The carriage bumped along the old road, the clatter of its wheels not quite obscuring a rhythmic knocking in the hum of its motive enchantments, a sign that the wheel and axle charms were in need of a fresh application of enchanting dust. It was a sturdy and serviceable vehicle, but neither new nor flashy—its charms basically sound, if aging, but the body often-repaired and showing it in patched upholstery and replacement panels that didn’t quite match the originals.
Still, this was rural Viridill, and it was an enchanted carriage. Most of the travelers in these parts relied on horses. Their passage drew curious looks whenever they encountered people along the road.
The carriage bounced hard, causing its less graceful passenger to nearly slip out of his seat; he grabbed the sidewall with a muted squeak. A tiny streak of fiery read zipped out of his coat pocket and dived into the collar of his shirt.
“Having trouble up there, Covrin?” Basra asked dryly, having braced herself in far more adeptly.
“Sorry, your Grace,” Jenell replied from the driver’s seat up ahead. “I’m dodging what I can, but this road wasn’t made with these speeds in mind. I can slow it to a horse-and-cart pace…?”
“No, keep up,” Basra said. “We want to make the best time possible. Perhaps I should write to the High Commander about the roads out here. The Empire would happily pave everything if the Abbess weren’t so hellbent on preserving the local culture. Whatever that means,” she added in a mutter, turning to stare at the passing wheat fields.
“Well,” said her other traveling companion ruefully, gingerly settling himself back into the bench opposite her, “I guess I can officially give up on that idea of catching a nap en route.”
“Sorry to have you up so early,” Basra said, giving him a very calm look. For some reason, this seemed to make him slightly nervous.
“Oh, no no, don’t worry about a thing,” Schwartz said hastily. “This is all terribly exciting, I’m having the best time! I just, ah, didn’t realize I would be having the best time yesterday, or I’d have planned ahead and not spent half the night in the library.” As if to emphasize the point, he smothered a yawn.
A tiny, triangular head poked out of his collar. Basra had only attained fleeting glimpses of his absurd pet, enough to determine that it was a rodent, it was red, it glowed faintly, and it didn’t like her.
“You’ll hear no complaints from me,” Schwartz added after a moment, clearly uncomfortable with the silence. “After I delayed us starting out, and all…”
“That was hardly your fault,” Basra said mildly.
“Yes, well, still.” He rubbed the back of his neck with one hand, grimacing. “One hates to be an imposition, you know how it is. I, ah, hadn’t realized there would be a dress code for this outing! Usually my robes get me into anything that’s not invitation only…”
He trailed off, looking questioningly at her, and Basra smiled slighly.
“You’re not from around here, are you, Mr. Schwartz?”
“Oh, me? Oh, no, no, I’m from Mathenon. Well, I mean, I was born there—I’m originally of Stalweiss stock…though you could probably tell that at a glance, haha! My grandparents left the old country after Horsebutt’s campaign—”
“The person we’re going to meet,” she interrupted, “is a sort of de facto cultural leader. He holds no office, but his grandmother was a major force in organizing and settling the witches who came to Viridill from all over the Empire after Archpope Sipasian’s proclamation against the fae arts. He’s respected and listened to—and, I repeat, is the latest in a line of people who have little reason to trust authority. That is why I insisted on civilian attire for this trip. We’re engaging in a spot of theater. For the duration of this visit, we don’t want to be seen as official representatives of anything, at least not until we’re close enough to have a conversation. That’s why no clerical robes.”
“I see,” the Salyrite said, half-turning to give a pointed and questioning look at Jenell’s back.
“On the other hand,” Basra said with faint amusement, “traveling with an armored Legionnaire in Viridill generally makes everything easier. I’ll explain myself if I have to, but it’s easier and quicker to avoid having to bother. She’ll wait with the carriage and generally discourage people from impeding us with annoying questions.”
“I see,” he mused, absently scratching the top of his rodent’s head with a finger. “How very… I must say, it’s all more complicated than I’d expected! Fairies I can deal with, but it wouldn’t occur to me to manage people like that.”
