So I figure I shall spread the time-wasting around and give you the first few chapters of Inn over a couple of posts. There's a lot wrong with this story - it reads rather D&D-ish to me now, but I'm entirely amused by the situation. Don't read on if you like things like resolution, or endings...
[Caution: I am unkind to horses in this chapter. Reminiscent of a scene in Champion.]
The inn fell sideways.
The only warning had been the man and woman in the corner jolting to their feet. And just as abruptly falling to the floor, along with every other person standing. Tables, chairs, plates and tankards, forgotten objects placed on dusty cross-beams, all flung themselves across the room in the direction of the kitchen.
Shan, who had been sitting by the entrance, experienced those brief moments as a minor eternity. First, the small table lifted away from her, upending its contents in an arcing tumble. She followed it, trousers parting company with worn bench, chin meeting the leg of the table as it overturned completely. Somehow she caught up with it, rolled into the rough and unfinished underside, and lay disoriented on her back as the table slid towards the shrieks and shouts of the rest of the room. Then direction reversed, much more abruptly, as the inn hit something hard enough to send every beam juddering, and fill the room with ominous cracking noises. Shan's table shot directly into the door, which thankfully was closed against the autumn breezes. There came a booming, thooming echo, and a clatter of crashes. Then a brief, half-quiet as smaller objects and pieces of plaster pattered to a belated halt, before the screaming began.
Stunned, bruised in odd places, and becoming painfully aware of several overlarge splinters, Shan attempted to rise, but fell back, head spinning. The screaming grew louder, drowned out by one particularly shrill cry.
Shaking her head did not clear it, but served to start it hurting. Shan succeeded in sitting up the second time, and gazed at the wreckage of the second-best inn in Kandalay. The best and the worst had been full, but the largest had not quite closed its doors to the saddle-weary. With less than a week until the Great Convocation, travellers were thick on the roads of Gonwindar and Shan had been lucky to bargain herself a small room at the Cob and Signet, out of the cool autumn air at twice the normal price. She'd almost had to accept a corner of the common room after lights out, which she did not like doing in the least, especially not with the day ahead of her.
It was difficult to see the extent of the damage, with most of the lanterns and candles extinguished by their falls, except for the one which was merrily exploring a new realm outside the confines of its casings, lamp-oil trailing pathways into conflagration. Two women in a guard's mix of chain and leather, with quicker reflexes than most, were already attempting to extinguish the fire. Shan started to stand, then stopped and hastily attended to the more pressing matter of the two-inch splinter which had scored a bed in the fleshy pad at the base of her right thumb.
"What happened?! What happened?! What happened?! WHAT HAPPENED?!" a man shouted above the increasing babble of noise.
Shan listened almost absently as she moved on from her hand to another spike of wood in her thigh.
"Jerro! Jerro!? Oh, Star Maiden, no!"
"...water, and quick!"
"Use the ale!"
"...happened?! What happened?! WHAT..."
"Help me! My leg! My leg!"
"Please wake up!"
"It's all spilt!"
"The fire! My leg! Help me, Thunder take you!"
"What do I...?"
"...if you pointed out a bucket of water, I'd gladly use it. Till then, give me the damn cloak!"
Someone slapped the shouter, which seemed to make things quieter, though everyone else still cried out through the smoke filling the room. Shan, eyes stinging, regarded the sliver she had extracted from her thigh. It gleamed, slickly wet. Shuddering, she tossed it away and decided the smaller darts of wood could wait. She squinted through fire-painted dark across at a crumpled pile of benches, tables and chairs, licked at by the burgeoning flames, and blessed the habitual caution that stationed her close to the main exit.
An inn-keep with sense would keep buckets of sand, not water, and Shan, driven by a vague memory of just such a precaution, took a cautious and painful step towards the stair when a woman's voice cut through the noise like a note struck with crystal.
The word rang and throbbed in the air, deadening all other sound as it sucked light and life from the flames which licked at that tangle of broken wood. Even the tumbled coals of the fire winked out, dying stars swallowed by the night. The silence that followed was almost complete, marred only by a hiccuping sob and some coughing. And the wind, which rattled the shutters.
