An uncomfortable cot. A dark, enclosed room. Cold. Dull, lingering pains, none much more than skin-deep.
Shan registered the facts separately, slowly coming awake in work-mode, where waking was a cautious transition. She was on assignment, had been making the journey home from an assignment when all this had happened. One of the most important tasks she'd ever been given, and now with no hope of completion in time. Perhaps having one of the Hands in Irrelath was even more important than the letter hidden in her gear, but that would be small consolation to those whose futures were tied to the information it contained.
Sighing, Shan opened her eyes, blinking at darkness. Her room had apparently been a cupboard until recently. A cot had been shoved into it to take advantage of the mass of travellers heading to Arras Island for the five-year convocation of all the Charter Councillors. It left room for practically nothing else, not even a bedside table, let alone a window to release the lingering scent of wet cloth left to moulder.
Glad as ever for the disks that were reward and tool of her profession, Shan slid a hand under the thin pillow and pulled out the light disk, turned it over four times and blinked at the ceiling instead of the dark. The view wasn't that much better.
Casting off lethargy, she slid out from the warmth of the bed and stripped so she could salve and reinspect the wounds she'd collected from her tumble with the table. Deliberate attempts to kill her had done less damage than this. She wondered if it had, after all, been an attempt to waylay her, and nothing to do with Armitans.
All her gear, including the useless saddlebags, was piled beside and under the bed, taking up what little standing room the cupboard offered. She wished for a thicker jacket, but expected her heavy cloak would take care of the matter. To think she'd been cursing bringing it along! Having endured the cold long enough, she dressed rapidly, wrapped the cloak around her body and opened the door, thumbing the light disk off as she did so.
It was dark in the corridor as well, but there was a glimmer around the corner, in the common room of the inn, and without surprise discovered that Stehl Lacey knew shadow mages as well as Shan, and was up before the dawn, talking in a soft voice with...hmm, Lady Kinrathen. Shan abandoned the idea of listening to the conversation from the shadows of the doorway. If there was one thing she'd learned from that time in the Armaithe Lands, it was that Armitans had damnably good hearing. The woman had probably heard her walking up the corridor, soft-footed as Shan was. Well, most people called it good hearing, but Shan suspected 'sixth sense' was a better term. They just tended to know when someone was watching.
Walking out, she thought obliquely that a latrine trench would definitely have to be on the morning's agenda, though she'd almost bet that any shovels owned by the inn-keep would have been stored in his cellar along with the rest of everything useful. Nodding to Stehl Lacey, she turned the courtesy into a quarter bow for Lady Elas Kinrathen, one of three Council members for the Armaithe Lands. A vidare in Armiten rank, which was something on the lines of an earl.
"Ah, sharp-eyes," Stehl Lacey said, eyes flicking over Shan in the comprehensive way which revealed her experience. "Do you have a name?"
Shan sat down on the edge of one of the long tables, and glanced over to the corner where the unfortunates who had reached the inn late, or couldn't afford the prices Jomny Hobben had been charging for rooms, slept on the boards the common room charge provided. Bring your own blanket space.
"Call me Shan," she added. "Mages started yet?"
"And the shadow crafters are supposed to be unpredictable," Stehl Lacey replied, with a brief flash of white teeth. Her features were strong and square and there was the faint white line of an old scar running the right side of her jaw. "They're outside, setting themselves up. Something tells me they're not too hopeful."
Shan nodded. She'd known that if the mages were going to make an attempt at communication outside of Irrelath, they'd do so before dawn or after sunset. Lord Twilight lent his strength to spells during those fleeting periods of half-light.
"Since they can't manage even the roughest scry in, stands to reason that there'd be problems getting a message out."
"I owe you my thanks, Shanataire Pendar," Lady Kinrathen said into the pause. "You gave Lonstathen release. I will remember."
Since there wasn't really an answer Shan could return to that she merely met the woman's deep blue eyes for a steady moment and nodded.
"What's today's agenda?" she asked Stehl Lacey. "The mages have their turn, we make sure it's safe to go down to the lake, organise water. Where then? Did my eyes deceive me as the mist rose, or is there some sort of settlement on the far side? The buildings looked new-made."