“It’s called ‘diplomacy,’” she said dryly. “A whole lot of time-wasting little intrigues played around obstreperous people, all in the hope of a minor victory here and there. It’s not for everyone.”
“You don’t say,” he murmured, leaning back in his seat and gazing out at the passing fields.
Schwartz was a young man, not much older than Covrin, and looked uncomfortable in his borrowed shirt and trousers. Not that they fit him badly; perhaps she shouldn’t have told him they belonged to a Silver Legionnaire. Some men could be prickly about anything “womanly.” He didn’t seem the type, though. Skinny, with raggedly-cut sandy hair, a big nose and spectacles with dented frames, he could have been a bard’s conception of the stereotypical intellectual given flesh.
“Coming up on the town,” Covrin reported. Basra leaned to the side, sticking her head out to look ahead; Schwartz shuffled over to the opposite side of the carriage to do the same, having to twist himself awkwardly out of his rear-facing seat.
Adrhan was the northernmost outpost of organized civilization in Viridill, such as it was. Situated on an island formed where the River Althra split into two streams and then re-formed half a mile later, it was of a size that suggested a village in the process of growing into a proper town, but Adrhan was ancient and not growing into anything. It hadn’t altered appreciably in decades, except for the addition of a scrolltower a few years back. Stone houses and shops were built closely together on a hill rising up to the center of the island, surmounted by a temple of Avei, and surrounded by crenelated walls and guard towers. There had been no battle of any kind here since the Enchanter Wars, of course, but everything in Viridill was built to be defensible. The land owed its protection to the goddess of war, and followed her example.
“Left at the crossroad just before the bridge,” Basra ordered.
“We’re not going into the town?” Schwartz inquired, turning back around.
“Our target lives outside the walls,” she replied. “He is a practicing hedge witch, after all. I should think you’d have some notion what that’s like.”
“Well, you never can tell with people,” he said ruminatively. “I mean, it sounds like he has a similar origin, even! Refugee grandparents, practitioner of the craft, and so on. But I went into Salyrene’s faith and honestly I like it much better in cities. We’re all individuals!”
“Mm hm,” she said noncommittally.
“Shame about not seeing Adrhan itself, though,” he added contemplatively. “It’s got one of only two temples of Izara in the province, right?”
Basra raised an eyebrow. “Is there any particular reason you know that?”
“Oh, uh…I, ah, that is…”
“I’m afraid we don’t really have time for that kind of…indulgence…on this trip.”
She allowed him to blush and stammer until he babbled himself out for the remainder of the drive.
Their destination wasn’t far from Adrhan, well within sight of its walls. It was only a few more minutes of driving along the road circling the island till the witch’s house hove into view, not far from the bridge across the river itself. At the end of a narrow private drive, the old stone structure looked as if it was being reclaimed by nature, but that was no indication of decay. It had been designed thus, which had doubtless been part of its appeal to the witch of two generations ago, not to mention her descendants. Half-sunk into a small hill, and with one of its corners built onto the trunk of an enormous tree, it was well-shaded and seemed to retreat from the sight of the road, as if crouching into the earth itself to avoid notice.
Chickens scattered from the yard in front of the house at their rattling approach; a cat, perched on the low stone wall surrounding a garden, watched them with its ears laid back, but did not flee. Covrin brought the carriage to a stop most of the way up the drive, sufficiently distant from the door that the vehicle wouldn’t be threateningly close, and their approach would give the house’s occupants a chance to study them through the windows. The girl’s background was not of the type generally sought out by the Silver Legions, but her socialite’s instincts occasionally proved useful to Basra.
She dismounted from the carriage without a word, Schwartz trailing after her. He paused at the door for a moment, turning back and whispering; when she glanced back, Basra noted the fiery little shape of his rat-thing perched upon the back seat.
“Large parts of that vehicle are flammable,” she said pointedly.
