©1999 by Mark Rosenfelder. This story is also available in Verdurian
There was a rise in the road, and for the first time Zeirdan came into view. The traveler paused to look it over. From this distance it was only a jumble of roofs and towers peeking out over heavy walls. Dominating all of them were the high tower of Azhirei's temple, and the castle of the Prince, with blue and gold banners flying. Beyond the city was the sea; it could not be seen from here, but there was a hint of salt in the breeze.
Zeirdan was smaller in those days, but perhaps prouder; for Lord Ánabar and the Princess Asheli had not yet laid eyes on each other, and the Prince answered to none but the gods.
"Get out of the way there, by Calto," snarled a rough voice. "You're blocking the road."
There was a sound of pigs. The traveler turned around, to see a peasant's ox-drawn cart, heavily laden with three or four large hogs; the peasant himself was walking alongside. The traveler stepped to the side of the road.
As he passed, the peasant noticed his robes, and his face changed. "Sorry, I'm sorry," he murmured. "Didn't see who you were..."
"That's a heavy load. Perhaps I could help you somehow."
"No, please," said the peasant, looking alarmed. "It's nothing. Don't want to disturb you. Ad onlelán."
And he hurried his ox on as best as he could. The traveler looked after him, with a half-smile on his face.
Then he picked up the canvas bag that contained his earthly possessions, and marched on.
In an hour or two he had reached the gates of the city. He paused again to read the notice posted on one side of the entrance:
ALL WHO RESPECT THE LAWS OF ZEIR
DISMOUNT AS YOU ENTER
WATCH FOR PICKPOCKETS
PUBLIC DRUNKENNESS PROHIBITED
MAGICIANS NOT WELCOME
"As usual," remarked the traveler to himself.
"Hey, you!" said one of the guards at the gate.
The man looked round; the guard was looking right at him. He tapped his halberd on the ground. "Didn't you see the sign?"
"Yes, I did. What of it?"
The guard looked at him a moment, angrily, but seemingly without words to say; then he swallowed heavily, and tapped his halberd again. "Just wanted to make sure you read it," he said, finally.
"Oh, I read it," the traveler told him. "Ad onlelán."
The street was crowded, but the people made way for him as he passed, heavy of heart. Those who looked at him scowled; some of them called him names behind his back.
He passed a scavenger shovelling horse dung into a wagon, and reproached himself for his self-pity; Midei might have made him such a scavenger, rather than a student of the secret art. On the other hand, the scavenger would receive some coins from the borough for his pains, while the traveler's purse was empty.
Lost in thought, the traveler jostled against a woman in the Grocers' Street. He apologized and started to walk on, but he was stopped by a hand on his arm.
"Stop, you," said the owner of the hand. "You bumped into my lady."
I never hear a friendly Emai, thought the traveler.
He turned to see his challenger: a large, tan-colored, muscled man, bearded, with a patch over one eye, and wearing leather armor and a sword. A mercenary, probably a Makshi, and two of his mates were with him. The lady was good-looking, with elaborately styled hair and bright, insufficient clothing; a prostitute. She looked at the traveler, then at the mercenary, with fear in her eyes.
"It was an accident," said the traveler.
"Watch out, Klashu," said one of his companions. "He's a wizard..."
"I see that," said Klashu. "Oh, I see that all right. And you know, I don't like wizards. Especially when they bother my lady friends."
"Really, I wasn't bothered, and he's already apologized--"
"Shut up. And you too, Tanaz. You can see that he's not much of a wizard, and I'm immune anyway."
It was true that the magician was not much to look at. His robes were dirty and patched; he was thin as a birch rod, and had not even the dignity of age; it could not have been long since he was an apprentice.
The warrior came up to him, grabbed him by the robe, and asked, "What dog dragged you into this town where you don't belong, warlock?"
"I could ask the same of you," replied the magician.
The mercenary pushed him backwards; he fell onto the street, the wind knocked out of him. Klashu and his friends laughed. Some of the crowd that had gathered around him dared to laugh too. "Look, he's wearing sandals," jeered a young boy. Shameful, certainly; here was a wizard without even a pair of shoes.
The magician recovered his breath, and stood up painfully. "Don't try that again," he said.
