the armies of daylight (darwath #3) Page 7


"Minalde?" Ingold's voice was gentle, but, like the shadowy aura of his power, it seemed to fill the tiny room. "Do you hear me?"

In a toneless voice, she replied, "I hear you." In the dim blue phosphorescence that illuminated the underground observation chamber. Aide's face looked white but relaxed; her open eyes were empty.

Sitting with Gil, like a couple of silent watchdogs by the door, Rudy thought how fragile Alde looked and how helpless. Ingold's power seemed to engulf her -the power of the Archmage that Rudy himself had felt through the strength of the Master-spell, bone-shaking for all its quietness. That terrible magic seemed to isolate the two figures, the old man in his patched robe and the girl whose face was like a lily against the smoke of her unbound hair, in a world where the only reality was Ingold's voice and the enchantment that seemed to shiver in the air like a bright cloud about them.

No wonder the Church fears him , Rudy thought. There are times when I fear him myself .

"Minalde?" the wizard said softly. "Where are you?"

"Here," she answered him, her eyes staring unseeingly into the circumscribed shadows that pressed so closely upon them. "In this room."

It had been Ingold's idea to undertake the gnodyrr in the old observation chamber, hidden in the depths of the subterranean labs. It was as safe a place as could be found within the crowded Keep, and Ingold said that not even a mage with a crystal could spy upon them there.

"You sure about that?" Rudy had asked him as they made their way through the dusty reaches of the abandoned hydroponics chambers.

"Of course," the wizard replied. "Every civilization which involves magic has its countermeasures. It is a relatively easy matter to weave shielding-spells into the stone and mortar of walls, so that what passes within them is hidden from divination. Rudy, you yourself know of the existence of rooms in which no magic can be worked at all- in fact, there are said to be several within the Keep."

Rudy had shivered at the memory of the vaults of Karst and the doorless cell with its queerly null, sterile smell… Nervously, he had drawn Alde closer to him, and she had returned the pressure of his arm gratefully, for she walked just then with her own fears. The heavy darkness of the lab levels seemed to press somehow more thickly about them.

"Why is that?" Rudy had asked. "Why would they make rooms like that? I mean, wizards built the Keep, for Chris-sake."

Gil, pacing along on Ingold's other side, had said, "It stands to reason. Govannin told me about-about renegade mages, wizards who used their powers for evil. You'd have to have some way to hold them in check. Even the Council of Wizards would have to agree to that."

Rudy thought about that now, watching the old man and the girl who was held in such absolute power. He understood now why gnodyrr was a forbidden spell, its teaching ringed around with the most terrible of penalties. The only thing that protected Alde from utter enslavement to Ingold was Ingold himself-his reverence for the freedom of others and his innate kindliness. What would Alwir be , Rudy wondered suddenly, if he had that kind of power? Or Govannin ?

"Minalde," Ingold's warm, scratchy voice said. "Look beyond the walls of this room. Tell me what you see."

She blinked, her slender brows puckering over those inward-looking cornflower eyes. Then her lips parted and her face flooded with joy, as if at a vision of startling delight. She whispered, "Gardens."

Beside him, Rudy heard the swift hiss of Gil's intaken breath.

"Tell me about these gardens."

In the blue, glimmering light, her eyes were wide, luminous with wonderment. "They're-they're like a floating jungle," she stammered. "Fields planted on the waters. Room after room, filled with leaves-dark leaves, fuzzy like gray-green velvet, or bright and hard and shiny. Everywhere you can smell the growing." Her face tilted upward, as if her eyes followed the thick, trailing vines over walls and ceilings that had for ages been as dry as a rock-cut tomb. "There are nets of glowstones strung over the tanks, and the room glitters with leaf shadows on the water. Vegetables-corn and peas and lentils, squash and melons-climbing up trellises and suspended in nets and on wires. Everything is green, warm, and bright, though the blizzards are raging outside, and the Pass is buried in snow."

"Ah," Ingold said softly. "And how do they grow, these gardens?"

She frowned into the distance, and Rudy had the sudden, uncanny feeling that the expression on her face was no longer her own. It was that of another woman, older than Aide, he thought. The timbre and pitch of her voice altered subtly. "It is-all in the records. I-it was all recorded. How to operate the pumps, how to make the fluid that feeds the plants…"

"And where are these records?"

She tried to gesture, but Ingold would not release her hands. Her eyes were still fixed upon vacancy, hundreds of lifetimes distant. "They-people take them, of course. The Central Library is at the east end of the second level, behind the open spaces of the Assembly Room. Mostly the mages in the labs use them, but you need not be a mage to do so. The words alone unlock them."

