DargonZine 17, Issue 3

Talisman Ten Part 3

Ober 24, 1013 - Nober 1013,


This entry is part 38 of 38 in the series Talisman

Four people spread across two inn rooms in the city of Dargon were dreaming similar dreams late in the night of the 24th of Ober. At the very moment that Ratray touched the sculpted stone fragment in its hidden vault beneath Dargon Keep, all four sat bolt upright in their beds. They all said the same thing at the same time: “It’s free!”

 

***

 

Nakaz the bard and Lord Aldan Bindrmon looked at each other, the memory of what they had both said in unison hanging like an echo in the room they shared in the Lighted Candle Inn in the Old City section of Dargon. Confusion filled their faces as their not-quite-shared dreams faded, and the sense of what had woken them both with the same words on their lips slipped away just as swiftly.

“Do you …?” asked Nakaz. Aldan shook his head. “I was … running?” Nakaz ventured, trying to recapture the vivid, almost-real dream.

 

“In a tunnel, straight?” said Aldan. “But something …” Aldan shook his head again, and settled back down onto the bed.

 

Nakaz murmured, “Yes, something nearly came clear just at the end. But what?” He shrugged to himself and sank back down next to his partner again. Aldan rested his head on Nakaz’ shoulder, threw his arm across the bard’s chest, and the pair slipped back into slumber untroubled by dreams.

 

***

 

Yawrab the former housekeeper and Ganba of the Rhydd Pobl looked at each other, the memory of what they had both said in unison hanging like an echo in the room they shared in the Inn of the Panther in the city of Dargon. Confusion filled their faces as their not-quite-shared dreams faded, and the sense of what had woken them both with the same words on their lips slipped away just as swiftly.

 

“Did you feel …?” began Yawrab. Ganba nodded. “Something has changed. Something is …”

 

“Beginning?” asked Ganba. “No, ending,” she said. “It’s like … I’ve just crested the last hill in a race, and can finally see the finish marker.”

 

“Me too. But what race? What hill?” Yawrab shook her head and settled back down onto the bed.

 

Ganba snuggled next to her partner, resting her head on the older woman’s shoulder. “We’ll find out,” she murmured.

 

Yawrab threw her arm over Ganba and kissed the top of the gypsy’s head. “Straight,” she said. “And soon.” The pair soon slipped back into slumber untroubled by dreams.

 

***

 

Ratray, a young man who worked as a servant in Dargon Keep, held the two items he had found and looked closely at them. One was a carved length of wood with a large, milky crystal enclosed in one end. It looked like a walking stick, though too heavily ornamented and delicate for actual use. The other was a pie-shaped piece of stone, smooth on one of its large faces, carved on the other. The curved edge that would have been the crust of the pie was smooth, but the two other edges were ragged, as if the fragment had been ripped out of the whole pie. The carvings on the top formed a figure that looked like a fox near the outer edge, with interwoven bands of silver, gold, and glass filling the rest of the space. He had never seen anything like either item before.

 

Ratray was deep under the keep, cleaning up after a couple of thieves who had broken into the secret vault below the dungeons and disrupted the King’s Birthday celebrations earlier in the evening. The first thief had found a hidden storage chamber within the secret vault: a hidden chamber that no one had seemed to know about. Then the second thief had arrived and there had been a brawl, or so Ratray had heard. The first thief had wounded the second, and had then gotten away with the contents of the hidden vault.

 

After Ratray had finished clearing up the mess the thieves had made, he had investigated the secret storage chamber that sat in the middle of the room, having risen out of the floor where it had been concealed by the inlaid design there. As he had felt around in the open-sided box, he had felt something shift, and the chamber started to rise again. Soon, the original box sat on top of another box that had pushed the first even further out of the floor. Inside this new, taller but not wider box had been the staff and the rock. He had removed the objects and now stood a short distance away from the center of the room, the better to examine his finds in the light of his lamp.

 

Ratray looked at the dark chamber his probing had revealed and wondered whether there might be more treasure hiding at the back, or perhaps yet another hidden box beneath it. He stepped back over to it and knelt, setting aside his new-found treasures. He stuck his hand inside and felt around the dark interior of the box. His fingers pushed at something in the back of the box that tilted down with a click, and the rumbling began again.

 

Ratray pulled his hands out of the box and sat back, eagerly awaiting the new revelation. He soon realized though, that the chamber was moving downward, not up. In moments, the second chamber was hidden again, and the vault was again in the state he had found it.

 

He realized, as he looked around at the tidied room, that no one would ever know about the secret chamber under the secret chamber, unless he told. Which meant, he reasoned, that no one was going to come looking for the objects he had found.

 

Ratray picked the found items up and stood. As he left, he wondered what he was going to do with his new treasures.

 

***

 

Yawrab rose with the first bell of the day after the King’s Birthday, a habit she had slipped back into since returning to a regular bed. She leaned over and gave Ganba a kiss on the nape of her neck, which made the gypsy smile in her sleep but didn’t wake her. Yawrab dressed and left the room, knowing that despite how weary she still was, the cause wasn’t something that sleep could erase.

 

Some of that cause was her fruitless search for Lord Aldan, but that wasn’t all of it. In addition to feeling numbed by her endless rounds of the lower city, asking the same questions of the same people and getting the same answers, there was another numbness inside of her, something that made her feel old, worn, ancient, and eroded. She had decided that she was going to try to alleviate the first numbness; she hoped the second, sourceless feeling would go away at the same time.

 

She descended into the shambles of a taproom that had greeted her every morning since her arrival in the city. The disorder bothered her from a managerial as well as a practical viewpoint; the sculleries would have to work twice as hard to clean the mugs and tankards, not to mention the tables and floor, after the stains had set for bells and bells. Yawrab had a different mission this morning than cleaning a table and a mug for herself before breakfast; today she was going to put the knowledge she had gleaned in the past few days to use and help put the Panther to rights.

 

She walked out of the taproom, through a kitchen that was only marginally cleaner, and finally up to the manager’s quarters, pounding on the door loudly enough to wake the whole inn.

 

The manager, Maravin, quickly opened the door and shouted, “Shut up!” He paused, frowned at Yawrab, and said in a quieter but no more civil voice, “What do you want at this bell?”

 

Yawrab looked at Maravin, a rather round, older man with a red nose and bloodshot eyes, who nevertheless didn’t look either drunk or hung over as he stood in the doorway and looked up at her. He was dressed in fine clothes, but they didn’t fit well and were rumpled and disheveled into the bargain. She had never particularly liked this man, whom she knew was the brother of Daurch, the owner, and the state of his clothes reflected his business acumen perfectly.

 

“Maravin, I’ve come to tell you that you run a shoddy inn here. Anyone with sense knows that you have the staff clean up before they go home, which not only leaves a good impression on any early risers such as myself, but only makes the cleaning job go easier. Furthermore, you should be cleaning the rooms every day, not every sennight, and you need to find a new launderer!”

 

Maravin just stared at her for a moment, then sneered as he said, “And what would you know about it, woman? You probably don’t have any more manners than that gypsy you’re always spending time with.”

 

“You don’t even know when you’ve been given good advice,” sneered Yawrab right back. “That monkey the soup-seller has down on the docks could keep this place better than you, and it dresses better as well! And as for my credentials, for many years I’ve been the manager of an estate whose manor house is larger than this block.”

 

She pressed past him and into his sitting room, taking the largest chair and sitting herself comfortably in it. “Fortunately for you, I have decided to give you the benefit of my experience even though you don’t deserve it. So please listen carefully.”

 

Maravin stalked to the chair across from her but didn’t sit down. Yawrab ignored the belligerent look on his face as she said, “Your staff takes unconscionable liberties, you know. Three of your four regular cleaners are on their quarter-year breaks right now, which is why the rooms aren’t being cleaned every day. Two of the servers are sleeping with the bartender, which is why the taproom is left in the state it is every night. And your cook’s assistant is stealing supplies on a daily basis to support a rather ruinous pipedust habit.”

 

She expected these to be revelations to the manager, but he didn’t seem shocked by any of it. She said, “Well? What do you intend to do about it?”

 

“There’s nothing I can do,” Maravin said in resigned voice, but his narrowed eyes and down-turned mouth still showed his hostility. “You see, my brother doesn’t particularly trust me, but he’s given me this job out of family loyalty. I do try, but Daurch is the one with the reputation; he killed that panther whose head hangs in the taproom. Any time I try to get tough with the staff, they take their tales to him and he listens to them over me. I’ve got no control at all.”

 

Yawrab thought for a moment, and said, “That’s disgraceful. Your brother has given you a job to do, but doesn’t give you the authority to do it.” She was silent for a moment, realigning her preconceptions and making a new plan.

 

“You need to show him you can do this job,” she finally said. “I want you to start by firing everyone who works here except for the cook and the cleaner who’s not on break. I will spread the word in the work-fair that you will be holding interviews for a complete staff at fifth bell today. Let your people know that they’re welcome to try for their old positions. And if your brother wants to interfere, have him show up at fifth bell as well. Straight?”

 

Doubt flickered briefly on Maravin’s face before the scowl returned. “If you think you can turn this place upside down and have everything fall out right, you’re welcome to try.” He walked over to a table against a wall and picked up a ring of keys. Then he strode over to her and dropped them into her lap. “The manager’s job is yours for a sennight. I think you’ll fail, but I’ve tried everything else. And you can be sure that my brother will take a very personal interest in this little affair. Maybe, just maybe, having you shake this place up will make him see the problems I’ve had to deal with.”

 

Yawrab took hold of they keys in her lap and stood. She felt a little of that deep weariness lifting as she took on a new task, one that she could see an end to. She hoped that Maravin would eventually set aside his hurt feelings and learn something over the next sennight.

 

The former manager stepped aside as she walked to the door and opened it. She said, “See you at fifth bell, Maravin,” as she walked through it. She grinned when it slammed closed behind her.