"And will be our target of the day. If there are people living here still, we will want to discover their nature, and seek their aid. If nothing else, we'll circle the lake to get some idea of the territory."
"Hunt as we go?" Shan asked.
"On the way back, probably," said a new voice. Harl Mendican had risen from the cluster of sleepers in the corner.
He grimaced, rubbing his eyes, though she suspected he'd been awake for more than a minute or two. She wondered how long the mercenaries would maintain their contract with the Spictish merchants. Rendell's Company had a good reputation, which would not have grown if they broke contracts casually, but this situation would probably soon lead to conflict between the merchants' plans and the mercenaries' own interests. That break would be a good thing, when it came, for Shan thought the leader of the merchants - they'd called him Ekridge - was dangerous enough without the added power of five combat-trained men under his command.
"But we won't be taking too many people along with us, Ker," Mendican continued, lean face polite. "Not in unknown and chancy territory. It's not a sightseeing tour."
"Do you have any skills to recommend you?" Stehl Lacey asked, neutrally. "Hunting or scouting experience? Better yet, a room full of snares and a spare bow or two? Harl's men have two bows but we'll be needing more."
Shan shook her head. "I've hunted, but it's not my occupation."
"I lay ghosts."
There was a short silence, during which Shan managed not to look amused.
"You don't look like a ghost-layer," Harl Mendican said, eventually. "But then, I've only ever seen the one. A rare profession."
"Not many ghosts about," Shan replied, easily. She glanced at the door before meeting Lady Kinrathen's dark eyes a second time. "The Charter Council has matters well arranged so that restless spirits are sent on with the minimum of fuss. I'm presuming there are more here than average."
"Sounds like a useful skill to me," Stehl Lacey said, not displaying any of the discomfort Shan's public profession usually provoked. "I hope you have the tools of your trade with you. For now, we'd best go out, or miss the fun."
It was cold enough outside for breath to puff misty from mouths, only to be stolen by the wind. Shan drew her cloak more closely about her. It was only the first month of autumn, but Irrelath was many miles north of Gonwindar and high country besides.
The moon was much lower in the sky, the land not nearly so clearly lit as when they had arrived, and there was a hint of gray in the air, heralding the half-light that preceded the first edge of the sun. The horse, with one of the Armitans' guardswomen stationed by him, whickered a soft greeting to Lady Kinrathen.
The shadow mages were beyond the circle of consecrated stones, seated cross-legged on a relatively flat area in the dewy grass. Between them was a large flat bowl of water, which immediately made Shan wonder how they'd supplied themselves. Only liquids in sealed kegs had survived, which had naturally meant that those who were inclined had overindulged on dark ale last night and worked themselves up.
Since the mages had already begun the muttered chant that some called spell-casting and others prayer, no-one offered the hooded figures greetings, merely gathering in a loose row uphill from them. Shan amused herself by trying to make out individual words in what was practically a sub-vocal drone, but it was impossible. This was a different sort of casting from that single, power-rich word the woman had used to douse the fire. It required less energy in relation to the result, and produced a more complex effect.
She watched them for a while, but they rarely moved, and then only to pass hands across the flat water surface, never quite touching. The only interesting thing was the fact that they'd taken their gloves off, revealing the usual number of fingers, nothing spectacular. The woman bit her nails down, almost to the quick, which was, when Shan thought about it, very interesting indeed.
A more intensive study, from the wear on the soles of their boots to some determined staring at the glimpses of chin beneath the curve of the overlarge hoods, revealed nothing definitive, but Shan's memory could not produce anything to naysay, either. A interesting conclusion, but probably premature. She would wait on that one.
She was staring across the lake through the still-heavy gloom, when Lady Kinrathen spoke. "You are not adept at following orders, bondsman," she said, and Shan was not the only one who tensed, realising that a fifth person had joined them in watching the mages. Armitans. There was something unfair about being able to move that quietly.
"You are generous to leave me lee-way in your commands, my liege," the tallest of the Armitans replied.
