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Chapter 1

Ilna looked down the valley to the gray limestone temple and the slaughtered bodies around it. There were many corpses, though she didn't know precisely how many: when a number was higher than she could count on her fingers, she had to tell it with beans or pebbles . . . if she cared.

Mostly she didn't care. These folk, the humans and the catmen who must've killed them and been killed in turn, were all dead. The dead didn't matter.

Ilna had loved her family, Chalcus and Merota. They didn't matter either because catmen had killed them also.

"It can't've happened long ago," said Asion, the small, dark man who cropped his hair and beard with a knife at long intervals. Ilna'd known the hunter for nearly a month, and she hadn't seen him trim it in that time. "I don't smell them in the breeze."

"There's no breeze," said Karpos, his ginger-haired partner, equally unkempt. He crushed a pellet of dry soil between the thumb and finger of his right hand, letting the dust drift to the ground. It fell straight, so far as Ilna could see. "You're just pretending you feel one."

"There's a breeze," said Asion crooking his left index finger without taking his eyes off the valley. "The fuzz on my ears feels the wind even when dust won't drift. There's breeze enough that I'd smell them if they'd started to stink."

Karpos' left hand held a short, very stiff wooden bow with an arrow nocked; its point was bronze, thin but with broad wings that'd require only a few heartbeats to bleed out the life of whatever he hit fairly. Asion had a sling with a short staff and linen thongs. For ordinary hunting he shot smooth pebbles, but he carried a few pointed lead bullets in a pouch; one of those was in the pocket of molded leather now.

A word was cast into the metal of the bullets. Asion seemed to think it was a valuable charm, though he wasn't sure because the hunters couldn't read any better than Ilna did.

Ilna didn't believe in charms of that sort. From what she'd seen since the hunters joined her, the strength of Asion's shoulders would be sufficient for most purposes.

Ilna glanced at the strands of yarn in her hands, ready to be woven into a pattern to freeze the mind or stop the heart of anyone who saw it. She could instead knot the yarn into a simple oracle to answer the question, "Does an enemy wait for us below?"

She did something similar every morning to choose the direction for the day's travels . . . but such care wasn't required now. She trusted the long, fine fur growing on the top of Asion's ears, and she trusted her own instinct to tell her if something ahead wasn't right, was out of place in a peaceful valley. She didn't feel that here.

Ilna'd lived in a hamlet on the east coast of Haft until she was eighteen. Two years ago a wizard named Tenoctris had washed up on shore and everything had changed. She and her brother Cashel had left home forever, accompanied by their childhood friends, Garric and Sharina. And now—

Garric was ruler of the Isles; his sister had become Princess Sharina of Haft; and Cashel had the only thing that'd ever mattered to him, Sharina's love. He could be Lord Cashel if he'd wanted, but the title meant no more to him than it would've to Ilna.

Ilna's lips were as hard as knife edges. At one time she'd have said she didn't want anything beyond what her skill at weaving brought her. Then she met Chalcus and Merota, a man and a child who loved her . . . until they were killed.

Ilna smiled. Death was the greatest and perhaps the only peace she could imagine. Until then, she'd kill catmen.

"We'll go down," she said, standing and stepping out of the brush without waiting to see whether the hunters agreed. That was their business; they'd joined her, rather than Ilna os-Kenset clinging to a chance-met pair of strong, confident men for protection. The skills Ilna had learned in Hell were far more lethally effective than the hunters' weapons and muscles. Though—

Ilna knew that meeting Asion and Karpos wasn't really chance. Her oracle had directed her over a ridge and into a valley to the east of the one she'd been following for the first week after she left the royal army and her friends. Her surviving friends. The smell of a fire had led her to the hunters, smoking thin-sliced venison on a rack of green twigs.

Asion and Karpos followed her because they were confused and fearful, while Ilna had purpose. The Change, the mixing of eras by wizardry, had turned the Isles into the single great continent which had existed in its far past. The hunters—Ilna assumed they were from a much earlier time; she and they struggled occasionally with each other's dialect, though they understood one another well enough—had been completely disoriented by what had happened.

Ilna didn't understand the Change any better than the hunters did, but that was simply one more thing that didn't matter to her. She lived to kill the catmen, the Coerli, because they'd killed the man and the child who'd given her life meaning.

The hunters would've been willing to do things they found difficult to be allowed to accompany Ilna. All she asked them to do was to kill, and at that to kill animals rather than men. That Asion and Karpos found as natural as breathing.

Karpos went down with Ilna, angling a little out from her left side and letting his long legs carry him enough ahead that he could be said to be leading. His right thumb and forefinger rested on his bowstring, ready to draw it back to his ear and loose in a single motion. Karpos was a raw-boned man with beetling brows. He looked slow and awkward, but he'd shown that he was neither.

Ilna smiled. The oracle of her cords wouldn't have led her to Karpos and his partner if they hadn't been the sort of men she needed as helpers.

Asion waited on the ridge, watching the back-trail as Ilna and Karpos walked down the gentle slope. The men had hunted dangerous game together for a decade, so they were naturally cautious. That was good, though the great scaly herbivores they'd hunted on Ornifal in their own day weren't nearly as deadly as the Coerli they preyed on at Ilna's direction.

The valley'd been planted in barley or oats—the shoots were too young for Ilna to be sure; ancient olives budded in gnarled majesty among the furrows. Ilna gave a tight smile: the trees appeared to be randomly spaced, but they formed a pattern so subtle that she would've said no one but herself or her brother Cashel could see it.

Almost no one, perhaps. Ilna didn't like pride, in herself least of all, and she especially disliked learning that she'd arrogantly assumed she was uniquely skilled. She smiled a little wider: since she disliked herself at most times, having a particular cause didn't make a great deal of difference.

A goat bleated on the far side of the valley. There was a sizable herd, cropping the grass growing among the rocks on that slope. No one had kept goats in the borough around Barca's Hamlet where Ilna grew up. Goats were hard on pastures, though Ilna'd been told they gave better milk than sheep. Sheep's milk and brick-hard whey cheese had been good enough for Ilna and her brother when they were growing up as orphans; good enough when they could afford them, that was.

"They aren't straying into the crops," she remarked, her eyes narrowing as she watched the herd. The goats were aware of her and Karpos, but they didn't appear skittish or even much interested. "Though there's nobody watching them."

The hunter shrugged. "All dead, I reckon," he said. "There's no fires burning and nothing to hear but the birds. And the goats, I mean. Do we have goat meat tonight, mistress?"

"I'll tell you when I decide," Ilna said curtly. The hunters didn't appreciate how well trained the goats must be that they didn't stray into the crops.

There'd been a time when Ilna took certain things for granted. Oh, not in her speech the way most people did, but still in the back of her mind: the sun would rise, the wind would blow, and Chalcus and Merota would go through life with her.

