This is where the story switches from mysterious to grand epic...
"What is that?!"
For all the skills of mercenaries, mages, Armitans and Charter Hands, it was the slow-speaking trapper called Peta Meason who saw it first. Everyone followed her pointing finger and froze.
The first hour of the journey had been entirely uneventful. Wildlife seemed to be relatively scarce, but otherwise there had been nothing about travelling through Irrelath to mark it out from wilderness in any of the Realms. Then this.
It floated about two feet from the ground, a hand-sized ball of pale purple light with a fluttering pulse at its centre that reminded Shan of a beating heart. The trapper had already readied a knife, Harl Mendican nocked an arrow to the bow he carried slung over one shoulder, and there was a simultaneous ringing as the sword-bearers readied weapons for attack. The ball just hovered there, not quite stationary.
"Well, it's magic, I can tell you that," the female mage said.
"Is it some sort of ghost?" Stehl Lacey asked, glancing at Shan, who shrugged.
"Not any sort I've ever seen or heard of," she replied. "Ghosts generally resemble what they were before death. Unless that's a dead purple ball, it's not a ghost."
"So do we run from it, talk to it, or try to run it through?" Mendican asked.
"Talk to it?"
"You never know."
"Mmph." Stehl Lacey looked to the mages, who gazed unresponsively back. "It doesn't seem to be hostile. So long as it..."
The ball began to sing. Or perhaps whistle was a better term, since it was a breathless cry without words, climbing up and down in pitch, scraping the ends of nerves. Shan had time in plenty to ponder verb choice, since she could do little else. Something in that cry, shivering weird, made it impossible for her to move. Even drawing breath became an effort.
Helplessly Shan watched as the purple ball bobbed closer, but the greatest effort of will could not break her free of that noise. Stehl Lacey was unfortunate in being nearest. Her face was set in stone, grey eyes following the progress of the light. It hovered like a bizarre butterfly, then lit upon her shoulder.
Shan stumbled forward as the singing stopped, there was a flash of amethyst light, and then the glowing ball shot off among the trees, darting erratically with all the speed it had previously failed to display. Stehl Lacey fell to her knees.
"Ker Lacey?" Lady Kinrathen was at the ex-mercenary's side in a heartbeat. "Are you injured?"
Stehl Lacey shook her head slowly, then checked herself over as if to make sure. "No," she said, sounding relieved. She stood carefully. "Tired, as if I had run a mile, but no more. I'll wait a while, in future, before I decide whether a creature seems hostile or not."
"We will rest for a few minutes," Lady Kinrathen said, commandingly, voice brooking no argument. Stehl Lacey did not attempt to argue, just looked around, and sat on a lichen-encrusted log that lay half in the water.
"I guess that goes down on the list of things to avoid," Harl Mendican said, shaking his head. "If anyone has a name they'd care to give it?"
"Whistlers," said Shan, Peta Meason and Stehl Lacey, in unison. They laughed briefly. Mendican grinned back.
"Wonderful. Whistling, paralysing balls of light that suck up human energy. Least it doesn't take a whole lot. The thing had us dead to rights, but being its lunch doesn't seem to be fatal."
"Depends on whether that was a big whistler or a little whistler," Shan pointed out. "Did it seem to anyone else that it was larger when it left than when we first saw it?"
This was not a popular observation, but no-one disagreed. They wandered about, taking a good long look out over the lake, getting a feel of the area from the new angle. It was a beautiful place. Eventually they headed on, more alert than before, yet oddly equally more relaxed, having finally had the magical attack they had been expecting. Harl Mendican dropped back to walk beside Shan, and she turned to him enquiringly. He smiled engagingly.
"So, how does one get into the ghost-laying business?"
"Thinking of a change of career?"
"Never know when a second craft could come in handy."
"Just so." No hint of irony in her tone. "Well, ghost-layers generally train up an apprentice to replace them. There's only four ghost-layers at the moment, and they're very discerning, so I shouldn't lay your hopes too deeply."
"Really? What qualities does a ghost-layer look for when choosing an apprentice?"
"Helps not to be afraid of ghosts."