Shan, driven by an urge to clear her lungs, and an urgent need to get out of the room, reached out and dragged her table-sled out of the way. The scraping was like nails driven into her throbbing skull, and she hastily opened the main door.
The wind came in.
A strong, cold wind, with a strange scent, crisp and powerful in the stifling atmosphere of the room. She could see cold moonlight on water in the valley below, surrounded by the shadows of trees. And the scent was sharp note of pine, which was as confusing as all the rest, for there were no stretches of pine in Kandalay, or for leagues in any direction, not on the great fertile plain of Gonwindar. Gonwindar was flat and full of fields. Kandalay was flat and full of buildings and muddy streets.
Shan stood in the doorway, framed by moonlight and shadows, and looked out at a lake of black and silver in a wide, deep valley between hills and mountains where the wind played a cold song.
"Lord Twilight protect us," she murmured, hand falling from the doorframe, leaving a sticky red stain.
"What's there?" someone called. "What struck the inn?"
"'That was an earthquake, numbskull!"
"No! One of those twisty-winds. I saw such rip a house to tinder, long ago."
"Nothing natural," Shan replied softly, when a discomforted pause fell upon the room's occupants, and stepped out the front door, down to gouged earth that was a good foot below the buckled wooden floor. She glanced back into the inn, then further around about her, wanting to see where and how and why. The lake's nearest bank was beyond a cluster of trees at the foot of this rock-strewn hill. The water curved away behind more trees to the...
Shan frowned at the moon, and decided the lake curved west. It was much colder than it had been in Kandalay, and the wind cut through the cloth of her shirt with ease. But she did not feel inclined to go back inside to fetch a coat.
The rescue work could be safely left to those closer at hand while she made certain they were not in immediate danger of sliding off the hilltop the inn now perched upon. It was nothing at all to do with her unease in cramped places made dangerous by wounded and unpredictable people. Well, not much. If an extra pair of hands had truly been necessary, she knew she would have helped, but most of the people in the main room of the inn had appeared to be relatively unharmed, able to turn their hand to the task.
The Cob and Signet was shaped like a fat-bottomed horseshoe, two wings having been added as the inn prospered. A capacious stable had crossed the shoe at the inn's rear. This was almost entirely gone: only the nearest stalls still whole. Shan, having established that the crest of this hill was almost flat, more than sufficient to hold the inn, circled the building, drawn to the remainder of the stable.
Grass, slick with evening dew, made footing tricky, and she used the occasional convenient rock to ease her way. This wing of the inn had been unlucky, the hill sloping away beneath it more drastically than any other section. The stable walls were quite three feet above the earth at their furthest corner and Shan could make out, in the shadows beneath, the shapes of two horses, one of which was belting away for all its worth at the treacherous walls which still enclosed it.
Cautiously, she stopped at the open entrance, trying to adjust her eyes to the unrelieved black inside, to the stink of blood and dung and fear in that dark enclosure, overlying the usual warm scent of horse and hay. The sound the horse made was worse than that of any human.
Shan bit her lip and looked away, trying to decide what to do. The hill sloped down to a large forest in this direction, a blot of darkness filling another valley. Mountains this way too, not so high, and...she forgot even the screaming for a moment, eyes on a thin tower of white stone that could be glimpsed over the peak of a jagged mountain rising beyond the forest. A beautiful, delicate thing, but unlit, cold and somehow unfriendly. Where in the nine hells were they?
The splintering of wood brought her attention back to the occupants of the stable. Edging inside the stable, keeping as far from the gates of the stalls as possible, she fumbled with, and managed to open, the shutters which stood just right of the entrance, though they were now inconveniently high and out of reach. Moonlight revealed a glimpse of the wild eyes and laid-back ears of a very large horse indeed, trying to break its way free.
