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Dust of Nameless Years

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The fire rose behind them, casting inky shadows beyond the horses' ears. Pankrati kept his back to the flames, guarding his eyes from light blindness while trusting young Chan to mind their back trail. Ahead, thickets crept closer to the road and the leaves grew thicker underfoot. The gelding he rode snorted at the dancing shades and threw his head, making the shadows leap higher. A boot to the ribs and the press of other mounts behind them pushed the horse onward.

They were reduced to this, the pride of Union – a handful of nomads, barely able to manage a rescue raid on a jumped-up warlord's stone and mortar fortress on a petroleum-powered planet. Barely manage indeed – two of their number unaccounted for, their prize barely able to cling to her horse and dripping blood on the unpaved trail. The blaze behind them would do little to hide their passage and more to bring the attention of legitimate qual-born authorities.

The fire would burn itself out in a day, perhaps two. Pankrati and his company had less time to spare.

All gods hear me, keep the fire on the low side of the river, he prayed. All gods of men, of qhal, of time and space, hear me. Every heart beat dearly wished the heavens to attend to his plea. Let Chan sneer at his faith with a youth's disdain for all tradition, let the Light suffice for Craidoc and his sister, Pankrati would not cut his choices so dear.

Their mortal options were trickling away, bits of trail dust and sand from dead seas, lost to the winds between the worlds. Pankrati would not discard anything they may come to regret losing.

The Union force had numbered a hundred strong, but of them only Pankrati and Yesof remembered those days. Recollection came seldom to Pankrati and that dimly, without even the sting of regret. They had been a hundred, they had strode into the Gate, and into time. From world to world, they had gone, and left a trail of dead behind them. Their children had fared no better, and their children's children numbered less than a score.

Now they were eight - eight, and a toddler child, and of the eight, two had set the fire behind them, and Norleen rode bleeding behind her brother, groaning through her grinding teeth and staring back at the flames with a madwoman's eyes.

A hiss from behind him. Chan's voice, pitched low, carried over the hoofbeats and creak of leather. "Get off the road! Riders coming, fast. Not many - get off the road!"

Brush crackled - loud as a mountainslide, to Pankrati's ears - as five horses pushed their way into the thickets. A low murmur of sound – Chan, and perhaps Yesof, slipping from their saddles to hold the horses fast. Above the snorts and stamping, Pankrati heard the approaching mounts. Moving fast, but not headlong.
He tugged at the case hung over his back, found the alert toggle, and pressed it twice.

The two horses skidded to a halt, whinnying sharping as their riders curbed them. Distant firelight slid over the edge of a long blade –

- we have fallen into iron times, when a sword's reach is of consequence -

- but the other figure held a dark shape that gleamed red, and when that one spoke, it was with Naduuk's voice.

"Give the password, friend", she called, voice low but carrying.

"No friends here, just old acquaintance," Pankrati said, kicking his horse forward. But the riders were already turning towards his voice.

"Ratti? All of you there?" In answer, the larger party came spilling back out on the road.

"Murray, Naduuk." A quick round of hands touching in the dark, brushing fingers, shoulders, faces, until they were broken apart by Norleen's bubbling moan.

"My god, she's bleeding." The horror in Naduuk's voice spoke of more than a fractured noise or a severed finger.

"God, don't touch her!" Craidoc snapped, aggrieved. "Burnt, bad. She's still bleeding. We've been waiting on Murray. She needs bandaging."

The shape that was their medic dug into his aid kit. "I can't work on her up there, I need her down." Murray started to swing from his horse, stopped, frozen by Pankrati's voice.

"Not here. Keep moving." He pushed his horse closer to Murray, grabbed a handful of the medic's weapons harness, pulled him back astride.

"Norleen needs -"

"Not here. Do what you can in ninety seconds. Naduuk. How far behind are the qual?"

"No faster than us - the bridge is down, no way for trucks, only horses, and last we saw the hanger was on fire."