"That would useful." He studied her a moment. "How old were you, when you started training? I assume you're out of your apprenticeship?"
She nodded. "I was eight." He looked startled, so she shrugged. "It's a family profession. My mother, her father and his mother were all ghost-layers. It involves a lot of travel, so my mother took me with her, and I pestered her into taking me actually on-site a little earlier than she'd probably intended." She smiled at the memory of her first real 'live' ghost.
"Guess I'd be starting a little late, huh?"
Shan lifted an equivocal hand, attention more on the trees around them, on the gentle slope of the bank. "Nardle, the senior ghost-layer, is training someone almost as old as he is. And almost as eccentric. The main requirement, actually, is a complete lack of mage talent."
"Ah. That lets me out." He looked at her curiously. "Seems an odd requirement, though. You'd think being a mage would help, not hinder."
"Oh it does. Spirits are very attracted to mages and we use a lot of magic sending them on. The problem is, they like minor mages so much they keep trying to possess them, which they don't seem to be able to do with someone of no talent. And while a powerful mage is generally able to fend them off, an unfortunate percentage of mages who have had a great deal to do with the death-gate, come back as revenants. They don't want to face death and they know how to avoid it. That's the major reason ghost-laying is so firmly controlled by the Charter."
"I still can't fit you with my image of a ghost-layer."
This provoked only a noncommittal smile. Shan hadn't decided whether to respond to Harl Mendican's overtures with anything more than vague friendship. He was an attractive man - not precisely handsome, but his lean, observant face drew her and she liked the way he had been dealing with the situation they had all found themselves in. It would be pleasant to have him in her bed when the day grew dark and cold, and his direct gaze and quick smile told her that he would join her willingly if she encouraged his flirtation.
Tempted, she glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, but did not allow him to catch her looking at him. If there were no prospect of more than a warm night, perhaps, but this man was now, in a sense, her comrade-in-arms. Bedding him would not be followed by regretful farewells in the morning, but the likelihood of weeks and months in each other's company. Years even, if they could not cross the Stone Plain. Fifty-odd people, falling in and out of each other's beds from lack of other choices; trysting, separating, squabbling jealously, marrying. Or dying before they had the chance.
They saw another startling creature - it truly looked like a grey, winged house-cat - but only at a distance, and made good progress as the sun climbed higher. They rarely had to detour away from the bank, and never for far. Green grassy slopes all the way. Then a stream.
The white buildings they had seen were only a minute or two's walk on the far side. They stopped at the point where the stream opened out into the lake, trying to peer through the concealing swathes of willow. Odd-shaped buildings, blockish with each of the upper corners sliced off at a steep angle, as if someone had made preliminary cuts for carving them into points. Very clean lines, their whiteness unmarred by grime.
"No sign of life, but they're in good repair," observed Stehl Lacey. She turned her attention to the stream, which looked waist-deep, but was not flowing swiftly. "The water's normal here," she added, pointing out a thing Shan had already noticed - that the stream was not the same still darkness as the lake.
"Swim or go upstream?" Mendican asked, dabbling fingers in the water and trailing liquid that showed no tendency to glow. Shan gazed at the inn across the lake, looking extremely shabby against its backdrop of high mountains, and hoped they wouldn't have to swim. It wasn't cold in the sunlight, but being wet wouldn't make matters any better, and they were a long way from dry clothes.
"Upstream for a while," Stehl Lacey decided, considering the forest which thickened and rose away from the lake.
It was a quick detour. Barely thirty feet along were two boulders which squeezed the stream between them, and it was easy to leap across. Shan had just made the jump when she felt an echo in the light bag she had slung across her back. The air throbbed as the true tolling reached them and she whirled, astonished and disbelieving, to stare back at the inn, only partly visible above the tree-tops from their location. Three deep notes, followed by a strangled fourth. She could only gape, for once shocked out of her habit of composure.
A blotch of darkness opened in the blue autumn sky, writhed and twisted and spread at insane speed above the inn. She saw a bolt flash down, and winced at the thunder that reached them the next second.
