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.
The first time I was alone in the darkness of this mountain was the day I turned fourteen years.
Like Neb, I had decided to celebrate my birthday in the traditional manner, by climbing High Peak. But for me, the climb was more than an attempt to display my new manhood, more than an attempt to display the adult clothing I had stolen from my father. It was an attempt to show that I could be something more in life than the village idiot.
I had been playing that role all my life, since the time that my difference from the other children was discovered. At first, it had only been the adults who ridiculed me to my face. The other children had accepted me as one of their own, for all of the children were treated to some extent as I was: the village custom was to ignore boys and girls until they reached an age at which they could become a help to their elders. I had nearly reached that age of six when the wizards came to visit.
I and my boy companions were mystified when our parents, who on most days showed no interest in us, spent one morning dressing us in fancy clothes and brushing our hair. All of us were curious to discover what mysterious event we would be taking part in. I had an advantage that few other boys possessed. My mother, unlike most other mothers, had not turned her attention to younger children. I was her only child, and perhaps because I was so different, she pitied me and was the only adult to speak directly to me.
"It's the custom," she explained as she helped me to tie the knot around my best tunic. "The Lord High Wizard visits the village every few years and meets all of the young boys. Sometimes he gives advice on what work the boy should do when he's grown. My Lord Darak examined your father when he was a boy and said that he should become a potter rather than be a shepherd like his father."
"Oura's Eyes, woman," swore my father, who had just entered the room. "People will think you're bewitched if you talk to the boy like that. He can't understand you."
"He might," said my mother without looking up from me. But she said no more. My father kept discipline in his house, and he had a heavy hand.
My mother showed me to the door with a kiss, then stayed inside like the rest of the village women as my father took me to the village green. There, lined in one awkward row, were all the young boys and their fathers. We took our place beside them, then waited for the wizard to arrive.
He was not long coming. I hardly dared look up as his horse galloped up to the green, followed close behind by the only man in the domain who was rich enough to own a horse, Lord Rault.
The lord's trumpeter was still busy announcing their arrival when the wizard swung easily off his horse and headed for our line. The wizard was garbed in a long robe, such as wizards and lords wear, but the robe had no ornament on it: it was all deepest green like a forest at night.
I had heard that wizards lived forever. I was prepared to believe that this one did at least, for his hair was silver and his face was folded like lizards' skin. I was startled when he turned to Lord Rault, who was hurrying to join him, and made a laughing remark. I had not thought of wizards as being the sort of men who made jokes.
They took their time going down the line. Whenever my father thought that they weren't looking, he swiped me on the head to remind me to behave – he believed that he could communicate with me that much at least. As they neared us I was too frightened to listen to the wizard's words, but I heard his voice: it was deep and quiet and deliberate. As he stopped in front of me, I dared to look up.
I could feel my father begin to hit me, then control himself. Lord Rault, assisted by our village elder, was beginning to introduce me when something extraordinary happened. The wizard knelt down beside me and stared into my eyes.
I stared back. The wizard's eyes were green, the darkest green I had ever seen, and they peered into my eyes with an eagle's gaze. Lord Rault, who had travelled no further than my name before halting in consternation, cleared his throat. "My Lord Darak?" he said uncertainly.
The wizard Darak stood then. Ignoring Lord Rault, he said to my father, "He is six?"
"Nearly so, my lord," said my father, a brave man who could answer the questions of lords and wizards. "His birthday is next month."
"Does he have a gift, my lord?" asked Lord Rault politely, not having taken in fully what the village elder had told him about me.
"What is your work?" Darak asked my father.
"A potter, my lord."
Darak shook his head. "He's not a potter. Perhaps . . . But it's hard to say at this age." He stepped back and spoke deliberately loud, so that all could hear. "This boy looks weakly. Does he get much exercise?"
"I think so," my father said, who did not really know how I spent my days. "He has always been feeble, my lord. He takes after his mother."
"Well, let him run much, climb the hills. There are excellent rocks to climb on High Peak. Let him climb there."
I could hear my father's breath whistle in. Every year, a few bold boys would climb High Peak on their fourteenth birthdays, hoping to meet with a wizard and receive a birthday blessing. Out of long custom, no other villagers walked on its enchanted slopes the rest of the year.
Darak had already turned away and was asking Lord Rault about the next boy. The wizard did not look my way again before he left, but it did not matter. My mind was already up on the rocks of High Peak, where the eagles cried and the wizards walked and few villagers dared to come.
It was not long after this that Lord Rault's fair was held at his court.
The village that was home to his court lay, like my own village, in the shadow of High Peak. Though my father rarely strayed from our village, selling his wares instead to passing traders, he did go yearly to the fair that attracted traders and craftsmen and entertainers from around the Land of the Sun. My mother, who was a quiet woman at all times, had grown even quieter since the wizard's visit. Now she made the bold suggestion that I should accompany my father to the fair.
I witnessed the conversation while playing with a fragment of looking glass I had found, holding the glass toward the sun so that it would reflect light down onto our dirt floor. Like all children, I had been forbidden from looking upon the blinding glare of the golden sky-disc, but not long before this I had discovered by chance that I could stare as long as I wished at the fire above and never hurt my eyes. As a result, I spent endless hours looking at the sun and at any fire I encountered, though my father beat me whenever he caught me doing so. He never noticed that my fire-staring did no harm to my eyes.
Casting a look at me first to check whether I was listening, my mother said in a low voice, "You've said often enough that there's no place for Tyne in our village, no work that he can do. But there's other work to be found in the Land of the Sun. Couldn't you take our son with you and see whether he shows any interest in the crafts he sees there?"
"Drella, you place too much hope in the boy," my father replied. "It has always been plain to see that he will never be anything more than a child, something that others such as ourselves must watch over. This I am willing to do; he is my son and therefore my burden. But you must stop breaking your heart over him and accept what he is. Taking Tyne with me today would do the boy no good, and it would distract me from the work I do in order to earn money for you and him. He has no gifts; you must accept that."
Staring at the floor, my mother said softly, "The Lord High Wizard thought that he might."
"The Lord High Wizard said that Tyne was not a potter. This I know. He said that the boy was weak. This I also know. He said nothing about a gift. Oura's eyes are rare enough, certainly, that the wizard should take interest in them. But Tyne does not have the mind of Oura. This I know and this you know as well."
My mother continued to stand with her head bowed. I had stopped playing with the glass in order to watch my mother, who so rarely fought with my father. Sighing, my father came over and touched lightly the small string of glass beads my mother was wearing. It was a neck-chain, such as children give to their closest friends; I had received one not long ago from Arklish son of Dorn. I knew that my father had given this chain to my mother when they were young village children, long before he fell in love with her. "Very well," he said quietly. "If it matters to you that much, I'll take him. But I have no time to show him around the fair. He must stay at my stall and watch the activities from there."
This restriction did not bother me in the least. By the time we reached Lord Rault's fair, I had worked myself into a fever of excitement. I had never been to the lord's palace before and would have been interested enough in the high wooden building stretching far above the surrounding forests. With my eyes peering up toward the great oak walls and the colorful banners flying atop the towers, I ignored the small village that lay next to the court. I was only brought back to earth when we passed through the court gates and thus entered the grounds of the fair.
The craftsmen's tables were set all about the wood-planked court. Some tables were even perched on the steps of the palace itself, like vines creeping up a tree. As my father pulled me along, I caught what glimpses I could of the craftsmen and traders there: A mine-owner from Lord Parth's lands, discussing the uncut jewels before him and keeping a watchful eye on the slave-bound mine-boys who were assisting him. A weaver from Lord Charb's lands, shyly displaying her bright blankets and shawls. A whittler from Lord Flatch's lands, talking garrulously about his creations to all who would listen.
At one point, I caught sight of Lord Rault himself; he generally stayed aloof from his people, but now he was nodding, pleased, as he sampled a rare delicacy: summer ice, kept deep within the palace cellar during the summer months and brought out only to feed high nobles such as himself.
"Here!" I was brought back to earth by my father's loud voice. He always spoke his commands to me in a loud, monosyllabic tone, as though I were a dumb animal who could only understand the briefest of messages. "Sit here," he said now. "Stay."
"Here" was at the back of the tented stall, where I could see nothing of the sights around me. I doubt that my father meant to be cruel; he probably had in mind keeping me out of sight so that I would not be lured away by some ill-meaning stranger. As it was, though, tears leaked from my eyes as I obeyed my father and thought of all I would miss seeing.
Through the air I could hear the sound of craftsmen hawking their goods, the nearest voice being that of my father, who was urging his wares upon the indifferent passersby. I tilted my head so that I could see the lookout tower in the far corner of the yard. The guard there looked as bored as I was; he was shading his eyes against the noontime sun that caused me no pain.
Suddenly there was a sound of laughter and cheering. A red and gold flame shot upwards from above the tents around me, nearly singed the lookout guard, and sped back to the earth as rapidly as it had come.
I stared, my mouth open, as motionless as the great wooden towers nearby. Then I darted out from behind the stall where I had been sitting. My father did not notice my departure; he was busy coaxing in a customer. Pursuing the noise of the cheers, I soon came to a place where men and women were packed tight like straw in a bale. I could see nothing but the legs of the people surrounding me, but faintly I could hear, amidst the gasp and applause of those watching, the crackle and whoosh of fire.
One of the women nearby said, "It's Lord Rault's fire-tamer. I've heard many stories of him. They say that our lordship is so taken by his tricks that he brings the tamer with him on every long journey."
I heard a loud pop and crackle, and the crowd gasped; a girl near the front screamed with delight. Again without thinking of what I was doing – I was not usually this bold – I began scrambling through the forest of legs, pushing and elbowing my way through the crowd until I had reached the front. By that time, the crowd had quieted, for the fire-tamer had reached the climax of his act.
To my surprise, he was a short man, unremarkable in appearance, attired in a flaming red robe and – despite the midsummer heat – a hooded yellow cloak. He had his eyes closed and his arms outstretched. He was seemingly reaching the end of a very long and poetic spell-chant. As the hushed crowd watched, fire sprung to life at once on the metal barrel before him: a strange white-gold fire, dancing as though to the wind, though no breezes stirred the air. Still facing the fire blindly, the tamer raised his hand slightly. As the onlookers groaned in amazement, the fire rose in the air, hovered, and then settled into the tamer's outstretched palms.
The tamer smiled and opened his eyes. Somebody cheered. Exclamations and questions passed between the men and women as they watched the tamer carefully place the fire back onto the barrel.
But I had ceased to look at the fire. I was staring at the tamer's eyes, golden like my own.
The fire-tamer bowed, then waved at the crowd as though dismissing it. His boy-assistant began to collect the metal containers that were placed on the wood planks around them. But the crowd was not content to leave. Some of the bolder young men began to shout out questions:
"Are you a wizard?"
"Can you cast mighty spells like the wizards?"
"Are you a Son of Oura?"
"Can all golden-eyed men tame fire?"
The fire-tamer had been removing his cape. Sow he put his hand into the air, like a gracious ruler subduing his unruly subjects. "Brave men, beautiful women," he said, "if you seek knowledge, then you must give me time to speak. I cannot answer your questions at the same time that you ask them. Now . . ." He turned to wave away his assistant, who was about to extinguish the barrel-fire with one of the metal containers. Though a few of the people in the crowd began to leave, I stood where I was, holding my breath in anticipation of the tamer's answer to the last question.
The tamer turned back to the crowd. Raising his voice to be heard, he said, "You, fine nobleman in the front, with the eyes of an eagle and the voice of a song-bird—" The young villager in question dissolved into bashful giggles as his friends laughed and nudged him. "You asked whether I am a Son of Oura." He turned both hands up in the air, shrugging in apparent bewilderment, then looked about the crowd as though expecting to find an answer there. His gaze passed me but did not pause.
"Now, let me see," said the tamer slowly, "I believe that I am Oura's great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great . . ." He smiled as the crowd laughed, then said, "Well, I do not wish to bore you. The short answer to this gentleman's question is that, Yes, I am a Son of Oura. And not only that, I am a golden-eyed Son of Oura, one of her few descendants to have been born with her wizardly eyes.
"So . . . am I then a wizard?" Again he paused, looking about the crowd. A few of the watchers cried out answers: "No!" "Of course he is!" "Yes!"
The tamer paused to hand the assistant his cloak, dangled his fingers a few inches from the fire, then looked up and said, "No."
The crowd groaned. The tamer smiled again at them. "Much as I hate to disappoint you, men and women, elders and children, I am not a wizard. I look with admiration – not envy – upon those great lords whose mountain-home shadows us now. I have been given my own gift, and I am content with it, however small it may be. Indeed, I will humble myself so much as to say that my skill does not surpass that of a spell-casting herb-woman – with this difference only." He put up a warning finger against the crowd, which was beginning to groan once more. His smile disappeared for the first time. When he spoke, it was in a deep voice, full of solemnity. "Oura the great wizard, who brought our ancestors to this land ten centuries ago, had the power to tame both fire and water. And I, a Son of Oura, was born also with a fire-gift and was thus burdened with the onerous duty of learning to command that object in the world which is most free and is therefore hardest to tame."
The crowd stayed hushed, as though he had cast a spell over them as well as over the fire. Then someone cried out, "Show us your water tricks!"
The tension broke. The tamer joined the crowd in their laughter. "For that, young sir," he shouted back, "I must refer you to Gerlant son of Nar, magician of Lord Parth's court, a golden-eyed cousin of mine who can cast the most marvellous spells over rain and dewdrops." Then he turned away from the crowd and began to speak to his assistant.
I waited, but he did not turn back, and the crowd began once more to disperse. I could feel the tears beginning to well up inside of me when suddenly the tamer turned. In an off-hand tone, he said, "Oh, yes – there was one other question: Can all golden-eyed men cast spells?"
The people obediently turned their attention to him once more. He waited, smiling, as they settled back in their places before he spoke. "Men of Lord Rault's land, men of the other lord-domains," he said, "I have detected a note of disapproval in your response to my answers, as though you do not fully believe me." He waited for the chorus of denials to die down before adding, "No matter. I will not ask you to trust my word this time. Let us put the question to the test." He looked around the crowd expectantly. As if at random, his golden gaze fell upon me.
He stepped forward, his hand reaching toward me. The next thing I knew, I was standing with him, in front of the great assembly. My heart thumping, I stared at the crowd of strangers discussing me in whispers.
"This is a Son of Oura," said the tamer, "as can be seen by his eyes, as golden as the sky-fire that gilded Oura's eyes. Now, I will ask the boy one very important question, and his answer will help us to determine whether he is indeed gifted with the power to command fire – or whether he must go elsewhere to find his gift."
He knelt down beside me and turned me so that I could see his own eyes, lit with an inner fire that made them glow. "Now, my boy," he said in a firm voice that carried through the expectant crowd, "I have been given the gift to stare upon fire and sun without blinking. By the power given to Oura on the day she became a wizard, I command you to answer me truly: Do you also have this gift?"
Barely able to breathe, I nodded mutely.
"Why, then," said the tamer slowly, "you too must be a fire-tamer."
He barely allowed my heart to pound its loud thump once more before he was on his feet and telling the crowd, "I am joking, of course." He acknowledged the people's laughter with a smile, then said, "You who come here today, villagers who perhaps have never before ventured beyond your village forests: It may be that this boy and I are the first golden-eyed Sons of Oura whom you have ever met. But I have had the privilege for many years of travelling with Lord Rault on his journeys throughout the Land of the Sun. During that time I have met many golden-eyed men, all of whom share with me Oura's ability to stare at the sun and fire. Out of all these Sons of Oura, only four men in our time have been granted Oura's power to tame fire or water – five, if I count an herb-woman in Lord Charb's domain, who is said to have the ability to cast small water spells. Nevertheless—" He raised his hand to halt the people who were beginning to turn away. "This boy may be one of the few. A further test is needed."
He looked down at me, his smile so genuine that I could almost forgive him for his trickery. Steering me gently by the shoulders, he turned me so that I faced the barrel fire. "Now, my boy, I want you to reach out your hands and command that fire to move. Do not try to touch the fire in any way – even I took many years to learn that feat." He addressed this humble aside to the crowd, then said to me in a low voice that only his assistant could hear, "Don't be worried. The fire will follow your commands if you have the gift. Speak to it, and see."
For the first time, I was not conscious of the crowd; my thoughts were on the fire before me. I could not reproduce the lengthy spell-chant the tamer had spoken, but it did not seem to me that this should be necessary. The fire had no ears; there must be another way to speak to it. But what language could I speak that it would understand? I stared deeply at the flames, wondering, with a mixture of frustration and desperation, how to talk with the fire.
As I stared, it seemed to me that I could see beyond the flames into a flame hidden inside. The flame flickered, whispering to me elusive words I could not quite catch. At its beckoning gesture, I reached out suddenly and touched the inner fire.
It was as though everything around me had frozen: The tamer, reaching toward me. The tamer's assistant, his eyes wide as he gazed. The people, standing in watchful silence. But most of all, the gentle inner flame of the fire, caressing my fingers.
Then it was as though a curtain had come down on my vision. The inner flame disappeared. In the moment before the tamer snatched my hand away, I could feel the prickle of tiny flame-needles tormenting my trusting fingers.
The next thing I was conscious of was the crowd laughing. The tamer was stooped over me, concern on his face as he tried to convince me to show him the hand that I now clutched to myself. He barked something over his shoulder to the assistant; I caught the word "water." Then he turned back to me and tried to pull my hand toward him, but I would not let him take it. Tears were streaming down my cheeks, and I knew that they were not only from the pain. I was crying because I had been tricked into hoping, and because, amongst the jeering men and the half-sympathetic and half-scornful women, I could see no one who was my friend.
Then a hand fell heavily upon my shoulder. Even before I looked up, I knew that an ally had come to my aid.
My father did not look at me at first. He was staring at the tamer with such an expression of contempt that I thought the tamer brave not to turn and flee. The tamer stood his ground, but his loquacious tongue was silenced for once. It was as though he was accepting my father's judgment of him.
The tamer's assistant, panting, appeared next to us, holding a bowl. My father broke his gaze in order to grab the bowl, put it in my unharmed hand, and thrust my injured fingers into the bowl. The pain began to ease at once; the resourceful assistant had managed to obtain, not water, but a bit of Lord Rault's summer ice. Then my father turned, without speaking a word, and began guiding me back through the crowd.
Deprived of the fight they had hoped to see, the people started wandering away one final time as my father and I wove our way between the fair stalls. The sky had clouded over; by the time we reached the court gates, a light rain had begun to fall. Craftsmen bustled about, covering their wares with anything handy. I knew that my father must have abandoned his own stall, and I wondered whether all of his pottery would be stolen. But my father did not look back; he pushed me on until we arrived at the green of the village next to the palace. No one was there; everyone had gone to the fair.
My father stopped then and stood still, with rain turning his light hair dark and limp. I looked up at him, teardrops mixing on my face with raindrops, and waited for the beating I knew I deserved. Finally he turned to face me. Behind him I could see the great bulk of High Peak leaning over us, dark clouds hovering unmoving above its top.
My father knelt in front of me, put his hands on my shoulders, and said, "I may be as daft as your mother to speak to you as though you can understand. But if there is any chance that you have a mind to think with, I want you to know this one thing: you are my son, and I love you. I am punishing you today, not because I am angry, but because the only gift you possess is your obedience to me. There is no greater evil than for a son to go against the ways of his father, and so you have a very great gift indeed: the fact that you have always followed my orders. Oura knows that you will have difficulties enough in life without becoming disobedient as well. If you love me and trust me, I promise that I will find a way to care for you. But I cannot help you unless you are willing to obey me."
He continued to kneel in the mud. It seemed to me that I ought at least to nod, to show him that I understood. But in fact my mind was hardly on his words. I was still thinking of the small, hidden flame that had spoken to me from the fire.
Finally he stood and gave me the beating he had promised me. But when he turned to take me back to the fair, his face was wet. I do not think that it was entirely because of the rain.
That was the only time my father ever spoke more than a few simple words to me. Nothing changed between my father and me after that except that he allowed me greater freedom to run about the village and do as I wished. Sometimes I would go to High Peak and watch the black eagles circling above me as though I were a dead animal, but I was as lonely on the empty slope of the mountain as I was in my father's cottage.
My mother died of a fever soon after the fair. For many weeks I stayed at home, feeling that I ought to be there in case my father needed me for anything. But he never looked my way except to see that I was fed and clothed. When I finally emerged from my home the following spring, I was the same, but the village had changed.
I had reached the age when most of my companions were being trained by their fathers or mothers to become good workmen or good wives. Those boys who were not following their father's work had been bound over to neighbors to be trained in another business. It now became apparent to my old friends that I had no work in life; while they would be able to exchange stories with one another about their lives as apprentices, I would not be able to contribute to the conversation.
I must give credit to my old friends: they never teased me or ridiculed me. But I sometimes thought that this would have been easier to bear than being ignored. I once stood for an hour next to a group of boys discussing their work, hoping beyond hope that my friend Arklish would turn and speak to me. Afterwards I spent several hours staring at the neck-chain he had given me, before I carefully placed it on the village green, where another child might find it and give it to a friend.
Since I could not obtain work from any man, not even my father, I occupied my days by wandering around the village, watching others at work. Gradually, as I spent more and more time observing other people talk, gesture, smile, frown, and move, I came to learn more than any other villager about what was being said and what was being kept silent. I knew that a slight twitch of the eyebrow meant the meat-merchant was hiding something from his wife, that a hearty laugh meant the blacksmith had endured a hard day and was trying to keep his spirits up, and that a whining tone meant the wheelwright's wife was plotting something against her friends. So I managed to amuse myself over the years by watching and listening to the communications of the villagers who would not communicate with me.
Then came my fourteenth birthday.
I had hoped that my father might at last speak to me on the eve of my manhood. But he had suddenly left the village the day before my birthday, asking the herb-woman to take me into her house until his return. I had stayed with the herb-woman on occasions before this and had no liking for the sharp-voiced spinster who did not bother to say anything to me, but simply pushed me this way and that. As soon as she began snoring that night, I crept out of her house.
A rain fell as I walked slowly down the muddy road to my house. Ahead of me, the full moon was rising over High Peak. Black specks passed over the moon's face as I watched, and I wondered whether they were bats or Aush's Birds – black eagles, which on rare occasions hunted at night.
Our house was bright with moonlight when I entered, so I did not waste expense by lighting the tapers. Instead I began to rummage about the cottage, looking for something with which to amuse myself. There was little enough to find in the tiny wood-and-rush cottage where we lived. I soon began exploring the old chest for something pretty to look at. I pricked my finger on an object and carefully drew out of the chest what appeared at first to be a piece of ordinary glass, but which I finally identified as the fragment of looking glass which I had played with eight years before.
Cradling this memory in one hand, I pulled myself up the ladder to the dark loft where my father and I slept. I was still soaked through from the rain, so I began to pull out my extra tunic. Then I stopped. There, lying on the bed where my father had left it, was his extra short-robe. In a few hours I would be fourteen; it seemed unlikely that my father would think to buy me a man's robe, and I was curious to learn what such a robe felt like.
I pulled it on and found that it fit me better than I would have guessed. The pouch hanging from the belt was empty; I filled it with the looking glass. Then I lay down on my father's sleeping pallet to imagine what it was like to be a man.
I awoke to the sound of voices. My father was at the door, trying to urge another man to enter. The man declined in a silky voice, saying, "My bed is spoken for at the next village. We'll talk further tomorrow, though, and come to a final agreement on the apprentice-binding."
I held my breath. Peering carefully over the edge of the loft, I could see that the man was not from our village. I had the faintest memory of having seen him before, but I could not place the memory.
"You won't regret this," said my father. "He's a good boy, obedient to orders, and quick to understand what is expected of him. I almost forget sometimes that he's not like other boys. Nevertheless, he'll be happier working with you than he is here. There's no place for him in this village, and I am growing older and will not always be here to care for him."
The man gave a quick grin. "My boys are like family to me; they look up to me as they would to a father. Be assured that I will care for your son as though he were my own." He put his hand to his throat and fingered the chain about it. The moonlight flickered onto the stones about his neck, turning them a deep green.
The sight of the emeralds brought back my memory of the man in a rush. I barely heard my father offer to walk the man to the edge of the village. The door closed, and I was alone with thoughts of my new life.
The man was the mine-owner I had seen eight years before at Lord Rault's fair, surrounded by his slave-bound boys. Apprentice-bound they were in actual fact, but they might as well have been slaves, for they lived their whole lives underground, emerging only as corpses or in order to try, once their apprenticeship was ended, to learn a new trade. No one would ever want to teach me a trade; once I entered the mines, I would stay there till death.
I tried to tell myself that I had wanted to do work and that this was work of a sort. But I realized too late that when I had imagined myself working as a man, it had been at noble pursuits such as pottery or trading or smithing. I had not imagined myself spending my days digging at piles of dirt and rock.
I do not think that I actually stopped to make a decision. The next thing I knew, I had slipped out of the house, had sidled down the side streets of the village, and was standing in the village fields, looking up at High Peak.
I did not know what I would find there. It seemed unlikely that I would see the wizards, or if I did, that Lord Darak would remember me. Except on my visit to the fair, I had never before ventured far from the village. The surrounding forests were dangerous with hungry animals and hungrier bandits. High Peak itself was forbidden to all but the few traders whose feet had long ago carved out the High Pass in the upper slopes; this was the pathway that ran between Lord Rault's court and Lord Flatch's domain. But now, cautious in the moonlight and unsure of how to climb a mountain, I began slowly to ascend.