"We can spare five -" Craidoc's voice rose over Norleen's shuddering sobs as, Pankrati guessed, Murray pressed bandages against the woman's side. Craidoc would argue until he got his way, and Pankrati could only envy him to hold Norleen as she wept.

But someone had to lead.

"Not here. Over the ridge, out of line of sight, and within a vector for the WorldGate. Naduuk, take point, Chan, keep trail. Randran, how's the girl?"

Randran's voice was the rumble of heavy thunder. "I have her. Ride on, if we're not getting off."

"Murray, you're done. Naduuk, lead on."

They rode in silence, slowly lengthening the distance from the fire behind them as they went. The horses slowed as the grade increased, picked up the pace again on the downslope. Pankrati kicked his horse along side Naduuk's, said "Keep going," to her unasked question. The double-loaded horse huffed as it walked, but none of the other horses would pass that animal and its burden of burnt flesh.

Another climb, another ridge, and the darkness fell in about them as they descended. Moonset. The air was heavy with the scent of evergreens. He could feel the space between the trees, the depth of cover under the branches.

"Ratti -"

"Naduuk. Wait. Here is good." Even as he took the reins of Craidoc's horse, Yesof was at his side, reaching up for Norleen.

"Let me see her." Murray spoke around the light pen clenched in his teeth as he struggled through his aid bag. "Chan, I need your cloak. Get me a tarp, a light-cover." He flashed the light in Norleen's eyes, then over the rest of her body.

A murmur of voices, a rustle as Chan belatedly unwrapted their last waterproof tarp, and then a short sharp cry as Norleen came to rest on the ground. Beneath the trees, Chan draped a cloak over the medic's shoulders. The light in Murray's teeth danced erratically as he worked, hands hidden as he tore at Norleen's clothes. Beside him, Craidoc cradled Norleen's shoulders, his blond hair mixing with hers as he bent his head close to his sister's.

Pankrati swung down. "Murray, how is she? We can not wait long."

Craidoc's head came up. "We left her for over a year in that hellhole. Wait, you said - wait. Now she's injured and you discover a need for haste?"

From the expression on Murray's face, injured was insufficient. He only said, "We have enough time." He folded the shirt back, showing a wide patch of burned skin, weeping with blood. White bone showed through the flesh on Norleen's hip and arm. "We have enough time. Give me the bag – I need woundseal, and the opiates."

Norleen had not flinched as Murray pulled the burnt clothing away. Now, as he smeared woundseal over the weeping holes in her flesh, she cried out, began clawing at the earth. Naduuk laid the ready hypo into Murray's hand even as he asked for it. The snap of drug into flesh disappeared into Norleen's muffled cries.

"Murray…" Chan said, and shifted Norleen's pant leg. There was a hole large enough for Pankrati's fist to sit inside in her thigh. Norleen kicked again, and blood flowed out in a steady stream. Norleen's boot and trouser leg were stiff with blood.

Pankrati had seen her take that wound, just beyond the compound gate. They had been within ten meters of the gate, running at full stride. Chan and the horses waited just within the treeline.

Had it not been for the child, they would have made it. They had not expected the child, had not even thought it Norleen's until she had wrenched herself free of Craidoc's embrace and gone back for the girl. A year old, no more, and small for her age, but the weight was enough.

Yesof had carried the child, gasping as he ran beside Norleen as the others fired and ran and turned to fire again. Cast into confusion by the sudden attack from inside the wall, moving out, the guards on the walls had shouted more than they had returned fire.

It was sufficient. Pankrati had glanced aside in time to see Norleen fall and trip Yesof, who had dropped the child as he sprawled full length. Norleen had wrenched herself upright and thrown herself over the child as the incendiary grenade had gone off beside her.

Then Yosef and Pankrati had snatch up both woman and child and ran.

Now Murray looked at the seeping wound and cursed. "That's – gods, that's – give me –" Norleen kicked again, twice, and went still.

Murray worked over the body for twenty minutes, wasting half their precious store of drugs and most of the plasma as he did, while Craidoc held Naduuk close and stared, wide-eyed and silent.