It was the second animal that made the worse noise, down where the slope of the hill was more pronounced. Shan wondered how it was that, since the stable did not have a floor, the animals had not fallen out when the inn was thrown wherever this was. The damage done was clear, and Shan slid her hand through the bottom of the false pocket in her trousers, and removed the knife she kept strapped to her upper thigh. It did not take long to do a kindness.
The other horse, having briefly been silenced, renewed its efforts to reduce the stall to complete rubble and she wondered if she would be able to calm it enough to lead it out of the dark. Then the problem was taken away from her as a man, presumably the owner, walked swiftly into the stable.
"Reventh. Ho, Reventh." His voice was light-timbred and soothing. Shan decided her presence would not help, and ducked under the jutting corner of the stable into the crisp, clean night. She shivered as the wind hit her again and she tried to judge how far off the snow was from this place.
Quickly wiping her blade on the wet grass and, sheathing it, she rounded the corner and watched until the man emerged, leading a far from calm but apparently uninjured animal from the stable.
Shan had not seen this man in the common room of the Cob and Signet, but it was late and the inn had been crammed full, many in their rooms when they were brought so dramatically out of Kandalay. He wore the plain dress of a guard, though the moonlight was not bright enough to make out any insignia clearly. The accent, the words he used soothing the horse, were Armitan, which could cause complications in an already fraught situation. Descended from shapeshifters, Armitans might have lost the ability to change their form, but they were strong and strange and difficult to deal with, particularly for humans who lived outside their convoluted laws.
Shan, who had met Armitans she liked and others she had loathed, decided against overtures of friendship or gestures of hostility both, until she saw how this one would act.
"The blood will draw hunters," she said instead, and he glanced towards the forest.
Shan fumbled in one of her pockets and drew out a white ceramic disc half the size of her palm, etched with tiny symbols. It was glowing steadily and evenly, as she had only seen it do in a room warded by layers of spells to prevent eavesdropping. She did not hide it from the Armitan as he looked back, but turned it twice over in her hand, then held it up for a more specific test. The disc had three functions. The first was to glow in the presence of enchantments. Usually it shone along one rim, in the direction of the enchantment, and was very useful for tracking down traps or spells set to listen. The function she used now was a more wide-ranging one, indicating the direction of the strongest source of magic in its not inconsiderable range, for this was an expensive little toy. She was not at all surprised when it indicated the direction of the tower, and she moved the disc back and forth to be certain it was not the forest which was causing the rim to burn silver.
Since the third function, a limited dispell, would destroy this handy little tool, Shan pocketed it without further experimentation.
"Irrelath," she said, voice quivering unprofessionally, "unless we're on a different world altogether."
The Armitan didn't react at all, though deciding they were in Irrelath was a revelation worthy of at least a mild flinch. Drama was served when a wolf howled, down in the forest, song faint and distant. They both stared down at it, then Shan, mind on a thin tube of magically-stiffened wax concealed among her belongings, turned and headed carefully back to the front entrance of Cob and Signet, choosing not to tackle the back entrance by the kitchens, where once a well had stood. Man and horse followed behind over the slippery grass.
One of the pair of guardswomen met them at the corner, and she hurried forward to examine the surviving horse. So those two were linked to the Armitan. A lithe man in mercenary garb had followed her, but hung back watchfully.
"Lonstathen was beyond hope," the Armitan said, in his people's language, and the guardswoman bowed her head as if she had heard of the death of a comrade. Shan rounded the corner, and found that dozens of people were now crowding the slope just outside the inn's main door.
"That's a wolf," said a distressed voice, the youth who had lost Jerro, from the sound of it. He saw on the edge of the crowd of people examining their cuts and bruises and gazing about at the hills and mountains and lake and trees and low heavy moon with fear and wonder. And not a little annoyance, especially from those who were nearest to Shan.
"...pay for this?"
"Someone, be assured."
"We could still get there in time."
"You truly believe that?"
