Rhonwn was jolted awake by a kick to his foot. Pain coursed through him, but he was used to it. He had lived with a broken leg for the past month and at times he felt the pain in his sleep. He didn’t cry out because his healthy leg had been the one kicked; by that he knew that Flane had launched the blow.
Rhonwn opened his eyes and looked around the camp of Lacsil and the Bloody Hand of Sageeza. It was a warm night near the end of summer but there was a large fire burning in the center of the clearing. The night was dark, made darker by the moon in its new phase, but light wasn’t the only thing the fire provided: it was also a source of comfort.
He knew that these men needed that comfort more than the food it cooked or the light it provided. They were in the middle of the woods, far from their homes and far from what they called civilization. They only had each other, their fire, and the maps. And a gypsy map reader that each and every one of them despised.
Rhonwn looked at Flane then. The man had a plain face, brown hair, and an ear whose top had been removed by a sharp edge of some kind. He held a bowl in one hand, a scroll tube in the other, and had the same scowl on his face that he always had when it was his turn to feed the prisoner.
Rhonwn the despised gypsy prisoner said, “Hello, Flane. Nice night, isn’t it?” He didn’t extend a hand to shake, or rise from leaning against the tree at his back. The reason wasn’t rudeness; he simply couldn’t do either of those things. After the escape attempt that had earned him his broken leg, Rhonwn had been trussed up like a pork loin except when absolutely necessary. Aside from the debilitating pain of his broken leg, which had been immobilized but not set properly, the gypsy had been wrapped in rope to secure his arms to his sides, with a loop linking his wrists to his neck. His good leg was bent double and circled by rope as well. As a final precaution, short loops were staked to the ground and attached to his other bonds to prevent him from rolling away into the woods or some other impossibility.
Flane actually answered Rhonwn’s question, saying, “Passable.” The man knelt next to the gypsy and made himself comfortable. The waxed leather tube was set to one side and Flane took hold of the spoon in the bowl to feed the prisoner.
Rhonwn swallowed the first spoonful, grateful that it had all gone into his mouth. The soup was thin and tasteless but it was better than nothing. In an effort to distract himself from the ignominy of being fed like an infant he said, “You don’t treat me as badly as some of the others, Flane, but I know you don’t like me any better. Why?”
“You may be scum, gypsy,” said Flane as he spooned more soup into Rhonwn’s mouth, “but that’s all. I might treat my worst enemy like a diseased dog, but you’re not worth the effort.”
Rhonwn was surprised by being answered as much as by what that answer was. For the past three fortnights he had been talked at but never listened to unless it concerned the trail or the maps that his father Bobere had made to supplement his faulty memory. Perhaps he should have tried talking to Flane earlier.
“That’s an interesting point, Flane, if not a flattering one,” said Rhonwn. “If you don’t mind my asking, why are you part of the Bloody Hand? If it’s too much trouble to torment me, why throw in with a group that wants to destroy all gypsies?”
Half of the bowl was fed to Rhonwn in silence before Flane answered that question. He finally said, “Because you don’t follow the rules.”
More silence followed, and Rhonwn thought he wasn’t going to get anything more, but eventually Flane did continue. “You gypsies … you’re too different. You move around the kingdom, never staying in one place long, never suffering the consequences. You know about Lacsil, right? How he lost his right thumb because he was blamed for gypsy mischief? Well everyone here has a similar tale. And it’s all down to consequences. We just want to give you what you deserve.”
Four more spoonfuls of the tasteless soup later, Rhonwn finally asked, “What’s your story?” His eyes strayed to the man’s cut ear.
“My sister,” said Flane without a pause, and Rhonwn’s gaze snapped back to Flane’s face in surprise. “She was happily married until a gypsy seduced her. Wouldn’t have been more than a brief storm in her relationship if she hadn’t had a baby.”
Rhonwn’s own romantic escapades made him feel a little guilt at Flane’s story, but he had to interject at the last bit. “We try our best not to leave children among you. Draughts, sheathes, even charms. How are you sure the child was not her husband’s?”
“That was the problem, you see,” Flane said, his eyes on the bowl in his hand. “Ahleen and Imaad, my sister and brother-in-law, were both blond and fair-skinned, while the baby, Weerit, was black-haired and somewhat dusky. But he looked like his mother, and his father’s family had its share of dark hair. And yet, there was the matter of the dalliance which cast doubt on everything. Maybe the child was Imaad’s but no one could tell for sure. He left Ahleen, said he couldn’t take the talk. Ahleen killed herself in shame.
“Consequences, gypsy. Consequences.”
Guilt flared up again, even as Rhonwn tried to blame the stranger’s death on the ridiculous morals of the rooted-folk. Then he recalled that the expedition he was now an unwilling part of had been enabled by a liaison of his own. A young woman in Beeikar, somewhat plain but pleasing in bed, had expected more of him than one night of pleasure. He had neatly avoided contact with her without thought to her feelings. The consequences of letting slip the secret of his father’s maps to her, combined with the consequences of ignoring her, were obvious; she had been well motivated to reveal that secret to the Bloody Hand of Sageeza.
