The storm settled over the Eltair coast just after the advent of nightfall. Like the worst winter gales, it stole in on cat feet. The fitful, fine sleet dusting over sere landscape changed on a breath into muffling, soft snow as the temperature plunged below freezing. The moment caught Arithon s'Ffalenn, last living Prince of Rathain and birthborn Master of Shadow, crouched in the iced brush of a hedgerow.
Each labored breath burned his lungs like cold fire. His sprint was cut short, though the City of Jaelot's stone walls lay scarcely a bowshot behind him. A skulking fugitive hard pressed by enemies who hunted by sword and by spellcraft, he shot a concerned glance sidewards as Fionn Areth folded, gasping, beside him. The young man had spent the dregs of his strength. Despite the certainty of relentless pursuit, Arithon faced stark necessity: the goatherd he had just saved from the scaffold could run no farther without pause for recovery.
"Rest," whispered Arithon, as winded himself. "For a moment. No more."
Fionn Areth's clipped nod showed resentment, not gratitude.
Yet pressing danger left no time to address the young man's inimically misguided choice of loyalties. Enemies hounded their backs without respite. Koriani seeresses would be tracking with spelled snares. If the mayor's armed guardsmen from Jaelot prevailed first, the pair would be ridden down and slaughtered on the run.
"They'll find us." Fionn Areth cast a harrowed glance over his shoulder. His chilled hand tightened his sword grip as he noticed the patrol sweeping the high crenels of the battlements. The flutter of their pine brands speared rays of smeared light through the thickening snowfall. Arithon measured their movement, intent. The alarm bells stayed mute. He heard no shouts from the gatehouse. Careful to mask his own tension, he said in quiet reassurance, "Bide easy. The mayor's guards can't know we've slipped through the walls until the Koriani decide to inform them."
Nor would the senior enchantress, Lirenda, be anxious to disseminate word of her failure. Since her towering arrogance had granted her quarry the opening escape, she would be loath to approach her male allies. Once again, her order had bungled their promise to entrap the Master of Shadow.
Left raw by the personal price he had paid to win back his threatened autonomy, Arithon closed with dry irony, "From sheer stung pride, I expect the witches will try to recoup their blunder in secret. That's to our advantage. Thick snowfall should foil their scryers and hide us, at least for a little while."
Fionn Areth returned a poisonous glower from a face that, feature for feature, was a mirror?sharp image of the Shadow Master's. Having narrowly missed execution and burning for the crimes of his lookalike nemesis, he still suffered the morning's shock of discovery, that his appearance had been fashioned by the meddling design of Koriani spellcraft. The cruel fact chafed, that he had been used as unwitting, live bait in their conspiracy to ensnare the unprincipled killer beside him.
The betrayal stung yet. "Never mind witches," he gasped in spat venom to the Spinner of Darkness. "The Alliance won't rest until you've been dismembered and burned to serve justice."
Self?contained and expressionless, Arithon refused answer. He was no less enraged to be tagged as a political pawn in the feud that pitched the enchantresses against the authority of the Fellowship Sorcerers. Since simple survival perforce must come first, he took ruthless stock of bad circumstance.
While night settled like impenetrable felt over the Eltair Bay coastline, he wrested the lay of the land from his reluctant memory. Northward, past the black spur of Jaelot's walled headland, small farmsteads patched the land like paned glass. The occupants were suspicious and ill set toward strangers, the ancient codes of hospitality long lost since the fall of the High Kings. Nor did the countryside offer bright prospects. Tangled cedar windbreaks and hedgerows of red thorn squared the rough, fallow fields. Two vagrants on the run from the mayor's justice dared not ply the lanes, with their dry stone walls high enough to entrap, and their rutted mazes of crossroads. To the east, the salt waves of Eltair bay, thrashed a raked stretch of shingle that the relentless winds had flattened to shelterless marshland; to the west rose the forbidding stone ramparts of the Skyshiels, sliced by ravines of weather scabbed rock, and mantled in glaze ice and fir.
Fitful gusts parted the deadened, stilled air, first warning whisper of the bassnote howl yet to build to an oncoming gale. Arithon tucked frozen hands under his cloak. He held no illusions. The snowfall that mercifully erased their tracks, and disrupted the Koriani scryers carried a double edged threat. The night ahead would bring lethal cold, and blinding, bewildering drifts. Inadequately clothed to withstand hostile elements, he and the victimized herder he had rescued could easily perish from exposure.
For the storm that drove in had not arisen out of natural forces. Arithon sensed its song deep in his bones. The subliminal, whining vibration of dropped pressure was exacerbated by the imbalance wrought by disturbed magnetics. Earlier, Dakar the Mad Prophet had served him hard warning: the Fellowship Sorcerers were themselves caught in crisis, distracted by some larger upset. The illicit magics Dakar had engaged to unravel the Koriani defenses in Jaelot had assuredly added more stress to the roiled currents of lane flux. With the cresting surge of winter solstice pending at midnight, Arithon lacked accurate means to measure the backlash that might follow. As he chewed over that burden of worry, Fionn Areth stirred in the darkness.
Warned by a muffled, metallic ring, Arithon spun. He clamped the boy's wrist in a strangling grip that arrested the sword halfway pulled from the scabbard. "Nine hells of Sithaer, are you insane?"
"I should kill you here!" Fionn Areth gasped through locked teeth. "There are widows across the five kingdoms who'd thank me."
"They might," Arithon agreed, his annoyance turned acid. "But a blade in my back won't see you safe. The opposite in fact. My blood in the snow would act as a beacon for Koriani scryers. If you think you can manage to evade their spelled snares, Dakar still has the food and the horses. You aren't going to find him without my guidance. Better to salve your fool's craving for justice after we've scrambled to safety."
