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Vale of Fhidhen

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Gate and gate and gate they go, no turning back, only, always, forward. He does not look behind. That way is forever closed, time lost, gate locked.

***

They find Heysinn the second day, the body carelessly hidden in a shallow grave that proves no security against starving scavengers. It is the predators lingering amongst the trees that disturb the horses before the cackling of the sharp-beaked crows guides them to the corpse. The birds rush into the sky, filling it with black wings and bitter complaints, while the gaunt wolves slink into the blue shadows the morning cannot banish.

Only Heysinn's pale qhal hair identifies him, but by his death, they know that Skarrin's trap, the ghost in the gate, caught Chei and Qhiveren within its void. The corpse, pecked and gnawed, stripped to bone by hand and beak and tooth, offers no answers beyond the accusation of its existence. Perhaps no more than the desire for a second horse to speed Skarrin ahead wrought murder in the frozen woods and put the knife in Heysinn's side.

Vanye grieves wordlessly for Heysinn and for Chei, foolish, doomed Chei, and even for Qhiveren, the qhal lord who stole the boy's body before Skarrin possessed them both. When they kill Skarrin, Qhiveren and Chei will die as well.

The earth is too hard to dig deep. Icicles drip silver and white from the limbs of the trees and the air is so cold there is little enough stench.

Morgaine waits, watching for long yellow eyes and longer fangs, anger in every line of her, still astride Siptah, while Vanye piles a cairn above Heysinn's grave. He uses Skarrin's careless hole though it galls him. Morgaine will not concede to dig a true grave, had they even tools to do so. That she waits at all and does not ride on without him is more than she would give any other. So Vanye does not say what he knows she wishes not to accept: if they are so far behind Skarrin-who was Qhiveren-who was Chei that they cannot spare an hour, then they will not catch him.

On a grass-grown road, they find Heysinn's mount, lamed and left still bridled, lipping the last faded straw grass from the verge. Sweat still darkens the arch of the horse's neck as it spooks to the side, a dangling rein snapping under its hoof with a jerk of its head.

Vanye turns his gaze from the horse. Too much time lost to Heysinn's body, there is none to waste upon a lamed horse. If no one finds it, then in time the leather bridle will break, leaving the gelding to go its own way. To chance Skarrin reaching another gate and another escape for the sake of a horse, when all of Mante is lost to drive him out... No. He whispers in Arrhan's ear, urging the mare to stretch her legs and match Siptah's long strides.

The stark trees fall away behind them as the road rises to the top of a low hill, unnaturally straight, cut stone still smooth-shining beneath the thin and comfortless afternoon light. They crest the rise and the land falls away, fallow fields dark and glittering with frost, crows chuckling among chaff, and a red roan running ahead. Somewhere ahead there is smoke, thatched roofs, a shiver in the pale blue horizon.

Somewhere ahead, there is a gate.

The rider's form, bent over his mount's neck, twists to look behind, before spurring the roan harder.

"Chei," Vanye breathes and remembers Qhiverin, riding Chei, looking out from Chei's eyes, strangely more respectful than the boy, and feels a stab of pain for both, Man and qhal, both lost, even if they remain within too.

Morgaine shakes her head. "Skarrin."

They ride him down.

The wolves follow for their feast.

***

He begins to think every world the qhal ruled must be broken or twisted, even where the gate force doesn't reach out, touching anything unwise enough not to flee and warping it, whether wolf or man, tree or tarn.

They ride on, world and world, closing the way behind them, touching only as little as they must.

***

Opal dapples the gray stud's flank, shimmers in the rolling eye of the white mare behind, the cold gulf of was and when releases them, and they let instinct and the road that always companies qhalur work guide them away, until revulsion and adrenaline subside and air replaces the cold of that passage in their lungs again, horse and rider, each. Then, they look and see and judge this world, what peril it may offer, or if they may fly straight as an arrow to their goal, this once. Such is seldom their luck, nor is it here.