The mercenary laughed again. "Oh, I won't," he said, winking at his friends. "I'll try this." And he aimed a punch at the magician, who ducked, and ran ignomiously out of the mercenary's way. The crowd laughed. The magician cursed. He needed just a moment to concentrate. And all these people around!
Klashu advanced on him, cocked his arm; and then wavered, a look of puzzlement spreading on his face. "Wizards can't hurt me," he complained; and then he was sick, falling to his knees and vomiting.
An old man behind the magician started laughing. "Oh, it does a body good," he said to himself, and wandered off with a pleased air. Only the magician seemed to notice.
The other two mercenaries had drawn their swords, and were now advancing on the magician. They looked frightened, but these were men trained to move and kill in spite of fear. "Darkness is coming for you, wizard," said one of them.
A moment later he tripped and fell heavily on the ground, cursing. The other fell backward, but did not hit the ground; he lay suspended in the air, writhing ineffectually, cursing in a barbarian tongue. It was as if invisible hands held him up; and now they lifted him, higher than the height of a man; and threw him to the ground. He lay there unconscious.
The magician was sweating with exertion. He looked around expectantly, as did many in the crowd. Nothing caught his attention for a moment; then he saw the naked woman, and the tray full of ices. What a livelihood.
"Come on, let's throw him in the river," said someone. "He can't do anything against all of us."
A murmur of agreement ran through the crowd; but many were still distracted by the ices and the woman, and the insults of Klashu, who had recovered and was shouting at people to get out of his way. The magician dashed away, running away from the crowd. His only safety was in flight; for his magic he needed peace, if only for an instant, and there was no peace in this angry crowd. But where could he go? He slipped away from the main crowd, but others on the street had seen him, and were running toward him. He wondered if this was his end.
A door opened; a hand beckoned him. Without stopping to think, he ran inside, and the door closed behind him.
He looked around. He was in a long, richly furnished hall. The walls were half-panelled in dark woods; paintings hung on the walls; the floors were tiled, and warmed with fine Ismaîn carpets. Soft couches, and upholstered chairs with gilded arms tempted the visitor. It was cool and silent, a world away from the dust and noise and crowd outside. From somewhere further inside the house came the sound of trickling water.
Standing by him, smiling appraisingly, was a young, pretty, black-haired woman. The pallor of her skin, and the cleanness of her robes, as well as her delicacy and self-assurance, were those of an aristocrat, or perhaps a rich trader's wife.
"Emai," she said. "Refresh yourself, and come in." He followed her gesture, and found a basin of water by the door, which he used to wash the dust and grime of the road from his face and hands. He left his sandals by the door, and followed her into the reception room. She showed him a seat, and poured him a glass of lemon-flavored water from a flagon on a side table. There were chips of ice in it-- one of the greatest in this house full of luxuries, as servants would have to fetch blocks of ice from the mountains to provide them.
"I am very honored, Lady," he said.
"What is your name, magician?"
"Where are you from?"
"From Bredan, on the Chirë. It's a very small town."
She examined him a minute, before telling him, "My name is Loncai Ilinarhei Comadi. My father is the Cont Deuneon; but I have an older brother, so I am as much of a commoner as you, you see."
"Not at all, Lady Comadi," said Tivuran, politely. He thought that he was moving his hands too much. His legs were sprawled too loosely in front of him; he straightened himself up somewhat. He worried about his dirty clothes.
"What brings a master of magic to our little town, Tivuran?"
"I'm looking for work."
"I'm surprised," she said, with a little laugh. "I didn't know magicians needed to work for a living. You are much feared, aren't you?"
"Fear doesn't put soup on the table," he replied sadly.
"Oh, I'm not thinking at all!" exclaimed Lady Comadi. "You will dine with us tonight, of course. And perhaps at this very moment you require some replenishment after your journey." She rang a bell on the table next to her.
"Please, I didn't mean to have you do anything," he said.
"Nonsense!" A servant appeared, and was instructed to bring bread, cheese, sausage, and beer.
"Now tell me about your life," said Lady Comadi. "Start at the beginning, and tell me everything. I've never had a magician at my mercy before."
A Zeirese proverb warns: the food of nobles is rich, but sits hard in the stomach. Tivuran had been at nobles' tables before, and had learned the truth of the saying: if one's hosts did not expect hard service in return for their meat and wine, they embittered their taste with arrogance or foolishness.