"What words?"

She repeated them; a short spell in a burring, liquid language to which Ingold listened with the precision of a trained philologist. "The unlocking is the same for all," she added. "There is no secret to it."

Gil murmured, "The east end of the second level is all part of the Royal Sector. The biggest room that's still in its original shape there is behind the upper pan of the Sanctuary, which I guess was the old Assembly Room. Alwir uses it these days for his justice hall. There wasn't a thing in it resembling a book when we came to the Keep."

"Not after so long there wouldn't be, of course," Ingold replied softly. "Even if there were not periods of anathemas for the wizards, the records would have been moved as the Keep grew more crowded in the passing centuries."

"Might the wizards themselves have hidden them?" Rudy asked. "If there was some kind of attack against the wizards, could they have stashed them someplace in the labs?"

"They could have done so," Gil agreed. "Except we haven't found a stitch of anything written down here yet."

Rudy sighed. "This reminds me of when I was a little kid, and I'd have something that was really precious to me, and I'd put it in a safe place."

"That was so safe you never found it again," Gil concluded with regret. "I did the same thing."

"Well," Rudy said gloomily, "mine was organic… and we found it eventually."

"They said-they said that the records might be lost," Minalde whispered, her forehead suddenly tightening, as if with pain. "Or that the secret of them would be hidden. That was why Dare said that we must remember."

" Dare said?" Ingold's white eyebrows went up. "Is it not from Dare, then, that you have these memories?"

She shook her head, and her hands tightened over his. "There were twenty of us. They-the wizards-did not want women to bear the memories. They said that women carry griefs enough of their own; that they bear too many losses, of husbands, of children. My baby died, that first winter. So cold," she whispered hopelessly. "So cold. But many of the men who could have done it refused. Some called it evil; others said only that it was too heavy a thing to bind to the shoulders of their children. But it was a chancy thing, and there were so few of us whose bloodlines the wizards could tie this to." Her voice had changed, stammering, as if seeking words, blurred with an accent at times, like the soft, rolling lilt of the spell that would unlock the vanished records of the Keep.

"Time is so deep," she murmured. "So many things are lost in its well. Dare said that we must remember." The pallid chill of the magelight glinted on a tear that trickled down, for griefs not her own. Ingold's scarred finger brushed it gently aside.

"What must you remember?" he asked gently.

She began to speak, hesitantly at first, then gaining strength and sureness as grief, fear, and wonderment colored her stammering voice. Now and then she stopped, struggling with concepts and memories that she did not understand- machines that operated by magic and spells that drew the lightning from the sky and ground to fuse the separate stones of the Keep's mighty walls. She spoke of battles fought by the mages against the Dark, who would come sweeping down from the Nest in the Vale to the north, of freezing nights torn by the fire and lightning of these combats, of hopelessness and terror, and of cold.

"The Keep had to be built," she said quietly, staring into the darkness of that shadowy room hidden at the heart of the ancient fortress. "Everything was sacrificed to it-fuel, power, energy, magic. It was a cold and bitter winter. The Dark attacked us, night after night, killing or carrying off prisoners alive." She paused, her lips pressed tight to keep them from trembling and her eyes wide with remembered horrors.

"And then?" Ingold's voice was little more than a breath in that still, dark room. The cold light fragmented his lined face into chips of brightness and darkness. As he leaned forward, his moving shadow woke a single blink of brightness from the gray crystal set in the heart of the stone table. "Tell me, Minalde. What means, what weapon, did Dare of Renweth use to combat the Dark? How did he go against them?"

She sat still for a moment, staring into the darkness. Then her eyes widened, until it seemed that only the black pupils showed, dilated within a thin ring of indigo. She shut her eyes and began to weep, deep, heaving sobs that racked her body like the pains of childbirth.

Rudy sprang to his feet with a startled cry. Ingold waved him back and gathered the weeping girl into his arms, stroking the dark, braided head that he held pressed to his shoulder and murmuring words of comfort. Her sobbing quieted but did not stop. The wizard continued to murmur to her, rocking her like a child, and Rudy sensed the slow withdrawal of the spells that had filled the room. The air seemed to change. The scent, the feel, of power dissipated and the dark aura slipped away until Ingold was nothing but a ragged old vagabond, comforting a frightened girl.

Finally Alde sat up a little, her face blotched and swollen. From somewhere about his person, Ingold produced a clean handkerchief to give her.

