the armies of daylight (darwath #3) Page 11


"The old King is dead And he's lying on his bed, And the snow is a-falling all around…"

The voices of the Keep children drifted through the corridors, blithe as the sound of sleigh bells. From her seat by the hearth of the common room fire, Gil heard them, and in spite of her exhaustion-grated nerves and her oft-declared detestation of the young of the species, she smiled. Every child in the place had been pelting around in a state of self-induced frenzy for the last two days.

Tomorrow was the Winter Feast.

The gay carol faded into the winding distance of the maze. Gil's hand strayed to the parchment roll of notes that lay on the bricks at her side. Then she leaned her head against the stone of the chimney and closed her eyes. This time tomorrow , she told herself tiredly, I will be back at the simulated-ivory towers of UCLA, explaining – or trying to explain – how come I left without notice in the second week of Fall Quarter and where I've been since .

Tomorrow.

Other voices echoed in the hall outside. Vair na Chandros, his tone harsh and acid, demanded, "What do you mean, missing?"

The light, fluent voice of Bektis replied, "He set out from the caves before I did, my lord. Surely he would not have strayed from the road. If the Dark Ones have taken to moving about in the dusk, before full darkness falls…"

"That's ridiculous," the Alketch Commander rasped. "For one thing, my lord Stiarth had a talisman that protected him, in some measure, from the notice of the Dark. He boasted of it to me."

The Court Mage's tones were apologetic. "True, the Rune of the Veil is a general protective device, but hardly guarantees…"

"Gil?" There was a rustle of robes in the shadows beside her and the smell of herbs and woodsmoke. "Not sad?"

She shook her head without looking at him. After a moment's silence, Ingold's light, strong hands touched her shoulders and drew her back into the comforting circle of his arm.

"It will all be a tremendous mess when you get back, won't it?" he asked quietly. "Another black mark to me. Will they believe you if you tell them that you were spirited away by gypsies?"

In spite of herself, Gil laughed. "I'll tell them I was doing research at the bottom of the Hollow Hills," she murmured. She leaned her head back against the strength of his shoulder. "That's even the truth. I said once I was going to do my Ph.D. thesis on the coming of the Dark. And there it is." She moved her fingers toward the rolled parchment with its long columns of dates and years. "It was a scholar's answer, wasn't it?"

"Indeed," Ingold whispered, and his arm tightened around her shoulders. "Gil…"

She opened her eyes and looked up to see the struggle in that lined, nondescript face and the naked unhappiness of his eyes. Then he sighed, as if he were putting away some impossible dream, and said, "Be happy."

"Will you?"

"I shall be happy," Ingold said quietly, "knowing that you are safe."

Light began to stir in the room as the other mages came in, a clear, sourceless brightness that sparkled like unfamiliar dawn over the familiar furnishings. The members of the Wizards' Corps began to take their places around the long central table. Dakis the Minstrel flirted outrageously with the weatherwitches Grey and Nila; the haughty Shadow of the Moon was discussing astronomy with the diffident Ungolard. The gaggle of the younger mages down at the far end of the table-not all of whom were young in years by any means-kept a wary eye out for Thoth, who had taken it upon himself to act as their tutor. Brother Wend came in, worn and hagridden, like a man being eaten from within by slow cancer. As Ingold handed her to her feet, Gil saw that Kta had been in the commons all the time, dozing in his nook by the fire.

Rudy and Alde appeared, handfast like children, as if they still could not believe their good fortune. They almost sparkled with happiness, and Gil had to smile.

Here are two, at least, who have gotten what they wanted, even if they are stuck in a world without hope.

Then Bektis entered, still stroking his milk-white beard, nattering on about the mislayment of the Imperial Nephew; and behind him came Alwir, kingly in his dark velvet, telling Bektis in a rich, melodious voice to shut his blithering mouth. The Chancellor stopped before Ingold, and there was a bleak and ugly hatred in his handsome, sensual face.

"I hope, my lord wizard, that this is not another piece of your-renegotiation-of the terms of the alliance. The armies are, after all, departing the day after tomorrow-if it pleases you," he added sarcastically.

"I am afraid," Ingold said, "that that is what we must discuss." He led Gil to one end of the long table and seated her to the right of his own place at its head. She put down her things-the roll of parchment, two or three wax note tablets, and a small wash-leather bag-and turned back, to see the Chancellor's face darken with anger.

"Really…!"

"Perhaps, my lord," Ingold continued in his mildest tones, "you had best sit down."

Two of the junior wizards brought up the carved chair that was usually reserved for Thoth and put it at the far end of the table. Alwir seated himself in it stiffly, the folds of his black velvet cloak spreading about him like a royal robe, suspicion as visible as a back brace in every line of his big, powerful body.

Do him justice , Gil thought. It was only yesterday that Ingold kicked the props out from under his plans to settle down into a nice, cozy Regency here, with Alketch troops at his back and the Inquisition to keep people like Rudy in line. And after he drove out the Dark Ones from Gae – after he'd given people even the illusion that things were on their way to returning to what they used to be – he'd hardly have needed to dispose of Tir. His own prestige would have made him King by acclamation. It's no surprise that he views Ingold as a malicious meddler in affairs that hardly concern him .

But the stubborn set of Alwir's mouth and the sullenness smoldering in his eyes made her stomach sink with dread.

Ingold took his seat at the head of the table; with a glance he commanded silence in the room around them. It always surprised Gil how the wizard, usually the most unobtrusive of men, could dominate any gathering he entered, merely by walking into the room and choosing to do so.

Alwir's voice was rough, "There's a rumor going about that you've found the key to the defeat of the Dark. If this is true, why wasn't I told? And why do you say -"

"It is to tell you of it that we asked you here tonight," Ingold said, folding his hands upon the table before him. Behind his head, against the blotched brick and soot-stained plaster of the wall, Thoth's mathematical and astrological charts formed a kind of tapestry, half-obscured by braids of drying herbs. On the hearth, the marmalade torn, the biggest of the Corps cats, was licking his paws and studiously ignoring the pans of bread which Kara had set to rise among the warm ashes.

Gil could see Alwir's gaze travel over that homey and unprepossessing room and over the faces of those who sat around the table-old men, young girls, foreigners, heathens, and vagabonds-before coming to rest on his sister. His nostrils flared with contempt.

"Then you have a damned queer way of going about it. But after yesterday, I don't suppose I have a right to be surprised by anything you choose to do." He did not trouble to hide the bitterness in his voice. "Suppose you tell me.

then, since you are my Chief of Intelligence. How did humankind defeat the Dark? Or is that going to stay one of the things that only you know?"