At ten minutes, Pankrati walked to the edge of the fir grove and joined Randran with the horses. The girl was an anonymous lump under Randran's cloak.

Pankrati held his horse, staring on out at the star-studded sky.

"It is not your fault."

Pankrati brushed a hand against his face. The night air was cool against his skin. "My choice, my responsibility. I held us here, when we could have taken the Gate and gone on."

"You would have done so without Craidoc. And Chan. And we need them both."

Pankrati shook his head, then stopped, realizing Randran could not see him in the darkness. "Go, take the child to Craidoc. Let him hold her as he tells her mother goodbye."

After a time, Randran came back.

"Burn, or bury?" Stern, dependable Randron.

"Too risky to burn. Take her well off the trail. Dig fast, quickly, cover the rest. We'll be through the Gate before anyone finds the grave."

Randron did not move, and Pankrati repeated himself. "We will. We'll make it."

Ten minutes later, Randran herded Craidoc and Naduuk out of the fir grove. The child, who had briefly roused into loud cries, subsided into hiccups. The rest of them were checking saddle girths, with Yesof helping those still struggling with the horse gear. Pankrati kept silent, waiting with the reins of Craidoc's mount in his hand.

Craidoc took the reins without a word. He swung astride, then bent to take the sleeping child from Randran. The girl's pale hair floated like a ghost through the air, until Craidoc flipped the edge of the cloak over the girl's head.

"Craidoc," Chan asked, "Does she have a name?"

Craidoc booted his horse, guided it back onto the trail. "Morgaine. Her name is Morgaine."

Low on the north horizon, the opal glow of the World Gate beckoned.
***

Ring

The day came when Pankrati caught the girl outright rifling his pack, and did not, to Randran's surprise, beat her bloody for it.

Randran woke to the hiss of low, impassioned voices and found Morgaine standing by Pankrati's kit, one hand tucked under her shirt hem, the straps of the pack in disarray. Pankrati stood just beyond, his boots brushing the foot of Randran's bedroll, clearly just back from the ditch latrine.

"What do you need?" Randran had only admiration for Pankrati, attempting logic and reason. He kept his eyes half lidded and remained still, waiting for the confrontation to play out before him. Morgaine stared back at Pankrati, her eyes wide and attempting guilelessness.

It was a foolish question. Any listing of the child - young woman's - requirements would span pages in Pankrati's log. A mother, for one. Sister. Agemates, of any gender. Female companions of any age. A stable homeplace. A life of honest dealings, in place of constant deception and falsehoods. Food - cooked well, and safe, and free from the sort of hidden pathogens that had laid the whole camp into their bedrolls for a day and a half, guts aching from
Chan's botched culinary experiment.

The girl had recovered first, wandering in and out of the lean-to and tending the fire as Randran had lain staring at the earthen roof. Chan and Craidoc, having eaten the heartiest, had been the worst affected. Randran had opened his eyes before turning back to the wall to find Morgaine straightening from a stoop over Pankrati's belongings.

Randran had been expecting this, ever since they had discovered that her qhal father had gifted her with an alien grace and physical coordination beyond even a typical human youth.

Father. She needed that as well, instead of the unearthly beautiful brute who had impregnated Norleen, and was dry dust fifteen worlds and hundreds of years behind them.

Instead, she had one true uncle, three adopted ones, and a fifth-share in an impossible quest. Ears that could hear the breath of a mouse halfway across the forest and a gutsy nerve that came half, Randran thought, from the sure knowledge that she would be always protected.

She was too old for a beating. And worlds beyond abandoning on some likely doorstep.

The rest of them may have agreed to it, seeing the folly of bringing a toddling child on the quest. Not on her birthworld, where qual were lords to be feared and humans huddled in longhouses deep in the forests. But there had been others, while the girl was still biddable and young, worlds where humans and qual interbred, and a healthy girl child would have counted a gift of heaven.