Fionn Areth's murderous resistence failed to slacken under restraint. Darker truth eclipsed reason. He knew this creature who entreated in calm self?defense was unnatural, an unprincipled sorcerer whose guileful strategies had slaughtered three dedicated war hosts. Across the continent, men flocked to Lysaer's sunwheel standard and pledged to the Light to destroy him.
"Then swear me your bond," Fionn Areth insisted. "As Prince of Rathain, prove you meant what you said when you offered me trail by combat."
"Very well. Accept my given word. We'll cross swords at the first opportunity, but after we've slipped our pursuit." Solemnity spoiled by a stressed thread of laughter, Arithon provoked in glib melodrama, "Dharkaron's Black Spear strike me dead should I fail you, though the point will quite likely be moot. Koriani and Jaelot's guards would end Rathain's royal line with no help from Ath's Avenger."
Fionn Areth found his sword arm released, though his volatile temper was not the least bit discharged. Ice showered down in cracked shards from the branches as Arithon clawed free of the hedgerow. All animal grace and dangerous focus, he cast no glance backward to ascertain whether his oath was accepted. On the insufferable assumption his young double must follow, he pursued his route across country. Brisk progress was sustained in swift bursts that utilized each quirk of terrain for masking cover.
Fionn Areth flanked him through closing curtains of wet snow, dreading the muffled thud of hooves, and fearing, each step, the clarion cry of the gate watch's horn at his back. Led on by a felon whose motives were suspect, he nursed his distrust though each erratic sprint between hayrick and thicket and cowshed. The low lying fields confounded simplicity. The verges were cross cut with dykes and ditches, or brush brakes riddled with badger setts. The ice capped stone walls could turn a man's ankle. Despite hazards, Arithon steered clear of the cottages with their inviting, gold glazed windows. The byres and yards with penned sheep and loose dogs were avoided, no matter the punishment exacted by chilled hands and feet and the limits of flagging stamina.
Another pause, snatched in a thicket, while snow sighed and winnowed through the frost brittle brambles. Under lidded sky, wrapped in lead-sheeted darkness, Fionn Areth sensed Arithon's measuring scrutiny. However he strove, he could not hide his weakness. Jaelot's abusive confinement had worn him, and the relentless pace of their fight left him battered to utter exhaustion.
Each passing second redoubled the hazards. The storm would grow worse, and the snow, pile deeper. They struggled ahead on borrowed time, against the inevitable odds: at any moment, the town gates would disgorge mounted patrols with pine torches. Guardsmen would ride with trained trackers, in partnership with of Eltair's league of headhunters. For the prospect of claiming the bounty on royalty, they would unleash their dread packs of mastiffs, cut mute as pups to course human quarry in silence.
In uncanny answer to brooding thoughts, Arithon whispered encouragement. "If there are dogs, they won't scent well in snow. Can you manage? Let's go then." He forged onward, the landmarks he steered by all but rendered unrecognizable after a quarter of a century of change. Stone markers and storm bent, sentinel oaks were masked by snowfall and darkness; buildings and bylanes appeared blurred into maddening, unrecognizable caricatures. No margin remained for mistakes. One wrong turn in the dark would lose his tenuous bearings amid the flat apron of coastal landscape. Nor did Arithon dare slacken. Koriani might guide the mayor's patrols, intent on recouping their losses. They knew, as he did, the storm would not wait. Posed the grave danger of being outflanked, Arithon chivvyed his stumbling double into the howling lash of the wind.
A dyke almost tripped him. His sliding descent fetched him short in a drain ditch. The skin of ice smashed underfoot. Muddy water soaked through his fleece boots. Fionn Areth swore in grasslands dialect, his consonants rattled by chattering teeth. No less chilled himself, Arithon offered a hand. Together, the pair splashed over the slough and labored up the eroded berm. A field of corn stubble speared through the snow, rutted mud frozen underneath. Past an osier fence, they flushed a herd of belled ewes, who bolted in jangling terror.
The wind had gained force. Its bite chilled their wet feet and keened through snow-sodden clothing.
"Not far, now," Arithon murmured, then broke off. "Get down!"
Dazed to plodding exhaustion, Fionn Areth missed the cue. Jerked back, then knocked prone as Arithon felled him, he stifled a shrill cry of outrage. Disastrously late, he reached understanding: the muffled tattoo he heard was not caused by the thrash of bare branches. Flattened under the frail sticks of a hazel thicket, shivering under his wadded wool cloak, he held breathlessly still while the torch of an outrider flittered by.
"Well, we had to expect this." Arithon stirred, shedding the clotted snow spooned up by his oversized sleeve cuffs. With the mayor's guard now sounding the alarm, the countryside offered no safety. Uneasy farmsteaders would be out, scouring their hay byres for fugitives. They would unchain their dogs and round up their horses, and stab pitchforks through the mesh of their corn ricks.
Nor did the worsening storm sustain its fickle gift of respite. The snow had already piled too deep. Once a search party stumbled across their plowed prints, they were going to become hunted animals.
"We're farther afield than they realize," Arithon assured, to every appearance unpertubed as his extended hand was refused. While Fionn Areth struggled erect on his own, he added, "Nor will they guess we've an ally waiting to shield us. If fortune favors, they'll keep the belief we're given to aimless flight." For prudence, he chose not to mention that Dakar would likely need spellcraft to further mislead their pursuit.
Inured to harsh weather by his moorland upbringing, the young herder stumbled onward. The overwhelming speed of events had left him too numbed to think. Through bitter necessity, he trailed Arithon's lead through the banked snow of the sheep fold. Another deep ditch, and a slippery crossing over the logs of a style, then partial respite as they plunged into the fir copse beyond.
Fionn Areth tripped twice before his dulled mind made sense of his jumbled impressions. In fact, they had covered more ground than he thought. The cleared fields of the farmsteads lay behind them.