Ingold sighed. "Often, my lord," he said after a moment's pause, "when an answer seems impossible to find, the best thing to do is to see if the proper question was asked. In this case, the question should not have been: How did humankind defeat the Dark? It should have been simply: Did humankind defeat the Dark?"

Alwir seemed to rear in his seat. "Of course it did! Else why did the Dark depart?"

"Another very good question, my lord-and one closer to the heart of the matter. Perhaps the real question should be, not why they departed, but why they rose."

Ill- concealed anger grated in Alwir's words. "Of what earthly good would it be to know that? It doesn't matter why they rose! If that was all you asked me here to tell me-"

"That," the wizard said quietly, "and other things. I believe I was the first human to see the Dark Ones begin to hunt on the surface of the earth, the year I was hiding in the deserts of Gettlesand, playing spellweaver and astrologer in a little farming village, with the High King's price on my head. I followed the Dark One back to its city-not a paltry hive of a defeated remnant, but a teeming metropolis of creatures to whom humankind was of no more moment that wild cattle."

Gil shivered as Ingold told of it, his voice casting its spell over those who listened. His words dislimned the shabby common room around them and drew them into the frozen blueness of that starlit desert night and to the smothering blackness of underground. Even the mulish look about Alwir's mouth faded somewhat as the old man drove home to them the horror of what he had first realized then-that the Dark did not live in that fashion because they had been driven to it, but because they had chosen it for their own.

"I had lived for five years in Gae," Ingold went on, "for three of them in the Palace, as tutor to Prince Eldor, the High King's son. I knew of the stairway in the lower vaults-more than one, some said. They were thought to be part of the old Citadel of Wizards that once stood upon the spot or part of some heathen temple out of bygone years. All that the Masters at Quo could tell me was that there were other stairways in various parts of the world, that they had the property of distorting magic, so that no mage who had ever descended one could communicate with others after he was out of sight, and that no one who had ever gone down had returned. They were thought to be curiosities, like the gray lands in certain parts of the world where time is unaccountably distorted or like those spots in the mountains where you can stand and hear voices speaking in tongues unknown to the West of the World. But no more than that.

"Yet after I had seen that unspeakable city, I was frightened; and in the years that followed, years in which I learned and read and traveled, I heard an occasional tale that frightened me still more. A chieftain of the White Raiders told me of a man who had vanished in open country on a moonless night. In a village close to the ice, there had lately been a wave of superstitious dread of the night-people could not be induced to leave their houses after dark, though they would not say why this was. I began to investigate any story that came my way of mysterious disappearances or of certain things seen or felt."

Alwir said bitterly, "So you always knew of the Dark."

"Indeed I did," Ingold replied mildly. "And I told anyone who would listen, with the result that King Umar had me imprisoned, publicly flogged, and exiled from the Realm, ostensibly for treasonously alienating the loyalties of his only son. Prince Eldor hardly needed my aid in despising his father-and he had inherited the memories of the House of Dare. He remembered the Time of the Dark. To him, my warning came like the fulfillment of some dreadful prophecy. He trusted me," Ingold finished simply-an epitaph, Gil thought, for the man who had given him his son and sent him from the final battle. "Without that trust and the preparations he made because of it, we would have been utterly lost."

Across the table from her, Gil saw Alde suddenly bow her head, staring down at her tight-clenched hands as if taken unawares by the memories of those last days.

Ingold went on. "Even then-and it was twenty years ago that the stories were first circulated-it struck me that most of them came from a small area around Shilgae in the far North, and a few from the lands of Harl Kinghead, near Weg. But even though I knew this, I did not understand what it meant until a few weeks ago, when I spoke of it with Gil-Shalos. Since that time, she has searched far and wide for knowledge of the Dark. In her own country she is a scholar and a teacher. I believe that the answer that she has found to this riddle is the true one, though she has read it, not from any man's writing, but as a hunter does, from the tracks of the game that he seeks."

He held out his hand to Gil. She took a deep breath, glanced automatically behind her for a nonexistent blackboard, and stood up. In the clear, rosy brightness of that long room, she was conscious of nothing but watching eyes and silence.

"Any historian can tell you," she began, in her best doctoral orals voice, "that why is probably the most slippery of all questions to answer, so for the moment I'll start with the things that we do know for sure-when and where the Dark rose.

"Ingold is our first source on when-which puts it twenty years ago in Gettlesand. Tomec Tirkenson tells me that there have always been stories about haunted caves in the Flatiron Mountains in that part of the country, of the 'way back in the days' variety, but when he was younger he said there was at least one incident of a child who disappeared in that part of the hills at night. It was put down by her family to dooic- but as he remembers it, there were no dooic around the Flatirons for a stretch of several years. Three of his rangers who come from that part of the country bear him out on this. This was when Tirkenson was twenty-seven or twenty-eight, just before he succeeded to rulership of the lands…" She consulted her notes. "That puts it around eighteen years ago. This was at the same time Ingold was in the North, investigating other rumors of disappearances around Shilgae.

"Now, as close as I can date them, all these disappearance stories seem to center, not only physically around Shilgae, but chronologically in a span of three or four years. Coincidentally, that time period is better known for the failure of the wheat crop three years running, for the 'drowned summer' of the seventeenth year of Umar's reign, and for the failure of the sugar crop in Kildrayne, According to Maia, sugar has never been grown north of Penambra since. Maia knows, because his father was a sharecropper in the cane fields near Kildrayne and had to remove to the deep south because of it.

"After that four-year span, there were no disappearance stories until-" She checked her notes again. "-the winter before last. And those never reached anyone because they were in the country of the White Raiders. I've only heard of them recently, from Shadow of the Moon."

The Raider shaman inclined her head, and the strings of bleached, ancient bones twined in her snowy braids rattled faintly with the movement.

"Last winter there was a disturbance among the dooic of the Northern Plains, rumors of Night Ghosts that ate stragglers. Kta says several bands left their traditional runs near the hills. At the same time, several bands of the Raiders started shifting away from their old hunting grounds. According to some of the Gettlesand rangers I've talked to, there was a lot of trouble with them that year. Disappearances of men riding night-herd were put down to the Raiders… and maybe they were.

"But there seems to be a pattern appearing. First in the plains and high desert and in the far North; gradually moving south to more thickly inhabited lands."

Alwir raised his head suddenly, points of fire glinting in his eyes, like the stars at the heart of a sapphire.