She would likely have been dead now - even with qual blood, on an impoverished, gate-locked world, bearing children and suffering any plagues that arose - dead and dust. And safe.

Craidoc would not have stood for it. By the time Morgaine had grown, and the resemblance to Norleen caused pain instead of comfort, the rest of them had become attached, and the opportunity long gone.

"Give it to me." Pankrati kept his voice quiet, speaking under the sussuran of pine boughs rubbing together, the wind shuffling dry leaves across the ground. The rest of the camp slept on.

The right hand unclenched her shirt hem and slowly rose to meet his outstretched fingers. It was what Randran had suspected, a ring of yellow gold, set with a blue stone, engraved with square-cut letters. Against Pankrati's fingers, it was even smaller than he remembered.

He took the ring and sank down on his bedroll, within arms reach of Randran, and waved Morgaine to rest as well. Her eyes flicked towards the firepit, the open hill side, and back to the ring. She folded her legs together and sat.

"It is - it was - it belonged to a very old friend. She..."

"She died." Morgaine said it flatly, without surprise. It was the way all the stories ended. Everyone died, except for the travelers.

"She died." Pankrati turned it over in his hands. "I might have given it to your mother. She might have taken it from me." Morgaine blinked, her eyes watched the engraved ring turn over and over again in his hands. Grey eyes, without a hint of the cornflower blue of her mother's, of Craidoc. Full of longing.

"I will take it." Bold child, and heedless of her own ignorance.

All the worlds and time. And precious little else. It was only the young ones among them who had any vanities.

Pankrati flipped open his pack, found the little leather pouch Norleen had crafted for him. Randran had never learned nor remembered what beast had yielded the fawn-tinged black pelt she had used. The ring slid inside, settled into the crease it had formed over the years. Pankrati tied the string
securely and weighed it for a moment in his hand.

"Here." He held it out. "Take it. I give it to you. It is yours to carry now."

With her clever ears, Morgaine may have heard the pain beneath the words. She took the ring as carefully as she had delivered it. Rising gracefully, she bent her head under the ridge pole and stepped past Craidoc and Chan to the firepit, examining the ring in the sunlight. Her lips moved, silenced by distance, as she worked out the letters inscribed around the stone.

Pankrati drew the blanket up up around his shoulders, watching.

Prophecy rose up in Randran - he spoke quietly, so that his voice carried no further than Pankrati. "She will be the death of us all."

Pankrati stared out at the satisfaction on Morgaine's face, the glint of light on the polished ring. "Her father's daughter. Aye."

***
Blade

In the low-lit workroom, a craftsman meditated upon the fruit of his labors.

A meter of crystallized ceramic, three fingers wide and two thick, tapering to the width of a steel molecule at each edge. Two half-circle rests cradled it, so that the shaft appeared to hover in the gloom. Opal light swirled within the depths of the shaft, beneath engravings carved into the surface. A figment of fancy decorated one end - a beast out of legends, its teeth gripping the shaft end, its mouth spitting opal light. Thick legs spread behind the out-sized teeth, and a wide serpentine tail curved back over the handle that was the body of the beast.

Two wires led from the beast to a box resting on the floor, humming a steady song to itself.

"Darling." The craftsman raised a hand, as if to touch the opal blade, but held back a hands breath. The blade shed no heat, but the air about it was thick with an unseen vibration. On the table, below the rests, lay a long case, mounted with rings for carrying straps, designed to slip over the sword. Still unfinished, the open end lay in pieces - the enameled rings and locking frame, and a seamless collar of dark metal. He chose the collar, turned it over in his hands, and slid the collar over the tip of the sword. The light died, and left the room in darkness.

The swordsmith sat in silence afterward, the echo of the sword's murmur playing in his ears.

After some time, he came back to himself, aware that he was no longer alone in the room, and another sat by the door, at the candlelit desk with the parchments and his logbook.

"Morgaine?"

"Chan. You have grown fond of the darkness. What have you made?"

"What time is it?"

She stood, closed the logbook on the desk, and said, "I do not know the hour, it is late. Ratti and the others returned some time past. They want to conference, something about the meet with the river lords."

