would have to deal with Morlock herself, and quickly. She dashed across the clearing and caught up with him just as he threw what was in his hand at Callion.

Callion was enveloped in a choking red cloud. Noreê struck Morlock savagely on the back of his neck and he fell like a stone. The phoenix screamed and screamed.

Noreê turned toward it, but the fiery bird was already fleeing away, screaming in terror.

Callion was slashing about desperately with his sword. The powder, whatever it was, that Morlock had thrown seemed to have blinded Callion. He'd have her head off in a moment.

"Callion!" she said. "It--"

The blade was headed straight for her face. She reached out to defend herself with her glass hand. (Small loss if he cuts it off! she thought.)

She caught the blade with her glass hand and held it. Her hand wasn't harmed; the razor-sharp steel edge didn't seem to be able to penetrate it.

"Callion!" she said calmly and clearly. "The phoenix is gone. Morlock is unconscious. Put your sword down or one of us will be hurt."

Callion coughed and nodded. She released the sword and he sheathed it.

"What is this stuff?" he said, wiping his face with his fingers.

"Morlock threw it at you," Noreê said.

"It smells like cinnamon. Doesn't it?"

"Um." She reached out and took some from his face, where the snow and powder had formed a coating of reddish paste. She passed her fingers under her nose. "Cinnamon. Nutmeg. Cardamom, too, I think."

"Yeccch." Callion hated to be dirty. "Sounds like a pastry."

"All you need is some dough." Noreê smiled, but her heart was like stone. A cool, clean stone.

"What was he trying to do--make me smell tastier to the bird?"

"I don't think so." Noreê took some wet snow in her hands and used it to wipe Callion's eyes.

"Well, then?" Callion said, a little impatiently. "If you know something, I wish you'd say it, Noreê."

Noreê finished wiping his eyes. When she was done, he had a bandit's mask of white across his face at eye-level, and the rest was smeared with red paste... not so thickly that she couldn't see his rather annoyed expression. She had never seen him look uglier or more foolish. Somehow, she also felt she had never liked him better.

"Phoenixes live for five hundred years," she began.

"I thought they lived forever."

"They live for five hundred years. When they feel that they're dying, they make a nest of cinnamon, of cardamom, of nutmeg and cloves; they climb into it and set it afire. The fire consumes them, until nothing is left but a black worm crawling in the ashes."

"And that grows into a new phoenix?"

"A new phoenix? The same phoenix?" Noreê shrugged. "No one knows. But it stands to reason that a living phoenix would fear these spices as the scent of death."

Callion looked down at Morlock and scowled. "Then he wasn't trying to kill me. He was trying to save me."

"He did save you, I think," Noreê said quietly. "And me. I don't have the slightest idea how to fight a phoenix." Morlock had destroyed Naevros, for reasons that seemed good to him. He had saved Callion and her--for no reason at all, as far as she could see. It was hard for her to understand, but maybe that wasn't necessary.

Callion's scowl grew deeper and more troubled. "Did he think I'd put personal gratitude ahead of my duty to the Wardlands? I still have to kill him."

"Go ahead then. Stab him, as he lies there sleeping. There's no one to stop you. No one," Noreê said slowly, looking at her glass hand, "but me."

It was still snowing around dawn when Morlock awoke. Aloê had been sitting beside Morlock's bed at Korax's for three or four hours when she saw him begin to stir. He raised his head and his luminous gray eyes crossed her golden ones.

"Noreê still packs a pretty good punch," he said, wincing as he sat up.

"Well," Aloê replied, "she packed it up and left. Callion, too. They brought you back here in the middle of the night and walked out without saying anything. Bleys wasn't with them."

"Bleys is dead," Morlock said. "The phoenix killed him."

"Then I think you're off the hook. They didn't seem interested in finishing you off."

Morlock nodded, wincing again. "Thanks. I appreciate you coming to warn me, too. As one enemy to another."

Aloê shrugged. "I owed it to myself."

Morlock nodded again, and Korax came bursting in. "Hey, Morlock," he said. "There's someone downstairs waiting for you. He--I think it's a he--gave me this."

Korax handed Morlock a piece of slate with something scratched onto it. Morlock glanced at it, handed it to Aloê and jumped past her onto the floor.

Morlock pulled on his boots, cloak and shoulder pack while Aloê read and reread the message scratched into the surface of the slate.


"Aloê," said her ex-husband, "goodbye!" and ran out the door, clattering down the stairs beyond.

Aloê went to the window and unshuttered it.

In the snowy street below, a phoenix was burning. As Aloê watched, Morlock came out of the inn's front door and faced the phoenix for a moment. At last they both turned away, the phoenix in flight, Morlock trudging along on foot. Both disappeared into the snowthick storm.

"Goodbye," Aloê whispered, "you crook-backed bastard." Then she went to lie down in the bed that was still warm with the scent of him.

"Fire and Sleet" © James Enge

James Enge is an instructor of classical languages at a Midwestern university. His fiction has appeared in Black Gate, Flashing Swords, and

Monday, March 23, 2009

"A Book of Silences" by James Enge

April will see the release of James Enge's swords & sorcery novel, Blood of Ambrose, an epic work featuring Morlock Ambrosius, wandering swordsman and master of all magical makers. The book is a stand-alone adventure, but Morlock returns in the (already-delivered) follow-up, This Crooked Way, and we've just signed for a third Morlock novel, the wonderfully-titled The Wolf Age. But Morlock Ambrosius already has a significant following, as Enge has been chronicling his adventures in short stories for some time prior to his novel debut. The tale below is but one example."A Book of Silences," first appeared in the pages of Black Gate magazine. We are pleased to reprint it in its entirety here. What's more, we will shortly be presenting "Fire and Sleet," which follows directly on the events of "A Book of Silences" and is an original novelette that will debut here for the first time anywhere. So, read and enjoy!

A Book of Silences
James Enge

That night Morlock Ambrosius dreamed of silence as a pool lapping at his feet, in which he watched the world slowly dissolving in a golden glare. He woke with the sun in his face and an uneasy feeling in his mind.

He decided, as he sponged himself off at the basin of his rented room, that his dream meant that he had spent too much time in the sleepy little forest town of Aithonford, and that he needed a city full of noise and smoke and voices. Fyrkirach, not too many days ride to the south, might do. After dressing, he stowed his belongings in his pack, slung it over his crooked shoulders and went downstairs.

“Master Bunden,” he said, on meeting his landlord, whose cheerful face fell when he saw what Morlock was carrying.

“Ach,” the little man said disconsolately, “I guess you’ll be leaving us, Master Morlock. This is sudden.”

Morlock nodded. “I must go. But I may return. Maybe you’ll hold my room for six months or so? I’ll pay you.”

Bunden nodded, but not cheerfully. “Sure, sure-- we’ve always got an empty room, as you know, and the gold’ll be grateful. But gold doesn’t talk to you.”

Neither did Morlock, much, so he hefted his saddle from a hook by the door and went out back to fetch his horse from the stable. He was struck, as he went, by the thought that Bunden was fond of him. It meant little, perhaps: Bunden had a capacity for being fond of people. When he found that his brother Handen was sleeping with his wife, Rella, he simply divorced her, stood up at her wedding to his brother, and gave both of them jobs at his inn. “I thought about killing them,” the little man confided to Morlock (not without confidence: he was also one of the town blacksmiths), “but... I’d miss seeing them around.” So it probably meant little that he would miss Morlock, after a few nights of trading stories among several months of mostly silent coexistence.

These thoughts were driven out of Morlock’s mind when he rounded the smithy attached to the inn, and found that the stable had vanished. His horse, Velox was there, disdainfully cropping some of the weed-thick grass of the empty field, but there was no stable, no fodder troughs, nothing. Morlock crouched down to examine the ground, rose again thoughtfully a few minutes later. In his opinion, this ground had never been levelled for building. Yet, last night, there had been a stable here, the largest in town.

Velox, his horse (a black, somewhat middle-aged warhorse with sarcastic gray eyes), trotted up and snorted at him. Morlock grunted and patted him on the neck. Then he led him around the front of the house and went in. “Master Bunden,” he said, stepping into the dimness of the common room. “Your stable is missing.”

“Eh?” said an irritable voice. “What’s that?”

“Your pardon, Handen,” Morlock said. “I didn’t know you from your brother in the dark. I suppose he is in he smithy by now.”

“I don’t have any brother and this inn doesn’t have any stable-- or a smithy,” Handen replied irritably. “Are you sure you’re at the right place? Maybe you got drunk last night and came back to the wrong inn.”

Morlock, beginning to find the conversation tiresome, stepped outside to confirm Handen’s remark about the smithy. It was, in fact, gone. A pine tree at least forty years old was towering where the smithy had been a few moments before. He was unsurprised to find Handen missing on his return. He ran into Rella, just outside the common room and began, without much hope,

“Ma’am, I was just speaking to your husband--”

Rella laughed the infectious laugh that had so appealed to Bunden and his brother, while they still existed. “Bless me, Master Morlock, someone has been teasing you. I’ve no husband.” Morlock watched with some interest as one of her eyes disappeared, congealing like a small puddle in the hot sun. “Who’d marry a one-eyed woman like me?” she continued without pause. Her other eye disappeared. “Nevertheless, this blind old woman will be sorry to see you go, if you catch my meaning.”

“Farewell, then, Ma’am,” said Morlock, more swiftly than was strictly courteous. He wanted to say goodbye before Rella’s ears disappeared, which they had begun to do before he turned away.

Once outside he shifted the pack from his back to Velox’s, saddled the horse and rode away: away from a shadow-etched plot of green, a patch of uncleared forest in the heart of the little town.

Bunden’s place was not the only one affected by whatever was happening to Aithonford: all through the town there were vacant lots that had not been vacant the day before. In some places the vacancies themselves had disappeared, pulling two buildings that were not adjacent next to each other, giving the town’s main street a strangely wrinkled, puckered look.

Morlock reined Velox in by the other inn (now the only inn) in Aithonford. When the postboy came up to take his horse, Morlock did not dismount, but said, “Fellow, listen. Isn’t there a sorcerer who lives nearby? A sorcerer in the woods?”

The postboy hesitated. “I’m not supposed to say...” he began. He never finished.

Morlock shrugged his wry shoulders and rode away from the empty place where the post-boy had been. At least he knew now that his suspicions were correct: there was (or had been at one time) a sorcerer living nearby. It wasn’t surprising that no one had mentioned it to him before: he was not so intimate with anyone in town that they would let him into their deeper confidence. Sorcerers, especially solitary adepts, were bad neighbors, as a rule-- nothing to brag about.

He rode on to the end of the main street, where some boys were taking turns kicking a leather ball into a man-shaped wooden target which bore more than a passing resemblance to the town jailer. The resemblance was due to Morlock himself, who had recarved the thing’s face after a brief stay in the town lockup. The boys had been delighted, and Morlock felt it had won him some credit with them, so he called, “Hey, boys.”