“Oh, Meesie’s no danger,” he assured her with a grin. “She’s very well controlled. It’s just that one shouldn’t bring an elemental being into another fae practitioner’s home uninvited. Aside from the rudeness… There can be bad reactions between spirits. It’s like introducing strange cats, with a lot more potential for destruction.”
“That’s…reassuring,” she said, shaking her head, but turned her back on the carriage and headed for the door. Jenell swiveled around in her seat to peer suspiciously down at the little fire-rat.
The door to the house opened when they were still a few yards distant, revealing a tall, broad-shouldered man in his early middle years, his reddish hair beginning to recede and showing hints of gray in his bushy beard.
“Good morning!” he called to them. “You’ve got good timing! The muffins are just about cool, and I’ve got tea ready. C’mon in!”
He turned and vanished into the house, leaving the door open.
“Oh…well,” Schwarts murmured. “How hospitable!” Basra paused, frowning, then continued on her way, up the short flight of stone steps and into the house.
A door set into one wall must open onto the part of the house submerged under the hill; the area into which they stepped occupied the bulk of what was visible from outside, which formed one long, tall room. A kitchen area was nearest them, with a pitted but sturdy old table separating it from a living space with chairs and a sofa facing a huge hearth. Wooden steps rose to a platform holding a bed, dresser and desk.
Their host was in the process of laying out a platter of fragrant strawberry muffins on the table. He smiled and waved at them. “Pull the door shut behind, would you? The chickens like to wander inside.”
“Are we…expected?” Basra inquired as Schwartz did so.
“The spirits told me I’d have visitors this morning,” the man said. “And that they’d be important folk, whom I’d want to speak to. So, welcome to my humble abode! I’m Hargrave, glad to make your acquaintance. What can I do for you?”
“Thank you,” she replied. “My name is Basra Syrinx. This is Schwartz.”
At that, Hargrave straightened up from pouring tea, looking at her more sharply. “Oh, my. The Bishop? That is unexpected. Now I wish I’d brought out mother’s good china.”
“Don’t trouble yourself on my account,” she said dryly. “I’m glad you were somewhat forewarned, then. We’re here on sensitive business. Are you aware at all of the elemental attacks recently?”
The witch stilled, gazing at her with a faint frown, then finally finished pouring a third cup of tea. “Why don’t you come have a seat?” he prompted, settling himself into one of the three places set. “I think this conversation calls for being off our feet.”
“Thanks!” Schwartz said cheerfully, sliding into one of the proffered chairs. “I’m a fellow practitioner, by the way. First rank fae specialist, with the College of Salyrene!”
“Interfaith initiative, then?” Hargrave mused. “Well. I am glad to hear this matter is being taken seriously. Yes, I’m quite aware of the problems you speak of, Bishop Syrinx. I’ve had my spirit friends keeping an eye on the situation; fortunately I had some forewarning in the form of dreams. Such accidental divinations are anything but precise, but they can let me know when something’s brewing.”
“What is brewing?” Basra demanded.
“The actual nature of the thing I can’t tell you,” Hargrave said seriously, pushing the platter of muffins toward them. Basra ignored it, but Schwartz helped himself to one and began munching happily. “At least, not beyond what you’ve already said. Elementals are stirred up and being hostile—if you’re traveling with a Salyrite specialist, I assume you already know this isn’t normal behavior for them. Only reason for elementals to act this way is if they’re being goaded to. You have any idea who’s behind it?”
“That’s what we came here to ask about,” she said. “So far, no suspects. It is clearly someone highly adept in fairy magic, however. The Sisterhood doesn’t have much direct interaction with the witches of Viridill these days, but you’re known to be a community leader.”
“That might be giving me a little too much credit,” he said with a self-deprecating smile. “The visions I had warned of outside interference, your Grace. If you have in mind to start questioning the local witches… Well, nothing I have to offer would stand up in court, but what information I do have suggests we’re dealing with someone not local to the district.”
“Oh?” she prompted, staring sharply.
He nodded, his frown returning. “When the disturbances didn’t cease, I tried a more active divination. I couldn’t get far with it… Largely because what I did get directed me south. Past a certain point, magic of any kind doesn’t quite…work. Divinations are particularly vulnerable to interference.”
