The Blinding of The Witch

__________________

By: Christopher T. Shields

16980 Words

 

Awarded

Best Novelette

Robert Adams Memorial Writing Contest

CoastCon XV, Saturday, March 28, 1992

 

 

The pre-dawn air was cool and sharp when it entered their hot lungs. The domesticated mounts whined and plodded about aimlessly until their riders would pull the reins and draw the mount back. Hot vapor flew in large clouds from the flared nostrils of the animals. There were six of them now, the Isrun and his entourage, milling about and resting from a hard ride here in the garden of the House.

Wihs and Milda sat on their mounts, an arm length separating them, talking and boasting of adventures and tall deeds of past, passing and sharing between them a hide bag of spring water and a thick sprig of dried spice root. Rytul was further away, the distance of six breaths at full gallop, taking his mount on a slow step along the edge of the woods near the House, looking for any signs of ambush or brigands.

Mhu'Dar, once the best friend of the dead Ahirsu TahShal, the Isrun's father, sat in his mount, not an arm's reach from Grihsa, a tall, hardened fighter from across the Far Sea. Grihsa grunted softly again and Mhu'Dar turned in his saddle to regard the man.

Grihsa looked bored, his hand gripping the hilt of his long sword as his other hand stroked the mane of his mount. He turned to ask his Isrun a question, saw that the Isrun was preoccupied, and thought better of it. He continued to stroke his mount and stare at the House. His stomach rumbled. It was past the time for the evening meal and he was not looking forward to a forced ride on an empty stomach.

"Bother." Grihsa said at last to Mhu'Dar, turning to the older man. "Why must we wait on the return of that woman? Why not just stop and rest?"

Mhu'Dar lowered his head slightly.

"Vahes will return shortly and then we will rest. If she does not return, then I would worry less about your sleep, and more about how well you swing your sword."

Grihsa grunted.

"I have ridden with that woman for hands and more of days now and still I do not trust her."

Mhu'Dar smiled and slowly shook his head.

"Trust is a hard thing to come by in times such as these, my friend. I think that the principle of this argument does not revolve around the fact that you don't trust her ..."

"Oh?" Asked Grihsa, as he regarded the older man from his saddle.

"No. I think that it is more the reason that you can't understand why she won't lie beside you and let you have your way with her."

Grihsa grunted again and turned his head to face the horizon. He thought about asking the Isrun for permission to dismount, but the Isrun looked preoccupied and besides, old Mhu'Dar had struck a nerve in Grihsa that Grihsa hadn't considered to be there. Maybe he was just jealous, and mistaking his jealousy for a lack of confidence in Vahes. He decided that when he had time, and a full belly, that he would try to decide what it really was that he didn't like about Vahes.

Isrun TahShal was indeed preoccupied. His gaze traveled from the horizon to the heavens. The night time sky promised to be beautiful this time of year in this part of the land, and Isrun TahShal was looking forward to the view afforded from the imaging rooms of the House, not twice a hundred paces from where he sat in his mount. Already the purple clouds were moving toward the far horizon and none had appeared to take their place. Truly a clear night was upon them.

Isrun TahShal shielded his eyes against the glare of the rising morning sun with his hand and turned his head to gaze at the horizon. The country that he and his followers traveled was turning flat the closer to the sea. Now, he awaited on one of his party to return. Vahes, a loyal retainer to his father, she had volunteered to stay behind and see if they were being pursued. Now, the sound of hooves filled the springtime air and a rider appeared atop a nearby hill, moving downward at a leisurely pace toward the entourage. The gait of her mount signaled that there was no one following them. TahShal sighed and lowered his hand, dismounting and leading his mount toward the stables of the House.

"We'll stay here for the daynight in the House. The Yhimm Sea is within walking distance. We rest in the House of Twilight this daynight, and tomorrow we ride for Valdama." TahShal informed his entourage.

The four other men dismounted, and started to lead their mounts toward the stables.

Finally, Grihsa thought, food and rest.

Rytul completed his sweep of the grounds and turned his mount toward the stables when he saw that the others were already headed that way.

"Aye and Hells . . . . The House of Twilight?" He thought to himself. "If the Isrun is not mistaken, then I have not been paying attention and we are much farther along the Atyull Coast than I thought."

But Rytul's thoughts were his own, and he voiced them not to the others.

 

Less than a hundred breaths later, Vahes trotted up behind the six others and dismounted thirty paces back, walking her mount and resting it. Beside her mount, she looked domineering. As tall as a man, built like a princess, with the courage and strength of a warrior, and the grace of an athlete. She would still be considered beautiful by many, despite the eye patch that she wore over her left eye, and the pale scar that ran from her scalp down the left side of her lip, crossing the socket of her left eye and neatly dividing her eyebrow with a barely noticeable ridge of scar tissue. Her long platinum hair was tied back into a tail, and then braided and shackled with metal bands spaced evenly to the large end knot that touched the lower back.

Her armor fit her the way that a dress would fit most women, hand tailored for her by the finest armor smiths in her land of Illiam. Black, the color of a clear night, and intricately carved with designs and runes. The material of the armor itself was a lightweight composite known only to her people, stronger than plate, yet lighter than mail. Between the joints of the armor could be seen the finest of mesh, tiny ringlets bonded together to hold the larger pieces together, yet allow freedom of movement. At her shoulders were clasps for her cloak, and at her waist was a woven hide belt to which her saber and her fighting blade were sheathed, both of comparable quality and material as her armor. Of jewelry she wore none, nor did she care for such wastes of time as facial powder, lip dye, or scented oils. Such things were reserved for royalty and peasants, not warriors. For in combat, the artificial smell of a flower not of the region, or the flash off of a precious stone, could be all that an enemy needed to track you down in the wild.

Vahes had been a loyal retainer for the TahShal family since the Isrun's father and his brother Arith had freed her people and her native land from the slavery of the Ithgu and their Witch queen, TahRynna. She had fought in the campaigns against TahRynna and her Ithgu. She had swung blades and flown arrows into the enemies of her people. Her prowess in battle were well documented, and that was what had originally brought her before Ahirsu TahShal. He had been most intrigued at her courage and skills. For the final phases of the liberation, she had fought right along side the Ahirsu's son, becoming more of his personal guard and retainer than a mere soldier. After the campaign was complete, and her people were once again free, she had asked Ahirsu TahShal to allow her to accompany him back to his land and he had agreed. In return, she had pledged herself to his service, and the service of his family for the rest of her life.

Now, the royal family was dead, murdered on orders by the Ahirsu's own brother, Arith. Orders carried out by the traitorous Legions that pledged loyalty to Arith. Vahes had seen the Ahirsu and Dihirsu die, at the House of Seasons. Indeed, she had been at their side protecting them, fighting against the Legions of Arith when they finally found the royal family, and she would have died there with them had not the Ahirsu ordered her to warn the Isrun of his own uncle's treachery. She remembered to a letter the Ahirsu's last words to her when she had protested that she would not leave him to die, that she would not run from a fight while he and the queen stood side by side with swords in hand to cover her withdrawal.

"As you would give your life to stay, if but for a short time, the taking of my life, I tell you now to spare your life. As you have stood beside me here, I now tell you to stand beside my son, for he is the last hope of this lineage and of this land. Spare yourself, let my lady and I die together for such is as it was meant to be. If you must give your life up for the House of TahShal, then let your life be taken as you stand beside my son, Rhai. Go now, do this in my memory and on my last wishes. Go now, and leave us to say our good-byes."

Vahes, torn between duty and honor, had obeyed the last wishes of the Ahirsu and procured a mount from the stables, finding saddle and harness, pack and bridle for the mount, provisions and her personal gear. With a kick of her spurred armored boots, she had left the House of Seasons under darkness and the clouded night time sky, hidden under her cloak of invisibility. There had been no moon that night, only the promise of storm clouds and the occasional flash of lightning.

The Ahirsu and his remaining troops held the Legions of Arith off long enough for Vahes to ride to safety. She had watched from a safe vantage point as the Legions of Arith closed in and smashed the battlements of the House of Seasons, storming the walls, and slaying everyone within. The House of Seasons had burned that night, burned brightly until the dawn when nothing was left but smoldering embers and pale wisps of smoke. That was when Vahes turned her mount and rode for the Far Sea.

Isrun TahShal was returning from the Themin Islands where he had been victorious in the defeat of the Salai. The Isrun was looking forward to a glorious ceremony welcoming him home and the consolidation of his power in the rule of the Themin Islands and the surrounding regions.

Such was not to be.

Vahes arrived only hours before a reinforced Legion of Arith did. The remaining troops that were loyal to the house of TahShal died in the port city of Ires when the Legion of Arith swept down from the hills and through the city. Cavalry and foot soldiers went from house to house slaying and burning. The troop carriers and the warships that were anchored in the port were set ablaze and sent to the bottom of the bay, one vessel with half her crew still in the barracks hold, trapped.

During the bloody melee that followed, Isrun TahShal, seven of his most loyal retainers, and Vahes managed to seek refuge in the mountains surrounding the port. There was Mhu'Dar, Ahirsu TahShal's best friend and advisor to the Isrun. Grihsa, a good soldier who left the thinking to those more capable of it than he. Rytul, a quiet man who was a member of the Ahirsu's scouts, and a tracker. Wihs, a young soldier, who experience had not yet taught the lessons of life and death. Milda, captain of the guard, was another soldier who had accompanied the Isrun in his journeys. Grehn, a hardened warrior whom Ahirsu TahShal had decorated personally for acts of courage and honor above and beyond the call of duty. And Jiku, the only other Illiam soldier in the group.