An evergreen canopy closed on all sides. The sky was blank pitch. Each gust shook clodded snow from young spruce, a mere clutch of seedlings before the towering growth that ruched foothills to the west. The tumbled remnants of a cottar's house jagged under the pillowing drifts, the broken yard gate a mute testament some long forgotten misfortune. Beyond the ruined steading, a ravine razed the dell, where the annual spring snowmelt roared in white cataracts to egress in Eltair Bay.
Despite the hard freeze, the crossing was arduous, the undercut banks being ice clad. Jutted rocks mantled in snowfall caved away at each step. Wet to the knees, and wrung wretched with shivering, Fionn Areth the cold rivulets that chased down his bootcuffs and collar. His gloves had soaked through, the fingers inside chilled to lumps of shrill agony. Close on Arithon's heels, he panted uphill and crossed the exposed crest, harrowed by the salt winds off the seacoast. Descent proved just as difficult, the stony soil overgrown with fir saplings cased in glaze ice, and uncut by even a deerpath. Raked and slapped by needled boughs, Fionn Areth broke through to a clearing, too miserable to care that Arithon had reached his obscure destination at last.
An abandoned mill loomed on the swept shelf of snow, crooked in the oxbow bend of a stream. Its unroofed, square shell carved the gusts into dissonance. The rotted wheel canted in a rimed tumble of frozen waterfall. Nor was the ruin deserted. A stout, muffled figure emerged from its gloom, its waddling stride on the uncertain footing as ungainly as a discomposed duck.
"Dakar!" hailed Arithon, sounding weary at last. "I want -"
"You bastard, you just about killed me with worry! Old storm rips my fixed wardspells into white static, and you take a fiend's sweet time to make rendezvous!" Halted in peevish, huffing distemper, the fat prophet who served as the Shadow Master's henchman scowled. Blown snow frosted his ginger brows, and his unkempt, chestnut bristle of beard. "You don't hear the horn calls? The Mayor of Jaelot's sent lancers abroad. I had just about written you both off as torn meat for the headhunter's mastiffs."
"Dakar," Arithon broke in, wrung by a shiver. "Did you bring horses?"
"Dharkaron's black bollocks! Are you both soaked as rabbits?" The Mad Prophet flicked his irritated glance from one alike face to the other, spell-carved to match the same chiseled angles under wind-snagged sable hair. Unerringly able to discern the original, he thrust out a forearm to support young Fionn Areth. "Yes, I managed to acquire four geldings, three hacks, and one knockkneed pack horse. Come in. There's also a fire and hot gruel, and before you ask, yes. I've set masking runes, and have maze wards running against the mayor's riders at each of the four quarters."
Arithon winced at the mention of ward sorceries, which predictably, balked Fionn Areth.
Dakar jerked the boy forward in unvarnished exasperation. "Ath preserve idiots with misaligned scruples, come on! His Grace of Rathain might prefer to stay outside and brood, just show me an Araethurian herdsman born with warm blooded good sense." Fionn Areth resisted, met with short shrift; Dakar continued venting his scolding relief. "I'm damned glad you're alive and still standing to greet me, boy. That won't lift the blight of Daelion's curse off the boneheaded folly that spared you! Your prince won't have mentioned, but the risks undertaken to snatch you from the faggots takes the prize for catastrophic stupidity." At next step, they crossed into the ring of set guardspells. Fionn Areth cried out as a sharp tingle raked his skin. Feet planted, obstinate, he nearly sprained the Mad Prophet's wrist in his panicked effort to bolt.
"Dharkaron's bleak vengeance!" Dakar exploded. Fingers locked in the Araethurian's wet cloak, he held on, his corpulent bulk no more bothered than if he had bagged a struggling game fish. "Koriani witches changed your whole face through black use of their sigils of force. What's a middling weak veil of concealment going to do, except save your skin from execution? Find the sweet reason that Ath gave your goats! Get yourself warm and dry enough to think clearly before you decide we're your enemies."
That earthy, exasperated tongue lashing struck home. Fionn Areth flushed, He grumbled an apology in his back country moorlands dialect, then relented enough to let Dakar lead him into the shelter of the tumbledown mill. The roof had caved in to a rickle of slate, but the beamed track of the log carriage for the saw still stood. The planked platform staved off the worst of the snow. In the single dry corner, cut off from the wind, Dakar had lit a small fire. A pot of stew bubbled over the flames. Four horses munched hay, tied by neck ropes to the skewed post of the millshaft, its base secured by the massive runnerstone that had ground countless harvests of barley. The animals' warmth blunted the worst of the cold. Beside three heaped saddles, acquired at speed through forged requisiotions and subterfuge, Dakar had blankets and cloaks and thick boots lined with lambs' wool. The collection included two buck knives, a hunting bow, and provisions fit for a trek across rugged mountain terrain.
"Oh, well done, Dakar." Arithon unhooked the iced clasps on his mantle, hung the sopped cloth on the sacklift, and accepted the blanket tossed into his numbed hands. Swathed like a wraith, he resumed his expert inspection. "Where are the spirits?"
Dakar chuckled. "Here was I, wishing the troublesome brains had been frozen clean out of your head. I've got spiced wine laced full of restoratives. If you drink too much, don't damn me tommorrow. You'll feel like your innards got packed with wet sand, with the residue jammed in your eyesockets."
Between helping Fionn Areth, the Mad Prophet unlooped a cord from his neck and passed over a stoppered skin flask. Arithon fumbled his first effort to draw the cork. He grimaced, used his teeth, then shut his eyes in distaste and belted a hefty draught. The offensive sting made his eyes water. A husked burr of betrayal overlaid his worn voice. "You didn't mention lye?stripping the last shred of tissue from my vocal cords. I won't sing a true note for a week."
"And right blessed that misfortune will be!" Dakar shot back, scathing. "Given the powers you've roused up in blind ignorance, we're lucky not to be cinders winnowed into the Ath forsaken desert of Sanpashir!"
