Naia 12, 1014.
The Hills outside of Port Andestn, Duchy Monrodya.
Kimmentari appeared high on the hillside she had been aiming for, next to a large tree whose shadow served to disguise the blue-violet scatter of light that normally accompanied her departure from the travel spaces. She looked around briefly, noting the large camp in the valley below, then closed her eyes and hummed quietly to herself to confirm her position in space and time. She opened her eyes and nodded: she was where she needed to be.
Her journey had been swift, but not instantaneous. She had, as was common among her people, used the travel spaces, which her race called the Merstaln. These were a set of dimensions, or orders of form, that facilitated rapid travel because of the way that short distances within the Merstaln translated into much greater distances in the normal physical dimension, or first order of form. But the Merstaln weren’t a friendly or healthy environment, which discouraged long exposure. And the topography (if it could be called that) of the Merstaln only permitted certain distances to be traveled in specific directions from any entry point. Which meant that she was not able to step into the Merstaln in Castle Pentamorlo and step out on this hillside as one trip. And so her trip had taken almost a full day, and many passages into and out of the Merstaln. But it hadn’t only been the physical realities of the Merstaln that had forced her journey into stages: from within the travel spaces, she couldn’t sense the Dance well enough to follow the threads of her Dream and she hadn’t known her path would lead her to this hillside until the raveling threads’ Dance had revealed it to her.
As her path had taken her somewhat erratically away from Castle Pentamorlo generally but not always south and a little east, the threads guiding her had begun to make themselves clear within the larger weave of the Dance. As yesterday had become today in the reckoning of the humans, she had seen the first nexus point of her quest: here, on this hillside. As she had approached that nexus in both space and time, she had been able to see further and further beyond the nexus in the several directions the quest could take. It had startled her to realize that the quest wasn’t primarily hers, though. Since the dream had been so vivid, calling to her and all but forcing her out upon the quest, she had imagined that she would have a larger part than message bearer in it. But she reminded herself that each strand in the Weave was equally important. And somewhat later, she had seen some of the possibilities the Dance was taking, and she knew there could well be more for her to do.
She looked around again. Down in the valley, the camp seemed to be going about its daily business normally. A little way to the east, around two bends and a high peak, she could see a small dust cloud approaching the camp. Things were moving along as they should. She moved a little higher up the hillside, into the shade of another tree, and turned to the south to await the nexus.
Chandras walked easily along the faint trail, following Haroned’s verbal instructions to the letter. He paused and looked around, and figured that the Raider camp would be just over the hill in front of him. As he resumed his journey, he wondered if the Raiders had people on watch around the camp, and what kind of response he would need to give in order to convince them that he sincerely wanted to join them, and wasn’t some kind of spy.
He was just coming over the crest of the hill when he heard shouts and the clash of arms from the other side. He hurried toward the sound until he could see the camp laid out in the valley, and the body of mounted people riding into the camp from one side, weapons flashing, shouting, some splitting off the group to go after those in the camp who were trying to run away.
Chandras gasped as he watched the Raiders’ camp being attacked. His only chance of refuge was being very efficiently destroyed, right before his eyes. His hand went to his dagger and he thought seriously about charging down there and getting involved — after all, he had more in common with the Raiders than with anyone who would attack them. But he reconsidered as he saw each and every one of the riders wielding their swords, maces, and axes with what seemed like deadly accuracy and ease. Each slashing motion seemed to fell at least one of the Raiders, and even though they fought back fiercely, not one of the riders had so much as been pulled from their horse.
Suddenly, he detected movement under a nearby tree, and he drew his dagger and went into a crouch as he turned his attention from the slaughter below to the potential danger right here. He expected either a Raider sentry, or one of the attackers patrolling the perimeter of the camp to make sure that no one got away. What walked out of the shadow of the tree was very definitely neither.
The woman was tall and thin and beautiful, and unhuman. Her pale green clothing looked normal enough, but her long hair was pale blue. And her most arresting feature was the color of her eyes: deep, ruby red!