Shan glanced at him, at the rich and beautiful cloak and the complete lack of wealth or decoration displayed by the rest of his clothing. He did not even sport the small circular metal ornaments most Armitans clipped to the beginning or ends of the braids they wore before each ear. The cloak was a glaring inconsistency and she suspected that he had not planned to use it yet. It had to be one of those honour commitments Armitans were so fond of. She looked back over the lake. Ironic. Perhaps no-one would turn out to be who they appeared. Shan, who really was a ghost-layer, knew a great deal about hiding truths beneath truths, and her public occupation was a wonderful excuse for travelling to all manner of places so she could practice the profession that paid her more. She wore ghost-hunting like that splendid cloak, a thing to transform the way a person was regarded.
The mages stopped speaking, in the abrupt, anticlimactic way that startled so many, and sat there for a heartbeat or two doing nothing. Doubtless those who were actually sensitive to magic would feel the building surge of directed power being drawn from the hooded figures, but Shan had to rely wholly on her imagination and descriptions others had given her of the culmination of spell-casting. Most cats were more sensitive to the arcane than she was. It was one of the requirements of being a ghost-layer.
The light was subtle: a small dawn rose out of the flat bowl of water, a glowing nimbus that expanded to the height of the two seated casters, and slightly beyond the width of the bowl. Pearly-pink in colour, it gradually grew opaque as it darkened. Insensitive as she was, even Shan could feel some hint of the effort that lay behind the long, long pause after it was no longer possible to see through the glow. It was usual for an image to form in the darkness at the centre of the glow at this point. For several flickering moments one appeared, a woman in the dark garb of a shadow mage standing in a gloomy, high-arched hall, but with her hood drawn back to reveal a weary, lined face. She lifted startled eyes, seemingly toward the male shadow mage. Her lips formed several words soundlessly as the image flickered, then she was gone, and the glowing nimbus lost its dark centre, wavered and collapsed.
"That's that," Stehl Lacey murmured, disappointed.
"We will try again in the gloaming," the female mage said firmly, picking up the bowl, which was now empty of water. "That is Lord Twilight's time of full power." She stood, looked the five watchers over, then glanced towards the inn as the first hints of colour tinted the dawn sky. "But even then it is unlikely we would be able to open a link for more than five or ten seconds, if that. By the time we have forced our way through the barriers about this land, we have no strength to maintain the communication. There are other options. We will send a wind word in due course, but that will take days or weeks to reach its destination and even if it is not waylaid, we will have no way of knowing of its arrival."
The male mage rose to his feet slowly, drawing his gloves back on with precise, deliberate movements. "We will rest for an hour, then see about explorations," he said, gesturing to his companion. The pair started back to the inn without another word, leaving a general impression of dismissal behind them.
"Shall we take stock of the grounds before breakfast?" Stehl Lacey asked, directing her question to both Harl Mendican and Lady Kinrathen. "Now that we can see our new demesne?"
"One would wish for a less wind-racked situation, Ker Lacey," Lady Kinrathen replied, mildly. The comment established to Shan that the ex-mercenary and the Armitan Council member had advanced a step beyond an uneasy alliance. Politeness you could always expect from an Armitan, but the very faint air of jest established Stehl Lacey as a person to be awarded something more than formality.
What this group needed was a clear-cut and popular leader, Shan mused as she walked along in the wake of the four other cloak-wrapped figures. It wasn't going to get one, but that did not change the fact that matters would be aided by the absence of groups of Armitan nobles and shadow mages, and the presence of someone who would not be nay-sayed. If Stehl Lacey had a deal more rank than that of respected ex-mercenary, the problem would be solved. The unofficial committee formed by those who walked in front of her had value, but there would surely come a time they would disagree on plans of action and there would be no-one to listen to all sides of the argument and say "Very well. Let us do it this way." The shadow mages had a certain way with commands, but fear and uncertainty would cause an instinctive rejection of them.
