Yawrab was filled with nervous anticipation and excitement. In the seven days since she and Ganba had briefly shared souls over that strange carved stone with the interwoven banding, Yawrab had changed a great deal. Within the next few bells, she intended to do something that she hoped would change her life just as radically.
She sat at ease in the reclined contours of her folding chair by the fire. The night was calm and warm, a pleasant Sy night with the last quarter moon of summer shining down. The gypsies Yawrab was traveling with were all around her, engaged in the now-familiar activities of an evening camp. Most were gathered about the fire as she was, chatting casually, easing themselves into a restful state prior to retiring for the night. Three young men were playing a complicated game with a ball and three makeshift goals. Despite the shadows thrown by the firelight, they moved with confidence and grace.
Yawrab focused her attention on one of those young men. His name was Hiranw, and he had been showing off during these nightly games for most of their journey. She had always noticed and appreciated his efforts, but only since her meeting of minds with his sister Ganba, the leader of this gypsy caravan, had Yawrab even contemplated doing more than just watch his display. Tonight, encouraged by his actions and bolstered by a new confidence, she intended to act.
Yawrab heard hoofbeats announce someone’s arrival. She looked and saw that Leedlan had returned. Ganba and Ruthodd left the fireside to meet him, and Yawrab decided to follow. She stopped a short distance away from the trio and listened.
A sennight past, Yawrab would never have followed Ruthodd by choice. His condescending manner, combined with his air of authority, reminded her far too much of Lord Cranhull in his better moments. At the beginning of the journey Yawrab had found Ruthodd deeply frightening because of his similarity to that man who had raped her in her youth, and she had not been able to allay that fear even after many days. However, after her mental joining with Ganba the fear had vanished and he was just another gypsy she was traveling with.
Shaiff, younger brother of both Ganba and Hiranw, took Leedlan’s horse. Ganba and Ruthodd fell to questioning the new arrival in their own language. Yawrab had picked up a few words of the Rhydd Pobl tongue; she knew that ‘bantor’ literally meant ‘wagon group’, though she translated it as ‘caravan’. And ‘amdan’ was ‘uncle’, a term that the gypsies used to reinforce the familial nature of their caravans regardless of blood relation. Even so, she was not fluent in the language, and had no idea what they were talking about.
She was about to return to the fireside when she caught the name ‘Lacsil’ among the foreign words. Lacsil was the man the caravan was chasing. He had a grudge against all gypsies, a plan to attack them as they gathered for their annual ceremonies, and a map that would lead him right to them unless Ganba found him first.
Yawrab stepped forward and asked, “Might I listen in here?” The mission to find Lacsil wasn’t her own quest, which involved tracking a young lord named Aldan to Dargon, but the two tasks were related in that they both involved going north. Yawrab intended to locate Lord Aldan and find out what he had to do with the murder of her sister, Tillna, but her burning need for revenge had cooled recently. As Yawrab had become more comfortable among the gypsies, she had realized that she didn’t require such a tight grip on her need for revenge to get her through the chaos of a day on the road. She knew that Ganba would get her to Dargon as soon as possible, but Lacsil was the more immediate dang er.
Ganba smiled and nodded. Ruthodd, however, stretched his arm around Yawrab’s shoulders and squeezed her to his side. He said in his booming voice, “Of course, my dear, of course! After all, you’re not just a passenger any more, now are you? You’re almost a gypsy!”
Yawrab didn’t flinch outwardly or inwardly. She just smiled, patted his hand, and waited for the conversation to pick up again.
Leedlan said, “Let me go back to the beginning. I followed the tracks that we found earlier this evening. The trail is dry and not dusty enough to capture the tracks well, but there were enough to follow. I traced them through several path-changes until I could finally get a good idea of the composition of the group that made them. Well, as good as I could get by lantern light anyway.
“They definitely weren’t gypsies, which we’d guessed by the lack of blazes.” Yawrab had been told about the secret signs that gypsies left for each other, how a pile of twigs could tell a story. “I finally found firm enough signs to tell that the wagon is being pulled by only one horse, and it is wider than any that we commonly use. In addition, there are at least half a dozen riders with the wagon.”
Ganba said, “Who else could it be, then? It can’t be any of our folk, and these trails don’t lead anywhere a trader would want to go. There’s no one else who could be out here save Lacsil.”
Ruthodd shook an admonishing finger in Ganba’s face, saying, “Now, now, my child. You don’t want to let your hopes rule your head, now do you? It could be the wagon of a homesteader, or of a tinker with a large following. Perhaps even a band of players seeking a new, out of the way place to show their talents.”
Yawrab could tell by Ganba’s expression that she wasn’t fooled by Ruthodd’s words. The older man finally chuckled and said, “But you’re right. Chances are that we are on the right trail, and that Lacsil is only a matter of days ahead of us. Leedlan, how long since those tracks were made?”
Leedlan didn’t even pause before he answered. “We’ve not had rain or high weather in a sennight or more. The tracks were softened enough that they are at least that old.”
