Song of Unmaking
The sky was raining stars.
Euan Rohe lay in the frozen sedge. The river gleamed below, solid with ice from bank to bank. The brighter stars reflected in it as they fell, streaks of gold and white and pallid green.
He was dizzy with cold and hunger and long running--and there were the damned imperials, yet again, between him and his hope of escape. Though winter had set in early and hard, the border was crawling with them. Every ford, every possible crossing was guarded.
For days Euan had been struggling along the river, while the hunting grew more and more scant, and the cold set in deep and hard. He was ready to swear that the emperor's patrols were waiting for him, even herding him, driving him farther and farther downriver. His own country seemed to mock him, rising in steep slopes black with pine and white with snow, so near he could almost reach out and touch, but impossibly, unreachably far.
He could appreciate irony. He had come out of the heart of the empire, a big redheaded man in a world of little dark people, with a price on his head and a cry of treason that echoed still, months after his stroke against the emperor had failed--and none of the emperor's hounds had been able to find him. But then, why would they trouble themselves? All they had to do was close the border.
He was trapped like a bear in a pit. They would herd him all the way down to the sea, then corner him on the sand--or they would catch him much sooner, when cold and starvation and sheer snarling frustration made him drop his guard.
Maybe he would die and cheat them of their revenge. They could do what they liked with his corpse, he would not be using it any longer. Even soft imperials might turn savage toward the man who had reduced their emperor to impotence, disrupted their holy Dance, and come near to destroying their herd of horse mages.
His lips drew back from his teeth when he thought of those stiff-necked fools with their overweening arrogance and their worship of fat white horses. A fair few of them were dead, and good riddance, too.
One of them was not, and that might be good, or it might be very, very bad. If he closed his eyes, he could see her face. Every line of it was burned in his memory, just as he had seen her in that last, desperate meeting. Black hair in tousled curls, smooth rounded cheeks and firm chin, and eyes both brown and green, flecked with gold. She was bruised, filthy, staggering, with one arm hanging limp--but she held his life in her one good hand.
She could have killed him. He would have bared his throat for the knife. He could have killed her--and by the One God, truly he should, because she had betrayed him and broken her word and brought down the whole edifice of his plot against her empire.
She had let him go. And he had let her live. Because of her, he had failed, but also because of her, he had escaped.
That might have been no mercy. He had won through to the border, but the border was closed. The emperor's legionaries would do her killing for her.
Twenty of them camped now between him and the river. He was not getting across tonight.
His belly griped with hunger. He did his best to ignore it. There were no villages or farmsteads within a day's hard slog--more than that for a man as worn down as he was. The last rabbit he had managed to snare was long since eaten, down to the hide and sinew. He would be starting in on his boots next, unless he went mad and tried to raid the patrol's stores.
Maybe that was not so mad. Most of the patrol were asleep. Their sentries were vigilant--and well hidden--but he knew where each of them was.
There was a light in the captain's tent, but no movement. Probably the man had fallen asleep over his dispatches.
Euan gathered what strength he had. He had to do it soon or he would freeze where he lay. Slip in, snatch what he could, slip out and across the river. He could do that.
He could die, too, but he would die if he stayed where he was. Die doing something or die doing nothing--that was not a choice he found difficult.
He flexed his stiffened fingers and rose to a crouch. He had to stop then until the world stopped spinning. He drew deep breaths, though the air burned his lungs with cold.
When he was as steady as he was going to get, he crept forward through the sedge. The moonlight was very bright, and its color was strange--as if the moon had turned to fire.
The hairs of his nape stood on end. He flung himself flat, just as the fire came down.
It struck with a roar that consumed everything there was. The earth heaved under him. A blast of heat shocked him, then a squall of scalding rain. He gagged on the reek of hot metal.
He lay blinded, deafened, and soaked through all his layers of rags and leather and furs. His skin stung with burns. For a long while he simply lay, clinging to the earth that had gone mercifully still again.
He suspected that he might be dead. Every account of the One God's hell told of fire and darkness, heat and cold together, and the screams of the damned rising to such a pitch that the ears were pummeled into silence.
If he was dead, then the dead could feel bodily pain. Shakily he lifted himself to his elbows.
The sky was still raining stars. The river's gleam was dulled--spattered with earth and mud and fragments that must be ash. The camp was a smoldering ruin.
All the horses were dead or dying, and the men were down in the ashes of their tents, writhing in agony or else terribly still. Even Euan's dulled ears could hear the screams of the wounded--and from the sound, those wounds were mortal. The tents were shredded or, on the upriver side, completely gone. The earth gaped where they had been.
