Book 2 of "Children of the Rock"
Marguerite Krause & Susan Sizemore
(From Five Star Speculative Fiction - December 2003)
"What are you doing?"
"Hush," Jordy whispered.
Vray hushed. In the three days since they left Broadford, she had already learned quite a bit about what it meant to be a carter on the road. Jordy and Tob had a well-rehearsed yet flexible routine for each day's activities. Since bringing Tob on his summer's journeys had effectively halved Jordy's work load, he claimed that adding another helper should make things even easier. He'd insisted on one and only one firm rule of behavior. When he spoke, Tob and Vray were to obey immediately. He would answer their questions, argue with them, and otherwise treat them as responsible young adults most of the time but at moments of decision, his had to be the only voice.
Tob looked around from unharnessing Stockings. The sun was low in the west, about to disappear behind the distant purple mass on the horizon that marked the beginning of the Dherrican mountains. Jordy, standing beside the wagon's front wheel, had reached under the driver's seat and pulled out a stone. His manner did not suggest danger, but Vray stopped rummaging in the back of the wagon for firewood and apprehensively tried to locate whatever had attracted the carter's attention.
Around them stretched mile after mile of gently rolling Atowa grassland. They had been crossing the almost featureless plateau for two days. Two days of similar travel remained before they reached the southern shore of Lake Hari. The road to the north was empty, straight and unvarying all the way to the horizon. Just visible where the road passed over the southern horizon was the clump of pale green trees that marked the location of the little spring-fed pond at which they'd filled their water casks. A similar cluster of trees was visible a few miles to the east of the road. With those exceptions, the expanse of new grass was unbroken. Vray could see no travelers other than themselves, no startled flocks of birds or fleeing herds of antelope that might warn of a pack of jackals, or worse still, a hunting phantom cat.
Jordy's attention was on a gentle slope less than a dozen yards from the wagon. He held the stone in his right hand, arm half-cocked. Vray, standing above and behind him in the bed of the wagon, had a fleeting glimpse of brown fur and tall ears before he threw. The little animal rolled over several times under the impact. Jordy turned at once, produced two more stones from under the wagon seat, and trotted up the slope.
Recognition came belatedly to Vray. "That was a rabbit!" she exclaimed.
"Shhh," Tob warned her. "There may be more."
Jordy crouched down as he neared the top of the slope, then threw his remaining two stones one after another, almost more quickly than Vray's eye could follow. He straightened and disappeared briefly over the top of the hillock.
"Your mouth's open, Iris," Tob teased her gently.
Vray recovered her dropped jaw and walked toward Tob. "He's fast."
The comment was inadequate, but she wasn't ready to try to explain the deeper layers of her unease. Every time she thought she had a firm grasp of just what the carter was capable of, he turned around and did something unexpected. It wasn't that she hadn't expected Jordy to be a skillful hunter. She knew his skill with a bow. However, for a few seconds, his intensity had made her expect danger rather than dinner.
He's only a carter, she reminded herself sternly. He and his friends might be plotting revolution, training the villagers to fight, but that didn't mean he knew the first thing about actually confronting a troop of Damon's guards. By the Firstmother, today's kills were only rabbits!
Jordy came down the slope toward them, two rabbits in one hand and one in the other; a satisfied half-smile on his face. Vray, annoyed with him for making her uneasy, folded her arms over her chest.
"I thought that's what the bow was for," she said, inclining her head toward the back of the wagon.
"That great thing for a beastie this size? Half the meat would be ripped away. Besides, it wasn't handy. That's why I keep throwing stones here." He lay the rabbits on the wagon seat, then reached underneath. With a sharp tug he slid out an entire tray of slightly jagged, palm-fitting stones. He looked over Vray's shoulder at Tob. "That reminds me, we saw grouse near here last summer, didn't we?"
"Half-way home from Edian? Yes, I think that was the night."
"I'll have a look. A bird or two will make a good lunch tomorrow." He slipped a few stones into his pockets. "Be sure to set up the tent. The wind's turning to the north, and that means rain. I'll be back in an hour."
"Right, Dad," Tob replied.
Jordy left. Vray returned to the wagon and gathered a bundle of firewood in to her arms. She found the patch of bare, red-brown soil that marked the location of previous travelers' campfires and laid her wood beside it. Then she returned to the wagon for the cooking gear. Tob led Stockings out into the grass and hobbled her. Vray expected him to go around to the back of the wagon and begin unpacking the tent. Instead, he took the pack full of pots and utensils away from her, set it on the ground, and wrapped his arms around her. Vray responded willingly enough with a kiss. When she came up for air, however, he wouldn't let her go.