The three gypsies grinned, but Yawrab felt disappointed. When the tracks had been discovered as camp was being set earlier that evening, Yawrab had felt the same excitement as everyone else at the possibility that Lacsil was close. But if they were as much as seven days behind the man, she didn’t see much reason to celebrate. She asked, “Is this really good news? We are four wagons to his one; surely he can travel faster than we can? Won’t his lead just increase?”
Ruthodd chuckled his condescending laugh again, but it was Ganba who answered, still smiling. “Lacsil follows a map; we know these woods intimately. This forest may be infinite, but the pathways through it are not. Yes, we travel more slowly than he does, but we have the benefit of Ruthodd’s knowledge, and even my own, in finding the shorter way.
“Lacsil may lead us by seven days or more, but we will catch up. Count on it.”
Ruthodd nodded sagely, and Leedlan’s head bobbed with the enthusiasm of a younger man. Yawrab smiled, shrugged, and said, “You know best, I suppose.”
Ruthodd laughed and clapped Yawrab on the back. “That we do, lass, that we do. Now, this camp needs to put itself to bed. Short paths are fine, but longer days may serve just as well. If we rise earlier and travel longer, we will close in on Lacsil just as surely. And he has no reason for haste, for he knows not that he is followed.” The old man walked away, delivering the news to the others and telling them it was time to retire.
Leedlan hurried after Ruthodd, leaving Yawrab alone with Ganba. The gypsy said, “Ruthodd’s right, but there are other things we can do as well. I will send Leedlan and another out to confirm his tracking. Knowing where Lacsil is will help us reduce his lead, and our riders will take what measures they safely can to hinder his progress.
“I have much to arrange. Have a good night.” Ganba put her hand on Yawrab’s shoulder and gave her a smile that Yawrab knew meant that the gypsy was proud of her for joining in the conversation. Yawrab smiled back; she was rather proud of herself. As Ganba followed the other two, Yawrab realized that she still had plans to carry out before her own rest.
As she headed back to the fire, she wondered how best to approach Hiranw. She tried to think back to the kissing games she had played as a girl in the Barony of Shaddir. Melrin and harvest festivities always included such pastimes, and it was often the case that during the gathering of the crops it was the women who chased the men down. She smiled as she realized that she wasn’t brazen enough to pursue Hiranw in quite so literal a manner.
Yawrab lacked any other experience with men, though, so she decided to be logical about the situation. She knew that Hiranw liked her; his show-off antics had proven that from the start. She had never responded with more than a smile to his overtures, which she knew kept him from being more direct. Until a sennight ago, that had made her feel safe; now it frustrated her.
Yawrab could be as direct as one of the gypsies, and offer herself to him. Or she could be more like her childhood friends who had practiced shy giggles and meaningful glances while she had been perfecting her household chores. Yawrab had no confidence that she could successfully lure Hiranw’s more direct attentions with skills she had never practiced. Unfortunately, she wasn’t sure she was quite up to boldly propositioning him, either.
As Yawrab reviewed her options, she rounded the corner of one of the wagons and ran into Hiranw coming the other way. She lost her balance, but his strong hand grabbed her arm and kept her from falling. She clutched back to further steady herself.
“Are you all right, Yawrab?” he asked, concern in his voice and on his face.
Yawrab absently nodded, while she mentally scrambled to find a way to take advantage of the situation. Should she play the innocent and go limp in his arms, hoping for further attention? Should she be the gypsy and thank him, then suggest they find his bed together? Was there another way entirely?
The moment stretched, Hiranw’s hand on her arm, her other arm on his shoulder. Yawrab could feel his body so close to hers, see his eyes looking into hers, and she had no fear of the situation at all. She stopped thinking, and did what felt right. She leaned forward, tilted her head slightly, and kissed him.
Yawrab saw the surprise in his eyes as their lips met. He was looking at her intently. She knew that Hiranw was making sure that she really wanted this. She felt his arms reach out and pull her closer when he had found his answer. She finally let her eyes close and concentrated only on the kiss. Yawrab decided to stop thinking, and just let things happen the way they were supposed to.
Nakaz awoke and frantically tried to recall his dreams. He had remembered something in his sleep, something important … but it slipped away as dreams usually did.
He got out of bed and dressed, preparing to leave the small room he had rented in the Yellow Wren. He and his traveling companion, Lord Aldan, would be leaving the city of Valdasly that morning, resuming their trek to Dargon. Nakaz still didn’t know what Aldan needed in that city, but leading the son of Baron Bindrmon there was proving to be an interesting way to spend his free seasons away from his duties as a bard.
With the last shreds of his dreams gone, Nakaz turned his thoughts to what he had been dwelling on before bed: the strange pair who had visited his and Aldan’s table in the White Spike tavern the night before. The short, dark-haired man with a scar in the middle of his left eyebrow and the tall woman with short white hair had each brought a scroll. The man had introduced himself as Voesh and had asked Nakaz to help him translate his scroll. Apparently, the woman had done the same with Aldan.