He snatched up Fionn Areth's discarded shirt, wrung out the cuffs, and hung the linen to dry. "You'll find a clean tunic and small clothes in the saddle pack." At the young man's hesitation, his moon features knitted into a glower fit to torch silk. "Don't even think to protest obligation. You're the guest of your crown prince. He's oathbound by law to provide you his best hospitality."
"We're touchy," observed Arithon, his thoughtful gaze on the Mad Prophet's back. He rolled a sawn log closer to the fireside. As though his balance might desert him without warning, he equally carefully perched. "Has your pending fit of prescience not lifted since sundown?"
Bent over, rummaging through saddle packs like a corpulent thresher, with Fionn Areth hovering as overseer with uncompromised bad humor and crossed arms, Dakar grumbled through his beard. "I'm hung over. Jaelot's gin is a grade below horse piss, that much hasn't changed in twenty years."
"I'm remiss." A contrite, wry grin lit Arithon's fox features, tinged orange in the flicker of firelight. "Why not sample your vile restorative?" He passed back the flask, while the tireless wind skirled snow devils across the darkened gap of the tailrace.
The Mad Prophet ignored both comment and offering. Straightened up burdened to the chin with bunched clothing, he foisted the pile without apology upon Fionn Areth. "Put those on." He accepted the flask, and slapped its gurgling bladder on top of a sheephide jacket. "As soon as you're dressed, drink up. We've got to be moving before midnight."
Fionn Areth gaped, his arms clutching his third change of raiment since morning. "Why can't we rest here?"
Dakar threw up his hands, eyes rolled to white rings. "Because this is solstice, and the lane tides were unleashed to bring your crown prince into Jaelot."
When Fionn Areth looked blank, Arithon ventured a more civil explanation. "This ruin sits on a natural watercourse. At midnight, a cresting flow of raw power will rip through the site like a conduit. Without the Paravian rituals to mitigate, the flood will rattle and shake any structure not blessed into alignment with the flow of Ath's greater mystery."
"This mill tore to wreckage in the last causal event. And before you ask, yes, it was Arithon who sang the same powers active in Jaelot twentyfive years ago." Nakedly worried, Dakar plumped his bulk down on a saddle pack. "The repeat performance to break your captivity might easily fell the last stones in these walls. You want to sleep under the rubble?"
"I won't sleep at all, where there's sorcery afoot." Fionn Areth retorted. Having suffered the brunt of mistaken identity, only narrowly spared execution for the selfsame sorcereries raised by the hand of Arithon s'Ffalenn, he gave each fold of clothing his suspicious inspection. If he expected copper thread sigils worked through the seams of the hems, he encountered nothing amiss. Only sturdy, stitched hemp, and plain cerecloth linings. Defeated at last by the merciless chill, he burrowed into shirt and tunic better suited to his build than the cast offs garnered from the lady's servant who had helped them evade close pursuit.
While sorcerer and prophet shared out gruel and brisk talk, the herder buckled on his sword, then donned jacket and cloak. Leaned on a post, determined to stand wary guard, he declined to eat, afraid he might fall sound asleep among enemies.
The contents of Dakar's flask had a sharp, metallic aftertaste that Fionn Areth did not find unpalatable. He drank deeply, at the last unaware that the spellcraft he eschewed was in fact bound into the spirits. Grasslands ignorant, he gave no thought to question, even as the pungent restorative burned through his body and revitalized every flagging, sore muscle. Restored to clear focus, warmed and eased back to comfort, he took followed the conversation ongoing between the Mad Prophet of legend, and the prince whose appearance he now shared through Koriani machinations.
"The Fellowship knows, then?" Arithon asked concerning the defeated plot that entwined them.
"Once you crossed through Jaelot's outer wall, you broke through the ward they'd set to forestall Sethvir's earthsense." Evasively preoccupied over securing the saddle packs, Dakar shrugged. "Better worry more for Jaelot's patrols. If I couldn't scry you, then the witches are hobbled as well. Their clairvoyants can't act in full force for as long as the snow keeps falling." The water element in the storm would maze any transmission of spells set through a quartz focus.
Arithon paused with his spoon half raised, his level glance suddenly piercing. "Dakar, that didn't answer my question." The Mad Prophet hunched his thick shoulders. Both hands stayed engrossed with the straightforward task of threading a strap through a buckle. "Why can't you accept that I'm out of my depth?"
Arithon's expectant silence stretched taut.
"Very well, I can speculate. I'd expect Sethvir's known about Fionn Areth's transformation for years." Dakar gave over the truth in stark misery. "Since the boy swore the Koriani his consent over a crystal focus, the Sorcerers can do nothing by way of direct intervention."
"Go on. There's more." Arithon let down his spoon, well warned his companion's diligent tidiness was in fact an outright avoidance.
Dakar jabbed the tang through the leather with the force he withheld from his language. "For today's round of upsets, we're both in the dark. I warned you before. Something set an aberration through the lane's flux last night. Such an event on the cusp of the solstice has certainly led to an imbalance. Grievous enough to blind Sethvir's vision. Or else your bid to reach Jaelot would have been stopped well before the Sanpashir focus reached resonance."
"That's old ground for argument, surely?" Arithon set his stew bowl aside, banal to the point of disinterest. Yet Fionn Areth was not fooled. Set on edge by such firsthand reference to Fellowship resources and magecraft, he bristled, unaware his unease gained preternatural spin through the spell charged effects of the wine. Warm food and shelter notwithstanding, he noticed that Arithon had not shed his piercing wariness, either.
Nor was Dakar oblivious, or outflanked by lame gestures. "All right." His capitulation now showed his threadbare fear. "I sent for help, a plea made under the permissions you gave to be used in last line of defense. No Fellowship Sorcerer has answered." "Which doesn't necessarily mean they're sidelined with a catastrophe," Arithon pointed out, reasonable, except for the sly, lightning glance to one side, that gauged Fionn Areth's leashed temper. "The Sorcerers might just be choosing to let the whole matter run its due course in free choice."