So far the sun continued to rise and the wind to blow, but those might change in a heartbeat; and if they did, that would matter less to Ilna than the loss of her family had. Still, for now there were Coerli to kill.

Three bodies lay just ahead, two middle-aged human males and a catman. They'd been hacked savagely by swords or axes: one man had been disemboweled and the Corl's head clung to his shoulders by a scrap of skin—its spine was cut through. No weapons were in evidence, but the catman's muzzle was bloody.

"We don't have to worry about what's behind us, now," Karpos said. "Hold up before we check on what might be waiting inside, right?"

Without taking his eyes off the temple and sprawled bodies, the hunter raised his right arm and waved to his partner. Before returning his fingertips to the nocked arrow, Karpos wiggled his long dagger in its sheath to make sure it was free.

Ilna didn't think they needed to wait for Asion, but she didn't argue the point. If it'd mattered, she'd have done as she pleased—and seen to it that the hunters did as she pleased also. She didn't need to prove her power; that was for weak people.

She considered for a moment, then put the hank of yarn back in the sleeve of her outer tunic. She'd woven the cloth herself, and she'd also woven her cloak of unbleached wool that shed water like a slate roof.

Karpos and his partner wore breeches and vests of untanned deerskin with the flesh side turned out. The packs that they'd left back on the ridgeline included fur robes for cold weather, though the season had advanced so that they were no longer necessary even at night.

Ilna suspected the men continued to carry the robes because the town to which they'd previously hiked every Spring to sell packloads of lizard gall didn't exist in the world after the Change. They were unwilling to give up the few aspects of their past life which still remained.

The hunters had decorated their vests by sewing on the scalps of Coerli they'd killed since joining Ilna, a double-handful each. Ilna didn't object, but of course she didn't take trophies herself.

All that mattered to Ilna was the killing. When she'd killed all the catmen in this world, she didn't know what she'd do. Die, she hoped, because her life would no longer have purpose.

Asion joined them, holding the staff of his sling in his right hand and cupping the pocket and bullet in his left. "Have you guys noticed the pond?" he said with a frown in his voice. "Why did they do that, d'ye think? Throw the plants in?"

The little temple was set up three steps from the ground. Forsythias grew around both it and the small, round pool in front of the building. Several bushes had been pulled up by the roots and thrown into the water. The men who'd done that had mortal wounds, clearly. One of them lay on the curb with a yellow-flowered branch clutched in a death grip.

"What do they have a pond there anyway?" said Karpos. "Are they raising fish? It's too small."

"I don't know," Ilna said. She didn't add to the statement, because there was nothing to add and she saw no point in wasting her breath. "Let's go on, then."

The pool surprised her as well, though she didn't bother saying so. Ilna hadn't seen a temple till she left Barca's Hamlet some two years—or a lifetime—before, but there'd been plenty of them in the cities she'd passed through since then. Ilna didn't pay particular attention to buildings, but she had an eye for patterns. She'd certainly have made note of a temple facing a pool if she'd seen one. This was the first.

Karpos knelt and placed his right index and middle fingers to the throat of the first corpse, a man lying on his back. The fellow's hair was white, as much of it as was left; his forehead rose to the peak of his scalp. His face was as calm as if he'd been praying, though the wounds that'd killed him—three deep stabs in the lower body and a slash that'd broken the bone of his upper right arm—must've been extremely painful.

"Dead since daybreak," Karpos said, rising and touching the bowstring again. "Maybe a little longer, but not much."

Ilna looked into the pool, her face frozen into a deliberate lack of expression in place of her usual guarded silence. The water was clear and so shallow that she could see the narrow crevices between the stone blocks paving the bottom. Forsythia stems cast jagged shadow, and there were smears where mud'd washed from the roots of the plants.

"He was a tough bastard, I give him that," Asion said, his voice oddly gentle. He nodded to the corpse on the coping of the pool. "He had to crawl most a' the way. Look at the trail."

"Yes," said Ilna. "I noticed."

All the corpses were at least middle-aged; this fellow was older yet. To look at, he seemed soft if not precisely fat; the sort of man who did no more work than he had to and was readier to lift a tankard than a hoe.

Perhaps that had been true. The man's last living act, however, had been to pull a full-sized bush out of the ground and drag it ten double-paces to the pool while his intestines spilled out in coils behind him. He'd been laid open as if by a cleaver, but he hadn't quit until he was dead.

"Mistress?" Karpos said. He sounded puzzled and therefore worried; people who accept great danger as a fact of life become concerned when faced with things they don't understand; they knew all too well what might be hiding within the unknown. "The cat didn't kill this fellow. It was a blade did this."

"The Coerli had weapons," Ilna said harshly. She turned from the body and the pool. "The survivors took them away. There's nothing amazing about that!"

"Then who was this cat chewing on?" the hunter said, pointing to the dead Corl. "Look at his muzzle, the blood and—"

He saw Ilna's face and swallowed. "Sorry, mistress," he mumbled in a small voice. "I guess it was the cats."

"Mistress, who's this fellow?" said Asion from the steps up the front of the temple. Most of the bodies were there in a ragged pile. "What is he, I mean?"

Asion had stuck his sling beneath his belt to get it out of the way, drawing instead his long steel knife; that was a better weapon for a close-in tangle with anything that pounced on him from the temple. With his free hand he dragged a corpse out by the ankle.

The corpse of a man, Ilna assumed; but its chest was abnormally deep, its belly smaller and flatter than a corseted woman's, and its skin had the smooth black gleam of polished coal. Its genitals were very small.

The corpse was nude except for the round metal shield hanging from a neck strap; its right hand death-gripped the hilt of a sword that looked serviceable for either slashing or stabbing. It could easily have been the weapon which'd killed both the white-robed humans and the Coerli . . . and the fellow's throat had been worried through by what were almost certainly a catman's long jaws.

"There's more blacks under here," Asion said. "Three or four, I'd guess."

"I don't know who they are," Ilna said coldly. She was angry at the hunter for asking a question that she couldn't answer, and even more angry with herself for not having said so at once instead of forcing her companions to wait.

She walked toward the temple entrance, skirting the corpses. "And it appears that the weapons were in the hands of the blacks, whoever they are," she added, though by this point she did so merely as a public admission of her mistake; the hunters already knew she'd been wrong. "Not the Coerli."

Ilna disliked stone. The rational part of her mind knew she was being silly to think that stone disliked her as well; but not all of her mind was rational and she did think that, feel it deep in her bones. She walked up the leveling courses and onto the porch, smiling at the cool gray slabs beneath her feet.

I'm walking on you, she thought. And I'm fool enough to think you know that.

Despite being stone, it was a very attractive building. The porch extended on all four sides, supported on fluted columns. The temple proper had solid sidewalls but only two more columns at the front. Ilna walked between them and into the main room. There were hints of intricate carvings just under the roof, but the only light came through the entrance behind her.