“Hey, Crookback!” they shouted cheerfully.

He reached into a pocket and drew forth a handful of gold. “I have here a gold coin for each of you.”

He owned their attention absolutely. Gold coins were not often seen in Aithonford. “And two,” he said, “for the first one who tells me how to reach the sorcerer’s house.”

Hardly a heartbeat passed before one sang out, “Cross the Aithon at the ford, follow the main path to the fire-split oak; north on the sign road about a mile.”

Morlock tossed the coins accurately and they snapped them out of the air like toads catching flies. He waved his hand curtly and rode away to the ford. If they vanished, he didn’t want to see it. He forded the shining blue river Aithon and dismounted on the far side. The dim green woods came straight up to the river’s edge, and he didn’t know whether there was clearance for a rider on the path. “A bad day is rarely improved by a branch clonking you on the head,” he remarked epigrammatically to Velox, who snorted.

The fire-split oak was easy to find, and the way north (evidently the “sign road”) was just by it. Nonetheless, Morlock hesitated there. Under the oak was a sleeping man, his head pillowed on a book, and Morlock was inclined to wake him and speak to him. But it seemed unlikely he was the sorcerer: his ragged clothing marked him as one of the lesser lights of the town, perhaps a beggar who lived in the woods. Morlock didn’t know the man, but there was something familiar about him... He shook his head and turned up the sign road.

As a road it wasn’t much, but the reason for the name soon became clear. Every two hundred paces or so the path took a jagged turn to the left or right, and at every turn was a sign.

You approach the home of
Go back.

You are nearer the dwelling of
Your danger increases.

Why do you defy the kindly warnings of
Does your life mean nothing to you?

Everyone’s death has a dwelling place.
dwells with yours.

Beyond this final warning lives
Beware of the phoenix.

“Do you suppose he really has a phoenix?” Morlock asked Velox, whose silvery gray eyes, fixed on the sign, gave every indication of concern. For once Velox did not snort in answer, and Morlock, shifting the reins to his left hand, drew his sword with his right before leading Velox onward.

They advanced up the overgrown path toward a lean high house now visible through the trees. The windows were all shuttered and no light showed through the cracks. Morlock walked up to the door at the end of the cluttered path and rapped on it.

“Flegyas!” he called, sheathing his sword. “I am Morlock Ambrosius. I’ve been staying at Aithonford. I want some words with you. Flegyas, awake!”

There was no answer. Morlock, glancing about, was not surprised. The mushroom garden had overgrown its borders, perhaps years ago. Morlock doubted that the dread FLEGYAS THE MAGICIAN was still in residence. (It turned out he was wrong about this.) Still, there might be some clue within as to what was causing the vanishings at Aithonford, and Morlock determined to enter. The door was plain wood, unprotected by anything except a very weak residual spell to prevent fire, so Morlock simply kicked it in.

The clouds of dust within seemed to confirm Morlock’s suspicions. Glancing back, he saw Velox nervously peering at him through the open door.

“You’d better come in,” he said grudgingly to the horse. “We don’t want you eaten by wild phoenixes.”

The horse gratefully squeezed through the narrow doorway and immediately began to sneeze. Morlock retreated hastily out of the range of flying horse snot, and tripped over something shrouded in the deep dust of the floor. As he rose he saw that it was a long-dead body, clutching a large book in its crisp dry hands. The mummified flesh had been torn about the heart with something like a triple claw; similar claw prints, painted in brown blood, adorned the cover of the book and the nearby floor.

“Poor old Flegyas,” Morlock remarked to the dead body. “You may or may not have had a phoenix. But it looks as if a phoenix had you.”

Morlock pulled the book loose from the mummified hands, brushing away the dry papery fingers adhering to the cover. The blue leather was scrawled with runic imprecations which Morlock took a moment or two to counterinscribe. When he opened the volume he found it was, as he had expected, Flegyas’ workbook.

Morlock scanned the early part with considerable interest and professional respect. Flegyas had been no fool. But he became one: as he grew middle aged, and then old, he spent more and more of his talent on attempts to script a rejuvenation spell. Morlock knew several effective ones, but he would have used none of them, even if he had need of them which (for various reasons) he did not. The cost of a spell to transform the magician’s self is usually prohibitive.

That was what the phoenix had been for. Flegyas had actually travelled to the legendary southern continent and trapped an aged phoenix, bringing it back with him in a cage.

Professionally, Flegyas had been brilliant, and reckless in his courage in facing everything except the inevitability of his own death. The tale made absorbing reading, but it was all for this: that when the phoenix died, bursting into flame, and all that was left of the glorious fire-colored bird was a black worm crawling in the black ashes, that Flegyas could take some of the ash and use it in his latest rejuvenation experiment. Which, of course, had failed. The whole section ended with a despairing scrawl: So much time spent, and I am only older... older still... always older-- my hair grayer, my face more wrinkled each day.

“After achieving one of the great journeys of the world, alone and in old age, he laments his failure as a cosmetician,” Morlock remarked wryly to his horse. “Well, what’s next? Demonolatry, I guess.”

It was. At a fearful cost in human blood (some of it his own) Flegyas had purchased from a demon (whose name Morlock carefully counter-inscribed and effaced wherever it appeared in the workbook) a book called Silences which contained, the demon swore by certain specific and binding oaths, “all the knowledge of your world, the secrets of life.” Flegyas felt sure this would contain the spell he sought.

But it didn’t. Flegyas wrote of his disappointment in scanning the table of contents in Silences. It recorded, in no obvious order, all the knowledge in Flegyas’ particular world, all the secrets of his own life: his ancestry, life, education and work, the celestial bodies, the places he had been; the last item listed in the table of contents was his birth.

The last entry in the workbook recorded the final discoveries in the career of Flegyas the Magician.
I have been reading in the book of Silences and something rather strange happened. I opened the book at random and read through a passage around the middle. It was nothing but an account of my caging the young phoenix, which has grown ornery of late. (It is very large and intelligent, these days, and I think it suspects I have more use for its blood than itself, as indeed I do: see the entry above for the 12th of Brenting, last year.)

There was nothing exciting in the passage, but it was rather absorbing (one’s own life always interests one, I suppose) and I read it clean through. But when I turned back a page to check something, I found that everything I had read had disappeared. My memories of the incident, too, had changed: grown transparent somehow, uncertain, weightless. I began to doubt the thing had ever happened. I got up and went outside. The cage was gone; in fact, it had never existed. I remember building it from a basket-weave of maijarra-wood slats, but I found them untouched behind the house.

Then I understood: this book contains all the knowledge of my world-- in a sense, my world itself. As long as no one reads it. If someone opens the book and breaks the silence, reading the words of my life, the life vanishes and only the words remain, fading in memory.

This is what my blood-guilt has bought me: the risk of utter dissolution. Not only would I die: I would vanish from the earth as if I had never been, if I had read the rest of that book! Or even the last page... It must be destroyed.

But I may not have the chance. I came from the yard straight to my notebook to write these discoveries down. I don’t remember if I locked the door. But it is locked now, and the key gone: I don’t have it. And I hear something moving about in my workroom. The phoenix, of course! I’d forgotten it. But it hasn’t forgotten me.

I’m going to try and make it to my library. The door and the fire-quell magic there should protect me from the phoenix. If I fail... these words will only be read by one of those-who-know. Have mercy on me, brother. Take my workbook and my library-- the phoenix itself, if you can find it and catch it. But leave me my existence. Destroy the book of Silences without reading it.
Morlock looked down on the mummified corpse and shook his head. “In your place, old friend, I would have turned to the section of the book of Silences that described your capture of the phoenix and read it. Then it never would have happened, and you might still be alive.” Then he scratched his bristly chin thoughtfully and said, “Or would I...?”

Maybe, Morlock reflected, Flegyas in that last moment had discovered he cared about something more than simply living a little longer. He was prouder of his achievement in capturing the phoenix than he was afraid of dying: he didn’t want his greatest deed erased from the slate of the world.

Morlock did not consider Flegyas to be his brother, but he was perfectly prepared to burn the book of Silences. But, of course, it was not there: neither in Flegyas’ crumbling hands nor at the writing desk where he had clearly written the last entry in his workbook.

What had happened was clear enough to read on the dusty floor. The phoenix, after ripping up Flegyas, had walked on bloody feet to a window in a hallway leading to the back of the house. Its fiery exit there was written in burned timbers and shattered glass. Later, years later, probably no longer ago than last night, someone had come in the same way. This intruder was merely human (from his foot-prints), soaked with rain rather than blood (from the drip-marks in the deep dust). He-- Morlock was confident that it was a he --had walked into the house, as far as Flegyas’ writing desk. Then he had walked away again.

And the tramp under the fire-split oak had been sleeping with his head on a book.

Morlock knew the path, now, and he did not hesitate to ride Velox at a pretty fair clip down the crooked way to the main path through the forest. The tramp or beggar was still there beneath the oak, but now he had the book open in his lap and was reading it with great interest, sounding out a word occasionally as he followed the line of text with one finger.

“Good morning,” Morlock greeted him.

The reader waved absently with his free hand, and continued his reading.

“Interesting book?” Morlock asked.

“Very!” the reader said. “It’s all about people and things that I know. But it makes me tired somehow to read it. I read and I read, I can’t help reading. Every once in a while things get all dim and glassy and I have a nap. But when I wake up I just have to read some more.”


“Well, it’s all about me, isn’t it? Other people come into it, but sooner or later it comes back to me. Who’d think to write a book about my life? Wizards must have a lot of time on their hands.”

“You stole this from a wizard, then?”

“I don’t know about stole,” the reader said judiciously, lifting his eyes at last from the text. “I found it in a dead man’s house. Who owned it? Anyway, it’s all about me. I own my own life, don’t I?”

“No, but I see your point about the book.”

“I guess I see yours about the wizard. They say everything from a wizard has its price, and it’s better to pay up front.”


“If you mean ‘Why did you take it, then?’ I sort of couldn’t help myself. I didn’t know it was the wizard’s house-- didn’t know I was in this part of the woods at all last night. I was lost in the storm. When I got in I saw him dead on the floor and I figured I’d be o.k.-- whatever killed him was long gone. And I opened the book and all I could see was Rella’s name in the table of contents.”

“You knew Rella?” Morlock said, and then shook his head in irritation. Of course the reader had known Rella. That was why she disappeared, when he read that part of the book.

“I knew her before she married that innkeeper,” the reader hissed. “I guess I did. She was my sister. I was her brother and-- and-- a lot more. Then he came along, and I wasn’t anything.” The reader’s face clenched and unclenched a few times. “There was some stuff about him and his damn brother in the book. But a lot about Rella, so I brought it away. I couldn’t read it properly until the sun came out this morning.

“I wish I could read you the stuff about Rella-- it was so beautiful; just what I always thought about her. Her eyes were different colors, you know-- one brown, one green.”