 

She stopped in the kitchen to fire the cook’s assistant, making sure the young man left with empty arms. She continued on to the taproom, where staff were beginning to wander in. She fired each as they walked through the door except for the older man who was the conscientious cleaner. In between times, she sat at one of the tables and sorted through the keys on the ring.

 

One in particular caught her attention. The key itself was oversized and highly decorated along the body and head, though the foot was as tiny as the rest. Yawrab took it to be the inn’s master key. Because there were no holes in the ornamented head of the key that would fit over the ring, someone had made do with a strange device that served but that didn’t look as if it was being used for its original purpose. This connector was blue-grey in color. Two spiny clamps held onto the head of the key; the clamps were connected to each other, and to another pair of clamps that closed around the key ring, though not very well.

 

Yawrab pulled idly at the key, and the clamps around the key ring came free easily. As she held the ring in one hand and the key in the other, she watched the clamps spread open of themselves. They ended up standing wide apart, like two pairs of antlers springing from the top of the key. She anxiously pressed these spread antlers against the key ring, and they slowly closed around it again. She wondered whether the connector was magic or alive. Then she decided that she didn’t want to know, and went back to firing the Panther’s incompetent staff.

 

***

 

Two days after finding his new treasures, Ratray stood in front of a building on the edge of the Old City. The stone facade of the place gave no clue to its purpose, and there was no sign above the door to give any hints. There were no windows visible, and the buildings to either side were just as blind and without identity.

 

Ratray worried about the lack of windows, for that meant that he couldn’t check who was in the shop that was supposed to be through that door. He had assuaged his anxiety by watching the door from an alley down the street for at least half a bell, and no one had gone in or out. Hoping that he had not been led astray and that this was really the workplace of Borzhu the Dealer, he knocked nervously.

 

The door opened to reveal a tall, thin man who looked down at Ratray as if from more than his height. Ratray held out the embossed vellum as he had been instructed. The tall man pointed with one hand, but his face made it seem like he was smelling rotten fruit as he took the vellum away from Ratray with the other.

 

Ratray entered the small front room and went directly through the door the thin man had indicated. His first thought was, “This isn’t a shop!” when he saw the small, well-lit room beyond that second door. It was paneled in wood, neat and nearly empty except for a large table in the center with a plain chair on one side. One wall was filled with windows from ceiling to floor, and in the middle was a door that led out to a courtyard filled with plants.

 

Before Ratray could wonder whether he was supposed to take the chair, the man he was here to meet entered the room through the door in the window-wall. Borzhu was a wide man with very red hair and a very refined taste in clothes. The smile pasted on his face looked as fake as the beet-red of his hair even to someone of Ratray’s limited experience.

 

Borzhu sat in the plain chair and said, “Good day, my friend. I understand you have something you wish to sell?” His voice was surprisingly warm and pleasant, and did a lot to balance the fake smile and hair.

 

Ratray stepped up to the other side of the table, squinting slightly in the glare from the windows behind Borzhu. He took hold of the ungainly roll of cloth sticking out of the bag hanging over his shoulder and set it before the dealer. He unwrapped the cloth to reveal the carved staff with the milky stone and nervously slid it closer to the seated man. His hand went back to his shoulder bag, but he decided to leave his second treasure where it was for the moment.

 

Borzhu reached out and carefully lifted the staff, holding it up in the light and turning it around and around. He brought the carved head close to his face, squinting at the detail and running his fingers over the delicate figures.

 

“Old,” he said faintly. “Very, very old.” He studied a large carving just below the cradle that held the stone and mumbled, “Fretheod, I think. These runes … This symbol is familiar, but where do I know it from? Hmm.” He turned his attention to the crystal, shifting sideways in his chair to look through it toward the light from the windows. He shook his head and returned to examining the wood.

 

Ratray watched as the goods dealer scrutinized his booty. He knew that there were places to sell valuable articles, and that some cared about who had originally owned the object and some did not. He had been directed to Borzhu as one of the latter, understanding that he would get less for his items, but willing to make the tradeoff.

 

Borzhu finally set the staff back onto its cloth wrap and looked up at Ratray, the false smile still in place, but a new gleam in his eye. One hand continued to move up and down the staff, tracing the carvings. “This is an incredible object, my friend. I am sad that you feel the need to sell it, but very happy that you came to me to do so. I have never seen such a work of art before, and the age in it is incredible, especially coupled with its immaculate condition.

 

“I can tell that you have no concept of the value of this artifact.” He chuckled when Ratray looked stricken, and continued, “But I can think of several buyers who will pay handsomely for the privilege of putting this into their collection. As such, I think I can be generous in my payment to you. I’ll give you ten Marks for it. What do you say?”

 

Ratray couldn’t believe his ears. He could live like a duke on ten Marks! He would be rich! He wouldn’t even have to sell the stone fragment, either!

 

Trying to seem like ten Marks was an everyday sum to him, Ratray said, “I suppose I can settle for that. Thank you.”

 

The tall, thin man from the front door appeared at Ratray’s side and set a small, blue bag in front of him with a nice chink. Ratray reached for it hesitantly, but when Borzhu gestured at it and nodded, he grabbed it up and peeked inside. The glint of gold and the number of coin edges he could see made him grin like a fool. He looked up and said, “Thank you, thank you!” and it was all he could do to keep from dancing a jig.

 

The pointing hand of the tall man made it clear that Ratray’s business was finished, and he walked out. Just as the wooden room’s door closed behind him, he heard Borzhu say, “… start the bidding at, oh, fifty.” He wondered what the dealer was intending to sell for so much.

 

Ratray pondered what he was going to do with ten Marks as he made his way back to the keep. By the time he had arrived, he knew how he was going to start. He checked with a few friends before going to his boss.

 

“Marnvik, sir,” he said to the red-faced man. “I would like to claim my quarter-year time off.”

 

The florid man squinted at Ratray for a moment, then said, “You sure? You won’t be able to take another for a three-month. You have your duties covered?”

 

“Yes and yes, sir.”

 

“Well, fine. Things are slow after the party and all. I suppose you can be spared. No more than a few days, now! This isn’t some local baron’s keep you know. Things are always changin’ up here on the hill.”

 

Ratray slipped away as Marnvik started rambling on about how often his schedules were thrown off by unexpected visits and intruders breaking into underground vaults and such. Ratray went right to his room, packed a few things in his shoulder bag, and set out for the causeway. He was headed for the red lantern district by the docks at the north-eastern side of the city. He intended to spend the next several days being entertained at the Mother of Pearl. As he negotiated the streets of the Old City with his usual care, he contemplated just which Pearl he would choose to be entertained by.

 

***

 

Three days after the King’s Birthday celebration, Nakaz gazed around the scribal shop of Genarvus Kazakian as he and Aldan entered it for the fourth, or perhaps fifth, time, taking in its familiar furnishings. Carpets covered the floor, an intricate tapestry of a huge land-worm encircling mountains and castles hung on the left wall, and a cozy hearth occupied the right wall. In the middle of the room was a wooden desk covered with the implements of a scribe: parchment, quills, and ink. Rising from behind the desk was the elderly form of Genarvus himself.

 

“Greetings, greetings, good bard,” the swarthy man said in his lyrical accent. “Glad I am to see you again. I have news.”

 

“We came as soon as we got your note, Genarvus,” said Nakaz. He took a last look at the tapestry, noting the small boy with the sword attacking the tail of the worm, and smiled at the memory of that particular myth. Then he strode over and shook the scribe’s hand, gesturing him back into his chair.

 

Aldan sat next to Nakaz as the bard said, “What have you discovered for us, Genarvus?”

 

“Two things, two things, my friends,” he said, his hands punctuating every word. “First, I was visited again by that man you seek, Flane. He asked me to copy out a page from a small blue book he had.”

 

“With a tear in the lower left corner of the cover?” asked Nakaz.

 

“That would be the one. It took several bells, and he hovered over my shoulder the entire time, but I have no clue as to what it was I created. It looked like nothing more than blocky chiaroscuro to me.”

 

Aldan said, “Could you recreate the page for us, Genarvus? I think I might be able to make sense of it. I’ve done similar already.”

 

Genarvus frowned, and Nakaz quickly said, “I understand your hesitation, my good scribe. Your professional ethics do you justice. However, this is very important. I authorize you by my bardic license to create this copy. I can ratify this authorization with the duke if you should wish.”

 

The frown lifted from the scribe’s face, and Genarvus said, “Vosh, vosh, Nakaz. I trust your word. I will do as you both have asked, though it will take some time. To copy from a visible source is quicker than to create from recall, after all.”

 

“Take your time, Genarvus,” said Aldan. “And thank you.”

 

The scribe began to gather parchment and quills, and Nakaz said, “You said two things, did you not?”

 

“Hrosnu, ah … pardon,” said Genarvus, his hands gesticulating wildly, “I nearly forgot.” He set aside his quills, and turned to fetch a scroll from behind him. He continued, “That word you mentioned, ‘Asthen’ron’, that cat statue with the antlers and hooves, anez? I did more research, and I discovered the source of this legend.”

 

He unrolled the scroll and scanned the contents, then let it snap closed and handed it to Nakaz. “Here it is in detail. There was a primitive tribe of people living in this area of the continent when the Fretheod Empire’s explorers arrived more than two thousand years ago. These people worshiped the rock outcropping where the current Dargon Keep is located, as well as the icon they called Asthen’ron.”

 

Genarvus leaned forward and continued, “The Fretheod wanted to build a guard tower on the outcropping, but the natives objected strongly, escalating from nuisance raids to outright attacks on the building crews.

 

“The empire builders knew how to deal with them, though. They counterattacked in force, but instead of wiping the natives out, they captured their holy icon. Then, in full view of the natives, they smashed the Asthen’ron to bits.”

