The sun woke me the next morning. Not the dim, red flame which had flickered before my eyes for the past fortnight – that was gone. What I saw as I opened my eyes was the golden disk of the dawn sun looming through the unshuttered windows of the ancient cottage. The room before me was empty – but I was still bound.
I was sitting where I had sat for two weeks: tied to a chair beside the hearth, sticky in my own sweat and filth. The light red hearth-fire had bathed me into a fever, but now the fire was turned to black ashes. As I stared at the blackened pot hanging above the ashes, a ray of light touched the lip of the pot so that the liquid inside turned suddenly to fire, reflecting the morning sun back to me. My stomach churned, and the images of four people returned to me: Harkay, nervously feeding me the liquid that burned my stomach and turned my limbs to clay; Seith, standing silently in a corner as though he too were bound by ropes; a child, staring at me with blank face and dark eyes; and behind the child, Darak, wearing a small smile as he destroyed my mind. . . .
The cottage door opened. I twitched with nervousness, then clenched my bound hands and waited for what was to come.
What came was a boy, young enough to be dressed in a child's tunic. Like all the other boys and girls of my village, I had worn such a tunic not many years before. It had been a sign of adulthood when I took on the clothes of a man.
I knew who this boy was. He had knelt beside me not long before, holding my mind with his eyes.
The boy hesitated at the threshold, seeing me awake. He was carrying a rough blanket and a pack, which he hastily placed on the table beside the door. Then, with more boldness than I would have credited from a village boy, he walked over and knelt, staring into my eyes.
I had opened my mouth to speak, but my words were silenced by his eyes. No longer dark with enchantment, they were the color of the sun. Even in the dark cottage the eyes seemed to glimmer with an inner light. I was momentarily confused. No boy with golden eyes had been born in the nearby villages – no boy, that is, aside from myself.
My confusion resolved itself almost at once. No boy had golden eyes, but this was no boy. A girl knelt beside me, her sex hidden by the genderless clothes of childhood. She was tall, yet she could be no more than twelve – or was she thirteen? I tried to reach out with my mind toward her. It was then that I discovered my true powerlessness.
Unaware of my thoughts, the girl asked abruptly, "Who are you?"
Two cold answers enveloped me, neither having to do with the girl's question. Two hard, dark facts confronted me: I could not enter the girl's mind, and the girl was no longer enchanted. Darak and the other wizards had left, that was clear. Either they had found the answer that they were seeking from me or they had gone elsewhere for the answer. In either case, I was left alone with this strange, bold girl.
I considered her. No village girl I had ever known would have had the courage to speak to a stranger as this girl spoke to me. The image of another girl, black-haired, rose before me. Then I pushed the image away and said, "Release me, and I will tell you."
I did not expect her to comply. Whatever memory Darak's enchantment had taken from her, she must know that this was the wizards' house and that I had been their prisoner. But she cocked her head at me, pushed a stray hair out of her face, and asked, "Will you harm me if I release you?"
I doubted that I had the strength to harm her even if I wanted to. But seeking to reassure her, I said formally, "May the wild waters drown me if I harm you."
Then I shivered. She must have taken this as a sign of my weakness, for in the next moment she was kneeling beside me, carefully unknotting the ropes that bound my hands and chest and legs. The knots were tight after so much time, and the girl had trouble undoing them. I stared down at her light hair, trying to sort out a puzzle.
As the last bonds gave way, a strangely mixed feeling came over me. I was free; Darak had not bound my knots with enchantment. But again, Darak had not bound my knots with enchantment; therefore, Darak no longer cared where I went. I must truly be powerless.
I tried to stand and almost immediately fell back into the chair. The girl reached out to steady me. As her hand touched my dirt-laden arm, I became aware that I was half-naked. Darak had stripped me of my robe. While that had not bothered me at the time – as I was concerned with more serious matters – it disturbed me now to be sitting without my overgarments in the presence of this girl.
"Hand me that blanket," I ordered gruffly.
The girl stood looking at me, making no move toward the blanket. Then she said, "I think you need to be bathed first. Can you walk to the spring outside?"
Mystified by the girl's confidence, I nodded. She proceeded to help me as I staggered across the room and through the door.
The sun, which I had not seen for so long, stared down silently at me. I leaned against the doorway for a space and stared directly up at the fire-ball, as I had done so many times before. It was just rising above the Impenetrable Mountains to the east, turning the nearer mountains white and the further mountains blue. My gaze fell to the horizon, and I thought of how the mountains had looked in olden times: small islands surrounded by the ocean covering all the land behind me. . . .
I became aware again of the girl beside me and realized that she had been watching me in silence, though she was supporting much of my weight. I allowed her to guide me to the small spring near the cottage; then she disappeared into the house as I dipped my hands in the water.