I paused many times during the night, unwilling to break my neck through mistaking a shadow for a foothold. The rain soon stopped, and the moon shone its light well enough that I could see the scrubby grass and the occasional rock jutting out of the earth. I thought myself fortunate that I was climbing High Peak rather than the bare-rocked Impenetrable Mountains beyond it to the east. High Peak was nearly as high as the naked mountain range and much higher than any other ground in the Land of the Sun, but unlike the Impenetrable Mountains it was full of life, so I was not as scared as I might have been.
I was not even frightened by the black eagles, circling about me as they searched for dead animals in the moonlight. They and the moon disappeared at dawn. As the sky above turned from black to blue to violet to pink, I looked down the mountainside and saw the Land of the Sun spread before me.
To my right and left I could see the crescent horns of the land curving away toward the ocean. In front of me was the ocean; behind me were the Impenetrable Mountains, following the outer curve of the crescent all the way to the beaches. And directly below, dark gold and deep green, were the fields and forests of the land, partially shrouded in a white mist.
I was already far above the High Pass. I turned again toward the high slopes and wondered what I would do next.
Above me loomed a natural wall of grey rock. Without special training I could not scramble over those jagged stones. As I bitterly reflected, I had no special training in any subject.
No doubt these rocks helped to keep overcurious villagers from invading the wizards' home. It was a clear sign that I should return to my village – but instead I continued to stand there, biting my lip.
Then a small movement caught my eye – a bird, circling about the rocks further along the slope. I could not see what the bird was, but I clambered my way sideways along the slope until I reached the site of the bird.
It was an eagle, but not one of the black eagles that had peered at me with dark eyes throughout the night. This was Oura's golden-eyed eagle, the bird whose eyes matched both the wizard's and my own. I had never before seen the bird, nor did I know anyone who had – the golden-eye was almost as much a legend as Oura herself. I watched as the eagle settled onto one of the lower rocks. Then I began to climb up to where it sat.
The passageway entrance was well hidden; it would have taken me many weeks of searching to find it. Still on my hands and knees, I made my way through the narrow passage until I reached its end. At that moment, the golden-eyed eagle, which had been circling above me while I was in the passageway, gave a great cry and disappeared from sight. I took heart from this, deciding that there would be no further barrier to my quest after this.
For a while there was not. And then, as I clambered over a rock, I caught my breath and stared.
Before me, in range after range, stood the Impenetrable Mountains, each one hiding the ground behind it, so that what lay beyond the mountains could not be seen. Now that I was at the top of High Peak, I could see clearly what I had always been told – that the mountains circled in an arc around the Land of the Sun, which lay between the mountains and the ocean. No one, I knew, had explored further in a thousand years. The mountains prevented travel to the east and north and south, and the ocean to the west was so treacherous that no one had ever ventured far enough on the waves to see where the ocean-mountains ended. I wondered whether anyone else lived beyond the mountains, curious about our land as we were about theirs.
I had walked during this time across the small summit of the mountain, following the path of a small stream while my gaze remained fixed on the rocky giants before me. Now I turned and looked back. I had reached the top of the Land of the Sun, as high as I could climb to flee my past and future, but I could not see where to go from here. The sunlight fell from high overhead, casting no shadows and hiding no object in darkness. I could see all that was on the mountaintop, and there were no wizards here.
So high was I above the land that I could hear no sounds except for the trickle of the mountain stream and the call of birds further down the mountain. Even the wind seemed to cease here; the clouds hovered overhead, as though they were barred like the villagers from entering the Impenetrable Mountains. The silence ate into me; it was like the silence I had carried all my life, separating me from others and making me a burden to those who loved me. I longed to reach out and break the quiet.
The cloud above shifted, and a shaft of sunlight pierced through to the mountaintop. Under the high midsummer sun there was no shadow, no darkness to hide what lay before me – just a white brightness broken by one tiny golden speck.
I walked forward slowly, then knelt beside the golden blaze the sun had revealed. Lying on the ground, untouched by dirt or rain, was a gold disc engraved with the picture of an eight-rayed sun.
I felt a shudder go through me then, and something inside me whispered that I should run from this place, escape from unknown danger to the familiar pains of my ordinary life. But I did not move, except to shade the disc with the palm of my hand. The disc continued to shine. It reminded me suddenly of the white-and-gold flame the fire-tamer had encouraged me to speak to. I looked at it further; my vision shifted; and there, hardly changed from when I saw it last, was the inner flame of the fire I had seen eight years before.
I watched it, unafraid, and saw without surprise that a fire had suddenly appeared to enclose the inner flame. I put my hand forward. As the inner flame whispered, I felt something within me whisper back. I touched the fire, silently ordered it to disappear, and looked up from where I knelt.
Before me stood the wizards' house; before me stood the wizards themselves.
I stood up quietly and waited. In the front, watching me with the suggestion of a smile, was Lord Darak, no older than when I had seen him last. "Welcome, Seventh Wizard," said Darak. "The Six Wizards of the Sun have been awaiting you."
I did not feel surprise even then. I thought that this must have been what it was like for my father on the first day that he touched clay and knew that he had found his work. I bowed my head, more in acknowledgment than out of respect. Then I looked up again as a second wizard with grey eyes, who had been standing close to Darak, stepped forward and said, "Welcome, Seventh Wizard Lord. Will you give to us your name?"
It occurred to me with surprise that Darak had not told the other wizards who I was. Then I realized that Darak himself was awaiting my answer. It was a question I had been asked before, by passing traders or newcomers to the village. Always before I had clenched my fists and waited in frustration for the person to understand. Now, with peace in my heart, I waited patiently as Darak's expression changed, and I knew that he had realized that I could not answer because I could not speak.
Darak took a step forward. He reached out a hand and raised my chin so that he could look into my eyes. For a moment he stared at me; then a slight smile came to his face. He dropped his hand and said, "Mute?"
I nodded. Darak's voice had been matter-of-fact, as though he were mentioning the color of my hair. I looked out of the corner of my eye at the other wizards, but none of them seemed at all disturbed by this new fact.
Darak looked down at me again. "Mute but not deaf. Do I have permission to enter your mind?"
I had not known that he would need my permission. I nodded, then caught the look in his eyes and found myself transfixed, darkness closing about me.
It was as though I were deep underground in one of the mine shafts in which my father had wanted me to end my days. Before me was a golden flame, an exact copy of the flame I had used to light the gold talisman on the mountainside. Beyond it was a tall, green flame – and I knew suddenly that this was the flame of Darak, that his flame could destroy mine, and that my flame (this knowledge surprised me the most) could destroy his.
Of course I had no intention of doing anything except to watch. The taller flame stood motionless, as though Darak were waiting to see what I would do with my newfound knowledge. Then it came forward and merged with mine.
It was as if the sun had swallowed me. All that I saw was blinding light, and all that I felt were flames around me. As my vision cleared, I saw that Darak's flame had returned to its original position. But where my flame had before been small, it was now tall and flecked with green light. My flame had merged with Darak's.
I found myself suddenly back on the mountainside. I was shaking with exhaustion. To my surprise, Darak turned aside and reach out a trembling hand to catch hold of a tree nearby. The other wizards reached toward him and me; only one wizard, in a brown robe, stood aside, his eyes on Darak. He caught me looking at him, and he frowned as though he were angry. Then the frown turned to a smile, and he helped me sit down on a rock.
Darak, who had recovered, looked down at me and said, "The flame in your mind is your power. All people have this flame, but few are able to reach into their mind to make use of it. I could not have reached it and strengthened it if you had not allowed me to do so. It is the source of your power, and the source of much else besides. You know already how to control fire and to tame light, but with the proper knowledge you may do the work of a wizard."
I looked up at him. As though I were doing nothing new, I said, "I know very little. I have been alone all my life."
"No longer," he replied. "You are the Seventh now." And I could feel his mind in mine.
The cottage had nearly burned to the ground before Neb awoke and came to stand beside me. She was silent for a minute, watching the flames lick through the granite slabs. Then she asked in a quiet voice, "What kind of fire burns stone?"
Turning my gaze back to the crumbling house, I said, "This will probably be my only revenge. I doubt that Darak will care overmuch, but I couldn't let that cottage stand any longer – not after what I found this morning."
"What did you find?" Neb asked.
I pointed wordlessly toward a rock on the edge of the mountain. After a moment's hesitation, Neb walked over to it. I let my eyes drift away from the blackened house to her thin figure, stooping to stare down at the rock. For seven days she had nursed me as I drifted in and out of consciousness, reliving the nightmares of my recent life. Only this morning had I awoken to find that my fever had broken and my strength returned. Refreshed, I had walked to the edge of the mountaintop to gaze down at the villages below – and there on the rock I had found it.
Neb returned, her face tight with puzzlement. "I couldn't quite tell . . . A bird of prey, was it? It looks as though it has been dead for several days."
"It was the golden-eyed eagle," I said wearily. "No doubt it came to the mountaintop when it sensed I was in trouble. Darak must have known that it had helped me recently. He destroyed it."
"How did it help you?"
But I had turned away from the cottage and the fallen eagle and was staring back at the mountains. They scraped the sky with the spear-points of their peaks and stood in overlapping rows like soldiers guarding a hideaway. I heard myself say, "Neb . . . do you have any money?"
Neb looked at me quizzically. I said, "I never needed coins during my time with the wizards. People always gave us everything we needed – at the time, that seemed only proper to me. But now no one is likely to give me anything."
"What is it that you need?"
Neb stared at me, then at the mountains. She stood gazing at them for a while with her arms folded tightly against her chest. Then she said, "My cousin has horses."
"He is stable-master for Lord Rault," she explained. "He told me once, years ago, that if ever I needed a horse for an urgent matter, he would be able to sneak one out to me – Lord Rault wouldn't notice. I think that he would lend me one now."
"Would your cousin be willing to loan you a horse if you couldn't guarantee its return?"
She cocked her head at me then. "Do you plan to kill the wizards?"
"I may have to kill Darak."
I hesitated, then said, "It's better that you not know; I've put you in enough danger as it is. All I can tell you is this: If I don't return within the next fortnight, I will have failed in my task. If that happens, then take your family and bring them up to the top of High Peak. You'll be safe there, no matter what happens next."
Neb stared at me. I was afraid she would ask more, but she replied simply, "I think I can obtain the horse – and supplies, for your journey. But I can't bring the horse here. Where shall I meet you?"
"Below here on the High Pass. A path diverges from it – no trader ventures onto that path, but it leads to the other side of the mountain. I'll point you to where it is."
We walked forward across the grass still damp with dew and with the cloud-mists that hovered over this mountain on most nights. As we did so, I asked, "Are you sure that your cousin will loan you a horse, even if you don't tell him why?"
"He's a kind man. It was he who—" She stopped speaking and stared hard at the grass under our feet, which was turning her sandals black with moisture. Then she continued in a low voice: "It was he who proposed that I should be fourteen years old."
"I thought that you were of sixteen years."
"I told you my true age." She still would not look up. "When we moved to our village last year, to live with my cousin's family, it was time for me to be betrothed. I couldn't bear the thought – I don't suppose you can understand, but it would have been the end of all my freedom. My cousin persuaded my parents to tell the villagers that I was fourteen so that I could have two more years to become used to the idea of marrying."
We walked along in silence for a while as I thought of the black-eyed witch-girl I had known not long before. She had been as eager for marriage as this girl was to remain unmarried. It had never occurred to me before that a girl might rebel against the fate chosen for her by her family, as I had rebelled against mine.
Neb was apparently made nervous by my silence, for she said with resignation, "I know that I am odd."
I smiled at her. "I too was considered odd as a child."
She nodded. "I know. I met someone who knew you once, who lived in your village. He said that you never spoke until you became a wizard. I always thought of wizards as timeless, but he said that he knew you as a boy."
"I'm just seventeen years now." I stopped and pointed down the ridge, dark green under the morning shadows. "Do you see there? That's the path I was speaking of."
"I'll meet you there," she said. "I'm not sure how long it will take. Is there enough food for you here, now that you've burned the cottage?"
"I'll be fine."
She tilted her head and smiled; her eyes were in shadow where she stood, but they glowed like the dawn sun. "I wonder. I've seen you bound fast and choking your sickness forth, and now you tell me that you're only a year older than I am. I'm beginning to wonder whether wizards are really any different from the rest of us."
I reached out toward the sun and drew a ray from it, spinning it out in my hands into a link of chains, finely molded. When I was through, the chains dulled into common iron, but the neck-chain was pretty. I gave it to Neb, who had been staring, open-mouthed.
"Not very different," I said, "but at least I can give you this for your troubles. Any town jeweller sells iron chains for pennies – but this chain came from the sun."
I was dreaming, and I knew that I was dreaming. It was my fourteenth birthday, and I was watching from the darkness of my mind as Darak's tall, green flame came forward toward mine. It came swiftly, like an eagle falling toward the ground.
Our powers merged. But at that moment, I felt a weakening. It was not a weakening of power. Something else was being lost – something just as important.
The darkness vanished suddenly, and I was sitting in the wizards' house, still bound and drugged, still forced by Darak's power to look into the dark eyes of the child kneeling before me. Behind the child I could see the Lord High Wizard watching me, waiting, and I knew that he had broken his spell for the moment, so that I would understand. He wanted me to know what he was going to do to me.
"No," I heard a hoarse voice say from somewhere in the distance. "You cannot."
Darak smiled then and reached forward with almost an affectionate gesture to pull back a bit of hair that had fallen in front of my eyes and threatened to break his mind-hold on me. "Oh, yes, Seventh Wizard, I most certainly can," he replied with the matter-of-fact tone of a father explaining some small fact to his son. "I cannot take from you the power to speak to fire, nor the power to open your mouth and voice your thoughts; these powers belong to you and cannot be forced from you. But I can, and I will, take from you the ability ever to use your wizardly power again."
Then he entered my mind. Somewhere in the distance I heard a voice begin to cry out.
The voice was still crying when I heard someone close to me say, "My lord! My lord!" Two hands shook me. I opened my eyes and looked into the eyes of the enchanted child.
For a moment, I thought I was still in the dream. Then I pulled into a sitting position and looked around. In the dimness of the dusk, I could see towering over me the bleak mountains slopes and feel their hot dust travelling into my mouth. The day's warmth still beat at my skin, causing as much discomfort to me as the thirst that scraped at my throat. Nearby the sound of water teased me with its trickle.
I knew then where I was: travelling in the Impenetrable Mountains, on my way to find the wizards. Pulling myself up, I reached out my mind to the night-fire I had built at sunset, and called it to my hand. The panic which had been with me until that moment calmed somewhat. I could still speak to fire – that had not been taken from me at least. I cupped the fire in my bowl-shaped palms, then raised it toward the black sky briefly, offering it as though it were a gift. When I lowered my hands again, the fire was gone.
Gradually I became aware of Neb. Something in my look when I awoke had made her pull away from me at once. She was now sitting several feet away, watching me warily, cradling her arms around her chest in a protective manner. I thought of how, on the previous afternoon, she had returned with not one but two horses, and how I had allowed her to persuade me that I needed a companion for my long journey. She had not asked where we were going, but I volunteered one enigmatic statement: "Around High Peak. Then past six barriers – though there may be five now. Over a pathway that has existed for a thousand years, through a waterfall where water ends, and into a passageway that exists only in the mind." Noticing her smile, I had added in a low voice, "Death probably awaits us, you know."
"I would sooner face death than the future that awaits me in the village," she had replied.
Her words had echoed in my head, as though I had heard them before. Now, as I faced her silence, I said, "You never ask questions."
"I didn't know I was allowed to," she replied.
I wondered then whether I ought to tell her all that had happened to me, share with her the secrets which drove me to pursue the wizards. But it seemed to me that I was not the only one who was holding secrets. She had told me who she was on the previous day – a woman of sixteen playing the part of a child of fourteen – but I suspected that there was much more to her that she had not told. And I had tired of giving away all that I knew and had, of lowering my defenses only to find that the person I spoke to had hidden some knowledge from me.
"If it's possible for me to ask questions," she said, "then there are two I would like to ask. When I saw my cousin, I thought that I'd been gone from the village for a week, but he told me that I was missing for three weeks. What I would like to know is this: What happened to me during those extra two weeks, and why were you afraid of me when I woke you just now?"
Oura's eyes for Aush's trees, as the old phrase goes: one object for another object is a fair bargain. She had told me her true age; now I said, "The Lord High Wizard held you in enchantment in order to probe my mind."
"I don't understand," she said.
I put my hand out to the fire. Its golden flames were mixed with red sparks, like the rays of a sun dying at the end of day. Memories were beginning to crowd me once more. I forced myself to speak in an even, objective tone:
"I had knowledge in my mind that Darak wished to find. I refused to tell him what I knew, and I had some ability to keep my secret hidden from him. He needed to rip my thoughts to pieces, like a dog tearing at the ground for a rat. He held my mind prisoner. As further insurance, he drugged my body and tied it to the chair, just as you found me. But there was still the chance that, while he was searching for the knowledge he wanted, I would be able to break loose his mind-hold and fight him. Because of this, he placed his holding spell in the mind of a child. While the child stared into my eyes and imprisoned my mind, Darak was free to search."
Despite my best efforts, I felt my body shudder. I looked over at Neb to see whether she had noticed. She was staring upwards, her eyes on the sun pushing its way between the peaks. She whispered, "A wizard entered my mind. . . ."
I bit my lip to keep myself from making a cutting remark. In the end, all that I said was, "It was a simple spell. Darak needed to hold your mind for a fortnight, but I doubt that he did you any harm."
Her gaze fell then to where I sat, and she stared at me. At first I could not see what she was looking at. Then I realized that, without thinking of it, I was rubbing the sores on my legs where the ropes had been.
I grew still. When she spoke, Neb made no reference to my wounds. "Was it when Darak was searching your mind that you lost your wizardly magic?"
I reached over and pulled my pack closer to me in order to take from it a tin cup, which I dipped into the mountain stream beside me. I offered the water to Neb, and she came back to sit on the bedroll where she had been sleeping before my dream woke us. As she drank, I stared at the stream, thinking of its long path through the mountains, over High Peak (this was one of Oura's spells), and through the Land of the Sun, until, having become a broad river, it reached the ocean.
Neb returned the cup to me as I said, "I'm still a wizard, and I still have my wizardly power. On the day that I first met Darak, he gave me that power. He can't destroy what he made. What he can do is what he did: he took from me the knowledge I received during my years with the wizards of how to use my power. My power is there, but I don't know how to summon it."
"But you can call forth fire and hold it in your hand."
I gave her a crooked smile. "You live near Lord Rault's court. You must have seen his fire-tamer, who commands the fire as I do."
"Is it the same power, then? I always thought that the wizards had a special power, different from ordinary men's."
"Look." I reached over and took from her neck the chain I had given her. As I held it up, I spoke to it with my mind. The links grew red-hot once more. I could feel their heat pulsing against my skin like the heartbeat of an animal that has just been born.
"A fire-tamer could do this," I said, "just as an herb-woman can cast small spells, and a beast-master can control the actions of wild creatures. I have the eyes of Oura, and so my gift is with fire and water – in this I'm no different from the fire-tamer. But the tamer commands the fire without entering into the object he commands: he speaks words to it, but he doesn't hear what the fire says to him. He's like a lord who gives commands but doesn't hear what his subjects have to say."
"And you can hear the fire." Neb had moved herself closer, so that she could stare down at the neck-chain. The features of her face were ringed by lines of concentration.
"That's my native power, just as the tamer's native gift is to command fire. I didn't discover my gift until I came of age; it often happens that way. The wizards didn't need to show me how to speak to fire; I knew before I saw them. But once I'd discovered my fire-gift, Darak was able to strengthen my power and make me a wizard. So even without my power, I can still listen to fire, though I can no longer listen to another man's mind."
I twirled the red sun-links in my hand. Bits of fire fled from them as I said, "That was how I found my voice as well. It was linked with my native power. I thought at the time that Darak had given me the power to speak, but this wasn't so: in the moment that I learned to speak to fire, I also gained the power to speak to men."
"It must be wonderful to be able to use your fire-power," said Neb, still staring at the red-hot chain.
I flicked my wrist, and the chain cooled once more. Placing it back upon Neb, I said, "Oh, every Child of the Sun has some sort of power. Some are born with a gift for pottery or leadership or healing. Some are born with enchanted gifts – fire-tamers or wizards. And some are given a small gift that brings joy to them on dark days – the power, for example, to look unblinking upon sun and fire."
Neb had been fingering the neck-chain. Now she looked at me reproachfully, as though I had ventured into a forbidden subject. But she only said, "Is that the reason I can look at the sun? I've never known why."
"You have Oura's eyes," I said.
"And is that why I could look at the fire burning on the wizards' mountain? I have never seen a blaze so large, yet it didn't hurt my eyes."
I took a sip of water from my cup. My thoughts were caught by the smooth coolness of the liquid as it trailed its way through my body. Then I asked, "Did you ever hear the tale of Oura and the tree-fire?"
Neb shook her head. I trailed my fingers across the stream and felt the water tug at me, pulling me back toward the Land of the Sun. I withdrew my hand, sucked carefully at the drops of life-giving liquid there, and said, "As I'm sure you know, Oura's brother, Aush, oversaw the plants of the Kingdom Beyond – the food grown by their subjects, and the trees and flowers and bushes that grew wild in the land. Aush had a favorite forest he used to visit in the evenings, accompanied by the eagles that followed him wherever he went.
"One day Oura and Aush quarrelled – they often quarrelled, you know – and when Aush went walking that evening, he discovered that his sister had lit a fire and burnt down Aush's favorite forest. And Aush hated his sister for what she had done."
Neb was sitting motionless now with her left thigh pressed against her body. She had placed her hands and chin on her knee. She watched me with eyes that were bright with eventide light.
"Until this time," I continued, "Oura and Aush were just ordinary mortals with no special powers. There were no wizards in those days. But there existed the earth-god who watched over living creatures, and the sky-goddess who controlled fire and water. When the earth-god heard what Oura had done, he was so angry that he took some of the fire that Oura had lit and placed it in her eyes, blinding her so that she could not see.
"Aush had also been angry with his sister, but now he pleaded with the gods to let Oura see again. The gods talked over the matter and finally decided that Oura would be allowed to have her sight back. Moreover, they gave the sister and brother special powers. The sky-goddess gave Oura power to control and care for fire and water, while the earth-god gave Aush the power to control and care for plants and animals. The gods hoped that, since each of the two rulers now had a power the other ruler needed, Oura and Aush would never quarrel again.
"Aush used his powers that same day to bring back the forest he had lost, and Oura watered the new-grown plants with the rain she now controlled. And from that day forward, Oura's eyes were always golden with fire. She could stare for however long she wished into fire and sun."
I reached for the cup again. "Those of us with Oura's eyes inherit her ability to look at fire and sun without wincing," I concluded.
Neb still had not moved in her place. "Do you think Oura and Aush really lived?" she asked.
She smiled then and reached out her hand for the water. As I handed it to her, she said, "My mother told me they didn't, and she forbade me from listening to such stories. But I think she was only afraid because I spent so much time play-acting that I lived in the time of Aush and Oura and was their servant. My mother told me I spent too much of my time thinking of celibate wizards and that I ought to be thinking about the family I would one day care for."
"Oura had a family. If she hadn't, you and I wouldn't be descended from her."
"Yes. . . ." Neb stared down into the fire. "I suppose that life was different then."
She looked so sad that I took a handful of fire and blew it upwards, so that the fire broke up and hung in the air like iridescent bubbles. Hypnotized by their beauty, Neb reached out to touch one. I quickly grabbed her wrist.
Neb grinned wryly, saying, "You act so like an ordinary Child of the Sun that I often forget that you can do things I can't. I suppose I would be no help to you if I were to burn my hand."
"My power-fire can bring pain but it can't actually burn a man," I said. "It isn't true fire."
Neb crawled on top of her bedroll and lay on her stomach, her chin resting on her hands. "It looks as though it were real fire."
"There's no wood to burn in these mountains, so I can't create a true campfire. This fire will give us heat during the night, and it can cause pain if touched, but it can't burn. If I wanted a true fire, I would have to bring it here from some other place. In the same way, Aush must have grown his sudden forest from seeds and cuttings, rather than from nothing – at least, he must have done so if the rules of power were the same in those days as they are now."
Neb continued to stare at the fire. "So your power has limits."
"If wizards were gods, I suppose we would have no limits, but as it is, we're bound by many rules. This water, for instance—" I waved my hand toward the mountain stream, bubbling over the lifeless rocks. "It's true water. If it weren't, we would die of thirst, however much of it we drank. And if it weren't here, even my wizardly power wouldn't allow me to create water. There's too little water in the air here, and the ocean clouds don't come this far. That's why there's no life in these mountains: there's no water here."
"There ought to be life next to the stream," said Neb, covering a yawn.
"It's a spell-bound stream, I believe – true water, but placed here only for the sake of travellers. At least, that's my guess. When I was learning my work as a wizard, I sometimes felt that the objects around me were filled with so many secrets that I could spend centuries listening to what they said and still not know all the answers."
"But even if you don't know all its secrets, you can still hold fire in your hand."
"Yes," I said, extinguishing the fire-bubbles with my fingers. "Though it doesn't make a good weapon – not against other wizards. It's the only power I have left, and I'm not sure how I can use it against Darak."
"Perhaps you should be using it to create rather than destroy," Neb murmured. She had lain back down and her voice was drowsy. "I like the neck-chain you made. Perhaps you should give Darak something that he doesn't have, that only you can give."
I looked down at her. "I don't think Darak would be interested in a neck-chain. Besides, he has always had everything he wanted. All except one thing, and he may have that soon as well."
But Neb had already fallen back asleep.
I awoke from sleep the next morning to find myself in the wizards' cottage.
It took me a moment to remember that it was the day after my fourteenth birthday, that I had climbed High Peak and seen the wizards, and that I was a wizard myself.