There was nothing unpleasant about this meal, however. Cont Deuneon was a jovial host, amused by his daughter's recitation of the magician's trials; his guest Beom Surdal countered with many jolly stories of court life. The Cont's wife and son were absent, visiting another house. Tivuran, clean and well-dressed for the first time in many days, smiled agreeably, laughed when it seemed appropriate, and enjoyed the successive dishes, set silently before him by servants: bread with spiced chickpeas; a cold fish soup; crêpes filled with beef and mushroom and nut sauce; and finally fresh fruit served with cheeses and sweet, strong red wine.
The conversation turned serious. Deuneon and Surdal, who had spent the day at court, were preoccupied with the problems of the realm. In those days the chief scourges of every country of the Plain were the Horselords, whose hordes might appear at any moment massed along the horizon, and sweep like the vengeance of gods through the lands, burning fields, looting cities, violating men's wives and daughters, profaning temples, and humbling the rulers of men. The Cadhinorian empire, once the pride of men and gods, had long ago fallen before them, and horsemen wore the sash of Ervëa. Zeir, which lies far from their homes in the grasslands of the south, had escaped their domination; but now a new horde of Horselords lay at the gates of this unravaged land. The Prince had called up his men of arms, and hired mercenaries and barbarians of the west to strengthen their hands, but the Horselords were many, and there was no assurance that his small realm could resist when kings and empires mightier than his had fallen.
"It's a desperate situation," offered the magician, "but perhaps it's well that I've come; I wished precisely to place my skills at the service of the Prince."
Deuneon laughed. "Prince Nounes? I don't think so. He hates the very shadow of a magician."
"So I've heard; but if I could simply speak to him..."
"Don't bother," said Surdal. "It's said that one of his cousins-- the Prince's closest companion, Poncuna-- was killed by a wizard. It was an accident; the conjurer was trying to strengthen the castle's wine, and brought about the man's fatal illness instead. Accident or not, since then he can't stand a student of the secret art. You see it's no use, my friend."
"It's the nature of magic," reflected the Cont, philosophically.
"But surely Tivuran can do something," insisted Lady Comadi. "You should have seen him, standing up to a trio of those thugs."
And almost getting killed, thought Tivuran.
"Everyone knows the basic principle of magic," remarked Beom Surdal. "The Powers are whimsical, but strict: for every good thing wrought by magic, some evil befalls elsewhere, and every blow struck is balanced by some unexpected benefit. It's said that an unwise Prince accepted a magician's offer to bring rain to his country, suffering from drought; the rain came, and watered his fields, but a plague decimated the population of the capital. Another story: a man asked a wizard to heal his wife, who was dying of the shaking disease; she was cured, but that very night his infant daughter, playing in the garden, was eaten by wolves."
"These magicians were careless or incompetent," said Tivuran. "If you know the Powers well, and don't reach beyond your grasp, you can minimize unwanted effects."
"Such as naked women and trays of ices," said Deuneon, with a laugh.
"I was fighting for my life, my lord," said the magician. "There wasn't any time to do better."
"There must be good in magic, or there wouldn't be any magicians," pointed out Lady Comadi.
"Someone's always willing to take the risk," her father replied. "Some are unscrupulous enough to ask for a blessing, and hope that the curse strikes their neighbor. Or, a magician sells you a little gadget for finding water. That's worthwhile, though Enäron knows what disasters occurred in its making... But a wise man will stay away from magicians-- or at least accept one at his table only if he keeps his spells to himself," he added, looking severely at Tivuran.
Tivuran tried to look harmless. Most magicians did keep to themselves, far from other men, practicing their art only on their own account, seeking the secrets of the universe. He himself was an orphan, raised by a magician as a servant and apprentice. He had learned much; but the greater his knowledge, the less willing the old magician was to reveal his remaining lore. No longer content to wait on the old man and suffer his explosions of temper, he had broken with him and left to seek his own fortune. It was not an easy existence.
"The best thing might be to send our friend here over to the Horselords," remarked Beom Surdal. "With a wizard on their side, some calamity is bound to befall them." He and the Cont laughed.
"Still, please, my lords, do you suppose you could help me to see the Prince?" pleaded the magician. "I'd like to at least ask."
"There's no use in it," said the Cont.