How many people had he left in similar circumstances, but without the power to strike back at him? Certainly many of his dalliances knew the nature of his attentions and wanted no more, but he had left lovers like Merilee behind him in the past: lonely, shy, plain, freshly de-flowered. His only thought had been for his own pleasure, his conscience salved by meaningless congratulations at bringing happiness to otherwise unhappy folk. Maybe he should have started thinking beyond the simple consequences of his own dalliances much earlier.
He ignored the next spoonful of soup, pondering consequences. Flane said, “I’m not allowed to return with anything in this bowl. Either it goes in you, or on you. Your choice.”
Rhonwn looked up at Flane, and opened his mouth. He looked past his temporary servant as he swallowed, and caught sight of something on the underside of the branch over his head that didn’t belong. He focused on it and discovered that it was a Rhydd Pobl trail blaze: the symbol for attention.
While he ate the last few spoonfuls of soup, he scanned the part of the campsite he could see. He found the signs almost everywhere he looked: green leaves tucked into flaps of bark, sticks piled over acorns and honey locust pods in specific ways, feathers sticking out of pine tar stuck under the branch of a maple tree. He counted a dozen intact blazes, and a score more that had been disarrayed by unaware feet. Each one contained the same information in its abbreviated trail code: ten people in four bans, or gypsy wagons, were on his trail, no more than five days to the south. The scouts who must have left the blazes couldn’t be more detailed, but Rhonwn knew his people wouldn’t be following unless they knew about Lacsil and his mission, which was very good news indeed.
Flane had set the soup bowl aside and was drawing a map out of the scroll tube. He spread it out in front of Rhonwn and said, sweeping his hand across the chart, “What are those red marks?”
Rhonwn knew what Flane was asking about without even looking at the map. He glanced at it anyway, noting the scattering of red dots all across the parchment. They represented angwleriddan, areas of strange, intermittent, usually dangerous, magic that were found only in this area of the forest.
“They’re former campsites, that’s all,” he lied. “As you can see, this map doesn’t have a single village marked on it. We wanted to be sure we knew where the best campsites were since there isn’t anywhere else to stay.”
Flane said, “Fine. Which way do we go tomorrow?”
Rhonwn gazed at the map, glad that none of these men were the type to bother learning even the rudiments of the Rhydd Pobl language or they would know that the rune next to each red dot meant danger. He said, “Same as yesterday. Tench is still to the east, and the next time we need to switch trails isn’t for two days.”
“I’ll let Lacsil know,” said Flane as he rose and walked away.
Rhonwn closed his eyes and rested his head against the tree behind him. He reviewed the nearby trails in his mind with his new knowledge that Lacsil was being pursued uppermost in his thoughts. He plotted the best way to steer the Bloody Hand’s minions into the arms of his own people.
“We shouldn’t have left her!”
The five people who remained in Bresk’s Band rode single-file along a narrow dirt path between trees that pressed too close. The man who had spoken, tall, broad-shouldered, brown-haired, led the group with a scowl on his face.
“We had no choice, Bresk,” said the man at the back of the line, who was black-haired and had a scar in the middle of his left eyebrow. “Meelia was surely killed in that cave-in. We all miss her, but she’s gone. And we have business in Dargon that we might as well be about.”
“But you don’t know she was dead, Voesh,” said Bresk. “She might have survived for the past three days behind those rocks.” He twisted his body around and looked back at the others. “Why couldn’t we have spared a bell to try to dig her out? What is so pressing about this quest of yours that we had to leave not knowing?”
The question hadn’t been asked before, but Voesh was ready with an answer. “We were being followed, Bresk. We needed to get away. I heard rumors as we were preparing to ride out to the canyon, rumors of another group who were also hunting after the Margre Chalisento.”
“That’s nonsense, Voesh!” the man in the lead shouted. “You just didn’t want to get your hands dirty. We’ve been looking for this legendary Margre for five years, but we’ve known Meelia for twelve. We shouldn’t have abandoned her without even looking!”
Bresk twisted forward again and flicked his reins. His horse began to trot toward the curve in the path about two score paces away, gaining distance on the four behind.
The rider next in line after Bresk, a beautiful woman with short white hair and an aristocratic bearing, had been looking thoughtful since before the group’s leader’s outburst. She said, “Does anyone else think there was something … odd … about that fallen tree that diverted us onto this path? I mean, what could have knocked it down? It seems like we haven’t had any rainstorms all summer, and the dirt on its roots looked fresh.”
“Are you sure, Yera?” asked the wiry, blond man riding behind her. “I didn’t notice that.”
Yerianolya said icily, “Yes, Joal, I’m sure, else I wouldn’t have said it. Now what –?”
She was interrupted by a scream from up ahead. All four looked up the path to find that Bresk was no longer to be seen. The screaming didn’t stop either, and it was the unmistakable sound of a horse in agony.
