the armies of daylight (darwath #3) Page 6
Oddly enough, it was Gil's mother who provided the clue to the unraveling of the riddle of the records of the Times Before.
Gil seldom dreamed about her mother; it had been months, indeed, since she had even thought of her. The two had never been close; Mrs. Patterson's relationship with her daughter had been largely based upon emotional blackmail, from which Gil's morbidly sensitive spirit had never recovered.
Yet she was not really surprised to find herself, dreaming, back in her mother's house, sitting on the sky-blue upholstery of the uncomfortable antique loveseat and listening to her mother chat with a podgy young medical student whom she had invited over "… to meet you, dear. I told him I had a daughter, and he said he would be so interested to get acquainted with you."
Gil reflected, in her dream, that her mother had not changed much at all. Spa-trim and tennis-golden, dainty and svelte in a designer suit of dusky rose, with not an electrum curl out of place, she did not look like a woman whose elder daughter had vanished without a trace and had been missing for months. As always, she monopolized the conversation with her vast fund of small talk, describing in detail how she had undergone the very newest thing in hypnosis therapy to stop smoking, and what wonders it had done for her-far more than any of the half-dozen other cures she had tried.
Feeling as gauche and tongue-tied as she always did, Gil looked down at her hands, wrapped around the thick crystal of a highball glass. She saw them as she knew them now, skeleton-thin and hard, nicked all over with the scars and blisters of sword practice. She saw that she was wearing her one rather unbecoming blue dress. Because her body had thinned with hardship and training, it fitted her less well than it ever had. Like a smear of dried ocher plastic, the scars she'd taken in her first fight with the Dark Ones showed below the line of her unfashionably short sleeve. She wore stockings and high heels, too; looking at her feet, she saw that one of the hose was developing a run.
"… of course, I do get tremendously nervous, what with my husband away so much and Gillian at school. What is it you're majoring in, dear?"
"History," Gil said quietly, and her mother's face blossomed into a smile as pretty as an arrangement of silk flowers.
"Of course. Do you know, dear, Dr. Armbruster here uses hypnosis for his psychiatric patients, too? Really, I found it so useful…" She lighted a cigarette, the California sunlight flashing off the gold of the lighter and the pink polish of her nails…
Gil opened her eyes. Down at the far end of the womens' barracks, the banked embers of the tiny hearth gave out a feeble glow; but other than that, the room was in darkness. In the mazes beyond the thin wall of the long cell, she could hear the measured tread of the deep-night watch going on its rounds.
She supposed, thinking about it later, that she should have felt some yank of sorrow at the sight of her parent and the world that she had lost. But for the moment her mind was preoccupied, and she lay, considering the barracks ceiling above her in the dark.
"Hypnosis?" Ingold said thoughtfully, his tongue unfamiliar on the English word. He leaned an elbow on the workbench in Rudy's lab and scratched one corner of his white mustache meditatively.
"Christ, I never thought of that!" Rudy exclaimed, turning from the mess of tubes, stocks, homemade sticky tape, and glittering glass bubbles that strewed the table before him to regard Gil with awe and delight. "You think it would work?"
"I don't see why it wouldn't." Gil pushed aside the glue pot and four of the odd, crystal-gray polyhedrons that they had found in such numbers in the deserted lab levels and perched herself on the edge of the workbench, her feet in their scarred old boots dangling above the floor. She picked up one of the polyhedrons and angled its frostlike facets to the ball of witchlight that floated over Rudy's head. "You ever find out what these were good for?"
"Sure," Rudy said cheerfully. He daubed some glue on one of the hand-whittled gunstocks, fitted a glass bubble- one of the firing chambers they had found in a deserted storeroom-to the top, and used three of the crystal polyhedrons to prop the whole thing delicately together while the glue dried.
"But what is this-hypnosis?" Alde looked up from her corner of the lab, nearest the brazier that warmed the room. She looked very domestic, with gold embroidery scissors glinting in her hands and rags piled in her lap, which she had been snipping into long strips, to be later painted with glue to make sticky tape. Prince Altir Endorion, last scion of the House of Dare, was solemnly mummifying himself at her feet.
"It's kind of like being put to sleep," Gil began, and Rudy shook his head.