“I didn’t know.” Morlock thought of Rella’s eyes, sinking separately into her skin like water into sand.

“I’d show you, but it’s not there anymore-- nothing about any of them. So I’ve been reading about the rest of the town. I’m mostly through that part, too. I wonder if you’re in it somewhere?”

Morlock had been wondering the same thing. He said dismissively, “How could I be? We’ve only just met. I’m not really part of your life.”

“I suppose,” the reader said dreamily. “I’m tired of reading about myself, anyway-- it makes me feel all light and glassy, like I’m not really here. I think I’ll read the first part of the book.”

“Isn’t it all about you? You said it was.”

“Not exactly. The first part is all about the sun, the moons and stars-- what the earth is made of-- things like that.”

Morlock thought of a world that had never known the light of the sun, a star, a moon. He wondered what it would be like. He spoke quickly because he saw the reader’s gaze drifting back toward the text.

“Do you read a lot of books?”

“I’ve never read one before. It’s a lot of work, but it’s pretty interesting. But it’s a lot of work.”

“The most interesting part of a book is always the end.”


“It stands to reason, doesn’t it? A man writes a book to say something; he leads up to it, says it, and the book is over. Lots of people only read the end of books, if they want to get to the interesting part without all the work.”

“You talk like a book,” remarked the reader sleepily and laughed, flipping to the last page. “Hey, it’s about me again.”

Morlock watched with professional interest until it was over, then turned away and mounted Velox. He rode back to Flegyas’ house and dismounted. He entered the house and picked up the book of Silences from the magician’s writing table. It was as if no one had touched it since Flegyas’ death. In a way, of course, no one had.

Morlock turned to the table of contents.

The last item read: MORLOCK AMBROSIUS IS BORN.

Silences now held his secrets, his knowledge, his life.

Morlock closed the book and thought fiercely. He had lived a long time-- long enough to know that Flegyas’ quest for immortality was beyond insanity. He had no desire to read that final passage, as he had duped Rella’s brother into doing. But he had lived through much that he would gladly wipe clean from the world. He had come to terms with his memories because it had been necessary to do so. Now he could wipe them away-- not from his own mind, it was true, but from the world’s memory.

He could pick and choose. There was no need to read it all. His life would be so different if a few events, a few people, could be cut away, as if they had never been, like warts or moles that disfigured a face...

He almost opened the book again. Then he glanced down and saw Flegyas’ ruined body, its wrinkled mummified face.

Morlock laughed. “No. I’ll take my life as it happened, warts and all. But maybe we are brothers after all, Flegyas.”

Taking the dead magician’s body and the book out into the garden, he set them on fire. As he waited for them to burn, he etched on a piece of clouded glass from the wizard’s house with a diamond stylus from his pack. When the book and the body were utterly consumed he mixed the ashes and buried them in seven different places. The house and the library he left for those who would have them, but he took Flegyas’ workbook for himself.

Bunden was glad to see him as he stepped through the inn’s front door about sunset. “Good day, Master Morlock! Had a good day in the woods?”

Morlock nodded. He was tempted to ask Bunden what he remembered about this morning; it would be interesting to see how their recollections differed. Another time, perhaps.

“Is Rella or Handen about?” he asked.

Bunden looked surprised. “My wife is just down the hall. I haven’t seen Handen for months. Confidentially, Rella doesn’t like him-- says he is always trying to put his hands on her, and she won’t stand it. He never does it when I’m around. But of course he wouldn’t.”

Morlock waited while Bunden fetched Rella. When she appeared, he unceremoniously handed her the glass etching he had made while Flegyas and Silence burned. The lines were deep; it was almost a relief carving. It showed a man sitting cross-legged under the fire-split oak, reading a book in his lap. “For you,” he said harshly.

“Master Morlock, it’s lovely!” she cried, as Bunden beamed at them both. Then her brow wrinkled as she said, in a lower tone. “It reminds me of a dream or-- a dream or something.”

“An unpleasant one,” he guessed, watching her expression closely.

She met his gaze. It was true about her eyes, Morlock noticed: they were different colors. “A little,” she admitted. “But an important one, if dreams can be important. I’m grateful for this, Master Morlock.”

“It’s nothing,” he said, and turned away hastily.

That night Morlock dreamed of noise, like a red cataract of fire spreading through a wood. He awoke in the deepest part of the night, and got up to look out the window of his rented room. He looked westward to where the great northern forest lapped like a dark ocean at the edge of the silver moonlit Aithon river. Somewhere, in those dark woods, a phoenix was burning.

"A Book of Silences" © James Enge
Originally published in Black Gate # 10, Spring 2007

James Enge is an instructor of classical languages at a Midwestern university. His fiction has appeared in Black Gate, Flashing Swords, and

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Midwinter by Matthew Sturges

Matthew Sturges had already established quite a name for himself in the comic book world, with titles like House of Mystery, Blue Beatle and the Eisner-Award winning, Time magazine acclaimed Jack of Fables (with Bill Willingham), before Publisher's Weekly called his novel, Midwinter, "An impressive debut." With the sample below, you can see why they say that, "Sturges deftly works in superb character development, solid action sequences, and engaging heroes and villains, as well as an original and fascinating mythological backbone for the Fae world." My own opinion is that this tale, which begins as "The Dirty Dozen in Faerie," continually surprises with all the places it finds to go from that premise. And while it's a completely stand-alone work, those who have read it will be glad to know that Matt returns to Faerie, and some of these characters, in the forthcoming novel, The Office of Shadow, which he is hard at work writing now. Right, Matt?

Part One

Winter comes to the land only once in a hundred years.

When it comes, the always-blossoming cherry trees close their petals and turn away from the chill wind. The animals of the forest come down from their trees and rocks and burrow deep into the ground for warmth. The Channel Sea grows angry and gray. The sun shines less brightly, hiding its face behind clouds rough as granite. When the River Ebe freezes over and a man can walk from Colthorn to Miday over the ice, then Midwinter has officially begun.

Midwinter is the darkest season. It is a time of repentance and of somber reflection during which even the Queen will wear black. In the mountain temples of the Arcadians, the icons are covered with dark cloth and the ancient censers are unwrapped and burned; they swing dangling from the fingers of silent monks who walk the frigid stone floors of their temples barefoot. Around lakeside villages and in certain city shops where gaiety is the order of business, signs are hung reading simply, “Closed for Midwinter.”

There is a rumor in the court of the City Emerald that during Midwinter even Regina Titania’s powers ebb, that the Queen herself becomes pale and cold to the touch. But this is only a rumor, and a treasonous one at that.

It lasts until the ice cracks and the first new fish is caught in the Ebe. The lucky fisherman who catches it becomes Lord of Colthorn for the day, and so for months before they have any chance of succeeding, the peasantry bring their poles and lines to the water’s edge, waiting for Firstcome to return.

Firstcome is the time of rebirth. Every city in the land, from the tiniest hamlet to the City Emerald herself, has its own centuries-old tradition for celebrating the coming of the new summer and the greens and yellows and blues that accompany it.

But until then, the trees will wear a wreath of white around their heads and the hills will be capped with reflective ice. From the farthest north expanse of the land, the snow will creep southward, stirring hurricanes in the Emerald Bay to lash at the city folk. Even the desert gnomes will feel a chill in their mud homes in the far south, but the snow will melt over the swamplands and its inhabitants will suffer a year or more of icy rain before Firstcome rescues them. Italic

Until then, it is Midwinter.

the prison of crere sulace

and certain of its inhabitants

Dumesne, huge and crazy, took a step toward Raieve and flashed his ugly teeth. He showed her the blade of a thin knife in his belt and smiled at her.

Raieve spared a glance for the Low Guard of Watch and found him nowhere in evidence. She planted her foot and stood firm in the freezing narrow courtyard that separated the towers of Crere Sulace, facing Dumesne. A new fall of snow twisted in the windy courtyard, settling on clothing and hair and dusting the courtyard walls with white. Many of the assembled prisoners, in their ragged furs and cheap boots, clapped their bare hands against the cold and urged Dumesne on. Some of the others, the pretty folk, hung back and watched with feigned disinterest from afar. Mauritane, the strong quiet one, stared directly at her. She felt his eyes watching her movements, appraising her.

Raieve glared at her attacker. “See these?” she said, pulling three of her braids from the left side of her head and holding them before her. “I earned each one of them facing an armed opponent with my bare hands.”

Dumesne ran his gloved fingers over his recently shaved head, the tips of his ears rising just above the top of his skull. “I once had more braids than you could count, foreigner. Don’t make me cut your tongue out before I kill you.”

Raieve whirled her metal-tipped braids like whipcords and flashed them out. One of them caught Dumesne in the eye and he staggered back, clutching his face. He went for the knife then, but it was already gone. When he managed both eyes open again, she was holding it in his face.

There was courteous applause from the pretty section. From the corner of her eye, she watched some of them pass coins back and forth. They were betting on her. Mauritane, though, did not move.

“You fight like a woman,” said Dumesne, sneering.

Raieve planted the knife in his thigh and dragged it out at an angle. Dumesne pinwheeled backward and she advanced on him. “Where I come from,” she said, “there is no higher compliment.” She swept with her left leg, and Dumesne fell to the ground, clutching his wound. “Must I kill you now,” shouted Raieve over the yells of the crowd, “or do I have your oath of respect?”

“I would rather be dead than swear oath to a woman and a foreigner.”

“That is your option,” she said. She raised the knife.

“Halt!” came a voice from the side. Mauritane rose and approached them. Raieve held the knife still, waiting.

“This is no concern of yours,” said Raieve.

Mauritane approached her and took the knife from her hand. He made her feel like a child; it never occurred to her to defend against him.

“I don’t need rescuing from you, Captain,” Dumesne sneered the title.

“Give me your oath,” said Mauritane, “and you can suffer your humiliation and live. Otherwise, I’ll leave the two of you to your business.” He glared at Dumesne.

Dumesne looked back and forth between them. He hung his head. “I swear it. By oak and thorn I swear it. No harm will come to the woman by my hand.”

“Wise choice,” said Mauritane. He helped Dumesne to his feet. “Go,” he said, “or I’ll fillet you myself.” He handed Dumesne the knife, handle first.

“You made me look small,” Raieve said, once Mauritane had led her back to the fire. The crowd was dispersing, and the ragged onlookers gave Mauritane a wide berth.

“No, I saved your life,” Mauritane answered. “Dumesne has blood oaths sworn with twenty other inmates. Any of them would be honor bound to kill you if you’d slain him.”

“I would face them all,” said Raieve, her pride making her face glow red.

“No doubt,” said Mauritane, sweeping his braids back from his face as he leaned over the fire. “But that would be a poor strategy for survi

val here. You’re new. You need to learn patience.”

“Why did he call you Captain?” asked Raieve after a brief pause. “Are you an officer of the Unseelie Army?”