Three men, Spictish merchants and, from their fur-trimmings, wealthy, broke off their muttered conversation as Shan, followed by the Armitan, approached. She could see four distinct clumps in the waiting crowd. The merchants, with attendant mercenary guards. A clutch of young Gonwindan travellers who had previously been making quite a time of it at the longest table. The inn's staff, huddled about the tall, bearded inn-keep. And Armitans, four of them counting the one leading the horse: two men and two women. There was just something about Armitans, their height or the way they held themselves: you could always spot them. Added to their group were the two guardswomen, who were not obviously of the shifter blood, but patently aligned to them as they ranged behind their tall bond-lords. And there were travellers in pairs or trios or alone, but they were scattered between the others, not clustering together.
Moonlight made everyone stark and drawn. A few wept or shivered uncontrollably, many glanced constantly at the black and silver lake or into the inn, which Shan did herself, observing that the tables had been drawn roughly back into place, but no other effort had been made, not even to deal with the shards of glass scattered everywhere. A body, Jerro's presumably, was lying shrouded on the longest table, dimly lit by a ball of mage-light hovering among the rafters. Two other tables were occupied by uncovered victims, a woman whose dull grey dress and apron was drenched in blood and a man who screamed loudly as Shan looked in. A neat, calm woman in worn leathers ignored the bout of cursing which followed, nodding at the hooded figure at her side as she maintained a firm grip on the splints she was fastening on man's broken leg.
"The main stables are gone," the Armitan said, as he approached his tall, stern kin, people making hasty passage for him and his unhappy-looking mount. "Only Reventh came through intact."
One of the Armitan woman, apparently the leader of that group, bowed her head. "I heard his death," she replied.
"Speak no secrets, Shiftless Ones," snapped a very small, very old woman, who stood proud and indignant huddled in a thick cloak, flanked by a middle-aged woman and a younger man holding the hand of a ten year-old girl. A family group.
The name was a strong insult, and Armitans turned their heads as one to study her, faces cold, but the old woman showed no signs of quailing. Perhaps she had read the feeling of the crowd in general towards the Armitans, or, more likely from that imperious stance, she was used to speaking her mind and not suffering serious consequences.
"They spoke only of the stables, which are gone, good lady," put in a blond man of indeterminate age, briefly moving a sopping cloth away from his bleeding nose. Despite the blood, he had the diction of a trained bard, and the woman who stood close to his side was regretfully fingering the crushed remains of a set of reed pipes.
"'Tis mannerless, if naught else," the old woman shot back, entirely without irony.
"What do you mean, you're not going to heal it fully?!" roared the man with the broken leg.
If the woman attending him replied, Shan could not hear her answer. She and her equally cloaked companion turned their backs on the sufferer and walked to the entrance of the inn. These two were quite identical in unrelieved black. Trousers, shirts, boots, hooded cloaks, gloves.
The woman in leathers paused to cover the face of the occupant of the other table, before following the black-clad pair, and the crowd waited till this last woman reached the doorway to survey the lake below. She wore no shield-patch of a mercenary, or the insignia of any bond-lord. A traveller, sword-skilled, but no longer professional? She had forty years or more, and an air of unflappable calm.
"So this is Irrelath, is it? Not a place I expected to see before Lord Twilight passed me through."
"Irrelath?!" The leader of the Spictish merchants, fifties and greying, hawkish profile hardening as he stepped forward. "What mean you by that?"
"Where else could it be?" the woman replied, easily. "With magic so thick in the air you could almost choke on it? The stars tell me we are north and west of Gonwindar, my eyes see a place I have never been, in all my wanderings. Irrelath, or else Lord Twilight, in His humour, has passed us on to a place beyond our reckoning." She glanced again at the sky. "But the Maiden and the Jester look down on me. There can be no other answer. We are in the Forsaken Land."
Great was the consternation from those who had not realised this already, a hubbub of voices rising in fear, astonishment, wonder and anger. Shan, watching the fuss from a discreet location beside the doorway, caught the eye of the bloody-nosed man she judged a bard. He grimaced at her and she raised one shoulder in response. Although she felt no need to be so vocal, her own emotions were not so far divorced from those being expressed. Astonishment, fear and wonder, for the Forsaken Land was the last place any of them should be.