"Are you all right?" he asked her kindly.

She nodded, her hands still shaking from the violence of her tears, and blew her nose comprehensively. "Why was I crying?" she whispered.

He brushed the wet tendrils of hair back from her face, a father's gesture. "You don't remember?"

She shook her head. Rudy put a gentle hand on her shoulder; her fingers slid around his, and she looked up at him with a wan smile. "Did you-did you learn what you were looking for?"

"We have learned some things of value," the wizard replied after a moment. "Something of the founding of the Keep." He frowned and got to his feet, helping Alde up with a strong, gentle hand. The soft glimmer of the witchlight in the room coalesced into a floating shred of ball lightning, which drifted out the door before them, showing their dusty route through the whispering darkness of the dry gardens.

"But nothing of how humankind defeated the Dark?"

In the bobbing blue light, Ingold's face seemed suddenly harsh. He said quietly, "Perhaps more than we know."

Minalde's experience with forbidden magic yielded other fruits than that ambiguous dread. In her trance she had spoken of caves, where the refugees from the realms in the valleys had lived through that first brutal winter, during the construction of the Keep itself. "And whereas we cannot, of course, tell Alwir how we came to learn of their existence," Ingold said as they returned to the Corps common room, "considering the border war that has been carried on for generations between Gettlesand and Alketch, were Rudy and I to 'discover' these caves, I think things could be much more peaceable in the Keep when the Army of the South arrives."

"The caves would have to be fortified, wouldn't they?" Gil mused, stirring the fire to life and prowling into the dark kitchen in quest of bread and cheese.

"They must have been, if the refugees survived in them until spring." Ingold held out his hands to the warmth of the blaze, the saffron light winking off the brass of his belt buckle and the hilts of sword and dagger. "They would provide a protected camp for our allies-protected not only from the Dark Ones but, I think, from the White Raiders as well."

Rudy shivered. The idle threnody that he had begun to pluck from the strings of his harp fell silent. He had seen too many of the hideous sacrifices that the plains barbarians offered to their ghosts. One would have been too many.

"When Rudy and I go in search of the caves…"

"Rudy and you?" Gil re-emerged from the kitchen and tossed a bannock lightly across the room that the wizard fielded without getting up. "If you plan on meeting the White Raiders, you're going to need me there as well as Rudy. Unless you want another forest fire," she added uncharitably.

"And you aren't leaving me behind." Alde spoke up unexpectedly from the hearth rug, where she had seated herself at Rudy's feet.

Ingold sighed. "This is not a primrosing expedition…"

"Do you really think you could find the place without me?"

So it was that the four of them set out in the morning, searching for a place whose appearance might have shifted radically in the last three thousand years. Ingold chose the cliffs that stretched north of the Keep, on the grounds that the caves that Alde had spoken of seemed to be higher than the rest of the Vale, and both Gil and Alde backed him up. Rudy, who had no opinion on the subject, brought up the rear, his holstered flame thrower slapping at his side, scanning the gloomy woods for any sign of the White Raiders.

Though there was nothing resembling a road from the Keep along the north cliffs, the woods there were not too thick to penetrate, and in places deer trails skirted up the benches and broken ground at the feet of those towering ramparts. The winter woods were silent under the gray, lowering sky. Once Ingold found wolf tracks, several days old; it was the only sign of life, human or animal, that they encountered.

But about a mile from the Keep, Alde stopped and looked through narrowed eyes at a spur of the mountain wall that ended too abruptly and at an irregular rock knoll just beyond. The way they were taking passed between the end of the spur and the knoll, and Rudy searched both in vain for some sign of artificial cutting. He did not have Gil's archaeological training or Minalde's memories- all he saw was trees.

A short way beyond that, Alde stopped again, looking around her. Below the bench on which they stood, a pool was set in a cuplike bay amid the rocks, all but hidden by the gray, tangling branches of a thicket of trees. The cliffs above were low and broken-looking at this point; the bench itself was strewn with boulders and talus spills, dotted with stands of dark-browed pines. It was a desolate-looking place, bleak and sinister, with the black trees of the forest sloping away below them and the beetling rocks shouldering one another above. But Alde looked around her, a slight, puzzled frown on her brow.

"I don't know," she murmured, her breath a faint drift of smoke in the icy air. "But-somehow I think we're here."

"Stands to reason," Gil remarked, tucking her gloved hands into her sword belt and scanning the dreary slopes around them. "There's water here and a break in the geological formation of the cliff that could mean caves underneath."