"Oh, why not, father?" asked Lady Comadi. "What harm is there in it? Let him see the Prince; Nounes will say no, and that's it. But let him at least ask."
Deuneon frowned. "And what do you think the prince will say to me for bringing a magician into the court?"
"Nothing at all, if he doesn't know who it was," suggested Lady Comadi.
"Loncai, you don't know--"
"I know very well, father. Bring him to the midweek open audience hour. Nobody will remember who he came in with."
Deuneon opened his mouth to speak, but before he could say anything, his daughter added, "It would please me very much."
Deuneon considered, and then shrugged. "It's nothing to me, and if it pleases you, Loncai, I'll see what I can do. But nothing willcome of it-- you'll see it for yourself."
"Thank you, Cont. Really, I'll be forever in your debt."
"Oh, don't grovel."
The Cont was as good as his word; two days later he had business at the Palace, and brought along the magician.
"There are two open audience hours-- open to the right people, I mean," explained Deuneon. "This is the better one to come to, because the Prince has just eaten; he'll be in a good mood. Go in, mill about near the Prince to see how things are; then approach."
"You won't be introducing me, then?" asked Tivuran, a little nervously.
The Cont frowned. "I'm not a fool. I've brought you here as a favor to Lady Comadi-- don't return my kindness with ill will, by mentioning my name."
"I understand, my lord."
"And by Enäron, don't cast any spells in my house!"
"Of course not."
The Cont looked at him, seriously, as if contemplating further warning. Tivuran tried to look innocent, and apparently succeeded; the Cont lowered his eyes in acceptance.
The Cont explained the protocol for approaching and speaking to the sovereign, and Tivuran was on his own. As he was directed, he entered the grand chamber where the Prince received supplicants-- a magnificent room, with columns fading into the distance like a forest-- and made his way close to the throne. The Prince was a fat man with more hair in his moustache than on his head; he wore a rich purple gown, fingers full of rings, and the blue and gold sash of Zeir. He sat and talked with a handful of nobles and officials, and periodically someone would prostrate themselves in front of him, beginning a stream of praises and flattery, until they were bid to state their business.
Tivuran watched until he felt he knew some of the language to use, and some of the things not to say. The audience of a man who began by asking where the Prince found such fools for advisors, for instance, was short indeed. More subtly, those who took too long to state their case annoyed the Prince and inclined him to dismiss them.
When he felt ready, he threw himself to the floor in front of the Prince and began praising him, as the others had.
"What do you want?" asked the Prince, roughly.
"I wish to help the Prince attain victory over his attackers," replied Tivuran.
The Prince laughed. "I have so many friends these days!" he exclaimed. "If a prince wants friends, by Azhirei, all he needs to do is come into a windfall of money, or face Horselords on the horizon! And you, what will you do for me? You don't look like a soldier."
"The Prince is correct. I'm a magician."
There was a sudden silence around the throne.
"A magician, eh?"
He sounds good-natured about it, thought Tivuran. Perhaps he isn't as opposed to magic as the Cont believes.
"That's right; I am eager to help the Prince against his enemies."
"Let me ask just one small thing of you," said the Prince. "Turn around, so that you are facing the door."
Confused by this odd request, the magician wiggled round on the carpet, so that he was facing away from the Prince.
Abruptly he felt a sharp pain in his backside, almost lifting him up in the air, and pushing him into a heap on the floor. The laughter of the Prince and his companions echoed in his ears.
"In one minute," said the Prince, pleasantly, "I'll send the guards after you. I suggest you disappear in that time... warlock."
Tivuran was running before the Prince finished his sentence.
"So, how did it go, magician?"
"Terrible, my lady."
Tivuran told the story of his day at court to Lady Comadi. She nodded her head sympathetically.
"Prince Nounes never forgets either an injury or a benefit," she said. "It's a pity his mind is so closed! What if the gods sent you to us just at this moment when the country needs divine help?"
"I'm not that powerful a wizard," said Tivuran, modestly.
"But the powerful wizards don't wander. Only a wandering magician could come to us. So what do you plan to do next?"
He sighed. He was sitting with Lady Comadi on a verandah overlooking a garden. He looked around at the fountain, whose water trickled merrily into an inviting pool, at the green vines with flowers peeking out from the leaves, at the sculptures of icëlani half-hidden behind trees or sitting on walls. He tried hard to enjoy this pleasant view, but he could not; the dusty road which would soon enough replace it was too vivid in his mind.