 

Nakaz frowned at the casual cruelty of those ancient people, but from what he knew of the Fretheod Empire he had no trouble believing it of them. The mention of a Fretheod guard post on the rock where Dargon Keep stood had seemed to resonate with him somehow, but that wasn’t the important part of the legend.

 

Genarvus had paused, and Nakaz said, “Was that all?”

 

“Vosh, Nakaz, there is more,” said the sage. “Another legend recounts the reconciliation between the natives and the Fretheod. A holy man went to the leader of the invaders and said that his people would leave the area if he was permitted to retrieve one thing from the ruins of the Asthen’ron. The Fretheod agreed, and the object the holy man fetched was a thumb-joint sized blue-grey pearl that had been an eye in the statue. One side of the pearl looked like the eye of a cat, while the other side had four branches sticking out of it that looked like antlers.”

 

The scribe looked from Nakaz to Aldan and back, before adding, “The cat and deer motif persists, you see? Do you think that it has something to do with the Margre Flane is searching for?”

 

“Oh yes, I think so,” said Nakaz. “The pattern is clear. Thank you for the information, Genarvus. And thank you for not telling Flane.”

 

“My pleasure, good bard, young lord. I’ll have that page by this time tomorrow. Ts’sutyen.”

 

***

 

Ganba walked into the stableyard behind the Inn of the Serpent a little later than usual on the third day after the King’s Birthday celebration. She’d had trouble convincing herself to get out of bed that morning; only the insistence of the staff come to clean her room had gotten her up. Yawrab’s reforms were going well at the Panther; even Daurch the owner was impressed by her ability to manage the staff. Ganba was happy that Yawrab had found something else to occupy her time and keep her mind off her futile search for Lord Aldan. She only hoped that she was training Maravin well to take her place when the two of them finally left.

 

Ganba hadn’t been staying abed because she was tired, at least not in body. Lately she had been feeling worn, frayed. A world-weariness had come over her in the past few sennights, a feeling that there was nothing new under the firmament, that she had seen, felt, done everything before and was utterly bored with doing it all again and again and again. It wasn’t limited to the repetitious search for the elusive baron’s son that made her feel that way, either; it was everything.

 

She looked around, and caught sight of the focus of most of her attention these days. The large block of wood that had been placed to one side of the stableyard was now looking decidedly serpentine. Most of the sinuous length of the figure had been carved, its powerful legs poised just so, the hint already there of the scales she would work to detail beginning tomorrow.

 

Ganba approached her sculpture, feeling her mood lighten somewhat. She was always excited by carving, working to see the shape emerge from shapelessness. And if there were times when she felt, as she sanded a curve, or carved a corner, that she had done the same thing before, maybe even with different hands, the thrill of creation was still present.

 

Taking a deep breath, Ganba reached out and touched the head of the serpent, which was almost complete. She lifted some delicate instruments from the shelf set against the fence behind the carving, and started to work.

 

She applied a thin saw to the detailing she had left the day before when the light had grown too faint for her to continue. A few deft cuts, precisely directed, and the jaw of the serpent came loose, rocking slightly in its cradle. She leaned back and touched the jaw, watching it open and close with a fading oscillation. She was elated that she had managed to carve the jaw in place, even though she knew that most people would think she had added that bit of wood to the sculpture.

 

She wiped the saw on a cloth and set it down. She was reaching for a new tool when she heard someone clearing their throat behind her.

 

Ganba had made it clear when she’d started the statue that she wanted to be left alone. Her art wasn’t a spectator sport. So far, she hadn’t had any problems in that regard. She hoped that this interruption wasn’t the beginning of a change.

 

She turned around to find the owner of the Inn of the Serpent, Ballard Tamblebuck, standing on the other side of the statue from her. His hands were behind his back and he was rocking back and forward on the balls of his feet, examining the carving with a smile on his face.

 

“Yes?” Ganba said, eager to get back to work.

 

Ballard looked up at her and said, “Amazing work, mi’lady Ganba, simply amazing! And so fast!”

 

Ganba just looked at him, waiting. His gaze wandered back to the statue, and he started rocking again. Frowning, Ganba said, louder this time, “Yes?”

 

“Oh,” said Ballard, looking embarrassed, “pardon me. Yes. Ah, I thought you could maybe do me a favor?” Ganba just looked at him. He continued, “Well, you see, I found this object a long time ago, never knew what it was or what to do with it, and then it occurred to me that it would be perfect as your serpent’s eye.” He held out his hand and in his palm was a large round stone of some kind. He said, “Take a look,” and Ganba lifted it from his hand. It was blue-grey, smooth, slightly cool despite being in Ballard’s hand for a short while. She turned it around and found that one side looked like the eye of a cat.

 

Ganba looked up at Ballard and said, “But there’s only one.”

 

“Well, yes,” he said. “I thought you could fake the other one, or put that side of the statue against the wall or something.” Ganba just looked at him again. He said, “Ah, yes, well you keep it and if you can use it, good, if not, no problem. Straight? Fantastic work, Ganba, really!”

 

Ganba watched Ballard return to the inn with narrowed eyes. She wondered whether the man was worthy of her sculpture. If she hadn’t been inspired seeing the decrepit statue the inn currently used as a signpost, she certainly wouldn’t have sought out his patronage.

 

She looked at the stone in her hand, and snorted. She turned back to her tools and dropped the blue-grey thing into one of the trays there. She stood there a moment, breathing deeply and steadily, putting the encounter out of her mind. Calm again, she lifted a delicate saw and returned to her work.

 

Ganba slipped her saw into a small hole she had already drilled into the head of her serpent. She moved the tool carefully back and forth a few times, completing what she had begun the previous night. She felt the proper bit of movement, and removed the saw. She reached down and moved the eye in its socket, congratulating herself on her skill. She glanced between the cat’s-eye stone and the wooden one she had just finished. The stone was too small and didn’t look even vaguely serpent-like. With a dismissive snort she moved to the other side of the head and finished her creation’s other eye. This was going to be the best serpent sculpture that Dargon had ever seen!

 

***

 

Aldan again followed Nakaz around Dargon the next day as they carried out their several errands. Their first stop had been the shop of Genarvus Kazakian, and Aldan had examined the page that the scribe had copied from memory for them. It had only taken a glance to confirm that it was the same kind of strange hidden map that he had solved for the beautiful woman named Yera back in Valdasly. Yera had been one of Bresk’s Band, and that group had used the map to retrieve the second of the Margre’s three artifacts. Aldan was sure that Genarvus’ page would serve the same purpose for Flane.

 

They had thanked Genarvus and left, and were now headed for the office of Aardvard Factotum in response to a message they had received from the healer who dabbled in brokering information. Aldan tried to solve the new map as they walked, but he needed more concentration than he could spare. With a sigh, he rolled the parchment up and slid it under his belt and hurried to catch up with Nakaz.

 

Their path led out of the city and to the east a short distance, and soon the home of Aardvard Factotum came into view. Aldan had visited the man previously but was still impressed by the aura of wealth that the healer surrounded himself with. His own home of Bindrmon Keep might have been larger but it was not more impressive than the house of Factotum.

 

He and Nakaz were greeted warmly by Hansen, Aardvard’s butler, and shown to an over-decorated sitting room filled with ostentatious displays of wealth. Aldan had only just sat down when Hansen returned and led the pair to the healer’s receiving room. After setting mugs of ale in front of the visitors, Hansen left them alone with Aardvard.

 

The well-dressed man smiled at the pair, but Aldan could tell that he seemed worried about something. Aardvard said, “Welcome back to my humble home, my friends. I have news for you, but I am not sure whether it is good or bad.”

 

Nakaz said, “We are happy to receive either, good healer. Let’s hear it.”

 

Aardvard leaned back and began slowly, “I have heard from this Flane person again. He came to me with several Rounds yesterday and asked for my help with some passages in a book he owned. I did as you wanted, Nakaz, and helped him. Perhaps too much, though I do not yet think he has everything he needs to complete his quest.”

 

The healer leaned forward and said, “The passages we worked on were almost riddles, and I must confess that I became caught up in solving them, though I assure you that I would have refrained had you not asked me to do the opposite. Flane has confirmed that the last part of his quest lies within the outcropping that the keep rests on. He needs to seek an entrance of some kind that lies near the northern point of the rock on the shore of the mouth of the Coldwell. The entrance is very low on the rock, which requires that he enter at low tide. And lastly, he needs a key that combines the ring he already possesses and a spined orb that can see.”

 

Aldan looked at Nakaz and said, “The eye of the Asthen’ron!”

 

“Undoubtedly, Aldan,” said Nakaz. Turning to the healer, he continued, “Excellent news, Aardvard. That gives us the clue we needed, augmenting information we already had. If you hear anything about that key Flane needs, let us know first, straight?”

 

As Aldan shook hands with the healer and followed Nakaz out of the sumptuous house, he was sure that Flane would now be directing all of his efforts toward finding this spined orb. Aldan hoped that he and Nakaz would find it first.

 

As they were walking back toward the city, Aldan saw two people coming their way along the path. One was the cowled magician named Cefn that Aldan had seen in the Inn of the Panther a few days before the King’s Birthday celebration. The other was a tall, good-looking man that Aldan had never seen before. But it was obvious that Nakaz had, because the bard stared at the tall man as the pair walked past, craning his neck around to follow their progress right to Aardvard’s door.

 

As the door opened and Hansen ushered the pair inside, Aldan asked, “Do you know either of them, Nakaz?”

 

The bard stared for a moment longer, then seemed to realize he had been asked a question. “What? Ah, yes, Aldan, I do know one of them. The man not wearing the hood. I met him a long time ago in the College of Bards in Magnus where he pretended to be one of us. He called himself Kethseir.”