Minalde's frown deepened and she hugged the thick fur of her cloak more closely around her shoulders. There was a curious expression, both distant and inward, in her cornflower-blue eyes as she followed Gil's gaze along the snow and rock of the jumbled land above them, as if she were comparing what she saw with some inner picture that had been carried for generations in her heart. "There should be a stair…"

The Vale of Renweth

Rudy poked with the iron-shod foot of his staff at the mess of snow and dirt that half-covered the bench. "One good landslide would have taken care of that," he pointed out. "Hell, the cave itself could be buried."

"I don't think so." She turned, her eyes half-shut, tracing the formations of tumbled boulders and jutting, broken cliffs. Then, with sudden decision, she hitched up her heavy cloak and thick skirts and began to climb.

The cave had not been buried, though its single entrance was hidden in a tangled grove of scrub oak and wind-twisted, hoary crabapple trees. "You can see there was a sizable ledge here at one time," Ingold observed as they paused in the low, rounded arch behind the screening trees. "The earthquake that broke it must have carried away the stair." He took his staff by the end and extended it into the darkness of the chamber beyond. Pale light burned off its tip, illuminating curving, water-worn walls and a sandy floor strewn with dead leaves and the frosted bones of some small animal, mauled by foxes. At the far end, the light flashed on the metalwork of a small door, locked as the Keep doors were locked with inner bolts and a ring. The hinges were deep-sunk into the living rock of the walls; the metal was black, hard, and unrusted.

For a moment there was nothing anyone could say. Rudy looked sideways and saw by the wan reflection of the daylight that Aide's eyes were filled with sudden tears.

Then he looked back to that dark door whose memory had faded from all minds but one. The light of Ingold's staff slid coldly over the locking ring as the wizard advanced cautiously into the room and touched the thread-fine runes marked on the black steel that only a wizard could see.

"Well, I'll be damned."

"Govannin certainly thinks so," Gil remarked, following Ingold into the deep, shifting gloom. Alde quickly wiped her eyes and crossed the shadowy threshold, with Rudy bringing up the rear, staff in one hand and flame thrower in the other. Their voices echoed eerily against the low ceiling.

"Sure is lucky for our side," Gil added judiciously, poking at the fox mess in a corner of the cave, "that we didn't find a grizzly holed up here for the winter."

Rudy sniffed scornfully. "If we had, Ida slayed it with mah bowie knife. Then you wimmenfolk coulda skinned it."

"Aaah, you lie like a rug, white man."

"Hey!" he protested, turning. "I'll have you remember I slayed a dragon. Not bad," he added, "for a poor boy who was borned on a mountaintop in Tennessee."

Gil paused in her investigation of the smoke-blackened ceiling and looked at him with new respect. "Even if it is the greenest state in the land of the free," she agreed, nodding gravely. "Was you raised in the woods, then?"

"Gil I knew every tree," Rudy asserted proudly.

"Do you know what they're talking about?" Alde asked quietly of Ingold, who was listening to this interchange in mystified astonishment.

Bemused, the wizard shook his head.

"It's the ancient lore of our people," Gil explained and came to join them beside the locked door, her feet scuffing in the thin sand of the cave floor. "Is the door spelled shut?"

Ingold's mittened hand caressed the smooth steel ring. "Not unbreakably so." In the half-light his face was grave, the ice crystals glittering in his frosted beard. "But these caves have been sealed for centuries. At the time they were in use, they were presumably proof against entrance by the Dark Ones. But that is no guarantee that they have not been entered since."

Gil glanced nervously around her at the murky twilight of the cave. The light at the tip of Ingold's staff began to burn with a stronger, fiercer glow, throwing their shadows black and harsh against the gleaming door.

"You and Alde go back and stand in the light from the cave mouth. Rudy…"

Rudy shook back his long hair from around his face, then bowed his head, standing silently, like something carved of weathered oak, the snow like chips of glass on the bison fur of his collar and cuffs. He had holstered his flame thrower; in his other hand, the razor-edged crescent that tipped his staff began to burn with a white, clear radiance. The brightness drowned the pale daylight, threw sharp blue shadows that outlined Rudy's high cheekbones and broken nose, and cast into prominence the scars and lines that scrawled over Ingold's face like a map of his endless journeyings. In the doubled light of the two staffs, everything had two shadows, darker blue and lighter, midnight and cobalt, and the white glare that beat on those two faces stamped them with sudden, uncanny resemblance.