Basra straightened up; Schwartz blinked and swallowed a bite of muffin. “South? How far south?”
“All the way south,” Hargrave said solemnly.
Along the southern border of Viridill, past an Imperial and Silver Legion line of fortifications, lay Athan’Khar, a twisted land of wandering horrors and terrible memories.
“And it didn’t occur to you to bring this to the attention of the Sisterhood?” Basra said with a hint of asperity.
“Of course it did,” Hargrave said evenly. “And I immediately discarded the notion. I’m a man, your Grace, and a witch, in a district managed by feminist divinists. Going to the authorities with stories about my bad dreams would result in a pat on the head at the absolute best. I’ve been working to put together something more authoritative. So far, if the elementals are just wandering about causing mischief, it seems I’ve a little time yet to work.”
She drew in a breath, then let it out slowly. “I’m afraid it’s not that simple. They’re showing rather sophisticated behavior, if you study the overall pattern of every attack. Attacking travel routes, executing complex maneuvers against soldiers.”
The witch scowled, laying both his hands flat on the table. “That…is much more serious than I feared. I think… I had better start talking with people. Someone must know something about this.”
“I thought you said this was an outsider’s work?” she said, raising an eyebrow.
“That is my belief at this point,” he agreed, “but that doesn’t mean nobody knows anything. It will take me a little while to look in on all my various contacts in the region, but if what you say is true, I had better get started on that. For now,” he continued, drumming his fingers on the table, “I can offer you a little advice. For someone to control elementals to the extent you’re talking about… Well, our mysterious foe is quite powerful. Power in the craft is a function of time spent gaining it; there are no shortcuts in witchcraft. You’re looking for someone old.”
“Well, that should help!” Schwartz said brightly.
“I mean…old,” Hargrave said, his voice heavy with meaning. “And if it’s someone somehow connected with Athan’Khar…”
Basra closed her eyes, drew in a deep breath through her teeth, and sighed heavily.
“What?” Schwartz looked back and forth between them, confused. “What am I missing?”
“Only gnomes and elves go into Athan’Khar anymore,” she said, “and gnomes don’t practice the fae arts. It’s about a two-hour drive to the Green Belt if we carry on north. Or at least, as far as the roads will take us. We’ll have to walk into the groves proper.”
“Oh, I say,” Schwartz protested nervously. “Just…dropping in on the elves? They don’t like visitors.”
“Right now I’m not much interested in what they like,” she said curtly. “We’ll butter them up as much as possible, for whatever good it does. It sounds like they’re the best source of information we have. So that’s where we go.”
“I think you may find help there, in fact,” Hargrave said. “Business such as this would be quite upsetting to elves; even more than privacy, they like peace. And they don’t look kindly on those of their number who mess about in Athan’Khar.”
“Well.” Basra pushed back from the table and her untouched tea. “Thank you, Mr. Hargrave; you’ve been quite helpful. I’m sorry to be so curt, but it sounds as if we’ve a longer day ahead of us than planned.”
“Indeed,” he agreed, rising as well. Schwartz belatedly followed suit. “I’ve my own travel preparations to make. It’ll likely take me a few days to learn anything; can I reach you in Vrin Shai?”
“Actually, I’m staying at the Abbey while in the province,” she said. “And thank you. Anything you can turn up will be much appreciated.”
A minute later, they were walking back down the steps toward the carriage.
“Well, he was helpful!” Schwartz said brightly, clutching a handful of muffins. “And you had me all worried! The way you were talking I thought we’d have to persuade him to even speak to us.”
“That was fast,” Jenell noted as they climbed back into the carriage.
“Indeed,” said Basra, “and the news isn’t good. We head north, private. Actually, take us into the town first to pick up some provisions; this is going to be a much longer trip than originally planned.”
“Where to after that, ma’am?” Jenell asked, carefully backing the carriage down the drive.
“North to the elves.”