Once, Irrelath had been a great power in the Realms. A land of mages strong enough to dominate the world, if they had so chosen, but who had instead focused their energies inward, controlling themselves rather than others. An idyllic place, the wonder of the Realms. The occasional lucky supplicant was allowed within the borders of Irrelath, petitioning for healing or to study what they could of arcane arts, or to trade, or seek wise guidance. Only the rare few, however. The Irraines had taken good measure of the rest of the inhabitants of the Realms, most of whom cared little for the study of the soul. And such was their power that only an invitation could win passage north of the Shield Mountains.
Irrelath's downfall had not been due to outside attack, but rot within. One bad apple, they always say. Attempting to contain one man's ambition, and the forces he had summoned in defiance of Lord Twilight's ban, all Irrelath was lost. Wars of magic had such nasty side-effects, too. Magic run rampant, unbounded, feeding or feeding off the ghosts of the long-dead, mutating, living according to a law of its own, combating or even aiding the creature that had been summoned. The few survivors of that battle had stumbled south, many killed by their own defences, unable to defeat an entire Realm of magic running unchecked.
There were still many eager to visit Irrelath. It was a rich ruin, and every other year Shan heard word of another expedition determined to bring back ancient treasures, recover some of the wondrous items rumoured to be lost in the Forsaken Land. Most of these foolhardy folk merely scavenged along the edge of the Stone Plain, never even approaching the true land of Irrelath. Some, with arcane resources sufficient to counter the magical defences, ventured further onto the Stone Plain. Greater dangers, greater gain. Since most of the defences were concentrated on the Stone Plain, there had been occasional attempts to approach Irrelath by water, and even by air. The storms which had arisen not only wrecked ships, or dashed carefully constructed flying vehicles to the ground, they also spread down to the rest of the Realms, ripped the roofs off half of Elbian, drowned much of Ferrance and Medmusal. Suggesting that you would approach the Forsaken Land by air or sea was a good way to get arrested. No-one, however, had thought to throw an inn at it before.
"Surely the how doesn't matter," said the bard, when the imperious old woman demanded an explanation of their sudden migration from the unresponsive pair of magi. "Or even the who, since only one of the Three could have done this. It is why. Why, in the name of all the Gods, would one of the Three have done this to us? Taken an inn full of innocent people and tossed them into Irrelath like - like so much wind-blown chaff?"
"P'raps Lady Kinrathen there would care to answer that one for us," said a surly voice. It was the man with the broken leg, who had hopped slowly to the doorway, using a chair as a handy crutch. He was a big man, a red-haired Harman, his bearded, florid countenance showing the signs of past battles, and currently twisted with pain and anger as he glowered at the four Armitans. From his clothing, costly but functional, she thought he must be some sort of minor lordling, though she could not see anybody about who might be acting as servant or guard.
The bard looked surprised, then thoughtful, then worried. And the crowd's fear and confusion suddenly took on a distinctly hostile edge. Shan sighed inwardly. They did not need blame to make matters worse. They were in Irrelath. There were better things to worry about.
Lady Kinrathen, for it seemed it was, did not respond to the accusation with so much as a flicker of an eyelid. Her expression had already been imposingly cold, and did not change. The Armiten woman was known as one of the cornerstones of the Twilight Council's refusal to declare its support for Iswick after the Ash Field Massacre. Owen Tregair, one of the Three, happened to be a native of Iswick. And since only one of the Three could summon the power to do something so spectacular as this, it was very likely Lady Kinrathen was the target.
A haughty gazelle, Shan thought irrelevantly. Armitans tended to remind people of various animals, and Lady Kinrathen had the long-limbed grace of a gazelle, honey-blonde hair almost the right shade of the plainsbeast's pelt, just as the woman who stood at her shoulder, with her pointed chin and reddish tint to brown hair, brought to mind a fox. The eyes were always Armitan blue, and tilted.
Once Armitans had been organised into clans according to the beast they could shift into, and it often was possible to guess that clan simply by looking at the Armitan. Shan studied the remaining two to try and guess their clans. There was something feline about the shorter of the two men, whose gaze was heavy-lidded like a cat's bored gaze, but she could not guess what the Armitan who had brought the horse out of the stable resembled. He just looked...Armiten.