Dakar glowered back in reproof, but had the good sense to keep quiet. He, too, noted the dangerous antipathy the herder held toward Arithon.
"His Grace will have a plan," the Mad Prophet said in an effort to soothe Fionn Areth. "At least, he passed an almighty thick sheaf of penned orders to the captain entrusted with care of his brigantine."
"There was always a contingency," Arithon agreed. Settled enough to have recovered his appetite, he scraped the savory last dregs from the bowl and washed out the residue with snowmelt. Just as seamlessly imperturbed, he requested an oiled rag. Then he cleared his crusted sword from its scabbard and began the unpleasant chore of cleaning. The fouled blade was rubbed down through an ongoing discussion of covert land routes to Tharidor.
As though fingers and rag were not crimsoned with stains from six brutally slaughtered guardsmen, Arithon concluded, "Evenstar should call in port there sometime before the thaws break. She'll provide us with secure passage to Alestron, where Vhandon and Talvish will see us safely back to the Khetienn, offshore."
When Dakar looked mollified, Arithon grinned. "Well, that was the promise that bought their hardheaded cooperation." He gave a critical squint down his blade, the unearthly, dark metal of its forging like wet slate. The inlaid Paravian runes caught the sheen from the fire, sullen in mystery as molten glass drawn on the rod before shaping. Lined in the leaping, uncertain flamelight, the thread silver edges gleamed straight and true. The uncanny temper showed no pit of rust, nor the wear left from commonplace sharpening. "Vhandon got his chance to revisit home soil, and Talvish couldn't argue the blandishment. The s'Brydion duke can most likely be trusted to keep the Khetienn provisioned in my absence."
Arithon tossed the fouled rag in the flames, then companionably offered the oil to Fionn Areth, whose weapon was wet, and not kept preserved by ensorceling spells out of legend. "You'll find out soon enough," the Shadow Master confided. "The s'Brydion clan are warmongering lions who judge a man first by his armament."
"What makes you think I'll stand with you to Tharidor? Or that I care for the criminal attributes of your allies?" Fionn Areth drew himself up, braced to defiance by the spelled wine. "On no count did I agree to stay in your company beyond reach of Jaelot's defenses."
"Well then oil your sword," urged Arithon, agreeable. "Because on that count, we're going to fight."
"Damn you both!" Dakar plowed erect in alarm, the stick he used to poke up the fire dropped in a shower of sparks. "I may have wards up, but they won't protect from an outright indulgence of folly."
As Fionn Areth accepted the invitation and the oil, and Arithon, indulgent, tore off another strip of rag, the Mad Prophet howled ripe protest. "Fiends plague, you goose brained s'Ffalenn bastard! That boy is scarcely out of adolescence! To him, your digging mockery is serious!"
"I'm serious, as well." Arithon's green eyes stayed imperious, their hard brilliance as faceted emerald. To the young man who ranged opposite, drawn steel in hand, plying the rag over and over his weapon's deadly, honed edge, Rathain's sovereign prince minced no niceties at all. "Shall we cross swords? Very good. That should settle all differences. Let's please set the stakes very clearly beforehand."
"No stakes," Fionn Areth rebutted. "I just want you dead. That's what drew me over the mountains from Araethura in the first place."
"I took that as given," said Arithon s'Ffalenn. "Now hear out my terms." Against Dakar's furious, clashing reproof, his challenge continued, implacable. "I say you're on our side, whether you like my morals or not. The Koriathain are to blame for your trial of misfortune, but their meddling has left you wearing my face. Despite my list of disreputable habits, I won't stand aside and see you gutted as my luckless namesake. Neither will I drag my close friends into jeopardy by pulling you from the faggots again. The only men I trust with your safety are my own. To change that, you'll have to defeat me."
For answer, Fionn Areth stripped off cloak and jacket and jerked up his chin. "We'll take this outside?"
Arithon arose, all trim grace, to meet him. The blanket slipped off his squared shoulders, unnoticed, while the smoke dusky steel in his hand flashed with a predator's confidence. "Kill me, and the townsmen will sing your praises as a hero. Dakar will no doubt be interested to see how you go about claiming the honors while wearing my royal likeness."
"You can't do this." A contrast of lumbering corpulence, the Mad Prophet shoved upright and attempted to thrust inbetween. Arithon drove him back with a glance, then faced Fionn Areth, the furious temper of his bloodline welded into an unyielding presence. "I want you to have the opportunity," he goaded. "Take me down! Cast me bleeding in the mud. For the murdered children at Tal Quorin, sieze the moment to claim retribution."
Fixated, Fionn Areth stalked past the fire. "Shall we start?" He tested the edge on his blade, prepared to cut down that light, silken voice, the withdrawn countenance and cat footed poise of the spiteful creature who opposed him. Who wore frayed wool and linen with the arrogance of fine velvet, and whose contempt seemed to scald every private, inner wound, and gall broken dreams with bright viciousness.
Dakar watched, stunned breathless, as the goatherd arose to take the thrown gauntlet. Like a moth's suicidal plunge to the flame, he resumed his plea for intervention. "Arithon, damn you! Have you gone mad? The wards I've set weren't made to mask sound! Fight with steel, and the noise will draw guardsmen." The Mad Prophet snatched at Arithon's sleeve and found himself shaken off.
"I want this," said the Master of Shadow, unequivocal. His most scalding nod encompassed Fionn Areth, who paced back and forth with impatience. "He holds my given word I would answer to justice. Since you're not going to stop this, show the good sense to back off."
"Good sense?" Dakar cried in shrill disbelief. "You're the one who intends to cross steel in the dark, over glare ice and bad footing! Not since you tried tienelle before Dier Kenton Vale have I seen you act this irresponsible."