Euan's clothes had been a mass of tatters even before the fire came down. What was fabric was scorched and what was fur was singed, but most of it was intact. Snow and sedge between them had protected him.
He bowed to the strength of the One God who had hurled a star out of the sky to defend His worshipper. He only had to hope that there was enough of him left to make it across the river--and enough provisions left in the camp to feed him before he went.
If nothing else, he could feast on horsemeat. There would be a certain pleasure in that, considering how the imperials worshipped the beasts. He staggered erect and made his wobbling way down the hill to the remains of the camp.
None of the legionaries had escaped. Those few who had not died outright, Euan put out of their misery.
The stink of roasted meat made his stomach churn. When he sliced off a bit from a horse's haunch, he found he could not eat it. He put it away thriftily in his traveling bag, then tried to forget he had it.
There was bread in the ashes of one of the fires on the camp's edge. It was well baked and savory--a miracle of sorts. He disciplined himself to eat it in small bites, well spaced apart to spare his too long deprived stomach, as he prowled the ruins.
The blasted pit was still smoldering. Every grain of sense shouted at him to stay far away, but he could not make himself listen. It was as if a spell drew him to the place where the star had fallen.
Amid the embers and ash in the heart of the pit, something gleamed. It was absolute stupidity, but he found a way down the crumbling sides into the new-made and intoxicatingly warm bowl.
The star lay in the center in a bed of ash. In spite of the light he had seen, it was dark, lumpen and unlovely, an irregular black stone half the size of his clenched fist.
The heat of its fall was still in it. But he had a firepot, stolen from a trader outside a town whose name he had never troubled to learn, and it was just large enough to hold the starstone.
The thing was shockingly heavy. He almost dropped the pot, but he caught it just in time. The weight of the heavens was in it.
It was much harder to climb out of the pit than it had been to go down into it. The sides were steep and slippery with mud and melting ice. Euan came dangerously close to surrendering--to sliding back to the bottom and lying there until death or daylight took him.
In the end it was not courage that got him out. It was pride. However he wanted to be remembered, it was not as the prince of the Caletanni who gave up and died in a hole.
He lay on the edge, plastered with mud and gasping for breath. He had no memory of the climb, but his arms and legs were aching and his fingers stung.
Gingerly he rolled onto his back. The stars had stopped falling.
The one in his bag weighed him down as he rose. Wisdom or even prudence might have persuaded him to drop it, but he had paid too dearly for it already. He stood as straight as he could under it.
There was still food to find and a river to cross. He scavenged a bag of flour that had been shielded by a legionary's body, a wheel of cheese that was only half melted, two more loaves of bread that had been baking under stones and so were preserved from destruction, and a jar of thick, sweet imperial wine. There was more, but all the horses were dead and that was as much as he could carry.
He stopped to eat a little bread and nibble a bit of cheese. Near where he was sitting, the captain's tent still stood, scorched and tattered but upright. The captain had come out when the fire fell--his body lay sprawled in front of the flap, crisped and charred, with the marks of rank still gleaming on his coat.
Inside the tent, something moved.
Euan sat perfectly still. It was only the wind. But if that was so, then the wind blew nowhere else. The night was calm. Even the moon seemed to be holding its breath.
A shape rose up out of the ashes. It was clothed in a glimmering garment, like something spun out of moonlight. When it stood upright, it stretched long arms and groaned, shaking off a scattering of ash and cooling embers.
The shimmer tore and slid away like the caul from a newborn calf. A man stood in the ashes, whole and unharmed, and turned glittering eyes on Euan. "You're late," he said.
The Mountain's Call
The Mountain floated over the long roll of field and forest. Even in summer its peak was white with snow. In early spring, when the grass had begun to grow green in the valleys, its summit was locked in winter.
There was a fire of magic in its heart, welling up from the deep roots of the earth. It bubbled like a spring from the white fang of the peak, and rippled in waves through the vault of heaven. The tides of time began to swirl and shift.
In the citadel on the Mountain's knees, the Master of the Schools of Peace and War woke from a stranger dream than most. He stumbled from bed, flung open the shutters, and peered up at the glow of dawn on the snowbound slopes.
Every spring the power rose; every spring the Mountain's Call went out, summoning young men to the testing. Every spring and summer they came, straggling in from the far reaches of Aurelia's empire, coming to claim the magic that they hoped was theirs. White magic, stallion magic. Magic of time and the gods.
This year's Call was different. How it was different, or what it portended, the Master could not tell. The gods in their pastures, cropping the new green grass, would not answer when he asked. The Ladies in the high valleys, greater than gods, chose not to acknowledge him at all.
This was a mystery, that silence said. Even the Master of the school must wait and see, and hope that when the answer came, it would be one that he could accept.