Vahes' lover, Jiku.

Since then, Vahes, the Isrun, and the others had been on the run, a situation that Vahes felt far from comfortable with. She felt strange when she left a battle, such was not sitting well with the spirit of the warrior in her. It was not right to run from a battle, though it meant certain death to stay and fight. The philosopher and the thinker in her had to reason ideas and values out with the warrior persona inside her. The thinker and philosopher usually won the arguments, though that didn't make the warrior feel any better.

It was Vahes that began to suspect that there might be a spy within the entourage itself, though most here were beyond question, still the thought remained. The Legion of Arith couldn't have followed her to the port, she was too careful that night. And since they had left Ires, it was just too coincidental for Legionnaires to lie in ambush for them along roads and trails that only those in the entourage knew they were going to take. It wasn't until two hands of days ago, when a reinforced brace of armored Legionnaires managed to ambush them in the High Steppes that Vahes began to truly wonder. No one could have followed their trail, and yet the Legionnaires were ahead of them, waiting. The group had been split in two, scattered. Vahes, the Isrun, Grihsa, and Rytul had all stayed together and managed to fight their way out of the trap.

The others hadn't been so lucky.

That fight had cost the lives of two of the entourage, Grehn and Jiku, both good fighters and strong men. Mhu'Dar had been wounded, and barely escaped with his life while trying to save the lives of Jiku and Grehn. Wihs and Milda had lost Mhu'Dar in the fight but later found him, alone, almost about to fall from his mount, with a spent bolt through his left thigh. The three of them had regrouped with the Isrun and the surviving entourage five hours later, near dark. There was the feeling of loss shared among the entourage, as they did what they could for Mhu'Dar, removing the barbed bolt, and binding his wounds.

And something more, for Jiku had thrice been Vahes' lover during the past hand of weeks, and the loss was especially felt by her, felt where no wound could ever show.

Her mind slipped back to a hand of days before, when she and the others had thought that they had put the Legions far behind them. That was when they had stopped on a hill to rest, and they had seen the dark patch far in the distance, a dark patch that was moving, with the sound of hundreds of hooves striking the ground. Moving toward them at a sure pace, gaining ground. An armored, mounted Legion of Arith, one thousand soldiers. That was when she knew that there had to be a spy within the entourage itself, and that spy was close to the Isrun, riding with them in the entourage.

They had eluded pursuit for almost a hand of days now, taking lesser known paths and trails, to arrive at the House. Here they would rest, and here Vahes would discover who it was that was betraying them at their every move.

 

The House was one of many, each built near a site of the Ancient Ones. The original purpose of the Houses was to act as a shelter for the philosophers and thinkers that came to ponder the mysteries of the Ancient Ones, and although each House was built using the most advanced techniques known to the engineers of the land, none of the Houses compared to the construction techniques of the Ancient Ones. Sights that were key observation points to watch the seas, others at altitude in the mountains to watch the heavens above or keep vigil over the plains below. Others were built next to technological and engineering marvels of the Ancient Ones, marvels such as the huge glass bottom lake to the far north, or the vast Ruins that leaned away from the lake at an angle that no man would have built. Such mysteries and their meaning had eluded the most gifted minds in the land, back when there had been time for peaceful and idle study.

The interior of the House was richly draped in tapestries depicting the various constellations and the seasonal movements of the stars in the heavens. Over the main chamber, the ceiling was vaulted, with a clear dome set into the roof. Here, one could sit and watch the stars and their movements, or there were individual cubicles for meditation that provided the same view. Balconies and gardens overflowed with an abundance of fragrant, colorful vegetation.

There were no servants, like many Houses, the structure was built for the people, and open to all. Water flowed from an underground fresh water spring, through the center of the structure, and along ducting and pipes to various water closets, collection vases, and fountains. Fresh fruit and vegetables were grown in the gardens, free for the taking by a weary, hungry traveler. If Arith came to power, such places of tranquility and peace would surely cease to be.

There was the sound of laughter coming from the common chamber and Vahes found herself being carried that way. Laughter, it was something that she hadn't heard in a long time, so strange now to hear it, almost like for the first time. So rich were the carpets and rugs that covered the halls that her armored feet made no sound as she walked.

As she entered the common chamber, she noticed that the evening meal was already prepared and halfway eaten. Grihsa had managed to bring down a herbivore in the nearby forest and the smell of cooked meat, covered in a flavored sauce filled the room. Mhu'Dar, sat at the head of the table, while Rytul sat in a far corner, again by himself, as the silent man preferred to be. Wihs and Milda were arm wrestling, using portions of food as wagers and hearty sized tankards of fermented fruit juice as the reward for victory.

Vahes helped herself to a portion of cooked wild herbivore and a finely etched cup filled with the juice of several sweet fruits taken from the House garden. She noticed that the Isrun was lost in thought as he gazed at the tapestries hanging on the wall, woven charts from astronomers and men of high education. Every now and then the Isrun would look up from a tapestry to the transparent ceiling and slowly turn his head as if he were getting his bearings on which star was that, and how its position was applied to the tapestry in front of him.

Vahes could not understand such idle use of the mind. It was a difficult concept to become sentimental over the sight of the sun setting, or the smell of a flower, or the shape of a cloud, or the sight of snow atop a mountain. Such things were beyond her and no matter how much the philosopher and thinker in her tried to educate the warrior part of her in these ways, the warrior refused to understand. Sometime in the future, she thought, she would give up trying to make herself understand these things.

"So, my Isrun, why meet we here in council?" Asked Mhu'Dar, as he sat down upon a cushion.

The sounds of the wildlife drifted out of the forest, and flowed over the balcony, caught by the architecture of the House, and amplified in the domes and vaulted ceilings. Isrun TahShal stood before those seated before him. Of the others, only Rytul and Vahes chose to stand, and they at opposite ends of the balcony.

"We must move on at morning. There is little time to rest here." He said.

The others murmured softly.

"But the mounts, they are hard ridden. A few more hands of days like this and we shall surely be walking!" Wihs stated.

"True." The Isrun countered, placing his hand upon his chin in thought. "We may need to find new, fresh mounts before then."

"Where are we going to find fresh mounts?" Grihsa asked, yawning and covering his mouth so that his words were barely understandable.

Vahes stepped forward, into the illumination given off from the interior of the House.

"We can ride for Valdama. There, we can find fresh mounts and provisions, and time to breathe easy." She said.

Mhu'Dar stepped into the light also, shaking his head.

"Valdama is in the opposite direction, toward the Legions and along the paths and roads that they are searching! Are you mad? You would lead us right into the very hands of those that we are seeking to out think?"

The others talked in hushed tones among themselves as the Isrun nodded, more to himself than to anything that had been said. His thoughts were his, and he did not share them with the others. Vahes turned to Mhu'Dar.

"It makes sense, though it is tactically an idea of the stupid. We ride against the Legions, not away from them. We ride into them, through them, and hole up, waiting for them to pass us by, then we merely strike off in a new direction, unseen and far behind the Legions that seek us in vain where we have never been." She explained.

"And what if the plan does not work? What if we are caught or sighted? If we are in the middle of the Legions when we are sighted, then the front of the Legion will swing back and catch us in a pinch with the after and we will be slaughtered. I myself, though I am a proficient soldier, cannot boast in honesty that I can out fight a whole Legion myself." Milda stated. "Maybe half a Legion, but not as a whole . . ."

The others nodded, glad for the bit of humor that Milda had interjected into the dire conversation.

The Isrun stepped forward and spoke.

"What Vahes says is a gamble, but if we can let the Legion pass us, then we are not pursued anymore. If the Legion is in front of us, chasing wild, then we can take our time, and plan our moves more carefully. With the Legion at our backs, there is little we can do but press forward until another Legion appears on the horizon and we are crushed between the hordes. If such were to happen, there would be no chance for escape. No! I say that we stand now, and turn to face the enemy! May we ride through them like they were not there, and laugh at their back as they pass us in the night. Let my uncle send his men on wild chases, for I am smarter than he gives reason to think. I will not be out thought, out maneuvered by a murderous old man who thinks that he has more right to the throne than I!"

"Well said, my Isrun!" Mhu'Dar added.

"If the Isrun thinks this mad plan will work, then I ride with him." Milda said.

"As will I. I pledged my self to be at your side, and I will be there, Legion come or not." Wihs said.

"I, for one, still think that this plan is for the mad, but ride with you I will. There is no honor in letting your friends face death alone. Better to die together, than to live alone." Grihsa grumbled.

"And you, Rytul, what is your say in this matter?" Mhu'Dar asked of the man standing alone in the far corner of the dimly lit balcony.

Rytul continued to look out into the forest as he spoke, never turning to face those that he rode with.

"Cowardice is its own reward." Rytul said softly. "To lose all honor, that is the beginning of death."

"The man speaks in riddles . . ." Wihs said quietly.

"He speaks the truth." Vahes said. "There is no greater honor than loyalty to those that you have pledged fidelity."

Rytul said nothing, but continued to watch the forest below, his head nodded slightly.

"What does that mean?" Mhu'Dar asked quietly, looking around the balcony at the others and finally to Vahes.

"He rides with us, but in his way. He rides first and fights first and if any of us are to die in battle, he chooses to be first to do so. That is the meaning of the proverb that he quoted." She said.

And it was then that Vahes knew that Rytul was not the one that could be betraying them.