When she spoke, her words, while perfectly understandable, seemed to be accompanied by music that didn’t have a source yet added meanings to her speech as if she somehow made the music just for that purpose. She said, “My name is Kimmentari, and I have been bidden to come here to give you a choice, Chandras.”
Almost unbidden, Chandras said, “That would be a change.” He was surprised at the bitterness he heard there.
The woman had paused for his outburst, and resumed without comment, “The choice before you is thus. You will find a horse back over the crest of the hill. You can capture it and use it for one of two things: either ride after those who attack the camp below, those who are called the Minions, when they leave, and find out where the one who controls them resides, or take yourself away from this area and forget about your home and friends.”
Chandras frowned, and stood up out of his fighting crouch. He slid his knife back into its sheath and said, “That’s it? I mean, that’s not exactly a lot of information to base a decision on, don’t you think?
“The smart thing would be to leave. Obviously. Why should I follow those people? I don’t know anyone down there, Raiders or Minions. Maybe I don’t care who the Minions are, who ‘controls’ them, or why they’re attacking the Raiders. Why shouldn’t I just leave?”
The woman had an answer ready, as if she had expected his questions and objections. “This is a nexus point, a place where the Dance has two basic directions it could go. The result of your taking the horse and leaving is that the Dance turns toward its worst resolution, which is why I say you should forget about your home and friends. While what I can see of the Dance suggests that this worst resolution might be ultimately prevented in either case, your leaving now will doom Port Andestn.”
Chandras was stunned by her words. On the face of it, she was spouting nonsense: Doom, indeed! She sounded like some kind of market-place soothsayer but without the props that tended to influence people to believe such ravings — no cards, no Wheel, nothing. Except for the music.
That music penetrated into Chandras, seeming to bypass his ears and touch his soul directly. It was almost a physical sensation, starting in his right hand and tingling right into the center of his being. And the music, once there, added layers and layers of meaning to her simple words. The music built in Chandras’ mind’s eye a picture of the Dance she spoke of — a tapestry composed of threads coming together and weaving themselves into a tale that was not just a story. He could see the part of the Dance that was the past, what had already happened, and he could see the strands of the future forming, getting ready to take their place in the Dance. He saw the choice point: a place very close to ‘now’ in the tapestry, where two very distinct groupings of threads waited to join the Dance. One group, one direction the Dance could flow from the nexus, did indeed foreshadow a doom of some kind for the area around the Port — a darkness that suggested an ending, not just for the Port but for far more. The music didn’t clarify further for him what the threads actually represented — he couldn’t tell which was him, which was the unhuman woman, which was the Minions, for example — but in general terms it was clear. One choice was clearly worse than than the other, if he could accept that that darkness was really some kind of doom.
In the other direction from the nexus there was no such clear path. He could see further branches, further choices, the webbing getting more and more complicated the further he went from this choice. And while there were branches from most of these future choices that led to the same kind of doom for the Port, he also could see that making the right choices in the future would save his home.
As he digested this non-verbal information, questions flooded him. Were those future decisions also his? Would he have her to help him see these choices so clearly when it came time to make them? (If he had had this kind of laying out of his options when he decided to do what Delebye told him to, would he have still done it?) And what form would this doom take? Was it escapable or resistible, say, an attack like the one going on in the valley below him? Or was it inevitable, like a plague, a sickness that couldn’t be hidden from or ridden away from? (Or was that really necessary for him to know to make his decision?)
He shook himself, and his vision cleared, the music fading away, taking the myriad threads of the dance with it. He opened his mouth to ask the mysterious woman his questions (not really expecting an answer), only to see that she was gone. A flash of violet light from under that tree startled him, but when he went to look, there was nothing there.
While she had been standing there, the music and her words still in his ears, he hadn’t had any doubts. Now, as he looked down into the valley and watched as the Minions rode down the last Raiders in the camp, while their fellows tied previously downed Raiders hand and foot and tossed them over the saddles of the Raiders’ own horses, he began to wonder again. Stories were just stories, no matter how convincingly told. And how could Port Andestn be doomed?