Valeria had been walking in a fog for days. Sometimes she wondered if she was ill. Other times, she was sure that she was losing her mind.
There was a voice in her head. It called to her with the sound of wind through pines. It whispered in the hollows of her skull. Come. Come to me.
She staggered on the path to the widow Rufo's house. Her mother's hand gripped her wrist and wrenched her upright.
The pain helped Valeria to focus. It was harder every day. Sometimes now she could barely see. She had to struggle to hear what people said to her. She thought she might be losing her grip altogether, except that there was a deep sense of rightness to it. She was meant to hear this call. She was meant to go--
"Valeria!" Her mother's voice cut through the fog of confusion. She blinked half-wittedly. She was standing in the widow Rufo's cottage. Her head just missed brushing the roofbeam.
"Valeria," her mother said. "Start brewing the tea."
Valeria's hands knew what to do even when her wits were drifting away toward gods knew where. She dipped water from the barrel by the door and poured it into the kettle, then set it to boil on the hearth. The fire had burned too low. She whispered a Word. The banked logs burst into flame.
The widow Rufo's breath rattled. Morag spread a paste of pungent herbs over the bony chest and covered it with soft cloths. Herbs just as pungent steeped in the boiling water, brewing into tea. When it was strong enough, Morag coaxed it into her sip by sip.
Valeria squatted by the fire. It was full of visions. White mountains. White clouds. The toss of a white mane, and a noble head on a proud arched neck, turning to fix her with an eye as dark as deep water. The depths of it were full of stars. Come, said the white god. Come to me.
"She's getting worse."
Valeria lay in the wide bed with her three younger sisters. She was the innermost, with Caia's warmth on one side and the chill of the wall on the other. Her sisters were snoring on three different notes. They almost drowned out the murmur of their mother's voice on the other side of the wall.
"She can barely keep her mind on her work," Morag went on. "She started to say a birthing spell over Edwy's burned hand this morning--thanks to Sun and Moon I caught her in time, or he'd have sprouted a crop of new fingers."
Her father's laughter rumbled through the wall. Morag slapped him. He grunted. "There now," he said in his deep voice, roughened from years of bellowing orders on battlefields. "What was that for?"
"You know perfectly well what for," Morag said sharply. "Our daughter is losing her mind."
"If she were a boy," Titus said, "I'd be thinking it was the Call. I saw it a time or two when I was in the legion. One of the youngest recruits would get up one fine spring morning with his eyes all strange, pick up his kit and walk out of the barracks, and no one with any sense would try to stop him. Our girl's just about the same age as they were, and gods know she has a way with animals. Horses follow her like puppies. The way she taught the goat to dance--"
"She is not a boy," said Morag. "This is a spring sickness. There's magic in it, she stinks of it, but it is not--"
"What if it is?"
"It can't be," Morag said flatly. "Women aren't Called. She has a good deal more magic than she knows what to do with, and it's laid her open to some contagion off the mountains."
Titus grunted the way he did when he was not minded to argue with his wife, but neither was he inclined to agree with her. "You'd better cure her, then, if she's as sick as that."
"I'll cure her," said Morag. Her tone was grim. "You go in the morning, husband, and talk to Aengus. She likes that son of his well enough. There's time to make it a double wedding."
"I'm not sure--" said Titus.
"Do it," Morag said with a snap like a door shutting.
That was all they said that night. Valeria lay very still, trying not to touch either Caia or the wall. Caia would not be pleased at all, not after she had bragged to everyone about being the first of all four sisters to marry. She was a year younger than Valeria and the beauty of the family. Their father had not had to go begging for a husband for that one. Wellin Smith had asked for her.
Aengus' son Donn was unlikely to refuse Titus' eldest daughter. He had been trailing after Valeria since they were both in short tunics. He had an attractive face and decent conversation, and a little magic, which was useful in his father's mill. He could offer his wife a good inheritance and a comfortable living, even a maid if she wanted one.
It was a good match. Valeria should be happy. Her mother would cure her of these dreams and fancies. She would marry a man she rather liked, give him children, and continue with her education in herb-healing and earth magic. When the time came, she would inherit her mother's place in the village, and be a wisewoman.
That was the life she was born to. It was better than most young women could hope for.
She was ill, that was all, as her mother had said. Because it was spring and she was coming to her sixteenth summer, and because she had listened hungrily all her life to stories of the Call and the white gods and the school on the Mountain, she had deluded herself into thinking that this bout of brain fever was something more. That was why she was dreaming in broad daylight and stumbling over her own feet, and feeling ever more strongly that she should take whatever she could carry and run away. She could not possibly be hearing the Call that had never come to a woman in all the years that it had been ringing through the planes of the aether.