This is the original novella, written in the early 1980’s. A shorter version of this story was published in The Book of Kings, edited by Richard Gilliam and Martin H. Greenberg (ROC, 1995).
– 1 –
“Seeker, why have you come?”
The boy turned from the road where his foster-father waited and faced the Gateway whose pillars glimmered pale in the deep shade beneath the fir trees.
“I come to seal myself to the Covenant of Westria,” he said as he had been taught, grateful that his voice sounded firm and clear, then straightened, peering into the emptiness between the pillars.
“What is your Name?” The voice came from that darkness.
“I have no Name,” said the boy who had been called Stone, “until I get one from the Namer of All Things.”
Stone waited, the muscles in his neck cramping as the silence lengthened. Why had he insisted on being initiated this year, when he was sixteen? Surely he could have borne his foster-brothers’ taunts another year. He felt cold.
Against the darkness of the Gate he visualized the mountain valley and the sprawling, slate-roofed house where he had grown up. Then came another picture—the mound in the pine grove that marked his mother’s grave—and the old pain returned.
Oh my mother, he thought, were you too sick to tell my father’s name and your own, or were you ashamed?
As if in answer, the darkness spoke again.
“Enter then, oh Nameless One, for the sake of that which you are, and that which you will be. . . .”
Stone started, then squared his heavily-muscled shoulders, took a breath, and stepped through the Gate.
“No, I will not give up this bed to you,” Stone said levelly. “I was here first.”
The other boy took a step forward. His sleeveless tunic of undyed cotton fell in sculptured folds, as if it had been tailored to his body. The afternoon sun, slanting through the open side of the lean-to, seemed to gild his brown curls.
“You would do better to make a friend of me. . . .” he said softly.
Stone tugged at his own tunic, anad his dark eyes met the other’s scornful blue gaze.
“I don’t know who you are, or where you came from, but we are all equals here,” he answered stolidly, though his pulse was beginning to pound. At least for this month, we are, he thought, and you have no right to rule me!
For a moment he thought that the other boy would strike him. Everyone was watching them, as if they hoped the two would break the law of the Initiation Encampment and come to blows.
After a moment, however, the young nobleman shrugged disdainfully and turned away.
“We’ll take the next shelter,” he told the boys who had followed him. “It’s cleaner. . . .”
When they had gone there were a few moments of silence.
“You should have let him take the bed—” said one of those who remained, a tall boy like a young pine tree. “That was Buck. He’s the younger brother of the Lord Commander of the Ramparts. Didn’t you know?”
Stone stared at him. “My foster-father has a stone quarry at Stanesvale on the road to the holy valley of Awahna, south of here. I never even visited the city of Rivered until we passed through it on our way here.” A little ruefully, he laughed. “And I’d hoped to take service with the Lord Commander some day. . . . If Lord Philip is like his brother, perhgaps it’s just as well I found out now.”
“I don’t think he is,” said a short, red-haired boy with a northern accent. “The other Provinces may have gotten lawless since the king died, but the Commander tries to keep peace in the Ramparts. It’s kept him too busy to bring up his brother himself—Buck was fostered in the royal city of Laurelynn.”
“Philip is certainly an active war leader—” said the first boy, whom Stone found himself thinking of as ‘Pine’. “He was setting out after the latest bunch of raiders from the Brown Lands when we came through Rivered.”
All three glanced towards the blue ranges that rose to the east of the Initiation grounds as if expecting the barbarians to appear, then sighed, their eyes returning to the golden hills around them. The shelters where the boys were to sleep stood in a semi-circle beneath a stand of live-oak trees. They could see the roofs of the girls’ area beyond the dip marking the stream.
Stone heard Buck and his friends settling in next door, and beyond them, others, come from villages and freeholds all over the Ramparts for this summer’s Name-taking and initiation into the rites of Westria. In the other three Provinces of Westria, boys and girls who had reached physical maturity and believed themselves ready to take on the responsibilities of adults would be arriving at their own Initiation sites. He looked down the line of shelters. At the end of the circle, four stood empty. From the gaping roofs and sagging rafters of the last two, they had not been used for some years.
A shift in the wind carried the sound of Buck saying something about the “primitive conditions here. . . .” Stone stiffened, then sat down on his cot, muttering, “He who would command others must first command himself—”
Pine looked at him inquiringly.
“Just quoting—” Stone smiled, “an old man who used to come by our holding sometimes. I called him ‘Master’, though I don’t know if he is a member of the College of the Wise. He prepared me for Initiation.”
Sometimes I thought he was preparing me to follow the Adepts’ Road. Stone did not voice that thought. What vision will show me where to go? What name do I deserve?
Pine nodded, but Stone wondered how he could possibly understand. For a moment he shut his eyes, hearing again his master’s honey-rough voice, and remembering his deep gaze. The Master was only a little, bent old man, but Stone winced, thinking what he would have said about Stone’s words with Buck just now.
I am as proud as Buck is, he thought sorrowfully. But I won’t let him provoke me again!
Stone pulled absently at his sandal strap, trying to ease it, while the lecturer, an old priest from Rivered, droned on. It was all very well to take from them all clothing that might indicate rank or way of life and dress the Seekers alike, but Stone’s own boots, though worn, at least fit properly.
“You may find it hard to understand how men could misuse the earth from which they sprang. Does a man slay his brother? Are parents denied by their children? Perhaps—even among the animal nations, madness is not unknown. But we can only try to imagine how an entire race could so forget its origins that it would endanger its existence and destroy whole tribes of its brethren. We believe that this did happen only because the traditions have nowhere else lied, and because the ruins of the cities these people built may still be seen. . . .” The priest passed his hand over the silver fuzz of his hair and sipped from his water bottle.
Stone remembered the black, rocky stuff that was revealed sometimes by washouts in the road. The Master said it had been the surface of the roadway once, before clean earth covered it. He tried to imagine ribbons of black netting the land.
There was a giggle behind him and he glimpsed Buck tipping a large red ant on Pine’s leg. Without thinking, Stone reached out to flick it off. At that moment Pine finally noticed and squawked, and the priest glared at Stone. Buck stifled a laugh.
“Now, who can tell me how the Earth reacted to this mistreatment?” the old man went on. Buck raised his hand.
“There were earthquakes, and fire from the mountains. . .”
Stone glowered, wondering if his sandals pinched.
“Too much rain fell-” said a girl nearby, whose skin glowed like polished walnut wood.
“And all the animals began to attack men,” added the red-haired boy.
“But does anyone know why?” the priest asked then.
There was a silence. The legends they had all learned as children told only of the events of the Cataclysm, not the reasons behind them. Finally Stone lifted his hand.
“I have heard that there were too many people, who dug into the ground and cut down the trees. With nothing to hold it, the soil washed away, and the weights on its surface shifted until parts slid into the sea and the rest shook the buildings down. The volcanoes were awakened then, and added their smoke to what the peoples’ machines had made. The sky was darkened and the seasons disordered. The plants could not grow.” Stone remembered how the Master’s voice had grated on the tale, and lowering his voice, went on.
“And then the Guardians of the plants and animals stirred from their long sleep and took counsel as to how to save their peopoles, and they decided to do away with Man. . . .” he faltered.
“And so for a ten-year the beasts killed men where they could—” flat-voiced, the priest took up the tale, “and except for a few places where men had loved the land, the food-plants refused to grow. And when those years were done, and men were few upon the earth, the last of them met with the Guardians in council, and by the mercy of the Maker of All Things, a Covenant was made. May the Maker grant that we do not forget what they learned with such pain.” The old man nodded. “Younger Brother, you have answered well.”
Stone shot a glance at Buck and saw him shrug disdainfully. He suppressed a smile. He was no lord’s son, but he had had a good teacher. For a moment he seemed to see the Master’s deep eyes upon him, then he buried his head in his arms. Again I give way to pride! Will I never learn? Lord of All—help me to use this time aright. . . . He heard the rattle of a pebble, and Buck’s laugh.
The program at the Initiation Retreat was intended to be intensive, but not exhausting. After the noonmeal and a period of meditation, the boys and girls were free to spend the afternoons as they willed. Priests and priestess were available for individual counselling,, or they could practice the dances, swim, roam through a hundred acres of wood and meadow, or use the playing fields.
Stripped to their clouts, a dozen boys and girls were playing stickball while as many more cheered whenever the players could be seen through the dust. Stone dragged off his tunic and folded it carefully over a low hanging branch of the great live-oak that shaded the field.
Stone whipped around, saw that the speaker was Buck, and looked away. But he could not close his ears as the other boy went on.
“You can see he comes from a rock quarry—slow as stone too, I’ll wager—”
“Maybe he’s part gnome. . .” a girl’s laugh tinkled. “That’s what his name will be—hello, Brother Gnome!” There was an echo of laughter from the youths surrounding Buck.
Stone stalked away from them, too proud to put his tunic back on. He felt as if he shoulders had swollen, weighting him like a deformation. He had stone-breaker’s shoulders, axeman’s arms, and though his legs and thighs were well developed from scrambling over mountain slopes and his torso bronzed from working outdoors, his shoulders were large in proportion to the rest of him. He had never thought much about his body, except to take pride in being able to work as hard and long as his bigger foster-brothers. But now he fought shame.
“Brother Gnome!” He tried to banish the memory. Shall I let them Name me?
Teams were forming for a new stick-ball game, and Stone strode onto the field. In a few moments the needs of the game drove Buck’s laughter to the back of his mind. Frowning in concentration, he dashed into the melee. But as the ball spun by him it seemed to bear Buck’s face, and Stone slashed at it with a savage joy.
The game ended as Pine slammed the leather-covered ball into the goal. Stone still quivered with nervous tension, but the others, panting and sweating through their dust, were swirling off the field. Beyond them he could see Buck lying at ease in the shade, his clean tunic still on. Reluctantly Stone followed the others towards the trees.
“Brother, that was a good shot!” he said to Pine.
The other laughed, bending towards him like a young tree in the wind, and brushing fair hair back off his face. “I was lucky—and I think it was you who sent that ball my way.”
Stone laughed and shrugged, suddenly eased. Why did it matter what Buck might say?
“Well, that was all very lively,” drawled Buck, “but can’t you think of something more interesting than batting a little ball around the field?”
“What did you have in mind?” asked Pine.
“Foot races, perhaps, since they won’t let us do anything really worthwhile like riding or falconry. . . .”
The noble sports, thought Stone. I’ll bet he’s good at those.
“A race would be fine with me!” said Pine, stretching his long legs.
“But let’s choose a course that’s really. . . worthwhile. . .” said Stone, giving Buck a level look. “Like from here to that big rock at the top of the hill and back again.” The others looked as he pointed across the meadow and up the chaparral studded hill to an outcropping of rock about a quarter mile away.
“That will be a real test!” someone shouted, and there was a babble of agreement.
“If you wish it, I will judge—” came a new voice. Stone turned and saw one of the priestesses who had been watching the game, a young woman with a thick braid of black hair.
“Mistress Larissa, the honor will be ours,” Buck replied. If he minded the distance he gave no sign. He was taking off his own tunic at last, and as Stone noted the beautifully-defined muscles of the other boy’s torso, his finely moulded legs and slim hips, he wondered suddenly what he would have looked like if he had been reared in a great lord’s hall.
Thoughtfully he retied the thong that held his dark hair clubbed at his neck and moved towards the starting line Mistress Larissa had drawn.
Eight young people lined up beside the priestess. Beside Pine and Buck and Stone there was a slim brown girl who had been on the opposing stick-ball team, two other girls, and two more boys. They stretched tight muscles and scuffed bare feet to get a better purchase on the grass, watching Mistress Larissa from the corners of their eyes.
Buck, the dark girl, and Pine dropped into the poised crouch of experienced racers. Stone hunched his shoulders nervously, then relaxed to the stillness of the hunter who waits beside the pool. That he was no sprinter he knew well, but he could run for hours, and he had learned to walk on mountainsides.