He turned and walked back over the crest of the hill, and sure enough there was a horse standing there, cropping grass. Probably one of the Raiders’ horses that got loose, he figured. The horse didn’t shy away from him as he walked up to it and stroked its neck. His eyes unfocused, still considering, he lifted himself into the saddle and took up the reins. Suddenly coming to a decision, he turned the horse and rode to the top of the hill. Looking down, he noted where the main pathway that entered the valley ran, and also traced a way for him to join up with it from here. Then he walked his new horse down and waited for his chance to follow the Minions.
Chandras wasn’t used to tracking on a horse, or in the wilderness — he was much more used to city streets and rooftops, and in fact hadn’t ridden a horse since he was a child (thankfully, he hadn’t forgotten too much since then). Fortunately, the Minions were very easy to track. In fact, they didn’t take any precautions at all to avoid detection, and that worried Chandras. He wondered how powerful they were, that they didn’t fear being tracked? At the very least, what if some of the Raiders had survived?
But he kept with it. And after what had to be at least a two bell ride, they arrived at their destination which turned out to be a walled enclosure at the end of a box canyon. Chandras realized that it must be one of the old silver mines that Port Andestn had been founded to supply. It made a better base of operations than the Raiders’ camp had, thought Chandras. The compound had a wall, complete with fancy gatehouse and watch towers, and was built in an angle where two cliffs came together, which meant that they only had to guard on two sides because the cliffs guarded the other two sides, not to mention that the box canyon, by definition, only had one entrance. And there were buildings inside the wall, so that the inhabitants didn’t have to sleep in tents.
Chandras had left his borrowed horse in a little side canyon when he had first sighted the compound’s walls. He had then crept back to survey the end of the box canyon more closely. And now he was hiding behind some rocks in the broad, open area in front of the compound’s walls, and wondering what he was supposed to do now. He tried to recall the Dance he had been shown, but as time passed, the complicated image was fading from his memory. Was this the next nexus point in the Dance? Had one of those branchings of threads represented the choices he thought he had now: to go find help, to work his way inside the compound and find out what was going on, or to sneak as close as he dared and just watch? He basically had no idea.
He was half waiting for Kimmentari to reappear and tell him what to do next. Or at least show him the consequences of the choices he had. What a wonderful ability to have, to be able to see consequences like that, so completely. It had to make choosing so much easier, he thought. And as he found himself unable to make a choice now for worrying about consequences he couldn’t possibly see the sources of, he began to wish that she had never appeared to him on that hill in the first place. Then at least if he had chosen of his own accord to take that horse and ride away, he wouldn’t have known enough to feel responsible for the ‘doom’ of Port Andestyn.
Finally, as the sun sank slowly behind the cliffs behind the compound, he left the lengthening shadows of the boulder and crept carefully up to the compound wall. He saw the glints of the last rays of the sun on weapons on the tops of each of the gatehouse towers, but he knew he could easily get right up to the wall through the shadows. Where the wall met the cliff, he found easy hand and foot holds, and was soon peeking through the crenelations on the top of the compound’s wall. Still unseen, he slipped onto the walkway atop the wall, and from there onto the roof of a building that abutted the wall and cliff. Peeking over the edge of the parapet that ran around the flat roof of the building, he changed his mind about trying to infiltrate because of the ceremony he saw going on.
The center of the compound was completely open, the buildings of the compound having been built against the walls and the cliffs. A large round dais had been built a little back from center with a strange, intricate pattern painted onto its surface. Around the dais stood about 50 people, men, women and children, each carrying a torch and illuminating the compound quite well. At the back of the dais was an ornate chair, and sitting in it was a person who looked almost familiar. Chandras stared hard, and found himself reminded of Kimmentari. Her features were different — rounder, shorter, her mouth larger than Kimmentari’s had been. He couldn’t see her eyes well enough to be sure but he didn’t think they were the red of Kimmentari’s, and they seemed to be shaped differently too, rounder to Kimmentari’s lozenge-shaped eyes. And her hair seemed almost green, but maybe that was the torchlight.