"Most curious of all," Gil continued, "is what appears to be a pattern of abandonment of Nests, following the same course. According to the Raiders who remain on the plains. Nests in the far Northern Plains were abandoned early this autumn; Ingold and Rudy saw such a Nest, not more than a few days' journey north of the Westward Road. Before he died, Lohiro of Quo told them that the Dark Ones of the plains had deserted their Nests to join the assault on Gae and, I would guess, the breaking of the cities to the south of them as well-Dele and the towns along the Flat River, Ippit, Skrooch, Ploduck, and others. At the same time, Quo was broken by an unsuspected and deeply buried Nest beneath that town. In effect, at that time the Dark Ones destroyed all organized resistance in the Realm, struck at the one place where large amounts of information could be gathered and organized, and left us as we are now-fugitives in the grip of the worst winter in human memory."

Up and down the table, soft-voiced talk eddied, those who counted themselves scholars-and there were half a dozen of them-casting curious glances at one another, for this jigsaw puzzle of hearsay had little in common with the separate chronicles over which they customarily pored. Only Thoth the Scribe, once the Recorder of Quo, did not speak; his cold, amber-colored eyes brightened with interest as much in her methods as in her findings.

Alwir laced his fingers together, suspended midway between the dragon-head arms of his ebony chair. "So you believe that the Dark Ones have abandoned these northern Nests for good?"

"For a considerable time to come," Gil said.

"Why?"

"The White Raiders who captured Ingold and Rudy on the plains believed that the Dark Ones had been driven forth- or destroyed-by a ghost or spirit mightier than they," she said after a moment's thought. "But when Rudy and Ingold descended into the Nest, they found nothing-only the bodies of the herds, all dating from a single time, as if they had all perished together. Yet I think that-that ghost-was in the Nest with them all the time they were down there.

"The ghost's name is Cold."

"Cold?" the Chancellor snapped. "Be serious, girl. The Dark have attacked on nights colder than what a man could survive."

"The Dark can deal with the cold," Gil agreed. "Maybe they don't like it-there doesn't seem to be any way of finding out." She rolled up her parchment and set it on the table before her. "But I am virtually certain that their herds can't."

"Their herds ?" Alwir demanded incredulously. "What in the name of the ice in the north do those wretched creatures have to do with anything?"

"Everything," she responded quietly. "Their herds-and the moss in the Nests."

Rudy's head jerked up, as if her words had triggered memory and realization within him. She saw the wordless question that he flung to Ingold and the old man's silence that was only the echo of the answer that Rudy already knew in his heart.

"I think," Gil said, picking her way carefully over a morass that even her own world had not yet sorted out, "that the ancestors of humankind, the ancestors of the herds, and the ancestors of the dooic roamed together over this part of the world eons ago, countless ages. The similarity in their shape indicates they had a common way of living, common feeding grounds…"

"Common grandparents," Rudy added in English.

"Let's not broaden the Scopes of this investigation any more than we have to," Gil replied in the same language. Switching back to the language of the Wathe, she continued. "And I think that all three races alike were the prey of the Dark Ones.

"Now, at that time, hundreds of thousands of years in the past, the Dark Ones lived on the surface of the earth. If you climb the cliffs behind the Vale of the Dark twenty miles north of here, in the right slant of the light you can see the marks of buried walls, the patterns of a city that vanished so long ago that not even ruins remain; there are not even records of ruins ever having been there. The Dark tended to build in relatively stable, accessible places. You yourself have commented, my lord, on how they seem to shun high or geologically unstable ground. The Vale of the Dark is one of the few sites that hasn't been built over in the intervening millennia, and of course it is impossible to get high enough above the Nests on the plains to see whether this pattern can be detected in the country surrounding them or not.

"I think," Gil continued slowly, "that it was during this epoch that the powers of the mageborn first began to appear in humankind. It was a matter of survival. The lowest powers of the mages, the commonest even of the third echelon powers, is the calling of fire. Light, illusion, the command of the winds and storms, heightened senses, and the ability to see in the dark."

"This is all very well," Alwir said, his voice edged with suspicion, "but if what you say is so-and I am not yet convinced that it is-why did the Dark Ones abandon the surface? Why did they retreat belowground in the first place?"

For an answer, Gil searched among her things for the small leather pouch and took from it an irregularly shaped gray rock about a third the size of her fist. She rose and carried it down the length of the table to hand it to him.

He sat in silence for a time, examining the stone, turning it over thoughtfully in his gloved fingers. Without glancing at her, he asked, "And what is this?"

She took it and handed it to Thoth. The serpentmage examined it closely, angling it in the shadowless brightness of the magelight. Then he held it up between restless antennalike fingers. "How did you come by this, child?"

"Do you know what it is?"

"Not in the true sense, no," the old Scribe replied. "But I have seen ones like this before. They are found in many places, usually several together; there was a case of them in the library at Quo. Most of those were found in a stream bed in the hills behind the town, but there were some from Dele, and one-a most curious one, with imprints in it of strange insects the like of which no one has seen-that my lord Ingold brought back with him from the Barrier Hills, which border the Northern Ice."

"This one was found in the Vale of the Dark," Gil said. "In my world we call them fossils. Tell me, Thoth, do you know the plant whose leaves are printed in the rock?"

The Recorder examined the stone again and passed it across to Ingold, who shook his head. "It is similar to the ferns which grow in the swamps of Alketch," Ingold said, "But it is far larger. If such a thing exists elsewhere, I have never seen it."

"But it's a hot-weather plant; a swamp fern of the tropics."

"Undoubtedly."

Gil held out her hand, received the rock back, and returned to her seat. "Long ago," she said, "such things grew in the Vale of the Dark. Eons ago, I believe that the climate of this world was far warmer than it is now-warm enough so that tropical swamps covered most of the West of the World. But things changed, and gradually the world grew colder. Perhaps the sun became a little dimmer, or for some reason clouds thickened, year after year, cutting out most of the sun's rays. The ice in the north began to increase. The weather grew more violent.

"The Dark drift upon the currents of the air-they are not weather-wise, and are at the mercy of storms. Their retreat below the ground was gradual; the great stone pavements and stairways were the transition phase, while they themselves lived below the earth and allowed their herds to roam aboveground. The Dark did not go hunting on the surface much. Rather, they summoned their herds with spells- similar, I think, to the spell they used on you in the vaults at Gae, Ingold."

"Yes," the old man said quietly and looked down at his hands. "A-singing, is the closest I can come to describe it." He did not say more, but she saw the muscles of jaw and temple clench suddenly at the memory.