"No," he contradicted quietly. "A girl I knew did age-regression therapy-she said you aren't asleep. It's like- like all your concentration is on the hypnotist's voice. You relax to a point where your mind is open to suggestion. Anything sounds reasonable." He glanced from the wizard to Aide. "And it can be used to uncover things that have been forgotten."
"It sounds like gnodyrr ," Ingold mused, setting down the slightly egg-shaped firing chamber he had been examining and regarding the three young people with thoughtful, half-shut eyes. " Gnodyrr is a type of spell that relaxes and opens the subject's mind-and it is done primarily with the voice."
"Have you done it?" Gil asked.
"Would there be someone else here who could work such a spell on you? Because that's the way we could find out what it is that you have forgotten-the key to the defeat of the Dark. Would Thoth be able to do it?"
The wizard's smile widened. "Oh, I don't think so," he said, his eyes beginning to twinkle impishly. "Thoth would never speak to me again if I so much as suggested that he knew such things. Gnodyrr is categorized as black magic- forbidden magic. The teaching of it is punishable by death."
Aghast, Rudy gulped. "Why?"
There was a momentary silence, broken only by the faint throbbing of the pumps, hidden deep in the rock of the walls. Then Gil said, "Think about it."
"Yeah, but you can't get someone to do something he knows is wrong under hypnosis," Rudy argued. "That's been proven."
"But we're not talking about hypnosis," she pointed out quietly. "We're talking about magic- gnodyrr ."
Rudy was silent. He knew the power of Ingold's flawed velvet voice, the voice that could make all things seem possible, logical-even necessary. In the dusky laboratory, the witchlight that wavered over Ingold's head seemed to halo them both in disturbing brightness-this thin, dark-haired girl in her patched black uniform, sitting on the workbench among the confusion of crystal and steel, and the old man who stood beside her, the sleeves of his pale robe rolled up over his scarred forearms. Now that Rudy thought of it, he wouldn't have been entirely willing to bet that Ingold couldn't get her to do murder, cold sober and in the rational light of day.
"And in any case," the old man went on, "I would hesitate to surrender the control of my mind to anyone, even to someone whom I trusted implicitly-Gil or Kta. I have far too much power to take a risk of that kind, even for the best of causes. If for no other reason, mine are the spells that bind the gates of the Keep against the Dark. And as holder of Master-spells…"
"Master- spells?" Rudy frowned, reaching out with one foot to prevent Tir, who had grown bored with his cocoon, from seeking his fortune among the piled junk under the workbench.
For an instant Rudy was conscious of what he had seen, one night in the depths of the desert-his own isolated soul, viewed through the bright sea-blue eyes that suddenly held his. Like an image made of crystal, there was nothing in his mind or spirit that the old man could not probe out, if he wanted. Ingold's thoughts, his will, were like a needle of ice and lightning, piercing to the bottom of Rudy's startled brain.
Then, with a shock as palpable as the cutting of a straining rope, he was released, and had to catch his balance on the edge of the table, for all the strength seemed to have gone out of his legs. The shadows in the stark, rectangular lab had deepened. Rudy realized that his own witchlight had been quenched and that the only illumination in the room was that which burned like searing ball lightning above Ingold's uncut, silky white hair. He found his hands were unsteady, his face drenched in sudden, icy sweat.
"Master- spells," the old man explained gently.
"Ingold." Alde straightened up from retrieving a dust-blackened Tir from beneath the workbench. "Could you work this-this gnodyrr -on me?" Her voice was halting, as if her own audacity terrified her. "I have no-no Master-spells. But I am descended from the House of Dare.
"We have all talked of the heritable memories of the House of Dare," she went on hesitantly, clasping the grimy and repulsively dirty scion of that House in her arms. "Eldor had them. Maybe Tir has them. My grandfather had them. And I can recognize things that my ancestors must have seen, here in the Keep, though I can't remember independently, as-as Eldor used to. But-why do we remember at all?"
Gil's head came up, her gray eyes suddenly sharp and hard.
"You see," Alde continued, her fingers plucking nervously at the cobwebs trailing from Tir's dress, "Gil and looked all over the Keep for records. Anything , to tell us how the Dark Ones may have been defeated. And there's nothing, nothing at all. But-but maybe the old wizards, the engineers who raised the Keep, knew that records do get lost, especially when, as you said, fire is the principal weapon."