They reached the road and set off back the way they had come, toward the short bridge leading to Adrhan’s gates, none of them noticing the inky black shadow that slithered along the road behind them. It darted under the carriage, and there it remained.
After the morning he’d had, Ingvar took comfort in the familiar halls of the lodge, the casual greetings of fellow Huntsmen, trainees, attached craftsmen, and their various womenfolk. It was a calm place, and quiet at this hour of the late morning. He headed straight for his own chambers. Later—not much later—he would need to take action again, mindful of Hrathvin’s warning against complacency, but first he needed to think of some useful action to take. Seeking out the Crow had been his one idea, and Principia his one lead in that direction. Now he was forced to wait on Darling…not an enviable position.
He’d have to talk to Brother Andros about this, he realized as he pushed open his door. He was reluctant to trouble him, but it couldn’t be helped. The Bishop might or might not have anything useful to contribute, but he was clearly familiar with the Crow, both personally and from the lore. Besides, Andros was a wise man, and generous with his counsel. Even if he had no pertinent information, it was likely he would have advice.
He shut the door, turned back to his room, and froze. There had been no one here when he opened it; now he faced the very unfamiliar sight of a woman on his bed.
Not just a woman. It was his first time seeing her in this form, but the description was known. In fact, she looked rather like Principia, except for her plains tribe attire and a general stillness of being that the younger elf lacked.
“So,” said Mary the Crow. “Tell me about these visions.”
For a moment he was too startled to speak. Instinct kicked in after that moment, however; no good hunter could afford to freeze like a rabbit. Had Darling been this fast?
No. There was absolutely no way he could have been. That meant she had been following him. Why? For how long? Well, it wasn’t as if he could make her tell him anything. The best approach here was to be open and hope the infamously dangerous immortal arch-shaman before him was inclined to be helpful.
Ingvar cleared his throat, backing up against the door, and decided to follow her lead in eschewing the pleasantries. “It…began as dreams, two weeks ago. One per night. I was shown visions of Shaath… Bound.”
The Crow raised one eyebrow. “Bound?”
“In various ways,” he said, nodding. This was easier to talk about than he had expected. “With…chains, ropes, traps. Stuck in mud, or quicksand, pinned under trees or rockfalls. Always bound, injured, in pain, and I was unable to do anything to help.”
She stared piercingly at him, then slowly leaned back. “You saw that?”
Ingvar took a compulsive step forward. “Do you know what—”
He broke off at a sharp gesture from her. “Continue. Was there anything else?”
“Well… Last night, there was one change. I…saw the god bound in vines, in a scene of a forest filled with enormous spider webs. That time… There was a crow, perched on the web. It spoke in a voice I didn’t recognize, and said I should follow it to learn more.”
Mary was silent for a long moment, her eyes boring into him. Ingvar couldn’t help but feel he was being weighed, if not outright dissected. Still, he didn’t break the silence, bearing up under her scrutiny with the best grace he could manage.
“Spider…webs,” she said at last, enunciating very slowly, as if mulling each word. “What a very interesting tale this is, Huntsman. Very interesting.”
He drew in a deep breath, squared his shoulders. “Have you any idea what it means?”
She tilted her head in a birdlike gesture. “Oh, I know precisely what it means. And in fact, I believe I shall help you.”
Ingvar took an eager step forward before he could restrain himself. “Thank you! What does it mean?”
She shook her head. “You surely didn’t imagine it would be that simple, Huntsman. You have been pointed in the direction of secrets that are well beyond your grasp. They can’t simply be told.”
He felt as if he’d been slapped. After all this, she wasn’t going to reveal what those accursed visions meant? “Why not?” he burst out before catching himself, aware of the petulant tone of his voice.
The Crow unfolded her legs and stood. “Tell me, Ingvar, why do you think the rites of the Huntsmen of Shaath involve such arduous tasks as sitting under waterfalls, spending nights atop trees, building shelters without tools, and the like?”
“What does that—” He broke off at her expression. In fact, her face barely shifted, but something in the nuance of her features held a warning. He swallowed and spoke again in a more measured tone. “Those skills are necessary to the path of the Huntsman.”