"Tob," she said. "We're supposed to be setting up camp."
"We've got plenty of time." He kissed the end of her nose, then began nibbling lightly over her cheek.
Vray's skin prickled pleasurably. "Tob!" she repeated insistently. "Not now."
"Why not?" He rubbed his hands lightly up and down her back.
"Won't be back for an hour. He said so. Besides, it's not as if he doesn't know."
Vray stiffened in his arms. "What?"
Tob began kissing the side of her neck. "He's sired three children, you know," he said between kisses.
"General knowledge is one thing." Vray's eyes closed in spite of herself. "It's specific cases parents don't always approve of."
"He approves of us."
Vray pushed against his chest and tried to glare at him. "Approves of us? Of you and me together, us?"
"You told him?"
Tob finally reacted to the astonishment in her voice and paused in his caresses. "He asked. Actually, he guessed the morning after the Festival that I'd been with you." A blush reddened his already sun-darkened cheeks. "He said what I'd been doing was obvious."
"Mothers," Vray muttered. She cleared her throat. "He didn't mind?"
"Why should he? He's proud of you, Iris. I've heard him say so to Herri. The whole village likes you. You were pretty strange when you came to us last summer, but you've gotten a lot better." A hint of worry darkened the earnest blue eyes. "He knows I didn't just take advantage of you. I never would have suggested it, if you didn't really know what we were doing!"
That shattering sound, Vray told herself, is the collapse of my sense of self-importance. She had entertained doubts about the fairness of seducing an innocent Keeper boy. She had never thought to consider that Tob and Jordy might be concerned about her innocence. She took a deep breath. "Of course you'd never do that, Tob."
His smirk returned. "You're not embarrassed, are you? I suppose I could have said it was someone else, but Dad says trying to keep secrets only complicates life sooner or later."
"I'm not embarrassed." She fidgeted thoughtfully with the embroidery on the front of his tunic. "But, isn't it a little awkward? For Dad, I mean? With Mama being all the way back in Broadford, I mean."
Tob took her hands away from his shirt and slid them around his waist. "That's why we should do it now, while he's not here." He covered her mouth with his.
The kiss lasted a long time. When they stopped, Vray allowed her concern one last expression. "He'll know," she murmured against Tob's throat.
With one hand he released the nearest tarp from the back of the wagon. A flip of his arm shook it open. It was still settling to the ground as Tob lowered her onto it, the grass a soft mat beneath them. "He won't mention it if we don't."
The words freed Vray, and she reached out for the drawstring on Tob's trousers.
# # #
A glaring yellow pine cone the size of a small mountain skimmed gracefully through pink froth air. Aage did not interfere. A few ninedays passed; the moons zigzagging absurdly overhead. Aage left his head where it was and carried another with him to the top of the wall. Below,a few trout grinned at him, fangs glinting in the light of a nearby greenish star. Again he turned away. He knew them. They were rarely dangerous and never effective. Without eyes, he looked elsewhere for a threat. Without ears, he listened to babble rising and falling, approaching and receding. A flock of three-legged horses tumbled end over end in the distance.
Direct threat. Aage bent the power sharply, losing as he did so the odd images his mind produced when he wasn't busy. There was only the world; fragile sphere suspended in night, enclosed in its protective web. Only himself, one strand pulsing with power. Only the Others, making yet another attempt to snatch the web and tear it away.
Aage fought, his concentration pure, effortless. He never spoke of what he did, even to Morb. When Morb was present with him, no discussion was necessary. Later, when they resumed their bodies, no discussion was possible. At least not for Aage. He suspected that Morb, with his centuries of experience, was no longer troubled by a need to conceptualize what he experienced in physical terms. He never encountered bizarrely shaped sheep or clouds of shouting porridge.
Of course, he never heard the gods, either.
Aage became aware of their presence as his struggle with the Others reached its peak. They did not come every time he entered the realms of power, but they always came in the midst of battle. The first time he became aware of them he had thought them another hallucination, another distorted product of his mind's attempt to translate the totally alien into familiar terms. He quickly learned that the gods did not appreciate being dismissed out of hand.