"I see. He says that he will out do the likes of us all in battle, and that if there is a need, he will be the first to fill it. Aye, the man rides with us, if he does not put us all to shame by our own actions! I'll fight by Rytul's side at any calling." Wihs said.

"Then it is settled. We ride in the morning for Valdama. Make your peace and take all the rest that you can, for tomorrow we do what the enemy thinks that we will not."

The entourage slipped into uneasy and hushed conversation then, a few of them drifting off into the halls of the House to prepare for the evening. Vahes stood by the stone railing of the balcony, looking back the way that they had come. The Isrun bid goodnight to Wihs, with whom he had been talking at length, and approached. Vahes heard his footfalls, even upon the deep cloth of the floors. She turned to him as he stood beside her.

"It will be last light soon, and then must follow all darkness." he ventured.

"Aye. It is not safe to be on these roads with no light, but that is not why you approached me here, my Isrun." she replied, nodding.

Isrun Tahshal shook his head and smiled.

"No, Vahes. I was merely curious."

"Of what, my Isrun. Surely you are more learned than I." she replied.

"Yes, though I do not brag of my education in the face of others less fortunate than I."

"Spoken like a Isrun would speak, forthwell." Vahes said, turning to face the Isrun.

"I am curious. You said that Rytul was quoting a proverb, but you only explained the last part of the proverb to the others." He said.

Vahes nodded, turning to look at the Isrun.

"You are as perceptive as your father."

"His chair will be a hard one to sit in." The Isrun said softly, lowering his head.

"You will fill his chair more easily than you think. There is more to you than even you yourself can see, my Isrun."

"You flatter me, Vahes, when I deserve no praise. But I task you, tell me what Rytul meant by saying that 'cowardice has its own reward.'"

Vahes nodded, gathering a breath with which to speak.

"He says that if there is battle, then he will not be the last to fight, thereby being the one who runs from the fight."

"It is said that cowards are generally the last to die, what of a coward's reward?"

"Rytul means that if he dies, he will be the first to fall, and therefore the first in hell. He wishes it to be that way so that he may welcome us all to hell when we get there." She said.

"And the reward?" The Isrun asked.

"He gets to shut the gates of hell on the coward, and refuse him entrance, thus must the coward wander the other world for all eternity, alone, enjoying the reward of his labors . . ."

In the distance, a storm front was consolidating. The horizon lit up in pale flashes of lightning, and thunder too far away to be heard. The storm would be upon them in less than a hand of days.

Rytul excused himself from the rest of them and took up his position as first watch at the entrance to the House, leaning against a large column and folding his arms. The rest of the entourage took this as a general sign that time was approaching to settle down. Each went to the sunken guest closet and removed a pair of colored blankets and a comfortable pillow on which to rest for the night. They arranged their beddings in a way that no one would be beyond reach if danger should awaken them, and in such a way that not one of their sides was blind.

"Place your weapons in such a way so that you may quickly find them in the dark . . . ." Grihsa said aloud to the others as he adjusted his pillow to suit himself.

"Aye . . ." Rytul said from the door, not turning to venture a glance inside the House.

"Is it a good wish for the night?" Wihs asked absently, his entire body from toe to top of head covered with a blanket, only his face visible beneath the fabric.

"It is a proverb." Vahes said softly, and the others turned to look at her.

"It is an ancient proverb of the Illiam, my people." She added as she closed her eyes.

The warm afternoon breeze swept over the balcony and wafted through the House, cooled by the cold of the stone, until it was a comfortable temperature. Sleep came at last to her, and as Vahes drifted off into sleep, she thought of Jiku, and the touch of his embrace now forever lost. She imagined that if she could lie just once more in his arms at that instant when two lovers became one she felt that then, perhaps, she could just begin to understand. She felt that she could truly realize how someone might look at snow atop a mountain and think of it as being something other than snow atop a mountain.

 

A hand touched her softly against her cheek and Vahes came instantly awake, her eyes snapping open to fix upon the figure kneeling beside her. Vahes' hand went to the hilt of her sheathed saber at the same instant that instincts gave way to senses, and senses to common sense. Her eyes adjusted to the night and she saw Rytul kneeling beside her.

Jiku was gone forever . . . .

"My watch is past, my lady. I wake you with confidence that nothing has occurred and all is as it should be."

"Aye. As is should be." She said, sitting up.

Vahes' watch had come sooner than she thought it would. Her body protested her awakening by Rytul, but she didn't complain. She affixed her sheathed saber to her belt, straightening her cloak, running her hands through her hair, and fastening the clasps of her armor tight.

"Are you fit to stand and watch?" Rytul asked, whispering so as not to wake the others.

"Aye." Vahes replied, standing and walking to the entrance to the House.

"Rest while you may. Rest what you can." She said in parting.

"Aye. Luck and good be of all." Rytul replied as he walked into the common chamber.

The cool late afternoon air brought clearness to her muddled thoughts. The absence of sleep and the specter of exhaustion seemed to further fade with each cool breath. The smell of the forest, the scent of dew on the ground, all mixed to form a perfume the likes of which Vahes was sure that no one could ever duplicate. She looked back down the long hall once, to see Rytul take up a position with his back to the wall, covering himself with a blanket, and gripping his sword. The man loosened his armor and leaned his head forward. In a few moments, his breathing had become steady and Vahes knew that rest had come.

Lastlight was upon the House. The sun was setting over the trees, rays of final light filtering through the overgrowth like vast spears. Vahes sighed and tried to clear her thoughts, but the waters of her mind kept clouding over. The thinker and philosopher in her were arguing again.

Then she heard the fall of feet on padded carpeting and the thinker and philosopher became silent, cowering behind the warrior which had risen up to quiet their bickering, and to bring her body to readiness.

Her back to the huge column, her thoughts elsewhere, Vahes barely heard the muffled footsteps approaching from down the hall. She came to alertness instantly, and cursed herself for not having her thoughts with her. Warrior ways and breeding rose within her as Vahes slid silently backwards, melding into the shadows, and wrapping her cloak about her. Instantly, the Witch shroud enveloped her, bending light around her body, and letting her become invisible.

She waited, hand on her saber hilt, the hide catch strap undone, the other hand holding the cloak over her, as the footsteps came closer. She almost sighed when Mhu'Dar appeared at the entrance to the House, but something in her senses told her not to drop her Witch shroud, something was wrong, and her instincts were warning her of that which her eyes could not.

The warrior in her, instincts over thought, action over hesitation.

Mhu'Dar looked to each side, carefully, as if he were searching for her. Satisfied that she was not around, Mhu'Dar moved on out into the courtyard, turning his head slowly to look at his surroundings, like he was looking for someone or something in particular, being very particular to look at everything, taking all in at a long sweeping glance. Satisfied, then Mhu'Dar had started down the road toward the sea.

Vahes, trying to reason out a cause for Mhu'Dar's actions and finding none, let her instincts take over and suspicion rise. She moved back inside the entrance, dropped her shroud and became visible again. She moved over to Rytul, softly, not making a sound. Rytul was sleeping, and she squatted beside him, placing her hand gently over his mouth as he came instantly awake, his hand moving for his sword.

Rytul, seeing who it was, relaxed just a little, and Vahes nodded to him, slowly removing her hand from his mouth. He knew that it was she that would speak first.

"Stand watch." She whispered near his ear. "Mhu'Dar has gone for a walk and I want to see what he is doing. He is acting much strange this night."

Rytul began to stand, removing the blanket from him and taking up his sword, buckling it to his hide belt. His armor was loosened, just enough to allow him to sleep comfortably, but not so much that he couldn't draw his suit tight at a second's notice.

"Surely the old one's gone for nothing more than a . . ." He began, locking the alloy clasps of the scabbard around his waist, closing the locking clasps of his armor, drawing his composite plated suit tight about him.

But there was no reply, and when Rytul looked around him, Vahes had disappeared from sight.

The evening was coming now, that pale purple glow below the horizon said that it would soon be dark. Mhu'Dar's trail was easy to follow to the experienced eye, the dew upon the ground was broken with each footstep, and the path lead to the Yhimm sea and the beach not two hands times two hands in walking paces beyond the edge of the forest. Soon the vegetation began to show signs of sand, and soon the vegetation became less and less noticeable until Vahes was suddenly through the tree line and upon the sandy beach. She stopped and looked out across the green ocean, white capped waves crashing into the beach, and roaring back out again. Her vision traveled upwards, staring out across the waves.

The cool night wind whispered to her, bringing the scent of the ocean. She turned and looked down at the sand beneath her armored boots. Her foot prints ended with her last step and her boots one step in front of that. In front of her, another set of tracks led off from the trail and down the beach.

Mhu'Dar.

Vahes moved along the edge of the beach, careful to follow the tree line and not let her presence be known through tracks in the sand. Around the next bend, the trail now more than fifty hands of paces behind her, rose the beginning of the Ruins of a Temple of the Nameless Ones. Shattered columns and stone statues stood at odd angles in the sand, half buried, littered the beach for many, many hands times hands of paces in all directions.

Such was the size of the temple.

Statues and columns were recognizable designs, others were not, and still others were nothing but images of things seen only in the far corners of dark dreams. The area that the temple was built upon had once been rich forest, but now the sea was reclaiming what was its own, slowly, but eventually, over many hands of years by hands of years.

Out in the sea, just a few hands of paces beyond the shore, there rose the shattered walls of the temple, the huge smashed columns, and the water lapped lazily over what was left of the temple floor. At low tide, strange Ruins and markings could be seen under a shallow layer of sea water, the letters and symbols themselves formed from colored stones arranged in order in the temple floors. Of the nature of the symbols, many a learned person had come to spend time and try to decipher the riddle of the temple and its builders, but not one had any reason to say anything other than what was generally known.