Shan found that she did not like an absence of clear authority. Although her assignments left her almost entirely on her own recognizance, there was a certain security in being able to send home for orders, or, as the very last resort, invoke authority at the local division of the Charter Guards. Out here... She sighed, and looked back at the lake as the others began a slow circle along the perimeter of the consecrated stones. It was very close, the lake, and there was something she did not like about it. But doubtless, when the sun had risen, and the morning greys had left the still water, it would become a more attractive place. She stared out at it a long moment, finally picking up the outline of those white buildings she had glimpsed the previous night. Then she cut across the circle to catch up with the others, ignoring the three people who had appeared outside the Cob and Signet and were watching their progress.
The forest behind the inn was more extensive than she had originally estimated. It would be a full day's journey or more to cross it to the rising hills beyond. At least another half day to approach the towers that could be glimpsed on the slope of the nearest mountain. The three nominal leaders were discussing this as Shan approached, and she did not contribute to the debate on how long it would be before the mountains had a covering of snow to make an approach more difficult, attention caught, as the Armitan man's seemed to be, by the stable they were approaching.
"No hostile intent," said the Armitan man, and glanced obliquely at Lady Kinrathen, who looked very steadily at the streamer of dew-wet blood trailing down the hill, and at various things which had changed since Shan had killed the horse.
"Lonstathen has provided a meal to the night-hunters," she said, knitting her brows slightly. Armitans were not sentimental about death.
They examined the stable in silence, noting the tracks of at least five animals crossing the blood-stream. Wolves, though Shan was no expert in animal tracks. They had dug to widen the gap beneath the inner stall wall and the ground, and feasted well on horse-flesh.
"Dispose of what remains of Lonstathen appropriately, Kier," Lady Kinrathen ordered her bondsman. She looked at Stehl Lacey and Harl Mendican thoughtfully. "It would not be wise, I think, to stable Reventh here, but we might be able to use the timbers to construct a shelter for him in a less exposed place."
Harl Mendican nodded. "I'll consult with Hobben, get him to collect together what tools will be useful. I hope he didn't keep everything in that blasted cellar of his. I don't look forward to trying to make stone axes."
Shan unlatched the stall Reventh had been in, and walked inside. She had been curious how the big horse had managed to come through the journey intact, and discovered what she presumed to be her answer in a ledge formed by a thick base board of the wall dividing the stalls, probably not even as wide as the gelding's hoof. It had come away from its mooring, pushed down instead of up, and Shan touched white, recent scarring on the wood with one gloved finger. "Smart horse," she murmured. "Or lucky." She glanced up to see Lady Kinrathen watching her, and thought about the tales which claimed that some of the animals which dwelt in the Armaithe Lands had shifter blood, were descendants of Armitans who had been in animal form when they had lost their ability to alter their shape.
No-one knew just why the Armitans had lost that ability, all at once. Most were of the opinion that it was a curse set upon them by a devotee of Lord Heth in retaliation for some offence, or merely to greatly weaken one of the most formidable fighting forces in the Realms.
The completed tour around the inn revealed more forest, hills and mountains. A dew-soaked land, early silence occasionally broken by the call of several varieties of birds, subdued and distant. The wind, finally slackening, contributed most of the small amount of noise to be heard. Their new home.
Returning to the inn, Shan gladly avoided the small, upright old woman who stopped Stehl Lacey and began to either lecture or interrogate her. A dozen early risers were scattered about the front room of the inn, and the scent of cooking emanated from the inner reaches of the kitchen. Having resignedly eaten the slightly burnt porridge that was eventually produced, Shan shut herself back in her cupboard to select what she might need for a scouting trip in Irrelath, stocking a light shoulder bag with care, then taking the opportunity to rest a little more, wanting to clean herself up, but settling for chewing a charam stick. She had so disliked the sharp taste of charam sticks when she was a child, had chewed them only because her mother would gleefully point out people whose teeth had virtually rotted away and make appropriate comments about living with the taste. Now there were times when her mouth simply didn't feel right if she didn't chew charam in the morning. She wondered if they would be able to find a supply here, and realised she had no idea what the plant looked like.