“No,” said Mauritane.

“What then?”

“The honorific no longer applies to me, so it doesn’t matter. You may call me Mauritane, if you wish.”

He was quiet then. He pulled out a pipe and lit it, squinting at the sky. Raieve looked up as well but saw only gray. Around the cornice of the East Tower, a few crows flitted through the swirling snowflakes.

She looked at Mauritane, and he allowed her the look, studying the contents of his pipe. He was not young, but far from old. The thin creases in his face stood out, ruddy in the freezing air. His braids were long and precise, done in the military style of the Kingdom, unlike Raieve’s, which she’d tied herself without the aid of a mirror, standing over the men she’d killed to earn them. Built compactly, Mauritane was only a finger taller than she, but he carried himself the way a taller man stands, and his shoulders were wide and strong.

“Do I meet with your approval?” Mauritane asked, not looking at her.

She scowled and turned away, breathing a curse only when she knew he could not hear it.

The prison was once the summer home of Prince Crere Sulace, the Faerie lord of Twin Birch Torn, but the Queen appropriated it in the distant past over some forgotten sin, and its lord was incarcerated there. Over the years, Crere Sulace became the Queen’s favorite dumping ground, home to those not fated for the hangman’s noose or the executioner’s ax. It was a gulag for lords who no longer found favor at court, ranking officials in the polity who were caught with their hands in the coffers, and visiting dignitaries from worlds who managed to earn the Queen’s spite. Those prisoners of the lower classes were lumped in with them, it was rumored, simply out of spite.

The setting for Crere Sulace, among the granite cliffs and the weeping heather of the Channel Sea lands, is dreary enough in the fair years, but in Midwinter the snow-clad peaks and ashen parapets sing of gloom and frustration. In Midwinter the prisoners can see their own breath; they must wear scavenged heavy furs out in the courtyard; they linger by the braziers at the guardhouse gates, swapping stories with the grizzled deputy wardens and guards.

The South Tower was once the primary residence of the Prince Crere Sulace in the time of the Unseelie Wars. Old prisoners believed that the Prince could still be found there, wandering the spellturned halls of the tower, singing spirit songs of death and decay. The towers had been turned dozens, if not hundreds, of times in years past, and now it was no easy thing to say which room was next to which other or what distance separated any two places in the tower. In recent years, the ghostly apparitions and vertiginous twisting hallways finally caused enough harm that the Chief Warden was forced to take notice. He shut down the tower for all but bulk storage and the maintenance of the sea lamp in the cupola.

In the highest floor of the tower, Jem Alan, the Vice Warden, checked the lamp oil for the sea lamp and tilted the reflector out a bit in case some fishermen from Hawthorne were north this evening, hunting the dark northern lanes for sturgeon and salmon. The hour was approaching sunset, or what passed for it in this icy hell of a season, and he didn’t want to get caught in the South Tower after dark. Buttoning his fur cloak, he edged his way carefully down the slick steps along the tower’s inner wall. Tired green witchlight cast multiple shadows over the steps, and as there was no rail, Jem Alan hugged the wall, holding his torch before him like a ward. He tried to ignore the heaving, moaning sounds that came from the barred doors at each landing.

He closed the tower’s inner door and sealed it with its rune before opening the outer door. Across the main yard he saw a cluster of inmates singing shanties with Gray Mave, the Low Chief of Watch. Mave was a local, one of the Hawthorne natives who eschewed fishing in the cold Channel Sea waters for lighter duty at Crere Sulace.

“Enough, Low Chief,” called Jem Alan from across the yard. He marched to the guardhouse and leaned on the cord for the Evening Watch bell. The snow that had begun earlier in the day was erratic now, coming in fits and starts, visible only in the slowly growing halo around the fire. “Get up and relieve Drinkwater; the Evening Watch is upon us.”

Mave reached slowly into his pockets for a pair of gloves, his heavy frame causing his own cloak to billow around him comically.

“And have someone brought in to recharge the witchlight on the tower steps,” added Jem Alan. “I nearly killed myself coming down just now.” Jem Alan removed his own gloves, tired brown things with holes cut for the fingers, and held them over the fire.

“Riders will come tonight,” said Mave suddenly, his eyes pondering the firelight around the grill. “It will be the beginning of bad things.”

“Don’t be superstitious,” said Jem Alan. “Are you a witch woman, that you can see things in fire?”

Gray Mave shrugged. “I only know it, is all.”

Jem Alan rolled his eyes. “Get to your post.”

Night had nearly fallen on the mountains when the riders appeared in the Longmont Pass. Even from a distance it was clear that this was a royal emissary, sporting the blue and gold griffon standard of the Seelie Court. Gray Mave, keeping the Evening Watch, sent up the spot flare and rang the visitors’ bell in the guard tower.

Chief Warden Crenyllice summoned Jem Alan to his office, which comprised the entire second floor of the North Tower.

“Vice Warden, did I just hear the visitors’ bell?”

“Aye, sir.” Jem Alan struggled to fasten the straps of his dress tunic around his barrel chest.

“This is unexpected.”

“Aye, sir. The supply train isn’t due for a fortnight. This party flies royal colors, sir.” Jem Alan chose to omit his hearing of Mave’s prediction earlier in the evening.

The Chief Warden ran his fingers through his hair, drawing his single braid forward so that it brushed against the medals on his chest.

“If they’re here out of turn then it’ll be a special prisoner or a pardon. Have the guards come to line in the yard, and be quick about it. And by the Queen’s tits, have the men in uniform.”

Five riders in formation approached the crest of the pass, which was a knife’s edge crevice that received snow year-round during Midwinter. Framed neatly between the nearly vertical rock faces that composed the pass, the Prison Crere Sulace rose from its plateau of rough basalt and granite like an embedded snowflake, its spellturned towers and crumbling spires forming a ghostlike symmetry against the darker rock face from which it projected.

The lead rider was the color point, carrying two standards cross-armed. One was the blue and gold griffon of the Queen. The other, smaller flag was the purple sign of the Royal Guard, the Queen’s personal army. Flanking the center rider was a pair of Standard Guards, bearing the insignia of their companies on their capes, their lances slung at their backs. The post rider was the junior officer, a lieutenant by rank.

In the center of the formation, riding an armored mount, was the party’s leader, wearing the cape of a commander in the Royal Guard. He rode in the chill wind with the hood of his cloak pushed back, his nine victory braids whipping behind him in the wind. He stood his mount with perfect poise, even over the slick terrain of the rocky pass, his eyes fixed on Crere Sulace.

The commander, whose name was Purane-Es, motioned the party to stop just past the summit of the pass. The road dipped gently here down to the flat plateau abreast of the ocean. At the far end of the plateau, the road led up a steep incline to the gates of Crere Sulace and ended there.

From Purane-Es’s vantage point, it was clear that Crere Sulace was no longer the summer estate of a grand lord of Faerie, nor had been for many, many years. The walls showed signs of age and disrepair. The balconies along the rooftop of the structure’s South Tower had been replaced with rough crenellations and archery nests. Around the main wall, a coil of iron wire angled down toward the palace; a measure meant to keep people in rather than out.

Originating in the South Tower, a spot flare sparked in the sky, reaching an altitude that brought it over the ocean. It crackled three times in a welcome of tenacious recognition. It was now Purane-Es’s turn. He nodded to his lieutenant, who retrieved a signaling flare from his saddlebags and sent it into the air. Three more cracks signaled the party’s friendly intentions. Purane-Es dug in his spurs and urged the party forward.

A trio of mounted guards, including Jem Alan, rode out from the gates to meet them. They quickly exchanged formal courtesies (a process much accelerated due to the cold) and rode through the gates together.

Chief Warden Crenyllice stood at attention in the loggia that lined the main yard’s south wall. When Purane-Es dismounted, Crenyllice bowed deeply to him and quickly waved to the grooms to fetch the party’s horses.

“Welcome to Crere Sulace, Commander,” said Crenyllice, bowing again. “It is indeed an honor for us to receive a guest of your rank. May your children meet you in Arcadia.”

Purane-Es nodded. “Take me to your office,” he said. “I’m here on important business.” His silver braids fell around his face.

Crenyllice frowned at the lack of etiquette but had no room to show his displeasure. The commander outranked him by orders of magnitude, and his impropriety would have to pass without comment.

Once in Crenyllice’s office, Purane-Es removed his gloves and brushed snow from his shoulders and hair. He seated himself without being asked.

“May I offer you a drink?” said Crenyllice hopefully.

Purane-Es’s face softened. “Aye, a brandy will do.”

Crenyllice squirmed against the vague insult of “will do,” but said nothing as he fixed the drink himself, waving the guards back, and handed it to the commander.

“We are a remote outpost of the Queen’s Army, sire, doing our best with what we receive,” said Crenyllice. “I’m afraid this brandy is the best I can offer, you see.”

“Please spare me your homespun attempts at courtesy,” said Purane-Es, bored. “It embarrasses both of us. In my presence you will simply do as I say and leave the formalities for your betters.”

Crenyllice’s face reddened, but he said nothing.

“I come with a letter from the Chamberlain Marcuse,” said Purane-Es, finishing his drink. “The letter instructs you to release several inmates on my recognizance, to perform an errand for Her Majesty.”

Crenyllice sputtered. “But sire. Surely the guard . . .”

Purane-Es waved his hand. “Even in this darkened corner of the world, I presume things do not always follow the straight path. It is not yours to question. You will do as you are instructed.”

“Which prisoners?” Crenyllice managed.

“There is only one I have in mind: Mauritane. Do you know of him?”

“Aye, sir. He’s been mine for two years now.”

“Now he’s mine. I want him brought to me, and I will allow him to choose the remainder of his party.”

“What is the task for which he is summoned, sire?”

Purane-Es laughed. “I’m sure that’s none of your concern. Only see that Mauritane is brought to me quickly.”

Gray Mave knocked quietly on the door to Mauritane’s cell. Once a grand bedroom, the space had been spellturned so many times that it seemed an echo of itself. Not even Gray Mave, who’d been a guard at Crere Sulace for twenty years, knew how many of it existed in the tower.

“Come,” said Mauritane. He lay on his bunk, fully dressed, as though he were expecting to be disturbed. Around him, the gilt-edged walls angled blankly to the ceiling, the original wall coverings and paintings having been removed ages ago, light shapes on the tattered wallpaper their only legacy.

Gray Mave fitted his key into the lock and opened the door outward. “You’re to come to the warden’s office right away.” Mave’s fat face heaved as he strained to catch his breath.

“What is it?” Mauritane sat up warily.

“A lord from the City Emerald, sir. Rode in flying royal colors. Wanted to see you personally.”

Mauritane rose and pulled on his fur cloak. “You don’t have to call me ‘sir,’ you know,” he said.

Gray Mave bowed his head. “I know, sir. But considering your history, it doesn’t seem right to call you by name.”