I was stretched out on a lumpy pallet in a sleeping loft above the room I had stood in yesterday when I received with bewilderment the quiet greetings of the other wizards. I had soon been captured by exhaustion, both from the climb and from the strange magic that had strengthened my flame of power. As I had begun to nod off, I heard the wizards laugh, and in the next moment a muscular wizard in a blue robe had slung me over his shoulder and was climbing with ease up the ladder to the loft. He let me down gently, as though I were a bag of easily bruised vegetables, then left me to fall into a deep sleep.
Now, as I stared unblinking into the morning light, I heard the sound of fire and the clatter of pots. I hung my head over the side of the loft to see what was happening below.
The smallest wizard, who wore a violet robe and a bright expression, stood by the cauldron at the hearth, turning to offer a spoonful of liquid to someone who was evidently standing under the loft, out of my sight. I heard a high and pleasant laugh; then a voice said, "It may be that I do not have the wisdom of your one hundred years, Lord Harkay, but I know better than to test one of your untried recipes."
I was intrigued by the sound of this voice, which was now humming amidst the clatter of pottery. I leaned further over for a closer look.
A moment later, I lay sprawled on my back on the floor below. The earthen floor was covered with rushes, so I had done myself no great injury. But I found myself staring up, as if dazed, at the creature frowning above me.
She had raven-black hair falling freely to her waist in the manner that village women wear it. Her clothing too was a woman's gown rather than a child's tunic; she was about my age. She had her hands on her hips, and her head tilted to the side as though in exasperation, but there was amusement in her eyes. Those eyes, I saw, were of the deepest green, as green as Darak's.
Harkay was at my side, laughing as he helped me up. "The first thing you need to learn, my boy," he said, "is that wizards live a long time but they are not immune to death. A few more falls like that, and you will find your life considerably shortened." Then he added, "This is Mediza, who serves us in this cottage."
I had thought she would say something after this introduction, but she simply turned on her heel without a word and was headed toward the cottage door when it opened. Darak entered.
He reached out a hand to prevent her from knocking into him, then pushed her through the door with a light and indifferent touch and turned his attention to me. Once again I sensed his mind reaching toward mine. I felt a quiver of excitement at this new-found form of communication.
Darak said, "When you have broken your fast, come outside and join the others." Then he nodded to Harkay, complimented him on his stew, and left. I stood staring at the closed door.
Laughing again, Harkay pulled me over to the trestle table nearby and placed a bowl in front of me. "Darak wastes no words," he said. "You'll become used to him in time. Eat now, before this grows cold."
I ate the stew slowly, my gaze wandering about the room restlessly. The morning light was glowing against the plastered walls, turning them a warm gold. Every object in the cottage was bright in the sun. This cottage looked no different than the one I had grown up in: I saw three-legged stools, iron-bound chests, brass pots and pot-hooks, wooden plates and spoons, and a single wall hanging, green as grass, with no decoration upon it except for a golden, eight-rayed sun. The room also contained a high-backed chair. This, I could guess, belonged to Darak.
These were not at all the luxurious surroundings I would have expected the wizards to have. I felt a sense of relief. Evidently, being a wizard would not require me to act like a lord, at least not yet.
I turned my attention to the bowl and had nearly finished its contents when the door opened again. This time it was Seith who entered – the wizard in brown who had frowned the day before. Now he smiled quietly at me as he pulled his hood back from his head.
"Do you have any ale, Harkay?" he said, reaching down to unbuckle his boots. "I have a great thirst after that climb."
Harkay handed him a full cup, then looked critically at Seith. "You'd better change your robe before Darak sees you like that."
"May the wild waters drown Darak," Seith swore mildly. His smile had turned curiously hard. "I have never learned his trick of gliding up and down the mountainside as though he were a spirit. I always end up on my hands and knees at some point."
I stared with astonishment as Seith pulled off his grass-stained robe and climbed halfway up the loft ladder to pull down a fresh robe. I had been told that, besides me, Seith was the youngest wizard. He certainly looked young, with his light brown hair and unwrinkled skin.
"Only seventy-four years old," Seith had replied the previous day when I asked him his age. "And twelve days." He gave a crooked smile.
Now, pulling the clean robe over him, he slid onto the bench beside me and said, "I've been to your village to see your father."
My stomach turned over. "You told him what happened? What did he say?"
Seith stared out of the cottage window, cupping his mug in both hands. "Oddly enough, I found it easier to convince him that you were a wizard than to convince him that you could now speak."
So strange the past day had been, I had almost forgotten that I had been given this new gift. I suppose I had spoken in my own mind for so long that it did not seem a great change to speak aloud.
I said slowly, "Perhaps he thinks that I'm odd enough to become something strange like a wizard. But gaining my tongue makes me more ordinary; he must find that hard to believe. I have always been different."
Seith smiled, still staring at the mountains. "Well I remember that feeling. To be odd, to be ridiculed – it was perhaps not as bad for me as for you, but it was like that for all of us here. We were all outcasts until we found our home here."
Seith put his ale down abruptly. "Oh, I suspect that Darak will always be somewhat apart from the Children of the Sun, even here. Are you finished? We'll go outside, then."
I felt a hand brush mine, and I looked aside to see Mediza reaching for my bowl. I had not heard her re-enter the cottage. Grasping for something to say, I blurted out, "Are you a witch? You enter the room so quietly."
She laughed. "Of course. I'll show my magic some time if you wish." Then she turned to Harkay and began to berate him for dirtying so many utensils during the making of his stew.
Seith had his eye on me as we stood. To prove that I was not thinking about the girl, I said, "Will I be able to see my father again?"
Seith frowned. "Perhaps when you're older. It's likely that Darak will keep you here in the mountains for a year or two while you're learning your power."
I nodded, relieved that I would not be forced to confront my father and the villagers until I had grown somewhat. I did not think that my new-found voice and my tricks with fire would be enough to convince my father that I was truly a wizard.
It was a warm day outside. The air was dry, and the sky was like an upturned bowl, solid blue untouched by white or grey. The scrubby grass around us stood at attention; no wind forced it to bow. The other wizards were standing or sitting by the stream that trickled across the mountaintop. They looked up as I approached, but greeted me only with nods and smiles, treating me already as one of their own.
Darak was in conversation with the lord in grey: Kel, the three-hundred-year-old wizard who was junior only to Darak. Kel showed great confidence in whatever he did, but every now and then he would turn to Darak as though seeking approval. Now the grey-robed wizard walked forward to me and said, "I will be teaching you how to use your power. This first lesson will take place before the other wizard lords so that they can learn how you use your mind. At certain times, we must all combine our powers together to accomplish great tasks. When that occurs, we must know how to work in sympathy with one another."
I nodded. Out of the corner of my eye I watched Darak, who had drawn Seith aside and was listening to him speak, apparently oblivious to me. I said, "What do you want me to do?"
Kel turned and pointed toward the Land of the Sun. "You can see the ocean clouds from here," he said. I squinted as he spoke, and could just make out a grey smudge at the horizon. Kel continued, "As you know, it has been very dry this summer. Some of the villages have suffered as a result." I nodded. "What you must do, Oura's Son, is send your power out to those clouds and pull the water back here so that it will descend upon this area."
I licked my lips, which had grown dry. "How do I do that?"
"I cannot tell you entirely," said Kel. "Only the descendants of Oura have the power to move water, and you are the first of Oura's kin to become a wizard. All that I can do is tell you how to focus your mind on the task before you."
He told me, and then, because I still did not understand, he showed me, guiding me into his mind so that I could witness for the first time how a wizard uses his flame of power to mold the elements around him, pulling water and thunder and lightning from the place where nature intended them to be.
It took me several tries to master my own power. Sweating from the effort, I cast my mind forward to the rolling specks of moistness that were adrift above the rumbling ocean. I listened to their sound: their tongues spoke of white and frothing waves, dew trembling upon buds that opened to greet the sun, silver chinks of ice, snowflakes as delicate as milkweed, and cool ponds to which the animals were drawn. I heard what the clouds said, and then I spoke in my own, silent tongue to them and called them to my side.
Throughout all this, I had been vaguely aware of the wizards quietly conversing amongst themselves; Darak remained absorbed in whatever Seith was telling him. But at the moment that I mastered the clouds and placed them into my servitude, every wizard there suddenly entered my mind and watched as I shakily controlled the water on the horizon with my mind's fire.
I did not yet recognize the power-flames of any wizard except Darak: his flame was the tallest of all, and it stood apart from the rest. My eyes turned inward toward my flame. I was blind to the scene around me, yet I could hear Kel's voice, softly telling me what to do.
A clap of thunder broke my concentration. I regained my outward sight to find that the landscape had grown dark, the sun hidden behind black clouds. A coolness had fallen upon us, and all lay in shadows. I looked up, and some part of me that I did not yet know gave me a feeling of dread. I shivered.
Darak's dry voice spoke then, in such a matter-of-fact manner that I was ashamed of myself for imagining horrors where none existed. "That was good," he said. "But you must learn to concentrate on your task until it is through. With your permission . . ."
He entered my mind and showed me how to start the rain falling. It was clear to me as he did so that he used his power with an ease and dexterity that exceeded even the talents of Kel. I wondered why the Lord High Wizard himself was not teaching me what I needed to know.
As the rain started, we all hurried back to the cottage. But when I turned at the doorway, I saw that Seith was standing in the rain, facing toward the ocean and looking down at the land below.
"With your permission," said Kel.
It was a phrase I heard a dozen times or more each day. When he gave me his lessons, Kel always spoke it in a peremptory manner, as though he would not wait for an answer. Nevertheless, he and the other wizards always made this statement before entering each other's minds. One reason for this was courtesy; it was not considered a polite deed to look upon another man's thoughts unbidden.
The other reason I discovered by accident. One day I happened upon Darak as he was casting a spell, commanding a flock of birds to go and fetch him something. I stood near him unnoticed as he raised his hand forth, and the flock swooped and rose to the slightest move of his hand. I thought of the delicacy with which he had guided my work on a few occasions; he was a master craftsman at his art. And so, when he turned his head slightly so that I could see his eyes, I did not think of what I was doing but entered his mind.
A moment later I found myself fallen to my knees, my mind aching. Darak reached out to pull me up, chuckling as he did so. "I think that you will be casting no more spells today, Son of Oura." He merrily sent me back my way.
I was too embarrassed to ask Darak what had happened, nor could I turn for help to my tutor Kel, for he always answered my questions with the heavy patience of a schoolmaster humoring a moronic pupil. Instead I waited a few days and then approached Teth, the large wizard who had carried me up to the loft on my first night.
Teth came down a ladder from the top of the wizards' house to listen to my tale. Before he had joined the wizards a century and a half before, he had been a thatcher. Now he was checking the straw of our roof to be sure that it had survived a storm I had blundered onto our mountain.
Teth waited till I was finished, then said succinctly, "It is your good fortune that he didn't kill you."
"Was Darak so very angry, then?"
Teth shook his head. He was sitting with his back against the wall of the house, a bale of straw beside him. "It was a reflex, a wizard's reflex. You didn't know about it, since your mind has never been entered without permission. It would have been different if Darak had realized that you were there; he would have had to fight deliberately to keep you from his mind. As it was, though, he lashed out without thinking the matter through. The only reason you weren't badly hurt was because Darak immediately recognized who you were, and he withdrew his power at that moment."
"Then I can't enter another wizard's mind without his consent."
"Oh, it can be done," said Teth. "If you had possessed more skill with your power, you could have slipped into Darak's mind before he had time to realize you were there. Or, if the Lord High Wizard had known you were there, he would have had to bar your entry consciously to keep you out. But in that case, his defenses would have been all the greater, since he has trained himself in such matters."
I mused on this while Teth chewed on a bit of straw. It was springtime, and the mountain flowers spread before us, blue and pink and yellow, like a tapestry that has fallen to the ground. For several weeks now, I had found it hard to keep my mind on my work. Kel had cursed me for spring-sickness, but the truth, which I dared not confess to him, was that I had grown homesick for my village. Now was the time of year when all the villagers went out to the fields to help with the spring sowing. Although I had never been allowed to do anything more than hand out the seed, I could remember my father looking over his shoulder while he was in the fields, in order to make sure that I had not wandered away and gotten into some trouble.
I wondered whether my father missed me. This wondering caused me time after time to allow my thoughts to wander away from this mountain and to the village where I had spent all my life. I was glad to spend my days now with the wizards, who treated me always with kindness, but it was hard for me to tear myself completely from the life I had once known.
I did not reveal this weakness to anyone.
I looked over at Teth and saw that the giant wizard had noticed that my thoughts had strayed. He asked no questions, though, but merely added, "I say this, not to encourage you to spring your mind upon people as a boy plays practical jokes, but because you'll soon teach yourself these tricks in any case. Once you've received a wizard's power, you learn what your own mind can do. Kel ought to have discussed these matters with you."
"I did ask Kel one time whether I could keep him out of my mind," I said. "If I were vulnerable to fire, his reply would have blistered me all over."
Teth laughed. "No, I don't imagine that the Second Wizard would take kindly to having you bar his way." Then, catching a look from me, he said, "Come, then – confess. What is it that you have done that Kel doesn't know of?"
"Well," I said with chagrin, "sometimes Kel comes searching for me for additional lessons. He tries to catch sight of me, or he sends his mind out to find where I am. He says that, unlike Darak, he can't enter my mind in that way; he must be able to see my eyes to do that. But I can always feel his mind touch mine, and I know that he wishes me to return to lessons. So sometimes, when I wish an afternoon to myself . . ."
I hesitated. Teth casually flicked his wrist. Where he had sat, there was nothing. He was back in an instant, saying, "In that manner?" I nodded. "The mind cloak is a good way in which to hide body and mind," commented Teth, "but I must admit that it never occurred to me, during my school days with Kel, to use it to escape lessons. Is that all that you have learned on your own?"
"Is there more?" I asked eagerly.
"Yes, and I think that I must teach it to you before you experiment on your own and badly hurt yourself or others. Now, then—" Teth sat forward and focussed his eyes on mine. Having been well trained, I immediately allowed the sounds around me to subside to a whisper. The purling stream, the trilling lark, the whistling wind – all of these became a background to the sound of Teth's deep voice.
He said, "I am you and you are Kel, and you have just entered my mind to see what I am up to, but I – a selfish young wizard who enjoys skipping lessons – decide that I really do not care for being disturbed. I resolve to show you my annoyance. Now enter my mind, and I will show you what you can do to those who intrude on your thoughts. But for Oura's sake, don't fight back, or we'll both end up badly bruised from this encounter."
I hesitated, said, "With your permission," and then, as Teth laughed, I entered his mind.
Except in my lessons with Kel, I had not entered the wizards' minds on many occasions. For a moment, I enjoyed the novelty of being in the darkness of another man's mind. I could sense the boundaries of Teth's thoughts curving about me like the walls of a cave, while the faint touch of his amusement stroked me like the soft brush of a breeze. Then Teth's blue flame came upon me all in a rush and joined with mine in the same manner that Darak's power had joined with mine on the first day. This time, I felt myself grow weak, as though a shallow wound had appeared in my side, a bit of flesh torn from my body. When my sight returned, I found that my body was shaking. Teth looked at me sympathetically.
"If I'd continued that long enough," he said, "your flame of power would have been extinguished, and you would have been no wizard – you wouldn't even have had your native gift. And Darak would be furious with me."
"It's nice to be cared about by somebody," I said morosely, still stung by Teth's touch.
"Oh, not so much for your sake as for his own. On the first day you came here – as on the first day any of us came here – Darak used his power to strengthen your native gift and to enable you to draw fully upon your wizardly power. He gave you part of his flame. While he can't take that part back, not even should he die, it remains his flame while he lives. If I were to extinguish your flame, I would end up extinguishing part of Darak's as well. And he wouldn't be happy at having his power diminished."
"Who gave Darak his wizardly power?" I wondered.
"Oura alone knows. Now, you as Kel could have fought back against me, or you could have entered my mind on another occasion and had your revenge. But I don't advise trying that manner of attack – it's too dangerous. There's another way of protecting yourself that would lead to nothing more harmful than death if you pursued it to its end."
"Wouldn't Darak be angry then?"
"Oh, not in the least, for upon your death, the bits of the flame that belong to Darak return to him, so that he comes to no harm. Or so Darak says; I've never tried to test the theory by killing one of my fellow wizards. But if you use this type of attack in its lesser stages, it does no permanent harm, and you don't risk accidentally diminishing another wizard's power. Let me show you. This time, when I attack, imitate what I'm doing and return the attack."
"I'm not sure that I want to attack you," I murmured.
"Don't be so confident in your skill, young wizard. I know how to keep you from hurting me. Now, with your permission—" He entered my mind. As his power touched mine, the edge of my flame began to turn black.
A moment later I was looking aghast at the large wizard, who was lying on his back in the grass, staring up at the sky. Kel's biting voice said from above us, "What do you think you are doing, Fourth Wizard?"
Teth did not answer for a moment. Then he said in a husky voice, "I'm trying to teach Tyne how to kill. I think that was a mistake." He pulled himself up from the grass, groaning as he rose.
"I am most grateful to you, fellow wizard, for trying to ease the burden of my teaching," said Kel caustically. "But I think you had better leave the lessons to me in the future."
"Gladly," said Teth and hobbled off toward the cottage.
Kel turned his exasperated gaze at me. "Well?"
Stammering, I explained what had happened. Kel answered my narrative with the imperious statement, "Most certainly you should know how to use your power properly if you are beginning to learn these things on your own. But why did you not come to me for instruction?"
I could think of no answer to this except to mumble that I did not wish to bother him with my questions.
"Did I not tell you on the first day to ask any question that came to you?" Kel asked. I shifted uneasily in my place and nodded. Kel sighed. "I suppose," he said with mock patience, "that I must ask whether there are any other questions in your thoughts that you have been hiding from me."
I swallowed and said, "Just one. For what purpose do our wizardly powers exist?"
Kel looked pleased and embarked upon his favorite speech, which he had given many times before. "We are guardians of a mighty power," he declaimed, "one which the gods gave long ago to Oura and Aush. We are not like villagers who play tricks with pebbles and twigs and smoke. Ours is a greater power, entrusted unto us in the hope that we may become master craftsmen, commanding the elements about us with verve and poise and grace. We must use our time and toil to learn how to develop excellence in all that we do. If we concentrate our minds on our tasks—"
"Yes," I said. "But what good do we do with our power?"
By now, Kel had his arms raised dramatically to the sky. He let them fall and said with annoyance, "The good is in the power itself. There is no greater good than to wield your flame with adroitness and dexterity."
I mumbled my thanks, then went in search of Teth.
I found him lying on a sleeping-pallet in the cottage, his eyes and forehead covered with a damp cloth. "Don't even come close to my mind," Teth moaned. "It aches with the very thought of your touch."
"I wanted to ask you a question," I said. "What good do you do with your power?"
"If you had asked me yesterday, I would have said that it gave me the ability to keep a fifteen-year-old wizard from hurting me. Now I am not so sure. Leave me to my suffering, for Oura's sake."
Mediza, who was coming forward with another wet cloth, shot me a warning glance, but I was already leaving in search of the Third Wizard, Larsh.
After him, I went to Harkay, and from Harkay to Darak. I found the Lord High Wizard beside the mountain stream, casting his mind forth toward the mountains.
Unlike the other wizards, he did not reply at once to my question. Nor, when he spoke, did he give me the simple answers I had heard from the others. He said, "You know how we help the villagers, casting spells to cure their animals and help their crops grow."
"Yes," I said, finally eased by talking with someone who understood. "That was what I was wondering. The old stories say that the gods gave Oura and Aush their powers so that they could care for the land. Is that what we do, then?"
Darak looked, not toward the Land of the Sun, but once more toward the mountains, bleached white like bones under the noonday sun. "Oura and Aush were indeed told to care for the land, and they swore to the gods that they would do so." Then he looked back at me and smiled. "As for our task, why not ask Seith? He is nearer to your age and could explain it to you better than I can."
So I sought out Seith. I found him further down the slope, helping a hare that had become entangled in a thorny bush. I waited as he cast his spell to put the hare to sleep, then pulled the creature out. After ascertaining that the creature had come to no harm, he placed it on the ground and broke the spell. The hare trembled but was too fearful to move, so Seith sent it on its way with a gentle touch of his boot.
Then he smiled at me. "What may I do for you, Son of Oura?"
His smile faded as I spoke. Like Darak, he did not answer at once. Then he said, "Have you asked this question to anyone else?"
"To all of the others. Darak said that you could explain."
Seith gave another of his smiles, the one that always made me feel he was privy to a joke I had not heard. He said, "I suppose Darak told you that our job is to care for the land."
"Yes, he did."
"I don't imagine that I can improve on that answer." He turned away from me and began to walk down the mountainside alone.
He stayed apart from me for a week, turning in his path to avoid coming near me. Then he asked me whether I would like to travel with him to a mountain.
We had made these sorts of journeys before. I was not yet allowed to visit the villages, nor to join the wizards on the trips they made every few months into the Impenetrable Mountains. I stayed alone in the wizards' house at those times, abandoned even by Mediza, who would go to stay with friends in the nearby villages. I could not venture into the true mountains, but Seith was allowed to take me to the hills that the Children of the Sun called mountains. There, on some part of the mountain where villagers did not go, Seith would seek out plants and animals that required help but that did not have any Child of the Sun to intervene with the wizards on their behalf.
This time Seith took me far to the south, to one of the horns of our crescent land, near the villages belonging to Lord Jarp. He told me on the way that the mountain we would stay on was visited by no villagers. Once I saw the mountain, I could well believe Seith's words. It was as though a furious storm-wind had come down and stripped the mountain bare. Even the earth, with its earthworms and roots, was nowhere to be seen. The rocks stood as naked as the Impenetrable Mountains.
When we reached the top, we came upon the remains of one lone creature: an ancient and blackened oak, its roots buried in the rock, and its dead branches still reaching to the sky like a skeleton frozen in motion. Seith had been silent throughout the day. Now he nodded at me, and we set up camp.
That night we sat looking up at the star-flames, as there was nothing to see on the mountain. I wondered why Seith, the great lover of trees, had taken me to such a lifeless place. Lonely for at least the illusion of life, I had created a campfire – not a true fire, for I did not wish to pluck wood from the tree that Seith now sat against, but one of my enchanted fires.
I looked at the other wizard and discovered that he was smiling at me with an expression less sardonic than usual.
"What are you thinking?" I asked. He did not reply at once, and I wondered whether I dare ask his permission to enter his mind. I had never done so before.
Seith leaned back against the tree trunk, carefully nudging away a moth that had somehow made its way up the dead mountain. "I was thinking that I was not much older than you when I came to live with the wizards. You remind me of myself at that time."
"In what way?"
Seith's mind brushed mine. I thought he would enter, but he swept his mind away in a search. Irritated at the mystery Seith presented, I waited until he was finished, then asked bluntly, "Who were you looking for?"
"Darak," he said. "He's in the wizards' cottage, asleep."
I considered this for a minute. "If you're afraid of Darak listening to your thoughts as you speak to me, why don't you bar him from your mind?"
Seith looked up at the night-cold stars once again. When he replied, it was in a quiet and matter-of-fact voice. "The Lord High Wizard and I have a bargain. I do not bar him from my thoughts at any time, and he in turn does not set up permanent camp in my mind."
I opened my mouth, full of questions, but Seith quickly returned to what he had said before. "You remind me of myself at your age because I wanted then to be the savior of our land, to watch over the plants and animals as Aush had done. Nobody had cared for me as a child, so I wanted to care for the creatures who had no one to guard them."
I frowned, wondering why Seith wanted to assure himself that Darak was not listening to us. I said hesitantly, "Darak wants that as well." Seith was silent. "Doesn't he?" I persisted.
Seith stared away from me toward High Peak; then his eyes snapped down at me, and I knew that he had made some sort of decision. He gave his hard, enigmatic smile. "Darak cares greatly for his land, I'm sure. Is there anyone or anything you care for, which you would be willing to make sacrifices for?"
The name of Mediza rose to my lips, but I quickly replied, "Aside from you and the other wizard lords, no. Except . . . perhaps my father. He hurt me by the things he did, but he could have cast me out of his home many years ago. Some fathers would have done so."
Seith raised his eyebrows as he said, "Take care of the special ones in your life, Son of Oura. That is what I have learned. If you try to care for the whole world, you will lose everything. Better to care for one small circle and be their savior."
I opened my mouth, but my words were cut off as the branches of the tree that Seith sat besides suddenly bowed down and formed a ball around us. The fire flickered red against the wall of the branches, and I knew that Seith had pulled a mind cloak over us. He leaned forward.
"One other piece of advice I give you, Tyne," he said. "Mark me well on this. Never let anyone know that you care for your father."
I expected him to say more, but the branches lifted, and we were silent for the rest of the night.
I thought that our conversation would stay in my thoughts forever, but I was young and still eager to test my new-found speech. One day, not many months later, I found myself confessing to Harkay why it was that I found it so hard to concentrate on my lessons. I caught Seith's eye on me and stopped my confession in mid-sentence, but I could not see why Seith was worried. Darak was many miles away, visiting Lord Rault, and I knew that it was Darak, for some curious reason, whom Seith feared.
"Catch me if you can," said Neb and ran.
I had never been skilled in the use of my legs, and my recent, restful life atop High Peak had left me even less so. It was several minutes before I was able to catch the fleet-footed girl who was darting in circles around a rock. I tapped her on the shoulder.
She stopped instantly and laughed as she watched me catch hold of the steeply inclined mountainside to keep myself from falling over. For a moment I could do nothing more than pant and endure her merry looks. Then, still holding my side with my hand, I managed to gasp out, "If your purpose in coming with me was to help heal my body, I don't believe that your medicine agrees with me."