The ‘translation’ requested of Nakaz wasn’t so much reading the letters as deciphering the riddles on the scroll. He had managed to solve each of the riddles, sometimes with the help of Voesh, but the answers never made much sense. Phrases like ‘the chalice of the body’, ‘the spine of the world’, ‘northern river rise’, and ‘spirit’s water’ made no sense to him. The riddles had been of a similar construction, so Nakaz knew that they hadn’t been gathered from separate sources, but all of the connecting parts had been removed, preventing comprehension of the whole.
Nakaz had been bothered by more than just the riddles, though. Voesh had been wearing a silver ring with a blue-grey gem and Nakaz had found it somehow familiar. The color of the stone nagged at his memory. The markings on the sides: what had they been? He couldn’t quite remember, but he felt he had seen them somewhere else. He wished he could solve that riddle too.
Nakaz carried his saddlebags down to the common room, expecting Aldan to be waiting for him there. The room was empty, and Nakaz smiled at the memory of how drunk the young lord had been the night before. Nakaz climbed the stairs again and stopped in front of Aldan’s room. He knocked, but received no answer. He tried the door and found it unlatched.
“Aldan,” he called as he walked into the room. “It’s time to …”
The sight of Aldan sprawled on the bed made him forget the rest of his sentence. The young man was lying on his side, one arm curled under his head, his long brown hair fanned across his pillow. His sheet was draped across his hips; he was otherwise naked. Nakaz marveled at how peaceful Aldan’s handsome features were; all of his worries seemed forgotten in sleep.
Nakaz felt a deep attraction to the young lord. He had never felt this way about anyone, not even his former lover Shorel. He was glad that he had offered to lead Aldan to Dargon. Nakaz hoped that once Aldan’s business in the northern town was complete, he would have time to spend with the bard. Nakaz wanted to explore the possibility of a real friendship with Aldan. Friendship, and more.
It seemed a shame to wake the young lord out of his peaceful slumber, but Nakaz knew that they needed to get back to the road. He stepped to the side of the bed and shook Aldan by the shoulder, saying, “Time to rise, lazy. Hundreds of leagues still separate us from Dargon, you know.”
Aldan moaned and rolled onto his back. His expression soured as he opened his eyes a tiny bit and he mumbled, “What? What time is it? Oh, gods, my head!”
“Time to be up and about, Aldan. It’s almost second bell, and we’re wasting daylight.”
Aldan groaned and pulled the sheet up over his head. Fortunately for the young lord’s modesty, the other end was trapped beneath his legs. Nakaz said, “Get up now!”
Aldan flipped the end of the sheet off his head and said, “Fine, fine. I’m up. Stop shouting!”
Nakaz headed for the door. Before he closed it, he said, “If you’re not downstairs in a quarter-bell, I’m coming back up with a bucket from the rain barrel.” He chuckled at the resultant groan.
Nakaz returned to the common room to wait for Aldan. He sat at one of the tables and dug a map out of his saddlebags. He knew that the fastest way from Valdasly to Dargon was the Royal Road that connected the two, but he had time to kill before Aldan made it down the stairs. His traced out the most direct route with his finger: along the Darst Range, through Tench in Narragan, past the end of the mountains and along the Coldwell River, and finally into the city of Dargon. About three sennights of easy travel, and Nakaz’ mission would be over. Aldan’s, though, would just be beginning.
Nakaz slipped the map back into the saddlebags and pondered Aldan’s quest. There were only two reasons the young lord would need to travel so far: flight or pursuit. Aldan seldom worried about their trail once they had traveled it. Instead, he most often fretted at their speed and whether they would be ‘in time’. Nakaz deduced thereby that Aldan was chasing someone. But why?
Nakaz’ musings were interrupted by a noisy clatter of footsteps coming down the stairs. He looked up, but the sound was too loud to be the hung-over Aldan. He saw instead a group of traders in their knee-length vests over loose trousers and tight tunics. They chattered to each other about their own day’s beginning, increasing the noise in the common room until Nakaz found it impossible to return to his own thoughts.
As they passed his table on their way to the courtyard door and the stables beyond, Nakaz couldn’t help but overhear one greybeard say, “No more than two days south-west, and we’ll be in the Barony of Tendian. Four more days and …”
Nakaz felt another spark of recognition at the name Tendian. He tried to concentrate on where he had heard that name before, and finally, once the traders exited the room, he remembered. Tendian. Arvalia. Reshilk!
He recalled meeting Yeran Reshilk at an inn almost two months ago. Yeran’s family had once been barons in Arvalia, until his grandfather had sold the title to the duke, letting his land go to the Baron Tendian.
But the sad story of Yeran’s fading fortunes wasn’t why Nakaz was excited about remembering their meeting: it was the ring, Yeran’s last inheritance, which had been stolen by that false bard Kresh. The same ring that he had seen on Voesh’s finger the night before!
Random information began to come together to form a frightening pattern. Voesh and his riddles, which brought back the previous night and the songs he had sung. One particular song surfaced, one with more significance than the rest: the one about the Margre Chalisento. He remembered the legend of the Margre: all of it, not just the parts in his song. The connections multiplied, and he finally recalled what the symbols on the ring had reminded him of when Yeran had shown it to him the first time: they linked the ring to the Margre.