 

Nakaz sighed, and turned around. As he started walking along the path back to Dargon, he continued, “I met him again just about four months ago at the Waning Moon Inn, except there he called himself Kresh. You recall the ring that Aardvard mentioned? It used to belong to a man named Yeran Reshilk. It was an heirloom in his family. The men with Kresh killed Yeran for that ring. He got away when he revealed which of his hirelings had committed the murder and I had to choose between justice and vengeance.”

 

Aldan had never heard this before, though he did recall something about an important ring. “Is that the ring that Meelia mentioned? I recall the name ‘Kale’, or something like that.”

 

Nakaz nodded. “Yes, that’s the same ring and the same person. I would dearly love to chase after that man and find out all of his secrets, but that will have to wait. We need to deal with the present — the Margre — first, before sorting out the past.”

 

Aldan nodded in return, accepting the bard’s decision. He took one look back at Aardvard’s house, contemplating future, present, and past, before following Nakaz away.

 

***

 

Yawrab wasn’t as nervous about approaching Dargon Keep this time. It was five days since the party for the King’s Birthday and both she and Ganba felt that the keep should have settled back into its routine. Yawrab wished she had been able to establish another way to get information from Ratray about Lord Aldan after their first arrangement had been voided by the death of Abernald nine days previously, but that hadn’t been possible.

 

She had been spending a great deal of time working on the problems at the Panther in the meantime, which was finally bearing fruit. Daurch, the owner, hadn’t been happy with her changes at first, but when Yawrab had explained the deplorable conditions that she was helping his brother correct, he had agreed with the time limit his brother Maravin had set: a sennight to produce results.

 

That first day had been a disaster. The fired staff had done their best to disrupt the interviews for new workers to the point that the guard had been brought in to keep order. Business suffered as new people were hired and shown their duties, but Yawrab had done her best to hire only competent staff.

 

The very next day, improvements had been obvious. The kitchen turned out excellent, fresh food; the rooms were cleaned daily, and at night the taproom was thoroughly scrubbed before the staff left for home.

 

It had been harder to get Maravin to understand that his job wasn’t done. Yawrab had tried to impress on him that he needed to manage his people, not just hire them and let them work. When one of the cleaners developed sticky fingers on the third day, Yawrab had forced Maravin to talk to the woman. Maravin had then wanted to advance the woman enough to get the medicine for her son, but when Yawrab investigated and learned that there was no son, but some large gambling debts, Maravin had let the woman go. Yawrab only hoped that the manager had learned the lesson: be understanding, not stupid.

 

Yawrab walked past the front door to the keep and around to the staff entrance. There was no sign of Ratray outside, but there was a man with a florid complexion standing almost where the servant had been before. Yawrab went over to the man and said, “Pardon me, but I am looking for a young man named Ratray who works here. Could you tell me where he is?”

 

The red-faced man looked at Yawrab with a frown. “What do I look like, his mother? He ain’t here noways. On break. Hasn’t returned yet.”

 

Yawrab thanked the rude man and left. She wondered where the young man had gone for his break, and when he would return. She was glad she had the distraction of whipping the Panther into shape: the positive changes there made her feel better than she had since she had reached Dargon.

 

On her way back to the Panther, she stopped off at the Inn of the Serpent to see how Ganba was doing. Yawrab knew that the work on the statue was helping her lover the same way taking on the Panther had helped her: it gave the gypsy something important to do.

 

When she entered the stableyard of the Serpent she saw the carving, but not the gypsy. She gasped: the statue was magnificent! The grace and power the carved object displayed made it seem alive, and the incredible detail she could see even from across the yard only added to the illusion. The powerful legs and the fearsome face made an imposing spectacle. She hoped that the owner of the inn was going to put a lantern over it, because the statue was sure to be frightening in the dark.

 

She was lost in admiration when Ganba stood up from behind the statue and walked over to her tool bench. Yawrab said, “That is magnificent, love!”

 

The gypsy turned and smiled, running her hand across the scaled back of the serpent. “Do you like it, Yawrab?”

 

“Oh yes, Ganba, it’s … it’s fantastic! Wonderful! Magnificent!”

 

Ganba laughed, and said, “I’m pretty proud of it myself. Come over here, I want to show you the detailing.”

 

Yawrab walked over to the head of the statue and watched as Ganba revealed all of the articulated pieces that she had carved in place. The skill displayed was excellent, and she just couldn’t express how proud she was of Ganba, so she just kept repeating the same three words. “Fantastic. Wonderful. Magnificent!”

 

Ganba pointed out the tufted ears, the barbed tail, and finally said, “All I need to do now is the finishing touches. Today or tomorrow should be enough. I was working on the toenails when you arrived.” She looked down, seemed to see something critical, grabbed a tool and crouched down by a foot.

 

Yawrab grinned at her lover’s back, amused by Ganba’s concentration. She didn’t want to disturb her, but she also didn’t want to leave without saying good-bye. She waited, idly glancing at the tools laid out on a bench next to the sculpture.

 

Something caught her eye, and she moved closer for a better look. Lying amidst the tools was a small sphere of grey-blue stone. Yawrab reached out to touch it, and found that it was smooth and cool. It rolled slightly under her fingertips, and she saw that one side of it looked like the eye of a cat.

 

The color reminded her of something. She reached into her pocket and pulled out the ring of keys to the Panther. The master key was easy to find, and she tugged it away from the ring. She held the strange clasp at the top of the key next to the sphere and, sure enough, they were exactly the same color. In fact, she could see that the natural spread of the prongs of the clamps seemed to be the right size for the sphere to rest in. She shifted the key around so that the open end of the clamps pointed at the grey-blue stone and gasped in shock when the stone leapt the two-finger’s-width gap between the key and the bench and landed between the clasps. The prongs closed slightly and then melted into the orb, forming one blue-grey object with a cat’s eye on one side, and four prongs clamped onto an ornamented key on the other.

 

Ganba stood and said, “What’s wrong? What happened?”

 

Yawrab said, “I just … And then … I don’t know!” She grabbed the orb and pulled, but only succeeded in separating the whole thing, the strange spined-eye, from the key. Dropping the key into her pocket, she grasped the ends of the small object and tried to pry the two halves apart, but they no longer seemed to be two objects combined. She couldn’t persuade the orb to separate from the double-clasp.

 

She finally gave up, and showed the contraption to Ganba. “What was that sphere in with your tools, Ganba?” she asked. “Not something valuable, or important?”

 

Ganba peered at the spined-eye and poked at it gingerly. “No, neither. Ballard gave it to me, thought I could use it in the serpent. Daft man! What would my serpent look like with a cat-eye? And there’s only one, so what would I have done with the other side of its head?”

 

She took the thing from Yawrab and tried pulling the bits apart herself, with the same luck. She said, “Good thing he gave it to me, ’cause it doesn’t look like he’s getting it back.” Ganba returned the spined-eye to Yawrab, wincing as the prongs closed around Yawrab’s finger.

 

Yawrab pulled the thing off of her finger easily, and then slipped it into her pocket. She felt it clamp around the shaft of the master key and sighed. She wondered how she was going to attach that master key back to the key ring without the clasps.

 

“Well, I’ve got to get back to the Panther, make sure Maravin hasn’t given away the treasury again.” She hugged Ganba and gave her a kiss. “Fantastic work, love. I’m so proud!”

 

Ganba blushed, kissed her back, and waved as she left.

 

Yawrab fished around in her pocket as she walked away, drawing the orb out of her pocket and pulling it off of the key. She put the key back, and looked at the orb. Frowning, she looked around, and saw an alms box by a doorway. She slipped the orb inside and hurried away, feeling slightly guilty. Maybe the monks could find some use for the thing.

 

***

 

Moments after Yawrab vanished around a corner, a fleeing man dashed down the street. He looked backward and saw the glint of the guard pursuing him, but his inattention caused him to crash into the alms box, smashing it and dashing its contents to the ground. The man stumbled, feet slipping on coins, then he regained his footing and started to run. He didn’t notice as his foot kicked a blue-grey object into the shadows of an alley. The guard, hot on his heels, didn’t notice either.

 

***

 

On the morning of the last day of Ober, Ratray scuttled across the city in his customary way, dodging from alley to shadow, avoiding large groups of people on the streets. He spent only enough attention to his journey to assure that he never ended up in any crowd; the rest of his mind was reflecting on his quarter-year break that had just ended.

 

He had spent the past six days in the whorehouse called Mother of Pearl, where all the women were named Pearl, unless you wanted them to be named something else. It had been the kind of quarter-break you joked with your friends about, and Ratray had accomplished it. Though he had thoroughly enjoyed himself, he was happy to be on his way back to work at the keep. He wouldn’t have believed it before, but it was possible to have too much of a good thing. He also knew that he would save his remaining Marks, and go back for as many quarter-breaks as they lasted.

 

Ratray was a few streets away from the Inn of the Serpent when he felt something hard under his knee as he knelt at the mouth of an alley. He lifted his leg and felt for the object. His fingers closed on something cool and smooth, and he picked whatever it was up.

 

He looked at the object in his hand, noting the blue-grey color first, the strange spines poking out of a small sphere next. He had no idea what it was, but he thought it looked like a pearl. He poked at it with his other hand, and was surprised when the spines closed around his finger. His immediate reaction was to fling it away again, but when he found that it came off of his finger easily he calmed himself. When he turned it over and saw the cat’s eye on the side of the sphere opposite the spines, he decided to keep it. Cats were, after all, his favorite animal.

 

Glancing up and down the street, Ratray resumed his journey back to the keep, putting the spined orb into his pocket and forgetting about it for the time being.

 

***

 

Music filled the sitting room of the suite in the Lighted Candle as Nakaz and Ratray played music together. Ratray’s face was filled with wonder as he played one of the bard’s own instruments, and Nakaz smiled to see such joy. He had run across the servant earlier that day in the keep and had been successful in persuading the young man to come to the inn, as playing on one of the keep’s towers would have been rather uncomfortable in the cold of the last day of Ober. This portion of the inn was deserted except for the musicians, and Aldan was downstairs playing King’s Crown for money, so they bothered no one.