"Go, I suppose. Find another city whose prince has not had bad experience with magicians. And if there is no such, perhaps I will become a tutor."
"Nobody wants to learn from a magician who doesn't have a castle or town house of his own-- they'll figure he doesn't know anything. No, I can teach natural philosophy, or Cadhinor. We use both of those in the secret art."
Lady Comadi sat and thought for some minutes.
"It isn't right," she said, at last. "Just because Prince Nounes is a fool, should we discard a sword that might smite the barbarians? Won't you help us anyway?"
"Willingly, but what am I to live on?"
"You can stay with us," she said, touching his arm, as if retaining him.
"I would be very happy to stay in a house with such pleasant company. But I hate to impose on Cont Deuneon..."
"It's my house, I have a right to a guest," said Lady Comadi, her eyes flashing. "But my father won't really have to provide for you-- it'll be the prince."
"What? What do you mean?"
"If you save the kingdom with your magic, the Prince can't refuse to pay you, can he, no matter how much he hates magicians!"
Tivuran smiled. "I see what is on your mind. Well, it's better than anything I can think of! I'm at your service, my lady. "
"You are truly from the gods," said Lady Comadi, and kissed him on the cheek.
He felt, at dinner that night, that he was still blushing from the kiss, and that her father could not fail to notice.
The Horselords did not tarry, but attacked the land of Zeir before a week had passed. They conquered the southern half of the country in no time, overwhelming the forts erected against them, and advanced as far as Ydamai. The bulk of the Prince's army met them there, and for the moment it was successful in holding them off. But it was by no means certain that the town could hold; and there were rumors that only half of the Horselords had invaded-- that another tribe was riding north to join them. If the rumors were true, the Horselords would surely be able to drive straight through to the sea.
Lady Comadi had asked her father to lend Tivuran a horse. He obviously feared losing the horse; but when she convinced her mother to support Tivuran's cause as well, he recognized his defeat. Now Tivuran led the horse out of the stables and prepared to ride to Ydamai to meet the enemy.
"Take care of that horse," the Cont told him, gruffly.
"Of course, my lord. I am very grateful to you-- to all of you."
"The gods be with you, young man," said the Cont, more amiably.
"May they hear you!" replied the magician.
"Are you sure you don't want a sword?"
"I have my dagger; that's enough. A magician who swings a sword instead of reciting a spell is a fool and will soon be a dead one. But there is a favor I will ask of Lady Comadi, if I may."
"What is it?" asked Lady Comadi.
"A lock of your hair."
"To remember me by?"
"No, I am in no danger of forgetting you. But the hair of a virgin has magic in it."
With her father's knife Lady Comadi removed a long lock of her beautiful black hair and handed it to the magician-- with a kiss.
"Defeat the enemy, and you'll have another, and a better one," she whispered.
For hours Tivuran rode on, southward along the Serea toward Ydamai, thinking of the black-haired, brown-skinned girl and her cheerful kiss; but soon these pleasant thoughts were eclipsed by signs of war. The road was crowded with peasants hoping for refuge within the walls of Zeirdan, with their families and animals. There were soldiers too, wounded, limping their way toward the city. Often two men, barely able to walk themselves, carried a third comrade between them, rolled in a blanket.
He came to a ruined city, its walls white and grim and broken, like skeletons against the gray sky. This was Sitorno, an ancient city; but in it he could easily see the future of Zeirdan if he was not successful. He stopped and let the horse graze, and ate the lunch which the Cont's cook had made for him-- sandwiches and wine-- along with oranges from trees growing along the riverbank.
Closer to Ydamai he saw some actual fighting: advance guards of Horselords rode swiftly forward, pursued by defenders, and occasionally engaging with them. He avoided them; there was no use wasting his energy on a handful of men.
After another hour's riding he was near the front of battle. Rather than ride into the thick of it, where he would accomplish nothing but serve as a target for arrows, he rode up into the low hills, seeking a vantage point where he could get an idea of how the battle was proceeding.
Even this was not without danger, for the Horselords were not advancing in a mass, like a civilized army, but had spread out over many cemisas. The Horselords could fight well as an organized unit, but their first attacks were always in this fashion. A few Horselords could cause much damage, and the civilized armies would have to hurry and divide themselves in order to resist them. And every Horselord had three or four horses, so that a Horselord army moved like lightning.