The hand of the priestess came down.
Feet thudding in the grass, the runners took off. Buck flashed into the lead at once, with Pine close behind. The dark girl was saving her strength, loping along easily in third place with the others grouped into a loose knot behind her. As he had expected, Stone was last.
He concentrated on his breathing, regulating it as his master had taught him, binding heart and lungs and pounding feet into one smoothly functioning machine. He ran in silence, and when he felt the ground grow steeper, he smiled.
He passed the red-haired boy sitting winded by the path, and pushed by another boy and one of the girls laboring up the slope. A second girl was a little ahead of him, and beyond her he was Buck and Pine and the dark girl touch the rock almost at the same time and turn to speed down the hill. He pushed himself a little then, passed the girl in front of him still gaining speed, and met the leaderse almost at the top of the hill. His fingers brushed the rough stone and he pivoted on the ball of one foot, thrusting strongly to gain added impetus for the downward dash.
The others were nearing the base of the hill. Stone’s feet flew with the precision of a goat on the mountain. He was gaining on them—they had reached the flat now, but they could not keep up their early pace. Stone’s feet touched grass. His lips drew back in a grimace of effort and he set his teeth and ran.
He could make out the dark-robed figure of the priestess now, and the crowd of pale tunics beyond her. Over the rasp of his own breathing he heard cheering. Buck and Pine were straining ahead, fighting for the lead. He saw the dark-skinned girl begin to put on speed like a swallow heading for home. He stepped up his own pace, knowing that she would be the one to catch.
She was almost level with Buck when she swayed, cried out, and crumpled to the ground.
Neither of the leaders had paused. Had they even heard? Stone’s thoughts sped as swiftly as his feet. The girl might have slipped on a loose stone, or stepped wrong and twisted her foot. But she had been swinging around Buck when she fell, close to an outcropping of rock. Rattlesnakes sheltered in such rocks during the heat of the day.
He had almost reached her now. His step faltered. Skidding a little he dropped to his knees in the path. He heard shouting from the finish line.
He bent over the dark girl. There were no puncture marks on her legs, but he saw a gash on her temple. The blood seemed very bright against her brown skin. She moaned and stirred sluggishly as Stone eased his arms beneath her body.
“Don’t try to move, little swallow, you’ll be all right,” he murmered, getting his legs under him and lifting her so that her head lay against his shoulder. The feel of her bare skin against his sent prickles up and down his spine.
He wondered who had won the race.
Stone strode towards the finish line, carrying the girl. People were running towards them. Pine reached him first, eyes clouding with concern.
“Holy Guardians, is she all right? What happened?” he stammered. “I didn’t see her fall—”
“I think she slipped on a loose stone and hit her head when she went down.”
Pine shook his head regretfully. “She would have won.” As the crowd parted, Stone glimpsed Buck with the victor’s chaplet of sweet-smelling laurel leaves on his brown hair.
Someone had spread a cloak under the oak tree. Stone lowered the girl onto it and one of the priests bent over her, feeling her skull. At the touch she stirred and her eyelids fluttered.
“She may have some concussion, but I think there is nothing seriously wrong—” said the priest in a low voice. “But she must have rest. All of you, leave her now!”
The crowd around them began to move away.
“We’re all going down to the river for a swim,” said Pine. “Come on—”
Stone nodded. “You go on. I’ll be along.” He walked slowly, his eyes on the ground, trying to fight down his anger at Buck’s victory.
“You did well—”
Stone looked up and saw Mistress Larissa moving silently at his side. Her skin was golden in the afternoon light. She seemed little older than he was, hardly old enough to have completed her years at the College of the Wise.
He shook his head. “No—” the words rushed out. “I picked the course to give myself an advantage, and when the girl fell I almost didn’t stop.”
“But you did stop. You judge yourself too harshly, my friend.”
He started to kick a pebble out of his path, then halted. Why should he take out his frustration on the innocent earth? Still, the silence of the woman beside him eased his spirit, and after a moment he sighed.
“When I came here, I thought that in my vision quest I might find a Calling to the Adept’s Road as well as a name. . .” he said at last.
“Oh dear—and so you wanted to be perfect from the very start?”
He flushed, but her laugh was understanding, and meeting her eyes he began to laugh too.
“I know how it is—” she went on. “I felt the same. But when I chose my path, I assure you it was not because I had achieved perfection!”
“Then how did you choose?”
“My mother came from a village of the Tribes near Tamiston, north of here—you have the look of a tribesman yourself, you know—and I wanted to learn the lore and fostering of healing of herbs as her people had done. Such knowledge is gathered at the College of the Wise. Once there I grew to love the rites and ceremonies, so when my studies were done I accepted a posting to the community at Rivered.”
Stone glanced at her sidelong, but her face was serene, and asked, greatly daring, “But did you not desire to take the longer road?”
“The road to Awahna?” Larissa smiled. “I am still too much attached to the Glory manifest in the world. The Master’s Road is for those whose strength of spirit is as great as their desire to seek the Glory that lies beyond all created things.”
“I never thought of it like that,” said the boy. He remembered the absolute stillness he had sometimes seen on his master’s face as he looked into the fire, and his look when he turned towards Awahna and gazed up the Pilgrim’s Road.
Stone worked his shoulders back and forth. “But how shall I know who I am and what I am to do?”
“What are you good at?” the priestess asked.
“I wish I knew!”
– 2 –
The day had been hot, but now a breeze was cooling the air. Stone moved his head gratefully, letting it lift the strands of hair that clung damply to his forehead, and shifted a little on the stone seat of the amphitheater. It was undoubtedly beautiful, carved from the living granite where the roots of the Ramparts thrust through the red clay of the foothills, but he wished that the austerity of the Initiation grounds had allowed them to pad the seats.
Behind the stage, distant peaks glowed gently in the light of the setting sun.
The light gentled the harsh slopes of the foothills falling away to either side. If he turned, he would see the land blurring into the expanse of the great valley behind them, and to the south, a smudge of smoke from the chimneys of Rivered. Somewhere beyond the Valley, the sun was setting into the sea that he had never seen.
The light, reflecting off the stone, cast a rosy glow on the faces of the audience as well, tinting them all with the same unaccustomed beauty. But why should I find it strange that we are beginning to look alike, wondered Stone. Haven’t we eaten and slept and learned together for two weeks all the same?
Even without looking he could feel the warmth of Pine, who sat beside him. Nearby were others who had become his friends, identified by their looks and deeds. Suddenly Stone wanted to embrace them all; stilled by this unexpected rush of emotion, he felt his awareness expanding to touch each one.
From a few rows away came an outburst of giggles. Stone came back to himself with a start, dizzy as if he had fallen, and hoping desperately that his face had not given him away. Some of the girls were staring at him. As he turned, they nudged the dark girl he thought of as Swallow, who resolutely looked away.
Stone bent quickly to fix his sandal strap. He had heard that people were coupling Swallow and him. Almost a hundred young people living so closely were bound to produce gossip no matter how busy their teachers kept them. Stone’s “romance” was only one of a dozen whispered scandals. But they had never been so obvious before.
He ventured a glance at the girl’s cloud of dark hair, wondering if she really did think of him in that way. His flesh stirred as he remembered the feel of her in his arms. With a shock he realized that he was blushing now, and looking quickly away he saw Buck sitting arrogantly among his cronies, watching him.
The hot blood receded from Stone’s face as he struggled with a resentment that now seemed instinctive. Why am I worrying about gossip? He asked himself. He is my real problem. How can I expect to find a true vision with this hatred in my heart?
A sigh swept through the audience and the murmurs stilled. One of the priests had come onto the stage and was lighting the torches to either side. Golden light flickered on a large, undecorated central screen.
“Wait until you see this!” whispered Pine. “My brother told me about it when he came back from his initiation two years ago.”
A gong boomed, its echoes shuddering in the air. From behind the screen someone was speaking and the hair rose on Stone’s neck. He had heard that at the College they could wither trees or crack stone with a spoken word. But this voice was soft, and the theater so designed that each listener heard it speaking in his very ear.
“Now after the Covenant was made, men lived in peace with the elder kindreds and with each other until ten generations had passed. And they chose kings to reign over them, now from one Great House, and now from another. . . .”
Stone tried to resist its appeal, tried to wonder by what means it was done, but in moments the voice captured him as it had the others, and he had no thought beyond the tale.
“But it came to pass that Karolan Lastking died and they could not agree on his successor, and the four Noble Houses warred without pause or mercy, using whatever weapons came to hand. And the Masters feared that in their rage the lords might break the Covenant and so bring down a Cataclysm again, and they sent a Mistress of the College to Awahna to seek counsel.”
From behind the screen appeared a figure wrapped in a woman’s cloak and carrying a staff. With a fraction of awareness, Stone wondered if it was Mistress Larissa. He knew she was in the pageant, but she had not told them what part she would play. There was music now, harp and pipe and drum. Dancing, the woman mimed the hardships of the road. A man stepped from the shadows, and in his hand he held a star. He and the woman danced together, their movements becoming slower, closer, until they sank together to the floor. And when after a time the man rose and left her, upon her breast lay the star.
The folds of the woman’s cloak lapped her like a pool of shadow, but a light was growing beyond the screen. Figures leaped from behind it, white-clad, gleaming. They danced about her, keeping time to a pure piping that seemed to come from beyond the world. Like milk-weed in the wind they swirled, until the woman rose, let slip her cloak, and joined them in the dance. And when the dancers had gone, on the woman’s cloak lay the image of a new-born child.
The stage darkened, and the voice spoke again.
“And the priestess bore her child in Awahna, and when he was weaned she gave him to her own parents to foster. And they called him Julian, after his grandfather, and Starbairn, for no one knew who his father had been. But the priestess took up the white stone and called it the Wind Crystal, for it gave to her understanding of the spirits of the air and the power to Name all living things, and she used it to gain knowledge of the other elements from which all earthly life is formed– of earth and water, and fire, and she created four great Jewels of Power.”
The words vibrated in Stone’s body as if a spear had turned in his gut. A drum began to beat and he gasped.
Bearing the white jewel on her breast, the dancer reappeared, stretching out her arms in a wordless call. Creatures clothed in russet and brown and green appeared as if they had manifested from the stone of the stage. They gathered around her, then sprang to each others’ shoulders in a latticed pyramid. The priestess climbed among them, and when she reached the top she bore in her hands an oval stone that drew to it all the creature’s light. A scent like freshly turned earth and new-mown hayfields drifted across the night.
Then the notes of a harp rippled in the darkness. The priestess stood now in the midst of a river of blue and purple light. From it, forms clad in silver leaped, to sink again in homage at her feet, and when at last the colors swirled into darkness she bore a jewel that focused all their glory beneath her heart. Stone felt his cheeks wet, and did not know if it were from rain or tears.
Now a point of flame sparked before them; and another, and a dozen more. A quick sharp singing of stringed instruments brought figures into the light. Gleaming with copper and emerald they circled the priestess, torches in their hands. Juggled flawlessly, the torches leaped to form blazing patterns while the bodies of the dancers interwove below. Closer to the priestess and yet closer they came, until the torches surrounded her. The watchers gasped as her garment blazed up around her in a veil of flame. But when they could use their eyes again they saw her standing alone with a point of burning light upon her brow.
In the silence that followed Stone forced his gaze away from the stage and for a moment glimpsed Buck’s face, unmasked and vulnerable in the flickering light.
The moon had set and high clouds veiled the stars when they returned to their beds at last. No one had wanted to talk, and Stone settled gratefully into his blankets. He knew he would have lashed out if anyone had tried to make him speak about what he had seen.
But sleep was slow to come. Imposed upon the darkness, Stone saw the figures of the dancers and the four Jewels they had helped the priestess to create. By those four talismans, the kings of Westria who were descended from that woman and her child had mediated between humanity and the other powers.