"What is it?!" Stehl Lacey yelled, grabbing one of her arms as a wind as sudden as the storm seemed to suck their words away and inwards to the hilltop and the consecrated circle of stones, struck by another bolt of lightning as they watched. A funnel like a wind-twist, but in reverse, channelling into the sky, a giant inhalation.
"My bells!" Shan yelled, but the wind snatched her words, and she flung up a hand as something - leaves, twigs torn from a tree - slapped her in the face. The clouds curled into fists, already above them. Stehl Lacey, who could not hear her words through the gale, yelled something back, gestured forcefully in the direction of the white buildings they had spent two hours or more walking to, and staggered forward, buffeted to a drunken parody of running.
Shan spared only half a glance to make certain the two Armitans, last in line, had made it across the stream. Willow-wands turned to whips, branding her face, and she lost her sense of direction briefly in a circle of lashing green. She managed to gauge the direction of the wind, ran out into the open, splashed through the shallow edge of the lake - filling her boots with freezing water - and ran along the bank of the lake, spotting the others only a short distance ahead. They dashed between a gateless gap in a low, scalloped wall and through the doorway of the nearest structure, which tapered like the building itself, narrower at the top than the base.
Shan could hear the rain behind her, the wind reversing direction ahead of the downpour, pushing her forward, practically lifting her off her feet and throwing her through the entrance.
Stumbling embarrassingly into Lady Kinrathen, Shan gasped for breath, back tensed for the blow of cold water. But the room was warm and still, and she took her next breath, then turned to stare outside, reminded oddly of her first occasion to look upon the lake. She couldn't see it this time, though the water's edge was not more than fifteen feet away. Lightning still struck, but even the thunder was muted here, the black sky and solid wall of rain could well have been a landscape painting. They were contained beyond the doorway, not gusting even a cool breeze through that empty, tapering rectangle.
Lady Kinrathen reached her hand through the doorway, and had it struck downward by the force of the falling water. Drawing it back, she shook cold drops to the floor. They stood a good two, three minutes in silence, staring out at the dark fury of the storm.
The tall bondsman shifted, the movement drawing Lady Kinrathen's attention away from the storm's mesmeric power.
"Enough of this," the Armitan woman said, and turned to study the room they had entered, which spread itself mute and stark before them, offering no answers.
"You know more of this than we," Kinrathen stated, her survey of the room concluding with a long consideration of Shan. "What can you tell us?" Her tone lacked accusation, but there was caution in the stance of all who waited for Shan's reply.
"Someone's been playing with my gear," Shan said calmly, though disbelief lingered in her voice. "Usually people are less than eager to fool with a ghost-layer's kit, but you never can account for stupidity, I suppose."
"Your bag made the noise first," said the trapper, her slow voice enunciating each word like the sentence of a High Justice.
"Yes. The bell caught the resonance," Shan agreed, unslung her bag, and lifted out one of the bells, bundled in soft leather. "This is a bell of lesser summoning," she continued, displaying the familiar ebony and silver. "It's part of a set and linked particularly to a bell of greater summoning. This echoed when the other was used."
Stehl Lacey stepped forward to study without touching. "I have seen a ghost-layer use the bells. Summoning, banishing. Not storm-raising."
"Merciful-!" It was the female mage, who came forward now, reached fingers to very lightly stroke the silver metal. "Summoning. A bell of greater summoning."
"In a circle consecrated to the Greater Gods," Shan agreed, feeling tired of a sudden. "Hopefully, Lord Thunderer will be the only one to answer." She watched realisation settle in, even the Armitans going grey. "Greater summoning is rarely used – I've only done so twice. For the more powerful haunts, who are reluctant to come to this one's call, and need to be dragged by their heels. Somehow I doubt the greater bell is strong enough to forcefully summon even a lesser god, let alone one of the greats, but I can't say that they're likely to appreciate the gesture."
She packed the bell carefully away, automatically pressing the padding further in as she did so, attention returning to the black gloom outside, which had been a sunny day five minutes ago. Would the inn even be there, when the storm abated? All her clothes, most of the bells, some of the discs. Well, at least they'd found themselves a nice warm, dry place to stay. A pity there wasn't a soft bed and a fully stocked larder to go with the obviously magical heat and preservation.