"In time the Dark called down their herds and abandoned the surface altogether. They had lived belowground themselves for a long while. I suspect the more intelligent, more deadly tribes of humankind were winning out against their herd-creatures in competition for food and territory. In any case, a long time ago, long before human beings first settled down into villages, the last of the herds were gone, and the memories of the Dark vanished from the earth. All that remained were the stairways and that indefinable aura of power that surrounded them."

She paused for a moment and shuffled through her notes, her hair falling down to hide her face. The wizards were now utterly silent; the hush in the room was as palpable as a weighted cloak upon her shoulders. Alwir's eyes burned as balefully as a plague-star above his folded knuckles. She straightened up. "Now," she said quietly, "about that aura of power.

"My first guess about the aura-the 'luck' that surrounds the Nests-was that it was deliberate on the part of the Dark Ones, to attract human settlement in the area of the Nests, thus ensuring the Dark an emergency food supply. One thing is clear from all accounts-the Nests have always been regarded as awesome places, fearsome at times, but at other times 'fortunate' or 'magic.' The records refer to some nests as 'gaenguo'-magic places. Scriptures contain references to the Old Religion and mention human sacrifice, though there is no specific reference to the stairways in the holy writings. But the word sacrifice itself- clarneach -comes from the ancient Wathe ecl'r naieg -literally, to send down . After the rise of the Straight Faith, many of the old holy places of the superseded cult were taken over. In any case, the major cities of the Times Before seem to have been built above or near the Nests of the Dark. After the Time of the Dark was past, citadels of wizardry were often built on these sites, again because of the aura that had the effect of magnifying the powers of the wizards, particularly those connected with healing.

"This leads me to believe that the power of the Dark, especially in the early days, was exerted in a positive or cherishing fashion toward their herds. The sense of dread and terror associated with the Nests was always there- hence the tendency to hide or bury the stairways themselves, which had such disastrous consequences at Quo- but the general area of the Nest enjoyed a kind of 'glow,' a by-product of the power of the Dark itself."

"This is all very interesting," Alwir murmured. He shifted his powerful weight in the carven chair. "Perhaps it is even true. But I fail to appreciate how this scholarly exposition of the history of the Dark Ones and their herds can be brought to bear upon the present problem. The past is all very fine, Gil-Shalos, but it is the present with which we are forced to deal."

"My lord is a busy man," Bektis amplified stuffily. "I hardly think…"

"You retain us as an intelligence corps, my lord," Ingold said quietly. "We have compiled a report of our findings, and you might at least listen to our conclusions."

"My lord has no need of intelligence…"

"Be quiet, Bektis." Alwir leaned forward, the opals that starred the dark velvet of his doublet catching the light like points of fire. "Continue, Gil-Shalos. Am I correct in assuming that these-these herds of filthy things that the Dark feed upon-feed themselves on the mosses that your friend Rudy found so flammable?"

"They do," Gil said. "They have done so, time out of mind, to the point where I think they can eat nothing else- or thrive on nothing else. You can keep a cat alive for a while on nothing but cereal, but in a short time it will fade and die. In the far South, I've heard about animals-little bears-that can live on nothing but the leaves of a single kind of tree; and if the tree should die, they would perish.

"Moreover," she went on, "we all know that you cannot grow good apples in Alketch or decent melons in Shilgae and that a wet winter or a cold summer will spread famine over half the Realm. If the cold itself doesn't kill a plant, there are parasites-some of them too small to be seen-that can only start growing once the temperature gets down below a certain point."

Gil paused, then picked up the scroll of her notes. There was total, mystified silence in the room. Even Kara's mother had ceased her low-voiced spate of commentary- no mean accomplishment , Gil thought. They were all watching her, puzzled and yet drawn. Historical methodology was not a subject taught at the School of Quo.

"I'm going to backtrack for a minute," she said, "and talk about the weather."

Alwir let out a short, harsh yelp of laughter. "The weather ? Really, this ends all…"

Gil frowned, deeply affronted. "The weather," she repeated. "That's what I've been doing for the last week or so-compiling, as well as I could from the Church chronicles and the books that Ingold retrieved from the library at Quo, a tally of good and bad winters, and as much information as I can about the ice in the north."

"I've never heard such useless-" the Chancellor began indignantly.

"It has a bearing," Gil said. "Believe me, it has a bearing upon the Dark.

"I assume everyone knows that the ice in the north is spreading-very slowly, supposedly. Everyone uses the expression 'as sure as the ice in the north' to mean something that cannot be stopped. But according to Ingold, the ice is moving southward at the rate of several inches a year. Kta and Shadow of the Moon both say that some years it's more than that.

"On the oldest maps of the Realm there's a range of hills called the Barrier Hills, clearly marked, twenty or thirty miles south of the ice. Well, they're just about covered now. The Raider legends speak in their earliest records of how the ice moved back to uncover the Northern Plains, which was their first home. By backtracking the generational lists that I got from Shadow, I'd put that time between twenty-five hundred and two thousand years ago-just about the first time records were being maintained here at the Keep after the Dark Ones had vanished for good.

"Now, the reason we don't have any Keep records much before two thousand years ago is that literacy had fallen to such a low level that few records were kept and records-or anything else flammable that wasn't in use as furniture- ended up being burned. That allows us to date the end of the record-burning period at least approximately-and it falls right around the time of the last retreat of the ice from the Northern Plains.

"But the Times Before weren't cold. In the record crystals you can see that the climate was very warm and that tropical ferns grew in the lagoons around Gae. The people dressed for hot weather, and you can see the kind of bright-colored birds in them that you can only find in the jungles of Alketch now. Minalde's memories-the memories that she, as a descendant of the House of Dare, inherited-are memories of snow and storm, of blizzards burying the Pass-two hundred miles south of tropical Gae! The change was sudden enough that some of the refugees who took shelter in the caves on the north cliffs were still wearing warm-weather clothing and sandals. And I think," Gil said, "that the same thing is happening now.

"You see, the world I come from is much warmer than this one. So when everyone around me has been saying that this is the worst winter anyone can remember, I never knew how much worse it was. But from things I've read- descriptions of life as it was two hundred years ago-I realized that this world was probably warmer even than my own. The novels Alde brought down from Karst describe-pretty accurately, Thoth tells me-costumes that couldn't possibly be worn now-thin silks and muslins. In the novels, most of the people spend much of their time trying to cool off. Even people like Ingold and Govannin, who knew Gae thirty or forty years ago, say the same. Gae's a pretty temperate place now, but Karst was originally a summer resort, a place to escape the heat. They tell me Gae also used to have one hell of a mosquito problem; Aide, Janus, and the Guards who came to Gae in the last five or ten years say that's no worse than anywhere. And now this year, mammoth have been sighted in the river valleys, where they haven't been for seven hundred years. Rudy and Ingold, crossing the desert, were driven underground by an ice storm not seventy miles north of the Plains Road -three hundred miles farther south than any ice storm has ever been reported. Isn't that so, Thoth?"

