STEEDFAST - A Wizard's Sacrifice excerpt
Hooves struck the earth like hammers, and the rumbling seemed to shake the sky. Up ahead, two stallions broke from the tight-packed herd, one chasing the other, heads to the ground, snaky manes standing on end, mandibles clacking. Segmented carapaces rippled as the combatants surged over the grass, drumming a martial cadence. Gray swept from charcoal to sienna as the stallions rounded on each other, and the mares and foals ebbed away.
Amid the herd, a youth named Febbin whooped and leapt from steed to steed. He sprang onto his hands, feet kicking for balance, his face inches from writhing tentacles, laughing and hooting while the steeds hurtled across the grass.
Wincing at his own welt-riddled wrists, Ashel patted Meager’s thorax. The mare tossed her head and crooned, segments rippling smoothly as they ran in a smaller pack comprised of the outlaws’ mounts. They had roamed the plains for weeks, time Ashel had spent honing his riding skills. Escape wasn’t yet a possibility. Meager responded eagerly to his commands when they were running with the band, but she refused to stray out of sight of her sisters.
In the main herd, Febbin flipped onto a stallion and cantered across the grass to join his fellows. “Minstrel Melba! Did you see?”
Hands locked around Ashel’s waist, Melba faced away from the boy and pressed a cheek into Ashel’s shoulder.
“She’s worried you’ll break your neck,” Ashel teased.
“Aw, I’ve never fallen once.”
Melba refused to answer. Squeezing Meager’s thorax with his knees, Ashel tugged gently on her mane, and she slowed to a walk. The herd cantered on, leaving a wake of shaking ground and trampled grass. As their thunder faded, he said, “I thought we agreed we’d stay friendly.”
“We’ve been out here for weeks, acting as if we’re on a lark instead of waiting for some sort of . . . of slavers or pirates or worse to come for you, and when they do, it’ll be on my head.”
“It’s not your fault, Mel.”
“It is. If I hadn’t met Joslyrn and asked him to bring me out here . . . and poor Wineyll. Elesendar only knows what’s become of her. I could have stayed in Narath and helped her out, but no, I had to try to start a revolution within the bloody Guild.”
“It’s not your fault.” Meager lowered her head to graze, tentacles calming as her mandibles swung through a patch of orange wildflowers. She kept an eye on the herd, though, and she’d bolt if they passed out of sight. They didn’t have long to talk. Ashel bent his thumb into his empty palm. “This isn’t your doing, Mel. It’s Lornk Korng’s.”
“How? He’s in prison.”
“I believe he’s escaped.” In Narath, Geram sat in the throne room, bandaged leg throbbing and itching, Listening while a prison guard confessed before a jury to carrying letters for Lornk. Two other guards implicated in the escape were being tried posthumously, since they’d died during the Caleisbahn assault.
“What makes you think that?”
“Kelmair said they were taking me to him.”
He expelled a breath. “He told me he was my father.”
Her arms dropped from his waist. “Lornk Korng is your father?”
“He claims to be.”
She smacked him on the shoulder. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Smacking him again, Melba slid off the steed’s abdomen, tripped, and plopped backward into a nettle patch. “We’ve been stuck out here for weeks, and you didn’t tell me?”
Stunned, he watched her climb to her feet and yank stickers from the seat of her trousers. Her scowl could light a fire. “I’m telling you now. What are you so angry about? I’m the one with a maniacal tyrant after me.”
“I gave up everything to come out here and bring you back to Narath, and you let me think this whole awful situation was my fault!”
“What do you mean, you gave up everything?”
Throwing back her head, Melba howled aloud. “Typical! You have no idea of anything beyond your own damn nose. I left the Guild because of you, dammit.”
“What do you mean, left it?”
“I told off Reyendal before I left, and I’ve probably been expelled by now. Silnauer is getting rid of anyone who won’t support her. You were the only person she couldn’t dismiss, the only one who could stand up to her.”
“I’m sorry, Melba. I have bigger problems.”
“Which I would have known if you’d bloody told me! Did you tell that heretic assassin whore?”
Ire crackled through his blood. “Do not call her that.”
“Is that why she turned you down, Ashel? Because she cared more about him than you?”
Hoofbeats rolled behind them. Joslyrn’s steed whickered, kicking up dust as it stopped. The outlaw raised his eyebrows and angled his head back toward the herd.
“She wants to ride with you,” Ashel said, kicking Meager’s flanks. As the mare flew back to her sisters, he wrestled with doubt and disappointment and deep desire—everything he felt for Vic, and all of it wrapped up in resentment. The missing fingers ached, and he cursed himself. He hated this bitterness and hated himself for feeling it, and yet he couldn’t help but wonder if her latest refusal—to come with him to Mora—was motivated by disinterest rather than guilt. “You deserve better.” Shrine, that’s what people said to end things gently.