Yerianolya and Joal spurred their horses on and dashed ahead. The man riding in front of Voesh, large-bodied and dark-haired, turned for a moment to ask a question. Voesh spoke first, saying, “We should get after them, Shan. I think Yera might have been right about –”
He didn’t get the chance to finish; at that moment, three figures appeared out of the woods. Two came from the sides of the path, darting out between the two horses. The third dropped off of a branch that Voesh was riding under, landing behind the black-haired man and reaching for his neck.
The sudden movement and the slamming of weight on his haunches made Voesh’s horse rear up and flail with his front hooves. Voesh and the attacker tumbled off and, landing very badly, neither moved again. The horse’s hooves impacted the head of one of the other newcomers, and that man fell too, unmoving.
Shan, still ahorse, drew his sword. All of the members of Bresk’s Band were armed, though some were better with those armaments than others. Shan was the worst swordsman among them, but he had the advantage of height and an ironic surprise. The last attacker, astonished at how quickly he was alone in his banditry, was easily run through.
Shan tried to gain control of Voesh’s frightened and bolting horse, but he missed. He dismounted and made sure that the three bandits were dead. Then he knelt beside Voesh, who had a broken neck like his assailant. The dark man was motionless for a few moments, listening to the screaming from around the bend that suddenly stopped. Then, moving stiffly, he bent forward and reached into Voesh’s robe. He found what he was searching for, and when he touched it, his whole body convulsed briefly. A moment later, he withdrew three items from the man’s body: an old book with a blue cover, a small rock, and a stone cup. He reached for Voesh’s hand and removed a silver ring with a blue-grey stone from his finger.
Standing, Shan stashed his discoveries in his belt pouch and got back up onto his horse. He sat for a moment, and then, kicking his horse into a trot, he rode around the bend, putting a look of fear onto his face. He found Yera and Joal standing next to Bresk’s dead horse. Bresk himself was lying limply against a nearby tree.
Shan said breathlessly, “Bandits attacked us. We killed the three of them, but Voesh died in the ambush. I was checking his body when I heard hoofbeats from around the other bend. We need to get out of here, now!”
Joal said, “But, what about the bodies? What about Bresk? His horse broke its leg on these ruts the bandits must have dug, throwing him into that tree. We don’t have a leader now without Voesh either.”
“We can decide who leads later, Joal,” Shan said, frowning. “Those robbers aren’t going to give us time to vote right now. Let’s go!”
Yera and Joal hurried into their saddles, the latter staring in concern at Shan’s frown. He said, “Wait, Shan. When did you get a scar in the middle of your left eyebrow? It looks just like Voesh’s.”
“Ride,” said Shan, ignoring Joal’s question. The three galloped away, Joal hesitating slightly, leaving the bodies behind.
“As soon as we knew Rhonwn was alive, we started leaving signs for him,” said Leedlan. Ganba of the Rhydd Pobl was receiving the young man’s scouting report while the bantor, or wagon group, she led rolled down the road toward her target: Lacsil and some members of the Bloody Hand of Sageeza.
“At first, we only left one or two, hoping he would see them,” Leedlan continued. “We soon realized that the men with Lacsil have no woodcraft whatsoever. They never even noticed the blazes, so we started leaving them all over the most likely campsites they might use. Finally, six days ago, Rhonwn contrived to leave us an answer that let us know he had seen our messages.”
“That’s good news, Leedlan,” said Ganba. “How far ahead are they now?”
“Two days, three at most. It seems as though Rhonwn has begun leading them slightly astray; they’re no longer heading due east, but slightly north, even though eastern paths exist. I think he’s trying to slow them down.”
“He may well be,” Ganba mused, “but he doesn’t have very much leeway. They are, after all, following maps. Still, whatever he can do will only help. Thank you for the news, Leedlan. Replenish your supplies and get back out there.”
The young man grinned, nodded, and rode off. Ganba turned to Yawrab, who was sitting next to her on the driving bench of the wagon. She told the middle-aged, non-gypsy passenger with the mismatched eyes, “We are gaining steadily. It won’t be much longer before we catch Lacsil.”
“And then?” asked Yawrab.
“And then we eliminate the threat.” Ganba didn’t relish that thought, but Lacsil and his men had attacked her uncle, Bobere, and his son, Rhonwn. Bobere had died; Rhonwn had been taken captive. From what her scouts had reported, Rhonwn was not being unduly mistreated, though he was wearing a splint on his leg.
Beyond her personal feelings, there was the threat that Lacsil posed to the annual gathering of her people at Eariaddas Hwl. Bobere had reported before he died that Lacsil and the Bloody Hand of Sageeza intended to attack that gathering with as many of their followers as they could muster. The maps that Lacsil had in his possession made the threat a real possibility.
The bantor passed the rest of the day as routinely as it had the last month and more. They reached a suitable campsite just before sunset. Ganba called the bantor to a halt instead of pressing on into the evening as they had for the past fortnight, a practice that, along with early morning departures and well-chosen trails, had helped close the distance to Lacsil. She had planned an early halt even before Leedlan’s news of how close Lacsil was; it was the autumnal equinox and the gypsies would be celebrating the change of seasons that night.