In the center of the dais was a carved wooden stand supporting a strange object. Chandras couldn’t tell if it was a gem of some kind, or just a stone that had been irregularly faceted, maybe even broken off of a larger piece of material. It was dark, and from what he could tell, opaque, but he thought he could see a faint light glowing inside of it anyway, and there was a gash in the uppermost facet of the stone that looked as if it was a wound in flesh and that pulsed in a deeply disturbing way.
There was purposeful movement then, and Chandras saw two people who seemed to be dressed in ceremonial armor leading a bedraggled and injured man from one of the buildings behind the dais. The knights brought the man to the stone at the center of the dais and forced him none too gently to his knees next to it, taking his hand and placing it over the top of the stone. The woman sat up straight and said some words not quite loud enough for Chandras to understand, but he could detect a hint of the music behind the words, not as clear or as full of meaning as Kimmentari’s but that might have been a factor of the distance.
A third person, a woman this time, in the same kind of ceremonial armor stepped up next to the seated woman and took a dagger from her. She walked over to the ensemble at the center of the dais, and as the seated woman’s voice rose in volume and Chandras heard the words, “… and join the ranks of my Shadow Army!” she plunged the knife through the bedraggled man’s hand and into the stone.
Oddly enough, the man didn’t cry out at all. He didn’t even seem to notice what had been done to him. He seemed to be trying to say something to the woman in the chair, but his words were too faint to carry to where Chandras was lying. The rooftopper had expected there to be blood everywhere, but he didn’t see a single drop come from the wound.
Yet, something was happening. The glow he hadn’t been sure about earlier began to grow stronger (it couldn’t quite be called ‘brighter’ after all), and the man’s hand began to glow as well, a reddish glow that slowly faded to the same grey as that of the stone’s light. As the glow changed shade, the man seemed to get weaker and weaker, until he finally slumped down, head lolling to the side and he would have fallen on his face if the first two knights weren’t still holding his arms.
The female knight removed the knife, and the glow of the stone and hand faded slowly away. The man was carried to the edge of the dais and handed to two of the people standing there. They carried the limp form toward an opening in the cliff face opposite the building where Chandras hid, while the two knights went back to the building he had first seen them come out of. He wasn’t really surprised to see that when they came out again, they had another bedraggled person between them.
Chandras watched while this person was led to the dais and wondered if he had seen enough. He certainly didn’t know exactly what was going on, or who these people were, but he at least knew that something was amiss. He didn’t think he had quite enough details to convince any one of the danger in the hills, but he also didn’t expect to get many more details from this roof, and he had no desire to get any closer. And then, there was the problem of who to take these details to …
As he mused on that difficulty, watching the second person going through what the first had, he heard a voice behind him sneer, “So, what have we here? A sneaking little rat, huh? Well, looks like the Mistress will have another convert before long. You won’t even have to wait, since the ceremony is already set up for the Raiders we captured.”
Chandras rolled over as the voice laughed, and he saw another knight standing between him and the wall, holding his sword casually, but pointed at Chandras’ middle. The thief considered his chances of darting around the knight, but knew that it would be next to impossible.
“Stand up, little rat. Good. Now walk slowly back to the wall, and then go toward the gatehouse; that’s where the stairs are. And don’t try anything — my sword and I will be right behind you. In fact, I should just hamstring you right now — you only need to be alive for the Mistress to claim you — but I don’t feel like carrying you all the way to the platform. So, move!”
When Chandras had gained his feet and could see the knight a little better, he was shocked to see that the man’s irises were surrounded by that same smoky grey as Malkhas’ and the people chasing him had been. Were they connected with these people? Come to think of it, that grey was awfully close to the color that that strange stone had glowed, wasn’t it?
He followed the directions of the knight, and followed the wall walk to the stairs that led down into the compound just before the gatehouse tower’s door. He could almost feel that sword poking into him, so he moved steadily toward the dais, but he did keep his eyes open, hoping for a chance to get away.