The water's coldness set me shivering, but I stripped myself of my last rags and used them to sponge the dirt off of me. This took all of my remaining strength. I was about to collapse onto the grass when I saw the girl walking toward me.
I felt a twinge of ridiculous panic before I managed to cover myself with the rag. The girl, however, said nothing about my hasty attempt at modesty; she seemed flustered as she paused before me, her arms filled with the blanket and the pack she had been carrying before.
"Here," she said, and thrust them onto the ground beside me, then turned and fled back to the cottage.
I lay back on the grass, leaned forward on one elbow, and undid the pack. In it were clothes – clothes belonging to the girl's father, at a guess, for they were large and made of rough villagers' cloth. I painfully wiggled my way into them, my mind now circling around a new mystery.
When the girl returned, she was carrying an earthenware bowl filled with a dark liquid. Carefully placing it on the ground, she said, "It's broth. I think that the wizards must have left it."
I stared down at the dark pool of liquid beside me. "Where did you find this?"
"In the cauldron. Oh, it's all right!" she added hastily, seeing my expression. "I already tasted it."
She must have had stony nerves to eat the wizards' breakfast; nevertheless, I drank the broth and hastily lay back down. The bright landscape had begun to grow cold and dark to me, though the sun still shone overhead.
The girl laid the blanket over me and placed the pack under my head. Then she sat beside me, watching me for a while. Finally she asked, "Would you like more broth?"
"No. But thank you for bringing it to me. And thank you for the clothes." I paused, then asked, "Did you bring them here for me?"
The girl picked up a twig from the nearby pine tree, using it to scratch at the mud beside the spring. For a time she said nothing. Then, avoiding my eyes, she said, "You never answered my question. What is your name?"
"What is yours?" I countered, determined to stretch out our conversation as long as possible. I knew that the girl would not stay here for long once she learned who I was.
There exists a girl's name, Nebelia, but I had never heard it shortened to Neb, which is a boy's name. The mystery of the girl deepened. I found myself asking, "How old are you?"
I rolled over to stare at her, my fever momentarily forgotten. No woman of sixteen wears a child's tunic. At her age, most women are married, raising children. My own mother had been married at age fourteen, given birth to me when she was fifteen, and was dead at age twenty-one. I opened my mouth to speak.
"You promised to tell me your name." Her voice was low but fierce as she stabbed at the mud with her twig.
There was no way now to avoid a reply. "I am Tyne son of Bulec," I said.
I watched carefully as she turned to face me. Her eyes widened and her mouth gaped. Then she swallowed and said, "You are the wizard. The one—" She stopped.
But I had seen enough. The expression of shock was too practiced, too different from what I had seen before. I finished her sentence: "The one who betrayed the other wizards. The one who was being hunted down." I paused before adding, "But you knew that already."
She let the astonishment drop from her face like a mask and sat with her head cocked once again, seemingly without fear. When she spoke, her voice was merely curious: "Did you read my mind to find that out?"
"No. I no longer have that power." I allowed myself to drop back to the grass as I shut my eyes.
Persisting, Neb asked, "Why?"
I opened my eyes and turned my head toward her. In a voice I attempted to keep even and factual, I said, "Darak – the Traveller from Beyond – destroyed the gifts of magic he gave me. He took from me the memory of the enchantments I've learned from the wizards over the years."
The mountain was quiet. The water beside me gurgled, a bird called out from the pine tree, and far below I could hear the bleating of sheep. But I found myself listening instead to the quiet breathing of the girl as she stared beyond me toward the Impenetrable Mountains.
Finally she said, "Does that mean you're no longer a wizard?"
I raised my hand, now heavy with weariness, and pointed it toward the twig she was holding. Neb started as the end of the twig burst into flame. Rather than discard the magical fire, though, she raised it up to look more closely at it.
"You'd best release it before it hurts you," I said mildly. I added as she placed the twig in the water, "Darak can't take from me the gift I was born with, the gift to order fire and to use sun. All that he can take is everything else: all the mind-work I learned from him and from the other five wizards. That is enough." I did not add that I was sure Darak would even have taken my fire-gift from me if he could have done so, but that was impossible. He had bound his own flame with mine five years before. He could not destroy my native power without diminishing his own power.
"I was born a wizard and will be a wizard until I die," I concluded.
"I thought that wizards couldn't die."
"This one can." The water beside me seemed to be growing louder. I turned on my side so that I could look at Neb better. I had known few girls when I was growing up and fewer since then, but what memories I had did not match what I saw before me: a golden-eyed girl watching me steadily and plying me with questions. I asked, "And what of you?"
"What of me?" She looked away and began a search for a new twig.
I changed course. "How did you know who I was? Did Darak tell you?"