Long practice had the camp set up quickly, and soon the evening meal had been cooked and consumed. As the stars appeared and the moon, nearing its first quarter, rose, musical instruments were brought out. Skirling pipes and pounding drums soon filled the clearing with wild gypsy music. Ganba joined her fellow travelers as they danced in celebration of summer and anticipation of autumn.
Gypsy dancing didn’t have set steps or even partners. The dancers moved their arms, legs, and bodies to the beat of the drums and the rhythm of the music. Ganba let herself be moved by the sounds that surrounded her and wondered how anyone could think that anything else was truly dancing. She knew that dancing among Yawrab’s people was more formal and ritualized, but she had heard that some of the young folk of Baranur had taken to dancing like gypsies, calling it ‘dervish dancing’ to separate it from its origins.
Ganba danced briefly with everyone, including her brothers and Ruthodd. When she danced with Yawrab, the Baranurian woman grinned and gyrated like a born gypsy. Ganba noticed that she was being flirted with as well, which she found very encouraging.
The leader of the bantor soon separated herself from the celebration and sat by the fire. She watched the revelers, keeping an eye on both her brother Hiranw and Yawrab. As she had suspected, the pair seemed to be more friends than the lovers they had been. Hiranw spent a fair amount of time dancing around Lewro, the only other woman in the bantor, while Yawrab spread her attentions around equally. Ganba was pleased to see how uninhibited Yawrab was acting; it was a huge change from the dour, serious woman whom she had first met.
She watched as Yawrab excused herself and came over to the fire. Yawrab said, “You gypsies certainly know how to celebrate!” As the woman settled into one of the sling chairs next to Ganba, the gypsy made up her mind to act.
Ganba reached over and set her hand on Yawrab’s shoulder. Leaning close, she put her other hand on Yawrab’s knee and said, “It is a night of endings and beginnings, and we always celebrate such.” She slid her hand up Yawrab’s leg slightly, watching her face and smiling when she didn’t react negatively to the motion. Ganba continued, “Beginnings more than endings, usually,” and leaned closer, sliding the hand on Yawrab’s shoulder around to the back of her neck. She began moving her fingers in a slow circle, caressing the bare skin, slightly sweat-slick and warm. Yawrab’s eyelids closed halfway as a look of pleasure came over her face, and Ganba smiled wider.
Leaning even closer, whispering breathily into Yawrab’s ear, Ganba said, “I was wondering whether you might like to celebrate a beginning tomorrow?” She slid her hand on Yawrab’s leg back to her knee, cupping the joint and then running her hand down Yawrab’s shin. Her fingers still moving on Yawrab’s neck, she said softly, “In my bed?”
Yawrab turned her head so that they were nose to nose. She said, “That would be …” She tilted her head slightly to the side and moved closer, and continued, “… perfect.”
Ganba felt their lips touch, and she knew it would be.
Aldan and Nakaz came upon the bodies three days after leaving the cave-in site. Aldan recognized one of the four corpses that were scattered across the path as Voesh, the man who had visited his and Nakaz’ table four nights previously. The other three were roughly dressed, with unkempt hair and scraggly beards.
Nakaz dismounted and examined the bodies. “I’d say they died sometime today,” he said. “Bandit attack. There’s something different about Voesh, though.” Aldan didn’t notice anything different. He watched as the bard searched all four bodies and then remounted, shaking his head.
“Whoever killed these four, they were in a hurry to leave. No one has been stripped, save that Voesh is not carrying the book or any other artifact, not even the silver ring. I wonder why they felt they had to leave without burying their companion?”
Aldan frowned as he followed Nakaz along the path, worrying at the new mystery. They were on the trail of a group of people who were trying to resurrect an ancient evil called the Margre Chalisento. Thanks to the bard’s tracking skills, he and Nakaz had been able to follow them, but that was all they could do. Nakaz’ maps didn’t show the trails they now followed and the dense trees meant that they couldn’t travel very long after dark to try to close the gap.
Aldan didn’t begrudge the detour. Though it was taking him away from his primary goal of reaching the city of Dargon, he knew that it was important to stop these people: more important than his own need to locate the men he was following.
They rounded a bend and found two more bodies, a man and a horse, along with ruts cut across the path. Nakaz checked quickly and reported, “The horse was lamed by the ruts, probably throwing the rider. The curse Meelia mentioned seems to be taking its toll.”
Nakaz was soon moving forward again, and Aldan followed silently. He felt useless in the chase, since he couldn’t track and had no more knowledge of the paths in the area than Nakaz did, but he wanted to find the people who had so casually left their companions behind almost as much as he wanted to find those who had murdered his bride-to-be.
Two days later, the pair were riding along as fast as they dared when Aldan heard a strange noise to the south of the trail. It sounded like running water, but not quite like a river: more like a hard rain even though the sky was clear.
In moments a southward path came into view and with it, the source of the sound. The path only extended for a few paces before it vanished into an area of roiling grey, like a cloud that touched the ground. This area extended to either side of the path and upwards for a short distance before curving away at maybe three man-heights.