Dust sifts up to coat the horses' legs and their own boots and armor when they rein them in to a slow, cooling walk; Vanye can taste it at the back of his tongue, ash and dead. The air trembles with the power wavering from the gate, a warping touch he can feel at the bare nape of his neck and the skin of his shoulders, lifting the small hairs on his forearms.

Morgaine's mouth thins to a grim line and she speaks a single word. She prompts Siptah into a fast lope.

The word she uses is not Kurshin, not of Vanye's world, but not qhalur either. It is one she has schooled him in, as she's taught him many qhalur secrets and the ways of the gates. He knows it, calls it poison to himself, and thinks it is a word of Man, Man before and beyond or after qhal. Radiation, a sorcery of Man, just as foul as qhalur magics.

The air, the land, even the water in this land is poison.

He urges Arrhan to follow, disturbed. Morgaine is not reckless; she weighs her actions against knowledge and necessity, survival and success. He would hate her, except that Morgaine has no more care for herself than for all she destroys. She sacrifices everything mercilessly. No want is allowed, no one and nothing is excepted.

Blood trickles from the horses' nostrils by the third day. Vanye tastes it in his mouth, sees his liege wipe the same scarlet stain from her lips, before they reach the ruins of a city of stained stone, yellow and gray running down the broken walls. Were the land healthy, growth would have destroyed the city long since, but it stands, preserved by the poison that killed it.

It goes against all Morgaine strives for to repair the master gate, worse to teach Vanye what must be done, because one of them must work the sorcery of the qhalur's controls while she works an even older magic on the gate itself, and they cannot close or pass until it is done.

Ilin, he reminds her when she considers him afterward with murder in her eyes, distrust and death; that he knows these secrets now that even the qhal did not delve, her hand upon a dragon hilt. Anjhurin's knowledge, first become father to the last, and Vanye is sick to the death with it, with the knowing and that his halfling liege, who does not forgive or tolerate any threat, who will not share Changeling's weight or trust anyone unstinted, worries that he will on some day use that knowledge to stop her. She fears that Vanye, who follows her when he could have stayed behind and lived a Man's life on more than one world since passing through Ivrel's gate, may betray her for that power. Ilin, liyo, an oath that long since forfeited his soul.

Man, oh, Man, what has thee become? whispers the ghost of the youth he remains only in form. Power doesn't tempt him, but peace might.

She does not kill him. He is her safeguard.

Her madness long since became his.

They ride through the gate, he always on the far side from the sword she guards like a monstrous child, the symbol of her terrible duty, and on the other side, iron-shod hooves crack gravel beneath their weight, and they are restored once more, the seduction of the gates knitting flesh whole.

Changeling remains within its sheath.

His shorn hair whips across his lips, the sting another kind of reminder.

***

They linger a hundred days on a world where the qhal are only a memory, vague tales, and the people live in a steel and porcelain city filled with sorcerous light and the endless hum of machinery. Morgaine and Vanye are a curiosity, astride Siptah and Arrhan, exiting from the gate under the blinding glare of harsh, unnatural, fireless torches.

The Men of Scyllan had not understood the gate on their world did even still function, had come there from other worlds in other ways, in long passages spent in long sleeps, were wanderers and nomads, explorers, but call themselves colonists. They fill their new worlds with old faces, make men and women with the same faces, who make Vanye shudder and quail in his bones as the qhal have not in timeless years.

Azi, Morgaine murmurs in the rooms these men give them, and will say no more, only speaking between them in the old accents of Andur and Kursh, as though whispering lovers' words; a sure promise she suspects these men of listening in some fashion.

Even so, Morgaine stays them in the chill halls, under the always watching eyes, longer than Vanye has ever known her to stay anywhere deliberately rather than through the time tricks of the gates. She doles fragments of qhal work to the ones who say they are Union in a way that is not at all as Vanye would say he is Nhi or a Man of Andur-Kursh.