She walked away from the others as Stehl Lacey, with a sigh, suggested they might as well use the time for lunch. Shan touched a wall lightly but felt nothing, so she went back to the door and dragged off her wet boots.
"A floor which eats wet footprints," snorted Harl Mendican, watching her actions, and the way the muddy streaks she'd left on the floor were slowly leaching into nothingness. "What did you do? Run through the lake?"
"It reached out and tried to trip me," she replied, giving him a warmer smile than previously, for many men would have been extremely chary of her after seeing the mess misuse of one of her bells had caused. She pulled off her socks, which were gritty with lake-silt. After a moment, clutching them tightly, she held them out into the roar of water, and almost lost them. Having arranged them neatly by the door, she followed in Mendican's wake to where the others had made a loose circle on the floor and were setting out the various edibles they had been provided. A mix of rye and fine white bread, wedges of cheese and meat, even a couple of cold pastries. Without flour or milk, it would be a long time before they saw this fare again.
"What shall we do if we are alone here now, Ker Lacey?" the trapper was asking, sounding very unhappy with the thought.
"We'll wait until the storm abates before even considering such possibilities, Peta," Stehl Lacey replied, watching Shan sit down. "Do you have anything else that could be turned to mischief, Ker Pendar?"
"Back at the inn, you mean?" Shan considered. "They couldn't really do much with the other bells. I've got the banisher with me, so they won't find out how annoyed Lord Thunderer might get having that used on him. There's a few shatter and flash discs there. They might manage to cripple one or two with those."
"Shatter discs." Stehl Lacey gave her a dry look. "Exactly how much magical impedimenta do you have? Here and there."
Shan cocked her head on one side, for a moment unsmiling and very serious, for she did not like having to catalogue her belongings, though she well understood the necessity of the questions to these people. Then she adopted a lighter air, and reeled the list off honestly enough.
"The bells. Eight flash discs. Four shatter. Two light. One magic-sense. A bug and disease ward. Three dispells. A clear-sight. An anti-poison. A trap-net. A path-hide. A..." She stopped, and felt in one of her pockets thoughtfully.
"You use those to lay ghosts?" Stehl Lacey asked, disbelievingly.
"No." Shan shook her head to emphasise the point, and produced a disc from her pocket. "Other than the trap-net, light and the flash discs. The rest are used for disproving ghosts."
"Sorcerous spirits," said the male mage, the first time he'd spoken for quite a while. He sounded amused. "False ghosts," he explained. "It is something I have been called upon to deal with myself. A way to drive away occupants of desirable property, or to hide murder behind an apparently supernatural evil."
"Ah. And a ghost-layer is sent in, threatening these plans. Thus the shatter discs." Stehl Lacey nodded. "Well, it is convenient. Will you allow us use of this small arsenal of tools, Ker Pendar?"
Shan nodded absently, still turning the disc she had selected over in her hand. She looked across at the two mages. "Can you work with that created by Lady Bright's school, Magisters?" She lowered her lids slightly. "And do you have names you prefer to be called?"
The two hoods turned slightly towards each other. "Leathe," said the woman.
"Raithe," her companion added. "Working with the creations of another school depends on endless factors. What is it you wish?"
She tossed him the disc. "Enhance that."
He took so long in studying it that the others grew tense. Shan watched faces unobtrusively, while attention was focused on the mage. Only the Armitans had avoided being marked by willow whips, which had left red weals on the exposed flesh of the humans. Stehl Lacey was looking wearier than the day's exertions called for. It would probably be good to keep an eye on her, in case the whistler's sting had more to it than a brief sapping of energy.
A pair of deep blue eyes met hers as she turned her head, belonging to the only other person not focused on the mage. She returned the steady gaze without flinching, gave it three entire heartbeats, then passed on, but found that her hands had tightened on her knees. Lady Kinrathen's bondsman would probably win if she tried to best him in a staring competition. Armitans were never quick to trust and this one seemed to see more than she would like.