At the far end were two statues on square stone bases: an inhumanly serene woman and a female Corl. The round base between them was empty; the statue, a nude man, had fallen forward onto the floor.

"Hey, why're they praying to a catman?" said Karpos. His voice startled her; her attention had been so focused on the statues that she hadn't heard the whisper of his deerskin-clad feet entering the temple behind her.

"It's probably the Sister," Ilna said. "The Lady and the Sister, the Queen of Heaven and the Queen of the Dead."

She looked at the image of the Corl again. "Or perhaps a demon. If there're any of these people left alive, we can ask them."

"Not a soul," Karpos said. "Asion's looking around more, but we'd've heard something by now besides the goats if there was anybody."

He didn't sound concerned. The hunters weren't cruel men, but they were hard and even in life the folk of this community had meant nothing to them.

"Why'd they make the Sister a Corl?" Karpos added, scratching his left eyebrow with the tip of his bow. "I never seen that."

"Do I look like a priest?" Ilna snapped. "Anyway, I said it might be a demon."

She knelt, peering at the base supporting the Lady's statue. Her eyes had adapted to the dimness well enough to see carved on it was an image of the Shepherd, the Lady's consort. He held his staff ready to repel the hulking, long-armed ogres attacking from both sides. The base beneath the female Corl had a similar scene, a Corl chieftain with a flaring mane who raised his knob-headed cudgel as winged, serpent-bodied creatures threatened him.

The base from which the male statue'd fallen was plain. Ilna rose to her feet, frowning. "There's nothing here," she said. "We'll check the living quarters before we decide what to do next. There's huts on the other slope."

Someone groaned at Ilna's feet. She jumped back.

"Sister take me, mistress!" Karpos said, pointing his drawn bow at the figure on the floor. "That's not a statue! It's a man!"

* * *

Garric, once ruler of the Isles, faced the largest city of the Coerli. The catmen called it simply the Place, because its ten thousand residents made it unique among a race which generally grouped itself into hunting bands of a dozen or two. When the Change merged eras, it'd wrenched the Place to within twenty miles of Valles, the capital of the Isles.

"Coerli, send out your champion!" Garric shouted. He was the only human who was fluent in the catmen's language, though he'd set scores of clerks and army officers to learning the patterns of clicks and hisses. "Send him to fight me, or send your Council of Elders to surrender!"

"Or we could simply deal with the cat-beasts the way I would've in my time, lad," said the ghost sharing Garric's mind: King Carus, his ancestor and advisor. "Burn the city down and slaughter any of the animals who live through the fire. And go on to the next city and do the same."

Tenoctris says we need them, Garric thought. And if she'd said we needed to ally with apes in the trees on Shengy, I'd be down there in the jungle waving bananas and chittering.

The image of the tall, tanned king in Garric's mind threw back his head and laughed. "Aye, lad," Carus said. "And you'd be right to, of course. But sooner monkeys than cats who'd eat men if we let them."

If, Garric repeated with emphasis. His smile and the king's both widened grimly.

Ornifal and the other isles of the kingdom were now a chain of highlands surrounding a great continent. The land hadn't risen in the sense that earthquakes and volcanoes sometimes lifted an island out of the sea—or sank one to the depths with the cities upon it, leaving their doomed, screaming residents to thrash in the boiling waves. The Change had welded the Isles of Garric's day in a ring which clamped together periods in which the Inner Sea was dry land.

A better term would be fragments of periods. Tenoctris, the wizard whose arrival in the surf off Barca's Hamlet had been the first of the events rushing Garric's quiet world toward catastrophe, said she thought at least twenty eras had been thrown together, spanning at least that many thousands of years.

Tenoctris insisted she wasn't a powerful wizard, but her care and impeccable judgment had saved the kingdom repeatedly where someone with greater strength and less wisdom would've added to the looming disaster. Garric had more confidence in a guess by Tenoctris than he did in tomorrow's sunrise. There'd been times in the past two years that the sun wouldn't have risen the next day, for Garric or the kingdom or for all mankind, if it hadn't been for the old wizard's skill.

Coerli warriors shrieked from the walls of the Place as the gates shuddered outward. The trumpeters and cornicenes of the royal army brayed a brassy response, and the massed ranks of soldiers shouted and clashed spears against their shields.

"We could cut right through the beasts," Carus mused regretfully. "Cut and burn and wipe them off the face of the world. But we'll do as Tenoctris says."

And we'll kill this Corl, Garric thought. So that the rest believe me when I tell them they have no choice but to obey the laws we humans set them.

Human slaves finished pushing the gate open; they scuttled back within the walls.

The Coerli used men the way men used oxen. Garric's eyes narrowed, but six naked slaves forced to shove on gate leaves wasn't the worst injustice taking place in the world. Worse things were happening a thousand times every day in human cities and on human estates.

But the Coerli ate men, just as surely as men ate beef. That would've been sufficient reason to handle the problem in the fashion Carus wanted, if the catmen had balked at Garric's offer of trial by battle.

The Coerli shrieked louder. A Corl chieftain, the biggest catman Garric had thus far seen, swaggered out of the city. He paused just beyond the open gate leaves and, raising his maned head, bugled a menacing challenge of coughs and screams.

"I am Klagan!" the catman cried. Garric could hear the Corl even through the brazen cacophony of the royal army. "No one can stand against me!"

"Wait and see, beast," said Carus with murderous relish. "You and your Council of Elders don't know what you're in for!"

Carus'd been the ruler of Old Kingdom when it crashed into anarchy a thousand years before his distant descendant Garric was born. There'd never been a warrior the equal of Carus. If generalship and a strong sword arm could've preserved civilization, then the Old Kingdom would still be standing.

Kingship requires more than military might, though. The anger and furious drive that'd made Carus unstoppable on the battlefield were as much the cause of his kingdom's collapse as the rebels and usurpers springing up whenever the royal army was at a distance. Eventually a wizard had sucked Carus and his fleet to their doom in the depths of the Inner Sea; and because the wizard's trust in his power had been as deceiving as Carus' own, they'd drowned together in the cataclysm.

The wizard's death hadn't saved the kingdom, though. When death loosed the King's hand, chaos, blood, and burning had followed for all the islands. It'd taken a thousand years for civilization to return—and now the Change threatened to bring chaos in a different form.

The Elders know what's going to happen, Garric said silently as he stretched, feeling his mail shirt ripple like water over the suede jerkin cushioning it. I offered them an excuse to permit them to surrender, and they snapped it up. Otherwise every Corl in the Place will die, and they know that too.

He chuckled aloud, then added, Klagan may not know, of course.

"He will," said Carus. "Very soon he will."

Garric stood ahead of the front ranks of his army by a double pace, the distance from the toe of a marching soldier's right foot to where that toe came down again—five feet by civilian measurement. The timber walls of the Place were only a hundred double paces away, suicidally close if they'd have been defended by humans with bows and catapults.