 

Early in the evening, Nakaz had spotted Ratray eyeing the stone sculpture Nakaz had placed on the table to one side of the room where the cold meats, breads, and cheeses were arrayed. He hadn’t been sure why he had placed it out like a decoration. Normally he was more protective of the half-circle chunk of stone with the stylized cat and dual falcons on its outer third, and the three types of banding that interwove across its center. He’d grown nervous when Ratray had seemed to study it intently, but eventually his nervousness had faded with Ratray’s attentions, and the music had continued.

 

Nakaz had noticed the new jewelry that Ratray was wearing when the young man had entered the room, but it wasn’t until the servant took a break to try some of the cold meats and cheeses that Nakaz got a good, close look at the earring hanging from his right lobe. His eyes widened when he realized that the blue-grey color of the spherical ornament was the same shade as the stone in Yeran Reshilk’s ring that had been used by Bresk’s Band to help retrieve the second Margre Chalisento artifact. He had to bend down to see clearly what the strange markings on the bottom of the orb were, and he was rewarded for his effort by discovering that the bottom of the sphere looked like the eye of a cat, with the slitted pupil and faint striations around it to suggest an iris. The last revelation came when he saw that the earring had no metal on it, but was clamped to Ratray’s ear between four spines that rose from the side of the orb opposite the cat-eye slit: spines that, when examined closely, resembled antlers.

 

“Tray,” said Nakaz. “I don’t remember you wearing an earring before. Where did you get it?”

 

The young man’s hand went self-consciously to the dangling ornament, and he said, “Do you like it? It’s not too big, is it? I found it this morning on my way back to the keep. It was lying in an alley. I don’t know what it is, but it seemed to work as an earring.”

 

Nakaz was shocked that the key Flane needed to finish the Margre quest had just been lying around Dargon’s alleyways. He said, “Might I take a closer look? Does it come off?”

 

Ratray said, “Sure. See?” He pulled at the grey-blue orb, and it slid down his earlobe and came free. He handed it to Nakaz, walked over to the table with the food on it, and started assembling a leftwich from bread and thin-sliced meat.

 

Nakaz looked at the orb up close, watching with fascination as the prongs that had been clutching at Ratray’s ear slowly spread apart of their own accord, ending up looking even more like antlers. He checked the cat’s eye, played with the prongs a bit, and tried to decide whether Ratray was likely to want to part with his found object so quickly.

 

The young man had rejoined Nakaz, and he asked, “Do you know what it is, Nakaz?”

 

“I have some idea, yes,” Nakaz said.

 

“Really? Is it some kind of artifact, some piece of ancient magic that I’ve rediscovered after eons?”

 

“Ah, not exactly. But it could be dangerous. Do you think I could buy it from you,Tray?”

 

Ratray paused, took a bite of his leftwich, then said with his mouth full, “How much?”

 

Nakaz said, “Two Marks?”

 

Ratray’s eyes went wide, and he mumbled something about “another sennight at Pearl’s”. He choked on his leftwich, cleared his throat, and finally said, “Sure, Nakaz. Sure. Let’s get back to the music, now, straight?”

 

“Absolutely, Tray,” said Nakaz, closing his fist around the orb. A plan was already forming in his mind.

 

***

 

Ganba blew sawdust away from the rasp, pulled it back and forth a few more times, cleared the debris away again, and set the tool aside. Smiling, she grabbed a sanding block and polished the rasp marks away. Her smile became a grin, and she stepped back and said, “Finished!”

 

Yawrab said, “You have such talent, love. It looks so real, so alive!”

 

Ganba turned to her lover and said, “Thank you. I’m impressed myself, and I made it.”

 

Yawrab stepped forward and hugged the gypsy. “I’m glad you found something to do while I whipped the Panther into shape. Maybe you could carve something for Maravin next? I’m sure that you could make a panther far more frightening than the stuffed head on the taproom wall.”

 

Ganba laughed and grabbed a broom. “Could you go get Ballard, love? I want to present this to him, and then go back to spending my days with you.”

 

Ganba swept her corner of the stableyard clean while Yawrab grinned and ran into the inn. She thought about Yawrab’s joking suggestion, and wondered if she’d have to take on more work like this statue while the search for Lord Aldan stretched on. It was the first of Nober already, and it looked like they were never going to find the man. Ganba found herself feeling more and more tired every morning, and that was on top of the dull sameness that the streets of Dargon presented to her every day as she walked from the Panther to the Serpent and back. Aside from whatever soul-weariness plagued her, the rooted-folk life was fighting with her gypsy nature.

 

Ganba was packing up her tools when Yawrab returned with the jovial Ballard, who owned and operated the Inn of the Serpent. The man’s eyes widened as he took in the new sculpture that would grace the front of his establishment, and he said, “Oh, Ganba, your samples didn’t do your skills justice. This is fantastic! People will flock from leagues around to see this masterpiece. When are you going to paint it?”

 

Ganba just gaped at Ballard, and Yawrab took a step away from the man. “Paint?” the gypsy said. “How could you possibly think to paint this work of art? Can’t you see the way the grain of the wood flows along the scales here? Doesn’t the wood just gleam perfectly along the jaw here, the knee there? Paint?”

 

Ganba felt herself crouching into a fighting stance, her hand reaching into her tools for a particularly sharp chisel. She grinned fiercely as the innkeeper backed up a few steps. Yawrab hurried to her side and said, “I’m sure Ballard won’t paint your statue, dear.” Yawrab turned back to the owner of the Serpent and said, “I would suggest that you not bring up the subject of painting the statue again, Ballard, straight? I’ll be back tomorrow for the rest of her fee.”

 

Ganba let Yawrab lead her out of the stableyard, vowing to herself that if a lick of paint ever touched her sculpture, she would make sure that Ballard and every one of his descendants regretted it.

 

***

 

Ratray made another foray into the city for his own purposes two days after his musical evening with his friend the bard. He had been informed by his fellow servants that a woman had come looking for him at the keep while he was on break, and the description, especially the mismatched green and brown eyes, had clearly been Yawrab, who had returned his flute more than a sennight ago.

 

He knew that Abernald had been murdered shortly after Ratray had delivered his information about Lord Aldan to him, but he hadn’t realized that Yawrab hadn’t gotten that information, as that could only have been the reason for her return to the keep. Ratray was sorry that he hadn’t known that earlier, or he would have tried to contact her again before now.

 

He approached the Inn of the Panther with trepidation. The inn was a very popular one despite its run-down reputation — he understood that their ale was superb — and he wondered how he was going to be able to make himself enter in the face of his curse. He had waited at Mother of Pearl’s until the greeting room was nearly empty before going in there, and two nights previously at the Lighted Candle, Nakaz had escorted him into the inn via a servants’ entrance to ensure that his fear of crowds wouldn’t bother him. He felt that he might have a long wait before the taproom of the Inn of the Panther was empty enough for him to go in.

 

Ratray sidled up to one of the windows of the inn and peered through. It was as he had feared; the place was doing a brisk business. He scanned the room, but Yawrab was not present. However, he did spot Yawrab’s gypsy companion. Even on the other side of a window, the sight of the gypsy made him sneer. But he forgot his dislike of gypsies when he saw what the woman had on the table in front of her.

 

It was a stone fragment like the one he had taken from beneath the keep. It was larger than his own piece, but it was smaller than the one that Nakaz had been using as a decoration in his suite. Ratray couldn’t see the gypsy’s fragment clearly, but he could see enough to recognize the ragged edges, the odd animals and the interwoven banding. He knew that it was very similar to his own fragment and Nakaz’. In fact, he fancied that the three might fit together to form a single unit.

 

He turned from the window, his mission to Yawrab forgotten. Instead he began wondering, as he walked back to the keep, how to get some more Marks out of these two people who probably had some interest in the fox fragment he owned.

 

***

 

Aldan shook hands with Essart and watched the short, fat man leave the Lighted Candle. It was mid-morning of the second of Nober, and if all went well the Margre quest would be thwarted in just a few bells.

 

Aldan turned to Nakaz and said, “I still think we should be watching Flane ourselves.”

 

Nakaz smiled and said, “We’ve been over this, Aldan. We can’t let Flane see us yet. I fear that more than a scar is transferred when a new person takes over the Margre quest, and the man that Flane took the artifacts from saw you and I chasing him. If Flane recognizes us as enemies, then he will run, and we may never find him again. And once he has the key he seeks, it will be very dangerous for us to lose contact with him.”

 

Aldan sighed. Nakaz had told him all of that before, and he had agreed with it then as he did now. Still, it bothered him to be so far removed from the action as to be sending a hired man like Essart to be their eyes. With the completion of their task so close, it was galling to have to wait once again.

 

He started to pace around the common room of the inn. He remembered when Nakaz had told him of the plan he had devised shortly after acquiring the spined eye-stone from the servant Ratray two days previously. Every step of that plan had gone smoothly. The two of them had gone to Genarvus to request the sage’s cooperation in brokering a deal between Flane and an anonymous collector wishing to sell a certain blue-grey object. Genarvus had contacted Flane, who had agreed to the transaction a day ago, with the exchange slated for today at sixth bell. Nakaz had checked with the harbormaster on low tide times for the day and so they knew that once Flane had the key, he would have to move to the correct spot by the end of the first bell of the night when the tide would turn and begin rising again.

 

All Aldan could do in the meantime was to wait.

 

Bell after bell slid past, and Aldan grew increasingly nervous. Seventh bell had become eighth when he was sure something was wrong. Essart should have come directly back from the sale of the antlered eye, and he was late. Very late.