Gil's finger stabbed out like a sword. "They tied the memory to the bloodline, and that was their record! A record that wouldn't get lost and couldn't be destroyed!"
"Could they do that?" Rudy asked doubtfully.
"I wouldn't put it past them."
Rudy glanced through the half-open door of the laboratory, past the blue-white bar of light with its diamond mist of dust motes, and out to the blackness of the hidden levels of the Keep beyond where lay hundreds of thousands of square feet of sunken hydroponics tanks filmed with dust, sealed labs and enigmatic storerooms, and pumps which had operated for a score of centuries on power sources that were still unknown.
When he thought about it, he wouldn't put much of anything past them.
"It seems that women remember these things differently from men," Alde said, gently thwarting Tir's attempts to escape her arms and investigate the frost-gray crystals that twinkled so invitingly on the workbench beside him. "But could what I half-remember be brought to the surface by- by gnodyrr ?"
"It could," the wizard said slowly, his voice low and very grave. "But at what cost to yourself, my lady? Gnodyrr is black magic. But more than that, in certain places, local Church rulings have condemned the subject of the spell as well to imprisonment, banishment, or death."
Aide's eyes seemed to get huge in her pale face.
Indignant, Rudy cried, "How come?"
"Don't speak of it so loudly," Ingold said. He leaned upon the workbench, his blunt, thick hands folded on the dark metal of its shining surface. The witchlight threw a curiously sinister glitter into his eyes. "Suppose I were to use gnodyrr on Minalde and instruct her to-oh, three years hence-put ground glass into her brother's food. Then I go away and don't return until Alde has been executed for murdering her brother, leaving the Regency open…"
"The Regency!" Gil gasped, as Aide's arms tightened involuntarily around her child's body. Indignant at such treatment and oblivious to the dangers that surrounded him, Tir demanded rather unintelligibly to be released at once to pursue his quest among the litter of the table.
Rudy felt suddenly cold all over.
Aide whispered, "But you wouldn't…"
"No," the old man agreed. "But the law is based upon the possibility that I might." His scarred fingers brushed the thick coils of hair that veiled her ashen cheeks. "If Alwir learned of it, the consequences to you would be unthinkable, my child. An expensive risk to run, for something that might not be among your memories at all."
No more was said on the matter that morning, and Rudy returned to his experiments with the flame throwers. Alde and her overly venturesome son remained after Ingold and Gil departed. Alde to help and Tir to prevent either of them from getting anything accomplished in peace for very long.
Prince Altir Endorion, heir to the Realm of Darwath and last Prince of the House of Dare, had been a source of never ending wonderment to Rudy since the first morning that he had unwillingly aided Ingold in rescuing the child from the pursuit of the Dark Ones. Small and with his mother's air of compact delicacy, Tir had nevertheless survived the sack of cities, the destruction of a civilization, and a succession of dangers that had made Rudy's hair stand on end, with a calm resiliency that would have been awesome if it were not so utterly matter-of-fact.
If I'd gone through all that little rugrat has . Rudy told himself, watching Alde prevent her son from crawling out the door to lose himself in the endless darkness of the Keep's underground levels, I'd spend the rest of my natural life in the fetal position. I sure as hell wouldn't have this talent for wandering away toward shadows or high places or any other kind of available danger .
There were times, looking into the infant's wide, jewel-blue eyes, that he wondered how much of that fearlessness came from the buried memories of his ancestors and how much of it was his own, inherited from a father who had been a warrior King and a mother whose crazy courage Rudy had encountered in only one other woman in his life.
By the end of the afternoon, he had satisfied himself that the optimum range of the flame throwers was about twenty-five feet and that no adjustments of the barrel or barrels would lengthen it much beyond thirty.
"That's still farther than a mage can throw fire from his hands isn't it?" Alde inquired as she followed him along the teeming corridors of the first level, with her much-soot-blackened son balanced upon her hip. Around them in a hundred jerry-built cells, the voices of men and women could be heard quarreling, gossiping, and making love. Woodsmoke stung Rudy's eyes, and the heavy, ever-present, compound reek of unwashed clothing and greasy cooking assaulted his nostrils.
"I'm not sure," he replied, wiping the stray smut from his hands. "I've seen Ingold throw fire about fifteen feet. I asked Thoth about it once, and he said that if the danger were any more than fifteen feet away you'd be better off to run."