Earth and water, air and fire—on these four all life depends—lines from the catechism echoed in his brain.
What must it be like to possess such power? How would a man, even a king, control it? Still pondering, Stone passed from waking to dream and saw the dance once more.
Again the priestess came towards him, and he knew that it was Mistress Larissa. She danced, holding out her arms, and now he was her partner, leaping as if gravity had no power, twirling closer and closer until the world whirled around him and he entered her waiting arms.
He moaned, and twisted in his blankets, then burrowed against the pillow and grew quiet once more, still feeling the bliss of soft arms rocking him. He looked up at a pale face framed by dark hair, heard his name sung against the whisper of the wind in the pines and breathed in the scent of lilies.
“Mother—” he murmured, and in that recognition half-woke again. She called my name. . . he tried to remember what that name had been. I was dreaming about the Jewels. . .
He reached out and thought he touched them, played with them like a juggler. His hands flashed lightnings. Faster and faster he moved and the world reeled around him, faster, and the Jewels began to slip from his grasp. He cried out and shuddered upright as the world collapsed around him in thunder and flood and flame.
The thunder in Stone’s ears died slowly away. He rubbed at his eyes and peered through the darkness, seeing only the dim shapes of his fellows and hearing nothing but their snores. Had he even cried out? He recalled his dream and for a moment seriously wondered if he were mad. Then he sighed, and reluctantly eased beneath his blankets again. When he woke again in the grey dawn, clutching vainly at images of fear and splendor, he knew that he had dreamed but could not remember what the dreams had been.
“Why are they stuffing us with all this history?” Stone muttered to Pine. “Will I quarry rock or track deer any better for knowing that there have been six kings of Westria since Julian Starbairn’s time, and two reigning queens?”
He had been fighting the headache with which he had awakened all day. It was clearing now, but he felt a little muzzy still. The litany of the kings reverberated in his head, seeming to bear little relation to the splendor he had glimpsed in the dance.
The girl he called Swallow looked up from her meal. “If we don’t learn from what has happened before, it may happen again. My father says that if we don’t watch out, the Guardians will turn against us a second time. I’m the only one from my village to come for Initiation for the past three years. My father says that things would change if we had a king to wield the Jewels, but if people don’t want to keep the Law, I don’t know what good a king could do. . . .”
Pine patted Stone’s arm. “Perhaps tonight will be better,” he said. “They say a bard is coming to sing.”
Stone grunted and turned back to his bowl of millet stewed with beef and vegetables. His spoon scraped against the smooth wood as he spooned up the last of the rich broth. When Pine tapped his shoulder again he looked up in annoyance that chanaged to curiosity as he saw the Initiation Master escorting a man whose violet cloak glowed like amethyst into the hall.
“A bard. . . who is it?” ran the whisper. “Is it Farin Harper?” “Is it the Master of the College of Bards?”
“Nay,” said Buck a little too loudly. “Sir Farin disappeared years ago, and the Master of the College has better occupation than to sing to a pack of cubs. That is Aurel Goldenthroat, whom some say will lead the College of Bards one day.” He smiled, his features lit for once by honest delight. “He is master enough—wait and see!”
Then he saw Stone watching him and his face changed. Too late, Stone tried to stop scowling. Then, as Buck went on, he stopped wanting to.
“This will be a great treat for you, Brother Gnome—a change from the clatter of falling rocks and cracking stone. . . .”
Stone felt Pine grip his elbow and swallowed his retort. By the Earthstone, what hope can be worth my bearing with him for so long?
The bard sat down by the fire, throwing back his cloak to free his arms. Without the hood they could see that he was young, with mouse-fair hair and blue eyes of a peculiar clarity. He settled a dulcimer across his lap. Delicately he drew the plectrum over its strings while he looked around at his audience.
“I am told that you are wearied of the deeds of kings—” he said with a smile. “But I must beg your indulgence for my song, for it tells of the first of our great kings—Julian Starbairn, who was called the Jewel-Lord.”
Stone’s embarassment at having his complaint voiced warred with a stir of interest, for it was said that the first master of the Jewels had been born in the mountains near Stanesvale, his home. He put down his empty bowl as the murmur of appreciation stilled and the bard began to sing.
Once long ago there was no king—
The land lay lorn, with warring torn;
Men saw their lordsd new chaos bring
And could but warn.
But fearing men no longer meant
To keep their oaths and Covenant,
At last the Guardians to us sent
Down from the mountains Julian came—
His home lay far, where no men are—
Nor any father could he name
Except a star.
But elemental jewels of Power
From his mother were his dower,
Indeed he came in happy hour—
It chanced that fire raged on the plain;
Men set it there, nor did they care
That plant and beast with mn the pain
Of death would share.
In Julian’s hands the Jewels compel—
Fire fought fire, wind ceased, rain fell,
By him earth was renewed as well—
Their own lord slain, the people chose
Young Julian, to lead their men.
In wrath, the other princes rose
To crush him then.
“Now use the Jewels,” the people cried,
“And let the land destroy their pride!”
And how could such need be denied,
“If by the power of the Jewels
The land could kill, at its own will
It might continue without rules
To deal death still.
Oh rather, let them lend to men
The strength of earth, storm-fury, when
They fight, and fire’s heat,” said he then,
And so they fought, and though years passed
‘Til strife was done, King Julian
to Westria brought peace at last,
all battles won.
Nor shall we cease remembering
The greatness of the star-born king,
Whose deeds and wisdom still we sing—
Stone sat still, his troubled spirit eased by the rhythm of the song. It seemed to answer a question out of his dream, though he could not put it into words or understand why the song should satisfy him so. It was only a legend about an ancient king.
After the bard had left, the singing continued while the last light faded. Someone made a silly pun and they all laughed, finding it, and the jokes that followed, unbearably funny somehow. Stone felt as light-headed as if the sweet tea they drank were wine.
Larissa took the dulcimer and sang a ballad about the Lady of the Wolves, a tale of the north who had lived with a wolf pack after her family were slain. There was some question as to whether her children were sired by a wolf or a man, and the families descended from her still bore a wolf’s head on their shields.
Her voice was low and clear, sweet as honey, just as her skin seemed to glow with its gold. With a brief clarity Stone remembered the voice in his dream and knew with relief that they were not the same. But the thought passed as quickly as it had come. His eyes were on Larissa again. Because of the fire’s heat she had loosened the lacing at the neck of her gown and the pale curve of her breat showed through the opening. He wondered if her skin were as smooth as it looked, and whether it tasted of honey too. . . .
When she had finished Pine spoke into the silence, his voice dreamy. “It is hard to believe that when this week is over we will go out to seek our own visions and come back Named. . . .”
“This time has been full of marvels, just as I was told!” Swallow exclaimed. “I will never forget the tales, and the teaching, and the Dance!”
“I will be happy when it is over,” Buck said then. “When I get home, my brother has promised that I may go hunting Easterling raiders with his warband!”
Swallow frowned at him. “Don’t you know better than to talk about such things here?”
Her friend, the plump girl with the tawny hair, laughed heedlessly. “I wish I had some magic jewels. I could do anything I wanted to!”
“No. . .” Stone answered absently. Pine’s ‘Named‘ still rang in his mind like a knell. Soon, so soon, the end of the retreat must come, and he still didn’t know what his own name would be. Without thinking, he continued, “No, that’s exactly what you couldn’t do. Didn’t you hear the song? Julian Starbairn was a great king because he knew how to use power, knew what he did and did not have the right to do. It is worse to use power wrongly than not to use it at all.”
His words hung in the air like a prophecy. Stone saw his friends staring at him and wondered what had possessed him to say all that.
He was not the only one.
“Hah!” Buck’s snort broke the silence. “And who do you think you are to make free with the name of a king? You’ll never rule more than your own weedpatch, Brother Gnome!” The wraiths of Buck’s lordly father, who had been Regent of Westria, and his grandfather, King Alexander, and of all of the kings of Westria seemed to hover around him, sneering at Stone.
The world darkened, and without willing it Stone reached for that mocking face, because while Buck was still speaking, Stone had realised what name it was he wanted and could never claim.
He heard shouts, and someone pulled him back.
“Puppies! Are you puppies to quarrel before your dinner is cold?” Larissa’s icy tone congealed his anger. “Get you to bed, both of you, if you cannot behave like men!”
– 3 –
On the next day, Stone did not see Mistress Larissa at all, or on the two days that followed. He told himself that it was because she was working with the girls, for the sexes were separated for the instruction in the meaning of gender and polarity and the duties of man and womanhood which were the final topics covered. Only once or twice, when he was alone, did he admit to himself how much it mattered what the priestess thought of him.
He and Buck were distantly polite when they could not avoid each other entirely. He knew the flare-up had been his fault, even though the other boy had provoked him. He told himself that if there were any chance Buck could accept an apology he would make one, but he had no faith in his own self-control if the other boy were to mock him again.
After the vigil he would be able to do it. When he had his Name, he would be immune to anything Buck might say.
During these final days Stone began to realize how much he was counting on that time of testing, when each seeker would be left alone with whatever wisdom the past weeks had given him. It had to work. Everyone said that you returned from the quest with a Name, and some, with a vision of your whole life’s road. He became silent and snapped at his friends, and at odd moments would find himself trembling like a too-tightly-strung bow.
On the last evening they bathed and dressed in new tunics of pure white. Stone and the other boys formed into a line and followed one of the priests, who played for them on a set of shepherd’s pipes, towards the dancing ground. The music drew them into its rhythm, and soon they found that their march had become a dance.
The posts of the clearing where they had practiced for so many hours was now festooned with ribbons and green boughs. As they neared, they heard another, sweeter, piping, whose notes wove descant to the tune their own piper played. Their steps faltered as they saw another line approaching their own.
The girls were coming, newly robed in tunics of black with garlands on their shining hair.
The pipers paced onward until the two lines were facing each other. Forward moved the boys, while the girls drew back. Then it was the turn of the girls to advance, while the boys retreated. Back and forth they moved for a few measures; then the boys began to circle sunwise. But the girls’ line, surrounded made its circle the other way. Touching hands briefly, males and females exchanaged places, and each line circled in the opposite direction. Then they changed once more, forming a single circle around the fire, anad the pipers at last were still.
“This is the Dance of Life!” The Initiation Master proclaimed. “Now we advance, now we retreat; now one is positive, but in response to another, passive again. We must explore the full potential of the gender to which we were born, yet find our point of balance between the two. Knowing this, and being at the threshold of your lives, let the music move you, and let the dance go on!”
From the seekers came an involuntary shout as the pipes let go with an exultant skirl and drums thudded out a compelling rhythm, and releasing all the tension of the preceding days, they began to dance.
Stone sat down on one of the logs that edged the dancing floor. A group of boys went by, staggering with laughter at somebody’s joke. They called to Stone, but he smiled and shook his head. He was tired, but not yet ready for sleep.
Many of the dancers had gone, some in groups and some in couples who slipped into the darkness. Those who had found each other during this time often chose the night of the dance to complete their bond, and on this night, no one would deny them the right to do so. If children resulted, they were held to be especially blessed.
Stone had thought about asking a girl to go into the woods with him—although his foster-brothers’ stories had left little to be imagined, Stone had not met enough girls at home to learn about love-making for himself—but somehow the right girl, or the right moment, had not come. Some of the boys boasted of the conquests they would make. Stone did not want his first time to be like that. And what if he had asked a girl and she said no? And what if she said yes? As swiftly as the question was voiced he banished it again.
He stood up. The moonlight on the bare hills was beautiful. He thought he would walk in it and let it bathe his soul as the river had made his body clean. And the others could speculate as they wished on where he had gone and with whom.
The path led him through the woods and up the slope behind the dancing floor, until the trees hid all but the glow of the fire, and the drumming was like a pulse-beat, felt rather than heard. The light of the full moon dimmed the stars. The hills lay stretched before him, all shining curves and tree-furred hollows like a woman’s body. Beyond them rose the banked ridges and folds of the mountains, as transparent and mysterious in thte moonlight as the ramparts of another world.