 

He alternated pacing with staring out the window of the common room. Nakaz had seemed annoyingly composed until the last bell or so, and it made Aldan secretly glad to see his lover fidgeting nervously as he sat at one of the tables. They had grown snappish with each other as Aldan continually tried to alter the plan, to get them to go down to the Coldwell early. Each time Nakaz had been able to convince him of the danger of letting Flane see them too soon. Unfortunately, it didn’t make waiting any easier.

 

Tenth bell had passed some time ago and the first bell of the night was soon to ring when a stranger burst into the Lighted Candle. The woman leaned against the door, caught her breath after a moment, and gasped out, “Applecart. Broken leg. Essart says go.”

 

Aldan hesitated only long enough for Nakaz to stand and gather his pack before leaving the inn at a run. The pair sped across the Old City, and fumbled their way over the side of the causeway to the Coldwell’s bank within a quarter bell. Aldan searched the ground for other footprints but found none. He knew that there was a stairway down to the Coldwell to the north of the keep; Flane must have taken that easier way.

 

Running through the mud in the deepening dark slowed their frantic pace, and Aldan was sure that he was going to have to hurriedly decipher the map he hadn’t yet bothered with in order to follow Flane into the Margre’s maze.

 

Nakaz turned briefly and hissed to get his attention. Aldan followed Nakaz’ pointing arm and caught sight of the still figure ahead of them where the rock outcropping turned west and a wider patch of muddy bank was visible in the unshadowed darkness there. They slowed their pace so they could move more quietly, and closed the distance to the now-kneeling figure.

 

The shadow of the cliff above them and the constant sound of the moving waters of the mouth of the Coldwell kept them from being detected, Aldan was sure. Nakaz stopped at some fifty paces’ distance and Aldan followed suit. The bard stepped into the stirrup of the crossbow he had brought and pulled back the string, then lifted the weapon to his shoulder and fitted in a quarrel. Aldan watched the kneeling figure reach out and scrub at the mud directly in front of him. Aldan thought he saw a faint gleam revealed, and then there was a flash of light as the figure extended his hand to touch the gleam. Then Nakaz’ crossbow thunked, and the kneeling figure fell flat, half of his body vanishing into a hole in the cliff side that hadn’t been there the previous moment.

 

Aldan started forward first, sure of the bard’s marksmanship. As he got closer, he saw a large cave in the cliffside. He knelt beside the prone figure and noticed that the ground inside the cave was dry, in contrast to the mud the lower half of the corpse lay in outside the cave. He turned the body over to reveal a man with brown hair and the top of one ear missing, with a scar in the middle of his left eyebrow. It was Flane.

 

A moment later, Nakaz caught up and knelt beside Aldan. The bard reached for the right hand of the body. Aldan saw the strange ring Flane wore, with the cat-eyed orb perched on top of the band, the spines clutching at the rest of the ring. Nakaz looked at Aldan, and he nodded, gripping his sword at his side. He and Nakaz had already discussed this next step, and that if the bard suddenly sprouted a scar in his left eyebrow, Aldan was to kill him swiftly and then not touch any of the artifacts.

 

Nakaz grasped the ring and stiffened. Aldan could feel something happening as Nakaz grimaced briefly; it felt like the bond they had shared since touching that stone fragment together was being called on to help the bard in some way. Nakaz opened his eyes after a moment, and slipped the ring from Flane’s hand. Aldan looked closely, but there was no new scar on Nakaz’ face.

 

Nakaz proceeded to search the body, finding a small rock, a stone cup, and a blue book. He tossed each of these things deep into the cave one by one, and then enlisted Aldan’s help to shove Flane’s body deeper within as well.

 

Aldan let himself be herded back out of the mouth of the cave and onto the mud of the bank. Nakaz held the ring-and-orb combination in both hands, hesitated for a moment, and then pulled them apart. Aldan watched, stunned, as the cave opening began to fade away. The bard swiftly tossed the last two items belonging to the Margre quest into the closing cave, and then the opening was gone.

 

Aldan looked at the rock wall, and even went closer to touch it, but it felt as solid as anything around it. Nakaz sighed, and started walking north to the small beach at the bend between river mouth and ocean. Aldan was glad they were taking the easier way back into the Old City.

 

As they walked, Aldan finally decided to ask, “Nakaz, why did you throw everything into the cave?”

 

“Finality, Aldan,” said the bard. “When you’ve read as many myths, stories, and legends as I have, all with their clues and keys and secrets right out in the open to be found, you start to get tired of stupid people locking up devastating evil with the means of retrieving it left out and about for someone to eventually find and learn how to use.”

 

Nakaz was silent for a dozen more paces before continuing, “No one is ever going on the Margre quest again, Aldan. Sure, all three of her separated parts are now in proximity to each other, but it will take a huge miracle for the stone to get into the cup in such a way as whatever is storing the water of her spirit to be able to spill over it. And if that miracle comes to pass … well, what chance did we have anyway?”

 

Aldan pondered the wisdom Nakaz had presented him with, and could find no fault with it by the time they had returned to their inn. There they found waiting for them a very crudely lettered note which read, “From a friend. Please come to the Frayed Knot on the docks at the fourth …”

 

***

 

“… bell of the day tomorrow, that being of Nober the third day. There I will display some property I have recently received, which I believe will interest you.”

 

Ganba looked at the note with its crude lettering and stilted phrasing, and wondered which of the few friends either she or Yawrab had here in Dargon would send them such an invitation. She briefly entertained a paranoid fear of the Bloody Hand of Sageeza being involved, but the note seemed both too crude and too direct for their methods. Well, there was really only one way to find out, and neither she nor Yawrab had any other plans for the morrow.

 

***

 

The next day, it was Nakaz and Aldan who entered the Frayed Knot first. Gazing around as he walked through the door, Nakaz came to the conclusion that as a tavern, it was a nice bait shop. Not one extra Bit had been spent on anything not absolutely required, so that the somewhat small space was nearly bare. The tables were of unadorned wood and were surrounded by stools rather than chairs. This made the booths that lined the side walls the favored place to sit, which was why Nakaz led the way to one of the few unoccupied tables. The floor was covered with wood shavings, not even sawdust, which hadn’t been swept out in at least a sennight. If not for the seasonable temperatures of early Nober, the place would have smelled worse than the docks themselves.

 

Nakaz had checked the contents of the dirty mugs at the tables as they had passed, and he didn’t bother making a trip to the hole in the wall that served as a way to order drinks from the kitchen. He didn’t notice anyone taking care of service in the room, and he wondered how many of those around him were simply loitering.

 

He glanced around the room again, checking to see if anyone was paying any attention to him, but no one seemed to find anything interesting in the room besides the tables themselves. He looked over at Aldan, who seemed equally interested in the scarred wooden surface in front of them. Nakaz thought he saw weariness in his friend’s face, a weariness that he felt himself. Some of that was due to having completed the task that had been driving him for so long, but that wasn’t all of it. Unwilling to get too introspective in a place like this, he turned his attention to the front door, wondering when the note writer would show up.

 

A short while later, he was startled to see the same pair entering the bar that he had encountered a few days ago approaching Aardvard Factotum’s place. The cowled wizard was named Cefn, and the man with him was the thief Nakaz knew by several names, including Kresh. They went over to one of the booths where a thin, shifty-eyed man seemed to be expecting them.

 

Nakaz debated whether to confront Kresh. He had decided against it outside Aardvard’s home because he’d had more important things to occupy his time. Now, however, he was free of obligations. He hoped his mysterious meeting wouldn’t last longer than Kresh’s.

 

The next pair to enter the dive also had a familiar person in it, but Nakaz wasn’t immediately sure where he had seen the older woman before. She startled him, though, by crying out, “Lord Aldan!” and approaching their table.

 

***

 

Yawrab was willing to give the note writer only until the tones of the fourth bell of the day finished echoing along the docks before she left the Frayed Knot, and she made that vow before setting foot within, so unpromising did it look. She forgot about her misgivings as she and Ganba pushed through the swinging doors and she spotted the man she had chased across half of the Kingdom of Baranur.

 

“Lord Aldan!” she called out, and hurried over to the table where he was sitting. She didn’t even notice that the gorgeous blond bard with the grass-green eyes she had met at the keep with Ratray was with him until she was standing across the table from them both.

 

As she stood there looking at Lord Aldan, she found herself unable to believe that the young man had actually killed her sister Tillna. She saw that the surprise on his face came from seeing someone familiar a long way from home and had nothing to do with fear. She recalled the gypsy Sefera’s reading of her fortune, and knew that they had told the truth when they’d identified the lord separately from the killers.

 

The bard rose with courtly grace and said, “Please, have a seat, ladies. I take it you know my friend from somewhere?”

 

Yawrab settled uncomfortably onto a stool next to Ganba, tried unsuccessfully to find a less uneasy position, and finally replied, “Ah, yes, sir bard. I am Yawrab, once the housekeeper of the Denva estate in the Barony of Bindrmon. I am also Tillna’s sister, and I have been seeking Lord Aldan to ask … what he knows about her murder.”

 

“I hope your trip was not arduous, Mistress Yawrab,” said Aldan. “I will happily answer your question. First, though, I would like to introduce to you both the bard Nakaz, who has guided me across Baranur in aid of my own search. If you would present your companion, Yawrab, I could begin my tale.”

 

***

 

Ganba bowed to the lord and the bard as Yawrab said, “This is Ganba of the Rhydd Pobl, who helped me on my journey. There were dangers involved, but I would not choose differently if given the option. Now tell me of Tillna.”

 

Ganba glanced around the room as Lord Aldan told the story of the petty jealousy between him and the friends he had grown up with, and how they had for some reason taken revenge on him by killing his promised bride, Yawrab’s sister, Tillna. He had tracked one down and had been informed that the others were fleeing to Dargon, but after spending two months and more in the city, he was sure that they had not, in fact, come this far north.