Neb twirled around gaily, saying, "You are recovered from your illness. Except . . ." To my astonishment, she suddenly knelt before me.
"What are you doing?" I asked gruffly, staring down at her bowed head.
"Your leg is bleeding again," said Neb. "It needs a bandage." She jumped up, pulled her supply pack off her horse – which had been watching our race with uncurious eyes – and knelt at my feet again as she began rummaging through the pack. I sat hastily, then watched as she pulled out a cloth and began to tie it around the blood on my leg. The wound left by the rope had reopened.
"Where did you learn to run in that way?" I asked.
"It isn't a womanly occupation, is it?" She gave me a grin as she tied a knot in the bandage. "My cousin and I used to race each other when we were young. He was always furious when I won. He stopped running with me last year – he said I was too old for such games – and now he races the other young men who work for Lord Rault." She gave the bandage one last knot. "There! That will last you a few more races. Now to test it—" Without looking at me again, she arose and began to run down the sharply curved path we were taking.
For a moment, I simply sat there, still recovering my breath. Then my eyes took in where we were, and I leaped to my feet. "Neb!"
I could hear her faint laughter around the other side of the mountain. Cursing my lack of wizardly power – a month before, I could have cast a spell to stop her – I began to run after her, hoping that I would reach her before she stumbled blindly into the trap that had killed other villagers.
I need not have worried. When I reached the point where the passage narrowed and the two mountains rose on either side of the path like tree-tall walls, I found her standing, staring at the path.
For the next several yards, the path turned from pebbles to keen rocks, the edges jutting upwards as though the road were a carpet of knives. Some of the rocks were so thin that I could barely see them edge-on; others were thick but jagged, with barbs that could bite and hook into the skin. Neb walked slowly into the dark shadow between the two mountains and knelt before the path. Before I could stop her, she ran her finger lightly upon the edge of one of the rocks. As I came over to stand beside her, I could see her staring down at the thin trail of blood on her finger.
She stood up. "Is there any other way through the mountains?"
"None that I know of. And this is the only place where the mountain stream runs." The stream came to the edge of the path and stopped abruptly. I knew that it continued under the rocks for the next few yards.
Further behind us, the horses shifted in their place, nervous at being left alone among the barren rocks; their sound carried easily through the mute air. "The rocks are an illusion," I told Neb.
She laughed shakily, wiping the blood from her finger. "A very convincing illusion."
"Oh, yes," I said. "A wizard's mind-work can kill." I knelt down and reached forward myself, being careful to touch only the flat side of one of the rocks. The rocks were cool under the noontime sun, but they felt solid and resistant.
"Is it an illusion like your fire, then? It could hurt us but not kill us?"
"I'm not going to put that to the test. The pain would be enough to end our travels." I stood up, gazing into the dark shadows ahead. I thought I could see the slight flicker of water far beyond us where the stream re-emerged from the flesh-piercing rocks. I said, "This is the barrier built by Kel, the Second Wizard. He created it long ago when he became Darak's first apprentice."
"But Kel isn't here. I never knew that wizards could create magic that would remain like this."
"Most times they can't." I looked down at Neb, staring hard at the path. There was no need to say more; she did not have the power that she would need to know wizards' secrets. But I found myself saying, "A wizard can create a spell and then go away once the spell is over, even if the spell's effects remain – say, a healing spell or a growing spell. A wizard can also send his mind out to find an object he can't see. But if an object is to remain spell-bound, the wizard must usually be able to see the object while he binds it. For example, if I were to enter the mind of Darak and bind him with my power, I would have to be able to see his eyes before I could do so. If I could no longer see his eyes, then my spell would be broken. That is, this sort of thing would have happened in the days when I had my wizardly power."
I waited while Neb mulled this through. Finally she said, "But this is a case of objects remaining spell-bound, isn't it? So how does Kel keep his magic here while he's away?"
I pointed at the mountainside near us, watching her to discover whether she could see what I was pointing to. Neb slowly walked over to the rocky slope. Her hand reached out, and she touched the small piece of metal imbedded in the rock. It was a gold circle depicting an eight-rayed sun.
"It's a talisman," I said. "Wizards use it to set a spell in any place where they cannot always be." I came over and stood by her, touching the smooth surface with its light etching. Like the dagger-rocks, it was cool amidst the blazing stones around us. "That sun is in Kel's style. Each wizard's sun is slightly different and can't be mistaken for another."
"Why a sun?" she asked.
"The sun was the sign of Aush and Oura. That's why we are Wizards of the Sun."
The talisman jutted out of the rock slightly. Neb curled a fingernail under the gold and tried to pry the talisman out.
"It can't be moved," I said. "Not even if I had my full power. Look—" I pointed toward the ground, and a fire sprung up. Neb joined me as I sat down beside it.
"Here is my spell," I said. "It's a small one, but a talisman can be used either to keep a tiny fire burning or to hold back a storm. Now, if I had my wizardly power and wished to leave this fire here, I would place my spell-binding in some object—" I picked up a stone and placed it beside the fire. "This will do, though the wizards have always used sun pieces. I place my spell in the rock. If anyone should come along and see the talisman, the rock can't be moved and the spell can't be broken."
"Not even by another wizard?"
"Not by Darak himself, though several wizards together might be able to move a talisman. Once they have moved it—" I picked up the stone and held it in my palm. "The spell is not yet broken. One of the wizards who has moved the talisman holds the spell in his mind, and the spell remains safe, whether he lives or dies. The difference is that, if he wishes, the wizard can now break the spell."
Neb sighed heavily. "So many rules. I thought I was imprisoned with many rules in my life, but it sounds far harder to be a wizard."
I smiled down at the fire, hearing it whisper its thoughts to me. "It's like learning to speak. To speak, there must be words, and to order the words we must have rules. The more beauty there is in the way we speak, the more rules we must learn. I spent hours – many hours – learning the rules of wizardry, but though I often tired of the lessons, I never tired of the rules. It was the only way in which I could learn to speak to fire and water and all of the other objects in the world."
I looked up. Neb bit her lip as she stared at the rock. I shook my head, still smiling. "Never mind. Perhaps you'll understand this image better. Sometimes we played games with the rules – contests, like your races with your cousin."
"What sort of games?"
"To explain that, I must explain another rule." I laughed at Neb's expression. "Listen well to this, for it gave me an ache in the head when I first learned it. Suppose my desire was not to break all of the spell but to break part of it. Suppose that I wanted the fire to remain here, but I wished it to be smaller. I couldn't simply break the spell, for in the instant I did so, the fire would cease to exist – I would have no time to change the fire. Nor could I keep the spell but make the fire smaller through that spell. I would have to cast some spell of my own that broke a rule of the spell's casting. If I had hated rules, I never would have learned to spell-cast," I said to Neb, who was still listening, her brow furrowed. "When I cast this spell, I gave to the fire a dozen rules: I told the fire to light itself here, in the Impenetrable Mountains, on this ground, where the light falls just so, and the shadow at this particular moment is that many inches away— Don't laugh!" For Neb had fallen onto the ground, chortling. "This is an easy spell, one I can do without thinking. A large spell can have hundreds of rules, and each one must be a rule I'm sure will never change, not for centuries."
"And if the rules do change?" asked Neb, pulling herself back up.
"That's how you break a spell in part. The game is to find which rule can be changed with your magic. That can be a hard task. I can't change where the sun sends its light and shadows, nor can I move a mountain – I doubt that even Darak can move a mountain. But I'll lose the challenge unless I find a way to make the fire smaller."
"How do you make the fire smaller?"
"Give me a day to think, and I might ferret out the answer." I tossed the stone into the fire, then waved my hand, and the flames were gone. Standing up again, I looked back at the dark knife-path ahead. I felt my stomach begin to truss itself into knots, and my noontime meal lay heavy inside me. I said, "That was the sort of challenge Darak gave me when he first brought me here, not long ago. Each of the six barriers is built by one of the wizards, and each is no barrier to the wizard who built it. My barrier, for example, is a wall of fire so bright that it blinds a man even when his eyes are closed. We will have no problems there. But here—"
With my gaze fixed on the rocks, I forced myself to continue. "This is Kel's barrier, and his native gift is with rocks – he feels no pain when he walks over sharp stones. The challenge Darak gave me was to find a way through the barrier, using my own power."
"Did you do so?" asked Neb, still sitting back where the fire had been.
I looked down at the ground, my eyes searching, then reached down to where I had left it, half hidden under a rock. I came over and knelt next to Neb. She looked at me serenely; she was not even sweating under the stove-bright sun pounding its rays upon us.
"Finding the conditions of the spell is always the hard part," I said. "In this case, one of the conditions of Kel's spell was that the rocks remain in exactly the same shape that they were when he created them. Since the rocks are an illusion, no wind can dull them. Only another spell can change how they look. So this is what I used." I opened my hand and showed her the fragment of looking glass lying there. "It's a real mirror," I said. "I used my power to place it where the sun would shine upon it and bring a ray of light down onto the dark path; then I melted one of the rocks. Once the rock was melted, I could alter the spell in any way I wished."
"Where did you place the mirror?"
I looked up. The mountainsides here were so steep, and the passage between them so narrow, that it was many yards before the shadows parted to allow a few glimmers of sunlight into the air above us.
"Oh," said Neb in a small voice.
I left her sitting on the ground and walked back over to the knife-path. I could not lift the mirror into the air with my power – or rather, I could not remember how to do so. But what I had managed to do with my wizardly power, I might still be able to do with the power of a mere Child of the Sun. I weighed the mirror in my hand, then threw it upwards.
My aim was true: for one brief moment the mirror soared into the path of sunlight and shone like a daughter of the sun. It called to me silently, as though it were the eye of Oura looking upon me. Hastily, I threw my mind upwards, willing the light to shine down upon a knife-rock and turn it to liquid.
But there was not enough time. The mirror paused briefly on the apex of its journey, then fell back into the darkness, crashing on the rocks below.
I was still staring at its pieces when I felt Neb standing next to me. She said in a quiet voice, "What about the fire that burns stone?"
It was as though I had spent the past few minutes walking barefooted on the knife-path, only to look back and see the ground smooth behind me. I reached my hand out. I no longer knew how to create great fires, but a small fire would be enough. The fire crackled around one of the knives, wearing away its edges. As we watched the rock crumble to pieces, the path was smooth once more.
We camped that night not far from Larsh's barrier. We pulled food out of our supply packs, drew water, and washed our faces and arms, which were white with rock-dust. Refreshed and triumphant after our first victory, we lay back on our bedrolls and stared up at the life-bare mountains.
Finally Neb said, "The gods gave Oura the ability to mold sunlight – that's why you could make that neck-chain for me, because you inherit Oura's gift. And when Oura settled our land, she called it the Land of the Sun, and we are Children of the Sun. So why did Aush take the eight-rayed sun as his sign as well?"
I stared up at the stars, tracing the clusters and remembering the old stories went with them: the sun-ray, the mountain, the eagle. . . . I said, "There are many tales about the first wizards. But the story of the eight-rayed sun is one of the most important tales, because it tells how Oura came to hate Aush."
A light flickered in the sky: it was a shooting star. My father had often said that such a star was a sign of good luck, but my mother, remembering some equally ancient tradition, had said that it was a sign of death. I turned away from the stars to look past the firelight at Neb.
She had her hair cut child-fashion to the shoulders and tied back with a piece of ribbon. Looking at her now, I realized that only my own blindness had persuaded me that she was still a child. There was no doubt that she was an adult and that her parents would not wait much longer before giving her over in marriage. But such matters seemed remote in these mountains where death spread its trail across the sky.
I said, "The gods had hoped that the two wizards would live in peace together, as each had a gift the other needed. But there are many stories of how Oura and Aush fought each other. On the occasion of which I speak, the sister and brother were unable to decide what sign they wanted to take as the symbol of their royal house. Aush wished to use the sign of the eagle, for the eagle, he said, was the king of the animals. It was said that the eagle had stolen its power from the sun and that the creature ruled over the waters above and below.
"But Oura replied angrily that the eagle was no fit sign for their family. She said that their sign should be the eight-rayed sun, to signify that the sun ruled over the eight corners of the land and over all life that dwelled in the land – including the eagle. They finally agreed that they would allow the decision to be made by Kern, their younger brother, who had small powers given to him by the gods, but who was not a great wizard like Oura and Aush."
Neb said, "I've often wondered about Kern – why he left the Kingdom Beyond when Oura quarrelled with Aush. It must have been hard for him to choose between his brother and sister."
"Not so hard as that," I said, "for Kern was easily led. Oura was determined that Kern should take her side on this matter, so rather than leave him to think about the question alone, as Aush did, she used her power to make him presents out of light: swords and armor and arrowheads, all made of the finest sun-gold. And she created one final gift that she knew would anger Aush the most: she took one of Aush's eagles and gave it golden eyes, so that it could stare at the sun without blinking, just as Oura did.
"When she was through, Kern was so dazzled by the splendor of the gifts he had received from the sun that he declared that the eight-rayed sun would henceforth be the symbol of their household."
"Did Aush accept this decision?" asked Neb.
"In the end, Aush managed to persuade himself that the sun was no more than a symbol for the courage of the eagles he loved so much. So he accepted the sign, but he remained angry at Oura for the way in which she had tricked him."
I looked over at Neb. She was lying on her side, watching me, and fingering her neck-chain as she listened. The firelight flickered lightly across her cheek, and her eyes gleamed more brightly than usual.
Watching her listen, I said, "Not long after that, Oura fell in love with one of her subjects, a man named Mert. Aush tried to persuade her that, as a wizard, she must be above such ordinary customs as marrying and having children. But she wouldn't listen. So Aush decided to have his revenge for what Oura had done to him earlier. He spoke to Mert in private and told him that, if he wished to prove his courage to Oura, the best thing to do would be to spend the night alone in one of his forests. Aush said this because he knew that Mert, while affectionate and kind, was not very brave.
"Mert consented, however, to spend the night on the mountain so that he could go to Oura later and give her this proof of his love. So he entered the forest that evening. But Aush in the meantime had ordered the eagles of the land to frighten Mert. As Mert sat in the forest he looked up and saw, falling towards him, hundreds of eagles with their talons outstretched and pointed toward Mert's eyes.
"None of the animals actually harmed Mert, but Mert tried to flee the forest to safety. It was then that he discovered that Aush had placed an invisible barrier around the edge of the forest, so that Mert could not escape.
"So it happened that when Oura entered the forest the next morning to check the morning dew, she found the body of her suitor lying there. He had died of fear."
It had been blazing hot during the day, but now a chill wind swooped down upon us. Neb pulled the woolen cloth of the bedroll closer to her and said, "Aush loved animals and plants so much. I would have thought he'd have loved people as well. Killing a man doesn't seem like him."
The edge of her blanket had become caught against a stone, so I reached out and helped her pull the blanket up. She flinched away at my touch. Ignoring her movement, I said, "The stories tell that both Aush and Oura ruled their people well. I suppose that, by this time, Aush had become so angry at Oura that he was willing to have his revenge in any way he could. His pride had become more important than his people."
"Did Oura ever find out how Mert had died?"
"That is another story."
I had meant my reply to be a simple statement, but when I looked at Neb again, I saw that she had edged back from me somewhat.
Quickly I said, "I'd have thought you would already have known the tales of Oura and Aush."
"I know very little about the wizard rulers," she replied. "All I know is that Oura and Aush quarrelled, and Oura left the Kingdom Beyond and came to the Land of the Sun with her brother Kern and some of their followers. My mother has always tried to keep me from wasting my time listening to foolish stories."
"How does she wish for you to spend your time?" I asked.
Neb did not reply, but rose suddenly and walked over to stare at the mountains ahead of us. The moon this night had turned an eerie red, and the rocks around us were blood-colored.
I came to stand beside Neb. She had her arms wrapped around herself. "You're shivering," I said. "The night coldness will give you a fever if you don't take care." When she did not move, I tentatively put my arm around her. Instead of flinching as she had before, I felt her relax her body against mine. We stood together, looking up at the enormous objects around us.
Neb said, "We're in great danger, aren't we?"
"I've said so before. You ought not to have come with me."
Neb bowed her head and turned toward me. I allowed my arm to fall from her. She said, "I know that I try to give the appearance of being fearless before all danger. But you are a great wizard, and I am only a young girl. You will have guessed by now that I am more frightened than I have shown."
"Then why come?" I asked, shifting uneasily in my place.
She was a long time responding. Then she said, "I saw you watching me tonight, as you told your tale. I'm not sure . . . I think that no one has ever looked at me in that way before. And . . . I had thought that you might."
My mouth was suddenly dry. I stared down at her, unable to think of what word to speak to break the spell I had unwittingly cast. I did not move, yet somehow she managed it so that I was holding her in my arms. Then, no longer able to avoid it, she looked into my eyes.
Her look was one of admiration and longing. Still I remained unmoving, searching her eyes, searching for the one condition in her heart that could be changed, the one rule that would allow me to break the spell. I found it in the very slightest look: one of questioning. And I realized that I was not the only one using my power this night.
"Oura's eyes," I said slowly. "I almost believed you."
She skipped back from me, laughing. "I performed that well, didn't I?"
"You were very convincing. Where did you learn that?"
"From my mother. That's how she wishes me to spend my time: learning to find what a man wants me to be, and then hiding my true self from him. Each of the girls in my village has learned their own way of doing it, but mine, I think, is the best. What a girl must do is to take some statement which is, in words alone, entirely true, then say it in some manner that turns it into a falsehood. In that way, your admirer can see that you are telling the truth, but he doesn't realize that you are pretending to be something you aren't. How did you know I was lying?"
"I've seen your technique practiced before."
Neb walked back to her bedroll and flung herself onto it, saying cheerfully, "I ought to have known better than to try my skills upon a celibate wizard. I might as well have tried to romance a mountain. Where did you witness my technique before? Did you spy upon the wizard's servant-girl when she was seducing a village boy?"
I came back to my bedroll and sat on it, hugging my knees close to my body. My chest was turning icy where the sweat had trickled down. "Women aren't the only creatures who have learned to seduce with half-truths," I said.
Neb reached out toward the flames, then quickly drew her hand back from the heat. She said, "Tell me about this girl. Does she have magical powers?"
"Mediza?" I shook my head. "Not like a wizard's. I called her a witch-girl when I first met her, and indeed she can spin a few spells – healing enchantments and such."
"Like some of the herb-women do?"
"A bit more than that. She has power, but it has never been strengthened. I don't think she wants to strengthen it, since it doesn't serve the goals she has in mind."
"I can't imagine having powers and choosing not to use them."
"It can happen." But I was not eager to speak of Mediza. I said, "She looks a bit like Lord Flatch – I suppose you have heard of Lord Flatch?"
"I met him once when I was young." She laughed at my puzzlement. Having won against me in her contest, she was at ease now, tossing twigs idly into the fire from where she lay. "I told you that our family moved to our village only last year. Before that, we lived in Lord Flatch's lands, between the farmlands and the forest. He came to our village when I was eight; he was there with the Lord High Wizard when he visited the village to inspect the young boys."
"Did you see the inspection?" I asked.
"Of course not," she replied with a frown. "I was inside the house with my mother, like all of the other girls and women. But as he and Lord Darak were leaving their village, they passed our house, and I leaned out of the window to get a good look at them . . . and tumbled out onto the street just as they passed."
I smiled at her rueful expression. "Were they angry?"
"Lord Darak barely glanced my way; he just continued walking. But Lord Flatch laughed and helped me to my feet. I wasn't upset at him for laughing at me, because I was sure that he meant to be kind, but somehow I felt that he helped me only in order to show the villagers how generous he was."
"Ah." The night had grown chillier. I reached for the fire, strengthening it with my mind. "You saw more about Flatch than I did. He does indeed wish to care for his people, but his pride sometimes gets in the way."
"Like Aush," Neb murmured, her eyelids drooping.
"Like Aush," I agreed, and then sat there in silence, watching her fall asleep.
"What matters," said Lord Flatch, "is the people."
We were sitting in the lord's hall, high on the slope of a seaside mountain. Through the high, narrow windows I could catch glimpses of the foaming waters below, which crashed ceaselessly against the harbor walls, as though trying to force their way onto the land.
The men who surrounded us in the hall – officials of Flatch's lord-domain, and servants carrying cups of wine – had a mixed look to them. Flatch's subjects included the woodcutters and boar-hunters of the forest, the fishermen and tradesmen of the harbor villages, and the farmers who tended the peaceful fields in the northern part of the Land of the Sun. All of them looked on with respect now as Lord Flatch argued on their behalf.
"I have no doubt that my august lordships are ancient and wise—" His eyes swept across me and Seith and Kel and rested finally upon Darak. "But wisdom is not always enough!" Flatch raised his hand high in the air as he walked with purpose across the room. He finally allowed the hand to fall and rest on the head of a small boy who had crept into the corner of the room in order to watch the proceedings. As the boy squirmed with embarrassment, Flatch lowered his voice and said quietly and passionately, "This boy and children like them are our future. We are but the guardians for their future. It rests on our shoulders to care for them as well as we can. To do so we must be allowed to do what we believe right, even if we make mistakes."
He turned back toward Darak and the rest of us, enthroned in chairs upon the high platform. With a smile, he said, "My lords, you know that I have a daughter and two unweaned sons. What am I to tell them when they are grown? That I could not do what I thought right because your lordships told me not to? My lords, if I tell them such a tale, they will be sure that you have stripped me of my manhood. And they will be right."
He paused. Although I was trying to look as indifferent to his words as the other wizards did, I leaned forward. I had long since forgotten the subject of our discussion – I believe that it was a question of some bruised apples being served to farm-pigs. I was instead following with delight the words of our host. Lord Flatch was a very different man from Rault, the lord of my youth. Here was a man who cared fervently for his people, wishing to serve them through his own precepts, however young he might be in comparison to his Wizard Lords. I wondered how Darak would be able to counter so convincing an argument.
Darak replied dryly, "There is much in what you say, my lord. But I too have my mind on the future, and it is a future that encompasses more than the immediate needs of your daughter and sons and subjects. We wizards must care over much land, and occasionally to benefit one people, we must sacrifice the needs of another people. It is sad that this must be so, but we cannot let our concerns in small matters blind us to the larger picture.
"Nonetheless," he added, rising and gathering his robe around him, "your complaint about the bruised apples does strike our minds as just. We give you leave to demand reparation from Lord Rault for their sale."
Lord Flatch bowed deeply, then gave us over to the care of his servants as he turned to receive the thanks of his people. With slow dignity – which I had practiced painstakingly for weeks – I followed the other wizards from the hall to the entrance passage of Flatch's home. Here Darak paused from whispering to Seith in order to greet one of the women peering at us around the corner. "Lady Tilga," he said in a carefully correct tone, "how delightful it is to see you again." He bowed over the hand of Flatch's wife.
Seith appeared at my side. As those around us listened to Darak's flattery, Seith murmured to me, "Darak wants you to find some excuse to go back into the hall. He says that Flatch's thoughts were upon you throughout the speech, and he suspects that the lord wishes to speak to you privately."
Looking back towards the hall, I saw that, while still busy receiving the congratulations of his subjects, Flatch was actually watching me. I had started toward the hall when a young courtier, Ichol, appeared at my elbow. Would I follow him? he asked.
I did, and found that Flatch had managed to slip away into a small side room containing nothing more than a chair and a window-seat. Through the window I could hear the shuddering sigh of the sea; through the closed door I could hear the chatter of Flatch's subjects as they discussed his battle on their behalf. Flatch ushered me into the chair, then took the window-seat. His gaze never left my face. The evening light turned his face rosy as he said to me, "It is an honor to live in a time when the Seventh and Last Wizard is found."
I nodded my head briefly, not knowing what to say. Only a month had passed since Darak had brought me down for the first time from the mountains and had taken me with him as he travelled the land, curing sick animals, destroying dangerous plants, settling trivial disputes between lords. I had grown silent during that time, afraid to say anything that would reveal to the Children of the Sun how inexperienced and nervous I was.
Flatch smiled, as though he could read my thoughts. "I was but twelve when my father died, and I became lord of this land. It was a heavy task for a boy who had not even taken on his manhood. But the job makes the man, and today I am somewhat confident – somewhat confident," he emphasized with a laugh, "that I know what I am doing and am treating my subjects well."
In the hall his voice had been loud and his manner dramatic. Now, lulled by his relaxed manner, I said, "Then, my lord, I am sure that you have sympathy for what I have been undergoing on this trip. It seems as though it was just yesterday that I was a mute village boy, seeking the approval of my father."
"Have you been to your village yet?" Flatch asked.
"Not yet. We have saved that visit for last. I can only hope that I will do credit to this gold robe of mine."
Flatch laughed. Rising from his seat, he let his hand fall lightly upon my shoulder. "Have no fear. I often question my Lord High Wizard's judgment, but not in this case. It is clear to all that see you that you have power and the beginnings of wisdom. The question—" I detected a small change in his voice. "The question is how you will use that power and wisdom."
With no thought beforehand, I entered into his mind, the first time I had gone unbidden and undetected into anyone's mind. As I had been warned by the other wizards, it was difficult to listen to the untrained mind of a Child of the Sun, but I could detect Flatch's feelings of goodwill toward me. Returning my sight to the small room, I said, "Your concern for the land reminds me of words my Lord Darak has spoken to me on many occasions."
For a moment I wondered whether I was being too subtle. Then Flatch's hand dropped from my shoulder, and he returned to the window-seat, where he sat gazing at me. "What has he said of me?" Flatch finally asked in a flat voice.
"Very little," I said truthfully. "He wished me to meet the lords and reach my own conclusions about their character."