After an appropriate interval she went back out and knew immediately that word had spread about her profession. It was in the way people didn't look at her, or watched her when she was not looking at them. That was why ghost-laying was such a wonderful occupation for a Hand to hide behind. Most people were made so nervous by the thought of her association with the uneasy dead that they did not enquire too deeply into her activities. On more than one occasion, when Shan had been caught out in places she shouldn't be - foolish carelessness - she had bluffed her way through because ghost-layers did wander about into odd places. This lot would get used to her soon enough. There was usually a day or two of uncertainty, while it was established that her presence was not going to cause a sudden, mass out-turning of graves, and then they would begin to relax and accept, but never forget. There were so many stories, true and false, about what ghost-layers actually did.
Shan had timed herself to be out before the mages - she knew that the shadow breed had a tendency to exactness and, in saying an hour, would mean precisely that, despite the inn's sole clock being little more than shattered wood piled by the hearth. She judged it to be only little more than an hour after dawn, but most of the inn's occupants were now up and about. The watchfulness in the common room wasn't all awarded to her. The four Armitans stood just outside the door with their two guardswomen, having an involved conversation in the liquid language of their kind: discussing moving the stable. Some of the audience were hostile, the rest cautious. The distance Armitans liked to maintain from those outside their land meant they were both interesting and an unknown quantity. Similar to Shan's own position, there were many stories, true and false.
One girl, the red-haired Gonwindan, who was easily the most attractive resident of Irrelath, developed a particular expression in her eye and Shan looked to the door again, to see the Armitan Lady Kinrathen had called Kier pass out of view. It was a common enough name, meant "In honour" or something close to that. She wondered who he was when he wasn't being a bondsman. He wasn't wearing that cloak any more, but plain clothing could not disguise a certain unconscious confidence of carriage, not to mention the face, the height and the grace. Well, if the redhead wanted to try her luck, Shan would not begrudge her the chance. Armitans did not exclude humans from their beds - Shan had found that out when she had visited the Armaithe Lands - and certainly he would fill a bed most admirably during the cold nights to come. But taking on an Armitan meant taking on his culture. She doubted the redhead would be too eager to do that. Shan certainly had never met anyone she liked enough to consider it, in part because at least one of her professions would fit particularly badly with that culture. Armitans were too bound to their land and people to be happy with someone whose loyalties were not with them.
People would start to pair off, she realised, and resisted the urge to hug herself comfortingly. She did not want to spend her life here, had no wish to play settler, even in such a fascinating place. She had no illusions about how hard a life it would be. But to cross the Stone Plain-!
Ekridge, the merchant leader, rose abruptly from where he had been conferring in a low voice with Harl Mendican, and crossed to meet Stehl Lacey as she came down the stairs.
"I want to speak with you, Ker Lacey," he said, commandingly.
"Yes. I need to speak with you all, too," she replied, taking two steps back up the stair and clapping her hands loudly together twice, then waiting as all the low conversations came abruptly to a halt and people appeared at various doorways.
"Right. You probably know by now that the mages tried to get a message out this morning, without success. They'll try again later in the day, but I wouldn't cherish great hopes. Even if they had got through, there's not much which could be done for us, outside Irrelath. We can't expect to rely on any rescue attempts.
"I've spoken to the mages, and various people who know something of the legends of this land." She nodded at the bard's companion, who inclined her head quietly in return. "We'll see, as the days go by, how we survive in a land of wild magic, but the question of getting out is one we will naturally be putting a great deal of our energies into answering. Leah has informed me that the barriers about Irrelath, particularly that which operates on the Stone Plain, were supposed to be a thing the Irrelathans could turn off and on at will. The mages do not know, presuming we can somehow find the controls, if they would be able to successfully turn the barrier off, but they will most certainly try."
"What about who sent us here and why?" called one of the Gondwindan youths. There was a loud murmur of agreement. People wanted to know that almost as much as they wanted to hear that some attempt was to be made to get them out.
"I'd like to know that myself. One thing I am sure of: it is not so simple a matter as one of the Three deciding to fling us out into the wilderness. Even presuming magi were that powerful, to not only toss us into Irrelath, but to get us here with only a few casualties is not a feat I can see them achieving without days of preparation. You all know as well as I that magic doesn't work like that, and if anyone noticed a mage in the process of casting, they certainly haven't passed the information along."
"If not a mage, who?" Ekridge asked, returning to his seat without only a hint of stiffness to his back to show that he had not appreciated being classed among 'you all'.