More than a month had passed since the attack on the Manor, and Geram figured Vic should be in Mora by now. Ashel had been mad with worry until Geram regained lucidity and apprised him of Lornk’s escape and Vic’s mission. If by some miracle she found him and Melba and rescued them, what would happen afterward? What did he want to happen? He didn’t know—all those times he’d offered himself only to be refused. How much humiliation could a man take? The ache in his missing fingers should be answer enough, but those same ghostly digits clung to a hope that haunted him more than all his regrets put together.
* * *
That evening, Elesendar came up in lavender fringed in amber clouds. A stew steamed around the cookspoon, and as the sun sank slowly into the grass, scents of herbs and charcoal sweet as summer curled through the camp. Men and women lounged on the grass, diced over a board, tossed stones at a stake. Erik, the crew chief, sucked from a flask of harlolinde and conferred over a map with Joslyrn and Kelmair.
Melba sat apart, plucking at a borrowed guitar. Tamping down the vestiges of his ire, Ashel brought her a dish of stew. “A peace offering.” He settled beside her. “We should be in the Kiareinoll tomorrow or the next day, by my guess.”
“Do you think Lornk Korng truly managed to escape?”
Ashel ground severed knuckles into his thigh, massaging a shadow of Geram’s wound. Their connection was another secret he’d kept from Melba. With her mundane worries over Guild politics, she’d shrink away if he revealed the festering wounds still inside him. “If anyone could escape from the prison outside Narath, it would be him.”
They swallowed a few spoonfuls of stew. Laughter drifted across the campfire. “We should do something together tonight,” he said. Most nights, he and Melba had performed for the outlaws as part of their campaign to build sympathy and trust.
“‘Forge on the Council.’” Melba’s favorite lay had everything the bandits loved—adventure, romance, fighting, treachery. Too many voices for two minstrels alone, but they’d once done a comedic production with just the pair of them, where Ashel had taken the women’s parts, she the men’s.
A corner of her mouth tilted upward. “It’s been years, Ashel. We haven’t rehearsed.”
“When did that ever stop us? We’ll muddle through well enough for this audience.”
Her eyes glinted dangerously. “You’re completely aggravating when you’re trying to apologize. Let me warm them up first.”
When everyone had settled round the fire, Melba took the guitar and stepped into the wavering light. The shadows rolled across her face, making her young, old, angry, sad. Her lips tilted mischievously, and she raised an eyebrow. Guffaws echoed through the outlaws, and Ashel leaned on an elbow. Melba’s contralto seeped into the bones like a warm spring as she roamed the circle, speaking about Fembrosh, its hidden groves, its secret powers, the legends of how the trees birthed humanity, and in the wizards’ time, humanity repaid their mothers by endowing the forest with knowing.
Kelmair settled onto folded legs beside Ashel. One finger pointed at his maimed hand, her eyes mere slits. “A harsh thing, Shemen.”
Whither she wanders the Relmans will know,
She laughs in their noses and offers them crow.
“The Exploits of the Blade”—a raunchy tribute to Vic. Melba tossed him a wink, her lips wicked.
The Dagger is tricky, sneaky, and sly
And the Blade is as sharp as a harrier’s cry.
The outlaws whooped. Blood throbbed through Ashel’s neck, flooding in the same fury he’d fought for months. His stump butted his forehead. Vic could have saved him from the disgrace and the bitterness and the mockery in this song, and she hadn’t. Melba caught his glare and missed a chord.
“A harsh thing, Shemen,” Kelmair repeated, unfolding her legs.
Rising, he poured his rage at Vic, at Melba, at the damn plain and the outlaws and bloody Lornk Korng onto the pirate. Her gaze fell to their boots.
As Melba’s last note faded, the bandits leapt up, hollering their approval.
Ashel stepped into the circle. “That hurt,” he whispered.
Melba’s shoulders tightened, but she held her stage smile, crying, “The sorcerer Meylnara would not obey the laws of the Council, and so to compel her, the Council brought a great army to Meylnara’s lands, in Direiellene.”
Ashel shook a tambourine, trying to expunge his anger. Melba walked around the circle, telling of the exodus of wizards and troops to the southern rainforests, bending low to portray the toil of the journey, standing on tiptoe to show the height of the trees. Ashel banged the heel of his maimed hand against the skin, rattling the drerwood disks around the rim. They could not take this from him, he reminded himself. Not Melba, not the Guild, not these outlaws, not Vic. He had his voice and would always have music, if nothing else.
Shoulders bent into the shape of a crone, he ambled around the fire while Melba plucked out an arpeggio. He took breath to sing, and at the first falsetto note, the outlaws roared with laughter.
I’ll not abide,
I’ll not abide,
Their laws are not for me.
To abide, I would lose myself.
I’ll not abide.