Ingold reached forward and touched the metal of the door. His blue eyes were half-shut as his hands passed over the shining surface. In the cave's icy cold, the breaths of the two wizards mingled like a dust of diamonds in the searing light. Then with a sudden movement, Ingold's mittened hand closed over the locking ring, twisted it with visible effort, and thrust the door open and inward.

A black hole stared at them, like the eye-pit of Hell. But nothing emerged, neither darkness nor beast not even the cloud of bats that Gil had half-expected. The wizard bent his head to pass the low doorsill and vanished into the room beyond.

They saw his shadow, moving against the streaming brightness of his staff. Then he called out, "Come and see this, my children."

"They lived here?" Alde straightened up as she came through the low door and gazed around the wide, smooth-floored chamber. The twofold glare of the lights had scattered the ancient darkness. Eight monstrous shadow shapes lurched and reeled across the frost-crusted walls as the lights of the wizards' staffs moved. Aide's voice, quieter than was even her usual soft-spoken wont, echoed queerly against the walls of that huge, hollow place.

"Evidently." Gil bent down to touch with cautious fingers what looked like a bundle of grayed, dust-covered rags heaped near the wall. They crumbled to powder, but she said, "See underneath here? Broken dishes. And bones of some kind-rabbit or chicken…"

"Rabbit," Rudy said, looking over her shoulder. He had spent a good portion of his time crossing the desert in learning to identify bones. He moved off, the glowing crescent of his staff throwing a bobbing black shadow close around his feet. "Look, here's a niche where somebody stored something-old bottles, I think." He dropped to one knee and carefully ran the lighted end of the staff into a water-scooped hollow in the wall near the floor. "Yeah, there's broken glass at the back, under a lot of dust and leaves. You notice there are no signs of animals having lived here?"

"It would be more surprising if we did find such signs," Ingold commented from the far end of the cave. He was standing next to what had been a long fissure in the stone, a fissure that had been sealed with a wall of the same black, glassy material that formed the Keep. The wall was pierced by a single locked metal door. "From the looks of this cave, it was carved by the action of an ancient river. These caves lie in a series, walled and locked from one another-a sensible precaution, if there was no telling where and when the Dark Ones might break in. Any crack to the outside, or even to another cave, must of necessity have been sealed off." He came back to where they knelt, his hair shining like sunlit snow in the white dazzle of his staff.

"They sure didn't leave much," Rudy muttered. He moved a few feet off and looked down at the floor, his forehead creased in a sudden frown. "Is that-oil stains?"

"Sure looks like the floor of my mechanic's," Gil observed, following him to where the floor was blotched with round, dark smears. "Look, there are scratches on the floor, and on the wall as well. They stored some kind of machinery here."

"Yeah, but I thought they lived here…"

"They were very crowded," Alde pointed out, tucking her hands for warmth into the rippling black fur of her cloak. Beneath the curve of her braided hair, her eyes had that disquieting remoteness of expression. Rudy felt almost that she might have said, "We were very crowded." She went on. "Thousands made their way up here from the river valleys. There was barely space for them, or food. They lived wherever they could."

"And stored things wherever they could," Gil added thoughtfully, kneeling by another dusty old cache that proved to contain nothing more than crumbling, unrecognizable rags and the broken fragments of several glowstones. "From where the scratches are on the floor, I'd guess this stuff was shoved under a piece of machinery. Look!" she said, turning as she sat on her heels and pointing. "They had something bolted to the ceilings as well." She went back to investigating her dusty midden, clotted with hardened oil and resins, brittle and falling to pieces even under her delicate touch. Ingold came back, holding his staff aloft to illuminate the intermittent double line of bolt-holes in the rock above. Gil went on digging, unearthing stiffened and decayed rags, more broken glowstones, tiny bones, a kettle with holes in its corroded bottom, and, rather surprisingly, two of the frosted gray glass polyhedrons like those they had found in such baffling numbers in the Keep, almost buried under a drift of nameless dust and the mummified sole of a broken sandal.

Rudy traced the stains and scratches along the wall. It was clear that quite a bit of machinery had been stored here. "You know what's funny?" he remarked, turning back to where Ingold. Aide, and Gil remained grouped around Gil's cache. "There's not so much as a scrap of paper."

"Hardly funny," Ingold commented. "It would have taken them a while to get the door built. There was smoke blackening in the fissures of that first cave's roof."

"And what wasn't burned for protection," Minalde added diffidently, "would have been burned later in the winter for warmth."

"With people crowded together like cows in a byre?"