"That remains to be discovered. It cannot be a coincidence, however, that we have found ourselves in a circle consecrated to the Greater Gods."
"The Gods have brought us to Irrelath?" scoffed the Harman, friendly as ever. "Aye, and last night the Star Maiden warmed my bed!"
"'T'would be a maiden no more, that were the case," laughed one of the farmers he had shared most of the ale with last night. Obviously their alliance had lasted to the morning. They were ranged together at one of the smaller tables, no longer with the merchants, who had apparently decided to distance themselves.
"Whatever the condition of your bed, Baron Wexted, the fact remains that we are in Irrelath, in a consecrated circle. We must look to our own survival. Today, after establishing whether it is safe to go down to the lake to fetch water, a small party will circle the lake. Some of you may have noticed what appear to be buildings on the far bank, which beg investigation. We will hunt on the way back, see if we can locate fruit trees, useful plants, whatever. Perhaps, in time, when we have established how dangerous this land is or is not, smaller groups may be sent out gathering, but otherwise I suggest you all remain here, to assist with repairs."
"What about that castle on the mountain?" asked another of the Gonwindan youths, brother to the first, judging by his similar dark honey hair and regular features.
"That will come in due course, but not until we know more of this land and are prepared for such a task."
"And the question of food, Ker Lacey?" called the innkeeper, from behind the bar. "It is true, is it not, that any expedition that ventures onto the Stone Plain takes its own supplies? Since the Gergan venture?"
The woman called Leah Condare answered this one. "The Gergan expedition fell ill after foraging for food on the Stone Plain, it is true. One died, others claimed to have experienced hallucinations. They had ventured further onto the Plain than most dare to, and many lost their lives making their way back again after the illness struck. But they were never certain if it was the food they had taken from the land that caused the illness, or the land itself. Everyone on that expedition ate the same things and only half fell ill. Only one died of the illness."
"Doesn't sound like that great a bet to me," said a lone woman.
"It is one we will take, or starve," said a soft voice from the head of the stair. The female mage, her companion a step behind, descended into a silent room. "Is all arranged?" she asked Stehl Lacey.
"For the most part." She looked around the room again. "If there is anyone I have not spoken to who is an experienced hunter or scout, tell me now."
There was a short, unresponsive pause, then Baron Wexted heaved himself to his feet, making Shan wonder if he'd found more of the dark ale for breakfast. "Why should we follow your lead, Ker High and Bloody Mighty Lacey? Tell me that now!"
"Didn't see anyone vote you queen of the castle!" called one of his friends.
Shan turned her gaze from Stehl Lacey's competent features to study the merchant, Ekridge. There was nothing in his expression to give him away, but her instincts told her the question had been at his prompting. He had the look of a man who liked to have a finger in every pie, and no-one, not even his own mercenaries, were bothering to consult with him. He was not, so far as she knew, titled, but his apparent wealth would place him on a level above minor barons such as Wexted.
"Very true," Stehl Lacey replied, not in the slightest bit fazed. "Are you proposing a vote?"
"That's the ticket. A vote."
"That is not necessary, surely," interrupted the smooth, strong voice of Ekridge. Right on cue, Shan thought cynically. "Ker Lacey's plan of action seems to me most sound," he continued, ignoring the look of confusion that crossed Wexted's face. "I support her in this, and I am sure she would not do anything which might affect us adversely, without consultation. Let us not make issue over leaders. All our lives are in the balance: we will all continue to have a say."
There was a general murmur of agreement and Shan supposed that Ekridge was not as transparent to everyone as he seemed to her.
"Rousingly said, Ker Ekridge," Stehl Lacey replied, not a hint in her tone to suggest Shan's own suspicions. "Perhaps you could aid in directing efforts here, while we scout out the land. I will look forward to hearing a good report from you when we return."