 

The gypsy kept her eye out for any undue interest in their table. The Frayed Knot was not a nice place to sit and reminisce, full of dangers of many different kinds. She saw the bard keeping an eye out as well, and it was this scrutiny that drew her attention to Cefn in the booth. She knew that the man with Cefn was Ka’en, the cousin of Je’en. She also knew that Je’en had vanished after the King’s Birthday celebration, and that Cefn had been methodically scouring the city for anyone who could help him find her. The palmist he was sitting with, a thin, shifty-eyed man, was unlikely to provide the answers he was looking for. She wondered if Sefera was still around and whether her abilities would prove useful to the wizard.

 

She looked at the three other figures around the table with her. The tension in Yawrab had vanished with the young lord’s explanation, and Ganba felt some release as well at the ending of their quest. Looking at the two men, though, she felt an odd sensation, almost as if there was some connection between all of them.

 

She also felt that strange, stretched sensation increasing as she observed the two men. Something about their presence made her feel old and worn. No, more than old: ancient. And the two men had something of the same aura about them as well.

 

Before she could examine her lover for the same thing, she noticed Ratray standing just outside the door of the Frayed Knot. The lanky young man with the brown hair was just standing there, sweat beading on his brow even in the chill Nober breeze. She wondered what the servant was there for, so far from the keep, when he narrowed his eyes, pushed through the swinging doors, and headed right for their table.

 

***

 

Aldan could feel something strange in the air, and his head snapped around to look at Ratray as he walked slowly across the crowded room. Aldan had seen Ratray in the keep, and knew that he and Nakaz had spent time together playing music. Nakaz had told him about the young man’s fear of crowds, his “curse” as the boy put it, so it was surprising to see him here. That wasn’t enough to explain the strange feeling he had, though, that something very, very important was getting closer and closer to their table.

 

Ratray dropped onto a stool and just sat there for a few moments, breathing hard. No one spoke until finally Ratray said, “Hello Nakaz, Aldan, Yawrab, Ganba. I sent the note. This is why.”

 

With shaking hands, Ratray removed something from his shoulder bag and set it on the table. Aldan gasped when he saw it, echoed by the other three. He glanced over and watched Nakaz pull their fragment from his carry-all. When the bard set the half-circle stone sculpture on the table, Aldan saw that the women had produced a smaller stone of their own.

 

Aldan could see clearly that the three stone fragments were not only of a similar make, but they were, in fact, all parts of the same whole. The cat-figure on the piece that he and Nakaz possessed matched exactly the cat-figure on the piece resting before Ganba and Yawrab, while the fox-figure next to that cat matched the only animal on Ratray’s piece.

 

All three pieces were arranged, though by accident, exactly as they should have been, so that the separated cats and foxes lined up around the circle back to back, just as the two falcons on his and Nakaz’ piece were. The silver, gold, and glass bands finally all formed their full interweaving tracery across the piece, the lines matching exactly across the gaps between the three stones.

 

There was more than just the fragments of a broken sculpture on the table, though. Aldan could feel the power that hummed between the pieces of stone, that hovered over the table and around all five of them sitting around it. He started to feel the same kind of resonant affinity for Ganba and Yawrab that he had already fully experienced with Nakaz, and no one was touching any of the fragments any longer. Something was about to happen, something wonderful. He couldn’t wait.

 

***

 

Ratray could feel the strangeness too. He knew the others were feeling something not only because he could see it on their faces, but because he could sense it right along with them. That feeling scared him, but not in the same way as the curse he had lived with for all of his life. Not that he could explain the difference.

 

Yawrab asked the question first, though Ratray felt the other three ask it with her, inside of him. “What do you want for your portion of the Talisman, Tray?”

 

“I … I thought I knew, but I hadn’t expected this. The piece belongs to all of you; I can feel that just as you can. Take it. It’s yours.” The heartfelt gift resonated among the five of them, and Ratray knew he had done the right thing. He barely registered a raised voice coming from his right, away against the wall.

 

There was a pause, and then Nakaz lifted his rank pendant from around his neck and held it in one fist for a moment. A brief glow escaped between the bard’s fingers, and then Nakaz handed the pendant to Ratray. “Take this to the College of Bards in Magnus, Tray. It will earn you an entrance audition, which you will not fail. Thank you, Tray.”

 

Aldan removed the room key from his belt pouch and handed it to Ratray. “Everything in our suite is yours, Tray,” he said, and Ratray could hear the confidence in his tone, echoed by the bard’s smile. “I’m sure you can make good use of it, especially Nakaz’ instruments.” He then pulled out some parchment and a stick of charcoal. He scribbled a quick note, and handed that to the servant. “This will explain your rights, should anyone challenge you. Thank you, Tray.”

 

Ganba said, “You can have my ban, my wagon, to take you to Magnus and the college. Let me have that.” She took the parchment and sketched a map, and then wrote her own message. “This is where the wagon is hidden, and the note will let any of my people who might stop you know of your right to it. Thank you, Tray.”

 

The raised voice had become a shout. It said, “I just want to know where Je’en is!” There was a flash of light and heat, and suddenly that wall of the dive was on fire. Screams began immediately, and the fire was spreading rapidly.

 

Yawrab said, “Tray, the moment foretold by your prediction has arrived.” Ratray looked at the older woman and saw a strange light in her different colored eyes that wasn’t just a reflection of the fire. He wondered briefly who had told her about his curse. She continued, “Leave here free from fear. Your life is forever changed, but not ended by the cataclysm you are escaping from. Thank you, Tray.”

 

Ratray clutched the pendant, key, and parchment and stood. Patrons were fleeing the burning bar. The strange man with the cowl you couldn’t see into was carrying two people out the door. Ratray looked at the four sitting around the table as their hands came up to touch the edges of the stone fragments. “You’re welcome,” he said. He turned and ran toward the door.

 

***

 

Nakaz and Aldan and Yawrab and Ganba pushed gently at the fragments of the Talisman they had created two thousand years ago. The three pieces came together simultaneously and with a tiny flash obscured by the rising flames behind them, the Talisman became whole again.

 

The circle was complete, and come around in full. From the top of the tallest tower of Wudamund they had sealed themselves to their Talisman, and the rogue magic within it had drawn down the lightning and destroyed it. Now, through life after life, century after century, they had all been drawn back to the same place, and the Talisman was whole again.

 

***

 

As the flames roared through the bar, Ganba remembered the beginning. In the first days of the end of the Fretheod Empire, she had been a man named Kendil who was an alkaehra, or combat sailor. She knew again that sea voyage in the Typhoon Dancer when he had fallen in love with a soldier musician named Nikkeus, and then with the ship’s captain Eldinan. He had been unable to choose between them, and then had been fortunate enough not to need to as they both loved him back.

 

He recalled Nikkeus’ struggle with being considered adult and capable. He remembered Eldinan’s struggles with her culture and its prejudices against non-standard relationships. He relived their growing together, a growth that made all of them more complete, as well as more independent. He remembered the final decision to defy convention and join in the annual winter solstice krovelathan, or marriage, ceremony.

 

His carving skills had come to the fore after the krovelathad, or marriage talisman, had been designed by Nikkeus and Eldinan. He had been instrumental in bringing that vision into being, working with the various elements that made up the object, from casting the stone-like base, to applying the gold, silver, and glass banding, with help, of course.

 

Ganba sat with her fingers touching that same object as the bar burned harder and also felt herself standing in Kendil’s boots on top of Wudamund in the middle of a storm as binding words were said. She recalled Nikkeus’ hood falling away revealing the raven haired and bearded, brown and green eyed visage of Orlebb, just before the lightning bolt struck, shattering the Talisman and ending that version of herself.

 

***

 

Nakaz returned to his first incarnation. He remembered being Nikkeus, a young teraehra, or soldier, living at the height of the Fretheod Empire. He remembered being posted to Wudamund, one of the distant outposts of the empire, far across the sea.

 

He remembered sailing on the Typhoon Dancer and meeting Kendil, an alkaehra, during a terrible storm and falling in love with him immediately. He recalled how the ship’s captain, Eldinan, had also fancied the man, and how he had despaired until he’d been offered Kendil in Eldinan’s cabin.

 

He’d been surprised to find himself in love with both the captain and the soldier. Their love had been mutual, and had developed during the voyage and continued during their stay at Wudamund. Defying the conventions of their culture, the three of them had planned to promise themselves to each other, and had constructed a krovelathad, a physical symbol of that union, together.

 

As the flames in the bar reached a third wall, Nakaz recalled the night on the tallest of the three towers of Wudamund, when the krovelathad had been readied for dedication. He remembered that Orlebb, the castellan of Wudamund, had taken his place in the ceremony. He knew without remembering that the krovelathad, the Talisman that rested in front of him, had been fragmented by a bolt of lightning that had killed him and the other three people on the roof.

 

***

 

Aldan returned to the beginning, when he had been a woman named Eldinan, the captain of the Typhoon Dancer. The beginning of the end of the Fretheod Empire had been clear to her in the way that her anhekova, a magical staff with a lump of milky crystal housed in one end, failed to perform its functions any longer. Unable to predict or control the weather, just one of the abilities her staff had once possessed, made braving the open sea so late in the season a dangerous proposition. The strain of the journey had been offset by finding interest in a combat sailor and whittler named Kendil, and then in a soldier musician named Nikkeus.

 

The two men had also been attracted to each other, and the three of them had ended up finding companionship, and then more, in each others’ arms, though the Fretheod culture severely frowned upon anything but dyadic relationships.

 

Eldinan had been trapped by the onset of winter at Wudamund, and her relationship with the two men had deepened. They had chosen to create a krovelathad together, even in the face of her culture’s strictures. The result had been a work of art created by the three of them, though out of unconventional materials, including her useless anhekova.

 

Aldan sat in front of that very krovelathad, the Talisman that had just been reassembled, and remembered being on the rooftop of the Wudamund tower for their own, secret winter solstice krovelathan ceremony. He recalled the moment when Orlebb had revealed himself, and noticing the presence of the real Nikkeus, whom Orlebb had masqueraded as. While the fire consumed more of the bar, Aldan relived the moment the lightning bolt had struck, ending the first of his many existences.