Stone thought he might rest on one of the boulders that studded the slope, but as he started across the hill it stirred. Amid the dark folds of a cloak a pale face glimmered, turning towards him like the moon. He stopped short, sight darkening in the rush of his blood. It is a spirit of the earth. . . . Then his sight cleared and he recognized Larissa sitting there.
And still he could not move. A shift in the wind amplified the sound of drumming, or perhaps it was only the heightened pounding of his heart.
“The night is beautiful, and there is room on my cloak for two. Come and sit with me. . .” she said, and with the sense that each step had been fore-ordained, he came to her.
Stone awoke in the light of the new day, Larissa’s honey-scent all around him. He reached out for her and struggled for a moment against the folds of the cloak, and then lay still, understanding that she had gone. But in the next moment he was laughing, for joy of the morning and memory of the night. He pulled on his rumpled tunic, bundled the cloak under his arm, and started down the hill. By the time he reached the bathing pool he was whistling.
“Well, well, won’t you look at the mockingbird!”
Stone stopped, turned, and met Buck’s blue gaze. Even then, it took a few moments for his happiness to fade. As usual, Buck was immaculate. Stone’s chin lifted and his breathing slowed.
“Isn’t he just the picture, though,” Buck went on. “Straw in his hair and dirt on his legs, and—oh—the barnyard stink of him!” With a delicate sniff he turned his head aside.
Stone bit back a retort and started past.
“And so you’re going to bathe—” said the other boy, his tone sharpening. “I should hope so. But don’t think you can conceal your rutting that way. Writhing in the muck like any beast, weren’t you, but then you are an animal. . . . What sow did you mount, animal? What bitch did you. . . ” He leaned forward, hissing the words into Stone’s unwilling ears.
The other boy’s description of the sexual act was complete and graphic. Unable to escape, Stone heard the splendors he had just discovered made sordid and unclean. He threw up his hands to ward the words away, but he could not wipe the pictures from his mind. And still Buck went on.
“Stop!” Stone got the words out at last.
“Oh no— you’ve been putting on airs since the first day. I want you to understand just how low you are!”
Stone’s whole awareness focused to the single desire to wipe the contempt from that aristocratic face, to say something that would hurt the other boy as badly as Buck had wounded him.
“You fop—” he hissed as soon as he got his breathing under control. “Are you jealous? If your equipment is as useless as the rest of you, no wonder no girl would go with you last night!” And in the fraction of a second before rage replaced it, he saw a dumb agony in Buck’s eyes and realized that what he had said must be true.
Buck’s fist smashed towards his face. Stone saw it coming, tried to pull away, and took a glancing blow that made his head ring. He dropped the cloak and swung at Buck, but the other boy danced neatly out of the way and hit him again. Stone growled and thrust up one arm to guard his face. In innumerable battles with his foster-brothers he had at least learned that.
Buck was fast and well-trained. Stone endured his blows and waited for his chance. He thought he saw an opening, struck and missed, but he had thrown the other boy off balance. He grabbed Buck’s left wrist, knocked his other arm aside, and bore him down.
His enemy struggled beneath him, fists beating a tattoo on Stone’s back, but Stone’s strength and weight gave him the advantage now. His hand rose and fell. Desperate fingers clutched at his arms. He heard shouts, and the pounding in his head began to slow. With a sob, he forced himself to stop and let the others lift him to his feet.
Buck lay sprawled in the dust before him, hair matted and blood trickling form his nose. His eyes were closed. Stone ran his tongue over his lips and winced, tasting blood there, too. The voice of the Initiation Master cut through the babble around him.
In the silence that followed, he looked down at Buck once more. He supposed he must have won the fight, but as Pine started to lead him away all Stone could feel was a dreadful sense of loss.
– 4 –
The sun was too hot. It burned Stone’s back where Buck’s nails had scored it. He should move into the shade of the madrone tree. But he remained where he was on the hillside in the full sun, as if his body’s pain could cancel out the agony in his soul. A few yards away two jays were arguing in the branches of a live oak tree. Beyond it, the land rose sharply to a hilltop where three gnarled pines stood silhouetted against the brilliant sky. Stone had been here only a day and a half, but he was sure he had memorized every leaf and rock.
After the fight, Stone had been sure he would be denied Initiation, sent home nameless with his shame proclaimed to all. But it seemed to him now that this punishment might be worse—to be sent on his Vigil just as if he had not broken a fundamental rule of the Retreat, with no company but the memory of his crime.
“I will not punish you. The fault was not all your own. . .” the voice of the Initiation Master echoed in his ears. “Perhaps this was inevitable. I will send you out with the others. Try to understand what you did to provoke the other boy’s anger, and what it was in you that responded to it.” Stone remembered the lamplight shining on the Master’s silver-streaked hair. He was young for this post, but in that moment he had seemed very old.
Stone did not bother to brush away the tears that pricked his eyelids. Only the jays could see him cry, and they did not care. If they had sent me home, in justice they would have had to expel Buck, too. They would not dare treat the brother of the Lord Commander so. . . . But perhaps that was unfair. He shook his head and winced as the bruise on his temple began to throb once more.
Abruptly he stood and started down the hill. There was no use sitting still if this was the kind of meditation that came to him. At the bottom of the slope a little stream chuckled to itself as it trickled over the rocky bed. He bent and splashed water on his face, then cupped his hands and drank, carefully, for his lip was still puffy. His stomach growled, and to quiet it he drank again.
He would get no food for another two days, but the seekers were always left near water. If there was no stream, the priests brought waterbottles each day before dawn. Stone knew that a few miles downstream and a mile or so up there were others from his group, though during the two hour ride through the pre-dawn darkness, they had all been blindfolded, lest they glimpse the road and learn in what direction the Initiation site lay.
At this time of year there was little in this country that could hurt them. If there was an accident—a snakebite or a fall—a shout would carry to the nearest boy or girl, and they all had flint and steel to send up a smoke to call for help.
For a moment Stone thought about what would happen if he met a rattler, if, for instance, a snake hid under that tangle of fallen branches. . . . In imagination he progressed thorugh the sharp sting of the bite, the spreading numbness, the delirium of the final agony. . . . He would not call out. When they came at last they would find him convulsed and cold. He pictured the tragic procession returning to the Initiation grounds. How would they all feel then? How would Larissa feel when she heard the news?
He considered death. . . . They had spoken of it in the last of the lessons before the Seekers were sent out. Death. . .and rebirth. . . .
“Go forth into darkness as the dead go, guided only by faith, little knowing where you are going or what you will find.” Stone repeated the Initiation Master’s parting admonition as if the words had been burned into his brain. “But wake to the Light. For this is Death, and Death is only this—to sleep and wake renewed. The person you have been is a chrysalis from which a new being will spring. When you return, you will be changed both in name and in deed.”
But nearly half the time allotted for the quest was gone, and Stone knew himself agonizingly the same.
He took a deliberate step to the windfall and stood waiting, but there was no warning rattle, only the laughter of the stream. Stone laughed too, with harsh self-mockery. “If I do not return that way,” he asked softly, “how can I go back at all?”
A path wound away past the top of his hill. He could follow it back to the Valley and find his way to some other part of Westria, even to the sea. He could call himself whatever he wished and no one would know. No brand upon his forehead would proclaim that his Name had not been recorded by the Masters, that he had never sworn his Oath to Westria.
Or he could take the other direction and make a new life in the barbarian lands east of the mountains. Maybe he would become one of the raiders the Westrians feared. Or he might disappear into the mountains. There were songs about men who lived alone in the wilderness, making their own tools and weapons and gaining kinship among the beasts though they could not find it with men.
Stone sighed and sat down on a boulder. He pulled off the worn boots which had been returned to him before they set out and dangled his feet in the cool stream. The sun was dropping westward, and long shafts of golden light slanted through the trees.
He had tried to think of a name that fit him. He could call himsself Gilbert in gratitude to his foster-father, or perhaps Ronan after the famous outlaw, or Vayander, the proverbial traveller. Surely not everyone had a vision to give them their name.
“But I wanted it too much. . .” he whispered. “And I, who wanted to be an Adept, could not even ignore the words of someone who must be as unhappy as I am or he would not have attacked me that way. Why should I be different from anyone else? Oh my master,” he thought of the old man who had taught him, “why did you encourage me to dream such dreams?” He splashed with his feet in irritation, sending a small family of quail who had come down to drink skittering through the chapparal.
Even the sun was deserting him. The sky held only memories of its glory, drawn in achingly lovely shades of flame and peach and rose.
“You powers who live in this place, please help me!” Stone cried out to the woods and the stream, repeating with less passion, and less hope, the prayer he had made on the first evening after he arrived. Then his voice sank. “Lord, speak to me now. . . touch me, Thou Who Art. . . .”
As the light dimmed the stream hushed its music, and the massed trees took on new mystery. Even Stone’s spirit stilled. His consciousness rushed inward, straining towards that threshhold beyond which all was Light. For a moment he hovered on the brink, almost free, then words buzzed in his mind and he dropped back and was himself again, sitting on a hard rock in darkness.
The third day was like the second and the first. On the final night, Stone lay down on his bed of dry grass, trying to quiet his stomach’s complaining. It took a long time for sleep to come, and when his eyes closed at last, his cheeks were wet with tears.
He is running through the woods, stumbling on the rough ground and trying to ward off the branches that whip at his face. Larissa is screaming, but he cannot reach her, cannot even tell from which direction the sound came. He hears crashing in the brush behind him and knows his pursuers are near. He turns. . . .
—and woke with a gasp, flinching something sharp pricks his throat.
Stone blinked to focus on the dim figure above him, and winced as what felt like a sword-blade poked his belly. He sat up quickly and glimpsed other shapes around him. A horse nickered softly nearby.
“Put on your boots, clod-eater, we’ve not much time—”
Automatically, he reached for his boots and began to haul them on, struggling with the laces. Above the trees to the east the sky was paling; everything had the grey sameness of the hour just before dawn. For a moment he had thought these were priests who had come to punish him after all, but in the growing light he saw that the man with the sword was dressed in leather, and the speech of the others was so heavily accented it might as well have been a foreign tongue.
As the man spoke again, Stone got his feet under him and rose, visualizing the path he had worn down the hill to the stream. He leaped sideways, but before he could take a step the flat of the sword smashed into his ribs. Even as he fell, hard hands grabbed him, and before he knew if anything was broken, they were lifting him, flinging him face-down across a horse, his body bound to the saddle and his hands and feet linked by a rope beneath its belly. He cried out again as the horse jerked into motion and they started trotting up the trail.
They stopped twice as the light gained strength. Stone heard a cry and a scuffle and knew that the third captive, at least, had not been taken by surprised. He worked at his bonds, but they were tight enough to make his wrists ache and he could not reach the knots. He wondered who else they had taken, and why. These must be the Easterling raiders he had heard about—they had mentioned the outlaw city of Arena—but what did they want with him?
The sun was beginning to poke its head above the trees by the time they stopped, at a place where two trails joined. Stone was hauled off the horse, his hands bound again with the rope looped around a tree. He sat down abruptly as the circulation in his ankles came back again.
“So you were my neighbor—I wondered who it was!”
Stone looked around and saw Pine smiling, though his face was grimed and pale. Beyond him, lying unconscious, but with his hands tied all the same, was Buck. The five raiders had started a fire and were mixing up a gruel of dried meat and meal with water from their skins. Soon the smell of it reached the boys, and Stone suddenly remembered how long it had been since his last meal.
Pine swallowed convulsively, and Stone cleared his throat. “Hey, you! Easterlings! Whatever you want with us, we will do you no good if we starve!”
From their captors came a gust of laughter, but no one looked at them. He opened his mouth to try again. One of the men was speaking in a low voice—he sounded like a Westrian. There was more laughter, but one of the raiders got up, a bowl in his hand. As he turned, Stone saw that the left side of his face was marred by a purple scar.