The Coerli were quick enough to dodge thrown spears and even arrows, so they'd never developed missile weapons for warfare. They didn't use them in hunting either; they ran down their prey, tangled it with weighted lines, and either slaughtered it immediately or drove it back to their keeps to keep it fresh for their females and kits.

The Coerli's preferred prey had been human beings until the Change. That wouldn't be the case for the catmen whom Garric and his government permitted to live in this new world.

"I am Klagan!" the Corl repeated. "Who dares to challenge me?"

"I am Garric, King of Men and Coerli!" Garric shouted. "Bow to me or die, Klagan!"

The chiefs of the Coerli were half again as heavy as the sexually immature warriors who made up the bulk of the male population. Even the chieftains were usually no more than the size of an average human male.

Klagan was an exception; but then, so was Garric. He'd been the tallest man in Barca's Hamlet by a hand's breadth and, though rangy, would've been the strongest as well were it not for his friend Cashel. Cashel was tall by normal standards, but he was so broad that he looked squat from any distance; and even for as big as he was, Cashel was disproportionately strong.

The Corl champion raised his mace and screamed. He started toward Garric with a springy step, which for a Corl showed unusual caution. Normally a catman would charge headlong, even though in this case it meant he'd be rushing into ten thousand human soldiers.

"I do not fear your weapons, beast!" Klagan shouted; which meant he did. He had reason to.

The Coerli didn't use fire and therefore didn't have metal. The stone head of Klagan's mace was the size of Garric's fist and the warrior's leather harness, the only garment he wore, held a pair of poignards. One was hard wood, while the other'd been ground from a human thigh bone. They were needle sharp, but they didn't have edges and they'd splinter on armor. In Klagan's left hand was a thirty-foot coil of tough vegetable fiber, weighted with a ball of sun-dried clay in which hooked thorns were set to snatch and tear.

"And his teeth, lad," Carus noted with the calm assurance of a warrior who never underestimated a foe, and who'd never failed to win his fight regardless. "We'll not forget his teeth."

"I don't need steel to kill you, Klagan!" Garric said. He lifted off his helmet, a work of art whose gilt wings flared widely to either side. He brandished it in the air, then set it on one of the pair of posts which a squad of his troops had hammered into the soil while the Coerli Elders deliberated on Garric's ultimatum. "You'll surrender or you'll die! Those are the only choices Coerli have in this world that humans rule!"

Garric unbuckled his heavy waist belt. The dagger sheathed on his right side partially balanced the sword on his left, but a thinner strap over his right shoulder supported the rest of the sword's weight. Keeping his eyes on the Corl, Garric pulled the harness over his head and hung it on the crossbar of the post already holding his helmet.

"What are you doing, beast?" Klagan called. "Have you come to fight me or not? I am Klagan! I fear no one!"

"I'll fight you, Klagan," Garric said. He gripped his mail shirt and lifted it off as well. He was tense, knowing he was blind during the moment that the fine links curtained his head. "And when I've killed you with my bare hands—"

He draped his mail over the other post. The links were alternately silvered and parcel gilt. Sunlight danced from them and from the polished highlights of his helmet, drawing the eyes of the watching catmen. Metal fascinated them beyond its practical uses; it cut deeper still into their souls.

"—then the Elders who sent you will see that no Corl can match a human warrior!"

"That'd depend on the warrior, lad," said the ghost in Garric's mind. "But match you and me together—no, not a one of the beasts!"

Klagan snarled, now in real anger rather than merely posturing before battle. The big chieftain had paused while Garric stripped off his equipment; now he came on again, grunting deep in his throat. Garric found that sound more menacing than the cutting shrieks of the warriors on the city wall.

Garric undid the fine-meshed net hanging from the sash of his light tunic and picked up the four-foot wand which leaned against the stake holding his helmet. He strode to meet the catman, grinning in nervousness and anticipation.

Of course he was going to kill the Corl champion; he wouldn't have made this plan if he'd had the least doubt in the matter. But it was a fight, and Garric had been in a lot of fights. Whatever a fighter told himself, the only thing he could be really certain of was that somebody would lose . . . .

Garric set the net spinning before him. Its meshes were silk, close enough to tangle minnows and so fine that they looked like a shimmer of gnats in the light rather than a round of fabric. Lead beads weighted the edges. They were just heavy enough to draw them outward when Garric's hand in the center gave the net a circular twitch.

Klagan paused again and hunched, eyeing the net; he'd never seen one being used in a fight before. With another rasping snarl he came on again, but Garric noticed the Corl was edging to his left—away from the unfamiliar weapon. Garric changed his angle slightly to keep Klagan squarely in front of him.

Garric cut the air in a quick figure-8 with his wand. He was loosening his shoulders and also reminding his muscles of what the slim cudgel weighed.

He'd chosen wood to make a point to the watching Coerli, but this staff was cornel—dense and as dead to rebound as iron. A blow from a cornelwood staff crushed and broke instead of stinging. Garric's wand was little more than thumb thick, but only a strong man could break it over his knee—and he'd bruise his knee doing that.

"He's getting ready, lad . . .," Carus murmured. "His cord'll spin around toward your right but he'll come in from the left."

The two champions were within thirty feet of one another, but Garric could see nothing in Klagan's movements that seemed in the least different from what they'd been for the whole length of his approach. He didn't doubt the warning, though; Carus didn't make mistakes in battle.

Garric crossed his left arm before him, shifting the dance of silk to his right. For an instant it shone like a slick of oil in the air. Klagan leaped, not at Garric but toward the spot of ground at his side; the weighted tip of the Corl's line was already curving out. Garric jerked his net toward him while his right hand brought the wand around in an overarm cut.

Klagan was reacting before he hit the ground. He'd started a swing that would've crushed Garric's skull if the cornelwood staff hadn't been in the way; since the staff was, the big Corl recovered his mace and curved his body to avoid Garric's blow, moving with a speed no man could've equaled. His blunt-clawed feet snatched a purchase from the clay soil and launched him away at an angle more quickly than the staff swung.

Garric's net belled around the catman's cord, tangling the thorns and wrapping the line itself. The weight of the net pulled the cord harmlessly away from Garric.

Klagan landed ten feet away, his mace rising for another attack if his opponent had stumbled or were even off-balance. Garric dropped the net and jerked on the Corl's own line. Klagan bleated in surprise: he'd wrapped the end twice around his left wrist for a surer grip. Instead of trying to jump away like a harpooned fish, he leaped straight at Garric—Gods but the beast's quick!—to give himself slack so he could release the line.

Klagan met Garric's wand, still in the middle of the stroke Garric had started before the Corl first charged. The catman interposed his mace. Its bamboo shaft cracked and flew out of his hand. The cornel staff rapped Klagan's muzzle, breaking out a long canine tooth in a spray of blood.