Aide laughed. "That sounds like Thoth." But there was a trace of uneasiness in her laughter. Like everyone else, she was a little afraid of the serpentmage.
By common consent, neither of them had spoken of their coming parting. There was an aura of peace about them, even in its shadow, that they were loath to break.
They turned a corner, and the noise from the Aisle hit them, a vast commotion of sound. Startled, they exchanged a glance; then Rudy put his arm about her shoulders and quickened his stride. They found the great open space at the core of the Keep filled with a crowd of men and women warriors, slapping sleet out of their bedrolls and stomping mud from their boots. At the far end of the Aisle, more and more were entering by the great gates, bringing with them blasts of icy air and the whirling gray snow blown by the storm outside. Torchlight and glowstones threw a restless, flickering illumination over the vast, steaming crowd, picking out ruffianly faces, ragged coats of fleece or buffalohide, and hands and cheeks scarred by recent battles with the Dark.
In the midst of it, hoary with ice and hairy as a werewolf, Tomec Tirkenson, landchief of Gettlesand, stood facing Alwir, Ingold, and Govannin with an ugly expression in his saddle-colored eyes.
"Dammit, I am the only landchief between the mountains and the Western Ocean!" he growled in his gravelly bass. "Half the men I brought are from Dele, and they're all you're likely to see from that part of the world. Dele was wiped out. These came to me with Kara of Ippit's folks, after months on the road."
"I would have expected a better showing," Alwir replied dryly, "from the landchief of the whole southwestern half of the Realm." The diamonds sewn in his black gloves caught slivers of light and strewed the dark brocade of his sleeves with fragments of color as he folded his arms. "If that is, indeed, what you claim to be."
"I'm not claiming a thing," the landchief rumbled. "But I've got a Keepful of women and kids-an old Keep, which was half-torn-down way back in the old days and rebuilt as best we could. It's damn stout, but there's no magic in its walls, bar the spells old Ingold put on it five years back and what Kara and her mother could do before they got the summons to come here. If I'd left the place unmanned, I'd have come back to find it gutted, sure as the ice in the north."
"So you made the decision not to fulfill your vows to the High King…" Alwir began with a sneer.
"Dammit, I brought all I could!"
"And he has done more than any other landchief in the Realm," Ingold added quietly. "And more than any of the others will."
The Chancellor swung around, an unpleasant curl to his full lips. "And are you party to the counsels of such traitors, my lord wizard?"
"No, my lord." Ingold stepped aside, to give room to a couple of snow-covered brigands who were lugging a groundsheet piled high with sacks of provisions and fodder.
"But I and the other mages have scried in our crystals, north, south, and east. And neither from the Keeps of Harl Kinghead in the North, from the lands of the petty princes of the Eastern Woods, nor from the country of the landchief Degedna Marina have we seen any sign that any other landchief in the Realm is sending you the aid you requested."
"So." Alwir drew himself up, haughty and bitter, his sapphire-dark eyes flashing at this new evidence of the fractioning of the Realm. "All the more reason for my lord Tirkenson not to have stinted the duty that he owes to the Realm."
"An excommunicate such as the Lord of Gettlesand…" Govannin began in her thin, vicious voice.
"The Lord of Gettlesand is welcome, with all those whom he could bring." Minalde stepped forward quickly, holding out her hand, heedless of the dust that daubed the hems of her faded peasant skirt and liberally smutched the baby Prince in her arms. "In our time of need we could scarcely ask for a more loyal vassal."
Alwir looked down his nose at her dishevelment, but Tirkenson grinned, the frost glittering on his mustache and unshaven cheeks. The explosion that would have erupted in another instant between Chancellor, Bishop, and landchief faded like a rumble of thunder into the distance and dissipated under Aide's warm smile.
"It is hardly the time or place, my sister, to extend formal welcome to the leader of this-vast legion," Alwir said primly. "If it is true that he is the only landchief to answer our summons, then we shall meet in Council at sunset to determine the time and distribution of the upcoming reconquest of Gae. I trust," he added, his lips pinched, "that you will trouble to comb your hair for the occasion."
Turning on his heel, he strode off through the mob of ragged, gesticulating Gettlesand rangers that filled the Aisle and quickly blotted him from view.