“Really? Skills?” The Crow actually smiled in open amusement. “Meditating under an icy waterfall for hours teaches you to do…what, exactly?” She let the silence stretch out before continuing. “It’s for much the same reason that Avenist priestesses duel a string of hardened warriors until they collapse from exhaustion, why Omnist monks court heatstroke by exposing themselves to the fiercest sun they can find, why Eserites are obligated to stalk an enemy and either draw blood or break bone, why Izarites meditate on oneness with all the universe for a night and a day… I could go on and on in this vein, and wouldn’t need to stop at the cults of the gods. None of those activities are necessary to pursue their respective faiths’ goals; none of them, in fact, are particularly smart things to do. People die, seeking initiation into the higher secrets of their orders. Nor is this a strictly human proclivity: elvish shamans endure rites you could scarcely imagine, and it boggles the mind what a gnome must suffer to be considered a true adventurer. There is is a price to be paid for knowledge, Ingvar.”
“What price do you demand?” he asked woodenly.
Mary grinned outright at him. “Oh, we have not even begun to discuss that; I am still explaining. This is wisdom, young one, clean out your ears and your mind and absorb it. What you are asking to know will shake the foundations of your understanding of the world. People fare poorly in the face of such revelations. I could quite easily tell you this secret, and within an hour you would have convinced yourself it was nothing, that I was wrong, lying or crazy. Whatever wall your mind had to throw up to protect you from that truth.”
“You give me very little credit, shaman,” he said stiffly.
“On the contrary,” she replied, her tone soft, “I know little of you, but based on the fact that you have received these visions, I expect great things from you. This is just the nature of minds, Ingvar. You will have to suffer a great deal more than you have—yes, even you—before you are willing to let go of the world you understand. That world is an illusion created by your mind to give you comfort in the face of a vast, random, uncaring universe. Your mind as it is now would sooner destroy itself than release that illusion, because it thinks that to do so would be destruction. This is a path, a journey.” She smiled. “A hunt. I will guide you on it.”
Ingvar was far from certain he understood all this talk, but there was something about the shape of it that resonated with him. He took a deep breath, cleared his throat, and bowed to her. “I apologize for my tone, shaman. I appreciate your wisdom. What must I do?”
“I’ll offer you a bargain,” she said, now studying him contemplatively. “I will send you on a quest, Ingvar, in such a way that when you reach the end of it, you will appreciate what you have found and not dismiss it out of hand. It will not be easy, but that’s the point. In fact, I will arrange companions who will share your journey, and the insight you gain at the end. You’d be very hard-pressed to do this alone. In exchange, when this is done, you will do something for me.”
“What…would you like me to do?” he asked warily.
“You will find out who sent you these visions,” she replied, “and why. That you have been chosen means you are likely able to get close to that person, in a way that even I could not.”
For a moment, he could only gape at her. “You…don’t know?”
“If it’s just Shaath seeking help from one of his Huntsmen, that’s fine,” she said, still studying his face. “I’ve no argument with him. No business of any kind with him, for that matter. However, it would be wildly out of character for Shaath to reveal himself in a state of weakness, particularly to someone whose opinion he valued. There are other powers in this world which can send visions, and I would very much like to know which of them has decided to nominate adventurers and send them to me.”
Ingvar held his silence after she stopped speaking, examining her face. It was a fruitless activity; she clearly had better control of her features than anyone he had ever met. Still, this entire business made him increasingly uneasy. It was not a deal to be made lightly, or on the spur of the moment.
“Wisdom and understanding, Ingvar,” she said quietly, “in exchange for mere knowledge. Even with the difficulties you will face in doing this, you are getting the better end of the deal.”
Well. Ultimately, it wasn’t as if he had any choice. There were no other options open to him.
Ingvar straightened up, nodded his head, and extended his had to her. “I accept your terms, shaman. Tell me what I must do.”
Mary reached out, clasped his wrist, and smiled in a way he didn’t like at all.