"It could be done," Raithe said, passed the disc to his companion. "The storm is slackening. If the sun shines again at midday, we will try it then."
"A message disc." Leathe drew off both her gloves and held the disc flat between two palms. "I see." She handed the disc back to the other mage, and replaced the gloves. "Yes. The message disc is almost strong enough to break through the barrier on its own. If we can enhance it, add our power to its own, we would be able to establish communication. We had best decide what we wish to say - the disc will only be of use once, and we will not be able to maintain the link for more than a few minutes."
"I think this qualifies as emergency enough," Shan said. "Though we're really only supposed to use those things if we encounter an army of undead on the march."
"A message disc." Stehl Lacey shook her head. "I am surprised ghost-layers are able to travel at all. With such a hoard of valuable magery, every thief would be looking to make a profit."
Shan shrugged. "I don't go around listing the contents of my packs very often."
"Who will we be speaking to?" the ex-mercenary asked. "Who does the message disc link to?"
"The Charter Councillor who directs the ghost-layers - Fen Kemior."
They fell to deciding what information was important not to leave out when the link was established, tucking away their food hungrily while they listened to the storm. Raithe had correctly judged its change in intensity. The downpour decreased steadily over the next quarter hour, then stopped abruptly and completely.
This pleased the mages, who had been exploring the rather uninteresting confines of their shelter, and patently wanted to inspect the others to see if they proved to be more than four walls and a doorway. They had been softly debating whether it would be possible, using the varied enchantments at the disposal of the Arcane Schools, to reproduce the effects they could observe on this simple building.
When the rain ceased, the two mages immediately stepped out into the silence left in its wake, where it seemed the only noise to be heard was the dripping trees. They looked briefly towards the inn, which proved to be still in one piece upon the hilltop, the black clouds breaking up into shafts of light above the humble wooden structure, outlining it in gold. It was a scene of great beauty, but Raithe and Leathe only spared themselves a moment or two of reassurance before turning their attention to the outside of the building where they had sheltered, then to the others which lay within the low scalloped wall.
There were five in all. The same size, same four walls and one doorway, same cleanliness and warmth within. No decoration at all, unless the tapering shape counted. No windows, no furniture, nothing. Certainly no inhabitants.
"These have survived from the time before Mordecai's War," Leathe observed. "Not a particularly ornate folk, but their power must have been as immense as history reports."
"Nothing but white walls," Mendican said to Shan. "Any furniture they had would surely have survived where wind and rain could not touch them, even if clothing and foodstuffs rotted away. I had heard they were ascetics, but this is beyond my expectations."
"Could we put these to use, if it became necessary?" Stehl Lacey asked the mages. "Is there any suggestion that it would be dangerous to set up a camp in these structures?"
"Nothing declares itself to be inimical," Leathe replied ambiguously.
Shan did not trust such an inviting place. She wandered, found herself beside Lady Kinrathen, and said: "Warmth and shelter, yet no animals have taken advantage of the accommodation. Perhaps they resent being cleaned up after."
The Armitan looked amused. "That could well be a factor. To mark a scent and then have it removed - but I agree. It is not a promising sign." She glanced at her bondsman. "Perhaps we could experiment on another occasion, Kier. Reventh's senses are far more acute."
There was a barely perceptible hesitation, then the tall bondsman inclined his head. "As you say, my liege."
Shan, interested by the exchange, wandered off again, stopping to ostensibly examine the entrance of the nearest dwelling, but mainly to eavesdrop when Lady Kinrathen continued, in her own tongue: "In these circumstances, it would mean little to release you some days early, Kier."
There was a deadly little pause, which prompted Shan to walk past the doorway she was inspecting. He had not appreciated that suggestion. She could tell without even looking.
"My word is my bond, liege," he replied finally, ice cold.
Wandering on, avoiding the puddles that spotted the area and any chance of getting involved in the Armitans' arguments, she selected one of the smallest bells in her possession from her bag, part of a set of twelve identical bells, most back at the inn. She was relieved that the inn and bells were still there to return to. Carefully removing the wadding, she stroked the smooth rim of the bell, which was barely a finger-length in height, then placed it in the centre of the floor of the building roughly in the middle of the compound.