It was not hard, even from the hills, to distinguish Horselord from Zeirese. The Horselords were dressed entirely in leather, and carried long, thin red banners; the Zeirese army was dressed in blue uniforms, with different colored coats for each regiment, and carried big, triangular flags of blue and gold; and of course a good part of the Zeirese army was infantry. There were thousands of men in each army, spread out on the river plain before him; but so far as he could see there were more men in brown than in blue.
It was time to get to work. Thinking of the barbarians' advantage in speed, he considered ways of slowing them down. He rummaged in his pack for supplies-- a piece of straw, a sliver of gold, some herbs-- and stepped down from the horse to collect some of the soil, as well. He concentrated, addressed the Powers, spoke strange words.
And the earth shuddered. The soil became thick and black, as if it had been raining for days. The battlefield became deep with tenacious mud, which grabbed at men's feet and horses' hooves.
He could feel but not see the countereffect: beyond the mud was a wave of dryness. Soil would be cracking, dust blowing, wells becoming recalcitrant.
If anyone was looking at the magician, he would have seemed to look suddenly tired, thin, and old, as if the energy to accomplish magic came out of his own flesh. It did not; it came from the Powers; but dealing with the Powers ravages a man. That is why magicians, though they are long-lived, never look healthy.
Tivuran was not completely satisfied with his handiwork. He had indeed slowed down the Horselords; but the Zeirese moved slower as well; if they had any advantage as a result of his spell, it was small.
As he was considering what to do next, he noticed a group of horsemen riding furiously toward him, pursued by a troop of Horselords. He urged his own horse into cover. As they came closer, he recognized the flags he had seen in the Palace in Zeirdan. This was the princely retinue, and there was Prince Nounes himself, resplendent in silver and gold.
A mighty spell would be needed; there was no time to lose. He collected the items he needed: horseradish, a fragment of iron, the lock of Lady Comadi's hair. He concentrated.
There was an enormous blue flash, like horizontal lightning. The Horselords burst into flame and were consumed.
Tivuran looked around for the countereffect, but could see nothing. That was never a good sign-- and there had been no time to shape and direct the countereffect. Anything could happen, he thought grimly.
The Prince's party gaped at the remains of their pursuers, then at the lone figure on a horse who had unleashed the Powers on their behalf. The magician rode forth to meet them. Their legs shook, as if they wished to flee; but since the Prince stayed, they must as well. They raised their swords to protect their lord, as if mere metal could avert the fate that had befallen their enemies.
"Emai, my Prince," said Tivuran.
"The magician!" exclaimed the Prince. "This was your work, then?"
"I kicked you out of my palace, and it would have been well if you had gone-- the underworld would not have been too far. As it is, however, it seems that I owe you my life. What reward do you want?"
"All I ask is the opportunity to serve you, my Prince."
The Prince's lip curled. "And live in my house and eat my food and be given pieces of gold for fine clothing as well, for as long as you choose, no doubt. Do you think saving my life pays that sort of wages?"
"I have no intention to receive benefits without service, my lord. With your forbearance, let me offer you a proposition. I will use my skills in your service in the course of this war; and then, assuming the gods smile on us and you are pleased with my efforts, it may seem to you that I've earned a place in your household."
"Enäron means to test me," muttered the Prince. "It goes against sense to even speak with a magician. But then we are invaded, my principality hangs by a thread, and now Bunori places me in the debt of one of you children of demons. Well, we are in the gods' hands; it will be as you say. But for now, get yourself out of my sight."
"As you wish, my lord."
And Tivuran rode away, happiness mixing with nervousness in his heart. What could he do to defeat the Horselords and win the Prince back his country?
When he thought of the answer, he shuddered. He was still a young magician, and he was uncomfortable, sometimes, to think about the power available to him. The secret books told him that the Powers had no use for the merely greedy or ambitious-- those were fools, whose magic was tricks. But they would accomplish prodigies for those who pleased them.
And what, in the end, would be the price they exacted for their favors?
It was no use worrying about that now. He was not going to become a priest or a lawyer now, was he? He concentrated on finding the material components for his spell: poppies, a vial of smoke, a twist of hempen twine, an unbroken dart. He looked down at the battle, still raging below, merely to fix the location of the Horselords.