She brings him tape, spells to teach in his sleep, potions he knows after he wakes again are drugs and learning tools used by Union to shape and indoctrinate its azi; a strange knowing, filling him with things he never remembers learning. His skin crawls when he thinks on it, the way it did once in the presence of qhalish works. Such does not bother him, nor may this sorcery in time, and this is a thing that makes him a stranger in his own skin in the days that follow.

"You mislike this world, I think," Morgaine says as they see to Siptah and Arrhan, voices muffled in the confines of a makeshift stable.

"I am content enough," Vanye replied in qhalur, the words harmless enough he would let anyone hear them, safer than alarming listeners with words they did not know.

"Aye."

She brings him more tape nearly every night, not the tapes that teach the azi to serve in contentment, but the ones that inform those who pretend they are not Union's rulers.

On the morning Vanye grasps why they have stayed so long, he sees Morgaine did not linger so that he might learn, but so she might, so that she could close the Union world's gate certain that they would and could not reopen it once it faded.

Had she not been certain, it would have been Mante again.

"I could not leave thee on such a world, Nhi Vanye," she tells him on the other side of the gate, where they camp and chance a small fire, the constellations filling the night sky distorted and barely recognizable. "Thee would be a danger too great to tolerate behind me."

"Liyo, no – " He makes to protest and abandons it undone, for the truth of Morgaine's worry, that he knows the gate ways, the physics and magic etched in Changeling's blade and, worse now, Skarrin's tricks, Morgaine's secrets. With Changeling, with even the bit of gate in the pyx that he carries round his neck, he could open any gate still standing. Instead, he murmurs his acquiescence, "Aye."

Ilin, he reminds himself later in the star-shot dark of a late watch, with Morgaine wrapped in her blankets. Ilin, as if it allows or excuses the wretched, ruthless chance Morgaine risks by keeping him alive. Ilin, though it only means what he gives it to mean after so long.

Man, oh, Man, what has thee become?

***

"Thy honor still compels thee?" Morgaine asks, the fire guttering into white ash and red-embered coals between them, the sleeping gathered armies of Fhidhen and Dhalnorhied restless as a steely sea around them. Unseen battle banners rustle on stray winds, black against the moonless, starless sky, and a galaxy of camp fires like their own shine below.

Vanye drops a handful of tea into the water he'd set to heat in a small pot, inhaling the first rise of scented steam. They have been separate half a year, Morgaine counseling and... compelling the court of Fhidhen, the sorcerous mistress to an exiled prince; while Vanye has marshaled Dhalnorhied's army to fight beside Dianad ac Fhi to shift Ulic ac Sichen from the throne. Few Men in this world give credence to the old tales of the khallarin, and Morgaine, fair of face and hair, gathers only admiring glances, not suspicions of witchery.

Vanye is more feared for his warrior skills. He knows how to gather men to him and lead them into the maw of death without hesitating. He takes care to not learn their names so he can forget their faces.

He thinks they are fools, all except Ulic perhaps, who holds tight to his nephew's throne in the hall built on the same hill as the world's master gate.

Once the tea has steeped, he pours half into a cup and hands it to Morgaine, then fishes two roasted tubers from the coals with a sharpened stick. They taste familiar, the same root grows in Andur-Kursh and most worlds, transplanted like wolves and horses, crows and men, like greed and sorrow.

Morgaine juggles hers before balancing it on the rim of her cup. The cock of her dark eyebrow gives away that she knows he has used these small things to avoid answering.

Vanye hasn't considered honor in a long time. Following Morgaine and closing the gates leaves no room for anything else. He offers mercy, a different thing, when it lies within his ambit, reminds Morgaine when he may.

Honor, though... What honor has a sorcerer, a murderer, brother-killer, outlaw, a man who would commit any crime to safeguard his liege lady not for love nor for hate? For he has committed those crimes, told lies, betrayed friends – for himself too, to reach the next gate beside Morgaine, as afraid she might hesitate to leave him as that she would.