As he neared the ring of people around the dais, the knight escorting him said, “Make way, make way! I’ve got another one for the Mistress!” The people moved aside and looked at him, and Chandras saw that every single person standing there had smoke-grey eyes. As the way to the dais cleared, he could see that a new person, a woman this time, was just being forced down next to the stone. All three knights on the dais had grey eyes, but the woman in the chair didn’t — her eyes, now that he could finally see them clearly, were actually very blue, though as she began her speech, he thought he could see flashes of ruby red in them.
The knight who had captured him pushed him right to the edge of the dais, so that Chandras had a very clear view as the knife pierced the woman’s hand and slid into the stone beneath it with ease. Once again, the victim didn’t seem to feel the knife, or realize that something strange was going on. She was babbling about how she shouldn’t have been captured with the Raiders, that she wasn’t one of them and she shouldn’t be punished with them. The female knight said quietly, “My dear, you are not being punished. The Raiders were a target, but not for retribution. You are being inducted into the service of the Mistress: you are being rewarded for being captured by us. You may not rejoice now, but once the Stone has fully claimed you, you will be one of us. By this time tomorrow, you will be able to form a shadow body, like the one each of us wears, and you will know the reward you have received.”
By that time, the Stone had done its work and the woman was unconscious. The female knight removed the knife and the other two knights carried the woman away. Both women on the dais turned toward him then, and after she had returned the knife to the Mistress (or so Chandras presumed the woman in the chair to be) the knight walked toward them and said, “So, Ehrve, what is this you have brought us?”
Chandras’ captor, Ehrve it seemed, got only as far as, “Mistress Olmehri, he’s just this sneaking rat I …” before the sound of a large explosion turned everyone’s attention back toward the gatehouse.
Chandras turned in time to see fire engulfing the top of the left hand gate tower, and its rear parapet falling into the compound. Everyone around the dais reacted exactly the same way — they all dashed for the wall, totally forgetting about Chandras; the two knights who were escorting the next Raider victim to the dais dropped him and likewise ran toward the wall to defend the compound from the obviously impending invasion.
Chandras ran in the opposite direction, toward the cliffs. Once there, he looked around and saw that everyone’s attention really was focused outward. So, he slipped along the cliff to where the wall connected with it, again scaled it easily, and soon found himself atop the wall at one of its ends.
He looked out across the area in front of the compound and saw that no one had yet left the compound. He couldn’t see any signs of whomever had caused the explosion on the tower, either. No charging hordes, no flights of arrows, no siege equipment. He wondered if there really was an attack in progress, but he knew that there was only one way into or out of this box canyon and one way or another, once those Minions got organized and came through the gates, they wouldn’t have to make any choices about which direction to search for attackers or escaped ‘sneaking rats’. So he decided he needed to get as much of a lead on them as possible.
Chandras climbed down the wall and ran cautiously along the edge of the canyon until he reached the exit point. Checking the compound, he could see that the gates were beginning to open, and the tower fire was almost out. Checking the exit valley, he didn’t see anyone, so he raced away. But he had barely turned a corner out of direct sight of the compound before a shape loomed up out of the shadows in front of him. He tried to dart around it, tripped, and hit the ground, knocking himself unconscious.
Twenty people gathered around the unconscious form. All were dressed in darkened armor and their weapons had been rubbed with dirt to cut down on stray flashes of light. One woman, tall, thin, hard, but handsome, said quietly, “Who could this be? Why was he running away from the camp, and what should we do with him?”
“Whoever he is, our attack is ruined,” said another of the score. “We need to get away from here. Let’s take him with us, and we can question him later. Maybe he knows something about what’s going on.”
“That seems reasonable,” said a third. “What do you say, Thornodd?”
The first woman said, “All right. You two pick him up, and we’ll put him on your horse, Jerek, since you’re the lightest. We may be the only Raiders left, but I think we can deal with one runaway between us. Lets go!”