"It is so indeed," the serpentmage replied.

" Sarda Pass has been snowed shut for weeks on end this winter," Gil continued, "and, according to the chronicles of both Gae and Renweth, there has never been any record of the Pass being blocked for more than a day or so, and that in dead winter. But of the times that it has been blocked, two of them were within the first hundred years of the chronicle, and four have been within the last twenty years. The first time was twenty years ago-the same year Ingold saw the Dark hunting aboveground in the deserts of Gettlesand."

"It snowed in Penambra that year," Blid the Soothsayer said suddenly. "It had never snowed there before, though it has twice since. I remember standing in the courtyard of our house, while everyone was running about and whispering and catching snowflakes in their hands. The dooic slaves were terrified. They had no idea what it was."

"Perhaps they did," Ingold murmured, "and that was what terrified them."

There was silence, as each tried to remember back to those lost years: a boy standing in the muddy court of his home in that city of palms and flowers, catching snowflakes in wondering hands; and a fugitive spell weaver lying in the darkness of a desert cave, seeing the Dark drop on an old dooic who had shuffled in for shelter from an unnaturally icy night. Rudy thought, That was the winter before I turned five, when I began to have visions of magic .

Kara spoke up suddenly. "There was an epidemic in Ippit then. I was only a little girl, but mother always said it was because of the cold."

"We marked the increasing number of famines and sicknesses," Ungolard said, his earrings flashing as he raised his head. "I was in the College of Astrologers in Khirsrit. These things were noted there, but not, as you have said, my fair lady, their meaning."

"Me granddad disappeared that winter," Ilae whispered, looking up from stroking the cat. "Uncle says he went out to look for't' pigs of an eve, nor never came back."

"I think what we're dealing with," Gil said slowly, "is a weather cycle, a-an alternation of hot periods and cold, governed by the growth and retreat of the ice in the north. The ice doesn't have to move very far south to change the climate. When it does, for whatever reason, when the temperature stays too low for too long, the moss in the Nests of the Dark starts to die. The herds start to die. And then the Dark Ones begin to hunt on the surface of the earth."

She rolled her notes together and rested them endwise on the table, her hands folded upon them.

"There was a short cold spell twenty years ago. I think, that the climate has been gradually cooling for at least the last hundred years. The short spell affected only the most exposed Nests-those of Gettlesand, the plains, and the far North. The one we're in now-a far deeper one-has affected all the northern Nests-at Gae, Quo, Dele, and Penambra. It will be only a matter of time before the herds in the southern Nests begin to die as well.

"And that's the answer." Gil shrugged and scanned the faces of the mages ranged around the table. "The answer is that there is no answer. We've never found anything that indicates that Dare of Renweth ever fought the Dark at all. The cold spell then lasted six to eight hundred years. This one could easily do the same. The Dark Ones will go away when the weather warms and their herds build back to strength-not before."

"That's a lie!" Alwir's voice cracked across hers like the stroke of a leaded whip. He surged to his feet, a storm of rage darkening his face. "The whole idea of the world getting colder or warmer is utter nonsense! Foolish drivel and treason against the allies of the Realm! The world is the world, the earth is the earth. It is fixed, stable. The sun is set in its orbit and the earth in its shape. Your talk of- of the sun getting colder or swamps covering the West of the World-it is impossible!"

"But it isn't," Gil protested unwisely. "Just because a thing is created doesn't mean that it's immutable. Look at a man's body. It changes and grows old, grows a beard in its proper time or loses hair, and gains or loses flesh-"

"Don't quibble with me, girl!" the Chancellor roared, towering over her like an enraged bear. "This idiocy about women's fashions and rocks and plants and where it snows and when-pah! What proof have you that these had anything to do with the first rising of the Dark?"

"Aide's memories…" Gil began-and stopped. She felt slow heat rising to her face, realizing that that, at least, was one source of information that could never be revealed. Particularly not now, when Alde had put herself in defiance of her brother and publicly as much as announced her intentions of wielding at least a certain degree of power in the Keep. "The record crystals…" she began again.

"Don't speak to me of them unless you can feel the air of those times!" Alwir sneered bitterly. "Women would parade the streets naked in a snowstorm if fashion dictated they must! And as for your memories, my sister…" He bent his scathing gaze upon the girl who sat, head bowed in wretched silence, across from Gil. "You know as well as I do that only men bear the memories of the House of Dare. A convenient departure from custom," he went on, swinging around to face Ingold, who had risen and gone to Gil's side. "And how well it proves your point!

"So I am to give up the reconquest of the world from the Dark and the alliance that will rejuvenate our civilization, not because you and your amorous student wish to keep the power in the Realm between you, not because you have had a price on your head in the Empire since you fled from there as an escaping slave, not because my sister scorns to marry a true man or because our allies will not tolerate seeing the likes of you in power-but because this other student of yours has foreseen that the Dark Ones will destroy Alketch-in divinations based upon ladies' millinery!"

He leaped up, moved around the table, and snatched the parchment scroll from Gil's hands. Ripping it in two, he turned and flung the pieces into the fire. " That for your answer. Where are the records from which you obtained these so-called facts?"

Gil moved toward him, blazing with icy rage. Her scholarly instincts were far too offended to permit her to feel fear; for the wanton destruction of her notes, she would gladly have killed him. But a strong hand caught her arm, staying her, and it was Ingold's calm, scratchy voice that replied.

"They are in the Church archives, Alwir," he said quietly. "I turned them all over to Bishop Govannin."

"You what?"

"I feared that they might come to harm," the wizard returned, unfazed by the Chancellor's crimson face. "My lady Govannin is-quite protective of her library."

Remembering the bitter quarrels between prelate and Chancellor that had punctuated all the long journey from Karst, Gil reflected that Ingold's talent for understatement occasionally bordered on the awesome. As for Alwir, he stood for a time unable to speak, the ugly rage of a man cheated of what he had felt to be his own settling around him like a cloud of noxious smoke. Shocked stillness had descended upon the common room; in it, the Chancellor's breath sounded thick and hard, as if he had been running.