Flatch remained staring at me for a time, finally saying, in the same flat voice, "Then you have more wisdom already than I had guessed. Very well. The trouble is this: Darak and I have fought each other for many years – fought each other with civility and respect – because we cannot agree on what function the lesser lords should have. Is it merely to follow the orders of the Wizard Lords without question? Because if that is so, I see no need for me to have any higher role than that of village elder."
I said slowly, "I may be wrong in this, but I had thought that the wizards left the Children of the Sun to live their own lives and only offered forth their power and judgment when asked to intervene."
"That is what Darak would have us believe," Flatch said bitterly. "Yet he will give no answer to a few small but perhaps important questions. Why are the Children of the Sun forbidden from venturing into the mountains? Why must Darak inspect each generation of boys and snatch away any child who has mind-power before that child has a chance to develop thoughts of his own? And why do the wizards have power? I refuse to believe that it is so that they can lay spells on sick chickens."
The room was growing dark as the sun sunk below the sea. Flatch had addressed his words to the sea itself, speaking with a low but ardent voice. I shifted in my chair uneasily and said, "My lord, I hope that you did not ask me here in the belief that I would give you the answers to those questions."
Flatch looked back at me. Although he did not smile, his voice was calm again. "No. Darak will not have confided in you yet. That is why I wished to speak to you now. I want you to know this: that if ever there comes a time when, like me, you wish to break from Darak and go your own way, you are welcome in my home."
"You should not have said this to me," I said soberly.
"Oh, I know that Darak will learn of my words to you. You may tell him yourself, if you wish. He knows of my opposition to him; for whatever reason, he has not tried to remove me from my place. If he did" – he raised his chin – "my people would not let him. They love me and would take my part in any battle."
I had my doubts, but I did not need to reply, for this had apparently started Flatch on a new train of thought. He said, "What our land needs is a high lord among the lesser lords. Someone to deal with the day-to-day disputes that the wizards must interfere in now. My grandfather, as you know, was such a high lord before Darak abolished the title. Not that I would consider a young lord such as myself suitable for the task." He brushed his hair back in what seemed to me to be a mannered gesture. "But the people need someone to turn to who is not off on a mountaintop but amongst them, someone they can love and respect and be aided by in times of danger. If Darak were to create a high lord, I might almost forgive the wizards for their reticence in other matters."
I made some suitable reply, but my mind was elsewhere during the rest of our conversation. What Flatch had said here to me privately reminded me of how he had spoken in the hall, lavishing equal passion upon the subjects of lesser lords' rights and bruised apples. Having lived a village life not long before, I was inclined to agree with Flatch that bruised apples and lesser high lords were matters of great importance. But these matters seemed unconnected to me with the other questions Flatch had spoken of.
I returned from my thoughts as a servant ushered me to the room I was to share that night with Darak. Hidden under my robe was the neck-chain Flatch had given to me – "A child's gift only, since I am so much less than yourself," he had said lightly. "But it may help you to remember our friendship." His eyes were anything but light as he watched me go.
Darak was sitting at a table against the wall, finishing leftovers from our midday meal and looking out the window at the night sky rising over the Impenetrable Mountains. He asked no question as I entered, but as Flatch had given me permission to do so in any case, I thought it safest to tell Darak what the young lord had said.
When I finished, Darak said, "I had no foreknowledge of what he would say to you, but his words are no surprise to me. He has asked me those questions many times and has become angry when I wouldn't answer him."
"Can you blame him?" I ventured to say.
Darak stood and stared out the window as Flatch had done before. His face was shadowed by the night. In a gentler voice than I had ever heard him use, he said, "Oura's Son, if I were to give his lordship the answers he desires, he would not know what to do with the knowledge. If you wish, you can give him the answers yourself and see whether it makes any difference in his life. But it will be some time before I can give you the answers in such a way that you can understand."
He turned his head then, and I caught a glimpse of his pine-green eyes as he raised them toward the blue-black sky. Then he turned his back to me again and said, "But I will give you a partial answer to Flatch's second question. When a man is without heir, he goes to the village elder and asks to take custody of an orphaned boy. He does not ask to be given a man, for a man has no need of his care, and a man is too old to learn the ways of his father and carry on his traditions. He raises a boy, and thus lovingly molds the child into his own image."
He stopped then, reached down toward the table beside him, and picked up a scrap of meat as he held his other arm out of the window.
A rush of wings filled the window before a dark shape settled on the High Lord Wizard's arm. The eagle's claws bit through Darak's robe as the wizard fed him the meat, but Darak made no move to hurry the great bird in its meal. When it finished, the black eagle stared up at Darak's face as though reading some message there. Then, with a sudden flutter of wings, it was gone.
I asked, as Darak watched it fly away, "Were you born with your native gift, as I was with my fire-power, or were you allowed to choose it for yourself?"
Darak turned from the window, a smile on his face. "I chose it. You know that Aush had a special love for the eagles. I felt that there ought to be someone here in the Land of the Sun who cared for them as well."
"The eagles at High Peak used to circle over me when I visited there as a child."
"I know." Darak settled himself upon the window-seat as I stared up at him from the floor-pallet on which I had seated myself. "The eagles were there at my command, to watch over you."
"Even the golden-eyed eagle?"
There was a pause of less than a heart-beat, which might have been missed by anyone who had not spent as much time as I had with Darak. "Was the golden-eye there?" he said with seeming indifference. "It has been many years since that bird was seen."
"I saw it only once," I said, willing myself to speak with the same indifference. "What were you telling me about the man and his heir?"
"His heir . . ." murmured Darak. Then he put aside whatever thought he had in mind and looked directly at me again. "I have no heir, Tyne. Like all of the Seven Lord Wizards, I have never married; we wizards have too many duties to allow ourselves the luxury of family life. For many centuries, I used to wait for the other wizards to seek my knowledge and find me on their own. Most of them were aged men by the time this happened. But I have grown old, and some years back I began to wish that I might have a son of my own, with whom I could share my hopes and ways. So I began to look for such a boy amongst the village children. And thus I found Seith."
A night breeze shook its way through the window, causing the candlelight to flicker and toss shadows to and fro over Darak. In a lower and more somber voice, Darak said, "I raised him as my own, hoping that he would some day be able to look at the world through my eyes and help me to carry out my dreams. But you have seen enough, I think, to know that my hopes were crushed. Seith fears me and hates me, and though he submits to my orders, he will never be the son I wished him to be."
In the same gentle voice he had used when speaking of the eagles, Darak said, "And so I waited again, and you were the next boy to come. You will be the last one as well, for in time it will be necessary for Oura's Child to help in the task I have worked for during all these centuries.
"That time is not yet ripe. For there comes a day when a son rises to an age at which he must decide whether to continue following his father's ways or to disown them. It will not be many years before you are at such an age, and when you, like Seith, will have to decide whether your dreams match mine. But before that time comes, I want you to know that as I sat in Flatch's tiny hall today, giving judgment from the throne of the Lord High Wizard, I envied him, because he has sons, and I have none."
My mouth was parted. I felt a desperate need to say something which would comfort him. I thought of the golden-eyed eagle, and how Darak would be pleased to learn that an eagle had led me to him the year before. But instead of speaking, I arose and came to stand beside him at the window.
A light streaked across the sky. "A shooting star," I said. "My father says that such a star brings good fortune."
Darak looked over at me; he was smiling again. "We will make a hard ride tomorrow and reach your village before nightfall," he said. "Then you will be able to see your father again."
"I don't know whether such a thing exists as an evil tree," said Seith, "but I've met many trees whose language I found hard to comprehend."
Darak had kept his promise; we had ridden quickly all this past day. Now, with the sun nearing the peaks of the Impenetrable Mountains, and with my village only a few minutes' ride away, we had slowed to a trot. Kel and Darak were riding further ahead, discussing their next trip into the Impenetrable Mountains, while Seith and I drank in sight of the dark and moist greenery about us. We had been travelling through some of the most beautiful forests in the Land of the Sun. Seith was quietly cheerful.
"Kel has taught me to stretch out my mind and command the object before me," I replied to Seith. "I've often felt, though, that it was as you say. Not that I was speaking to the fire or water, and it was listening. Rather, that the two of us were speaking with each other." I grew shamefaced and confessed, "I have even acquired the habit of saying to the object, 'With your permission,' as though the object were another wizard."
Seith nodded as he gently pushed aside a leaf-heavy branch that barred our path. "Kel has never cared what the object he commands has to say. I believe that his power is often weak as a result. You may be sure that Darak takes the trouble to listen to the objects under his dominion – though what use he makes of what he hears is another question. As for myself, I have found over the years that it is not possible for me simply to decide for myself how to use a tree and then to demand its obedience. It is true that, as a wizard, I often know what is best for the tree when the tree itself does not. But I sometimes discover that the tree has as much to teach me as I do to teach it. My power – and my wisdom to use that power – increases if I take the trouble to listen before I command."
My thoughts all day had been upon my father, who had never believed that I had anything to say and who had not tried to listen. I wondered what it would be like in a short while when we would finally be able to converse with each other. I said, "I've often felt that my first true speech came, not in the moment at which my tongue was released, but in the moment at which I first stretched out my mind and spoke with fire. I almost feel that it would have been easier to bear a life of muteness than to have had my tongue free but have been unable to talk with the fire."
As my thoughts were on my father, it seemed that Seith's thoughts were on Darak. His gaze was upon the two wizards ahead; Kel was leaning sideways in his saddle to better hear the Lord High Wizard, while Darak was pointing eastward toward the horizon. Seith said in a low voice, "The Lord High Wizard has a mighty power. He can speak with tree and eagle and – since you have joined us and taught us the way – even somewhat with fire and water. But I often wonder whether, in a few years' time, you may not surpass our lord in power. You have the eyes of Oura, and you tame with ease the fire and water – the two objects that are the most free, and therefore the hardest to command. It will all depend, I think, on whether you gain the wisdom to command the objects with true love."
I would have replied then, but Seith, his attention still on the figures ahead, came to a halt suddenly. We had reached the edge of the village nearest mine; Darak and Kel had stopped to listen to a village elder. Near the age-bowed cottages stood Mediza, who had not accompanied us on our journey. At a guess, she had been delayed here by the villagers in the hope that she might intervene with the Lord Wizards on their behalf.
I could not hear what the elder was saying, but Seith suddenly spurred his horse forward. I followed.
The elder had already walked forward with Kel by the time we arrived. Darak was awaiting us. "It's a problem for you, Seith," he said. "Not a yard full of sick chickens, as in our visit last year, but something more serious this time: a disease that has attacked nearby trees and is spreading rapidly. The villagers are finding firewood plentiful these days, but they lack tree-nuts and tree-berries. I saw this problem arising several months ago and tried to persuade the villagers to move to a better location, but they were stubbornly determined to remain here. So we must do our best to tackle this dilemma. Will you come see the trees?"
Making no reply, Seith hurried after Kel and the village elder. I would have followed, but Darak seemed in no hurry. Remembering his words the previous night, I fell in beside him as he slowly walked around the edge of the village. A cluster of dirt-smeared children crowded near us, staring with awe at the great wizards. Darak smiled at a small boy, then impatiently pushed a girl out of his path.
"There is some truth to what Seith thinks," he said. "I have noticed that, if you have one strength I do not, it is your ability to listen as you command, and to listen well. But this strength can also be a weakness, you know. Sometimes you must command an object in a way that is not pleasant to it."
I looked at Darak with surprise. "I would have thought you'd have been angered by Seith's thoughts."
"No," said Darak with a smile I now recognized as sad. "The Sixth Wizard is exceedingly careful never to think anything that might anger me. He knows I am not blind to your strengths. But it may be that his own experiences have not taught him the difficulties of being lord over objects and men. It is not enough to listen; one must also make one's commands with courage and decisiveness. And this, I will be the first to admit, is no easy task."
Darak's smile was more tranquil now. He laid his hand briefly on my shoulder as we reached the forest grove where the others were standing. In this area overlooking the village fields, the trees had turned black, and the green leaves had fallen in great heaps onto the forest floor.
Seith took no notice of our coming. His hand was pressed against the trunk of one of those trees, and his eyes were black as he reached inward. Kel was standing nearby; Mediza and the village elder had gone back to join a group of villagers who were watching silently from just out of earshot.
Seith withdrew his hand and shook his head as he turned to face Darak. "I cannot save these trees," he said, "but I may be able to save the surrounding trees and thus cause the disease to die. It is a hard spell, though; it will take more than one wizard to cast it."
I had heard of, but never before witnessed, the joining of two wizards' flames of power in a task that would be too difficult for a single wizard. Kel had told me this was a dangerous act; under certain circumstances, such spell-casting could actually drain a wizard of his power or even kill him. Nor were the wizards the only ones endangered. If the spell-casters did not work in perfect harmony, the spell could go awry and harm any living creatures nearby.
Darak eyed the trees, and I knew that he was considering whether a few trees were worth the risk. If Darak did allow Seith to cast the spell, I wondered who the second spell-caster would be. I thought it likely that it would be Kel: I had never entered Seith's mind nor he spent much time in mine, and not since our first meeting had I known Darak to join his flame with another's, or even to allow his mind to be entered.
Darak caught sight of me watching him and smiled. "Well, Tyne," he said lightly, "I suppose that the death of you or me matters little if we can save these trees. I would hate to go to my bed tonight knowing that a tree under our care would die because we had not taken the trouble to help it."
I expected Seith to be pleased by these words, but to my astonishment he turned abruptly away and walked over to one of the trees that was still living. Darak watched without comment as Seith turned his back on the Lord High Wizard; Darak's smile was sad once more.
After a moment, we joined Seith, who was standing looking up toward the thick foliage above. Darak said, "Whose help would you like with this spell, Sixth Wizard?"
Seith looked back at us. His face was expressionless and his voice even as he said, "With your permission, my lord, I think that it should be Tyne. No water or fire is involved in this spell, but I don't understand entirely what is attacking these trees. It may be that Tyne will be able to perceive the trouble where I cannot." Before Darak could reply, Seith added, "Of course, it may be, my lord, that you do not trust my judgment on the matter and would prefer to choose my partner yourself."
His tone was caustic. I could not see what Darak had said or done to make Seith so bitter. The Lord High Wizard replied quietly, "No, your knowledge of trees is better than mine. If you believe that Tyne can help, then the two of you have my permission to work together in this matter."
I stepped forward, my heart pounding. My face must have reflected my doubts, for when Seith spoke again, his voice was gentle. "Don't worry," he told me. "I know that we haven't worked together before, but I've watched Kel give you your lessons, and I know in what manner you spell-cast. Don't try to match your movements to mine. I'll follow you and take my cue from what you do."
He related to me in a few words – for words were never enough to explain such matters – where the disease lay and what we needed to do. He then waited for Darak to give his nod of consent. This done, Seith said to me, "You have my permission to enter my mind. Let us begin."
By now I was used to entering the mind of Kel and, to some extent, the minds of Harkay and Teth and Larsh. Though on most occasions I had been in these minds only in order to witness the casting of spells, it was impossible at such times not to see what they were thinking. It was not the case, as I had thought as a boy, that wizards could actually hear every thought in a man's mind – at best, I might glimpse a feeling or perhaps some small image. Darak had once remarked to me that it was a poor wizard indeed who depended on mind-listening to discover what a man was thinking: much more could be learned from the man's expression or gestures. Indeed, fire and water spoke to me in clearer speech than any man's mind-thoughts.
None of this knowledge, however, prepared me for what I found when I entered Seith's mind: an anger so immense, so comprehensive, that I knew I was seeing no transitory feeling but a permanent passion in Seith's mind. The frown I had caught a glimpse of on our first meeting was but the chip of a giant rock of resentment which had gathered underground and which was held in permanent reserve toward Darak. All that held the anger in check was an equally strong binding of fear.
My gold flame flickered under the impact of such fury, then immediately steadied; I was beginning to learn how to control my power with ease. Seith's brown flame was awaiting me patiently, so I joined my power with his.
It is impossible to tell in words how we worked together to save the trees. I learned much that day from Seith about how to listen to objects carefully and to change my spell accordingly. But I am sure that the enchantment would have gone awry if Seith had not had the experience to follow my spell-movements carefully and to halt my errors at once. It was an exhausting experience. I could not help but feel some temptation afterwards when the grateful villagers offered to let us dine and rest in their dwellings before continuing on our journey. Kel was already accepting the invitation for us, but my eye was on the red sun, now slipping behind High Peak.
Darak took me aside and said, "That was fine spell-casting. Not one of the other wizards could control objects so well after so few lessons."
I smiled back at him, pleased at this rare praise. A short distance away, Seith had collapsed onto a bench and wearily buried his face in his hands; he had done far more work than I.
Darak told me, "Ride on without us. You will make a better entrance into the village on your own. We will join you as soon as Kel has had his fill of wine."
I laughed as I pulled myself onto my horse and eagerly wheeled it back onto the forest path. Under my urging, my horse hastened into a canter, but I had not gone far before I heard the thud of hooves behind me. I looked back over my shoulder. Then I quickly reined in my mount. Mediza soon caught up with me, riding the pony she sometimes used to fetch supplies from the nearby villages.
"Lord Darak said I ought to come with you," she said. "He believes that a Lord Wizard should be accompanied on his entrance into a town."
I nodded in reply but could think of nothing more to say. When Seith and I had finished our spell-casting, I had found Mediza standing beside me, her eyes watching me carefully. I had been surprised; despite my efforts, Mediza had always remained formal and quiet around me. I had long since given up hope of getting to know her.
We proceeded in silence through the forest, which had grown dim with twilight. Every now and then I would steal a glance at the black-haired woman beside me. Once she looked back, smiling at me. This shook me so much that I concentrated my thoughts thereafter on the dusty path and the sun-flecked leaves and my father awaiting me.
We had reached the edge of the village when I heard a boy cry, "He's here!" A moment later we were surrounded by villagers calling out my name and asking me to touch their hands or their heads. They led my horse into the village until we reached the green. They cheered as I smiled down at them, as silent as I had been as a boy. Never in my many dreams over the years had I imagined a homecoming such as this.
Mediza had already dismounted and was standing on the edge of the green, her face as joyful as though the greetings had been for her. She turned to speak to a market woman who had not been so overcome by emotion as to leave her food-stand to the mercies of small boys. I could tell from Mediza's animated gestures that she was negotiating a dinner for me.
Then the market woman said something, and Mediza's arms fell to her sides. With a jerk, she turned to look at me. As I saw her face, a chill went through me.
I looked down at the crowd, which was still shouting and laughing. My eyes scanned the people, then looked a second time, and then I turned my attention to the village elder beside my horse. "Where is my father?"
I had spoken in a low voice, but the villagers were instantly still, so that I could hear the birds of prey crying out in the distance, still searching for food in the last hour of sunlight. The village elder said, "My lord . . ." and then closed his mouth.
I slid off the horse. As the people parted to create a space for me, a man pushed through the crowd. He doffed his hat at me, and I recognized him as the elder's son.
"My lord, we had hoped that your power had already let you know." He addressing his words to me without wavering in his look. "Your father was found dead this morning on High Peak."
I stood motionless and mute, less through any act of the will than because the chill in my body had frozen me in place. Without needing to settle the matter through words, the village people had started to disperse, leaving me alone with the village elder and his son. The son said, "We heard that the Lord Wizards might be entering the village yesterday evening by way of High Peak. Your father told friends that he would await you there. He said that he wanted to be the first to welcome you home."
My mouth had grown dry. I tried to remember that I was a Lord Wizard and could not be found showing weak emotions. I asked, "How did he die?"
The elder's son hesitated, then said, "I will fetch the trader who found him. He is still in the village."
"If you would care to wait in our humble home, my lord . . ." the elder murmured.
I allowed him to guide me into the dark cottage nearby. It looked very much like the cottage I had been raised in – far too much like it. I was glad when the elder left me alone to my thoughts.
I was sitting at the table with my forehead cradled in my hands when I heard a step beside me. I looked up to see Mediza standing next to me with a mug of hot ale in her hand. Without a word, she handed it to me.
I put it to my lips, but at the first taste I looked up. "What spell did you use on this?"
"Only one that will help soothe you," she said, seating herself next to me. She added quietly, "I just wish I could do more."
I drained the liquid. Then, without looking up, I reached out to her. For a while, she held my hand as I stared down at the table. Finally she asked, "Do you wish me to fetch one of the Lord Wizards?"
I looked up, trying to take in what she had said, then replied huskily, "I would like to see Seith."
She shook her head. "I heard Lord Seith ask the Lord High Wizard whether he might continue on to High Peak alone, as he wished to retire for the night. He wasn't behind us on the road, so he must have taken another route."
Another moment passed before I said, "Darak. Ask Darak whether he will come to me."
She squeezed my hand and left me staring at a knothole turning red under the setting sun.
It was many minutes more before the elder's son finally returned with the trader. He was a stocky man with an eye that raked me thoroughly, obviously storing up useful information about me. Traders, who travel widely, are generally not very deferential toward lords and wizards, but this one showed a proper respect for my grief.
"I found him near the High Pass, my lord," he said, picking at the hat he held in his hands. "I saw some birds circling about and decided to see what was up. They hadn't started pecking at your father yet," he added hastily. "I left the young lad who travels with me to stay with the body and shoo away the eagles, and then I went and sought help. Your lordship's father was lying on a ledge, but I don't think he had slipped or anything like that. I don't know what was the matter with him."
"Our healer believes that it was his heart," said the elder's son. "Your lordship's father should not have attempted such a lengthy and difficult climb at his age."
I nodded but made no reply; my body still felt as cold as though I had spent the night on the mountain. The trader exchanged glances with the tactful son of the elder. The two of them stepped out of the cottage without a word, leaving me once more to myself. I turned and blindly stepped over to the window, pulling the shutters open.
From here I could see over the green where I had stood with my father so long ago, enduring Darak's inspection and my father's head-blows. Beyond the green were more houses, and then High Peak, looming before the mountains, all grassy-emerald except for the grey rocks and the blue streams and the black outlines of the eagles finally heading for home as the stars came out.
Eagles. Eagles circling my father.
Behind me, I heard a footstep. Darak said in a gentle voice, "I'm sorry, Tyne. Mediza has told me of your loss."
I turned. Before I had time to think of what I was doing, I flung my mind into his.
Darak had never before allowed me to visit his mind, and he did not allow me now. The blast of light from his flame came at once. For a moment, I could comprehend nothing except that my mind was racked with pain from his blow. But as my senses slowly returned, I knew that Darak had not been quick enough. In one split second, I had caught the image in his mind: that of a man cowering on the ground and crying as eagles tormented him to death.
I stared at Darak, shaking with pain and fear, wondering what terrible punishment he would give me because I had uncovered his secret. He looked back at me for a long moment. Then he said, in the same gentle voice, "I will leave you with your village friends so that you may bury your father. You may return to High Peak later."
And from that day on, he continued to treat me as his son.
Three days and six barriers later, we reached the waterfall.
Neb and I camped that night within sound of the hissing water that rushed down the mountain which stood in our path. I was awake much of the night, not only from anticipation, but because we had steered our horses around a corner that afternoon and found ourselves facing an eagle that peered at us from a rock.
My horse, which had encountered no living creature since we entered the mountain, reared up and slashed its hooves against the bird. The eagle flew off as I fell from the horse. I managed to keep myself from any serious harm, but one knee smashed against a rock and immediately puffed up with blood beneath the skin.
Despite Neb's concern, I had insisted that we continue on our journey. Now, as the throbbing of my leg pounded through me in the early dawn, I turned on my side and discovered that Neb was also awake.
She reached into the pack beside her, drew out a cracker from our dwindling supply of food, and handed it to me. "I was thinking about this path," she said. "It's so desolate, with no life anywhere. I was wondering what the first travellers thought – whether they believed they would die before they ever saw living creatures again."
I scooped up a handful of stream water to wash down the cracker. "I suppose it may have looked different a thousand years ago when it was first created."
"Were there any barriers then?" Neb asked. When I made no reply, she added, "And why six barriers? There are seven wizards. Why didn't Darak make a barrier?"
I sat up, biting my tongue as my knee flamed in greater torment, and reached out to the stream again to wash my face. As we had passed through each of the barriers, Neb had grown more silent and more withdrawn. Now I said without looking at her, "What is it about the barriers that makes you unhappy?"
Neb gave a brief puff of a sigh. "My own impotency, I suppose. I came with you in order to help you, but all I can do is stand by while you struggle against the wizards' magic."
"We couldn't have passed through the barriers, had you not been here to show me new ways to use my power."
"Yes," she said, her eyes on the campfire that was warming us against the chill of the night. "But when we reach the wizards, of what use will I be to you then? I can't cast spells, and you'll be too busy fighting Lord Darak to turn to me for advice."
I looked from her to the fire and then back at her again. Finally, I sighed and said, "Very well."
Her eyes snapped up to look at me. Her hands clenched as she waited.
I dragged myself over to where she sat, wincing as I went, then took her hands and turned the palms upward so that they formed a cup. "Look at the fire," I told her.
Her eyes narrowed, she did so.
"Look into the flames," I said. "Look into them, beyond the red and gold fire you see. Find the flame within the flames."
She gazed, and gazed further, and after a while her eyes began to turn black with enchantment. Slowly, striving not to break her concentration, I reached forward and scooped up a handful of fire. I placed it in her palms.
I had expected her to flinch at the last minute, but she sat staring at the fireball, breathing quickly. When I looked at her eyes, they had turned golden again. I knew then that I did not even need to be there. She could have tamed the fire without me.
"What do I do with it?" she whispered.
"Ask the flames," I suggested, and drew my knee up into a less painful position.
She stared at the fire for a bit. Then, moving very slowly as though she were holding a bird that might fly away at any moment, she reached out with the fire in one hand and placed it on my knee.
When she removed her hand, the fire was gone, and so was the swelling in my knee.