Footsteps interrupted him again, and when Nakaz looked up this time, it was to see Aldan descending the stairs. He called out across the room, “Aldan! What was on the scroll you ‘solved’ for that woman last night?”
Aldan winced, putting a hand to his head. As he walked over to Nakaz’ table, he said, “You don’t have to shout, Nakaz. I could have heard your whisper as easily, since the room is empty.”
“Sorry,” Nakaz said, though he wasn’t. “The scroll?”
“Ah, scroll? Last night?” Aldan sat, dropping his saddlebags next to Nakaz’. He put his elbows on the table and his head in his hands and continued, “Scroll, fine. I remember, mostly. It was a kind of map, but a strange one.” He looked up and went on in a more confident tone, “At first, it just looked like lines scribbled across the parchment. But I could see an order to the lines, and there were clues in that order that showed which lines were lines, and which were passages. There were even hidden markings that seemed to indicate certain places along the way. Danger places, I think. Why?”
Nakaz said, “What did the map show? A village? A forest trail?”
“No, no. It looked contained, like a building or something. A maze inside of walls, almost. No features, no separate buildings … just corridors. Or maybe tunnels.”
Aldan looked like he wanted to ask why again, but then he stopped. Nakaz could see the concentration on his face and waited for the young man to continue.
“Wait, wait. I remember something else. Two things, really. First, the lady claimed that the map was ancient, but I could tell that it was newly done, and made to look old. Can’t fool me about anything.”
Aldan smiled, and looked contented with his revelation. Nakaz stared pointedly, but Aldan was oblivious. After a few moments more, Nakaz prompted, “And …?”
“Huh? And?” Aldan seemed surprised, but then his eyes widened. “Oh, yes. The other thing. Well, there was a blot of ink in one corner of the scroll, covering some of the lines. The middle was still slightly wet, though that wasn’t the only reason I knew it wasn’t old. When the man and the woman went back to their group and they all left, I saw that one of them had an ink stain on his finger, so they knew it wasn’t old. They made the scrolls just so we could help them do whatever they wanted to do. I wonder what that is?”
“I’m afraid I know, Aldan, and it’s not good.” Nakaz stood and grabbed his saddlebags. “Come on, we’ve got to try to find them.”
Aldan stood too, but he didn’t gather up his belongings. Instead, he said, “Why? I thought we were going to Dargon?”
Nakaz said, “I’ll explain as we go. Come on!” He turned and headed for the courtyard door.
“Do you remember the song I sang last night?” He pushed the door open and led Aldan across the cobbled space beyond.
Aldan replied, “Which one?”
“The one after the chantey. In D major?”
“Ah … no. I guess I was busy or something.”
Nakaz muttered, “‘Drunk or something’ is more like it.” He walked into the stables and over to the stalls that held Riesta and Firesocks. In a louder voice, he said, “It was about the Margre Chalisento, an ancient legend that almost no one knows about. The Margre was a powerful sorceress with an ambition to gather all magic to herself, and with it rule the world. She was defeated, but she had become too powerful to destroy. Fortunately, her opponents had other ways to deal with her, and her bid for power was ended.”
Nakaz started readying Riesta for travel, settling her saddle into place and tightening the girth with a hard yank. Aldan was doing the same for Firesocks, and a pair of stable boys had come over to help. Nakaz continued, “The verses I sang last night ended there, but there is another version of the legend that goes into detail about how the Margre was dealt with. She was split into three pieces, and these sections were hidden in protected places.”
Aldan said, “That sounds pretty ghastly. And she survived that?”
Nakaz chuckled as he fastened his saddlebags onto Riesta’s back. He said, “She wasn’t chopped into three bits; the process was somewhat more refined. As I understand it, she was separated into three fundamental pieces: her mind, her body, and her spirit. In that state, she is no threat. Unless, of course, someone knows enough to fetch her pieces and put her back together.”
Nakaz took Riesta’s headstall from the stable boy and slipped it over the horse’s nose as Aldan asked, “How would someone do that? How would they know it could be done in the first place? You said that the legend isn’t well known, after all.”
“Good question, Aldan, and I don’t know the answer. The legend of the Margre Chalisento is both ancient and dangerous. I only read about it in the College of Bards in Magnus, where a great deal of ancient and dangerous knowledge is collected. The vaults under the college contain the seeds of vast, hazardous power, which is why the bards keep it locked up very securely.”
Aldan said, “That doesn’t really answer the question, Nakaz. Could someone have gotten the scroll or book or whatever about this Margre out of those vaults?”
Nakaz frowned as he checked all of the buckles and straps of Riesta’s harness. “That’s unthinkable, Aldan. The college isn’t some kind of collection of books that lends its stock to anyone who walks by. Those vaults are –” He stopped in mid-sentence, halted by another connection.
The man called Kresh had attracted Nakaz’ attention at the inn two months ago because the bard had first seen him within the Bardic College itself. Kresh had called himself Kethseir, and had possessed all the trappings of one who belonged within the college’s walls. Kresh had been revealed as a thief, if not a murderer, by the incident of Yeran Reshilk’s stolen ring. Nakaz now wondered what the man’s business had been within the college that night.