"Then you'll just have to trust that I have solid reasons." Arithon brushed past, committed.
As he rounded the fire, Dakar glimpsed the stained bandage showing beneath his left shirt cuff. Concern fueled his anger. "Then get yourself killed! I don't want to watch." While the prince and his look-alike slipped into the storm, the Mad Prophet turned his back to the thankless task of breaking camp and saddling the horses.
In the millyard outside, the raking east wind swept the snow to a thinned, brittle sheet. The pristine layer silenced footfalls as Fionn Areth and the man he pledged to destroy lined up to cross killing steel. A gust hissed down the cleared gash of the tailrace. Its funneled fury lashed at exposed hands and faces, and moaned unchecked through the fir thickets. Darkness choked the remaining visibility down to an unreliable few yards.
If the man of experience now held second thoughts, no sign of hesitancy showed in the angle of the sword he raised up to guardpoint.
Nor did Fionn Areth shrink at the crux. Heedless that spelled wine had rekindled his resources, he stood braced, calm and steady, to reclaim wilful charge of the prophecy the Araethurian seeress had made at his birth. "Begin," he rang out. "In the name of the Light, start the trial whenever you're ready."
Arithon s'Ffalenn remained stilled, his dark steel a motionless line scribed against felted darkness. "Oh, no boy. You have your priorities dead wrong. For Alliance principles or for Morriel Prime, I won't play. If you would aspire to become Lysaer's puppet, you'll close on the same terms that he has. Just as at Tal Quorin, and Vastmark, you'll have to be first to attack."
"You think I lack courage?" Fionn Areth launched into an immediate lunge, gratified by the belling clang as his blade met his enemy's firm parry.
The slick footing demanded exacting balance. Arithon engaged the classic defense, his style and form letter perfect. Despite adverse conditions, Fionn Areth flushed with self-confidence. His years of hard training rose to the occasion. He moved to heightened focus, prepared to carve out his own ebullient brilliance.
He blocked Arithon's strong but predictable counterthrust, and answered. Steel chimed. Like dancers engaged in partnered combat, the duellests circled, their swords a glancing point of contact between them. Fionn Areth took no chances. Deliberate in technique, he held down his hot nerves, gratified as he measured Arithon's offensive, and content to await the clear cut opportunity to close with a lethal stroke.
Through the back and forth, testing exchange of first blows, he matched his antagonist's immaculate form. Not a large man, the Master of Shadow countered weight and force with neat footwork. The polished execution of each of thrust and parry displayed the unruffled temper of experience. Fionn Areth gave that spare evidence his reasoned analysis. He had heard the exalted heights to which this man, as Masterbard, had carried his gift of music. Time demanded limitation: no mortal being could support the same brilliance in two different arenas at once.
Engage and spring back, then sideslip; the locked patterns of combat stamped overlapped prints in the snow. Each parry cast the ring of sheared steel through the cloaking mantle of darkness. Between whining gusts, the high banks of the millrace funneled the din of each passage. Nor did the muffling snowfall do aught to mask tortured dissonance, as blade locked to blade, then screamed edge to flat upon parting.
Emerged from the ruined mill with the horses on lead reins, the Mad Prophet watched the exchange with worried eyes and five centuries of jaded experience. He had seen Rathain's liege through stresses and hardship, and the bitter immediacy of forced slaughter. This unfolding encounter was a baldfaced farce. Each contemptuous movement was delivered in the snapping, crisp sarcasm that marked Arithon's inimical mockery. Nor was Dakar surprised when the moment arrived to pair action with needling satire.
"Very good, boy." Arithon effected a lightning fast disengage. Fionn Areth lurched through an embarrassing stagger as the expected resistance melted away and left him overextended. "We've practiced each one of the basic attack patterns. Does your repertoire extend to intermediate skill? Go on. Come ahead. Shall we see?"
Backed off, breathing through tight concentration, the younger man threw off distraction. "You won't bait me into losing my temper."
"Bait you?" Tap! Tap! Arithon's sword struck, controlled to precision that mocked. "Shall we pick up the pace?"
Fionn Areth met the devastating rush of the next lunge, wary, not yet thrown on the defensive. "You haven't been fighting," he accused through the clamor as his response hammered Arithon's brisk parry.
"Oh, I'm fighting," assured the Prince of Rathain, his statement a ribbon of provocation. "The ground's not ideal. What's the point, if I were to push my sweet luck? I might fall flat on my arse! This duel is serious. Where would the dignity be for the hero? No ballad could applaud you for striking a man when he's down, freezing the blood from his bollocks."
"Save yourself!" Fionn Areth snarled back. Pride nettled him after all. This was his moment, the destiny he had been born and raised to fulfill. The criminal he battled should be left without leeway for crack comments on his killer's reputation. "Indeed," snapped Fionn Areth, "let's pick up the pace and settle things that much more quickly."
Through sharp gusts and flurried snowfall, his rapid offensive battered his quick tongued opponent into gratifying retreat toward the stream bank.
Giving way before that driving rush, Arithon let his defending sword yield again and again, the solid resistance of his earlier style remade into a wall of substanceless air and fast movement. He skipped backward, melting away from hard contact. Fionn Areth thrust and stabbed in fanatic response to each of a dozen snatched openings. The attacks met no target. Back and back in scissor fast footwork, Arithon gave precious ground. Behind loomed the locked millwheel, armored in ice, the barrier to choke off his options.
Gaging the distance in one snatched glance, Fionn Areth misjudged his footing. The streambank sloped gently downward, and the extended stride of his lunge landed him on a swept patch of glare ice. Sprawled to one knee, sword flung wide for balance, the herder cried out in consternation. The strong counter blow must inevitably dispatch him before he could salvage his coveted victory.