He sat down, addressed the Powers. The ordinary world seemed to fall away and become very small, like a children's toy he was examining. The Powers appeared to him like rushing waves, which he could stir with his hands. He could not control them, but he could make paths for them. He could determine the primary effect, and with skill ensure that the secondary effects cancelled each other out or dissipated.
When he stood up, he could see his spell beginning to work. The Horselords, wherever they rode, were falling asleep. Somewhat to his surprise, none of them fell off their horses; they were trained to keep to their mounts even during sleep. But they were nonetheless helpless. As soon as the Zeirese perceived it, they moved in to attack.
Tivuran smiled. The beauty of the sleep spell was how little energy was used, and consequently the smallness of its secondary effects. A few people sleeping should wake up, no more. And yet it was enough to win a battle.
He took a step toward his horse, and almost collapsed. He was exhausted. He had barely the energy to take blankets from his pack and find a sheltered place. He slept deeply, and thought no more of his problems.
He was awakened by a row of soldiers. It was soon after dawn. They had spears or swords drawn; one of them prodded him with his spear till he was awake, and thereafter kept it pointed at his neck.
"What's the matter?" he asked, sleep still clogging his brain.
"You're coming with us back to Zeirdan. Up with you, warlock."
"You could show some gratitude," he complained, as he rose stiffly. "Didn't my Powers defeat the Horselords and save your country?"
"Yes," said the soldier guarding him-- from the decorations on his jacket, a lieutenant. "Yes, I suppose you could say that."
The soldier tied his hands behind his back.
"And the dragon? Should we be grateful for that as well?"
"Dragon?" said Tivuran, with a sinking heart. "I didn't produce a dragon."
"Calto bless ya, no," said another soldier, sarcastically. "Musta been another warlock around."
"Yeah. And till we find him you'll take his place in jail."
They began marching him in the direction of the city. One of the soldiers took charge of his horse.
"What did the dragon do?"
"Only ravaged the countryside as bad as the Horselords could have," said the lieutenant.
And indeed, they soon passed through a village, which looked as if a giant had, in a fit of madness, kicked it apart like a child playing with houses of bark and clay.
He groaned. He was indeed a young magician, but he became older that day, and learned that a sleep spell, coupled with murder and massacre, produced deep and destructive magic, which would express itself in terrifying ways.
It wasn't the first time Tivuran had been in prison. It was not even the worst prison he'd been in; that would be the one in Caizura, where the prisoners were kept tied up, and there were rats. This one was dark and smelly, but at least it was aboveground-- it was the top floor of a barracks, so far as he could see-- and the other prisoners left him alone.
His main worry was food. A man couldn't live for long on the thin gruel provided by the jailers. He had a few coins that the Cont had given him; even economizing-- purchasing only bread, cheese, and watered wine-- they wouldn't last a week. And he felt that it would be better to die than to ask for more assistance from Lady Comadi or her father.
He could probably escape-- the Powers would be willing to do that, he supposed. The Zeirese were likely to execute him, if he stayed. But they hadn't yet; and he would be no safer outside. The entire country must know that a magician had caused the land to be ravaged by a dragon; if he left the prison, there was not much chance of making it alive to the border.
He had been in the prison only two days when a band of soldiers came by and led him out of his cell. Once again a spear was pointed at his back. Now he regretted not escaping; his chances might have been slim, but surely he had none at all now.
They marched him into the audience chamber, through the endless forest of columns, and gave him a push, so that he sprawled down in front of the Prince.
Prince Nounes inspected him, a slight, cold smile on his lips. Tivuran, on hands and knees, head bowed, awaited his sentence.
"This is the warlock, Poncuna," said the Prince. "What should we do with him?"
Tivuran did not dare look up, but out of the corner of his eye he searched for which counselor this must be. The name sounded familiar; why was that?
"You know what my counsel must be, my Prince," came a deep voice, evidently belonging to someone standing behind the throne. "After all, he restored me to life."
Tivuran's heart jumped. Of course-- Poncuna was the Prince's companion, killed by the incompetence of another magician. Tivuran had brought death to the Horselords pursuing the Prince; in compensation, the Powers had brought life to Poncuna.
"A magician's gift is never generosity," muttered the Prince.