Shan slipped out the door as Stehl Lacey moved towards it, only half hiding her amusement. She caught one of the Armitans' guardswomen grinning at her in response and smiled more fully. Ekridge was clever enough to know that in a vote there was every chance Stehl Lacey would have gained acknowledged leadership. He would not want such a vote until he was certain of support, and so had set himself up as a wise peacemaker, generously giving her actions his approval. And without even blinking she'd turned it around and spoken to him as a superior officer would a subordinate who had shown some initiative. A clever woman. They were fortunate to have her.
The sun had risen to a pale blue sky, the day was almost warm with the wind gone, and the lake glimmered demurely as they headed towards it. Twenty to tramp down the hill, walking in clumps and lines. The crowd would carry water back, and therefore had brought with them every bucket and jug the inn-keeper could find. The trees, when they reached them, were widely spaced, a mixture of willows and diamond-leaf. Those who were armed went first, creeping around the trees as if they were planning to ambush someone. Shan wondered if they felt foolish when all they flushed out was a small brown bird, which scolded them then flew off over the water.
Gathered in a long line along the grassy, gently sloping bank, the waylaid travellers gazed out over the flat water. A view to charge through the nose for, as the inn-keeper had said.
"It's beautiful," said one of the Gonwindan girls, a pale, intelligent-looking blonde.
"There's even ducks," said the youth beside her. "You wouldn't think it, in Irrelath. Sparrows and ducks and not a magic-twisted monster in sight."
"Why isn't the sky reflected in the water?" wondered a third, the girl who had helped Shan carry stones the night before.
She was right, everyone seeing what she meant, now that it had been pointed out to them. A blue, sun-bright sky, with only a garnish of fluffy white clouds scattered about, but the water, depthless and still, gave back no such image, was of a tone more suited to a thunder-cloud sky. Shan was surprised she had not seen it before, and recalled a discordance that must have bothered her subconsciously the night before - though the moon had been bright, the stars clear, there had been no glimmer of the moon's reflection on the lake's surface.
"How can we use water in which even Lady Bright will not show her face?" Harl Mendican asked Stehl Lacey, who for the first time revealed a hint of uncertainty. She did not answer, watching silently as the male mage removed one of his gloves and dropped to one knee by the water, cupping his hand into the dark surface and lifting it to trail small streams of liquid, which shone with glints of fire. He cupped his hand again, lifted it to his lips, and drank.
"There is a great deal of power in the water," the other mage said, by way of explanation.
"In itself, I cannot see any harm to us here," her companion added, rising to his feet. "Power in plenty, but undirected."
"No harm?" echoed one of the mercenaries incredulously. "It glows when moved, is dark undisturbed! I have seen nought more unnatural."
"Doesn't seem to have hurt the ducks any," Stehl Lacey commented, and dropped to her heels to taste the water. "Cold," she commented.
The uncomfortable pause that followed was broken by Harl Mendican taking a bucket from one of the Gonwindans, filling it, then drinking deeply before washing his face and hands briskly. The effect was disconcerting. The water was clear enough, but the droplets he splattered about glimmered as they fell. Still, he did not appear affected in any way by the water and there was a general move to inspect it and drink. Shan considered the taste for a long time, but could not decide what it reminded her of, and went on to clean her hands and face as well, avoiding wetting the makeshift bandage crossing one palm.
"Glowing water's the least of our worries, Sein," the mercenary leader was reassuring one of his men. "Stay on alert while we're gone. The night passed quiet, but not exactly without incident. Keep them inside the circle and keep them calm."
"Any hints on what to do if you don't come back?" the man replied, almost too soft for Shan to hear.
"Avoid making whatever mistake we did," Mendican replied, after a pause. "Luck to you, brother."
They clasped hands briefly and Mendican nodded to Stehl Lacey, who made subtle indications to those who were to form the scouting party. The others watched them go: a much more compact and disciplined group, lacking buckets and heavy-footed city-dwellers. All the leaders, Shan thought, wryly, but the range of talent was here. She fell in step beside a woman who carried a worn longbow slung over her shoulder, the only person who claimed to be a professional hunter. Lady Kinrathen, her hair braided back, her clothes durable and close-fitting, drifted along in effortless silence beside her tall bondsman. The mages were taking the lead, almost as quietly as the Armitans. Shan, twisting her mouth wryly, thought that if this group didn't come back, the rest better start praying.