Yet Arithon merely stood fast and waited, the dark sword in his grasp poised and still.
"You're not fighting!" Fionn Areth scrambled back upright, humiliated and stressed by the blazing pain of a pulled hamstring. "Damn you to Sithaer's bleakest of pits! You give me no contest at all."
"You wanted to fight," said Prince Arithon, equivocal. "I promised you one chance to test me."
Dakar, by the mill, caught his breath as the devastating, scalding invective struck home.
"I never once gave my word I'd strike back to cause harm," Rathain's prince added, spitefully reasonable. Then, as the goatherd hammered back in offense, he parried, sidestepped, and lagged a half beat to stoop and fling a snatched snow clod. "So far, boy, you haven't shown me the least little cause to feel threatened."
Struck square in the eye, Fionn Areth hissed a blasphemy. He charged up the stream bank. Pressed to animal ferocity, he extended himself to deny his antagonist the chance to regain the high ground.
He encountered instead the breathtaking fast reflex that trademarked the s'Ffalenn prince's offensive. "No gain without sweat," Arithon taunted. "You wanted to make an end quickly?"
At each punitive step, through each phase of encounter, Fionn Areth's convictions were made laughingstock. He was being mauled, mouse to Arithon's cat, for sheer malice and flippant amusement. The insult struck home, fully and finally; Fionn Areth let fly the chokehold he kept on his temper.
The screaming cry of steel locked to steel filled the draw like the language of vengeance. This was no longer a battle in form, restrained by the dictates of prudence. In snow and darkness, the paired blades carved wild arcs. Dakar, by the mill, mopped sweat from his brow and endured the unbearable, drawn tension. He eschewed use of mage sight. His weak stomach refused the exactitude of his refined perceptions, lest chance death or injury drag him into the entangling fabric of tragedy. In the absence of light, the duel's progress became marked by the clangor of parries; of gasped breaths and the rasp as stiff boot soles scuffed over treacherous ground seeking purchase.
Nor had Arithon surrendered his arrogant stance. On a grievous, missed step, in irretrievably marred balance, Fionn Areth's guarding blade swung too wide. The Shadow Master jerked back his following lunge, and forwent lethal closure yet again. "Fight, damn you!" gasped the enraged Araethurian.
A glib jab in verse, then a love tap with the blade's flat served him Arithon's blistering rejection. "Kill me, or quit the field outright. You're not Lysaer, stripling. Desh-thiere's curse doesn't bind me. Your blood on my hands would be a cheap thrill, and I don't like hunting for sport!"
Fionn Areth bore in, finesse abandoned. Though he felt the searing burn of each breath, the spelled wine blunted fatigue. He smashed his clamoring, brutal attack into Arithon's graceful, quick parries. Weight and force would carry the contest in the end. Persistence must eventually wear down the blythe turn of speed that, time and again, bought evasion. The impact of steel striking steel numbed his ears. His eyes stung with running sweat. The featureless night and fine, veiling snowfall reduced his opponent to a lightfooted shadow that went and came to the relentless demand of his swordplay.
The change in the match occurred without warning. In the space between heartbeats, the Shadow Master's lighthanded style ripped away, immolated by driving brilliance.
Fionn Areth gasped. Scrambling to maintain a classic defense against an onslaught of innovative genius, he at last understood the prelude had been a bald sham all along. This was a master swordsman he faced. Any time, even now, the dark blade could slice in and take him at will. He lived and moved on his enemy's sufferance, with no prayer for reprieve if he faltered. Gone were the mocking phrases, as well, vanished like silk over flame. Lashed by a whistling, furious offensive, Fionn Areth heard Dakar shouting.
Then he shared the reason for his enemy's unveiled form: the thunder of oncoming horsemen. An armed company of Jaelot's guard charged the mill, drawn on by the belling notes of swordplay.
Rushed to elation, that despite his failed skill, the sorcerer would receive his comeuppance, Fionn Areth took heart. He pressed on in fixed purpose to sustain his defense until the mayor's pursuit overtook them.
Just as obstinate, Arithon extended his will to bind up his steel and disarm him. The slide of their footfalls scuffed off the thinned snow. Locked now in true combat, the Shadow Master and his Koriani made double circled and feinted and thrust across an arena of pebbled, gray ice. Panted breath and marred balance tore gaps in technique. The raging clang of each closure sang ragged where one or the other combatant scrambled to regain slipped footing.
And even still, two openings came and went; even threatened with capture, Arithon rejected the safe option and abjured the disabling stroke.
Dakar shoved both fists against his shut teeth to stifle a screamed exhortation. One trip, one distraction could precipitate a fatality. Too wise to stress Arithon's rapt concentration, he saw the opening that led into the wicked reverse stroke, and disarmament. The same sequence had once downed Lord Erlien of Alland, in a trial fought years past in Selkwood. Fionn Areth, still green, could only withstand the attacking diversion, without clue his defeat was self-evident.
But this night, on the winter cold banks of the millstream, Arithon's skilled tactic went wrong. That stunning, last bind became slowed by a skid, then a misstep caught short of recovery. His dark steel jerked downward, unpartnered, while his left toe gave way underneath him.
Fionn Areth's missed thrust drove on, unhindered. Given no option to avoid a stabbed chest, Arithon guarded with the back of Alithiel's quilloned grip. Dakar cried out as steel screamed and slid through. Yet no word could arrest the following force of Fionn Areth's stripped hatred. The sword rang between Alithiel's wrought rings, and impaled her s'Ffalenn bearer's right hand.
Footing recaptured, Arithon sprang backward. Blood slicked the grasp of fingers gone strengthless. As he changed grip and fell back on a left handed style, he was going to miss the next parry.
Yet Fionn Areth showed stubborn mettle and withheld the lunge that would have pressed the advantage. "You have a main gauche," he said, raging bitter. "Why haven't you thought use it?"