"And besides," Gil tossed out over her shoulder, "didn't you say. Aide, that the records were taken to some kind of Central Library? That means that they weren't all destroyed."

"Not then," Rudy agreed. "But even your toughest paper isn't going to last three thousand years without special treatment, or spells, or something."

Gil sat back on her heels suddenly, speculation sharpening in those frost-gray, crystalline eyes. "Are we talking about paper?"

Rudy paused, frowning, his hands hooked loosely through his gun belt. "What, then? Parchment? Cloth? Plastic?"

"Videotape?" Gil queried softly.

"Videotape?"

"What's videotape?" Alde asked.

Ingold said suddenly, his voice charged with excitement, "Isn't that the-the substance your people record things on and which you put into another machine that calls forth the images from it? You told me about that, Rudy…"

Gil turned, still folded together on her heels, holding the gray glass polyhedrons balanced in the palm of her outstretched hand. Her voice was careless, but in the witchlight her face flamed with the brightening ecstasy of purely intellectual delight. "Yeah," she said casually. "Videotape."

Ingold let out a very un-Archmagelike whoop of delight and fell upon her, folding her, polyhedrons and all, into his arms. Rudy said, "Hunh?" Then, as his mind tardily made the connection, he nodded. "Sweet Holy Mother!"

The wizard hauled Gil to her feet. They were hugging each other and laughing like idiots with delight and scholarly triumph. Gil jabbed a gloved and bony finger at Rudy. "And that's why there are those little crystal tables in those observation rooms near where there are labs or machinery. They put them there so they could read the manuals!"

"You're right!" Rudy yelled, swept away by the blaze of their enthusiasm. "Christ, Gil, you're a genius!" He threw his arms around her and kissed her heartily on the mouth. Carried away by delight, he repeated the process on the mystified Aide. "Hell, with all the wizards in the Keep, there's got to be somebody who can figure out how to get them working!"

Then they were all talking at once, as if a time limit had been placed upon their words. In gabbling chorus, Rudy and Gil explained the theory behind videotape to Minalde, Ingold speculated upon the connection between the tables and the crystals, and Gil cursed her own stupidity for not having come to her conclusions sooner. In the dual radiance of the wizards' staffs, her sharp, sensitive face seemed to glow, the glacial reserve breaking to reveal the curious, eager beauty that lurked beneath its deceptive surface. Minalde, catching the fever from the others, was already drawing up plans for assembling and sorting the crystals from the far corners of the Keep and for categorizing them, her white, slender hands sweeping the air as if she would summon them all before her by gesture alone. For a moment it was as if the future's darkness had been wiped away, as if no parting, no danger, no loss, existed beside the triumph and hope they shared. Arms linked around one another's necks in a kind of mutual hug, they trooped, laughing, into the pale grayness of the outer cave.

Then they stopped short, as if they had been stunned. Silhouetted against the latticed light in the cave's mouth, silent as the shadow that, for the moment, was all he seemed, was a White Raider.

Ingold's staff moved to check Gil's sword arm in the same instant that his other hand closed on Rudy's wrist. "No," he told them softly. "If the Raiders had wanted us dead, we would never have seen them."

For a long moment the Raider did not move, an enigmatic blue shape against the matte brightness beyond. The shadows hid his expression, but a cold gleam of reflected daylight slid along the ivory braids as he tilted his head, like a leopard at leisure on a branch, making up its mind about an approaching deer. A little knife of wind rattled the tangled trees outside and ruffled at the wolf pelts he wore.

Then he said, "My people are right," in a light, breathless voice that shocked Gil by its familiarity. "They say that it takes a brave man to befriend a Wise Man; and so it seems."

Gil cried, " Icefalcon !"

"Your people are right," Ingold said formally, though a deep delight had begun to dance in his eyes. "It seems that the talisman I gave you, the Rune of the Veil, brought danger rather than safety with it, since Stiarth of Alketch contrived to murder you for it. I am pleased to see that his efforts were attended by the usual degree of success that one has in trying to kill Raiders."

The Icefalcon stepped into the cave. He was as thin as a starved wolf, wind-bronzed, yet that same aloof, faintly arrogant captain of the Guards whom Alwir had sent to bear the messages to the Empire of Alketch.

He looked down his cool nose at Gil. "Do I take this delight to mean that there was money in the barracks on my survival?" he inquired.

She grinned. "Not a copper. We'd given you up."

Feigned concern widened the colorless eyes. "Not reassigned my bunk to someone else?"