“Much lower men than you have called me worse,” Mauritane said. “I don’t see that it matters much these days, anyhow.” He joined Gray Mave in the hall, accepting the manacles Mave placed on him without question.

“I should tell you,” said Mave, as they walked the darkened hallway. “Since you’ve given me no trouble during your stay here and all.”


“I’ve had a premonition. Bad omen. The riders that have come.”

“I see,” said Mauritane. “Is Premonition a Gift of yours?”

“Aye,” said Mave. “But you’re having me on, aren’t you? You don’t believe that one such as me could have the Gifts. Jem Alan doesn’t.”

“I’m built from coarser clay than you, Gray Mave,” said Mauritane. “And I’ve got more Gifts than do me any good. I wouldn’t put too much stock into what Jem Alan says.”

Gray Mave smiled, then frowned. “This sign was very dark. I fear for you to be caught in it.”

“If I am,” said Mauritane, “then at least I’ve been forewarned.”

Gray Mave led Mauritane, shackled, into Crenyllice’s office. The glow from the fire and the lamps in the warden’s elaborate wall sconces were bright after the dim hallway, and Mauritane squinted against them briefly.

“Hello, Mauritane,” said a familiar voice. “I see that imprisonment agrees with you.”

When Mauritane looked up, it was into the eyes of Purane-Es, seated at the warden’s desk across the room.

For a moment, Mauritane stood completely still. No emotion showed on his face.

With a single fluid movement, Mauritane twisted around Gray Mave and ducked behind him, pulling the larger man down to his knees. Dislodging his arms, he planted his leg on Mave’s back and then drew the guard’s sword with both hands. “Your premonition was correct,” he whispered in Mave’s ear.

He turned the sword in his hands as he leaped, directing the blade’s gleaming point at the throat of Purane-Es.

the chamberlain’s letter.

Purane-Es flinched and fell backward into his chair, raising his hands to his face. Mauritane’s leap was carrying him far enough to compensate, but he was tackled before he reached the desk. The commander’s Color Guard, who had flanked Purane-Es silently since Mauritane entered the room, moved with an impressive swiftness. One went for the body while the other went for his sword arm. Their attack was precise, calculated, seemingly rehearsed, though Mauritane had seen no signal pass between them. He wondered about it until his head made contact with the floor, and then he stopped wondering.

It was less a loss of consciousness than a temporary withdrawal of the senses that quickly subsided, leaving Mauritane seated in a wooden chair across the warden’s desk from Purane-Es, his still-manacled arms now restrained by means of a ring set into the stone floor. His chains did not allow him length enough to sit up straight, so he was forced into a bow that made his shoulders ache and his ears redden. His head throbbed from its blow, sending bright pulses of pain down into his left eye socket.

Purane-Es was seated calmly at the warden’s desk, while the warden himself, Jem Alan, and the Color Guard stood in a rough line behind him.

“Well met, Mauritane,” said Purane-Es, as though nothing had happened. “It seems I’ve made an impression on you after all.”

Mauritane spat on the floor. “I vowed I would kill you the next time we met.”

“And yet, you haven’t.”

Mauritane said nothing.

Purane-Es opened an ornate leather satchel, inset with colored metal studs, and withdrew an envelope sealed with bright blue wax. “But I say, ‘He who forgives shall be forgiven.’ Isn’t that how the Arcadians put it?” He held the envelope aloft for Mauritane’s eyes. “Do you recognize this? It’s the seal of the Chamberlain,” he said, breaking it.

Mauritane nodded.

“This is an ironic situation,” said Purane-Es, tapping the letter on the desk. “You despise me, have even made an attempt on my life, and yet I am here to offer you deliverance from your current downcast state. I, for my part, have no love for you either, but I have been employed as a messenger from Her Majesty to you. I do not claim to understand the mind of Our Sovereign Lady, but I think, and this is merely my opinion you understand, that she appreciates ironies such as these. Perhaps she even orchestrates them. What do you think?”

Mauritane only spat again, running his tongue over a bruised lip.

“Here’s what I think,” Purane-Es continued. “I think you’re very fortunate that you did not slay me just now, since the Queen herein orders you to receive instructions from me personally, and that would have been difficult with the Low Chief’s blade in my throat, would it not?”

“Read the letter,” said Mauritane.

“I will,” said Purane-Es. “But we must clear up something first. You will get your opportunity against me, you have my word, for I’ve long awaited it myself. Until then, your errand requires that you refrain from assaulting me. Understood?”

“If Her Majesty requires me, I am hers.”

“I’ll take that as a yes. Guard,” he said to Crenyllice, who grimaced at the insult, “remove the prisoner’s manacles.”

Crenyllice waved at Jem Alan, who took a heavy ring of keys from his belt and removed the chains from Mauritane’s hands and feet. Mauritane spat one last time, then sat up straight, stretching his shoulders and arching his back.

Purane-Es took the letter from its envelope and unfolded it gracefully. He read:

To Mauritane, Erstwhile Captain of Her Majesty’s Royal Guard:

Though you languish at Crere Sulace, your Queen is merciful; she has not forgotten your many years in Her Service. She regrets the unfortunate circumstances leading to your imprisonment there and wishes to offer anopportunity wherein you may earn parole.

Your Queen requires that you perform an errand of the utmost importance and of the utmost delicacy. This task can be given to no one in Her Majesty’s court yet must be undertaken by one whose trustworthiness is unquestioned. The Queen appreciates your loyalty to her State and to her Person and is certain that you will treat your assigned task with the dedication and discretion that has distinguished your efforts in the past. Upon successful completion of this errand, your imprisonment will cease, and your name shall be restored. You may then pursue any occupation within the realm with the exception of public service, from which you shall be permanently barred. The same offer is made to those whom you choose to assist you in your endeavor.

Time is critical, Mauritane. You must make the City Emerald before the Sun enters the Lamb. Failure is death.

You will receive your assignment from Commander Purane-Es. His instructions are to be obeyed to the letter.

Her Majesty’s wishes go with you.

In the name of She whose word is law, She whose breath is the wind, She whose heart is that of Her kingdom, I am Marcuse, Lord Chamberlain of Faerie

Purane-Es refolded the letter and slid it across the desk to Mauritane, who picked it up and stared at it.

“I am shocked,” he finally said.

“And well you should be, Mauritane. Well you should be. That the Queen should choose you, a traitor and a liar, for such an important assignment proves only that Her ways are mysterious indeed. I trust you accept the assignment?”

Mauritane saluted slowly, deliberately. “I await your command, sir.”

Purane-Es grinned. “Prison has eroded none of your natural charm, Mauritane.” He turned to Crenyllice.

“Leave us. What I have to say to Mauritane is for his ears only.”

Crenyllice moved to protest, but Purane-Es stared him down, and the warden allowed himself to be escorted from the room by Purane-Es’s guards.

“I haven’t forgotten Beleriand or what happened there,” Purane-Es said, when they were alone, his smile vanishing. “I’ll have my vengeance on you, and soon.”

“It’s good that you haven’t forgotten, only a pity that you take no lesson from it,” Mauritane said. He stretched his arms and stood. “But that’s not relevant right now. Our feud can wait; Her Majesty, apparently, cannot. What is my task?”

Purane-Es rose as well, pacing as he spoke. “Your task is to retrieve an article of utmost importance to the security of the land and bring it to the City Emerald before the first day of Lamb. You are to form a party of four or five of your fellow inmates. Who you choose is irrelevant, but let it be known that any word breathed of this operation is suicide, swift and painful. You are to receive mounts and supplies from Crere Sulace, with provisions for three days. From Crere Sulace you will leave at sunrise tomorrow and proceed with all due haste to Sylvan, where you will rendezvous with Commander Kallmer in the Rye Grove, at highsun on Fourth Stag. You will travel without papers and without identification. If you are detained by the Seelie Army, or by local constabulary, all knowledge of you and of your mission will be disavowed and you will be eliminated.

Are these orders understood?”

“What am I to retrieve?” said Mauritane.

The grin returned. “I have no idea. None of us knows the whole of it. Presumably Kallmer knows.”

“Does Kallmer know that it is I who will be meeting him?”

“He does,” Purane-Es said. “One assumes he is as eager to kill you as I am, although he must forswear it until your task is complete.”

“Most important, how am I to make Sylvan in so short a time? Traveling without papers will force us to skirt the border crossings at Obore and Reyns. Even at top speed it would be at least twenty days, and that’s without this weather.”

“It should be no trouble for an accomplished strategist such as you. Don’t you have the Gift of Leadership? I might remind you that since you will not be an official platoon of the Guard, there is no reason you cannot travel directly west.”

“You expect me to lead a group of untrained prisoners through the Contested Lands and survive? You overestimate my skills.”

“Your group’s survival is not a requirement. Only the completion of your objective.”

“I see.”

Purane-Es sat. “I recommend you begin your preparations. In Midwinter, dawn comes all too quickly.”

Purane-Es took a pipe from his leathern satchel and lit it contemplatively. “I’d wish you luck, but of course I won’t shed a tear if you fail.” He smiled.

“Of course you won’t,” said Mauritane, turning on him. “Your predisposition to place personal grudges over matters of state is what brought me here.”

“Spite is a luxury you cannot afford right now, Mauritane. You have work to do.”

“Fine. Tell the warden to give me two men and then get the hell out of my way.”

Mauritane saluted again, turned on his heel, and left the room. Purane-Es smoked his pipe and swore every curse he could think of.

Outside, Mauritane nearly stumbled over Crenyllice and Jem Alan, who hovered by the door. Catching himself, he drew his shoulders high and spoke to Crenyllice for the first time not as a prisoner but as a commander. “Go inside. Purane-Es has orders for you,” Mauritane told the warden. He took Jem Alan’s shoulder. “You’re coming with me. Time is short.” Neither of them questioned him. The Gift of Leadership, he realized, had not fled him.

Within an hour, Mauritane had two guards, as well as a number of prisoners, helping him make preparations. The overnight kitchen detail loaded dried meat and biscuits into folds of waxed paper, then into the saddlebags Mauritane requested. They filled skins with water and hung them alongside. In the prison armory, Jem Alan helped Mauritane select arms, all the while complaining in his rough voice about the breach of protocol it entailed. He did, however, compliment Mauritane’s choice of sword: a long, curved saber with no adornments, but a wicked blade.

“What is its lineage?” said Mauritane, swinging the sword gently, thrusting into the air. “It spoke to me.”

“None as I know of,” said Jem Alan. “Perhaps you’ll give it a start in life.”

“I rode into many battles with my Guard blade,” said Mauritane. “Purane-Es’s father wears it now. Perhaps it’s time for a new one.” He handed the sword to Jem Alan. “Give that to Gray Mave and have him sharpen it.”

Jem Alan took the blade. “Haven’t you heard, Mauritane? Mave’s been fired. They sent him packing after you took his sword. Worthless lump of dung, he was, anyway.”