Those who built the temple must have prayed to an unknown and forgotten deity, or by the general arrangement of the statues, to many deities. Thus did the place become to be called the Temple of the Nameless Ones. The Ruins were the most ancient in the known world, having been built long before the first page of history was recorded, even before the people of the world had learned to farm and tend animals or to work metal into tools.

Of the original Ancient Ones, none knew of their fate.

Vahes looked out upon the Ruins, out to the ocean where the waves crashed against the walls of the temple, roaring and splashing over the tops of the smashed walkways and ramparts, reflecting the last rays of sunlight from this day. Water ran down columns, only to be drawn back into the ocean and thrown against the columns again. There and now, arose from the ocean bottom some twisted shape that could have been a statue, or a piece of wall that had fallen and settled on the bottom at an odd angle. The sand ran free between the Ruins, to the point that it was hard to tell just where the temple began and the beach ended.

The trail carried her through the foremost part of the temple, and she could see where Mhu'Dar's steps had moved sand on the floor of the temple in places, thus revealing arcane runes and inscriptions. Other inscriptions and runes had defied the best attempts of learned men for many hands of ages to decipher.

The secrets of the temple, and its builders, would wait until Arith and his Legions were put down, and Vahes thought, quite possibly for a long time after that. Moving through the Ruins, careful to follow the steps of Mhu'Dar with her own, placing her foot so that it fell in the same print that Mhu'Dar had made. Vahes felt small amid such craftsmanship. Sea water dripped down from columns to land softly in the wet sand. The high vaulted ceiling was an good five hands of a man's height high. The ending of light shone through the cracked and buckled walls, and the haze of evening began to drift through the temple. Shadows played in the corners and open areas of the temple this late in the evening. Surely those who built this temple must have been the greatest of builders, more advanced than even her own people who understood a great deal of the Ancient Ones and their ways.

Behind her, the sun finally set, and the dim glow of day passed over the horizon to light another part of the world for its allotted time.

She continued walking, softly, so as not to make noise, one hand on her saber, her other hand ready to throw her Witch shroud about her. Up ahead, there was movement beyond the far wall of the temple, a figure in sight for a second and then gone over the edge, where the beach began again. Vahes followed, placing her steps in the steps of the one that she followed, leaving only one set of tracks. Even at this distance, and in the fading light she could see the colors of the clothing that the person wore and she quickened her pace.

Mhu'Dar.

 

He walked past the temple, until the Ruins faded into the beach, and then the beach became again nothing but sand. He stopped and looked back. No one had followed him, and there was no sign of anyone around. He continued to walk, with each step it became less light and the cool Lastlight air began to warm to night temperature. Up ahead there was a woman near the edge of the water, and two small children. The woman was bathing the children and herself. She called out a greeting that he returned as he passed them. The children laughed and splashed water at each other.

Commoners, from a nearby village or town, perhaps from a nearby island off the coast. The cares of the commoners were idle indeed and sometimes he wished that life could truly be as simple as the peasant showed it could be.

Up ahead was a clearing, a dried up bay with a view of the temple, and within five hands of paces. There he stopped and rested from his walk, kneeling upon the cool sand, and undoing the flap on a hide pouch at his belt. He withdrew a rolled hide parchment, bound with a single silver chain. He unfastened the chain, carefully spreading the parchment before him. On the back side, the parchment was plain, but the fore side was covered with intricate runes and incantations, and a small circle drawn in gold upon the face.

Kneeling before the parchment, and facing the descending sun, he clasped his hands together and closed his eyes, bowing before the parchment three times and then spreading his arms wide.

"Your servant awaits your bidding." He said humbly.

The air above the parchment shimmered and the runes took a glow upon themselves, each lighting up in a glow brighter than the most polished gold. The clearing was dimly illuminated with the light of the incantation. In the center of the parchment, within the circle, a small shape appeared, vague, but gaining meaning and definition with each breath. The shape formed, and took the appearance of a miniature figure, richly clothed. A woman, hair black as night, eyes with a piercing stare. The figure was perfect in every detail save size and representation.

Witchwork.

The apparition turned to regard the man kneeling before the parchment, crossed her arms, and spoke in a voice that carried in loudness as if the apparition was of full size.

"Tell me what it is that you now know." The apparition said.

"The Isrun and his entourage ride for Valdama this morning."

The apparition paced back and forth upon the parchment.

"Are you sure? There are two full Legions searching for them now, yet the Isrun would ride into the Legions? What fool's advice is this?"

He straightened slightly and spoke.

"It is the bitch's advice. Vahes. She has decided that if they can out-ride the Legions, that the Legions might pass them by and that they will then choose another road."

The apparition stopped and appeared to think.

"Yes. A small band could elude the Legions and perhaps manage to pass them undetected in the wilderness surrounding Valdama. What is it that they seek in Valdama?"

"Fresh mounts and provisions."

"Then the chase must be coming to a finish. They are out of provisions and their mounts are tiring. I think that they themselves are not far behind their mounts in exhaustion."

"They are resting even now as we speak."

"Where?" The Witch asked.

"The House of Twilight, nearby is a Temple of the Nameless Ones." He said. "This I have heard the Isrun say."

"Ah, the Legions were ordered to pass that place tomorrow .... They are farther along than I had foreseen. Are you sure that they rest at the House of Twilight?"

"Yes. But if the Legions are rerouted here tomorrow, they will be gone by then, already riding for Valdama."

The apparition stopped pacing, turned at the end of the parchment, and faced him.

"Then you will lead them into the Legions?" The Witch asked, folding her arms.

"Yes." He said. "I will lead them."

"You have done well, my child." She said, turning and strolling back across the parchment.

"Have I ever failed you before?" He asked as the apparition stood and turned in the center of the parchment.

"No. You will be well rewarded for your service to the Ahirsu. I will come into your eyes tonight, for I want to see them myself this last time before I gaze upon their corpses tomorrow night." She said.

"As you so bid, I will welcome your vision this night." He said, folding his hands together in placidness.

He bowed humbly before the apparition as it shimmered and faded away. The runes on the parchment again became dull. He rolled the parchment up and placed it back into the pouch at his belt. The sun was already over the horizon and setting.

There was time enough to get back to the House of Twilight.

 

Mhu'Dar walked down the road that he and the entourage had traveled by mount the day before, the hoof prints were still noticeable in the packed soil. The forest began a hand of paces to each side of the road, the trees overhanging the road, their branches growing together over the road surface, forming a hallway constructed of nature. The fading glow of Lastlight managed to filter through the overgrowth and the road was lit in some areas, dark in others. As the sun vanished from this day, the light also grew dimmer, smaller, as the patches of darkness grew larger, swallowing the light. Mhu'Dar was lost to his thoughts when he noticed movement up ahead. A man was approaching, passing on the other side of the road.

The other man was taller than Mhu'Dar, better built, stronger and quicker looking, with a look of cunning in his eyes. His tanned skin showed under a travelers cloak, a sword rested at his side, sheathed. Over his back was slung a quiver of shaft arrows and a self loading two handed bow. Under the cloak there glistened the pale sheen of well oiled black mail.

The armor of a mercenary.

When they were three hands of paces in difference between them, Mhu'Dar called out a greeting.

"Hail. Be the day so far good for you?" He asked.

"Aye. It was a good day for traveling these roads. Plenty of light left in the night, what with a pair of full moons to rise."

"Where do you lie at night?" Mhu'Dar asked.

"The port of Tahn, just a few days of distance toward the falling of the sun. It is there that I now go."

"What would bring a man so far from his home, and on foot at that?"

"I am simply a traveler. In these troubled times, it is quite dangerous to travel alone. Thieves and brigands abound these roads both at night and during the day. There was business that had to be finished, and time waits for no man. Brigands or not."

"And you yourself, you are an accomplished soldier?" Mhu'Dar asked, re-judging the man and looking him over more carefully.

"Aye. I was and still pride myself in being so to this day. Served well with Lam at Camere. Served with honors and much glory was taken that day!"

Mhu'Dar smiled.

This man was a good alibi. If anyone questioned him as to his whereabouts, he could simply say that he had gone for a walk and met a fellow traveler, engaging in idle conversation until time was lost upon him. Mhu'Dar was about to speak again when the man looked past him, staring over Mhu'Dar's shoulder and beyond. The other man's hand went instinctively to his sword hilt. Mhu'Dar did likewise, gripping his sword.

"Aye. What manner of Witchwork is this?" The man asked more to himself than to Mhu'Dar.

"Eh?" Mhu'Dar said, turning to see what the man was looking at.

Down the road, not two hands of paces from them, Vahes stood. Her cloak flowing behind her in the gentle morning breeze that was making the trees around them sway with the grace of nature. Her hair was blown softly back, and her hand was upon her saber. Mhu'Dar watched as she started forward, toward them, at a slow walk.

"She came out of nowhere . . ." the other man said. "Stepped out from the very night air!"

"By all that is Right! It is Witchwork! She is in good company with a Witch!" Mhu'Dar said loudly.

"Still your tongue!" Vahes said as she drew up a hand of paces away from them. "There is little room to boast of someone else being in league with the Witch from your vantage."

Mhu'Dar took a step back as Vahes eyed him, slowly turning to look at the other man.

"This is no business of yours. My quarrel and blade are not to be against you this night. Be on your way." She said to him.