Tivuran dared to look up, and rise to his knees. "My Lord, my wish is simply to be of use, and have only the rewards of any other servant of your house."
"You have done me some good," the Prince admitted. "You have defeated the Horselords, saved my own life, and restored my great and good companion."
"I am pleased to have been--"
"There's also the matter of the dragon," continued the Prince. "Not much better than the Horselords, really-- although he didn't make it to Zeirdan, and they would have."
"A significant difference, if one happens to live in Zeirdan," remarked Poncura.
The Prince stared at him for some time, head in hand, his expression unreadable.
"You will be given fine clothes, gold, jewels, spices, and the eternal gratitude of the throne of Zeir," he declared, finally.
"I am honored and happy, my Lord," said Tivuran.
"Also a fast horse and an escort out of Zeir. If you return to this city, you will be executed."
Tivuran opened his mouth, without finding anything worth saying.
He found the words a bit later; fortunately, the Prince was willing to grant his request, and allow him a last meal in the house of the Cont before leaving the country. He was also allowed to return the Cont's horse.
He was received graciously and fed well, and his new clothes and his story were both admired; but perhaps the greatest favor the Cont showed him was to retire early, allowing him to spent some very pleasant hours alone in the company of Lady Comadi.
"The Prince is still a fool," declared Lady Comadi. "He should keep you in his Court. You did save the country, after all-- the Horselords are much worse than a dragon. And over time your control and skill would improve, and you could do great things for him. It's only silly prejudice that he can't see it!"
"I won't argue," said Tivuran, laughing. "Still, I can understand the Prince's reasoning. It would be a very unpopular action to hire the magician whom the whole country blames for a great disaster."
They talked long into the night, and savored the household's fine wines, and fruit from its estates, and the sound of fountains from the garden. He had never talked so easily to a woman before, nor felt such kind eyes upon him.
"I promised you a kiss," she said, looking closely at him.
"You did. But perhaps you won't want to give it, after the dragon."
"I gave my word, and it said nothing about dragons. Or are you advising a noble lady to go back on her word?"
"My utmost wish is that you fulfill it, my Lady," said Tivuran.
"Don't be so formal, or you'll get nothing at all."
She was smiling. He was not sure what to say, but when she extended her hand he took it, and smiled. "You are so kind--"
"Yes, that's better," she said. "Now hush."
She drew him into her arms and kissed him. He marvelled for a moment: could he really take a young noblewoman in his arms? But he was being ridiculous, he thought; it was not his boldness, but her favor.
And shortly nothing seemed to matter but the warmth of her lips, and the soft strong shape of her body, and their caresses.
He woke alone, before dawn; but Lady Comadi came to him, bringing juices and cakes on a tray. She seemed unhappy.
"Lady Comadi!" he exclaimed. "I'm terribly sorry if I did anything--"
"It's what you will do, idiot," she said.
"The soldiers are here to take you away, Tivuran."
He understood, then. Fancies and imaginations-- and worries-- he hardly knew were there came crashing down, dissipated by the light of day, of reason. What did he expect? He did not think that he, a magician, had any future with the daughter of a Cont, did he?
"Where will you go now?" she asked.
He had thought about this before. "I don't know-- possibly to Flora. It's said that the flaids are a little less distrustful of magic than men are. I may find work; and if not I'll learn something."
She sighed. "My brother has sailed to Syxesteer. I wish he would go again; I might go with him."
"I hope you will, my Lady."
"Don't be so formal, or I won't go."
"Please come to see me, then."
She was silent a minute. "I have my own dragons," she murmured.
"What do you mean?"
"I've been happy to come to know you, Tivuran. But I've made you unhappy, I think."
"Oh, not at all," he said, embarrassed. "You have been generous with your trust and your hospitality-- you've made me very happy. Of course, I'm sad to have to leave. And..."
She smiled. "The real sadness is in what you can't quite say."
He rode with the soldiers, on his new horse, on the road that led out of Zeir.
As he rode he thought of magic, of love, and of the dragons that each could call up. Why had the gods ordered things thus? Why were there dragons?
Well, why were there Powers? Why were there beautiful dark-haired women?
He smiled to himself. He certainly could not complain that the gods had treated him badly.
They came to a rise in the road, and Zeirdan disappeared behind them.