Aldan turned down the path and approached the strange, grey area. As he got closer, he saw that it seemed to be raining within the limits of that region: a downpour fit to drown an ox. There was no runoff, however; all of the water stayed inside. A few dead trees stood in the rain, little more than rotted stumps. Nothing else besides mud and water seemed to exist within.
Aldan rode right up to the edge of the region, fascinated by the aberration of nature. He watched the rain as it pounded down, splashing off of the dead trees and the standing water. He was reaching toward the edge of the area when he heard the word, “Magic,” right next to him. He started violently, making Firesocks fidget, and looked over to see Nakaz, who had ridden up beside him. The bard continued, “Ancient, strange magic.”
Blushing from being startled so badly, Aldan turned away. He stared at the unnatural rain for a moment before asking, “What kind?”
“I don’t know. No one does. The vaults of the College of Bards contain the answers to a great many mysteries and legends, like the Margre, but the origins of these magical loci are not recorded there.”
Nakaz turned to go back to the main path. “People have studied them, written books full of theories. I’ve even heard of an unsuccessful attempt to recreate one. So far, they remain utterly unexplained.”
Aldan continued staring for a time, before eventually following the bard. He realized that of all of the new experiences he had had since leaving his father’s keep, this was the weirdest. He grinned, wondering if he would get to see any more of these loci.
Two nights later, the pair made camp a bell after sunset. Thinning trees and a waxing moon almost to its first quarter provided enough light for that much extra travel. When dinner had been prepared, eaten, and cleaned up, Aldan sat comfortably by the fire listening to Nakaz play his lute.
After a particularly sprightly tune, the bard said, “Do you know what day this is?”
Aldan thought carefully, trying to count, but found that he had lost track some time ago. “I’ve got no idea, Nakaz. Why?”
“Because it’s the 30th of Sy, the autumnal equinox. Last day of summer.”
“You’re not serious, are you?” asked Aldan incredulously. “You mean, I’ve been chasing the Menagerie for half a season?”
“The Menagerie?” asked Nakaz.
“Ah, never mind,” Aldan said, flustered. “So, um, do bards celebrate the seasons in any special way?” He looked away from Nakaz’ penetrating stare.
The bard said, “No, not really. But in Bivar, where I was born, we have a tradition of bonfire jumping, for luck, you know, and the traditional king of summer festivities. Nothing very unique, really. How about your home?”
“Bindrmon isn’t much different from the rest of Welspeare,” said Aldan. “We have a large harvest celebration, even though harvest doesn’t really begin for a fortnight or more. There are rites to propitiate the gods of growth and the weather, intended to earn a good harvest before the fact. Lots of food and dancing, but no bonfire jumping. I’ve heard they do that down south, though.”
Halfway through Aldan’s reply, Nakaz stopped plucking his lute and stood. Aldan watched the bard fetch something from his saddlebags and return to the fire with it. Setting it between them, Nakaz returned to his playing.
Aldan looked at the item curiously. It was a wedge-shaped fragment of something larger, perhaps a third of the plate-like original, judging by the curve of the outer edge. The stone of the base was topped by interwoven strands of silver and gold metal and what seemed like glass. On the outer edge of the piece were relief carvings of a stylized cat and fox facing each other.
Aldan said, “What is this?” as he reached out to run his fingers along the glass band.
“A memory,” Nakaz answered. “A memento. It belonged to Shorel; when she died, I took it to remind myself of her.”
Aldan started to ask about Shorel, but before he could voice his question, Nakaz stopped playing and reached for the sculpture. He touched the iron banding, and Aldan felt the strangest sensation vibrate into his fingers where they rested on the glass strip. Aldan heard music through his skin where it rested on the fragment, but even stranger was that he could feel the sound entering Nakaz’ arm as well. The notes were wild and strange, like no song he had ever heard before, and they seemed to flow up his arm and into his body, filling him with an ethereal melody.
As the music filled him, he felt it fill Nakaz as well. It was as if he rode with the notes, occupying space within the bard along with the music. It wasn’t until the melody entered the bard’s head that he realized that Nakaz was within him as he was within Nakaz.
The song reached its crescendo and Aldan felt his mind merge with Nakaz’. He knew the way it felt to make music; he understood the knowledge that Nakaz had absorbed in his studies and his travels; he grasped how Shorel’s death had left the bard feeling sad but not heartbroken.
The melody ended and the connection broke. Aldan lifted his hand from the sculpture in awe; he knew that the stone fragment was much more than just a broken decoration. He also knew that Nakaz was more than just his guide to Dargon. He felt more complete than he ever had in the past, but he knew that there was still something missing: something or someone he still had to search for. He knew that Nakaz felt the same need, and he knew that he wouldn’t be searching alone.
“That way leads north, and that’s where we should go!”
“The path is too narrow, Joal,” said Yera, “and I don’t think I like the look of that clearing. We should continue west until we find a better path.”
“Shan, you decide. You’re the one in such a hurry to get to Dargon after all.” Joal scowled petulantly as he eyed his lover, who had been acting very strangely since the death of Voesh five days past.