The man looked from Vahes to Mhu'Dar and slowly relaxed his grip on the handle of his sword.

"Aye. Warrior's business is no business of the common man. You are the ones who ride with the Isrun! Brothers killing brothers and Witchwork, it bodes no good for all involved. If either of you be in league with that Witch, then to hell with you! And may the devils keep the Witch where she can best serve them!" The man said, backing up and turning to walk quickly away. The man cautiously made a hasty retreat, and was soon gone from their presence.

Vahes and Mhu'Dar watched the man leave, though Vahes never really took her eyes off Mhu'Dar.

"You are not Mhu'Dar. Mhu'Dar would never betray the Isrun or his Honor to the Royal Family Tahshal!" Vahes spat.

A light breeze came upon the night, catching individual wisps of her platinum hair, and dancing it around behind her, in the light of the twin moons.

"I don't know what you are talking about. Surely you must have taken mad." Mhu'Dar said, his hand still on his sword, his fingers tracing the hilt of the weapon.

"I stood behind you while you were talking to a Witch . . ." Vahes said slowly.

"You . . ." Mhu'Dar asked, his voice rising, fear giving way to the slow flame of anger.

"Yes. I. Unseen and unheard. I followed you under suspicion for I knew that someone had been betraying us at every turn. There is no way that the Legions could know of our moves so precisely. I took great care to make sure that our travels were the least of those expected from us."

Mhu'Dar was silent, seething.

"You've betrayed the Isrun's trust and mine, and would deliver us to that traitor, Arith. Mhu'Dar didn't make it through battle that day. He died and you took his place, limping back on his mount so that we might find you."

"Whatever do you mean, took his place? I am Mhu'Dar and I think that you are quite mad."

Vahes sighed, a feeling of knowing coming within her.

"The real Mhu'Dar would never betray the Ahirsu or the Ahirsu's son, but something who had taken the form of Mhu'Dar would, especially if it was in league with a Witch. How is it that you can pledge your honor to Arith when he has none?"

"I assure you, my lady, that I have nothing but the Isrun's best wishes at the foremost of my thoughts and intentions." Mhu'Dar said, spreading his hands in an apologetic gesture.

Vahes took a step forward as Mhu'Dar took a step backward, unsure of the woman and what she might do. Yet, Vahes stood there, her hand on her saber, unmoving, staring him in the eyes. Still Vahes stood her ground. There was fear in Mhu'Dar's eyes. Hatred and contempt in that of Vahes.

"If all that you say is true, and your loyalty lies with the family Tahshal, then prove your loyalty to me." Vahes said.

"In what manner or way might you wish me to do so?" Mhu'Dar asked.

"It is a simple thing for which I shall ask you. If you are truly Mhu'Dar, then which lady of the court did you take to be your second betrothed? She bore you a son, and what was his name."

Mhu'Dar was silent, and Vahes watched fear come into the eyes of that thing which stood before her. It was at that moment that she knew Mhu'Dar did not stand before her, but rather something else ...

"This is the last thing you will ever spy for your Witch . . ." Vahes said.

Her draw was fluid smooth, so fast that the last thing that the thing that was not Mhu'Dar ever saw was the glint of light across the slender width of the bone white saber blade. The blade, tapered to an edge thinner than a needle's point, never slowed in its arc through the thick neck of the creature, neatly severing the head completely from the rest of the body. The slash was fluid and on the back swing Vahes re-sheathed her saber, resting her hand upon the hilt. The thing that was Mhu'Dar stood for a few breaths more, death had come too quickly for it to realize its sad fate. The corpse quivered, dropped the hand that it held against the sword hilt that it was holding, and there escaped a whisper of breath from the neck of the dead thing as it slid to the ground. The decapitated head rolled to a stop not a hand of paces from the body.

Vahes kneeled beside the corpse. The cut was straight, no jagged edges, the blade of the saber had been true. Ocher colored fluid flowed from the severed neck, rapidly drying on contact with the air, that which did not dry was quickly absorbed by the ground.

Of blood, there was no sign.

"So, this Witch has many tricks in her bag and you are but one of them. What I see of you now, that which is your true nature." Vahes said to herself, her face a scowl of disbelief.

The features of the corpse began to soften, the general form of Mhu'Dar began to fade away, being replaced by a dark gray mottled colored skin, and no features save a pair of eyes and a mouth, all decidedly non-man in appearance. Vahes' expression changed from one of hatred to one of disbelief and fear. She unconsciously took a step back from the dead thing, rising to her feet to watch the macabre transformation.

"Ithgu!" She said when the process was complete and the final true form of the creature lay before her.

"Changeling . . ." she said flatly, drawing all her reason and senses to her.

The corpse twitched a final time and lay still. The fluid leaking from the decapitated corpse's head meandered slowly around the wound, trying to slowly retreat back into the body from where it had been spilled. Vahes knew that not even the carrion eaters would touch the dead thing before her. For some things tasted bad even to those eaters of the dead....

For what seemed a long time, Vahes sat there on the balls of her feet, poised, balanced, staring at the dead creature in front of her, trying to put the pieces of the riddle in order. She had the answer, now to just figure out how to understand what she had discovered.

"How does she do it? How does she look upon us? You haven't slipped away every night that we have rested, spawn. How then do you spy for her?" Vahes asked herself, thinking.

Vahes looked deeper, and remembered what had been told to the creature by the apparition on the parchment, by the Witch vision.

I will come into your eyes tonight, for I want to see them myself this last time . . .

Her gaze traveled from the body to the severed head a bare hand of paces distant, and the eyes still staring wide in disbelief.

The eyes staring wide.

"She's using your eyes for the Far Seeing! Now, it all makes sense."

There came upon her a sudden feeling of knowing, that suddenly she could do something about their flight where before she could do nothing. Tonight, Vahes would have the advantage over the Witch. Satisfied, Vahes reached to her belt and withdrew a fighting blade, a full two hands of edge of the same quality and sharpness as the saber. With a sense of accomplishment and a feeling of need, she knew that she had but one last thing to do.

Vahes stood on the balcony to the House, staring out into the forest and the sounds that came over the balcony. Sounds of life that slept during the day, waiting for the night to return. Isrun Tahshal stood behind her, resting his hand upon her shoulder.

"A changeling?" The Isrun asked.

"We call them Changelings, the Illiam, my people. It is an ancient word, from the time that their kind first enslaved my people. Changeling is our word for those who have no shape of their own. Those who took the form of others for evil purposes. You call them the Ithgu."

"The Ithgu! But my father slew the Ithgu race when he and my uncle freed the Illiam ...."

Vahes shook her head slowly.

"No, my Isrun. I see now that there is much that Tahshal thought that he had accomplished, but rather he made a mistake when he left much of the work to his brother, and Arith was probably quick to realize that some of the Ithgu were more valuable alive than dead. Arith probably smuggled into secrecy several Ithgu broods, enough to keep the race alive for his purposes."

"Was there a doubt?" He asked her. "Are you sure that Mhu'Dar was a change . . . That this thing was Mhu'Dar?"

"There was no doubt, my Isrun. I saw all that anyone would need to see to believe. When it bled, it did not bleed the blood that we share."

"How did you know that it was . . . what we thought was Mhu'Dar?" The Isrun asked, removing his hand and looking out into the forest.

"Since that day," Vahes began, unable to bring herself to say the exact day that her lover had died. "I noticed that Mhu'Dar was a man divided in interest. He had a greater interest and a lesser interest. The greater interest seemed to lie elsewhere, the lesser interest was in himself. Such was not the way of Mhu'Dar. I followed him last night to the sea and past the Temple of the Nameless Ones. There, in secret, he talked to a Witch."

The Isrun turned to face Vahes.

"But when did you know that it was not Mhu'Dar that rode with us?"

She looked up at him slowly.

"I asked him the simplest of questions. A question that Mhu'Dar would have known easily, but that this creature had no knowledge."

Vahes looked away, back into the forest, as the Isrun waited for her answer.

"I asked him the name of his second betrothed, and the son that she bore him."

"And he knew these things not?"

Vahes shook her head.

"Then truly, this was not Mhu'Dar that has ridden with us. But, what of this Witch? Can my uncle really be in the company of a Witch?" The Isrun asked.

"How else do you explain how easily the Legions follow us." Vahes said. "He has a Witch to watch us, to tell him of our every move. This Witch had a servant, possibly others, for her powers are great. We cannot know who is a friend in this land now, and who is looking upon us with someone else's eyes. We must be careful."

"A Witch . . ." The Isrun said, disbelieving.

"Her powers are strong indeed. Stronger than we were led to believe. Stronger than my father anticipated, than even your people anticipated. She has fooled us all, and I think she has been laying in wait, biding for her revenge." The Isrun said dejectedly, feeling the weight of the powers that worked against him fully for the first time.

"But we may have her tonight!" Vahes said, turning back to face him and looking up. "For I know that she will use her powers again this night, and by all that is Right, I shall have her."

"She will look through this creature's eyes?" The Isrun asked.

"I have seen much in my life, and this was the work of the Far Seeing. The power can only be used on a willing servant, or those with a weak will. It takes a weak will to succumb, and I knew that Mhu'Dar's will was stronger than that."

"Aye. He was at that a strong will, and a friend. I will much miss him."

"Not more so than I." Vahes said.

"Soon it will be time for the Witch to come." Vahes said.

"Aye. I believe you. For, if you were a changeling, then how would I know?" The Isrun asked.

"You wouldn't, my Isrun. But I can assure you where my loyalties lie. You have never seen me leave your side."