The red-haired Harman looked about the gathering, challenging onlookers with his angry gaze. "I say we..."
Much to Shan's relief, the man did not have the opportunity to finish whatever suggestion he was in the process of making. One of the black-garbed mages, the man, held up a hand, stepping into the centre of the gathering.
"You accuse Owen Tregair of waylaying one of the Council?" he asked, voice whisper-soft, as cold as the Armitans' faces.
The menace in the words gave the Harman pause. He shook his head brusquely, then paused, and said warily: "What other explanation is there?"
"You impugn a man's honour groundlessly," said the other mage, voice as soft as her fellow's. It was an unnerving thing, especially with his eyes still partially hidden by his hood. "In haste and hatred, without proof, you blacken a reputation without tarnish. Unsay your accusation."
The threat, the unspoken 'or else', hung in the air. These were shadow mages and Owen Tregair headed their school. Even two shadow mages against forty-something were odds many would not take, and the Harman did not find support as his eyes shifted from the twin dark hoods to those who watched. The wind brought the lone cry of a wolf to them once more. It seemed closer than before, and Shan thought of the stables. An uneasy spate of murmurs, sobs and shudders ran through the gathered travellers, dying away as the two mages remained perfectly still, facing down the Harman.
"I meant no insult," the blocky man muttered, face blotching red and white with anger, even as he bowed his head in submission. "I withdraw my words."
"Neither how nor why nor who need concern us this night," continued the hooded woman, turning to look at the Armitans, then facing out towards the lake. "Only where."
"We must ward the inn," continued the other mage. "There is more than magic in this land. There is darkness. If energy you have for argument, put it instead to preserving our lives."
"Then by all means instruct us," responded the woman in worn leather. She turned to the innkeep, who was morosely studying the shambles through his front door. "At the least, we are ready and willing to lend a hand to restoring some order, and perhaps making the doors and windows more secure."
"Prop her up round the edges," replied the innkeep absently, eyes on the significant gap between the sagging floorboards and the curve of grass beneath. Shan's uneasy imagination produced a pair of slitted eyes glinting back at him. She was surprised when the man grinned with sudden humour. "Well, I always wanted a view I could charge through the nose for," he said, philosophically. He patted the snivelling child still clutching his hand. "Dry yourself up, Thenda. Da needs you to be brave for him. Tell you what, hon', I'll put you in charge of the kitchens. Seft, Lektin - mind Thenda's words - I want to see the kitchen, if not spotless, at least bearable. Maybe, if the hotch-potch is still in its pot, you can see about dishing it out when you're done." He looked uncertainly from the leather-clad woman to the mages, and glanced surreptitiously at the Armitans. Lady Kinrathen was in all probability the person of highest rank present, but the innkeep clearly did not find potential leadership in that source, or from the cloaked mages. If he was inclined to follow the woman in leather's lead, he was probably holding off for fear of offending those of higher rank. Finally he said, to no-one in particular: "There's a cellar full of food and wine open to the air in Kandalay. What we've got in the kitchen will last a day or two, no more. I've heard tell the beasts and fruits, the very water of Irrelath is poisonous."
"That is tomorrow's concern," the male mage replied, voice registering an indifference few others felt. "For now, we need to construct a circle. Collect stones, none smaller than a man's head, but preferably larger. Pile them here, you will not be able to place them correctly." With this he turned and, followed by his companion, walked back into the inn.
"Who put him in charge?" muttered one of the Gonwindar youths.
"You going to argue?"
"You never know of a morning what the evening will bring," pronounced the bard, in an obvious attempt to be cheery. "Well, friend innkeep, I hope you have something about which we can dig with, or else it will be a wearisome task which has been set for us."