"Very well," he said finally. "I was warned, and perhaps this is something that I have brought upon myself. Having taken you in-you and this wretched crew of vagabonds you call your intelligence corps-" The slash of his hand included the dumbstruck mages, who sat frozen in their places around the table. "-and having fed you out of the rations of my own household, I should have perhaps expected something better than this treason; but it seems that in dealing with you, Ingold Inglorion, one must be prepared for the unexpected.

"As for you others," he continued, glancing about him, "you are still my servants. As such, I expect you to fulfill your part in the invasion of the Nest to the letter. Afterward you may come or go as you choose. But I tell you this: if any word comes to me, from any source whatsoever, of what was spoken here tonight or if any mention is made of this- this ridiculous treason-of the Dark rising in Alketch, either to our allies or to anyone else in the Keep, I will turn you all over to the mercy of the Inquisitor. And believe me, it would be better then had you not been born."

His eyes traveled slowly over them, fraught with a rage-blistered menace that silenced even Kara's mother. Then he looked back at Ingold. "And as for you and this besotted chit of a girl-" He broke off, the words sticking in his throat.

Gil felt Ingold's reaction, like a sudden wave of smoking heat, though she would have been at a loss to describe any change that took place in the old man at her side. But the power that blazed forth from him was like a vortex offered, an Archmage's wrath like the unveiled core of some terrible energy. She saw Alwir fall back a step before it, his face yellow with shock.

"My lord Alwir," that soft, scratchy voice said, "none of these my children are your servants, nor shall you do anything against them or against this girl."

Alwir licked his dry lips, but his throat seemed unable to produce a sound. Terror-sweat stood out on his brow and cheeks, glittering in the crystalline light. Like Gil, he had known that Ingold was Archmage of the West without truly realizing what that meant.

In the utter silence that gripped the room, Ingold's low voice was the only sound. "You will act like a fool if you choose, my lord. But do not deceive yourself that I act out of any fear or regard for you or your policies. I do what I do for the good of what is left of humankind. If your quarrel is with me, then speak to me of it; for if you harm any one of these in this room, it shall be the worse for you. Now leave us."

"You…" the Chancellor gasped hoarsely, but his breath dried in his mouth. His face was ghastly, a grotesque contortion of fear.

"Get out."

The bigger man flinched, as if from a sword thrust. He backed slowly to the door; but in the shocked stillness of the common room, all could hear when his footfalls broke into a run in the darkness of the halls.

Like the slow fading of sunset, the power that had scorched the air in the room waned, and with it the soft brilliance of the light. Gil had not moved, frozen in awe of the man who stood beside her; now she turned to him and saw how the lengthening shadows deepened the crags of his face. A last fragment of the torn parchment in the fireplace caught, and the sudden flare of light stippled his white hair in gold.

Kta's piping voice was the first to break the silence. "He will never forgive you that."

Ingold sighed and closed his eyes. "He would never have forgiven me in any case."

Gil put a hand under his arm and steered him to the thronelike seat so recently vacated by Alwir. Thoth came around the end of the table to join them and laid a slender, ink-stained hand on his shoulder.

"You are weary," the serpentmage said in his dry old voice. "You should sleep."

The other mages were drifting from the room, talking in low, frightened voices of what had passed or debating what was to be done. At one end of the table, Rudy still sat, his bulky flame thrower in his hand, turning it this way and that in the light of the fire, with Alde silent and anxious at his side. The last glow of the magelight had been superseded by the rosy colors of the fire.

Ingold raised his head finally to look at Gil. "I am sorry, child," he said quietly. "You worked hard. More than that, I'm convinced that your answer to the problem of the Dark is the true one." He reached up and took her hands. "Thank you."

There was silence, fraught with unspoken words. Looking down into his face, Gil was overwhelmed by fear for him and by the sense of shadows closing and thickening around him. Where, after all, could he go? Within the sanctuary of the Keep was Alwir; without it, the Dark.

"And in any case, tomorrow it will no longer be your concern," the wizard murmured. "It is the Winter Feast. You are free to return to your own world, without putting it in danger of invasion by the Dark. I shall send you back through the gap in the Void at sunrise-unless you stay long enough to keep the Feast with me."

His voice was pitched low, excluding the few who remained in the shadowy common room. His mouth had a set look under the tangled forest of white beard, as if braced against some bitter emotion; Gil fought her own urge to reach out and touch his rough, silky hair.

Instead, in a brisk voice, she said, "In spite of all this-in spite of the fact that you know that the Dark are seeking you-will you still march north with the army?"

"Of course…" he began, and then looked more sharply up at her, catching some inflection in her voice. "… not," he finished. "Of course not."

Thoth's honey-colored glance flicked sideways, startled, but Ingold cut off his words. "No, I shall remain here at the Keep. Alwir has my permission to perish in his own chosen fashion, but after tonight, I see no reason to oblige the Dark by letting them strip my bones. Don't worry about me, my child. I shall be quite safe."

Gil nodded. "I'm glad to hear it," she said. "Even though it will make things rougher for the rest of us when we march on the Nest."

"There's no need for you to endanger your life!" he retorted sharply.

"Oh, come on, Ingold, you can't expect me to leave on the eve of an invasion without knowing how it will turn out."

"I certainly can, particularly when you know better than anyone else that it is most likely to turn out, as you say, with you dead. You know how little chance there is…"

"I know how little chance there is," she told him maliciously, "if you're staying at the Keep. The Guards will need every sword."

She intercepted a startled look from Rudy, to whom this plan was news. It was, in fact, news to her.

A dangerous glitter of annoyance shone in Ingold's eyes, which Gil met with an air of mild defiance, daring him to contradict his own lie.

More quietly, she went on. "It was you who taught me not to forsake those I love, even though their cause might be lost."

He regarded her for a long moment, at a loss for once in his life for a retort. His hands, still closed around hers, tightened slightly; had it not been both their lives at stake in this joust of wills, she could almost have laughed at the emotions warring in his face.

Then he said, "Has anyone ever told you how unbecoming it is for the young to outwit their elders?"

Gil shook her head, her eyes wide, as innocent of guile as a schoolgirl's. "No, sir."

He snorted. "Consider yourself told."

"Yes, sir."

"Now go to bed. And, Gil…"

She paused in the doorway, turning to see him half-risen from his chair, edged in the reflected amber of the hearthlight as if with a lingering of his earlier searing power. Behind him, all was darkness, but for the oily sparkle of Rudy's flame thrower on the table and the shimmering twinkle of the harp strings in the corner of the hearth.

"You never needed me to teach you that kind of loyalty, Gil."