"But your soul is divided tonight as well, is it not?"

"Your parents are dead. As is Mhu'Dar. Too many have died these past hand of seasons. That weighs heavily upon me, it wears my spirit down."

"As it does so upon me as well. For it is not your family that is fighting among its blood lineage, so your burden is the more easy to bear. No one puts blame upon your shoulders, Vahes. You stood bravely beside them. There is no honor lost upon your name." The Isrun said, placing his hand back upon the armored shoulder of his closest retainer.

"But I am alive this night and they are dead . . ."

"If you had died with them, then no one would have been left to ride out and warn me of my uncle's treachery. It is not your fault." The Isrun said. "I see now how this whole amount of treachery could have come to pass. The Witch replaced trusted officers and commandants in the Legions with these Ithgu! Under false command, the Legions have been turned to serve my father's brother! It is so simple now!"

"How can I not accept the blame, knowing that I was ordered to leave them when I myself had sworn to protect them until my body was cold upon the ground next to theirs."

"You can't accept blame that is not yours to accept. You may ease your spirits and give them a rest by realizing that things turned out for the best, be that as it may seem. My parents will be avenged by my hand. That which is Right will always overcome that which is Wrong. If you had stayed that night, then you would surely have been slain as well, and I would have joined you and my parents a short time thereafter. Without your warning, Arith would now have total power, and no one would be left alive to challenge his rule."

Vahes nodded slowly, chewing on a lock of her hair, deeper in thought.

"Come in and sit with us. Let us wait for the Witching together."

"No. I have had my fill of Witching for this day. Call unto me when it begins. Until then I shall wait here. There is still much I have yet to think about."

"As you wish." The Isrun said and turned, walking on into the common chamber.

And with that, Vahes lowered her head and faced away.

 

There was a fire crackling in the hearth, for the chill of the night air had seemed to take on a rather colder approach than was normal for this time of the late season. Embers danced and popped from the rich wood set ablaze among the metal and stone hearthwork. The heat from the fire was radiated around the common chamber, distributed evenly by the design of the room itself.

The table was bare now, save for a hideskin of fermented vine juice, the parchment, and those of the entourage who chose to sit there. The Isrun sat at the head of the table, sipping from a glass of the vine juice and staring overhead at the movements of the stars. Grihsa nervously glanced around the room, occasionally leaving his chair to stoke the fire with a metal pick or to add another piece of wood. His nervousness was shared by the others as well.

Vahes still stood on the balcony, her back to the others and the common room, lost in thought.

Rytul stood not a hand of paces from her, his back against a column, and to her, as he stood facing the others and the table. His eyes, though, were upon the parchment, and what lay thereupon. For, in the center of the parchment were two severed eyes, cut from the creature that had assumed the shape of Mhu'Dar. The eyes, disembodied, lay together, staring into nothing, neither focused on one thing or another, indeed, such was the orientation of the severed eyes, that what lay in their range of sight could not have been seen had the eyes been in a living host. For one eye was skewed to the far right, staring toward the inner sanctums of the House. The other eye, skewed on the parchment to stare straight up into nothing.

Of the parchment, there was a fair amount of dried fluid, sticky to the touch, and not pleasant to feel, though the runes and incantations could still be easily seen. The fluid was not as dark as it had been, and seemed to even now be slowly evaporating. To the touch, it was oily, slick, and it could be compressed only so much before, like a living thing, it wormed and wound its way out from under one's probing finger, only to repool a short distance away again, or to slowly move toward a larger volume of the fluid and join seamlessly with it. It was this centerpiece that was both the cause of the silence of the Isrun and his followers, and the reason for their occasional whisper among themselves. For tonight, there was the promise of Witchwork, and Witchwork did bode no good for all involved.

Grihsa had been the first to protest when Vahes had come back alone, he asking if she had seen Mhu'Dar. Her only reply was to place the parchment on the table and much to the disliking of the rest of those who rode at her side, she had unwrapped the parchment and revealed that which she had used it to carry.

She then told them what had happened.

Grihsa had gone into a wild rage, thinking that Vahes had murdered Mhu'Dar. There were questions without end from each and the others. Vahes had waited until the Isrun managed to restore order to the House before she carefully retold of her fight with that which was not Mhu'Dar. None of them had been satisfied until, waxed string in hands, they had traveled in the night, down the road, to where the creature still lay, dressed in the clothes of Mhu'Dar.

On the walk back to the House, there had been little talk. Once in the common room, Vahes told the others of her plan, and all listened. Wihs had merely stared at the disembodied eyes there on the table. Milda could not bring himself to do so. Grihsa rambled about Witchwork and allegations. Rytul, as always, remained quiet and attentive, staring at the severed eyes there on the table.

That was hands and counts of man breaths ago, and now the night was growing old. The fire had settled down in its dance among the wood till it was a warm glow that illuminated the features of those within its realm, and gave darkness play over the rest.

Grihsa had been sitting at the table, his hands against his head, lost in thought, arguing with himself on the possibilities that there could be Witchcraft and changelings and other things that had no place in the life of a soldier. Milda and Wihs had grown uninterested in the parchment and its macabre contents and were now telling each other of their greatest personal accomplishments both on and off the field of battle, though they did so in hushed tones and whispers. After a while, their voices would rise to the loudness of conversation, that is until one of them would chance an occasional glance toward the parchment, and then surely would the other's vision follow and both would lapse back into whispering, each reminded of what might transpire this very night.

Rytul had finally given up staring at the eyes and had left, taking his position by the entrance to the common chamber, his back to the others.

"Why did she suspect Mhu'Dar?" Grihsa asked aloud. "Why not Rytul. He is the one who acts the most strange!"

Rytul, though he heard the words, bothered not to turn or heed their meaning.

"Because Rytul cannot be in league with the Witch, this I know." Vahes said, strolling in from the balcony.

Grihsa stood, facing her as he moved his chair out from under him.

"What proof have you of this? If what you say is true of this Witch and her allegiance with Arith, then no one is safe from her powers."

"I am." Vahes said. "For once my people were enslaved by a Witch and her people. My people do not succumb to the art of Witchwork this day, nor shall they ever again. No Witch can harm me with her arts, or coerce me with her ways." Vahes stated, stopping in front of Grihsa.

"Your people were indeed under the rule of a Witch, but such is also the tales of before. Exaggerations. Stories to scare children. I have not seen a Witch before, and I do not believe that they exist. I am a soldier, and there is a reason for this madness!" Grihsa spat.

"The madness is the Witch. You do not have to like what is forthcoming, Grihsa, but you will have to live with it. Arrange yourself, and act like one who has honor!"

Grihsa seethed, eyeing Vahes.

"If the Illiam do not succumb to the powers of a . . . Witch, if such be, then how does that make Rytul immune to this calling."

Before Vahes could say anything, Rytul turned and walked slowly back into the common room, all eyes, save those on the parchment, were upon him as he entered.

"For I am Illiam, friend." Rytul said loudly. "For I am proud of my heritage, but my heritage is not for you to have as common knowledge. You have never asked of my birthland, nor of my parents, but aye, my parents were forced to serve a Witch. TahRynna, and aye, she was powerful enough to eventually enslave an whole people, nay, a whole land of people. She used those of her native land, Ithgu, changelings, to aid her in the conquest of my, and Vahes', people. Does that answer your question, friend Grihsa?"

There was silence in the common chamber, and only the sound of the crackling embers carried, and those seemed far louder than normal. Grihsa turned, his face turning red in the dim illumination.

"I am sorry, friend Rytul. For I spoke without knowledge, and that is the way of the ignorant. This is all very hard for me to consider, to accept as a truth. For Witches and creatures are things that soldiers conjure up in drunken behaviors to make their tales all the more bold. These are things that we tell our children to scare them, or to entertain them and make them laugh. These things we are talking of tonight are the things that make stories that are told. These are not things of realness. I am having a difficult time of this. Treachery, dishonor, death, these are things that I understand. Witchwork and things that appear to be what in reality they are not are things that I cannot understand! This is not transpiring! I must be deeply dreaming!" Grihsa said loudly.

"No!" Vahes said. "There are Witches and creatures and worse than that. I have seen such in my few short years. You have seen one such creature this very night. I have showed you proof that such a creature exists."

"A changeling? How can such a creature exist? It had no blood!"

"It's kind has no use for blood . . ." Rytul said softly. "What flows in its veins is the fluid that allows it to change shape and become malleable. What it is, I have no knowledge, but I know that it is not man's blood... Not that blood which you and I have and share."

Grihsa shook his head slowly, mumbling, then turning and pacing the length of the table.

"I cannot . . ." Grihsa whispered. "I will not . . ."

Suddenly Wihs cried out and shoved his chair backwards from the table, knocking it over and almost falling as he rose from his overturned chair and pointed to the center of the table, to the parchment.

"The eyes! They moved!" He shouted.

"What?" Milda asked, shoving his chair from the table and standing beside his friend.

"I saw it happen!" Wihs cried. "They just turned on the parchment and looked right at me! They came together and stared!"

The others looked at the parchment in disbelief. The disembodied eyes, once set purposely skewed in different directions, now were set side by side, perfectly straight, staring back along the table in the direction that Wihs and Milda had been setting. Vahes stepped forward and looked at the disembodied eyes, as did Rytul.

The eyes slowly turned on the parchment to regard the both of them.

"By all that is Right! Rahnn help us now!" Grihsa shouted.