Gil shook her head regretfully. "No one would take it. Even after Janus swore by all that's holy that it had been fumigated."

Anyone less haughty would have grinned, but Gil could tell by his eyes that he was pleased to see her. "And what is this thing?" he asked, indicating the flame thrower with a flick of his fingers.

With a flourish, Rudy drew, aimed at the far wall, and let loose a leaping column of fire that splattered from the stone and left a great charred patch.

"Random," was all the Icefalcon said. He turned back to Ingold, leaving Rudy stuttering with indignation.

The wind had turned icy when they emerged from the cave, stinging their faces and blowing brief, hard flurries of sleet down from the darkening sky. It clattered in the small bones that the Icefalcon had braided into his long hair. Boiled and picked clean, Gil thought, but disconcertingly like…

"Are those human handbones?"

His enigmatic eyes looked almost silver against the gold windburn of his face. "When I became a Guard," he said inconsequentially, "I vowed that I would become a civilized person and learn to fight honorably in a civilized fashion. These are the bones of a man who came upon me when I lay near death, after our civilized friend Stiarth of Alketch- parted company from me, I begged this man for water and he stole my boots and my cloak." The Icefalcon shrugged. 'Later my sisters and brothers, the barbarians of the White Lakes People, found me and healed me, and I rode with them for a time, though their people and mine were enemies in the plains. They helped me to-recover my cloak and boots."

A sleety gust of wind rattled the bones in his hair.

Gil stopped and raised her head to listen, having caught some sound over the growing cry of the wind. The straggling ends of her braided black hair fluttered around her face in the streaming currents of cold air that some trick of the cliffs' geology funneled through the gap between that oddly broken rock spur and the knoll. From here the Keep was visible, stabbing like a fractured bone end through the mucky wound of turned-up dirt, mud, fences, and trash that surrounded it.

"Is that- thunder?" she asked.

The others were also listening now to that faint, deep roar that underlay the keening of the wind like a bass note. The high shriek of the coming storm drowned it; then it sounded again, a throbbing in the air, more felt than heard.

Ingold drew his hood over his head. "At a guess," he said quietly, "it is the drums of the Army of Alketch. They should be on the road up the mountains now, and they will be at the Keep itself tomorrow."

The party in the barracks was long over. Gill wasn't certain how late the Icefalcon's welcome-home festivities had broken up, or even whether it was still last night or this morning. In the darkness of the Keep, time had little meaning, and here, in the hidden lower levels, there was not even the solitary tread of a patrolling Guard to mark the watches of day and night.

On the black stone table before her lay two heaps of crystals-frost-gray polyhedrons the size and shape of the glowstones, of a material identical to that of the table's circular central inset. She wondered why that had never occurred to her before.

From the larger pile she took a crystal at random, sighed, and automatically scratched the number 14 on the wax note tablet that lay at her elbow. Then she set the crystal before her, covering it with both her hands, and repeated in a clear, painstaking voice the words that Minalde had spoken in her trance, the words of unlocking. The sharp edges of the polygon pressed into her palms as she leaned forward to look into the table's faintly glowing core.

For a moment she saw nothing but the edge of her own huge shadow lying across the table and the dim reflected gleam of the light of the single glowstone she'd brought here with her. Around her, the black walls of the observation chamber formed a narrow circle of darkness. The silence was absolute. She cleared her mind, as Ingold had instructed her, stared into the angles of the crystal's heart, and waited.

Then something glittered deep below her, a flash of brightness that resolved itself into the blinding flicker of sunlight on water. Like dark knife blades, oars broke the blazing wake, and she saw a barge, carved over every inch of its surface and riding low in the smooth water under the weight of its own gilding. The oars stroked again, and the sun smote Gil's eyes. The colors seemed to intensify. Bright-hued birds flew up in startled explosions from the lotus patches that grew thick on the marshy shores. The barge put about, banking neatly before water-stairs of black-veined pink marble.

There was movement on the stairs, eerily silent, of men and women naked to the waist, their bronzed shoulders darkly gleaming under jeweled collars and pectorals. The breeze from across the lagoon rippled in the elaborate frills and tuckings of long gauze skirts and shifted the rainbow-dyed curls of servants who bore a carrying chair whose design Gill half-recognized. The style was sinuous, carved with winding lines of hearts, eyes, and diamonds, like the furniture she and Alde had found in the most ancient storerooms in the Keep.

Gil was not sure whether this was an intelligence report, a documentary, a manual, or the opening chapters of a novel, or what the date was, or the historical context. But she knew that she looked into the Times Before.