"Tonight?" Belatedly, he fumbled with the lamp on the workbench. Morgaine brought the writing candle closer, held it to light the wick, then set it aside.

"Yes, if possible. They are washing and dining now." Chan sighed, began tidying the metal scraps and files scattered across the workbench. Morgaine stepped closer and slid her hands over his shoulders. Chan turned his head to touch one knuckle with his temple.

Again she asked, "What have you made?"

Chan set his hand upon the sheath, raised it to slip it over the end of the blade, and push the collar home against the teeth of the beast. His fingers stayed on the sheath, lightly following the line of the blade, to the tip and back to the hilt.

"Give me your hands." She held them out, over his shoulders, and he took hold of her wrists, guided her hands, one to the sheath, the other to the dragon hilt. "Here, hold it, lift." The sword rose smoothly from the rests. "How is the weight?"

She hefted it, his hands still holding her wrists, limiting her range of motion. "Heavy, but not untold. I can manage this." Her grip on the hilt changed and she began to draw the sword free from the collar. Opal light began to swirl, spilled across their hands and forearms.

Her gasp of delight was all that he could have asked for.

"No, do not." For a heartbeat, she might have resisted him. The moment passed. Together, they slid the sword back into the sheath, brought it to rest on the holding brackets. She drew her hands from his, and folded them across his chest. Her body was a furnace at his back.

"Chan, you are a wonder. What is it?"

"A weapon. A record. An end to the.." He snorted in laughter. "To the quest. For the last of us, when we have come to the end of all gates."

Her voice was beside his ear now, tickling the fine hairs there. "Truly? You jest. An end, so that we may finish this, and be done?"

He smiled, and she kissed the curve of his mouth. "Truly." His fingers trembled, where they rested still on the sheath, on the enameled finish and the polished harness rings.

"I loved you before this, but not so much as now."

That made him turn, within the circle of her arms, and link his own behind her. "Truly?"

She smiled, a bright thing, outshining the sword. "Truly."

After she left, Chan pulled his clothes aright and sat at the workbench again. The sword waiting, silent and still.

In an hour, perhaps less, Pankrati would come and accuse him of madness - Pankrati, who claimed it morally unjust to wear the skins of animals, that swords are the playthings of thugs and idiots, and no weapon for an honest man, Pankrati who could barely sit a horse.

Chan rested his chin on one fist, eyes brought below the level of the sword rests.

None of the company understood the mechanics of the gates as Chan did, Morgaine least of all. For all her other skill - she rode and hunted and was a wonder on the trail, but she would never be a match for any of them in unmaking the gates - Morgaine was among the worst. Her folly, perhaps, or that of her instructors.

It mattered not. Time slipped past them all.

Pankrati would demand that he destroy it, but he might as well shout at the worlds to leave the orbits of their suns. The sword would endure anything, save a Gate field, unsheathed.

If she carried it, Morgaine might endure as well.

He sat for some time in the darkness, before he heard Pankrati's boots in the hall.

***

Shard

It was not in his saddlebags.

Vanye was certain of this - he had emptied both of them thrice, and gone through each pouch separately twice apiece. Nor was it in his weapons kit, nor in the little sachet of medicines, nor in the deep inner pocket of his cloak, to which an extraordinary number of things -

- nut hulls, horseshoe nails, a bit of river smoothed stone he had taken to show Morgaine, but had forgotten, a hawk feather, gathered for the same purpose, and three oat grains -

- had made their way.

Not inside his second pair of boots, not wrapt in the spare scarf at the bottom of his left saddle bags, that he thought he had lost in that river-dunking, two worlds past. The scarf was still there, washed grey and gone thin in the folds, but not the keepsake he sought.

He considered the scarf for a moment, then tucked it back away. With a sigh, he heaved himself back to his feet. An extra cloak was tied behind behind Morgaine's saddle, where she had borrow it during the rains, and he was not yet ready to expose himself to her questions. Perhaps in the weapons kit's smallest pocket...