Mauritane took the sword back, his eyes cast downward. “I’ll sharpen it myself,” he said. He paced the prison stables, asking the head groom about each beast in turn, ordering that his selections be spellwarmed and saddled by dawn.

“Which of these horses is touched?” he asked the groom.

“None, sir. We’ve no call for smart horses around here.”

Mauritane approached Purane-Es in the warden’s office.

“Give me your horse,” he said.

Purane-Es laughed out loud. “You’re dreaming if you think . . .”

“If I’m going through Contested Lands with four undrilled prisoners at my back, I’m doing it with a touched mount, or I may as well slit my own throat here and now and save some buggane the trouble.”

“Fine,” said Purane-Es. “Take the horse. Just one more debt to collect on when you’re through.”

Mauritane left the warden’s office and found Jem Alan at the guard station, drinking chicory with the other guards. Mauritane took a page from the logbook and dipped a quill, writing out ten names. “Bring me these ten,” he said, pushing the page into Jem Alan’s hand without bothering to blot it.

Jem Alan held up his fingers, black with ink and swore. “I much preferred him as a prisoner,” he said.


The cell was empty save for a cot, a chest of drawers, and a few personal items on the windowsill: a hairbrush, an opal ring, a long pipe and tobacco pouch. Moonlight, filtered through clouds, dusted the floor of the chamber in pale gray. The cell’s occupant, Perrin Alt, Lord Silverdun, Master of Oarsbridge and Connaugh manors, knelt at the edge of his prison cot, his head bowed as if to pray. He often knelt this way, thinking of nothing, coming close to mouthing the words of his mother’s Arcadian prayers, but he always stopped short, disbelieving, scowling. At times he wept bitterly for his wasted future, for his sisters and the ignominy they must face, for the loss of his title and deeds to his lands, those things that identified him as a peer and a nobleman. Other nights, such as tonight, he simply watched the moonbeams grow across the rough wooden floor until his knees ached and he stumbled into bed, his mind racing, but his sleep, when it came, was black and dreamless.

When he heard the key sound in the lock of his door, he bolted upright, smoothing his tunic and running his hands through the waves of black hair that fell around his face as he stood.

“Do you require something of me?” Silverdun asked, referring to the guard who stood in the doorway, a bright lamp in hand. The lamp cast long flickering shadows across the floor that evaporated the pools of moonlight there.

“You’re wanted in Jem Alan’s office.”

Silverdun studiously avoided meeting the guard’s gaze. “I didn’t hear a ‘milord’ in there anywhere,” he corrected. “You are not permitted to speak evenly with me.”

“Fine,” said the guard. “You lordship is wanted. Now move your lordship’s ass or I’ll move it for you.”

Silverdun locked eyes with the guard. “Much better,” he said.

The guard frowned.

“What does the old fool want with me at this hour? Am I about to be engaged in one of his drunken reveries? How much has he had to


“I’m to say nothing about it.”

“Ah, intrigue! And here I was just moaning about how dull my life has become.”

The guard’s frown intensified. “This way, milord.”

Silverdun followed the guard across the empty courtyard to the North Tower, wind from the sea catching his braids and lashing his face with them. The night air had a frozen tang to it that Silverdun could taste. It was not a wholesome flavor.

“This is the last night I will spend at Crere Sulace,” he suddenly said, and knew that he meant it, although he had no idea why. It was not uncommon, however, for his mouth to know things before his mind could consider them.

When they reached Jem Alan’s rooms in the North Tower, Silverdun pushed ahead and flung the double doors open with a shove.

“By the Queen’s tits, Jem Alan, do you never sleep?” he shouted. “One drink and one drink only.” Silverdun drew up short when he realized it was Mauritane and not the Vice Warden, at the desk in Jem Alan’s sitting room.

“Promoted from prisoner to Vice Warden all of an evening? I’d say you’ve been busy tonight, Mauritane. Tell me, is it really all about who you know?”

Mauritane waved the guard away. “Sit down,” he said to Silverdun. “I’ll be with you in a moment.” Before him

on the desk was a set of charts and maps and a compass, arranged neatly over the surface of the desk. In the center, Mauritane took notes with a long, black quill on a wide sheet of paper.

Silverdun dropped into a chair opposite Mauritane and took a cigarette from the carved wooden box on the table, lighting it with a bit of witchlight from his fingertips. He glanced around the room with a disconcerting sense of finality still lingering from his moment of lightheadedness in the courtyard.

Jem Alan’s rooms were once those of the Prince himself, or at least a spellturned version of those rooms; it was impossible to tell. The fire burning in the enormous stone hearth seemed solid enough. The same moonlight that had quietly played in Silverdun’s cell erupted here through the enormous floor-to-ceiling windows on the far wall, their arched tops casting looming, rounded shadows on the double doors through which Silverdun had entered. The only other light came from the lamps Mauritane had on the desk, serving the dual purpose of illumination and of weighing down the scrolling maps.

Mauritane circled a sum with his quill and looked up, catching ­Silverdun’s eye for the first time.

“I need your help,” said Mauritane.

Silverdun leaned in. “Any assistance I can render, sir.” He saluted.

“You still find it amusing that I once outranked you.”

“Only in the military sense, Captain.”

“You heard that a party of riders came tonight, flying royal colors? They delivered this.” Mauritane held out the letter.

Silverdun scanned the page quickly, its charmed ink already fading from exposure to light. “Fascinating,” he said after a moment’s reflection. “What instructions were you given?”

Mauritane recounted his conversation with Purane-Es and Silverdun listened intently. His ears perked at the name of the commander.

“Purane-Es. That bastard,” said Silverdun.

“You know him?”

“I know of him. I flirted briefly with his sister when she was at court a dozen years ago. Pretentious brat, from what I gathered, deeply buried in the combined shadows of his father and elder brother.”

“You know that his father now commands the Royal Guard, and that he is the likely replacement?”

“Yes. The Elder Purane and my father had business with each other on occasion. But what became of the elder brother? Surely he would be in direct succession for the captaincy?”

“No. He’s dead.”

“You’re certain of this?”

“I killed him.”

Silverdun nodded. “Well, then, I suppose you’re certain. Hardly a trustworthy messenger, this Purane-Es, it seems.”

“The Chamberlain’s seal was genuine. And I recognize the handwriting.”

Silverdun shrugged. “I don’t doubt the veracity of the letter. But if what you’ve told me is true, and not even Purane-Es knows the full extent of the Queen’s plan, you can be sure that you won’t survive to tell the tale once this game is complete.”

Mauritane leaned back in the leather chair and sighed, the creases in his forehead darkening. “It would appear so, though I have doubts of that. If the Crown simply needed a patsy, why travel so great a distance to find one? There are any number of able soldiers in the City Emerald who earn the Queen’s disfavor on a given day.

And the Chamberlain’s word, even printed in invisible ink, still carries with it some honor.”

“You’re a dangerous optimist,” said Silverdun.

“I have to be. I have no choice in the matter.” Mauritane held up his hands.

Silverdun clucked his tongue. “Well,” he said, looking around the room. “I wish you luck, then.”

Mauritane’s eyes narrowed. “Wish yourself luck. You’re coming with me.”

“I? I’m no soldier. And I value my life.”

“I need you, Silverdun. You possess valuable Gifts. I know you have Glamour and Elements, and I suspect you have Insight as well. And . . .”

“Yes?” Silverdun leaned forward.

“You’re the only person I trust.”

Silverdun bit his lip, then burst out laughing. “Ah, dear Mauritane. If that’s the case, then you haven’t a chance.”

Mauritane smiled, but the smile was brief. “I’m serious, Silverdun.”

“Even if your optimism is well founded, there is a reason that the Queen hasn’t bothered to conquer the Contested Lands. There are shifting places there, and vast untamed fields of wild essence, not to mention Unseelie excursionary forces. It’s a death march, Mauritane.”

“Would you rather die here?”

Silverdun stared into the fire.

“Silverdun, I know you think I’m naïve, but consider this: what if this task is as crucial to the Kingdom as it purports to be? Would you rather die in defense of the Crown or cowering in a cell on a frozen mountain?”

Silverdun gripped the arms of his chair and leaned farther forward. “Don’t talk to me about loyalty, Mauritane. I’m stuck here because of my own misguided loyalties. If it’s love for Queen and country you’re trying to inspire, you can forget it. I’ve none to spare.”

Mauritane looked away. They both watched the fire dance for a time.

“Who manages Oarsbridge and Connaugh in your absence?” Mauritane finally asked.

Silverdun sat back. “An uncle of mine, a fatuous cretin with a tenuous claim and deep pockets.”

“Your estates are near the border with Beleriand, aren’t they?”

“What are you getting at, Mauritane?”

“I am owed favors in Beleriand,” Mauritane said. “I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions as to what that might mean.”

Silverdun’s eyes widened. “You know, Mauritane, you may not be as naïve as I thought.”

“Then you’re with me?”

“I . . . I suppose.”

“That’s a relief,” said Mauritane, returning to his charts. “Because I would have been forced to kill you otherwise.”

“Very funny,” said Silverdun.

Mauritane caught his eye again, and there was no trace of mirth there.

“Damn you, Mauritane. You are a bizarre creature.”

Mauritane consulted the hourglass on the desk. “Summon the guard,” he said. “I want to start interviewing the others.”


After Silverdun, Mauritane’s next two choices were deemed unsuitable. Dol was a mixed breed of elf, troll, and something neither of them could identify. He was strong but evasive, uncommunicative. Mauritane and Silverdun agreed that he could not be trusted. The second choice, Gerraca, was a wiry elf with fighting experience, but he and Silverdun had dueled indeterminately a few months prior, and he was avowed to slay Silverdun in a second duel to which Silverdun had never agreed.

As they waited for the next prisoner, Mauritane leaned back in Jem Alan’s leather chair, perusing the files of his fellow inmates. They were hastily scribbled, barely literate documents, written in poor hand, some accompanied by judicial decisions from Royal Courts, others nearly blank. Prison recordkeepers had attempted to make notes on the status of inmates as addenda, but these were spare, not uniform, and probably not very reliable. Mauritane found his own file in the stack, a loose sheaf of documents bound in a large paper envelope. One was from the Areopagus in the City Emerald, whose verdict was stamped in red ink above his name: Traitor. The word stung him as though he were seeing it for the first time.

Silverdun, on the other hand, had no file that Mauritane could find, nor even a proper cell assignment. “My imprisonment is of a solely political nature,” was all he’d said, shrugging. “It amounts to the same thing. I’m guilty of enough sins to deserve this fate regardless.”

While waiting for the fourth choice, Mauritane happened to look down at his feet. A spider was crawling beneath the desk, its legs moving fluidly over the coarse rug that covered the obsidian floor. He watched the spider traverse the rough surface of the rug to Silverdun’s feet, wondering at its natural elegance. Silverdun looked down, noticed the spider, and stepped casually on it.