He rolls his shoulder uneasily. "Liyo, I am your man."

"Still."

"I do not look back."

She carves a piece of baked root free with her belt knife and chews it, the firelight flickering over her ageless visage, the pale tips of her strange eyelashes, the snow-white of her simple braid lying over the black and silver armor she will sleep in, as Vanye will sleep in his.

"Does thee remember the Union world?" she asks. Leather creaks as she shifts.

He stretches his leg straight to ease the ache in his weak knee and ignores his own meager meal and the tea. "Aye." Tape still whispers in the dark corners of his mind some mornings, tricks and skills he remembers but never experienced often enough still surprising him. Sleep-learning, tape tells him, while the boy who had never seen his world beyond the mountainous horizons that hemmed it in on all sides shouts that it is a spell and surely must cost something dire.

"It was Union that sought to forestall its own destruction, that sent our expedition to close all the gates, so that the calamity the qhal brought on all would not be repeated."

Vanye jerks in surprise. He had not guessed that.

Morgaine chuckles, a bitter, short sound like the crackle of the fire. "The Now has shifted, Vanye. That was not the Union I knew. One hundred began. One hundred never were."

Time has changed, she meant; Vanye understands from all she has taught him of the gate's ways.

Someone has looked back. Someone has turned back. Something has changed, the ripples lapping forward through all the gate-spanned worlds, but none might notice but someone outside Time.

"You remain," Vanye insists. "You are."

"Stubborn."

He does not know if she means herself or him.

"I have ever been unmoored," she says, low and absent, before her gray eyes, wicked pale as the winter sky, meet Vanye's gaze. "But thee... "

"Ilin," he replies, and wonders if the Andur-Kursh he remembers is... at all. Ever. If it changed, would he know or would he change with it or is he as loosed from anything but the Now as Morgaine? A shudder rolls through him, but he hides it from his face and gives the only promise he has left for her.

"Thy choice," Morgaine points out.

Vanye nods. He has nothing else. "I am with you."

They take turns at watch through the rest of the night.

***

Ulic ac Sichen sends his army down on the Fhidhen vale as a falcon stoops on its prey. Thousands of men and women meet flesh with steel and the spilled blood of Fhidhen, Sichen and Dhalnorhied churns the farmers' fields that were green and gold beneath the morning sun into blackened mud by dusk.

They reach the eastern rim as the sun lowers beyond the black silhouette of the master gate high on Sichen Fell in the west, the orb distorted into something vast and red as seen through the gate's span. Crimson light slashes from one height to the opposite, while the vale falls into twilight and the clash of arms echoes to the horizon.

The cavalry Vanye has gathered does not hesitate, they pour down to the fight in an iron-shod flood, met by flight upon flight of arrows raining from Sichen's heights. The bow-string thwack and the vicious hiss of air through fletching precedes the screams as the first wave hits.

Arrhan neighs when the first arrow takes her in her breast. She rears, head tossing up, smashing into Vanye where he is bent over her neck, and he falls, the sky wheeling above, rolling desperately to avoid a trampling in the headlong cavalry charge Morgaine leads. He cannot breathe, air stolen from him by the fall, and chokes on the rain of blood when another arrow takes his beautiful Shathan mare in the throat.

She falls on him.

He crawls free when his senses return, the battle main passed, and sees across the narrow valley, the grinding, ugly edge where the two armies meet, blurred in the last dim light. He cannot pick out one rider, one gray horse, from the vast melee, but Morgaine is there, he knows. Cracked ribs catch each breath he tries to draw and his ankle throbs in agony as he stands, so he must ground a sword in the earth as a crutch. He feels the gate force even at the distance when she unsheathes Changeling. The wail of the void opening scrapes inside his bones, burns his skin from within like a fever, and sends his heart drumming in fear. He does not need to bare the jewel he carries himself to feel it. In extremis, he has borne Changeling himself, and it has changed him, Vanye thinks, tuned him to itself.