“So the spy has some softness for’s old kin! Go on, Mole, feed th’brats—but don’ give ’em my rations!” shouted his friends.
“Told ye, they been fasting three days. They’ll bring us no gold an’ they look starved!”
The scarred man waited impatiently while Stone gulped down mush from the bowl. When it was empty, he got more and took it to Pine. Stone felt the warmth spread from his stomach along his veins.
“You’re raiders from the Barren Lands, aren’t you?” he asked. “But where is your plunder? And why have you taken us?”
The man gave a bark of laughter and rubbed with his forefinger at the old scar. “You never heard of the slave-marts of Arena?” Still laughing, he turned away.
“Slave-marts!” The new voice was thin with outrage. “I’m the Lord Commander’s brother—he’ll pay you better than any barbarian for my return!”
Buck was awake and sitting up, his colorless lips drawn tight. There was a short silence, then the leader of the band ambled over, the silver chain around his neck winking in the morning sun.
“Oh, I don’ think so– yer a pretty lad. I think we get the worth of our time for ye. . .”
“But the ransom—” sputtered Buck.
“Sure, sure, but who’s t’go fer it? An’ when he gets ye, what stops the lord from attackin’ us? Oh no! Our orders are t’git back t’ Delasker’s Hold with what we c’n carry, and that we will. Maybe Delasker wants t’ hold ye to ransom, but I don’ think so. I know lotta merchants who’d fancy a prime bit o’ beef like yerself, or maybe Delasker likes t’ have a noble lad t’ wash his breeks, who knows?”
At the sight of Buck’s stricken face the men laughed so hard the horses began to stamp and sidle nervously. Stone could almost find it in his heart to pity the other boy. As the mockery died away, he heard like an echo the pattering of hooves on the other trail.
The raiders tensed, feeling for their swords, and hope flamed in Buck’s eyes. Then there was a soft whistle and the men relaxed. In a few moments four more of them clattered up to the crossroads, greeting the captors of the boys with ribald comraderie. Before them they were driving half a dozen laden horses. Among them there were three who bore human burdens—Swallow, a girl who had been one of Buck’s followers, and Larissa.
That first, interminable day, Stone rode in silent agony. Each step his pony took jolted his bruised ribs, and the slats of the wooden saddle frame, hardly softened by the blanket that covered them, wore raw places into his inner thighs. To endure it he forced his mind to roam, trying to consider past and future as if “Stone” were some character in a bard’s tale.
He had heard once that by the straight road over the mountains it was two weeks from Rivered to the barbarian city of Arena. But the raiders were not taking the straight road. The man with the Westrian accent was leading them by hidden tracks through the hills.
The others called him “Mole”, and Stone thought the name fitted well. His hair was dark and smooth and he scanned the path with nervous jerks as if he were smelling his way. Stone wondered if he had ever had a Westrian name. If I had run away as I planned to, would I have ended up like him?
The trail ahead narrowed as it grew steeper. At a barked order from ahead the men slid from their mounts. Stone was yanked off his horse and cried out as he had to force his sore legs to bear him. His hands were still bound, but when he fell he got only a vicious tug on the rope to help him. He could hear someone behind him whimpering as they went on.
If they mean to sell us, they won’t let us die. . . He bit his lip as a branch of manzanita scored his bare arm. I’m no worse off than if I had run away, and though Gilbert and Megan may be sorry when they hear that their fosterling is gone, at lesat they won’t be shamed! Even the Master won’t be able to blame me! Though his feet dragged, his soul was suddenly lighter. No decision of his could change his fate now.
That first night, they paused without making a real camp. The prisoners were tied securely to trees. Stone slumped against the smooth trunk and felt curls of bark crush and flake away. Forcing his gaze upward, he made out the oval shapes of madrone leaves clear against the stars.
One of the raiders crunched towards him through the fallen leaves. Stone gasped as a hard hand shoved his head back and the neck of a waterskin was forced between his teeth. Tasting the liquid he sucked in instinctively, momentarily forgetting both exhaustion and fear. He was just beginning to slow when the skin was as rudely jerked away.
“That’s enough for you, cub—leave some for your den-mates, now. . .” the man hissed at him, turning away. But his accent was familiar—it was Mole, who had fed the captives that morning. How long ago that now seemed. Stone peered after him as he moved towards the next tree. It was like a Westrian to use an animal metaphor, and Mole had known where to find the captives and that they would be fasting. So he knew about the vigil. The man must be a Westrian renegade. Stone was still wondering what might have driven him to this treachery when he heard he heard a murmur from the next tree and a muffled oath.
“Filth! Keep your hands off me! I’ve the blood of a king, and—” Buck’s words were cut off as Mole laughed.
“King’s blood flows like any other man’s—I’ve seen it—and so will you, my lad, if you try any tricks. Swallow this water while you can and swallow your damned Westrian pride! Where you’re going a sharp tongue can spoil a pretty face. . . .”
Buck kicked out convulsively. Stone saw Mole’s arm lift and heard the slap. One of the other raiders called a question and Mole grunted a reply before moving on. Stone could hear stifled sobbing, but he could not tell if it were Buck or one of the others. He could still hear it when he fell asleep at last.
It seemed to him that they were hustled awake again before the pain in his bruised limbs had dulled. Getting into the saddle brought new agony as sore muscles were forced to stretch once more. They pressed on as fast as the horses could go, pausing only once in the middle of the day so that horses and riders could drink from a mountain stream.
By the time darkness fell they were high among the peaks and Westria was only a dim blur to the west. When they stopped at last, Stone was tied to the same stunted juniper as Pine.
“Are you all right?” Pine asked in a low voice. The raiders were heating water for tea and sharing out strips of dried meat and hard bread.
Stone choked back a snort of bitter laughter. “Aside from the fact that my thighs are raw and that pack saddle has nearly pinched off my manhood—”
The boys fell silent as one of the raiders walked by. He was a big man, with dark hair showing at the neck of his tunic and on his arms beneath the rolled up sleeves. Stone had heard the others call him Martan.
“Did they hurt you when they captured you?” Stone asked when the man had gone. Pine reddened and shook his head. He had been asleep and had known nothing until they picked him up and flung him across a horse.
“Maybe I taught them something, then—not that it did much good!” Stone explained how he had tried to run. “At first I thought that their leader—Madok, I think he’s called—broke my ribs.” He paused as a little gimlety man with grizzled hair came towards them, holding a sack.
“Here you be—” he smirked, tossing some rounds of hard bread and a skin of water at Pine’s feet. “Wouldn’ want ye to starve afore we get ye to market. Ye can jest thank Burkey that ye’ve got anything ‘tall—say thank’ee, then!” His foot shot out and caught Stone in the leg.
Eyes watering, Stone mumbled something, and Burkey spat and turned away. For a moment bile choked him, but his belly clamored louder and he snatched up the food. The boys ate quickly, and when it was finished, Stone’s belly was still crying out for more. Strangely he felt hungrier now than he had before. Hoping distraction would help he asked Pine how the others were.
“About the same as us, I guess. I was tied near Buck last night, but I could not get him to talk to me—” he broke off.
“It’s all right,” said Stone. “Tell me. The fight doesn’t matter now. And though his lip was still sore, he realized that it was true. I was fighting myself, not him, Stone thought, and then, Who was Buck fighting?
“Well,” Pine began rather doubtfully, “he seems to be taking it hard. Do you think that Lord Philip will rescue us?”
Stone shook his head and eased back against the tree. “Not if that Westrian renegade knows his job. It will take them awhile to realize what happened to us, and longer to send word to Rivered. The Commander will be two or three days behind us if he can find the trail at all. . . .”
“Hard luck for us,” said Pine tightly, “and harder for the girls. . . .”
“How could they have captured her—the priestess—” Stone found he could not speak Larissa’s name.
“When we stopped to drink I got to talk to the dark girl, you know, the one who was in the race with us. She said that Mistress Larissa was bringing water and came upon the raiders. She tried to slip away, but they saw her and ran her down.”
Stone sighed. Had the fact that rest and food had dulled his pain thaty made it suddenly so much harder to be detached about what had happened to them? What would the Easterlings do to Larissa? His body ached with longing as he remembered holding her in his arms, but whether he needed to give comfort or receive it he was not sure.
“This land where they’re taking us—I’ve head it has few trees. . ..” Pine said after awhile.
Something in his voice focused Stone’s attention. Why was the other boy worrying about trees? Had he seen something on his vigil? Impulsively he asked, “Before we were capatured, when you were alone, did something happen to you?”
“Does it matter now?” Pine’s voice trembled with unshed tears.
Stone looked around them. Most of the raiders had rolled themselves in their cloaks near the fire, headds pillowed on their saddles. The sentry who stood on the outcrop above them bulked black against the stars.
Something did happen! I saw nothing, but he did! Stone peered at his friend through the gloom. Suddenly it seemed terribly important that the miracle be recognized. “Yes, it does matter!” he said fiercely. “The Lords of Life do not give without cause. . . tell me!”
Pine drew a shuddering breath. “I was looking at the trees. . . It was the second day, and I was watching them to forget how hungry I was. I wished I could live like a tree on soil and sunlight, and then for a moment it seemed to me that the sun was shining through my skin and my feet were drawing strength from the earth. And the world went by so slowly. . . .”
Stone grunted encouragement and the other boy went on.
“I don’t know how long I just stood there, but when I could move again, it was just about sunset, and the leaves were outlined in sparkles of golden light. I told myself it was just the sunlight shining through the leaves, but I could see the outlines of the veins, and water moving up the trunk. I saw the whole tree patterned in light!”
His voice grew dreamy. “And I laid my hand on the tree-trunk, and felt the life of the tree coursing through it, and when the wind stirred the branches I thought they were speaking to me, and if I only listened long enough I would understand. So then I sat down and decided I might as well take my grandfather’s name.” Abruptly he ceased.
“Because it didn’t matter what name you took, did it?” Stone said softly. “You wouldn’t keep it long. You meant to go to the College of the Wise. When we saw you again you would be a friend of the trees, and men would call you the Master of the Pines!”
“How did you know?” Pine cried.
Footsteps silenced them. “Quiet, you! If’n ye be still so lively tomorrow, ye may go on yer own feet then. . .” It was Madok’s voice.
They listened to him stalk away, and Stone leaned closer to the other boy. “Pine is the name I have had for you since we met!”
After that they lay silent in the darkness, and presently the sound of Pine’s regular breathing told Stone that his friend slept. He stretched his legs in a vain attempt to ease them, listening the the raiders’ snores and the small night sounds. The wind was whispering among the pine needles, and Stone swallowed, thinking of the boy who was being taken to a land where there were no trees. He felt a weight upon his spirit where none had been before.
Oh my master, here is one who would do you credit—I wish you were here to help him now. . .
– 5 –
The third night, they made camp in a broad basin carved into the granite of the peaks. There was a spring at its bottom and a pool, but it was above the tree line, and the raiders built their fire with wood they had gathered the night before.
The men seemed to fear pursuit no longer. They made no attempt to keep down their noise as they laughed and swore, unpacking and watering the horses and tethering them for the night. Stone heard one of the girls cry out and whirled, tripping over his ankle ropes.
It was the fair-haired girl whom Stone remembered as having been in Buck’s group of admirers. He had no name for her. Until now, the raiders had treated the girls, indeed, all of their prisoners, with as much detachment as they did the rest of the loot. But now, one of the men was running his hand up the girl’s leg instead of lifting her down from her horse.
Burkey shouted to him to stop fooling around and get the horse unsaddled. At that, the man burst into laughter and pulled the girl into his arms, kissing her until she stopped struggling and lay in his arms like a rabbit in the coils of a snake. Stone strained uselessly against his bonds. Buck struggled as well, then threw himself full-length on the ground in despair.