A haughty bishop descended from the barge, the Earth Cross of the Faith embroidered in bullion and sardonyx on the edges of his frilled white loincloth. Jewels flashed from white, unworked hands and from the earlobes and nostrils; people moved about, amid a bobbing of ostrich plumes; some kind of rite was clearly in progress. Gil noted that, though the bishop was shaven bald, all the others wore their hair as long as they could, braided into elaborate coiffures such as Minalde wore on ceremonial occasions, plumed, flowered, or jeweled. Beneath the eye paint and rouge, the faces of the audience on the steps looked bored to death, and Gil saw that they flirted among themselves whenever the bishop's head was turned, or else covertly eyed one another's outfits.

Govannin's words came back to her, with the memory of soft chanting among the tiered darkness of the great Sanctuary. I have heard that the men of the Times Before were evil and that in their pride and their splendor they practiced abominations … One man in a padded, sunshine-yellow silk loincloth produced an ivory eyebrow comb and made minute adjustments with the aid of a mirrored ring on his little finger. A youth with lilies coiled in his blue-dyed hair noticed him and blew him a kiss. Sunlight glittered on the waters of the lagoon; parrots fluttered among the garlands that hung the marble colonnade along the shore. Gold flashed on the bishop's white, upraised hands.

Beyond the pillars, past the myrtle trees and arbors of roses, Gil had a glimpse of mountains, blue and close and shawled with a thin lace of snow…

Mountains she had seen before.

Where?

It was difficult to be sure because of the trees and the domes and turrets of the city in the distance. But a sense of familiarity pulled at her-a memory of ruined streets, of fallen and smoke-blackened walls, and of the buzzing, crawling stink of decay. Hadn't she turned to look over her shoulder once, her bones aching with the jarring jog of the exhausted cart horse she rode? Hadn't she glimpsed those mountains, standing just so, above the corpse of a despoiled city?

Those were the mountains that stood above the plain of Gae.

Frowning, Gil turned her eyes from the crystal at the center of the table, and the bright images before her died.

She sat for a long moment, staring into the darkness that seemed to press upon her from the walls of that narrow room.

This isn't how it's supposed to be , she told herself numbly. We were supposed to find the ancient records of the Times

Before, and there it would be in black and white or in this case in living color – the Answer. How to Demolish Dark Ones. (See: Secret Weapons, Specs. Appendix A.)

But of course that's stupid. When the Dark Ones hit, civilization probably lost all capability of making record crystals. There won't be any of these made after the coming of the Dark.

She pressed her hands to her head, her fingers tangling in her coarse, unruly hair, her palms cold against her scalp. Why do I care ? she wondered, rather rhetorically, for she knew perfectly well why she cared. I'm going to be leaving this bloody universe to its own devices in a little under ten days, and the whole thing should be nothing to me .

But the thought of leaving, rather than bringing her joy as it once had done, stabbed her with nostalgia and a kind of hurtful, ambiguous grief. She fought a weak longing to bury her face in her arms and weep. Instead, she picked up a stick of charcoal, marked the number 14 on the bottom of the latest crystal, and etched on her tablet, "14-relig. crmny- Gae?"

Hard work is the novocaine of the soul.

"Spook?"

She looked up to see Rudy silhouetted against the darkness of the doorway. He hesitated in the narrow aperture, his Aztec cheekbones and broken nose thrown into curious, craggy shadows by the pallid light of the glowstone, his coarse, homespun shirt sleeves pale against his sheepskin vest. In a fit of annoyance against the multiple layerings of shin, tunic, breeches, surcoat, doublet, and cloak, Rudy had recently reconstructed a sort of ski vest for himself that would keep him warm but leave his arms free for work in the labs. In a reminiscence of his old Pachuco days, he'd painted on its back his private omen, a child's hand clutching a flowering branch, barbaric yet strangely beautiful, in a circle of stars.

"Did you- did you find anything?" he asked hesitantly.

For an answer, Gil flung her stylus against the opposite wall. "Nothing," she whispered. "Bloody nothing. There wasn't one of these things made after the coming of the Dark."

Rudy was silent, He, too, had expected to find the answer cross-indexed under World. Saving of .

"Christ, Rudy, what are we going to do?"

"Do?" His voice was suddenly bitter and grating. "We're going to get the hell out of here before the ax falls. We meant to do that once, remember?"

"And never know?" she asked.

He closed his eyes, fighting pain with cynicism, the only weapon he had ever had. "And never know," he affirmed quietly.