"Very pretty," Mendican said, watching her from out in the sunshine. "And?"
She handed him another of the tiny bells in response, walked several feet away.
A clear, crystalline tinkle, which provoked a muffled response from Shan's pack. "The key bell will sound when one of the attuned is struck, and the attuned strike of their own accord in the presence of spirit life."
"Noisy lot, you ghost-layers." He handed her back the bell, fingers brushing across the palm of her hand. She packed it away as if she hadn't noticed. He was going to be hard to resist, this Harl Mendican. He reminded her of the invitation his eyes had made, but did not push when she failed to respond.
"We will attempt the communication," announced Raithe. "Away from here." The two shadow mages walked off without another word, and they trailed after them, Shan matching paces with the trapper, mind turning impatiently away from both her own pleasures and the dangers of Irrelath. She was a Charter Hand, had been returning from a mission of great delicacy when all this happened. Her most important assignment to date. Ghostly visitations had been falsified, just as Raithe had said, but this false haunting had been arranged specifically so Shan could head into Jutland - a Charter Hand behind a guise few would even begin to suspect, for all that both groups were controlled from Arras Island. No-one associated ghost-layers with the unknown Hands of Charter law who the Council's Chair, High Lady Aliantha, dispatched to discover the truths from among falsehoods, to bring down those who broke Charter law.
The High Lady did not use the Hands to judiciously remove those who opposed her, despite what gossip said. That talk was a result of the secrecy which surrounded the activities and identities of Aliantha's Hands. The tales spread about the Hand's skills and achievements produced a mixture of awe and suspicious fear. Children wanted to be Charter Hands when they grew up, but they were also told that Aliantha's Hands would catch them if they were naughty. Shan smiled. She was fortunate in her family's occupations. It cut down on the things she feared.
The message disc was a useful emergency tool for either profession. Shan had never used it as a ghost-layer, but there had been a time two years ago when she had activated a disc to warn of an assassination plot she had discovered quite by accident. A past victory. And today's ignominious failure. The letter she had concealed in her belongings would settle the issue which threatened to disrupt the Convocation. It would do no good in Irrelath, and it mattered little that this mess was none of Shan's making. She composed herself quietly as the two mages, having made a long and boring business out of enhancing the message disc, finally activated it and lowered their hands.
High Lady Aliantha was of the Vensi School, her power earned through Lady Bright's grace. In the high sunlight of an autumn day at noon the disc melted away to a cloud of mist, thickened and deepened, gold white with a centre of bottomless dark. Shan, oddly, did not doubt that they would succeed in making contact, but she heard Stehl Lacey sigh in soft relief as the image of a woman with snatches of a study visible behind her, looked up and out at Shan. Fen Kemior, made over in proportions half her true size, her short bobbed white hair tousled, dark piercing eyes red-rimmed, as if she had not slept. She seemed to take in all at a glance - Stehl Lacey, the two Armitans, Harl Mendican and the trapper, Peta. Shan at the fore of this group. It was unlikely that she could see the mages, cross-legged on the ground.
"Wait," she snapped out, and turned away from the link, leaving a reasonable view of an office piled with old tomes, and a fairly disconcerted group of displaced travellers. Then she was visible again, appearing behind a much smaller woman whose precise features, beneath a crown of golden braids, were also weary. High Lady Aliantha, who surveyed the view she had through the link, then inclined her head politely to the two Armitans.
"Kormien Ryerstahl, Vidare Kinrathen," she murmured, then turned her attention to Shan. "There is little time in our current crisis, Shanataire Pendar. What do you have to report?"
Shan passed by the questions which rose to her lips about any 'current crisis' and did not react to the identity of Lady Kinrathen's bondsman. The High Lady had commanded she report, and it was a command to be obeyed without equivocation.
"Some three hours after sunset yesterday," she began, clear and concise, "the inn Cob and Signet in Kandalay was transported to Irrelath. Two fatalities. We arrived in a circle fully consecrated to the Greater Gods. I would make an assumption that they summoned us. We have met no sentient inhabitants, have made only the first efforts at exploration.