Klagan slammed to the ground. Even injured and blind with pain he'd spun onto all fours to leap away when Garric landed knee-first on his back. Garric's weight crushed the Corl flat, driving his breath out in a startled blat.

Klagan scrabbled. Garric grabbed the thick mane at the top of the catman's head left-handed and pulled back. Instead of banging his face onto the dirt—perhaps painful, but pain didn't matter to either party in this fight—Garric punched his opponent's thick neck with his right fist.

Klagan's four limbs shot out convulsively. Garric struck again and heard the catman's spine crack. Klagan's head came back in his hand, the black tongue lolling from the corner of the jaws.

Garric tried to stand but slipped to his knees again; if he'd gotten up, he'd almost certainly have toppled full length. He was blind and dizzy with fatigue, and he was so weak that his legs couldn't hold him.

People ran to where he knelt, his guards and officers and Liane, the woman he loved. Liane wiped blood and sweat from his forehead with a damp cloth and said, "Darling, darling, are you all right?"

Garric opened his eyes. His stomach had settled; he'd thought for a moment that he was going to vomit with reaction to the fight.

"Get back," he muttered. Then, loudly and fiercely, "Give me room! By the Shepherd, give me room!"

They moved enough for him to stand. He wobbled, but only slightly; he'd caught himself even before Liane touched his arm in support.

"Elders of the Coerli!" Garric shouted in the catmen's language. "Come out and hear the laws you and your people will keep from now till the last breath you take! Come out before my army kills all Coerli as I killed this warrior!"

He spurned Klagan with his heel. The royal army shouted and cheered, but from the walls of the Place came only wailing.

* * *

"Princess Sharina, we're so pleased by your presence!" said the plump man wearing an ermine-trimmed red cloak, three gold chains, and a gold or gilt crown cast in the form of a laurel wreath. Lantern-light gleamed from his regalia and the sweat beading his forehead and ruddy cheeks. "No greater honor has ever been done the proud community of West Sesile."

"His title's Chief Burgess," said Mistress Masmon, one of the Chancellor's aides, into Sharina's ear. She was trying to speak loudly enough for Sharina to hear but still keep the words private from the chief burgess and the clutch of lesser officials standing just behind him. Bands were playing in three of the four corners of the town square and the whole community had turned out to celebrate. "His names Clane or Kane; I'm sorry, I can't read my clerk's notes. I'll have his nose cropped for this!"

If Sharina'd thought the threat was serious, she'd have protested. From the Chancellor's aide it was merely a form of words indicating that she was frustrated and over-tired. Everybody in the government was frustrated and over-tired, of course.

Sharina grinned. They'd been frustrated and over-tired dealing with one crisis after another for the past two years. The Change had made the problem only marginally worse when it tore everything apart.

Tenoctris said there'd be no further shifts for at least a thousand years. The future looked bright if the kingdom and mankind could survive the immediate present.


"Thank you, Master K'ane," Sharina said, letting her amusement broaden into a gracious smile. She hoped her slurring would cover the uncertainty over the fellow's name. "Prince Garric regrets he was unable to attend the Founder's Day festival because of his duties with the army, but he begged me to convey his appreciation for West Sesile's demonstrated loyalty to the kingdom."

The burgesses began to chatter volubly. Because of the music and the fact they were all speaking at the same time, Sharina couldn't understand any of them clearly—at best the accents of this region were difficult—but from the words she caught she remained confident she wasn't missing much.

West Sesile had been a prosperous market town during the Old Kingdom, but during the thousand years following the death of King Carus the sea'd risen and covered the site. Because Valles had grown when the Dukes of Ornifal became the Kings of the Isles, the displaced population had moved to the capital instead of rebuilding West Sesile on higher ground. The town hadn't existed in Sharina's day.

Since the Change, West Sesile had reappeared as a suburb of the greatly expanded Valles, now landlocked and well back from the coast of the continent which'd displaced the Inner Sea. In the past ships had held the scattered islands together. There'd have to be a different system in the future and probably a different capital, but for now the government remained in Valles.

The lives of the citizens of West Sesile had been even more completely overturned than had those of New Kingdom residents, but they'd responded in a remarkably intelligent way. When the first officials of Garric's government had arrived to assess taxes, West Sesile had paid immediately and had added a pledge of hearty loyalty. Clane/Kane and his fellows didn't have the faintest notion of what'd happened, but they knew their only chance to survive was by obeying folks who did.

Sharina—Princess Sharina of Haft—hoped their confidence wasn't misplaced. At least the community was getting a royal visit for its support.

The Chief Burgess turned to face the crowd. The lugubrious man beside him raised a staff of office. Its finial was a silvered crest of two fish joined at the mouth; Sharina'd initially seen it as a bird with its wings spread.

"Citizens!" Clane/Kane shouted. The man with the staff waved it, and the rest of the burgesses—and their wives, all wearing black and white but in a variety of styles—began screaming. The bands stopped playing; the dancers paused expectantly in their rounds.

"Citizens!" Clane/Kane repeated "We are blessed by the presence of Princess Sharina, the very sister of our lord and master King Garric. All hail Princess Sharina!"

The cheers that followed were enthusiastic enough for anybody. Even Masmon, worn by the task of extending the government's reach into a land that hadn't existed two months earlier, smiled.

Sharina stepped forward and raised her hands. She was wearing court robes with sleeves of layered silk brocade; the gesture made her feel their weight.

Sharina and Garric's father Reise had been landlord of a rural inn on Haft, an island which'd remained a backwater throughout the thousand years since the fall of the Old Kingdom. Sharina went barefoot in the summer and wore an outer tunic over the simple inner one only when cold weather demanded it; she found the court robes she had to wear now both unfamiliar and uncomfortable.

But Reise had taught them to do their jobs. In the past that meant Sharina had washed linen, emptied night soil onto the manure pile, and waited tables when the inn was full of strangers during the Sheep Fair in the Fall—many of them drunk and almost all determined to chance their hand at least once in hope of luring the stunning blond inn-servant into their beds.

Sharina smiled brightly. Court robes were a necessary part of her present duties. She didn't like wearing them, but it was better than navigating the bustling common room with her arms laden with trenchers so that she couldn't slap away the gropers.

"Citizens!" she called, wondering if her accent was as hard for the locals to understand as she found theirs to be. "It's my pleasure to join you in celebrating the day your community was founded, because you in turn have joined the Kingdom in its new foundation."

They'd have to come up with a name to replace "the Kingdom of the Isles." Of course even in the past most people hadn't been citizens of the Isles. Sharina'd lived in Barca's Hamlet or perhaps "the borough" around it. Haft was a geographical concept, not her home, and kingdoms were familiar only from the ancient epics which Reise'd taught his children to read.

"In the name of King Garric and of your thousands of fellows who stand firm for peace and unity," Sharina said, "thank you! May you and the Kingdom prosper. Now, resume your revels!"