"I needed you in order to understand it."

She turned and strode quickly into the darkness, feeling exhausted, lightheaded, and yet curiously at peace.

"Did Gil really mean it?" Alde hugged her black fur cloak more tightly about her; though the sun shone, pale and distant, for the first time in many weeks, the air was icy cold. She and Rudy came out of the gate passage into the open and moved down the steps, jostled by the crowds around them. From the jumbled warren of booths made of pine boughs and ragged, colored awnings that stretched along two sides of the meadow, a skiff of freezing wind carried voices and music.

"Of course she meant it." Rudy looked over at Alde in surprise.

"But she might be killed."

The path leading down to the meadow was slushy, trampled already by the crowds that had been taking that way since dawn. Rudy put a steadying arm around Aide's shoulders. Tir, wrapped up like a little black and white cabbage and tucked within her cloak, blinked about him with wide, jewel-blue eyes and gurgled happily at the noise and confusion below.

"I didn't understand all of what she said last night," Rudy went on, "but she's right about one thing. She couldn't leave without knowing if her friends were going to live or die."

"No," Alde agreed quietly. "But she's the one who wrote that report. She knows better than anyone that humankind never defeated the Dark. She knows how hopeless it is."

"That's a helluva thing to say to the man who invented our side's secret weapon," Rudy declared in mock indignation.

The path was narrow; they brushed elbows with others descending around them: Guards in threadbare black uniforms and Tirkenson's rangers in sheepskin boots; women in rainbow skirts like those of peasants, their hair twined with jewels they'd picked out of the mud of Karst; and children, scorning the careful steps of their elders, sliding down the muddy snow, waving precious bits of honey candy in sticky fingers and shrieking like little birds.

On the edge of the warren of booths. Alde put a hand on Rudy's arm, halting him; the breath of the Feast, of honey and snow and pine and music, swirled over them from the meadow in a disturbing backwash of sound and smell. "Do you still believe that Dare of Renweth defeated the Dark with flame throwers?"

"Babe, I don't," Rudy said gently. "I've never really believed it, mostly because, while you recognized this, that, and the other thing around the Keep, you never recognized a flame thrower. I think the wizard-engineers were working on them as a defensive weapon when they disappeared and the labs were sealed up. But that doesn't mean that Alwir's plan won't succeed. If we can burn out the Nest- if we can cauterize the nurseries at its bottom-it will be enough for me and a damnsight more than Dare ever did."

"You're very serious about destroying the nurseries," she murmured, her eyes searching his, sober and worried.

"I was down there," Rudy said. "Yeah, I am."

The tug of the Feast overwhelmed Tir. He struggled in his mother's arms and declared insistently, "Andy! Andy!"

Aide caught the flailing little hand that grabbed her hair. "All right, you little wretch, I'll get you some candy." She looked back at Rudy, her face grave. "Why did the wizard-engineers vanish?" she asked softly. "What happened to them?"

Tir tugged impatiently at his mother's hair and cried, "Ad!" He pointed, as Tad the herdkid and a vast gaggle of the Keep orphans went skipping past. Since Tir's concealment among them, the orphans had accepted the heir of the Realm as one of themselves; even Winna, their guardian, had knitted Tir a little stocking cap, such as she had given to all the others as their gifts at the Feast. For his part, Tir was quite happy to be included in that mongrel gang, and Alde turned him over to them. A few moments later, they could be seen out on the meadow, engaged in a wild game of frisbee… It was shocking, Gil had once remarked, how much cultural pollution had been going on lately.

Hand in hand, Rudy and Alde plunged into the confusion of the Feast.

The joy of the Winter Feast was the renewal of life; even the terror of the Dark and the crumbling of civilization could not wholly eradicate the celebrations of the return of the midwinter sun. In the meadow that lay between the arms of the vast V of booths, a makeshift band was playing, surrounded by eternally shifting patterns of dancers moving ankle-deep in half-frozen slush. The air was bright with the voices of children and rank with smoke; Gil would have recognized the colorful medley as a scene straight from Breughel, but Rudy felt merely a kind of awed delight in such gay chaos. Among the booths themselves, a tangled latticework of shadows lay over the faces of those who wandered there, and a babble of voices cried whatever wares could be sold for whatever the market would bear.

Resources at the Keep were slim, but with forage parties making regular raids on all the ruined settlements of the flooded river valleys, some surprising articles had turned up. There was honey enough to make sufficient candy to sicken every child in the Keep; some dried fruits had been unearthed and small quantities of sweets. There was little wine, but Melantrys and her company of Guards had been stationed at the Keep for almost a year before the Dark had risen-enough time to make enormous amounts of Blue Ruin gin, which they were hawking in their own booth. The tangled warren of pine-bough booths boasted other entertainments as well; such as a wheel of fortune, under the auspices of Impie Stooft, the stout blond widow of the late unlamented Bendle Stooft. Blid, the Penambran Soothsayer, was telling fortunes, and Dakis the Minstrel was playing his lute.

Everyone in the Keep seemed to have turned out for the festivities- Penambrans, outlanders, and refugees from Gae and Karst. The Alketch soldiery kept to their own camp, by order of Commander Vair. Rudy had the suspicion that the disappearance of Ambassador Stiarth was more responsible for this than any consideration of peace between the allies. No sign of the missing Imperial Nephew had yet turned up, and Alwir, following his rather trying evening in the Corps common room, had evidently spent the rest of the night trying to soothe and resist Vair's outraged demands that the Keep doors be opened and a search party be sent. This, of course, was impossible. Even had Keep Law been broached, which Alde would never have allowed, there were precious few men in the Keep who would have risked their lives to look for the svelte, young Ambassador's bones.

It had done nothing for relations between the allies, but Rudy was just as glad not to have to worry about a riot breaking out between Keep and southern troops.

The day was too beautiful, the last afternoon of peace too precious, to allow that.

So Rudy and Alde wandered at peace through this winter chaos, drinking hot gin and water and eating honey candy like a couple of greedy youngsters. It was the custom to give gifts to children at the Feast, and Alde was forever being stopped by small acquaintances showing off their new toys. Even among the Penambrans, who had escaped the Dark with no more than the rags on their backs, the custom had been kept, with gifts as small as painted walnuts or rag-and-root dolls. After considerable deliberation, Rudy had presented Tir with his motorcycle keys to the child's blissful delight. Rudy knew that he would never use them again.