She stared for a split second before she hooted and flung herself into my arms. I disentangled myself hastily, then watched as she jumped up and twirled herself about.
When she sat down again, she was still grinning broadly. "Is that the sort of spell Mediza casts?" she asked.
I shook my head. "Mediza's gift lies with herbs; yours is with fire. That's all I know; I can't go into your mind to see what you can do with your gift. I fear that you'll have to find out on your own."
"Yes," she said, looking down at the fire. "I will find out."
She spoke with the quiet fierceness she had shown at our first meeting. I heard myself say, "You needn't marry now."
She turned her face toward me, still smiling. "I know. That's what's so glorious. I can be—" She reached out, touched a bit of the fire, and threw it upwards. "I can be what I want to be, not what my parents or husband want me to be. I alone can decide now."
My gaze travelled up to the sparks she had flung into the air; then my gaze rested on the waterfall ahead. I said, "You asked about this pathway. Would you like to hear how it was created?"
She seemed surprised at the change of subject, but she nodded. I stared down at the fire creating the ring of light that cradled us. Like all enchanted fires, it was oddly mute, with no sound of moaning logs or snapping twigs or crackling flames. Above us, the stars slid silently across the sky. Though I strained my ears, I could not hear the sound of feathered wings fluttering in the air.
I said, "After Oura discovered the body of her suitor, she took his body to a mountain that overlooked the sea and buried him there. For a week she sat by the grave, weeping. Then the eagle with the golden eyes came to her. Of all the eagles of the land, it alone had refused to attack Mert. Now it told Oura of how her elder brother had plotted Mert's death.
"Oura rose in anger. For a while she looked down from the mountain upon the green forests and golden pastures of the Kingdom Beyond. Then she went to the other side of the mountain and looked across at the sea of wild waters, dotted by islands that spread to the horizon.
"Finally, Oura stared up at the sun-goddess and asked the goddess to help her take vengeance on her brother for the death of her suitor. The fire-goddess replied to her with one sentence: 'You are free to do as you wish.'
"Oura reached out her hands to the waters of the sky and the waters of the sea, throwing them back further and further, so that what had been the sea became mountains still glistening with water. And behind her, in the Kingdom Beyond, the green and golden land grew hot and dry without the water of the sky to feed it. Soon it was dying.
"Oura went to her brother and said, 'Beyond those mountains lies a new land that I alone have created. Even as this kingdom is dry and parched, the new Land of the Sun is fertile and green. If you come with me to that land, I will give you charge over the plants and animals, and we can live in peace. But you will no longer be a ruler but will take orders from me.'
"Aush grew angry and swore that he would stay in the dying land of the Kingdom Beyond, rather than place himself in submission to his sister. He visited his people and told them that it was better that they stay and die with the old land than that they should go to the new land and be subjects of Oura.
"And so Oura and her younger brother Kern took half of the kingdom's people to the new land, where all was green and wet. But Aush and the other people stayed in the old land to die."
I raised my hand. The campfire disappeared. The sun was rising above the mountains now, bringing with it the heat of the day. I said, "That's the end of the story of Oura and Aush, except that Oura married some years later and died giving birth to her first child, a son. Kern's wife and children had refused to come with him to the Land of the Sun, but later Kern remarried. The wizards today are the Children of Kern – they are his descendants. All but the Son of Oura."
Neb was staring up at the mountains. "So this was once all under water," she said with a hushed voice.
"All but the peaks, which were islands," I said. "And the Land of the Sun was buried deep beneath the waves. This path was created by the people of the Kingdom Beyond when they came to settle their new land. Later the wizards placed seven barriers along the path."
Neb returned her gaze to me. "Seven?"
I gazed at the waterfall. It was half-hidden in the morning shadows, but I could see the water skipping and sparking. Our path led up to its edge.
I said, "The oldest barrier is the waterfall; it was made by Darak. It isn't like the other barriers. The water was here long ago, when the path was first made, but beyond it lies a passage, and that passage is the mind of Darak. When we pass through the water into the mountainside, he will be able to enter our minds and do there as he wishes."
I looked back at Neb and gave her a crooked smile. "We will meet Darak long before we ever see him. And it's unlikely that we will break past this barrier, since I no longer have my wizardly power with which to fight him. And so," I concluded, "I must ask you the question that you feared earlier I would ask you: Do you wish to return to the Land of the Sun, in order to leave me to deal with Darak however I can?"
"No," she said swiftly.
"Your fire-power may do you some good back home," I said. "Here it won't. You can't use it to attack Darak or even to defend yourself."
"If I'm there with you," she said, "perhaps my presence will distract Darak from you. Let me go into the waterfall first. Then, when he is surprised by knowledge of me, perhaps you can go through the barrier without his noticing."
I stood up and stared at the waters ahead. The spray was golden in the dawn light, and I could almost feel the force of it upon my body already. I was thinking that Darak would not be surprised at Neb's presence; his eagle, which had seen us yesterday, would by now have informed him of my girl companion. But I said, "We'll try that. Darak doesn't fear you in any way; I doubt that he'll do you any harm. But know this—" I turned and put my hand on her shoulder. "Like Mediza, you have a flame of power, small though it is. When you enter, Darak will be expecting me, and he will join his flame of power with yours. It's possible that he will realize from this that you have a gift with magic. He may destroy you. It would be better if you stayed behind. But if you choose to enter the mind-passage, do not struggle when Darak's flame touches yours. You cannot stop him, and resisting him could mean your death."
She stared up at me with golden eyes set large in her delicate face. I felt a sudden desire to send her back to High Peak, where she would be safe. But it was not my decision to make; she must be free to choose.
She made no spoken reply but began to place her bedroll and pack onto her horse. I did the same, and after a few minutes' ride we had reached the waterfall. I touched the fringe of the water lightly. The swift, cool drops bit at my hand.
Beside me, Neb gathered her horse's rein tightly in her hand. Without looking my way, she walked into the water. I waited briefly, then did the same.
For a panicked moment, I found myself alone in the darkness of my mind. My small gold and green flame flickered as I watched. If I had possessed my old power, I could have gone looking for Darak. But all I could do was wait.
When he did come, it was with the rush and deadly clutch of an eagle grasping its prey. I felt a shock as his flame joined mine for the first time since we had met. Then I began to grow weak.
He could not kill my flame, for he had long ago joined his flame with mine, giving to me in that moment a part of his own flame. He could not take that from me, but he could make sure that I did not make use of my native power.
I watched as his flame engulfed my own. With a curiously detached interest, I noted how my golden sparks were beginning to turn black. The passage of my mind grew dark, and I knew, as I lost consciousness, that I was dying.
Like the golden fields of the Kingdom Beyond on Oura's day of vengeance, the last of my sparks turned black.
I woke to find myself on a mountainside, with shadows streaming down upon me.
One of the shadows moved. My eyes, still unfocussed, saw nothing more than a human body in front of me, blotting out the sun. Then my eyes were caught by the green gaze of Darak. He put out his hand to help me up from the ground. He was smiling.
I said hoarsely as I took his hand, "I couldn't keep you out of my mind! I tried, but I couldn't!"
"That," he said, "is the last lesson you will receive as an apprentice wizard. It is a lesson in trust."
Somewhat dizzily, I looked around. Ahead of me, just disappearing behind the curve of a mountain, I could see the other wizards, chatting with one another as they rode forward. Their bright robes were covered with rock-dust; we had been a long time journeying through the Impenetrable Mountains. And still I did not know where we were going.
We had started out a few days earlier, just after the birth day of my seventeenth year. I was now at ease in my role as sapient wizard, travelling the Land of the Sun and casting spells with proper solemnity. But I felt boylike during this, my first trip into the mountains. We had followed a path along a thin mountain stream, pausing only at certain enchanted barriers along the way. These barriers had been set by the wizards over the centuries to prevent villagers – especially villagers such as Mediza, who had some small power – from venturing into the mountains. Darak showed me how I could use my power to travel through each one. Afterwards, once we had passed through the five barriers, he left me to devise my own barrier.
And then I had followed the others in passing casually under a waterfall and had found myself in the grip of Darak's power. Although I had never been taught by the others, I had discovered how to cloak my presence so that my location was a secret and had mastered how to prevent other wizards from entering my mind. The early lessons I had learned from Kel made it possible for me to devise these tricks for myself – and indeed, every wizard knew how to do this. I had even boldly practiced preventing Darak from entering my mind at certain times. Rather than scold me, the Lord High Wizard had made no reference to my self-taught skills.
But here, it seemed, was a place where I could not prevent Darak from entering me.
Now Darak rummaged into the pack that was slung across his horse, pulled a cup and flask from it, and poured water from the flask he had filled just minutes before. Looking around, I realized that the enchanted stream ended at the waterfall through which we had walked. From this point on, the ground was bare, and there was no sign of which route to take. Only the glow of the sun, already setting behind the mountains through which we had passed, showed in which direction we were headed.
Darak handed me the cup. I wetted my dry mouth as he said, "Every wizard should possess three qualities, and the first of these is trust. You and the other wizards trusted me when you allowed me to join my power with yours on our first meeting. You demonstrate your trust once more when you pass through my barrier and lay yourself naked to my power."
I looked up from the cup, leaving the remaining water where it was. "And what if a wizard does not trust you?" I asked.
He smiled, his eyes patient, as though he had been expecting this question. "Why, then, the barrier is a demonstration of why such trust is warranted. I could do as I wish to any wizard who passed through that waterfall. I could kill you or I could enslave your mind. I didn't do so; that ought to tell you something."
He lifted his head and looked back at the mountain through which we had just passed. Its solid, bulky rocks gave no hint of any sort of tunnel. As I watched, Darak raised one arm like a painter beginning work on a mural. Only at the last moment did I follow his gaze upward. At that moment I saw a black eagle falling like a rock upon us, its knife-sharp talons extended.
I flinched back, but the eagle took no notice of me, landing instead on Darak's outstretched arm. The bird with hooded eyes stared at Darak's face; then it ducked its head, as though acknowledging its master.
Still smiling, Darak said, "The second quality a wizard must possess is the willingness to make sacrifices. All of us, in choosing to become wizards, sacrificed the comforts of marrying and raising children. Instead, we have dedicated ourselves to the harder task of wizardry. But our greatest hardship comes when our gifts demand that we sacrifice, not only ourselves, but others as well."
He turned then and pulled my free arm up so that it was in the position of a perch. Not daring to resist him, I watched breathlessly as the eagle made its short hop onto my arm. The bird's claws cut through the thick wool of my robe and into my skin; I bit my lip and stayed motionless as the eagle examined my face with its fierce gaze. It ducked its head a second time, looking at what was in my other hand.
I glanced over at Darak. He maintained his light smile as I raised the cup and offered it to the eagle. As the bird dipped its bill into the water, Darak said, "You know by now that our powers sometimes require us to make difficult decisions, since we are limited in what we can do. You were faced with such a problem last year when some villagers asked you to divert a stream so that it would run past their homes. To do so would have taken the stream away from a nearby village, so you rightly refused to use your power in this way. Yet it was a hard decision to make; without the diverted stream, this second village was doomed to die. —Come!"
This word was not spoken but thought, and it was not I who was addressed but the eagle, who had finished the water and was looking around restlessly. The bird hopped back onto Darak's arm, gazed once more into Darak's eyes, then shot into the air suddenly, as though Darak had thrown it upwards. It circled us once before curving back the way that it had come, in the direction of the Land of the Sun.
Watching it go, I said, "I created a new stream for the village."
"A wise decision. But you did so by splitting the stream, since there was enough water for both villages. Suppose that there had not been enough water. Suppose, moreover, that the second village had been visited several months before by a very wicked wizard – myself, for example." The skin around Darak's eyes creased with amusement. "Suppose that wizard had done what you refused to do – diverted the stream – and suppose that the first village was now dying as a result. Remember, now: there is only enough water for one village. What will you do?"
I pushed back the hair that was imprisoned against my forehead because of the sweat there. The evening cool was beginning to fall upon us, but the air was still far hotter in these mountains than it had ever been in the Land of the Sun. I said slowly, "It wouldn't be fair for the second village to keep the life-giving waters, since the second village had stolen them. I think . . . I think that I would try to persuade the people in the first village to move into the second village. Then they could all enjoy the stream together."
Darak looked up, as though he could still see the black speck of the bird against the dimming sky. The first stars were appearing[; they were yellow], red, and blue against the cloudless sky. He said, "Again, a wise decision. But do you think the villagers would be willing to leave their homes?"
I mused on this for a while, thinking of the villagers with the diseased trees who had refused to move away; thinking also of my father and the other people of my village, who rarely travelled, and who would be horrified by any suggestion that they should leave their homes. A few Children of the Sun, such as the traders and the wizards, enjoyed travelling, but most were wedded firmly to their birth-places.
I said, "Perhaps not. I suppose you want me to say that the second village must be sacrificed in order to save the first village, which wasn't to blame for what happened. It seems to me, though, that there must be another solution."
"If you find one, I am depending on you to tell me. I haven't found such a solution in all my years as a wizard."
Darak's voice had turned solemn and dark, like the mountains around us. The night shadows were beginning to shield the Lord High Wizard from my sight. Casting forth my hand, I lit a fire nearby and bathed us in its golden light. I said, "I'm not sure I would have the courage to make such a decision."
Darak raised his hooded eyebrows. "Like the quick pupil that you are, you have anticipated me in my lesson. The third quality a wizard must possess is courage: courage to do what must be done, whether he or anyone else suffers as a result. You have the seed to such courage in you – I have seen it in your mind. You will be able to draw upon it when the time comes."
The night was still. I could hear no insects or bats, no shudder of the wind. All that I heard, very faintly, was a cry that must have come from the black eagle, speeding its way to its destination. I made no reply, and after a moment, Darak smiled again and said, "The others are waiting for us; they can no longer see their way forward in the dark. Shall we bring them your light and find a place to camp for the night?"
I took hold of my horse's reins and began walking forward, while the fire trailed behind us in the air like a loyal puppy. "Where will we camp?" I asked.
"I'll leave it for you to decide," Darak replied. "No path exists between here and our destination. As long as we continue to walk east, it doesn't matter where we go. Perhaps—" There was a slight change in his voice. I looked quickly his way, but he was staring into the darkness ahead of us. "Perhaps," he said quietly, "you will find us a new place to camp, one that will suit us better than our previous sites."
We spent the night on the western side of a mountain. It was not my wizardly power that drove me to select the site, but simple exhaustion. Too tired even to pull out my bedroll, I curled up on the bare rock and fell asleep at once. When I awoke, the chill of dawn was beginning to disperse. The sunlight fell heavily upon me, beating me with its heat.
I sat up and inspected with interest the landscape around me. In my sleepiness, I had not noticed the night before that we had travelled through a valley marking a break in the mountains. I could see that to the south and north of us a line of mountains continued to the horizon in a sweeping curve, but those peaks were sharply separated from the mountains we had been travelling through. I stood up and removed water and dried fruit from the pack of my horse, who was still tied to the rock, along with two of the other horses. All of the wizards were out of sight, but I heard voices behind a rock a few yards away and went to investigate.
Teth was standing with Larsh, the third-eldest wizard. They were both facing away from me, staring north up the line of mountains I had noticed before. Teth pointed to one in the distance and said, "That one."
"I've done that one before," said Larsh irritably. "In fact, I've done it a hundred times before. Oura's Waters, there's nothing to be found there."
Teth shrugged. "I know, but it's Darak's orders. He says, as he has said many times, that you may have missed something."
"Through two-and-a-half centuries? I won't live to be three hundred if I must conduct this tedious search once more."
Behind me, one of the horses whinnied softly. Larsh and Teth swung round and saw me. I felt Teth enter my mind to ascertain what I was thinking. Then he smiled and came forward.
"Darak said to let you sleep," Teth told me. "He said that we could catch up with the others when you were refreshed."
"What are you doing?" I asked.
Teth opened his mouth, but Larsh interrupted him in a cross voice. "Looking at the scenery. Isn't it beautiful?" As I glanced over at the bare and desolate rocks, he added testily, "You ought to see the view to the east. It's even more beautiful."
Teth glanced sharply at Larsh, then said to me, "Bring along your horse. Our path takes us east in any case."
For a while I rode in silence between the two wizards, my gaze on the crumbling ridge that my horse was following. Then Teth said, "There," and I looked up.
The mountainside fell sharply from where we stood. Below, not quite as deep as the valley we had just crossed, was a flat and dusty plain that stretched without break to the eastern horizon. Like the mountains we had travelled through, the land below was lifeless, though I could see an occasional dot of green or blue. St the foot of the mountain, miniature in size from where we stood, was a crumbling rock building surrounded by bits of black cloth and tiny figures.
"What is it?" I asked. At that moment, I felt Darak enter my mind and wait as I heard Teth's reply:
"It is the Kingdom Beyond."
Half of an hour later, we had made our way down the mountain and were leading our horses into the tent city surrounding the ancient building. The people there were strangely garbed in long pieces of cloth that they wrapped around their bodies and faces. As we passed, the people nodded toward us in a respectful and friendly manner, but took no other notice of us.
Ahead of us I could see a small cluster of trees and a pool from which women were pulling water. One of the women tried to lay hold of a boy who had pulled a fruit from the tree, but he laughed and darted away into the crowd.
There were not many people; they would have scarcely filled three villages at home. They went about their tasks without pause except for an occasional joke of which I caught a few words. I could not imagine what they found to be cheerful about.
I raised my arm to prevent the desert dust from flying into my eyes. When I lowered my arm again, Mediza was standing in front of us.
I had been surprised when Darak brought her on the trip, for I had not realized that she ever came with the wizards on their mountain journeys. Two years had passed since she had handed me the enchanted ale to ease my grief. The witch-girl remained mysterious to me. Sometimes, when the wizards disappeared on their mountain journeys, I would find that she too had gone away – to stay with village friends, she told me when I asked, though now I wondered. She had rarely spoken to me in private, but I often saw that her eyes were on me when I performed a spell.
Now she laughed as I stared at her. Like the people here, she was wearing long cloths draped around her body that could be pulled up over the face. She said, "There are clothes like this awaiting you in the palace. You'll find them much more comfortable to wear here than your robe. Lord Darak said to take you there first."
She turned to Teth and Larsh. "My Lord Darak asks that you join him on the palace steps, for the ceremony is about to begin."
As the two wizards departed, she took my horse's reins from me. We wove our way around the tents. Nearby, a group of men were pulling a bucket out of a hole in the ground. One of them glanced into the bucket, shrugged, and gave a wry smile as he poured the mud inside into a nearby trough. A group of waiting children immediately began dipping their hands into the trough and smearing the damp dirt over their sun-baked bodies as the men watched carefully over the well-mud.
We reached the palace and gave the horse to a servant at the west entrance. No doors closed out the wind and sand. The stones along the wall were flaking into dust. Inside, the main hall was empty of furniture and ornament. I said, "It looks as though no one lives here."
"No one does, for most of the year," Mediza replied. "None of the water-pools are large enough to live on all year, so the people go from pool to pool, seeking water and water-plants to live off of. Only at this time of year do they return to the palace to pray to the gods to send water."
As we began climbing winding stone steps, I glanced out of a window in the stairwell. Below me, women garbed in green were moving purposefully toward the east side of the palace.
"Vestals," said Mediza, poking her head through the window alongside mine. "Each of them serves one of the priests, helping him as he prays to the gods, buries the dead, and brings comfort to the sick. They never marry—" Mediza screwed up her face in distaste. "But they do good work, I suppose."
"You know much about this land," I said.
She laughed, skipping up the stairs ahead of me. At the top of the stairs was a landing, and beyond that a door which Mediza held open for me.
"This is your room," she said. "When you've clothed yourself, come down to the hall, and I'll take you to the king."
"The king?" I said, but the door had already closed behind me.
I glanced around. The small room was bare but for a pallet and a fading mural painted along one of the walls. I guessed that an enchantment had been used to keep the mural from disappearing, for it depicted a land that was green and fertile and had been dead for a thousand years. Small ground animals burrowed through the grass, lizards climbed the trees, and insects hovered over the flowers. Soaring above them all was a black eagle.
Through my window drifted the faint sound of trumpets. I looked out. From here I could see the peaks of the Impenetrable Mountains reaching back toward the horizon. It was a mirror image of the view that I had seen many times from the cottage on High Peak. I thought of how the scene had looked in Oura's day: a glittering sea dotted with islands. Then I turned and reached for the clothes awaiting me on the pallet.
I climbed down the stairs a while later, having spent several minutes feeling foolish as I figured out how to attire myself. Mediza was waiting for me in the hall; she handed to me a clay cup.
I was about to toss the water into my mouth when I noticed Mediza watching me carefully. I looked at the water again. "Water is valuable here, I suppose."
"It is like liquid gold."
Silently, I handed her the cup and gestured for her to drink. She did so with a smile, then said, "Come this way. The ceremony has already started." I followed her, licking my dry lips with my dry tongue.
She paused at the east entrance, put her finger to her lips, and gestured for me to peer around the doorway.
In this place, I would not have been surprised to look out and see Oura and Aush leading the ceremony. But atop the earthen palace steps stood a crowned man of middle years. It occurred to me that I had not noticed any old people since I arrived. I rapidly scanned the crowd at the foot of the steps watching the ceremony. Few of the men or women there appeared to be over age forty. Then I caught sight of the deadly landscape beyond, and I understood.
Standing next to the king was a man I guessed to be a priest; he was raising a large bowl toward the sky. He was assisted by a vestal, as were the seven priests on the steps below who copied the chief priest's moves exactly. To the right of me stood the other wizards, all but Teth and Larsh wearing the native clothes. I felt Mediza touch me on my back, and I slid quietly over to where they stood.
The ceremony interested me, for I had heard of such things in the old tales, but it had been many centuries since any Child of the Sun had prayed to the sun-goddess or the earth-god. Now the chief priest solemnly invoked both gods – and any other god, he added, who might be listening – and requested their blessing on the water he held. The other priests copied his motions, though I could see from where I stood that the other bowls were empty.
A pause came in the ceremony, and the chief priest look back at the wizards expectantly. At that moment, Darak walked forward, took the bowl from the priest's hand, and held it briefly before handing it to the king. The king and the wizard exchanged bows. Then Darak stepped back, and the king spoke loudly over the hushed crowd:
"Sun-goddess most high, who gives light to the land and courage to the eagles; earth-god most low, who watches over the snake and mouse and fish with most marvellous love. Accept, we beseech you, this gift of life from your humble children. If it be your will, return to us the waters which you once gave to our great king, Aush. I give this gift, mighty gods, in the name of the people."
"In the name of the people," murmured the crowd. They watched as the king poured the large bowl of water onto the earth.
This seemed to mark the end of the ceremony, for the crowd began to murmur and disperse, though some gave lingering looks to the pool of water slowly seeping into the earth. The king beckoned toward some young men standing to the side. Darak walked over to me.
"The Kingdom Beyond never died," I said.
"Not yet," said Darak. "In every generation, there are fewer water-holes and fewer people. Once this was an enormous city; you see what remains." He laid his arm across my shoulders. "Come meet King Ermich."
"Is he a descendant of Aush?" I asked as we walked forward.
Darak shook his head. "Aush never married, and he left no descendants. You remember that Kern left two sons behind in this kingdom. Ermich is descended from the elder son."
The king waved away the men as we approached. He bowed slightly to me. "Tyne, Son of Oura, Last of the Wizards, it is a pleasure to meet you after so many years of hearing about you."
I bowed back, hesitated, and said, "I am glad to meet you, sire. But I'm surprised that you would welcome here a Child of the Sun – especially a descendant of Oura."
"Ah, but you have been brought here by the Traveller from Beyond, and he has done us many favors over the years. No wizards have been born here since ancient times, and so we count on his help." He smiled at Darak.
Darak said gravely, "I do what little I can. It is hardly enough, given what you and the people suffer."
Ermich shook his head. "As long as the gods remain angry, we can do nothing but care for what is left of the land and share our suffering together. And hope," he added, "that help can be found before the end comes."
He was looking at Darak. I opened my mouth to speak. But the king turned to take a cup from one of the young men to whom he had spoken before. "A present for our new friend," he said and handed the cup to me.
I looked down at the water. It looked bright and cool, and my throat was hot and dusty. I had already given away one cup of water; I had done my share of suffering.
Carefully, I poured the cup of water onto the ground. "For the gods," I said. I looked up to see Ermich nodding approvingly. Darak's face was unreadable, but he said, "May the gods indeed grant your prayers, Ermich. We will do what we can. I see that a small black cloud hovers to the east of us."
Ermich looked over at it sorrowfully. "Yes, one of the few clouds that makes its way to our land from the east. But it's too far out of reach; the sun will dry it up soon."
Darak's eyes met mine. Then I turned toward the horizon, reached into my mind, and pulled the small cloud to where we stood.
When I could see again, I witnessed the priests and vestals doing a most undignified dance on the steps as the light rain trickled down. Below, the people were crying out with delight as they held up bowls and buckets. Smiling widely, the king ushered Darak and me into the shelter of the palace.
As we entered, Ermich said, "Ah, there you are, my dear." Mediza ran into his open arms.
He kissed her head; then, still holding her around the shoulders, he turned to Darak. "My lord, you must come to visit more often. I have missed her dearly. Here she is, a much-grown woman, and I still think of her as a child."
Mediza looked up at him, her face shining. The king said to me, "Your enchantment brought great joy to my people, Wizard. I only wish that your spell could extend out to the great clouds which, I have heard, come from the sea, and rain upon the Land of the Sun. But since Oura's magic keeps the waters back beyond the mountains, that cannot be."
I said, "Sire, if you were to bring your people to the Land of the Sun . . ."