"Occupants of the inn include," she glanced briefly over her shoulder at a bondsman of higher rank than his liege, "Lady Kinrathen and entourage, Magisters Owen and Est Tregair, Duchess Relien's sons and their party, Ker Stehl Lacey, a Spictish merchant named Ekridge and mercenary attachments, some twenty others. Few supplies. The circle offers us some warding protection, and we are well beyond the Stone Plain."
Fen Kemior's expression, in the background of the scene, was one of comical disbelief, and she seemed so overcome she had to put a hand out to the back of a chair to hold herself upright. The High Lady took Shan's well-pared report without blinking, then said: "Excellent! Tell me, are you within sight of a tower? It should be on the southern face of a small mountain."
"Some two days' travel distant, my Lady." Shan felt those at her back shift in confusion, and hoped that an explanation would be quickly forthcoming before her curiosity broke through her professional mask. How had she known?
"The Gods have provided, then." The small intense woman who headed the Charter Council, and was perhaps the most powerful person in the Realms, sagged imperceptibly with relief, but it was only a momentary thing. High Lady Aliantha was not one to show weakness. "Owen is with you? Is he there?"
"I am here, Aliantha. I cannot hold this link open much longer." The shadow mage spoke calmly, and Shan was glad she had not named him wrongly.
The High Lady did not waste time searching for the source of the mage's voice. "Good. Listen well then, all of you. Three hours beyond sunset, yesterday evening, a man named Endymion Thorlak broke the seals of the Dancers' tomb." She nodded as they reacted with appropriate shock, a little chorus of indrawn breaths. "It was with the aid of the Sorcerers of Irrelath that the Dancers were imprisoned, those long centuries ago. We have been searching, ever since Arras Island shook with the passage of the Dancers, for a way to bring down Irrelath's shields, to cross the Stone Plain and bring back the device that was used to contain the Dancers in the first place. Obviously this is to be your role.
"Thorlak has been operating in the Realms for some time, fomenting trouble simply for the sake of it, it seems. What bargain he struck with the Dancers I cannot guess, but after sowing destruction across the Island, they bore him off, have scattered to the winds."
Shan felt a painful twinge at these words. Her home. No, she wouldn't think of it.
"High Lady," Lady Kinrathen interrupted, after a glance at her bondsman, who was looking wide-eyed. "What casualties..."
"None among those you refer to," the High Lady replied smoothly. So the Kormier of the Armaithe Lands, and her party, had not been injured. But what of any of the other rulers who had been gathering on Arras Island? The Convocation was the worst time for this to happen, had doubtless been specifically chosen, though it was strange that there had not been a day or two's wait, until the meeting of the Charter Councillors was underway, and all the rulers were like to be there.
"The Third Age rises when the Dancers soar," said the trapper, sounding short of breath.
"So legend goes," Lady Aliantha agreed. "We will not breathe word of your location beyond this room, since it is best the Dancers do not know to head to Irrelath to try to stop you. We will continue our efforts to bring down the shields and enchantments of the Stone Plain, in case it is of aid to you, and to fool any who watch. For your task, as we have been researching Irrelath long through the night, I can offer you what little information we have garnered." She glanced at her companion. "Fen, fetch the best of the maps."
"This is the Dawn of the Age of Wonders," continued the trapper, as if Aliantha had never spoken. She fell to her knees behind Shan.
"This will be the Dawn of an Age of Darkness, if you do not succeed," the High Lady said, unmoved by the demonstration. "The Tower is named Jormath - Snow Tear. It is the treasure-house of old Irrelath, was used by Mordecai as a palace when he sought to rule. What protections it might have against thieves we can only guess at, though there is much to suggest that it is shielded against entry, even as the land is. This...," she moved back to allow an aging and yellowed map to be opened before the link, touching a particular point, "shows the location of Jormath. In the plain to the south was the city of Lemaine. The Sorcerers of Irrelath had their largest settlement somewhere to the north, and there were many small retreats scattered about."
"The link is about to go, Aliantha," Owen Tregair called.