He looked across Riesta’s back to Aldan, who was finishing up with Firesocks. “How they know isn’t as important as that they know. And I think it is obvious that the people who tricked us into helping them with those scrolls last night are very well acquainted with the facts behind the legend of the Margre Chalisento.”
Nakaz gave Riesta’s reins to the stable boy, who started to lead her out of her stall. Following, he continued, “First, there was the odd request for a song about the Margre. Then I saw a ring on the finger of the man, Voesh, who asked me to translate his riddles. The ring was one I had seen before, and I thought I had recognized the symbols on it. The Margre was known by two symbols: a leaf-and-star, and a stag leaping over a cat. The ring bears both symbols.”
Aldan said, “The map that the woman showed me had the leafy star on it as well.”
“Star-leaf and cat-stag? Like the forbidden canyon, you mean?” said the stable boy leading Aldan’s horse out of the stables.
Nakaz looked and the lad and asked, “Forbidden canyon?”
“Oh yes, sir bard, the forbidden canyon. It’s just north of the city, maybe two bells’ walk. There’s a pair of leafy stars flanking the entrance, and on one wall there’s this great carving of a stag jumping over this mountain cat. My Granda talks about a legend of evil in that place. My Da made sure I knew where it was, and then forbidded me to ever go there again. People vanish up there, and that’s no story. Won’t say I’ve never been back, but I never go far in. I knew someone who was dared to spend the night. He never came back, neither.”
Nakaz said, “It all comes together, Aldan. The riddles, your hidden map, the symbols, and a dangerous canyon. If these people are on some kind of quest to reunite the pieces of the Margre, we have to stop them.”
He turned to the stable boy again, and said, “Can you show us the way to the canyon?”
“Sure,” the lad said, “for a price.”
Nakaz mounted, and Aldan followed suit. The bard said, “Get up here, young man. We’ll negotiate your price as we go.”
The bard helped the stable boy up onto Riesta’s back, and then led the way out of the courtyard. The boy, whose name was Taych, soon agreed upon a suitable price for his guide services, and Nakaz guided his horse onto the right road out of Valdasly.
Taych knew the way well, and inside of a bell Nakaz and Aldan arrived at the canyon. Their path had taken them into the foothills of the Darst Range, and the canyon was very easy to pick out, with its large star-leaf statues flanking the narrow entrance. Nakaz felt that the display was a little unsubtle for a secret hiding place.
He let Taych down and then dismounted, as did Aldan. He walked up the path that led into the canyon and stopped to examine the statues. He realized that while they were worn, they weren’t eroded enough to be several thousand years old. They must have been a later addition, perhaps set in place by those who had once guarded the secret of the canyon.
Stepping between the statues, Nakaz entered the canyon itself. It was a short, narrow cut surrounded by walls no more than twice man-height tall. Nakaz saw no stag and cat carvings, but in the northern wall was a large opening.
Taych said, “Voldronnai’s fire! The carving’s gone! That opening’s right where it usually is, but where did it go?”
Nakaz said, “They’ve been here, but are they gone yet? Come on, Aldan. Taych, you stay by the statues, straight?”
The bard walked over to the opening, wondering whether he would need to put together a makeshift torch. He soon saw that light was not required; evidently there had been some kind of cave-in just a few paces into the cliffside opening, blocking the tunnel completely.
Aldan said, “Do you think they were trapped inside? Or did they collapse the tunnel after leaving?”
Nakaz walked up to the mound of rubble. He looked all around, but there were no clues. He had no idea how to answer Aldan’s question.
He heard a small sound, like a pebble falling. Nakaz looked at the ceiling of the tunnel, but it appeared solid. He looked at the rubble again as another pebble tumbled down the face of the cave-in. Nakaz traced the source to a small opening at the top of the pile. As he watched, several more pebbles were dislodged, and a slightly larger rock followed. A hand-sized opening was revealed, and Nakaz heard a faint voice coming from within.
He scrambled up the rock-fall, and as he neared the opening he heard the voice calling “Help!” He climbed closer to the hole as carefully as he could and said, “Hold on, we’re here!”
The voice said, “Hello? Who’s there?” Nakaz had no trouble identifying the voice as the one that had requested the Margre song the night before. It was a very distinctive voice, that of a young girl but able to shout as loud as an adult. The woman continued, “Voesh? Bresk? Is that you?”
The bard responded, “I’m Nakaz. The only other person here is my companion Aldan. Who are you?”
The voice said, faintly, “They’ve left me. Maybe they just went to get help.” She continued, louder, “Did they send you? How did you find me?”
“No,” answered Nakaz, “we weren’t sent by anyone. We found you by, well, by accident I suppose. What happened?” He started trying to enlarge the small opening, but the stones around it were large, and wedged in place. All he could do was remove the smaller rocks and pebbles to either side, hoping to free some of the larger stones that way. Aldan had climbed the rubble as well, and was working in a similar fashion a short distance away.