To wield Changeling so close to an active world gate... Morgaine is desperate. So too is Ulic Usurper. Witch-light flares from the gate.

Vanye catches a lost mount, a bald-faced chestnut gelding with a blood-slicked saddle and rolling eyes, and spurs it to a run. West, to the west, across the ruined crops and broken bodies, too late to ride down the sun, too late, too late, repeating in his mind, panic a frozen hand strangling tight at his throat. His eyes burn as a terrible wail rises from both armies. The gate force reaches, barely leashed, and breaks, bridging across the vale to the void Changeling tears open in time and space.

He thinks, wildly, that the gulf ripped open is hungry. The howl of the wind rushing into it deafens him to anything else, it tears at him, whips his helm away and unwinds his warrior's braid into a tangled, honorless banner. His stolen mount goes half-mad trying to turn away from the terrible abyss swirling between the gate and Changeling, swallowing both armies and sending them perhaps elsewhere or elsewhen or into the nothingness of being unmade. Vanye bloodies the warhorse's flanks mercilessly, cursing as he wrests its head around, and continues.

Opal-shot witch-light reveals all of Sichen Fell in rains of pulsing color. He sees the hold where Ulic rules rip free stone by stone, through a veil of dust lifted up from the earth and whirled away to destruction, fire in flags streaming into the aurora-shot blackness. Tears burn on his cheeks as the chestnut stumbles to its knees, falters and recovers, the protest from his ribs threatening to tumble him from the saddle, and he has to clutch at a handful of coarse mane at the gelding's withers to stay astride.

The lash of the wind dies.

The void is closed, the sword sheathed, and the armed might of three lands is simply gone. Only night's curtain hides the extent of the destruction, though random flames lick at the edges of its scar. Nothing alive is left between the gate and Morgaine, Morgaine and Changeling. Earth lifted into the sky by the strength of the void falls back, choking thick in the cloying darkness. A soft patter, like rain, follows. Then comes the roar, the bone-shaking growl of a mountain moving, for a crater has been stolen from the side of Sichen Fell, dug deep as an axe-wound, and the heights are tumbling down.

***

He finds Siptah, a ghostly gray form in the darkness, stamping and striking with heavy hooves and snaking his head forward to snap at anyone crazed enough to approach a maddened warhorse.

Morgaine lies face down on the earth beyond Siptah, just short of the crumbling edge of a new cliff. Her hand is still locked, rigid, around Changeling's hilt.

Vanye leaves the chestnut with a Dhalnorhied warrior he half-remembers, barely a boy, who had snuck sweets to Arrhan on the horse-line and now suffers a sword slash across his face that will disfigure him the rest of his days.

He limps slowly and whispers in Kurshin until Siptah tosses his head a last time before butting Vanye in the chest. Only a quick grab onto Siptah's headstall prevents him falling. He keeps his fingers on it and uses the big horse's strength to steady himself as he makes his way to Morgaine.

Honest men must hate us,she whispers in his memory.

The arrow that killed Morgaine is lodged in her back.

The fletching is unmistakably Fhidhen.

***

Before him, bloody dawn colors the pale material of the gate, reflecting off the smooth curves and unnatural angles, gleaming through the shivering heat mirage effect to color the earth of the other side with strange, twisting colors. Siptah stirs restively even when Vanye sets a hand on the gray's shoulder. Siptah is warm, the only warmth left, winter coat coarse to the touch. The wind never stills completely so high on the newly barren fell; it whispers and wanders around the standing stones, colder than iron, like a voice warning this world's fools away.

Too late.

Except for the horse, he is alone. He's always been a fool.

Her hair lies in tangles, a swirl of snow in the frozen mud. For all he has learned, for all she has taught him, he doesn't know what will happen next.

All the gates beyond this one still wait.

Until the end of time.

He picks up the sword.