Aide's face was crimson with anger and shame at his last remark. Tirkenson laid a gloved, comforting paw on her shoulder.
"He's put out that we're so few," he rumbled. "Don't trouble yourself over it, my lady. We're few enough and, unless they have found the means old Dare used to drive back the Dark, we're going to be hard put to it." He glanced down at her, his yellow-brown eyes sharp. "They haven't, have they?"
In a hushed voice. Alde said, "I don't know."
"My lord Chancellor's precious mages have devoted enough time to it," Govannin remarked spitefully, her coldly beautiful face disdainful in the restless, jerking shadows that surrounded them. "Yet they themselves seem to have doubts about their solutions." She rested her hands on the jeweled buckle of her sword belt in a gesture Rudy found reminiscent of Gil's; like a baleful eye, the amethyst of her episcopal ring flashed in the dimness.
"That reminds me," Tomec Tirkenson said suddenly. "I brought you another mage, Ingold." He raised his head, scanning the bustling confusion whose noise seemed to echo and re-echo from the black, featureless walls around them. Then he caught sight of someone- God knows how , Rudy thought, in that steamy chaos of snow-covered bodies -and yelled in his foghorn voice, "Wend! Wend ! Get over here, you little warlock!"
A young man emerged from the crowd and elbowed his way with surprising diffidence to the big landchief's side. Looking at the newcomer, Rudy realized with a start that it was, in fact, the same Brother Wend whom he and Ingold had met in Gettlesand, the village priest who had refused to risk his soul, as he believed, by acknowledging himself a mage.
He looked thinner in the harlequin shadows of the Aisle than he had in the little fire-lit cell in the back of the Church. He had left off shaving his head and face, and both were covered in a uniform black stubble that glistened with flecks of ice. His eyes, as he faced Ingold in silence, were the eyes of a man who had crossed half a continent to seek his own damnation-haunted, weary, empty of all but despair.
Ingold stepped forward, his face filled with compassion. "So you came," he said quietly.
After a long moment the priest whispered, "After you spoke with me that night I -I could not stay away. I tried. But if-if mages are needed for the defeat of the Dark, I will become one, though it costs me my soul."
All around them, the Aisle was a jostling sea of weary bodies, lit by crazily bounding torchlight and raucous with soldiers' raillery and quartermasters' curses. But for an instant of time, it seemed to Rudy that these two stood alone, wizard and priest. The silence between them seemed stronger than the noise that rang on all sides.
Then, like a steel file, the voice of Bishop Govannin grated furiously into that silence. "You cannot!" She took a step forward in a billow of flame-colored vestments, her cobra eyes black with hate. "Apostate!" she cried.
Wend flinched, white-faced, from the balefire that seemed to burn in her face.
"Let the damned look to their own! You belong to the Church!" Her voice shook with livid rage-rage that any would desert the ranks of the Faithful, no matter what the stakes involved. She advanced upon Wend like a death-angel, and Ingold quietly stepped between them, meeting her scorching gaze with eyes that were at once utterly mild and utterly immovable.
"I should have known it would come to this!" she spat at him. "That, in your arrogance, you would rob what belongs to the Church! What belongs to me!" She was literally trembling with fury, her knuckles white under the thin skin of her clenched, skeletal hands.
"Well, he is yours, Ingold Inglorion," she whispered in a dry voice that bit like broken glass. "You are his seducer. On your head lies the damnation of his soul."
The little priest looked away, hands fluttering to cover his gray lips, but Ingold did not move. The Bishop's wrath broke over him like a wave on a rock.
"We damn our own souls, my lady," he replied quietly. "Or save them."
"Heretic!" Her rasping whisper was more violent, more terrible, than a shriek. "The time will come when God will judge you for what you have done today."
"God has judged me all my life," the wizard said. "But that is God's privilege, my lady. It is not yours."
For a moment she faced him, her lips drawn back, the aura of her anger consuming her like a terrible heat. Then she turned and swept away into the confusion of the Aisle, leaving Rudy, Aide, and Tirkenson all feeling that they had been scorched by their proximity to her wrath.
Night had fallen. Rudy and Kara of Ippit were standing together in the doorway of the large, square chamber just off the Wizards' Corps common room where the younger mages generally engaged in their more strenuous pastimes like invisible tag or dazzledart, watching Gil and Ingold fence.