"Rahnn could not even help himself when the AdiVhyr came upon him, now be silent, and do not disturb the forever rest of the spirit of a dead god!" Vahes snapped at him.

Grihsa shook his head and stepped back from the table as far as he could, loudly disclaiming what his eyes were showing him, until his back met the wall of the chamber and he could retreat no further from the table.

Wihs and Milda stood frozen at the sight of the animated eyes. Rytul stood before the table, hands across his chest, as he watched the eyes and the parchment. Vahes turned and walked toward the Isrun at the head of the table, never turning her head so that her vision would ever leave that of the eyes and the parchment.

The eyes slowly turned, on the parchment, to follow Vahes' walk, until she stood beside the Isrun. The eyes fixed upon the two of them and were still.

"So, it begins." The Isrun said slowly.

He turned to face Vahes, whispering to her.

"Can it hear me?" He asked as Vahes leaned over to better hear his voice.

"Yes, my Isrun. That is why I laid the eyes upon the parchment, for the parchment has the power to carry the Witch's voice to you, and your voice back to her, but only if you are near the parchment. There, the runes of the parchment glow as we speak. Let the Witch do the talking, for we now have here where she least wants to be." Vahes whispered in return, straightening her stature again.

The runes and incantations inscribed upon the parchment were indeed, glowing softly in the dim illumination of the chamber. The magical aura gave an eerie sheen to the disembodied eyes placed there upon the parchment.

Silence filled the room, to the point of being deafening. Even Grihsa, who had turned away from that which was happening had lost the sound of his voice. His eyes closed tightly, as were his fists, he continued to slowly shake his head, as he slumped against the far wall. Rytul still stood defiantly to the side of the eyes, rubbing his chin now, in thought. Wihs and Milda had regained some of their composure, and each had ventured a few steps closer to the table out of curiosity, but still each was a hand and a half of paces distant. Wihs' chair was still overturned on the stone floor, forgotten.

"Your power is great, Witch, but I too, know something of the arcane arts and the workings of magic. My education is as comprehensive as my formal training." The Isrun said as the eyes continued to stare at him.

"You have been watching us, so I think that I have no need to make an introduction of myself to you." He said.

"In this, you are correct, Isrun Rhai Tahshal." The voice of the Witch said, coming from the parchment.

"And you serve my uncle, Arith."

"I serve king Arith, yes." Said the Witch.

"So, Arith fancies himself the king already, with my father and mother not six hands of days dead."

The Witch said nothing.

"How is it that you side with Arith?" The Isrun asked of the eyes.

"Arith is sure to win. Already, the royal family is dead and soon, too, shall you be, dear Isrun. For what mere man can stand against the might of Arith and his Legions, or against the power of TahRynna?"

At the mention of the Witch's name, Rytul stood his tallest, stepping toward the table. Vahes' expression showed signs of disbelief, and fear, but she was still the first to speak.

"TahRynna! That tyrantess! She is long dead! Tell me, Witch, how is it that you come to be called the name of one who is dead?" Vahes asked.

"I know not what you mean . . ." the Witch said.

"The Witch TahRynna . . . Arith slew her when he and Tahshal freed my people from her servants more than two hands of years ago."

The eyes slowly turned to regard Vahes.

"Tahshal freed your people? You must be one of those accursed Illiam! How I long for the day when I will return to your land! Your people will think of my last reign as one of mercifulness compared to what I shall do to your people for betraying me!"

"TahRynna is dead. Many hands of years ago. Killed by Arith before this madness that now consumes him took hold in his mind." Rytul said softly, as the eyes turned to regard him instead.

"Not so. For Arith was even then jealous of the power that his brother wielded and even then made plans against him. His interests were divided, his heart mixed, his will weak. I used this to my advantage. I struck a bargain with Arith and in return for my life, I gave him the power to attain his goals."

"But that is impossible. TahRynna was slain. My uncle . . ." the Isrun began and then grew quiet, his thoughts having answered themselves before they could become words.

"Yes. It would seem that this coup was begun many years ago, and is only now reaching fruition." Vahes said.

"Personal selfishness is the most powerful motivation." Rytul quoted, staring at the disembodied eyes.

"But, I saw the body myself. Arith cleaved her from forehead to groin!" The Isrun said.

"No, you saw her old body. As did I. I thought then that my people had seen the last of the Witchqueen, but such is not to be. I have seen her new body, in a vision upon that very parchment, and she has done well for herself, at the expense of some other unfortunate."

"But how did she . . .?" Milda began, following what was happening as best as he could.

"I switched my essence and soul with an innocent and then allowed Arith to slay the innocent. What you saw was what I intended you to see, for Tahshal would not rest until he had proof of my death. The spell of Exchanging drained me, and for many hands of days I was vulnerable. It was then that I learned just how jealous Arith was, for it was he that nursed me back to my full strength and protected the knowledge of my existence from the king. None could have known the extent of my powers then, but I have grown stronger since that time. Much stronger."

"Secrecy is the first symbol of treachery." Rytul said, quoting another of the Illiam's proverbs.

"So, TahRynna yet lives!" Vahes said angrily.

"Aye, in a new body, my powers are stronger than before and I plot with Arith even now on how to continue my dreams. The Illiam? Hah! Your people will yet again know slavery under my hand, as will the rest of this world and all those worlds beyond it."

"The Illiam, my people, will never submit to your . . ." Rytul said defiantly, as the eyes turned to him, and then back to Vahes, as if uninterested.

"Then your people will be remembered only in tales and stories." The Witch said disgusted. "For if you will not live under my subjugation, then you shall not live at all!"

Rytul said nothing in reply, yet moved to stand near the hearth, and the fire within that would warm him against the cool night air.

"And what of Arith?" Wihs asked softly. "What does Arith think of your dreams of conquest? Does he know that you plan to rule this all, without him at your side?"

The eyes slowly turned to him.

"Arith is a fool. He fails to realize that his role in this is nothing but the stepping stone to my full claim of power in this world. When I am finished with him, he will be nothing more than he is now. I cannot have any care for one such as he. His kind is to be used as I see fit in my way. Arith no more controls me than he does his destiny, though I allow him to think that he is the one that is changing history."

"So, Arith is tasting his brand of honor. Be that so, and for good measure." The Isrun said.

"Arith will soon join your father in the ground, for I will put him there myself, just as I will see you buried before another hand of days has passed, Isrun." The Witch said.

"Nay, Witch." The Isrun said. "For after tonight, you will see nothing but that which I shall show you. I told you that I knew something of the arcane arts. I am more than familiar with the lore behind the power of the spell of farseeing, though powers to conjure the energies, I confess that I lack."

The eyes turned to the Isrun, moving slowly up and down, as if seething in anger.

"For you see, Vahes has explained many things to me. During your subjugation of her people, the Illiam learned many things of their unwanted master and her ways. The Illiam children were taught the basic magics, and though they could not hope to conjure the forces for the completion, they could understand the ritual, and thus forewarned your powers affected them not."

"You lie! You know nothing of my powers, man cub." The Witch spat.

"You are tonight using the power of the spell of Far Seeing. It is a very hard spell to conjure, requiring concentration, rare reagents, and not a few words from the ancient Legisma. But even power has its limits, for magic was once a thing of Right, until Wrong corrupted the conjuring ways, and magic was used for evil. It is said that those who originally discovered magic, and the conjuring, worked hard to safeguard the secrets of vast power from those who would use it for their purpose. For magic was, long, long ago, the very binding force in nature and good. Now, few today know of the magic, and those that do, often are using it for their purposes, such as you are doing now, TahRynna." The Isrun said.

"You know the history of the conjuring well, but that does not make you a wielder of the power."

"Nay, I have read the Legisma, for it and all that it contained were required of my teachers for my education. My teachers believed that one should know of magic, lest one be ignorant of its ways and thus fall prey to its power. For once one is knowledgeable of the ways of conjuring, there are very few forces available to a conjurer that can affect the educated man." The Isrun said.

"What of the spell of Far Seeing?" Milda asked.

The eyes continued to stare at the Isrun, unmoving.

"The Far Seeing requires a willing subject, and for evil to have its effect, the subject must be of weak will and unloyal. That was what the changeling offered to TahRynna, providing a stable medium for which the spell could take effect. With the power of the spell, TahRynna could be anywhere in this land, or this world, and still see through the eyes of her servant anything that the servant saw, just as if she herself were standing not a hand of paces distant. But, magic, as I have said, was originally a tool of those who wished to spread Good in this world, and as such, those that made the original bindings of the conjuring that TahRynna is now using knew that one day, their power might be used for evil. That is why they made the binding as part of the conjuring."

"You lie!" The Witch shouted, her voice carried from the parchment, echoing in the common chamber.

"Nay. For someone has to be willing for someone to use the gift of Far Seeing upon them, someone has to be willing to be used for the purpose of letting someone else look through their eyes. This power is not without its limitations. The conjurer must have the permission of the one that the conjurer has used to Far See, and until this permission is given or without this permission, the conjurer is trapped forever, trapped with nothing to see save that which the one who the spell was cast upon now sees. I learned that as a child. My mother taught me the ritual." Vahes said.

"The Witch needs the changeling's permission to return her sight to her body, lest her vision be through these eyes of the changeling forever?" Milda asked.

"Therefore, the Witch's vision is trapped in the dead changeling's eyes, her eyes are transferred, and her vision will be forever more what those dead eyes upon the table there see. Alas, if anything should happen to those eyes, then the same thing will happen to the Witch's eyes. That I remember from what my mother taught me as well, when I was younger." Rytul said.