Arithon stood, hard breathing and stilled, while the blare of a horn clove the night. An officer's shout spurred the pounding hoofbeats on a converging course down the draw. "All right," he agreed. "But let's not spoil the odds, my two blades to your one." He flicked back his cloak, drew the evil, quilloned weapon from the sheath at his hip. "You take the main gauche," he invited Fionn Areth. "I prefer my small dagger."
As if no company of guardsmen closed in, a fast toss shied the weapon, grip first.
Fionn Areth fielded the catch in astonishment.
"Ath, no!" pealed Dakar, wide awake to fresh danger even before his tuned mage-sense seared warning through every overcranked nerve.
This was the same main gauche that had struck Caolle down. Its steel still harbored the horrific stamp of past dissidence: the cruel death and bloodshed of a leigeman fallen for true loyalty, and a wounding of conscience that to this day stood unrequited. In an enemy's hand, fed by hot temper and the high stakes of extremity, that grievous, dark imprint might refire. In lingering resonance, allowed opening by old grief, such raised dissonance could cloud Arithon's better judgment. Charged by s'Ffalenn guilt, a self-abnegating justice might complete that blade's accursed history.
But the fight disallowed any pause to broach reason. Fionn Areth bore in, sword leveled, with the main gauche couched in a determinedly competent left hand.
Arithon met him, his sword tip unsteady in his maimed clasp. The weapon he retained for his left handed guard was a suicide's choice, a slender poignard for eating. Its tanged blade had no crossguard, no length, and no leverage to outmatch the swung impetus of a sword stroke.
Dakar surged forward. His frantic rush was dragged short by four horses, planted by herdbound instinct. With raised heads and pricked ears, their curiosity snagged upon the approach of Jaelot's destriers. Dakar snarled epithets concerning maggot coated dog meat.
While undaunted in the clearing, the Araethurian goatherd readied the stop thrust to murder the last s'Ffalenn prince. Restored to self-confidence, in the best tutored form, Fionn Areth held his unwavering focus. He tracked the raised sword that would fail to deflect him, and so missed the deft flick of Arithon's left hand, that launched the flat, little dagger.
The knife struck its mark, sunk hilt deep in the herd boy's extended shoulder. He cried out, hand gone nervless. His sword cast free, falling; sliced a glancing gash in the high cuff of Arithon's boot. Left the main gauche, but no space to react, Fionn Areth ended his thrust, still in balance, but unable to effect a timely recovery given the wretched footing.
Arithon stepped close. Stripped to desperate efficiency, he struck one sharp blow. Alithiel's jeweled pommel clubbed Fionn Areth's exposed nape and felled him, unconscious.
The horses gave way before Dakar's goading. They sidled ahead in snorting excitement, while down the choked gash of the draw, the charging lancers bore in on the ruined mill. Swearing in language to raise fire and storm, Dakar reached Arithon's side.
"You've made a right mess!" he snapped, voice cracking as he stooped to assess the wound in the prostrate boy's shoulder. "Ath on earth, man! Why did you have to choose now to indulge in a schoolboy's folly?"
Breathing too hard, his sword smartly sheathed, Arithon recovered the herder's dropped weapons from the snow. He secured Fionn Areth's bared blade through a packstrap, then reclaimed the cold burden of the main gauche. "No folly," he gasped, flat sober and strained. "My given promise to meet him in challenge was made in dire straits, to get him out of Jaelot without argument."
"Damn good that does, now!" Dakar retorted, then caught his breath at the stony expression locked upon Arithon's face. "Don't mourn. He's not dying. Just stuck like a pig at the butcher's. He won't bleed to death. That's provided our captors allow me the grace to set him in bandages before they drag us in chains to the dungeon."
Arithon's relief was a palpable force. He caught the nearest gelding's bridle and flung the reins over the animal's plunging head. "We aren't going to be taken." He reached again; snapped the packhorse's lead out of the Mad Prophet's stunned grasp, then vaulted into the saddle. "You're to keep that boy safe! Promise me! Use every means necessary, breach my private trust as you must. Just teach him that I'm not his enemy."
Dakar grabbed for the gelding's bridle, too late. Ever and always, he failed to keep pace with s'Ffalenn cunning through a crisis. "Arithon, no!"
But the oncoming riders were near, and fast closing, without time to argue better strategy.
"Ward this place, now! I'll divert them." Arithon closed his heels, spurred, pitched the horse underneath him from a standstill into a gallop. "Given shadow, I ought to manage." As the packhorse swerved and bolted in response, Arithon called over his shoulder. "I'll find you, or meet you when Evenstar docks!"
Both horses and rider crashed into the wood, extended in flat out flight.
Dakar stood his ground by the deserted mill. He renewed and extended the spells for ward and concealment by rote, while the horncall as the lancers wheeled and turned sounded all but on top of him. Nor could an untenable choice be reversed. Shouts pealed through the storm, fired by discovery as Arithon crossed a thinned patch of wood, or perhaps a woodcutter's clearing. He would have lagged purposefully and provoked that brief sighting, to draw the danger away after him.
Dakar could not rejoice for the respite of safety. Naught else remained, now, but to attend to Fionn Areth. That unsought charge left him heartsick with shame, for in fact, against the world's peril still posed by the Mistwraith, the life left in his hands was the expendable cipher. Whether moved by compassion for feckless youth, or some sense of misguided loyalty, he knew his excuse for inaction fell short. He had failed the primary obligation set upon him by command of the Fellowship Sorcerers.
Rathain's irreplaceable, last prince now rode alone. He carried no better protection than his birth gift of shadow, and a paltry few sigils of concealment stitched in haste into the livery hack's saddle cloth. Whipped to zealous pursuit, the mayor's guard from Jaelot pounded hard on his trail, swallowed at length by the fall of fresh snow and the gloved ink of solstice night.
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