The woman was silent for a while, but eventually she said, “My two friends and I found this cave very early this morning.” She paused, and Nakaz heard the clatter of rocks being tossed away. “We decided to explore, but before we had gone half a dozen paces inside, there was a rumble and stones started falling. We all turned to run but … I guess I didn’t run fast enough.” She was silent again, and more rocks rattled. “When I woke up it was dark. I felt around and found the rock-fall, and started picking away at it. It was easiest up here near the top.”
Nakaz had kept up his own clearing efforts while he listened to the woman lie. The small opening was getting larger, but slowly. As he brushed aside pebbles and dislodged rocks to loosen the larger stones, he wondered how he was going to get the truth from the woman.
He had no real authority over her. She hadn’t done anything illegal in entering the cave, nor had her friends committed a crime by presenting faked scrolls to Aldan and himself, which meant that he couldn’t use his credentials as a bard to detain her once she was out of the cave. He could try to trade his help in freeing her for the truth, or he could try to convince her that reviving the Margre was wrong and get her to help him track her friends down. But he didn’t know the woman well enough to decide which was the better course of action.
Nakaz decided to try persuasion. She might take a great deal of convincing, but he didn’t like the thought of holding her freedom ransom to the truth.
“I know that you didn’t just happen on this cave, milady. Our local guide had never seen it before.” Nakaz worked a final rock loose, and a stone as large as his torso tumbled down the rubble. An accompanying clatter of pebbles and debris followed it, leaving a good-sized depression in his side of the cave-in.
He heard scrambling from the other side of the obstruction, and he saw tiny gaps open up as small bits of rubble were cleared from around the large stone that backed his depression. Before Nakaz could adjust his position to help more directly, he saw the stone tilt and then shift, falling outward. But it didn’t fall clear; instead, it lodged in the front of the opening he had made.
Nakaz tried to get the woman talking again. “I’m the bard that you asked to sing about the Margre Chalisento last night. You know, the one that your friends got to help solve those riddles. And I know –”
His monolog was halted by a rumble as the wall of rubble shook slightly. Before he had time to react, he heard a scream from inside, followed by a louder rumbling and the sound of another cave-in.
Nakaz scrambled back to solid ground, followed by Aldan. He soon realized that the rubble he had been standing on had not shifted; the new cave-in had been behind the first. The noise of falling rocks faded as plumes of dust rose from several places in the obstruction.
Before the last click had faded and the dust had settled, Nakaz was back up on the rubble. He reached the old opening and called out, “Hello? Are you all right in there?” He received no reply.
He started working at the cave-in again, more frantically than before. He pushed at the stone blocking the depression he had created earlier. It didn’t budge, so he started working around it, trying to free it. He could hear Aldan’s efforts near the other wall of the cave. He wanted to get the woman out of there, and not just because she had the answers he needed.
Nakaz worked alongside Aldan for nearly a bell. Pebbles and rocks rained down, and before long, larger stones were following. Nakaz pulled and dug, ignoring the cuts and gouges he earned for his efforts. He only paused once, when a falling rock glanced off his middle finger’s nail, splitting it. He ignored the pain and returned to work after taking a moment to realize that he wouldn’t be playing the lute until that nail healed.
Finally, Nakaz saw cloth through an opening. He called Aldan over and together they worked more cautiously to remove the rubble in the area. They slowly exposed the unconscious young woman who, though bloody, was still breathing.
Nakaz and Aldan gently lifted the woman out of the rocks. The bard knew that moving her was risky, and he winced when she gasped slightly without regaining consciousness, but there wasn’t enough light in the cave to see to her injuries. He and Aldan carried her out into the canyon and set her down carefully.
Nakaz was no healer, but he could see that she needed the attentions of one as quickly as possible. She had gashes on her face, arms and hands, and blood seeped through her leggings. Her left wrist was twisted at an impossible angle, and her breathing was ragged.
He said, “Aldan, we need water to clean her injuries. And get a blanket; we should try to make her comfortable.”
Nakaz didn’t wait for any questions from his companion. He started running toward the mouth of the canyon, calling out, “Taych, do you know of a healer in town?”
The boy nodded, eyes wide with excitement and a little fear. Nakaz reached his side, and pulled him along as he continued toward Riesta. He opened the saddlebags and fetched a small pouch before lifting Taych up into his horse’s saddle.
“Ride as fast as you can. Riesta here can follow the reins; just keep a light touch and you’ll be fine. Get to the healer and say that there’s been a cave-in injury. Then get both of you back here as fast as you can ride. Straight?”
The boy nodded again, clutched at Riesta’s reins, and galloped off.
Nakaz returned to the injured woman, kneeling next to Aldan at her side. The young lord was carefully wiping at the scrapes and gashes on her face.
He helped Aldan move the woman once again, arranging her on the blanket, an extra fold under her head as a pillow. Nakaz slit open her leggings with his knife to assess the wounds there, and was glad to find only scrapes and a gouge, nothing serious. He joined Aldan in cleaning her wounds, using some ointment from the pouch he had fetched on the deeper ones. He was still worried about her rough breathing, but he didn’t have anything in his accident kit for that. He and Aldan both stayed away from her broken wrist.