“I agree with Yera,” said Shan. “There’s something strange about that trail.”
“Are you kidding? I mean, it leads north and we want to go north. Why go around? Look, there’s nothing odd about that clearing at all. See?” Joal started to ride along the narrow path, heading for a very bare clearing several paces away from the main path.
“Wait!” called Yera. “Stop, Joal! Look closely: there’s nothing at all in that clearing, not a stray tree, no grass or flowers, no animals at the edges. Just bare dirt.”
Joal didn’t register Yera’s comments until he had already ridden his horse into the clearing. He looked around and realized that she was right; nothing encroached on the circular area of the clearing at all, and that did seem very unnatural. His horse pawed at the ground uneasily, raising a low cloud of dust, far more than even the very dry trails they had been riding had produced.
An eerie sensation rippled up Joal’s spine, and he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stir. This clearing was wrong, and he needed to get out of it. A flicker of motion behind him made him turn in the saddle, and he saw a little plume of dust fountaining up from the center of the clearing. The plume sank back down, and a ripple darted out to the edge of the area forming a line. The ripple started to move, sweeping around like Shan using a compass to scribe a circle in one of his illuminations. The ripple passed under him and he shuddered as every hair on his body lifted and fell again.
Joal shook himself when the sensation had passed, and gathered up the reins of his horse. He kicked at its flanks, ready to quit the strangeness, but before the horse could react, a shivaree howled out of the brush at the edge of the clearing right at him. The large, weasel-like predator leapt at the horse, causing it to rear. Joal tried to hang on, but the best he could do was control his slide from his mount’s back. He ended up on his back, but the fall hadn’t hurt.
The ripple had circled around again and it swept over Joal as he lay in the dust. This time the uncanny sensation as it passed lasted longer than before. He climbed to his feet and backed away from the still battling shivaree and horse. He got his bearings, helped by Yera’s frantic shouting, and started towards his companions.
The ripple passed Joal again, but this time the weird feeling didn’t stop. He continued running, but when he got to the edge of the circle, he ran into something he couldn’t see. He hadn’t been moving fast enough to hurt himself. He tried to exit the clearing again and again, but he couldn’t move past the edge of the empty space. He looked to Yera and Shan, but they didn’t seem to be moving at all, though there was a concerned look on Yera’s face.
The sounds behind him changed from two animals fighting to fright and then silence. He turned around and saw the two combatants standing next to each other, shivering. The horse’s ribs were showing beneath a sway back, and the shivaree’s fur seemed to be falling out in clumps. The horse’s mane and tail grew long and shaggy, and its knees grew all knobby as its fetlocks seemed to shrink. The shivaree got thinner and thinner under its mangy fur, its eyes rolling in fear.
Joal watched, sickly fascinated, as the two animals became more and more gaunt, bones showing under shrinking skin. As he stared, he felt a tickling at his ears and his neck. He brushed absently at the sensation, and noticed that he was flicking hair around that was far longer than it should have been. He looked at his hands and gasped to see his nails curling well beyond the tips of his fingers.
Joal’s hair grew down over his eyes just as he noticed the shivaree fall over dead, its corpse shrinking in on itself, looking mummified before the decay continued. He panicked and curled his hands into fists, wild nails cutting into his wrists, and hammered on the solid air in a frantic bid to escape. Before he could bruise himself futilely, he felt his elbows and knees begin to ache, and a gnawing hunger in his middle. He fell to his knees, wrapping his arms around his stomach, and thought he felt his spine creak in the process. He was trapped and he was dying, and he didn’t even know why!
His horse died next, whickering out its last breath and falling to its side next to the bones of the shivaree. Joal began to crawl toward the corpses, confused, his vision beginning to cloud and his gums hurting abominably. His arms grew suddenly weak and, with a sob, he collapsed into the dust. He levered himself back up and turned to look at his companions, still frozen on the outside of the circle. He held up an imploring hand that looked like sticks inside a thin glove, and called out, “Help! Shan, help me!” He heard his voice weaken and crack even across those few words.
Yera watched, horrified, as Joal aged before her eyes. His hair grew long, as did his fingernails, while his face and body grew gaunt. She slid down from her horse and ran over to the area, but she had no more success trying to get into the circle than Joal in trying to get out. She watched him collapse to his knees as his skin seemed to shrink around his bones. When he fell over, he was no more than a withered skeleton, sunken lids covering eyes that could no longer see.
Yera backed away from the magic circle, a scream struggling to escape from her throat. Eyes wide, she turned and looked at Shan, Joal’s lover, but the large man was just staring stone-faced. He blinked slowly, then turned away from the sick spectacle to look at Yera.
“We go west,” he said, and started in that direction. Yera stared after him and shook her head. She debated turning around and going back to Valdasly and finding work at an inn. This quest was too strange and too costly. Four of her companions were dead, and the one she had left wasn’t acting like himself at all. Furthermore, these woods were dangerous, what with the bandits and the strange magic that had killed Joal. Nothing was worth this. Eventually, she started after Shan, still pondering.