A man they called Rio had grasped Swallow by the arm and pulled her against him. She spat in his face and sank her teeth into his hairy arm. He yelled and cuffed her so hard she rolled several paces before lying still.
“Stop it!” Stone hobbled towards her. “We may be merchandise, but if you damage us no one will buy!”
Rio snarled and started for him, his black beard stiff with outrage. Stone stood his ground, wincing in anticipation and wishing he could run.
“Hands off the women, Rio! An’ Martan—ye know what virgins are worth! Rio, help the black one up, and Martan, let the other wench go now! Madok strode forward, hand on the stock of the bull-whip thrust thorugh his belt, glaring at the two men.
Martan let go of his girl, who stumbled towards Swallow and sank on her knees beside her, sobbing. For a moment, eyes narrowed, he stood stroking his scanty beard, then he turned to Larissa, who still sat on her horse.
“They may be virgins, but here’s one what’s not. . .” he chuckled, tugging her bindings loose and pulling her down. One one arm he held her pinioned, while with the other he pulled her tunic down until her breasts were bared. There was a silence, as if every man there had forgotten to breathe. Larissa faced them with all color gone from her face, but here eyes were bright with a desperate pride.
We know ’bout them Westrian temple women—” Martan said softly, sliding his calloused fingers over Larissa’s breast. The other men moved toward him. “We all know what they do at their festivals, don’ we, Mole?” Martan went on. “I think I’ll have me a little Westrian festival right now. . . .”
Mole swallowed. “No—you must not—not like that. It’s. . .bad luck!”
Martan laughed. “Good luck, ye mean. This’eres my share the prize, lads, ye can have the rest!” He began to drag Larissa away.
“No ye don’t!” Another man grabbed his arm. “You kin go first if’n ye have to but then it’s my turn. Haven’t had a woman in a year!”
“That’s on account of none will have ye—” came the shout. But there was a feverish note in the laughter.
“I’ll hold ‘er for ye, mate!” said the second man, gripping Larissa’s shoulder and forcing her down. For a long moment they looked at her as she lay defenseless before them with her skirt rucked up about her thighs.
Stone felt as if he were watching from an immense distance. The voices came to him faint and tinny through the throbbing in his head. Superimposed on the image of Larissa’s breast and her shadowy hair spread in the dust were his own memories of her body pale in the darkness of a summer night. What the men were going to do and what he himself had done seemed part of the same flash of vision.
This was far worse than when Buck had taunted him, for now he could feel in himself the same stirring of desire, and knew himself kin to his captors even while he hated them. A strand on his bindings popped as he groaned, arms tensing. Only later did he notice that it had cut his arm.
The men blurred together as they rushed towards her, and Madok’s bull-whip cracked like lightning from a clear sky. Again and again he struck, until the yells of lust were replaced by cries of pain, until only Martan faced him, dagger drawn. The men edged back to make a circle around them.
Madok laughed and struck again, the long whip curling around Martan’s waste and pulling him forward while the leader whipped out his long knife and in the same movement lopped off Martan’s right hand. Still gripping the dagger, it dropped to the dust, while the man stood staring at the fountain of red that spurted from the stump where it had been. Burkey swore and snatched up a brand from the fire. The others drew away as he shouldered through the crowd, gripped the wounded man’s arm and thrust the wrist into the flame. There was a hissing sound and an awful smell of burnt meat. Martan’s yell echoed in their ears even after the man had fainted dead away.
“Bad luck. . . .” whispered Mole. “I told you so,” he said dully, and turned away.
“I said, no women,” Madok spoke softly, looking around him. “Here ye be fightin’ already, and we’ve two days of riding before we make Delasker’s Hold. The girls’ll go t’market in Arena, like I tole ye. But the Westrian witch is marked fer Delasker. When he’s done with ‘er, ye’ll have ‘er as often as ye like, I promise ye.” The tension eased from the air. Already the men were beginning to look sheepish, unclenching their fists, slipping daggers unobtrusively into their sheaths once more.
“All right, ye horny bastards—go eat! Ye know better than t’ try such tricks agin. But I don’ care what ye dream!” Madok smiled his own peculiar smile and the men laughed, but not too loud.
Stone’s knees weakened suddenly and he sat down.
There were no trees, so that night the raiders bound their prisoners together. Stone found himself tied to Buck wrist to wrist, in a parody of a lover’s embrace. He wondered if someone had told Madok that he and Buck were enemies, but he supposed that if the leader knew he would laugh. Looking at the other boy’s closed face, Stone found it hard to remember what they had fought about. It was cold.
Buck lay too still, too tense, to be asleep.
“Buck—” Stone whispered almost in his ear. “Buck, listen to me. We have to escape. . . .”
The other boy twitched. “We can’t. Stop mocking me!”
“I’m not—” Stone began.
“You hate me!”
Stone shook his head. “How could I hate you now?”
The other boy’s blue eyes opened and Buck stared at him. “I can’t help you,” he said very quietly. “I can’t do anything. I never could.”
For a moment surprise held Stone speechless. Had the other boy’s spirit been broken by all they had gone through?
“You knew that, didn’t you? That was why you were always testing me. I had to fight you, Brother Gnome, or they would all have known. . . .”
“What?” Stone voice cracked in bewilderment, then he remembered to lower it and went on, “Buck, what could I have known? You are a great lord’s son. I don’t even know who my father was! But it doesn’t matter now—we have to get away from these people before they get us to their Hold!”
In the starlight Buck’s eyes glistened as if they held tears. “It’s better this way, I know that now. My parents didn’t want me—I was only an extra son in case something happened to Philip. I’ve been fostered with one lord after another since I was four years old.” Buck gulped, but the words tumbled on. “My last ‘keeper’ was Diegues dos Altos. I stayed with him three years, completing what he called my ‘education’. I thought I had found a real home there—old Diegues worshipped royal blood, and my mother was King Jehan’s older sister, did you know?” Buck asked, as another might mentioned that his mother had red hair. Stone nodded, willing him to go on.
“Diegues treated me like a sacred statue. It took me a long time to realize that I never got to do anything! I boasted that I would ride with my brother to war after my Initiation,” Buck went on, “but I have lived in fear that if he does take me, he will find out how little I know. . . . Diegues kept his own heir by him and taught him everything, you see, while I was being flattered and given military manuals to read. His younger sons were fostered out, like me. . .”
“But surely, you learned—”
Another gulp from Buck interrupted him. “You can’t know—there’s nothing so useless on this earth as a second son. Now Philip has sons of his own. If I am gone, he can provide for them without needing to bother about me!”
“No, I don’t know. . . .” Stone said slowly. “I was the youngest child in the house, the gift of a nameless woman who collapsed on their doorstep with me in her arms and then died. You are healthy. You can learn, and your brother should be glad for a strong arm at his back. You say you studied warfare, Buck—can’t you remember anything that might help us now?”
“For two whole days I have tried,” Bucksighed. “But the raiders are all strong, well-armed, alert. Even if they unbind us, what can we do?” In the silence that followed they could hear the raiders talking over their fire—deep voices, strong. Stone shivered.
“I couldn’t even help that girl—murmured Buck, letting his head drop again. Stone felt the boy’s silky hair against his shoulder, and Buck’s tears stung the cut on his arm.
As I couldn’t help Larissa—he thought. Now there’s two of us who don’t care if we live or die, but are responsible for others, who do. There has to be some way out of this!
It was cold here at the top of the world and the wind drew goosebumps down his bare arm. He realized that the clicking sound he heard was Buck’s teeth, chattering. Without thinking, he pulled the other boy closer to share his warmth. Buck stiffened, and for a moment Stone thought he was going to pull away. Does he despise me even now? he wondered then.
Then he remembered the future Madok had predicted for the other boy and realized that Buck might have another reason for fearing his embrace. Full understanding of Buck’s vulnerability dissolved the last of his antagonism. There had to be some way to help the boy accept simple human comfort without shame.
“Buck, I’m freezing to death,” he ventured at last. “At least you can help me keep warm—” There was a moment of hesitation, then he felt Buck relax.
Even if I had not loved Larissa, Stone thought with inner laughter, I don’t think I would want a man, and certainly not when it’s this cold! But I don’t suppose Buck has ever huddled in one bed between two brothers while a January blizzard drifted snow in over the second story window sill! He cast about for something to distract them while they waited for their combined body heat to ease their shivering.
“I wonder what King Julian would have done—” he said at last.
“King Julian would never have gotten into this fix,” Buck replied, but his voice held a hint of humor now. “Shut your eyes, Brother Gnome. Maybe a way out will come to you in your dreams. . . .” For a moment Stone thought the other boy was falling asleep, but then he whispered again, so softly Stone was not sure that he had heard, “Dream of a way, brother, and I will follow you. . . . .”
Stone stilled, realizing in horror that Buck was now depending on him as well. To Larissa’s danger and Pine’s longing had been added the other boy’s loneliness, a triple weight he could not choose not to bear.
He is facing a wall of fire. Smoke stings his eyes and billows upward to hide the sky. Tree after tree is haloed in flame as its leaves catch fire, then turns to a living torch as branch and trunk follow. As each is seared to ash he quivers with its agony. Men pull at his arm, trying to drag him away. He shakes his head. Above the rumble of a departing cart he can hear a child’s wailing.
Carefully he binds about his loins a belt of woven linen whose clasp holds a glowing brown stone. For a moment he stands, rooted to the earth, feeling its strength surge through him. Then, swiftly he belts on the blue stone with its hidden star at his waist, hangs the great crystal upon his breast and sets the Jewel of Fire upon his brow. Power courses through his body from feet to fingertips, force swirling through belly and breast, balanced and channeled outward again by his will. Light blazes from his brow.
He lifts his hands.
Now he is aware of the gathering of a mighty wind. A damp gust brushes his forehead and he feels on his cheeks the tears that foretell the rain. He hears hoarse cheering—”Julian!” come the cries, “Julian. . . .”
“Julian. . .” murmured Stone, clutching at the ecstasy of balanced power as the dream slips away. Still poised on the borderland between sleep and waiting he sighs, for the moment content, and impelled by gratitude, he found himself silently repeating the words of an old prayer— “Maker of all forces and elements, grant that the elements may be so balanced in me that all my works shall be in harmony with Thy plan. . .”
He brought up his hands in the gesture of praise, felt a sharp wrench, and opening his eyes, saw that he was bound. He closed his eyes once more, feeling the prick of tears as his mind reconstructed his present reality. A horse neighed. Now Stone could hear all the sounds of the waking camp. He felt a twitch at his wrists. Buck was trying to sit up.
“Well, so ye’re awake!” Burkey stood over them, knife in hand, and Stone repressed a start of fear. Swiftly, the Easterling stooped, slashed the ropes connecting the boys, and laughed. “Get up now, slaves—ye’re in Westria no longer, and ye’d best get used t’ it!”
Anticipating the weight of Burkey’s boot, they scrambled upright.
“Not in Westria?” Buck looked around him with a dull gaze.
Burkey laughed again. “Look—” he pointed easttward, where the mountains sheered off in a series of sculptured scarps and cliffs, then stretched away like a dust-colored sea.
“The Barren Lands—” said Stone.
“Th’ free lands!” Burkey corrected. “No Westrian lordling’s writ runs there. Ye’ll not escape now, me lads. So get over t’horses an’ water’em so’s we kin load. ‘Tis Madok’s order—ye’ll earn yer passage now!”
It felt good to have something to do, even if he was forced to it. But as Stone listened to the pony slurping, he gazed eastward. The Master had told him that men had made no Covenant in those lands. Here, the powers of Nature still hid themselves from humankind. How lonely they must be, he thought, and then, How shall I live among such folk? To whom can I pray?
But the Master had spoken of that, too, on a night at Stanesvale when they all sat around the fire. Whether they knew it or not, he had told them, all men were equally the children of the Maker of All Things. No ignorance or evil could prevent Her from hearing those who called.