 

***

 

Yawrab remembered the arrival of the three newcomers to Wudamund back in the beginning when she had been a man named Orlebb who had been the castellan of the watch keep. Orlebb had been a native of the area, unlike the Fretheod explorer-invaders, but he had worked for them freely. He had been good at managing the keep, and he had used his position to his advantage in any way possible.

 

Orlebb had found himself interested in those three: the ship’s captain Eldinan, a striking woman with chestnut hair and grey eyes; the naval soldier Kendil with brown hair and brown eyes; and the combat soldier Nikkeus with the blond hair, big nose, and grass-green eyes. He had tried to involve himself with each of the three separately with a perplexing lack of success.

 

Then he had discovered the real relationship between the three, and the krovelathad they’d been building. He had been determined to intrude on their triadic union, and he had introduced a magical artifact of his own into the talisman they had been creating.

 

Yawrab remembered standing beside the very sculpture that was before her now up on the roof of the tallest of Wudamund’s three towers, masquerading as the blond musician. Eldinan and Kendil had arrived, and as a storm blew up the ceremony had begun. Yawrab felt the heat in the burning bar as clearly as she recalled the snow and rain, the feelings as the krovelathad was activated, biding all four of them together, and the lightning bolt that tore them, and the Talisman, apart.

 

***

 

Ratray stood in the doorway as the other patrons of the Frayed Knot vanished along the docks behind him. Only Yawrab, Nakaz, Ganba, and Aldan remained in the center of the room, obviously unconcerned by the growing conflagration around them.

 

The servant saw the stone that sat on the table between those four, and was startled to realize that it was once again whole. He could feel the resonances between the stone sculpture and the four who sat around it, perhaps because he had held one of the fragments for a short while. He knew that something far more wonderful and strange than the luck he had just been party to was happening in there.

 

As he watched, he thought he saw each person shimmer slightly. He thought he saw all of them but Nakaz change gender for a moment, altering just slightly to make the set three men and one woman. They shimmered again and changed once more, then again and again. Ratray knew that it wasn’t the fire making them shimmer.

 

He thought briefly about going in to rescue them, or of fetching help to get them out. He realized somehow that they were capable of rescuing themselves if they wished it. He let them be, determined to watch them to whatever end was to come.

 

***

 

Lives overwhelmed Ganba as her incarnations flooded into her mind. Years passed as swiftly as the lives, then slowed as she became Kendra again. Kendra had been one of the Siizhayip, a nomad group. She remembered going with her people to negotiate with a fading remnant of the Fretheod Empire over land. The Siizhayip needed room to expand. The Duke of Grahk didn’t need the land at all.

 

Ganba realized that Duke Bralevant of Grahk was an incarnation of Orlebb and Yawrab. Back then, the two of them had been lovers. She had been the secret mother of his heir. Her son, Bralidan, was an incarnation of Eldinan and Aldan. Kendra had used her former relationship with the duke to get close enough to kill him. She had been ordered to do so. His death would assure the Siizhayip the land they needed. She had been surprised when the duke had taken her with him into death. She had been resigned to her fate, believing in the good she was doing. And the lives continued to flood past.

 

***

 

Lives dashed past Aldan’s perceptions. Decades flashed by, until he became Bralidan. He had been the son of a powerful ruler. He recalled meeting a pretty, blond, green-eyed young woman named Nikorah. She had belonged to a nomadic group who roamed the Great Steppes. They called themselves the Siizhayip. She had come to Plethiss, his home, to plead with his father for land. He knew that his father the duke had no use for that land.

 

Duke Bralevant had denied him permission to pursue Nikorah. He had schemed to do so anyway. He remembered being on the battlements of Plethiss. He had been bathed in the light of both moons. Nikorah had been at his side. He had watched as their Talisman fragments merged beneath the spectacle of a moon-flare. The freedom he had gained by leaving Grahk with her faded into the blur of subsequent lives.

 

***

 

Time flowed over Nakaz like music. Lives passed like notes in a tune. He lingered briefly to remember Nikorah. The song began again. It stopped once more when he became Maeanat. She and her twin sister Tironvil were criminals in Gerolevan. They had been cheated by a merchant of magics. They’d gone to Melajoof for revenge. Instead, they’d been given a chance at invulnerability.

 

Maeanat had known where to fetch the missing ingredient. She had impersonated a bard to invade a manor house. She had retrieved a fragment of the Talisman, the required ingredient. She’d had to kill an employee named Eilonvil in the process. Nakaz knew that Eilonvil was also Eldinan and Aldan. Maeanat had taken the fragment and met up with her sister. She’d been unconcerned by the pursuit of the authorities. She had believed in the protection Melajoof had offered. She’d been foolish to do so. She had died, and the song began once more.

 

***

 

Lives blinked by Yawrab, remembered in brief and then gone again. Then she came to a woman she remembered in more detail named Tironvil. Tironvil and her twin sister Maeanat had been thieves. They had gone to Melajoof to purchase some protection. The protection had failed. She and her sister had returned to exact vengeance on the merchant. The man had given them a fragment of the Talisman. He’d also given them a ritual that he promised would provide permanent protection for them. It had only needed a single missing ingredient.

 

Maeanat had known where to get that ingredient. She’d left to obtain it. Tironvil had gone to the circle of standing stones to meet up with her. They had enacted the ritual and merged the two stones. Then the authorities had come to deal out justice to the twins. Tironvil had learned just how well Melajoof had fooled them. A sword had entered her and ended that existence.

 

***

 

Ratray watched the changes flashing and flowing over the four in the middle of the bar. The flames were growing in there, but so far none had reached the center of the room. He could feel the heat from where he stood, but none of the four seemed to be uncomfortable.

 

Then he noticed the frowns, but he knew that they weren’t caused by the atmosphere within the bar. All four began to shudder a little, and the faint glow from the stone itself grew until it was outshining the flames that were closing in.

 

***

 

Ganba felt the years begin to press against her. The lives she’d lived stayed with her. She remembered Aborkendo. He’d been an actor and a carpenter. Torenda’s Troupe had roamed Farevlin entertaining. He’d been involved with three women. The same three people in the bar now. They’d found a fragment of the Talisman while traveling. They’d frightened away a warlord with acting. Then they’d been rewarded with another fragment of the Talisman. She remembered the two fragments melding together. Then the lives started flashing by again. She felt full of other people. People she’d been. She worried they’d press out who she really was.

 

***

 

Aldan paused within Eldirhan’s life. He’d been a crippled blacksmith. An accident had freed his mind. He’d known all about his amazing past. A woman named Nikoren had come. Her horse’d needed shoes. Eldirhan had resisted the pull of the search. He hadn’t gone with Nikoren. His injuries had prevented it. So he had never touched a Talisman fragment. Not until he’d died and been reborn. Again and again. So many lives. Aldan tried to come to terms with the sensations. But the lives just kept piling up.

 

***

 

Nakaz was stranger after stranger. The lives that flashed by him weren’t going away. They were filling him up. Life after life, every day, every moment. They all became part of him. He couldn’t contain it all. And then … he was himself. His own life flashed through him. Becoming a bard. Scaling the stave of ranks. Meeting Shorel. Meeting Kethseir. Losing Shorel. Gaining the Talisman fragment. Aldan. Travel. The Margre. Culmination. The Frayed Knot. Fire. Completeness. Rest.

 

***

 

Yawrab felt overwhelmed. The crush of people she had been filled her. They were all trying to be themselves again. Even though they all were her. She didn’t think there was room for even one more. And then … she was herself. She watched herself grow up in southern Welspeare. Getting a job. Lord Cranhull’s rape. Moving north. The Denvas. The bargemen. Meeting Ganba. Tillna’s death. Travel. Sageeza. Dargon. The Panther. The statue. The note. The bar. Fire. Completeness. Rest.

 

***

 

Ratray squinted as the light from the stone increased. Fear and pain began to fade from the faces of those sitting around it, and he felt his link to the powerful object fade and then vanish. The flames approached the last table, and he wondered what would happen next.

 

***

 

The four incarnates lived their lives from birth to here together, and they opened their eyes and looked across the table and their Talisman at each other. They all knew the pressure of their pasts, they all felt each other’s weariness, that stretched, worn, faded, world-weary sensation that was now well explained. They looked into the past and saw the currents that had brought the six Talisman fragments together into three, and then moved four people across time and the world to be here with those fragments, not a league from where they had been created.

 

The bar was fully engaged in flame, only their table untouched by the conflagration. They all knew the choice before them. There was no debate. The unspoken question was answered unanimously. They linked hands atop the Talisman and waited.

 

***

 

Ratray stared as the light faded enough for him to see the four in the bar again. They were all smiling serenely at each other, their hands linked on top of the stone on the table in front of them. Ratray wondered why they weren’t getting up and leaving. He made up his mind to go help them, but as he started back into the bar, there was a grinding sound from the roof. Ratray was sure he saw the stone flash again. He was just as sure that when the roof crashed down, the table and chairs it landed on first were empty.

 

***

 

When the fire extinguished itself, the town guard found no evidence of any casualties within the ruins of the Frayed Knot or the wharf it had stood upon. No strange stone carvings, complete or incomplete showed up, nor did any charred bones. Cefn eventually paid restitution for the damage he had caused, but no one ever knew what had also ended within that waterfront dive.

 

This final chapter of the Talisman Saga is dedicated to concinnity. Here’s hoping the whole is greater than its parts.

VN:F [1.9.9_1125]

Rate this Story

Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
Series Navigation«Talisman Ten Part 2
Story Navigation
Category: Archive, Stories | RSS 2.0 | Give a Comment | trackback

No Comments

Leave a Reply