Later that afternoon, Yera still hadn’t decided whether to leave or stay. Suddenly, she heard hoofbeats at a gallop behind her. She turned in her saddle and saw two men ride into view. One was blond and wore the trappings of a bard; the other was brown-haired and seemed fit. She looked closer and realized that they were the pair she and Voesh had petitioned for help back in Valdasly. The bard called out, “Stop! We know your purpose and you must abandon your quest for the Margre Chalisento!”
Shan’s eyes narrowed, and he cursed. “We need to split up,” he said. “Go!” He spurred his horse to a gallop and sped away.
Yera cursed in turn, at her luck and at Shan. For all that she had been contemplating desertion, she was angry that she had just been abandoned; there was no way that she and Shan could meet up again unless it was in Dargon itself.
The bard and his friend were still behind her. Yera kicked her horse’s flanks, urging it to follow Shan. She took the first side path that presented itself, and the next one after. She looked behind her to check the pursuit, and when she turned forward again, she was just in time to see the low tree bough that knocked her from her horse and into the next life.
Shan rode hard, his former companions, even his lover, forgotten. He had a quest, and now it was his alone to fulfill. He rode with little care for his ultimate heading, only that it be away from his pursuers. He needed to get to Dargon, but the Margre was in no hurry and at the moment his freedom was more important.
Shan continued his random direction changes, knowing that at least for a time the bard and his friend would be too busy trying to catch up with him quickly to take the time to actually follow his tracks. He hoped that his flight would throw them off completely; at the very least, he was gaining ground on them with every mene he ran.
He made a late, cold camp that night and slept uneasily. The next morning Shan set out early, somewhat more confident but still sticking to no set direction. Just after midday, he unexpectedly came upon a group of travelers. They had one wagon and a number of riders, and the man driving the wagon was dressed all in green.
One of the riders came up to him and said, “Greetings, traveler. Who are you and what are you doing here?”
“My name is Shan. I am looking for the way north to Dargon. I lost my guide four days ago and have been wandering ever since.”
The rider looked over to the man in green, who nodded. “I’m sorry for your loss. We can’t turn away a man in distress. I’m Flane. We’re journeying to Tench and you’re welcome to go with us that far. I’m sure you can find your way from there.”
“My thanks, Flane. I humbly accept your hospitality.”
Shan had no idea who these people might be. They didn’t act like traders, or players, or any kind of casual travelers he could think of. They kept to themselves and seemed fairly grim. He knew that there was someone inside the wagon from the occasional groan he heard from there, but that didn’t tell him anything helpful about them either. Fortunately, he didn’t much care who they were. They would provide a buffer between himself and his own pursuers as well as additional security on the trail.
Flane stayed beside Shan as the augmented group continued on their way. He was as dour as his fellows but Shan wasn’t in the mood for conversation anyway. The silence continued for bell after bell, until shortly before sunset, as the shadows of the trees stretched long across the path, that silence was shattered.
Ten strangers on horseback burst out of the trees all along the path, crying out in a strange language. Waving clubs and swords, they laid into the travelers. Shan saw two ride up to the back of the wagon and disappear inside. Moments later they returned with a third man, well trussed up, between them. One of them took the bound man and rode away; the other joined his fellows in their assault.
Shan heard Flane mutter, “Filthy gypsies!” as the man drew his sword and chased after the dark-haired attackers. Shan took the opportunity to veer away from the confrontation, slipping between the trees carefully, searching for a path away.
Flane saw his new riding companion dodge into the trees, and saw one of the gypsies follow the man. He followed in turn, sword at the ready. He wasn’t in time to save the stranger from a club to the back of the head, and he also managed to miss running through the gypsy who dealt that blow. The gypsy rode back toward the fray. Flane thought to follow, but suddenly he got the idea to search the dead stranger. He worried when he could think of no reason for this notion as the man hadn’t exhibited any signs of wealth, but his concerns soon vanished from his mind.
When he found the artifacts that the body was carrying, a new purpose found him. Gathering the stone, the cup, the book, and the ring to him, he remounted and started riding north. He forgot about the Bloody Hand of Sageeza and his hatred of gypsies. Flane needed to get to Dargon, for the Margre Chalisento was calling him there.
Lacsil watched as one after another of his men was cut or clubbed down by the attacking gypsies. He should have anticipated pursuit and set scouts, but he had been too proud, too certain that no one knew of his mission: the mission that wouldn’t succeed now.
His eyes rested on the scroll tube at his side, and he realized that there was still a chance. Grabbing it, he leapt from the wagon, cornered a riderless horse, and propelled himself into the saddle. Taking up the reins and ignoring the blood on them, he spurred the horse to a gallop and rode away from the carnage.
The path twisted one way, and then another. It was getting hard to see in the gloom of twilight, but suddenly there was light ahead. He steered toward it, hoping it would be help. He galloped around a tight bend and saw a wall of flickering yellow and red in front of him. He didn’t even know what it was until he felt the warmth, like a small fire. As he neared it, he saw little motes of color, bright bits of flame that danced through the air like a strange reversal of snow.