The horse shook its head, splattering Stone with water and almost pulling the leadrope from his fingers.
“All right,” said the boy, slapping the animal’s dark neck. “Come on—Madok will pity neither of us if we keep him waiting.” He led the horse back to the others, looking for his friends and wondering how he could talk to them before they started the day’s march.
“My dear, you must not be concerned about me. . . ” Larissa shaded her eyes against the noonday sun to look at him.
Stone clapsed his full waterskin in his arms, still staring at her. He dared not lay his hand on her arm for fear one of the raiders would see. The tinkle of the little waterfall where they had stopped to rest seemed loud in the silence. Larissa balanced her empty bottle on one shoulder as she faced him. Shadows like bruises stained the skin around her eyes. Abashed by her steady regard he looked down. She had fastened her torn gown with a skewer of wood.
Did she understand what he had asked?
Stone had been able to talk to the others before they started, but Larissa had still been kept apart. They had stopped at midday in a sort of bay in the side of the mountain, little more than a widening in the trail. Stunted pines clung to the cliff whwere a trickle of water emerged from a fissure. Once more the prisoners had been ordered to water the horses, clambering down to bring up water so that the horses could reach it.
“Of course you must escape if you can,” Larissa went on, “but they will never let me go. It is all right. I will survive.”
Stone swallowed. “Try to think of a way we can all escape. Don’t you understand? I love you!” He saw her sad smile and stumbled onward, “If it were not for you, and Pine, and Buck and the others, I would not care whether or not I got away!”
Someone shouted from above, and he jerked and took a step towards the trail, his mind pulsing with the words he had not had time for—There is no future for me in Westria, but I cannot bear the thought of what your future in this land will be. I would find a way to escape their slavery, but what will happen to you?
The order was repeated, and he began to climb, leaving Larissa standing there. When he glanced back he saw that she was still watching him, brows bent in a frown. When Stone reached the top, Pine took his arm, pointing southward. Through the trees they could just limpse a ribbon of road winding down from the mountains.
“The Traders’ Road. . . .” Pine whispered.
“Do ye no good!” said Rio, passing them. “We don’ use that road. Our ways take longer, but they’s secret. We’re nigh home. . . .” He gestured across the valley. “We get down there an’ climb the cliffs beyond. On t’other side, we go down a secret cañon. Ifn anyone found Delasker’s Hold it wouldn’ do him no good. He’d not find his way out again.”
Beyond him, Madok was watching. Stone felt a chill on his back despite the warm air. The horses had had enough water at last. Stone sat down where a jutting rock gave a morsel of shade. From the east came a dry wind, bringing aromatic scents of scrub pine and brush, which were all that grew on this side of the crest, and swirling the dust in the path. The fair-haired girl sat down beside him. She looked tired, and pale beneath her sunburn, but her mouth had a determined set that had not been there before.
“I haven’t thought of anything yet,” she said softly, “but I’m still trying. I will do whatever you ask.”
Stone tried to smile. The other side of the ridge—he thought. Another day and they would be there.
– 6 –
They camped that night at the bottom of the valley. The raiders were merry, and broke out some of their Westrian wine. Even Martan, though still delirious from the shock of his lost hand, had his share and lay mumbling beside the fire. Stone had begged permission for the prisoners to have their own fire. The argument that once they reached the Hold, they would be separated forever carried less weight with Madok than Stone’s suggestion that it might be as well to keep the women out of the way.
They sat close together, gazing into their fire. Swallow shook her dark head. “I have thought and thought, but all that comes to me is the idea of poisoning them somehow. Mistress, you told us that you have studied herbs. Is there anything here that we could use?”
Larissa shook her head. “Not without preparation, and they would never let us near their cookpots.”
“There is no sure way,” said Buck, “but I have had an idea. We may die too, but at least we will never go into captivity.” They all looked at him. “This scrub is dry as bone. If one of us, going out to the privy trench, dropped a few coals, within moments a wildfire would cut us off from the Hold. The horses would stampede too. We know the trail back—while the barbarians are all chasing horses, we would have a chance to get away!”
“Not a fire!” cried Pine, then covered his face and was still. Larissa looked at him with bitter understanding. After a moment, Stone realized that the others were waiting for him to say something.
“It is very dangerous—” perhaps that was why Buck had thought of it. “Such a fire is as likely to move west as east. If the wind changes, not just the slope but the whole valley will go up as well. . . .” something was nagging at his memory, as if he had seen this vision of a flaming forest before.
“You would kill the trees. . .” Pine whispered.
Stone remembered his dream of King Julian. “These are not Westrian trees, but they are alive,” he said slowly. “Do we have the right to sacrifice them?”
Buck bit off an oath. “The right? Are you mad? This is for our lives!”
“Not mad—” Stone smiled ruefully, “only Westrian. Did you believe what they told us in our classes? I have not seen the spirits of the trees, but our brother here has—” Pine looked at him gratefully and Stone went on. “We have not yet sworn the Covenant, but which of us will be able to swear it if we have to break it in order to return?”
“But if we don’t do this, what will happen to us?” asked the fair-haired girl. “You heard what Madok said—you used those arguments yourself to persuade us to think about escape!”
“Yes—” Stone’s voice cracked and he struggled to control it. “There are many things worse than death, and if we don’t get out of here we will learn about some of them.. . . I thought I could not live, knowing what was happening to you—” his eyes sought Larissa and he forced them away again, “and I know that all things live by the deaths of others. But not a whole forest!” He shook his head. “I cannot decide for you, but I cannot vote to follow Buck’s plan.”
“Nor I—” said Larissa. Stone felt her smile like a blow.
“If the trees burn, I will burn too!” said Pine.
There was a short silence, then Swallow sighed. “Well, I did not think we had any hope anyway, and I already owe you my life. . . .” she touched Stone’s arm.
The fair-haired girl looked from Buck to Stone, then away. “I said that I would follow you—but I do not understand.”
Buck glared at them. “You are all mad. Leave this brushpile alone if you must, but I swear that I will not go living into Delasker’s Hold.”
Don’t say that! thought Stone. Perhaps I am wrong. . . Please do not lay the burden of it all on me! But he did not speak aloud, and presently the others left him alone by the fire. After awhile he realized wryly that at least he had made one decision with which the Master would have agreed. He imagined the words the old man might say, the approval in his deep eyes, and then wept, because whatever became of him, the Master would never know.
It did not seem to Stone possible that he should sleep. He struggled, powerless, in a net of visions in which Larissa was raped again and again and Buck’s mutilated body sprawled beside the trail. Then grey light filtered through his eyelids and he opened them on the dim glow of their fire. He had been asleep. . . . those visions were not reality. Not yet. . .
Through their veil of cold ash the coals winked mockingly. Even now he could rouse the others and set the fire. But he did not move. “Maker of All, forgive and help me,” he whispered, “for there is no strength or wisdom in me at all. . . .” He waited, but the only answer was the sound of Burkey’s snores.
An hour of travel took them through the last of the trees. They dismounted at the foot of a great slope of broken shale beneath a series of slanting cliffs whose tops were studded with rocks like dead teeth. There was no path here, only an obstacle course, and no newcomer would ever have suspected that the gap at the top was the beginning of a road. Leading their horses, they began to move cautiously slantwise across the slope. Though Stone at times found himself near his friends, no one spoke. The difficulties of the path demanded their full attention, but when Stone did look at the cliffs he wished that they would fall on him.
They stopped again while Madok and two of the others left their horses and traced the next part of the route. Stone looked at the cliffs again.Maybe they will fall. . . he thought, for surely they bore all the signs of an avalanche area. His eyes narrowed suddenly. Powers of Earth! Is there a way? Surely it will dod no harm here if the rock falls one more time!
Carefully he maneuvered his horse toward Larissa’s, and softly called her name. “We mustn’t speak long—” he whispered, “just answer—at the College were you trained in voice projection, like they used in the pageant of the Jewels?” She nodded and opened her mouth, but he waved her to silence. “When I whistle, can you cry out as high and loud as you can? Focus your voice on that spot on the cliffs—see, where the red stain like a fox’s mask shows just under the overhang.”
“I will do it,” Larissa nodded again. “Will we die too?”
“I don’t know.”
The man ahead called to her to catch up then, and she moved away, but as she went she smiled back at Stone and pursed her lips in a kiss.
Can she feel the same way about me as I do about her? Stone wondered as he checked the position of the others. At home it would have been ridiculous, but danger had made them all equals here.
Madok and his three most competent men had been scouting the trail. He must make sure that they did not run back to the others when the rock began to fall. He edged towards Swallow.
“This is worse than our racecourse at the Initiation grounds, isn’t it?” He called, and she grinned. Burkey, ahead of them, looked back with a grimace, then returned to watching his footing on the trail. “Could you run on this stuff?” Stone asked in a low tone.
“Yes. but—” She looked at him curiously as he bent to whisper, and after a moment grinned again.
Stone’s heart was pounding. He took a few deep breaths to steady himself. He was sweating, but then so was everyone else, from the heat and the strain. Surely no one could tell by looking just how nervous he was now. He pretended to be fishing a rock out of his boot as he waited for Pine to come alongside.
“Pine—if anything happens, grab the yellow-haired girl and run back down the slope. Carry her if you have to! Will you do it?” he hissed, barely waiting for the other boy’s muffled agreement before he pulled his boot back on and moved up the line.
Everyone had stopped now. Stone waited impatiently while Madok and Rio argued about the route, pointing at different angles to the cliff. Would they choose the lower path? Silently he willed them to go on. At last Madok barked an order and he and his three companions moved out across the shale. Stone let another of the raiders go by him, then led his horse beside Buck’s so that it blocked the path.
“Brother!” he called softly. “I have thought of another way for us to lose our lives—or save them. Will you stand with me?”
Buck turned, eyes alight, as Stone put his finger to his lips and let go his pony’s reins. He had hoped to save most of the animals too, but from now on the horses would have to take their chances with the rest of them.
Madok paused beneath the rock fault, looking back at them.
Stone pursed his lips and whistled. For an eternal moment the sound echoed thinly from the cliffs. Stone’s bowels tensed painfully, and he wondered whether the others, knowing less, were more or less afraid.
Swallow left her horse and began to run.
Scarcely did one piece of rock know she had touched it before she was gone, speeding lightly across the slope a little above Madok and his men. They turned, shouting, and two of the other raiders dashed out after her. Everyone was shouting now, but Larissa’s cry rose above them all. It seemed almost too high for a human voice, an intense keening that vibrated in the air, resonated in the rocks, a wordless command.
The hill began to tremble.
Swallow was still in motion, nearing the gap in the cliff, when the mountain began to move. Stone stared as a boulder bounced by her; she dodged, sped on, he saw her for an instant silhouetted against the sky. The cliff quivered, groaned and began to disintegrate. Madok was swearing, fighting his way upward while the ground beneath him gave way. One of his followers had fallen, the others were sliding downhill. Still the boy gazed, while the cliff sagged and exploded in a thunder of falling stone. The horses were plunging in terror. As the first of the raiders reached them Buck let his beast go and it leaped forward, striking out with frantic hooves and knocking the man sprawling down the hill.
Buck turned. “Behind you!” he cried. Stone whirled and saw Mole coming towards him with drawn sword. He flung a rock and knew an instant’s satisfaction as he saw the blade knocked flashing from the man’s hand.
Larissa screamed. Stone saw her struggling in Burkey’s arms and scambled towards them. The man saw him coming, hesitated, and Larissa tore herself away. Sunlight flickered from the knife that had suddenly appeared in his hand. Stone snatched up two rocks and threw them, kept up a steady hail of missiles as he moved in. The last struck Burkey’s shoulder, and with a cry that was almost a shout of joy, Stone flung himself upon the man. Pain seared his arm and he remembered the knife, but he managed to grip the man’s right wrist, slowly forcing it back as they rolled down the hill. He heard something click, and Burkey screamed. Stone was shocked to feel a momentary disappointment as his opponent ceased to resist him.