They wandered down to the frozen stream to watch the footraces held on its surface and laughed as heartily as the rest of the crowd at the slithering antics of the contestants. Blid told Aide's fortune, amid a crowd of interested onlookers- that she would be twice wedded, the second time to a foreign man, and that she would pass through fire and peril to win both love and power. A. respectable and unsurprising fortune , Rudy thought, considering what everybody in the Keep must know .

The sight of the cards troubled him, for he knew a little of their meaning: the Tower crossed by the Rose of Death; the austere sneer of the King of Swords; and the chancy promise of the impetuous Knight of Wands. But by that time both of them had imbibed enough alcohol to find deep significance in the tiniest of matters.

He could not remember ever having seen Alde so beautiful, with her dark hair escaping from its heavy braid to tumble about her face in wisps like the wings of butterflies, and the blue depths of her eyes, like the endless promise of summer pleasures, laughing into his. She had left her cloak somewhere, and the brilliant colors of the eagle on her painted vest flamed against the cherry-red velvet of her skirt.

In the meadow, the band skirled into a wild romp, and the dancers of a crazy quadrille swung back into the arms of their original partners, while all those who watched yelled, "Kiss 'em! Kiss your partners!" The men claimed this customary forfeit from tousled and blushing women.

Rudy saw Gil standing on the sidelines, watching with amusement in her eyes, and he saw the Icefalcon pause to exchange insults with her. It occurred to him that the Icefalcon had added to his collection of bones. They were all braided into the white-blond hair, Raider-style; there seemed to be about twice as many as there had been when the man had returned to the Keep. Some of them, Rudy thought uneasily, although boiled and cleaned, looked pretty fresh.

Bok the carpenter scraped experimentally on his fiddle and tightened a peg; Janus, his Guard's uniform brightened with a woman's gauze scarf knotted over his sword hilt, tortured another gargling moan out of his bagpipes. Alde tugged, laughing, at Rudy's arm. "Let's dance!"

"I can't dance!" he protested.

"Of course you can!" she replied, her cheeks bright with punch and cold. "Listen, they're going to play my favorite…"

All around the slushy dancing ground, men and women were forming groups of twelve, here and there yelling, "Set! Set! We need more couples!"

Rudy saw Ingold come up beside Gil, who shook her head, her sharp cheekbones reddening. He caught the drift of that mild, scratchy voice inquiring, "You aren't going to turn down my first proposal to dance with anyone in fifteen years, are you?"

She burst into unexpected giggles. It was astonishing, Rudy thought, how Gil could shift from a mean and steel-hard combination of violence and intellect to the gawkiness and fragility of a girl. Ingold draped an arm around her shoulders and pulled her, blushing, into the circle of the dance floor. Alde put her arm through Rudy's. "Come on!"

The Icefalcon led one of his numerous girlfriends into the set; a moment later, they were joined by Maia of Penambra, leading the silent, red-haired witchchild Ilea by the hand.

"Come on!" Alde insisted, and Rudy allowed himself to be dragged into the line. She waved her hand and called out, "One more couple!" Tomec Tirkenson, looming suddenly out of the crowd like Godzilla emerging from Tokyo Bay, put an arm around Kara of Ippit's waist and drew her, startled and stammering, into position.

Rudy sighed. "What the hell. You'll have to tell me what to do."

"Oh, don't be such a wet goose. It's easy."

It was not easy.

Rudy yelled over his shoulder, "You lied to me!" But he was swept through stars and figures of eight while Aide, swinging in the crook of Ingold's powerful arm, laughed at him with her eyes.

"I'm sorry!" she gasped as he released Gil and caught her hand in one flashing figure, and then she was gone.

People were yelling to him, "Right hand! Right hand! Your other right hand!" He went flinging off through a grand right-and-left that reminded him vaguely of a Marx Brothers movie, with the women weaving like a chain of bright ribbon among the laughing men. The music, or maybe the gin, flamed around and through him, sharpening his awareness and altering his time sense; he found himself half in love with all the women-with Kara, who moved with such surprising grace in the brief circle of his arm, and with this startlingly pink-cheeked and giggling Gil. Brief, confused visual impressions tangled in the springing flood of the music. The Icefalcon reminded him of a cheetah, cold and precise; Ingold plunged through the mazes of the game with an agility and an abandon that were alike surprising; and Tomec Tirkenson swung the tall Kara effortlessly off her feet in a frothing skirl of tattered petticoats.

The smell of snow and pines was as intoxicating as the vast quantities of gin he'd consumed; the slurp of the muddy ground underfoot was a delight. Hands caught at his-long hands, scarred hands, fine, dainty hands, or bony ones. Blond and red and black hair tangled in the whirlpool of the music, faster and faster, while the crowd laughed and cheered and faces familiar and half-familiar swirled by in passing.

Rudy found Alde in his arms once again, the light strength of her body against his, and the music circled to its close. Someone was yelling, laughing, and pressing a bottle of spiced Blue Ruin and water upon them, and Rudy took a long drink of it between his gasps for breath. Yells broke out. "Kiss 'em, men! They've earned it!"

He looked down, laughing at the girl leaning in the crook of his arm, her black hair undone and streaming over the bright colors of her painted vest. She dared him with her eyes, and he caught her tight against him, tasting the gin and candied apples on her lips and the kindling sweetness of possession. Her hands slid up around his neck, tangling in his hair. The crowd applauded in delight, and for an endless second there was nothing, no one, but the fire of the dance in his blood and the warmth of the girl in his arms.

And then there was sudden, utter silence.

Rudy looked up, startled. He saw that the crowd around them had parted. Standing out alone in its forefront was the dark, starved face and steel-gray eyes of the man he had last seen in the Nest of the Dark!

Rudy was so startled to see him there that he wondered for a moment if he could be mistaken. But a second glance showed him that the prisoner of the Dark must have just come up from the road to the valleys below. Rudy had a momentary confused impression of a skull-gaunt face and dark wolf eyes, a shaggy gray mare's-tail of dirty hair, and filthy black rags of clothing.

And glittering under the muck of those rags were the torn remnants of a gold eagle embroidered on the breast of his filthy surcoat, like the one Rudy had painted on Aide's vest.

The eagle of the House of Dare.

All this Rudy absorbed in a few confused seconds, while he felt Alde turn to stone in his arms. Then someone pushed past him. Ingold fell to one knee before the stranger, bending his head as Rudy had never seen him do homage to anyone.

The stranger reached out stiffly to touch Ingold's shoulder. But the burning eyes did not lower to him. They shifted, chill as a mad wolf's, over the crowd, the Keep, and Minalde- seeing all things as a stranger. Ingold rose and took the man's hands in his. "Eldor," he whispered.