The room before them was flooded with soft, brilliant witchlight, which showed every crack and strain on its grimy walls with merciless clarity. In that even, shadowless light, the old man and the girl circled each other, balanced to strike, with long, split-cane practice swords in their hands. Ingold's white robe was blotched with dark patches of sweat, and his silky hair was stringy and dripping, but he moved on his feet as lightly as a dancer. He sideslipped Gil's attack effortlessly, turned to let the hissing blade whine past him, and tapped his way through her guard with neither force nor haste.
"Gently, Gil," he urged and turned the plane of his body a few degrees, so that, without taking a step, he was no longer in the path of her rush. "Why tire yourself out? You care too much about it."
Gil muttered a curse. Rudy knew that she had practiced with the Guards earlier in the evening and he considered this additional training certifiable proof of lunacy. She looked sick with fatigue, her soaked hair straggling around a taut face. But she moved with a deadly lightness before which he personally wouldn't have wanted to find himself on the receiving end.
"Take your own death as a given," Ingold told her. "Forget about it. It's your opponent's death you want." And he attacked her with sudden viciousness, taking her off balance and driving her with brutal force to the wall. Rudy saw the split cane sting her flesh and winced, for he had seen the bruises that the practice swords could leave. The wizard's face never lost its serene expression, but in his eyes was an almost inhuman intensity that Rudy had seen only once before, in the rain-slashed ruins of Quo. Ingold cut his way through Gil's defenses and always seemed to be a step ahead of her dodges. Her back to the wall, she hacked against his greater strength, droplets of sweat flying from the ends of her hair. Finally she faked, parried, and slipped through his guard and past him, out into the center of the room, gasping for breath.
"Good." The old man smiled as if he hadn't been all but bludgeoning her to death a moment before. "But breathe lightly, smoothly; exhale on your cuts and let the inhaling take care of itself. Else your opponent will outwind you." He swept in with a snarling cut that Gil was barely ready for, the blades momentarily tangling, and the tip of Gil's weapon broke through his guard to brush his retreating ribs.
"You're a woman," Ingold chided. "You haven't a man's strength. A woman's attack is in and out, before he has time to touch you… So."
"In a way," Kara's voice said softly in Rudy's ear, "I could almost be glad that- all this-came to pass. For I would have remained all my life in Ippit, were it not for the rising of the Dark. I would never have been able to study magic under him, as I have done here."
From the commons behind them, the warm reflection of the firelight woke mosaic fragments of color in the shawl she wore and glimmered like cornsilk in its long fringes. Rudy could not remember having seen that shawl before. Its oddly primitive embroidery looked like Gettlesand work.
"He said something like that once," Rudy remarked quietly. " Nothing is fortuitous … There's no such thing as coincidence."
"He's right," Kara agreed. Rudy felt and heard, rather than saw, the movement of her gray dress as she leaned against the wall beside him. "Ingold had left Quo by the time I studied there. He was pointed out to me once at a distance,.
but I never had the nerve in those days to go up and speak to him. But I was always sorry I never had the chance to learn from him."
Rudy was silent, thinking of the learning that he would be leaving. His heart felt sick within him. "Was he a member of the Council, then?" he asked her. "I always thought he was kind of a maverick, but… There are times when I don't know what he is." The terrible strength of the Master-spell still lingered like a disquieting echo in his mind.
When she didn't answer, he looked back at her in the gloom and saw that her eyes were wide, startled and half-amused at his ignorance. "Ingold Inglorion," Kara said, "is the greatest wizard and swordsman in this age of the world. He was the Archmage of Quo and Master of the Council for twelve years-he retired in favor of his student Lohiro and turned over the Master-spells to him- oh, five, six years ago now. Even before the destruction of Quo, there was no one alive to equal him; there have been legends about him ever since he came out of the desert. He never told you?"
Rudy shut his mouth, which had unfortunately come open, and felt the hot color rise to his face. He felt like a fool. He had seen the way the others treated Ingold, even the haughty Thoth.
His eyes returned to the lighted room before him-to Gil, pursuing the wizard with genuine battle fury in her pale eyes, and to Ingold, parrying, sidestepping, drawing her on. Below his rolled-up sleeves, the wizard's forearms were heavy with muscle and striped with whitened scars. Rudy remembered the duel at Quo and how, even in the worst of the battle, Ingold had never feared Lohiro's magic.