Simple enough lyrics, but the coloratura melody rose and fell rapidly round a highly ornamented musical line. Even as a child, he could never hit all the high notes; now he deliberately strained for them, and more gales erupted round the circle. Strumming the guitar, Melba answered him, her voice a hoarse, false bass.
Meylnara, you are condemned by the Council
For crimes beyond measure.
You still refuse to abide?
His fists on his hips, with a toss of his head he sang his refusal, and Melba gave the reply:
Then the Council orders you submit to our judgment.
Justice calls for your death!
On cue, the outlaws mocked a gasp. He and Melba took turns introducing themselves as this and that wizard, then sang the narrative chorus together. Meylnara lived in a fortified castle built by her Kragnashian slaves. Beating the tambourine, he marched with Melba toward the siege, then sang of their first attack, the speedy defeat. Six measures into the soldier’s dirge, Melba grabbed her chest and fell into the dust, gasped a death rattle, then popped up to choke out another verse. Ashel kneeled beside her, singing a widow’s grief; Melba elbowed him out of the way so she could repeat the chorus. The rustlers roared as Ashel thrust her back and held her squirming on the ground until the widow’s song was over.
When he let her up, she pinched the back of his hand, her eyes piercing. He gave her a tight grin, belted out his next solo, the first of six weaving melodies in which the Council wizards dueled, plotted, formed and broke liaisons. Halfway through the system, Melba took up Saelbeneth’s part. Written for a contralto of Melba’s range, it was the only operatic role she’d ever played. Why she switched to the women’s roles he couldn’t guess, but the only response was to sing Thabean’s part of the duet.
Dropping out of falsetto into baritone was like coming home. Thabean wanted to attack Meylnara directly, the twelve Council wizards alone against her, no troops or Kragnashians. Wrapping his counterpoint around Melba’s melody, Ashel tied the herders up in rapture. He knew very well the power of his voice, relished the chortles dying into silence, the cultivated boredom falling from Kelmair’s face. Thabean’s argument swelled with contrition, contracted with spite, broadened again with his commitment to the Council’s cause. Filled with asides, throbbing bass lines, grand melodrama, the descant rolled out of him, broad, complex currents like a river, the joy of the stage suffusing his blood, pushing everything aside. Here, under the stars before a flaring campfire, his stomach taut with sustained breath, Ashel longed for the lamps and spots of the stage. His parents, his sister, Vic, Lornk—all their ambitions for him drowned in the flood of music.
Taking his hands, Melba slid out of “Forge On” and into the final verse of “Wizard’s Last Embrace.”
In the sun, the flowers unbend,
Their light opening toward the dawn.
So my life has opened up to you,
But the sun must set, or the flowers die;
Too much of life leads to death.
This song was about the doomed love between Thabean and Victoria, his protégé. But it was also about forgiveness. While he stared at her, she repeated the last line, her fingers pressing into his hands an urgent message, her eyes shimmering with fought tears. His anger melted, and he offered the reply.
Forgiveness is the dream of those who love,
And so I forgive you and the man you loved before me.
But fate remains unforgiven
For bringing you to me, too late for either life.
With a squeeze, Melba released him and delivered the story of Thabean’s death, chanting the stanza from Elberon’s epic about the Council. Outlaws brushed their cheeks, laughter forgotten but not one of them lost. In unity solid as a practiced duo, he and Melba rolled into the finale of “Forge,” and the final battle that destroyed Direiellene’s rainforest and left a desert in its place. The herders gave them a standing ovation, and they took their bows, Ashel’s face and hands warm, alive.
As the applause tailed off, he followed Melba outside the circle. They settled onto prickly grass and watched Elesendar paint plains and steeds an iron gray. Far off, a lupear howled, mournful and hungry. A cloud sailed across the sky, a blot on the glittering carpet of stars.
“Hasn’t she hurt you enough?” Melba asked.
His missing fingers ached. “Not having her hurts more.”
Lips sour, she yanked out a tuft of grass and tossed the blades into the wind. “I know, Ashel. Too well.”
A herder sawed on a squeezebox, and the others belted out a raucous song. Ashel leaned close. “Once we’re in Fembrosh, we’ll make a break for the outpost on the Mora road. They can’t take the whole herd into the forest, so I expect it will be Kelmair, Febbin, and just a few others. It’ll be our best chance.”
“Febbin? He’s just a boy.”
“He’s just a boy who can make a steed do anything he wants it to. Steeds don’t like wooded areas where predators can sneak up on them. Febbin commands the trust of these animals more than Joslyrn or any of the others. He was with Joslyrn and Kelmair in Narath, wasn’t he?”
“He was. But if the others can’t bring steeds into Fembrosh, what makes you think you can make Meager go where you want her to?”
“I probably can’t, but I’m going to try. And once we’re in the Kiareinoll, we’ll have the Kia to hide us.”
“Will it? What can we know of the way of trees, Ashel?”
His smile was bitter. “Nothing. That’s what faith is for.”