She shook her head. "I never saw the wizards. I climbed up here on my birthday." She paused as though expecting me to say something – and indeed, I was even more puzzled than before, for I had never heard of any girl taking the challenge to climb High Peak. But I remained silent, and she added, "I have a cousin who did it once – he told me how he climbed the mountain. I reached the top and saw the cottage. I knew that it must be the wizards' cottage because I'd heard tales of it, but I was surprised to see it. I thought that it was cloaked to all but the wizards." She paused expectantly.
"To most people," I said. "But you may recall another story which says the golden-eyed child can see beyond enchantments."
She ducked her head to hide her golden eyes from me, then continued in a lower voice, "I don't know what occurred next. The moment I saw the cottage, something happened. It was as though something entered me and trapped me. And then— I'm not sure what happened to me. But when I awoke, I was lying on the floor of the cottage, and you were in the corner, bound to that chair."
Neb bit her lip as she looked over at me. "After I thought about it, I knew who you must be. After all, the Lord Wizards had been searching for the Seventh Wizard, and there you were, imprisoned in the wizards' cottage. You weren't dead, but I thought you were drugged – you were sleeping so heavily. You didn't awaken when I touched you."
"Touching me was brave of you."
I made my remark in a toneless voice and meant what I said, but Neb lifted her chin, as though I had issued her a challenge. She said, with the same fierceness she had exhibited earlier, "I couldn't wake you, so I decided to go down to my village and find an herb woman who might be able to help you. I was afraid that you would wander off in a fever if I unbound you, so I left you tied to the chair. I started at dawn and expected to spend all morning climbing down the mountain, but when I reached the High Pass I met a trader. He sold me the blanket and clothes and a few herbs that he said would help a sick person's fever. So I brought them back, and you were already awake."
Her fierce tone had continued. I wondered what was behind it, what weakness she was hiding. Some lessons that Darak had taught me I had not forgotten, and I found myself probing her with as much delicacy and coldness as the Traveller from Beyond would have used.
"Why did you release me?" I asked.
Her chin remained raised. "Why not? You didn't look as though you could harm me, and you gave me your word that you wouldn't do so."
"Few villagers would have released the wizards' prisoner."
"Well," she said, and I could tell that she was slowly inventing an explanation, "the wizards left me there, and they left you there. They could have killed you. So I thought that perhaps they'd left me in the cottage to release you once they were gone."
"It is possible." It was all too possible, and I did not like to dwell on the possibility. For if Darak was willing to leave this village girl to help me, then he must certainly believe that he had nothing to fear from me. I tried another attack: "What if the wizards return?"
"What if they do?"
Her chin was still high, but I had found the weakness I was seeking: a desire, a very lust, for mind-power. It was as though I was looking at myself as a boy.
This was why she had released me, and this was why she hoped that the wizards would return. All that remained for me was to bring those two possibilities into conflict and to watch her run with fear from me.
Yet something made me pause. I was alone. I might die up here without her help, but that was not why I wanted Neb to stay. I wanted her to stay because she was the only person I now knew who was not my enemy.
I thrust this thought aside. To keep her here untested, to know that she might abandon me at any time, would not bring peace to me. It was better to have her leave now.
"There's another possibility as to why the wizards left you here," I said slowly. "Perhaps they wanted to take you on as their assistant."
I had reached the core of her desire. She stiffened. I turned my eyes back to the sun.
She said huskily, "The wizards don't take girls as their assistants."
"They have one woman who assists them – you must have met her." I did not add that Mediza had never been taught any magic by the wizards – that she worked only as a servant. Guessing Neb's secret thoughts, I said, "You are golden-eyed like me. Like me, you are descended from the wizard Oura. Perhaps, even though you're a girl, you have some sort of power. Perhaps—" I stared very hard at the sun. "Perhaps the wizards left you here to test your loyalty, to see whether you would be a good assistant. Perhaps they were waiting for you to show your loyalty to them by letting me die."
I kept my eyes on the sun as her breath jerked in and she rose. Then I waited a minute before turning my head to watch her run down the mountainside, darting like a fish through green waters.
The waters rose above me, and I drowned in darkness.
When I opened my eyes again, I saw nothing at first except branches. I was still staring at them when a hand reached under my head, and a cup pressed itself against my lips.
I drank from the hot liquid, which was fragrant with herbs, then looked up at Neb. "What about the wizards?"
She shrugged, easing me back against the pack. To my relief, she had not attempted to drag me into the dark cottage, but instead had raised a small shelter around me of fallen pine branches.
She said, "If the wizards left you to die that way, then I don't think I'd make a very good assistant to them. I'll stay with you and help you in whatever way I can."
It had not been necessary for her to promise so much. I could already feel my head growing woozy from the fever and the healing herbs, but I heard myself saying, "I would welcome your company, if nothing else. . . ."
The darkness descended upon me again. But this time I was not alone.