It was not there. The small leather vial of oil, with its waxen stopper that barely leaked, even when full; two types of stone for blade sharpening, the little hammer for knife edge dents, spare arrow heads and fletching string, and the little razor he used for trimming feathers - they were there. Nothing else.

There had been nothing else the last time he had looked as well.

"Vanye."

He looked up, surprised, to find the afternoon's golden sunlight had faded, and Morgaine standing over him with her arms akimbo and her brow creased. "Yes?"

"I do not believe thee."

"What?"

"I asked thee if thee intended to stare at the stone and oil all evening, and thee said "yes." I also had to call thee twice."

Beyond her, an ample stack of wood rose beside the firepit, with a handful of tinder ready for re-lighting the night's fire.

"My apologies, liyo." She had won over him again, in their efforts to outdo the other in camp chores. And this was truly a loss for Vanye, as his lady lord should not have set her hands to any such task. It was what her sworn servant existed to do.

She waved the firewood and his words away, as though they were gnats. "Will thee tell me, now, what it is that thee have lost?"

"Lost?" He knew he sounded the fool - a mimicking child, at best, but better her scorn than her anger, when she discovered what he was about.

She mutter something under her breath in another of her tongues, then switched to Andur-Kursh. "Thee has turned out all of thy belongings in the last day and a half. Thee counts the horse grain kernel by kernel, and the raisins seed by seed. Thee has unlaced thy boots and all but unthreaded the saddle blankets. The only thing thee has not done is comb the horses' tails, nor has thee checked their hooves but once a piece."

Oh, heaven, he had left the horses by the stream. Vanye started to lurch to his feet, but subsided, caught by her glare.

"Tell me."

"It is nothing. Just..."

She waited, and when he did not continue, waved again, at a larger gnat, and left him there.

He caught up with her at the edge of the streamside meadow, where they had picketed the horses.

"Liyo. It is nothing. I swear, nothing to concern us, or to endanger us, or to bring us to any harm."

"You will judge that, ilin?"

He clamped his jaw shut around the words that welled up - I can hide a trail better than you, my lady, no matter the world, no matter the season - and took the grey's lead from her hand before her fingers closed over it.

At the camp, he tied the horses, set the fire alight again, then took the brush from beneath her hand and groomed both Siptah and Mai. Morgaine frowned and would have argued over the brush, had the fire not begun to smoke.

"Thee has set too much green wood on it," she snapped, taking up a longer stick to pry out the offending limb. "The whole valley shall know where we came."

"Oh, aye, and the ravens will tell the squirrels who will tell the beetles and they the foxes." There was, he judged, little to be concerned with. He had dug the firepit carefully, and set it so the slight smoke that rose would scatter itself through the over-hanging boughs. Truth, he had put one too many green branches on the stack, but she had gathered the wood. "There is no one here, not in this valley. You said so yourself."

"Thee can no more see through trees and mountains than thee can keep tally of thy own belongings!"

That brought his head down, to lean against Siptah's neck. There was nothing to say to that, that would not wound more than it defended. He focused his eyes and his thoughts on the horses, who leaned into the brush strokes and nuzzled at his hands for more caresses.

Finally, he worked though her words, and the hurt in her voice tone, and realized the anxiety that she carried was not only of the ordinary sort when they were new to a world, and unsure of their goal.

At the fire, he knelt beside Morgaine, held out his hand for the stick she used as a poker.

"Liyo. It truly is of no import."

"And again, ilin, I shall be the judge of that."

He clenched his jaw and remained silent, until the urge to snap at her passed. Then, "It is a small memento, a bit of thick parchment, that I found in Ohtijin, on Shiuan. It had no writing," he said in some haste, against the alarm in her indrawn breath. "Only a bit of art, a shape like a crosspiece, or perhaps a sword." He had taken it because the shape had pleased him, and because it reminded him of the oldest icons of the priest houses. It likely had no protection against qual witchcraft, but it brought a measure of comfort."As I said, it was nothing. Only I had carried it thus far, and now I can not find it. I did not say, for I knew you would be angry."