He'd been taught that the gods spoke to certain Dreamers, especially at moments of crisis. Until it happened, he had never imagined it would happen to him. The other Dreamers, however, had gratefully accepted his messages from the gods. Soon he, too, was able to view the occasional communications as simply another manifestation of his power-bending gifts.
He continued to put all his energy into his struggle with the Others. In effect, he became two people: one, a wizard wielding magic against monsters; the second, a very normal, very flesh and blood Child of the Rock. The gods' presence was the warmth of friends standing close beside him on a cool evening.
Then he saw the vision. The ledge outside Morb's cave. Evening. Hot, sticky, mid-summer. Golden Keyn-light revealed glistening perspiration on Morb's brown shoulders as he seated himself on his boulder. The power was surging with dangerous intensity. All three of the Dreamers on the ledge were aware of it.
Aage watched the third Dreamer duck into Morb's cave to fill his bowl with water. His. Not one of the Greenmothers. Another male Dreamer. A new Dreamer!
Aage waited eagerly for the young wizard to emerge. Who was he? He'd glimpsed dark hair. Not Forrit, then. Unless the blond Sitrinian boy was going to darken unexpectedly as he matured. As quickly as he thought it, he dismissed the idea. His vision-self knew this new Dreamer, knew he wasn't Forrit.
The vision faded. A mood lingered, reassurance and warning combined. This Dreamer's gifts were strong. He would bend the power, hold off intruders as well as, perhaps better than, Morb himself. The warning was that his strength would be needed. Dangers lay ahead.
Before the gods could recede, Aage called out wordlessly. Why do you show this Dreamer to me? Who will he be? Will he need special attention to reach that moment on Morb's ledge?
He will be there. You will be with him.
Who is he?
Present generation Dreamer child.
Aage's adversary was in retreat. With one part of himself, he bent the power to end the battle. Another part strained to retain awareness of the gods. Please. Who is he? Which of the chosen Keepers' and Shapers' children?
There was no immediate answer. A shiver of protest prickled at the back of his awareness. Not Damon!
Danger. In the instant that he completed his battle, another attack began. Aage's senses whirled as he made the transition from offense to defense. He had to abandon his interrogation of the gods. Visions of the future would serve no purpose if he allowed the world to be destroyed in the present.
The initial onslaught was fierce, but this Other lacked perseverance. Aage bent the power with more confidence. He pushed harder; the Other began to collapse. Then, even more abruptly than before, it swelled, doubled, tripled its strength. Aage narrowly evaded the trap. Once more he built his defense.
The voices came with no advance warning. He is not a son of Damon.
Aage did not feel ready to resume the conversation, but the gods obviously thought he was. Perhaps they knew his strength better than he did himself. Encouraged, he shifted his place in the power, stretching the web a bit, preparing a strategy he'd often considered but never tried for fear of the risk. As he worked, he addressed the gods. Whose son is he?
A Dreamer child yes, but -
Your child, wizard.
He almost dropped the barriers he was so carefully erecting around the intruder. My child? How my child? You made Dreamers infertile.
Your child, wizard.
It's not possible!
Your child, wizard.
He tried to feel the gods' presence, gauge their mood. Failed. More of his energy drained into the battle. My child? he demanded. With what mother?
What woman would have me? Not Savyea or Jenil. They're as infertile as I am. Perhaps, when I tell them that you said this to me
They would not approve.
I don't understand. Who could be mother to my child? I haven't had time for a lover for three years. My only friend is the princess
This time the shock of disbelief worked in Aage's favor. The burst of energy drove his adversary back. I should have a child with Jeyn?
A twist in the strands of power marked Morb's arrival. In the presence of two wizards, the assault from the other universe collapsed. Aage knew without calling that the gods were gone, too. Morb ordered him back to the world.
The morning sun had just cleared the peaks on the other side of the valley. The mountains tilted. Aage's head landed on Morb's hard shoulder. Morb's hands caught at him, preventing him from toppling off the boulder. Odd. The old wizard's hands seemed to be gripping some other person's body. The numbness spread rapidly, deadening sound, dulling vision.
Morb's voice reached him, faint, distorted. "What happened to you?"
A vision, Aage wanted to say, but he couldn't hear his own voice. A vision I don't want to think about.
He drifted into darkness, peaceful and quiet.
If he hadn't been terrified, he might have enjoyed it.
Copyright © 1999 by Marguerite Krause & Susan Sizemore