There was a quick ghost of a smile in Kara's voice. "Believe me, the rest of us are as envious as a parcel of old maids at a wedding that he chose you to be his student. For myself, I can't understand how you could give it up and go back to your own world."
Rudy shut his eyes, feeling suddenly ill. At the thought of it, a black pit of despair seemed to open inside him, draining life and color from all things. He whispered, "Don't ask."
Behind him, Kara was silent.
"And anyhow," he went on, turning from the door and brushing past her to return to the common room hearth, "he didn't choose me. I asked him if I could be his student." He wondered whether he would have had the nerve, if he'd known.
Kara followed him into the dark room, sidestepping, with a wizard's dark-sight, a footstool and one of the Corps cats. She hitched the silken waterfall of her shawl up over her shoulders and bent to poke up the dying fire, the red light outlining the scars that striped her rugged features. "Maybe you did ask him," she assented. "But he picked you, all the same. My guess is that he chose you for his student the first time he met you."
Rudy paused, his hands resting on the dark curve of the harp Tiannin, the one thing that he had salvaged from the ruins of Quo. "He couldn't have done that," he said quietly. "He didn't know I was mageborn when he met me. Hell, I didn't even know it."
Kara smiled. "You're very certain about what he knows."
Tawny flame leaped up, chivied to life by Kara's poker. The warm light of it slid through the twining inlays of the harp, then, reaching into the inglenook, picked out the coiled, glossy hair of the girl who sat there so silently, her iris-blue eyes gazing into the glowing hearth.
"Aide," Rudy said softly and reached to take her hands. "What…?" Her fingers were like ice in his, the bones feeling incredibly fragile within the chilled flesh. "Is the Council over?"
She nodded. The play of the firelight showed up the tenseness of her face and the mauve stain of sleeplessness that tinted her eyelids. Looking down into her intent eyes, Rudy barely heard the tactful rustle of Kara's departure.
"Rudy, is Ingold here?" Alde whispered.
"Sure. He and Gil are making chutney of each other in the next room. What…"
"I want him to work the spell of gnodyrr on me."
Rudy looked quickly around. Though they were alone in the dim, golden room, there was no guarantee they had not been overheard. With the thinness of the jury-rigged walls and the twisting labyrinths of corners and side passages, spying was ridiculously easy in the mazes of the Keep.
"I want to see what I remember of the Time of the Dark."
Her chin came up, her eyes flashing.
"Aide, it's too risky," he pleaded.
"So was your going to Gae."
He fell back on the old standby. "That's different."
"Is it?" she asked softly. "Rudy, are you so sure that Dare of Renweth defeated the Dark Ones by burning out their Nests with flame throwers? Are you so sure that Alwir's plan will succeed?"
"We can't be sure, babe…"
"But we can be a lot surer than we are!" Her wide eyes held the same desperate glint that Rudy had seen on the night of the massacre at Karst, when she plunged back into the haunted galleries in search of her son-a passionate determination as difficult to deflect as a descending sword blade.
"If Alwir found out about it, you could lose your son," he argued, bracing for battle in the last ditch.
"And you could have lost your life at Gae," she replied in her low voice. "Gil could have, on the night that man had his mind taken over by the Dark and tried to open the Keep gates. Ingold could have, the night he got us here under cover of the blizzard. Rudy, Alwir won't admit it, but this invasion is a terrible gamble.
We have to know the answer. It doesn't matter what it costs."
Her hands tightened over his, the jeweled rings she wore only on ceremonial occasions digging into his flesh. The saffron light rippled over the dark colors of her brocade gown as she leaned forward, her face as intent as a point of flame. "Get Ingold for me," she whispered. "Please."
So much for the last ditch.
"You're as crazy as Gil is." Rudy sighed, rising. "But all right."
As he moved to go, she caught his hand again. Looking down, he saw alarm in her eyes, the desperate resolve melting suddenly into fears inculcated in her since childhood. He leaned down and kissed her icy lips. "Don't worry," he said softly.
"Ingold won't-won't really take over my mind-will he?"
"As stubborn as you are, I don't see how he could." Rudy helped Alde to her feet and led her toward the moving shadows of the lighted room next door.