"But with the changeling dead, how will this Witch get its permission to return her vision?" Wihs asked, leaning over to whisper to Rytul.

Vahes spoke, answering Wihs question for him.

"Aye, and with the changeling dead, you will find it hard to ask it for your sight back, TahRynna!" Vahes said.

"No!" The Witch screamed.

"I do not like being spied upon, Witch." Said the Isrun. "You looked upon this entourage and I when we did not so desire it. Now, I will control what you see."

The Isrun looked at the disembodied eyes on the parchment, and they in turn looked right back at him.

"I think I will keep your new eyes in a small cloth lined box that I shall keep locked, for which you will see nothing but the inside when the lid is closed. Thus darkness and nothing will be all that you shall see. Perhaps, when I am feeling merciful, I may take your eyes out and set them upon a table, or a window sill, and allow you to see what it is that you gave up when you sided with my uncle's brother."

The Witch's voice came back this time, softer.

"Isrun Tahshal . . ."

"Save your words, Witch. For I have oft wondered these past hands of days, how it is that my uncle and his Legions can track me so precisely, so uncannily. I have lost much since Arith came to power. I have lost my family, my home, my title, and all that was to be mine. And I have lost many friends, not the least of which was Mhu'Dar, the one whom your bastard spawn took his form."

"How did you know that the changeling was not what it seemed to be?" The Witch asked, quietly.

"Vahes grew suspicious that someone in the entourage was a spy for Arith. She was the one that approached me and said that the way that we were being pursued was almost as if Witchwork was being used. That was when she and I decided to halt our march here, in this House, and make plans to determine who was under the influence of the Witch, and to end this conjuring."

The Witch was silent, thinking.

"The Legions will still find you. Even now two full mounted and armored Legions are on their way to the House of Twilight to crush you and those that ride with you. You cannot win against Arith, Isrun Tahshal. Return my sight to me, and I will be merciful."

"That would be a forthright proposition. Two full legions would be a sobering thought indeed, if we were resting at the House of Twilight. The first lesson of warfare is to study the region that you wish to conquer. The shape of the land dictate the strategy and the tactics that you will use. If, Witch, you had taken the time to check, you would have discovered that the House of Twilight is several hands of days ride from where we now speak. Also, the Temple of the Nameless Ones is no where near the House of Twilight. The Temple is many hands of days distance with it's own House. You should study more and talk less. Nay, let the Legions of Arith ride for the House of Twilight, for they will find trace of us naught, and by tomorrow, we shall be far from here, and your eyes, TahRynna, shall be in the small box, within my saddle bag."

"Damn you, Tahshal! I shall find you, for I know that you ride for Valdama tomorrow for fresh mounts and provisions! I shall meet you there with another Legion and . . . ."

"And Valdama is even farther from the House of Twilight than the Temple of the Nameless Ones. The power of magic is no substitute for education and wisdom, TahRynna. Meet me at Valdama if you so desire, bring as many Legions as you can fit into the town and the nearby hills, but do not wait long, for I shall not be going that way. Our plans were fabricated out of necessity. Only Vahes and I truly know where we ride, and the others follow me. It has been that way since the Legions have gotten too close to us. Under this method and way, if there ever is a cause for suspicion, or reason to believe that there is betrayal, then we ride for whatever destination that Vahes and I decide upon, the others will follow, believing that I lead them where I have told them that we are going."

The Isrun leaned forward, looking at the disembodied orbs curiously.

"You have gained enough information using your tricks, Witch. Now you play this game by my rules."

TahRynna cursed several times, long phrases weighted heavily with powerful words chosen with care from the ancient yellowing pages of the Legisma, though the effect of her conjuring left much to be desired.

"Your tricks won't work here, Witch, for this House is a place of Right and no Wrong can come to those who rest here. The talismans and enchantments on this structure were weaved by those whom even you would call master. Shout and curse all that you care to, for after tonight, I shall never let you use the parchment to speak in this manner again, and the only thing that you shall have is your new sight, when and how I so choose to let you have it." The Isrun said, folding his hands together, leaning forward.

Vahes stood at his side, her fists clenched till the knuckles were white.

"I've had many pets in my life, but I would have laughed loudly if someone had told me one day that I would have a pair of Witch's eyes to play with. How does it feel to be blind, how does it feel to be at the mercy of someone else, my Witch?" The Isrun asked.

There was silence from the Witch.

"Speak Witch, for the Isrun asked you a question!" Vahes shouted, pounding the table with her fist, shaking the whole of the length of the table and the disembodied eyes.

"I do not talk to peasants, bitchling." The Witch said.

Vahes raised both her hands together, clasping them, ready to bring her armor gloved fists down upon the disembodied eyes as the Isrun sat upright and forward in his chair at these words. His hand waved Vahes into inaction and she stepped back, relaxing, and unclasping her mailed fingers, though her hand went instinctively to the hilt of her saber at her belt.

"I will have respects for those in this chamber from you, Witch." The Isrun said. "Or maybe I shall feed these new eyes of yours to the crawers. For remember, whatever these eyes see, you see. Whatever pain these eyes suffer, so you too suffer that pain."

"I have the power to give you that which you most desire now . . ." the Witch said, slowly, quietly.

"Hold your tongue!" The Isrun replied.

"I am powerful. I can give you Arith. His head, his heart, whatever of his that you desire. This land can be yours. I will recall the Legions, and will have Arith's head posted on the tallest pole so that he may witness your arrival in the Palace. I can give you powers, teach you conjurings that would make the very ground tremble and buckle, the very sky spit flame and lightning. You could be the ruler of this land, and of the next. I will have my power, and my lands, but I am also willing to give up some of what I desire, so that I may have most of what I desire."

The Isrun sat back, pensive, clasping his hands together and resting his chin upon them. The others looked to their leader, the temptation was great for any mortal person.

"And in return for these gifts from you, what would I have to do, TahRynna." The Isrun asked.

"Give me back my sight. You understand the conjuring. It is within your power to do so, for such is a simple task, even for one who is not a conjurer. Give me back my sight, and anything you desire shall be yours."

"So, you cannot regain your sight? You cannot undo the conjuring and binding that you have already binded?" the Isrun asked.

"I am powerful, but I admit such a task is beyond me. Even I am not unknowledged to see this. Give me back my sight, my Isrun. I will obey your wishes and desires."

There came a laugh from Vahes.

"How quick you would change sides! What would Arith speak to you if he were to be at your side as you make this deal?"

All turned to face her.

Vahes stepped forward again, resting her hands upon the table.

"Where is your power now, TahRynna? The Witchqueen, reduced to begging for mercy to be given out to her from one she swore that she would see buried just this time tomorrow."

"You talk of weakness! The Illiam are among the weakest peoples that I have ever conquered. And here is a proverb from your accursed people. It was the Illiam that once said 'the weak shall inherit nothing.'"

"My people threw off your reign. All those that you had murdered. When I saw your dead body, I thought that night, all their spirits would finally be at rest. Now, I realize that there hasn't been any peace for them in all these hands of years."

"Enough of this idle talk, wench! I will not converse with a peasant." The Witch said as the disembodied eyes moved to regard the Isrun again.

"Tahshal. You are an honorable man, not at all like Arith. I have told you of what I am offering. It is within my power to give you all this, more, and much more even still. This I give to you as my word."

"The Witch is only trying to get out of her misery . . ." Rytul said softly, sliding a sharpening stone against his blade of his sword, wiping behind the stone with a soft oil soaked cloth.

The Isrun sat thinking, his hands clasped before him, resting his chin upon their brace.

"I shall think about it. Give me a few hands of days to decide."

"A few hands of days? Can you be forthright? Give me back my sight, damn you!" The Witch shouted. "Release me!"

"Stop your whining!" Vahes shouted as she reached forward and grabbed the disembodied eyes in her strong hand.

The eyes turned in her palm to stare her down, then turned again to the Isrun but the Isrun did nothing.

"You witnessed the pain and suffering of my people. Now, take a look at your own suffering." Vahes said, turning toward the fire in the hearth.

"My word! I give you my word, Isrun!" the voice of the Witch screamed from the parchment.

"The Isrun knows well that the word of a beggar is not to be accepted." Rytul said.

"Be stilled thy ranting. Unhand me, bitchling!"

"As you so command, my Dihisru. Thy word shall be done." Vahes said as she turned and threw the eyes into the hearth and the roaring fire therein.

The Witch's scream filled the common chamber, an evil, undulating howl of pain and agony that echoed throughout the House for several minutes and then slowly faded away. The parchment on the table flared to brilliance and burned to nothing in the space of a man's breath, casting a other natural luminance over those in the room before fading away. Of the destroyed parchment or the disembodied eyes, there was no trace. A foul smell permeated throughout the hall, and would remain for several days still.

It could have been a trick of the light, or the flickering ambience from the hearth, but one could almost have seen a smile appear on Vahes' lips. Her arms crossed themselves over her breast.

The others approached the hearth, slowly, with unsure steps. There was much milling about, and confusion. Whispers were heard even as the last echo of the Witch's scream faded along the vaulted hallways of the House.

The others huddled around the table now, closing around the Isrun. Vahes stood past the table, staring into the fire. Ryutl continued to sharpen his blade, his thoughts were his own.

Milda asked, looked from the fire to the table top and finally to the Isrun. When he found his voice, it was barely more than a whisper.

"What has happened?"

"Vahes has blinded the Witch." The Isrun said slowly, staring into the embers in the hearth.

His thoughts, too, were his own.

 

Back