She was beginning to come around by the time the clean-up work was finished. Her eyelids flickered, but didn’t quite open, and she began to moan. Nakaz took a tiny phial from his kit and removed its stopper. He placed his finger over the opening and up-ended the phial, then brushed his finger across her lips, leaving a slight bluish stain behind. Her tongue darted out automatically and licked the stain away, and again when Nakaz repeated the process.
He looked up at Aldan’s questioning expression and as he put the phial away he said, “It’s called prehidar. For the pain. It is very difficult to make. Fortunately, it is also very effective. See?”
The woman had stopped moaning, and her face grew peaceful. Her eyes opened and she looked around, a puzzled expression on her face.
“What? Where …?” she began asking, but grimaced again and stopped. Nakaz knew that there was something very wrong with her if the prehidar wasn’t removing all of her pain.
He said, “Take it easy, a healer is on the way.” He didn’t say that it might be as much as two bells until that healer arrived. “If it doesn’t hurt to talk, could you tell us who you are?”
The woman looked around calmly. Nakaz saw her try to sit up but she didn’t manage to do more than raise her head slightly before grimacing again. Her gaze returned to him, recognition showing before being replaced with wariness. She whispered, “Meelia,” without wincing, sounding even more like a child.
“Well, Meelia,” said Nakaz in a friendly tone, “while we’re waiting why don’t you tell me all you know about the Margre Chalisento?”
Meelia grinned wanly and whispered, “Never heard of him. Friend of yours?”
“You asked for a song about her last night in the White Spike.”
“Never been there. Must have been someone else.”
Nakaz narrowed his eyes in annoyance and continued, “You mentioned the name of someone who was in the White Spike last night though. Voesh. Remember?”
Meelia said faintly, “Must have been a coincidence.”
“Tall man, black hair, scar?”
“Short woman, red hair, and you wouldn’t have seen her scar in public.”
“You’ve got a lie for everything, don’t you?”
Meelia chuckled, but didn’t respond.
Nakaz spent a few moments considering his options. She wasn’t going to tell him the truth without a reason, so he’d have to give her one.
“You must know that the Margre Chalisento is evil,” he said.
“Then why are you his friend?” she whispered.
“You know the legend, and if you didn’t before, you heard it last night.”
“Last night I was in the woods with Brale and Vish.”
“Why would the group of you want to bring her evil back into the world? What reward have you been promised?”
Meelia looked at him, looked up at the sky, and then closed her eyes. “It’s time to sleep,” she whispered.
Nakaz continued questioning her, but got no responses. Either she was very good at feigning or she really was asleep. He tried again and again for more than a bell, but she refused to answer. Her breathing grew more ragged, though, and the pain lines returned slowly to her face as the prehidar salve slowly wore off.
Nakaz finally gave up. He sat beside her and debated giving her more of the pain-killer as the silence stretched longer and longer. A quarter-bell passed before Nakaz decided to give her more of the prehidar; he didn’t think that the dose would endanger her any more than her injuries already had.
He was reaching for his accident kit when two things happened. Meelia opened her eyes and looked frantically around, perhaps fearing she had been abandoned due to the lengthy silence. At the same time, a large darningfly darted in a zig-zag path to land on Meelia’s right hand.
Nakaz looked at the finger-long insect as it rested there, its short body sporting two sets of iridescent, veined wings held out to the sides while sticking out behind was the long, segmented tail that, along with its erratic flight, gave it its name. Light glistened off the wings and the bulbous eyes, contrasting with the vicious-looking mouth-parts and the wicked-seeming barb at the end of that tail. Nakaz knew that darningflies were harmless, however, so he didn’t bother to shoo it away.
He noticed that Meelia hadn’t twitched her hand either, and he wondered why. He found that she was staring at the insect with a strange look in her eye, somewhere between reverence and fear.
He said gently, “Meelia?”
She responded instantly, still whispering. “We … my family … used that as a symbol.”
“Used?” asked Nakaz. “Did they change it?”
“No,” she said, still transfixed by the darningfly. “They … they disowned me.”
The insect lifted from Meelia’s hand with a buzz of wings, and the woman hastily said, “They didn’t. I ran away!” The bug landed again, becoming as still as a figurine. Meelia continued, “It was Joal. He showed me how life could be outside the rigid structure of my family, which was all duty and responsibility, no freedom or fun.”
Nakaz smiled briefly as he saw Aldan nod in sympathy. He said, “Go on,” eager to keep her talking.
“I thought that Joal and I would get married. We never even slept together. But he introduced me to Bresk and the rest. I never regretted running away. Until now.”
“Because … I’m dying. Darningflies aren’t just our heraldry, they’re legend too. It’s said that they come to take the souls of the dying. I always thought it was a stupid legend; we come from a marshy area and there’s darningflies everywhere. It’s just a family superstition. But now …”
She fell silent again, but she still stared at the insect on her hand. Nakaz decided to try to coax more information out of her while she was in a loquacious mood.
“How did you end up in that cave-in, Meelia?”