The people crowding the square cheered again. Most of them were in what was apparently formal wear for the community, black and white combinations for the women and, for the men, an embroidered woolen apron over a pair of tunics, but a few were masked and in costume. Near Sharina stood a man with a sea wolf's scaly head and a tail of stiffened fabric, and toward the center of the throng was a giant bear animated by a man on stilts.

Sharina grinned. The fur costume must've been even more uncomfortable than her robes.

The bands took up their music again. Each played a different tune. According to Masmon, West Sesile had almost eight hundred citizens—that is, adult males. That was big enough to have neighborhood rivalries, so the three bands playing simultaneously weren't a surprise. Regrettable, perhaps, but not surprising.

"If I may be so bold as to ask, your highness?" Kane—probably—said. He paused hopefully; he wasn't in fact bold enough to go on without prompting.

Sharina nodded graciously. She and Masmon were here to encourage people who were willing to consider themselves part of the kingdom. That included the awe-struck and tongue-tied people like the burgesses of West Sesile.

"Ah, your highness," Kane resumed, his eyes moving in awkward ovals so as never to meet Sharina's. "Is the kingdom united now? That is, in our day there was trouble, you know. Or so we heard."

The sad-faced official banged his staff down in emphasis. "The Earl of Sandrakkan had revolted!" he said in a nasal voice. "That's what we heard."

Sharina nodded. "Our day" to him was the end of the Old Kingdom, the collapse of civilization throughout the Isles. These folk had missed the worst of it when the Change mixed eras—though Ornifal hadn't been as badly wracked by the cataclysm as the western isles. The Dukes of Ornifal had become Kings of the Isles almost by default.

"The Change has caused great disruption," she said, "but for the most part what you and I think of as the kingdom is as united now as it ever was. We've exchanged couriers with Sandrakkan and Blaise, whose rulers are fully committed to restoring order."

"Which I frankly don't understand," said Masmon, kneading her forehead with both hands. "I'd have expected Sandrakkan at least to claim independence. The Lady knows the Earls have done that twice in two generations, and this'd seem a perfect opportunity."

"The Change was too overwhelming for that," Sharina said crisply. The aide, a fifty-year-old spinster, was letting fatigue loosen her tongue. While Sharina couldn't exactly blame her, neither could she permit Masmon's despair to infect this community. "The Earl—and all the citizens of Sandrakkan and the other former islands—are clinging to the best hope they have in such uncertainty."

She smiled. "We're that hope," she said. "We're the only hope mankind has."

The band nearest Sharina's entourage was comprised of three slim, mustached men with recorders of different lengths and an ancient woman who played the marimba with demonic enthusiasm. The age-darkened bamboo wands with which she struck the tubes were no harder or more knotted than the fingers which held them.

Two women danced to the penetrating music, striking stylized poses with their arms raised high. One carried a buckler whose convex surface was highly polished, throwing back the lantern gleams and the distorted features of those watching; the other swung a wooden sword.

Though the sword wasn't a real weapon, Sharina's bodyguards—a squad of black-armored Blood Eagles—kept an eye on the dancer. They were men whose philosophy had no room for any gods save Duty and Suspicion.

"It's just that things are so different," said Kane. He nodded to the south. "Even the stars."

"Yes," said Sharina, "but men of good will can thrive despite the changes. We just have to stick together. Men and women and Coerli."

She grinned. The constellations were generally the same as what she was used to, but a bright white star stayed just above the southern horizon. It was disconcerting, particularly because it blazed in an otherwise family sky.

"We hear things," Kane said apologetically. "From travelers, you know. They say, well, that there's a lot of trouble. That it isn't safe. And there're monsters all about, catmen who're cannibals."

"There're catmen, Coerli," Sharina agreed. "We've brought a number of their keeps, their communities, into the kingdom already. It wasn't hard after they heard how easily we'd wiped out any band which tried to resist."

She didn't bother explaining to the burgess that a cannibal was an animal that ate its own kind. The Coerli were merely meat-eaters, much like men themselves; and since the Coerli weren't men, they made no distinction between men and mutton.

"And King Garric's reducing the catmen's only large city even as we speak," she added with another broad smile. "That's why he's not here."

Sharina knew she was shading the truth considerably; she'd have been here in place of her brother regardless. Princess Sharina's high rank impressed the citizens of West Sesile—or the Grain-Millers Guild, or the Respectful Delegation of the Parishioners of Lanzedac on Cordin. Princess Sharina met and listened to them, then handed them over to the regular officials who'd get to the meat of their business.

In this case and many others, there was no meat. People wanted to be told that they were important and that their sacrifices were appreciated by those who demanded those sacrifices. Sharina could do that very well while Garric directed the government.

Both jobs were absolutely necessary if the kingdom was to survive. There were rulers who treated citizens as machines which paid taxes, but they did so only at their peril.

"Praise the Lady to have brought us such a great king as your brother, Princess!" said the man with the staff of office. Even when he spoke with obvious enthusiasm, he managed to make the statement sound like a dirge.

"Praise the Lady," Sharina repeated, dipping slightly in a curtsey to honor the Queen of Heaven. She wasn't just mouthing the form of the words. Sharina hadn't been especially religious as a child, but when fate had catapulted her to her present eminence she'd immediately realized that the task was beyond human capabilities, hers or anybody else's. She could only hope—only pray—that the Great Gods did exist and that They were willing to help the kingdom and its defenders.

The dancer in the bear costume in the center of the square began to rotate slowly as he high-stepped through a figure-8; the crowd gave him room. How long had it been since there were bears on Ornifal? Much longer than the thousand years in Sharina's past when West Sesile had flourished, certainly.

"Your highness?" said one of the women who'd been standing behind the burgesses. She stepped forward, offering a pottery mug with hinged metal lid. "Won't you have some of our ale? I brewed it myself, this."

Kane turned with a look of anguished horror and cried, "Deza, you stupid cow! They drink wine in Valles, don't you know? Now the princess'll think we're rubes with no culture!"

"I drink beer, Master Kane," said Sharina, taking the mug from the stricken woman. It wasn't her place to interfere with the way couples behaved between themselves, but her tone was significantly cooler than it might've been if the Chief Burgess hadn't called his wife a cow. "I hope that doesn't make me an uncultured rube in your eyes?"

Sharina sipped as Kane's face slipped into a duplicate of what his wife's had been a moment before. Sharina'd been harsher than she'd intended; but she was tired too, and cow wasn't a word the burgess should've used.

"Very good, Mistress Deza," she said, though in truth the ale wasn't greatly to her taste. They didn't grow hops on Haft; Reise'd brewed bitters for his tap room with germander his wife Lora raised in her kitchen garden.

Sharina glanced at the sky again; the half moon was well risen, so she'd spent sufficient time here. She made a tiny gesture to Masmon.