The king's face had turned dark, all in an instant. His hands were formed into fists. I found myself taking a step backwards. Mediza looked from the king to me and then back to the king once more, her face still. Darak's face was blank of all expression.
The king said in a hard and heavy voice, "I and my people wish to live or die in this kingdom, whichever it may be."
He continued to look at me with black anger. As coolly as the rain falling outside, Darak said, "Mediza, I suggest that you take Lord Tyne back upstairs. The king and I need to speak alone."
The king gave a short laugh. With visible reluctance, he released the girl, saying, "You see, even when she is at home I no longer can decide what she does. Well, I give her over to your care, Seventh Wizard. I am sure that I can trust you with her."
I silently followed Mediza back to the room where she had taken me before. The room was darker in the storm, but outside the nearby mountains had been transformed: the water-drops turned everything on the ground golden in the midday sun.
Standing beside me at the window, Mediza said, "If we look in the right direction, I suppose we may even see a rainbow."
I said, "Am I to call you Princess now?"
Mediza sighed. "I'm sorry, my lord," she said. "I wanted many times to tell you who I was, but Darak wouldn't allow it until you had seen this land yourself. He didn't think you would understand my people until you saw how they lived."
"How long have you dwelt in the Land of the Sun?" I asked.
"I began serving the wizards only a few months before you arrived," she said. "It was strange for me at first, living in a land with forests and pastures and a great sea of water. I could tell that the people there loved their land as much as we love ours, but they didn't seem to realize how rich their life was."
I thought back to High Peak, covered with grass and berry-bushes and hares and foxes. "We're very fortunate. But if your father is so reluctant to leave this land himself, why did he allow you to go with the wizards?"
She smiled and looked down at the floor, saying, "I couldn't find the right husband."
I opened my mouth, closed it, and discovered that I was paralyzed of all movement. I waited, my heart beating. She continued, "I wanted very much to find a man I could be a good helpmate to, aiding him in the work he did. But I wanted him to be a man like my father, who has the power to direct lives and do great things. I couldn't find anyone like that. Since Lord Darak wanted to take someone back with him from our land to serve the wizards, I asked my father whether I might go, in order to have time to decide what to do."
"And did you?" I asked, staring down at her night-black hair.
In a low voice, she said, "I did think over the past few years that it might be nice to marry a wizard, but of course" – she was staring very hard at the floor now – "of course wizards do not marry."
Somehow, then, I found the strength to break past the invisible bonds that held me. I reached out and touched her cheek lightly, and then I took her in my arms. She turned her face up. In the next moment, our lips met.
A voice at the door said, "Tyne."
Mediza and I clung to each other, staring at Darak's angry face. I remembered suddenly how I had revealed to one of Darak's wizards my love for my father, and how a few months later my father lay dead on High Peak. Darak said to Mediza, "Out."
Mediza pulled herself away from me slowly and headed toward the door. As she came next to Darak, he took her by the elbow, looked her deep in the eyes, and said, "Girl, you are to go to Harkay downstairs, and he will escort you back to High Peak, where you will wait."
Mediza asked in a small voice, "May I say goodbye to my father?"
"He knows that you are leaving," Darak replied. "Now go."
He steered her out of the room. When she had left, he looked back at me and said curtly, "I don't have time to deal with you at present; the king requires my service. Stay in this room until I return."
I did so, watching a few minutes later as Harkay and Mediza rode back into the mountains.
I spent the rest of the day staring at my room's mural and casting small spells – sending my mind out, for example, to search a mountain for tiny objects, such as a discarded horse-nail. Servants came twice, leaving me food and water. I felt Darak's mind probing mine throughout the day, but the Lord High Wizard had not returned by nightfall. I spent a restless night, then rose before dawn and watched the mountains turn pink as the sun arose.
The door opened and Darak entered, offering a cup. I gratefully drank the water; the rains had long since ended, and the air was dusty again. Then I leaned against the wall and said stiffly, "I am sorry if I have broken your rules by falling in love with Mediza."
Darak shook his head, smiling faintly. "Tyne, if you wish to take a girl to your bed, neither I nor anyone else will stand in your way. But do you believe that it is right for you to squander your time in bed-games when our task remains unfinished, and you do not even know what we are to do?"
All the words I had prepared leaked from me, like water seeping into the ground. After a moment I said, "You're right. I can't marry Mediza when I don't know what my future will be. Nevertheless—"
"Yes?" prompted Darak.
"I think I can begin to make a guess as to what our task is."
Darak nodded. "Very well. Tell me."
I began to speak, stopped, then tried again. "Do you remember that first time you took me to see Lord Flatch?"
"I remember," said Darak.
"You said then that the wizards had other lands and other people to care for. Is this what you meant?"
Darak smiled, his hand lightly touching the empty cup I had laid on the windowsill. "Child of Oura, I am still waiting for the day when I can reveal something to you rather than have you guess it beforehand. That is indeed what I meant." He looked past me to the mural. "The king spoke of the gods answering our prayers. Many centuries have passed since the gods have spoken, but I have no doubt that they are watching and that they deserve our reverence. It may be, however, that the gods have not answered human prayers because it is the folly of humans that brought about this tragedy. It was a wizard's spell that caused this land to begin to die. It is a wizard who must bring it back to life again."
He waited to see whether I would speak, but I remained silent. He continued, "You have seen how the people here suffer for love of their kingdom. Only suffering and sacrifice will restore this land. Nothing matters next to this: not dreams nor love nor life. Anything which may cause us to be distracted or less dedicated to our task must be destroyed."
"Is that why you killed my father?"
My voice was hollow. Neither Darak nor I had spoken of my father for two years. Darak said in a solemn voice, "When I killed him, you thought that it was out of jealousy – that I wanted your love all for myself and could not bear to have you loving your father."
I swallowed the aching hardness in my throat and strove to keep my gaze steady. Darak said gently, "It is true that I wish to have you love me as a father. But it is not jealousy that drove me to do what I did; it was the knowledge that you were growing less dedicated to your power. The love you had for your father was drawing you away from the work I needed you to do. If I had cared most of all about your love, I would not have killed the father of a young wizard who has golden eyes that see through flames and secrets. It is not your love that matters most to me; it is this land. If I must choose between having you hate me and obey me or having you love me and disobey me, then I will have your obedience, for I need your power. But I would rather have your love as well."
I closed my eyes and stood with my head bowed, my fingers bracing my forehead. I thought of Darak smiling at the eagle before he sent it to kill my father, and I thought of his look of sadness as he spoke to me that same evening. Both looks, I was sure, were genuine. Although I could find no way to reconcile them, I could not pretend that one of them did not exist. Finally I looked up and said, "If I can give you both, I will. And I wish to help this land, if I may. What can we do to help?"
Darak looked out the window. "There is only one way in which we can help. We must find Oura's talisman and destroy it."
"But if that happens," I said slowly, "the sea will return here, and the Land of the Sun will be destroyed."
"Yes," said Darak, looking over at me. "I said that there must be a sacrifice."
I felt a stillness inside me – a calmness, as though I had known all along what he would say. It was not the stillness of resignation, but more like the stillness that comes before a great storm. Feeling deep inside my mind the coming of that great wind which would destroy all the peace I had found three years before, I reacted in the only manner I could, with wild anger.
"You speak of sacrifice, but who are you to say that the Children of the Sun must sacrifice their land and lives?" I demanded, my voice rising. "Who are you to make such a decision? Who are you to rule the lives of others? Who—?" I stopped suddenly and stared at the wizard, then whispered, "Who are you, Traveller from Beyond?"
Darak's dark green eyes remained fastened upon mine; his voice held the placidness of a man who has no need to fight for what he wants. "Darak is the name I took long ago, and that is what you will call me," he said. "But I once was known as Aush."
I was dreaming, and I knew that I was dreaming. Yet still I was puzzled. In my dream, it was my fourteenth birthday. Darak had entered my mind in order to strengthen my flame of power and give me the ability to become a wizard. There his tall flame stood in the darkness of my mind, flickering alongside mine. Yet something was different. Darak's flame ought to have been pure dark green, but instead it was a mixture of green and gold. Why was this?
The tall green and gold flame began to move forward with purpose. It reached my flame, and as our powers joined I knew suddenly all the secrets of mighty spell-casting: how to move clouds, how to enter minds, how to hide my presence from others. I was a wizard.
I opened my eyes and stared into the golden eyes of Neb.
She was leaning over me as I lay on the ground, surrounded by the Impenetrable Mountains. From the slant of the shadows, I could tell that only minutes had passed since we entered the waterfall. We were on the other side of that mountain now, free from Darak's power. Neb opened her mouth.
I did not learn what she was about to say. At that moment, I saw over her shoulder a small black shadow travelling swiftly across the side of a nearby mountain. I pulled myself up, grabbed Neb's hand, and began to flee before Darak's eagle should find us.
Neb had placed our horses under a ledge that overhung the side of one of the mountains. We dashed under the ledge as well and pressed ourselves back against the shadows that clung like cobwebs to the mountain. We stood silently, listening to the eagle give its occasional calls. The bird had dropped from the heights and was flying at the base of the mountain we stood next to; it was determined to locate Darak's enemies. When it reached the western side of the mountain, it would be able to see us.
I did not realize what I was doing. From simple habit I reached out my hand; a shower of light poured momentarily over the ledge above us. As the sparks disappeared, the eagle flew past, a few feet from where we stood. It turned its head and looked under the ledge. Finding nothing there, it rose and started back east toward its master.
Neb reached out her hand tentatively and touched the invisible barrier that had hidden us from the eagle. She whispered, "Your power . . ."
"It has returned." I touched her on the sleeve of her tunic, and she turned toward me, her eyes wide. "You know now, don't you?" I said in a low voice.
She stared at me, searching my face. Then she dropped her eyes. "Yes. I know that Darak plans to destroy the Land of the Sun."
She turned toward the horses. I stepped back to let her go by.
"It was as though I was in your mind, seeing everything through your eyes," Neb said.
We had stopped at midday to eat and to rest from the dusty heat we had been travelling through. We would reach our destination before nightfall, and I wanted to be strong in both body and mind before I confronted Darak again. Once more I had built a fire, this time with calm certainty, knowing as I did how to tame the fire in a multitude of ways. It was like meeting a lost love; the joy flowed over me like a flame. Only in the back of my thoughts remained the dark knowledge that my wizardly power had not won me my last battle against Darak. My power might not win me the next battle.
"It was when Lord Darak joined his flame with mine," Neb said. "The moment he realized who I was, he released me and went in search of you. But before he did this, I saw everything that had befallen you during your years as a wizard. It only took a second, but I lived through three years with you. That's how I found out who Lord Darak was, and what he plans to do."
"He's not like the Aush of the stories," I said. "The old tales say that Oura and Aush were selfish people, indulging their own pleasures, and desiring to be free to do whatever they wished. That's why Oura left her brother and destroyed his land: she knew that loving him required her to forgive him and to make sacrifices for his sake. If she allowed herself to love him, she could never be completely free, and so she heard the god's words the way she wished to and chose freedom and death over love and sacrifice."
Neb replied, "But it was Aush who chose death first, by killing Mert. I don't see how Oura could make a sacrifice after that. You talk about sacrifice as though it were opposed to death, but sacrifice is destruction." Neb cocked her head at me. "My parents wanted me to sacrifice who I was – to become something I wasn't. If I had done what they chose and hidden myself from my true identity – even if I had done it for love of them – it would have been wrong. I would have been destroying myself."
I nodded without looking her way. "It's difficult to know what to do when a choice must be made. Should you sacrifice your power and thereby give something another person truly needs? Or will you be destroying yourself and wasting the power the gods gave you? I think that Darak is struggling with these questions. Darak knows what Oura never did, that life can only exist in the land if he makes sacrifices. But the single sacrifice he is not prepared to make is to share the decision of how to use his power. Flatch recognized Darak's weakness many years ago: the Lord High Wizard is afraid to allow anyone else help solve his problems, lest they make a mistake and destroy his work. In that way, he is as selfish as vengeful Oura."
"Well," said Neb, "Lord Darak is right about one thing: neither dreams nor love nor life are important compared to what he is trying to do. He was wrong to kill your father, but I can understand why he thought he must. I suppose that one person's life is indeed a small matter in comparison to the fate of an entire land."
"Perhaps," I said.
My voice was soft. Neb looked over toward me. I was staring at the white-gold fire, my hand lightly touching the flames, but my mind was seeing another fire, dim and red. Neb said, "It's not just that Darak is ruthless, is it? He enjoys giving pain. He smiled the whole time that he was torturing you."
I shook my head as I molded the flame into the shape of an eight-rayed sun. "If you had asked me even a little while ago, that's what I would have said as well. But I've just remembered where I saw Darak's smile before. The people in the Kingdom Beyond kept smiling the way he did whenever they were in pain. Oh, there's still cruelty left in Darak, or he wouldn't have killed my father in the manner that he did. But I think that he was smiling as much at his own pain as at mine."
"That makes no sense."
"It makes no sense to me – but, then, I don't belong to a dying land. Perhaps dark humor is the only defense that Darak and his people have left." My thoughts touched on Seith, with his own bitter smile that he had learned from Darak. Then I thrust Seith's image away.
An eagle cried out in the distance. Neb looked up in haste. I shook my head in reassurance. "I've hidden us in a cloak that none can see through. The eagle cannot espy us, and Darak's roving mind-power cannot locate us. We're close to him now; whichever of us sees the other first will have the upper hand in this struggle."
"Yet you've been talking to me all this time. Can you really hold a spell while doing other things?"
"With difficulty," I said. "It was one of the things the wizards trained me to do: to concentrate all my power on a spell, no matter what the distractions. Darak used to test me by coming over to me while I was spell-casting, saying things to me that he knew would upset me. He said wizards are sometimes called upon to take part in great affairs, and that life or death might be decided by whether I could ignore disturbances and hold my spell."
"Life or death . . ." Neb smiled ruefully. "I'm glad, anyway, that Lord Darak gave you back your wizardly power."
"How I received my power back isn't clear, but most certainly Darak granted me my life. I don't yet know why."
Neb leaned over the fire, tracing the sun-figure with her finger, while the neck-chain I had given her swung over the flames. "Perhaps he hopes that you've found a way to save the Kingdom Beyond without destroying the Land of the Sun."
"Darak has had a thousand years to think of another solution. I'm sure that I can't find what he has missed. Oura's spell ordains that neither the sky-waters nor the sea-waters may venture past the Impenetrable Mountains. While her talisman exists, I can't pull the clouds from the sea to the Kingdom Beyond. Yet if the talisman is destroyed, the sea will return as well."
"Can't you cast your own spell?"
"Not in a way that simply reverses part of Oura's spell. You remember the first barrier we went through, the knife-path. I couldn't have countered Kel's spell simply by reversing his illusion. I had to fight it with my own power." I reached for my food-pack to tie it closed; it was time that we were on our way. "I would like to have warned the Children of the Sun and tried to convince them to leave their land. But I'm a renegade wizard, and it would have taken time to convince them of what I said. By then, Darak would have found me and silenced me."
I rose to my feet and stared down at the sun-shaped fire. "No, I can offer Darak no alternative," I said. "All that I can do is fight him, using your wits and my power."
Neb had been frowning at the ground, but now she reached forward and touched the fire again. In an instant, the flames were gone, with no sign of where they had been before. She stood up and smiled at me, asking, "Do you like having your power back?"
I said simply, "It's as though I have found myself."
Neb's face grew serious as she said softly, "It was like that for me as well, when you told me how to tame fire. Yet at the time I didn't even show you how grateful I was to you."
She was standing close to me, her head tilted up to see me; her neck-chain caught light from the noonday sun. As she looked at me, I knew she was wondering whether I was going to use my power to go into her mind. But I was not going to ask that sacrifice from her. Not that one.
I had not moved, but she stepped back suddenly and began to busy herself with the supplies. I stood still watching her. And I knew then that Darak was wrong. He had said that the death of the Land of the Sun and the life of the Kingdom Beyond were of greatest importance, and indeed they were. But just as important were the small matters he had dismissed: that a village's chickens had grown sick, that Lord Rault's people had sold Lord Flatch's people a dozen bruised apples, and that I had tried to kiss Neb and she had rejected me.
I turned away to fetch the horses. A little while later we were riding forward, on our way to determine the fate of two lands. But the only thought in my mind was the knowledge that Neb was no longer wearing my neck-chain.
"So you have found a way to have your final revenge on Oura," I told Darak.
The Lord High Wizard stood by the window overlooking the high, bare peaks, watching me with his eagle-sharp eyes. His body was taut, as though he expected sudden movement from me, but he dismissed my accusation with a casual wave of his hand.
"Our quarrel was long ago, Tyne," he said. "I admit that I was still angry nine hundred years ago, when I first came to your land as the Traveller from Beyond. But there I found that my sister was dead, my brother was dead, and no one was left for me to take vengeance upon except a group of harmless villagers. I have not searched all this time for Oura's talisman in the name of revenge, but in the name of justice."
I licked my lips, which had grown dry once more. "It cannot be just to kill an entire land so that another can live."
"Suffering and death are never right, but sometimes they are necessary so that a greater good can result. You admitted that yourself yesterday evening."
"The two villages," I said slowly. "That was what you were talking about."
"And the life-giving water that can belong to only one of the villages." Darak stepped forward into the morning light shining through the open doorway. His face was clear and without shadow in the light; his expression was grave. "Your people will not leave the Land of the Sun, Tyne. I determined that long ago, trying to persuade them to leave in many pleadings that never made their way into the old tales. Nor will my people leave my kingdom, and it is not right that they should do so. And so, though I regret it deeply, I have no choice but to destroy the Land of the Sun so that this land may live. There is no other path I can take – just as there was no other path I could take where your father was concerned."
I took a deep breath and said, "Darak, I believe that you did evil in killing my father, nor is it right for you to kill my people. There must be a third path, another solution to this conundrum."
"And what is that third path?"
I was silent. Through the open window I could hear the singing of women, the quiet laughter of men, the shouts of children. I could almost imagine that I was back in my village. But my mouth was growing dry again, and my fingers were stiff and swollen from the heat. This was a land on the edge of death. It could not last for many more years.
Darak had been waiting all this time for me to reply; now he turned back to the window. "From one of those border mountains, Oura ordered the waters away. And on that same mountain she placed her talisman, to carry out her spell when she was gone. For a thousand years I have searched for that talisman; for three hundred years the other wizards have helped. But she hid it too well. She hid it so that neither I nor Kern's descendants can find it. But I feel sure that there is one person she would not have tried to hide it from: her Wizard Son to come."
He looked over at me. "Tyne, I have no quarrel left with Oura, nor with you, her descendant. I need your power, but I tell you frankly that on the first day I saw your eyes, my thoughts were not upon the power in you that I sensed, but in the possibility that my sister and I might be reconciled in peace through you. That can only happen if you are willing to love me and help me."
He placed his hands atop my shoulders and looked down at me. My heart beat hard as I said, "My lord, you told me that the time would come when the boy would have to decide whether to follow his father's ways or to disown them."
Darak let his hands fall. He continued to stare down at me as I held my breath. Then he said, "Very well. Go and decide. Think deeply on the matter; I will not interfere with your thoughts. But remember this, my son—" His voice grew gentle again. "It may be that I will have your love, and it may be that I will not. But whatever you decide, I will have your obedience."
By late morning, I had left the palace and was riding back to the Land of the Sun.
The servants who watched over the wizards' belongings asked no questions when I came to take my horse. My saddle-pack was already filled with supplies for the return trip. All I needed to ask for was water to last me until I reached the mountain stream; I made my request with the uneasiness of guilt. Then I headed toward the mountains, following the route we had come by. As I rode slowly over the mountain where I had stood the day before, looking down upon the dying kingdom, words of great might came to me: love, obedience, death, sacrifice, power, life. But I could not put the words together into a whole.
As I reached a curve in the ridge where the Kingdom Beyond disappeared from view, I met Seith.
He was waiting for me near the rock where I had stood watching Teth and Larsh search for the talisman. He came forward, held my horse's rein, and waited for me to dismount. When we had tied the horse secure, we seated ourselves on the mountain. The rocks were still warm from yesterday's sunlight, even though the night had been cold. By midday, I knew, the stones would blaze with heat, though with my gift for taming fire, the heat brought me no pain.
Finally I said, "How did you know that I would be leaving?"
Seith replied, "Because fifty years ago, when Darak first told me of his plans, I did what you are doing."
I looked over at him and remembered him seated two years before on the bare mountain with the blackened tree, warning me against the Lord High Wizard. I asked, "Did Darak pursue you?"
"Eventually. In his own time. He waited a bit, to see whether I would come back. He had not expected me to defy him; none of the other wizards had done so. And he and I had been close."
Seith leaned further back into the morning shadows. Squinting his eyes against the glare of the bright sky, he said, "He found me on that mountain you and I once visited, the mountain with the single tree. It looked like all of the other mountains then, full of life. He bound my mind with his power, and he tied my body to that topmost tree. And then he proceeded to torture every creature on that mountain, whether animal or plant, and waited for me to recant."
Seith sat silently for a moment more, his eyes blank with memory. Then he said, "Afterwards he destroyed all of the mountain life – as a favor to me, to put the dying creatures out of their misery. And since that time he has always treated me with the greatest courtesy. But then, he has had no need to do otherwise."
I felt my stomach sicken; my hands tightened around my upraised knees. "Seith, if we were to defy him together—"
"Then another mountain would die. Or two or three. A wizard who plans to butcher a land finds it easy to discard a mountain or a man. He would kill me now if I weren't of use to him."
"I'm sure that he wouldn't kill you. He never shows anger toward you."
"It isn't worth his bother." Seith was silent a moment before saying, "Golden-eyed wizard, you see so much, but you wear a blindfold whenever you speak to our lord. Have you never wondered why there don't exist any wizards who are older than three hundred years? I suppose that it must have taken Darak several centuries to realize that he would need the help of other wizards and that he must allow his rivals to live. Even then, he would only allow them to live under his own rules. He calls you his son, as he once called me his son, but he has bound us both into slavery."
Seith looked over at me. For the first time in our conversation, his voice rose from its flat and dull tone. "Tyne, if you have any wisdom at all, you will return now. Decide what things you love the most, and bargain with Darak on their behalf. Otherwise, he will take from you anything that you love and kill it before your eyes. That has already happened to you once – will you wait until you have lost everything?"
It seemed to me then that if I waited any longer, I would not have the courage to leave. I stood up, took my horse, and began leading it down the west side of the mountain. As I passed Seith with my head down, I felt his mind touch mine briefly. I did not look up.
I had not planned to look back. But as I reached the bottom of the mountain, a harsh voice called into my ear, and I turned.
The golden-eyed eagle soared by my face, and then flew up the side of the mountain to where Seith and I had been standing a while before. I caught a glimpse of Seith as he made his way back round the mountain to the desert. The eagle hovered in the air, its luminous eyes catching fire under the high sun. As I watched, the bird reached the crest of the mountain, paused briefly on a rock near the peak, and then flew over the peak.
I was eager to leave and would have looked away then. But at that second, the midday sun flooded over the mountain in a blinding brilliance. A moment later, shadows had begun to fall down the mountainside, but in the hair's-breadth of a time before that happened, a tiny light, minuscule in comparison to the sun's light, shone from where the eagle had sat a moment before.
Two hours later I reached the rock and placed my fingers on the gold piece embedded there. I had found Oura's talisman.
I continued my journey through the mountains not long afterwards. I had cast no spell to hide Oura's talisman; it was secure from the sight of all but a golden-eyed wizard. But I had left on the mountain a second talisman.
The talisman was there to hide what I had found on my journey down. As I climbed with ease over the oven-hot face of the mountain, I placed my hand lightly upon a stone and then jerked it back as it stung with heat. Then I looked at the stone more carefully, for no object had burned me for three years.
I thought for a bit, then said to the mountain softly, "I am Oura's Son." I touched the stone again.
The stone melted away. Beyond it, a room the size of a great hall had been carved through the mountain rock. I climbed in and walked tentatively through the dim light. When I reached the end of the hall, I touched the wall. A rock on the other side of the mountain melted away. Quickly I placed a cloak of hiding over both entrances to the hall so that people below would not see anything.
From this entrance, I could see the Kingdom Beyond; from the other, the Impenetrable Mountains. It was here that Oura had stood and decided the fate of her land.
I walked back to the middle of the hall and stood in thought. Here, midway between the entrances, the light was dim and the features around me black. I reached down to touch the floor. My fingers glided across metal. I felt the ridges on the metal and spelled out to myself the name embossed there: Mert.
Before leaving the tomb of Oura's suitor, I reached into the pocket of my robe and brought out the object I always carried with me, a featureless gold disc. I placed it on the grave, touching it with my mind and fingers. When I stood again, the disc displayed a sun. The tomb-hall would be hidden to others when I had left. It was not a spell that would fool Darak if he stumbled across this place by chance, but I expected that he and I would settle matters between us before that happened.
I hurried back to the foot of the mountain, where I had left my horse tethered. Seith's words were still echoing in my head. It had occurred to me that if Darak wished to destroy what I loved, he need look no further than High Peak.
I travelled quickly after that and entered the mind-passage before eventide. I did so with apprehension, wondering whether it would be possible to hide the secret of the talisman from Darak. He indeed attempted to enter my mind, but when I barred the way, he did not destroy my defenses, as he could have done instantly in this place. As he had promised, he left me to my own thoughts.
Seven days later, I reached High Peak and rushed into the wizard's cottage in search of Mediza.
She was standing on a chair to hang herbs on a hook from the ceiling. When she saw me, she jumped down and ran over to my arms. "Where is Harkay?" I asked, holding her tight.
"Down in the village, getting food for one of his concoctions. He has been feeding us the most horrible-tasting brews. I told him—" She stopped as she pulled back from me and saw my face. "Tyne, what is it?"