She stared at him, her face gone pale beneath the wind-burn and road dust. Abruptly she stood and walked away, as far as her saddle bags. Vanye would not look after her. At least she had not shouted. But her worst moods are silent.

And then she was back, crouching by his side. "Is it this?" In her hand she held the bit of parchment, smaller than her palm, and now creased across. The ink remained unfaded, clear and sharp.

"Yes." He reached for it, but she had drawn it back.

"I had it, among my things. It rested in the cave in Aenor, when thee freed me from the Gate there. It is the work of Chan, my old...companion. A sketch of Changeling, when he first began to think of how to construct it. I thought it lost, in Shiuan." Her voice grew softer. "I thought it a quirk of chance, that I found it again. Thee knows - a harness ring falls into the saddlebags, and it is a month before thee finds it again, unexpected. When it could have as easily fallen on the road."

I do not look back. I have no regrets.

Morgaine had told him this, when they first met, and again, since.

She had doubtlessly lied to him in some few other things as well. But this discovery did not carry with it the sting of betrayal.

"Here." She held the scrap back to him. "Thee has carried it so long, best if thee continues. Do you mean," she went on, in that sudden change of focus that he found so unnerving, "for the fire to burn down, and us to have only cold ash and dry tea for our supper?"

Vanye took the parchment, and found his voice. "No, liyo, I will see to it."

He took the scrap of parchment and rose to put it away again, deep in his saddlebags.

***

Memory

At some distance, a voice called her name.

Vanye. Calm, not urgent, but with some concern. "Morgaine. Arrhthein."

Mogaine woke and came up on one arm, the other hand reaching for Changeling. Early dawn showed on the east horizon, past the ridgeline, and the cool air bit at her bare skin as the blanket slid away.

Around her, the camp was quiet and orderly - the horses cropping at a handful of cut fodder, the fire burning small but fierce, their baggage collected and ready for use or repacking.

Vanye regarded her from across the fire, bacon suspended on a sharpened twig. When she continued to stare back at him, he set the bacon back into the pan and said, "Good day. You were speaking to someone."

Not to him. And likely not in any language he could understand. Morgaine lay back again, one hand still clenched around Changeling's sheath, and rubbed at her eyes with the other.

She had been dreaming - an old dream, with a road the color of wet slate and lined with buildings of smooth white stone. She sat at a table at a doorway - a cloth had hung in the door, swaying with the breeze - and studied the parchment before her. Her hand - a younger hand, with a cut on one knuckle - gripped a stylus.

Someone had been instructing her. She had been arguing with him.

"What did I say?"

"Liyo?"

Eyes still shut, she asked again, "With whom did I speak? Do you recall any of the words?"

Vanye did not answer immediately. When she sat up again, he was staring into the middle distance. She turned, followed his eyes.

North of north east, a line of smoke rose above the trees.

Morgaine cursed and threw aside the blankets, reaching for her trousers and boots. Sword in hand, Vanye was already pouring water on their cook fire and kicking dirt into the wet ashes.

It was long practice for them, breaking camp, and they did so with no more haste than needed. Blankets re-divided into separate bedrolls, the bacon pan into his saddle bags and the teapot into hers. Siptah put his ears back when she bridled him, but took the bit readily enough. Vanye was no slower in saddling Arrhan. Then the layer of mossy turf went over the cooling ashes and they were in the saddle and away, heading down creek and away from the eastern ridgeline.

And all the while it worried at her - who had been at that table with her, laboring through lessons on the calculus of gate-work?

They rode through the morning, on a tiny deer track that Vanye found, and set the white mare - wise to forests - upon. They left sign in the low places, heavy hooves of the laden warhorse slipping in the mud, but no more than needful. Aside from the deer and the birds, they saw no one. Morgaine looked wistfully after a covey of fat-bodied grouse that scurried off the trail, remember the breakfast that had not been had.