She was silent for a moment, and then she sighed. “We were looking for one of the pieces of the Margre Chalisento. Voesh, the man you met yesterday, has been leading us all over the kingdom, looking. He came back from a trip to Pyridain with a scar and a quest. He got this old book in Magnus –”
“Very old?” interrupted Nakaz. “Blue binding with a small tear in the lower left corner?”
“Yeah, that’s it. You’ve seen it? Where? Oh, never mind, it’s not really important.
“Anyway, this book had clues in it that helped Voesh gather more information. That, and a small, oval stone with a gold star-shaped leaf inset into it. Somehow the stone helps him make decisions; it’s very uncanny when he does that.
“We’ve been chasing this legend for ages. For example, we spent two years piecing together enough information to locate a certain ring, which we hired a thief named Kale to acquire.”
Meelia paused, her gaze sweeping across Nakaz and Aldan before returning to the insect. She seemed to be gathering strength, and Nakaz let the silence stretch until she was ready to continue. A moment later, she continued, “The book helped lead us to Valdasly; the riddles narrowed down where to look; the ring led us to this cave and keyed open the hidden entrance. The map that your friend there interpreted showed the true tunnel and every trap along the way. We got to the end and found a cup on a little plinth set in an alcove with all kinds of carvings around it. The cup was stone, but it had a grain, like wood. Set into one side was a very small, very detailed stag-and-cat figure in gold. Voesh called it the ‘chalice of the body’, which was how we knew that it was what we had been looking for: part of the Margre. I guess that Voesh’s little oval stone must be another part, ’cause he told us that we only needed one more part, and that he was sure that it was to the north, somewhere in Dargon.”
Nakaz looked at Aldan, who was staring back at him. Dargon. Coincidence?
Meelia continued, “The last bit of the map was blotted with ink; I think that’s why the last trap got missed. Voesh did say something about a curse compounding itself as the parts were gathered together, but it was probably just Shan being careless. Of course, if we’d used the book itself, this wouldn’t have happened. But Voesh guards that book like it was his child.”
Meelia closed her eyes and suddenly coughed, convulsing her body and making her cry out with pain. She turned her head, hawked and spit, and the phlegm produced was heavily laced with blood. She tried to curl up but only cried out again.
Nakaz hurriedly fetched his phial and smeared more blue on her lips. She calmed down almost as soon as her tongue touched the color, and soon she was lying still, a smile on her face. Only her very ragged breathing, and the way pink froth occasionally bubbled to her lips, showed how badly off she was.
Nakaz knew that he didn’t have much time. He would have liked to learn more about Voesh’s stone, or about how the book that he had seen in the vaults of the College of Bards had been acquired, but Meelia wasn’t going to last much longer. If he couldn’t get the answers from her, though, there were still the others of her group.
“Meelia, do you know how your friends are getting to Dargon?”
“Don’t know,” she whispered dreamily. Nakaz wondered if he had given her too much prehidar. “But can guess. Direct route not using Royal Roads. Bresk, he’s our leader when Voesh isn’t telling us where to go, Bresk says that Royal Roads are too easy to follow and he doesn’t like to make it easy on any pursuit we might end up with. And we’ve been pursued a lot!” She giggled, spit out a little blood, and fell silent.
Nakaz almost missed the moment when Meelia died. He would have if the darningfly hadn’t chosen that moment to dart off, up over the cliff and away. Meelia’s chest fell with a faint rattle, and didn’t rise again.
Nakaz stood sadly, and walked a little way away to wait for the healer. Aldan followed. They stood in silence for a bit, and then Aldan asked, “So, did you believe her story?”
Nakaz said, “Yes. At the end, at least. She was telling the truth once the darningfly arrived.”
“But isn’t it a bit preposterous that they could have been guided all over the kingdom by some ancient artifact?”
For some reason, Nakaz’ mind flashed on the glass and metal-banded stone sculpture in his saddlebags. Thrusting the irrelevant thought away, he said, “The evidence is slim, but convincing. The ring, this canyon, the cave-in, and her story all fit together. And I’ve read that very book she talked about. I think we have to treat it all as fact.”
Nakaz walked out of the canyon with a final glance at Meelia’s body, leaving a thoughtful Aldan behind. He reached Aldan’s horse in time to see two riders approaching: Taych and another.
The healer confirmed that Meelia was dead of injuries inside her body. Nakaz thanked him, and asked him to let people know that the new cave was very dangerous and it should be blocked off as soon as possible. The healer left, taking Taych with him.
After putting Meelia’s body back in the cave, which was as fitting a burial as Nakaz could contrive, the two travelers returned to the horses. Aldan asked, “What now?”
Nakaz was ready with the answer. “We follow. There aren’t that many paths north that aren’t the Royal Road. They have half a day on us; we can’t let them get more of a lead. At any other time we could make up that time by riding at night, but this is the dark of the moon. At least they won’t be able to increase their lead.
“Do you have any objections to that? Chasing them north won’t even take us out of our way.”
Aldan said, “I agree. And if it ends up that we need to turn aside from my destination, I’ll gladly agree to it. Finding these people is more important than my business in Dargon.”
Nakaz nodded. He mounted Riesta and he and Aldan continued their journey north with an additional purpose.