“Who’s next?” he said. Mauritane handed him the file as the door opened and Brian Satterly was led into the room.

“Beriane Sattarelay?” said Silverdun. “What sort of name is . . .” he looked up and saw the man in front of him. “What in the world are you?”

Satterly shrugged, nervous. “Human,” he said.

“Really?” Silverdun said, leaning forward. “I’ve never seen one before. Do all of you have ears like that?”

“Yes, round at the tops,” said Satterly, smiling weakly.

“Fascinating,” Silverdun said. “Why is he here? Do we need a squire or a stableboy?”

“Actually,” said Satterly. “I’d like to know as well.” He nodded at Mauritane and Silverdun.

Mauritane said, “I’ve been charged with a task for the Queen, and my orders are to recruit a unit from among the prisoners here. Upon successful completion of this assignment, you are to be paroled.”

Satterly looked between them. “I don’t get it. Why prisoners? Is this a fancy way of saying work detail?”

Silverdun shook his head. “No, although it occurs to me that that would make an excellent cover story for the other inmates, after we’ve left.”

“Yes, we’ll have the guards spread the rumor that we’ve been sent down the Ebe to plow roads or something,” said Mauritane.

“What is this, then?” said Satterly

“It is the means by which you may achieve parole,” said Mauritane. “According to your file, you’re here for the remainder of your life. Is it true that humans live only sixty or seventy years?”

“Some longer than that,” said Satterly. “But that’s about right.”

“Sparse time to be wasting it here,” said Silverdun.

“What would I have to do?” said Satterly.

“Yes, Mauritane,” said Silverdun. “What is he for?”

“He,” said Mauritane, “is a scientist.”

“Really?” said Silverdun, eyebrow raised. “That is interesting.”

Satterly chuckled. “Well, I am a scientist, but I’m afraid we don’t really deserve the reputation we’ve developed in Faerie.”

“Don’t be shy. Do some science for us!” said Silverdun, raising his glass.

Mauritane leaned forward, mirroring Silverdun. “I’m not sure if one can simply ‘do’ science, at least not without the proper equipment. Perhaps Satterly can explain this.”

Satterly pursed his lips. “Mauritane is at least partly right. Many scientific displays require equipment of one kind or another. But it’s not the sorcery that the Fae seem to think it is; it’s really just a method of inquiry. To the layman, it’s often fairly uninteresting.”

Silverdun shook his head. “That’s not what I’ve heard. I once met a man who’d been to your world; he said you have houses that fly and boxes that transmit images and sounds from place to place. If that’s uninteresting, I’d love to know what intrigues you.”

“I may have one thing to show you,” said Satterly. “If you’ll let me return to my cell, I can get it.”

“Go,” said Mauritane.

When Satterly returned, he carried with him an item forged of black metal; a rounded base with a thick cylinder above connected to it by a rounded arm of the same material.

“This is a microscope,” he said. “One of the few things they let me keep. I told them it was a religious statuette.”

“What is it?” asked Silverdun.

“In your language you’d call it a Tiny-Thing-Appears-Itself-Large-For-You-With-It or something equally silly.”

“Does it work?” said Mauritane.

“Yes, I’ll show you.” Looking down, he noticed the dead spider curled into a tight ball at Silverdun’s feet. “If I may,” he said, reaching for it. He took the spider and wedged it between two differently shaped pieces of glass. These he slipped into a pair of silver guides on the base of the microscope. He placed the instrument gently on the desk and twisted the thick cylinder, which Mauritane could see possessed a number of protrusions on its bottom. Satisfied with his choice, Satterly manipulated a knob on the side of the device and peered into the top.

“Not enough light,” he muttered.

Silverdun suffused the air around them with green witchlight.

“Okay,” said Satterly. “Take a look.”

Mauritane peered into the top of the microscope, at first seeing nothing. Then his eye adjusted, and he discovered a circle of light. There, beneath his eye, was the visage of a hideous creature, with eight stalked eyes and pinching mouthparts, like something out of the Mere Swamps.

“What is this?” he asked.

“That’s the spider, only much, much larger. This magnification is fifty times how it appears with the naked eye.”

Silverdun looked down into the eyepiece, frowning. “Does the spider itself actually become extremely large at some point? Because I could see where that would be useful.”

“Well, no. It’s just how you’re seeing it that changes. The lenses inside the microscope refract the light coming from the spider to make it appear much larger than it is.”

“Hm,” said Silverdun, reaching for a jug of watered wine, “You’re right, Satterly. Science is boring.”

Satterly smiled, whether at Silverdun or at some internal joke it was difficult to tell.

“Silverdun,” said Mauritane, dismissing him, “if you knew how much of our existing war magic was based on human scientific knowledge, you’d be less glib. The development of explosives, field glasses, and some others I can’t mention have their base in the science of his people.”

“You think his knowledge will be useful on our journey.”

“I do.”

Satterly raised his hand. “I’m still not sure exactly what you’re asking,” he said.

“I will tell you what I have been told,” said Mauritane. He recounted the contents of the Chamberlain’s letter, the original having already faded to white. He explained as best he could the dangers of the Contested Lands and even reiterated Silverdun’s concerns about the legitimacy of the deal the Chamberlain offered.

“Now you know as much as we know,” said Mauritane. “If I’m going to ask you to risk your neck, you should understand the danger as well as the potential reward.”

“Thank you, and I’m sold, if you’ll have me. I’ve always wanted to visit the Contested Lands. If half of what I’ve heard of them is true, it should be quite an adventure.”

Silverdun snorted. “What a bizarre race of creatures you come from!”

“A few more questions,” said Mauritane. “Are you a skilled rider?”

“I don’t know how skilled I am, but I’ve ridden before.”

“Can you defend yourself? If we engage a threat, every soldier fights.”

“I’m a pretty good shot with a rifle, but I don’t guess that’s what you mean. If you’re talking blades, I’m useless.”

“Let’s see,” said Mauritane. “Take this.” He took a scabbarded cavalry sword from its place on the desk and pushed it over to


Satterly pulled the blade from its cloth sheath and eyed it warily. “What do you want me to do?”

“We’ll be on horseback, so I’ll be training everyone in mounted swordplay over the next few days. First, though, I want to see how fast you learn at basic engagement. Stand over there.”

Satterly stood where Mauritane pointed and held the blade loosely in his grasp.

“Hold it like this,” said Mauritane, drawing his own blade. “Put your thumb on the hilt and your next finger out toward the blade. Now lower your arm and hold the blade upright.”

Satterly did as he was instructed, following Mauritane’s lead.

“Keep your left foot back,” said Mauritane, crossing behind him and tapping his hamstring with the flat of his sword. “All of your weight goes here. When you thrust, thrust with your right arm and foot in concordance.”

“Okay,” said Satterly, positioning himself.

Mauritane came around and faced him, nodding. “Come at me,” he said.

“I’ll try.” Satterly lunged with his right arm and leg extended outward, thrusting the point of his sword at Mauritane’s chest. With a flick of his wrist, Mauritane disarmed him, sending the blade clattering across the floor.

“Let me try it again,” said Satterly. “I think I see what you’re doing there.”

Mauritane nodded. “I’ve definitely seen worse.”

“I have one last question for you,” said Silverdun. “How did you come to be here?”

Satterly frowned. “In Crere Sulace? Or in Faerie?”


“I came here with some others of my world. There’s an organization that finds and rescues human changelings. I came with them.”

Silverdun winced. “A dangerous occupation,” he said. “I assume you ‘rescued’ the wrong human.”

“Something like that.” Satterly looked away.

Mauritane stood. “We leave at dawn. Find Orrel at the main guardhouse. He’ll fit you for clothes and a mount. Then report back here.”

Satterly turned to leave, then stopped and turned back. “Wait a minute. How do you guys know that I won’t just desert you a mile from the prison and go on my merry way?”

Mauritane smiled. “If you try to desert, I’ll find you and kill you.”


Satterly left the room, closing the doors behind him.

“Can we trust him?” said Silverdun.

“I don’t know. His manners are so different from ours; he’s extremely difficult to read. He’d be a fool to ride off by himself in the Contested Lands, which is where I believe his skills will be useful. If he deserts later, I won’t feel as bad about slaying him.”

“Will you stop talking about killing people?” said Silverdun. “I’m beginning to wonder if it’s all you think about.”

“If you want to survive out there,” said Mauritane, “you should think of it more.”

Silverdun grunted.

In the walls, between the blocks, floating in the chipped mortar, something stirred and flitted away. A cool breeze passed through the chamber then, and Mauritane shivered. He stopped short, thinking for a moment that he detected a young girl’s scream at the edge of his hearing. But when he motioned Silverdun for silence, there was nothing more.

the complete party/

the lord of twin birch torn

The remaining candidates were each called in and had the situation explained to them. During the second or third of them, snow began to fall outside, illuminated from above by witchlit security lamps around the walls of the castle. The monotonous pattern of flakes, angling sharply to the southeast, refused to admit any alteration while Mauritane watched. He and Silverdun dismissed Caeona, Adfelae, and Sybaic Id after brief discussions.

“There are only three names left,” said Silverdun, his fatigue beginning to show around his eyes. “I hope you saved the best for last.”

“We can be certain of Honeywell,” said Mauritane, surveying the remaining names on the list. “Ce’Thabar I included because I believe he possesses Resistance. Raieve is a mystery, but an intriguing one.”

“Not bad to look at, either,” observed Silverdun.

“Not even a hint of impropriety, Silverdun. In the Guard we had strict rules about such things.”

“Who is more proper than I?” asked Silverdun. “Besides, I freely admit that she intimidates me.”

The doors opened, but rather than Ce’Thabar, it was Purane-Es who entered.

“Your time grows near,” he said, striding to the desk and peering over the documents spread out there.

“Yes, we have a clock in this room as well,” said Mauritane, not looking up.

“Will you be ready? I’m not to leave this place until you do. And I’d like to be in the City Emerald by Stag.”

“‘It is often better to want than to have,’” quoted Silverdun gaily.

Purane-Es ignored him. “See that you are prepared to leave by sunup.”

“As you wish,” Mauritane said. He held up his provision list. “The prison is not stocked with the supplies I need. I’ll require several hundred silvers to purchase these things in Hawthorne.”

Purane-Es laughed. “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you Mauritane? I know how you love barking orders at your troops; you must have missed that these past two years.”

Mauritane looked him in the eye and said nothing.

“Forget it,” said Purane-Es, handing over his sabretache. “Here’s more than five hundred, in gold and gray. Now you’ve got my horse and a month’s pay. Will there be anything else?”

“Only your head when the time comes.” Mauritane took the satchel and placed it on the desk. “Anything else, sir?”

“Don’t push it, Mauritane. If you were simply to disappear between here and Hawthorne, no one would ever know.”

“If I were to disappear between here and Hawthorne, you would no doubt be cursed by your own father as a fool and likely lose your commission. I won’t be looking over my shoulder.”