"Here," Vanye said, in his disconcerting way of reading her mind. He held out a bit of cloth, stained with grease. "Cold and not well cooked, and the bread is stale, but we can have better later."

Did she give him the opportunity, Vanye would do everything for her - care for the horses, tend the fire, hunt their meals and mend their clothing. Mend her temper, if she allowed it. Leaving her naught but meditation on their next action, their next attack, with some little thought toward defense.

They were heading east, still, and likely past whoever had lit that fire. She ate, still astride, watching Vanye watch the forest. When she had dusted her hands free, she said, "Onward, but only so long as to find some evidence of a road. We need to learn what sort of people live here, and how well they remember qual."

On the last world but one, the qual had been only legend. The humans lived in mud and wattle huts, without horses, and plowed their fields with bulls. Together, Morgaine and Vanye had ridden for days down an empty road, until they came to that world's Mastergate, coded it for destruction, and passed through.

Vanye had been pleased, for qual still lived in the concept he marked as witchcraft, but Morgaine wondered if this meant some indication that they approached the end of all gates, the apex of a string of stepping stones across the years.

Of late she had been more cautious in her manipulations of the gate controls, setting the time shifts closer and closer, despite the danger.

The day shifted past noon, and the deer track passed a footpath, but Morgaine shook her head and said, "No, we will look for something larger. We can return here, if nothing else presents itself." There was risk in crossing the trail on iron-shod horses, but more in following the footpath when any other traveler would likely be afoot, and hear them approaching a distance off.

Finally, as the golden light of afternoon began to fade, they found a ridge, and a road, and a cross roads. At Vanye's insistence, Morgaine sat Siptah and held Arrhan's reins while he circled the area, looking for a likely place of concealment.

Waiting had never suited her well. She tried to keep her eyes upon the forest, and the bit of road visible through the trees, but her mind kept returning to the dream memory.

There had been four of them - all men, all older than she, and one, they said, her true-uncle. When she had been young, there had been more - a woman with mahogany skin, and a man with a hook nose, like a falcon.

At so long a distance, she sometimes had trouble remembering their names.

A rustle, and Vanye was at her side again. "Liyo," Vanye said, pointing. South, then, and she let him lead, marking how his eyes traveled over the brush and thickets, sometimes catching what he noted, and other times missing entirely what it was that he read, clearly as any words engraved in stone.

For her, even, he would study qual-lore, gate knowledge, as much as she could recall to teach him. He thought, still, that by doing so he would slowly damn his immortal soul. If she could, Morgaine would reassure him that there she could not teach him sufficient magic to touch on the soulcraft of the universe.

Chan could have.

Had it been he... no. The man in the dream had been much older, more patient.

Morgaine cursed her faulty recall, as she did when Vanye excelled at his lessons, and drove her to work through the equations when he could not watch her, attempting to bring back the framing of the next subject of instruction.

"Here, then, if it is agreeable to you." She looked around, blinked, and nodded assent.

They made camp quietly, well off from the road and hidden in a hollow, but with a place were one could sit still and look down at the road below. The horses took their grain with appropriate gratitude, and settled down, leaning together.

For their riders, it was cold food again, but they made their bed together, the blankets being warmer layered one atop the other.

"Rest", she said, "I have first watch." When he would have protested, she indulged him in a kiss to her forehead, gifted him back one to his cheek, and finally brought her mouth to his.

He settled at last into the blankets, her hand caught in his, as she sat with both their cloaks over her shoulders, watching the road. A sliver of moon rose, late, pale and tattered through the leaves.

Pankrati. Old Pankrati, leaning over her at the table, beside the sunlit street. Craidoc, her uncle. Randran, huge and quiet. And Chan. Yosef - it had been Yosef who had given her the first lessons on a horse. The dark woman had been Naduuk.

"I remember," she said, softly. "I remember you."

Under her hand, Vanye stirred. "Liyo?"

"Shhh," she said, and then, in his - their - language, "It is nothing. Only shadows. Go back to sleep."