"I'm thinking the pokers from the hearths are the best that can be found," the innkeep replied. He looked about at the plentiful scattering of stone and shadow on the moon-drenched hills, and grimaced. "Seft, Letkin, go with Thenda and get some light about, then see to the kitchens. Jude, stop that snivelling and go about collecting everything reasonable for digging, then you can get the glass off the common room floor, make a round of the old place with your broom and bin. Any who'd care to lend a hand, it'd be appreciated. There's more than my girls can handle, plain to see."
A few looked grateful for the opportunity to be useful without actually wandering about in the dark digging up rocks. More than a few looked surly or uncomfortable or unwilling. Disdain was clear in the previously vocal old woman's "Come Charlotte," as she took herself back into the inn.
"But Da," said the serving-girl, apparently one of his daughters. "What do we do with the...the...dead folk?"
"Envy them," someone muttered from the midst of the Gonwindans.
"Leave them be, lass," the innkeep murmured, looking a trifle annoyed at that soft comment. "Poor old cook, no-one'll ever match her pies. You might fetch another cloth to cover her, before all else."
The gathering of people standing beneath a sign depicting a swan and its offspring broke apart with a spatter of nervous conversation. Most went back inside, glass crunching beneath their booted feet. The Spictish merchants went upstairs, after ordering all but one of their mercenary guards to remain to help. The Armitans began discussing the condition of Reventh in their language, and what they would do to stable the sizeable beast.
"Rendell's Company?" the woman in leather asked the lithe, watchful man who looked to be in charge of the small gathering of mercenary guards.
The man nodded. "Guess he'll be waiting a while at the meeting-point," he said, a Leven accent giving his words an incongruous lilt. He held out a hand, a smile crinkling the tanned skin about his eyes. "Harl Mendican."
The woman in leather gripped it firmly for a moment. "Stehl Lacey," she replied, and gave him a half-smile when his eyes widened slightly. Shan, who had associated with mercenaries from time to time, recognised the name as Mendican had, and was duly glad for the presence of one of the most experienced ex-mercenaries in the Realms. She heard notes of true respect in the voices of the other mercenaries as they introduced themselves. She might be retired, but Stehl Lacey's cool, precise brain was unlooked for fortune.
"It is an honour to meet a woman so reknown," the bard said, perfectly sincere, dropping a rock at Lacey's feet like some sort of peculiar offering. He dusted his hands, shook hers. "Val Romullar. And this is my sister, Leah Romullar." The wolf, having taken for itself the role of background accompaniment, howled, sounding closer than once it had been, drawing everyone's attention again. "Not the time for pleasantries," the bard added, as if to himself, and turned away with a half-bow, signalling a general movement away from the doorway, searching for stones larger than a man's head, which were free from the ground, since the serving-girl had not returned with anything to dig with. Unfortunately these were few and far between, despite the litter of rockery.
A leggy Gonwindan girl helped Shan carry a first stone back, but made an uncertain noise when Shan headed outside the range of light from the inn's door. Shan was trying to see more of the valley. There was a dull whiteness on the far bank of the lake which might be some sort of building. Mist was rising from the flat expanse of water, and it was hard to make out detail.
Moving further down the slope, she brushed against the rough, worn surface of a cone-shaped stone which reached halfway up her thigh, and jerked to a halt as a tingling response jarred her. Ignoring the uncertain gasp of the Gonwindan girl, she dropped to her heels, fingers returning to dance lightly across grey stone, locating by touch what the shadows hid.
Shan was not sensitive to magic, had no mage-gift to make her tasks easier, not even a sensitivity to the arcane. This, however, was not arcane. This was a symbol incised deeply against the elements, a vertical line within a circle, crossed by four large 'v'-points, the ends aimed in opposite directions, the middle two forming an 'x', in whole a diamond pattern within the circle. This was a thing of power which any mortal would recognise at a touch, the sign of Lord Twilight, the Watcher at the Gate, the God of Transition, of Journeys, of Birth and Death and, some said, all which came between. Some said Lord Twilight embodied Time itself.
Having taken in the shape of the stone properly, Shan peered through the silvered dark to her left, then her right, and found what she was looking for. She frowned up at the inn at the crown of the hill.
"Ker Lacey!" she called, putting the right note of importance but not urgency into her voice so the woman knew to come without running.