“You overestimate your own importance.”

“I don’t think so.”

Purane-Es swept out of the room, slamming the double doors behind him, nearly knocking over Ce’Thabar, who was led in handcuffed by a guard.

“What is this?” said the lanky Ce’Thabar, looking over the two Fae seated at the desk. “Where’s Jem Alan?”

“Ce’Thabar, we would like a word with you,” said Mauritane, rising. “There is an offer you should consider.”

“I can take no offer from you,” said Ce’Thabar. “I’m sworn against you on behalf of Dumesne. He’s covenanted against you for what you did in the courtyard today.”

Mauritane and Silverdun looked at each other. Mauritane sighed. “Fine. You are excused.”

After Ce’Thabar was led away, Silverdun said, “That leaves only two.”

“I’m certain of Honeywell. If Raieve doesn’t work out, we can take Adfelae as a last resort. He wasn’t so bad.”

“I hope for all of our sakes that Raieve works out. Adfelae is an idiot.”

Silverdun fell silent, and Mauritane heard the odd sound again, this time a bit louder, coming from the south side of the room. A girl’s scream.

“Do you hear that?” he asked.

“I don’t hear anything. What?”

“It sounded like a girl screaming.”

“Probably one of the cats in the courtyard. They’re all freezing to death out there. Someone should put them out of their misery.”

“You’re probably right.”

Geuna Eled, called Honeywell, saluted when he was presented. “Sir,” he said, his voice strong and firm in a way that his body was not. Prison life had not been kind to Honeywell. Without exercise his weight had increased over the past two years, and his face was puffy and red.

“Honeywell, you served me ably as lieutenant when I was Captain of the Guard. Will you ride with me again?”

Honeywell bowed deeply. “I would be honored, sir.”

Mauritane recounted the Chamberlain’s offer for the eighth time that night, barely listening to himself speak. Honeywell’s mouth was an “O” of wonder throughout.

“This is such an honor, sir,” said Honeywell. “I don’t know how to thank you enough.”

“You can thank me by surviving until we reach the City Emerald. I was responsible for your imprisonment; I’d hate to be responsible for your death as well.” Mauritane rubbed his chin.

“I know we’ve agreed to disagree on that one point, sir. But for Lord Silverdun’s benefit, I must say that I am here by my own leave, and it wasn’t anyone convinced me to be here other than me.”

Silverdun forced a smile. “It is . . . good of you to say so.”

“Thank you, milord.”

“Just cut the ‘milord’ crap. I only require it of the guards because it annoys them so. You may call me Silverdun.”

Honeywell bowed low, his outstretched wrist nearly scraping the floor.

Though it was still hours from First Watch, the sounds of prison morning life were beginning to seep in from all directions. Somewhere nearby the kitchen staff were lighting their fires, clattering their heavy skillets and pots. Elsewhere the laundry vats rumbled to life, their gears turned by the pale white slaves from Edan.

“Only one more, then Arcadia,” said Silverdun, resting his chin in his cupped hands, once Honeywell had managed to bow his way out of the room.

“We ride for Hawthorne in three hours,” said Mauritane. “Don’t tell me you’re going to fail me before we reach the gates.”

Silverdun smiled ruefully. “No, I’ll have a witch in Hawthorne spell me some awake time. That’ll keep me until we camp tonight. Which reminds me. Should we stop in Colthorn,” he asked, turning to the maps. “Or do we press on and make camp in the hills to the south?”

“We’ll bed at inns until we cross the border. No reason to deplete ourselves before then.”

“You’ll get no argument from me.”

They passed the next few moments in silence, then Raieve was brought in.

She was less enthusiastic than Honeywell.

“Do you think me mad?” she laughed. “It’s not enough that I rot in your prisons, but you want me to follow you on some twisted errand of fealty to your bitch queen?”

Mauritane held his tongue so he would not speak without thinking. Her words made him furious, but Silverdun was right. She was beautiful. Her long, metal-tipped braids framed an angular face, blue eyes inlaid over high cheekbones, arched eyebrows in a permanent slant of anger. There was something wild about her.

“You may hold what opinions you wish,” he said. “But in my presence you will refer to the Queen as Her Majesty or Regina Titania. If not out of respect for her, then out of respect for me.”

Raieve had been standing, pacing across the floor as Mauritane delivered his pitch. Now she sat, pulling her braids forward and peering down at them. “As you wish.”

“You have the offer, parole in exchange for your services. How do you answer?”

Raieve pursed her lips. “The only thing you could offer me is guaranteed transport back to Avalon when this is finished and the arms that I came here to purchase. Then I might accept.”

“I can probably guarantee your return to Avalon, but beyond that I make no promises,” said Mauritane.

“You can promise to do your level best. I would accept that.” She glared at him.

“I’ve watched you since your arrival here,” said Mauritane. “I believe you can be of great value to me. I’ll do what I can to help you when our task is complete, but it may not be possible.”

“You said it yourself,” she said. “The alternative is dying here. I don’t hate your queen enough to punish myself for spite. You have my word; I will fight by your side. I’ll take what you can offer.”

“I’m pleased,” said Mauritane. “Perhaps when this is done you will not think so badly of us.”

“I hardly see how it matters either way,” she said.

Mauritane started to say something else but stopped. “Fine. The guard at the door will take you for provisions. Move quickly; we leave in an hour.”

Mauritane watched her leave, feeling the curve of her legs with his eyes as she left. He forced himself to remember his wife, the Lady Anne, and put Raieve out of his mind for the moment.

He opened his mouth to speak to Silverdun and heard the scream again, even louder this time, definitely from the south. Could it be one of the Edani? They usually had lower voices and did not often allow their young to be taken captive. Raieve was one of four female inmates. The other three were locked in their cells on the other side of the prison.

“I’ll be right back,” said Mauritane. Silverdun nodded wearily, reviewing the list of provisions for the fourth time in an hour.

He picked up one of the guards at the door. “Where are we going, sir?” the guard said.

“Do you hear that sound?” said Mauritane. The girl’s cries were insistent, pleading. Mauritane wondered for a moment that a woman’s cries of pleasure and pain could sound so similar. Raieve’s face flashed unbidden across his mind. He frowned.

“I don’t hear anything,” said the guard.

“Come with me,” Mauritane said.

They passed from the North Tower into the main yard, where a trio from the night watch warmed their hands in the guardhouse. Snow continued to fall in its angled sweep, casting irregular diagonal lines across the faces of the guards.

“No!” the girl’s voice cried. The sound emanated from the South Tower.

“Come,” said Mauritane, taking his guard by the shoulder. “Don’t you hear this?” They approached the tower’s interior gate. Here, the wind caught the falling snow in an updraft and it swirled in tight ovals in the portico.

“Can you unlock this door?” said Mauritane.

“Um, sir, we’re not to go in there. Only Jem Alan goes to monitor the sealamps.”

“Do you have the rune or don’t you?”

“Yes, but . . .”

“But nothing!” Mauritane gripped the guard at both shoulders. “Did Jem Alan tell you to give me full run of the place, or didn’t he?”

“Uh, yes, but . . .”

“But nothing! Don’t say ‘but’ again. You have your orders. Open the door.”

Cowering, the guard took a set of runes from his belt and fitted one into the enormous metal door’s latch with a shaky hand.

“I’ll wait here,” he said.

“Fine.” Mauritane took a torch from the inside wall and lit it from the grate that burned there.

The door opened onto a wide hall with a curved stairway on the left, or east, side and a number of doors on the north wall. A dusty iron chandelier hung overhead, its candles burnt to tiny stumps, blackened and sooty. Besides the torch, the only other illumination was the dim green witchlight from irregularly placed globes along the stairwell. Their light glimmered on the damp gray stones of the walls.

“No! No! Father, help me!” It was the girl’s voice again, coming from above. Mauritane leapt for the stairs, noticing the curious antiquity of the girl’s accent, similar to that of the oldest men and women in his village, those who’d been raised centuries before his own time.

Darting up the stairs, Mauritane reflected that it could not have been possible for the girl’s voice, not much louder now than it had been in Jem Alan’s office, to have been audible at all from the North Tower. He grew more wary with each step, and by the time he reached the first landing, he was walking, his blade drawn and held at the ready.

At the first landing, the spellturning of the structure became noticeable. The stairs above were faintly doubled, one set of steps was superimposed on the other, as though seen through thick glass. From the landing, a pair of boarded-up doors let onto the second floor, their locks rusted and worn with age.

“Father! Somebody! Help me!” The girl’s cries became shrieks, still coming from farther up the stairs. Mauritane began to run again, taking the stairs two at a time, his eyes moving in every direction for potential threats. He stopped again at the second landing and listened again. The shrieks were muffled here, but they were not from above this time. Two more doors faced Mauritane, identical to the ones below. They, too, were boarded up, though Mauritane could see that the boards on the nearer one were fairly loose. Pulling a dagger, he wedged the blade beneath the board and strained against it, feeling the homemade nails slowly give way.

Mauritane’s muscles hummed from the exertion, and it felt strangely good to be in action again, regardless of the circumstances. His face reddening, he pried first one board, then another from the door and examined the lock. It was a simple keyed affair, one easily picked with the tools he’d liberated from the prison armory. As he knelt, the screams grew more and more muffled and eventually faded.

“Damn,” he said, finally managing the lock. The door swung open with effort, hanging from hinges that were nearly rusted shut. The passage beyond was dark, but there was a light some distance away. Before Mauritane’s eyes, the light became two lights, then four, then eight, then one light again, depending on how he turned his head. It was a disorienting sensation.

He stepped lightly over the transom and into chaos. The floor gave way beneath him and he stumbled forward to right himself, only to discover that he was suddenly sitting up on the frame of the door through which he’d just passed. When he’d crossed into the hallway, his sense of direction had pinwheeled backward over his head in a quarter circle, so now the wall had become the floor, and the floor was now the wall in front of him.

The light source was now above his head.

Mauritane began to feel queasy. Looking back through the doorway, he saw the stairway exactly where it had been, only now the stairs appeared to be sideways, their steps clinging to the wall beneath him.

“Salutations,” said a voice above him. Mauritane jumped and looked up. Standing on the ceiling was a man in ancient costume, wearing a long white wig and a frock coat that hung upwards to fall at his feet.

“I am the Prince Crere Sulace, Lord of Twin Birch Torn,” said the man, speaking in an ancient dialect Mauritane struggled to comprehend. “And you are trespassing in my home.”

Midwinter © Matthew Sturges

Cover Illustration © Chris McGrath

Matthew Sturges's works include the comic book series House of Mystery, Shadowpact, Salvation Run, Countdown to Mystery, Blue Beetle, and the Eisner Award-nominated Jack of Fables, cowritten with Bill Willingham. His short stories have been published on RevolutionSF and in the anthology Live without a Net. He lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife and two daughters.