He never realized the danger until it was too late; it was too beautiful, and it didn’t radiate nearly the heat it should have. But once he crossed the boundary, his scream was brief as the fire consumed him, his horse, and the maps. A new bit of flame joined the others bobbing through the air.
Yawrab had ridden with her gypsy friends against the Bloody Hand of Sageeza’s men, but she hadn’t participated in the ensuing carnage. Her help hadn’t been required, either, for which she was grateful.
Shortly after sunset, she sat on horseback beside Ganba as the results of the raid were given. “We can account for all but one of the Bloody Hand,” said Ruthodd. “There are the right number of bodies, but one is a stranger dressed in a scribe’s robe. No one knows when he joined the group, but he wasn’t at last night’s camp.”
Ganba said, “You’re sure Lacsil was not the one who escaped, yes?”
Hiranw answered for Ruthodd. “I saw the man in green myself, and he was carrying a tube in his free hand. He rode into an angwleridd, a magic area, of fire. The eldritch flame faded soon after, leaving only ash within. He couldn’t have survived long enough to ride through it.”
“The maps aren’t here either,” said Ganba, “but it stands to reason that Lacsil would have had them with him, so they must have been in that tube. I would say that we have succeeded in our mission. Without the maps, a single fugitive isn’t going to pose any more of a problem than the Bloody Hand ever has.”
“Then we should head for Eariaddas Hwl and the gathering,” suggested Ruthodd. “We’re not very far away, after all.”
“I agree. Hiranw, you and Lewro remain here long enough to see the bodies taken care of; you can catch us up later.” Ganba then turned to Yawrab and said, “Do you mind a detour? I did promise to get you to Dargon.”
Yawrab said, “I think I would like to see more of your gypsy celebrations, Ganba. Also, I think that as Aldan has fled to Dargon to hide, he intends to remain there for some time. We can search for him after the festival.” And she was looking forward to the additional time with the gypsy leader.
As soon as Nakaz saw the pair on the road before him, he called out, “Stop! We know your purpose and you must abandon your quest for the Margre Chalisento.” The large man in brown robes said something to the woman with white hair whom Nakaz recognized as Yera, and galloped off. The woman scowled, waited a moment, and then followed.
Nakaz urged Riesta to even greater speed, hoping that Firesocks and Aldan could keep up. He followed the path the other two had taken. He rounded two quick bends, but when the path straightened out again, neither rider was in sight. He glanced around and spotted a side path breaking the green to the left. He grasped at the possibility and galloped onto it. Hugging Riesta’s neck to keep himself below the overhanging branches, he navigated the twists and turns of the new path at an unwise speed. He cleared a final bend and saw the path stretching away in front of him with no sign of his quarry. A gust of wind drew his attention to another side path, and he chose that route.
Nakaz reined Riesta in hard when he made the second turn, seeing the limb and the body at the same time. Aldan came to a halt behind him as he checked Yera’s corpse, and then her horse, which had come trotting back. Turning to his friend, Nakaz said, “She’s dead, and she doesn’t have the artifacts. The man must have them, and he must have taken a different turn from the last path.”
Nakaz was soon back in the saddle and on the path. He rode frantically, but couldn’t catch sight of the man. Worse, he couldn’t find a single track either; he must have lost the man’s trail somewhere.
He returned to Yera’s body, and took his time searching for the man’s trace. Nakaz and Aldan followed it until it was too dark, and then continued the next morning. Late that afternoon, he found where the man’s trail joined another group of travelers. In the middle of the next morning, both trails ended at the site of some kind of conflict.
As Nakaz entered the area of the trail where the battle had taken place, he encountered two Rhydd Pobl, a young man and woman, who were carrying stones to a cairn just inside the woods on one side of the path. “Hail, brethren,” he called out in their language. “What happened here?”
The man said, “Greetings, bard. Our bantor encountered a group of followers of the Bloody Hand of Sageeza and defeated them.”
“Were any of your people killed? That’s a large cairn you are working on.”
“No, good bard, none of our own were more than slightly wounded.”
Nakaz knew about the enmity between the Bloody Hand and the gypsies, and wondered what event had gathered so many of the fanatics together. Then he remembered the joining of trails, and asked, “Did you notice the presence of a large man with dark hair, wearing robes, among the dead?”
The woman said, “Yes, that one was killed, though perhaps by accident. He wasn’t with the Bloody Hand yesterday according to our scouts and there are no towns or inns in this area. He was probably just a lost traveler and not part of our conflict.”
“Was he carrying anything odd? A rock, a stone cup, or a blue book?”
“He carried nothing on his person, good bard, and his horse had only food and clothes in its saddlebags.”
“My thanks, brethren. Clear trails to you!” He turned and rode back to Aldan, who was looking very bewildered. Nakaz said, “They are Rhydd Pobl, gypsies, and they told me that our quarry was killed in the conflict that happened here. But he wasn’t carrying the artifacts or the book. I wonder what happened to them?”
Aldan said, “Perhaps they are on their way to Dargon. Just like we are.”
Nakaz looked at Aldan and nodded. “Just like we are.”