As arranged, the aide took out a notebook with four leaves of thin-sliced elm wood. She tilted it to catch the light of the nearest lantern and said, "Your highness? I fear that we'll be late for your meeting with Chancellor Royhas if we don't start back shortly."

"Oh, goodness, your highness!" said Mistress Deza. "You mean you have work yet to do tonight?"

"I'm afraid I do, yes," Sharina said. She smiled, but the sudden rush of fatigue turned the expression into something unexpectedly sad. "Since my brother's with the army, things are . . . busy for those of us who're dealing with the civil side of government."

A third costumed figure had danced far enough into the square for Sharina to get a clear view of it. It was a long-faced, green-skinned giant whose arms would've dragged on the cobblestones if the stilt-walking man inside had let them hang. Instead he was moving the clawed hands with rods so that the creature seemed to snatch at revelers. Even presuming an element of caricature in the costume, Sharina wasn't sure what it was intended to be.

"Master Kane?" she said, gesturing. "Is that dancer a demon?"

"Not exactly, your highness," Kane said, clearly glad to answer a question that didn't involve ale. "It's an ogre, though some say ogres are the spawn of women who've lain with demons. The hero Sesir slew an ogre and a bear and a sea wolf to save the colony he led from Kanbesa. According to the Epic of the Foundings, that is. Have you read the epic, your highness?"

"Parts of it," Sharina said truthfully. But very small parts, because in her day the Epic of the Foundings was known only from fragments. None of the surviving portions had mentioned Sesir—or the island of Kanbesa, for that matter.

She handed the mug back to Deza; she'd emptied it. She'd been thirsty, and after the initial unfamiliarity the ale had gone down very smoothly.

"We really have to drive back to the palace now," Sharina said. She smiled at the Chief Burgess, then swept her gaze left and right to include all the officials and their wives. "It's been a pleasure to meet you and to convey the kingdom's appreciation."

As Sharina turned away to walk back to her coach, flanked by the Blood Eagles, a dancer raised her shield again in a wild sweep. For an instant Sharina thought she glimpsed a pale, languid man in its polished surface.

It must be a distorted reflection, of course.

* * *

Cashel stood on the edge of the mere, listening to the fishermen croon in the near distance as they slid their tiny canoes through the reeds. The unfamiliar bright star was coming up in the southeast; it'd risen earlier each night since the Change. A shepherd like Cashel got to know the heavens very well. When he'd first seen this star it'd been part of the Water Pitcher, the constellation that signalled the start of the rainy season, but after a month it was nearing the tail of the Panther.

One man sat in the back of each canoe, poling it forward; his partner stood in the front with a long spear. Instead of a single point, the spears had outward-curving springs of bamboo with bone teeth on the inner sides. When fish rose to stare at the lantern hanging from the canoe's extended bow, the spearman struck and caught the flopping victim like a gar's jaws.

Cashel wasn't a fisherman, and the fishermen he knew in Barca's Hamlet went out onto the Inner Sea with hooks and long lines. He could appreciate skill even in people doing something unfamiliar, however, and these fellows fishing the reed-choked mere south of Valles obviously knew what they were doing.

Besides, he liked the way they sang while they worked. Cashel couldn't carry a tune in a bucket, but it'd always pleased him to hear his friend Garric playing his shepherd's pipe the times they watched the sheep together.

"There!" said Tenoctris firmly, straightening from the squat in which she'd been marking the dirt with a silver stylus. They were as close to the bank as they could get and still find the ground firm enough to take her impressions. Tenoctris took a bamboo wand from her bag, then added apologetically, "This may be a complete waste of time, Cashel. I shouldn't have taken you away from Sharina."

Cashel shrugged and smiled. "I don't mind," he said. "And anyway, you don't waste time that I've seen, Tenoctris."

He cleared his throat and glanced away, a little embarrassed. What he was about to say might sound like bragging, which Cashel didn't like.

"I'd sooner be here in case, you know, something happens," he said. "I figure you're better off with me if something does than if you were with somebody else."

Tenoctris smiled warmly. He didn't know how old she was—really old, surely—but she hopped around chirping like a sparrow most of the time. Wizardry wore her down, but wizardry wore down everybody who used it.

It wore down even Cashel, though he wasn't a wizard the way most people meant. He just did things when he had to.

Tenoctris was the only wizard Cashel'd met who seemed to him to know what she was doing. And by now, Cashel'd met more wizards than he'd have dreamed in the years he was growing up.

"So," said one of the old men who'd been watching Cashel and Tenoctris, the strangers who'd come from Valles in a gig. There were eight of them; a hand and three fingers by Cashel's calculation. "You folk be wizards, then?"

"She's a wizard," said Cashel, smiling and nodding toward Tenoctris. She was taking books out of her case, both rolls and those cut in pages and bound, codices she called them. "I'm a shepherd most times, but I'm helping her now. She's my friend. She's everybody's friend, everybody who wants the good people to win."

There wasn't enough light to read by. No matter how smart you were—and there weren't many smarter than Tenoctris—you couldn't see the letters without a lamp. She liked to have the words of her spells before her even though she was going to call them out from memory, though. It was a trick, the way Cashel always flexed his shoulders three times before he picked up a really heavy weight.

"We don't hold much with wizards here in Watertown," the local man who'd been speaking said; the others nodded soberly. "Not saying anything against your friend, mind."

Cashel looked at the group again, wondering for a moment if they were all men. He decided they were, though they were so old and bent down that it didn't matter.

"From what I've seen of most wizards," he said agreeably, "you're right to feel that way. I've watched sheep as had more common sense than most wizards. Tenoctris is good, though."

He paused and added, still calmly, "I'm glad you weren't speaking against her. I wouldn't like that."

Cashel supposed these folk were the elders of the village too far down the bank to see even if it'd been daylight. The younger men were in the canoes, the women were back in the huts cooking the meal that the fishermen would eat on their return. The old men had nothing better to do than be busybodies, which—

Cashel grinned broadly.

—they were doing just fine.

Tenoctris had finished her preparations; she came to join them. Cashel was wondering if he ought to send the locals away, but Tenoctris pointed to the marble pool behind them. To the man who'd been speaking she said, "Can you tell me if there's writing on that fountain, my good man?"

The pool must be spring-fed, because a trickle of water dribbled from a pipe through the curb, then down the side. The flow used to feed into an open channel, also marble, and then down into the mere. Years had eaten the trough away, so only the little difference lime from the stone made in the vegetation showed it'd ever been there.

The pool curb had the crumbly decay—black below but a leprous white above—that marble got in wet ground, but it still seemed solid. There was a raised part on the back like it was meant to hold a plaque or carved words, but Cashel doubted you'd be able to tell if anything was written there even in sunlight.

"Mistress, I can't write," said the old man nervously. He backed a step; Cashel's size hadn't scared him, but Tenoctris did—either because she was a wizard or just from the way she spoke that showed she was a lady. "Nobody in Watertown can write, mistress!"