For a moment he lay still, gasping. Rocks clattered, then Buck crashed into him and they slid a few feet further as a sword struck towards the spot where he had lain. He heard a strangled cry and glimpsed Mole pulling back his sword. It dripped red, and he realized that the renegade had struck Burkey instead of him.
Stone and Buck rolled apart as the sword came down again. As the boys struggled to their feet, Mole recovered. For a moment the three formed a wavering triangle. Stone’s gaze followed the movement of the blade. The Westrian renegade moved carefully forward. Stone felt around for another rock, but they had landed up in a patch of sand that seemed determined to drag him down.
Suddenly their opponent leaped forward, sword sweeping outward in a stroke that would carry it through Buck’s body and onward to strike Stone. He leaped for Mole’s legs as Buck threw himself backward. He heard the blade whistle by his head, touched leather, grappled the man’s knees and twisted. His enemy tried to break free and toppled. Stone stayed with him as they slid down the hill, working his way up the man’s body until his fingers closed on his throat.
The bottom of the slope was near; Stone saw a boulder rushing towards them, then Mole’s head struck it with a sound like a splitting melon and Stone was thrown aside.
After a moment, Stone lifted his head and spat out sand. Mole’s face was very close; he saw his lips move. He is a Westrian, Stone thought, I cannot let him die this way—
“Forgive me, brother,” whispered the boy.
The man’s eyes fixed on his face. “I forgive. . .” the thin sound strengthened suddenly, “in the name of the Maker of All!” The purple of his scar seemed to fade. When Stone saw that he breathed no longer, he gently closed the dull eyes.
The air was thick with dust, the air loud with the creak and groan of several tons of rock finding a new resting place. From time to time more pebbles would clatter down. Slowly Stone got himself upright, gazing around him. Buck was sitting a little ways up the hill, his brown hair white with dust. Beyhond him Larissa picked her way towards them. Painfully he turned and saw Pine and the blonde girl quieting the horses at the bottom of the hill. Someone shouted. Swallow was dancing over the waste of tumbled rock where Madok and his men had been.
The sun seemed suddenly too bright. He blinked dizzily, looked down and saw red blood welling where Burkey’s knife had torn its way along his arm.
They met Lord Philip two day’s travel back up the Traders’ Road into Westria. In addition to the ponies they rode, they had six horses and most of the loot they had carried. They also had one prisoner, Martan, who had been struggling along at the end of the line and so had missed destruction. The weather had held clear and bright for them, as if trying to make up for the unkindness of men. As they rode they gazed on mountain and sky as if these things had been created to delight them, and no one complained when Pine stopped to talk to the trees.
Larissa had dressed Stone’s arm and put it in a sling. He still tired easily, but it gave him little pain. Buck had strained his ankle, and all of them had scrapes and bruises, but they were in surprisingly good shape, considering. Stone could not keep the others from fussing over him. They told him that he deserved it, though it seemed to him that they all had had a part in their deliverance. His own memories of the rockfall were confusing, but he was still amazed that any of them had survived.
When they saw the dust cloud on the road ahead they halted, reaching for the weapons they had cobbled together or taken from the bodies of Madok’s men. Stone’s left hand closed on the hilt of Mole’s sword. They had feared pursuit from the east, though they had covered the bodies that the avalanche had not buried for them. Anyone coming from Westria ought to be friendly, but it was as well to be prepared. Hearts pounding with mingled anxiety and anticipation, they pulled their horses into a tight group, facing outward. They were a force to be reckoned with, now.
It was Buck who recognized his brother’s horn call and unbent his crude bow, all expression leaving his face.
“By Julian’s sword, Buck, relax! You were a hero!” Stone said angrily, edging his horse nearer. “If your brother doesn’t appreciate you now, then swear brotherhood with me and we’ll seek our fortunes together!”
Buck glanced at him sidelong, then began to smile. “By Julian’s sword?” he asked. “No—you are the Julian here. . . .”
Stone grew very still, staring at the boy whom he had fought with, and for. “You give me that name? You?” His throat constricted.
The Lord Commander and his men were skidding to an astonished halt before them. Buck nudged his horse forward, his face set, but Stone heard him sob once as Lord Philip folded his younger brother in his arms.
Stone looked back, and returned Larissa’s triumphant smile.
– 7 –
It was almost over.
Bandaged, bathed, and dressed in new robes of green, Stone sat with Pine and the red-haired boy from his shelter before a closed door. Refusing to give up hope, the Initiation Master had kept all of the seekers at the Initiation grounds for an extra week, and now they and the returned captives were going through the final ceremonies together, after all.
The door was set in the grass-covered encircling mound that ringed the sanctuary. Lines of trees winged out from its farther entrance, separating the circle from the outside world, where parents waited for the successful initiates to emerge. When the door opened again it would be Stone’s turn to go through. His stomach was in knots and his shoulders twitched. He wondered if he were afraid.
But why should I fear? He asked himself. I know what I have to say, and when I have passed through this last ordeal and sworn my oath to Westria, the Commander has promised to make me one of his squires. . .
But that was not what was troubling him. When the priests had asked Stone if he had chosen a name he had nodded, but despite Buck’s encouragement, he could not visualize himself saying it aloud.
There was a soft sound and the door swung open. One of the priests was beckoning. It was like the gateway to the Initiation Grounds, but this door opened onto a deeper darkness. Does every step you take lead into new mysteries? Heart pounding, Stone got to his feet and went forward and the door slammed shut behind him.
The passageway smelled of damp earth. In the darkness Stone heard the priest’s voice and felt his way towards it.
“Out of earth you were formed, to earth you will return!”
Stone felt suddenly as if he were sinking into the ground; the passageway was collapsing as the cliff had fallen to destroy his enemies. He was trapped! It was all a lie, and this was his grave!
Then a firm hand clasped his. He was led forward a few paces and a doorway opened into light.
Still blinking, Stone stumbled out and felt water wash over his bare feet. As his vision cleared he saw that he was standing in a stream that flowed around the inside the sanctuary. He blinked in the dazzling clarity of light reflected from water. Its touch on his feet sent new life dancing through his veins.
“From water were you born; it flows in your body as it flows through the world. . . .” said the priest.”
In the rush of emotion that swept him Stone felt his stomach tighten. Through his tears he glimpsed other openings through which other seekers were being brought in. Then the priest drew him out of the water and led him between two censers set on bronze stands.
The heavy air was suffused with some aromatic scent. Stone breathed deeply, feeling it tingle through his body and focus his mind. He could see clearly now, and all that he saw seemed more real, more solid, than anything he had ever seen before. His mind worked swiftly. It is true—everything they taught me is true!
“Breathe in life, and speak only the truth. . .” his guide said then.
Stone turned. In the center of the sanctuary, four fires roared. Their flames were pale in the sunlight, but he could feel the heat of them from several feet away. Unguided, the boy walked forward, passed between the two nearest and stopped. The heat was fierce here. He felt as though it were burning through his robe to singe his hide.
“May your spirit burn brightly until you become one with the Light!”
The fire was burning within him as well. Stone wanted to laugh, to cry, to shatter in a thousand pieces. There was nowhere to go from here but a straight leap upward to be consumed like a phoenix in the sun!
He saw the Initiation Master through the wavering air, standing with arms spread wide and shining eyes. His head seemed haloed by the flames. Gasping, Stone stumbled between the fires and fell weeping into his strong embrace.
“You have learned more than we dared to hope,” the man said softly. “Welcome, Initiate of Westria!” The priest held the boy until he had mastered himself, then he let him go, and Stone stepped unassisted through the gate that opened onto the world.
“. . .of Westria. . .Westria. . .” That greeting sounded in Stone’s ears. After the brilliance of the enclosure everything outside seemed dim. He wavered, wanting to turn back, but another Initiate was already coming through the doorway after him. Unresisting, Stone let his feet carry him to his place in the line. The others were formed into a half circle, facing the crowd of friends and relations who had come to witness their oaths. Over their murmurs came faint music. He took a deep breath. Now there remained only the giving of his oath and his Name….
In the space between Initiates and audience stood the priests and priestesses who had instructed them. Amidst their black and white the green cope of the oath-giver glowed. Its golden borders, and the circled cross of Westria emblazoned on the back glittered blindingly in the afternoon sun. Stone’s gaze moved back to the others, seeking out Larissa, who stood healed of all the journey’s stains, her shining hair unbound.
The music grew louder and his eyes stung as he recognized the Parting Hymn—
Lest we forget, our voices lift in harmony,
Once more before we part, before we part.
What we have shared will never fade in memory,
But live in th’eternal present of the heart.
When he told Larissa that he would never love anyone as he did her she had not denied him, but he remembered her reply—“”All loves are true loves, and none of them are the same. . . Yes, I love you, but you know that our roads must lie apart. . .” Then, and again at this moment, he realized that it was true.
Almost without regret Stone’s gaze passed from Larissa’s rounded form to the parents and guests who waited beyond. He saw his foster-parents, Gilbert leaning motionless on his staff as if carved from one of his own stones and Megan shifting from side to side as if her feet hurt. He could not tell if they had been able to pick him out from among the rest. Lord Philip stood there too, with his lady beside him and a small child in his arms. Stone searched among the others, hoping to see the man he called the Master in the brightly dressed crowd.
More boys and girls came out of the sanctuary, their eyes dazed with wonders, followed by the Initiation Master and the priestes and priestesses who had acted as guides. The gate was closed. There was a pause and all murmurs stilled.
The oath-giver moved away from the others and turned to face the Initiates. There had been some speculation among them regarding whether it would be the Initiation Master or some dignitary from the College of the Wise. This man was small, and from beneath the gorgeous cape Stone caught the flicker of a grey robe, but the sun was behind him and his features were in shadow.
“Seekers, ye are gathered here to be sealed unto the Covenant of Westria. Are ye ready so to do?”
The voice was harsh as gravel, but it rang like a gong of gold. Stone jumped and stared, his heart fluttering. It was a blurring in his eyes that kept him from seeing the man’s face now, for he knew the voice. It was his friend, his Master, here! He had suspected the old man was an Adept, but he had not dreamed he ranked so high! Eagerly he joined in the reply—
“We are ready—”
In unison, the Initiates repeated the words they had memorized:
“I affirm that I and all other things that live are children of the same Mother, equal creations of the Maker of All Things. Therefore, from this day forward I will take no life without gratitude or without need. I will uphold the right of the other kndreds to life and to the means of life, if need be at the expense of my own. So was Westria established, and so shall it endure.
“I call to witness this oath all Powers of earth and Water, Air and Fire; all that grows from the earth, all that lives within its waters, all creatures that go upon its surface, all that ride the air. And if I fail in this, may the earth give way beneath me, the air depart from my lungs, food and water refuse to nourish me, and my spirit wander homeless forever.
“Guardians of Westria, hear me! Hear me, Maker of All!”
Stone’s voice rang out among the rest. He remembered the trees of the Barren Lands, the vision of King Julian, and Mole’s final whisper as he died.
This I believe! He thought. By this vow I will live. . .
The Master had moved to the end of the crescent. Stone caught the murmur of voice after voice completing the oath, their words becoming clearer as the oath-giver neared.
“Thus I, Arianna, swear.” He recognized Swallow’s voice and smiled.
“Wander. . . Luis. . .Jaida. . . Caradoc. . . Loren. . .Miguel. . .” the voices continued, quavering or clear.
“Robert. . .” he heard Buck speak, and realized that his friend had decided to take his father’s name.
The Master paused before him, and the boy found his throat suddenly dry. He looked up desperately. Then he stilled, supported by the love he saw in the old man’s deep eyes.
He opened his mouth, and listened astonished to the strength of his own words.
“Thus I, Julian, do swear!”
The sudden beauty in the Master’s face dimmed the splendor of the green cloak.
Heart singing, Julian smiled back at him.