"What is it?" whispered the Gonwindan nervously, as more than one person began making their way towards them, probably glad of any distraction from collecting stones in the dark. Shan pulled from her pocket another of the flat discs, and turned it over in her hand so that it glowed, turned it again and again to increase the strength of the light, and waited until the first line of the curious arrived.
It was the mercenary, Harl Mendican, so Shan merely held the light to the carving, which was revealed to be set within a whole series of other, lighter symbols. She saw his watchful eyes narrow, and he reached out and touched the stone very lightly, then jerked as she had.
Stehl Lacey arrived then, so Shan said: "Perhaps we should ask the magus if the circle which is already here will serve his purpose?" and gestured with her free hand to the cone-shaped stone to her right, which stood out above the level of most of the stones on the hill without being overly prominent.
"Sharp eyes," Lacey said, the absent approval of a commander with things on her mind. Shan did not bother to respond. Being observant was most of her job, though of course the woman would not know that.
"I'll bring the mages," Mendican said, and moved off against the tide of people washing down the hill.
There proved to be three stones marked with the symbol of Lord Twilight, which was a strong summoning of the shadowed god. The small group that eventually circled with the two mages to locate and check each of the stones, slowly catalogued the rest of the gods' marks. There was a single radiant circle for Lady Bright, at the northernmost point of the circle. The four phases of the moon, wax and wane, full and black, brought silent looks of concern, since it was rare that any dared to draw the attention of Lord Heth by gathering the full progression of his dominion over mortal souls together. The Thunderer was also well-represented, four stones marked with crossed jagged lines. The mages seemed pleased by this, pointing out that these stones would serve to channel lightning and were protective in nature, for all that was not a function generally associated with the Storm Lord. Two water-lines for Lady Methari, three stylised trees for Lord Arcturan, a lone feathered stone for Lord Rictar.
"A powerful collection," the female mage said, when they had gone full circle and once again stood by the stone Shan had first touched.
"The strongest of the gods, none of them wholly benevolent, none of them truly dark." The bard reached out a hand to the grey stone, but stopped himself. "Each stone fully consecrated, which is no small task. To touch this stone is to have the Watcher at the Gate notice me. To sleep in this circle..."
"Is better than sleeping among the wolves," Stehl Lacey said, firmly, and looked deliberately but not challengingly at the silent pair of Armitans who had shadowed them around the circle. The man Shan had originally encountered and the foxy woman, who was also dressed in clothing that faintly resembled a guard or military uniform. Then, having established that the remark had not been meant as an insult, she turned her attention again to the mages. "Can you use this circle for the warding spell?"
"No." A single, very certain word from the man.
"That would be tantamount to using a king's sceptre to stir the stew," his companion continued, with a note of humour in her soft voice. She seemed the more forthcoming of this pair. "Very insulting. Given an hour or two, we should be able divine how to activate it, however, if one of those represented deigns to hear the prayer. This circle, from the runes, was constructed for many purposes; for summoning and transformation and, most simply, as a ward. By the Watcher's grace, none shall approach with hostile intent."
Shan knew well that a ward set to deny entrance to those with 'hostile intent', was not the same as a full ward. But it was far better than nothing, and likely better than anything the mages could cast, anyway.
"Then we need not fear direct attack, by Lord Twilight's whim," Stehl Lacey mused, grimly, the weaknesses of such a ward obviously familiar to her as well.
"Merely the approach of the curious and the aimless," said the male mage. "Use the gathered stones to prop up the building, then reinforce the doors and windows. Try to block up all easy entrances. And bury those bodies outside the circle."
Shan wondered if he was arrogant, frightened or very clever. Getting people used to following his commands might be the best move, since it was not altogether unlikely that the two magi would be the wisest leaders in a land of magic. They were of the Havner School, judging by the shielding clothing. Seekers into the mystery, clothed in the same.
She shrugged imperceptibly, and turned to help with the tasks set. The magi were not alone in their secrets and she doubted she was the only individual in this, or any group, who had things to hide.