"I think this was built as a monument to a battle, you see," Tenoctris said. "According to Stayton's Library, twin brothers named Pard and Pardil fought over the succession to the Kingdom of Ornifal. They and everyone in their armies were killed. A fountain sprang from the rock to wash the stain of blood from the land, and their uncle built a curb and stele—"

She gestured toward the vertical slab at the back of the curb.

"—around it."

She stepped through the group and knelt to peer closely at pool. Cashel moved with her, not because there was a threat—certainly not from these men—but just on general principles. Sometimes things happened very fast. Although Cashel was quick, he still didn't plan to give trouble a head start.

"So this is the spring, mistress?" Cashel said, squinting to see if that helped him make out any carving on the decayed slab. It didn't.

"There are problems with the story, I'm afraid," Tenoctris said, giving him one of her quick, cheerful smiles. The local men were listening intently; two of them even leaned close to see what they could make from the white-blistered stone. "Pard and Pardil mean Horse and Mare in the language of the day, and the island wasn't called Ornifal until the hero Val arrived from Tegma a thousand years later and founded the city of Valles."

She looked at the pool again, pursing her lips, and added, "But still, this could be the battle monument Stayton describes."

An old man who'd been silent till then said, "Mistress, there was swords and a helmet carved on the stone, my gramps told me. And he said more squiggles too. That coulda been writing, couldna it?"

"Your gramps, your gramps!" sneered the original speaker. "Dotty he were, Rebben, and you're dotty too if you think this fine lady's going to take the least note of what you say or your gramps ever said!"

"Dotty am I, Hareth?" said Rebben, his voice rising immediately into something as shrill and harsh as a hawk's scream. "Well, he did say it! And I reckon he said it true, as he always said true. And anyhow, who are you to talk who falls asleep with his face in his porridge most nights if his daughter don't grab him quick, hey?"

"Fellows, don't bump Lady Tenoctris, if you please," Cashel said, moving forward to crowd the old men away without having to touch them. He rotated his quarterstaff, bringing it across at an angle in front of him to make the same point as his words. "If you're going to argue, it'd be good if you went off a ways to do it."

The men scattered like songbirds when a falcon strikes. Hareth and Rebben jumped to the same place, collided, and fell in a tangle with high-pitched cries.

Cashel grimaced and put himself between Tenoctris and the men thrashing nearby. He'd been clumsy and almost caused what he'd been trying to prevent: one of the old fellows bumping Tenoctris into the pool.

That hadn't happened though. Tenoctris walked past with a pert expression, avoiding the men on the ground with the same careless unconcern as she did the muddy patch from the overflow pipe.

"I'm sure this is the place," the old wizard said cheerfully to Cashel, who followed her back to the circle she'd scribed beside the bank. "All I could tell from the spell I worked back in the palace is that the site would become important. I hope I can learn more now that I'm here."

She settled herself cross-legged, facing the figure. She'd written things both inside and outside the circle, but Cashel could no more read the words than Hareth and his friends could've.

Tenoctris raised the bamboo sliver. Before she started calling out the spell she glanced back at Cashel with a wry smile.

"Of course this may not help either," she said. "I'm simply not a powerful wizard, as I've proved many times in the past."

"You've never failed, Tenoctris," Cashel said quietly. "You've always done enough that we're still here. You are and the kingdom is, for all the people who fight evil."

The old wizard's smile changed to something softer, more positive. "Yes," she said. "That's a way to think about it. Thank you, Cashel."

She bent over the circle and began, "Stokter neoter," tapping her wand on the written words of power as she spoke them. "Men menippa menoda."

Cashel looked away. Wizardry didn't bother him, especially when Tenoctris was doing it, but his job was to look out for her. Watching Tenoctris chant would be as silly as watching sheep crop grass instead of keeping an eye out for danger.

And there was always a chance of danger when there was wizardry. Tenoctris said she could see the strands of power that sprang from certain places and twined among themselves. Those powers grew from temples and altars, especially old ones, but they came from graveyards and especially battlefields like this one. More men than Cashel could imagine had died here in blood and terror.

Concentrated power attracted those that wanted power more than anything else, and they weren't all human.

The local men had gathered by the side of the pool, standing tightly together and all watching Cashel and Tenoctris. They seemed angry and afraid, though maybe the moonlight exaggerated their expressions. Cashel smiled at them, hoping he seemed friendly, but he couldn't see that did any good.

Tenoctris droned on. Sometimes Cashel caught a few syllables . . . morchella barza . . . but they didn't mean anything to him. The language a wizard spoke was directed of things—demiurges, Tenoctris called them, but that was gobbledygook to Cashel—that controlled the powers that the cosmos turned on.

The bright star in the south continued to rise. The water of the memorial pool was mirror smooth; now it drew the star's reflection into a cold white pathway.

Cashel began to wipe his quarterstaff with the wad of raw wool he carried for the purpose; lanolin in the fibers kept the hickory from cracking and brought out the luster of the polished wood. He'd turned the staff himself from the branch which the farmer who owned the tree had given him as pay for felling it. Cashel'd been little more than a child at the time, but he'd already had a man's strength.

Now that he was a man, he had the strength of Cashel or-Kenset. He smiled at the thought.

Cashel put the wool away and lifted the staff, his hands spread a little more than the width of his shoulders. He set the hickory spinning slowly in front of him, loosening his muscles. When he was ready, he speeded up each time he crossed his arms till the heavy staff hummed as it cut the air.

Still keeping an eye out—he was on watch, after all—Cashel raised the whirling staff overhead. He turned his body under it to face what'd been his back, then forward again. He moved in quick jumps, using the weight of the iron-shod hickory to pull him around.

Cashel saw a bluish twinkle in the center of Tenoctris' figure; wizardlight, brought to life by her chanting the way flint strikes sparks from iron. Cashel felt the hair on the back of his neck rise, also a sign of approaching wizardry.

The old men watched in amazement, but Cashel wasn't doing this to impress them. He grinned again. He'd impressed much more important people than these old codgers, and some of those people'd been trying to kill him at the time.

Ordinarily a little spell of the sort Tenoctris chanted wouldn't have made him tingle as much as this. Was something else . . .?

Where the star had shone on the pool, there was now a man with a shield and drawn sword. The angles were funny; the fellow wasn't reflected—there wasn't anything but empty sky to reflect. It was like he was standing straight upright instead of being on his back in the water. His leg moved forward and he was standing on the stone curb.

The water didn't ripple. A second man was standing on its surface. Both were naked except for the belt supporting their scabbards. Their skin was black in the moonlight.

The first man stepped forward, raising his sword. Rebben noticed him and shouted.

The black man's sword split Rebben's skull like a melon. As the other old men blatted in terror, the swordsman jumped into the midst of them hacking left and right.

The second figure was stepping out of the pool.


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