"Then I wish you good luck, for you are the best hope for the Dancers' defeat. Remember this! The Dancers are kin to the Greater Gods. The Great Ones' motives are never clear cut. Tr-!"
Aliantha's image shimmered and winked out, leaving a stunned group to look at each other in silence. The mages replaced their gloves, and stood.
"As if it wasn't going to be hard enough," Stehl Lacey said glumly, finally breaking the silence. She studied those about her, eyes lingering on the man who the High Lady had revealed as Kier Ryerstahl, the son of the sister of the Korlendar of the Armaithe Lands - a word which was something on the lines of High Queen, ruling over the Tarkans, who were dukes of a sort, with absolute authority over their duchies. Shan's mother had claimed 'clan chieftan' was a better explanation for the Tarkans, back when the Armitans could change shape, and grouped themselves according to the beast they could change to. There was doubtless a complex reason, laden with honour-debt, as to why the nephew of the High Queen of the Armaithe Lands had given bondsman's oath to a mere vidare, Charter Councillor or not, but Shan doubted anyone would have the nerve to ask the Armitans what exactly it was. Stehl Lacey's curiosity over the matter probably wasn't enough for her to make waves beneath the delicate ship she was steering.
"Magister..." She had passed on to the two mages, another revelation to most. "As one of the Three, it would seem your word holds greatest weight. What would you suggest?"
"Finish circling the lake," the male mage replied, shortly. He took several steps west along the bank, then paused and looked back at Shan. "You asked our names, when you knew them."
"I wanted to see what you would say, Magister," she replied, calmly.
He nodded, accepting this as explanation enough. "We shall continue to be known as Raithe and Leathe. There is no need nor reason to make others free with our identities."
"Many would find it an odd coincidence, Magister," Lady Kinrathen said, voice a cool challenge.
"No coincidence, Vidare. I have been following you since Kondetterlan." He raised a gloved hand as the two Armitans stiffened. "It was a precautionary measure. With the state of tension in the east especially, it seemed wisest to act swiftly and discreetly when word of a planned assassination reached Council ears."
"Explain that, if you please, Magister."
"A scrawled note, warning that it was to be arranged that you did not reach Arras Island. Est and I were at hand. It has not been overly difficult to watch without revealing ourselves." He glanced back to Shan. "I would like to know how you divined our identities."
"I had been told Est Tregair bit her fingernails," Shan said, and smiled because she thought this a funny thing to be discussing when they had just been told that the Dancers had been freed into the Realms. "There is little otherwise to give you away, other than your obvious power, for how many could come so close to breaking through the barrier around Irrelath?"
The two magi bowed their heads over thisbut did not comment further on Shan's uncloaking of them, or a small bad habit giving them away.
They did not discuss the Dancers as they travelled on, either, though the High Lady's words obviously weighed heavily on everyone's minds, locking all into thoughtful silence. The journey was uneventful, most difficulty coming when they encountered another stream halfway along the west bank, an outlet for the lake forming a series of small cascades in the shadow of two mountains. Something watched them as they detoured along the stream searching for an easy crossing, but it scurried away in a shower of pebbles when their attention focused upon it, and they pressed on cautiously, taking a good twenty minutes to cross the stream, travelling outside the valley and feeling oddly threatened when they did so.
Even food was talked about more, since their entire return journey seemed likely to pot only a heavy-breasted wood pigeon brought down by a rather marvellous piece of work with a throwing knife by Lady Kinrathen. Then, when they were practically in shouting distance of their hill, and progress was slowed as Peta began setting out the series of snares she had brought with her, they almost literally stumbled over a young doe whose attention was taken up by a stalky peach tree laden with succulent golden globes, mostly on branches high out of reach. Harl's arrow found the helpfully exposed throat and they made short business of stringing the carcass along a suitable branch to be carried back, as well as gathering all the peaches they could reach.
Peta Meason's point that peaches fruited in spring, not autumn, produced a long pause, but still makeshift bags were filled with firm, fuzzy fruit when they passed through the last stand of trees and began to climb the hill to the inn which was now, most unfortunately, home.