I could think of no tender way to tell her the truth. "Mediza, Darak intends to destroy the Land of the Sun."
A look came over her face, such as a mother wears when her child learns some terrible fact he must know. She said gently, "Tyne, I've known that since I was a child. Darak has never kept his plans secret from our people."
It took me a while to speak. When I did, I forced myself to say, "I'm sorry, Mediza; I hadn't thought this through. It is your people who are dying, so of course you want them helped. But surely you have lived in this land long enough to understand what I am feeling."
"Darling, of course," she assured me. "I have dreaded the day when you would learn of this plan. I could never carry out such a deed myself – but what difference does that make? It's Darak's desire, and he is the Lord High Wizard and the founder of my land."
"It makes no difference to me who he is, if he's doing something like this," I replied. "I must stop him somehow."
Mediza regarded me with a mixture of bemusement and indulgence. "Tyne, don't speak foolishly. You are a young wizard of seventeen; Darak is over a thousand years old. Even if you could be sure that you were right and he was wrong, there's no way for you to stop him. If you try to oppose him, he'll punish you."
"That's why I'm here," I said. "I want you safe, lest he try to punish me through you. I'm going to take you back to your father; I can't imagine that Darak would hurt you if your father was there to protect you. I'll come for you again – if I can – when all this is through."
Mediza stared at me with growing alarm. "Tyne, stop and think! Darak is a mighty wizard. He can do anything to you! He can even take away your magical power."
"This I know," I said grimly. "But I'd be ashamed to marry you if you knew that I'd kept my power out of fear. I would rather lose all my power—"
I stopped. Mediza had not moved or spoken, but her look of horror stilled my tongue. Into my mind drifted a girl's voice saying, "I did think that it would be nice to marry a wizard."
So I entered her mind, and then I knew.
With her small power, she had felt my presence; now she took a step backwards toward the door. I grabbed her arm.
"I am a king's daughter," she said in a determined but shaky voice. "You dare not hurt me."
"I will not hurt you, nor will I keep you here," I said tersely. "Go seek out Harkay, and marry him or any other wizard. I have no doubt that you will find that man of power whom you desire. But I want you to carry a message to Darak for me. Tell him that I have made my decision: I will not follow his ways."
I released her. She turned and fled. I watched her stumble down the mountain path. Then I laid my head on the table and wept.
Two days later I stood outside of Lord Flatch's palace and watched the guards.
For the first time since my fourteenth birthday, I was wearing the clothes I had stolen from my father. I had found them in the wizards' house, crammed into the corner of the loft where I had abandoned them five years before. Travelling in these clothes, I had no fear of being recognized; golden-eyed men were not as rare as golden-eyed eagles, and I doubted in any case that Darak had yet returned from the Kingdom Beyond.
I was standing now beside the inn next to the palace. The night before I had paid for my room and food by showing the innkeeper's family a few tricks with fire – the sort of silly stunts that tamers learn in order to entertain lords. My shabby appearance had helped convince the people here of my honest poverty, but I did not think that my clothes would convince the palace guards of my right to see Lord Flatch.
To the right of me, the market stands were open. Men and women called out their wares: fish from the sea, fruit from the forest, wheat from the fields, and mutton from the hills. Two men stood by a fruit stand, arguing in a good-natured manner with the matron; one of the men stooped down to offer a date to a ragged-clothed young girl standing nearby.
The gesture reminded me so strongly of Flatch that I looked again and recognized the man. It was the young courtier, Ichol, who modeled himself after his lord. He spent many hours searching for troubles among the people that his lord might be able to solve. Flatch was delighted with the man's emulation; he often stopped in the middle of dinner to solve some dilemma brought to him by Ichol.
I waited until Ichol and his companion were walking back toward the palace; then I pulled my hat-brim down and stepped in their way.
"Pardon my interruption, my lords," I said in a low voice, staring with seeming humility toward the ground so that my eyes would remain hidden.
"What can we do for you, my good man?" asked Ichol, beaming at the way I had addressed him.
"I and my family are in some trouble, my lords. We hope that the great Flatch could intervene on our behalf. If you are from the palace, perhaps I could beg you to carry a message to my lordship."
"Oura's Eyes, you attract these people like flies," said Ichol's companion to him.
"Oh, be on your way; I'll catch up," replied Ichol with a laugh. He turned back to me as the man left. "His lordship is ever eager to help poor, deserving villagers in any way he can. Tell me of your case, and I will lay it before him."
I drew an object from my pocket, saying, "This neck-chain has been in my family for many generations. His lordship will recognize it, as he has been able to help us in the past. He will understand why I can speak only to him of our affliction. It would make your humble servant grateful if you would tell the great Flatch that I am in need of his help and that I ask to have a private audience with him."
Ichol looked down at the neck-chain which Flatch had given me many years before. He laughed again. "Well, if he doesn't understand that mysterious message, he will be amused by it anyway. I'm coming down to the village tomorrow when the market opens. If you meet me here, I'll give you his reply. I'm sure that he'll help you if it lies within his power."
I bowed deeply; then I returned to the inn to beg another night's lodging off of the innkeeper.
I stood at my window that night, staring out at the palace on the hill above. I could not take refuge there; I was better hidden among the villagers. But if Flatch was able to spread word of Darak's plans among the lesser lords, the Children of the Sun together might be able to foil the wizard's plans.
The beat of hooves roused me from my thoughts. Torches flared forth on the winding path that threaded its way up to the palace; riding swiftly up the path were a line of horses and its riders. Ten were robed in scarlet and silver, but the middle rider was attired in the deepest green.
I drew back from the window. Darak had returned to the Land of the Sun.
The next morning, Ichol told me with hesitation, "His lordship was indeed very interested in your case. But after spending the night in consideration, he has asked me to tell you that he is sorry to say that he cannot help you in any way." Ichol offered back the neck-chain.
I looked down at it. "I would be most grateful if you would tell his lordship that I am indebted to him for sending his reply, and that it would please me if he would keep the neck-chain in honor of his friendship to my family in the past."
I left Ichol looking still more puzzled. By nightfall, I had reached the foot of High Peak, but already news had reached the villages there. It had been discovered that the Seventh Wizard intended to cast a spell to destroy the Land of the Sun. The great Flatch had been created High Lord in order to fight this new danger to the people.
As I sat in the wizard's cottage that evening, I reflected that I had been lucky so far. Flatch was a man of honor after his own fashion, or he would certainly have turned his dangerous supplicant over to the Lord High Wizard. Now that Darak had returned, though, the Lord High Wizard could easily locate me when I was asleep. No place was left for me to run to, and running from Darak might prove as ruinous to me as it had to Seith.
The house was empty now. Mediza was nowhere to be seen, and the six younger wizards were spread throughout the land, seeking me. I ate some food, I changed into my wizard's robes, and I sent out my mind to show Darak where I was.
Though I sensed that he was not far from the mountain, he was a long time returning. I stood tensely behind the door, placing myself where I would see Darak before he could see me; unlike Seith, I would have the advantage of surprise. I did not dare send out my mind again, but I heard the wizard's footsteps when he finally arrived. I waited until he had entered the doorway and was looking away from me before I raised my hand to cast my spell.
The figure turned. My hand wavered. "Seith," I whispered.
As I stared, Seith entered and bound my mind.
A red flame flickered before my eyes, and a cup pressed against my lips. I choked on the drugged wine, then stared blearily at the figures in front of me: a green-eyed man and a child whose eyes were black with enchantment.
"Now, Son of Oura," said the man, "I know that you were hiding something from me during your journey through the mountains. I think that we both know what your secret is. Therefore, by the flame of power which I strengthened for you, I command you to tell me where to find Oura's talisman. If you do not tell me willingly, I will find out in any case, even if I must destroy you."
And he began.
The afternoon air was still and soundless in the Impenetrable Mountains. No creatures dwelt on these dead peaks, so the only living noises came from birds of prey, passing to and fro between the Kingdom Beyond and the Land of the Sun. Even the birds had grown scarce as the day progressed. The sun's heat grew more intense until I thought, as at the knife-path, that the ground before me would melt.
Neb was no longer by my side. As soon as we had started out that afternoon, she had begun lagging behind, until it had been some time since I heard her horse. Wearily, I dropped my face down onto my horse's mane, feeling its rough hair press against my eyelids. After what had happened to me during the past few weeks, I ought to have known that I would end up facing Darak on my own. I sighed, then forced my head up and looked into the eyes of Kel.
He was standing on the ground ahead of me, his hand outstretched and his mind ready. I had long since forgotten my mind cloak; Kel entered my mind easily and cast his spell. As my horse stopped short uneasily, Kel bound my power and my mind so that I could see and hear but could not move or think.
Teth walked forward to calm my horse. Further behind was a third wizard: Seith, watching all this with steady eyes.
At Kel's word, Teth pulled me unresisting from the horse. I stood with my eyes blank and my limbs hanging loosely as Teth pulled my hands to my back and began to bind them. Kel still had his eyes on me; Seith stood and watched, not helping Kel, not helping me. Then his head jerked upward like a dog that has caught a scent. He touched Kel on the sleeve.
A thunder of hoofbeats came from behind me. Seith walked forward, his hand outstretched and ready to cast a spell if needed. But as the hoofbeats slowed, he stood back to allow Neb to rein in her horse. She looked uncertainly at me.
I was still staring at Kel. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Seith step forward, offer Neb his hand, and help her to dismount. Then I saw no more, for Teth placed a blindfold over my eyes.
Kel's spell broke in that moment, but with my eyes shielded, I was as helpless as before. At Seith's quiet suggestion, Neb slid her hand under my arm and began to guide me forward.
It was a long walk. The day was dusty and hot; I felt sweat trickle down my chest and back, pricking at me. Seith and Kel flanked us silently, and I could hear Teth further back, leading the horses. Neb spoke only in whispers that guided me around obstacles, down a valley, and up the side of a mountain.
Walking up a steep mountain with your hands bound behind you is no mean trick. By the time we reached our destination, I was out of breath, and my head was whirling. We scrambled onto a flat surface. The slight sound of footsteps echoed around me as someone untied my hands and then my blindfold. The first thing I saw as the cloth fell away was an eight-rayed sun a few inches from my face. Watching me expectantly from behind the sun were two green eyes.
"You found it," I said.
Darak lowered the talisman. "Your memory of its location was exact," he said dryly, as though thanking me for a favor.
We were standing in the dim shadows of Mert's tomb, our only light the red sun disappearing behind the mountains to the west. The air was damp with the scent of night. Around me were the other wizards, and next to me was Neb, though Darak did not bother to look her way. She was as pale in color as the light that shone from the talisman to the floor; her hands were gripping each other, and the veins in her flesh stood out. My gaze switched back to Darak, whose eyes were fixed upon me with care.
With the blindfold removed I was free to use my power, but I did not approach Darak's flame: once we fought, Darak and I would have no further chance for words. "If you've managed to move the talisman," I said, "you know how to end Oura's spell. Why haven't you done so?"
Darak gave a crooked smile as he casually handed the gold piece to Seith. "It was a powerful talisman," he remarked. "I could not have broken it alone. We moved the spell's power from the gold to my mind. There it will stay until I end it. As to why I have not done so, one reason is that I wished King Ermich to have the pleasure of coming here and seeing the waters return to his land. The tent city has moved further on; I had to send a messenger to fetch him back. He will be here soon. The other reason . . ." A look came onto his face that I had not seen before, a mixture of annoyance and embarrassment, as though he had been forced to give in to a weakness. He said shortly, "You were still in the mountains."
I could see that Neb was watching us, her gaze darting between Darak and me. I would have liked to have said something that reassured her – to have told her that Darak did not value her enough to take her life. But all my thoughts were now reserved for the Lord High Wizard. I said slowly, "You spared my life twice before this."
"On the first occasion, that was not my choice. It was the result of a bargain I made – a bargain for your capture." I followed Darak's gaze over to Seith, but for the first time Seith did not look back at me; his head was bowed, and he had stepped back into the shadows.
"The second occasion . . ." The Lord High Wizard paused again; this time he smiled, as though amused at himself. "The second occasion I can offer less defense for. Knowing now that you found a way to take back your power, I wonder whether I was foolish in my decision. But I left behind me in the Land of the Sun a young man who was bound to a chair, stripped of nearly all his power, and with no allies. A few days later my mind felt a presence; I found this same young man, still stripped of his power, and with only one little village girl as his ally. And this young man was travelling to find a thousand-year-old wizard and fight him to the death." Darak bowed his head, as though acknowledging a formidable enemy. "I confess that I was touched. I also felt empathy for a man who would struggle so hard to accomplish his goal."
He looked down upon me with gentleness, as he had on the night when he had killed my father, as he had on the morning when he had told me that I possessed no choice but to follow him. Indeed, he looked down upon me in the same way that he had looked upon Seith these many years while he held the younger wizard in subjugation. When he spoke again, his voice was stern.
"There comes a time, Son of Oura, when a man must cease following his courage, lest it turn to folly. You have fought against me as no other wizard has done, and it may be that if you and I were alone you could even have won your battle against me. But I have five powers of flame to ally with me. You cannot kill me, you cannot strip me of my power, you cannot even live unless I allow you to. And so, having become foolish with love in my old age, I give you one last chance to acknowledge that you have lost and that you cannot change what I am going to do."
There was no room here for compromise, I could see. No words of mine would change Darak's view, so secure was he in his belief that he was acting justly, and that he alone had the right to determine whether my people lived. If I fought, he would kill me with regret; if I stood back, he would graciously forgive me.
"No," I said briefly, and entered his mind.
Darak did not attack me. He did not need to, for the power-flames of the other wizards were already there; they stood as stiff as sentinels and swiftly surrounded me, preparing to kill. Darak's tall green flame stood apart. If the other wizards could not slay me, he would come and administer the death blow himself.
The flames mingled together, a tapestry of colors and pain. I would not have thought it possible that I would be able to defend myself against so many wizards, but I found that I could. Perhaps it was simply that I and the Lord High Wizard were the only ones there who truly cared about the final results of this contest. The wizards fought me in order to preserve power, but I fought them to preserve a land. My gold flame emerged from the other colors, pushing them back as though I had become a mighty wind.
It would not be enough. The wizards could not destroy my flame, they could not destroy my life; Darak would have to do the deed. I saw the tall green flame begin to move forward steadily, with assurance. It towered over my flame like a living mountain; the lick of the flame bit at me like an eagle's claws. It was as immoveable as the earth itself.
As it came, it met in its path a tall gold and green flame. It was not my flame; it was the flame of my dream, the one that had given me my power. A flash of gold light filled the cave of my mind; a sudden stillness followed. A moment later, my outer sight returned, for the younger wizards had been bound by me, and their Lord Darak had been bound by Neb.
I touched Neb's shoulder with my hand. She looked at me, still trembling with exhaustion and excitement at her newfound power. Next to us, Darak stood frozen, his eyes blankly staring forth; like me a short time before, he could see and hear but not think or move. The other wizards were slumped to the floor. Rather than hold their minds, I had cast a sleeping spell upon them; they would take no further part in this battle.
One lone wizard still stood, a single wizard who had not attacked me. His eyes were on Neb. Now he came over to her and said, "Daughter of Oura, Eighth Wizard of the Eight-Rayed Sun, we ought to have guessed who you were."
Neb offered Seith her hand, as grown women do to admirers, and he bent over it briefly. Then he turned to look at me. His expression was uncertain as he awaited my judgment upon him. Dark circles rimmed his eyes, and the heart-pulse beat rapidly at his throat.
I laid my hand on his arm. "My friend," I said, "if King Ermich is on his way here, he may stumble across this scene and cause further trouble. Would you be willing to go down toward the kingdom and meet him?"
Seith smiled slightly, nodded, and then bowed once more to Neb before slipping out of the tomb's east entrance. The soft sound of his feet on the rocks marked his departure.
"Seith is right," Neb said. "They ought to have guessed who I was. Darak most certainly ought to have guessed, for he used my mind to bind yours. Why didn't he see?"
"For the same reason that he didn't bother to search the villages for golden-eyed girls," I said. My gaze was now fixed upon the motionless figure of the Lord High Wizard. "Darak has never had a high opinion of women. He regarded them only as objects for romantic love, and he had no interest in such pastimes for himself or any other wizard. Indeed, not since Oura has any woman been found with your power. I myself didn't begin to guess who you were until I saw you watching my power-fire when it ate the wizards' cottage on High Peak. It is true, as I told you, that all Children of Oura can gaze upon fire – but not all can gaze upon enchanted fire."
"You didn't tell me who I was."
"I thought it would be unfair to do so, for without my power, I couldn't strengthen your flame to a wizard's power. It was at the waterfall, when you offered to let Darak's flame join with yours, that I realized how Darak might be able to strengthen your flame without meaning to do so. But even then I dared not let you know, lest Darak be able to guess your thoughts. Nor did I realize that you would use your new power to give me back my own."
Neb smiled. Her hands, which had been clenched before, now lay loosely upon the rough cloth of her tunic. "He never even knew what he had given to me; he was so sure that I was nothing. But from the moment he joined his flame with mine, I knew that I was a wizard."
"But would not acknowledge it to me."
Neb's gaze did not drop, but she grew hesitant. Once again her hands clutched each other tightly, as though she were holding the reins of an unruly horse. "I wasn't sure what you wanted of me. I wanted to help you, but I was afraid that you, like everyone else I had known, would try to make me into something I wasn't. I suppose I thought that if I possessed hidden powers, I could remain free to do as I wished in the end."
I thought of how she had fled from my kiss, and how it must have seemed to her then that all of her worst fears had come true. I said, hoping that she would trust my words, "I didn't want to take your freedom from you."
"I know," she said. "But I think perhaps I was afraid that I would give away my freedom to you."
She sighed then and turned toward Darak. The lingering light of the sun touched her eyes briefly, causing them to spark like fire. "Oh, I was as foolish as Oura – as foolish even as Aush, who has been willing to make every sacrifice except to share his power of choice with others. He won't let anyone except himself decide the fate of the Land of the Sun. I don't want to kill him, but what can we do? I can't hold onto his mind for long, and once he is free, he will do as he wishes."
Darak continued to stand with limp limbs and blank eyes, but I thought that he looked more than ever like a black eagle who was about to slay. "Perhaps I'm as foolish as Darak," I said, "but my lord gave me three chances to live. I feel that I ought to give him at least one. Yet I doubt that he will change his mind, and with his thousand years of wisdom, he may need only one chance to take us captive."
Neb looked at the Lord High Wizard as well. "I said this morning that he wanted you to show him a goal other than the one he has. I still think that's the case."
"But I can't help him when he has me in his power. And he can't help me when I have him in my power. If one of us must be subject to the other, I don't see how we can work together."
"Try," she said softly. She walked over to the wall nearby, seated herself cross-legged on the floor, and stretched out her hand toward Darak, releasing his body and thoughts, but keeping him lightly bound within her power.
The Lord High Wizard stirred slowly, as though testing the looseness of his bindings. Yet even now, still bound by Neb from using his power and having heard her speak with authority this past while, Darak did no more than glance her way before settling his eyes on me.
"A thousand years," he said carefully, "does not seem to have been long enough to give me the wisdom to deal with you. I suppose I must resign myself to being a father who cannot stop loving his rebellious son. Yet I see no solution to this problem either. I will not allow my land to die; you will not allow your land to die. And so there can be no end to this struggle but that one of us must kill the other."
I stared into his green eyes. Once, a thousand years ago, Aush and his sister had grown a green forest, Aush supplying the plants and animals, Oura supplying the life-giving waters. "Oura's spell holds the waters back beyond the mountains," I said. "If the enchantment no longer did this, you and I could work together to bring life back to this land."
Darak nodded. I expected him to speak, but he continued to stand silently, as though waiting. A moment later, I heard Neb gasp in pain, and I knew what Darak had planned. Neb was powerful but inexperienced; Darak knew that she could not hold her spell long. He had been waiting for the right moment to free himself.
His eyes did not waver from mine, but he pointed his finger at Neb in warning. "Do not try to enter my mind, girl," he said. "I have no time to deal with you at the moment, but I will not let you take me by surprise again."
I wondered to myself whether, when he attacked me now, I would be able to overcome him. Neb's mind had been hurt when Darak wrenched her binding spell away; it was unlikely that, in her inexperience, Neb would be able to aid me in the fight. As Darak had said, the struggle would now end with one of our deaths.
Darak held up a finger to his lips. After a moment, he said, "Speak. You had not finished what you were saying."
He was still seeking an answer from me. But I had none to offer; I could not think of any sacrifice to make which would help.
Neb said in a small, breathless voice – for she was still in pain – "What about the fire that burns stone?"
I turned then and looked back over the mountains that were shaded red in the evening light. Very faintly, at the edge of the horizon, the sky was smudged grey with rain-clouds. I said slowly, "Oura's spell keeps the waters beyond the mountains. Yet if the mountains were gone, it would be possible for me to reverse part of her spell but retain the other part. I could bring the cloud-waters forward and hold the sea-waters back. And the only thing that can destroy those mountains is enchanted fire."
"It is too powerful a spell," said Darak. "You could not do it."
"My power isn't great enough," I agreed. "If I joined with Neb, we might be able to do it together – but as you've learned, she doesn't yet have the experience to hold a spell. Only if you were to join your power-flame with mine could I destroy the mountains and save both lands."
He was a long time thinking. As he had once left me free to make my decision, I left him free to make his. I knew, as Darak knew, that if something went awry with our spell, we might have to choose between saving his land and mine. And if that happened, then for the first time he would not have the power to decide matters on his own.
"Let it be as you have said, Son of Oura," Darak finally said, bowing his head as though in submission. "Enter my mind and join your flame with mine."
There was a pause. I felt my body begin to ache as though in foreshadow of the heavy labor that lay ahead. To Darak's surprise, I turned toward Neb. "With your permission, Eighth Wizard," I said. Neb nodded. I looked back at Darak, whose leaf-colored eyes remained steady upon mine, and I said, "My lord, let us begin."
But it was not until I entered his mind that I knew I had been wrong. I had not known all that Darak had been thinking, for he had known, as I had not, what our sacrifices would be.
The sun woke me the next morning. Not the dim, red sun of the previous evening, nor the bright, golden sun of the previous days. This sun was ghostly white, hidden beneath the rain-clouds that had come to the Kingdom Beyond from the sea.
I rolled over onto my stomach, turning toward the west as I did so; I had been lying on the rocky floor of the tomb, and my head was near the western entrance. I looked out at a great forest reaching from this peak to the west. The Impenetrable Mountains were gone; the kingdom's border mountains were gone; but in the distance I could faintly perceive High Peak, the Land of the Sun. Furthest away, at the horizon, lay the thin, blue line of the sea.
I pulled myself to my feet. Across from me, standing by the eastern entrance to the tomb, I could see Neb talking to King Ermich; they were surrounded by the priests and vestals. As I watched, they leaned forward and embraced, like two long-separated cousins greeting each other or like two rulers meeting in peace. Then Ermich walked out of the tomb.
I came forward to Neb. She was no longer wearing her child's tunic, but had changed during the night into a woman's robe of gold and green. Around her neck was the chain I had given her. She held out her hand to me, saying, "Kel and Harkay are on their way back to the Land of the Sun to tell Lord Flatch what has happened. Teth and Larsh have said that they will go with the king in case any spells are needed by his people. Seith—" She turned toward the eastern entrance.
The tombstone was already built, made of the objects Seith had always loved: wood and moss and leaves. The tomb was placed within a great rock that overhung the mountain and gave a sweeping view of the Kingdom Beyond. Below, the land was green with forests and golden with fields: the seeds and eggs I had transported from the Land of the Sun had grown to life overnight. Soon the large animals would make their way here as well.
Beside the tomb stood Seith, looking down upon his handiwork. He had known well where Darak would want to be buried.
My lord had allowed himself to die when our flames merged. Only his death – or mine – could have produced the fire necessary to fuel the spell. Darak left me the power to level the mountains and call forth the clouds and regrow the land. He left also his trust that, after his death, I would do as I had promised.
Now I watched as Seith came forward to the king, who was standing by the tombstone. Seith handed him an object; the king looked at it and nodded, and Seith cast the object with his mind into the tomb. In death, Darak would watch over his sister's talisman, the sea-water spell still unbroken.
The men turned to go. The king was pointing to the palace below, nearly hidden amongst the foliage. I could guess that he was sharing with Seith his plans for the rebuilding. The priests and vestals turned at the same moment, preparing to leave the mountain. As they did so, my breath whistled in, and I felt my heart begin to hammer.
Standing amongst the priests, with her hair as dark as the velvet night, Mediza stared with wonder at the green sea of life below her. The soft dawn sun touched her face, and the moist air made it glitter, so that she glowed like a gold talisman upon the rock.
Her head turned suddenly, and she looked up at me. I saw the joy spring into her face, and her mouth began to open. Then she paused, waiting for a signal from me. After a moment, her expression turned uncertain, and she took a step forward. My heart beat deep within me, and I felt my body stir, but my face remained like stone. With an expression now puzzled, Mediza turned and began to follow the vestals down the mountainside.
Neb's voice said in my ear, "She still hasn't learned, has she? She'll never be free; she'll always be trapped by her greed. She'll never realize that, to obtain even the smallest goal, she must be prepared to sacrifice what she values most."
I looked at Neb's unwavering eyes. She reached up with her fingers and pulled down a few strands of light, weaving it into a neck-chain for me.
She offered it to me while it was still red-hot. I smiled and waited for the light to fade. Like Darak, I had made my sacrifice. I could not speak to fire, I could not enter minds, I could not open my mouth and voice my thoughts; nor would I ever be able to do so again. But I could, and did, stand above the new-grown land and accept a kiss from my lady.